Flannan Islands

27th June 2018

Flannan Islands are uninhabited. I’m not surprised.

They’ve got an automatic lighthouse and two landing places with concrete steps but one set was  washed away years ago and the other is no longer maintained and might not be there even now – but who’s to say?

All the same, I’m beginning to think I live here.

These fifteen lumps of granite looked rather beautiful – in a desolate sort of way – as I approached at sunset last night. There is some grass growing and a lot of white from the thousands of seabirds which clearly think this is the perfect place to call home.

Nevertheless, I passed in the night a few miles off on the way to St Kilda which is also uninhabited but hasn’t always been (where lies a story).

The problem with passing the Flannan Islands at night is that, steering by the wind, what would happen if the wind were change while I was asleep? I could be on the rocks.

The secret here is to work out how long you want to sleep for, then work out how far you could travel in the wrong direction in that time – and then set two alarms to make sure you don’t…

All the same, it doesn’t make for a peaceful night. More than once, I woke before the alarm. Lying there, listening to the water going past the hull, there was a tendency to wonder what should have caused this sudden wakefulness – after all, it appeared that I was not just awake. I was fully alert. Something was up. Was this Chiefy keeping watch?

Of course, it could be the islands themselves. There’s something odd about the Flannan Isles: Every Scot knows the story… how the three lighthouse keepers mysteriously disappeared a few days before Christmas in 1900.

Conspiracy theorists had a field day with this one: They had  been captured by pirates, eaten by seabirds, abducted by aliens…

One way and another, it would be foolish to go back to sleep with that sort of thing going on. So, unzip the sleeping bag (God, it’s cold). It’s also dark (wait a minute, I’m wearing the indoor wooly hat which rolls down over the top half of my face the blocks out the light. I’m blundering around in a blindfold).

First check is the plotter which shows the boat still on course, the islands well astern – a group of fishing boats ten miles away – have to watch them; unpredictable things, fishing boats and once they’ve got their gear down, they have right of way over everything else, rather like cyclists in Holland. Pull the hatch back and stick my head out. Now it’s really cold. Boat seems OK, Flannan Islands still there at a safe distance. Doesn’t it ever get dark in these latitudes?

And this happened two or three times – quite apart from the alarms going off every hour, so what with one thing another, it wasn’t a particularly good night. I shall be glad to find some peace in St Kilda.

 

 

Heat

26th June 2018

We made three miles towards our destination last night.

It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. In the same eleven hours, we sailed six miles through the water. It’s just that we weren’t going in the right direction.

Yes, you guessed it, on the hottest day of the year in England, there was still drizzle in the North of Scotland – drizzle and incessant headwinds. I’ve worked it out: We have had headwinds now for seven days in a row – first of all North Westerlies on the way up the East Coast towards the Orkneys. Then Westerlies across the top (strong to “near gale” Westerlies to make sure the sea stayed good and rough after the full gale that saw Samsara scuttling into Fair Isle).

And finally, just as I get to the top of the Hebrides, ready for “left hand down a bit” to St Kilda, what do I get: First of all, a flat calm to announce the coming change in the weather – and then, can you believe it? A light South Westerly.

And more drizzle.

Some things are just not fair. There’s only a hundred miles to go after something 850 during which there hasn’t been a single complaint (well I don’t remember it) and now this.

I was all ready to enjoy today: I had taken advantage of last night’s calm to wash and change my clothes for the first time since Fair Isle. I even got undressed and climbed into a sleeping bag – it was Heaven.

And now, I poke my head out of the hatch to find a light headwind and drizzle. What does Ken Bruce call it on Radio Two “Dreich?”

Of course, I could cheer myself up with a French Fancy or even a slice of bread and apricot jam (I made loaf of bread in the calm – I must write about that) but sugar is like cocaine: It doesn’t last very long and then you just want more…

I looked at the little electronic weather station. Pressure rising, not that you’d notice… but, wait a minute what’s this: 12.5o C – as Southern England prepared for a new “hottest day of the year” record…

Well, that was a couple of hours ago. Now I can tell you that I wouldn’t swap places with anyone on Brighton beach. The charcoal stove is fired up – once I got the seawater out of it (how did it get there?) I just checked the thermometer again: 23.5o!

