Watermakers in small boats

A subtle change has come over boat life in Gran Canaria since the last time I was here.

Oh, the anchorage off Las Palmas beach is as full as ever – and just as rolly. But, amazingly, it still as cheap: Only €1.25 per night for a 32ft boat.

The thing that is noticeably different is what happens at the dinghy dock in the marina. Last time, the crews from the small boats – the ones on a budget – would arrive with the inevitable collection of 5-litre plastic water bottles, which they would fill one by one from the nearest marina tap.

Hardly anybody does that anymore. In fact, it was seeing a young French couple busy with the chore that made me realise how unusual it was – and what a change had come over the cruising scene.

Because I don’t do it either. As regular readers will know – I now have a watermaker (in fact, it was the interminable wait to get it that caused me to leave Falmouth so late… which in turn led to the knockdown… which is the reason I’m still here awaiting repairs and have leisure to analyse life at the dinghy dock.)

What has changed, of course, is that two years ago, watermakers were considered a luxury reserved for big boats – and, by definition, big budgets. But, when you think about it, they are no more expensive than a couple of new sails – and sails are considered essential.

But where are you going to put it on a small boat?

And how are you going to power it with only 220ah of lead-acid batteries?

But my friends Iain and Fiona on Ruffian of Amble wrote: “There is life before a watermaker, and there is life after a watermaker. If there is any way you can get one, you won’t regret it.”

Well, I’ve answered the first question in the previous post: A singlehander doesn’t need two 100-litre water tanks – not if he’s got a watermaker.

Then there’s the power – and this is something I have refined at anchor here over the past month. It was fine on the way down – believe me, there was no shortage of wind power beating down the Iberian coast this year. The difficulty arises when the generation business is left to the solar panels.

I have 80watts of fixed panel and 120 in a folding contraption the size of a briefcase when I can prop up on deck. That is enough on a December day in the Canary Islands.

The secret, surprisingly, is not because I have a small, low-energy watermaker but, instead, an Eco-Sistems Splash 25, which draws between 16 and 18amps and churns out 25litres an hour.

Because, you see, I only need to run it for 20 minutes a day. Twenty minutes at 25litres an hour is more than eight litres – and that’s all I need, even though I’ve forgotten all about being economical with the freshwater pump and fill the washing up bowl as if I were at home.

On a cloudy day (and yes, we do have them – it even rained yesterday), I set a timer for five minutes to remind myself to keep an eye on the voltage. Maybe I’ll switch off after 15 minutes and put in the other five after lunch.

“But isn’t this just laziness?” I hear you cry. “What’s wrong with filling cans?” Besides, most of the time, you can fill up alongside with a hose…

Of course you can – in Europe. But wait ‘til you get to the Caribbean: That was why I went in 2021 – to see if I needed things like a watermaker. And I found that Iain and Fiona were absolutely right. Not only does every island charge for it – whether out of a suspicious-looking hose on the dock or a pair of 40-gallon oil drums mounted on a sort of motorised raft (add a delivery charge). But when you get it, it’s actually rubbish.

Really! In three days, it smells of bad eggs, and you have to boil it – so now you’re using extra gas just to leave a glass of water in the kettle.

And one other thing to remember when you install your watermaker: The pump has to be below the level of the high-pressure unit. In a small boat, that means in the bilges.

And what do you find in small boat bilges but seawater? So put the pump on a plinth to keep it dry – and if it should get swamped, do not, under any circumstances, turn it on “to see if it still works”.

I know this from experience.

Instead, remove it and soak it in a bucket of fresh water for 24 hours – changing the water at least twice – more if you can spare it. Every three hours, turn the motor by hand.

Shake the water out and let it dry in the sun – completely.

Reinstall and you should find it is none the worse for the experience. If it makes a screeching noise, you still have salt in the bearings. These can be replaced. But if you continue to run it, the added load will burn out the wiring, which will certainly mean a new pump (and possibly a new boat if you burn that down as well).

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have water to make.

I don’t really need it. I just like making it.

The Splash 25 under the starboard berth where there used to be a 100-litre water tank.

The low-pressure pump after its soaking.

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The other half


The yacht was an Oyster 885 – essentially 90ft long – so it was a bit of a step up from the pontoon.

Actually, at the end of the automatic, electrically-operated passerelle with LED lighting and folding handrail was one of those little collapsible step ladders you keep in the broom cupboard so you can reach the top shelf in the kitchen.

It looked somewhat out of place on the big boat pontoon at the ARC, but the crew were having trouble connecting the passerelle app to the ship’s wi-fi, and besides, a tiny design flaw meant the miniature hatch in the transom got in the way.

I know all of this because my cousin Sophie is the cook aboard Babiana and invited me aboard to see how the other half lives.

The other half have it hard, I can tell you: They also had to contend with a glitch in the app for the sparking water system:  It came pouring out of its designated tap without any bubbles. Never mind, they can always drink champagne. They’re carrying 250 bottles of wine from the owner’s award-winning Vondeling vineyard near Cape Town (It’s a hobby bought with money from the hedge fund he founded with money made from buying enough cocoa futures to give everyone in the country 83 Mars Bars each).

The Financial Times calls him “Chocfinger”, but in fact, he’s a surprisingly modest guy called Anthony Ward who was even then on his way with his wife Sophie (1) and determined to win the ARC’s racing division. It would have been better if the crew hadn’t returned the night before from pizza ashore to find the freezer on the blink.

Sophie (the one in the galley) had spent two days preparing and freezing ten meals for the 12-strong ship’s company. She’s catering for a 14-day crossing, so had another day over the stove to look forward to.

