Stars

While technology’s most significant gift to the sailor must be the GPS, there is something that, to my mind, is even more welcome – and that is the Kindle.

I have just counted up and find I have 329 books on mine (the latest, Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens – an absolute delight).

Imagine how big a boat you would need for an onboard library like that?

But it is only since publishing my own book and being thrilled to find that Amazon counts it as a “Hot New Release” and deserving of a discount out of Mr Bezos’s (admittedly deep) pocket, that I have been paying close attention to how Amazon works.

While an appreciative review gives the author a warm glow of boosted ego, that’s not really what counts. This is just as well because I know that when I finish a book, I have every good intention of writing a review – and then rarely get around to it. Somehow there are always more pressing things to do than open up the Amazon account and click on “My Orders” and “write a review” – and even then you have to wait for the algorithm to approve it in case you said something that’s not allowed.

No, what counts are the “stars”. After the first half dozen reviews, it doesn’t matter how many there are – nobody is going to trawl through all of them. But the stars do matter. The stars really matter.

I know that if I am thinking of buying a book, I check to see it has four or five stars – and that hundreds and hundreds of different people awarded it those stars. After all, if there are only a couple of dozen, they could have come from the author’s family – all those doting aunties who like to tell their neighbours they have a “nauthor” in the family.

Also, please remember that your stars won’t go anywhere unless your device is online. If you bought the paperback edition, you will have to go into your Amazon account, onto the “My Orders” page and leave your stars there.

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Charcoal heater

The temperature in the cabin is 9°C. This morning it was 5°C – and that was after I unzipped the two sleeping bags (one inside the other) and released the fug within. It went off like a bomb.

So the subject is cabin heaters – something that exercises the Facebook sailing groups almost as much as anchors – or come to that, guns.

So here is everything I have learned from three British winters with a small charcoal heater.

It came with the boat and a little plaque announcing that this was a Hampshire Heater – but no instructions. The vendor explained airily that there was nothing to it: “Just fill it up with lumpwood charcoal and light it by pouring methylated spirit onto the wick. You can top up with paper bags of more charcoal.”

That first winter, I learned that it wasn’t quite as simple as that – for instance, not having any paper bags the first night, I made the discovery that if you add a shovelful of loose charcoal while it’s burning, the heat blows coal dust all over the deckhead.

Lighting it wasn’t so easy either: The wick, made of some sort of solid fireproof material, seemed unable to absorb the meths which then spilled all over the base of the ash-tray causing an explosion of blue flames and singed eyebrows.

At first, I solved this by reserving a spoonful of ash to leave on the top of the wick to absorb the meths – but then found it simpler to drip the spirit onto the wick so slowly that it had time to get itself absorbed.

Then there was the problem of too much smoke. It took a long time to get this sorted: Clouds of choking grey fumes would pour out of every orifice – including the supposedly airtight seal at the top. I have decided this is what happens when the fuel gets damp (not surprising on a small boat). The solution is to shut down the vent until the smoking stops and then open it just a crack – and then more until the chimney is hot enough to send the smoke in the right direction.

So it is important to buy the fuel in plastic bags and, once opened, keep them tied up between refills.

And that’s another thing – buying the fuel. There’s no problem in the summer when every garage keeps a stack of convenient plastic 5kg bags on the forecourt for the customers’ barbecues. But you don’t need it in the summer, do you? It’s in the middle of January that you need to keep 30kg bunkered in the fo’c’sle. You can buy it from a coal merchant of get it delivered by Amazon – but that way, it tends to come in 10kg bags which are more troublesome to stow.

So charcoal is by no means perfect – although it is carbon neutral, which is more than you can say for diesel. I used to say that if I had a bigger boat, I would go for diesel anyway. Maybe it isn’t so good for the planet, but you can buy the fuel anywhere, and you don’t end up with coal dust all over the place.

Give me a bigger boat, I said, and I would have a Refleks – the heater of choice for Danish fisherfolk in the Heligoland Bight. Also, I would install it on the floor not half-way up the bulkhead so I have to sit with my feet up on the opposite bunk to stop them from freezing.

The trouble is that only once have I seen a Refleks on a 32ft boat – and that involved chopping off a third of the port berth.

Then I read Paul Heiney’s book One Wild Song about his cruise around Cape Horn and discovered that much of it was spent fretting about the diesel supply and having to ration his heater because every cosy evening was stealing fuel from his engine.

