Two beers and a box of Kleenex

Since the number of followers of this blog leapt from about 70 to something over 500 virtually overnight back in July, it’s clear there a lot of people reading this who are not normally “into” sailing. That means they have no idea what is going to happen over the next ten days (and I don’t mean the American election).

On November 8th, in Les Sables d’Olonne in France, a British yachtsman called Alex Thompson will begin his fifth attempt to become the first non-French sailor to win the Vendee Globe round-the-world-non-stop race.

If there is any justice at all, he should succeed – if only out of pure, dogged persistence.

But don’t forget that more people have climbed Mount Everest, more people have been into Space than have ever sailed around the world alone and non-stop.

I have just watched a 50-minute YouTube video which demanded two cans of beer and a basinful of emotion as I sat here in Peterhead in Aberdeenshire waiting for my mainsail to come back from the sailmaker and, I must say, I ended up feeling that some people really are special.

If you want to see what all the fuss is about, grab a box of tissues and click here:

3 Responses to Two beers and a box of Kleenex

  • Well what a guy! To keep on revisiting the race like that, such determination.
    Really hope he makes it this time.

  • Alex Thompson – Awesome! How one person can handle/race a machine like that in the Southern Ocean is beyond my comprehension.

  • Thanks for alerting us to the Vendee Globe John. Happy memories of Ellen M doing it. Shall now follow Alex starting Nov 8

Size Matters

This is Suilven, the extraordinary mountain sticking up out of nowhere in the Scottish Highlands.

I first saw it from seaward on the way from Skye to Loch Nedd. That was supposed to be an easy day’s sail, reaching in a force 6-7 all the way. But it turned out the southeasterly of the forecast didn’t have much south in it. Clearly, I wouldn’t be getting there in daylight.

However, Lochinver was an alternative. I could be tucked up in there by teatime – no contest, really.

And Lochinver is the basecamp for Suilven. Of course I wasn’t going to climb Suilven. All I wanted was to make up for COVID scuppering the family walking weekend in the Peak District by taking a circular stroll around the River Inver (5kms, estimated time 1.5hrs according to the tourism website).

How I ended up on the path to Suilven, I have no idea but there it was, defiantly in the distance, changing colour as the afternoon sun played on its western face – always there and never getting any closer no matter how much I kept walking towards it.

In fact, I walked for two hours, pausing at the “honesty shop” at Glencanisp Lodge where you can make yourself a cup of tea and post the money through a hole in the wall. Then you can drink your tea while leafing through a book showing how a bunch of volunteers spent two years re-making the path and manhandling huge blocks of granite into a giant’s staircase to the summit. Clearly this was a serious undertaking but the more I walked towards the mountain, the more of a compulsion it became to get to the top: It was just so big – so impressive…

In the end of course, common sense re-established itself and I turned round. It was going to be two hours back again and dusk would be falling. Already, there was no longer anyone coming the other way wielding walking poles to dodge while keeping our social distance. This was no place to get lost overnight.

It was not until I was halfway home and met a man loading his mountain bike onto the roof of his car that things got shuffled into proportion. I explained that I would have to come back another time to get to the top. He said it was an eight-hour round trip from where we were standing – that meant ten hours from the harbour.

Ah, I was on a boat… that wasn’t me he had seen coming up the coast yesterday in a tiny little boat?

Well, not that tiny – almost ten metres if you don’t mind.

But he had watched me bashing to windward at the same time as a big ketch was heading south with hardly a scrap of sail and going like the clappers. He was impressed. He said: “Well if you can come up here in that weather in a little boat like that, you’ll have no trouble getting to the top of Suilven.”

So that’s settled then. Next year… It’s a matter of pride.

I suppose she is a little boat. That’s Samsara in the middle – Durgan Bay on the Helford River.

9 Responses to Size Matters

  • A hill like that becomes part of you. Even when you’ve been ‘on top’ it still owns a part of oneself. Be wary of that one when there’s ice about. It exacts a toll.

  • John I so enjoy your posts and get, but I guess, a brief glimpse of the ruggedness of Scotland and your adventures.
    I suspect that I will never get the opportunity to sail those waters.
    Wonderful photograph of Samsara lying at anchor in the bay.
    Talking of adventures how did you finally resolve your engine problems of some weeks ago?

    • Engine trouble was probably down to the fuel I bought in Liverpool Marina. They had a big sign up advertising their amazingly cheap price per litre
      No wonder, they hadn’t sold a drop in three months…

      • That reminds me of the boat owner that we met in Greece who had filled up with “cheap” diesel while in Albania. But in his case he had twin super charged engines and had purchased 1000’s Euros worth of diesel. Net result he had to replace all his injectors, empty and clean his tanks and a hefty mechanics bill to boot.

  • On my trip up the east coast this year in my Corribee it made me chuckle as I was always the smallest or one of the smallest boat in harbour and often couldn’t actually see her at all amongst the rest. But she was mine!

  • i love reading your updates. I’m an ex marine from plymouth who’s lived in the far east for 30 years – with a yearning to sail the seas one day again !

  • John, that is a cracking view of Suliven. A mountain that is still on my ‘to do’ list.
    May be next year after all this mayhem has quietened down a bit.
    Keep reefing,
    Steve Taylor

  • Little but good

  • You’ll have loads of us observing you – so better make sure you do!

More Rum

For those who asked about the result of the rum taste test: Marginally, just on the palate, Lamb’s won – but there is more to it than that.

