I was fast asleep when the boat turned turtle. Being a catamaran, she stayed that way. They pulled me off with a helicopter. I had been asleep at the time.

There, that’s out of the way. If I’m going to write about sleep management for singlehanded sailors, I had better admit to the embarrassing moment up front. But the fact is that it happened 20 years ago – in another lifetime, or so it seems.

Now I am sailing along the South Coast of England on my own and without stopping. How on earth am I going to stay alert 24 hours a day for four or five days in the middle of the busiest shipping lanes in the world?

Well, for one thing, I’m getting used to it: Five days from Lowestoft to Falmouth in April, then back from Baltimore in Ireland to Woodbridge on the East Coast at the beginning of July. Now I’m back off to Galway… The English Channel is beginning to become as familiar as my local High Street: The headlands – The Lizard, Start, Portland, St Catherine’s – old friends like Costa’s and Boots.

I admit I am contravening the International  Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea. These are very precise and begin by insisting “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out…”

At all times… Every minute of every hour of every day…

Back in the 1960’s when singlehanded sailing began to claim public attention, my old Alma Mater, Yachting World and its then editor, the ferociously correct Maurice Griffiths, mounted a vigorous campaign against the practice, insisting that it was by its very nature, unseamanlike. After all, how could one man (and it was inevitably a man in those days) possibly keep a good lookout at all times?

Well, of course, he didn’t. Singlehanders slept in small snatches – calculated at the time it would take a ship to appear over the horizon and run them down.

And while on the subject of being run down, these early solo sailors seemed to take the view that the ColRegs were written to stop big ships sinking each other. If a big ship were to hit a small yacht, it might not even notice – and if the solo sailor went down – well, that was his lookout (if you will pardon the pun).

Or as Blondie Hasler put it, he would “drown like a gentleman”.

And that is the way I viewed it when I started singlehanded voyaging in the 1970’s with a passage from Poole to Santander, hardly sleeping at all and in a constant state of alarm lest a ship should cover the distance from my horizon in less than 20 minutes – which I’m sure it could have done.

On the strength of that, I bought a gadget called a Watchman which was supposed to detect radar beams and sound an alarm – although I don’t think it ever did.

Instead, as all singlehanded sailors eventually do, I just got used to sleeping in short snatches – and discovered that there is a knack to it.

The first thing to understand is that when alone on a boat, you must never allow yourself to get tired. When you’re tired you make mistakes. So, if you’re going to be out for any length of time, it is most important to start the sleep routine straight away. As soon as you are clear of the harbour, the boat is settled on her course, get your head down.

OK, so it may only be ten O’clock in the morning and you don’t feel remotely tired. Get your head down!

The plan is to sleep for 20 minutes so you will need an alarm – in fact, two because there is sure to come a time when you make a mess of setting one of them or turn it off instead of on…

I use the timer on my phone – and an old phone as a backup. Each has a different ring tone (as loud and annoying as I could find). The two phones sit in the fiddle above my head.

For this first session, it is possible that you will not sleep at all (after all you’re not remotely tired). Never mind, this is just to get you into the routine: You lie awake thinking about supertankers until the first alarm goes off (they are staggered by a minute).

You get up, you look around, you check the course – and then you go straight back to bed. That is important. The more stimulation you allow yourself, the harder it will to be able to go to sleep next time. Just keep on doing this and eventually, the alarm will go off and you will realise it has woken you up. You have been asleep before midday!

With a bit of practice, this will become easier and easier. Then it’s just a question of building up the total sleep time: Three 20-minute sessions in the morning gives you an hour. Six after lunch and you have three hours in the bag. At night it’s easier because it seems natural – which means you will have no trouble reaching your normal total.

Of course, the 20-minute allowance can be adjusted to suit the circumstances: In the midst of a fishing fleet or when closing the land, it can be reduced all the way down to five minutes.

Some people may ask “What good is five minutes?”

Honestly, it can make all the difference. Have you never been tempted, while doing 70 miles an hour on a motorway, just to “rest your eyes” for a few seconds? I hope you resisted the temptation. Just imagine how much you would have welcomed being able to lie down for five minutes…

At times like this, it goes without saying that you must be absolutely sure that both your phones are charged, that you really have started the timers, that the “do not disturb” function is disabled and that you have closed the app before putting down the phone so as to avoid pausing it accidentally by touching the screen (yes, I have done all of these – why do you think I have a backup phone?)

With luck, such precautions will prevent you from sailing embarrassingly up the beach or into the side of a trawler. Remember; everything – absolutely everything – gives way to a trawler.

But there is still the possibility that you may sleep through both alarms. I have found there are two reasons for this. The first is that you have allowed yourself to get so tired that the needs of your body override the needs of the ship. That’s why you must bank your sleep even when you don’t feel tired – especially when you don’t feel tired.

However, there is a less obvious reason for sleeping through the alarms: You can get used to anything – and, of course, you can get used to waking up to the same alarm tone after yet another five minutes’ sleep and, once more, doing the checks and then going back to bed all in the space of some 40 or 50 seconds. In fact, it’s great that you have hardly woken up at all and, so, can go straight back to sleep as if nothing had happened.

Do this enough and the brain will decide it’s a waste of time waking up at all – and that’s when you hit something solid.

So I wouldn’t recommend doing the five-minute routine for longer than half an hour – or the 20-minute routine for longer than two hours.

Obviously, this means that at some point, you’re going to pack in a whole hour at a stretch – and this is where Mr Griffiths will start rotating in his grave. Any solo sailor who goes to sleep for an hour is asking for trouble.

