Gale Warning

My parents (Mother is saying that Force Six is a “yachtsman’s gale”. Father isn’t listening)

Mother had a rule: If there was a gale warning on the Shipping Forecast, we didn’t go out.

Actually, we didn’t go out in Force Seven either, in case the Shipping Forecast had got it wrong.

And, just in case Father started getting ideas, Force Six was categorised as “A yachtsman’s gale”.

It wasn’t until I was 18 and we were ambushed by a completely un-forecast “hurricane” off the Ile de Batz and spent the night in survival mode, that I discovered what all the fuss was about.

I suppose it was inevitable that, over the years, the idea of Force Eight should lose its terror. All the same, when it came up on the shipping forecast in the middle of the passage from Poole to the East coast, there was something instinctive about hunting through the almanac for a bolt-hole.

Since the route had taken us round the back of the Isle Wight, this didn’t leave a lot of options: The only safe haven with any water in it – and enough water over the entrance when I needed it – was going to be Portsmouth. It was only about 15 miles away and I could pick up a mooring (getting gale-bound in a marina can be ruinously expensive).

In fact, I had spent an hour back-tracking before I started thinking of this logically: Already, I knew I was in for a hatful of wind. The picture on Windguru was distinctly red. But on the other hand, there was no sign of purple which is what they use for gales. Moreover, the nastiness seemed to concentrated in mid-channel. If I stuck to the coast, it looked as though I would find nothing worse than 20knots which is, what… about Force Five.

Besides, an offshore gale is a lot less menacing: Years ago, I took three teenagers off for a week. I had never met them before and knew only that they could sail dinghies – they had been volunteered on me by my old school’s sailing club and their “get them into bigger boats” program.

The week coincided with a week of gales but I could hardly send them home (their parents had probably nipped off for a mini break). Nor did a week gale-bound seem attractive, cooped with three bored teenagers.

So, we tied down two reefs and went out every day to thrash around the Solent. Largo, being a Rival 32, thrived in a blow. One way and another, it was a fantastic week. We visited five different harbours, dried ourselves out each evening over my pasta-and-tins repertoire and got to know each other very well indeed. Boring it was not.

Well, now I have another Rival 32. And Samsara’s sail plan is even more suited to a blow than Largo with her toobig furling genny.

So, I dismissed Portsmouth, turned round and resumed the course – and guess what? The next forecast talked only of “possibly gale eight” – and that was for the whole sea area, all the way to the French coast.

And what did we get? Nothing more than 22knots apparent. What the forecasters might have called “occasionally Force Six”. In fact, the wind fell lighter and lighter until we ended up becalmed and going backwards off Dover – only the heaviest concentration of shipping in the world…

That was when Dover Port Control told me they had some work going and the anchorage was closed…”but you could go in the marina…”

I thanked them kindly (and politely avoided any comments about “ruinously expensive”) and went and anchored on a sandbank in the middle of nowhere. It’s an old East Coast trick. Nobody’s going to run down, anchored on a sandbank.

It was oddly peaceful.

Stop Press: The following morning the Dover Lifeboat turned up to check that I was all right. Apparently they don’t get many people anchoring for the night on the Goodwin Sands – someone had seen me from the shore and reported that I was “not making way”. The Lifeboatmen were terribly polite. I told them that I’d once been advised by an old fisherman that if ever I wanted to anchor without the risk of anyone disturbing me (or worse, running into me), I could do a lot worse than a sandbank.


Chain foul-ups

This has never happened to me before – and, come to that, I’ve never heard of it happening to anyone else. But, it’s a bit alarming to say the least…

This evening, I went to drop the anchor. I know from experience to lay out a good bit of chain on the foredeck – the last thing you want is to be drifting all over the anchorage while you stand there, yanking at the chain trying to dislodge the knot it’s got itself into the chain locker…

And that’s what I did today – except that the tangle wouldn’t give. In the end I had to empty all the sails out of the fo’c’sle and dive headfirst into the forepeak to excavate it manually – which still took two attempts and a good ten minutes.

I know what happened, of course: The windlass deposited the chain in a nice tall pyramid which upended itself at the first sign of motion. Next (and this is where the trouble starts) when the boat jumped off a wave in a good blow, the bottom of the pyramid (which, being broader at the base and therefore more stable) now took flight and landed on the top half.

