Lost and Found

Being an old boat, Samsara has a proper chart table – big enough for a full-size Admiralty chart folded in half. There’s only one in there now – a rather battered copy of No. 2: British Isles (all the way from Brest to the Faeroes). It sits right at the bottom because I don’t use charts much anymore.

Oh, there are some Imrays trapped forever behind the bookcase but why wrestle with an armful of paper when you can use a screen the size of a paperback.

Actually, I don’t use paperbacks either. I have a Kindle.

…or did have.

And this is where we get to the reason for looking in the chart table. I had searched it thoroughly several times looking for the Kindle which went missing towards the end of August.

As Cal, the villain in Titanic said to his henchman: “Search the ship! There are only so many places she can be.”

There were only so many places the Kindle could be – but believe me, I had searched them all (just as I searched for the brand new snatch block that disappeared three years ago). The chart table was such an obvious place for the Kindle that I searched it several times.

I was only looking in there today because I was after the big heavy shackle that was a key part of my invention for keeping the anchor buoy from wandering off when the tide falls. I took it off because I suspected it was helping the line to wrap itself around the chain. Since we may be here in Loch Shieldaig for several days more waiting for a wind without any north in it that I thought to while away an idle 20 minutes by rigging the shackle again just to make sure.

But where was the big heavy shackle? I only took it off a couple of days ago. It must be somewhere. Everything has to be somewhere…

And the obvious place – the place where things get put if you don’t have a hall table or a fruit bowl, is the chart table.

Here’s what I found in the chart table:

Seven cigarette lighters – six of them working (I now have push-button ignition on the cooker).

Two rubber erasers

A micro-SD card

Watercolour notebook with only the first six pages used.

Watercolour paintbox (dried up).

CO2 cylinder that doesn’t fit any of the lifejackets on board.

A very organised little box containing the nail scissors I had been looking for in my spongebag, half a dozen ballpoint pens including a Mont Blanc that spent a couple of years in the bilges and will never be the same again, a fitting for the Aries lift-up gear which is no longer needed but which I plan to give away if ever I meet someone who could use it, a packet of elastic bands (they could come off the shopping list).

A pair of sunglasses with one lens missing.

A piece of plastic from which I cut a square to help with the fitting of the cooker gimbals and which might be needed again in similar circumstances.

Instructions for fitting the CO2 cylinder which doesn’t fit any of the lifejackets.

A saxophone reed (I play the clarinet).


Spare wallet (for replacing lost wallet when it gets lost).

Bicycle bell (still to be fitted).

A pair of fittings for battery terminals.

A pair of drawing compasses.

Various dried-up notebooks.

Instructions for the radar which I use so rarely, I have to look up how to work it each time.

Piece of teak that split off the toe rail.

Envelope of receipts.

Plastic bag of “important items” – passport, cheque book etc.

Similar plastic bag of instruction manuals that seem get consulted regularly.


… and…would you believe it… The Kindle, accusingly displaying the “battery absolutely flat” symbol.

I couldn’t believe it. I shrieked in delight. I danced around the cabin. I hugged the little block of microchips to my breast. I kissed it.

You must understand the significance of this moment. For more than a month, I had been fretting – wondering if should buy a new one. After all, it was the third that I had lost. The original – the one Tamsin gave me for my birthday, I lost I can’t remember where. The second (all singing, dancing and waterproof) which she gave me for Christmas to replace the first one, I left it on a train not three months later … and now this, the third, which I bought second-hand on eBay because the whole business was getting expensive…

And there it was, in the chart table all the time. It sits opposite me now, it’s little yellow charging light, a beacon of hope for all things lost.

…and sure enough, I found the shackle where I had put it, on the shelf beside the navigator’s seat, underneath all those useful bits of 3mm line with bowlines tied in one end.

As for the snatch block… well, we’ll just have to wait and see. Everything’s got to be somewhere. There are only so many places…





Wild and totally remote from civilisation is how they describe Loch Scavaig and I am still here. I have sampled all three anchorages and am back in the one they call Loch na Cuilce which is sheltered on all sides (although, as we have learned, the wind does come shrieking off the mountains).

I have been thinking about Ben Gunn. Do you suppose that if Ben Gunn were to be rescued today, it wouldn’t be a piece of cheese he would ask for – but a mobile phone?

In Loch na Cuilce not only is there no mobile signal, there isn’t even an FM radio signal. Currently, I am fascinated to discover whether President Trump will indeed succumb to the Coronavirus he dismissed so lightly. I don’t like to think that I wish anyone ill but, you must admit, it is a fascinating scenario.

Consequently, I have been reduced to prowling the cabin, the little transistor an inch from my ear, trying to catch the very rudimentary news from Absolute Radio which is the only station that reaches here – even on Medium Wave.

And that is why you are getting so many posts all at once. I thought I would get a whole lot published from Tobermory but somehow I didn’t feel like re-living the previous couple of weeks – and, now you have read about the embarrassment in the Sound of Islay, you may understand why. It takes a bit of serenity to put these things into proportion – and there is nothing quite as serene as Loch na Cuilce.

