The Test

Tuesday November 20th

Long ago, I decided that if I was going to live on a boat, then it had to be all the year round – otherwise it would just feel like a holiday. Admittedly, I still have family commitments so I shall be going home this week for ten days – and then again over Christmas and New Year. But the house in Woodbridge is beginning to feel like a place to visit whereas life aboard Samsara is rapidly becoming “home”.

And today I have had my first taste of what that means. It was, in a sense, a test: The forecast was 25kt winds, a real winter chill of 30C and driving sleet.

In fact, when I awoke at 0830 with the boat heeling to 30kt gusts whipping across Kirby Creek, the thermometer above the chart table registered 70C. This seemed encouraging – until I considered that it probably had something to do with the fug released by unzipping two sleeping bags, one inside the other.

But who needs to get up at 8.30 on a day like today? I climbed back in, taking with me the Kindle and Neil Hawkesford’s A Foolish Voyage.

Incidentally, this book is staying in my library along with Moitessier’s The Long Way. Even though it’s self-published and largely unknown, I think it’s up there with the great sailing books. Just like Moitessier, Hawkesford digs deep into his emotions – here is a man who spent his whole life wanting nothing more than to live on a boat and go sailing… and eventually he managed it. I can relate to that. I’ve just written a glowing review and downloaded the sequel…

In the end, of course, I did have to get up. I mean, you can’t stay in bed all day, can you? Even if there’s no parent to come barging into your bedroom with a basinful of adult responsibility… even if you’re so grown up, yourself, that you’re retired and really don’t have to do anything ever again…

So, I emerged for a second time at 10.30 – and found the cabin still wasn’t any warmer. For a moment I hankered after one of those automatic forced-air central heating systems where you poke one finger out from under the duvet, push a button and wait for the boat to reach a sensible temperature.

Of course, I could have roused myself to get up and light the charcoal stove but that seemed like a slippery slope – pretty soon I would have it running it all day as well as all evening and, while matters might yet come to that, I don’t want to start down the wimpy route until I have to.

The answer was to keep moving: Without going outside into the cold and wind, that meant rubbing down the bulkhead ready for painting (and clearing up all the dust that produced) carving a new knob for the heads door… you can imagine the kind of thing…

It got me as far as a late lunch and a second cup of tea but after sitting still for an hour finishing the book, 70C didn’t seem so homely any more. I lit the stove at 3.30.

By 9.30 I was sitting so close to it that I was beginning to singe.

By 10.30 I was a back in the two sleeping bags – now with Hawkesford’s second book A Foolish Odyssey.

Odd really, I wouldn’t swap places with anyone…




1 Responses to The Test


In the rigging, the foul weather gear drips beige water onto the deck. The dinghy floats obediently astern, looking as though it’s just come out of its box – and in the cockpit locker, the kedge anchor sits snug in its stowage with the chain and warp flaked into the canvas bag awaiting the next emergency.

I hope it’s a long time coming. I’ve had enough of the kedge for a while.

All this started with the non-existent oyster bed and the big orange mooring buoy which you may have read about the other day ( At the end of that slice of embarrassment, we left the kedge on the bottom with a fender marking the spot. Ever since then, I have been trying to recover it.

Since it was quite clear that pulling it up from the dinghy was never going to work, Plan B was to use Samsara’s famously buoyant bow to exert the pull. All I had to do was get it over the anchor, keep the stern straight with a line to a buoy and reverse off, pulling the wretched thing with us.

There was only one flaw to this plan. The anchor – which I set with the idea that it was somehow going to pull me off into deep water, was not in deep water at all. Maybe I’m being naïve but since it wasn’t far from a mooring buoy, I sort of imagined that this would indicate a reasonable depth. Instead, the recovery attempt stopped a good 20metres short as the keel met the bottom all over again.

Never mind, Plan C was to tie the warp to the spinnaker halyard to increase the angle and trick the anchor into thinking the pull was coming from above. This idea was brilliant: The boat dipping forward and anchor popping out with the sort of sound eight-year-old boys make with their fingers in their cheeks.

