Old Men Use Spinnaker Squeezers

Years and years ago, I wrote a piece for Yachting World called Real Men don’t use spinnaker squeezers. It centred around the Mother of All Broaches in Largo off the Grand Banks towards the end of the 1988 OSTAR – which, that year, was sponsored by Carlsberg (although the beer was all gone before we left Plymouth).
There were two particular features of this broach which remain stuck fast in the memory: One was that it all happened in the middle of the most inky-black night but the spinnaker sheet popped the lifebuoy out of its bracket, dragging the strobe light with it…which, of course, started flashing, lighting up the entire scene in a series of frozen images – the myriad droplets of Atlantic fixed in time and space.
And while all this was going on, the cockpit speakers continued to play – relentlessly – Maurice Chevalier singing Thank Heaven for Little Girls.
All of this comes to mind because I dared to suggest on a Facebook sailing group that traditional symmetrical spinnakers were a lot more versatile than cruising chutes and asymmetric spinnakers.
Back in 1988, the asymmetric version had only just been invented and was strictly the preserve of the racing sailor. The rest of us had the old-fashioned kind and poled it out. Occasionally it ended up in the water. That was the way it was – we thought nothing of it.
Yet now, people seem to be horrified at the idea of flying a traditional spinnaker. Samsara came with a cruising chute. I swapped it for what I would call a “proper” one – with a man who had never taken it out of his attic and had been warned by the previous owner that it was “a monster”.
No, it isn’t. It’s a pussycat – a pussycat with a lot of oomph, admittedly. The other day, it had me doing seven knots hour after hour on the way from Valentia to Galway across the centre of a tropical low while everyone else from Bloody Foreland to Roches Point was sheltering from gales.
But then, proper symmetrical spinnakers are absolutely great sails.
The enduring image of Jean Luc Van den Heede winning the Golden Globe race is of Matmut running into Les Sables d’Olonne behind her big blue kite – with the sponsor’s name to the fore (how did Matmut’s PR department organise that?)
VDH is even older than me. Maybe flying a proper spinnaker is an age thing. In which case it is something which OldManSailing should seek to preserve for posterity, like baggywrinkle and futtock shrouds.
So here’s where I maintain that a symmetrical spinnaker scores over the asymmetric upstart: It’s more versatile. You can fly it with the wind anywhere from dead astern (or a bit more) to ten degrees forward of the beam. That’s 100 degrees of apparent wind angle. Try doing that with a cruising chute and the main will blanket it once the wind gets past the quarter. Asymmetrics on bowsprits don’t fare much better. In fact, they really only come into their own when the boat is fast enough to shift the apparent wind so far forward that they never really “run” at all.
So much for the technical side. How about the fear factor? For that’s the real issue. When it comes to sailing nightmares, The Spinnaker Wrap is right up there along with hitting the container, the out-of-season hurricane, lightning strikes and piracy.
And it’s a legitimate fear: Once your pretty sail is wrapped a couple of times round the forestay when you just happen to be passing a wind farm, the south coast of Jersey, or one of those trawlers that keep relentlessly (and rightfully) to their course, you are, without any doubt, in the deep stuff.
I just looked and there is no advice whatsoever on the internet about how to deal with a spinnaker wrap. Plenty about how to avoid it before it happens – but absolutely nothing about what to do when it does. I suppose this is because there really is nothing you can do – short of sending someone aloft with a sharp knife. It’s either that or wait ’til the wind drops.
To prove this point, I remember one of the AZAB competitors sailing back into Falmouth with three metres of spinnaker still flying from his masthead: He had managed the outward trip singlehanded and without incident. For the return leg, his wife shipped aboard – but flatly refused to let him go up the mast to retrieve the sail. I don’t believe they have sailed together since. In fact, I’m not even sure they’re still married…
Anyway, to business: Here is the Old Man’s recipe for flying a traditional spinnaker singlehanded and safely.
First, before you do anything else, hoist your spinnaker net. You can make this yourself. It’s just two 3mm lines hoisted on a spare halyard. One line clips to the stemhead fitting just aft of the furling gear, the other to the foot of the mast. Between these two run three shorter lengths of line at intervals to form a “net”. Once this is up, it is impossible for anything to wrap itself round the forestay. My net has clips on one end of the horizontal lines and I attach them as I hoist it – makes it less prone to tangles.
Rig your sheets and guys if they aren’t a permanent fixture. The sheets go to blocks on the quarters, the guys to blocks at the boat’s widest point (If your boat is shaped like a dart and the widest point is the stern, then you will have a bowsprit and an asymmetric and none of this applies). On each side, the guy and sheet terminate in a single snapshackle.
Once you’ve got all that sorted, you can furl your headsail.
Take the spinnaker halyard round the forestay to the lee side and clip to the guardrail.
Rig the pole on the windward side with the spinnaker guy through the down-facing jaw and pulled in front of the forestay and clipped to the leeward side of the pulpit. You will need two uphauls for the pole, one on each side otherwise you won’t be able to gybe it with the net up. The downhaul can be taken through a block in the centre of the foredeck and led back to the cockpit.
Bring up the spinnaker and attach the guy and sheet. Ensure the line for the squeezer is not tangled and kept inside everything else. This line should run through some sort of ring which can be attached to a point in the middle of the foredeck (you don’t want to worry about losing it).
Go back to the cockpit and pull in the guy so that the clew of the sail is dragged round to the weather side. Leave enough slack in the sheet so that the sail will not fill immediately (you don’t want to be pitched off the foredeck when it suddenly inflates with a bang). Make up the pole downhaul in the cockpit.
Once all is ready, attach the halyard and hoist the sail in its squeezer.
Hoist the squeezer and make fast the line round a foredeck cleat to stop the funnel slipping down if the wind drops.
Go back to the cockpit and haul in the sheet. Adjust the guy and pole downhaul.
And off you go!
Writing it all down like this makes everything sound rather complicated – which, I suppose it is, when compared to hoisting a cruising chute but really it’s just a matter of remembering everything and doing it in the right order – and, of course, practising until you can run through the whole process in ten minutes.
One other thing to mention – particularly for singlehanders – is that I have never managed to make a mechanical windvane steer a spinnaker: As soon as there is a puff of wind, the boat accelerates and the apparent wind angle moves forward throwing everything out of kilter. An electronic autopilot works fine – but I would love to know how the Golden Globe Guys did it.
Meanwhile, a couple of things to mention about taking your spinnaker down again:
Firstly, douse it as soon as the autopilot loses control. OK, so you could do a better job yourself – but then, how are you going to cope on the foredeck when you have to hand the ship back to the microchips and they let her broach all over the place?
Wear a thick pair of gloves when hauling the squeezer down over the sail: Even with the sheet flying, there’s a lot of tension on that thin line.
Oh, and by the way, I’m not proud: I pull the squeezer down when the time comes to gybe. It only takes a moment and makes the whole operation so much more manageable.
And now, just to show you how stable a symmetrical spinnaker can be – and how fast it makes to boat go, here is that trip across the centre of what the Irish Meteorological Service called a “vigorous tropical low”.