You anchor right in the middle of a pool set deep in the cirque of the Black Cuillins of Skye. Then, if you take the dinghy and tie it to the rather wonky steps for the boat that brings the climbers who stay in the squat, windowless bothy on the shore, you can walk up the hill.

I say “walk” but it is a steep hill and you will need your hands to get up as well as your feet.

At the top, there are views that most people only ever see in photographs. Of course, I took more pictures so that you can see them too. But taking photographs is not the same as standing at the top and breathing in and remembering to stand up straight and thinking: This is what you came for. This is something special. This puts life into perspective.

Old Man’s Law

You will have heard of Sod’s Law: If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.

I would like to introduce you to Old Man’s Law which states that if you have lived long enough for Sod’s Law to wreak its havoc on your life, then a third law, the well-known Law of Averages will kick in and dictate that sometimes OId Man’s Law will prevail.

And Old Man’s Law dictates that “If something can turn out well, then it will.”

I like Old Man’s Law – and it has been working it’s magic lately.

If you are reading this in the southern part of the United Kingdom – or, heaven forbid, you are on a boat in the English Channel, you will be well aware that you have had nothing but wind and rain these past few days. Depression after depression has been tracking up the Channel as they were on rails.

I might have been down there. You may remember I was in Liverpool and had to get to Blyth in Northumberland – which, although hardly any distance at all as the crow flies, is a long way round by sea … either to the south, down the Irish Sea, round Land’s End, up the Channel, turn left at the North Foreland, across the Thames Estuary and up the North Sea.

Alternatively, I could go North, up the Irish Sea, through the Hebrides, turn right at Cape Wrath, through the Orkneys, right again and down the North Sea.

The only trouble with that was that it was already getting towards the end of September and the Autumn is not the season for sailing Northern Scotland. However, I reasoned that not only was it a shorter distance but it would be much more interesting, I was not in a hurry, I could pick my weather, take short hops…

And what has happened? The sky is blue, I have just been walking on the Black Cuillin mountains of Skye in my shirtsleeves and looking down on Samsara anchored in the pool of Loch na Cuilce, reflected in the completely still waters.

According to the book, this is “one of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring anchorages in Europe. It is wild and totally remote from civilisation.”

Admittedly, I did have to pay my dues – spending two nights of unsettled weather during which violent katabatic winds rocketed off the mountains which, in heavy weather, according to the old sailing directions ”are capable of blowing an anchor out.”

This did give me a little concern on the second night when there was a gale warning for Sea Area Hebrides – but that covers a lot of sea and, according to the last time the Windy app had a mobile data signal, the worst of the wind would be over in the West.

Besides, the anchors they had in the old days – CQRs and Fishermen – probably would have blown out. A 20kg Rocna on 10mm chain holding a 32ft bought weighing only 5000kg, can be classed as a storm anchor.

Many cruising boats do indeed carry a storm anchor – a massively-oversized brute traditionally stowed in the bilges (the most-central, lowest point to help the trim). This is all very well except for one tiny detail: When the storm arrives in the anchorage, you want that beast well dug into the bottom. You don’t want to have to be getting it out, hauling up the everyday anchor, changing one for the other while you try not to bump into anyone else or, come to that, the inconvenient bit of land you are trying to avoid in the first place…

All the same, I did wake up now and then as the boat snatched at her cable and went charging off across the pool at an angle of heel you would expect from a decent breeze and full sail.

That’s one advantage of being up here out of season. There isn’t anyone else to bump into – not a soul.

The person from Padstow

In a bright yellow suit and a little woolly hat, the Person from Padstow belonged in a woodland glade, possibly sitting on a toadstool.

Also, he positively twinkled with ancient wisdom: Sure he had spent the night in Muck – plenty of times – in this very spot. It would be fine. Everything would be fine…

I wanted it to be fine. It was most urgent that everything should be fine. The One Show would be starting in ten minutes…

You might think that for someone sailing alone in the Hebrides in October and calling at the Isle of Muck which, at not even two miles across, is one of the smaller of the Small Isles – keeping up with popular culture might not be at the top of the agenda.

But no sooner had I set off from Tobermory than a text arrived from my daughter at Leeds University: “On The One Show at 7”

It appeared that the BBC wanted to hear how a typical student house was coping with the COVID restrictions – preferably one full of competitively chatty girls.

Now I wished I had stayed in Tobermory Marina with their really quite good Wi-Fi. Tobermory, with its population of 1,000 boasts a Co-Op and a number of rather good restaurants but the EE mobile signal is rubbish.

On Muck (pop: 38) it was non-existent. However, the book did mention that there was a hotel on the island which welcomed non-residents by prior arrangement. Maybe I could have a beer in their bar and use their Wi-Fi – that was if they had a bar and Wi-Fi… and, also, of course, if they were still open in October. The book offered a phone number (but then, if I’d had a signal, I wouldn’t need to call would I?)

