Here we go again.

 

Preston is back in Lockdown, more face-covering regulations are about to come into force for the rest of the country. I’ve had enough of this. I’m off.

I’m supposed to meet my family in Porto in ten days. There’s a following wind. I could be there in five.

The question is: Will they be there to meet me? At the moment anyone returning from Portugal has to self-isolate for 14 days – and they have jobs and studies to go back to.

Me, I don’t have to be anywhere and quite honestly, I’d rather be elsewhere.

So here’s the plan: As soon as a new pump for the galley arrives (delayed by fog in the Scillies) I shall head south, get close enough to the Portuguese coast to make a phone call and find out whether the holiday is on or off. If it’s off then the last thing I need is marina fees, paperwork and all the tapas bars closing at 8.00 p.m.

I think I might just turn right instead.

There are no COVID regulations in mid-Atlantic. There is, at the moment, an enormous area of high pressure so I could find myself spending the next month sitting in the cockpit with a sunhat, a cold beer and a good book.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

That’s done, then.

Well, that’s it. The book is finished. After my ten minutes of fame on the Jeremy Vine show, his agent contacted me and said he was convinced there was a book in it – if only he could get in the shops before people stopped talking about Lockdown and moved on to the next big thing (Brexit again?)
Anyway, two weeks of sitting in front of a screen for twelve hours a day and it’s done – sent off, out of my hands now.
Tomorrow I shall say goodbye to St Helen’s Pool and move down to St Mary’s where, hopefully, a new pump for the galley will have arrived and I can top up with a few fresh stores and then the forecast looks good for leaving for Porto at the weekend.
Meanwhile, you will find there is a new page on the blog: Cheap Watermaker. I have always wondered why these have to cost £1,000 when the technology has been around for years. It would have been a great comfort when I was down to eleven litres and a few cans of beer.
But now someone is making one for less than £100. You can see it at on the tab above.

Russian interference in UK elections?

How very odd. I’ve got a book about that. I wrote it in 1983 and published it on Amazon in 2017.  This was the review by Geoffrey Wansell in the Daily Mail:

Former Daily Mail reporter Passmore first wrote this novel in 1983, when it was dismissed by publishers as ‘a little far-fetched’. How wrong they were.

Featuring a new Left-wing British Prime Minister committed to scrapping the Trident missile fleet, a Russian President meddling in foreign elections and a U.S. President determined to put his country first, it feels astonishingly contemporary.

The plot revolves around a Trident submarine captain and his Admiral father intent on ensuring Britain keeps its nuclear options open, a newspaper reporter and a secretary in the Defence office who falls into a honeytrap set by Russian intelligence.

Fast-moving and immensely prescient, there are echoes of the early works of Ken Follett and Frederick Forsyth — and that is no faint praise.

The tragedy is that it remained hidden in the author’s attic for 34 years. Let us hope he has time to write many more.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Trident-Future-out-control-happening/dp/1521800731

Departure

La Jument Lighthouse

The land is complicated. Life is simpler at sea. I have now been in Falmouth for 42 days – exactly as many as I spent going nowhere and back again.

It just seems longer.

The boat is loaded with food (another 49 cans of sardines). All I need to do is fill the water tanks (no longer leaking) and I am ready. The Shipping forecast offers northerly force 3-5, fair, good. Lying at anchor in Falmouth harbour I can see sails shaking out all around me as the locals revel in being allowed out at last.

I could go too. I could accept that the last spare part will just have to stay at the harbour office while I pass La Jument light off Ushant just in time to pick up the north easterlies across Biscay. It’s 1,300 miles to Lanzarote. Another 400 round the islands and then 875 to Porto.

Of course, I could stop – or maybe make a detour to Madeira. Last night I sat over the six o’clock beer working it all out and saying: “Sod it, let’s go!”

I could imagine the anchor breaking out and the bow swinging to the wind. The friendly couple on the 45ft cutter next to me waving goodbye – the children on the little beach, standing waist-deep in their shortie wetsuits and staring … the surge of the first swell off St Anthony’s Head. Would she carry the spinnaker?

Except that, this morning the wind is dying. The ensign has folded itself over the pushpit and I have missed my weather window.

