The Birds

Joshua Slocum, on his solo voyage around the world, looked up into the cockpit one dark and stormy night and saw the pilot of Drake’s ship The Pinta at the wheel.

Jean Le Carn in the Vendee Globe Race held his sister in his arms – and woke up hugging a sail bag.

Hallucinations, when you’re alone at sea, are not unusual.

Feeling someone touch the back of your neck, however, on only the second night of a passage from Falmouth to Caernarfon – especially when pushed by northerlies into that empty gap between the Smalls and the Tuskar Rock separation schemes where there’s just nothing but empty sea (and on this occasion, not a breath of wind) – well, something’s up…

I’d had nothing to do for the past 18 hours but sleep and read and sit in the cockpit drinking coffee and watching some tiny land-birds flutter about the boat and try to balance on the guardrails…

So this was just plain creepy… but there: It happened again, just as I was pouring hot water into the pot: A feather-light touch on the back of the neck…

That was when I realised that the birds – having given up on the guardrails – were now in the cabin: Six of them whizzing about like rockets, exploring. It was a scene from Hitchcock.

Then they got into the fo’c’sle which, now it’s turned into The Shed, full of sails and the bike and the dinghy and the new enormous ball fender – well, it’s easy for a small bird to get lost in there – and start panicking.

With all six of them simultaneously bouncing from off the chandlery and banging their heads on the windows, they didn’t do much for my state of mind either. I got in there too and started waving my arms about and shouting.

In the end, of course, we all calmed down enough to take some pictures. One of them perched on my hand and even allowed me to carry him to the companionway and toss him into the sky like Noah and dove.

I hope he made it back to land (he hasn’t re-appeared with an olive twig). Another made a nest in the cockpit with a couple of non-slip mats for a cushion. He was gone by the morning. It was only then that I found another had settled down beside the petrol can. Maybe it was too cramped down there to spread his wings. I don’t know. Anyway, he was dead in the morning.

I gave him a sailor’s burial complete with a short prayer appropriate to a poor dead bird. I’ve no idea what he was. Maybe there’s a twitcher out there who can help…

The farmer, the bull and the windlass

Did you hear the story of the Spanish farmer and the bull?

This farmer had a brand new calf and it was time for it to move out of the stable and into the field during the daytime.

But the calf wouldn’t budge out of his stall. No matter how much the farmer cajoled and rattled a bucket of grain, the calf refused to move.

In the end, the farmer lost patience, hoisted the animal onto his shoulders and carried him across the road to the field.

The next day, he tried again with the bucket of grain – and even a slice of bread (calves love a slice of bread). But no, the calf was adamant. He wasn’t going anywhere.

With a sigh, the farmer bent down, put his head under the animal’s belly and straightened up, the calf lying across his shoulders – and, once again, walked across the road to the field.

And this happened the next day… and the next. Eventually, the farmer gave up on the bucket of grain and the bread – and even the pointless attempt to coax the calf to walk by himself.

In other words, carrying the calf across the road became a habit.

But as the calf grazed the good grass in the field, he began to grow. Imperceptibly, day by day, he grew bigger – and he grew heavier.

But the routine continued and every day, as the farmer lifted the calf onto his shoulders, he grew stronger – and stronger.

And it is said that if you go to a particular village in Andalucia early in the morning, you can see a crowd gathered around a farm gate to see an old, grey-haired farmer walk across the road carrying a full-grown bull on his shoulders.

I don’t know where this story came from but I’ve always loved the moral – which, of course, you can work out for yourself.

And I have been reminded of it over the past few days because of the anchor windlass. If you look back through this blog you will find various references to the windlass. It has worked on and off for the past two years. From time to time – for no reason that I can deduce – it will just go “click” instead of winding in the chain. I have checked everything that can be checked. The brilliant electronics engineer Art Butler of Deben Marine Ltd has toiled over it on several occasions – most recently, only a couple of weeks ago when he drove up to Lowestoft to clean the commutator. He even ordered a special cleaning implement for me so I could do this myself.

And what happened on Saturday evening in the Falmouth Haven anchorage with an hour to dusk and a spritely 20knots blowing across the deck?

“Click.”

I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t used it once since Art’s ministrations. Of course, the only thing to do was pull the thing up by hand. I had always assumed that with a 20kg anchor on the end of 10mm chain and me being an old man of 70, this was not an option.

But I did pull it up. I took it slowly, nipped back to the cockpit from time to time to drive the boat forward – and then back again to break out the anchor.

And I’ve been doing this ever since – twice when I sailed overnight to Plymouth and anchored in Barn Pool, did a short stay in Mayflower Marina to pick up the spinnaker and then back to the pool before returning to Falmouth the next day. Here I anchored off St Just and then moved last night to Falmouth banks ready for the overnight wind shift.

And, just like the farmer and his bull, I began to get into the habit. The secret, I found, is to take your time and let the boat move up as the weight of catenary takes over the pull – and wear gloves, of course. Eventually, you end up with the chain straight up and down and the anchor still well dug in. Breaking it out is going to be really hard work so this is where you put the engine into reverse and, once again, let the boat do the work: As soon as she starts to move back showing that the anchor is free, click into neutral and now all you have to do haul up the remaining chain and the anchor itself.

Of course, the deeper the water, the more there is to haul up. At the moment, on Falmouth bank just after low tide, I have 8.6metres from the bow roller to the bottom which means 17kg of chain and the 20kg anchor – a total of 37kg to begin with, but of course, less as it comes in (and I begin to tire).

I know there will be times when this last part of the process has to be completed in double-quick time as the boat begins to drift; but if the worst comes to the worst, I can leave it dangling for a moment or two while I nip back to the cockpit.

The odd thing is that, as I get more confident, I am beginning to see the benefits: For a start, I can stop paying Art to come out and try and fix it. The last resort of sending the windlass back to Lofrans might not be necessary after all…

Also, if I can do this now – and continue to do it every few days from now on, then presumably I will still be doing it when I’m 80 – and won’t that be something to be proud of!

Is it possible that I may be able to remove the wretched thing entirely? That would reduce the clutter on the foredeck – and take 25kg off the bow which would do wonders for the trim.

Do you think that, just like the Spanish farmer with his bull, I might attract a bit of a crowd?

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