Lost at sea

Bosham Channel in Chichester harbour, after the pubs shut, sometime in 1934: A young man in an enormous clinker dinghy rowed backwards and forwards in the pitch darkness looking for his boat.

The young man was my father and this was a story that was told and re-told so that it became the stuff of family legend: He had set a riding light on the forestay so he could find his way back – but the light had blown out.

In the end, out of exhaustion and befuddled by an evening of beer, he gave up and climbed onto someone else’s boat, slept aboard, found some sausages for breakfast, left everything neat and tidy along with a note expressing his gratitude and sixpence for the sausages.

The moral was always to go ashore with a compass and take a bearing from the quay. That way if darkness or fog came down, you can always row along the back-bearing until you found your way home.

Swanage 80 years later and not much has changed: Samsara is anchored in the bay and the crew (a full crew on this occasion with number five son Hugo currently occupying the other bunk) decide to go ashore and explore. There is a slipway for the dinghy and after a while the sun comes out to help this rather faded seaside down show off its best.

A little shopping, a visit to the museum and heritage centre (a go on the antique “what the butler saw” machine) and a little excitement absorbed from the prospect of the town finally rebuilding its Albert Memorial to celebrate the bicentenary of the Prince’s birth.

Now it is time to return to the boat. Wait a minute: What boat? There is not a single yacht to be seen in the bay – just a uniform veil of grey: The fog has descended and visibility is no more than 50 metres.

Number five son is full of confidence: “Of course, we’ll find her. We just putter backwards and forwards until we see her.”

The skipper is already seeing the next day’s headlines: “Foolhardy pair lost at sea”, “Search abandoned for fog-bound father and son”. This is just the sort of situation that could turn into a tragedy: Unable to tell which way is back, they motor in circles until the outboard runs out of fuel. Feebly they row in what seems like the right direction, only to be whisked by the tide out of the bay and into the path of the high-speed ferry. It was there only that morning on the AIS, doing 32 knots…

But what you need in this situation is a 15-year-old mind and a mobile phone. The AIS had only been switched off as we came ashore. Any ship-tracking app would still hold that plot for the vessel’s last-known position. All that is needed is for one man to log in to FindShip, look up the destination vessel and navigate the “you are here” icon until the two meet at the same spot. Then with one to call out directions and one to steer…

…except that in this case the one calling out directions kept saying: “I’m sure this isn’t right. There’s a moored boat, we were nowhere near the moorings…more over this way…”

But sure enough, eventually, after a lot of “left-a-bit, right-a-bit”, Samsara appeared out of the murk dead on the nose – at a range of certainly no more than 50 metres.

“Told you so,” said the man at the helm.

His grandfather would have been proud of him.

The Old Man

Anchor windlass (technical)

The anchor windlass has now worked perfectly half a dozen times in a row. I cannot tell you what a relief this is.

I may have mentioned that last autumn, on the trip round from Wales to the English East Coast, periodically it would simply refuse to move: All I got on pressing the button was a loud “click” and I became really quite adept at cranking the anchor up by hand.

However, this was a long and laborious process and I worried about the prospect of having to get out of an anchorage in a hurry: Once you have raised enough chain to break the anchor’s hold on the bottom, then a gale blowing onto a lee shore will have you on the rocks before you can get the thing on deck.

So as soon as I stopped in Woodbridge, Art Butler of Deben Marine came and puzzled over it: Since it sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t (there appeared to be no pattern to it) he surmised that this must mean there was a bad connection somewhere. I cleaned up a very rusty bolt in the anchor locker, he removed a wonky isolation switch and replaced the 80amp circuit breaker with one of 100 amps. It didn’t make the slightest difference.