The skipper – that’s her partner James – as calm as a man can afford to be when he has retractable bow and stern thrusters, asked whether they might leave the freezer until the morning.

You don’t need to know the details of Sophie’s response.

But sure enough, by the time the owners arrived, Babiana had bubbles, the freezer was back at -18°C (they disconnected one of the fridges – they’ve got five of them) and we were ready to go out and try the whompa.

You need a whompa if you’re going to win the ARC. It’s the biggest sail you can get on a 120ft mast – which means it is 639sq/m (or, if you like big numbers 6,878sq ft).

We put up the whompa and sailed faster than the wind. Then, we put up the A3 and sailed faster than the wind. There is something curiously pedestrian about putting up big sails when the only effort involved is in keeping your toe on the button for the electric winch.

The helmsman has buttons too – different buttons for port and starboard steering positions.  Of course, it all takes a lot of electricity, which is why they have a starboard generator and a port generator – although why nobody can make a washing machine that works at a 30° angle of heel is a mystery.

By the time you read this, they will be over the horizon, deciding whether to go north and sail deliberately into a gale or south and risk being becalmed.

Anyway, just in case, they topped up the fuel tanks. It took the best part of an hour. An Oyster 885 carries three tonnes of fuel.

Oh, it’s not for motoring through the calms (they’ve got the whompa, don’t forget). But what if the generator stopped – port or starboard – with five fridges and the washing machine to run?

Not to mention having to cross the Atlantic without bubbles….


The Whompa

Port steering controls

Starboard steering controls

The engine room – with port and starboard generators.

The owners – Sophie and Anthony Ward

Skipper James

Cousins: The old man and Sophie the cook

11 Responses to The other half

  • This is a great read. I’m Lynn (Irving), Sophie (in the galley)’s aunt. Thanks for such a great article. I’ve been on Babiana, in Palma, when she first arrived from the UK, she’s an amazing boat. And Sophe, in the galley, and James , the captain, are amazing too.

  • Hi John
    To see the real “Other Half” Google the sea yacht Sea Eagle on which my grandson is a crew member-
    Keep up the blogs of your travels.
    Cheers John Wilky

  • Wonderful. The overwhelming amount of automation and gizmos on these magical yachts is awesome. What an absolute joy you lucky b……. .

  • So no-one will be sleeping on a heap of wet headsails in the forepeak…..

  • Matching Passmore noses!


    I have a close friend with a 100 year old 100 foot schooner kept lovingly prepared.

    I think: It is not monies you talk about in final days but passions followed.

    -why I love your writing!!

  • I wonder what Eric and Susan Hiscock would have to say about this cruising boat? (^L^)

  • What planet are you on….?

  • Let’s hope they win.

    But I thought the big boat crew code of omertà forbade naming an owner?

    • You’re right. But if the owner invites you aboard, gives you champagne out of a silver glass and says you can write about the boat on your blog, I guess it’s OK. I did say he was surprisingly modest…

      • Indeed so! In fact I had guessed that, given your professional background!

        Strength to his arm and may he win!

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You know those rogue waves everyone talks about? The real monsters, big as houses with breaking crests way higher than the mast. And steep – so steep there’s no escape. The boat is going to be knocked flat.

I found one.

Two hundred miles north of the Canaries on October 22, inbound from Falmouth for Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. Six o’clock in the morning BST – still dark, and I was asleep, having gone to bed at midnight, setting alarms for 90 minutes.

It was blowing 28 – 33kts out of the SSW, and Samsara was double-reefed and making 5-6kts hard on the wind in not quite in the right direction. That was the reason for the 90-minute alarms. I wanted to be sure that if the wind changed, I didn’t go charging off in a new and entirely inappropriate direction. At 0130, nothing had changed. At 0300 nothing had changed – although the barometer had started to rise after its fall from the previous afternoon. I reckoned I could set the alarms for three hours. So it didn’t look as though we were going to get a full gale like the one of Lisbon. But what I did not know was that back in the UK, they were calling it Storm Babette.

At 0330, I was fast asleep (and dreaming of the legendary Portuguese Trades) when then this happened.

That’s my track on the Navionics app – at 0330, just after I went back to bed. The boat was being steered by the Aries windvane which, faithful as ever, followed the wind round what in was a very, very sudden wind shift of 30°. This was good news. Now we were heading in the right direction.

Actually, it was partly good news. The bad part is that if you look up “rogue waves” or “extreme waves” or “exceptionally steep waves,” you will find that when two wave systems intersect at an angle of 30°, that is when the monster wave can be generated. Don’t ask me why. It’s all to do with hydrodynamics and highly technical. Ordinary sailors wouldn’t understand.

But this is what it did to the inside of Samsara’s cabin.

The first I knew was that I woke up but couldn’t get up because there was a lot of stuff on top of me. Also, there wasn’t any floor. Just a lot of water.

Thinking about it now, I’m surprised how calmly I accepted the situation. My first concern was that I wasn’t wearing any trousers. After three o’clock I didn’t think I’d be getting up in a hurry and it’s much more comfortable without…

Then I noticed the rechargeable light that hangs from the forehatch was on – except I couldn’t see it – just a flood of white light coming through the forehatch. Which was wide open. So, the first thing to do was close the forehatch. I always bolt it, but because it takes a bit of wiggling, I never bother to lock the bolt in position by turning it sideways into the little slot. Yet, somehow, that had come undone.

Then I turned back to the cabin and switched on a light. Seeing everything piled up in the middle like that, there could be only one explanation. We had suffered a knockdown.

I don’t think we’d been completely rolled because I had no sensation of being on the deckhead, but what had happened to the rig? That was the big question. I picked my way aft, noticing with some surprise that the big adjustable spanner was in the sink.