Not so. That will only work if the pull is exactly over the bow. A couple of degrees off and the boat just heels… and, of course, gets dragged further over the shallows. By the time we were at 300 and things in the cabin were falling over, this seemed like a very bad idea.

Time for Plan D.

I was not looking forward to Plan D. It came under the heading of “Last Resorts” and involved going out there to dig for the anchor. I knew, with great foreboding, this was going to be messy.

One option was to do it wearing next to nothing – or even nothing at all since Walton Backwaters is proving to be one of the most desolate places on Earth. However, there are only five weeks to Christmas. Maybe full protective clothing was a better idea – my top-of-the-range foul weather gear and Southern Ocean gloves. Also, I would need something to dig with – at least, in that department, I was prepared: Samsara carries a shovel…

Well, she carries one of those little scoops that used to tuck into the back of Edwardian coal scuttles. I use it for doling out charcoal for the stove.

So, fully equipped at nine O’clock in the morning, an hour before low water, I plunged into the mud.

…up to my knees.

You know those stories you hear about people getting stuck in the mud and the tide coming in and drowning them? That’s what I was thinking about as I discovered that the more I tried to pull one leg out, the more the other drove itself deeper into the goo. By the time I was in up to my thighs, it was obvious there had to be a better way…

There was. I remember seeing it years ago on those huge mud flats in the Bristol Channel: Mud horses – the sledge-like contraptions fishermen use to get out to their nets. The horse supports the man’s weight while he pushes with his feet. The dinghy could be my mud horse. It was brilliant, I scooted up the slope in no time at all. I found the fender, found the chain. Taking the trusty shovel, I began to dig.

You remember I said the shovel came from a coal scuttle? That I used it for charcoal? What I should have packed was a garden spade. With the first scoop of mud, the shovel bent at right angles. There was nothing for it. I would have to dig with my bare hands – or, rather, with Messrs Gill’s very expensive Leather&Gore-Tex Helmsman’s Gloves.

But, what did it matter? By that time, the even-more-expensive Henri Lloyd offshore suit was the colour of cappuccino.

I found the Fortress about 30cms down, clearly headed for Australia. Down there, the mud was a serious blue-grey colour and the consistency of potter’s clay. There was no other way this was coming up without the shank going vertical. It was one hell of an advert for an anchor.

It took me another three hours to get cleaned up – a matter of endless buckets of water and going round the dinghy, the topsides, the deck, the cockpit and, of course myself again and again until everything ran clear.

Well, this being the East Coast which is four parts mud to six parts water, beige is the best you can hope for.




3 Responses to Mud

  • My goodness – I know you want to write an interesting blog, but I didn’t expect quite such derring do! Sounds really rather dangerous all alone out in the mud, but you did it!!

  • Good writing. Felt like I was there. Excuse me while I go have a shower and wash the mud off ….

    • Thank you. I really appreciate your kind comment. This is the whole point of the OldManSailing blog: I spent all my working life as a newspaper reporter specialising in short descriptive pieces – usually with the accent on humour – and I planned to retire onto a boat and continue writing for yachting magazines (I had a columnn in Yachting World for years). However journalism is not at all what it used to be and life as a freelance is now a desperate existence. The people who used to buy the magazines now now follow video blogs and the successful vloggers make a good living by monetizing their sites. I have no interest in learning to edit video but I do still enjoy writing. I just hope there are enough people out there who enjoy reading…

Captain Calamity

Captain Calamity appeared every August, regular as clockwork. He would be an old man sailing a wreck of an old boat that he’d picked up for a song and he would be navigating by road map – usually an out-of-date AA handbook.

And, of course, the lifeboat would go and fetch him.

It is one of the great benefits of sailing in UK waters that the lifeboats are manned by volunteers, funded by charity and free at the point of use.

No matter how many times you use them…

Because, having been towed safely into harbour, Captain Calamity would have a shower in the quayside facilities, a good meal ashore and then set off again – only to get into difficulties once more and be towed in by the next lifeboat down the coast.