I talked to the UK distributors of Lofrans – a firm called A R Peachment in Norwich. They were very helpful and listened sympathetically. They couldn’t really offer much by way of explanation (although a sharp tap with a winch handle was mentioned at one point). Ultimately, all they could offer was to send an engineer to look at it. There was a long waiting list and it would be expensive. Alternatively, if I would like to remove the windlass from the foredeck and deliver it to their workshop…

It was when Art had visited me on the Orwell while I had my anchor chain wrapped round the mooring (q.v.) that we discussed the options. He had just fitted the new contact breaker. I never thought that was the problem because the old one hadn’t tripped. Anyway, Art mentioned that sometimes electric motors didn’t work if they had stopped the previous time with the commutator contacts on a duff spot.

The mention of something as technical as a commutator juxtaposed with a “duff spot” offered an entirely new avenue of investigation. First of all, I had no idea what a commutator was.

For those untechnical people like me, here is what Wikipedia has to say about commutators:

Commutator in a universal motor from a vacuum cleaner. Parts: (A) commutator, (B) brush, (C) rotor (armature) windings, (D) stator (F) (field) windings, (E)brush guides

commutator is a rotary electrical switch in certain types of electric motors and electrical generators that periodically reverses the current direction between the rotor and the external circuit. It consists of a cylinder composed of multiple metal contact segments on the rotating armature of the machine. Two or more electrical contacts called “brushes” made of a soft conductive material like carbon press against the commutator, making sliding contact with successive segments of the commutator as it rotates. The windings (coils of wire) on the armature are connected to the commutator segments.

 

As you can see from the picture, the segments of the commutator are made of copper and are properly copper-coloured. We took the back of the casing off the windlass and inspected mine. They were black – jet black.

Art searched through one of his two enormous toolboxes and came up with something that looked like a small screwdriver with a little blob of some sort of material on the end.

“Fibreglass”, he explained. “Good for cleaning things in inaccessible places.”

Laboriously, he cleaned each segment, turning the motor as he did so until they were all copper-coloured again.

It worked.

And it has worked without fail ever since.

I phoned A R Peachment again (I needed a new gasket anyway). I explained the remedy. The technician I spoke to sounded most interested. I suggested that next time he had a call from a desperate customer, he might like to suggest this as a first resort.

The trouble is that I’m not sure he believed me.

 

 

Silence

The mother of all broaches played out to the accompaniment of Maurice Chevalier singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”.

It happened somewhere off the Grand Banks during the 1988 Singlehanded Transatlantic Race. I was having a clear-out recently and found the article I wrote for Yachting World.

That was in the days when you cut two enormous holes in the cockpit and plumbed in a pair of waterproof speakers. Then there was the Motorola radio cassette player… and, of course, the box of cassettes: How do you choose 30 tapes to take with you across the Atlantic? At least with Desert Island Discs it’s not real. If you can’t live with just eight records, you can always listen to the rest when you get home.

Now we have Spotify with every piece of music ever recorded and a tiny waterproof speaker which doesn’t need any wires at all and demonstrates the fact by flying from one side of the cockpit to the other where it bounces, still happily churning out Willy Nelson.

Although it was Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” that was on as we emerged from the Casquets Traffic Separation Scheme, the Genny drawing nicely in the light North Easterly. If the GPS had calculated correctly, we should reach Torquay by dusk. Frankly I didn’t care if we did or we didn’t. I could stay out here forever: There is nothing, absolutely nothing more pleasing than doing five knots over a flat sea with the boat not even rocking. It’s as if there’s no resistance and the momentum just builds and builds until the wind and the sails and the hull and the water reach a sort of equilibrium which will continue forever – unless, that is, one component falls out of balance.

In fact it was thinking this as I watched the white water zipping past the cockpit that I realised there was one thing missing – the sound… the sound of rushing water. Not the crash and surge of a boat charging over breaking waves but the smooth, subdued “hiss” as she slips along as if there’s no effort in it at all.

Except, of course, I couldn’t hear the “hiss” – just Bob Dylan. I turned him off – and that was the beginning of a magical twelve hours when the middle of the English Channel might have been the Atlantic’s Central Abyssal Plain or some lost and unvisited corner of the Greenland Strait. Because gradually the light North Easterly died away. The speed dropped off and with it, all sound until Samsara was moving, apparently without any propulsion at all, at a knot and a half.