The way I saw it, I would have to anchor in double-quick time, blow up the dinghy and go knocking on the door all within 40 minutes. I just hoped Lottie wouldn’t be the first item on the show. Mel C would be first, surely…

And then: What was that I could see in the little inlet? Surely that was a pontoon? Yes, there was yacht moored already. Hastily, I rigged warps and fenders and coasted up inspecting it through binoculars. It was very low in the water – one of those plastic jobs designed for dinghies but it did have proper cleats. I need at least one good cleat: I drop a loop of line over it with one end secured amidships and the other on the cockpit winch. This holds me alongside while I sort out the rest.

Except, in this case someone had left a rope around the cleat, filling it up completely. I circled again and came up on the other side behind a twin-engined RIB. But on this side there just wasn’t enough room – my bow stuck out over the end.

I circled once more – back to the original side. In fact, I circled another three times – that’s how long it took to get the line onto the cleat, poking it with the boathook it in amongst the coils of nasty blue polypropylene.

By the time I was snugged down and ready to go looking for the hotel which, according to the book was a mile away, the Person from Padstow appeared from the other yacht.

I could have asked him if he knew where to find the hotel but something else had come up: Now that I was moored, it was second nature to look at the depth sounder and I was a bit startled to see it reading 5.2metres. I was sure I had made a note that the tide would be going down by 4.1metres.

This meant that at low tide –  at two o’clock in the morning – the sounder would be showing 1.1. Samsara draws 1.5 and with the transducer a bit below the waterline, she hits the bottom when it shows 1.2 (I know this from bitter experience).

In other words, staying where I was, I would be woken shortly before two in the morning with a bump. After all, this was not the East Coast where the first you know about it is when you fall out of bed as the boat heels over onto the mud. No, this would well be a bone-jarring crash as the swell dropped her onto a solid Scottish rock bottom.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” said the person from Padstow. “I’ve been here three or four times and that’s never happened to me.”

He drew I.2 metres – but he was further inshore than I was. On the other hand, he looked as though he knew what he was talking about. If he was sure, then it was alright by me – even if it was by now, far too late to walk ashore, find the hotel, explain my strange request and catch Lottie’s TV debut. The beer would have to be at home after all.

The beer is a bit of a ritual at the end of the day – served in a glass, accompanied by Pringles – with music and a book. Best of all, I had just started Neil Hawkesford’s long-awaited third volume A Foolish Escape.

But The Clyde Cruising Club’s Sailing Directions and Anchorages was still open on the chart table. Before putting it away, I read once more through the section on Muck. Now I realised why I had a been so surprised to see the pontoon: I had already dismissed it because the book said: “There is a pontoon belonging to Marine Harvest which can be used by shallow-draft vessels and dinghies”.

Shallow draft? That’s less than 0.7 metres. Moreover, we were not ten days past the equinox with one of the biggest tides of the year.

I went and knocked on the other boat: “The book says this pontoon is only for shallow draft vessels and we’ve got a really big tide tonight. I’m going to anchor off.”


And so I did. It was pitch dark by then but the fishermen, being helpful, had stuck reflective tape to their mooring buoys. I found an empty spot and retired to cook up a mushroom stroganoff so that I could have rice with it and try out my new plastic sieve. I’d bought it in Tobermory after melting the last one in a frying pan that turned out not to be cold after all.

At anchor, the motion was much more gentle with no warps to snatch at the pontoon in the swell. Besides, I would be up at 0630 to catch the tide going North. I didn’t want to be woken up at 0200 as well.

I never did find out whether the Person from Padstow got dropped on a rock.

Don’t panic II

When the engine stopped just as I was getting away from Port Askaig, I could have scrambled to get back in. In the light of events, maybe that is what I should have done – but instead, I turned the key again, the engine started once more as if nothing was the matter and so I assumed it knew best.

All the same, I did hoist some sails very smartly indeed. And sure enough we had a cracking sail up to Mull… until the wind died again. With only ten miles to go it seemed a good idea to motor the last bit.

That was when I started to worry once more. Sure enough, after about an hour, the steady thump of the diesel paused, stuttered… and stopped.

I turned the key. It started again.

This was all very well in the open sea. What would I do if it happened just as I reached my destination.

Tinker’s Hole is one of the most popular anchorages on the west coast of Scotland. What makes it so special is that it is tiny and entirely protected by series of small islands. You tie your dinghy to a rusty ring set into the pink granite cliffs and scramble up to enjoy a vista of complete wilderness.

Threading your way in between the rocks with less than half a cable of space between them is no place to be becalmed if the engine stops.

Curiously, I don’t remember considering that I should call off the visit – head for somewhere sensible that I could sail into (and out of, come to that). I suppose I assumed that both times the engine had stopped, it had started again – and anyway, I would have to be pretty unlucky if it stopped at exactly the wrong moment just as I found myself up-tide of the rock (dries 2.3m) just off the entrance or in the middle of the entrance itself (less than half a cable wide). Before then, I could sling out the anchor – it was only 10 metres deep. Once I was in, I would be anchoring anyway.