Outside, I found the sprayhood had been flattened, and we were hove to and riding quietly in a very big sea with 33kts on the wind speed indicator. The mainsheet had parted from the boom, which was now lying against the shrouds. Well, she could stay like that. There was no point in trying to fix the mainsheet if I had no idea where the tools had got to.

Normally, the tools live under the head of the starboard berth. There are four turn buttons to hold the lid down in the event of a capsize. Guess what? I hadn’t fastened them. I wasn’t expecting a capsize. The locker was pretty much empty. At least I knew where the big adjustable spanner was. Everything else, not so much.

The first thing to do was find my phone so I could photograph the chaos. I’m always wishing I had stopped to photograph dramatic moments. I‘m pleased to see that I was thinking clearly enough to photograph this one.

Then I started the big clear up. First, my pride and joy, the Alpicool fridge. I put it back, plugged it in. It didn’t work – but that was probably a simple connection problem. Then I put the bunk boards back so I could heap everything on top of them and get the floorboards down so at least I could walk about. The floorboards have pre-drilled screw holes so they can be secured against the possibility of capsize. But that’s where the spare beer lives, and they weren’t secured because I wasn’t expecting…

I never knew I had so many batteries. AA, AAA – there were batteries everywhere – including lodged in the handhold that runs along the sides of the cabin under the windows. There was sweetcorn in there too – and nuts, bolts and small screws.

Normally, these live in a large plastic box – a rather successful impulse buy from B&Q with little compartments for different-sized fastenings and small items which may come in useful one day. This thing had not burst open completely (I would still be sorting screws instead of writing this), but one catch had come undone just enough to fill the handhold on the other side of the boat.

Most peculiar was the storm jib, which lives right up in the forepeak – how did that end at the aft end of the saloon?

And the hatch over the log impeller. That was another odd thing. This hatch is under the shower grating. Now it was on top – the grating back in place. Piece by piece, item by item, I put everything back where it belonged (or at least where it will be out of the way until I get round to a proper sort out). Meanwhile, I had to deal with the outside. For one thing, I didn’t like the idea of the mainsail flapping itself to pieces.

First, how to get the boom back? Maybe I could haul it in with the preventer, which is permanently rigged to the end and made off within reach of the mast – but apparently, that too had been attached to mainsheet fitting, so was hanging loose.

In the end, I got the boat sailing under jib, lashed the helm down so that the backdraught kept the main off the shrouds, and I could get it down. But that still left the end of the boom swinging about out of reach. In the end, I tamed it by letting off the topping lift and stood ready with the stainless dog clip on the end of the bracing line. When the boom swung inwards, I snapped the clip onto the topping lift. Now I could get the boom in and braced and see what had given way. I remember being inordinately pleased with the way that went.

It turned out that 45 years of a stainless steel shackle wearing on the aluminium casting at the end of the boom was just too much.  When I bought the boat five years ago, I replaced this with a soft shackle, but the damage had been done. It turned out that I didn’t need any tools. There were two other attachment points on either side for twin tackles, and the Dyneema shackle was just long enough to reach through both of them. Don’t you just love soft shackles?

Within 15 minutes, we had the main back up and the boat on course. At least the cockpit lockers hadn’t burst open.

Well, not without trying. The weight of warps, fenders and gash bags in the starboard locker had pulled the facing off the lid, so there would have been nothing to stop it all falling out. It seems only the number of gash bags blocking the way saved everything from being lost.

I did lose the piece of teak facing, though – as well as the nicely carved cover for the fuel cap. It would have been so easy to make up a safety line for it – and teak costs a fortune now the trade has been banned.

That was when I noticed what had happened to the toe rail. This, too, is teak. Or was. Now, about three metres of it was missing on the port side. For several days, I was at a loss to explain how this could have been ripped off – surely not the force of the water?

Ah yes, right in the middle was a fairlead and if a sheet got caught in that and then, with the weight of water in the sail…

Then there was the broken stanchion: The spinnaker poles are fastened to the stanchions. I don’t suppose that helped.

I was going to say how impressed I was to see the sails (the new Vectran sails from Crusader) had escaped unscathed – until it transpired that the weight of water falling onto the sail and ripping off the mainsheet had also caught the luff on the wrong side of the reefing horns. The sail tore – you can’t really blame it; the 10mm stainless bolt supporting the horns snapped too.

The sprayhood turned out to have one small broken fastening on the end of one of the struts, and the zips are apparently designed to burst open before the fabric gives way – thank you again, Crusader.

I stayed a long time in the cockpit, just watching the sea, not caring when a wave broke over my head – I couldn’t get any wetter, and the water was warm. But it was now nine o’clock, and I hadn’t put the breakfast oats in to soak before I went to bed (I think I had some idea that the motion would be easier in the early hours). Well, we know all about that, don’t we?

More seriously, the cooker had been swamped (again) and wouldn’t work. It took two days to get a very low flame out of one of the burners. Infuriatingly, the little electric kettle had packed up a couple of days before, and I was waiting for calmer weather to get out the multimeter and find out why.

In the end, breakfast was cold rice pudding out of the tin with the Nutella jar tucked into the corner of the berth beside me. That and two digestive biscuits with a small glass of rum (it had to be a small glass; the big one got smashed).

Other damage, since we’re on the subject: Two shelving units became detached from their fastenings – not because they contained anything particularly heavy – it must have been just the impact.

The cockpit grating broke.

The fridge is definitely kaput (the instructions say it must not be inverted.)

The low-pressure pump for the watermaker is making a strange noise and not producing the required pressure. It has to be below the level of the high-pressure setup, hence its home in the bilges, but it does sit on a little platform designed to keep it above any water down there (but not if the water is up to the cabin sole.)