At about this point, the lifeboat coxswain would advise the old boy that his vessel was really not seaworthy or he needed some navigation classes or perhaps the whole expedition was a terrible mistake.

It would be at about this point that the newspapers would become involved – and sure enough, at the Daily Mail, I was the recognised “Captain Calamity Correspondent”. I would hasten to Hull or Skegness or wherever and record the next stage of the unfolding disaster because, you see, nobody could stop Captain Calamity. In the UK you don’t need permission to go to sea. You don’t have to have passed exams or carry any safety equipment. If you can put up with the shaking heads on the quay and doleful predictions of the local fishermen, you can go – whatever the Lifeboat coxswain may say.

Sometimes at this stage, the ancient mariner would succumb to the embarrassment he had brought down on himself – sometimes not. Either way, there was usually a good story in it…

Ever since, I have been acutely sensitive to the prospect getting myself smothered in ridicule – like for instance going aground on at the top of the highest tide for the next ten days. Which is what happened today.

If you have been keeping up, you will know about the abortive expedition to fetch water from the pub at Kirby-Le-Soken, trespassing for a pee on Horsey Island and the “Beware Oyster Beds” sign which had blow away. Anyway, yesterday I went round to the marina on the pretext of replacing an empty gas cylinder and filled the water tanks while I was at it.

And while I was at, my fisherman friend, David with his permanently damp dog, phoned to ask whether I could possibly help him investigate a leak in his heat exchanger. It was awkwardly right underneath the engine and he thought I was more nimble than he was.

It was arranged that I would go back to Kirby Creek today – which, of course, is where I must take the big orange mooring buoy and not anchor in the middle of the oyster bed (even though David, who has lived here all his life, says there haven’t been any oysters in the creek for years and they only say that because they don’t want any more moorings).

I could see the orange buoy as I felt my way down the channel between Horsey Island and Skipper’s Island, the Navionics app on my phone pointing the way.

I have great faith in Navionics. The other day, I trusted Google Maps to find me the way to Kirby Quay and it got me just as lost as Captain Calamity with his AA map.

Last time I came this way, I had left Honeypot Island to starboard but there was more water then and Navionics seemed to suggest the other way round. There were some moorings there, it made sense…

And that was where we came sliding gently to a halt.

First, I put the engine in reverse and wound her up to full throttle. No joy.

Then I started hanging off the shrouds, hoping to heel the boat to reduce the draft.

Next, I waited a bit in the hope that the tide might rise further.

After 15 minutes, it was clear that desperate measures are called for. If you don’t take desperate measures when you have the chance, you’ll wish you had when it’s too late. I broke out the kedge anchor, inflated the dinghy, added 50metres of warp to the 20 on it already and rowed the lot across to the other side of the creek.

Then, with the engine flat out astern and the warp on the sheet winch, I stirred up a lot of muddy water – and went precisely nowhere.

The tide was still flooding but Samsara seemed to be welded to the bottom. The only saving grace was that the creek was utterly deserted. My ignominy was as yet, a secret.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a secret if I was here for ten days. They would put up grandstands and sell tickets as the boat dried out downhill and filled with mud and water as the tide rose and she stayed on the bottom….

From time to time I switched off the engine and waited. Eventually, I transferred the anchor warp from the stern to the bow and got it on the electric anchor windlass. There was a moment of euphoria when the boat began to turn.

But would so go forward?

No, she would not. Not by so much as a blade of grass in the transit across the saltings. I began to think of calling for help. But what did I expect? Already I had a warp that was bar-taut. No launch was going to be able to do better than that.

By this time, high tide was ten minutes away and I was beginning to consider what would happen if I just left her there for the winter (at this stage I hadn’t checked the almanac and somehow had it fixed in my head that this was the highest tide until the spring equinox).

Without any great hopes of a different result, I tried more of the same: Revving the engine, winding the anchor back through the mud…

I put the helm hard over to line up with the anchor. With the prop wash flowing over the rudder, Samsara heeled obediently to starboard but went nowhere. I switch tacks and put her hard over to port. Was that a movement? There was definitely a rocking motion…

Agonisingly slowly, we began to wriggle through the mud. You could almost hear sucking noises as the creek bed released its grip on the keel. Quickly, before anything else could go wrong, I recovered the 50m warp and tied a fender to the remaining 20metres. I can go back for it tomorrow.