Or are they?

Back to the ColRegs: “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out…by sight and hearing and all available means…”

You might imagine how delighted I was to discover, after my 20-year-solo sailing hiatus that somebody had invented AIS. I am writing this while crossing the Separation Zone north of Alderney and simply cannot imagine how we all managed without it. This morning I tacked because I was about to be overtaken by a tanker a mile away on my port side – no problem there but the plotter showed up a fishing boat ahead which I would never have spotted without searching through binoculars (and who does that every 20 minutes unless they’re in Das Boot?)

So now, when I get my head down, I check the AIS (the Absolutely Indispensable Security-Blanket), ensure the VHF is tuned to Channel 16 – and you’ll understand why if you come back and read

However, if you do read it, you will understand that AIS is only as good as the willingness of everyone else to use it too. In UK waters this is fine – even small day-fishing boats and RIBs full of divers have AIS transmitters and only once have I found a commercial fishing boat without one. Maybe it has something to do with the British willingness to conform – after all, we don’t seem to mind that we have more CCTV cameras watching us than any other nation on earth…

Sailing in Irish waters I discovered an alternative attitude – and when I mentioned it on a Facebook group, it was clear that Americans would no more give up their right to anonymity than their right to bear arms.

That’s OK – just as long as we know. Now, once past the middle of the Irish sea, the radar goes into “watch” mode and, once again, I sleep soundly. I suppose that, venturing into new territorial waters, I will have to assume the natives are in hiding.

 I suppose I can see their point of view: I used to think that one of the nicest things about sailing was that you “disappeared” – rather like the old days when I was a foreign correspondent and delighted in the office having no very clear idea where I was staying – or, on occasions, which country I was in… 

Maybe I’m settling down in my old age.

Or maybe I just want my old age to last a bit longer…

Stuck in the Mud

It seems only yesterday that I wrote with such pride about pulling up the anchor by hand – and me 70 years old if I’m a day (imagine how impressive it will be when I’m 80!).

You might have guessed I would live to regret this.

But from Falmouth to the Hebrides – the Isle of Man and North Wales, I hauled in the 20kg Rocna with its 10mm chain as if it was no more than a bath plug. Even in the dark depths of Loch Spelve, I got it up in the end.

Then I dropped it in Baltimore (the Irish one). Baltimore was this year’s destination for the Jester Challenge and the other singlehanders in small boats turned out to be such a convivial crowd and Bushe’s Bar served such a good pint of Guinness that I stayed for a week. Part of that week involved the gale which battered the Azores and Back fleet on their return to Plymouth.

One way and another, when the time came to weigh anchor and head back to the UK, it was well dug in. In fact, it was so well dug in that after an hour of grunting and revving, and nothing to show for it, the only possible explanation had to be that something had fouled it. I knew all about fouled anchors – this time last year in the Outer Hebrides, I’d had to call out a diver to get the thing out from under a ground chain. And this felt just the same – the identical, absolutely rock-solid resistance.

I’ll tell you the moral of this story now: Don’t make assumptions. Check your facts before shelling out for another diver – particularly since they cost twice as much in Baltimore as they do in Barra.

This time, the assumption was that just because the anchor wouldn’t budge, it must be fouled again. I now realise that I was predisposed to think this way because now I have the answer. After last year’s debacle, I bought myself an AnchorRescue.

This is a brilliant bit of kit. Made in America by Scanmar, one half of it lives permanently on the chain and the other half goes down on the tripping line to connect to it. The clever thing is that you do this after the event because, as Sod’s Law dictates: The time your anchor gets fouled is the time you didn’t think to rig a tripping line.

With a bit of jiggling, I got the two halves connected, at which point – according to the instructions: “Using a hand-over-hand technique, raise the retriever without relying on the windlass’ capstan until the anchor is free of the bottom.”

Of course, I didn’t read that bit – who bothers to read instructions when they’re trying out something as exciting as this?

I did get around to reading them later – after it turned out that the anchor didn’t want to come out backwards either – even though I put the line on a cockpit winch and cranked until it hummed. That was when I decided to look up the breaking strain – 760lbs. What’s that? About 350kg? I plucked the line as if it were a violin string. Hmm… C#. Maybe not.

So in the end, Gerry the diver went down and tied another line to the roll bar. Then I winched on that while he mud-wrestled on the bottom.

Afterwards, he reckoned that even if I had possessed a working windlass, it wouldn’t have done any good – nothing short of a commercial tug for Baltimore mud, apparently.

So here’s the practical part. This is what I should have done (in case you happen to visit Baltimore at the same time as a vigorous low):

1. Go and ask the harbourmaster if there is anything down there that could foul an anchor – maybe he’ll say the local mud does that…

2. Get in the water and look at it – being a born-and-bred East Coast sailor, it never occurred to me that all I had to do was dive down a couple of metres and I would have been able to see what was going on.

3. (And this is the big one): Don’t be in such a hurry! Wait for low water, haul the chain as tight as it will go – and then wait for high water. With a range of two metres, there is no mud in the world that can compete with the buoyancy of Samsara’s great fat bow.

I really wish I had thought of that one: I once read a description of a Thames Barge being held down by the suction of an Essex mud bank as the tide rose higher and higher up its topsides. Eventually, as the water began to lap at the scuppers and it seemed the ship must founder, there was “a tremendous explosion of mud and water and air” and the old lady shot to the surface – and then, apparently, kept going…

Also, if I hadn’t given Gerry 100Euros, I could have had dinner at The Mews Restaurant, Baltimore’s celebrated foodie heaven (although, maybe 100Euros wouldn’t go that far – not when they start you off with “mackerel tartare dotted with charred gooseberry slices, wood sorrel and dayglo orange nasturtium petals”).