Of course, the 50m of 10mm chain (weighing 50kg) hit the deckhead, demolished the wiring for the windlass and then crashed back down as comprehensively tangled as Auntie Nellie’s knitting wool after the kitten got into her basket.

So, what happened?

I believe the exceptionally steep wave hit from the starboard bow, and the boat, sailing fast, started to go straight into it. If you have seen the film The Perfect Storm, you can guess what happened next. The bow was forced up and up until the hull was almost vertical – that would explain the storm jib being catapulted five metres from its place in the forepeak halfway back down the saloon. Also, the peculiar behaviour of the shower grating – and something else that supports this theory is the shelving system above the port berth. This features a piece of wood which slots into two grooves to act as an optional divider. This can only be removed (normally with difficulty) by lifting it out vertically. It turned up in the bilges.

So, rather than being pitchpoled, I believe Samsara was very nearly tipped over backwards, but as the hull approached the vertical, she fell sideways across the face of the wave. The mast may well have been below the horizontal, but given the steepness of the wave, that would not necessarily have put it in the water, causing her to roll (there was no damage to the anemometer or Windex).

The wave would then have fallen on top of the boat, demolishing the sprayhood, breaking the boom casting and tearing the sail, ripping off the toe rail, breaking the stanchion etc…etc…

I’m quite glad I wasn’t out there.

Eventually, of course, the weight of the keel brought her up – which, as I know from experience, is not something that happens with a catamaran.

Oddly enough, I count myself lucky.

Because the boat tipped backwards before being knocked down sideways, the big adjustable spanner flew diagonally aft to land in the sink. If this had been a simple sideways knockdown, it would have been propelled directly across the cabin from its stowage beneath the head of the starboard berth, straight for the head of the port berth – to hit me squarely in the face.

And that, my friends, is what they call positive thinking.

Now, if you will excuse me, I still haven’t found the galley scissors…


The reefing horns: The 10mm stainless steel bolt snapped like a twig


Aluminium casting broken

…and fixed with a soft shackle


Toe rail ripped off.

5 Responses to Knockdown

  • Ouch, ouch, ouch!

    So glad you’re still here to tell the tale.

    Must check my mainsheet fixing!

  • Hi John, you seemed to have survived very well considering your quite terrifying experience.
    I remember many years ago researching the incidents of rogue non sinusoidal waves. The article included the fact that eventually researchers were given time on a European satellite to look for non sinusoidal waves in the Southern ocean. They were astounded to find a high frequency of such a occurrences.
    Not only had there been occurrences recorded on drilling platforms in the North Sea but also a ship in the southern ocean had been severely hit and if my memory serves me correctly a huge new container ship disappeared off the South America coast many years ago and from debris recovered it was assumed it had to have been hit by a huge rogue wave. I think life boats davits were recovered bent! (don’t know how)
    I unfortunately can’t find the article in question but here is a start off point.

  • Strangely I was checking your position on AIS about this time mid passage and thought you weren’t making much progress. Hope all getting straight again. Thanks for the excellent blogs.
    Alan. (North Star – Titchmarsh Marina )

  • Well John ,

    That was an experience well described for sure and your calmness is palatable

    As you have said before the Rivals are bullet proof and your little ship survived and brushed herself off ….

    Actually as a kid l saw about 10 of these being fitted out at Westing Motor Works which strikes me now as being a very odd name for a poor man’s boat yard based on the Hoo Peninsula Kent

    This approach thinking about is smart -given the collective knowledge around and motivation needed sometimes for this mammoth task

    Admired these boats then – little did l know how legendary these would become

    Glad your safe and able to tell the tale

    My father crossed the Atlantic in a Hillyard very slowly !

    As he said to me- you’ll never drown in a Hillyard just starve to death

    Best – Adrian

    • Thank you for sharing your experience with us, especially the detsils on what could have been secured. It helps all of us think about, and be better prepared for, the unexpected on our own boats.
      Most of all, I’m glad you are okay.
      All the best to you.

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A tough passage

The back of the North Atlantic passage chart has this to say about leaving the UK for the Canaries: “September is a good month”.

Last time I did this trip, I Ieft on September 10th, got there in 13 days and spent most of the time rolling south at six knots under twin headsails with the Portuguese Trades blowing as steadily as they did for the Cutty Sark.

October, says the chart, is “acceptable, but get a good weather report.”

I left on October 4th. I had a good weather report – at least the Windy app offered me moderate north westerlies for 48 hours to get me halfway across Biscay. If I left it for a couple more days, however, there was no end to the prospect of south westerlies, some of them in orange…

Actually, I did consider waiting a couple of days because – would you believe it after the Great Refit – at the last minute I broke a stanchion coming up to the fuel berth in Falmouth.

Anchoring off Trefusis Point, I considered a delay to get a new one. There was one at half price on eBay. I could have it by Thursday.

But by Thursday, the south westerlies would have arrived – and I had 24 days to get to Gran Canaria, check in for my stupid Brexit visa and get to Pasito Blanco in time for the Ocean Cruising Club party.

I ordered a new pair (I think I need a spare) to be sent to Agustin the OCC Port Officer for the Canaries. “Was that all right,” I emailed him. “Of course,” he replied by return. Agustin is great.

So, I left on what I imagined would be a straight-forward 1,400-mile passage. “Two or three weeks,” I told Tamsin.

It was going to be three. It just seemed longer.

For a start there were the calms off Finisterre. Days of calms. Calms and headwinds. In desperation I even motored for 20 hours in the hope of finding some wind. I had screenshots of a week of Windy forecasts, and they suggested that if I were to get further into Biscay, there might be enough wind at least to keep me moving.

