Through the firing zone

The last and only time I’d sailed across the Bristol Channel was on one of my RYA training runs nearly 30 years ago. We were heaved-to and boarded by the customs and excise with machine guns. They had suspected us as being drug runners from South America as they had no record of our passage plan from the local coastguard. Tim, our trainer, spoke first and clearly his Welsh accent put them at their ease. “Oh bugger” he said “I forgot to register our passage plan – sorry chaps, would you like a cup of coffee?” – and there we were in the middle of the Bristol Channel sipping coffee and exchanging tales with the now relaxed assault crew of the nearby Naval Vessel hovering on the horizon. We learned how they had been shot at several times during assaults and had often seen crew off-loading drugs into the sea to avoid prosecution by being caught in possession.

But I was relaxed, this would not happen this time – I’d reported my passage plan to Falmouth coastguard, switched on the AIS and satnav and was heading on a straight bearing toward Milford Haven inlet. The weather was sunny and bright – what could possibly go wrong. While we were happily sailing on a beam reach, I noticed after a few hours that there were some somber looking clouds and storms emerging from the west. The winds got stronger and suddenly a squall came along with heavy rain and the wind suddenly veered to the NW (ie on the nose) and I had to take down the jib and motor sail for a while as the winds were gusting to force 5 and the sea was becoming quite choppy. But the storm passed and the wind settled back into the west and we were sailing once again with stronger winds toward Milford Haven, when I got a text from Andrew asking why my AIS was switched off. Earlier, I had said to Ros, “this is not like the English Channel, I can’t see any ships on my AIS (not realising it was switched off). We then worked out what had happened. I’d heard the main VHF above the chart table making quite a hissing sound so I asked Ros to switch it off.  But she switched off the main VHF switch on the control panel, which switched off both the VHF and the AIS. I then switched the main VHF switch on and the AIS system clicked into action and suddenly I could see shipping everywhere on the screen. So we had just crossed the Bristol Channel playing a form of Russian Roulette. Luckily the visibility was good and we had not been mown down.

As we got within an hour or so of Milford Haven and were back within sight of land, Ros said that there was a boat on the port bow – it seemed to be coming toward us. Then she said, “it is coming toward us very fast, I think it’s going to ram us”. Sure enough – it came alongside about 50m off and I could see some writing on the side “Range Patrol” – the vessel was called the “Smit Penally”.


I turned the VHF handset onto the emergency channel 16. “Smit Penally, Smit Penally, this is Milo, this is Milo, over”; “Milo, this is Smit Penally. Move to channel 08, channel 08, over”. I switched to channel 08 wondering what was coming next. “Smit Penally, Smit Penally, this is Milo, this is Milo on channel 08, over”; “Milo, may I ask you what port you are heading for? Over”. “Smit Penally, this is Milo, we’re heading for Dale in Milford Haven over”. “Milo, this is Smit Penally, you’ve headed into the military firing zone during a firing exercise and we have had to halt firing while you are here. I’d like you to head 270 for 3 nautical miles immediately until you clear the zone. Over”. “Milo to Smit Penally, copy that, apologies.” There was then a mild panic on board as we were sailing on a close reach on a course of 327. Heading to 270 would turn us directly into wind – a direction we just could not sail in. So we had to furl the jib, which was not easy in the strong wind, tighten the main and start the motor before heading due west on 270. Smit Penally shadowed us close behind escorting us the whole way until we were out of the firing zone. It then advised us that we could then head on a course 330 into Milford Haven.

IMG_6489 (1)

Milo’s track on AIS showing where we were intercepted by the Range Patrol and had to change course by heading west to get out of the firing zone as quickly as possible so that they could resume firing.

By then the weather was getting fierce, at least force 5 and the sea state quite rough, although oddly the sun was starting to break through – it seemed to be clearing up. As the waves entered the bottle neck of Milford Haven they got even higher, so I kept Milo on motor and main making up to 8 knots on occasion with the tide. It was  a huge relief when we rounded to the lee of the Dale Fort headland. We’d been offered the use of mooring D27G by Kevin Rogers of Dale Sailing Club while his boat was out of the water. We picked up the mooring and then had a well-deserved cup of tea and a late lunch to celebrate the completion of the first half of our journey to Scotland.   It’s hard to believe that Pembrokeshire is half way to Scotland, but we have now travelled 290 nm through the water on a voyage that will reach 600nm as we get to Holy Island off the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde, Scotland.


5 thoughts on “Through the firing zone

  1. Chris Ponsford

    Love your blog. Tides make it much more challenging anchoring/mooring than in the Med. We have had similar exhilarating experiences with dolphins weaving round us. Very difficult to photograph. You have done well with your filmed stills.

    Do you remember the night off Hydra when a huge super yacht dropped its anchor over ours and as I pulled on towards them on our anchor they trained a spotlight on us and it took three men to lower their fender to ward us off?

    I so agree about fun and camaraderie of fellow sailors. We now have contacts from all around the world.

    In 2012 we sailed across the Cyclades to the beautiful island of Milo and visited the site of the Venus de Milo (now in Louvre).There is a rock formation nearby like Fingal’s cave and we visited a beach where lamb could be cooked in the sand from the volcanic heat.

    Good luck with the treatment Ian. Juliette starts a month of radiotherapy shortly so you can exchange notes.

    Bon voyage and looking forward to seeing you both in July from Chris of Curlew (where Peter is doing repairs on the hard in Marmaris).


    1. iansutherland455 Post author

      Dear Chris,

      I certainly remember the Hydra incident – what a rude awakening and the first time I’ve ever seen Peter get a bit upset about anything – he’s normally so cool. I also remember the hydrofoil ticket for my return journey 10:10 on 10/10/10 – quite amazing.

      Thank you for your comment on the origins of the name Milo. Paul Santry, the original owner from new, told me his children chose the name – I do not know if their inspiration came from the island or Venus de Milo, but it is a nice thought.

      I’ll be emailing you about possibilities of meeting up or possibly sailing in Dale, and can you give me Juliette’s contact details – I have some theories about radiotherapy and sickness that I’d like to share with her.



  2. Peter Ponsford

    Trust you, Ian, not to notice the difference between dolphin splashes and incoming army shells!

    Fair winds Peter P


  3. iansutherland455 Post author

    Hi Peter, The way the dolphins criss-crossed in front of the boat it was if we were being fired at! I was assured by the range patrol boat that they stopped their firing exercise as soon as we entered the zone. We’ve just had a lovely rest in Howth near Dublin and I’ve been able to access the Howth Sailing Club wifi while ours is out of action – hence two more posts today. We’re now about to leave for Carlington Lough. Sorry we did not get to meet up in Dale. Ian



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