The trouble is there’s absolutely no urgency. I have all the time in the world: 1,575 miles is 18 days at 90miles a day which is what I managed last time. I don’t have to be in Porto to meet the family for another 37 days. I other words, I have all the time in the world. It is an extraordinary thing to have the luxury of time. Why not revel in it?

I could make a fastening for the lid of the chart table so that it wouldn’t open if the boat turns over. I mean, how likely is that? But it’s easy enough to do and there’s some important stuff in the chart table. I could varnish the companionway – that needs doing three times a year.

But the fact is that I’m ready. Just to make sure, I went and propped the boat up against the little quay over on the Flushing side and spent a tide scrabbling around on the wet sand underneath scraping off pubescent goose barnacles and greasing the propeller, replacing the anode…

People came and interrupted me – a relief because there is nothing quite as unpleasant as scrubbing away above your head with a stinking pan scourer while green slime drips into your eye. The only upside is that you didn’t buy a bigger boat.

The new cooker is installed but I still haven’t put away the cigarette lighter (not quite believing I have electronic ignition). The new pipework doesn’t leak. The replacement mainsail is bent on and fits perfectly. The upgraded reefing system is ready to try in earnest. In fact, after 42 days, I can’t even remember all the entries in the “To Do” app which have been despatched with that self-satisfied click as“Done”.

But there is one thing that isn’t “Done”.

After all, those 42 days and 3,629 miles or whatever it was, just as we squeezed passed the Manacles and I went to let out some more headsail for the final close-reach into Falmouth, the furling gear jammed.

This is, of course, one of those ultimate nightmares. It’s right up there with sinking, dismasting, knock-downs, roll-overs and running out of beer. Many a boat has limped into port with a headsail fluttering in shreds because a fortnight ago someone didn’t keep the tension on the line and ended up with a riding turn, jamming the gear and leaving a fraught crew battling to make headway with the boat effectively in leg-irons.

I have a love-hate relationship with my furling gear. If I had my way it would be a Profurl or a Furlex – something that was simple and reliable and accessible.

Mine is a SeaFurl, made at about the time Noah was debating whether to give up hanked-on headsails. It is enclosed in a discreet stainless steel cowling which you have to unbolt (dropping the bolts) to get at the works.

And the works include a silly plastic disc which is supposed to stop the coiled line riding up into the top of cowling and jamming (which it wouldn’t if the cowling wasn’t there). Obviously, being plastic there is a possibility that this disc might get damaged somehow and need to be replaced. Also – obviously – you wouldn’t want to have to remove the entire assembly in order to do this.

So the designers came up with a brilliant idea: They would make the silly plastic disc in two halves which would clip together round the drum. The fact that this made the whole thing even more flimsy somehow escaped them.

It broke two years ago. Now it had broken again – and sure enough, the line grabbed the opportunity to jam itself once more. This time in the most inaccessible place, right against the back of the cowling. Beyond the reach, indeed, of someone lying on the foredeck with the big screwdriver and the occasional wave breaking over his head.

The obvious solution – taking the sail down – is never an option in this situation because it only arises when the sail is partly-furled. That means removing the sheets, leaving the sail flying in the wind and motoring round and round in circles until it furls by itself.

In such circumstances – the open sea with a stiff breeze – this is impossible. It would need the sort of engine people install when they don’t intend to put up sails in the first place.

It wasn’t until I was inside the harbour, in flat water, that I was able to execute this embarrassing manoeuvre (in full view, naturally, of all the amused blue-water sailors who gather in such a celebrated jumping-off point).

I got the sail off just as soon as the wind dropped, picked out the tiny pieces of the silly plastic disc and set about ordering another…from Tampa in Florida…in the middle of a global pandemic…

I suppose 42 days is not really so long. It was three weeks before I could get anybody on the phone – a harassed man on his first day back in the office looking at a list of emails that seemed to stretch around the world (many of them mine).

Then I became acquainted with the phenomenal efficiency of the US Postal Service tracking system. My consignment was in transit to the Next Facility. It had arrived at the Regional Facility and then progressed to another Facility … and another … before being Processed and arriving at its Origin Transfer Airport (Miami) and Departing (two days later).

I became obsessed, like a teenager on GroupMe. Hey, it had Departed Heathrow (had it arrived?) and was In Transit to Destination.

