The three Frenchmen came roaring up in their RIB and cut the motor alongside so that they lay rocking on their own wake – the harbour suddenly silent, 9.9hp on tickover.

“Do you want a lift?” said the helmsman.

“Do you want a lift?” said the bowman, not realising I had turned down the offer from the helmsman.

The third one just looked, eyebrows up under the brim of his baseball cap. After all, it is the best part of a quarter of a mile from the dinghy dock at Mindelos’s floating bar to the anchorage. Why would anyone be rowing?

But I was – and I carried on.

It’s not that I don’t possess an outboard motor. I have written in the past about my little electric job – and then wrote again saying how I had taken to using it for an extra push when rowing into the wind (like an electric bike going uphill).

But now I realise I haven’t used it since the Canaries two months ago – and I’m not sure I ever will again. The acid test came in the anchorage off the deserted island of Santa Luzia. Two hundred yards away was Ruffian of Amble with Iain and Fiona, who have been living aboard for the last four years and are currently heading in the general direction of Surinam. Would I like to come for dinner?

So, here was the decision to make: Should I ship the outboard, or could I trust myself to row back in the dark against the wind.

The wind, I should point out, is not the same in the Cape Verdes as it is in other places. It has a habit of shrieking down the mountains and through the valleys. Gusts of 35 knots are fairly routine. Could I row my tiny inflatable against a 35knot gust? Obviously not – but on the other hand, a gust, by definition, does not last long. Once the wind drops to something reasonable, I would have no trouble.

At this point, I should explain that it was important that I got this right. If failed to row to windward, broke an oar or whatever, the next stop would be Brazil.

The Royal Cruising Club’s guide to the Atlantic Islands points out that rescue services in the Cape Verdes should be assumed to be non-existent (rather in the way that lighthouses round here should be assumed unlit).

Iain and Fiona, of course, have a big RIB for a dinghy and a powerful outboard but they would have to launch it to come to my rescue – that was if I had some way of alerting them that I needed rescuing. Should I take the hand-held VHF with me? Don’t be ridiculous. I had a torch and I’m sure we all knew the morse code for SOS…

Of course, in the event I got there and back for risotto in the cockpit with no mishaps – indeed, I am pleased to say that in one truly ferocious gust, I checked my transits and am proud to say that I was not losing any ground at all (even if I was rowing like the Cambridge crew the year they sank).

But, as John Noakes used to say: DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME!

If you take your little inflatable out of its box and try to row it into 35 knots, two things will happen:

First, you will find that the oars are too short to get any real leverage. To compensate for this, the manufactuer will have made them good and wide … which means that in a choppy sea, they will keep on hitting the waves on the back-stroke and stop you dead in your tracks.

So you will have to row harder – much harder than the designer imagined when drawing up the scantlings for the plastic rowlocks.

Which will break – and off you go to Brazil…

This, I was confident, would not happen to me. I have upgraded my little inflatable. My little inflatable is the Toyota Lancruiser of little inflatables.

Here’s what you do: Get some stainless rowlocks made up to the pattern of the plastic ones – this is not difficult or expensive.

Secondly, buy longer oars in the shape of proper boat race sculls, with low-profile blades incorporating a professional curve to give a kick to the end of every stroke.

Finally, keep the old oars, and on an inky black night with the wind shrieking over the mountains and nothing under your lee but 3,000 miles of Atlantic, sling a spare one in the bottom of the boat. It’s handy for manoeuvring at the jetty, and it might just save all that faffing about with “is it dot,dot,dot,dash,dash,dash or is it dash,dash,dash,dot,dot,dot…”

Next, for singlehanders: once you have a crew hanging half their bum over the transom, you will be going nowhere.

And for old singlehanders: After old age begins to bite, you will find that your muscles begin to atrophy. Your once-powerful biceps become little sticks; your broad shoulders shrink until you start buying girly T-shirts in the market.

But rowing is good exercise.

8 Responses to Rowing

  • John

    I am always interested to see where you are in the world so follow you on one of the sites that track shipping movements
    I notice that sometimes you disappear for a while . As do others , including the Queen Mary 2 !