It’s a delicate decision; when to call in the experts. A couple of weeks ago, I had this weird problem with the cooling water for the engine. Sometimes it would flow, sometimes it wouldn’t. There seemed to be no logic to it.

I’d inspected the filter, tested the seacock – easy now that I have a seawater pump in the galley branching off the inlet. I opened up the impeller housing – without dropping any of the bolts into the bilge.

I even asked for advice on Facebook – and terrified myself with the range of wild and technical advice. In the end, I pulled into Dover where I met a lovely engineer called Mick. He was one of those calm and competent tradesmen who takes the cack-handed boat-owner under his wing with a show of mock exasperation at the vagaries of machinery. He didn’t even bring his toolbox onto the boat – just climbed aboard and said: “Let’s have a look…”

The next thing he said was: “Hello, what’s this branch coming off the inlet pipe?”

“Ah,” says I, proudly. “That’s my galley seawater…”

We worked out – or at least, he was kind enough to include me in the process – that, under certain circumstances (motor-sailing on starboard tack) the engine would rather draw air from the galley pump than water from the sea. All you have to do is put your thumb over the tap for a minute to make it see sense.

I felt such a fool! Mainly I felt furious with myself for incurring another bill on the maintenance budget when all I needed to do was think logically. What is it marine engineers charge? £50 an hour? £60.

But Mick shook his head. He hadn’t even opened his toolbox, had he? 

And now here I am in Falmouth with the headsail furling gear working as smoothly as if it was the demonstration model on the Hood stand at the Boat Show. 

That‘s not how it was yesterday. Yesterday, I couldn’t get the last two turns off it – and I had to put the line on a winch to roll it up again. Twice I had dropped the sail and fiddled with the drum – everything was fine without the sail. 

It had to be something to do with the new furling line. On the other hand, the gear had worked to begin with – only after Portland did things start to go wrong – yet here I was about to set out into the Atlantic…

The rigger was called Jake. He would come and have a look when he’d finished with the davits on a brand new Rustler 57. I went and found the boat. It was easy to see why this one took priority. For one thing, all the sail handling was electric (or, possibly, hydraulic). There was a satellite dish, a drop-down bathing platform, the varnish on the rail looked as if it belonged in Harrods furniture department.

I looked back up the pontoon to where Samsara lay with her hand-painted decks and the rust stain dripping out from some ancient fastening buried under the woodwork. 

How could I take Jake away from his gleaming davits? The RIB, by the way, came with individual fitted canvas covers to keep the sun off the various bits without increasing the windage with an all-over cover. Nice idea…

And yet, Jake took a break from this million-pound project to come and looked at my furling gear. He didn’t bring a toolbox either – just a big Leatherman and borrowed my 10mm socket spanner and an Allen key.

Here’s what he found – and if you ever need to change the furling line on a SeaFurl5, you need to know this: Inside the drum housing there is a plastic disc which separates into two halves. When you put it back together, it needs to click into a groove on the extrusion.

Nothing to it really – but, of course, enough to stop the whole thing working and lead to all kinds of potential disasters. 

“I could have worked that out,” I said to the back of his head as we crouched on the foredeck and he tightened the last screws.

Actually, I’m not sure that’s entirely true. Already, I’d put it back together once without noticing the groove. The truth is, it’s the tradesman’s expertise that you pay for, not his time. So how much did I owe Jake for his ten minutes?

He shook his head and smiled as he headed back to what he called the “tweaking” at the other end of the pontoon. 

I peeked at the online brochure for the new boat. It’s got a heated towel rail in the heads.

I bet they won’t get that fixed for nothing. 


I was fast asleep when the boat turned turtle. Being a catamaran, she stayed that way. They pulled me off with a helicopter. I had been asleep at the time.

There, that’s out of the way. If I’m going to write about sleep management for singlehanded sailors, I had better admit to the embarrassing moment up front. But the fact is that it happened 20 years ago – in another lifetime, or so it seems.

Now I am sailing along the South Coast of England on my own and without stopping. How on earth am I going to stay alert 24 hours a day for four or five days in the middle of the busiest shipping lanes in the world?

Well, for one thing, I’m getting used to it: Five days from Lowestoft to Falmouth in April, then back from Baltimore in Ireland to Woodbridge on the East Coast at the beginning of July. Now I’m back off to Galway… The English Channel is beginning to become as familiar as my local High Street: The headlands – The Lizard, Start, Portland, St Catherine’s – old friends like Costa’s and Boots.