The Destination was the Harbour Office in Falmouth and therein lay another problem. The Harbour Office was locked down. That is to say, you had to ring the bell and someone would come clumping down the stairs to open the door and tell you not to come in. But they would agree to look in the cupboard and see if your parcel had arrived.

In the past, they had done just this – many times (Allen keys, mung beans, repaired autopilot…) Indeed, one of the Harbourmaster’s assistants made it quite plain that I was abusing the HM’s hospitality. I didn’t feel like calling after that – not until I was sure my Item had arrived.

And it did arrive – but in Coventry for Customs Clearance. Then, after another 48hours, Frabjous Day: “Your Item has arrived at the delivering Post Office.”

Isn’t that great? Nothing about having to pay duty on it, either – that’s what happened last time. I was getting to like pandemics.

But somehow my Item seemed to get stuck in the Delivering Post Office. I waited for the obligatory 48 hours for the final message “Your item has arrived at Destination” or even “We’ve decided you have to pay Duty on it after all” but the screen remained stubbornly blank.

I telephoned Falmouth Post Office. They were unimpressed with my US Postal Service tracking number. I called Parcel Force. Parcel Force is online.

In some desperation, after three days, I puttered across the harbour, slithered across the muddy seaweed (low tide, should have thought of that) and scrambled up the ladder to pay the Harbourmaster a call. Mr Grumpy was off duty. Instead, his charming colleague looked in the cupboard and said there was a letter for me. She brought it to the door. It was from Parcel Force: They would deliver my parcel just as soon as I paid the duty. The letter was three days old.

It is now scheduled for Delivery on Monday. It has its own UK tracking number.

I reckon I could be away by lunchtime. The wind is due to return at two o’clock.

48 hours of fame

They do say that one small, spur-of-the-moment decision can change your life.

The last 48 hours have been like nothing I have ever experienced before.

It all began very innocently: I was underneath the galley trying to stop the water pump squirting all over the ready-use stores when Jeremy Vine popped up on Radio Two to tell Ken Bruce he would be talking about “What we will miss when Lockdown ends.”

Well, of course, my lockdown was a bit different. As you now know, I skipped it entirely – or rather, I took the social distancing instructions seriously. Boris said: “Two metres”. I went for 3,629 miles.

I sent in my pennyworth to Radio Two. After all, my sister had suggested that particular instalment deserved a wider audience.

Years ago, it wouldn’t have been a problem. I had a column in Yachting World – and another in the Daily Telegraph. But now I’m old and past it. Most of my former colleagues are long gone – although old hacks never die. They just pontificate on Facebook.

I did send a couple of emails to the Guardian, although it wouldn’t surprise me if they lost them. Certainly, they never got back to me.

But Jeremy Vine not only read my email. He read it out on air to all his 7.42million listeners. I have it here: “I am over 70 and they were telling me that I would have to stay indoors for three months. Instead, I went sailing on my own. I thought I might get arrested if I went through the Dover Strait and so I went over the top of the Shetlands, down to the Azores in mid-Atlantic (didn’t stop) and then back to ask ‘Is it all over yet?’ It doesn’t seem to be and I had such a good time that as soon as a spare part arrives, I’ll be off again.”

It was a shame I missed it. I was on the phone at the time. Still, maybe there would be a flurry of listeners wanting to contact me saying: “Has he got a blog? Has he written a novel? Does he have a magical health supplement? Can I join his remote business and get paid to go sailing too?

Actually, no. I spent the afternoon with Woody Allen’s autobiography – and then sat up until two in the morning watching Love and Death on Prime.

So, I was still in bed idly marvelling at the news from the USA when the BBC rang: Would I do a ten-minute interview with Jeremy Vine?

Well, of course I would do an interview with Jeremy Vine. I felt sure I could find ten minutes at 1.30 (it doesn’t do to seem too keen).

No sooner did I press the “end call” button than I was out of the sleeping bag, making a list of points to cover and rehearsing my off-the-cuff rhetoric. Mustn’t forget to mention the blog. What would he ask? Just how far offshore is Rockall? Is it cheating to measure from the mainland? The Nutella joke is good… Remember the blog – write that down in big letters and keep it next to the phone…

So: An early lunch, charge the phone, ringtone to “silent” … not the best signal off Trefusis Point but we’re doing it on WhatsApp…

Of course, the rest – if not history – is certainly destined for my collection of favourite anecdotes. I was still talking when the messages started pinging in: “You’re on Radio Two!” (Yes, I know).