Now I know that we’re talking about 45-year-old chain here – galvanised but a bit rusty in places and 10mm just to make it more difficult to shift. However, in all my years (and I’m now and old man, remember) I have never been unable to free it by yanking and jiggling from the deck – which is why you need a hole rather than one of those silly swan-neck hawse pipe arrangements.

Of course, owners of modern boats who just pull up a hatch in the foredeck and it’s all there and accessible, are probably wondering what all the fuss is about – but don’t forget I’ve got the weight lower down where it belongs.

So, I’ve been wondering what I can do to ensure this never happens again – particularly not when I’m running into a tiny, overcrowded anchorage with a gale behind me.

First, I should say that the sides of the chain locker are already smooth with pieces of plywood bonded in to stop the chain sitting on the stringers.

Secondly, I know that stainless steel chain slithers nicely over itself and it probably wouldn’t do this – but isn’t stainless ground tackle the preserve of the gin palace brethren?

Any advice would be welcome.

Of course, I could comfort myself that this sort of thing happens once in a lifetime and now that it has and no harm was done, I can relax.

But that’s the sort of argument that leaves a niggling thought at the back of the mind: “What if it does happen again. What if it happens now, just when I can’t afford any foul-ups…”



September 26th 2018

This is Poole Harbour tonight. It’s going to be hard to leave tomorrow.

I can’t believe I will have been here ten days – the first week because of gales and the rest because of calms. I’ve been ashore once for four hours to fill up with water, do some shopping and get the washing done.

… and I’ve loved every minute of it.

I once read that Poole is the second-largest natural harbour in the world (Sydney being the largest). This means that you can cruise around without going outside at all. At present, I am anchored off Goathorn Point in the South Deep – before that, I was in Blood Alley Lake which I chose over Pottery Pier or Shipstal Point.

Of course, I know it all – or I used to. I kept my first boat here, a little 18ft Caprice in 1979 and then, in 1982, Largo was on a mooring off Brownsea Island. I can’t believe that I thought nothing of ferrying my two sons, then aged eight and ten, in an inflatable dinghy all the way across the ship channel to the Lilliput shore (nobody thought of wearing a lifejacket in those days).

For the past 48 hours, I have done some reading and some maintenance – but also spent a lot of time just watching the harbour traffic – such as it: The wobbly paddle-boarders, the drifting dayboats with the helmsman’s feet up on the gunwhale and there’s a sightseeing boat which looks just like Brian the Snail from the Magic Roundabout.

Now a party from the house behind the “Keep Off” signs on the point has brought their gin and tonics down to their private jetty to enjoy the sunset. I don’t blame them, I sat up on the stern seat and watched a pair of birds skimming the water as they headed home, their wings almost dipping into what didn’t look like water at all but solid gold.

Ah well, the wind should be returning tomorrow night – from the wrong direction, as it happens but I’ve only got to get to the East Coast and at the beginning of the summer I had headwinds all the way from North East England to South West Scotland so I reckon I deserved a rest…





Six days

September 23rd

This must be the longest I have stayed aboard in the same place since I moved onto Samsara last year: Six days and we’re still gale-bound in Poole.

Well, technically-speaking, it’s not a gale – just blowing 25knots and raining sideways like it did all day yesterday.

Am I bothered? I’m loving it!

If you have read the “Old Man’s Story” page, you will know that I always knew this is what I wanted to do – and I am thrilled to report that it is living up to every expectation…

Yesterday, I phoned my 20-year-old son at University and he asked what I was doing. I suppose it was a good question. What have I done for the past six days? I haven’t been ashore…

In fact, the shore is more than a mile away, (unless you count the uninhabited Brownsea Island a hundred yards out of the window). The weather has been so foul that, apart from hoisting the Aquair generator into the rigging to make electricity from all this wind, the only times I have been outside have been to check for chafe on the mooring lines. Then it’s back down below and put kettle on…

Just as the days settle into a routine at sea, so they do in harbour.

And who needs to set an alarm? There’s luxury in waking up when you’ve finished sleeping. I reach out from under the covers and pull the phone in with me. This blog is producing some excitement: 50 views a day and rising…

A good deal of time has been devoted to updating the novel which is currently for sale on Amazon (see above). Now it’s gone off to a London agent. In Jersey, I caught up with my old school friend, the novelist Peter James and discovered just how successful he is (19million books in the Roy Grace series alone).  What the hell I have been doing with my life all this time? Anybody can self-publish on Amazon.