The engine waited until I was in before it stopped. In fact, I was no more than a boat-length from the exact spot where I proposed to plant the hook. That was why we were idling in neutral. Clearly, the machinery had decided that if it wasn’t going to be called upon to do anything useful, then it might just as well shut down now… and did.

We ghosted to a halt and I lowered the anchor through five metres of clear water to rest nicely between two patches of weed. Now all I had to worry about was getting out again. Still, that could wait for the morning.

But in the morning the only other boat in the anchorage had gone. Samsara was all alone and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a photograph. So, straight after breakfast, it was into the dingy to row over to the rocks no more than 15 metres away and then climb up through the bracken and over the heather to the hill where – apart from spectacular views, it occurred to me there might be a mobile signal.

There wasn’t.

I stayed four nights in Tinker’s Hole which must be a record. There was a good deal of fussing over the engine but I couldn’t for the life of me find anything wrong with it. In the end, it seemed the obvious course would be to put into Tobermory before heading off into any more wilderness. There would be a mechanic in Tobermory, for sure. Besides, it has to be one of the prettiest harbours anywhere with all the houses painted different colours.

However, until I had a reliable wind, I wasn’t going anywhere.

This meant that on the second day, I packed some sandwiches, a can of beer and a Mars bar and set off on an expedition, returning five hours later utterly exhausted. The scramble up the hill the previous day had been the easy bit. This time I stumbled through shoulder-high undergrowth, climbed cliffs, fell into ravines and more than once wondered what I would do if I broke a leg.

In the end I came to “The Community of Erraid”. In happier times, I would have said hello but we don’t do that any more, do we? There was a tube of hand-sanitising gel on the gate to remind me. This is what it must have been like travelling during the time of the plague.

I have since looked them up. On the Isle of Erraid, live a small community who, in their own words conduct “a dynamic experiment where everyday life is guided by the inner voice of spirit, where we work in co-creation with the intelligence of nature and take inspired action towards our vision of a better world.”

If this had been in ordinary times, I imagine I would have a lot more to tell you about them. All I can say is that I saw people at a distance and we waved to each other.

That’s just sad…

Meanwhile, the longer I stayed in Tinker’s Hole, the more time I had to worry about getting out. For a start I wasn’t going to attempt it until we had some wind (hence the four days). At one point, I had decided I would have the kedge anchor on deck, the dinghy towing astern ready to row the anchor out to haul myself off the rocks if the wind should die at the wrong moment. In the event, I did no such thing but sailed out with the engine ticking over without the slightest problem.

But I was going to have to do something about this. My nerves couldn’t take much more…

Dont Panic!

Talk about leisurely… all I had to do was get up in time for lunch and then motor the 20 miles to the entrance to the Sound of Islay. There was the little (but magnificently named) Am Far Eilean Bay just at the entrance where you can anchor for the night before catching the tide as it begins its race through the sound after breakfast.

And it does race – five knots at springs.

If you have read my ramblings about ocean calms, you will know that I don’t like to use the engine except for getting in and out of harbour but then, if you have a thousand miles to go, what’s the point?

Twenty miles, on the other hand is a different matter – especially if the difference means having to wait another day for the wind.

I turned the key. The worshipful Nanni rumbled into life with due obedience. This is worth noting because once or twice over the past week or so, it had developed something of a stutter – slowing down before resuming its business (and increasing my heart rate at the same time).

Anyone would think this was a fuel blockage. I know all about fuel blockages. What happens is that the stuttering becomes more frequent until eventually the engine stops and you have to turn the key again. Eventually, if nothing is done, obedience goes out of the window.

We hadn’t reached that stage yet. Sometimes you never do. But it was something to keep an eye on as we puttered out of the bay and through the little passage inside the island of Texa (or Caolas an Eiolein) as I had learned to call it.

It’s fairly dull business, motoring. I suppose that’s the reason motor cruisers go so fast, creating enormous wakes that shake the wind out of sails – motorboat drivers can’t wait to get somewhere.

I  didn’t have the luxury: Putt-putt-putt at four-and-a-half knots past the Laphroaig distillery and the Lagavulin distillery (they have their names painted on their walls in enormous letters), each with it’s plume of blue peat smoke hanging in the air.

To seaward, the Mull of Kintyre was a sort of purple colour on the horizon. They’re certainly right about the scenery up here. I would have liked to see a submarine, though – apparently they’re as common as seals because of the base at Faslane. All I got was another yacht going the other way – a Halberg-Rassey with it’s distinctive blue stripe and reinforced windscreen. About 35ft at a guess – and it had to be a guess because he didn’t have his AIS switched on; that would have told me… and his name too…

It was past teatime when we got to the entrance to the sound and the engine stopped.

It stuttered once and then stopped – and this time, it didn’t start again.

Now, a loss of power shouldn’t worry a sailing boat – unless it happens in the middle of a tricky manoeuvre in a marina surrounded by a lot of gleaming potential insurance claims or, perhaps, in a narrow channel strewn with rocks and with a five knot tide running just when a flat calm renders the sails useless.