The sails hung in their aerofoil shapes, apparently with no air to hold them there. It was like perpetual motion – except, of course there is no such thing and, sure enough, the knot and a half dropped to one knot and then half a knot and eventually, the Aries vane gear could no longer cope and we turned in a dignified half circle and stopped.

It was now dusk, when I should have been arriving at Torquay, but instead, I furled the sails and allowed the boat to drift with the tide. Taking the good glass from its own locker in the galley and a cold beer from the bilges I sat in the cockpit and listened to the silence.

And this was real silence. The kind that, if you concentrate very hard, you can hear a sound in your ears which is really the nerve-endings straining to do their best but giving up and reporting “nothing received”.

The AIS* was receiving OK. The plots showed that in fact there was no other human activity within seven miles as the little green triangles followed each other in an orderly queue down their westbound lane.

It was only later, poking my head up through the hatch in the middle of frying onions, that I realised this time there was a sound – a deep, almost imperceptible throb: The engine of a big ship – the sound which – reverberating out of a fogbank used to fill me with such terror. Now the AIS showed me exactly where he was – even that he was the Maersk  Santosa, 319 metres overall and carrying dangerous goods, harmful substances or marine pollutants (Category B) and heading for Newark at 23.5knots. His RAIM, I can report, was not in use – but I don’t know whether that is helpful or not. What I do know is that on an evening like that, you can hear a ship’s engine at a range of five miles.

I listened to him until the sound faded to nothing.

Of course, real life re-asserted itself eventually. At about three in the morning, there appeared to be a bit of a breeze but I didn’t trust it until it had put in some effort and showed that it could still be blowing at four O’clock.

So, I am writing this in Meadfoot Bay outside Torquay (don’t need to pay Harbour dues until tomorrow) and the little rubber speaker is playing Humphrey Lyttleton’s Bad Penny Blues. The good glass is out again and there’s the other half of last night’s putanesca sauce. In fact, under the influence of proper jazz and the very small bottle of wine which is even now reaching cabin temperature (heater going gently because May is not really summer), I might even get out the clarinet and play the sun down – after all, I’m the only one here…

The Old Man

  • AIS – Automatic Identification System. This transmits ships position and details to other ships. Incidentally you can track me by downloading and app like Findship and searching for Samsara and my identification number 232010712.

The Sunk Traffic Separation Zone and other adventures

It was a great idea. I even sent the family WhatsApp group a message saying I would set out at dawn the next day instead of starting the voyage with a rainy night.

Well, I didn’t have a drop of rain…

The plan was to sail from Walton on the East Coast to Chichester on the South coast – a distance of some 150 miles which I reckoned to do in not much more than 24 hours – especially if I could catch the tide all the way across the Thames Estuary like I did on the way up last year.

In the event it took me 58 hours – that’s nearly two and a half days!

Mind you it was great. I loved every minute of it…

The first excitement was experimenting with Samsara’s downwind rig. This is somewhat innovative and was contrived by her fastidious previous owner who made such a success of refitting her cabin. Since “downwind” to him meant trade wind sailing, he dispensed with silly contraptions like spinnakers and wrote a careful explanation of how to rig the staysail on the inner forestay with the sheet led through a snatch block on the end of the boom (hauled forward with a preventer). The main could then be furled. After that, with the furling jib on the end of the spinnaker boom the two headsails could be adjusted without leaving the cockpit.

That may be so and, I’m sure, very useful when shortening sail as a rain squall creeps up on you in the middle of a jet-black night on the way to Antigua. However, to arrive at this happy position, requires setting up all those control lines.

Don’t worry, the fastidious previous owner had drawn them out and left a copy in the file. Here it is.

