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 were 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.

49 Responses to 3,629 miles of isolation

  • Enjoyed reading this, would be great to read more.

    • Have you been informed about the 100 kilometer ban on boats less than 49 feet in length ,apparently orcas have been attacking small boats in north west Spanish waters

      • Yes, I read about this. The first time I head of it was back in 1988 when a fellow-competitor in the OSTAR, Dave Sellings, was sunk by a group of 200-300 pilot whales (at least that’s what he thought they were). According to a marine biologist these attacks could just be adolescents having fun – rather like teenage gangs of humans like to go on the rampage. I just hope it’s not the ocean population taking revenge on us land-dwellers for what we’ve done to their habitat…

  • Waiting for the book to read

  • Please write the book.

  • Great stuff, Lockdown is why I sold all my cars and bought a sailboat.

  • Many thanks for this account… good to hear that there is real life out there after 70…!

    • Uncle John what a fantastic read yes a book beckons with lots of your wonderful pictures all the best Captain Blackbeard

  • Amazing, I have a plan to do the same in my wooden Twister.
    What’s your boat?

  • Good trip well done and thoroughly enjoyed your account of it, would be very interested to know what stores you took for 42 days at sea?

    • Thank you. Actually, I had provisions for 106 days (245,367 calories) because I intended to be away until this Covid19 thing was all over. I imagined that would be at the end of the summer. The trip was cut short because of the mainsail damage and I didn’t fancy flopping around in the Azores High with only a trysail. The stores list is in several parts (as I kept adding to it) and written in a notebook rather than available to cut and paste. But I can tell you that it included 50 cans of beer and 49 tins of sardines. I should have bought fresh mung beans (after two years, they don’t sprout) and eight jars of peanut butter turned out to be overkill…

  • Sounds like one hell of an adventure – I look forward to reading the long form book!

  • Hola John, thank you for sharing your experience, next time I’ll copy

  • Good to hear from you as ever, John. Somewhat more adventurous than many of us left house maintaining instead of boat maintaining and sailing.

  • Thoroughly enjoyed your story , i anchored at walton back waters many years ago ,as i sat in the cockpit enjoying a bernard cornwell book the sun was setting and the evening was magical , it dawned on me that the story that i was reading was set around that area ,my imagination ran riot and i swear i heard the sound of the viking axe and the swords of Alfreds men clanging away .

    Solo sailing is the best form of self isolating that a man could experience

  • Good man John,
    Entertaining as always. I really enjoyed that read….whetted the appetite for a whole lot more. Glad you got the mainsail sorted. I am looking forward to hearing the saga of the Mainsail. You know where my Rival is if you need any ‘spares’.

    Fair Winds and Following seas,

    Con Brosnan

  • Well done John. Quite an Odyessy! Look forward to hearing more details. It looks like you have made Falmouth now. Hope you get a good rest and can get hold of that new mainsail. By the way I see that Ebay has a Flavel on it. I replaced my trusty one last year just before the JBC and was lucky enough to find one from a river motor boat so no corrosion! I got one day’s sailing in last week – the first of the lockdown so you are well ahead! I hope to get Arctic Smoke lifted and her engine reinstalled at the weekend. Very best and hopefully may see you somewhere later this year. Tom

  • Well done. I will read the rest later. A beginning of a book I feel. Just wonderful,Love from Gayle Force in Cornwall.x.

  • Thank you for your story! I would read your book – the story of how you shredded the main for starters.

  • Low on provision or limited ability to prepare food makes for interesting combinations and you were obviously pressed when considering tuna fish and Nutella! Fun read – thanks

  • Hi John,
    I think you have achieved the best solution to “self shielding”. I am in the “Weald of Kent” on a caravan site, it’s not good.
    Good luck with your travels, would love to read the book when you publish it.

  • Well, that was more exciting than our lockdown! An excellent read and I look forward to reading more of the same. All the best, John.

  • Great to hear about your latest adventure, but sounds like it didn’t run to smoothly towards the end.

  • Hi John, Wow! What an adventure. My boat never makes it further than the heads of Sydney Harbour!
    Well worth a world pandemic to read this!

  • Keep going John. I want to read more.

  • Well, that’s ticked a box!

  • Yes. Great read.

  • ‘Twas a pleasure to read, JP, and I look forward to the Longform version.

  • That was great John glad you didn’t stay in the Walton backwaters. Fair winds I look forward to a copy

  • Brilliant!

  • + 1 more copy here John!

    • Best read I’ve had all quarantine.
      Thank you and wishing you a healthy year.

  • Great read John, well done

  • Most interesting read for several months, I look forward to more please.

  • Wow. You are amazing. Yes please

  • A great read. Good to hear from your

  • I’d love to hear more of your isolation tales

  • I’ll have a copy please John, a great story that I look forward to reading in full! Thanks for sharing this snippet…

  • Well that sure is one heck of a way to self isolate! Glad you’re here to tell the story, and a great story indeed it is.
    Fair winds and calm seas to you.
    …. & may you get your cooker cooking and get a cup-a (tea) of for yourself.

  • I enjoyed reading that. Looking forward to reading a long form yarn from you in the future. How did the mainsail get that new shape?

  • Respect to a very inteligent man!

  • that was a brillant inspiring read John. Keep it up, all the best from Ireland

  • That’s quite a story John and I salute you! Keep posting.

    John Willis
    S/V Pippin

  • That sounds like one helluva adventure during this time. Did the thought of being the sole survivor on earth ever cross your mind the way I do when isolated for long periods of time? I have been anchored in a remote bay in Mexico for 12 weeks but I occasionally see someone now and then. I am so ready to get back to normal but then again will this virus spread even worse? All we can do is wait to see because I have no clue if it’s going to get better or all go South. I know one thing for sure, I feel safer knowing I can sail into the sunset if things get crazy. We may not be welcomed at foreign countries but hopefully we will find someplace to reprovision before feeling lost at sea.

    • hi John, we from the two masted Kalim spent isolation in the channels of Patagonia and Chiloé, but no way we could make of it a story as fun as yours! Bravo for the sailing and great work on the paper, keep at it. Cheers

  • Bravo!