Of course, there are plenty of other options: Forced air, gas, paraffin (kerosene) not to mention weighing down the boat with half a ton of wood burner (and with wood, you’d need to tow another boat behind to carry it all). Also, charcoal is cheap: You can buy a 5kg bag for £4.50 from a coal merchant – although it might be £5.50 on a garage forecourt or £8 on Amazon.

At least with diesel, the price is pretty much the same everywhere, but I did some comparisons, and there was no doubt about it: Hour for hour, charcoal was about half the price.

Next, consider this: If you’re going to be carting diesel back to the boat, you will need cans to do it – and they will take up just as much room as the bags of charcoal. The difference is that, in the summer, the empty bags will have been thrown away, but you’ll still have to find room for the cans.

Of course, if you have a 200litre fuel tank, maybe you don’t have a problem after all – as I say, the conclusion seems to be diesel for bigger boats with budgets to match – but as so many small boat sailors have found, a charcoal heater with its small size and its simplicity has a lot going for it.

Which is where we come up against the problem: There appears to be no-one, anywhere in the world, making a small charcoal heater for boats. Early on, when I spoke to the Hampshire Heater company, the managing director, William Baird had decided to retire and was closing down.

In doing so, he was following the Cowes chandlers Pascall Atkey who stopped making their Pansy Heaters years ago. Now you can get a good price for either on eBay.

This proves the demand is still there. Surely some stainless steel fabricator somewhere would like to start up a little sideline – in which case Mr Baird tells me he would consider selling the business.

If you’re interested, let me know and I’ll put you in touch.

Smoke escaping – close the vent

The wick with a spoonful of ash burning methylated spirit.

Disgusting

Some things on boats are just disgusting. I have written about the Joker Valve – an essential piece of the sanitary plumbing which must be replaced periodically. But if you think the Joker Valve is disgusting – at least the old one gets thrown away (hopefully sealed in a plastic bag).

But what about the Outlet Hose? This is the bit that connects the Joker Valve to the outside world – which means that everything that passes through the one, also has to pass through the other.

However, a new Outlet Hose is a lot more expensive than a new Joker Valve. Moreover, it doesn’t wear out, so you can’t justify replacing it. Instead, it has to be cleaned.

Let me explain why (you’re going to enjoy this): The combination of human waste and salt water – as passes through the marine toilet – causes a built up of calcified “material” on the inside of the outlet hose. This is rather like domestic pipes getting furred-up or arteries being choked with cholesterol.

Domestic pipes get replaced. Clogged arteries involve surgical procedures which don’t bear thinking about.

Actually, clearing the deposit in an Outlet Hose doesn’t bear thinking about either. Here’s how you do it.

Remove the hose, take it ashore, find a nice open space with a good hard surface and swing the hose three time around your head before whacking it on the hard surface.

I should add that this is tremendously satisfying. It clears the hose in no time at all. However, the cleared “material” does come flying out of the end of the hose and shoots off in all directions. Fortunately, most passers-by have no idea just what that material is.

I used to think that the contents of the Outlet Hose and clearing them out was about the most disgusting aspect of boat-ownership.

But no, I have found something even more appalling.

Here’s what happens: The galley sink drains into a “grey water tank”. Grey water is that type of boat effluent which is one up from “black water” (I’ll let you use your imagination on that one).

Actually “grey water” sounds quite attractive – like something to do with interior décor and water features.

It’s not: Do you have a kitchen drain at home that sometimes gets blocked with grains of rice and slivers of onion and coffee grounds? How does that smell once you’ve neglected it for a few weeks.

Now imagine all of that in a plastic tank in the bilges. It should be emptied by a “gulper” pump – that is, one which is designed to cope with rice and onion and coffee grounds. What do you suppose happens if the gulper pump gets switched off accidentally. The Law of Gravity will still cause the sink to drain all that “grey water” into the tank and if it doesn’t get pumped out, it will overflow – escaping into the open bilges.

And since the bilges are down there somewhere (out of sight and out of mind), you won’t know anything has gone wrong until you smell it.

This is when you take off the top of the engine casing and shine a torch down through the pipes and wires into the bottom of the boat.

