Glossary

It appears there are now many non-sailors following this blog (notice how I refrained from calling them land-lubbers).

They are, of course, welcome. However, some have pointed out that a lot of the content seems to be written in a completely foreign language. What is someone who has never been sailing to make of cringles and thwarts – let alone futtocks and bumkins?

So, now you will find a tab at the top of the page taking you to a glossary. If there are any omissions, please let me know…

Nostalgia

In the farthest and dustiest corner of the attic, hidden behind the water tank and covered in cobwebs and bits of decayed birds’ nests, you might be lucky enough to find a battered old trunk.

Prise it open and, just maybe, it will be filled with yellowing papers – letters, receipts, old certificates…

Piece them together and there is your grandfather’s life story.

Most exciting of all, it might be an untold life story – or at least a long-forgotten one – suddenly brought to life as if the years have fallen away and it is yesterday all over again.

In rather the same way, I have stumbled upon an online copy of of the 1988 edition of the Rival Owners’ Association newsletter – and there on page 11 is a collection of my newspaper despatches from that year’s singlehanded transatlantic race.

It might as well be another lifetime but I can remember exactly how it felt to sit at Largo’s chart table, laboriously dictating over the single-sideband radio to the Evening Standard. In those days – when newspapers were still written on ancient OIympia typewriters, journalists out of the office would file their stories over the telephone to “copy-takers”. These men (they were always men in those unionised days) who would sit with bakelite headsets clamped over their ears saying: “Yes… yes…yes…” and, occasionally: “Is there much more of this?”

No matter how good you thought your story might be, the copy-taker had always heard a better one.

In my case, dictating on hi-frequency and having to bounce every syllable off the ionosphere, it was even more tiresome – which is why “spume-filled decks” became “fume-filled” and the readers were treated to the concept of “carpet skippers”.

All of this is particularly timely since, in just a week’s time, we will be pulling out our smartphones to download live video feed from Alex Thompson and the other competitors in this year’s Vendee Globe Race.

Still, if you want to see what it was like in the old days, you can find those ancient despatches here. (For authenticity, I have not edited-out the carpet skippers.)

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1CM1YiEHAtuUU017Y1FRND6Zay0bTabOxMg6H3VpCO-U/edit?usp=sharing

Two beers and a box of Kleenex

Since the number of followers of this blog leapt from about 70 to something over 500 virtually overnight back in July, it’s clear there a lot of people reading this who are not normally “into” sailing. That means they have no idea what is going to happen over the next ten days (and I don’t mean the American election).

On November 8th, in Les Sables d’Olonne in France, a British yachtsman called Alex Thompson will begin his fifth attempt to become the first non-French sailor to win the Vendee Globe round-the-world-non-stop race.

If there is any justice at all, he should succeed – if only out of pure, dogged persistence.

But don’t forget that more people have climbed Mount Everest, more people have been into Space than have ever sailed around the world alone and non-stop.

I have just watched a 50-minute YouTube video which demanded two cans of beer and a basinful of emotion as I sat here in Peterhead in Aberdeenshire waiting for my mainsail to come back from the sailmaker and, I must say, I ended up feeling that some people really are special.

If you want to see what all the fuss is about, grab a box of tissues and click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=puIgYu7q7ck&feature=emb_rel_end

Size Matters

This is Suilven, the extraordinary mountain sticking up out of nowhere in the Scottish Highlands.

I first saw it from seaward on the way from Skye to Loch Nedd. That was supposed to be an easy day’s sail, reaching in a force 6-7 all the way. But it turned out the southeasterly of the forecast didn’t have much south in it. Clearly, I wouldn’t be getting there in daylight.

However, Lochinver was an alternative. I could be tucked up in there by teatime – no contest, really.

And Lochinver is the basecamp for Suilven. Of course I wasn’t going to climb Suilven. All I wanted was to make up for COVID scuppering the family walking weekend in the Peak District by taking a circular stroll around the River Inver (5kms, estimated time 1.5hrs according to the tourism website).