As you can see, there seems to be a lot of string involved – and don’t forget the footnote about “Uphauls not shown”. I studied this diagram and I looked at a lot of YouTube videos and finally decided that if the staysail was going on the end of the main boom (had to be the main boom because the diagram shows the topping lift is used as the uphaul), then why did I need both a spinnaker pole and a whisker pole?

Yes, I had both cluttering up the foredeck and, with a bit of measuring (as best as I could do with the boat out of the water) I decided that the spinnaker pole was left over from the days when the boat carried a spinnaker and, in fact, the whisker pole was what was used with this particular rig. So the spinnaker pole went into the shed at home.

And now I had a chance to try the rig on the way along the “suggested yacht track” out of the approaches to Felixstowe. The first thing I learned was that, because the main boom cannot be brought forward of the shrouds, if there is a wind shift, then the whole thing has to be dismantled and set up again. It cannot be gybed.

I did this. I may get better with practice but just now it represents a serious flaw. What it needs is for both headsails be on their own booms (whisker pole for the staysail and the, longer, spinnaker pole for the furling headsail. In other words what I need is a spinnaker pole … on the foredeck, not in the shed…

Never mind, the wind gave up in exasperation. From the afternoon into the evening, progress became more and more sporadic until, at one point, I was reduced to starting the engine to avoid a cargo ship that seemed intent of stalking me through the Sunk Traffic Separation Scheme (I’ve just realised how funny that sounds).

In the end, just when I should have been looking up the pilotage notes for entering Chichester, I found a quiet spot down-tide of the Thanet Wind Farm and dropped all sail to get some serious sleep – in short snatches, of course. It wasn’t until four in the morning that I poked my head out of the hatch to look around and felt the faintest stirrings of a breeze.

That was enough: Stumbling around in the pitch-black night with a head-torch I set about rigging the temporary forestay for the genoa – and some time later we were on our way at a sedate two knots. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was that this was going to turn into my best day’s sailing with this boat.

The wind built and built as if trying to get back into my good books after yesterday. The genoa went below with a glow of pride for a job well done and we continued south under all plain sail with 6.5 knots on the log – which I have learned is no more than respectable for Samsara. Of course, I had no idea that this was just the beginning.

By the time we were picking our way through the ferries off Dover, the average was well over seven knots with bursts up to eight – and GPS showing the speed over the ground at 9.5.

Best of all, the shape of a Rival hull makes the most of her speed. That big, purposeful bow shoulders the seas out of the way in the manner of a prop forward making for the bar after winning the league. The result is a great creaming bow-wave and a wake that seems to stretch all the way to the horizon.

Owners of modern boats will sniff at this – particularly those with multihulls. Their argument is: “Do you want to make a lot of waves or do you want to go fast?” Because, there is no doubt, for a boat to go fast, she needs to cause as little disturbance as possible to the sea. But where’s the fun in that…

So, we went belting along the South Coast: Dover, Hastings, Brighton and pretty soon I was indeed looking up those pilotage notes for Chichester. It wasn’t as simple as I remembered. In fact, you have a four-hour window around high water to get in at all.

Also, it turned out that we weren’t going so fast any more and dusk was approaching…  and with it, that characteristic calm: The self-steering unable to cope… the inadvertent tacks, the sails slatting…

It costs £70 to fill Samsara’s diesel tank and I don’t motor anywhere I don’t have to. Down came the sails again and, somewhere off Selsey Bill, I sat down to the other half of the putanesca sauce which had been such a success with spaghetti off Thanet.

Later, as the sun came up and with it the breeze, we set off with a certain sense of resignation for that four-hour window into Chichester.

Obviously it’s going to take me some time to get flexible. Maybe it comes from a lifetime of fitting sailing into a working life – having to get the boat back on her mooring in time to return to the office tomorrow morning. But that doesn’t apply any more. The reason for Chichester was because I needed to take the liferaft to be serviced in Southampton and you can anchor for nothing in Chichester Harbour.