For a moment or two, I couldn’t understand why the usual puddle of seawater was orange. The last time I saw orange seawater was in Bilbao in the 1970s – before anyone got excited about pollution. But, when you think about it, I do use a lot of paprika.  Paprika turns the washing-up water a brilliant orange, doesn’t it?

So the bilges – indeed, every part of the boat underfoot – is now coated with a sticky deposit of orange goo which smells, unmistakably, of drains.

I don’t even want to think about what I’m supposed to do about it.

Oilies

When I was eight years old we graduated from a dinghy to a “proper boat”. Torgunn was a Folkboat  – 25ft long. She had a cabin. The whole family could sleep on her. We could sail to Holland!

It was time to get properly equipped and so my father took his crew to be fitted for oilskins.

This was 1957 so they weren’t really oilskins – not sailcloth treated with linseed oil. On the other hand, no-one had thought of Gore-Tex either. These were hard PVC which stuck to itself and was cold and clammy when you first put it on – and then got hot and sweaty if you went and did anything.

My two sisters, being the foredeck crew, had trousers and smocks with integral hoods so they could crawl around with the North Sea breaking over their heads.

Father and I, being in charge of the cockpit, were more dignified in long coats and short black boots (nobody had thought of yellow boots). On our heads – or course – we wore sou’westers.

Mother didn’t have any of this stuff as far as I remember. I think the idea was that in any sort of weather that called for oilskins, somebody would have to be making tea.

By the way, this is no reflection on 1950s women on boats – after all Beryl Smeeton had sailed round Cape Horn by this time, being both pitchpoled and rolled on the way (and still countersinking the screws when she repaired the smashed deckhouse in the middle of the storm.)

And now, more than sixty years later, I have gone back to oilies.

Judging by the Facebook arguments on the subject, I won’t be the only one. Everybody seems to be asking everyone else for recommendations for the best “foulies”. For years I was a Henri Lloyd devotee – then Musto came along. Helly Hansen, I tried – and finally, with Samsara, back to Henri Lloyd.

And, of course, all of them were brilliant – warm, comfortable and dry. Also, the clever Gore-Tex fabric was able to “breathe”, doing away with all that clammy, sweaty business on the inside. I remained a Gore-Tex devotee for years.

Until this summer. You see, now I am a full-time sailor. Before, it had been weekends and holidays (five years living on the catamaran didn’t count – we tried not to go out if there was the possibility of getting wet). But now, after three years aboard a proper seaboat, the latest suit seems to be completely porous.

This revelation crept up slowly: First, the stylish jacket and salopettes seemed strangely heavy when it came to hanging them up after a lively trip. Then they were still damp the next time it came to put them on – and finally, there was the discovery that my clothes underneath were sopping wet around the knees and elbows. By the time this had reached the back and shoulders, I was asking for advice. I had washed them in special waterproofing detergent. I had sprayed them with waterproofing spray. What was going on? They were only three years old after all…

The advice came flooding in: Iron them – the waterproofing is activated by heat. Paint them with liquid Fabsil – the aerosol product is useless and expensive: Apply the stuff with a paintbrush – the more the better.

I bought three litres and used the lot – and then ironed it in for good measure.

None of this made the slightest difference. I began to suspect that manufacturers of foul-weather clothing rather like the idea of their customers spending the best part of £1,000 on a new set every three years or so.

Then someone suggested the French-made Guy Cotton clothing. It’s what fishermen wear – PVC and tough as old boots. Of course, you can’t buy it in chi-chi yacht chandlers – at least not the ones I frequent. But in a proper ship chandlers in Mallaig, I found shelves in all colours and sizes.

Well, not quite all colours: Bright orange for the fishermen or yellow and blue for the yachties. And it appeared that PVC has come on a lot in the last sixty years: This was soft and pliable. The fabric had a sort of lining bonded to the inside to take off the chill as you pulled it over your head. Naturally, there was no attempt at “breathability” – but then, as every fisherman knows, if you want to keep the water out, the best way is to keep out the air as well.

Also, at around £80 a throw, compared to £800, it had to be worth a try. I could spend that much of Fabsil.

And here’s what I found: Not only is this PVC completely waterproof but I’m not even inconvenienced by the cold and clammy/hot and sweaty dichotomy: Because they don’t come with a loose inner layer to keep you from the soggy outer layer, they are much easier to put on in an emergency and take off while waiting for the next one (knowing that it won’t take long to put them on again when the emergency arrives).