If Lamb’s was going to be a permanent feature, I would have to adapt the bottle-holder to take the distinctive octagonal-shaped bottle. Also, there is the little matter of the £16 price tag (compared to £10 for Aldi’s – or, come to that, Lidl’s own brand).

Admittedly, both of these cheaper versions are only 37% proof, compared to 40%  for Lamb’s. But I’m not trying to get drunk – in fact getting drunk would be a very bad idea. So the extra alcohol is money wasted.

Putting it all together, this means that, when I feel like it and when safely tucked up in harbour (like now, in Kirkwall in the Orkneys), I can justify a second tot.

So, no contest, really…

7 Responses to More Rum

Lost and Found

Being an old boat, Samsara has a proper chart table – big enough for a full-size Admiralty chart folded in half. There’s only one in there now – a rather battered copy of No. 2: British Isles (all the way from Brest to the Faeroes). It sits right at the bottom because I don’t use charts much anymore.

Oh, there are some Imrays trapped forever behind the bookcase but why wrestle with an armful of paper when you can use a screen the size of a paperback.

Actually, I don’t use paperbacks either. I have a Kindle.

…or did have.

And this is where we get to the reason for looking in the chart table. I had searched it thoroughly several times looking for the Kindle which went missing towards the end of August.

As Cal, the villain in Titanic said to his henchman: “Search the ship! There are only so many places she can be.”

There were only so many places the Kindle could be – but believe me, I had searched them all (just as I searched for the brand new snatch block that disappeared three years ago). The chart table was such an obvious place for the Kindle that I searched it several times.

I was only looking in there today because I was after the big heavy shackle that was a key part of my invention for keeping the anchor buoy from wandering off when the tide falls. I took it off because I suspected it was helping the line to wrap itself around the chain. Since we may be here in Loch Shieldaig for several days more waiting for a wind without any north in it that I thought to while away an idle 20 minutes by rigging the shackle again just to make sure.

But where was the big heavy shackle? I only took it off a couple of days ago. It must be somewhere. Everything has to be somewhere…

And the obvious place – the place where things get put if you don’t have a hall table or a fruit bowl, is the chart table.

Here’s what I found in the chart table:

Seven cigarette lighters – six of them working (I now have push-button ignition on the cooker).

Two rubber erasers

A micro-SD card

Watercolour notebook with only the first six pages used.

Watercolour paintbox (dried up).

CO2 cylinder that doesn’t fit any of the lifejackets on board.

A very organised little box containing the nail scissors I had been looking for in my spongebag, half a dozen ballpoint pens including a Mont Blanc that spent a couple of years in the bilges and will never be the same again, a fitting for the Aries lift-up gear which is no longer needed but which I plan to give away if ever I meet someone who could use it, a packet of elastic bands (they could come off the shopping list).

A pair of sunglasses with one lens missing.

A piece of plastic from which I cut a square to help with the fitting of the cooker gimbals and which might be needed again in similar circumstances.

Instructions for fitting the CO2 cylinder which doesn’t fit any of the lifejackets.

A saxophone reed (I play the clarinet).


Spare wallet (for replacing lost wallet when it gets lost).

Bicycle bell (still to be fitted).

A pair of fittings for battery terminals.

A pair of drawing compasses.

Various dried-up notebooks.

Instructions for the radar which I use so rarely, I have to look up how to work it each time.

Piece of teak that split off the toe rail.

Envelope of receipts.

Plastic bag of “important items” – passport, cheque book etc.

Similar plastic bag of instruction manuals that seem get consulted regularly.


… and…would you believe it… The Kindle, accusingly displaying the “battery absolutely flat” symbol.

I couldn’t believe it. I shrieked in delight. I danced around the cabin. I hugged the little block of microchips to my breast. I kissed it.

You must understand the significance of this moment. For more than a month, I had been fretting – wondering if should buy a new one. After all, it was the third that I had lost. The original – the one Tamsin gave me for my birthday, I lost I can’t remember where. The second (all singing, dancing and waterproof) which she gave me for Christmas to replace the first one, I left it on a train not three months later … and now this, the third, which I bought second-hand on eBay because the whole business was getting expensive…

And there it was, in the chart table all the time. It sits opposite me now, it’s little yellow charging light, a beacon of hope for all things lost.

…and sure enough, I found the shackle where I had put it, on the shelf beside the navigator’s seat, underneath all those useful bits of 3mm line with bowlines tied in one end.

As for the snatch block… well, we’ll just have to wait and see. Everything’s got to be somewhere. There are only so many places…




10 Responses to Lost and Found

  • Hi john. I thought it was only me who had that problem. But you should enjoy the delights of such a place because you don’t have the benefit of management to remind you that there is a place for everything and everything should be in its place. Rejoice and have another tot.

  • Amazing! That chart table is obviously a bottonless pit!
    Such a feeling of relief when finding lost things after long searches.

  • When I cleaned out my chart table on “Super Trouper” for the last time before selling her, I found a pair of expensive multi focal glasses that I couldn’t remember ever having or buying?
    Now that has to be just crazy.
    Unfortunately we men have a problem not being able to find things, when in many cases it is staring us in the face when the woman in your life finds it.

    • You’re right: Apparently, men’s inability to see things in front of our noses dates back to the caveman days when the men went out hunting and needed to identify instantly an antelope in just the right position to be killed with a spear – so the caveman had that image already fixed in his mind. The women gathered berries and would need to find them in the middle of the undergrowth. Consequently, when your wife asks you to get a fresh pack of butter from the fridge, you will look for Kerrygold in its green and gold wrapper and not see the silver Lurpak. I blame evolution.