Alternatively, I could just get the windlass fixed…

The Zone

This is a cautionary tale. It is mostly for my benefit.

I should begin by telling you that, even though I am writing this sitting on the lee berth while tacking laboriously along the South coast of Ireland in the vague direction of Baltimore, I have my phone beside me with the timer set for 20 minutes (actually 15 minutes 45 seconds because it has taken me four minutes and 15 seconds to work that out and write it down).

This is important because the more I think about what I’m writing, the less I think about where I’m going – and at the moment I am sailing at four knots in the direction of a French fishing boat called A La Garde de Dieu.

I know this – and also that the Frenchman is doing 3.7 knots so, obviously, he’s trawling which, in turn, means that everything else – absolutely everything from a supertanker to the Lifeboat and most definitely, me in my little boat – all have to give way to him. There is a good reason for this: Once a fishing boat has its nets down, it can’t stop and it can’t alter course – in fact, with all that lot hanging off the back, the rudder doesn’t work at all.

I know all about La Garde de Dieu because she shows up as an AIS target on the plotter – a little green triangle that I can click to find the ship’s name, course and speed – everything down to destination: “Fishing Grounds”. The Frenchman is four miles away. I have been able to pick him out with binoculars and, if the wind holds, I should pass comfortably ahead of him.

All the same, I set the timer because I have the laptop on my knees and I’m writing it all down – and as every writer will know, this is when you are at your most vulnerable.

I used to write for a living. In fact, I have spent more than 50 years writing. At my busiest – Fleet Street in the 80’s and 90’s – I could churn out 600 words an hour – very often dictating “off the top of my head” directly down the telephone (it was wonderful when they invented mobile phones and you could stride about while composing instead of being imprisoned in a smelly phone box while people tapped on the door with 10p pieces and said: “Are you going to be much longer?”

Of course, I ignored them because I was “in the zone”. In other words, the outside world had ceased to exist. There were only the words…

And that’s how it was about this time yesterday, somewhere in the middle of Saint George’s Channel as I sat in the same spot, a new book up on the screen and the words clattering out (I still think of them “clattering” as if this was my trusty Brother portable – the one held together with twisted paperclips – even though now the tiny plastic ASUS makes about as much noise as a mouse picking its teeth}.

Heaven knows how long this had been going on – which is the worrying part. If, instead of getting all productive, I had settled down to sleep, I would have set the timers – two of them on different phones with different ringtones. Somehow, if you’re going to close your eyes deliberately, the idea of being woken up to stop yourself running into anything seems terribly important. On the other hand, if you are awake already, surely you don’t need an alarm?

But what if the words have taken you somewhere else? A place where there is only imagination and time has no meaning?

An hour must have passed. It didn’t seem like it. Then, I swear someone said: “Samsara”.

Only that – nothing else. It was such a brief distraction that I was tempted to ignore it. I had just had the most brilliant idea and was keen to get it down before it slipped away. That’s the way it is with brilliant ideas; you have to pin them down before they flutter off and bother someone else.

However, most definitely, somebody had said “Samsara”. Surely, that must demand a moment’s attention at the very least. I cut loose a couple of brain cells to investigate while flailing clumsily after the brilliant idea.

The brain cells reported back; diffidently, so as not to disturb the creative flow: There was only one possible explanation: Since I was alone on the boat, the voice must have come from the VHF radio. Usually, this box of tricks remains silent – only waking up every three hours for Dublin and Mine Head Coastguard to issue their maritime safety broadcast. Sometimes, watch officers on the bridges of containers ships would discuss how not to hit each other – and of course, Irish lifeboats whizz about all the time chattering like teenagers on skateboards.

But now someone was calling me. I plucked the microphone from its clip: “Station Calling Samsara, say again.”

But all they said was: “Channel 10”

I switched to Channel 10: “Station calling Samsara, say again.”

And then this charming Irish voice oozed out of the speaker: “I was just wondering what were your intentions.”

What were my intentions? Why did he want to know about my intentions? My intentions were to get back to the laptop and that brilliant idea – whatever it was. Already it had one foot on the doorstep.

I poked my head out of the hatch.

And there – no more than 300 metres away, was a great big, bright blue fishing boat bashing straight into the wind and sea, sending clouds of spray flying back over the wheelhouse.

And if it carried on doing that and I carried with my four knots for Baltimore, we would meet in the same patch of water about in about… oh… one-and-a-half minutes.

Thumbing the TX button, I suggested: “I’ll turn to port.”

And did – very snappily indeed.

For the first half hour, as our courses diverged, I made a succession of resolutions about setting the timers whenever there was even the slighted possibility of finding myself “in the zone”.

But then, as the big blue fishing boat receded to a dot on the horizon, the thought occurred that he had not appeared on the plotter. If he had, the alarm would have gone off. But the screen was blank. It was still blank – meaning that his AIS beacon must have been switched off – or as they say, when talking about Iranian tankers supplying Syria, “cloaked”.

Now, why would a fishing boat do that? The obvious conclusion was that he didn’t want anyone to know he was there – not, for instance, the fishery inspectors … or possibly the competition. There could be any number of reasons why a fishing boat might want to be invisible.