All of which means that as soon as I get below, I do take them off… with the added advantage of not soaking all the cushions when finally I do sit down with that cup of tea.

Guy Cotten Peche Smock

Coppercoat

There is so much discussion about Coppercoat anti-fouling I thought I should post my pennyworth.

For non-sailors who would like to persist with this post, Coppercoat is a brand of antifouling paint intended to stop things growing on the bottom of your boat. It does this not by using the normal chemicals but copper powder held in epoxy paint. A light sanding exposes the copper and, as Nelson knew, there is nothing better than having a copper bottom.

When I bought Samsara she had about ten layers of conventional paint below the waterline. Since all of it would have to come off, it did seem like the ideal opportunity to upgrade.

Besides, she was a cheap boat. I could afford to splash out on extras.

However, I did have a bit of history with copper antifouling. Back in the 1990s, I had tried something called CopperBot on the catamaran Lottie Warren. Within a year, it developed enormous blisters.

The consensus was that because the boat had been built in a shed in Falmouth without today’s strict humidity controls, the Atlantic winds had blown a good helping of moisture into the lay-up.

That wasn’t going to happen this time. Not only had Samsara been epoxy-treated already but it was now mid-summer and anyway, she had been sitting on the hard for months. Indeed, the survey found not so much as a percentage point of moisture. The yard made a beautiful job of it. The finish was like glass.

So why did it come up in blisters three months later?

As you can imagine there were a lot of anxious phone calls between owner, yard and manufacturer (with everyone blaming everyone else).

Eventually, we all decided to blame a fourth party – the company which had applied the epoxy treatment back in the 1990s. Conveniently (or perhaps consequently) they were long-gone. Anyway, the consensus was that the treatment had been done the cheap way: Instead of three coats of filler and then two of epoxy, they had applied one of epoxy first which smoothed out a lot of the bumps so they could get away with only two applications of filler before finishing with a single layer of epoxy – which, of course, didn’t keep the water out.

Since nobody was offering to finance a new application, I decided to live with it until I couldn’t avoid painting over it.

And then something odd happened.

Nothing.

It didn’t get any worse.

The blisters broke and fell off, leaving little white spots like a teenager’s chin. But by the third year, I realised there weren’t any more of them. Each time she came out of the water, I photographed the problem and there seems no doubt about it: The before and after photos were identical (and the one above shows the worst of it).

Admittedly it does look a bit odd but the spots are mostly well spread out and in between them the copper does do its stuff: When I dry out against a quay in June or July to grease the prop and change the anode, I take a pack of pan-scourers underneath and, scrambling around in the mud in my B&Q waterproofs, I can clean the slime and the occasion strand of weed in a couple of hours.

So yes, Coppercoat does work. However, I would suggest applying it only to new epoxy – or, best of all, a brand-new boat.

Lockdown 2

There was no escape from Lockdown 2.

November 5th was not the time to stage a dash into the Atlantic like I did in the summer. Instead, I found myself anchored in Kirkwall Bay in the Orkneys, waiting for the weather so that I could jump to Peterhead which, being on the mainland, was a better place to send away the mainsail for repair.

Anyway, Scotland wasn’t in Lockdown. Scotland was in the tiered system – not that it made a great deal of difference: All the pubs were shut and the restaurants weren’t allowed to serve alcohol. Even the magical little Wireless Museum was closed for no better reason than it was simply too small to operate social distancing.

Peterhead was also in the Scottish tiered system – which was just as well because, as usual, the marina wi-fi didn’t stretch to the visitor’s pontoon. However, they did have it in the café at the Fishermen’s Mission and The Dolphin chipper down by the quay – and Peterhead, being a major fishing harbour, has very good fish and chips.

It was the next stage of Sailing Home for Christmas that was going to be the difficult bit: England was in full Lockdown once more and there are precious few all-weather anchorages on the north-east coast. It would have to be marinas – which were all closed.

I did consider sailing the 400 miles to Essex non-stop but what with the thermometer never getting above ten degrees and only eight hours of daylight, you’d have to be a bit of a masochist for that. Besides, the wind never stayed fair for more than 24 hours at a time.

The clincher was that I had been offered a second spinnaker pole in Blyth and I wasn’t going to turn that down. I rang the harbourmaster: Would he let me in?