We were free. Indeed, I am writing this anchored defiantly in six metres in the middle of the non-existent oyster bed and thinking that there was, in fact, one other weapon in my armoury: I could have attached the spinnaker halyard to the anchor warp and heeled the boat to 30 degrees, dragging her off that way. Would the higher angle have pulled the anchor out of the mud? Not with that length of warp, surely.

Maybe that will be one for next time.

If there is a next time.

Don’t worry, Sod’s Law demands it…

1 Responses to Captain Calamity

  • Very glad you are now afloat again and most entertained by your exploits. Those of us who regret the ending of your “Dogwatch” articles in the Yachting Monthly back along will be keen to follow your latest adventures, so please keep posting – when you have time between ”events”!
    The sister in me does however encourage you to keep steady as she goes where possible…

The expedition

Everywhere I look, I see land. Rather muddy land, admittedly. But here, half a mile further up Kirby Creek, surrounded by saltings and winding water, with only the birds and the seals for company, I am as protected as I can be.

Last night we had a bit of wind and it barely raised a wave big enough to slap against the hull. We did heel over as a gust caught the mast and revved up the wind generator. The coffee pot fell off the cooker but otherwise, Samsara stayed as rock-steady as if she had been chocked up in a boatyard.

This was all because of The Expedition: It’s now a week since I arrived here and the water tanks ran dry on Thursday night. I have another 30 litres in cans and a couple of emergency bottles but what with that and running out of apples, the time had come to go and find civilization.

Round here, the village of Kirby-Le-Soken fits that bill. It has a pub and a shop and – presumably, a water tap. All I had to do was take the dinghy up to the head of the creek where, apparently, there is a quay accessible at high tide. That was going to be at 1234 yesterday and so I set off at about 1100, properly dressed in wet-weather gear with all the gash and the empty water cans and Google Maps on my phone to stop me following the wrong branch of the creek.

For some inexplicable reason, the outboard engine wouldn’t start. Odd, that. Now that it has a new fuel tap, it’s been very reliable… maybe all it needs is a moment to cool down – 2-stokes are funny like that. I started rowing.

An hour later, after several stops to try the engine again during which I drifted backwards into the mud and the seal, with its head out of the water like a Labrador with no ears, watched silently as if wondering what on earth I was doing.

Actually, what I was doing was checking Google Maps and realising that after an hour of hard rowing, I was still only half way – which meant that at this rate, by the time I got there, walked up to the village and back carrying 30kg of water and with the shopping on my back, the tide would be falling fast. What if I ran aground on a falling tide – marooned for eight hours in a dinghy surrounded by thigh-deep mud?

Some things just don’t seem sensible. I admitted defeat and turned round. Of course, this meant rowing against the tide. I remember thinking that I was earning my lunch and calculated how long it was since breakfast – and, come to that, how long since I had drunk half a litre of vitamin and mineral supplement and a large cup of coffee…

…and how it is that one of life’s more undignified manoeuvres is peeing when you are in a tiny inflatable dinghy and dressed up in chest-high waterproof salopettes…

Casting around for a solution, I spied a jetty – well, a haphazard collection of old timbers sticking out of the mud with a few rotting planks on top. It would have to do.

Somewhat gingerly, I stepped ashore and walked up the staging to what passed on Horsey Island for solid ground. I know all about Horsey Island. It is privately owned and a bird sanctuary – no landing allowed. In fact, Tamsin and I came here in 1995 and interviewed the owner, Joe Backhouse, when we were writing about our adventures for the Daily Telegraph’s travel pages. This might very well have been the spot where Blue the dog disgraced himself by catching a Brent goose (I don’t know who was more surprised).

The place didn’t seem to have changed. It was just as desolate as I remembered – in fact, having dealt with the urgent matter at hand, I took out my phone and recorded a quick 360 for Instagram (you can see it on john.passsmore.756).