And, of course, that would explain why he had not identified himself when he called me on Channel 16 – the coastguard monitor Channel 16. Come to that, everyone monitors 16 – including fishery inspectors and other fishing boats.

I began to feel a little better. If I was at fault for not keeping a lookout – then, he was equally at fault for trying to disappear.

… and if you think that, given the length of this explanation for what was, after all, only a couple of minutes of activity (albeit somewhat feverish activity) and you suspect that I have again fallen “into the zone”, you are absolutely right. But, take heart, by now it is Sunday afternoon, I am anchored in Baltimore Harbour, the wind is making mournful noises in the rigging and the rain is going sideways past the windows – if I could bring myself to look out of them.

Actually, The Zone is the better place to be.

The plotter – how it’s supposed to look

In praise of the humble clothes peg

I think it is time for praise where it’s due: Out of all the myriad items on a boat – from duct tape to bits of string with loops in one end, what do you think wins the prize for the greatest number of random but totally brilliant alternative uses?

OK, so I’ve just used duct tape to block up the holes in the spinnaker pole to stop it filling up with water (and emptying all over my sleeve) – and currently, there are no fewer than six bits of string holding back the halyards. 

But you expect that. What I find so extraordinary is the apparently endless uses on a boat for that most humble domestic item, the clothes peg (or, as the Americans would have it, the clothespin).

They cost almost nothing and yet they seem capable of anything.

I would be most interested if anyone can suggest even more unexpected uses but, to date, this is what I have come up with:

  1. A peg marked “Inlet Closed” gets clipped to the ignition key to stop me starting the engine and blowing it up for want of cooling water.
  2. Another says “Shore Power” and stops me leaving the marina and taking the electricity point with me (apparently it happens more often than you would expect. 
  3. A third peg goes on the key when the battery selector is switched to “starting”. In the past, I have nodded approvingly about the amount the solar panel was pushing into the service bank – without realising that it was the starting battery that was still selected – and rapidly going flat.
  4. Of course there are always half a dozen pegs closing plastic bags in the galley.
  5. The spring in a peg works brilliantly for holding the companionway lock open. When you close it from the outside, the peg just drops off on the inside.
  6. Take a peg to pieces and the two halves make very effective wedges to stop the washboards rattling in a seaway.
  7. When the fridge is switched off, a peg in the door holds it open against a loop of shock cord to allow air to circulate and stop the mould growing.
  8. …and, of course, you can always use them for the laundry…


Gone to the pub

If you’re going to get stuck somewhere, Dublin is a pretty good place to do it.

The plan had been to stay for a day or two while the Isle of Man TT was rained off. I could do the Guinness tour, listen to some Irish music in the pubs. Drink some more Guinness… Who cared if it rained?

But then, just as I furled the jib as the wind picked up in Dublin Bay, the sheet flipped the whole of the top of the winch onto the deck.

How did that happen?

The top of the winch is supposed to be held down by a plastic disc which screws into the feeder arm and holds the whole thing together.

There you are, isn’t that impressive? I know that the silver bit is called the “feeder arm”. That’s because I had to scour the internet to find out what I needed to ask for when ringing round the local chandleries for a replacement – because you see, when both the feeder arm and top cap leapt off the winch and bounced onto the side deck, the top cap bounced higher and straight over the side.

It was one of those moments when you freeze to see what’s going to happen – and later on, wish you were the sort of person who doesn’t freeze in emergencies but leaps into action (in this case, snatching the bits out of the air like the second slip at Lords).

Instead, of course, I stood mesmerized as the feeder arm – being the heavier of the two – landed in the scuppers while the tiny, lightweight top cap arced delicately over the guardrails and into the boiling maelstrom which is Dublin Bay in a southerly force seven.

Now, I suppose it would have been possible to sail back to the Isle of Man for the last of the TT without a starboard cockpit winch – and, of course, it would certainly be possible if I had a posh boat with secondary winches. But as things stood, I really couldn’t think of anything more inconvenient: Would switching the top cap from the port winch every time I went about be more trouble than rigging a handy billy on the sheet?

Simpler to wait ‘til Monday morning and ring round the chandleries for another – except, for some reason I never established, Monday was a bank holiday in the Republic of Ireland – although, not in the UK.

What if I got to Tuesday and nobody had one – and wouldn’t even sell me the one off the winch in the window (which, of course, would make their £800 item of stock totally unsaleable until they got a new top cap).

In the end I ordered one from the UK. They’d get it in the post right away. It should arrive on Wednesday.

Hmm. If I left on Wednesday evening, I could be back in the Isle of Man by Thursday night – still in time for the last day of the TT on Friday. Anyway, there didn’t seem to be an alternative.

Odd how things turn out: Once the package was in the post, I stopped worrying. In fact, those four days in Dublin were just great. I did the Guinness tour – actually, I did it twice because I was just about to collect my pint when a very insistent and annoying announcement over the public address kept demanding a Mr Sands’ presence in reception – which turned out to be the code for a fire alarm.

Still, I got my pint in the end (you get to look forward to it after going round the tour – twice). Do you know how to pour a Guinness? There’s a right way and a wrong way. It’s all to do with the proportion of carbon dioxide and nitrogen you put in the glass along with the beer. Anyway, I messed up mine by trying to put in too much Guinness and it went slopping all down the side.

I joined a party of Americans and Canadians for a musical pub crawl around the Temple Bar – the lone Englishman. I was quite the celebrity. “Welcome to Europe!” said the guide.