How I ended up on the path to Suilven, I have no idea but there it was, defiantly in the distance, changing colour as the afternoon sun played on its western face – always there and never getting any closer no matter how much I kept walking towards it.

In fact, I walked for two hours, pausing at the “honesty shop” at Glencanisp Lodge where you can make yourself a cup of tea and post the money through a hole in the wall. Then you can drink your tea while leafing through a book showing how a bunch of volunteers spent two years re-making the path and manhandling huge blocks of granite into a giant’s staircase to the summit. Clearly this was a serious undertaking but the more I walked towards the mountain, the more of a compulsion it became to get to the top: It was just so big – so impressive…

In the end of course, common sense re-established itself and I turned round. It was going to be two hours back again and dusk would be falling. Already, there was no longer anyone coming the other way wielding walking poles to dodge while keeping our social distance. This was no place to get lost overnight.

It was not until I was halfway home and met a man loading his mountain bike onto the roof of his car that things got shuffled into proportion. I explained that I would have to come back another time to get to the top. He said it was an eight-hour round trip from where we were standing – that meant ten hours from the harbour.

Ah, I was on a boat… that wasn’t me he had seen coming up the coast yesterday in a tiny little boat?

Well, not that tiny – almost ten metres if you don’t mind.

But he had watched me bashing to windward at the same time as a big ketch was heading south with hardly a scrap of sail and going like the clappers. He was impressed. He said: “Well if you can come up here in that weather in a little boat like that, you’ll have no trouble getting to the top of Suilven.”

So that’s settled then. Next year… It’s a matter of pride.

I suppose she is a little boat. That’s Samsara in the middle – Durgan Bay on the Helford River.

More Rum

For those who asked about the result of the rum taste test: Marginally, just on the palate, Lamb’s won – but there is more to it than that.

If Lamb’s was going to be a permanent feature, I would have to adapt the bottle-holder to take the distinctive octagonal-shaped bottle. Also, there is the little matter of the £16 price tag (compared to £10 for Aldi’s – or, come to that, Lidl’s own brand).

Admittedly, both of these cheaper versions are only 37% proof, compared to 40%  for Lamb’s. But I’m not trying to get drunk – in fact getting drunk would be a very bad idea. So the extra alcohol is money wasted.

Putting it all together, this means that, when I feel like it and when safely tucked up in harbour (like now, in Kirkwall in the Orkneys), I can justify a second tot.

So, no contest, really…

Lost and Found

Being an old boat, Samsara has a proper chart table – big enough for a full-size Admiralty chart folded in half. There’s only one in there now – a rather battered copy of No. 2: British Isles (all the way from Brest to the Faeroes). It sits right at the bottom because I don’t use charts much anymore.

Oh, there are some Imrays trapped forever behind the bookcase but why wrestle with an armful of paper when you can use a screen the size of a paperback.

Actually, I don’t use paperbacks either. I have a Kindle.

…or did have.

And this is where we get to the reason for looking in the chart table. I had searched it thoroughly several times looking for the Kindle which went missing towards the end of August.

As Cal, the villain in Titanic said to his henchman: “Search the ship! There are only so many places she can be.”

There were only so many places the Kindle could be – but believe me, I had searched them all (just as I searched for the brand new snatch block that disappeared three years ago). The chart table was such an obvious place for the Kindle that I searched it several times.

I was only looking in there today because I was after the big heavy shackle that was a key part of my invention for keeping the anchor buoy from wandering off when the tide falls. I took it off because I suspected it was helping the line to wrap itself around the chain. Since we may be here in Loch Shieldaig for several days more waiting for a wind without any north in it that I thought to while away an idle 20 minutes by rigging the shackle again just to make sure.

But where was the big heavy shackle? I only took it off a couple of days ago. It must be somewhere. Everything has to be somewhere…

And the obvious place – the place where things get put if you don’t have a hall table or a fruit bowl, is the chart table.

Here’s what I found in the chart table:

Seven cigarette lighters – six of them working (I now have push-button ignition on the cooker).

Two rubber erasers

A micro-SD card

Watercolour notebook with only the first six pages used.

