The Zone

This is a cautionary tale. It is mostly for my benefit.

I should begin by telling you that, even though I am writing this sitting on the lee berth while tacking laboriously along the South coast of Ireland in the vague direction of Baltimore, I have my phone beside me with the timer set for 20 minutes (actually 15 minutes 45 seconds because it has taken me four minutes and 15 seconds to work that out and write it down).

This is important because the more I think about what I’m writing, the less I think about where I’m going – and at the moment I am sailing at four knots in the direction of a French fishing boat called A La Garde de Dieu.

I know this – and also that the Frenchman is doing 3.7 knots so, obviously, he’s trawling which, in turn, means that everything else – absolutely everything from a supertanker to the Lifeboat and most definitely, me in my little boat – all have to give way to him. There is a good reason for this: Once a fishing boat has its nets down, it can’t stop and it can’t alter course – in fact, with all that lot hanging off the back, the rudder doesn’t work at all.

I know all about La Garde de Dieu because she shows up as an AIS target on the plotter – a little green triangle that I can click to find the ship’s name, course and speed – everything down to destination: “Fishing Grounds”. The Frenchman is four miles away. I have been able to pick him out with binoculars and, if the wind holds, I should pass comfortably ahead of him.

All the same, I set the timer because I have the laptop on my knees and I’m writing it all down – and as every writer will know, this is when you are at your most vulnerable.

I used to write for a living. In fact, I have spent more than 50 years writing. At my busiest – Fleet Street in the 80’s and 90’s – I could churn out 600 words an hour – very often dictating “off the top of my head” directly down the telephone (it was wonderful when they invented mobile phones and you could stride about while composing instead of being imprisoned in a smelly phone box while people tapped on the door with 10p pieces and said: “Are you going to be much longer?”

Of course, I ignored them because I was “in the zone”. In other words, the outside world had ceased to exist. There were only the words…

And that’s how it was about this time yesterday, somewhere in the middle of Saint George’s Channel as I sat in the same spot, a new book up on the screen and the words clattering out (I still think of them “clattering” as if this was my trusty Brother portable – the one held together with twisted paperclips – even though now the tiny plastic ASUS makes about as much noise as a mouse picking its teeth}.

Heaven knows how long this had been going on – which is the worrying part. If, instead of getting all productive, I had settled down to sleep, I would have set the timers – two of them on different phones with different ringtones. Somehow, if you’re going to close your eyes deliberately, the idea of being woken up to stop yourself running into anything seems terribly important. On the other hand, if you are awake already, surely you don’t need an alarm?

But what if the words have taken you somewhere else? A place where there is only imagination and time has no meaning?

An hour must have passed. It didn’t seem like it. Then, I swear someone said: “Samsara”.

Only that – nothing else. It was such a brief distraction that I was tempted to ignore it. I had just had the most brilliant idea and was keen to get it down before it slipped away. That’s the way it is with brilliant ideas; you have to pin them down before they flutter off and bother someone else.

However, most definitely, somebody had said “Samsara”. Surely, that must demand a moment’s attention at the very least. I cut loose a couple of brain cells to investigate while flailing clumsily after the brilliant idea.

The brain cells reported back; diffidently, so as not to disturb the creative flow: There was only one possible explanation: Since I was alone on the boat, the voice must have come from the VHF radio. Usually, this box of tricks remains silent – only waking up every three hours for Dublin and Mine Head Coastguard to issue their maritime safety broadcast. Sometimes, watch officers on the bridges of containers ships would discuss how not to hit each other – and of course, Irish lifeboats whizz about all the time chattering like teenagers on skateboards.

But now someone was calling me. I plucked the microphone from its clip: “Station Calling Samsara, say again.”

But all they said was: “Channel 10”

I switched to Channel 10: “Station calling Samsara, say again.”

And then this charming Irish voice oozed out of the speaker: “I was just wondering what were your intentions.”

What were my intentions? Why did he want to know about my intentions? My intentions were to get back to the laptop and that brilliant idea – whatever it was. Already it had one foot on the doorstep.