I remembered to mention the blog – in fact Jeremy repeated it at the end, bless him. The afternoon went by in a blur. Everybody rang up. Everybody had heard it – although when Tamsin gave her mother advance notice, Eira said: “But our Radio’s on Radio Four.”

– Well, change it, then.

“I don’t think we know how…”

Hits on the blog shot up to 5,000 – and counting…

The BBC got through to say “thank you” and how well they thought it had gone – and then rang back to say that a literary agent wanted to talk to me. Would it be all right to give him my number? (Please, can I pay you to give my number to a literary agent?)

This turns out to be Jeremy Vine’s literary agent – and Anton du Beke’s – and a whole lot of other people who I’m sure I would know if I paid more attention to popular culture.

Would I write a book? He was sure he could find a market for it. I had a novel too? Self-published on Amazon? Maybe he could find a home for that as well…

Of course, I mean yes – please… A proper publisher… and book tours… and chat shows and all that champagne and those little canapes with the caviar that falls off onto the carpet…

Ah, but wait: Maybe I should get back to him – just in case there was an email in my inbox with a million-dollar advance from Random House…

He sent me his CV.

I have spent this morning writing furiously to make up for lost time – except that I keep stopping every time the phone goes ping and somebody else wants the magic supplement. It’s just as well Facebook doesn’t ping – the part-time money people come in on Facebook because I need to check their profile pictures first (don’t ask). Also, Kindle Direct Publishing has to be refreshed every 20 seconds in case someone else has bought the novel.

Naturally, Random House let me down (and the galley pump is still leaking) but the blog is up to 55,000 hits. More than 300 information packs have gone out for the magic health supplement and I’ve raised the good-taste threshold for profile pictures before I agree to talk about the money thing.

Meanwhile, the agent has gone off to play the recording to all those proper publishers.

If you missed it, click on https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000khyn (I turn up at 1:36).

Sardines

What is it they use to make sardine cans? You’d think they were boxing up nuclear waste, the weight of metal in those things.

Admittedly, this is not something that had occurred to me until I read that the Golden Globe racers were committed to throwing nothing into the ocean unless it was fully biodegradable.

That was a couple of years ago. The real clincher was seeing a YouTube video of the bottom of a harbour in the Mediterranean. It looked like a rubbish tip – completely carpeted with cans and bottles and broken bits of this and that – anything that should have gone into a dockside bin if only anybody could be bothered to take it ashore and dispose of it properly.

To my shame, I had never thought of this before.

My earliest memory of being environmentally conscious was back in the 50s when my father would lean over the side of our Folkboat while holding the neck of an empty beer bottle in one hand and a hammer in the other. He kept the hammer stowed in the corner of the cockpit for just this purpose. The idea was to smash the end off the bottle and let go of the neck without cutting his hands, getting shards of glass on the deck – or dropping the hammer instead (which did happen). When winch handles became detachable he used those instead – with the same sorry result.

Life became easier when Inde Coope invented Long Life Pale Ale in cans: Instead of the hammer, you had a little device which pressed a triangular hole into the top of the can (and a second one on the other side to let the air in as the beer poured out).

The greatest advantage was that, when the can was empty, you could make a couple of holes in the bottom and just toss it over the side and watch it sink slowly into the wake. Father used to say it was a better method of gauging the speed than the Walker log – although he did keep losing the little hole-punch.

It never occurred to any of us that there was anything wrong with throwing beer cans over the side – or any rubbish, come to that. As long as it would sink or make food for the fishes, over the side it went.

There’s a lot about this in The Riddle of the Sands with the skipper, Davies, forever deep-sixing anything he considered surplus to requirements. Back in the 80’s I used to amuse myself in ocean calms by dropping used batteries over the side and watching them go tumble slowly down into the depths twinkling in the sunlight… deeper and deeper…

You wouldn’t do that now. It’s no better than fly-tipping – and I did wonder how on earth those Golden Globe competitors were going to store all their gash for six months (or 322 days in the case of the last man home). In fact, there was a simple answer: As they used the stores, more space would become available for the waste.