Watercolour paintbox (dried up).

CO2 cylinder that doesn’t fit any of the lifejackets on board.

A very organised little box containing the nail scissors I had been looking for in my spongebag, half a dozen ballpoint pens including a Mont Blanc that spent a couple of years in the bilges and will never be the same again, a fitting for the Aries lift-up gear which is no longer needed but which I plan to give away if ever I meet someone who could use it, a packet of elastic bands (they could come off the shopping list).

A pair of sunglasses with one lens missing.

A piece of plastic from which I cut a square to help with the fitting of the cooker gimbals and which might be needed again in similar circumstances.

Instructions for fitting the CO2 cylinder which doesn’t fit any of the lifejackets.

A saxophone reed (I play the clarinet).

Wallet.

Spare wallet (for replacing lost wallet when it gets lost).

Bicycle bell (still to be fitted).

A pair of fittings for battery terminals.

A pair of drawing compasses.

Various dried-up notebooks.

Instructions for the radar which I use so rarely, I have to look up how to work it each time.

Piece of teak that split off the toe rail.

Envelope of receipts.

Plastic bag of “important items” – passport, cheque book etc.

Similar plastic bag of instruction manuals that seem get consulted regularly.

 

… and…would you believe it… The Kindle, accusingly displaying the “battery absolutely flat” symbol.

I couldn’t believe it. I shrieked in delight. I danced around the cabin. I hugged the little block of microchips to my breast. I kissed it.

You must understand the significance of this moment. For more than a month, I had been fretting – wondering if should buy a new one. After all, it was the third that I had lost. The original – the one Tamsin gave me for my birthday, I lost I can’t remember where. The second (all singing, dancing and waterproof) which she gave me for Christmas to replace the first one, I left it on a train not three months later … and now this, the third, which I bought second-hand on eBay because the whole business was getting expensive…

And there it was, in the chart table all the time. It sits opposite me now, it’s little yellow charging light, a beacon of hope for all things lost.

…and sure enough, I found the shackle where I had put it, on the shelf beside the navigator’s seat, underneath all those useful bits of 3mm line with bowlines tied in one end.

As for the snatch block… well, we’ll just have to wait and see. Everything’s got to be somewhere. There are only so many places…

 

 

 

Perspective

Wild and totally remote from civilisation is how they describe Loch Scavaig and I am still here. I have sampled all three anchorages and am back in the one they call Loch na Cuilce which is sheltered on all sides (although, as we have learned, the wind does come shrieking off the mountains).

I have been thinking about Ben Gunn. Do you suppose that if Ben Gunn were to be rescued today, it wouldn’t be a piece of cheese he would ask for – but a mobile phone?

In Loch na Cuilce not only is there no mobile signal, there isn’t even an FM radio signal. Currently, I am fascinated to discover whether President Trump will indeed succumb to the Coronavirus he dismissed so lightly. I don’t like to think that I wish anyone ill but, you must admit, it is a fascinating scenario.

Consequently, I have been reduced to prowling the cabin, the little transistor an inch from my ear, trying to catch the very rudimentary news from Absolute Radio which is the only station that reaches here – even on Medium Wave.

And that is why you are getting so many posts all at once. I thought I would get a whole lot published from Tobermory but somehow I didn’t feel like re-living the previous couple of weeks – and, now you have read about the embarrassment in the Sound of Islay, you may understand why. It takes a bit of serenity to put these things into proportion – and there is nothing quite as serene as Loch na Cuilce.

You anchor right in the middle of a pool set deep in the cirque of the Black Cuillins of Skye. Then, if you take the dinghy and tie it to the rather wonky steps for the boat that brings the climbers who stay in the squat, windowless bothy on the shore, you can walk up the hill.

I say “walk” but it is a steep hill and you will need your hands to get up as well as your feet.

At the top, there are views that most people only ever see in photographs. Of course, I took more pictures so that you can see them too. But taking photographs is not the same as standing at the top and breathing in and remembering to stand up straight and thinking: This is what you came for. This is something special. This puts life into perspective.