“As, you can see,” I told the commentary. “Absolutely nobody about… totally desolate…”

That was when I noticed I wasn’t alone. An equally old man with a white beard and a woolly hat arrived with two plastic bags.

I think I should be congratulated on finding something to say. This was it: “Oh, hello. I’ve just stopped for a pee. I hope you don’t mind.”

I’m afraid, I can’t remember what he said in reply (would you?). But he did ask me if that was my boat anchored further down the creek.

“You can’t anchor there,” he said. “That’s an oyster bed.”

“Really? I didn’t know about that. There’s nothing in the books about it…”

“There’s a sign,” he said.

I peered. “A sign? I didn’t see it. Where is it?”

“It blew away.”


But he did suggest I should move to one of the vacant moorings: “Anyway you wouldn’t want to be there tonight. There’s a Force Nine coming tonight.”

And with that, he climbed into the ancient dinghy and rowed off across the creek, gesturing as he went, towards an enormous orange mooring buoy and saying: “You can take that one. The boat that’s usually on it just came out for the winter.”

So that’s where we are – in a deep hole surrounded by shallow water (we’ll never get out except at high tide) – and the shallow water surrounded in turn by soggy but protective land.

All I need now is for the outboard to work tomorrow. I just rang my friend David the fisherman who helped me catch a herring and a brace of whiting. He tells me I’ll get water at the pub. If I ever get there, I think I might deserve more than water.

Amp starvation


This the scene in Samsara’s cabin tonight – candlelit, as you can see. I appear to have run out of electricity

Well, not really, of course: The engine battery is still raring to go at 12.8volts but I can’t touch that – who knows when I may need to start the engine in an emergency?

Meanwhile, the service battery – the lights, the phone charger, the rechargeable DAB radio, the laptop on which I am writing this – that’s where the amps drain away.

If I was going somewhere, this wouldn’t happen. I would have the water-turbine trailing out behind, pumping in the amps (you can see it in action on the video on the “Good Health” page). But that’s no good without water flowing past the boat at more than three knots and all we get in Kirby Creek is half a knot of tide at the height of the ebb.

I do have the solar panel which I left tilted backwards on the assumption that the stern would be pointing south-east when the sun came up. Sure enough, when I looked before breakfast, we were getting a steady 2amps but I’m afraid I was profligate with my current and spent the morning charging the radio and writing up yesterday’s fishing expedition (you can’t see it yet because I’m going to show it to my neighbour and fishing companion – I never did that when I worked for a newspaper).

Anyway, the BBC forecast was for a “moderate” wind in the afternoon and I hoisted the generator into the rigging with a propeller in place of the water turbine. The trouble is that it needs 15 knots before it starts turning at all and by the time it was too dark to see, the battery was on its last legs at 11.5volts – and still draining 1.1amps. I went round turning off lights, unplugged the phone… still negative figures. Where was it going?

Of course: The masthead light comes on at dusk and helps itself to 0.2amps. Well, I knew what to do about that. Out came the trusty hurricane lamp. I had one of these on my first boat – and well I remember my father’s ritual with the anchor light at dusk.

It is rather academic in Kirby Creek – the last of the lit buoys is down Hamford Water at the junction with the Walton Channel, the best part of a mile away. Who’s going to come up here on a pitch-black night like this in half a gale?

Hang on, who said there was half a gale blowing? Last time I looked there wasn’t enough to squeeze out a tenth of an amp. Suddenly, now the battery is sucking up 1.1. I poke my head out of the hatch. The boat is heeling under bare pole. The anchor light has blown out, but who cares. I reckon there’s even enough to fire up the phone and ping this off to WordPress.



Saturday November 10th

I’m not alone after all. Anchoring last night in Kirby Creek in the Walton Backwaters, the only other vessel was a tiny fishing boat on a mooring – unoccupied … and still I left 300 yards between us.

Then, today, an old man (another one) rowed acoss in an ancient weed-covered dinghy to say hello. He’d been taking his dog ashore – a liver-and-white springer spaniel and I’ve got one of those at home so we had something to talk about.

