The three Frenchmen came roaring up in their RIB and cut the motor alongside so that they lay rocking on their own wake – the harbour suddenly silent, 9.9hp on tickover.

“Do you want a lift?” said the helmsman.

“Do you want a lift?” said the bowman, not realising I had turned down the offer from the helmsman.

The third one just looked, eyebrows up under the brim of his baseball cap. After all, it is the best part of a quarter of a mile from the dinghy dock at Mindelos’s floating bar to the anchorage. Why would anyone be rowing?

But I was – and I carried on.

It’s not that I don’t possess an outboard motor. I have written in the past about my little electric job – and then wrote again saying how I had taken to using it for an extra push when rowing into the wind (like an electric bike going uphill).

But now I realise I haven’t used it since the Canaries two months ago – and I’m not sure I ever will again. The acid test came in the anchorage off the deserted island of Santa Luzia. Two hundred yards away was Ruffian of Amble with Iain and Fiona, who have been living aboard for the last four years and are currently heading in the general direction of Surinam. Would I like to come for dinner?

So, here was the decision to make: Should I ship the outboard, or could I trust myself to row back in the dark against the wind.

The wind, I should point out, is not the same in the Cape Verdes as it is in other places. It has a habit of shrieking down the mountains and through the valleys. Gusts of 35 knots are fairly routine. Could I row my tiny inflatable against a 35knot gust? Obviously not – but on the other hand, a gust, by definition, does not last long. Once the wind drops to something reasonable, I would have no trouble.

At this point, I should explain that it was important that I got this right. If failed to row to windward, broke an oar or whatever, the next stop would be Brazil.

The Royal Cruising Club’s guide to the Atlantic Islands points out that rescue services in the Cape Verdes should be assumed to be non-existent (rather in the way that lighthouses round here should be assumed unlit).

Iain and Fiona, of course, have a big RIB for a dinghy and a powerful outboard but they would have to launch it to come to my rescue – that was if I had some way of alerting them that I needed rescuing. Should I take the hand-held VHF with me? Don’t be ridiculous. I had a torch and I’m sure we all knew the morse code for SOS…

Of course, in the event I got there and back for risotto in the cockpit with no mishaps – indeed, I am pleased to say that in one truly ferocious gust, I checked my transits and am proud to say that I was not losing any ground at all (even if I was rowing like the Cambridge crew the year they sank).

But, as John Noakes used to say: DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME!

If you take your little inflatable out of its box and try to row it into 35 knots, two things will happen:

First, you will find that the oars are too short to get any real leverage. To compensate for this, the manufactuer will have made them good and wide … which means that in a choppy sea, they will keep on hitting the waves on the back-stroke and stop you dead in your tracks.

So you will have to row harder – much harder than the designer imagined when drawing up the scantlings for the plastic rowlocks.

Which will break – and off you go to Brazil…

This, I was confident, would not happen to me. I have upgraded my little inflatable. My little inflatable is the Toyota Lancruiser of little inflatables.

Here’s what you do: Get some stainless rowlocks made up to the pattern of the plastic ones – this is not difficult or expensive.

Secondly, buy longer oars in the shape of proper boat race sculls, with low-profile blades incorporating a professional curve to give a kick to the end of every stroke.

Finally, keep the old oars, and on an inky black night with the wind shrieking over the mountains and nothing under your lee but 3,000 miles of Atlantic, sling a spare one in the bottom of the boat. It’s handy for manoeuvring at the jetty, and it might just save all that faffing about with “is it dot,dot,dot,dash,dash,dash or is it dash,dash,dash,dot,dot,dot…”

Next, for singlehanders: once you have a crew hanging half their bum over the transom, you will be going nowhere.

And for old singlehanders: After old age begins to bite, you will find that your muscles begin to atrophy. Your once-powerful biceps become little sticks; your broad shoulders shrink until you start buying girly T-shirts in the market.

But rowing is good exercise.

8 Responses to Rowing

  • John

    I am always interested to see where you are in the world so follow you on one of the sites that track shipping movements
    I notice that sometimes you disappear for a while . As do others , including the Queen Mary 2 !

    Are not the devices on the vessels on all of the
    time or just when the master of the vessel chooses !

    Just curious to know.


  • You mentioned in a video posted by my old boat about some concoction, cured your eyesight and you now plan to sail with a century behind you. To what were you referring?