And it did. There was not even a ripple as Samsara glided slowly to a halt.

Of course, she didn’t really glide to a halt. She just halted in the water – and the water was moving inexorably into the Sound.

Obviously, I turned the key again. The engine groaned but didn’t chug.

I checked the tank: Nearly full. I checked the glass bowl under the first fuel filter – yes, full of fuel with a tiny layer of water at the bottom where it should be. What else could I do? I have little expertise in electrics – but once the starter-motor starts turning, a diesel doesn’t need electricity. Could it be the fuel pump? If it was, what could I do about it here and now?

And come to that “here” was not where it had been. Before I removed the engine casing and started peering into the mysteries within, we had been moving at 0.3knots into the Sound. By the time I emerged having achieved nothing, this has risen to 0.5.

Admittedly this is far short of the frantic five knots found in the narrows. But it has to work up to that – and quite clearly, the process had begun. What made it alarming was that one of the interesting aspects of the Sound of Islay is Black Rock.

An extraordinary number of places have a Black Rock. Maybe this is because most rocks are, indeed, black – or maybe it just sounds more scary. Falmouth has one in the middle of the harbour entrance.

The Sound of Islay’s black rock and it’s attendant reef is marked by a green buoy to stop people running into it. But, of course, this is only if that someone has some control over where they’re going.

As with all things to do with the sea, there is a correct course of action when you find yourself setting off somewhere but have no control over exactly where and that is to throw out your anchor. Grab a hold of the bottom. Stay put.

I looked at the depth recorder: 42metres. I carry 50 metres of chain so it would reach the bottom but no anchor will hold with the chain vertical – that’s how you get it up. So, I couldn’t anchor. Yet, now the progress up the Sound and in the direction of Black Rock was up to 0.6kts.

What I needed was a tow.

That was how I came to think of the Halberg-Rassey which had been going the other way not a quarter of an hour earlier. In fact I could see him in the distance. Anybody who has a boat like that is bound to be a decent type. He would give me a tow, I was sure of it – take me back into Port Ellen where I could find an engineer. Should I take him a bottle of malt as a thank-you?

Except, of course, he was far too far away to hail – or to see me if I were to stand on the foredeck brandishing a coil of rope which is the sailor’s equivalent of a hitchhiker’s thumb (and worked so well when the engine stopped in a similar calm on my very first outing with Samsara back in 2017).

I would have to call him on the radio. But who to call? If his AIS had been switched on, I would have known his name. As it was, I could hardly broadcast: “Halberg-Rassey sailing yacht to the south-east side of Islay, possibly making for Port Ellen….”

I could do an “All ships” broadcast. Maybe there would be another yacht about – or a kindly fisherman…But in that case, I would have to announce that I required assistance: The correct procedure would been to preface it with “Pan-Pan” which is the radio code for “Urgency” just as “Mayday” is “Emergency”. The trouble with that is that it all begins to become rather official and the next thing you know, the Coastguard will get involved and the Coastguard’s default procedure is to call out the Lifeboat.

I didn’t want the Lifeboat. I would die of shame.

On the other hand the little red arrow on the screen was still pointing resolutely into the Sound – and in the Sound was Black Rock – waiting… (possibly salivating…)

I stood in the companionway, the engine casing open in front of me, the VHF radio switched on.  Channel 16, the calling channel, glowing on the screen.

That was when I asked myself what was the sensible thing to do. Forget dying of shame and being self-sufficient and taking responsibility and all that. What was the sensible thing to do?

It was a question I have grown very used to over the past three years: The boat is pounding into a rising wind and sea, every elderly joint is protesting, the rigging is bar-taught. Reefing means you must struggle into foul-weather gear and go crawling up the deck to reef. What is the sensible thing to do?

Or you have returned too late and find the dinghy on the other side of the sand bar which separates St Agnes from The Gugh in the Isles of Scilly. The tide is racing across it, already thigh-deep and doing four knots. The book says it is dangerous to attempt a crossing at such times. What is the sensible thing to do?

You are helpless, becalmed and with no engine. You are being sucked into a ten mile stretch of water, only half a mile wide at its narrowest – and if there is a chance of missing black rock on the way up, remember the tide will turn in two hours and sweep you back again for another go… and by the way it will be dark by then…

What is the sensible thing to do?

I took the microphone and thumbed the Transmit button: “Pan-Pan…”

To give Belfast Coastguard their due, they waited for my second broadcast and then a few minutes after that to see if any of the “all ships” might offer a tow before they waded in and “tasked” the Islay Lifeboat to come to my assistance.

Of course, once I knew I was saved, I regretted most bitterly causing such a fuss. If I could have done it without the certainty of even more embarrassment, I would have called again and told them  to cancel everything – rather as one were deciding not to go out for dinner after all and so wouldn’t be needing a taxi home.

Instead, while I waited, I dismantled the fuel filter and found it as clean as when it came out of the box.