I admit I am contravening the International  Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea. These are very precise and begin by insisting “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out…”

At all times… Every minute of every hour of every day…

Back in the 1960’s when singlehanded began to claim public attention, my old Alma Mater, Yachting World and its then editor, the ferociously correct Maurice Griffiths, mounted a vigorous campaign against the practice, insisting that it was by its very nature, unseamanlike. After all, how could one man (and it was inevitably a man in those days) possibly keep a good lookout at all times?

Well, of course, he didn’t. Singlehanders slept in small snatches – calculated at the time it would take a ship to appear over the horizon and run them down.

And while on the subject of being run down, these early solo sailors seemed to take the view that the ColRegs were written to stop big ships sinking each other. If a big ship were to hit a small yacht, it might not even notice – and if the solo sailor went down – well, that was his lookout (if you will pardon the pun).

Or as Blondie Hasler put it, he would “drown like a gentleman”.

And that is the way I viewed it when I started singlehanded voyaging in the 1970’s with a passage from Poole to Santander, hardly sleeping at all and in a constant state of alarm lest a ship should cover the distance from my horizon in less than 20 minutes – which I’m sure it could have done.

On the strength of that, I bought a gadget called a Watchman which was supposed to detect radar beams and sound an alarm – although I don’t think it ever did.

Instead, as all singlehanded sailors eventually do, I just got used to sleeping in short snatches – and discovered that there is a knack to it.

The first thing to understand is that when alone on a boat, you must never allow yourself to get tired. When you’re tired you make mistakes. So, if you’re going to be out for any length of time, it is most important to start the sleep routine straight away. As soon as you are clear of the harbour, the boat is settled on her course, get your head down.

OK, so it may only be ten O’clock in the morning and you don’t feel remotely tired. Get your head down!

The plan is to sleep for 20 minutes so you will need an alarm – in fact, two because there is sure to come a time when you make a mess of setting one of them or turn it off instead of on…

I use the timer on my phone – and an old phone as a backup. Each has a different ring tone (as loud and annoying as I could find). The two phones sit in the fiddle above my head.

For this first session, it is possible that you will not sleep at all (after all you’re not remotely tired). Never mind, this is just to get you into the routine: You lie awake thinking about supertankers until the first alarm goes off (they are staggered by a minute).

You get up, you look around, you check the course – and then you go straight back to bed. That is important. The more stimulation you allow yourself, the harder it will to be able to go to sleep next time. Just keep on doing this and eventually, the alarm will go off and you will realise it has woken you up. You have been asleep before midday!

With a bit of practice, this will become easier and easier. Then it’s just a question of building up the total sleep time: Three 20-minute sessions in the morning gives you an hour. Six after lunch and you have three hours in the bag. At night it’s easier because it seems natural – which means you will have no trouble reaching your normal total.

Of course, the 20-minute allowance can be adjusted to suit the circumstances: In the midst of a fishing fleet or when closing the land, it can be reduced all the way down to five minutes.

Some people may ask “What good is five minutes?”

Honestly, it can make all the difference. Have you never been tempted, while doing 70 miles an hour on a motorway, just to “rest your eyes” for a few seconds? I hope you resisted the temptation. Just imagine how much you would have welcomed being able to lie down for five minutes…

At times like this, it goes without saying that you must be absolutely sure that both your phones are charged, that you really have started the timers, that the “do not disturb” function is disabled and that you have closed the app before putting down the phone so as to avoid pausing it accidentally by touching the screen (yes, I have done all of these – why do you think I have a backup phone?)

With luck, such precautions will prevent you from sailing embarrassingly up the beach or into the side of a trawler. Remember; everything – absolutely everything – gives way to a trawler.

But there is still the possibility that you may sleep through both alarms. I have found there are two reasons for this. The first is that you have allowed yourself to get so tired that the needs of your body override the needs of the ship. That’s why you must bank your sleep even when you don’t feel tired – especially when you don’t feel tired.

However, there is a less obvious reason for sleeping through the alarms: You can get used to anything – and, of course, you can get used to waking up to the same alarm tone after yet another five minutes’ sleep and, once more, doing the checks and then going back to bed all in the space of some 40 or 50 seconds. In fact, it’s great that you have hardly woken up at all and, so, can go straight back to sleep as if nothing had happened.

Do this enough and the brain will decide it’s a waste of time waking up at all – and that’s when you hit something solid.

So I wouldn’t recommend doing the five-minute routine for longer than half an hour – or the 20-minute routine for longer than two hours.

Obviously, this means that at some point, you’re going to pack in a whole hour at a stretch – and this is where Mr Griffiths will start rotating in his grave. Any solo sailor who goes to sleep for an hour is asking for trouble.

Or are they?

Back to the ColRegs: “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out…by sight and hearing and all available means…”

You might imagine how delighted I was to discover, after my 20-year-solo sailing hiatus that somebody had invented AIS. I am writing this while crossing the Separation Zone north of Alderney and simply cannot imagine how we all managed without it. This morning I tacked because I was about to be overtaken by a tanker a mile away on my port side – no problem there but the plotter showed up a fishing boat ahead which I would never have spotted without searching through binoculars (and who does that every 20 minutes unless they’re in Das Boot?)

So now, when I get my head down, I check the AIS (the Absolutely Indispensable Security-Blanket), ensure the VHF is tuned to Channel 16 – and you’ll understand why if you come back and read www.oldmansailing.com/cautionary-tale.

However, if you do read it, you will understand that AIS is only as good as the willingness of everyone else to use it too. In UK waters this is fine – even small day-fishing boats and RIBs full of divers have AIS transmitters and only once have I found a commercial fishing boat without one. Maybe it has something to do with the British willingness to conform – after all, we don’t seem to mind that we have more CCTV cameras watching us than any other nation on earth…

Sailing in Irish waters I discovered an alternative attitude – and when I mentioned it on a Facebook group, it was clear that Americans would no more give up their right to anonymity than their right to bear arms.

