Exploring the Jurassic Coast by water
PUBLISHED: 14:04 16 May 2019 | UPDATED: 14:13 16 May 2019
Discover Dorset's remarkable geological treasure trove, covering 185 million years, by exploring this famous stretch of coastline from the water
Dorset's Jurassic Coast is often overlooked by the hordes of boats heading west from The Solent and Poole Harbour towards Devon and Cornwall. And yet this area of coastline - which runs from the red rocks of Exmouth in East Devon to the dazzling white chalk stacks of Old Harry Rocks in Swanage - is a geological treasure trove that marks 185 million years and forms a near complete record of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.
There is so much to reward the boater who explores the Dorset stretch of the Jurassic Coast: its geology viewed from the water is breathtaking. As for its wildlife - well just in Lyme Bay regular sightings include birds such as manx shearwaters, storm petrels and arctic skuas. There are pods of harbour porpoise, common, bottlenose and the rarer white-beaked dolphin, and there have even been recent sightings of a minke whale and a breeching thresher shark.
As a Jurassic Coast Trust Ambassador I enjoy sharing my local knowledge of England's only UNESCO-designated natural World Heritage Site. I mainly explore the coast from my 20ft motorboat 'Strange Weather' which is based in Portland. From years of experience sailing this coastline, I would choose fairly calm weather for this cruise along the Jurassic Coast because some of the delightful spots I recommend here are no place to be with a strong onshore breeze.
Studland to Old Harry Rocks
We begin our cruise anchored at Redend Point in Studland Bay. From here you will be well placed to spend the following day exploring the coast going west to Weymouth or Portland. Armed with binoculars and a camera, start with a close-up look at Old Harry's family on the Handfast Peninsula (watch out for the small reefs) as the early morning sun reflects off the dazzling chalk cliffs and stacks. The chalk bays are called The Yards and are part of Handfast Point, which forms the eastern end of the Jurassic Coast; this is the youngest part of the coast formed around 66 million years ago during the Cretaceous period.
From here, head past Swanage to Durlston, putting in a slight dogleg to stay outside of the red Peveril Point buoy. This rugged headland is overlooked by its eponymous Victorian castle, and there's a good view of the Great Globe from the sea. However the tide runs fast at times so if you don't have a powerful engine, make sure it isn't running against you. Bottlenose dolphins are frequently sighted around here.
Anvil Point to Winspit Quarry
Passing Anvil Point lighthouse, which sits above Tilly Whim caves, you are presented with a four-mile stretch of low Purbeck cliffs before reaching St Alban's (St Aldhelm's) Head. There's deep water close in and you will see climbers, canoeists, coasteerers and walkers aplenty enjoying the caves and former quarries that are dotted along this rugged stretch. Look for the striking Green Point, just alongside Dancing Ledge - it's only viewable from offshore. The colour comes from the freshwater flowing down the low cliff. Local residents here include guillemots, razorbills, puffins, shags, fulmars and the odd gannet.
Sci-fi fans will enjoy the great views of Winspit Quarry which provided the backdrop for the Daleks' home planet of Skaro in Doctor Who and Mecron II in Blake's 7.
St Alban's Head to Worbarrow Bay
Rounding St Alban's Head, close in is not an issue in calm weather, it takes you to Chapman's Pool . An alternative and less busy spot to drop anchor for lunch or a dip is Brandy Bay, tucked under the imposing Gad Cliff, just past Kimmeridge. Keep well off the shale cliffs between St Alban's and Brandy Bay unless you want to take on the challenge of the Kimmeridge Ledges.
Brandy Bay is very peaceful but shallow, so do study your charts carefully. If you potter close to the shore, which is virtually inaccessible from land, you may glimpse the feral goats said to be descendants of the only survivors of an ancient shipwreck.
Beautiful Worbarrow Bay and its anchorages are well known, followed by the long, level South Cliff which leads to Lulworth Cove, one of the most recognisable (and busiest) spots along the Jurassic Coast.
Passing the "Lulworth Crumple" - created millions of years ago by two continents colliding - you are presented with a variety of hefty promontories as far as Weymouth. Man o' War Cove is a lovely place for lunch or a snorkel if you have a smallish boat, and there's turning space if you have your wits about you.
The other side of the small peninsula is Durdle Door. There's plenty of room on the shore side to anchor for a lunch stop and you can comfortably head in and out midway between the Door and Bull Rock, about 200m to its west - though keep an eye out for swimmers. From here on to Weymouth keep outside (south) of the ancient reef and its linear high points: the Bull, the Cow, the Blind Cow and the Calf.
