Jim Saltonstall looks at racing in Plymouth

Friday July 21st 2000, Author: Jim Saltonstall M.B.E., Location: United Kingdom
Plymouth has been a very popular racing venue in Great Britain for many years. Even when I was crewing for Sir Francis Drake, we would always get a good turn out of ships for both our national and international events.

Plymouth has plenty of good accommodation, with restaurants, campsites, marinas, and yacht clubs in the city and surrounding areas. The greatest asset for Plymouth is having the large harbour as well as the open sea. Newly developed is the Mountbatten Centre - perfect for the big events at National or International level, when you require plenty of parking space for both cars and boats. Centred in the north-east corner of the harbour, it gives you easy access both to the harbour race area, and out to the open sea through the eastern entrance.

The main clubs in Plymouth to host some excellent dinghy events in the past, are the Royal Plymouth Corinthian Yacht Club and the Mayflower Sailing Club.

Race Areas

There are two principal race areas at Plymouth. The first being inside the harbour, centred in the middle-to-eastern half, clear of the main shipping channel. This channel passes to the west and through the western entrance. The second race area is normally positioned outside the breakwater, due south of it and slightly to the east, to keep clear of the western entrance. Plymouth is a busy port, with plenty of shipping movements, especially the Royal Navy, as it is now their main port in Great Britain.

Inside the Breakwater

Wind Direction

340-020 degrees: With the wind blowing out of the north, it is coming over Plymouth Hoe, (where we used to play bowls), which is relatively high ground. As you would expect, the wind is going to be very gusty and shifty. It’s important to be very orientated to the numbers on the compass, knowing when we are high or low on either tack, or to know the tacking angles relating to objects on the shore line. With the starting area down near the breakwater in the eastern half of the harbour, then go left-of-middle up the beat for wind. That’s because there is less breeze on the starboard side of the course, due to the wind divergence area along that shoreline.

020-160 degrees: Disaster sector. With the wind in the eastern sector and coming over Jenny Cliff (the high land area), the wind is all over the place. Big shifts - as you get closer to the land be ready to be capsized from above. If you ever race with the wind in this direction, it’s vital to have eyes out of the boat. Look for the wind shifts on the water, as well as the gusts of wind - especially those that are going to invert the sail and capsize you to windward.

160-180 degrees: This is a more open wind direction, with the wind coming in off the English Channel. Left up the beat is favoured, with the wind convergence zone along the eastern shoreline (so there is more wind on the left). Also, as you sail towards the left hand side of the course (looking upwind) you may experience a header on starboard, and lifts on port.

180-230 degrees: The south-west wind is also a good direction for clear wind, with the starting area under Jenny Cliff. There could be less wind in the starting area, as the wind is rising off the water and trying to climb over the land mass behind you. Your race strategy will now depend very much on the tide (which we will talk about later), and which tack will get you away from the light wind area on the eastern shore the quickest. This scenario is more obvious when the wind is coming from the south-west (210-230 degrees).

230-340 degrees: Another shifty direction, with the wind coming over the western shoreline. It's once again all about being in sync with the wind shifts - as we have already covered with the wind in the northern sector. If the wind is further to the right, 300-340, it is now coming through the gap to the north of Drakes Island, which gives you more wind as it is squeezed through. On the starboard side of the course, look out for more breeze with possible lifts on port tack.

Tide (inside)

Inside the harbour, the tidal direction mainly follows the deep water channels. In the western area, the main flood direction is to the north-east (045), and can be quite strong during spring tides. In the middle and eastern half of the harbour, the flood is more to the north (000), and is not quite as strong. During the ebb tide, these bearings are the reciprocal. But - either side of Drakes Island the tide is much stronger on the ebb. This is because it is squeezed through the narrow gaps either side, so be aware should you be racing close to the island.

Outside the Breakwater

Wind Direction

330-030 degrees: A shifty wind direction, as the breeze comes down from the north and goes over the breakwater it is in an unstable mode. So know your highs and lows on the compass. Down in the starting area, the shifts are less frequent - as you would expect - and over a narrower arc. As you proceed to windward, they become more frequent and over a slightly wider arc. Looking up the beat with a northerly wind blowing, there does tend to be more pressure on the port side of the course, with the western shoreline being the convergence side of the course for the wind.

030-130 degrees: 'Orrible direction. Gusty-blustery-shifty - a major head exercise yet again, eyes out of the boat looking for the gusts and the shifts. Be careful, what pays up the first beat, may not pay up any subsequent beats!!

130-180 degrees: A much better wind direction for stability, blowing off the English Channel. Upwind, the left normally pays with more wind, due to the convergence of wind on the eastern shoreline. Plus, there is a header as you go in on starboard tack, with lifts as you come out on port.

180 degrees: With the wind from 180 degrees, check the left side of the course (upwind) for more wind. If the starting area is near the breakwater you may get more wind on the convergence side of the course. Tide is quite significant outside the breakwater, with the layline calls being critical in tidal conditions (we will cover the tide later).

180-240 degrees: For the wind, left-of-middle normally pays. On the starboard side of the course, closing with the land, there is less breeze because of the divergence.

240-330 degrees: Shifty again, but nowhere near as bad as it is in the harbour. But the shifts are still there to be used with the wind out of the west.

Tide (outside)

The main flood stream is from west to the east and can be quite strong on spring tides. The ebb tide runs away to the west and again is quite strong during springs. Have a chat with the local fishermen about their knowledge of the area, or at the lifeboat station - they are normally only too pleased to help.

Sea Breeze

The Plymouth sea breeze will be good if there is clear blue sky from early morning with a light north-westerly wind. As the land heats and the large cumulus clouds develop, the breeze fills in from approximately 170 degrees, backs slightly as it fills in, then veers westerly as the day gets older. So in the afternoon, protect the right side of the course.

Other Information Sources

Admiralty Charts

1900, 1967, 30, 1901

Admiralty Small Craft Charts


Tidal Information

Admiralty Tidal Stream Atlas Number NP221 (Plymouth Harbour and Approaches)

Tourist Office

Plymouth, phone: 01752 304 849

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