Oh yes, the port was open. It was just the marina that was closed.

Well, did he have somewhere I could tie up – perhaps in the fishing dock…

His advice – by which I took to mean “official advice” – was to go into the marina anyway. After all, there wouldn’t be anyone there to tell me not to.

I did, arriving at four in the morning for good measure. The visitors’ pontoon was festooned with plastic tape designed, in the absence of a dockmaster, to signify “Go Away”. I tied up anyway, not realising that one of the consequences of the pontoon being closed was that nobody had hosed off the seagull droppings – something I discovered only later having trodden them all over the boat inside and out.

Also, of course, with nobody in the office to give me a code for the gate, I couldn’t get out of the place – not even for a takeaway at the chippy across the road.

I stayed for four days – not plugging into the electricity since I didn’t expect to be charged for being shut in.

The next stop involved a bit more subterfuge – which is why I had better not say where it was. Everybody I rang cautioned: “Don’t tell anyone you’ve spoken to me.”

This proved to be a bit awkward when, five minutes after making fast, a berth-holder checking on his boat (permitted under the regulations, apparently) asked straight out if I had permission.

“Oh yes,” I told him airily. “I know everyone. I’m quite a regular in the winter, you know. It’s all OK. I’m aware of the regulations. I’ll be very careful.”

On the strength of that, I got straight on the phone to a friend who had planned to drive over for coffee. He had presumed I wasn’t “anal” about regulations. I had to tell him that suddenly I had become precisely that.

Six days, I stayed there – until the Windy app promised a spinnaker run down to Walton Backwaters. I could slide in there without telling anyone at all. Indeed, nobody would even know I’d arrived.

Indeed, nobody did – until I was obliged to put into yet another marina because the “spinnaker run” turned out to be six hours of engine – something that never happens in the summer. It was such a surprise to the machinery that the relief valve on the calorifier took fright at the heat and pumped all the freshwater over the side.

Still, given what usually happens to me in “Lockdown Cruises”, I suppose I shouldn’t complain.

Glossary

It appears there are now many non-sailors following this blog (notice how I refrained from calling them land-lubbers).

They are, of course, welcome. However, some have pointed out that a lot of the content seems to be written in a completely foreign language. What is someone who has never been sailing to make of cringles and thwarts – let alone futtocks and bumkins?

So, now you will find a tab at the top of the page taking you to a glossary. If there are any omissions, please let me know…

Nostalgia

In the farthest and dustiest corner of the attic, hidden behind the water tank and covered in cobwebs and bits of decayed birds’ nests, you might be lucky enough to find a battered old trunk.

Prise it open and, just maybe, it will be filled with yellowing papers – letters, receipts, old certificates…

Piece them together and there is your grandfather’s life story.

Most exciting of all, it might be an untold life story – or at least a long-forgotten one – suddenly brought to life as if the years have fallen away and it is yesterday all over again.

In rather the same way, I have stumbled upon an online copy of of the 1988 edition of the Rival Owners’ Association newsletter – and there on page 11 is a collection of my newspaper despatches from that year’s singlehanded transatlantic race.

It might as well be another lifetime but I can remember exactly how it felt to sit at Largo’s chart table, laboriously dictating over the single-sideband radio to the Evening Standard. In those days – when newspapers were still written on ancient OIympia typewriters, journalists out of the office would file their stories over the telephone to “copy-takers”. These men (they were always men in those unionised days) who would sit with bakelite headsets clamped over their ears saying: “Yes… yes…yes…” and, occasionally: “Is there much more of this?”

No matter how good you thought your story might be, the copy-taker had always heard a better one.

In my case, dictating on hi-frequency and having to bounce every syllable off the ionosphere, it was even more tiresome – which is why “spume-filled decks” became “fume-filled” and the readers were treated to the concept of “carpet skippers”.

All of this is particularly timely since, in just a week’s time, we will be pulling out our smartphones to download live video feed from Alex Thompson and the other competitors in this year’s Vendee Globe Race.

Still, if you want to see what it was like in the old days, you can find those ancient despatches here. (For authenticity, I have not edited-out the carpet skippers.)

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1CM1YiEHAtuUU017Y1FRND6Zay0bTabOxMg6H3VpCO-U/edit?usp=sharing

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=puIgYu7q7ck&feature=emb_rel_end

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.