All the same, you wouldn’t want to mix the two in the same locker. That’s how, on my comparatively modest six-week Lockdown cruise, I found myself running out of space.

Potato peelings could go over the side of course – and apple cores and onion skins (at least the bits that didn’t blow back all over the deck). It was the plastic packaging and the empty cans that were going to be the problem.

Without knowing it, I had trained for just this moment: At home, I used to get into terrible trouble for being really boring and trying to reduce the family’s volume of waste by chopping up and compacting everything that went into the kitchen bin. In my defence, I was the one who had to get it all into the wheelie bin which, now, is collected only every two weeks.

I became an expert at stamping on empty cans and blunting the kitchen scissors by cutting up ketchup bottles. At one point I became so excited that I went to see a patent lawyer with a view to inventing a kitchen waste shredder – the garbage equivalent of the home-office paper shredder. I still think it’s a good idea but apparently, you can’t get a patent until you have a working prototype. My enthusiasm didn’t stretch that far.

Now, of course, well on the way down the Western Approaches and with nobody to tell me off, I started snipping mushroom cartons into pieces the size of postage stamps and perfected my chopped-tomato-can-flattening technique: Place the empty can on the cabin sole with the base against your right instep. Press down on the open end with your left foot. Do a little dance to shift your feet and use the right heel to fold down the base of the can until it lies on the flattened side – thus reducing the cylindrical can to a single-dimension rectangle in twoeasy steps.

This is all very well for chopped tomato cans – even for the small (and therefore more tricky) sweetcorn packaging. But what about sardines?

The sardine tin is a completely different – indeed devilish – shape. It is not tall enough to enable any leverage from the left foot. It won’t even stand on its side if the boat is moving about.

Of course, you could argue that a sardine can is so small as to be insignificant in the environmentally-conscious sailor’s scheme of things. But I was carrying 49 of them. This provided a certain urgency.

I tried bending in the sides with pliers – then mole grips. I made some progress with the portable vice clamped to the companion steps (but that took longer than lunch).

In the end, it was back to the 50s – to Father’s solution with the beer bottles: Time to get out the big hammer.

This now lives under the chart table and I have developed a system of gentle taps building to increasingly heavy blows in order to fold down the centre of each side: You have to be careful not to hit your fingers and the ridged base of the tin can dent even the most robust workbench (or in Samsara’s case, the chopping board).

With practice, it is possible to get the sides level with the bottom. Then, all that remains is brute force to bash the ends into two compliant points. The whole thing ends up as a sort of kite shape. It’s rather artistic. More importantly, you can get 49 of them into a single gash-bag.

Do rinse them first, though…

Gas

Considering the urgency when all this began, it has dragged on, rather.

With 700 miles still to go to Falmouth, the gas alarm went off.

At least it meant there was some gas – too much, in fact. The last time I returned from the Azores, I ran out of the stuff. This time I had three 7kg cylinders. The trouble was that rather a lot of it seemed to be in the bilges.

Still, after pumping at nothing for 100 strokes and flapping a tea-towel at the sensor, it did agree to turn back on long enough to cook a plate of pasta (just as well I like it al dente).

But that was only a temporary concession. A couple of days later, the gas lasted only long enough for couscous. By the time it refused to allow me a cup of tea, I had chosen a new cooker out of the Force4 catalogue and was getting used to the prospect of 500 miles of what I liked to think of as “iced coffee” (Nescafe, Nestles Milk and water from the fridge).

As soon as the Isles of Scilly broadcast the faintest whisper of a mobile signal, I was on the phone and justifying £499 worth of stainless steel with flame failure devices on all burners and a thermostatic oven.

The trusty Flavel Vanessa was 47 years old, after all. It was time it retired.

Delivery on the new one would be 5-7 working days, they told me. I would have to go to Pendennis Marina – I couldn’t see how I could get an 18kg package almost half a metre square from the Harbour Office, out in the dinghy and then hoisted aboard at anchor off Trefusis Point – at least, not without dropping it on my toe or in the water.

In the end, delivery took longer than 5-7 working days – something to do with the Coronaviris pandemic (have you noticed that everything gets blamed on the Coronavirus pandemic, rather as people used to sigh and say “It’s the war…”)

That would have been OK if only I hadn’t plugged into the marina’s 240volts and made a cup of tea. Oh, the joy of a hot cup of tea!