Old Man’s Law

You will have heard of Sod’s Law: If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.

I would like to introduce you to Old Man’s Law which states that if you have lived long enough for Sod’s Law to wreak its havoc on your life, then a third law, the well-known Law of Averages will kick in and dictate that sometimes OId Man’s Law will prevail.

And Old Man’s Law dictates that “If something can turn out well, then it will.”

I like Old Man’s Law – and it has been working it’s magic lately.

If you are reading this in the southern part of the United Kingdom – or, heaven forbid, you are on a boat in the English Channel, you will be well aware that you have had nothing but wind and rain these past few days. Depression after depression has been tracking up the Channel as they were on rails.

I might have been down there. You may remember I was in Liverpool and had to get to Blyth in Northumberland – which, although hardly any distance at all as the crow flies, is a long way round by sea … either to the south, down the Irish Sea, round Land’s End, up the Channel, turn left at the North Foreland, across the Thames Estuary and up the North Sea.

Alternatively, I could go North, up the Irish Sea, through the Hebrides, turn right at Cape Wrath, through the Orkneys, right again and down the North Sea.

The only trouble with that was that it was already getting towards the end of September and the Autumn is not the season for sailing Northern Scotland. However, I reasoned that not only was it a shorter distance but it would be much more interesting, I was not in a hurry, I could pick my weather, take short hops…

And what has happened? The sky is blue, I have just been walking on the Black Cuillin mountains of Skye in my shirtsleeves and looking down on Samsara anchored in the pool of Loch na Cuilce, reflected in the completely still waters.

According to the book, this is “one of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring anchorages in Europe. It is wild and totally remote from civilisation.”

Admittedly, I did have to pay my dues – spending two nights of unsettled weather during which violent katabatic winds rocketed off the mountains which, in heavy weather, according to the old sailing directions ”are capable of blowing an anchor out.”

This did give me a little concern on the second night when there was a gale warning for Sea Area Hebrides – but that covers a lot of sea and, according to the last time the Windy app had a mobile data signal, the worst of the wind would be over in the West.

Besides, the anchors they had in the old days – CQRs and Fishermen – probably would have blown out. A 20kg Rocna on 10mm chain holding a 32ft bought weighing only 5000kg, can be classed as a storm anchor.

Many cruising boats do indeed carry a storm anchor – a massively-oversized brute traditionally stowed in the bilges (the most-central, lowest point to help the trim). This is all very well except for one tiny detail: When the storm arrives in the anchorage, you want that beast well dug into the bottom. You don’t want to have to be getting it out, hauling up the everyday anchor, changing one for the other while you try not to bump into anyone else or, come to that, the inconvenient bit of land you are trying to avoid in the first place…

All the same, I did wake up now and then as the boat snatched at her cable and went charging off across the pool at an angle of heel you would expect from a decent breeze and full sail.

That’s one advantage of being up here out of season. There isn’t anyone else to bump into – not a soul.

The person from Padstow

In a bright yellow suit and a little woolly hat, the Person from Padstow belonged in a woodland glade, possibly sitting on a toadstool.

Also, he positively twinkled with ancient wisdom: Sure he had spent the night in Muck – plenty of times – in this very spot. It would be fine. Everything would be fine…

I wanted it to be fine. It was most urgent that everything should be fine. The One Show would be starting in ten minutes…

You might think that for someone sailing alone in the Hebrides in October and calling at the Isle of Muck which, at not even two miles across, is one of the smaller of the Small Isles – keeping up with popular culture might not be at the top of the agenda.

But no sooner had I set off from Tobermory than a text arrived from my daughter at Leeds University: “On The One Show at 7”

It appeared that the BBC wanted to hear how a typical student house was coping with the COVID restrictions – preferably one full of competitively chatty girls.

Now I wished I had stayed in Tobermory Marina with their really quite good Wi-Fi. Tobermory, with its population of 1,000 boasts a Co-Op and a number of rather good restaurants but the EE mobile signal is rubbish.

