Around the Isle of Wight by windsurfer

The birth of my son Rafa two weeks ago, and the subsequent lack of sleep. That’s what I’m using as my excuse for misreading the tide tables. I got high tide mixed up for low tide, which is easy to do when your normal eight hours is slashed to an interrupted three. Although in fairness a box set of The Killing also played its part in that.

The tides mix up meant we’d called the Windsurf Around the Isle of Wight adventure on for last Saturday, despite Clyde needing to attend a christening at 11 oclock somewhere which wasn’t on the way. Then we realised that the tides mix up actually helped. With high tide Portsmouth actually being low tide Portsmouth, we couldn’t leave until after midday anyway or we’d be battling the tide all the way around. This also solved the vexing coffee problem – how to get our morning fix despite the Isle of Wight’s reputation for 1970s style brown granules in chipped mugs. And with long June days on our side, we had a fairly comfortable time contingency if things got delayed. Probably. No one actually bothered to do the maths.

As the working week passed by, each forecast was checked and texted, promising new items on Ebay discussed in detail. We even bought some energy gels, the sort that marathon runners use and then litter the pavement with, because they’re in too much of a hurry to use the bin. Each iteration of the forecast saw the promised weather rearrange itself around, but never quite nailing the perfect scenario. Always around 12 knots, not quite enough but likely to be boosted by a sea breeze. Friday finally settled on a rainy start for Saturday and a brisk westerly in the afternoon.

Not perfect, but good enough. With tension building we agreed to start from Avon Beach because we couldn’t be bothered to drive any further, and maybe because it felt familiar. Matt ‘the rescuer’ Wigham dropped off some flares and a handheld radio the night before. He’ll feature later too.

We agreed to start at 11 am, Clyde having negotiated his way out of the christening on the understanding that he’d be back for bathtime (his two kids’ bathtime, he’s allowed to bath himself whenever he likes).

Heading out from Avon Beach

My own new baby woke up at twelve, three and five so I wasn’t feeling too fresh on Saturday. It didn’t look like it was going to matter though, as big black clouds were parked overhead, casting a determined stillness onto the ocean. We decided to take a look at Avon anyway.

It’s fifty miles around the Isle of Wight and you can add another twenty to that if you start from Avon Beach. The record for circumnavigating it is just over two hours by a French multihull yacht. We weren’t aiming to challenge that, just get around as stage one of a windsurfing mid-life crises. With no suitable kit – a quad and 5.2 was never going to do it – we’d been scouring Ebay for suitable second hand raceboards and rigs. I’d got carried away and bought three boards, a Fanatic Cat, Mistral Imco and finally an Ultra Cat. Clyde had borrowed his dad’s Equipe II, Jono had inexplicably bought one more Imco as for one fortnight the second hand value of ancient raceboards soared. Powering my UltraCat was a Tushingham 7.5 T-bird, Jono had a Gaastra something with a large hole repaired with gaffer tape. Clyde, who always likes to show off, had spoken to his sponsors and borrowed a 7.8 Simmer with very pretty colours.

We had some stops to do on the way to the beach, meaning we got there about 11.30. The clouds had cleared and it was a beautiful day, but not exactly windy, force 1, 2 at the most. We made a decision to get the kit ready and sail out the Needles but not go any further unless the wind picked up.

I’ve probably sailed from Avon Beach hundreds of times, but it’s a weird feeling to go out to the point where you normally turn around but just keep going. In only a few minutes we’d left Avon far behind, and, a bit offshore the wind was picking up. Within twenty minutes we were railing upwind – well, Jono and Clyde were railing upwind. I’ve never really sailed a raceboard before and had no idea how to do it, plus my slot flusher proved to not be doing what its name suggested it should, instead creating a geyser effect through the deck of the board that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Yellowstone National Park.  I sort of worked out railing. It involves an incredibly uncomfortable yoga position hanging under the rig while the board threatens to tip you in, and with the others slowing down a bit to wait for me, we kept going.  