Mind you, I didn’t notice this for a while. I had made the mistake of sitting on the leeward (downhill) berth to write this – it seemed that on the leeward berth, the laptop was less likely to slide off my lap. But you have to remember that hot air rises – which means that all the cold air burrows its way underneath – right onto the leeward berth.

I am now sitting to weather, as us old salts would call it, and I’ve had to move along the berth away from the stove.

We’re still not going in the right direction but it doesn’t seem to matter so much. It’s coffee time – the problem now (yes, there is always a problem) is that while I have a whole spare box of Cherry Bakewell Tarts, there are only two French Fancies left. Of course, I could have that slice of bread but the loaf smelled so good when it came out of the oven that I had four slices there and then – and it doesn’t look so big now…

 

Fair Isle

21st June 2018

I may never come back to Fair Isle.

After all, how many people visit Fair Isle in the first place: A tiny lump of rock midway between the Orkney Islands and the Shetlands off the North coast of Scotland, it is barely more than a mile long and famous for two thing: Fair Isle sweaters and seabirds.

And if I showed any sense of occasion, I should go ashore and look at it. But then I’m not supposed to be here at all. I had safely passed it to the south – and very forbidding it looked in the oily yellow light of a stormy dawn.

I had chanced to hit the Fair Isle Channel at the exact moment the tide turned against me – and much stronger than I expected, it proved to be. So instead of “popping out into the Atlantic” as according to the plan, the track on the plotter seemed to be going backwards and forwards over the same stretch of sea.

And the Shipping Forecast’s “occasionally gale 8” seemed to have become a fixture. By breakfast time, I had the storm trysail set and was calculating that I could always heave-to and slide backwards the way I had come.

And then, unbidden, a bored Scottish voice filled the cabin. It’s always a bit alarming for the single-handed sailor when this happens. But if you will leave the radio turned on, then it’s bound to happen. Reception was poor and while it was obvious this was some sort of coastguard broadcast, I couldn’t make out where he was based – and worse still, when he started reading out the gale warning: “Gale force 8 to severe gale force 9”, I seemed to miss the part where he explained which sea area this referred to…

If it was area Fair Isle, then it was bad news. A gale is bad enough but a severe gale is disproportionally worse, like earthquakes on the Richter Scale…

Then came the clincher: “Outlook for the following 24 hours: North-westerly gales continuing.”

There are times when common sense takes over. Fair Isle was just five miles away with a narrow rocky inlet called North Haven which offered good protection from North Westerlies. I could be there in a little over an hour.

It took longer, of course. These things always do but now Samsara lies at anchor in an impossibly small space between the pier, the rocks, the slipway and an awkwardly-placed lobster pot just opposite a huge ocean-going fishing boat hauled up in what appears to be a man-made gully hewn out the rock. I’m beginning to realise what kind of weather ranks as normal up here.

So now the charcoal stove is fired up, the wet clothes which festooned the cabin have gradually dried and been put away, there appears to be no mobile phone signal and only Radio One. I could have blown up the dinghy and gone ashore to explore but quite honestly, I don’t want to. At times like this, your world can get very small. I had a comfort lunch of beans and eggs. The other half of last night’s mixed bean stew only needed warming up for dinner (seems like a lot of beans). Thank heavens I picked up a cheap lighter in a convenience store last summer “just in case” – the gas lighter has packed up and all the matches are damp.

Meanwhile the awkwardly-placed lobster pot marker turns out to be a seal which remains motionless for minutes on end just staring at me. Eventually he dives, swims under the boat and looks at me from the other side.

 

Meanwhile the BBC forecaster seems to know nothing about the mysterious Scottish “outlook” so maybe sI shall be off again tomorrow – with dry clothes, a good sleep … and full of beans.

Settled In

24th June 2018

Day Eleven and I’ve settled into the voyage. I know this because this is the fourth day of strong headwinds and, I just got the clarinet out for half an hour and now I’m sitting here writing this. In effect, life goes on.

Until now, I would spend hours at the chart table fretting about whether to tack of worrying about not getting a Navtex weather forecast.

But then, as if on cue, today has been a very good day. It began when I looked out on my hourly inspection and found the trailing generator had come partly adrift. It could wait. I could go back to sleep. Do it later… do it after breakfast.