  • Greetings from Lowestoft CC! Hope you get a chance to visit the Orkney Wireless Museum – an absolute gem.

    Chart tables are where padlock keys run away to hide from their owner.

  • Oh brilliant! I do so share your delight in the lost and found department. One day I have promised myself I will do a thorough search of the lockers and create a manifest then put it on a spreadsheet which I shall index alphabetically so that lost items will be just a click away.
    Ho hum!

  • A tale I can identify with.

  • I’ve been mulling over whether – and where – to mount a chart table on my smaller boat. Y’see, I actually LIKE charts, reading them like….well, paperbacks. But the problem is not the chart table per se. It is the Tardis-like chart table drawer I need. And I’d probably need two of them….

    …. for the dividers, and the lengths of 3mm line, the large shackles and the snatch blocks, and so on.

    There’s real pleasure in finding ‘old friends’ which had squirreled themselves away. ‘Heritage’…. in a box.


Wild and totally remote from civilisation is how they describe Loch Scavaig and I am still here. I have sampled all three anchorages and am back in the one they call Loch na Cuilce which is sheltered on all sides (although, as we have learned, the wind does come shrieking off the mountains).

I have been thinking about Ben Gunn. Do you suppose that if Ben Gunn were to be rescued today, it wouldn’t be a piece of cheese he would ask for – but a mobile phone?

In Loch na Cuilce not only is there no mobile signal, there isn’t even an FM radio signal. Currently, I am fascinated to discover whether President Trump will indeed succumb to the Coronavirus he dismissed so lightly. I don’t like to think that I wish anyone ill but, you must admit, it is a fascinating scenario.

Consequently, I have been reduced to prowling the cabin, the little transistor an inch from my ear, trying to catch the very rudimentary news from Absolute Radio which is the only station that reaches here – even on Medium Wave.

And that is why you are getting so many posts all at once. I thought I would get a whole lot published from Tobermory but somehow I didn’t feel like re-living the previous couple of weeks – and, now you have read about the embarrassment in the Sound of Islay, you may understand why. It takes a bit of serenity to put these things into proportion – and there is nothing quite as serene as Loch na Cuilce.

You anchor right in the middle of a pool set deep in the cirque of the Black Cuillins of Skye. Then, if you take the dinghy and tie it to the rather wonky steps for the boat that brings the climbers who stay in the squat, windowless bothy on the shore, you can walk up the hill.

I say “walk” but it is a steep hill and you will need your hands to get up as well as your feet.

At the top, there are views that most people only ever see in photographs. Of course, I took more pictures so that you can see them too. But taking photographs is not the same as standing at the top and breathing in and remembering to stand up straight and thinking: This is what you came for. This is something special. This puts life into perspective.

7 Responses to Perspective

  • Have just read all your recent posts. What an adventure, what an inspirational story. It reminds me of going to Saturday afternoon cinema as a boy and waiting for the next instalment of last week’s action teaser prior to the main event, if you get my DRIFT.
    Scenery is more beautiful than in any other part of the world

  • The ‘williwaws’ there are every bit as violent, when they come, as in the Magellan Strait. I know of a 10m. trimaran, sails down and anchored, that was completely flipped in there. One of the places where having enough rope to run 4 lines to pitons in the rock is very handy.

  • But at least he hasn’t ruined John’s view with a bloody golf course! Apologies to golfers!

    Sounds like the cruise is going very well John. You definitely chose the right direction to go in.

  • Glad you remembered why you went there!

  • I recall three attempts to find decent holding there too. All the best places seemed to have been taken but I didn’t care what others thought as we repeatedly dropped and lifted the hook. We knew about the williwaws that come down off the mountains! But in three days we never saw the tops until leaving for Soay. My word they’re big!! On Soay there used to be an old couple who lived there for the summer – mostly alone except for fishermen who visited. Then there was a party but we had to miss it. What an event that must have been. Unlike you John for us time was ever pressing.

  • Inspirational John.

  • Trump is still with us!

Old Man’s Law

You will have heard of Sod’s Law: If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.

I would like to introduce you to Old Man’s Law which states that if you have lived long enough for Sod’s Law to wreak its havoc on your life, then a third law, the well-known Law of Averages will kick in and dictate that sometimes OId Man’s Law will prevail.

And Old Man’s Law dictates that “If something can turn out well, then it will.”

I like Old Man’s Law – and it has been working it’s magic lately.

If you are reading this in the southern part of the United Kingdom – or, heaven forbid, you are on a boat in the English Channel, you will be well aware that you have had nothing but wind and rain these past few days. Depression after depression has been tracking up the Channel as they were on rails.

I might have been down there. You may remember I was in Liverpool and had to get to Blyth in Northumberland – which, although hardly any distance at all as the crow flies, is a long way round by sea … either to the south, down the Irish Sea, round Land’s End, up the Channel, turn left at the North Foreland, across the Thames Estuary and up the North Sea.

Alternatively, I could go North, up the Irish Sea, through the Hebrides, turn right at Cape Wrath, through the Orkneys, right again and down the North Sea.

The only trouble with that was that it was already getting towards the end of September and the Autumn is not the season for sailing Northern Scotland. However, I reasoned that not only was it a shorter distance but it would be much more interesting, I was not in a hurry, I could pick my weather, take short hops…

And what has happened? The sky is blue, I have just been walking on the Black Cuillin mountains of Skye in my shirtsleeves and looking down on Samsara anchored in the pool of Loch na Cuilce, reflected in the completely still waters.