But was it worth it for £34.90 a day in marina charges?

This was not something that concerned the other residents. For instance Mariette, the 42m Herreshoff gaffer had plugged in a cable as thick as your wrist. She might have been built in 1915 but she has a washing machine to run.

Alternatively, there was Mike on Blue Gypsy – even older than me and living in retirement in the marina after a lifetime in the Pacific. If you were going to stop and look at Mariette because she seemed brand new but still had a gaff rig, you were certainly going to look at Blue Gypsy. She started out as a Nonsuch but Mike ditched the wishbone masts and put up a junk rig. Five minutes after pausing to look, I was sitting in his cockpit with the rum bottle and he was pressing a camping stove on me.

Just as well too: The new gimbals didn’t fit. They would have to go off to Falmouth Boat Construction to be welded (and delivered after hours to the night watchman to ensure social distancing).

This was getting expensive – and I hadn’t even started with the gas engineer to connect it. I did consider doing it myself but couldn’t find anyone to sell me the bits and, anyway, this being gas and inherently dangerous, it would be sensible to get the job done properly.

It is at this point that I am going to show you just how sensible – in fact, just how dangerous. Indeed, at the risk of over-dramatising the situation, just how close I came to not being able to show you at all … because I would have blown up 700 miles south-west of Land’s End.

The source of the leak turned out to be not the trusty Flavell Vanessa (still going strong after 47 years) but the 47-year-old copper pipe connecting it to the cylinder. Someone had decided to run it through a reinforced plastic hose for protection. A good idea, you might think.

James of Marine Gas Solutions did not think it a good idea at all. He knows only too well that there is nowhere in a boat that the water cannot get to – which is all very well as long as it can get away again. In a reinforced plastic pipe it just sits there… for decades… slowly turning the copper pipe into turquoise powder. Until it looks like this:

“You’re very lucky you didn’t go bang,” was the way James put it.

We decided that the only reason I didn’t was because I still haven’t managed to stop the steady drip from the stern gland. That means a lot of pumping goes on – and it’s become a habit to add a few extra pumps of nothing for luck.

Having admitted all this, I now expect the anti-gas fraternity to descend on me with all their gloomy predictions. So, I had better explain that I have tried paraffin and I have tried alcohol and, over the years I have concluded that gas is readily available, wonderfully convenient and, as long as you take sensible precautions, it is perfectly safe.

If you’re lucky…

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 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.

Holding Tanks

How did we get to talking about a subject like this?

Honestly, wouldn’t you rather discuss the world’s most fabulous anchorages or who has seen the Green Flash or, heaven forbid, engage in the interminable anchor debate.

But no, people keep talking about holding tanks.

Certainly, there are some places where pumping the head overboard is simply forbidden – others where it is just not nice. Think about it: A curry last night and you get up to find the family downstream have decided to take an early morning dip in the crystal-clear water…

With the Jester Challenge sailing to Newport R.I. in 2022, I had been making tentative plans and one of them was to find some way to comply with the stringent United States effluent regulations. The obvious thing, of course, is a holding tank.

The only experience I had of these things was on a flotilla charter in Greece: Under the forward berth was a big, black floppy plastic tank which, with six of us aboard, seemed to fill up remarkably quickly. This wasn’t a problem because every day we sailed on somewhere new and as soon as we were five miles offshore, we opened the valve and the “contents” drained obediently overboard to contribute to the Mediterranean Circle of Life.

I looked into holding tanks – both rigid and flexible. The flexible kind did give me nightmares – I couldn’t help thinking about what happens if it bursts (you know perfectly well what happens. You just don’t like thinking about it.)

But the main trouble is that holding tanks take up a lot of space and they certainly complicate the plumbing.

For a while, I spent my days trawling through Facebook and the Composting Toilet groups. These were an education: Composting your bodily waste (lovely euphemism) generates a sort of religious fervour in some people. I imagine they wear sandals all the year round. There’s a lot of talk about living “off grid”.

The most interesting thing to learn about composting toilets is that the “solids” don’t smell unless mixed with the “liquids” so it is important to separate the two. Another interesting fact is that the “liquid” consists of 95% water – with only five percent of potassium, phosphorous and whatnot. In other words there’s absolutely no reason why that can’t be pumped overboard – even in a marina. Anyway, it’s sterile. The “solids” are what presents the problem.