In those four days, I rode my little folding bicycle all over the city – the Yeats exhibition – backwards and forwards across Halfpenny Bridge…

St Steven’s Green was an eye-opener with all its signs telling the story of the Easter Rising: Here was the spot where the Irish Citizen Army dug their trenches (and pinched cushions from cars parked in the adjoining streets to make themselves comfortable) – and there, on the facade of the Royal College of Surgeons were the scars from the British Army’s Lewis gun firing out of a bedroom window on the fourth floor of the Shelbourne Hotel. Of course, both sides agreed a truce when it was time for the Park Keeper to feed the ducks.

I didn’t know any of this. But then I went to school in England. I wouldn’t – which, of course, explains half a century of misery on both sides.

Meanwhile, everywhere you go in Dublin, there are pubs and there is music. In fact, the music spills out onto the street. It seems that on every corner, there is someone with a guitar – and next to the statue of Molly Malone, a proper set-up with microphones and speakers and a duo leading the tourists in endless repetitions of “She wheeled her wheelbarrow…”

Molly, by the way, was quite a gal if her statue is anything to go by – her bosom positively gleams (lovingly polished by the groping hands of ten million tourists a year).

When Wednesday came and went with no sign of a small package for me behind the bar of the Poolbeg Yacht and Boat Club, I was really quite philosophical. I think I ordered another Guinness to make up for it. By then it was too late for the TT. When it did arrive on Thursday, I set off back across the Irish Sea to Wales.

There was to be free mooring for a week at Pwllheli in preparation for the Jester Challenge – more about that next time. It’s an event for small single-handed boats sailing to… Ireland.

Too sensitive by half

I’m writing this with a cup of coffee at my side – as you do.

It took no time at all to make.

Well, it didn’t once I had woken at 0730 with the gas alarm going off, pulled the sleeping bag over my head, hoping the incessant beeping would sort itself out (which it did after 20 minutes).

However, it started again 20 minutes after that – and this time it didn’t stop. The gas alarm doesn’t like the wet and cold and I’m in Dublin where it hasn’t stopped raining for days.

Does anyone else have this sort of trouble? Or do you religiously turn the gas off at the cylinder every time… or maybe just trust that everything will be alright and the boat won’t blow up after all?

I have always had a rather difficult relationship with gas on boats ever since watching my father pump the bilges dry (which he did every day, this being a wooden boat) and, once he had finished, he would continue pumping for another 50 strokes, just pumping air – or, as he explained: “Getting rid of any gas that’s escaped down there.”

So I grew up assuming that there would always be some gas wafting around in the bilges, waiting for an errant spark to blow the whole shebang sky-high.

Over the years, I have made several attempts to get away from gas. In the little Caprice, I tried an alcohol stove but that was even more frightening – sheets of bright yellow flame right up to the deckhead.

Aboard Largo, my old Rival 32, I fell in love with a wonderful brass Taylor’s paraffin cooker. It was a veritable antique and looked the part. Unfortunately, it required all the care and attention you would expect of an antique. Making a cup of coffee was a project. You had to plan for it, prepare the apparatus – and even then, you might end up with similar sheets of bright yellow flame (only this time, accompanied by clouds of foul-smelling black smoke).

This seemed to exhaust all the options – although, it should be noted that one of the boats in the Ocean Cruising Club’s Celtic Rally had an induction hob which got fired up whenever they plugged into the marina mains (they had a washing machine, too).

Anyway, with Samsara, I reckoned I’d earned the right to go down the easy route and stick with gas.

I did, however, bring in a shipwright to build a sealed locker as required by the survey – and a marine gas engineer to check the installation and fit an alarm… which he did in strict accordance with the instructions.

These stated that the two sensors should be fitted “in the lowest possible position where they will remain dry. The most suitable location for the detector is near any gas appliance at floor level or just under the floorboards.”

So they ended up in the bilge.

That first winter, the boat was out of the water and from New Year until the end of March, the thermometer didn’t creep over 9°C for a single day. I know, I had some painting to do. By the time I did get down to it, the cold and the damp had kept the alarm beeping for so long it flattened the battery.

I moved the sensors from “just under the floorboards” to just above them.

It was only afterwards that I discovered why the bilges were always full of water (leaks in the freshwater tanks – with the stern gland adding enough salt to throw me off the scent,..)

Anyway, once we were back in the water in April and I dunked the lee rail trying to scrape round the wind farm off the Wallet, the bilge-water appeared above the floorboards and started lapping at the sensors – which, of course, set off the alarm all over again.

So I moved them up another level: One in the saucepan locker and the other tucked low down, right at the back of the cooker. It was the perfect place for detecting gas – just a lousy one for changing the sensors.

You see, by this time, I had spent some hours on the phone to the manufacturers being terribly polite until they succeeded in selling me two spares.

Ever since then, I have kept one pair in a sealed plastic bag and make sure the old ones are good and dry before they take over their stint as spares.

And this would be fine if only I hadn’t chosen “low down at the back of the cooker” as the ideal place. It is not ideal – especially when trying to locate four little holes for the sensor’s four little prongs – and all before breakfast. In the end the cooker had to come out, the whole cabin filled with tools, I scraped my knuckles, lost another nut to the collection in the bilges – but finally the “low-down under the cooker at the back” sensor is low down at the front – and finally has stopped beeping.

It’s not ideal. My good friend the gas engineer will probably wash his hands of me.

But I don’t care. In fact, I have an enormous sense of well-being. That’s what comes from having a cup of coffee beside you and nothing going “beep “.