According to the book, this is “one of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring anchorages in Europe. It is wild and totally remote from civilisation.”

Admittedly, I did have to pay my dues – spending two nights of unsettled weather during which violent katabatic winds rocketed off the mountains which, in heavy weather, according to the old sailing directions ”are capable of blowing an anchor out.”

This did give me a little concern on the second night when there was a gale warning for Sea Area Hebrides – but that covers a lot of sea and, according to the last time the Windy app had a mobile data signal, the worst of the wind would be over in the West.

Besides, the anchors they had in the old days – CQRs and Fishermen – probably would have blown out. A 20kg Rocna on 10mm chain holding a 32ft bought weighing only 5000kg, can be classed as a storm anchor.

Many cruising boats do indeed carry a storm anchor – a massively-oversized brute traditionally stowed in the bilges (the most-central, lowest point to help the trim). This is all very well except for one tiny detail: When the storm arrives in the anchorage, you want that beast well dug into the bottom. You don’t want to have to be getting it out, hauling up the everyday anchor, changing one for the other while you try not to bump into anyone else or, come to that, the inconvenient bit of land you are trying to avoid in the first place…

All the same, I did wake up now and then as the boat snatched at her cable and went charging off across the pool at an angle of heel you would expect from a decent breeze and full sail.

That’s one advantage of being up here out of season. There isn’t anyone else to bump into – not a soul.

6 Responses to Old Man’s Law

  • Love the scenic remoteness in your photos and hearing about the ups and downs of sailing life. Feels like I’m right there too!

  • That’s a VERY wide-angled lens, John, to pull in both the Cuillin Ridge and the anchorage. When last I was there, on a ‘Catapult’, the clegs and midges were so voracious we kept on our wetsuits and double balaclavas. I hope you don’t have that distraction.

  • Stunning photograph John. Captures the remoteness perfectly.
    So enjoying your posts

  • Glad you’re enjoying your voyage, very humorous observation.

  • “There isn’t anyone else to bump into – not a soul.” That’s been the theme up there this year John, In July & August I did not share any of the 13 anchorages I used after leaving St Ives until arriving at Lindisfarne, and there was plenty of room in the marinas as well with the majority of boats I came across single handed with a few couples.

  • Wonderful photo. All the very best. A

The person from Padstow

In a bright yellow suit and a little woolly hat, the Person from Padstow belonged in a woodland glade, possibly sitting on a toadstool.

Also, he positively twinkled with ancient wisdom: Sure he had spent the night in Muck – plenty of times – in this very spot. It would be fine. Everything would be fine…

I wanted it to be fine. It was most urgent that everything should be fine. The One Show would be starting in ten minutes…

You might think that for someone sailing alone in the Hebrides in October and calling at the Isle of Muck which, at not even two miles across, is one of the smaller of the Small Isles – keeping up with popular culture might not be at the top of the agenda.

But no sooner had I set off from Tobermory than a text arrived from my daughter at Leeds University: “On The One Show at 7”

It appeared that the BBC wanted to hear how a typical student house was coping with the COVID restrictions – preferably one full of competitively chatty girls.

Now I wished I had stayed in Tobermory Marina with their really quite good Wi-Fi. Tobermory, with its population of 1,000 boasts a Co-Op and a number of rather good restaurants but the EE mobile signal is rubbish.

On Muck (pop: 38) it was non-existent. However, the book did mention that there was a hotel on the island which welcomed non-residents by prior arrangement. Maybe I could have a beer in their bar and use their Wi-Fi – that was if they had a bar and Wi-Fi… and, also, of course, if they were still open in October. The book offered a phone number (but then, if I’d had a signal, I wouldn’t need to call would I?)

The way I saw it, I would have to anchor in double-quick time, blow up the dinghy and go knocking on the door all within 40 minutes. I just hoped Lottie wouldn’t be the first item on the show. Mel C would be first, surely…

And then: What was that I could see in the little inlet? Surely that was a pontoon? Yes, there was yacht moored already. Hastily, I rigged warps and fenders and coasted up inspecting it through binoculars. It was very low in the water – one of those plastic jobs designed for dinghies but it did have proper cleats. I need at least one good cleat: I drop a loop of line over it with one end secured amidships and the other on the cockpit winch. This holds me alongside while I sort out the rest.

Except, in this case someone had left a rope around the cleat, filling it up completely. I circled again and came up on the other side behind a twin-engined RIB. But on this side there just wasn’t enough room – my bow stuck out over the end.

I circled once more – back to the original side. In fact, I circled another three times – that’s how long it took to get the line onto the cleat, poking it with the boathook it in amongst the coils of nasty blue polypropylene.

By the time I was snugged down and ready to go looking for the hotel which, according to the book was a mile away, the Person from Padstow appeared from the other yacht.

I could have asked him if he knew where to find the hotel but something else had come up: Now that I was moored, it was second nature to look at the depth sounder and I was a bit startled to see it reading 5.2metres. I was sure I had made a note that the tide would be going down by 4.1metres.

This meant that at low tide –  at two o’clock in the morning – the sounder would be showing 1.1. Samsara draws 1.5 and with the transducer a bit below the waterline, she hits the bottom when it shows 1.2 (I know this from bitter experience).