Then the Lifeboat arrived and passed me a hawser as thick as my wrist. They would take me to Port Askaig, they told me. The little ferry port is half way up the sound. With the tide, it took no time at all, keeping to the west side, away from Black Rock and warping me round with utmost efficiency to lie again the harbour wall.

The shore crew were there, of course – all the guys who hadn’t made it in time for the launch. As with all lifeboats crewed by volunteers and supported by public donations, everyone was as friendly and helpful as could be – and also, as understanding when I kept on embarrassing myself by saying how embarrassed I was and how sorry to have troubled them. I had panicked, I said – the five knot tide… Black Rock…

“Oh aye,” they told me. “Black Rock. That’s no place to be around without your engine…”

Come to that, was there an engineer in Port Askaig?

“Oh aye, we’ll send Peter to you. Peter’s from the garage. He’s our mechanic.”

And sure enough, half an hour later, Peter appeared. He would be glad to have a look. Would tomorrow morning at 7.15 suit me?

Well, if it wasn’t too early for him…

I spent a miserable night of recriminations. How is it that only after the event, you realise what you should have done?

Of course I could have anchored – not with the 20kg bower anchor and the 50metres of chain but with the lightweight kedge. It’s an aluminium Fortress with amazing holding power and designed to be used with just a short length of chain and then rope on a 5:1 scope – which, at the point when the engine stopped, meant that I would have needed 210 metres of rope. It sounded an awful lot. But I could manage to find 210 metres from somewhere, surely. Think about it: 50 metres of its own warp, plus 30 metres for the drogue I lost off Guernsey last year. Then I had two 15metre spinnaker sheets, various mooring warps totalling another 45metres. I could take off the mainsheet. That must be 20 metres… nearly there. What else have I got? There’s some skanky old stuff at the bottom of the Lazarette – say 20 metres in all. That takes me to 175… I’ve got miles of 8mm line but you can’t anchor a five tonne boat on 8mm. Of course! I had the headsail sheets, each of those is ten metres – that’s 195. Come on, come on, there must be another 15 metres somewhere. How about the topping lift – I could always go up the mast and put it back later…

Of course I could have anchored and waited for the wind. I’d have been fine – and then, when the wind returned, I could have sailed back to Port Ellen – even if it was dark. And there would be a mechanic there in Port Ellen. He might have a boat of his own to come out and see me – or surely I could organise a tow into the marina…

By the time I’d dwelt on all this and done the arithmetic, my brain would not let me go back to sleep – still, Peter was turning up a 7.15…

At seven o’clock, I had the engine casing off and everything ready for him to fix.

By 7.30, there was no sign of him – and I was beginning to think how much more embarrassing this could get if he turned up and the engine started. I ought to try it.

Of course it did start. It ran as smoothly as ever. I let it run, almost willing it to stutter and stop. But now, as Johnny Cash would have said, that engine ran just like a song.

There was nothing for it, I had to call and cancel Peter: There is nothing more difficult for a mechanic than finding a fault when it’s not there. But I didn’t have Peter’s number. There were people in the Lifeboat building, none of them remotely surprised that Peter had not turned up – and now he would have started on his day’s work at the garage…

On the phone he was as affable as ever – and pleased the problem seemed to be solved.

More to the point, it was still early enough to take the last two hours of tide out of the sound and get to Tinker’s Hole before a North Westerly gale arrived tomorrow.

It was only after I had cast off and was manoeuvring backwards that the engine stopped…


Must be avoided.

It’s a terrible thing to have to admit but the Pilot book for the Hebrides was still in the bookcase. This revered collection of wisdom, researched over generations by the bewhiskered gentlemen of the Clyde Cruising Club is said to be essential for sailors in these unpredictable northern waters.

Now I was out of the Irish Sea, maybe it was time to get serious – to stop navigating by mobile phone as if I was in an unfamiliar high street and Googling “pub near me” – and since I would be going north rather than south to get from one side of the country to the other, I had it fixed in my mind that I wanted to go to Tinker’s Hole.

Tinker’s Hole, on the far western extremity of the Island of Mull, had been a must-see destination for years. The new generation of Clyde Cruising Club gentlemen describe it as one of the most popular on the west coast: “In places it is less than half a cable wide and on the east side the shore consists of sheer walls of pink granite.”

All I had to do was get to it. Meanwhile, Islay was in the way. I’ve been to Islay – pleasant enough and lots of whisky but when you’ve done one distillery tour…

The obvious thing to do was keep plugging on: I was already two days out from Carlingford Lough, what was another 24 hours? I set a course to round the twin peninsulars of The Oa and Orsay at the end of the Rhinns of Islay. By the time I got there I would have a hatful of wind – force seven on the nose according to the forecast – but once I turned the corner, it would be with me. I set a waypoint a mile off the Oa, adjusted the Aries and Samsara romped off on her adventure.

Since she didn’t need me, I thought it might be a good idea to get the book out – after all, some of these islands up here set up tidal races off the headlands…

What did I find: “Because of overfalls, both the Oa and the Rhinns of Islay should be passed at a distance of several miles”.