That’s OK – just as long as we know. Now, once past the middle of the Irish sea, the radar goes into “watch” mode and, once again, I sleep soundly. I suppose that, venturing into new territorial waters, I will have to assume the natives are in hiding.

 I suppose I can see their point of view: I used to think that one of the nicest things about sailing was that you “disappeared” – rather like the old days when I was a foreign correspondent and delighted in the office having no very clear idea where I was staying – or, on occasions, which country I was in… 

Maybe I’m settling down in my old age.

Or maybe I just want my old age to last a bit longer…

Stuck in the Mud

It seems only yesterday that I wrote with such pride about pulling up the anchor by hand – and me 70 years old if I’m a day (imagine how impressive it will be when I’m 80!).

You might have guessed I would live to regret this.

But from Falmouth to the Hebrides – the Isle of Man and North Wales, I hauled in the 20kg Rocna with its 10mm chain as if it was no more than a bath plug. Even in the dark depths of Loch Spelve, I got it up in the end.

Then I dropped it in Baltimore (the Irish one). Baltimore was this year’s destination for the Jester Challenge and the other singlehanders in small boats turned out to be such a convivial crowd and Bushe’s Bar served such a good pint of Guinness that I stayed for a week. Part of that week involved the gale which battered the Azores and Back fleet on their return to Plymouth.

One way and another, when the time came to weigh anchor and head back to the UK, it was well dug in. In fact, it was so well dug in that after an hour of grunting and revving, and nothing to show for it, the only possible explanation had to be that something had fouled it. I knew all about fouled anchors – this time last year in the Outer Hebrides, I’d had to call out a diver to get the thing out from under a ground chain. And this felt just the same – the identical, absolutely rock-solid resistance.

I’ll tell you the moral of this story now: Don’t make assumptions. Check your facts before shelling out for another diver – particularly since they cost twice as much in Baltimore as they do in Barra.

This time, the assumption was that just because the anchor wouldn’t budge, it must be fouled again. I now realise that I was predisposed to think this way because now I have the answer. After last year’s debacle, I bought myself an AnchorRescue.

This is a brilliant bit of kit. Made in America by Scanmar, one half of it lives permanently on the chain and the other half goes down on the tripping line to connect to it. The clever thing is that you do this after the event because, as Sod’s Law dictates: The time your anchor gets fouled is the time you didn’t think to rig a tripping line.

With a bit of jiggling, I got the two halves connected, at which point – according to the instructions: “Using a hand-over-hand technique, raise the retriever without relying on the windlass’ capstan until the anchor is free of the bottom.”

Of course, I didn’t read that bit – who bothers to read instructions when they’re trying out something as exciting as this?

I did get around to reading them later – after it turned out that the anchor didn’t want to come out backwards either – even though I put the line on a cockpit winch and cranked until it hummed. That was when I decided to look up the breaking strain – 760lbs. What’s that? About 350kg? I plucked the line as if it were a violin string. Hmm… C#. Maybe not.

So in the end, Gerry the diver went down and tied another line to the roll bar. Then I winched on that while he mud-wrestled on the bottom.

Afterwards, he reckoned that even if I had possessed a working windlass, it wouldn’t have done any good – nothing short of a commercial tug for Baltimore mud, apparently.

So here’s the practical part. This is what I should have done (in case you happen to visit Baltimore at the same time as a vigorous low):

1. Go and ask the harbourmaster if there is anything down there that could foul an anchor – maybe he’ll say the local mud does that…

2. Get in the water and look at it – being a born-and-bred East Coast sailor, it never occurred to me that all I had to do was dive down a couple of metres and I would have been able to see what was going on.

3. (And this is the big one): Don’t be in such a hurry! Wait for low water, haul the chain as tight as it will go – and then wait for high water. With a range of two metres, there is no mud in the world that can compete with the buoyancy of Samsara’s great fat bow.

I really wish I had thought of that one: I once read a description of a Thames Barge being held down by the suction of an Essex mud bank as the tide rose higher and higher up its topsides. Eventually, as the water began to lap at the scuppers and it seemed the ship must founder, there was “a tremendous explosion of mud and water and air” and the old lady shot to the surface – and then, apparently, kept going…

Also, if I hadn’t given Gerry 100Euros, I could have had dinner at The Mews Restaurant, Baltimore’s celebrated foodie heaven (although, maybe 100Euros wouldn’t go that far – not when they start you off with “mackerel tartare dotted with charred gooseberry slices, wood sorrel and dayglo orange nasturtium petals”).

Alternatively, I could just get the windlass fixed…

The Zone

This is a cautionary tale. It is mostly for my benefit.

I should begin by telling you that, even though I am writing this sitting on the lee berth while tacking laboriously along the South coast of Ireland in the vague direction of Baltimore, I have my phone beside me with the timer set for 20 minutes (actually 15 minutes 45 seconds because it has taken me four minutes and 15 seconds to work that out and write it down).

This is important because the more I think about what I’m writing, the less I think about where I’m going – and at the moment I am sailing at four knots in the direction of a French fishing boat called A La Garde de Dieu.

I know this – and also that the Frenchman is doing 3.7 knots so, obviously, he’s trawling which, in turn, means that everything else – absolutely everything from a supertanker to the Lifeboat and most definitely, me in my little boat – all have to give way to him. There is a good reason for this: Once a fishing boat has its nets down, it can’t stop and it can’t alter course – in fact, with all that lot hanging off the back, the rudder doesn’t work at all.