So, when I picked up a mobile phone signal and rang Ocean Safety to book it in for sometime over the next three weeks (I would be around the Solent that long, what with Hugo, my 15-year-old, joining me and having to go home to take our turn at hosting the Wine Club…)

“You want it done in the next three weeks!” said the voice on the other end – not at all the same one which had suggested airily: “Oh, bring it in and we’ll be do it while you wait…”

Eventually, we managed to agree an appointment in early June. But, foolishly, it was only at this stage that I asked how much it would cost.

“£450!” – although, I am pleased to say that a lifetime of listening to people voicing the preposterous allowed me to keep the exclamation mark out of my reply.

The budget just does not allow for routine payments of £450 – and besides the service isn’t due until July – and anyway who keeps their certificate up to date if they aren’t required to by law (charter companies) or if they’re about to be scrutinised for a race?

Besides, I am old enough to remember setting off across the North Sea – five of us in a wooden Folkboat – knowing that if we were to sink, the first resort was a very serious bilge pump Father had installed and the second was a tiny plywood dinghy lashed to coachroof. We would have lasted five minutes in a Force Three.

So the liferaft is not going to be serviced. And besides, the wind and tide seemed determined to keep me away from Chichester. I put the helm down and headed West into the Solent, periodically looking up anchorages protected from the North East.

So that’s why it wasn’t until three in the afternoon that I dropped the hook off Needs Ore Point on the River Beaulieu. I’ve seen boats anchored here before rather than going up to that teeming metropolis, Buckler’s Hard – although I’m a bit startled to read that the owners of this private river (presumably the estate of the late Lord Montague of Beaulieu) reserve the right to come and charge me £10. I just hope they doesn’t read this – that would make me feel as foolish as the drug dealer who advertised his wares on Facebook without realising he had a friend who was a policeman.

Anyway I’m off tomorrow for Poole where Poole Quay Boat Haven will charge me only £3 if I don’t stop for more than four hours while I pick up some fresh supplies, fill the water tanks and buy a new joker valve for the loo before Hugo arrives (It’s taken me this long to find the seacock by feel. If I inflict the same on him, he’ll never want to come back).

The Old Man

Reunited with the anchor

Getting back to the car after painting the beach hut in Southwold, a message: I have my anchor back. Gus at Harry King’s Boatyard of Pin Mill had retrieved it and apparently it is sitting on the fordeck (washed, no less).

So I’m off tomorrow. The wind should be favourable from Saturday afternoon and I have worked out that if I leave after lunch and keep moving, I will carry the tide for 18 hours which should put me well on my way along the South Coast towards Chichester on Sunday night.

There are one or two little jobs to do first, so it’s just as well I have to wait for the wind. But I can do those anchored in Walton Backwaters – staying well away from buoys…

Things are looking up!

Well, so much for positive thinking!

I spent the morning motoring round and round in circles trying to unwind the anchor chain from a mooring buoy (see previous post). I have a horrible suspicion that I just made it worse.

So there seemed nothing to do but wait for my friendly diver to go down. At least he was going to be cheaper than his commercial colleagues. But I suppose I should find out how much it would cost simply to replace everything… no good, getting on for £1,000.

This was when the time came to ring the boatyard and tell them what I’d done to their mooring. I was not looking forward to it. But the man who rang me back was full of sympathy. No mention of “You idiot, what did you think you were playing at…”

Instead, he just said: “Well, if the diver can’t do it, don’t worry, I could always lift the mooring chain with my barge and we can sort it out that way.”

I hadn’t thought of that. After all, what if I paid for the diver and he couldn’t do anything?

“How much would it cost to use the barge?”

“Oh, I suppose about £100.”

Yes please! He can do it next week, too!

Maybe things aren’t looking so black after all…

The Old Man

Anchor Day

Today is Anchor Day.  If you are up to speed, you will know that two days ago, I succeeded in wrapping my anchor chain round a mooring buoy. I made what I now realise was a half-hearted attempt to untangle it. Today I am going to do the job properly.