But, clearly, that might not be enough to make the pluckier mariner see sense, so there was this as well: “Some of the worst overfalls in the UK extend for up to 8miles WSW of Orsay where there is an underwater cliff 50-75metres high. With any sea running at all the area must be avoided.”

OK, point taken. I slipped into Islay’s Kilnaughton Bay just as the sun was setting.

A good dinner followed by a taste-test to compare Lamb’s Navy Rum with Aldi’s £9.99 alternative, an episode of the new series of Ghosts on iPlayer – and not having to wake up every 20 minutes all through the night… sheer luxury (even though I’ll have to watch Ghosts again because I fell asleep.)


The Logical Route

Carlingford Lough and the Mountains of Mourne

So that’s it: I’m going by the logical route.

The “Logical Route” has a certain ring to it. This was what the great French singlehander Bernard Moitessier suggested to his wife as the best way to get home from the South Pacific in time for the school holidays: Instead of flogging all the way over the top of Australia, across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal and across the Mediterranean to Marseille, wouldn’t it be much quicker and certainly a lot less distance to nip round Cape Horn?

This was 1966. Hardly anyone had sailed a small boat round Cape Horn – and those who had told terrible tales.

The Moitessiers made it – and, in doing so, set a record for the longest voyage in a small boat – 14,216 miles in 126 days.

But I’m not going round Cape Horn. I am going to Blyth in Northumberland – and I have been sitting here in Carlingford Lough on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic debating how to get there.

First, a little explanation: When I bought Samsara, she came with a good solid spinnaker pole and a flimsy little stick which hardly deserved the name of whisker pole. The first thing I did with this was to bend the piston mechanism on one end.

Then the mechanism on the other end.

In fact, I bent the pistons and had them straightened (and weakened) so frequently that it might not have been an accident that on the way back across Biscay in the aftermath of Storm Ellen, the wretched thing slipped its lashings and disappeared over the side.

What I needed was a proper spinnaker pole to replace it. For one thing, I wouldn’t keep bending it. Secondly, if I were to get a spare headsail, I could fly matching twins and (thirdly – and not insignificantly) quite the best jury rig is constructed by using two identical poles as an “A” frame.

I posted on the Rival Owners Facebook page a plea for anyone who had a pole they didn’t need – after all, how many people fly symmetrical spinnakers these days?

Sure enough, another Rival 32 owner said I would be welcome to theirs.

In Blyth.

I was in Liverpool at the time and feeling rather delicate after a particularly good evening with my son Theo, the medical student. As the crow flies, Blyth is hardly more than 100 miles from Liverpool.

Another point in its favour is that it is not terribly far from Matlock in Derbyshire – and I was due in Matlock for the annual family walking weekend in the Peak District. I could get a train from Blyth.

The only trouble was that the 100 miles from Liverpool to Blyth was all land.

The sailing options were to go over the top of Scotland or, alternatively, back down the Irish Sea, up the English Channel and north from there – 900 miles in all. Also, I was beginning to think of the English Channel rather as a trucker thinks of the M1.

Obviously this is going to provoke all those South Coast sailors to catalogue the delights of Salcombe, the Newtown River and even Brighton Marina. So I should explain that, if you don’t stop,  those 300 miles from Land’s End to the North Foreland really can feel like Newport Pagnell to Donington Services (I did it six times, one year).

The northern route, on the other hand, had a lot going for it: Not only was it only 560 miles but it would tick a lot of boxes. Regular readers may remember that when Lockdown was first mooted, I had a notion to self-isolate in the Orkneys (until the local authority up there pleaded with second-home and campervan owners – and, by implication, yachtsmen – not to come and swamp their little hospital).

Also, I have never visited the northern Hebrides or any of those dramatic sea lochs. I could go to Mull and Skye. I would see Cape Wrath…

Admittedly, this would be happening at the end of September and for most of October and all the books tend to dwell on how quickly the weather can change and how very rough it can get up there with wind over tide in the Minches. But weather forecasting today is remarkably accurate these days up to 48 hours.

After 48 hours, it becomes rather more like newspaper astrology.

For instance, this time yesterday, I had decided that the Scottish option was a non-starter when the Windy App offered this for the four-day forecast.


By this morning all that “red wind” has shifted south:

Still, if it does shift back again, there are more anchorages in the Hebrides than there are salmon and I have a whole month to cover 560 miles. I can afford to spend a few days snugged down in some deserted anchorage with the stove lit – self-isolating.



All the time in the world…

When you get old, there is great satisfaction in re-visiting youthful passions. When I was a teenager I discovered the writer Nevil Shute who, most famously, wrote A Town Like Alice and On the Beach.

Now I have joined a Facebook group called Shutists and discovered several of his books that I knew nothing about. In particular, Pilotage, written in 1924, which centred around the author’s twin passions of sailing and aviation. The publishers felt these were not of general interest and rejected the manuscript with a politely encouraging note. However, they did publish his next effort which was full of spies and murders and, to my mind, not nearly as good.