  • Hi john. It just seems to me that with a little ingenuity you should be able to fix up a pedal driven prop to the transom so you could use arm’s and legs. The effects could be rather dramatic, think along the lines of those chaps in the Far East who strap a V8 onto a long pole.This would have multiple benefits, it could ease the load on the arms whilst building leg muscle. It would also leave the hands free to take light refreshments (beer) and if required, i would estimate a top speed of perhaps 12 knots, which equals more time for life’s essential’s.

  • Enjoying all your posts. How about fitting one of those sliding seats, so that you can bend your knees and really put your back into the stroke

  • This is the kind of situation we all get cold shivers about afterwards.
    “I must have been mad!!!”
    “How could I have taken such a huge chance?”
    “How come I still haven’t learned that the things that go wrong are NEVER on the mental list I prepare for”

  • Your principled and very British response to the Frenchmen is applauded. I do hope you offered them a ‘libation’ in return for their civilised courtesy to an oldie. They need all the civility they can get from us Brits.
    And it’s also worth addressing the contents of that small plastic box of ‘might be needed’ bits you throw into your rubberdubber every time – including a spare liferaft fabric drogue. That alone will reduce the search area by an Order Of Magnitude/factor of ten.

On passage

Atlantic sunset en route to the Cape Verdes

It seems ages since I did this: I’m sitting on the lee berth, laptop on my knees, feet braced against the windward – the hatch is just managing to keep the sun off the screen.

Dyna-mite by Mud is playing on Spotify and the beer in the little electric cooler I picked up second hand in Las Palmas is down to 10°C which is a lot cooler than it would be in the bilges, given that the water temperature is 26°C.

Normally, I  would open the beer at 1200 and it’s now 1130, but I might delay that if the writing goes well – anyway, breakfast was late because I didn’t feel like getting up. Why should I? There was nothing that I had to do.

Welcome to the seagoing lifestyle three days into the passage from The Gambia to Sal in the Cape Verde Islands.

Yes, there has been a change of plan. I was going to set off for the Caribbean directly from Africa but what good is cruising if you can’t change your mind?

Anyway, there was the little matter of provisioning in Banjul market: what I thought were potatoes weren’t potatoes at all – not even sweet potatoes. I don’t know what they were but they had the consistency of stone and a bitter taste that suggested they might have been medicinal.

Also, The Gambia being a predominantly Moslem country, beer was a problem and I won’t sail anywhere without beer. Eventually, I found an Indian shop with something called Cody’s. It said it was imported from Germany (possibly because the German’s refused to drink it).

No, much better to stock up in the Cape Verdes – the supermarket in Mindelo is 536 miles to the northwest but that is a mere detail when all you have to do is haul up the anchor and set the sails.

As the crews of Ceruean and Ruffian explained over Christmas lunch, if you check in at Sal, you can sail downwind through islands with sand dunes, pristine beaches and groves of date palms. This also avoids going to Praia.

Praia, on the island of Santiago has always had a dodgy reputation: Don’t just lock up your dinghy at night, lock yourself in the cabin as well. In Cerulean’s cockpit, I met Peter, the German skipper who had called there in the spring with a medical emergency. After depositing his crewmember in the local hospital, and returning to the boat, he woke up in the middle of the night to find himself facing five guys with machetes.

They tied him up, ransacked the boat, held a knife to his throat until he gave them his internet passwords…

Later, monitoring the emails they were sending using his address, he discovered they were trying to buy a car from his bank account  – a transaction that required a photo of the buyer’s passport.

Since Peter happened to be a retired Hamburg policeman, he recognised a clue when it smacked him over the head. Gleefully, he passed the photo on to the Praia police department – apparently, he is still waiting to hear what they’ve done about it.

So, don’t go there.

But Sal is alright. Sal is just fine – best of all, the course puts the trade wind free enough to carry the spinnaker.

This is kind of weird because, along with the enormous, diaphanous spinny, I have hoisted the trysail, the tiny, tough bright-orange storm sail. This is because, on the first day out from the Canaries en route to The Gambia, I contrived to break the gooseneck so, ever since, the boom has been lashed on deck while I look at options for getting it fixed in Grenada.

At the moment the best seems to be a Facebook friend sending me his old one – but finding out if he could get it off the boom wasn’t the top priority in the middle of a family Christmas. So that’s another reason for delaying the crossing.