In other words, staying where I was, I would be woken shortly before two in the morning with a bump. After all, this was not the East Coast where the first you know about it is when you fall out of bed as the boat heels over onto the mud. No, this would well be a bone-jarring crash as the swell dropped her onto a solid Scottish rock bottom.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” said the person from Padstow. “I’ve been here three or four times and that’s never happened to me.”

He drew I.2 metres – but he was further inshore than I was. On the other hand, he looked as though he knew what he was talking about. If he was sure, then it was alright by me – even if it was by now, far too late to walk ashore, find the hotel, explain my strange request and catch Lottie’s TV debut. The beer would have to be at home after all.

The beer is a bit of a ritual at the end of the day – served in a glass, accompanied by Pringles – with music and a book. Best of all, I had just started Neil Hawkesford’s long-awaited third volume A Foolish Escape.

But The Clyde Cruising Club’s Sailing Directions and Anchorages was still open on the chart table. Before putting it away, I read once more through the section on Muck. Now I realised why I had a been so surprised to see the pontoon: I had already dismissed it because the book said: “There is a pontoon belonging to Marine Harvest which can be used by shallow-draft vessels and dinghies”.

Shallow draft? That’s less than 0.7 metres. Moreover, we were not ten days past the equinox with one of the biggest tides of the year.

I went and knocked on the other boat: “The book says this pontoon is only for shallow draft vessels and we’ve got a really big tide tonight. I’m going to anchor off.”


And so I did. It was pitch dark by then but the fishermen, being helpful, had stuck reflective tape to their mooring buoys. I found an empty spot and retired to cook up a mushroom stroganoff so that I could have rice with it and try out my new plastic sieve. I’d bought it in Tobermory after melting the last one in a frying pan that turned out not to be cold after all.

At anchor, the motion was much more gentle with no warps to snatch at the pontoon in the swell. Besides, I would be up at 0630 to catch the tide going North. I didn’t want to be woken up at 0200 as well.

I never did find out whether the Person from Padstow got dropped on a rock.

1 Responses to The person from Padstow

  • Hi john we have just read with great pleasure your latest update. It seems you are having a wonderful time. Do take great care though, we remember a tale told to us some years ago by a chap who ended up keel side up somewhere near Where you are. We thought it would be nice to see the area ourselves then realised that there is too much cold wet stuff involved for confirmed land lubbers like us. Hope to catchup soon pands

Don’t panic II

When the engine stopped just as I was getting away from Port Askaig, I could have scrambled to get back in. In the light of events, maybe that is what I should have done – but instead, I turned the key again, the engine started once more as if nothing was the matter and so I assumed it knew best.

All the same, I did hoist some sails very smartly indeed. And sure enough we had a cracking sail up to Mull… until the wind died again. With only ten miles to go it seemed a good idea to motor the last bit.

That was when I started to worry once more. Sure enough, after about an hour, the steady thump of the diesel paused, stuttered… and stopped.

I turned the key. It started again.

This was all very well in the open sea. What would I do if it happened just as I reached my destination.

Tinker’s Hole is one of the most popular anchorages on the west coast of Scotland. What makes it so special is that it is tiny and entirely protected by series of small islands. You tie your dinghy to a rusty ring set into the pink granite cliffs and scramble up to enjoy a vista of complete wilderness.

Threading your way in between the rocks with less than half a cable of space between them is no place to be becalmed if the engine stops.

Curiously, I don’t remember considering that I should call off the visit – head for somewhere sensible that I could sail into (and out of, come to that). I suppose I assumed that both times the engine had stopped, it had started again – and anyway, I would have to be pretty unlucky if it stopped at exactly the wrong moment just as I found myself up-tide of the rock (dries 2.3m) just off the entrance or in the middle of the entrance itself (less than half a cable wide). Before then, I could sling out the anchor – it was only 10 metres deep. Once I was in, I would be anchoring anyway.

The engine waited until I was in before it stopped. In fact, I was no more than a boat-length from the exact spot where I proposed to plant the hook. That was why we were idling in neutral. Clearly, the machinery had decided that if it wasn’t going to be called upon to do anything useful, then it might just as well shut down now… and did.

We ghosted to a halt and I lowered the anchor through five metres of clear water to rest nicely between two patches of weed. Now all I had to worry about was getting out again. Still, that could wait for the morning.

But in the morning the only other boat in the anchorage had gone. Samsara was all alone and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a photograph. So, straight after breakfast, it was into the dingy to row over to the rocks no more than 15 metres away and then climb up through the bracken and over the heather to the hill where – apart from spectacular views, it occurred to me there might be a mobile signal.

There wasn’t.

I stayed four nights in Tinker’s Hole which must be a record. There was a good deal of fussing over the engine but I couldn’t for the life of me find anything wrong with it. In the end, it seemed the obvious course would be to put into Tobermory before heading off into any more wilderness. There would be a mechanic in Tobermory, for sure. Besides, it has to be one of the prettiest harbours anywhere with all the houses painted different colours.

However, until I had a reliable wind, I wasn’t going anywhere.

This meant that on the second day, I packed some sandwiches, a can of beer and a Mars bar and set off on an expedition, returning five hours later utterly exhausted. The scramble up the hill the previous day had been the easy bit. This time I stumbled through shoulder-high undergrowth, climbed cliffs, fell into ravines and more than once wondered what I would do if I broke a leg.

In the end I came to “The Community of Erraid”. In happier times, I would have said hello but we don’t do that any more, do we? There was a tube of hand-sanitising gel on the gate to remind me. This is what it must have been like travelling during the time of the plague.