That stands for Isle of Man Tourist Trial. The fastest and most dangerous road race in the world: Madmen on motorcycles flinging themselves around 37 miles of town squares and mountain roads at average speeds of 130 miles an hour. Top speed is over 200.

The “madmen” thing comes from the middle Sunday – “Mad Sunday” when anyone with a motorcycle can ride the course. The death toll since it started in 1907 has now reached 146.

So, I have come to the Isle of Man.

I happen to like motorcycles – I like the way they look. I like the way they sound – as long as they don’t disturb my peace and quiet – and there was a time when I owned a motorcycle: In my early 20’s, I had a BSA Bantam and came within an inch of killing myself in Streatham High Road.

… an inch each side, that is: That was the distance between the bike and the bus I was overtaking on one side and the oncoming lorry on the other.

I sold it soon afterwards and haven’t had one since. I’m quite dangerous enough in a car.

But, finding myself in Islay in the Hebrides and happening to see that the TT was about to start – and having nothing more than a vague plan to visit Dublin before I’m due in Pwllheli on June 8th – the chance was too good to miss.

Also, I needed to dry out against a convenient harbour wall to grease the feathering propeller and see to the anodes. The perfect place would be Ramsey on the island’s East coast: A drying harbour with three of the best spectator spots on the course – including Parliament Square. The idea of negotiating a town square and still keeping up the 136mph average would be something to see.

It was all settled: I could anchor overnight in the bay, enter the harbour at high water first thing in the morning and be up against the wall by lunchtime: Plenty of time to get the boatwork done and see something of the bikes.

You can guess by this stage, that something is going to go wrong.

First, the harbourmaster came round. He was a friendly chap and very helpful. One of the fishing boats had broken down and his mate was going out to get him – which meant that they would need some space to manoeuvre and would I move to a berth further down the quay?

No trouble at all – except neither of us appreciated that the water was a bit deeper there – and this being neaps. I had to creep around with it half way up my wellies.

While all this was going on, it started to rain – and of course, the TT death toll is quite high enough without allowing wet roads into the mix. So, practice was cancelled for the day.

Never mind, maybe Thursday’s session would go ahead. On the evening high tide, I moved out into the bay and anchored as close to the South West corner as I could get – the forecast being a brisk southwesterly.

Actually, I couldn’t get very close at all – the Isle of Man is one of those places where the beaches stretch for miles. It looked a long way in my tiny, lightweight inflatable dinghy – just 1.6metres long and weighing only 10kg. When I chose it, the idea was to inflate it in a trice and carry it around on my head. Now I fancied a big RIB with 30hp on the back.

All day the TT news played in Samsara’s cabin: Again, the afternoon practice was cancelled. Maybe they would resume at 1820.

At 1700, I inflated the dinghy. With the little 2.2hp outboard hammering for all it was worth into the wind, I set off for the beach.

Half-way there, I realised I hadn’t switched on the AIS*. It’s always a good idea to switch on the AIS when you leave your boat at anchor. Not only can you use your phone to check that she’s still there but if you search on this blog for a post called “Lost at Sea” you will learn how it saved me and my son Hugo one foggy day in Swanage – and if (unimaginably) the boat should drag her anchor and disappear out to sea, you can always charter a fishing boat and track her down.

Still, I was half-way there. Too bad…

The beach that had looked so welcoming through binoculars, now revealed itself as a quarter of a mile of wet sand – up which the water was advancing as if it wanted a race of its own. If I left the motor at the water’s edge and carried the dinghy above the high-water mark, the motor would be swamped by the time I got back to it.

If I took the motor first, the dinghy would float away…

The answer was to leap-frog them – 20 paces with the motor, then dash back for the dinghy, hoist it on my head and wobble hurriedly past the motor as far as I dared.

I have seen people in Africa carrying enormous loads on their heads. They all had perfect posture and seemed to know where they were going.

If I didn’t look down, I was going to trip over something. Add to that the dinghy’s 10kg is without the seat and the oars. By the time I reached the top and tied the painter to a stump, every time I turned my head, I could hear things creaking inside.

It was a mile to Parliament Square – and sure enough, there was a pub crowded with people in black TT racewear clutching pints of lager in plastic glasses.

Just to be sure (before I bought my own pint) I asked the nearest: “Is this a good place to watch?”

He turned from his beer: “It’s cancelled.”

“What? When did they cancel it?”

“About 20 minutes ago. We’d left our tent on the campsite. Got here and then we heard.”

A smattering of small raindrops blew into his plastic glass.

I had checked the five O’clock news before blowing up the dinghy. That was an hour and ten minutes ago.

So what was the good news?

The good news was that if I left the pub now and went straight back to the boat, I wouldn’t have to worry about her disappearing.

That was all yesterday. Today there is a 35kt wind blowing the rain sideways and whipping the half-mile fetch from the beach into the kind of waves that break on the bow and send spray onto the decks outside the heads window.

I’ve got a better idea: It’s due to drop tonight. I’ll leave for Dublin – plenty of pubs there…


*AIS – Automatic Identification System: A radio beacon broadcasting a vessel’s position and other details.



The Best Sailing in Europe

 The authors of the Clyde Cruising Club’s pilot books are gentlemen not given to hyperbole.

One assumes they are gentlemen – with starched collars and whiskers and deckhands in the fo’c’sle to work the vessel. After all, their guide to the waters from Kintyre to Ardnamurchan begins with a poem from the Log of the Blue Dragon in 1903.

Advice for a passage through the fearsome Gulf of Corryvreckan is that it should be taken in calm weather, at slack water – and then goes on to recommend that “all hatches should be closed and all crew would be well advised to have a lifeline attached if going forward”.