Meanwhile, we’re still doing five knots in the right direction, the temperature in the cabin is up to 27°C and the beer is still down at 10°C

Even if it is the awful Cody’s stuff.

Spinnaker and trysail – an odd combination.

18 Responses to On passage

  • I enjoy your blog and I ve also read your book which is great
    I have been diagnosed lately with failing eyesight so although i am sailing down the Aegean Sea with my Nordship 32 I dont know how long i would be able to do so( Iam 67) so please keep sailing

  • Good stuff, keep it flowing, am putting together your latest videos

  • I’ve worked a lot of hours often two full time jobs. Hit 65 and turned to my wife and said its now or never. We often dreamed of sailing but life kids and work always got in the way. My wife looked at me and said NOW! We bought a 36 foot Bristol built in 1975. A beautiful boat that was meticulously cared for. We took sailing lessons in Florida and then moored our boat on the Hudson river. We spent our first season sailing just to learn and get a feel for the boat. It was just so rewarding. 2022 will be the year we stretch our sails a bit and start traveling. Montauk, Block Island, maybe a trip to Maine. After a day of sailing the muscles sometimes ache but the heart has soared. I have never seen my wife happier.

  • John enjoyed your book many thanks and safe travels

    • Thank you for your kind words. May I ask a favour? If you haven’t done so already, would you leave some Amazon stars? They’re so important. You can do this by going to your Amazon account and finding the book in “My Orders”. I should add that I am trying to light up all the stars by getting the average over 4.75 – so, if you feel the book merits it, five stars would help to do that. Thank you.

  • Great stuff, John. You wrote “…Cody’s. It said it was imported from Germany (possibly because the German’s refused to drink it).” Reminds me of France years ago when every visitor was offered a Gauloise cigarette which were pretty foul – it was considered that the French were trying to get everyone to smoke the fags in order to get rid of them!

    • Pierre Helias

    • Hello, of course I am French, and the Gauloise cigarette is the cigarette you have to smoke if you want to have any kind of discussion, the smoke is blue in color and putrid, but it’s what it is. Not for the timid. The P4, pack of 4, (sold to 12 years old in the sixties) which is made for left over of Gauloise manufacturing is what you smoke. Camel without filter is close.
      I stop smoking 32 years ago….

  • Hi John, I enjoy reading your blog. Hats off for going on these adventures. I am new to sailing and really enjoy saling around here in Cape Town, South Africa on my Peterson/Contention 33.

    Keep the posts and photos coming, I have told many of my locals of you and your website. Keep it up and be safe.

    Corné Els

  • Hi John
    I just saw a picture of a guy enjoying a pint in the Gambia !!!!
    Keep the blogs coming. Cheers John Wilky

  • Not sure you are fully equipped if you don’t have a case of Adnams with trip and fair winds.

  • Still folliwing the blog JP.
    Have a great trip to the supermarket.
    A couple of days should do it!

  • Love your blog, detailing your adventures, would love to go, but cannot pluck up the courage

  • Such a joy reading your blogs.

  • I so enjoy reading your blog! Thank you! From a cold snowy N.Ireland

  • Another cracking instalment! Was this sent from the Maldives??

  • Morning John, we snapped our gooseneck and had a very successful welding job job done on a Caribbean island but I’m sure someone out there has a tig welder for a few beers? Double bonus as rids you of the beer also..!

Then I woke up #1

Old Man Sailing, the book, included accounts of some extraordinarily vivid dreams which I started having once I had been on my own for a while. Whether these were a direct consequence of the enforced solitude, I have no idea – but they went down rather well.

Since this blog is an exercise in pure indulgence (I have no editor to tell me what to write or when – or, come to that, whether it is complete nonsense when I’ve written it) I thought it might be fun to include some more dreams here.

Obviously, this might not be to everyone’s taste so I shall call them all “Then I woke up…” (so that you can ignore them if you choose and just stick to the supposedly serious stuff…)

I was late arriving at Carriçal on the Cape Verdean island of São Nicolau. Carriçal is so small and so isolated that the street lights go out at ten o’clock when the generator switches off. I stuck my head out of hatch and Samsara’s masthead light was the only sign of life. Had it not been for the sound of surf on the beach, I might have been in the middle of an open ocean.