Much of the reason for this is because the alternatives are not very attractive – I know; I spent much of the past two days going over them again and again.

As I said at the time, it looked as though there was no alternative but to get a diver down. Actually, I am a diver – that is to say, about five years ago, before a holiday in Egypt, I took an open-water diving course. However, I don’t have any equipment of my own and, almost certainly, I have forgotten everything I learned. But I do remember the name of the diving school – Diveline in Ipswich.

I rang them. The man who answered the phone said immediately: “Oh, you’ll want a commercial diver.”

I know all about commercial divers – we’re right on top of Felixstowe Docks, here. Commercial divers are used to dealing with shipping companies registered in the Nassau. Their scale of charges starts at £1,600 and goes up from there. Plus VAT of course…

I was hoping Diveline might know of an amateur who would do it more cheaply. I was advised to ring back in the morning and speak to Geoff.

Geoff put me on to Paul. Now Paul was really helpful. Yes, of course, he could do it – he’d need to do it with Geoff though – and they’d need a boat…

Now, I was the one with the negative attitude: I’ve got a dinghy but it’s only tiny. Also, how were they going to get out of the water? My collapsible swimming ladder would never take the weight of a diver with all his kit.

“Oh, we can get the kit off in the water if we need to… and if needs be, we can swim ashore…”

And all for the price of “a drink” – a pretty expensive one as drinks go … but very cheap compared to the commercial outfit.

However, both Paul and Geoff are away for the next ten days…

But already things were looking a good deal brighter – and today, brighter still. The strong winds have died away, the river is like a millpond. Also, I have a plan.

At the moment the anchor and all the chain is on the river bed. The bitter end is attached by a 12metre line to a buoy.  What I propose is to hoist the end of the chain to the surface and drag it from the stern twice clockwise around the mooring buoy. If that doesn’t work, I shall drag it four times anti-clockwise (undoing the two turns I have just put in and undoing any others).

On Tuesday, trying this from the bow, I couldn’t get any distance from the buoy. If I find that today I can, then I am making progress.

Of course, what I am hoping is that I will find myself getting further and further away from the buoy. This will mean the plan is working and ultimately I will be off in a different direction entirely – which means that, I’ve don it!

Then all I will need to do is transfer the line to the bow and haul it in.

What I am really looking forward to is ringing both Paul and Geoff and thanking them for  their offer but I shall be off back to the Deben tomorrow and ready to go in earnest next week.

  • Readers wondering why I am taking the time to write this when I could be getting on with the job should consider the theory that we get what we think about – or, as I like to put it: You create your reality by the power of your thinking. I am now full of positive attitude – let’s go do it…

     The Old Man

Captain Calamity

Years ago, when I worked for the Daily Mail, I used to be the “Captain Calamity Correspondent”.

Captain Calamity appeared most summers – in the “silly season” when there wasn’t much news about and anything at all could get most of a page – lost exotic animals, the weather (of course) – and amateur sailors (usually elderly) navigating some  home-made and essentially seaworthy craft, very often with the help of the AA map. Of course it all ended happily with the lifeboat going out to rescue him – and then explaining that they did not have the power to stop him setting out again.

… which, of course, he did … only to be rescued by the next lifeboat station down the coast.

Since it was known that I was a sailor, I used to be asked to cover Captain Calamity and I must say I milked him for for every cheap laugh I could think of. The way I saw it, daft old fools like that deserved everything they got.

Now, of course, the tables are turned and I am the daft old fool – or at least that is  the way it appears to me.

For instance, in my last post, I celebrated the delights of being at anchor. What I didn’t mention is that I am at anchor on the River Orwell which is lined, on both sides of the channel, with moorings – as close together as they can get them. Of course, at this time of year, most them are empty. I did consider borrowing one – but you take  a risk when you do that – how do you know the reason it’s empty isn’t because it needs some work… and what about the owner returning in the middle of the night…

But I did find a spot of deep water not far away. When Samsara dropped back at the end of her chain, her stern was nicely between two empty buoys.