Motoring is not something I like to do on long passages – what difference is it going to make over a thousand miles? But I was pleasantly surprised to see how far I could get with the little Nanni 21hp ticking over at 1750 revs.

All the same, when I got to where Windy said there was wind, there wasn’t.

In the end it was the new super zero that got me out of there. This is the enormous lightweight sail set on its own Dyneema luff rope from a short bowsprit and sheeted back to the spinnaker blocks. It is essentially an upwind sail, and the idea is that the merest puff gets the boat moving and generates enough apparent wind to keep her moving. It works.

At least it worked until I put a hole in the leach trying to furl it when it was caught on the crosstree which – I then discovered – had lost its smooth protective boot.

I almost wept with disappointment, shame and frustration. The worst part would be having to tell Paul Lees at Crusader sails what I had done to his beautiful creation.

So, it was fully nine days into the passage before I saw any real progress down the Iberian coast. Of course, I could have cut the corner – abandoned my waypoint 100 miles off Cape Finisterre but, if there is one thing that frightens me as much as lightning at sea, it is the prospect of meeting the marauding Orcas.

I know that people say Orca attacks are statistically very rare and they only want to play but Samsara doesn’t carry hull insurance and I manage to break quite enough stuff without any help from “playful” marine mammals.

Incidentally, here’s a politically incorrect observation: If they’re so bored, can’t they go and learn to do tricks in a nice Disneyland marine park?

(Now, of course, I’m going to be in real trouble. They’re intelligent enough to read this.)

Anyway, I moved the waypoint (it was an exclamation mark) from 100 miles off Finisterre to 50. Apparently, the advice for yachts sailing down the coast is to stay 20 miles offshore, so I should be well out of the way.

Certainly, I was out of the way. I still found myself 100 miles offshore – tacking against persistent southerlies.

These got stronger the further south we bashed. In an area famed since the 17th century for northerly winds, I spent day after day switching between one reef and two, all the hatches shut, the inside of the boat becoming clammier and clammier as cast-off oilies, wet boots and flying food grew into a sort of putrid compost heap on the floor.

Then, one afternoon off Lisbon, the glass dropped like a stone and the wind speed shot up to between 30 and 36 knots. I considered the sensible thing – heaving to. But that would mean going backwards at two knots and I just couldn’t bear it. Also, the boat seemed to be loving the conditions, crashing along at between five and six knots in clouds of spray. Of course, we were only making one knot towards the Canaries as the Navionics track zig-zagged painfully across the screen – and this went on, would you believe for 36 hours…

Then, after just a 24 respite (there was even some north in the wind) would you believe the same thing happened again – the sudden drop in pressure (but only 28-33 knots this time.)

And that was when I got knocked down – in a Force 7. You don’t expect that (nobody expects a knockdown). I’m not going to describe it here because I’ve written a full explanation in another post.

By the time I got to Las Palmas, quite frankly I’d had enough. Also, I have to organise the repairs – which are beginning to resemble another refit.

I think I’ll take the bus to the party.

After the knockdown

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The Watermaker

I wasn’t going to have a watermaker.

The whole point of the first trip to the Caribbean had been to work out what I needed – did I need an outboard (no), a sun awning (not so far), a watermaker?

Ah, well, there a subject for discussion. Everyone told me that a 32ft boat with 220 amp hours of battery capacity is just too small for a watermaker (where are you going to put it? How are you going to power it?)

But, on the other hand, I had discovered two things about water in the Caribbean: One is that you have to pay for it (and it’s not cheap). Secondly, when you have bought it – via a manky hose on the dockside or from a putrid tank on a sort of barge with an outboard on the back (which also takes your rubbish and the laundry) the water goes bad in three days. Really; It tastes of bad eggs. You have to boil it.

Thinking about this while sitting in the anchorage at White Bay, Jost Van Dyke, after one too many bushwhackers in the Soggy Dollar Bar, I mused over the way the partying crew on the adjacent chartered catamaran did not appear to notice that suddenly water had started to spurt out of their port hull. The generator had kicked in – triggered either by low battery voltage or, possibly, the level in the water tanks. All those freshwater showers after a swim, the dishwasher, the washing machine…

On a charter catamaran, people don’t expect to economise with water – and why should they? They have four staterooms, three decks, two dining areas, patio doors to go sunbathing spot on the foredeck. They think they’re in a waterfront apartment.

Actually, this doesn’t matter because a modern watermaker can supply 120 litres an hour on demand, automatically…

Of course, I don’t have to feed a dishwasher or a washing machine and I don’t have a diesel generator. But, there are smaller versions and, you must admit, there is something very compelling about the idea of making your own water from nothing more than the power of the sun and the wind. As for the raw material – salt water. Well, there is no shortage of that.

As Iain and Fiona aboard Ruffian of Amble put it: “There is life before a watermaker and life after. If you can find any way of squeezing one in, you’ll never regret it…”

I spent the winter of the Great Refit trying to work out how to do this. I consulted Dave Jones of AdvancedTech Marine.

“Where will you put it?” he said. “They’re not small.” And “Have you done an electrical inventory?”

This is where you write down every electrical device on the boat, how much power it consumes and then multiply that by the number of hours a day it is in use. This gives you an amp/hour figure.

Then you the same with your charging capacity – wind charger, solar panels, engine alternator…

Finally, you accept that with old-fashioned lead/acid batteries, you can only use half their capacity or you will run them flat and ruin them.

I didn’t need to do the arithmetic. Boats with watermakers had five or six hundred amp/hours of battery capacity – sometimes more – sometimes Lithium. They had three or four hundred watts of solar on enormous arrays perched on the stern. They had diesel generators (how else were they going to run their washing machines?)