And that’s what I would have done – yesterday, when it mattered to me that it was 4.30 a.m. and any sensible person should have been asleep. But now suddenly I found myself saying: “Do it now.” I  looking at Chiefy. He regarded my coldly from his perch behind the chart table. Apparently I needed a  stuffed bear wearing a Guernsey and a red neckerchief to help me to remember that “if a job’s worth doing”, it’s also worth doing now.

It was while I was attending to the generator that looked down at the self-steering. This had been troubling me greatly with its rhythmic clonking which echoed through the engine compartment like a sound-box. I assumed it had something to do with my not drilling the holes in exactly the right place. I had tried packing the joints with little pieces of rubber. I had a makeshift lashing holding it in alignment…

But now I looked closely, wasn’t that bolt loose? In fact, wasn’t that bolt about to fall out any moment?

Surprise, surprise: It doesn’t clonk any more.

Over the course of the next couple of hours, I found the key to the battery compartment and the washing up brush (in with the lubricants and underneath the pasta). Then I found out how to make the boat go faster: More sail. It felt to me that I was putting too much strain on the rig driving through big seas in a welter of spray but she loves it. Mind you, it does make life on board something of an acquired taste: My world is permanently heeled to 25 degrees and hitting a big wave at five knots is enough you off your feet (and if you happen to be in the loo at the time… well, I’ll leave that to your imagination…)

It would be easy to complain about this. Indeed, I have a suspicion that I have been complaining to myself for the past three days – more, if you count the calms coming up the North Sea. But no, that’s just what we happen to have got at the moment.

In fact, now I think it might be lunchtime (it’s ten past four) and the trailing generator has been making so much electricity at five knots that the other half of last night’s beer might even be cold…

 

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Mr Kipling

June 19th 2018

This is me being philosophical.

Five days into a passage from Suffolk to the Outer Hebrides (which is about as far as you can go without leaving the country) and I am off the North East corner of Scotland, have been listening to gale warnings for the past 48 hours and the Navtex machine has just spewed out the following information: “Sea area Cromarty gale now ceased.”

I could have told them that. If I poke my head out of the hatch, my hat does not get blown off. Not to put too fine a point on it, there is no wind at all. None. We are going nowhere.

I woke from my afternoon nap (to differentiate it from my morning nap, my evening nap and my various night-time naps) to the sound of sails slatting from side to side, the boom banging and the self-steering clonking.

This is what happens when the wind suddenly stops. One minute it is blowing a “strong wind” as the meteorologists would have it – and the next you have a calm (I looked it up. “Sea state: Calm, glassy, like a mirror.” This was not even Force One which is “Ripples like scales are formed.”

This is when the Old Man must stop thinking about progress. After all this is not a race. I have no-one to measure myself against. So, a distraction is what is needed. There are two distractions on this boat. One is Mr Kipling’s Cherry Bakewell Tarts and the other is Mr Kipling’s French Fancies.

If you’re not familiar with British supermarket shelves, Mr Kipling is baker. He has a little corner shop just off the High Street where he produces the most wondrous cakes and pastries – a sort of Willie Wonka of the bakery world. As often as not, he will pop an extra macaroon into your paper bag with a conspiratorial wink as if to say: “Don’t tell Mrs Kipling”.

At least that is the image behind the brand dreamed up by the advertising agency employed many years ago by the vast conglomerate (Kraft? Unilever?) which owns the Mr Kipling brand.

Anyway, I was in Sainsbury’s doing the last-minute victualling (serious stuff like corned beef and porridge oats) when I couldn’t help noticing that Mr Kipling’s Cherry Bakewell Tarts and his French Fancies were on Special Offer – and we do love a special offer.

So far, so good. The colourful boxes were stowed away with everything else – at least, the Cherry Bakewell Tarts were – what happened to the French Fancies, I have not the faintest idea.

To coin a line from Titanic: “There are only so many places they can be. Find them Lovejoy. Find them…”

Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem. They would turn up. But a calm does funny things to the mind. Suddenly a French Fancy was the only thing that would do. Previous love affairs with Cherry Bakewell Tarts were forgotten in the frantic search – digestives cast aside – Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers chucked in with the cook-in sauces. Packets and packets of Penguin biscuits (why so many) ended up in with the rusty chopped tomatoes…

There was a moment when I sat back on my haunches in the middle of the not-very-large cabin, surrounded by packets and tins and jars and came to my senses. The logic went like this: The French Fancies were here. It was just that I couldn’t see them – like looking for the butter in the fridge (I’m looking for butter in a gold wrapper. How am I supposed to see butter in a plain wrapper).