I have since looked them up. On the Isle of Erraid, live a small community who, in their own words conduct “a dynamic experiment where everyday life is guided by the inner voice of spirit, where we work in co-creation with the intelligence of nature and take inspired action towards our vision of a better world.”

If this had been in ordinary times, I imagine I would have a lot more to tell you about them. All I can say is that I saw people at a distance and we waved to each other.

That’s just sad…

Meanwhile, the longer I stayed in Tinker’s Hole, the more time I had to worry about getting out. For a start I wasn’t going to attempt it until we had some wind (hence the four days). At one point, I had decided I would have the kedge anchor on deck, the dinghy towing astern ready to row the anchor out to haul myself off the rocks if the wind should die at the wrong moment. In the event, I did no such thing but sailed out with the engine ticking over without the slightest problem.

But I was going to have to do something about this. My nerves couldn’t take much more…

9 Responses to Don’t panic II

  • Lovely photo. I hope you find the cause of your engine problem.

  • What a truly scarey set of circumstances, makes my leaking loo seem very tame! Wonderful photo’s though.

  • As a non sailor but with a very strong interest from land I have found these last blogs a rivetting read thankyou. As an ex mechanic can understand frustrations with engine many a breakdown call out only not find fault with diesel engine running when arrived.One ambition is to get out to sea.

  • Hi John,
    I have been following your voyage with keen interest and fully understand your embarrassment with a failed engine and having to issue a Pam Pam. Never happened to me fortunately, but a good sailing buddy had a similar experience as he was in the congested waters coming into Poros harbour Greece. Greek ferry skippers can get very excited and having the Coast Guard yelling at you “that you can’t anchor there” just added to the bedlam!
    As I was reading your engine travails, and as the fuel filter looks clean and I presume the fuel pump has tested OK, then perhaps you should look to your fuel tank for sludge/algae build up. Over the years it can build up and can block the outlet. I once had to throw half a tank of fuel away (not literally) and get the tank cleaned as it had ugly black sludge coagulated at the bottom.
    But hopefully you have sorted the problem by now?
    btw your last AIS signal seems to have been 11:31 on 3/10/2020 according to Marine traffic site?
    You were just off the island of Rum at the time

  • Well done for getting into Tinkers Hole..and you must have got out as you said there was no signal…similar turned out that an “olive” connector was not tight enough or had worked loose and was letting air into the engine and causing it to stop. The engineers in Cherbourg agreed that one’s usual engine checks would not have discovered it. Think they used soapy finding a puncture in tyre. So, it would be interesting to find out what was the cause. Our engine at the time was a Beta and the Nanni is built around the same Kubota block.
    Keep well, stay safe and which was better Lambs or Aldi?

  • Sounds familiar to me too! I had a similar Nanni engine problem and it turned out to be the exhaust elbow almost completely blocked solid with carbon. Took an experienced marine engineer many hours to establish this.
    I’m in Largs Yacht Haven at the moment getting to know a Bavaria 33 I picked up here last week.

  • Sounds familiar! At least, when everything possible has been tried and the wretched thing doesn’t work at all, one can passage plan with that certainty in mind.

    The surroundings sound gorgeous. Very jealous!

Dont Panic!

Talk about leisurely… all I had to do was get up in time for lunch and then motor the 20 miles to the entrance to the Sound of Islay. There was the little (but magnificently named) Am Far Eilean Bay just at the entrance where you can anchor for the night before catching the tide as it begins its race through the sound after breakfast.

And it does race – five knots at springs.

If you have read my ramblings about ocean calms, you will know that I don’t like to use the engine except for getting in and out of harbour but then, if you have a thousand miles to go, what’s the point?

Twenty miles, on the other hand is a different matter – especially if the difference means having to wait another day for the wind.

I turned the key. The worshipful Nanni rumbled into life with due obedience. This is worth noting because once or twice over the past week or so, it had developed something of a stutter – slowing down before resuming its business (and increasing my heart rate at the same time).

Anyone would think this was a fuel blockage. I know all about fuel blockages. What happens is that the stuttering becomes more frequent until eventually the engine stops and you have to turn the key again. Eventually, if nothing is done, obedience goes out of the window.

We hadn’t reached that stage yet. Sometimes you never do. But it was something to keep an eye on as we puttered out of the bay and through the little passage inside the island of Texa (or Caolas an Eiolein) as I had learned to call it.

It’s fairly dull business, motoring. I suppose that’s the reason motor cruisers go so fast, creating enormous wakes that shake the wind out of sails – motorboat drivers can’t wait to get somewhere.

I  didn’t have the luxury: Putt-putt-putt at four-and-a-half knots past the Laphroaig distillery and the Lagavulin distillery (they have their names painted on their walls in enormous letters), each with it’s plume of blue peat smoke hanging in the air.

To seaward, the Mull of Kintyre was a sort of purple colour on the horizon. They’re certainly right about the scenery up here. I would have liked to see a submarine, though – apparently they’re as common as seals because of the base at Faslane. All I got was another yacht going the other way – a Halberg-Rassey with it’s distinctive blue stripe and reinforced windscreen. About 35ft at a guess – and it had to be a guess because he didn’t have his AIS switched on; that would have told me… and his name too…

It was past teatime when we got to the entrance to the sound and the engine stopped.

It stuttered once and then stopped – and this time, it didn’t start again.