Next, fire off a magazine article and when I’ve finished writing this, I shall dig out the new book, started a month ago and in abeyance because the plot got stuck. Now I stumble on Stephen King asserting on Youtube:  “The plot is the last resort of bad writers”. So that’s all right then…

The days are punctuated by tea and coffee and hours spent reading the Kindle (currently Jojo Moyes, Nevil Schute and Stephen Leather).

Meals from the tins locker are highlights and the evening, an occasion: Curtains drawn at 7.00 p.m. The charcoal stove lit and then out comes a beer and a book (the Pringles ran out the day before yesterday). After that, 45 minutes of Clarinet practice and start cooking just before eight.

At sea, I started a tradition of Dickens with meals and gradually the endless chapters of The Pickwick Papers are slipping by. He’s a lot more fun than when they made me read him at school.

After dinner, when the evening’s musical comes to an end (Gigi and My Fair Lady are favourites), when the washing up is done and the breakfast porridge soaking, another couple of bags of charcoal plop into the stove and it’s time to settle down for “movie night” – don’t you just love Netflix and Amazon Prime? I’ve even got some DVDs in case there’s no mobile signal or the data allowance runs out.

Finally, I can promise you, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, more cosy than snuggling down in a darkened cabin with the wind moaning in the rigging and small waves slapping against the hull while your whole world rocks you to sleep.




September 20th

Sitting in Havelet Bay in Guernsey last Sunday, I fired off a post to the family WhatsApp group saying that the book claimed the bay was protected from south westerly gales – and that I hoped the book was right.

In the event there was a good deal of swell but I came to no harm.  Now I am in Poole Harbour sheltering under the lee of Brownsea Island while watching a whole succession of gales scream across the Windguru weather forecasting app.

The passage across the English Channel was fairly quick in force five-to-seven and I sailed right into Poole Harbour at 1:30 a.m, anchoring in the first likely spot at the eastern end of Brownsea with the intention of finding somewhere more sheltered in daylight.

However, since I’d slept a bit on the way and didn’t feel remotely tired, I stayed up reading until four – which meant that when the harbourmaster came calling at midday, I had only just finished breakfast.

“There are some vacant moorings round the corner, if you’d like to move,” he shouted against the wind, his launch bucking on the breakers kicked up by the mile-and-a-half fetch from the Godlingston shore. “You’d be more comfortable round there – besides, if you drag your anchor, you’ll be down amongst all those moorings across there.”

He gestured towards the Sandbanks shore and the most expensive property values in the world – with boats to match.

For a moment I wanted to say I would prefer my anchor to his moorings – after all, I knew what I was dealing with (my 20kg Rocna is two sizes heavier than the recommended one for my boat). But, of course the harbourmaster didn’t know that. What he did know was that the moorings round the corner were the heaviest in the harbour – all the boats on them were at least 14 metres, compared to Samsara’s 9.7. Besides, arguing with harbourmasters is just plain impolite – apart from being stupid.

The only trouble was, I had been on one of these moorings before: They had a small stainless steel shackle which you have to get a rope through. The best way to do this is for one person snare the buoy with the boathook, a second to reach over the side and thread the rope – and a third to keep the boat motoring gently ahead and in position next to the buoy so all this can be accomplished without any unseemly shouting or falling in the water.

I have to say that with the Storm Ali just setting in, it took me about two hours to perform all these three tasks simultaneously by myself. I think I can be forgiven for not getting up much earlier yesterday.

Meanwhile it looks as thought I have plenty of time: Scrolling through the Windguru timeline, the screen goes mostly purple at least once ever 24 hours. I had planned to go to the Southampton boat show on Sunday – the last day – when they sell off all the stuff they don’t want to take home. But it looks like being utter misery and I would have to go into Ocean Village Marina with their £37.05 fee (which would probably wipe out all the Boat Show savings).

So, I’m here until Monday – a mile from shore but with plenty to do.

For one thing, an email had arrived while I was in the Azores from a literary agent. Following the Daily Mail’s glowing review of my book Trident ( I wrote to all the London agents but they all wanted a formal submission which I couldn’t be bothered to do at the time.

