False Starts

A 38ft steel cutter with a purpose-built workshop and a watermaker – and a solid fuel stove… and some means of getting the dinghy out of the way…

We’ve all got the ideal boat. I found mine while going to a family wedding in Australia. The owner had done much of the fit-out himself – and all with loving care. You could see how much of his soul went into this – after all it was his big project … his retirement in the sun.

The trouble was, by the time he finished it, he was too old. His health had taken a turn for the worse and she was up for sale for a fraction of what he’d spent on her.

She was too much for me – both in terms of expense and the sheer weight of the gear. But she did provide a vital lesson: You’re never going to be completely ready. As long as the boat is properly seaworthy, it is more important to get on your way than to have somewhere dry to put the loo paper.

It was this thought that pushed me out of Conwy marina yesterday. In fact it was the same thought that pushed me out the day before. After nearly three months, Samsara went into the water. This was the third booking I had made for the hoist. The first was wildly over-optimistic so we won’t think about that one. The second was after the man with the electric polisher I had hired to smarten up the hull announced: “Hang on. This has been painted.”

And it had too. Nobody had noticed – even the surveyor hadn’t noticed. Of course, once a hull has been pointed, it has to go on being painted. I spent a depressing 24 hours looking up the cost of a respray and then went out and bought a paintbrush. I must say, I’m very pleased with the result: If you don’t get too close, you’d never know the difference.

But of course, that meant the four coats needed a week to harden before she could go in the slings.

So when we reached the third attempt and Dave Worthington, the engineer, came down to oversee his skin fittings getting wet for the first time, we started the engine. The engine was one of the many items excluded from the survey.

It took several attempts at starting. Dave bled the fuel. He listened, head cocked on one side, clearly not happy. Although it ran, it didn’t seem to pick up properly – as if the cylinders were having trouble working out who was going to go first, like a rugby club making for the saloon bar.

“It’ll probably sort itself out when it’s run a bit.” said Dave. “Might not have been started for a couple of years.”

And that was how I found myself half-way through the tortuous passage over Conwy Bar with no engine and no wind. Fortunately, there was no tide either.

I called up the Marina. Did they have a workboat handy to come and rescue me?

Conwy Marina did not offer any service outside the confines of their property (insurance). I was advised to call the coastguard on Channel 67.

Well, I was not calling the coastguard. Do that and they send a lifeboat for you. Instead I stood on the foredeck with a coil or rope in my hand and waited for a passing yacht. They took me to the marina entrance where a workboat ventured just outside (as the man said: “If they discipline me, I’ll resign.”)

And the next morning Dave returned and discovered that the electric “off” switch was sticking. I could have spent a day bleeding the system without discovering that.

The Old Man

A new suit of clothes

It’s more than three months since I first saw Samsara. I went up North Wales on the train and, after checking into the cheapest B&B (the whole place smelled of stale milk) I walked down to the marina for a preview.

A preview is always a good idea. You don’t want the vendor to witness your first impression…

Actually, in this instance, it might not have been such a bad idea. The first impression was that this had been a wasted journey: While it is one thing for an old boat to show her age – you don’t want an antique to look as though it just came out factory – it is quite another when the words “shabby”, “a sorry state” and “sadly neglected” come to mind.

Wherever you looked there were scuffs and chips and poorly-filled holes. The scuppers were clogged with leaves and filth and there were things growing in the cockpit grating. One glance at the stem showed that the ancient 35lbs CQR had been taking bites out of it for years – to the point where the owner seemed to have given up worrying about it.

But I was looking for a boat to be my pride and joy – a joy for years to come. But I was not looking for “project”. All the same it was a long way to come and not see the whole boat – so the next morning found me returning at the appointed time to find the owner had clearly been there for some while attempting to put an encouraging gloss on things.

He needn’t have bothered because, as I mentioned in the last post, it was at this point that the boat took over. Little by little – without a lot of fuss or ostentation – she revealed herself to be just what I had been looking for all my life.

I won’t go into this now because I intend to have far too much fun writing at leisure about the way each little discoveries came to light. But let’s just say that 30 years ago when I sat drifting on my old Rival 32 Largo and made a list of all the improvements I would like to see, almost all of them had already been incorporated into Samsara. As for the scuffs and chips and holes… well, they were cosmetic. The main thing was that the boat was sound. Best of all, she was another Rival 32 – and surely I could find someone with an electric polisher…

In fact, I did better than that. I found a wonderful man called Barry Lovell and his little company TLC Boat Repair. It was the fact that the celebrated yachting writer Tom Cunliffe had trusted him with his Constance that decided me. After all Tom is a noted perfectionist.

But it wasn’t just that Barry and his team made such a wonderful job of the new locker lids in the cockpit or replacing the dreadful black rubber toe-rail with yards of teak or that they scrabbled around underneath scraping off years of antifouling – or even that he never charged for fixing the leak in the water tank. What made all the difference was that Barry knows everyone. Very early on in our friendship he made it very clear: “John,” he said. “Whatever you need, you come to me. I’ll look after you.”