So when they say that this stretch of coast and its outlying islands offer some of the best and most varied sailing that can be found anywhere in Europe, it is time to sit up and take notice.

So why didn’t they mention that it is like going back to school? I have just spent more than an hour with the Gentlemen’s comments, the tide tables for Oban, the two charts that cover the area in question – and an exercise book which is rapidly filling up with information such as “Firth of Lorn: SW going 0600 – 1225 BST (then clockwise)” and “Ardinamir to S point of Luing: 2 miles (anchorage Kilchattan Bay – await north-going stream through Sound from 1225 BST – then Loch Spelve?”

I put that down only because Tinkers Hole was looking doubtful with a North Westerly. Or, of course, I could just stay in the Sound of Jura which gives me such options as Lowlandman’s Bay or going into Loch Sween…

The trouble with “The Most Varied Sailing Anywhere In Europe” is that there are too many options. I’m not even going to bother to count the number of possible destinations just for tomorrow.

Or, of course, I could just stay here.

“Here” is a tiny little hole in the rocks between Luing and Torsa called Adinamir. It boasts, according to the Gentlemen “a notorious narrow entrance” – and it is. First you have to identify a white cottage, then a gravel patch, after that a white mark on the shore then a green perch and then a red perch with only a metre of water between them at low tide – and when you get there, holding is “sometimes poor in weed”.

But I had no choice: Luing has a Post Office and I had a letter to post. More remarkable, Luing has a working phone box – with a telephone directory on the shelf. Hebridean islands are not like other places: The population of Ardinamir is 162 (ten children in the primary school). At the end of the 19th century the census counted 632 – but that was with the slate-mining in full swing. Now it’s holiday cottages, a bit of lobster-fishing and curious brown cattle inspecting the solitary visitor on his way to the Post Office.

In fact the solitude – the sense of temporarily being somewhere off the planet – is almost tangible. Sit in the cockpit in the evening and time seems to stand still… for the very good reason that the evening lasts until nearly midnight.

In fact, just to test it, leaving Loch Spelve for Jura a few days later – and not having pinged off the blog post because there was not so much as a smidgeon of a mobile phone signal – it seemed like a good idea to sail overnight just for the experience. Twilight lasted from after dinner until I dropped anchor in Loch Tarbert in broad daylight in time for breakfast at 5.00 a.m.


Samsara in Ardinamir




Twilight in Ardinamir at 11.15 p.m.


Midnight on passage to Jura




The Birds

Joshua Slocum, on his solo voyage around the world, looked up into the cockpit one dark and stormy night and saw the pilot of Drake’s ship The Pinta at the wheel.

Jean Le Carn in the Vendee Globe Race held his sister in his arms – and woke up hugging a sail bag.

Hallucinations, when you’re alone at sea, are not unusual.

Feeling someone touch the back of your neck, however, on only the second night of a passage from Falmouth to Caernarfon – especially when pushed by northerlies into that empty gap between the Smalls and the Tuskar Rock separation schemes where there’s just nothing but empty sea (and on this occasion, not a breath of wind) – well, something’s up…

I’d had nothing to do for the past 18 hours but sleep and read and sit in the cockpit drinking coffee and watching some tiny land-birds flutter about the boat and try to balance on the guardrails…

So this was just plain creepy… but there: It happened again, just as I was pouring hot water into the pot: A feather-light touch on the back of the neck…

That was when I realised that the birds – having given up on the guardrails – were now in the cabin: Six of them whizzing about like rockets, exploring. It was a scene from Hitchcock.

Then they got into the fo’c’sle which, now it’s turned into The Shed, full of sails and the bike and the dinghy and the new enormous ball fender – well, it’s easy for a small bird to get lost in there – and start panicking.

With all six of them simultaneously bouncing from off the chandlery and banging their heads on the windows, they didn’t do much for my state of mind either. I got in there too and started waving my arms about and shouting.

In the end, of course, we all calmed down enough to take some pictures. One of them perched on my hand and even allowed me to carry him to the companionway and toss him into the sky like Noah and dove.

I hope he made it back to land (he hasn’t re-appeared with an olive twig). Another made a nest in the cockpit with a couple of non-slip mats for a cushion. He was gone by the morning. It was only then that I found another had settled down beside the petrol can. Maybe it was too cramped down there to spread his wings. I don’t know. Anyway, he was dead in the morning.

I gave him a sailor’s burial complete with a short prayer appropriate to a poor dead bird. I’ve no idea what he was. Maybe there’s a twitcher out there who can help…

The farmer, the bull and the windlass

Did you hear the story of the Spanish farmer and the bull?

This farmer had a brand new calf and it was time for it to move out of the stable and into the field during the daytime.

But the calf wouldn’t budge out of his stall. No matter how much the farmer cajoled and rattled a bucket of grain, the calf refused to move.

In the end, the farmer lost patience, hoisted the animal onto his shoulders and carried him across the road to the field.

The next day, he tried again with the bucket of grain – and even a slice of bread (calves love a slice of bread). But no, the calf was adamant. He wasn’t going anywhere.

With a sigh, the farmer bent down, put his head under the animal’s belly and straightened up, the calf lying across his shoulders – and, once again, walked across the road to the field.

And this happened the next day… and the next. Eventually, the farmer gave up on the bucket of grain and the bread – and even the pointless attempt to coax the calf to walk by himself.

In other words, carrying the calf across the road became a habit.