I poked my head out of the hatch.

And there – no more than 300 metres away, was a great big, bright blue fishing boat bashing straight into the wind and sea, sending clouds of spray flying back over the wheelhouse.

And if it carried on doing that and I carried with my four knots for Baltimore, we would meet in the same patch of water about in about… oh… one-and-a-half minutes.

Thumbing the TX button, I suggested: “I’ll turn to port.”

And did – very snappily indeed.

For the first half hour, as our courses diverged, I made a succession of resolutions about setting the timers whenever there was even the slighted possibility of finding myself “in the zone”.

But then, as the big blue fishing boat receded to a dot on the horizon, the thought occurred that he had not appeared on the plotter. If he had, the alarm would have gone off. But the screen was blank. It was still blank – meaning that his AIS beacon must have been switched off – or as they say, when talking about Iranian tankers supplying Syria, “cloaked”.

Now, why would a fishing boat do that? The obvious conclusion was that he didn’t want anyone to know he was there – not, for instance, the fishery inspectors … or possibly the competition. There could be any number of reasons why a fishing boat might want to be invisible.

And, of course, that would explain why he had not identified himself when he called me on Channel 16 – the coastguard monitor Channel 16. Come to that, everyone monitors 16 – including fishery inspectors and other fishing boats.

I began to feel a little better. If I was at fault for not keeping a lookout – then, he was equally at fault for trying to disappear.

… and if you think that, given the length of this explanation for what was, after all, only a couple of minutes of activity (albeit somewhat feverish activity) and you suspect that I have again fallen “into the zone”, you are absolutely right. But, take heart, by now it is Sunday afternoon, I am anchored in Baltimore Harbour, the wind is making mournful noises in the rigging and the rain is going sideways past the windows – if I could bring myself to look out of them.

Actually, The Zone is the better place to be.

The plotter – how it’s supposed to look

In praise of the humble clothes peg

I think it is time for praise where it’s due: Out of all the myriad items on a boat – from duct tape to bits of string with loops in one end, what do you think wins the prize for the greatest number of random but totally brilliant alternative uses?

OK, so I’ve just used duct tape to block up the holes in the spinnaker pole to stop it filling up with water (and emptying all over my sleeve) – and currently, there are no fewer than six bits of string holding back the halyards. 

But you expect that. What I find so extraordinary is the apparently endless uses on a boat for that most humble domestic item, the clothes peg (or, as the Americans would have it, the clothespin).

They cost almost nothing and yet they seem capable of anything.

I would be most interested if anyone can suggest even more unexpected uses but, to date, this is what I have come up with:

  1. A peg marked “Inlet Closed” gets clipped to the ignition key to stop me starting the engine and blowing it up for want of cooling water.
  2. Another says “Shore Power” and stops me leaving the marina and taking the electricity point with me (apparently it happens more often than you would expect. 
  3. A third peg goes on the key when the battery selector is switched to “starting”. In the past, I have nodded approvingly about the amount the solar panel was pushing into the service bank – without realising that it was the starting battery that was still selected – and rapidly going flat.
  4. Of course there are always half a dozen pegs closing plastic bags in the galley.
  5. The spring in a peg works brilliantly for holding the companionway lock open. When you close it from the outside, the peg just drops off on the inside.
  6. Take a peg to pieces and the two halves make very effective wedges to stop the washboards rattling in a seaway.
  7. When the fridge is switched off, a peg in the door holds it open against a loop of shock cord to allow air to circulate and stop the mould growing.
  8. …and, of course, you can always use them for the laundry…

 

Gone to the pub

If you’re going to get stuck somewhere, Dublin is a pretty good place to do it.

The plan had been to stay for a day or two while the Isle of Man TT was rained off. I could do the Guinness tour, listen to some Irish music in the pubs. Drink some more Guinness… Who cared if it rained?

But then, just as I furled the jib as the wind picked up in Dublin Bay, the sheet flipped the whole of the top of the winch onto the deck.

How did that happen?

The top of the winch is supposed to be held down by a plastic disc which screws into the feeder arm and holds the whole thing together.

