Comet Versa – Hilbre – Chris Woodworth

A version of this report first appeared in the DCA Magazine Summer 2020. Chris was kind enough to repurpose the original article for the CCCA. Note that there are some excellent photographs of Chris’ Comet Versa set up to camp aboard towards the end of the article.

Hilbre, the larger of a small group of sandstone islands sits in the river Dee, just off the western corner of the Wirral coast. The small group of islands are an archipelago, and classed as unbridged tidal islands that can be reached on foot from the mainland. The larger island Hilbre was to be the first cruise in my Comet Versa named Aria, and I was really looking forward to this day. 

For a few years I had sailed a Laser 2 on the marine lake in West Kirby. From the marine lake there is an unspoilt view of Hilbre Island and I was determined to sail over there once I had a more suitable dinghy. I purchased Aria from a gentleman in Bristol, two days before lockdown and was itching to sail her at the appropriate time.

During the lockdown period I found the Dinghy Cruising Association (DCA) on a web search, joined, then contacted a local Wirral member John and we started email communications. When the lockdown allowed, we organised a cruise to Hilbre, but this felt like a very long wait!

The day eventually arrived and launching from Dove Point Meols was uneventful, the slipway is quite suitable for launching with plenty of space to leave the car, and  road / launch trailers. With a light breeze blowing I sailed over, to meet John, who was preparing his catamaran on Hoyle Lake.

In this area waves and tidal currents have caused the formation of offshore sandbanks. These can be covered by the sea on higher tides but dry out as the tide ebbs, thus creating areas of sheltered water in their lee, Hoyle Lake is one such lake. The lake has silted up, but can be sailed on the flood/HW/ebb, the time sailing being predominantly dependent on tide height.

After a short time we set sail out of Dove Point on the ebb, the dinghy sea cruising novice, following John with his 20 odd years of experience of the area. We sailed towards Moreton, following the channels, then swung to port and headed out to sea. John had briefed me on the need for careful attention to the depth of the water as the coastline has many shallows. I had also spent the previous day viewing the flood, this gave an invaluable insight as to where the channels were situated, and a great confidence booster.

Aria was sailing well, bearing in mind I’d only sailed her a few times, she was stable and not giving me any frights, her weakest part was probably the nut holding the tiller! 

Roughly halfway through our journey the wind dropped to a calm and I was going nowhere. John was ahead of me and I noticed he had also stopped, probably being a gentleman and waiting for me. So I made a decision to get my oars out and to catch up. The sun was shining, the temperature was rising and I was doing hard exercise! Oh well, good for my shoulders, back and waistline.

The Versa, and myself had some issues whilst rowing. One thing was that I could not row with the rudder assembly tiller in place as it kept hitting my hands so I had to remove the assembly. I also had to drop the mainsail and boom as it kept bumping on my head. The grey seals were having great fun popping their heads up looking at my antics, that said, they were good company. I needed to think about the rowing issues and look at my options for keeping things out of the way rather than removing and lowering. We live and learn, ironing out the bugs ( and lumps on my head ) as and when, and I’m glad to say I have easy workable solutions for both problems.

The solution for the tiller was to simple raise the rudder out of the water, push it over to one side and tie it off out of the way. This allowed quick deployment when getting under sail again. 
As for the boom hitting my head, I used the topping lift method. I fitted a smooth rounded shackle ( one the runs a rope through freely) to the connection point between the mast and shroud. Then rigged up a thin rope feeding it up to the shackle, then back down the mast and looped it under the gooseneck. I then routed the rope back up on the other side of the mast and secured it off at the mast and shroud point on the other side. By pulling on the rope the whole rope setup becomes tight and you can tie it off at the base of the mast. This setup stays on the mast – never removed with the mast up or down. 

When I need to lift the boom I simply disconnect the kicker strap and de-tension the topping lift rope, pull the rope along the boom and under the kicking strap and allow the rope to sit as far down the boom as it will travel. Then I pull the rope which lifts the boom, and tie off at the height needed ( it lifts the boom to an angle that clears my head and I can sit up straight, that ‘s enough). You can extend and replace the kicker if you want, but not always necessary in no wind. No need to drop the main sail, and it is quick to set up and deploy. 

It took about 20 minutes rowing to get to John, there was still no wind so we sat for a short while before the breeze returned and we set off on a close haul again. From then on it was excellent sailing over to Hilbre. We then headed out to the river Dee channel for a short period of time; this gave an outstanding view of Hilbre, rarely seen by most people unless they are in a boat.

The West Hoyle sandbank, to the west of Hilbre, provides a haul-out for a large number of Grey Seals, and these can be seen swimming around the islands most days of the year. We then following back along the route we had previously navigated around the Island and we tacked into a small channel to anchor the boats. 

John and I went for a walk up onto Hilbre, the sun still shining and temperature in the mid 20’s. We stopped and sat for a while and I had some sandwiches and a coffee, what a picnic. Then, after spending some time admiring the view over to the Welsh coast we headed back to our boats. I had walked to Hilbre on many occasions in the past, but sailing over was a unique experience and one that is highly recommended.

Evening view from Hilbre

The plan was for John to stay overnight on his boat and I was leaving Aria at anchor and heading back home as my Comet Versa was not set up for sleeping onboard.

Comet Versa at anchor

It was a beautiful short 20 minute walk across the sands to Red Rocks where I met my wife and son who drove me home.

The next day started at 8 o’clock, I was dropped off at Red Rocks, waved goodbye to my son, put on my wellies and headed back over to meet up with John. Again it was beautiful weather and the walk was delightful. John and I prepared our boats and before long we were afloat and set sail out on the incoming flood.

A light breeze was blowing with hardly any waves, excellent dinghy sailing weather. The breeze stayed with us all of the way to Dove Point Meols, what a difference from the previous day and the fun memories of getting the oars out. John remained ahead showing me the route and putting a couple of tacks to avoid the shallows. We basically follow the same route that we had taken on our way out but with a close reach. 

The inability to sleep aboard has now been rectified with a fairly comfortable arrangement by up-cyclling old bed slats, some plywood for central strength and rope to hold the slats to predefined positions.

The slats are now stored forward of the mast
The support structure freshly made.

I use a self inflating mattress but care must be taken to avoid excessive “direct ” pressure on the slats. Whilst climbing into the tent my body weight is placed upon the robust bed central board. Then when lying down, the slats / central board easily take the spread out weight. The shelter is catered for using a pop-up tent that I had in the garage.

The pop-up tent in place

The good thing about a tent is that it can be used on land. Many DCA members use an over boom tent, many examples of which can be seen on the DCA website.

The slats now that they have been painted and varnished

This trip had quite a few firsts for me personally. It was the first time I had sailed with a DCA member, taken my Versa out on a proper cruise, rowed my boat over distance, anchored my boat overnight, sailed to Hilbre Island in a dinghy……and enjoyed every minute. 
The DCA are advocates of using your dinghy cruising and exploring, personally I’m glad I found the association.

Happy Sailing Chris Woodworth
Dinghy Cruising Association