Now that the Sheil Land agency has written apologising for not getting back to me sooner, it seems like rather a good idea.

Of course, if I’m going to do a synopsis and everything, it makes sense to go to some trouble – so why not update it? After all, what’s the point in a book set in the future (it was written in the 80’s and set in the 90’s) if they haven’t even got round to inventing the mobile phone?

So, I’ve had to rewrite the first 50 pages – and you have no idea of the changes that has involved.

All of which brings me to another little money-spinner: On the way down to Ponta Delgarda, I read Camino Island by John Grisham which is all about the rare book trade. I had no idea how much the limited run first editions of bestsellers could be worth – and behind my left ear I have six copies of the first Amazon edition of Trident and there can’t be more than a few dozen of those before I corrected all the mistakes. In fact, there can’t be more than about 300 altogether sold on Amazon which is tiny. I was thinking of selling them to anyone who came aboard for a coffee and showed interest. Now I shall keep them for myself – and, of course, if you have a copy, you might like to do the same.

Of course, if you haven’t, you can order it from Amazon on the tab above…




September 1st 2018

At five O’clock the alarm went off. At 5.30, the other alarm went off.

The explanation for not getting up – not the excuse (there’s no excuse) – is that there’s still 300 miles to go to The Lizard, the nearest I’ve come to a ship in the last ten days is 11 miles and there had been not a breath of wind since teatime yesterday.

So there didn’t seem much urgency about the alarms.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a lazy sort of person. You won’t find me lying on the sofa surrounded by empty beer bottles and decomposing pizza boxes watching daytime TV. Indeed, I would like it known that One O’clock this morning found me struggling into foul weather gear while the cabin rolled through 40 degrees. It had been raining for most of the day and there is a saying:

If the rain before the wind,

Lofty ships their topsails mind.

If the wind before the rain,

Soon you may make sail again.

It is surprisingly accurate but does nothing to tell you what will happen if there is no wind. I feel there should be another couplet:

If the rain is all you get,

Sorry mate, you just get wet.

Anyway, at one in the morning there was a breath of wind – only about three knots which, normally, is not worth bothering with. But if I could manage to turn the boat round and head in the right direction, the wind would be from dead astern – and that means that if I had the downwind rig, we could do two or three knots (still rolling like a pig, of course. But rolling and going somewhere is a lot better than rolling and going nowhere).

So, for the best part of an hour, I faffed around with a head-torch rigging two booms, the temporary forestay, the staysail and cruising chute and the eight control lines that little lot requires. The windvane took over and after sitting in the cockpit watching us gliding silently over a flat sea, I settled down for a peaceful night of progress with nothing to disturb me but the alarms every 90 minutes.

Of course, a singlehander sleeping for 90 minutes in the English Channel would never do. But out here (especially with the AIS* running) you could probably sleep all night and not come to grief. No, the reason for the alarms is in case the wind changes – the last thing you want is to poke your head out of the hatch in the morning and find you’ve spent the last six hours going in the wrong direction

Or… in this case, you find that by 3.30 a.m. the wind has dropped again and the boat is going nowhere. Well, not quite nowhere: The effect of the endless rolling is to make the sails act like a bird’s flapping wings. It does produce just enough drive to keep the boat moving at about half a knot. With fore and aft sails, the wear on the canvas is not worth the progress – but my two headsails, firmly tied down to their booms waft gently back and forth without any of the cracking and banging and worries about the stitching…

So, I left them.

At five O’clock the alarm said “It’s Five O’clock” (my alarm speaks, now). However, the boat was still rolling and from the perspective of my sleeping bag, nothing had changed – in which case actually getting up would be nothing more than an inconvenience. So, I didn’t.

I think what I need is an alarm which says: “It’s five O’clock and the wind has sprung up but from exactly the opposite direction. If you get your arse out of bed and bother to take a look, you will find the boat is gliding silently over a flat sea at three-and-a-half knots in the wrong direction.

When I did, finally, get up at half past eight, we were nine miles further away from our destination than we had been when I went to bed.

Worse still, the wind had died again so there was not even hope of making up the loss – and when it did come back, it was from the North East! Exactly where I wanted to go…

It wasn’t until midday that we were back to where we started. In other words, I had lost about 12 hours.