The Needles are big

It took about an hour until the Needles began to feel close, and another ten minutes before they felt uncomfortably close. The tide was going west to east, and something odd was happening with the iconic rocks. Generally speaking, they don’t tend to move. Now, due to the sheet of water upon which we were sailing flowing at full tilt towards Dover, the effect was for the entire Isle of Wight to be moving. The Needles rocks themselves were like an enormous sharp prow of the biggest ship I’d ever seen. We were on a close reach to squeeze past in front of them, which became an ever tighter beat. That’s when we spotted breaking waves out in front of the rocks – the Needles overfalls. That’s also when Clyde yelled out that he’d forgotten his uphaul.

I’d read of other attempts to sail around the Isle of Wight which had failed at this point, the tides are so strong, and the Needles such a vast and decisive dividing point separating the stream either down the Solent or out into the English Channel, that you can simply get sucked down the wrong side of the island. The massive cliffs screw up the wind so much that without an engine, or a several hour detour up the coast and out to sea, you cannot beat the headland.

We were lucky, the wind was just strong enough to allow us to cut quickly through the overfalls, well powered up, it was just like cracking through a  few sets of waist high waves, and the angle we’d sailed out from Avon broad enough to allow us to sneak past in front of the first rock. Clyde had a scare as he then dropped his sail to take a photo, and realised the tide flows through the gaps in the rocks as well, but he managed to get going again and we quickly got safely away from the danger and out into the tidal flow taking us out to sea and down the south side of the island.

We had intended to sail out to the Needles and then decide if a rounding was really an option. But we all realised that we now had no choice. The tide was so strong, and the wind so light, that we couldn’t back, the only way home was all the way around.   Thirteen miles ahead of us in the haze was St Catherine’s Point, the southernmost point of the island. Thirteen miles downwind.

Past the Needles and committed.

Once past the Needles the atmosphere changes. The South Coast and Solent is normally packed with boats, here felt empty, save a couple of commercial fishing boats trawling up and down there was nothing in sight. We’d planned to hug the coast for safety reasons, but you quickly realise this would mean adding miles to your journey, so we took the direct line, several miles out to sea. We also wanted to stay as much in the tide as possible.

It took about two hours before St Catherine’s point was close enough to make out the detail of the lighthouse, but then another hour to creep the final half a mile. The wind had been slowly dropping all the way and there was a lazy, rolling swell passing underneath us, mixed up with a sharp chop whipped up by the earlier wind. As we drew level with the lighthouse the wind dropped to nearly nothing, maybe a knot or two, but feeling less as the tide was taking us with the wind. Things were getting decidedly wobbly and I was feeling quite seasick, but ahead of us it looked worse still, the St Catherine’s overfalls were approaching and they looked a bit more serious that those at the Needles. Suddenly six lights appeared in the sky. I knew what they were immediately and considered dropping my rig to take a photo, but considering meant I was already far too late, as six red jets roared overhead, twenty metres up, close enough to see the Red Arrows logos on the pilot’s helmets. I watched them straighten up and aim west, covering the distance back to the Needles in a handful of seconds.

As the shattered quiet resumed in the sky, the sea livened up. The wind by now had gone, we were balancing on our boards, the sails offering nothing to lean back against, only the tide pulling us forward into the overfalls, a confused, weird zone of standing waves and swirling water. We were a bit separated at this point, so each of us faced them alone.

They weren’t big, but overfalls are weird and I really didn’t want to fall in. The water turns dark and the waves aren’t predictable at all, they rear up as if sharp rocks or sea monsters lurk just below the surface. With no wind we weren’t steering a path through them, but being drawn in by the flow of the tide. But a long board is a stable platform, and apart from a couple of nasty moments when I thought I was in, it was a few uncomfortable minutes, a couple of bangs when the water fell away beneath the board, and I was spat out the other side. Clyde and Jono were ahead of me and had rafted up together in the water after their overfalls moments. I sailed towards them incredibly slowly in the near-zero wind, finally dropping my rig on Clyde’s boart so that what little breeze there was would catch it and keep us moving downwind along the island’s coast.