I know all about La Garde de Dieu because she shows up as an AIS target on the plotter – a little green triangle that I can click to find the ship’s name, course and speed – everything down to destination: “Fishing Grounds”. The Frenchman is four miles away. I have been able to pick him out with binoculars and, if the wind holds, I should pass comfortably ahead of him.

All the same, I set the timer because I have the laptop on my knees and I’m writing it all down – and as every writer will know, this is when you are at your most vulnerable.

I used to write for a living. In fact, I have spent more than 50 years writing. At my busiest – Fleet Street in the 80’s and 90’s – I could churn out 600 words an hour – very often dictating “off the top of my head” directly down the telephone (it was wonderful when they invented mobile phones and you could stride about while composing instead of being imprisoned in a smelly phone box while people tapped on the door with 10p pieces and said: “Are you going to be much longer?”

Of course, I ignored them because I was “in the zone”. In other words, the outside world had ceased to exist. There were only the words…

And that’s how it was about this time yesterday, somewhere in the middle of Saint George’s Channel as I sat in the same spot, a new book up on the screen and the words clattering out (I still think of them “clattering” as if this was my trusty Brother portable – the one held together with twisted paperclips – even though now the tiny plastic ASUS makes about as much noise as a mouse picking its teeth}.

Heaven knows how long this had been going on – which is the worrying part. If, instead of getting all productive, I had settled down to sleep, I would have set the timers – two of them on different phones with different ringtones. Somehow, if you’re going to close your eyes deliberately, the idea of being woken up to stop yourself running into anything seems terribly important. On the other hand, if you are awake already, surely you don’t need an alarm?

But what if the words have taken you somewhere else? A place where there is only imagination and time has no meaning?

An hour must have passed. It didn’t seem like it. Then, I swear someone said: “Samsara”.

Only that – nothing else. It was such a brief distraction that I was tempted to ignore it. I had just had the most brilliant idea and was keen to get it down before it slipped away. That’s the way it is with brilliant ideas; you have to pin them down before they flutter off and bother someone else.

However, most definitely, somebody had said “Samsara”. Surely, that must demand a moment’s attention at the very least. I cut loose a couple of brain cells to investigate while flailing clumsily after the brilliant idea.

The brain cells reported back; diffidently, so as not to disturb the creative flow: There was only one possible explanation: Since I was alone on the boat, the voice must have come from the VHF radio. Usually, this box of tricks remains silent – only waking up every three hours for Dublin and Mine Head Coastguard to issue their maritime safety broadcast. Sometimes, watch officers on the bridges of containers ships would discuss how not to hit each other – and of course, Irish lifeboats whizz about all the time chattering like teenagers on skateboards.

But now someone was calling me. I plucked the microphone from its clip: “Station Calling Samsara, say again.”

But all they said was: “Channel 10”

I switched to Channel 10: “Station calling Samsara, say again.”

And then this charming Irish voice oozed out of the speaker: “I was just wondering what were your intentions.”

What were my intentions? Why did he want to know about my intentions? My intentions were to get back to the laptop and that brilliant idea – whatever it was. Already it had one foot on the doorstep.

I poked my head out of the hatch.

And there – no more than 300 metres away, was a great big, bright blue fishing boat bashing straight into the wind and sea, sending clouds of spray flying back over the wheelhouse.

And if it carried on doing that and I carried with my four knots for Baltimore, we would meet in the same patch of water about in about… oh… one-and-a-half minutes.

Thumbing the TX button, I suggested: “I’ll turn to port.”

And did – very snappily indeed.

For the first half hour, as our courses diverged, I made a succession of resolutions about setting the timers whenever there was even the slighted possibility of finding myself “in the zone”.

But then, as the big blue fishing boat receded to a dot on the horizon, the thought occurred that he had not appeared on the plotter. If he had, the alarm would have gone off. But the screen was blank. It was still blank – meaning that his AIS beacon must have been switched off – or as they say, when talking about Iranian tankers supplying Syria, “cloaked”.

Now, why would a fishing boat do that? The obvious conclusion was that he didn’t want anyone to know he was there – not, for instance, the fishery inspectors … or possibly the competition. There could be any number of reasons why a fishing boat might want to be invisible.

And, of course, that would explain why he had not identified himself when he called me on Channel 16 – the coastguard monitor Channel 16. Come to that, everyone monitors 16 – including fishery inspectors and other fishing boats.

I began to feel a little better. If I was at fault for not keeping a lookout – then, he was equally at fault for trying to disappear.

… and if you think that, given the length of this explanation for what was, after all, only a couple of minutes of activity (albeit somewhat feverish activity) and you suspect that I have again fallen “into the zone”, you are absolutely right. But, take heart, by now it is Sunday afternoon, I am anchored in Baltimore Harbour, the wind is making mournful noises in the rigging and the rain is going sideways past the windows – if I could bring myself to look out of them.

Actually, The Zone is the better place to be.

The plotter – how it’s supposed to look

In praise of the humble clothes peg

I think it is time for praise where it’s due: Out of all the myriad items on a boat – from duct tape to bits of string with loops in one end, what do you think wins the prize for the greatest number of random but totally brilliant alternative uses?

OK, so I’ve just used duct tape to block up the holes in the spinnaker pole to stop it filling up with water (and emptying all over my sleeve) – and currently, there are no fewer than six bits of string holding back the halyards. 

But you expect that. What I find so extraordinary is the apparently endless uses on a boat for that most humble domestic item, the clothes peg (or, as the Americans would have it, the clothespin).

They cost almost nothing and yet they seem capable of anything.