After a couple of minutes about where he could land around here without sinking thigh-deep into the mud and how he had left his friend Paul on the boat wrestling with the wiring, a small voice in the back of my head suggested it would be neighbourly to invite him aboard for a cup of tea.

Immediately, of course, another voice burst in, protested at the invasion of my solitude – and adding the age-old warning about inviting single-handers for tea (you can never get rid of them). But I know that if I keep spurning all human contact, I shall end up even more reclusive and socially awkward than I am already.

So, yes, he replied, he would delighted to come aboard for a cup of tea.

Getting him onto Samsara was a challenge that neither of us had considered.  David Haig-Thomas is 78 and you only have to look at his oil-stained sweater and his prehistoric corduroys with their missing buttons to know that he is not the sort of man to baulk at climbing aboard without benefit of a ladder.

Actually, next time I shall get the ladder out. I am still trying to remove my heart from my mouth at the memory of him swaying between dinghy and deck, his entire weight on the wobbling wire guard-rail like a clown on a tightrope.

But in the end, we sat in the cabin over our tea and he told me more tall tales in the space of half an hour than I think I have ever heard before – the dog that stole the Sunday joint from a different neighbour every week, his naked swim round the Backwaters interrupted by the picnicking family from Clacton…his father getting an island named after him…

Actually, maybe they weren’t such tall tales. I just looked up the arctic explorer David Haig-Thomas Senior and yes, HaigThomas Island is one of the Sverdrup Islands in the Qikiqtaaluk Region in Nunavut, Canada’s northernmost province. During the war he volunteered for the commandoes and died in the D-Day landings when young David was four.

After our tea, my guest swayed, mightily, once more and eventually settled with Susie the Springer in the ancient dinghy and set off again – whereupon Susie promptly jumped over the side and started swimming. Neither of us were sure about this, given the distance she would have to cover – even with the tide. In the end David headed for a pebble beach which looked marginally less muddy than the rest of the foreshore.

As dusk fell, I could hear an engine running and could see a blaze of fluorescent light from the little fishing boat’s wheelhouse. The wiring seems to be connected again.

Just as well. Apparently, we’re going herring fishing tomorrow.

David and Susie

The harbourmaster’s Dad


“A Rival is she?” The harbourmaster stood and looked as Samsara, dried out against the scrubbing posts at Felixstowe Ferry and proudly showing off a clean bottom.

(If you have been following this blog, you may have seen the picture of “The Infestation” of goose barnacles which appeared out of nowhere).

I had just scraped off the last one and was going round the topsides with a rag and a bottle of hull cleaner, so I was feeling a certain pride of ownership already – but there’s nothing like a compliment from a harbourmaster to put things in perspective. Harbourmasters have seen it all and you could tell that this one had seen it all and shaken his head over most of it.

I had waved to him on the river as he chugged past in his ancient workboat with “Harbour Master” flying from the ensign staff. This was the vessel, I learned later from the sign on his ancient office, that was available for sightseeing trips – and ash scattering by arrangement.

“Good boats, Rivals” he continued. “Nice wide side decks for getting around – and look at that keel… good skeg too – strong.”

Then he added: “As my old Dad used to say “They go a long way and they take a long time to get there.”

Well, yes, I suppose so. Nobody has ever claimed the Rival is a fast boat and – it may be a product of my return to the design in retirement, but I don’t mind that any more. Thirty years ago, when I took Largo across the Atlantic in the OSTAR, I had ironic T-shirts printed with the legend: “Largo: Broad and Slow” (I looked up the musical term in a dictionary).

Now I realise that if you have a fast boat, all you want is a faster boat. You’re constantly up-grading the gear – not because there’s anything wrong with it, but because the man on the stand at the Boat Show says it’ll give you an extra half a knot.

So, I have been able to forget the harbourmaster’s father’s views and concentrate on Samsara’s other virtues – of which, we agreed, there are many.

…not forgetting, the extra half a knot that comers from not towing a bottomful of barnacles.