I had chosen a small boat. I set great store by keeping things small and simple (or so I said). But, all the same, it would have been nice…

 Then I started trying to measure up for the new water tanks. I was going to throw away the old leaking flexible jobs and get a pair of proper polyethylene replacements made by Tektanks. It was all arranged. All I had to do was send them the drawing or, if I preferred, I could mock up the new ones in cardboard and send those like flat-packed furniture.

I went to the marina skip and loaded up with an armful of cardboard boxes.

Over two days and half a mile of Sellotape, I discovered I was never going to be able to do this. I stood there with chopped-up cardboard up to my knees and surveyed the two huge voids under the bunks where the tanks were to go.

“Do you know what?” I said to myself. “There’s room in one of those for a watermaker.”

After all, if I had a watermaker, what did I need with two tanks?

I messaged Iain and Fiona again, now in the San Blas Islands. They recommended a Splash 25 – 25litres an hour at 13amps. Utterly reliable. In seven years, it had produced thousands of litres with never a moment’s trouble. Talk to Jim Cudd at Sailfish Marine, they said.

So I did – and I talked to Terry Richardson at Richardson Yacht Services on the Isle of Wight who could fit it and, come to that, measure for the new tank (so that if the measurements were all wrong, it would be his fault).

Jim sent me an invoice. I paid it. The kit would be sent directly to Terry. This was in May.

The fitting was scheduled for July (after all, I wouldn’t need it until I got to the Canaries – that’s where you have to start paying for water… although, that’s not entirely true. If you stop at the Scillies on the way, you have to pay for it there…)

Then there was the first delay. Terry was still very busy in July. Would August be OK?

August would be fine. I arrived in August.

“Where’s the watermaker?” said Terry.

“I thought you had it.”

“I thought you had it.”

I called Jim: “Where’s the watermaker?” I asked his voicemail.

I remember the eventual conversation very clearly. I was walking back from Newport’s public conveniences to the Isle of Wight central library. The library doesn’t have a loo but there is a very nice little park to walk through. Jim explained that he had ordered the watermaker. He had taken delivery. He was getting ready to send it out. But then he had an order from a customer who was in a hurry for one and, since he knew I wasn’t in a hurry, he had let the other customer have my unit.

“So, what you did,” I put it into its most basic form, “is you sold my watermaker – that I had paid for – to somebody else.”

Jim said that he would have to put his hands up to it. He admitted he had done “a bad thing”.

Now I don’t want you taking against Jim just because he did “a bad thing”. Jim is going to turn out to be the hero of the watermaker saga, hold on…

Of course, the obvious course, having sold my watermaker to somebody else would have been to order another one for me (I wasn’t in a hurry). I would never know. But that’s not what happened. Come August, Samsara had been lifted out at Richardson’s yard on the Medina – necessary because the inlet was going to have its own skin fitting as far below the waterline as possible. That was how we discovered that one of the bolts for the cutlass housing had unwound itself, was sticking out by a good 40mm and about to fall out completely. If the cutlass housing falls off the boat sinks, so you can see why it was lucky we decided on the new skin fitting. Meanwhile bigger bolts would fix the cutlass housing – and re-aligning the engine to stop the vibration so it wouldn’t happen again … and, while on the subject of running repairs, I’d manage to pull the spinnaker pole fitting off the front of the mast … and the adjustable sheaves for the reefing wouldn’t adjust to the new mainsail… there was plenty to be going on with while a new watermaker was sent from Spain.

And it was sent from Spain. It was sent from Spain to DHL’s warehouse at East Midlands Airport.

And there it stayed.

Over the next week, sitting high and dry in Samsara’s cabin – or on a park bench outside the library so that Josh, the guitar-playing shipwright could tear the cabin apart to instal his skin fitting and get on with the preliminary plumbing, I got to know the very friendly staff on the DHL helpline rather well. They can afford to be friendly – after all they have all the time in the world because it can only be a tiny percentage of outraged DHL “consignees” who have the patience to navigate the Byzantine voicemail maze you have to get through to reach them.

Oh, the jolly conversations I had with the helpline – all about how interesting it was that there’s a Newport in the Isle of Wight as well as one in Glamorgan: “Imagine if we sent it to Wales by mistake!” (they were going to). Then it transpired that DHL didn’t recognise the account the consignment had been billed to – so that’s why it hadn’t been paid – and why my watermaker was now on something called a “Credit Stop”.

Jim called them: “I have my credit card in my hand. I can give you the numbers now…”

But no, that would not do. DHL would need authorisation from the shipper.

We put Samsara back in the water. I was not in a hurry after all. I could go to Falmouth for the OCC West Country Meet, then on to Jersey to see my son Olly and his family. Then I was going to the Boat Show. Surely it must be sorted out by the Boat Show.

Well, yes and no. I got my watermaker – but only because Jim set up his stand at the Show with a hand-written note on one of the displays announcing: “Splash 25 – stuck in customs!”

He had given me his unit (delivered on time by UPS). This thoroughly decent gesture must have cost him further sales. Also, he didn’t charge for an expensive carbon block filter because of all the trouble I’d been put to – and paid my mooring fees at Southampton Town Quay and didn’t charge me for a whole box of spares…

On top of all this, he couldn’t concentrate of manning his Boat Show stand because of all the time he spent on the phone, his back to the public, haranguing the helpful people on the DHL helpline trying to get hold of my watermaker to put on his display.

“You’re right,” he said. “They’re very helpful – only nothing changes.”

 I believe the wretched thing arrived just as the show was about to close.

So, all’s well that ends well, yes?