There you are, isn’t that impressive? I know that the silver bit is called the “feeder arm”. That’s because I had to scour the internet to find out what I needed to ask for when ringing round the local chandleries for a replacement – because you see, when both the feeder arm and top cap leapt off the winch and bounced onto the side deck, the top cap bounced higher and straight over the side.

It was one of those moments when you freeze to see what’s going to happen – and later on, wish you were the sort of person who doesn’t freeze in emergencies but leaps into action (in this case, snatching the bits out of the air like the second slip at Lords).

Instead, of course, I stood mesmerized as the feeder arm – being the heavier of the two – landed in the scuppers while the tiny, lightweight top cap arced delicately over the guardrails and into the boiling maelstrom which is Dublin Bay in a southerly force seven.

Now, I suppose it would have been possible to sail back to the Isle of Man for the last of the TT without a starboard cockpit winch – and, of course, it would certainly be possible if I had a posh boat with secondary winches. But as things stood, I really couldn’t think of anything more inconvenient: Would switching the top cap from the port winch every time I went about be more trouble than rigging a handy billy on the sheet?

Simpler to wait ‘til Monday morning and ring round the chandleries for another – except, for some reason I never established, Monday was a bank holiday in the Republic of Ireland – although, not in the UK.

What if I got to Tuesday and nobody had one – and wouldn’t even sell me the one off the winch in the window (which, of course, would make their £800 item of stock totally unsaleable until they got a new top cap).

In the end I ordered one from the UK. They’d get it in the post right away. It should arrive on Wednesday.

Hmm. If I left on Wednesday evening, I could be back in the Isle of Man by Thursday night – still in time for the last day of the TT on Friday. Anyway, there didn’t seem to be an alternative.

Odd how things turn out: Once the package was in the post, I stopped worrying. In fact, those four days in Dublin were just great. I did the Guinness tour – actually, I did it twice because I was just about to collect my pint when a very insistent and annoying announcement over the public address kept demanding a Mr Sands’ presence in reception – which turned out to be the code for a fire alarm.

Still, I got my pint in the end (you get to look forward to it after going round the tour – twice). Do you know how to pour a Guinness? There’s a right way and a wrong way. It’s all to do with the proportion of carbon dioxide and nitrogen you put in the glass along with the beer. Anyway, I messed up mine by trying to put in too much Guinness and it went slopping all down the side.

I joined a party of Americans and Canadians for a musical pub crawl around the Temple Bar – the lone Englishman. I was quite the celebrity. “Welcome to Europe!” said the guide.

In those four days, I rode my little folding bicycle all over the city – the Yeats exhibition – backwards and forwards across Halfpenny Bridge…

St Steven’s Green was an eye-opener with all its signs telling the story of the Easter Rising: Here was the spot where the Irish Citizen Army dug their trenches (and pinched cushions from cars parked in the adjoining streets to make themselves comfortable) – and there, on the facade of the Royal College of Surgeons were the scars from the British Army’s Lewis gun firing out of a bedroom window on the fourth floor of the Shelbourne Hotel. Of course, both sides agreed a truce when it was time for the Park Keeper to feed the ducks.

I didn’t know any of this. But then I went to school in England. I wouldn’t – which, of course, explains half a century of misery on both sides.

Meanwhile, everywhere you go in Dublin, there are pubs and there is music. In fact, the music spills out onto the street. It seems that on every corner, there is someone with a guitar – and next to the statue of Molly Malone, a proper set-up with microphones and speakers and a duo leading the tourists in endless repetitions of “She wheeled her wheelbarrow…”

Molly, by the way, was quite a gal if her statue is anything to go by – her bosom positively gleams (lovingly polished by the groping hands of ten million tourists a year).

When Wednesday came and went with no sign of a small package for me behind the bar of the Poolbeg Yacht and Boat Club, I was really quite philosophical. I think I ordered another Guinness to make up for it. By then it was too late for the TT. When it did arrive on Thursday, I set off back across the Irish Sea to Wales.