For there was I, a stranger in town – 300 miles from home – knowing no-one and about to take a leap of faith with my pride and joy – and Barry put me on to all the right people.

There was Richie Williams in a workshop which looked as though it was waiting to be condemned who took the Aries self-steering piece by piece, understood instinctively how it worked – even though he had never seen one before – and put it back together again like a sewing machine.

There was Dave Worthington who worried away at the prop shaft so that I could have a feathering propeller which is as exciting as other men getting a Ferrari. There was Mike Kelly the stainless steel specialist who worked up until midnight because I forgot to tell him I wasn’t going in the water the next day after all.

Dave Evans with his brilliant idea for the new gas locker… Dave Jones who calmly accepted my electronic foibles like getting a regulator from Singapore instead of Milton Keynes.

Over three and a half months they came and they worked and they humoured me and if the launch date was put off and put off again until here we are going in the water in September, none of this matters if we get it right in the end.

And we have. In fact I have decided to add an extra page to the blog – a page of links to the people who have made it all possible.

It’s the least I can do.

The Old Man

Wizard lore and the singlehanded sailor

Harry Potter’s wand chose Harry Potter. Everyone knows this.

So, is it beyond the reach of imagination to suppose that the boat chooses the skipper? Because to some of us, boats are not like cars or washing machines. Boats are not things. If you don’t believe that a boat enters enter into a partnership with her skipper – particularly the singlehanded skipper – then you have not sailed a long distance singlehanded.

Read Joshua Slocum. Read Bernard Moitessier. Read Ellen MacArthur… These sailors understood that it wasn’t just them sailing the boat. The boat herelf had an input. Indeed, when the skipper was exhausted and unable to make sensible decisions then it would be the boat that would take over and ensure that they both survived.

Of course, this is not something you would want to rely on – like the Winnibago owner of legend who set the cruise control and went to make a sandwich (and then sued the manufacturers when the thing drove off the road). In fact I would suggest it is possible that peculiar instances of a boat appearing to take over might occur two or three times before the more logical type of sailor can bring themselves to talk about it. But in the annals of singlehanding, there are just too many accounts of unexplained good fortune for it to be a coincidence.

There I was sailing across the Grand Banks in not the best of visibility. It was 1988, so radar was a luxury but I did have a gadget which was supposed to detect radar signals from other vessels. It was very expensive and the box made it sound tremendously clever – but I had never known it to work. Meanwhile the Aries windvane steering was in command and I was asleep with the alarm set for 20 minutes.

This had been going on for 12 hours or more and I was heartily sick of the incessant hopping up and down. There was never anything there – all day long, just an opaque grey curtain about a mile away. Now, in pitch darkness, it was like being in another dimension – no stars, nothing to distinguish the sea from the sky. Just a faint glow of phosphorescence in the wake and only the rustle under the bow to show that we were slipping along nicely at three knots.

And now the alarm. The kitchen timer was on the other side of the cabin. It wasn’t going to stop until I got up. Of course, being so well used to this incessant beeping, I experienced a certain satisfaction in lying there and putting up with it.

And then the boat lurched. After a while you get to recognise a lurch. It can be from the sudden shallow water. It can be a whale surfacing alongside (although it’s more the fishy smell that gets you with that.)

It can also be the wake of a passing ship.

Very close.

Suddenly, framed in the companionway – filling it with a blaze of light – was a Grand Banks trawler, the stern filled with men in filthy oilskins staring out into the darkness.

And then, as they watched, the boat swung back onto her course. I looked at the compass. Good Lord, we had been off course. That was why we passed across the fisherman’s stern, not his bow. In fact, we must have been off course by as much as 30 degrees just when it made the difference between being rammed and being an object of curiosity for the crew during a long night gutting cod.

And how was that possible? On a calm night with a steady breeze, for the windvane suddenly to bear away by that much – and, more to the point, resume the course once the danger was past? On a scale of weirdness, this was right up there with abominable snowmen and Morris Dancing.

I reckon I know because the same sort of thing happened once in the Chenal du Four when the fog came down in the middle of tricky bit – and on the way to the Azores when it would have been just as easy to sail into the enormous, rusty structure floating just beneath the surface instead of so close past it that I could see the little crabs scuttling about on the long fronds of seaweed.

I know what the cynics will say – that there are just as many examples of singlehanded sailors who perish with their boats. The cynic might argue that all of this is just the Law of Averages mixed up with an unhealthy dose of Wishful Thinking.

But I believe it happens.

And I believe it’s happening again.

1 Responses to Wizard lore and the singlehanded sailor

  • I like the way you write. It flows nicely and I get to feel the essential feel of the sea. Thankyou.