We were just off the coast at Niton, but the tidal flow had abandoned us, it sweeps out to sea here and we’d come close inshore to cut the corner. So we sat there, glumly, and pondered the predicament.
Sod all wind off the south tip of IOW

 We’d made pretty good time out to the Needles and then along half of the bottom of the island, we were on the rough schedule we’d drawn up. But with no wind at all, we were now reliant on the tide to pull us the remaining 14 miles down the coast, and then the 30 miles back up the Solent. Unfortunately the tide which, had been on our side all the way eastwards was running out. By leaving late in the day we’d tried to time it so that as we turned the corner at Bembridge and began returning to the west, the tide would also change direction and continue to push us on our way. But if we didn’t reach the corner before the tide turned, we’d be pushing against it to complete our route eastward along the island’s south coast. If that happened in this wind we had no chance. In this wind were screwed anyway. No one spoke about it, but we all knew it. If there’d been a plan B we’d have used it, if there’d been a safety boat we’d probably have used that and abandoned the trip, but with neither there was no choice. We just had to stand up, hold the sails in the still air and drift.
The only tactic we had left was to try and get offshore again, into the faster tide for the hour or so that it was still going our way. I didn’t feel too comfortable about this, since the tiny bit of gradient wind that was about was westerly, and now we were past the southernmost tip of the island, westerly wind would be offshore. It didn’t really matter, we weren’t going anywhere fast, and the major concern was would be able to get ashore at all. I was trying to work out how much it was going to cost to get a taxi from the wrong side of the Isle of Wight back to Bournemouth, with three raceboards on the roof. That wasn’t going to happen either, which left rough camping, in a wetsuit, with no food.

It took a couple of hours to drift uncomfortably past Ventnor, then, around a bend in the coastline, a strange statute gradually appeared. It was a tall, white leaning triangle that looked to have been built right on the shore. Jono figured out what it was first and shouted that there must be wind ahead. It wasn’t a stature, but a large racing yacht, about a mile away, appearing around the bend out of Shanklin bay and beating upwind towards us. Judging by how it was leaning over there had to be a good force three. Almost immediately the wind hit us too, and our boards began to accelerate, and within minutes we were creaming along downwind, then we were nearly planing. With spirits raised we gybed downwind way offshore past Shanklin and Sandown. The water flattened off and we were flying.  Ahead of us was Bembridge, the easternmost point of the island, and our halfway point.

A glorious hour and a half of cruising downwind and we finally reached Bembridge, where we landed for the first time. It was an important psychological point. Ahead of us now lay the Solent. Sheltered waters and a shoreline more like a river bank than the towering cliffs and rocks we’d been sailing past all day. Plus we could now finally start to sail upwind and recover some of the distance towards home. We’d made the corner just in time for Portsmouth high water, so that the tide would keep in our favour, but it was now 7.30pm, which still only gave two hours of light left to sail about 35 miles upwind. That’s a tall order with perfect winds. Our force two to three Westerly was now blocked by the island itself, making it gusty and shifty. If it hung about or even filled in, and we didn’t mind sailing the last ten hours in the dark, we had a chance, but we couldn’t afford to waste time. Clyde sent a facebook update to his other half saying he might miss his kid’s bathtime after all and we launched again.
Ridiculous Bembridge happy selfie

Turning the corner into the Solent reveals a different world. The city of Portsmouth stands across the water with the Spinnaker Tower dominating its skyline. Ferries, hovercraft, tankers, yachts, towers and moored boats are suddenly all around. After hours of sailing downwind it was nice to put the daggerboard down and allow the raceboards to do what they do best, engage their long rails and glide upwind with an efficiency that you never experience on a power-hungry shortboard.  

My general crapness at sailing raceboards was more evident than ever on the upwind tack, so we changed kit around to put me on the biggest rig and fastest board, and this left me able to keep up, or even edge ahead for the first time, and had there been a couple more hours in the day, we might have got close enough to make it back. But the wind wasn’t filling in, and our average speed wasn’t fast enough. An hour of pointing into the setting sun and Portsmouth was behind us, but the breeze was failing again, and suddenly it was decision time. By then our angle upwind had taken us out into the middle of the channel between island and mainland. We had no navigation lights, so had to at least get out of the shipping lane. We’d previously agreed that the Isle of Wight offered the better chance of rough camping, and first started making for this shore, but reality got the better of Clyde and he argued for a change of plan, and heading to the mainland bank. We’d probably still be sleeping rough, but if we could persuade someone to drive out and pick us up, at least it wouldn’t involve ferries.