As I write this we are back on course at three-and-a-half knots but it will be another few hours before the errant bit of track drops off the plotter screen and stops accusing me.


*AIS: Automatic Identification System. The ship transmits information about itself (Name, course, speed, destination etc). This is received by vessels within VHF range of about 20 miles. The device can sound an alarm which means I know a ship is approaching before I can see it which makes life so much less stressful…



I can’t pretend it didn’t happen. The plotter cannot lie – and clearly shows all the progress lost while I was asleep!




Fair winds

August 30th 2018

Sitting here on the lee berth, feet wedged against the windward, occasionally finding the keyboard jumping under my fingers I tell myself I should not be complaining.

Remember all the complaints about beating into strong headwinds for ten days round the top of Scotland?

Well, logic suggests that if you keep sailing, then one day, you will have those winds up your chuff as they say. Sure enough, over the last five days, we have logged 363 miles, 70, 95, 87 and 111 as the wind has stayed solidly in the western quarter.

Of course, yesterday morning, I did wake up to a flat calm. The sails – still set for a moderate breeze from the North West – slatted back and forth and by breakfast time, we were pointing listlessly back the way we had come.

It stayed like that all morning and I motored for an hour while reading the last pages of John Grisham’s Rooster Bar and managing to steer a not-too-wiggly course at the same time.

(The real reason for motoring is to top up the batteries and make some hot water for a proper strip-wash). The calorifier heats it to 420C which is really hot for washing – but not hot enough to make coffee… anyway, I’m not sure about drinking water out of the calorifier…

After that, something I’ve wanted to do for ages: Take down the windvane and draw the OldManSailing logo on both sides. We’ll be in marinas in the Solent and need people to see the website address.

And sure enough, as it always will, the wind filled in again. By mid afternoon the vane could cope with the steering and by teatime, the chute had us bowling along at five knots.

I’ve had no forecasts and although the digital barometer is broken and showing no figures or graph, I wonder if at heart it is still working because suddenly the gale warning icon appeared – and sure enough by dusk we needed the first reef and the GPS was still showing six and seven knots.

I was rather pleased with this reef because the moon wasn’t up yet, I couldn’t see much and the head torch seemed to have gone AWOL. But it all went OK by feel. The really great thing was that the sea hadn’t had a chance to build and so we were slicing through this essentially flat sea. I spent a long time standing in the hatch watching the long line of phosphorescence stretching out astern.

By midnight the wind was up to 27knots and the boat becoming unmanageable so time for the second reef and a scrap of headsail –still clocking 6+ knots with occasion surfs up to eight – and in the right direction. This is the stuff!

And it’s still going today. The wind has veered a little putting us on an even broader reach. How long can this go on?





The day the cooker fell off

August 23rd 2018

Today the cooker fell off. There was a crash to which, I must admit, I didn’t pay much attention at the time, being out in the cockpit, getting us sailing again. We had spent twelve hours hove-to under trysail even though the wind never did make it to full gale force.

However, beating into a force seven is just so unpleasant – and there is so much leeway that progress is negligible – and anyway, I needed the practice with the trysail…

Returning, eventually, to the cabin, there was the cooker lying askew across the galley. “That’s odd,” I think to myself. “It’s all crooked.” Then reality dawns. That was the crash. On closer examination, it turns out that the massive stainless steel fittings which inspired such confidence were, in fact, only screwed into the bulkhead and not bolted – and not deeply screwed at that.

All it took was for the boat to jump off a particularly awkward wave left over from the near-gale and the whole thing wrenched itself off its mountings.

With a thousand miles to go, this would be a problem – in the normal course of events. Indeed, if times were normal just at the moment, I would be considering how to effect repairs. But in fact, this is not an issue because the cooker has not been used at all for the last 36 hours.

We are out of gas.

No, I can’t believe it either – but on the third day of the voyage the cylinder gave out and the spare is empty. No matter how stupid this may seem, in fact it is deliberate: The cylinder was changed on July 19th and I was ashore for a week in Ponta Delgada and not using it at all – and considering that normally a cylinder lasts anywhere from six weeks to just over two months, I reckoned I had plenty to get me home. The fact that I then spent three days sailing to Horta and stayed there for four days somehow got left out of the calculations.