Actually, not so much. The thing with watermakers is that you must give them clean sea water – certainly not the contents of Island Harbour Marina, where Richardson’s is based and where the water is left to stew for 20 hours a day while the tide goes down and the lock stays closed. So, I didn’t switch it on for the first time until I was out of the Solent and on the way back to Falmouth for the “off”.

It worked brilliantly! Hardly any noise and plenty of lovely fresh water.

Until I came to flush it. This is when you run some of the water you’ve just made through the system to get rid of any bugs that might grow in the damp and the dark. When I did this, there was the most dreadful screeching noise and the tank promptly emptied again. Jim thought there must be air in the system.

In Falmouth, I went right through it, tracing the hoses through bulkheads, working out where A connected to B, following the diagram in the instruction manual.

It was the three-way valve that was the culprit. Josh, the guitar-playing shipwright had installed it so that, although it delivered sea water to the pump OK, instead of the fresh water flush going to the pump, it went straight back into the sea – and so the pump was indeed getting “air in the system”.

I moved the valve, reconnecting the hoses the right way round. That worked for a day or two. Then, when I turned it on, I noticed there wasn’t the familiar clicking of the high pressure pump. Indeed, both the gauges remained steadfastly at zero. I looked at the three-way valve. It was set to “production”. I lifted another floorboard. There was water in there – a lot of water. In fact, it was splashing – and if you looked closely, you could see it pouring out of a hose which had become detached from the pump inlet. To put it in its most basic terms, the boat was sinking again.

I closed the seacock, reattached the hose and tightened up the jubilee clips (which took all the tightening you would expect of clips which had been slipped on but never tightened in the first place.)

Given the very large bill I received from Richardson’s, I am considering writing to them and suggesting a refund to compensate me for the hours (days) I spent trying to work out what was wrong. I will let you know what they say.

Meanwhile, I can tell you that life after a watermaker really is wonderful. I am writing this 17 days into the passage to the Canaries (yes, the weather has been awful). I have washed up in fresh water. I have swabbed the galley in fresh water. I have washed myself (yes, really!) It took a few days to get over the guilt but eventually I was using freshwater as readily as you might turn on a tap in a house.

Then, all I needed to do was press the button once the batteries were up to 12.6V with the wind and sun and wait for the new freshwater to come pouring out of the galley tap showing the tank was full again.

I find it difficult to write the next sentence but here it is: “This normally takes between five and ten minutes.”

I think I might go and wash the salt off the windows…

  • Interestingly, no sooner had I ordered my Splash 25 than Iain and Fiona’s packed up for the first time – took them ages to fix, involving a “special tool”. Must make a note to get a “special tool”.
  • Stop press: Now it’s making a new and sinister noise. At least, this time, I know what the problem is: Nowhere in the instructions does it say it’s OK for the drown the electric pump – the post entitled “knockdown”.

1 Responses to The Watermaker

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An Invitation

Here is my grandfather in 1920 – he’s the little fellow in the front row on the right. He has chartered the gaff schooner Xenia for Cowes Week and invited his friends (the one in the middle – the only one not cross legged, with the cigarette and the supercilious air – he went to prison for fraud).

My Uncle Dudley is the younger of the two boys, clearly very uncomfortable sitting on the lap of the rather dodgy-looking gent clutching the wheel. Dudley was to be killed on his 21st birthday on the Kingston by-pass in his birthday MG with his girlfriend beside him.

The reason I show you this is because I have now achieved something the Grandfather wanted so very desperately but never quite managed.

The whole point of his rather expensive summer holiday was to get himself an invitation to the Royal Yacht Squadron. The squadron was where the gentry mingled. The King had been Commodore until his coronation in 1901 and still never missed “The Week”.

The Grandfather instructed Xenia’s professional skipper to anchor in Cowes Roads as close as physically possible to the royal yacht.

Then, every morning after breakfast, he would appear on deck in his white trousers and reefer jacket, his perky little yachting cap perched on his head and train his spyglass alternately on Britannia and the Squadron steps, looking for the pinnace that would put out bearing an invitation.

It never came.

The trouble, of course, was that The Grandfather was “trade”. He was a solicitor who had made his money untangling the expensive contractual and romantic difficulties of the Edwardian England’s stars of stage and… well, just stage in those days.

When I was 15, I earned my very first pay packet sorting out the firm’s old files – except I spent far too much time reading them and poring over the sepia photographs of yachts and mistresses.

Anyway, the reason for telling you all this and reproducing the photograph which hangs in Samsara’s cabin to show me where my aspirations really should lie, is because I have achieved that which was denied my grandfather – an invitation to The Squadron.

This week I stayed there as a guest of the Royal Yacht Squadron Book Club.

Yes, I’m impressed too.

It is difficult not to be impressed by the Royal Yacht Squadron. Everywhere you look there are photographs of the crowned heads of Europe and framed letters from Nelson, brass cannons, and silverware – more silverware than seems entirely practical.

They gave me the Vice Commodore’s bedroom. This is unbelievably sumptuous – not in the style of a no no-star hotel but rather as Windsor Castle might be considered sumptuous: The best of everything but no television or minibar. Instead a full-sized bookcase full of sailing classics (from Down Channel by R.T. McMullen all the way up to Lord Strathcarron’s recent biography of Francis Chichester).

The Chairman of the book club is Martin Thomas, the editor of that enduring essential of every ship’s library Heavy Weather Sailing. He is also the former commodore of the Ocean Cruising Club, current Commodore of the Royal London Yacht Club (need I go on?)

It turns out that he is a  fan of Old Man Sailing – and more particularly, The Good Stuff which features some of the races we did back in the 1980s when he was sailing the Sadler 29 Jenny Wren and I trailed along behind in Largo.