Going to bed, the darkness in the cabin punctuated by tiny, glowing LED lights of various gadgets on charge, I debated the best time to leave for Porto do Tarrafal, 20 miles along the coast. After that, there was another 40 miles to the deserted island of Santa Luzia. I should be able to leave after breakfast…

Odd, that no sooner did I have the anchor up than I set course to the east, rather than the west. Also, I had the wind behind me which was even more strange because the wind in Cape Verdes during January has been blowing from the north east ever since the earth first started spinning – they call it the northeast trades.

Nevertheless, we were going like a train with the sails goose-winged (the boom was no longer broken and lashed to the deck, because in dreams, everything is perfect).

Or not, as will become apparent.

Anyway, we were ploughing along in glorious sunshine doing six and seven knots when I noticed HMS Victory and Portsmouth dockyard to starboard. This was a slight concern because everyone knows that Santa Luzia is further up the English Channel past Newhaven, so the last thing I should be doing is going into Portsmouth Harbour.

Then a high speed launch – customs or coastguard or something – came bouncing across my wake (yes, I was going so fast I set up a wake like a motor-cruiser). He shouted something over his Tannoy – some sort of apology about not being able to raise me on VHF. I ignored him.

I was more concerned with the fact that now I appeared to be in Venice and the canal was getting very narrow – the end of the boom scraping past the houses – startled faces in the windows…

I knew what I could do about this – an old tactic from my Laser days: centre the main – pull it in until the boom is on the centre line. It’s what you do when you find yourself close up behind the boat in front and unable to overtake because this is a race and you have other boats on either side. If you bring the boom onto the centreline, the wind can’t get into the sail and you slow down.

My trouble was that for some reason, the mainsheet was led through the blocks for the headsail furling line and that took it all around the deck – meaning that it was too short for me to reach it without leaving the helm.

So we just went faster and faster. I felt I should be congratulated on remaining calm. Some people might find themselves given over to panic, doing seven knots up the Rio di Palazzo, scattering gondolas like elderly pedestrians before an electric scooter. Yet I remained stoic and philosophical – but then, I knew that when I reached the end of the canal, I would find Chichester Yacht Basin. There would be plenty of room to turn round in Chichester Yacht Basin.

Anyone who knows Chichester Yacht Basin can pick themselves up off the floor, stop laughing and remember this is all a dream.

Anyway, it turned out that Chichester Yacht Basin now featured the Bridge of Sighs, incongruously connecting the palazzo to the nearest of the overpriced new houses they cluster like mushrooms around marinas.

Throwing the helm down at the last moment, I executed a snappy 90° turn and slammed into the 17th Century limestone carvings sideways rather than head-on … for which I felt I should be congratulated.

Instead, I had to put up with a five-minute tirade from the woman in the house telling me that now she wouldn’t be able to get out to collect her children from school because the council had to send someone to inspect the damage every time there was a “bridge strike” (it seemed this happened regularly – which was not surprising: it was a damn silly place for a baroque masterpiece).

I got the sails off, made fast to a couple of gargoyles and accepted her invitation to tea so we could exchange insurance details.

But when I gave her my card, all it told her was the 0800 number to claim her winnings in the Utility Warehouse £20,000 give-away.

Then I woke up.


9 Responses to Then I woke up #1

  • Sounds like a great book. your review make me want to go out and get it today. Thank you!

  • Wonderful! My dream would continue with the woman inviting me into her bedroom… and then I’d wake up!

  • Clearly, Noreen and I are partial to the same Vodka!

  • My 48ft Beneteau becomes adept at “skating” down (and up!!!) tiny streams in a few inches of water, perfectly balanced on the lead bulb which always fits exactly into the available width and slides smoothly on the mud. Perfect! No anchorage too small.

  • Well that beats having Tower Bridge open for me off the Shipwash LV. Mind you, I was at the helm at the time…

  • Perfectly fine with me JP – next time have a few slumbering thoughts on the ‘Cold Market Academy’ 🙂

  • “I’ll have a pint of whatever he’s drinking….”

  • I love it!
    My sailing dreams usually involve traveling on the water for a while and then sailing right up on a muddy shore, down a few muddy roads and trails, and sometimes back on the water. It’s not frightening. My boat and I are just traveling wherever we want to. It’s slow, peaceful, and the colors are always vivid.

  • I do not know what you had for supper but please print the menu