So here was the deal: I would make a cup of tea and have one of Mr Kipling’s Cherry Bakewell tarts. Only after that would I put everything away – and if, in the course of restoring order, I happened to chance on the French Fancies, well… I could reward myself with one of those as well – and another cup of tea.

And do you think I found them? Of course I found them. Right next to the Cherry Bakewell Tarts – only they were in a slightly smaller colourful box (Fancies are smaller than Tarts – it makes sense). I was looking for a box the same size.

I had hardly finished the last mouthful, carefully collecting the crumbs by squashing them with my finger (I must be watchful for deteriorating personal habits) when I realised that the whole world had leaned over a bit and there was a delightful chuckling sound as the water started moving past the hull.

We were on our way once again.

 

Passenger

When a seabird wants a rest, it just lands on the water. How convenient. You can see them sitting happily on the roughest seas. Only when a breaking crest threatens to swamp them do they lift off and fly to another, untroubled patch of water – sometimes it’s just on the next wave.

But that’s fine for seabirds – they are among the very few species that can do everything: Swim, walk and fly.

But what about a land bird faced with a vast expanse of open sea beneath it? What about Pidgy?

Of course, the original Pidgy landed on board Francis Chichester’s Gypsy Moth III during the first Singlehanded Transatlantic Race. He fed her and made her a nest in the cockpit cave locker – she stayed for days and made a dreadful mess of it.

She was a racing pigeon and she was lost. They do get lost sometimes – and some never return home, flying instead in the wrong direction across featureless oceans until they can fly no more and fall out of the sky to drown.

Lyme Bay, off the coast of Devon, is not quite the Atlantic Ocean but there, sitting on the sprayhood, displaying a certain haughty sense of “what are you going to do about it?” sat a pigeon.

Birds on boats are not uncommon – anything that provides a safe haven in the middle of miles and miles of inhospitable water is going to get colonised – after all look what happens to places like “Gannet Rock” in the Channel Islands.

It appears that Pidgy, looking down and seeing Samsara making her way sedately from Torquay to Poole, had the same idea.

So, when I poked my head up to have a look around, there she was, perched on the sprayhood. It’s happened with sparrows and thrushes: Tiny unidentifiable bundles of feathers have all had a ride over the years – but this latest arrival did not scamper away when I popped up. In fact, she was quite happy to be stroked with a finger. But then, this was no ordinary pigeon: Round her legs were two rubber bands stamped with numbers. Like the original Pidgy, this was a racing pigeon.

We set about getting to know each other. From the very beginning, I assumed she was a girl (on account of her very fluffy bloomers and beautiful green necklace). She accepted a drink – and then another. But she scorned the ship’s shop-bought sliced bread.

We were getting along so well that I thought I might mention that if she wanted to make a mess, then the clean canvas of the sprayhood was perhaps not the best place – which may be why, five minutes later, she did just that.

I would have liked to ask her where she was going – how long she intended to stay… but for that I would have to talk to her owner. It was not until I picked up a 4G signal near Portland that I looked up her numbers on the Welsh Homing Pigeon Union website and ended up talking to Gerald Thomas in Merthyr Tydfil.

Mr Thomas is 79 years old and has been racing pigeons for as long as he can remember.

He is not a sentimental man (he doesn’t give them names (and certainly not Pidgy, given that he has 60 of them) and he is philosophical when one of them is late home: “Oh, I expect he’ll  turn up when he finds his way..”

So Pidgy is a boy, then.

“We sent them to France to be released this time. Usually we send them to Belgium. Maybe he went to Belgium first because he knew his way home from there.  But it’s very good of you to give him a drink and let him have a rest.”

I said the pleasure was all mine (It was getting hard to remember that this was a pigeon we were talking about…)

Somewhere near Portland Bill Pidgy left to continue on his way. When I looked out, he just wasn’t there any more.

He’d left behind him another mess for me to remember him by.

