3,629 miles of isolation

3,629 miles of isolation

I missed lockdown.

Well, I didn’t actually miss it, I avoided it.

I went sailing by myself. I’m over 70 and the government wanted me to stay indoors for weeks on end and – as I now understand the term – “shield” myself.

So, for 42 days and 3,629 miles (measured by noon-to-noon positions), I removed myself into an isolation so complete that the nearest human beings were on the International Space Station as they wandered overhead 15 times a day. I wouldn’t be back now, only I managed to destroy the mainsail – and that was just part of the fun. Considering I was just trying to avoid getting bored, a lot seems to have happened in the last six weeks.

In fact, it all began at the end of March with reports that the French authorities had banned all recreational boating – and enforcing it by refusing to open locks and bridges. Pleasure craft at sea in French territorial waters would be arrested.

I was in Lowestoft – with a bridge between me and the open sea. I left that very day and holed up in Walton backwaters while working out what to do. Nobody will find you in Walton Backwaters. That’s why the smugglers used to like it there. As April wore on, it became clear that this epidemic was being taken seriously. I had thought about isolating in isolated anchorages in the Shetlands and Orkneys but then the Highlands and Islands authorities appealed to camper van owners to stay away and I supposed that meant me too.

In the end, there seemed only one option: Stay clear of territorial waters altogether. If I was more than 12 miles offshore, what could anyone do? I began victualling for an extended voyage.

It would have to be extended because obviously, sailing was now socially unacceptable – if not specifically banned. Titchmarsh Marina closed down. Moorings in the Walton Channel stayed empty.  Meanwhile, hidden round the back of Horsey Island, I began to lay my plans like Richard Attenborough in The Great Escape: I would have to avoid the Dover Strait: The French would arrest me if I strayed onto their side and since that only left ten miles of the English half, I imagined that if the Border Force found me they would ensure I got no further than Granville Dock .

That left the North Sea.

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 42 days – sailing up the North Sea, over the top of the  Shetlands and down the Atlantic to The Azores. I would have gone round them had it not been for the mainsail. I didn’t just tear it – I was quite used to doing that. Soon after Rockall, I had to take it off and spend eight hours sewing a long rip along a batten pocket. No, this was complete sail destruction. There wouldn’t be enough sailmaker’s thread in the whole world to put this back together.

It meant that I spent a whole afternoon hove-to off Graciosa tapping into their mobile signal to organise a replacement, second-hand sail. All I had to do was tell Exchange Sails where to send it. But with Portugal locked down, who could say when it would arrive in Horta? Meanwhile, with a good southwesterly behind me, I could be back in the UK in ten days.

While all this was going on, the Maritime Police called on VHF wondering why I was spending a second day rolling about off the pretty little village of Porto Vermelha (lots of white houses with terracotta roofs). I needed to use the phone, I told them. Yes, I would definitely pay them a visit in happier times…

Anyway, it was just as well the “Round the Islands” idea died when it did because it turned out the shredded main was only the start of the trouble: I’d hardly set course for Falmouth when the cooker sprang a gas leak. Admittedly it is the boat’s original cooker – meaning that it is 47 years old, a venerable Flavell Vanessa in fashionable beige, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.

To begin with, there was just a whiff of gas. Then the alarm sounded and shut off the supply at the cylinder. I flapped a tea towel at the sensor and pumped a hundred strokes of nothing out of the bilges and tried again, just about getting the pasta al dente. Within a week, it wouldn’t even boil enough for a cup of tea. That was how I became the world’s leading authority on all the ingredients you can add to a tuna salad (peanuts, sultanas… not Nutella…)

All of that, of course, is before we even get to the leaking freshwater tank. At the time, I think I made too much of this, catching every dribble of drizzle, measuring each cupful that went into iced coffee (well, cold coffee made with Nescafe Azera and Nestles Milk). I even tried to get into the Scillies to fill up rather than spend another 36 hours beating up to The Lizard. The trouble was that the St Mary’s harbourmaster spotted my AIS signal and asked the coastguard to read me the riot act. The Scillies, like the Azores, were “closed”.

In the event I still had five litres to spare when I dropped anchor in the pool at St Just – and nine cans of beer. You can live for the best part of a week on nine cans of beer…

I rather hoped that all the fuss would all be over by now. Picking up the BBC news with the Graciosa mobile signal, I noted that the RYA were trumpeting the Return to Boating.

Sure enough, as I finally filled the tanks at the tap on the Trelissick House landing stage, two families arrived in RIBs and tied up on opposite sides of the pontoon. Then they sat down on opposite sides of the central railing and enjoyed their picnic, chatting happily across the mandatory two metres.

It was the oddest sight I think I’ve ever seen – but apparently everybody is perfectly used to this. Maybe if I’d had some news, I would be more acclimatised. My cheapo short wave radio receives only one station – in Serbo-Croat.

Still, it made good copy for the blog. The trouble is, there’s far too much of it: In my newspaper days, I used to write at the rate of 600 words an hour which I found adequate for a daily paper without interfering with mealtimes. Old habits die hard and it takes a long time to get home without a mainsail. Now I have enough for a book. I could call it The Self-Isolating Sailor. I could put it on Amazon.

If I do, and you would like to read it, subscribe and I’ll make a point of letting you know.

The mainsail – not enough sailmakers thread in all the world…

…but the trysail sets beautifully.

Noon positions

Off we go – at nearly eight knots!

Porto Vermehla – white houses with terracotta roofs.

Dawn over Rockall

… and Rockall was the last sight of land.