But as the calf grazed the good grass in the field, he began to grow. Imperceptibly, day by day, he grew bigger – and he grew heavier.

But the routine continued and every day, as the farmer lifted the calf onto his shoulders, he grew stronger – and stronger.

And it is said that if you go to a particular village in Andalucia early in the morning, you can see a crowd gathered around a farm gate to see an old, grey-haired farmer walk across the road carrying a full-grown bull on his shoulders.

I don’t know where this story came from but I’ve always loved the moral – which, of course, you can work out for yourself.

And I have been reminded of it over the past few days because of the anchor windlass. If you look back through this blog you will find various references to the windlass. It has worked on and off for the past two years. From time to time – for no reason that I can deduce – it will just go “click” instead of winding in the chain. I have checked everything that can be checked. The brilliant electronics engineer Art Butler of Deben Marine Ltd has toiled over it on several occasions – most recently, only a couple of weeks ago when he drove up to Lowestoft to clean the commutator. He even ordered a special cleaning implement for me so I could do this myself.

And what happened on Saturday evening in the Falmouth Haven anchorage with an hour to dusk and a spritely 20knots blowing across the deck?


I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t used it once since Art’s ministrations. Of course, the only thing to do was pull the thing up by hand. I had always assumed that with a 20kg anchor on the end of 10mm chain and me being an old man of 70, this was not an option.

But I did pull it up. I took it slowly, nipped back to the cockpit from time to time to drive the boat forward – and then back again to break out the anchor.

And I’ve been doing this ever since – twice when I sailed overnight to Plymouth and anchored in Barn Pool, did a short stay in Mayflower Marina to pick up the spinnaker and then back to the pool before returning to Falmouth the next day. Here I anchored off St Just and then moved last night to Falmouth banks ready for the overnight wind shift.

And, just like the farmer and his bull, I began to get into the habit. The secret, I found, is to take your time and let the boat move up as the weight of catenary takes over the pull – and wear gloves, of course. Eventually, you end up with the chain straight up and down and the anchor still well dug in. Breaking it out is going to be really hard work so this is where you put the engine into reverse and, once again, let the boat do the work: As soon as she starts to move back showing that the anchor is free, click into neutral and now all you have to do haul up the remaining chain and the anchor itself.

Of course, the deeper the water, the more there is to haul up. At the moment, on Falmouth bank just after low tide, I have 8.6metres from the bow roller to the bottom which means 17kg of chain and the 20kg anchor – a total of 37kg to begin with, but of course, less as it comes in (and I begin to tire).

I know there will be times when this last part of the process has to be completed in double-quick time as the boat begins to drift; but if the worst comes to the worst, I can leave it dangling for a moment or two while I nip back to the cockpit.

The odd thing is that, as I get more confident, I am beginning to see the benefits: For a start, I can stop paying Art to come out and try and fix it. The last resort of sending the windlass back to Lofrans might not be necessary after all…

Also, if I can do this now – and continue to do it every few days from now on, then presumably I will still be doing it when I’m 80 – and won’t that be something to be proud of!

Is it possible that I may be able to remove the wretched thing entirely? That would reduce the clutter on the foredeck – and take 25kg off the bow which would do wonders for the trim.

Do you think that, just like the Spanish farmer with his bull, I might attract a bit of a crowd?

Update May 22nd 2019: Of course, the real test was going to come when I had to lift all 50 metres of chain vertically. That was going to weigh 120kg…

Well, of course, if all of it was hanging straight down, that would mean I had anchored in something like 250m – and I can’t imagine anywhere I would want to do that.

But there would come a time when I would have all the chain out…

It happened in Loch Spelve on Mull in the Hebrides. The corner sheltered from the South Westerly right down at the end of the left-hand spur looked just right – except that it shelved so steeply that either I was going to be in 13metres or on the beach.

It had to happen sometime. I let it all out. Adding 2m for the difference between the depth transducer and the bow roller, I should really have had 51m but in fact, given the necessary amount on deck and slack on the snubber, there was probably only 49m.

Still, it all had to be hauled up – and the vertical lift would be 50kg. I left the engine ticking over ahead and started pulling. Once the chain was going into the water sideways, I sauntered back to the cockpit and clicked her into reverse (which gave me a chance to catch my breath).

Then, back to the foredeck and more hauling. The blue and yellow 35m markers appeared, then the white and yellow 25m.

It was at about this time that the people on the little motor-cruiser from the other side of the anchorage returned from taking the dog ashore in their RIB. They made a detour to get within hailing distance: “Do you need any help?”

I hadn’t realised I looked as though I was struggling. I must say, I was slightly disappointed… which sounds churlish.

“No thanks,” I called back. “Some people go to the gym. I do this!”

Update October 2019

I did get it fixed (new control box) but then, in Alderney, UK Channel Islands, anchored in 11.5metres in a 25 knot wind and with 47metres of chain out, the windlass packed up again. I reckoned I had 12 hours to get the anchor up and scoot across the channel before a forecast northerly gale set in – Alderney being no place to get caught in a northerly gale.

In fact, it was a lot less trouble than I expected: I put the engine in slow ahead and pulled in a metre of chain, belayed as the boat veered to one side and the chain became taught. Eventually, her head swung through the wind and the chain went slack – pulled in another metre.

This process continued and I later realised another benefit. Each time the pull changed direction, the anchor must have been rocked from side to side, loosening its hold. Eventually it came up without my even noticing when it broke out.

Meanwhile it looks as though the wretched thing will have to come off and go back to the Lofrans agent this winter…