Now, a loss of power shouldn’t worry a sailing boat – unless it happens in the middle of a tricky manoeuvre in a marina surrounded by a lot of gleaming potential insurance claims or, perhaps, in a narrow channel strewn with rocks and with a five knot tide running just when a flat calm renders the sails useless.

And it did. There was not even a ripple as Samsara glided slowly to a halt.

Of course, she didn’t really glide to a halt. She just halted in the water – and the water was moving inexorably into the Sound.

Obviously, I turned the key again. The engine groaned but didn’t chug.

I checked the tank: Nearly full. I checked the glass bowl under the first fuel filter – yes, full of fuel with a tiny layer of water at the bottom where it should be. What else could I do? I have little expertise in electrics – but once the starter-motor starts turning, a diesel doesn’t need electricity. Could it be the fuel pump? If it was, what could I do about it here and now?

And come to that “here” was not where it had been. Before I removed the engine casing and started peering into the mysteries within, we had been moving at 0.3knots into the Sound. By the time I emerged having achieved nothing, this has risen to 0.5.

Admittedly this is far short of the frantic five knots found in the narrows. But it has to work up to that – and quite clearly, the process had begun. What made it alarming was that one of the interesting aspects of the Sound of Islay is Black Rock.

An extraordinary number of places have a Black Rock. Maybe this is because most rocks are, indeed, black – or maybe it just sounds more scary. Falmouth has one in the middle of the harbour entrance.

The Sound of Islay’s black rock and it’s attendant reef is marked by a green buoy to stop people running into it. But, of course, this is only if that someone has some control over where they’re going.

As with all things to do with the sea, there is a correct course of action when you find yourself setting off somewhere but have no control over exactly where and that is to throw out your anchor. Grab a hold of the bottom. Stay put.

I looked at the depth recorder: 42metres. I carry 50 metres of chain so it would reach the bottom but no anchor will hold with the chain vertical – that’s how you get it up. So, I couldn’t anchor. Yet, now the progress up the Sound and in the direction of Black Rock was up to 0.6kts.

What I needed was a tow.

That was how I came to think of the Halberg-Rassey which had been going the other way not a quarter of an hour earlier. In fact I could see him in the distance. Anybody who has a boat like that is bound to be a decent type. He would give me a tow, I was sure of it – take me back into Port Ellen where I could find an engineer. Should I take him a bottle of malt as a thank-you?

Except, of course, he was far too far away to hail – or to see me if I were to stand on the foredeck brandishing a coil of rope which is the sailor’s equivalent of a hitchhiker’s thumb (and worked so well when the engine stopped in a similar calm on my very first outing with Samsara back in 2017).

I would have to call him on the radio. But who to call? If his AIS had been switched on, I would have known his name. As it was, I could hardly broadcast: “Halberg-Rassey sailing yacht to the south-east side of Islay, possibly making for Port Ellen….”

I could do an “All ships” broadcast. Maybe there would be another yacht about – or a kindly fisherman…But in that case, I would have to announce that I required assistance: The correct procedure would been to preface it with “Pan-Pan” which is the radio code for “Urgency” just as “Mayday” is “Emergency”. The trouble with that is that it all begins to become rather official and the next thing you know, the Coastguard will get involved and the Coastguard’s default procedure is to call out the Lifeboat.

I didn’t want the Lifeboat. I would die of shame.

On the other hand the little red arrow on the screen was still pointing resolutely into the Sound – and in the Sound was Black Rock – waiting… (possibly salivating…)

I stood in the companionway, the engine casing open in front of me, the VHF radio switched on.  Channel 16, the calling channel, glowing on the screen.

That was when I asked myself what was the sensible thing to do. Forget dying of shame and being self-sufficient and taking responsibility and all that. What was the sensible thing to do?

It was a question I have grown very used to over the past three years: The boat is pounding into a rising wind and sea, every elderly joint is protesting, the rigging is bar-taught. Reefing means you must struggle into foul-weather gear and go crawling up the deck to reef. What is the sensible thing to do?

Or you have returned too late and find the dinghy on the other side of the sand bar which separates St Agnes from The Gugh in the Isles of Scilly. The tide is racing across it, already thigh-deep and doing four knots. The book says it is dangerous to attempt a crossing at such times. What is the sensible thing to do?

You are helpless, becalmed and with no engine. You are being sucked into a ten mile stretch of water, only half a mile wide at its narrowest – and if there is a chance of missing black rock on the way up, remember the tide will turn in two hours and sweep you back again for another go… and by the way it will be dark by then…

What is the sensible thing to do?

I took the microphone and thumbed the Transmit button: “Pan-Pan…”

To give Belfast Coastguard their due, they waited for my second broadcast and then a few minutes after that to see if any of the “all ships” might offer a tow before they waded in and “tasked” the Islay Lifeboat to come to my assistance.

Of course, once I knew I was saved, I regretted most bitterly causing such a fuss. If I could have done it without the certainty of even more embarrassment, I would have called again and told them  to cancel everything – rather as one were deciding not to go out for dinner after all and so wouldn’t be needing a taxi home.

Instead, while I waited, I dismantled the fuel filter and found it as clean as when it came out of the box.

Then the Lifeboat arrived and passed me a hawser as thick as my wrist. They would take me to Port Askaig, they told me. The little ferry port is half way up the sound. With the tide, it took no time at all, keeping to the west side, away from Black Rock and warping me round with utmost efficiency to lie again the harbour wall.