The stretch of beach between the chalk of Bat's Head and 169m high White Nothe, called Middle Bottom, also makes a pleasant anchorage and you can then head directly for Weymouth or Portland from here.
If you're looking for an overnight spot there is the excellent Dean & Reddyhoff Marina (deanreddyhoff.co.uk) at Portland, as well as Weymouth Harbour itself. In the right conditions, you can anchor off Weymouth's glorious beach.
Wherever you depart from the next day you'll see the vast breakwaters of Portland Harbour, one of the largest man-made harbours in the world, and pass its imposing Chequered Fort. Look out for the huge dumped cannon breeches, deemed too difficult to remove when the fort was abandoned. Enjoy a leisurely run down Portland's east side. I regularly see a pod of bottlenose dolphins that often hunt and play around Portland Bill.
By keeping a couple of hundred metres offshore most of the way down to the Bill, you'll see abundant evidence of Portland's limestone industry that built St Paul's Cathedral and most of Whitehall. There are old cranes and piers from where the stone was loaded on to boats, and neat stacks of trimmed blocks still ready to load on to boats that never came.
If there's little breeze you can safely take the 'inshore' route past the Bill, making sure the tide is with rather than against you. Timing isn't so important if you have enough engine 'grunt' to counter the south-heading current which flows for most of the tidal cycle down the island's west side. The greater hazard is the plethora of pot buoys - strong currents ensure they are often lurking just below the surface, so keep a look out.
Nearer the Bill, softer sandstone results in a run of spectacular caves, before a series of ledges leads to the tip. Many of these nooks and crannies have interesting names, such as Mugleys Plain, Robinson Crusoe Island, Rudge Poryx and Red Crane. It's also a popular haunt for grey seals. The towering west side of Portland though rather barren has some interesting bird life, including puffins. You may also spot climbers tackling the challenging rock faces this area is famous for.
Chesil Beach to West Bay
Chesil Cove, which marks the eastern end of Chesil Beach, is a lovely spot for snorkelling. The long fronds of seaweed create an underwater forest rich in marine life. Cruising a couple of hundred metres off the 18 mile stretch of Chesil Beach, the bleak uniformity of this shingle bank is broken by colourful huts and floats and strange driftwood sculptures. With your engine at ease (the tides here are gentle) you can hear the deep drawl of the swell sucking the billions of pebbles, and even the chattering of the rare little terns that have a protected colony here.
Behind Chesil Beach is the sub tropical microclimate of Abbotsbury, renowned for the exotic plants that thrive here. Look for St Catherine's Chapel, an historic landmark dating from the late 14th century, which sits on the hill above Abbotsbury village. As you continue along the coast you will notice the spectacular golden sandstone of Burton Bradstock and East Cliffs rising from the beach. These were used for D-Day training, and provided the distinctive backdrop for the ITV thriller Broadchurch. In the late afternoon sunshine they positively glow. Stay as close in as common sense dictates all along the Chesil until you arrive at West Bay harbour. There are plenty of great places to eat here or in nearby Bridport, or continue west for seven miles to Lyme Regis. Both have walk-ashore visitor pontoons in the summer.
West Bay to Lyme Regis
This stretch of the Jurassic Coast is constantly eroding. The little resort of Charmouth sits between Golden Cap, the highest point on the south coast, and Black Ven is the site of Europe's largest coastal landslide. I like to spend the night in Lyme Regis simply because the glow of those cliffs on a sunny evening has to be seen to be believed and you may even find a fossil or two when strolling on the beach.
My advice is don't rush this cruise - cut your speed, go close inshore and enjoy Dorset's incredible Jurassic Coast from a new and privileged viewpoint.
Lulworth Firing Ranges
Live firing takes place at various times throughout the year, though rarely at weekends, and for most of the school summer holidays. The sea danger area unfortunately includes the lovely stretch from St Alban's Head up to, but not including, Lulworth Cove, for up to six miles offshore. The crews aboard the safety boats cannot legally stop you from passing through the area, but they will chivvy you on, to avoid holding up the Army's shooting practice any longer than necessary.
Check firing times at gov.uk/government/publications/lulworth-firing-notice. The coastguard and local yacht clubs also hold this information.
Continue your Jurassic journey into Devon
Heading west from Lyme to Torquay is 28 miles in a straight line but it's much more enjoyable to stay close inshore in 'pottering' mode and enjoy Devon's 20 miles of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site which dates from the Triassic period 185 million years ago. You can continue this part of the journey in the July edition of our sister publication Devon Life devonlife.co.uk.