The Old Man

The Bear

It all started with the geraniums. I was about to start a 1,200-mile race and somebody gave me a geranium. Now this might not seem particularly sensible but it was a nice thought: Something homely, something that I could love and nurture…

It should be noted at this point that the donor was not a sailor – and certainly not another competitor in the race. But, being the only one taking a house plant, I achieved a certain notoriety – especially considering that the geranium (carefully nurtured in the bookshelf) made it to the finish.

The following year, when the race was 2,400 miles, another well-wisher decided it would be a fine thing to keep the tradition going and presented me with two geraniums. The bookshelf being full of books, this time the extra crew were lashed on to the backstay like mutineers. They didn’t make it past the first gale.

I have never really been sentimental about ship’s mascots. I don’t give a name to the self-steering. There is no gnome in the cockpit as Bill Perkes always used to carry aboard Sherpa Bill. But now, of all things, I have a teddy bear.

It wasn’t my idea. Last autumn, I called into Brixham and met my sister who lives in Exeter. We had a good catch-up and then she produced this.

 

 

Apparently, our mother had bought it for our father a few days before he died.

And now she was giving it me.

Obviously, I couldn’t just throw it away. Nor could I refuse it. So instead I made appreciative noises and – as soon as she had gone – banished the bear to fo’c’sle with all the sails and the folding bicycle and what-not.

And there he stayed, unloved and ignored. I’m sure my father would have understood – he was not sentimental either. But also he would have understood that I couldn’t just dump the thing – one day my sister might come back and ask about the bear.

And now, down in the west country once more and due to meet the sister for lunch again, the bear came to mind. I would have to get him out. Apparently, they do this at Buckingham Palace. There is a flunkey whose prime responsibility is to see that any visiting potentate will find their gifts prominently displayed and Her Majesty fully versed in their history.

Me, I just got the bear out and jammed him in a convenient space at the chart table.

And there he sits, looking over my shoulder – and I hate to say this but since he’s been there we have had no major disasters – unlike the months of his exile when, as followers of this blog will be aware, not everything went according to plan.

Now, I don’t talk to him. He hasn’t got a name and if anyone remarks on him, I am very disparaging and explain that he’s really nothing to do with me.

All the same, if we should avoid any more disasters and I am allowed to dismiss him as someone else’s sentimental notion, he can stay.

Stop Press: It’s no good, after some surprising success in the engineering department (well, it certainly surprised me), I found myself referring to the bear as the Chief Engineer. I think he’s a fixture…

Lost at sea

Bosham Channel in Chichester harbour, after the pubs shut, sometime in 1934: A young man in an enormous clinker dinghy rowed backwards and forwards in the pitch darkness looking for his boat.

The young man was my father and this was a story that was told and re-told so that it became the stuff of family legend: He had set a riding light on the forestay so he could find his way back – but the light had blown out.

In the end, out of exhaustion and befuddled by an evening of beer, he gave up and climbed onto someone else’s boat, slept aboard, found some sausages for breakfast, left everything neat and tidy along with a note expressing his gratitude and sixpence for the sausages.

The moral was always to go ashore with a compass and take a bearing from the quay. That way if darkness or fog came down, you can always row along the back-bearing until you found your way home.

Swanage 80 years later and not much has changed: Samsara is anchored in the bay and the crew (a full crew on this occasion with number five son Hugo currently occupying the other bunk) decide to go ashore and explore. There is a slipway for the dinghy and after a while the sun comes out to help this rather faded seaside down show off its best.

A little shopping, a visit to the museum and heritage centre (a go on the antique “what the butler saw” machine) and a little excitement absorbed from the prospect of the town finally rebuilding its Albert Memorial to celebrate the bicentenary of the Prince’s birth.

Now it is time to return to the boat. Wait a minute: What boat? There is not a single yacht to be seen in the bay – just a uniform veil of grey: The fog has descended and visibility is no more than 50 metres.

Number five son is full of confidence: “Of course, we’ll find her. We just putter backwards and forwards until we see her.”