Then, in answer to my question, somebody came up with the easiest, simplest and most efficient solution you can imagine. I tried it. It works. It costs nothing. It takes up no space.

Admittedly, it doesn’t sound very nice but, believe me, you’ll soon get used to the idea and be glad you don’t have to spend the rest of your life maintaining some pretty unpleasant plumbing and constantly searching for pump-out stations.

Here’s what you need: Some kitchen pedal bin liners. Some newspaper.

That’s it.

Here’s what you do: Deposit the “liquids” into the toilet first. This is most important – remember we don’t want them to get mixed up with the “solids” and all that entails…

Pump out – remember there’s nothing nasty in the “liquids”.

Now for the interesting part: Pump the toilet dry and line it with the plastic bag. Then spread a couple of sheets of newspaper in the bag.

Deposit the “solids” onto the newspaper. You will be surprised to find that the smell is not particularly unpleasant – but you can always use an air-freshener if you wish.

Put the toilet paper on top of the “solids”. Then fold the edges of the newspaper over everything and lift out the bag. You will need to expel the air before you tie the handles. Then it goes in with the gash to be deposited in the normal way next time you go ashore.

Of course, if you are not going ashore, you might not want to carry this little cargo with you on a long voyage. Don’t worry: As soon as you are well offshore, simply open the bag and drop the contents over the side. Since everything was wrapped up in newspaper, you can even use the bag again!

Now can we talk about anchors?

Self-Isolation

It was reading the Ocean Cruising Club’s Facebook page that made the decision for me.

On Friday, the Norwegian yacht Escape West posted: “We are in Curacao waiting for the morning light to go into our reserved space in the Spanish Waters. Then the coast guard call us and tell us Curacao is closed, we cannot enter their waters. Go away!

“We left St Martin Sunday evening and then Curacao was open and all we spoke to there said they have heard nothing of closing – so we left. Now we are here with myself, my wife and our five-year-old. Low on supplies and tired after the passage. Curacao authorities tell us to go but WHERE?

“We understand the virus threat and respect that but we cannot just go without knowing where and being prepared…”

That was posted on Friday. A few hours later, the club’s Port Officer for the Caribbean island reported the coastguard was prepared to use force to remove the boat from their waters.

Yesterday, after coverage in the local paper, the family were given 48 hours to buy provisions and prepare to leave – but where will they go?

All the sailing groups are alive with similar desperation: French Polynesia is “closed”, visiting boats told to leave Florida’s Key West, marinas in France and Spain in lockdown. Panama is still open but crews coming from the Caribbean are not allowed ashore.  Someone who had hauled out for maintenance and now can’t get back in the water described the trials of living high and dry on a small boat with three children under ten.

Meanwhile, I was in the Lowestoft Cruising Club’s visitor’s berth. I had set up base there for three months to do some work and save up for a new mainsail before setting off for Scotland and the Azores and finally Porto at the end of August where I was due to meet up with the family for a week in an AirB&B.

But how much of that is going to happen? Driving down to your boat is “non-essential travel”. If you haven’t yet launched after the winter, you can forget it for this year. In France they’re enforcing the curfew by refusing to open lock gates and bridges.

Hold on, there was a bridge between me and the sea: It opens ten times a day on request – but who was to say the harbourmaster would go on granting requests? Already there were reports that London was about to go into lockdown. Maybe he would take a leaf out of the French harbourmasters’ rulebook.

Besides, there was no point in continuing to stay in a marina if I wasn’t going to be allowed to visit potential customers – and if I had to self-isolate and work over the phone, where better to do it than anchored in some deserted cove? Followed by an exhilarating sail over a sparkling sea to the next deserted cove…

When you think about it, could there be any more effective way to isolate myself? The boat is low in the water with supplies (even toilet roll). I have water for 80 days (beer for 88). By the time I need to go ashore to re-supply, nobody will be able to argue that I haven’t been in quarantine.

I know it sounds anti-social but, honestly, this is all I ever wanted – to be on my own on my boat with no-one knowing precisely where I am. Sounds weird, I know, but by the time you get to 70, one of the great advantages is that you get to know what you like.

Personally, I think it’s going to be a great summer.