So, island or mainland - what's it gonna be?

As we talked, the wind dropped again to nearly nothing. It was now nearly nine oclock and clearly going to be those perfect, truly still evenings. We were still in a relatively wide part of the channel, about a mile from the Isle of Wight shore, and two from the mainland. But even in sub-one knot winds the direction still matters, and the mainland was downwind. We couldn’t sail there, but pumping towards this shore felt more efficient, so we set off towards the further shore, crawling across the path of giant ships setting out from Southampton docks. For about an hour I pumped towards the green bouy marking the edge of the channel used by ships and felt mighty relieved when I finally got there. We could now make out the detail on the shore and it looked like we were going to end up at some giant industrial storage area. Not ideal, but I just wanted to be ashore at this point. As I worked my way further in, what had looked like piles of stored pipes turned out to flats and seafront buildings, and it was clear we were going to land at a small town. Jono and Clyde’s raceboard experience meant their pumping technique had taken them a few groynes closer to home, so I landed alone watched by a couple of fisherman.

One of the fisherman turned out to be a kitesurfer who’d been watching our slow progress towards the bank wondering why anyone would go windsurfing in zero wind. He told me we were in Lee on Solent and seemed fairly impressed that we’d come all the way from Avon Beach given the conditions. It felt good to be on land after nine hours windsurfing, but it was already quite cold. I’d landed at the edge of the town and there seemed to be some grassy areas where one could, if desperate, kip for the night. I was thinking more about a taxi home though, and starting to fantasise about discovering a dry set of clothes, perhaps stolen from washing line, or on a body on the beach.
Clyde and Jono coming ashore in Lee on Solent

By the time I’d walked up to meet the others, Clyde had already effected our rescue. Matt had carelessly let slip that he had no plans that night, other than enjoying a fine bottle of red wine. I told you he’d feature again. Clyde had explained our predicament when he was only one glass in, and somehow persuaded him to come and get us. Bournemouth was about an hour away by car, so we had time to derig and discover Lee on Solent’s fish and chip shop, which we’d handily landed right in front of. The locals seemed a friendly bunch who didn’t look too disturbed by us queuing for cod and chips in wetsuits at ten thirty. 

It was an inspired rescue. Matt’s gps found us shivering by the seafront road. He’d packed three sets of dry clothes, a flask of hot tea with three mugs and enough roofrack straps to get three raceboards and rigs on his roof. His car even had heated seats which meant that his final indignity was seeing us all fast asleep as he taxied us home, getting back to Bournemouth at about 1am.

Matt the rescuer does his thing

We spot a chart in the fish and chip shop!

In all we’d sailed about 50 nautical miles in around nine hours, an average speed of a pathetic 5 knots.  Our problem hadn’t been so much the time we’d set off but the wind deserting us, so although we’d failed to get back to our starting point, it didn’t really feel like a failure.
We’d also learnt some useful lessons. Sleeping on the beach is an option, but without a change of clothes and a sleeping bag it’s a pretty uncomfortable prospect. 

But there’s definitely some unfinished business. Given the right wind, and the right kit – nine five sails – we reckon a complete circumnavigation is doable in around four hours. And we’ll definitely be back to give it another go.

Big thanks go to Matt for ruining his Saturday evening, although secretly we know he enjoyed it. Also to the wives/girlfriends/parents support team for handling the family duties for the day, and those who lent equipment or offered to do so.  

Despite failing miserably it was a great day’s windsurfing, and it’s made us all remember that you don’t need five metre weather and waves to get a kick out of this wonderful, varied sport. 

So, anyone got a nine-five raceboard rig they don’t want in the Bournemouth area?


  1. Great story! Having been subjected to an hour or three of pumping across the Solent to get back to Lee-on-the-Solent from Osborne Bay I can empathise. Never tried a full-on Round the Island though - well done!

  2. Nice report Gregg and good memories of the day. The "doable in 4 hours" thing I am only in technical agreement with though, in practice it would almost always take much longer!


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