As for the reason I didn’t get the spare refilled: Well, I’m afraid I’m over budget for this month and I reckoned it would be cheaper back in the UK – particularly with the exchange rate on the Euro at the moment…

Oddly, at the time, I considered this less a problem than having no music on the way out: I’ve got plenty of food that can be eaten cold and plenty of beer to make up for tea and coffee. The biggest problem would be my daily cup of herbal tea – but it seems that if you soak the teabag in cold water for long enough, it seems to infuse well enough.

So, there is no need to fix the cooker immediately. Instead the urgent question was how to secure it, otherwise it was likely to smash itself to pieces as soon as we tacked. In the end I stuffed it up in the fo’c’sle with the dinghy, the bike and the sails – not the easiest thing to do with the boat jumping off waves at five knots – a few scratches on the varnish, I’m afraid to say…

Of course, this would be the time to get a new one – it’s the same Flavel Vanessa that I had on Largo which means it probably came with the boat 45 years ago. The only trouble with that idea is that a new one (with flame failure devices on all the burners and a lot less rust) costs £500 and I can think of plenty of kit I would love to spend £500 on (AnchorRescue…Code Zero…) A new cooker, I’m afraid, is just plain boring.

Instead I will get a couple of stainless steel plates made up and drilled to order. That should give it a new lease of life – that and some decent bolts.


Seven O’Clock

August 21st 2018

There is someone else aboard the boat now – a nice young lady (a pretty but homely blonde is the way I imagine her). Each morning she tells me: “It’s Seven O’clock” – or whatever time it happens to be. Whatever else I  imagine about this situation, I leave to your imagination…

Heaven knows how it’s taken me so long to discover this feature of my phone but there she was again this morning, telling me it was seven O’clock. It is now nearly twelve and I cannot believe how much has happened in the last five hours.

If anyone asks me “What do you do all the time?” I shall point them to this.

For a start, at seven O’clock this morning it was raining – hard. It was also blowing 17knots which is about as much as you want with the light running sails up. The plotter was showing us belting along at between six and seven knots – and then I realised that was without the staysail drawing – the sheet had freed itself. So, on with the waterproof jacket (don’t worry about the bare legs, they’ll dry and there’s nobody to see).

After that I decided I would have breakfast and then see if any sails need to come down. At that moment the thunderstorm started. It wasn’t very close but close enough to put the phone in the oven.

If it seems an odd thing to do – put your phone in the oven (complete with homely blonde) – the idea is that if the boat should be struck by lightning, every electronic device will be fried in a millisecond – unless it is encased in a metal box. Personally, I think the whole idea sounds a bit suspect but I’m not going to argue.

The next thing you know, the wind has changed and we’re heading south west. That means the running sails have to come down. This time I don the trousers and boots and, clinging on with my fingernails to a foredeck which is now rolling through 600 , I make the mistake of trying to douse the cruising chute with the wind too far aft and wrap it round the forestay. The resulting mess ends up in the cabin with the chute out of its sock and the endless line wrapped six times round everything while I dismantle two booms and get the staysail below where it soaks everything else.

There is now no wind at all and since I have a dinner to go to in Southampton on the eighteen days’ time, on goes the engine and I get to eat breakfast.

By the time this is over, the wind is blowing ten knots from exactly the same direction it was before I took everything down. If only I hadn’t been so keen and had breakfast first…

I looked at the tangled cruising chute and its sock and its endless line (now untied at one end and therefore, by definition, no longer endless) and wondered at the possibility of getting it sorted out. Of course, the only sensible thing to do was hoist it. So – getting soaked in the process – I straightened it all out, stuffed it back in its bag and hauled it on deck. It went up like a lamb.

But then I wasted half an hour rigging the boom and getting half-way through setting the staysail before realising the wind had changed again and we now needed the mainsail – so, away went the staysail (still wet and soaking everything it touched) and up went the main.

It is now nearly lunchtime and I feel I have spent the morning in the gym (certainly, yesterday, I turned the camera on myself and was surprised to see muscles). So, I think I deserve a proper lunch. Although there is still butter and tomatoes for sandwiches, today it shall be the traditional Sunday comfort lunch: Eggs and beans on toast with coffee and HP sauce.

After all, there’s something to celebrate: We’re heading in the right direction…