The “lost novels” were found among Shute’s papers after his death in 1960 and published in a single volume since they contained some of the same characters. One passage, describing sailing in the 1920s, I found so evocative that I posted it on a sailing group and it seemed to strike a chord:

There was nothing to do on deck; he remained in the cockpit till the vessel had found her position and was riding quietly to her anchor; then he went below and trimmed the riding light. He spent an hour working in his little vessel, an hour of occupation and comparative happiness that carried him on till after dark. He trimmed every lamp in the ship, filled the tanks of the engine, cleaned the Primus stove, set his riding light on the forestay, pumped out the vessel, unpacked his bag and arranged his clothes in the tiny cupboards, put the patent log in a safe place with a bottle of rum and another one of turpentine to keep it company. Then he laid his supper very elaborately and supped off cocoa, bully beef, and a boiled egg, topping up with bread and jam. He scraped the mildew off the top of the jam and deposited it in the slop-bucket; he was particular about what he ate.

The ensuing discussion got me thinking about the pleasure of just being on your boat and pottering about doing the sort of things which, in a house, you would consider boring domestic chores.

At the moment, I have no choice but to be on my boat. I arrived in Liverpool to see my son who is studying at the University here. No sooner had I passed the bar buoy than he sent me a text saying that one of the staff in the bar where he works part-time had tested positive for COVID and now he had to be tested too.

Providing he gets the all-clear, we will meet for dinner on Monday. He apologised for having to make me wait another five days.

“No problem,” I replied. “I have all the time in the world…”

And I do. I am anchored in the river opposite the marina (and therefore not paying daily charges) and I spent the whole of yesterday pottering and tinkering and as perfectly content as Nevil Shute’s 1920’s yachtsman.

I re-fitted the foot of the main into the boom track where the clew had pulled free. While I was at it I marked the halyard to ensure that in future I let it off just the right amount for reefing…and while I was about that, I simplified the lazyjacks which had caused so much trouble for the old sail and had me sewing for eight hours en-route to Rockall.

I glued the piece of wooden trim back onto the galley where I had stepped on it during the passage up from Falmouth. I wriggled into the engine bay to tighten the stern gland and, while I was there, topped up the oil in the gearbox – and for good measure, checked the engine oil as well. Then there was the first of the winter supply of charcoal to be decanted into paper bags – and the chimney to sweep – that’s done by dropping the pin from the old anchor shackle down from the top with a piece of line dragging a kitchen scouring pad behind it.

I spent a happy half hour experimenting with new ways to stop the halyards slapping and, I must say I’m pleased with the result.

Not half as pleased, mind you, as I am about inventing a new knot for attaching a temporary headsail sheet when poling out. Yes, I’ve looked it up and didn’t find anything like it. We shall see if it works better than the reef knot which shook loose when there was no tension on it. Only then shall I claim my place in history.

And there was more: I removed the eyelet for the cockpit grating which was stopping the petrol can fitting into its chocks, I investigated the overheating trouble with the engine, cleaned the saloon hatch, re-distributed the stores from the bilges to the ready-use lockers, mopped up the puddle from the leaking washing-up liquid bottle, threw away two jars of mouldy peanut butter, investigated the fo’c’sle locker and discovered a bag of very soggy onions, a somewhat suspect sweet potato and a perfectly good butternut squash…

By the time I was ready to change out of work clothes for the evening and sit down with a beer at six o’clock, I wouldn’t have given you tuppence for indolence.

Sticky and smelly

Writing this, I am a bit sticky and also rather smelly. I have just completed the most unpleasant task on the boat. I feel so good about myself that I have the urge to share it.

I have cleaned out the greywater tank.

“Greywater” is that euphemism covering everything from washing-up water to the mixture of seawater, mud and rust that dribbles out of chain locker.

The reason the tank needs to be cleaned is because it is emptied by means of a float switch and in time the grease, decomposing crustacea and nameless gloop from the shower tray collects in a jelly-like, putrid mass around the switch and stops it working.

When this happens, the pump does not run and the “greywater” oozes out of the top of the tank into the bilges where it slops around making everything else sticky and smelly.

Then the whole apparatus has to be disconnected from its four hoses (three pouring in, one pumping out) and also from the electrical connection which, of course, has rusted solid.

Just to add to the fun, since this relies on gravity, it has to be sited as low as possible in the bilge so you have to do all this upside down.

Which is the easy part.

Once you have it out and into the blessed fresh air of the cockpit, you have to put your hand inside the revolting receptacle and fumble for the nuts to remove the switch. Any satisfaction in discovering that indeed it has been immobilised by a deposit the consistency of blackcurrant jam but smelling strongly of drains is outweighed by the disgusting process of spooning the stuff out on the blade of a screwdriver.

I hope I haven’t put you off you tea but now that I have it sealed once again out of mind beneath the cabin sole and have washed my hands three times to remove some of the whiff of putrefaction, I have a request:

Can anyone suggest anything I can pour down the sink that might do the job for me?

A bouquet of violets for the first person to come up with a workable solution…