The shore crew were there, of course – all the guys who hadn’t made it in time for the launch. As with all lifeboats crewed by volunteers and supported by public donations, everyone was as friendly and helpful as could be – and also, as understanding when I kept on embarrassing myself by saying how embarrassed I was and how sorry to have troubled them. I had panicked, I said – the five knot tide… Black Rock…

“Oh aye,” they told me. “Black Rock. That’s no place to be around without your engine…”

Come to that, was there an engineer in Port Askaig?

“Oh aye, we’ll send Peter to you. Peter’s from the garage. He’s our mechanic.”

And sure enough, half an hour later, Peter appeared. He would be glad to have a look. Would tomorrow morning at 7.15 suit me?

Well, if it wasn’t too early for him…

I spent a miserable night of recriminations. How is it that only after the event, you realise what you should have done?

Of course I could have anchored – not with the 20kg bower anchor and the 50metres of chain but with the lightweight kedge. It’s an aluminium Fortress with amazing holding power and designed to be used with just a short length of chain and then rope on a 5:1 scope – which, at the point when the engine stopped, meant that I would have needed 210 metres of rope. It sounded an awful lot. But I could manage to find 210 metres from somewhere, surely. Think about it: 50 metres of its own warp, plus 30 metres for the drogue I lost off Guernsey last year. Then I had two 15metre spinnaker sheets, various mooring warps totalling another 45metres. I could take off the mainsheet. That must be 20 metres… nearly there. What else have I got? There’s some skanky old stuff at the bottom of the Lazarette – say 20 metres in all. That takes me to 175… I’ve got miles of 8mm line but you can’t anchor a five tonne boat on 8mm. Of course! I had the headsail sheets, each of those is ten metres – that’s 195. Come on, come on, there must be another 15 metres somewhere. How about the topping lift – I could always go up the mast and put it back later…

Of course I could have anchored and waited for the wind. I’d have been fine – and then, when the wind returned, I could have sailed back to Port Ellen – even if it was dark. And there would be a mechanic there in Port Ellen. He might have a boat of his own to come out and see me – or surely I could organise a tow into the marina…

By the time I’d dwelt on all this and done the arithmetic, my brain would not let me go back to sleep – still, Peter was turning up a 7.15…

At seven o’clock, I had the engine casing off and everything ready for him to fix.

By 7.30, there was no sign of him – and I was beginning to think how much more embarrassing this could get if he turned up and the engine started. I ought to try it.

Of course it did start. It ran as smoothly as ever. I let it run, almost willing it to stutter and stop. But now, as Johnny Cash would have said, that engine ran just like a song.

There was nothing for it, I had to call and cancel Peter: There is nothing more difficult for a mechanic than finding a fault when it’s not there. But I didn’t have Peter’s number. There were people in the Lifeboat building, none of them remotely surprised that Peter had not turned up – and now he would have started on his day’s work at the garage…

On the phone he was as affable as ever – and pleased the problem seemed to be solved.

More to the point, it was still early enough to take the last two hours of tide out of the sound and get to Tinker’s Hole before a North Westerly gale arrived tomorrow.

It was only after I had cast off and was manoeuvring backwards that the engine stopped…


1 Responses to Dont Panic!

Must be avoided.

It’s a terrible thing to have to admit but the Pilot book for the Hebrides was still in the bookcase. This revered collection of wisdom, researched over generations by the bewhiskered gentlemen of the Clyde Cruising Club is said to be essential for sailors in these unpredictable northern waters.

Now I was out of the Irish Sea, maybe it was time to get serious – to stop navigating by mobile phone as if I was in an unfamiliar high street and Googling “pub near me” – and since I would be going north rather than south to get from one side of the country to the other, I had it fixed in my mind that I wanted to go to Tinker’s Hole.

Tinker’s Hole, on the far western extremity of the Island of Mull, had been a must-see destination for years. The new generation of Clyde Cruising Club gentlemen describe it as one of the most popular on the west coast: “In places it is less than half a cable wide and on the east side the shore consists of sheer walls of pink granite.”

All I had to do was get to it. Meanwhile, Islay was in the way. I’ve been to Islay – pleasant enough and lots of whisky but when you’ve done one distillery tour…

The obvious thing to do was keep plugging on: I was already two days out from Carlingford Lough, what was another 24 hours? I set a course to round the twin peninsulars of The Oa and Orsay at the end of the Rhinns of Islay. By the time I got there I would have a hatful of wind – force seven on the nose according to the forecast – but once I turned the corner, it would be with me. I set a waypoint a mile off the Oa, adjusted the Aries and Samsara romped off on her adventure.

Since she didn’t need me, I thought it might be a good idea to get the book out – after all, some of these islands up here set up tidal races off the headlands…

What did I find: “Because of overfalls, both the Oa and the Rhinns of Islay should be passed at a distance of several miles”.

But, clearly, that might not be enough to make the pluckier mariner see sense, so there was this as well: “Some of the worst overfalls in the UK extend for up to 8miles WSW of Orsay where there is an underwater cliff 50-75metres high. With any sea running at all the area must be avoided.”

OK, point taken. I slipped into Islay’s Kilnaughton Bay just as the sun was setting.

A good dinner followed by a taste-test to compare Lamb’s Navy Rum with Aldi’s £9.99 alternative, an episode of the new series of Ghosts on iPlayer – and not having to wake up every 20 minutes all through the night… sheer luxury (even though I’ll have to watch Ghosts again because I fell asleep.)


3 Responses to Must be avoided.