However, when I returned from the charcoal expedition (see previous), I was concerned to find that she had now dropped further back – and was now through the line of moorings.

That was not good news. That is how you get your chain wrapped around a buoy. I did it once anchoring outside Torquay (should have paid the marina charges). But in the West Country you can see the bottom and work out how to undo the tangle. On the muddy East coast, there isn’t a hope.

I tried motoring around the buoy and even launched the dinghy and tried dragging the end of the chain round and round. Nothing worked. I shall have to get a diver down – more expense!

The answer is, I should have been more careful. I should have thought it through. Maybe I’m just out of practice.

I certainly hope so. This can’t go on…

At anchor

After two days in an expensive marina, it’s good to be out at anchor again – for one thing we’re pointing into the wind – all day it’s been blowing a gale with driving rain (somebody got washed into the sea at Ramsgate and drowned). For me it just meant I had to stuff the cracks in the companionway with a towel – except, of course, when Art the electrician arrived for his second (was it third?) attempt to find out why the windlass works or not according to an agenda that it seems to be keeping to itself.

I thought I had fixed it when I discovered a rusty connection but today Art discovered an isolating switch in the engine space which I knew nothing about. Removing both that and an ancient trip switch and replacing them with a fuse seems to have solved the problem for the moment but there will have to be another (fourth?) visit to fit a new trip switch.

Of course, all of this would be unnecessary if only I had any expertise in electrical engineering. But, no, I’m marginally less expert in this area than I am with engines.

One thing I can do is turn this boat round in small spaces. With the wind still blowing 25kts, I took Samsara out of her marina berth, spun her on a sixpence and we are now anchored a couple of hundred yards away. The reason for this is that tomorrow is May 1st but the forecast is still for night time temperatures of only 3oC and there is only about third of a bag of charcoal left – enough to keep my cosy for this evening but tomorrow,  I will have to take the bike ashore and pedal five miles to a garage which sells bags of charcoal.

Thank you God!

There is a wonderful moment in Notting Hill when Rhys Ifans discovers Julia Roberts in the bath.

First he makes a hasty exit, then goes back “just checking” and finally – wait for it – he clasps his hands and says: “Thank you God!”

I said the same – although it  was over the jib halyard, which – without a stopper knot in the end – would have disappeared into the mast. It was bad enough that I was having to replace a perfectly good halyard because I had been obliged to cut the old one (embarrassing story – see below) but if the end were to disappear into the little slot in the side of the mast then I would have to climb to the top to reeve a new one.

Nothing wrong with climbing the mast – I have an ingenious gadget for that very purpose. It’s just that if I make any more work for myself through stupid mistakes, I shall start wondering whether this was such a good idea after all.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, after all it’s 20 years since I have had a boat – and more than 25 since I’ve done any singlehanded sailing in a proper boat. I suppose I thought it would all come back – after all I managed to sail half way round the country last year…

But time after time, I seem to be doing something stupid – and apart from the extra work putting it all right, this is getting expensive.

Take last night, for instance. Last night I had to pay a marina fee when I should have been anchored down the river for nothing – only coming alongside in two days time to take the mainsail to be mended (see last post).

Well, how’s this for stupidity: It started out as routine maintenance… topping up the engine oil. This is something I did countless times with Largo. It’s easy enough, you just open the cap on the top of the engine and pour it in.

Although, of course, this isn’t Largo is it? Largo had a seawater-cooled Bukh engine. Samsara has a freshwater cooled Nanni – which means there are two filler caps on the top of the engine – so which one do you think I poured the oil into?

I mean, there was only a 50:50 chance of getting it wrong, so do you think I got it wrong? Of course I got it wrong. I shouldn’t beat myself up too much: I do know of a man who poured screen wash into the engine of his Audi R8 (Audi were really decent and gave him a new engine under the guarantee).