There was to be free mooring for a week at Pwllheli in preparation for the Jester Challenge – more about that next time. It’s an event for small single-handed boats sailing to… Ireland.

Too sensitive by half

I’m writing this with a cup of coffee at my side – as you do.

It took no time at all to make.

Well, it didn’t once I had woken at 0730 with the gas alarm going off, pulled the sleeping bag over my head, hoping the incessant beeping would sort itself out (which it did after 20 minutes).

However, it started again 20 minutes after that – and this time it didn’t stop. The gas alarm doesn’t like the wet and cold and I’m in Dublin where it hasn’t stopped raining for days.

Does anyone else have this sort of trouble? Or do you religiously turn the gas off at the cylinder every time… or maybe just trust that everything will be alright and the boat won’t blow up after all?

I have always had a rather difficult relationship with gas on boats ever since watching my father pump the bilges dry (which he did every day, this being a wooden boat) and, once he had finished, he would continue pumping for another 50 strokes, just pumping air – or, as he explained: “Getting rid of any gas that’s escaped down there.”

So I grew up assuming that there would always be some gas wafting around in the bilges, waiting for an errant spark to blow the whole shebang sky-high.

Over the years, I have made several attempts to get away from gas. In the little Caprice, I tried an alcohol stove but that was even more frightening – sheets of bright yellow flame right up to the deckhead.

Aboard Largo, my old Rival 32, I fell in love with a wonderful brass Taylor’s paraffin cooker. It was a veritable antique and looked the part. Unfortunately, it required all the care and attention you would expect of an antique. Making a cup of coffee was a project. You had to plan for it, prepare the apparatus – and even then, you might end up with similar sheets of bright yellow flame (only this time, accompanied by clouds of foul-smelling black smoke).

This seemed to exhaust all the options – although, it should be noted that one of the boats in the Ocean Cruising Club’s Celtic Rally had an induction hob which got fired up whenever they plugged into the marina mains (they had a washing machine, too).

Anyway, with Samsara, I reckoned I’d earned the right to go down the easy route and stick with gas.

I did, however, bring in a shipwright to build a sealed locker as required by the survey – and a marine gas engineer to check the installation and fit an alarm… which he did in strict accordance with the instructions.

These stated that the two sensors should be fitted “in the lowest possible position where they will remain dry. The most suitable location for the detector is near any gas appliance at floor level or just under the floorboards.”

So they ended up in the bilge.

That first winter, the boat was out of the water and from New Year until the end of March, the thermometer didn’t creep over 9°C for a single day. I know, I had some painting to do. By the time I did get down to it, the cold and the damp had kept the alarm beeping for so long it flattened the battery.

I moved the sensors from “just under the floorboards” to just above them.

It was only afterwards that I discovered why the bilges were always full of water (leaks in the freshwater tanks – with the stern gland adding enough salt to throw me off the scent,..)

Anyway, once we were back in the water in April and I dunked the lee rail trying to scrape round the wind farm off the Wallet, the bilge-water appeared above the floorboards and started lapping at the sensors – which, of course, set off the alarm all over again.

So I moved them up another level: One in the saucepan locker and the other tucked low down, right at the back of the cooker. It was the perfect place for detecting gas – just a lousy one for changing the sensors.

You see, by this time, I had spent some hours on the phone to the manufacturers being terribly polite until they succeeded in selling me two spares.

Ever since then, I have kept one pair in a sealed plastic bag and make sure the old ones are good and dry before they take over their stint as spares.

And this would be fine if only I hadn’t chosen “low down at the back of the cooker” as the ideal place. It is not ideal – especially when trying to locate four little holes for the sensor’s four little prongs – and all before breakfast. In the end the cooker had to come out, the whole cabin filled with tools, I scraped my knuckles, lost another nut to the collection in the bilges – but finally the “low-down under the cooker at the back” sensor is low down at the front – and finally has stopped beeping.

It’s not ideal. My good friend the gas engineer will probably wash his hands of me.

But I don’t care. In fact, I have an enormous sense of well-being. That’s what comes from having a cup of coffee beside you and nothing going “beep “.