On Muck (pop: 38) it was non-existent. However, the book did mention that there was a hotel on the island which welcomed non-residents by prior arrangement. Maybe I could have a beer in their bar and use their Wi-Fi – that was if they had a bar and Wi-Fi… and, also, of course, if they were still open in October. The book offered a phone number (but then, if I’d had a signal, I wouldn’t need to call would I?)

The way I saw it, I would have to anchor in double-quick time, blow up the dinghy and go knocking on the door all within 40 minutes. I just hoped Lottie wouldn’t be the first item on the show. Mel C would be first, surely…

And then: What was that I could see in the little inlet? Surely that was a pontoon? Yes, there was yacht moored already. Hastily, I rigged warps and fenders and coasted up inspecting it through binoculars. It was very low in the water – one of those plastic jobs designed for dinghies but it did have proper cleats. I need at least one good cleat: I drop a loop of line over it with one end secured amidships and the other on the cockpit winch. This holds me alongside while I sort out the rest.

Except, in this case someone had left a rope around the cleat, filling it up completely. I circled again and came up on the other side behind a twin-engined RIB. But on this side there just wasn’t enough room – my bow stuck out over the end.

I circled once more – back to the original side. In fact, I circled another three times – that’s how long it took to get the line onto the cleat, poking it with the boathook it in amongst the coils of nasty blue polypropylene.

By the time I was snugged down and ready to go looking for the hotel which, according to the book was a mile away, the Person from Padstow appeared from the other yacht.

I could have asked him if he knew where to find the hotel but something else had come up: Now that I was moored, it was second nature to look at the depth sounder and I was a bit startled to see it reading 5.2metres. I was sure I had made a note that the tide would be going down by 4.1metres.

This meant that at low tide –  at two o’clock in the morning – the sounder would be showing 1.1. Samsara draws 1.5 and with the transducer a bit below the waterline, she hits the bottom when it shows 1.2 (I know this from bitter experience).

In other words, staying where I was, I would be woken shortly before two in the morning with a bump. After all, this was not the East Coast where the first you know about it is when you fall out of bed as the boat heels over onto the mud. No, this would well be a bone-jarring crash as the swell dropped her onto a solid Scottish rock bottom.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” said the person from Padstow. “I’ve been here three or four times and that’s never happened to me.”

He drew I.2 metres – but he was further inshore than I was. On the other hand, he looked as though he knew what he was talking about. If he was sure, then it was alright by me – even if it was by now, far too late to walk ashore, find the hotel, explain my strange request and catch Lottie’s TV debut. The beer would have to be at home after all.

The beer is a bit of a ritual at the end of the day – served in a glass, accompanied by Pringles – with music and a book. Best of all, I had just started Neil Hawkesford’s long-awaited third volume A Foolish Escape.

But The Clyde Cruising Club’s Sailing Directions and Anchorages was still open on the chart table. Before putting it away, I read once more through the section on Muck. Now I realised why I had a been so surprised to see the pontoon: I had already dismissed it because the book said: “There is a pontoon belonging to Marine Harvest which can be used by shallow-draft vessels and dinghies”.

Shallow draft? That’s less than 0.7 metres. Moreover, we were not ten days past the equinox with one of the biggest tides of the year.

I went and knocked on the other boat: “The book says this pontoon is only for shallow draft vessels and we’ve got a really big tide tonight. I’m going to anchor off.”

“Right-oh.”

And so I did. It was pitch dark by then but the fishermen, being helpful, had stuck reflective tape to their mooring buoys. I found an empty spot and retired to cook up a mushroom stroganoff so that I could have rice with it and try out my new plastic sieve. I’d bought it in Tobermory after melting the last one in a frying pan that turned out not to be cold after all.

At anchor, the motion was much more gentle with no warps to snatch at the pontoon in the swell. Besides, I would be up at 0630 to catch the tide going North. I didn’t want to be woken up at 0200 as well.

I never did find out whether the Person from Padstow got dropped on a rock.