I would be most interested if anyone can suggest even more unexpected uses but, to date, this is what I have come up with:

  1. A peg marked “Inlet Closed” gets clipped to the ignition key to stop me starting the engine and blowing it up for want of cooling water.
  2. Another says “Shore Power” and stops me leaving the marina and taking the electricity point with me (apparently it happens more often than you would expect. 
  3. A third peg goes on the key when the battery selector is switched to “starting”. In the past, I have nodded approvingly about the amount the solar panel was pushing into the service bank – without realising that it was the starting battery that was still selected – and rapidly going flat.
  4. Of course there are always half a dozen pegs closing plastic bags in the galley.
  5. The spring in a peg works brilliantly for holding the companionway lock open. When you close it from the outside, the peg just drops off on the inside.
  6. Take a peg to pieces and the two halves make very effective wedges to stop the washboards rattling in a seaway.
  7. When the fridge is switched off, a peg in the door holds it open against a loop of shock cord to allow air to circulate and stop the mould growing.
  8. …and, of course, you can always use them for the laundry…


Gone to the pub

If you’re going to get stuck somewhere, Dublin is a pretty good place to do it.

The plan had been to stay for a day or two while the Isle of Man TT was rained off. I could do the Guinness tour, listen to some Irish music in the pubs. Drink some more Guinness… Who cared if it rained?

But then, just as I furled the jib as the wind picked up in Dublin Bay, the sheet flipped the whole of the top of the winch onto the deck.

How did that happen?

The top of the winch is supposed to be held down by a plastic disc which screws into the feeder arm and holds the whole thing together.

There you are, isn’t that impressive? I know that the silver bit is called the “feeder arm”. That’s because I had to scour the internet to find out what I needed to ask for when ringing round the local chandleries for a replacement – because you see, when both the feeder arm and top cap leapt off the winch and bounced onto the side deck, the top cap bounced higher and straight over the side.

It was one of those moments when you freeze to see what’s going to happen – and later on, wish you were the sort of person who doesn’t freeze in emergencies but leaps into action (in this case, snatching the bits out of the air like the second slip at Lords).

Instead, of course, I stood mesmerized as the feeder arm – being the heavier of the two – landed in the scuppers while the tiny, lightweight top cap arced delicately over the guardrails and into the boiling maelstrom which is Dublin Bay in a southerly force seven.

Now, I suppose it would have been possible to sail back to the Isle of Man for the last of the TT without a starboard cockpit winch – and, of course, it would certainly be possible if I had a posh boat with secondary winches. But as things stood, I really couldn’t think of anything more inconvenient: Would switching the top cap from the port winch every time I went about be more trouble than rigging a handy billy on the sheet?

Simpler to wait ‘til Monday morning and ring round the chandleries for another – except, for some reason I never established, Monday was a bank holiday in the Republic of Ireland – although, not in the UK.

What if I got to Tuesday and nobody had one – and wouldn’t even sell me the one off the winch in the window (which, of course, would make their £800 item of stock totally unsaleable until they got a new top cap).

In the end I ordered one from the UK. They’d get it in the post right away. It should arrive on Wednesday.

Hmm. If I left on Wednesday evening, I could be back in the Isle of Man by Thursday night – still in time for the last day of the TT on Friday. Anyway, there didn’t seem to be an alternative.

Odd how things turn out: Once the package was in the post, I stopped worrying. In fact, those four days in Dublin were just great. I did the Guinness tour – actually, I did it twice because I was just about to collect my pint when a very insistent and annoying announcement over the public address kept demanding a Mr Sands’ presence in reception – which turned out to be the code for a fire alarm.

Still, I got my pint in the end (you get to look forward to it after going round the tour – twice). Do you know how to pour a Guinness? There’s a right way and a wrong way. It’s all to do with the proportion of carbon dioxide and nitrogen you put in the glass along with the beer. Anyway, I messed up mine by trying to put in too much Guinness and it went slopping all down the side.

I joined a party of Americans and Canadians for a musical pub crawl around the Temple Bar – the lone Englishman. I was quite the celebrity. “Welcome to Europe!” said the guide.

In those four days, I rode my little folding bicycle all over the city – the Yeats exhibition – backwards and forwards across Halfpenny Bridge…

St Steven’s Green was an eye-opener with all its signs telling the story of the Easter Rising: Here was the spot where the Irish Citizen Army dug their trenches (and pinched cushions from cars parked in the adjoining streets to make themselves comfortable) – and there, on the facade of the Royal College of Surgeons were the scars from the British Army’s Lewis gun firing out of a bedroom window on the fourth floor of the Shelbourne Hotel. Of course, both sides agreed a truce when it was time for the Park Keeper to feed the ducks.

I didn’t know any of this. But then I went to school in England. I wouldn’t – which, of course, explains half a century of misery on both sides.

Meanwhile, everywhere you go in Dublin, there are pubs and there is music. In fact, the music spills out onto the street. It seems that on every corner, there is someone with a guitar – and next to the statue of Molly Malone, a proper set-up with microphones and speakers and a duo leading the tourists in endless repetitions of “She wheeled her wheelbarrow…”

Molly, by the way, was quite a gal if her statue is anything to go by – her bosom positively gleams (lovingly polished by the groping hands of ten million tourists a year).

When Wednesday came and went with no sign of a small package for me behind the bar of the Poolbeg Yacht and Boat Club, I was really quite philosophical. I think I ordered another Guinness to make up for it. By then it was too late for the TT. When it did arrive on Thursday, I set off back across the Irish Sea to Wales.

There was to be free mooring for a week at Pwllheli in preparation for the Jester Challenge – more about that next time. It’s an event for small single-handed boats sailing to… Ireland.

Too sensitive by half

I’m writing this with a cup of coffee at my side – as you do.

It took no time at all to make.

Well, it didn’t once I had woken at 0730 with the gas alarm going off, pulled the sleeping bag over my head, hoping the incessant beeping would sort itself out (which it did after 20 minutes).

However, it started again 20 minutes after that – and this time it didn’t stop. The gas alarm doesn’t like the wet and cold and I’m in Dublin where it hasn’t stopped raining for days.