The skipper is already seeing the next day’s headlines: “Foolhardy pair lost at sea”, “Search abandoned for fog-bound father and son”. This is just the sort of situation that could turn into a tragedy: Unable to tell which way is back, they motor in circles until the outboard runs out of fuel. Feebly they row in what seems like the right direction, only to be whisked by the tide out of the bay and into the path of the high-speed ferry. It was there only that morning on the AIS, doing 32 knots…

But what you need in this situation is a 15-year-old mind and a mobile phone. The AIS had only been switched off as we came ashore. Any ship-tracking app would still hold that plot for the vessel’s last-known position. All that is needed is for one man to log in to FindShip, look up the destination vessel and navigate the “you are here” icon until the two meet at the same spot. Then with one to call out directions and one to steer…

…except that in this case the one calling out directions kept saying: “I’m sure this isn’t right. There’s a moored boat, we were nowhere near the moorings…more over this way…”

But sure enough, eventually, after a lot of “left-a-bit, right-a-bit”, Samsara appeared out of the murk dead on the nose – at a range of certainly no more than 50 metres.

“Told you so,” said the man at the helm.

His grandfather would have been proud of him.

The Old Man

Anchor windlass (technical)

The anchor windlass has now worked perfectly half a dozen times in a row. I cannot tell you what a relief this is.

I may have mentioned that last autumn, on the trip round from Wales to the English East Coast, periodically it would simply refuse to move: All I got on pressing the button was a loud “click” and I became really quite adept at cranking the anchor up by hand.

However, this was a long and laborious process and I worried about the prospect of having to get out of an anchorage in a hurry: Once you have raised enough chain to break the anchor’s hold on the bottom, then a gale blowing onto a lee shore will have you on the rocks before you can get the thing on deck.

So as soon as I stopped in Woodbridge, Art Butler of Deben Marine came and puzzled over it: Since it sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t (there appeared to be no pattern to it) he surmised that this must mean there was a bad connection somewhere. I cleaned up a very rusty bolt in the anchor locker, he removed a wonky isolation switch and replaced the 80amp circuit breaker with one of 100 amps. It didn’t make the slightest difference.

I talked to the UK distributors of Lofrans – a firm called A R Peachment in Norwich. They were very helpful and listened sympathetically. They couldn’t really offer much by way of explanation (although a sharp tap with a winch handle was mentioned at one point). Ultimately, all they could offer was to send an engineer to look at it. There was a long waiting list and it would be expensive. Alternatively, if I would like to remove the windlass from the foredeck and deliver it to their workshop…

It was when Art had visited me on the Orwell while I had my anchor chain wrapped round the mooring (q.v.) that we discussed the options. He had just fitted the new contact breaker. I never thought that was the problem because the old one hadn’t tripped. Anyway, Art mentioned that sometimes electric motors didn’t work if they had stopped the previous time with the commutator contacts on a duff spot.

The mention of something as technical as a commutator juxtaposed with a “duff spot” offered an entirely new avenue of investigation. First of all, I had no idea what a commutator was.

For those untechnical people like me, here is what Wikipedia has to say about commutators:

Commutator in a universal motor from a vacuum cleaner. Parts: (A) commutator, (B) brush, (C) rotor (armature) windings, (D) stator (F) (field) windings, (E)brush guides

commutator is a rotary electrical switch in certain types of electric motors and electrical generators that periodically reverses the current direction between the rotor and the external circuit. It consists of a cylinder composed of multiple metal contact segments on the rotating armature of the machine. Two or more electrical contacts called “brushes” made of a soft conductive material like carbon press against the commutator, making sliding contact with successive segments of the commutator as it rotates. The windings (coils of wire) on the armature are connected to the commutator segments.

 

As you can see from the picture, the segments of the commutator are made of copper and are properly copper-coloured. We took the back of the casing off the windlass and inspected mine. They were black – jet black.

Art searched through one of his two enormous toolboxes and came up with something that looked like a small screwdriver with a little blob of some sort of material on the end.

“Fibreglass”, he explained. “Good for cleaning things in inaccessible places.”

Laboriously, he cleaned each segment, turning the motor as he did so until they were all copper-coloured again.

It worked.

And it has worked without fail ever since.

I phoned A R Peachment again (I needed a new gasket anyway). I explained the remedy. The technician I spoke to sounded most interested. I suggested that next time he had a call from a desperate customer, he might like to suggest this as a first resort.

The trouble is that I’m not sure he believed me.

 

 

Silence

The mother of all broaches played out to the accompaniment of Maurice Chevalier singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”.