I cannot tell you how gratifying it is to attend a book club dinner: The members take it in turns to say nice things about the book and the author sits there eating a splendid dinner and drinking some excellent wine while trying to appear self-deprecating but secretly bursting with pride.

The Good Stuff is available on Amazon in Kindle format, paperback and Audible (stow it between H.W. Tilman and M. Wylie Blanchet.)

The Empress of Russia with her daughters aboard the Russian Imperial Yacht Standard. Cowes August 1909



The Good Stuff




7 Responses to An Invitation

  • A nice little bit of history their John,
    Being an Aussi, we all have a few skeletons in the cupboard.
    Cheers the Grumpy of sailor, from down under

  • John, congratulations on your ascent to sailing royalty, well deserved.
    I missed the release of The Good Stuff (another one for the kindle) should keep me entertained for a while as the winter evenings draw in.
    Many Thanks and we’ll done

  • M’Lud – there’s no topping that!

  • Fame at last. Soon you’ll be wanting peaceful anonymity again.

  • Congratulations, and very well done for achieving a generational ambition!⚓

  • What a joy it is to read your words, Thankyou!

    It’s good to hear that I’m not alone in appreciating them. The Royal Yacht Squadron know their stuff!

    Many congratulations and thanks again

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Needs Oare Point

There are precious few places in The Solent where you can anchor for nothing – certainly not with shelter from all quarters.

Of course, you can be a cheapskate and refuse to give a fiver to the National Trust in the Newtown River – but the volunteers are so charming when they come round in their dory that it seems churlish to refuse.

The other spot I can think of is Needs Oare Point in the River Beaulieu – an utterly beautiful and desolate anchorage just inside the river entrance where the spit protects you from the south and west. I’ve been coming here since the 1970s when I used to snuggle down in my little 18footer with a hurricane lamp and a copy of Nevil Shute’s Requiem for a Wren.

Shute fans will know all about Needs Oare Point. It is where Janet meets Bill (but you’ll have to read the book to understand the heart-breaking consequences of that fateful day in 1944).

Anyway, it’s not free anymore. Secretly, I have known this for a few years but always took the view that if anyone came asking for dues, I would pay up – but they could hardly expect me to blow up the dinghy and row the two-and-a-half miles to Buckler’s Hard to volunteer my grubby tenner.

I should explain that a free night in the Solent had become something of a priority because one of our new “Brexit Benefits” here in the UK is that my new watermaker (yes, the one I ordered back in May) is stuck in East Midland’s Airport waiting for the shipper to sign a “DDP form” to change the “Method of Service” – something which cannot be done by the “Consignee”. (I know this is a Brexit Benefit because I asked the young man at DHL, and I quote: “Of course. We get this all the time.”

It means that I have just spent two wasted days waiting for delivery at Island Harbour Marina while paying £33 a night, which I suspect I am not going to get back from DHL, the Shipper or – come to that – Jacob Rees Mogg.

Tomorrow – presuming I am still waiting – I shall get a free night at the Royal Yacht Squadron’s haven when I go and sing for my supper at their Book Club – and by Friday, it will all be rather academic anyway, because DHL will have returned the “consignment” to Barcelona.

One way and another, I needed something to take my mind off the utter stupidity of leaving the EU – a man go mad dwelling on “Brexit Benefits”.

What I needed was a distraction: I would fit the new cleat on the foredeck.

Single-handers will now be wincing. They know that this involves crawling upside down into the anchor locker to use a pair of needle-nosed pliers to stop the bolts turning while fitting the nuts (and, of course, not having dropped the washers into the pile of chain) before getting some mole grips on the business end while you tighten up said nuts. The whole operation is necessarily accompanied by a good deal of swearing  (see washers) – which is why a remote anchorage is desirable in the first place.

Inevitably, a polite tap on the hull goes unnoticed.

It was only when insistent rapping penetrated to the forepeak that I emerged, red in the face and with my head-torch over one eye, to find a man in a dory saying: “Sorry if I woke you. Harbour dues…”

I explained about the forepeak, the bolts, washers, the pile of chain (you have to justify that sort of language): “It’s a bit of a job when you don’t have anyone to hold the screwdriver on the other end.”

That was when the man in the dory said: “I’ll hold the screwdriver if you like.”

Now, that’s what I call a benefit.

5 Responses to Benefits

  • Hi John. I enjoyed your book immensely and also the regular blogs. You are living my dream. If only I ………. Anyway, would very much appreciate details of the supplement you mention. At 72 I’m as smug as you are about your wellness but now believe the time is right not to take it for granted.

  • Those fabled two-and-a-half miles up the Beaulieu River take you to the BH marina, with its harbour office and newly ambitious chandlery. They’ve been making an effort over the past few years to actually provide some goods and services including, on the weekends, newspapers. Just for the record, the Daily Torygraph, Daily Mail, Daily Express and The Times are available in abundance, while the Saturday Guardian and Sunday Observer arrive, if you’re lucky, in their ones and twos. I’ve often wondered, given the newspaper buying habits of the fucia trousered yachty set, what their feeling about Brexit is now. Or maybe customs duties, cross channel paperwork, clearing in and out of Europe are still considered a fair price to pay for the benefit of seeing William and Nigel on Fox wannabee cable news outlets. Don’t get me started.

  • It’s lovely when people help each other. Small kindnesses matter.

  • Would you care to give me contact details for the helpful harbour-dues collector? I have bolts to hold, nuts to turn, and swearing to forego….

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Old Man Sailing Episode #8: More calamities, some mud – but NOT the Fastnet

Old Man Sailing
Old Man Sailing Episode #8: More calamities, some mud - but NOT the Fastnet

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