Don’t panic II

When the engine stopped just as I was getting away from Port Askaig, I could have scrambled to get back in. In the light of events, maybe that is what I should have done – but instead, I turned the key again, the engine started once more as if nothing was the matter and so I assumed it knew best.

All the same, I did hoist some sails very smartly indeed. And sure enough we had a cracking sail up to Mull… until the wind died again. With only ten miles to go it seemed a good idea to motor the last bit.

That was when I started to worry once more. Sure enough, after about an hour, the steady thump of the diesel paused, stuttered… and stopped.

I turned the key. It started again.

This was all very well in the open sea. What would I do if it happened just as I reached my destination.

Tinker’s Hole is one of the most popular anchorages on the west coast of Scotland. What makes it so special is that it is tiny and entirely protected by series of small islands. You tie your dinghy to a rusty ring set into the pink granite cliffs and scramble up to enjoy a vista of complete wilderness.

Threading your way in between the rocks with less than half a cable of space between them is no place to be becalmed if the engine stops.

Curiously, I don’t remember considering that I should call off the visit – head for somewhere sensible that I could sail into (and out of, come to that). I suppose I assumed that both times the engine had stopped, it had started again – and anyway, I would have to be pretty unlucky if it stopped at exactly the wrong moment just as I found myself up-tide of the rock (dries 2.3m) just off the entrance or in the middle of the entrance itself (less than half a cable wide). Before then, I could sling out the anchor – it was only 10 metres deep. Once I was in, I would be anchoring anyway.

The engine waited until I was in before it stopped. In fact, I was no more than a boat-length from the exact spot where I proposed to plant the hook. That was why we were idling in neutral. Clearly, the machinery had decided that if it wasn’t going to be called upon to do anything useful, then it might just as well shut down now… and did.

We ghosted to a halt and I lowered the anchor through five metres of clear water to rest nicely between two patches of weed. Now all I had to worry about was getting out again. Still, that could wait for the morning.

But in the morning the only other boat in the anchorage had gone. Samsara was all alone and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a photograph. So, straight after breakfast, it was into the dingy to row over to the rocks no more than 15 metres away and then climb up through the bracken and over the heather to the hill where – apart from spectacular views, it occurred to me there might be a mobile signal.

There wasn’t.

I stayed four nights in Tinker’s Hole which must be a record. There was a good deal of fussing over the engine but I couldn’t for the life of me find anything wrong with it. In the end, it seemed the obvious course would be to put into Tobermory before heading off into any more wilderness. There would be a mechanic in Tobermory, for sure. Besides, it has to be one of the prettiest harbours anywhere with all the houses painted different colours.

However, until I had a reliable wind, I wasn’t going anywhere.

This meant that on the second day, I packed some sandwiches, a can of beer and a Mars bar and set off on an expedition, returning five hours later utterly exhausted. The scramble up the hill the previous day had been the easy bit. This time I stumbled through shoulder-high undergrowth, climbed cliffs, fell into ravines and more than once wondered what I would do if I broke a leg.

In the end I came to “The Community of Erraid”. In happier times, I would have said hello but we don’t do that any more, do we? There was a tube of hand-sanitising gel on the gate to remind me. This is what it must have been like travelling during the time of the plague.

I have since looked them up. On the Isle of Erraid, live a small community who, in their own words conduct “a dynamic experiment where everyday life is guided by the inner voice of spirit, where we work in co-creation with the intelligence of nature and take inspired action towards our vision of a better world.”

If this had been in ordinary times, I imagine I would have a lot more to tell you about them. All I can say is that I saw people at a distance and we waved to each other.

That’s just sad…

Meanwhile, the longer I stayed in Tinker’s Hole, the more time I had to worry about getting out. For a start I wasn’t going to attempt it until we had some wind (hence the four days). At one point, I had decided I would have the kedge anchor on deck, the dinghy towing astern ready to row the anchor out to haul myself off the rocks if the wind should die at the wrong moment. In the event, I did no such thing but sailed out with the engine ticking over without the slightest problem.

But I was going to have to do something about this. My nerves couldn’t take much more…