Does anyone else have this sort of trouble? Or do you religiously turn the gas off at the cylinder every time… or maybe just trust that everything will be alright and the boat won’t blow up after all?

I have always had a rather difficult relationship with gas on boats ever since watching my father pump the bilges dry (which he did every day, this being a wooden boat) and, once he had finished, he would continue pumping for another 50 strokes, just pumping air – or, as he explained: “Getting rid of any gas that’s escaped down there.”

So I grew up assuming that there would always be some gas wafting around in the bilges, waiting for an errant spark to blow the whole shebang sky-high.

Over the years, I have made several attempts to get away from gas. In the little Caprice, I tried an alcohol stove but that was even more frightening – sheets of bright yellow flame right up to the deckhead.

Aboard Largo, my old Rival 32, I fell in love with a wonderful brass Taylor’s paraffin cooker. It was a veritable antique and looked the part. Unfortunately, it required all the care and attention you would expect of an antique. Making a cup of coffee was a project. You had to plan for it, prepare the apparatus – and even then, you might end up with similar sheets of bright yellow flame (only this time, accompanied by clouds of foul-smelling black smoke).

This seemed to exhaust all the options – although, it should be noted that one of the boats in the Ocean Cruising Club’s Celtic Rally had an induction hob which got fired up whenever they plugged into the marina mains (they had a washing machine, too).

Anyway, with Samsara, I reckoned I’d earned the right to go down the easy route and stick with gas.

I did, however, bring in a shipwright to build a sealed locker as required by the survey – and a marine gas engineer to check the installation and fit an alarm… which he did in strict accordance with the instructions.

These stated that the two sensors should be fitted “in the lowest possible position where they will remain dry. The most suitable location for the detector is near any gas appliance at floor level or just under the floorboards.”

So they ended up in the bilge.

That first winter, the boat was out of the water and from New Year until the end of March, the thermometer didn’t creep over 9°C for a single day. I know, I had some painting to do. By the time I did get down to it, the cold and the damp had kept the alarm beeping for so long it flattened the battery.

I moved the sensors from “just under the floorboards” to just above them.

It was only afterwards that I discovered why the bilges were always full of water (leaks in the freshwater tanks – with the stern gland adding enough salt to throw me off the scent,..)

Anyway, once we were back in the water in April and I dunked the lee rail trying to scrape round the wind farm off the Wallet, the bilge-water appeared above the floorboards and started lapping at the sensors – which, of course, set off the alarm all over again.

So I moved them up another level: One in the saucepan locker and the other tucked low down, right at the back of the cooker. It was the perfect place for detecting gas – just a lousy one for changing the sensors.

You see, by this time, I had spent some hours on the phone to the manufacturers being terribly polite until they succeeded in selling me two spares.

Ever since then, I have kept one pair in a sealed plastic bag and make sure the old ones are good and dry before they take over their stint as spares.

And this would be fine if only I hadn’t chosen “low down at the back of the cooker” as the ideal place. It is not ideal – especially when trying to locate four little holes for the sensor’s four little prongs – and all before breakfast. In the end the cooker had to come out, the whole cabin filled with tools, I scraped my knuckles, lost another nut to the collection in the bilges – but finally the “low-down under the cooker at the back” sensor is low down at the front – and finally has stopped beeping.

It’s not ideal. My good friend the gas engineer will probably wash his hands of me.

But I don’t care. In fact, I have an enormous sense of well-being. That’s what comes from having a cup of coffee beside you and nothing going “beep “.


That stands for Isle of Man Tourist Trial. The fastest and most dangerous road race in the world: Madmen on motorcycles flinging themselves around 37 miles of town squares and mountain roads at average speeds of 130 miles an hour. Top speed is over 200.

The “madmen” thing comes from the middle Sunday – “Mad Sunday” when anyone with a motorcycle can ride the course. The death toll since it started in 1907 has now reached 146.

So, I have come to the Isle of Man.

I happen to like motorcycles – I like the way they look. I like the way they sound – as long as they don’t disturb my peace and quiet – and there was a time when I owned a motorcycle: In my early 20’s, I had a BSA Bantam and came within an inch of killing myself in Streatham High Road.

… an inch each side, that is: That was the distance between the bike and the bus I was overtaking on one side and the oncoming lorry on the other.

I sold it soon afterwards and haven’t had one since. I’m quite dangerous enough in a car.

But, finding myself in Islay in the Hebrides and happening to see that the TT was about to start – and having nothing more than a vague plan to visit Dublin before I’m due in Pwllheli on June 8th – the chance was too good to miss.

Also, I needed to dry out against a convenient harbour wall to grease the feathering propeller and see to the anodes. The perfect place would be Ramsey on the island’s East coast: A drying harbour with three of the best spectator spots on the course – including Parliament Square. The idea of negotiating a town square and still keeping up the 136mph average would be something to see.

It was all settled: I could anchor overnight in the bay, enter the harbour at high water first thing in the morning and be up against the wall by lunchtime: Plenty of time to get the boatwork done and see something of the bikes.

You can guess by this stage, that something is going to go wrong.

First, the harbourmaster came round. He was a friendly chap and very helpful. One of the fishing boats had broken down and his mate was going out to get him – which meant that they would need some space to manoeuvre and would I move to a berth further down the quay?

No trouble at all – except neither of us appreciated that the water was a bit deeper there – and this being neaps. I had to creep around with it half way up my wellies.

While all this was going on, it started to rain – and of course, the TT death toll is quite high enough without allowing wet roads into the mix. So, practice was cancelled for the day.

Never mind, maybe Thursday’s session would go ahead. On the evening high tide, I moved out into the bay and anchored as close to the South West corner as I could get – the forecast being a brisk southwesterly.