It happened somewhere off the Grand Banks during the 1988 Singlehanded Transatlantic Race. I was having a clear-out recently and found the article I wrote for Yachting World.

That was in the days when you cut two enormous holes in the cockpit and plumbed in a pair of waterproof speakers. Then there was the Motorola radio cassette player… and, of course, the box of cassettes: How do you choose 30 tapes to take with you across the Atlantic? At least with Desert Island Discs it’s not real. If you can’t live with just eight records, you can always listen to the rest when you get home.

Now we have Spotify with every piece of music ever recorded and a tiny waterproof speaker which doesn’t need any wires at all and demonstrates the fact by flying from one side of the cockpit to the other where it bounces, still happily churning out Willy Nelson.

Although it was Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” that was on as we emerged from the Casquets Traffic Separation Scheme, the Genny drawing nicely in the light North Easterly. If the GPS had calculated correctly, we should reach Torquay by dusk. Frankly I didn’t care if we did or we didn’t. I could stay out here forever: There is nothing, absolutely nothing more pleasing than doing five knots over a flat sea with the boat not even rocking. It’s as if there’s no resistance and the momentum just builds and builds until the wind and the sails and the hull and the water reach a sort of equilibrium which will continue forever – unless, that is, one component falls out of balance.

In fact it was thinking this as I watched the white water zipping past the cockpit that I realised there was one thing missing – the sound… the sound of rushing water. Not the crash and surge of a boat charging over breaking waves but the smooth, subdued “hiss” as she slips along as if there’s no effort in it at all.

Except, of course, I couldn’t hear the “hiss” – just Bob Dylan. I turned him off – and that was the beginning of a magical twelve hours when the middle of the English Channel might have been the Atlantic’s Central Abyssal Plain or some lost and unvisited corner of the Greenland Strait. Because gradually the light North Easterly died away. The speed dropped off and with it, all sound until Samsara was moving, apparently without any propulsion at all, at a knot and a half.

The sails hung in their aerofoil shapes, apparently with no air to hold them there. It was like perpetual motion – except, of course there is no such thing and, sure enough, the knot and a half dropped to one knot and then half a knot and eventually, the Aries vane gear could no longer cope and we turned in a dignified half circle and stopped.

It was now dusk, when I should have been arriving at Torquay, but instead, I furled the sails and allowed the boat to drift with the tide. Taking the good glass from its own locker in the galley and a cold beer from the bilges I sat in the cockpit and listened to the silence.

And this was real silence. The kind that, if you concentrate very hard, you can hear a sound in your ears which is really the nerve-endings straining to do their best but giving up and reporting “nothing received”.

The AIS* was receiving OK. The plots showed that in fact there was no other human activity within seven miles as the little green triangles followed each other in an orderly queue down their westbound lane.

It was only later, poking my head up through the hatch in the middle of frying onions, that I realised this time there was a sound – a deep, almost imperceptible throb: The engine of a big ship – the sound which – reverberating out of a fogbank used to fill me with such terror. Now the AIS showed me exactly where he was – even that he was the Maersk  Santosa, 319 metres overall and carrying dangerous goods, harmful substances or marine pollutants (Category B) and heading for Newark at 23.5knots. His RAIM, I can report, was not in use – but I don’t know whether that is helpful or not. What I do know is that on an evening like that, you can hear a ship’s engine at a range of five miles.

I listened to him until the sound faded to nothing.

Of course, real life re-asserted itself eventually. At about three in the morning, there appeared to be a bit of a breeze but I didn’t trust it until it had put in some effort and showed that it could still be blowing at four O’clock.

So, I am writing this in Meadfoot Bay outside Torquay (don’t need to pay Harbour dues until tomorrow) and the little rubber speaker is playing Humphrey Lyttleton’s Bad Penny Blues. The good glass is out again and there’s the other half of last night’s putanesca sauce. In fact, under the influence of proper jazz and the very small bottle of wine which is even now reaching cabin temperature (heater going gently because May is not really summer), I might even get out the clarinet and play the sun down – after all, I’m the only one here…

The Old Man

  • AIS – Automatic Identification System. This transmits ships position and details to other ships. Incidentally you can track me by downloading and app like Findship and searching for Samsara and my identification number 232010712.