Of course, to begin with, I didn’t know I’d done anything wrong. I just couldn’t understand why the level on the dipstick hadn’t risen – so I added some more oil … and then some more … until it spilled over the top.

It was at this point the penny dropped. “Oh, no…Oh what have I done…” etc. etc…

Now the panic sets in and rational thought goes out of the window. The first thing to do is get the oil out of the cooling system. Fortunately, being oil, it is floating on the top. I find a length of hose. I put one end into the cooling system and suck on the other. I get a mouthful of oil. I spit it out. Half a pint pours into the bilges (would have been better to make the time to find a bucket). The oil stops flowing. I try again. This time I get a mouth full of coolant. Good; that seems to be all the oil…

It is maybe half an hour later, when I have topped up the oil correctly and run the engine, that I begin to think about this more slowly: I just had a mouthful of engine coolant. I spat it out but I can still taste it. What is in engine coolant? Anti-freeze. Isn’t anti-freeze supposed to be poisonous?

I look it up. Yes, it’s poisonous. Well, obviously the first thing to do is drink two large glasses of water (which, of course, just takes it further into my system. Then I look up “how to make yourself sick”. I stick my finger down my throat. It works – but all that comes up is a spoonful of bile.

Maybe I should be taking this a bit more seriously. Further research tells me: “Long term outcomes may include  kidney failure and brain damage. Toxicity and death may occur even after drinking a small amount.”

‘Strewth, this is serious. I began to consider my options. I am anchored on the River Orwell near Ipswich. Ipswich has a large hospital. To get there I would have to leave the boat somewhere secure. I might be in hospital for days (weeks?). The Marina where I was due to take the mainsail on Monday would be the obvious place – but how much would they charge?

Hold on a moment, why am I worrying about money when my life is hanging by a thread. I should get there as soon as possible. I did. In fact, I phoned for a taxi to take me there. The taxi driver knew all about anti-freeze: “Oh, that’s very dangerous. Do you want to go by the main road or through town? Through town is cheaper but the main road is faster… OK, we’ll go by the main road.”

At Accident and Emergency reception they asked me why I was there. I asked them if they still accepted patients who were only there because they had been incredibly stupid. They told me that if people weren’t incredibly stupid they wouldn’t have most of their customers. They asked me to wait. A screen on the wall said “Waiting time: Two hours”. How long since I “ingested” the poison? Four hours already. Was that the beginning of a headache, I could feel?

In fact I sat there for only five minutes before a nurse took me away for cross-examination – and it was a cross examination. He went away to look it all up. He came back and told me: “I think because you didn’t swallow it – you had it in your mouth and you spat it out and rinsed your mouth, your membranes cannot have absorbed it. We’re not going to do anything, we’re not going to admit you. You did the right thing coming in but I think there really is nothing to worry about.”

He took my blood pressure and blood-oxygen levels for good measure but finished by saying: “The symptoms would be intoxication, light-headedness, headache, abdominal pain… just be aware for the next day or so.

– So I shouldn’t have anything to drink …

“Probably a bottle of wine would not be a good idea.”

It is now almost 48 hours since all this happened and I have been completely teetotal. I have given myself such a fright that I shall remain so for another 24.

I suppose I should be grateful that I have not killed myself – but all I can think of is the taxi fares and the marina charges. If I keep on doing things like this, the whole project is going to run out of money.

… and the trouble is that I do still keep doing them. You want to know why I had to buy a new jib halyard? I was trying to get the creases out of jib and there isn’t a winch on that side of the mast so I led it through a block at the base and onto the cockpit winch – and jammed it in a riding turn. The luff didn’t seem to be getting any tigher… crank another turn on the winch. It was when I was trying to release the tension that I broke the padeye for the spinnaker block – and I still had to cut the halyard…

Imagine if the new one had disappeared inside the mast…

But no, this time – without any help from me – things turned out all right. As they say: “Thank you God!”

The Old Man