Actually, I couldn’t get very close at all – the Isle of Man is one of those places where the beaches stretch for miles. It looked a long way in my tiny, lightweight inflatable dinghy – just 1.6metres long and weighing only 10kg. When I chose it, the idea was to inflate it in a trice and carry it around on my head. Now I fancied a big RIB with 30hp on the back.

All day the TT news played in Samsara’s cabin: Again, the afternoon practice was cancelled. Maybe they would resume at 1820.

At 1700, I inflated the dinghy. With the little 2.2hp outboard hammering for all it was worth into the wind, I set off for the beach.

Half-way there, I realised I hadn’t switched on the AIS*. It’s always a good idea to switch on the AIS when you leave your boat at anchor. Not only can you use your phone to check that she’s still there but if you search on this blog for a post called “Lost at Sea” you will learn how it saved me and my son Hugo one foggy day in Swanage – and if (unimaginably) the boat should drag her anchor and disappear out to sea, you can always charter a fishing boat and track her down.

Still, I was half-way there. Too bad…

The beach that had looked so welcoming through binoculars, now revealed itself as a quarter of a mile of wet sand – up which the water was advancing as if it wanted a race of its own. If I left the motor at the water’s edge and carried the dinghy above the high-water mark, the motor would be swamped by the time I got back to it.

If I took the motor first, the dinghy would float away…

The answer was to leap-frog them – 20 paces with the motor, then dash back for the dinghy, hoist it on my head and wobble hurriedly past the motor as far as I dared.

I have seen people in Africa carrying enormous loads on their heads. They all had perfect posture and seemed to know where they were going.

If I didn’t look down, I was going to trip over something. Add to that the dinghy’s 10kg is without the seat and the oars. By the time I reached the top and tied the painter to a stump, every time I turned my head, I could hear things creaking inside.

It was a mile to Parliament Square – and sure enough, there was a pub crowded with people in black TT racewear clutching pints of lager in plastic glasses.

Just to be sure (before I bought my own pint) I asked the nearest: “Is this a good place to watch?”

He turned from his beer: “It’s cancelled.”

“What? When did they cancel it?”

“About 20 minutes ago. We’d left our tent on the campsite. Got here and then we heard.”

A smattering of small raindrops blew into his plastic glass.

I had checked the five O’clock news before blowing up the dinghy. That was an hour and ten minutes ago.

So what was the good news?

The good news was that if I left the pub now and went straight back to the boat, I wouldn’t have to worry about her disappearing.

That was all yesterday. Today there is a 35kt wind blowing the rain sideways and whipping the half-mile fetch from the beach into the kind of waves that break on the bow and send spray onto the decks outside the heads window.

I’ve got a better idea: It’s due to drop tonight. I’ll leave for Dublin – plenty of pubs there…


*AIS – Automatic Identification System: A radio beacon broadcasting a vessel’s position and other details.



The Best Sailing in Europe

 The authors of the Clyde Cruising Club’s pilot books are gentlemen not given to hyperbole.

One assumes they are gentlemen – with starched collars and whiskers and deckhands in the fo’c’sle to work the vessel. After all, their guide to the waters from Kintyre to Ardnamurchan begins with a poem from the Log of the Blue Dragon in 1903.

Advice for a passage through the fearsome Gulf of Corryvreckan is that it should be taken in calm weather, at slack water – and then goes on to recommend that “all hatches should be closed and all crew would be well advised to have a lifeline attached if going forward”.

So when they say that this stretch of coast and its outlying islands offer some of the best and most varied sailing that can be found anywhere in Europe, it is time to sit up and take notice.

So why didn’t they mention that it is like going back to school? I have just spent more than an hour with the Gentlemen’s comments, the tide tables for Oban, the two charts that cover the area in question – and an exercise book which is rapidly filling up with information such as “Firth of Lorn: SW going 0600 – 1225 BST (then clockwise)” and “Ardinamir to S point of Luing: 2 miles (anchorage Kilchattan Bay – await north-going stream through Sound from 1225 BST – then Loch Spelve?”

I put that down only because Tinkers Hole was looking doubtful with a North Westerly. Or, of course, I could just stay in the Sound of Jura which gives me such options as Lowlandman’s Bay or going into Loch Sween…

The trouble with “The Most Varied Sailing Anywhere In Europe” is that there are too many options. I’m not even going to bother to count the number of possible destinations just for tomorrow.

Or, of course, I could just stay here.

“Here” is a tiny little hole in the rocks between Luing and Torsa called Adinamir. It boasts, according to the Gentlemen “a notorious narrow entrance” – and it is. First you have to identify a white cottage, then a gravel patch, after that a white mark on the shore then a green perch and then a red perch with only a metre of water between them at low tide – and when you get there, holding is “sometimes poor in weed”.

But I had no choice: Luing has a Post Office and I had a letter to post. More remarkable, Luing has a working phone box – with a telephone directory on the shelf. Hebridean islands are not like other places: The population of Ardinamir is 162 (ten children in the primary school). At the end of the 19th century the census counted 632 – but that was with the slate-mining in full swing. Now it’s holiday cottages, a bit of lobster-fishing and curious brown cattle inspecting the solitary visitor on his way to the Post Office.

In fact the solitude – the sense of temporarily being somewhere off the planet – is almost tangible. Sit in the cockpit in the evening and time seems to stand still… for the very good reason that the evening lasts until nearly midnight.

In fact, just to test it, leaving Loch Spelve for Jura a few days later – and not having pinged off the blog post because there was not so much as a smidgeon of a mobile phone signal – it seemed like a good idea to sail overnight just for the experience. Twilight lasted from after dinner until I dropped anchor in Loch Tarbert in broad daylight in time for breakfast at 5.00 a.m.


Samsara in Ardinamir




Twilight in Ardinamir at 11.15 p.m.


Midnight on passage to Jura