    Are not the devices on the vessels on all of the
    time or just when the master of the vessel chooses !

    Just curious to know.


  • You mentioned in a video posted by my old boat about some concoction, cured your eyesight and you now plan to sail with a century behind you. To what were you referring?

  • Hi john. It just seems to me that with a little ingenuity you should be able to fix up a pedal driven prop to the transom so you could use arm’s and legs. The effects could be rather dramatic, think along the lines of those chaps in the Far East who strap a V8 onto a long pole.This would have multiple benefits, it could ease the load on the arms whilst building leg muscle. It would also leave the hands free to take light refreshments (beer) and if required, i would estimate a top speed of perhaps 12 knots, which equals more time for life’s essential’s.

  • Enjoying all your posts. How about fitting one of those sliding seats, so that you can bend your knees and really put your back into the stroke

  • This is the kind of situation we all get cold shivers about afterwards.
    “I must have been mad!!!”
    “How could I have taken such a huge chance?”
    “How come I still haven’t learned that the things that go wrong are NEVER on the mental list I prepare for”

  • Your principled and very British response to the Frenchmen is applauded. I do hope you offered them a ‘libation’ in return for their civilised courtesy to an oldie. They need all the civility they can get from us Brits.
    And it’s also worth addressing the contents of that small plastic box of ‘might be needed’ bits you throw into your rubberdubber every time – including a spare liferaft fabric drogue. That alone will reduce the search area by an Order Of Magnitude/factor of ten.

On passage

Atlantic sunset en route to the Cape Verdes

It seems ages since I did this: I’m sitting on the lee berth, laptop on my knees, feet braced against the windward – the hatch is just managing to keep the sun off the screen.

Dyna-mite by Mud is playing on Spotify and the beer in the little electric cooler I picked up second hand in Las Palmas is down to 10°C which is a lot cooler than it would be in the bilges, given that the water temperature is 26°C.

Normally, I  would open the beer at 1200 and it’s now 1130, but I might delay that if the writing goes well – anyway, breakfast was late because I didn’t feel like getting up. Why should I? There was nothing that I had to do.

Welcome to the seagoing lifestyle three days into the passage from The Gambia to Sal in the Cape Verde Islands.

Yes, there has been a change of plan. I was going to set off for the Caribbean directly from Africa but what good is cruising if you can’t change your mind?

Anyway, there was the little matter of provisioning in Banjul market: what I thought were potatoes weren’t potatoes at all – not even sweet potatoes. I don’t know what they were but they had the consistency of stone and a bitter taste that suggested they might have been medicinal.

Also, The Gambia being a predominantly Moslem country, beer was a problem and I won’t sail anywhere without beer. Eventually, I found an Indian shop with something called Cody’s. It said it was imported from Germany (possibly because the German’s refused to drink it).

No, much better to stock up in the Cape Verdes – the supermarket in Mindelo is 536 miles to the northwest but that is a mere detail when all you have to do is haul up the anchor and set the sails.

As the crews of Ceruean and Ruffian explained over Christmas lunch, if you check in at Sal, you can sail downwind through islands with sand dunes, pristine beaches and groves of date palms. This also avoids going to Praia.

Praia, on the island of Santiago has always had a dodgy reputation: Don’t just lock up your dinghy at night, lock yourself in the cabin as well. In Cerulean’s cockpit, I met Peter, the German skipper who had called there in the spring with a medical emergency. After depositing his crewmember in the local hospital, and returning to the boat, he woke up in the middle of the night to find himself facing five guys with machetes.

They tied him up, ransacked the boat, held a knife to his throat until he gave them his internet passwords…

Later, monitoring the emails they were sending using his address, he discovered they were trying to buy a car from his bank account  – a transaction that required a photo of the buyer’s passport.

Since Peter happened to be a retired Hamburg policeman, he recognised a clue when it smacked him over the head. Gleefully, he passed the photo on to the Praia police department – apparently, he is still waiting to hear what they’ve done about it.

So, don’t go there.

But Sal is alright. Sal is just fine – best of all, the course puts the trade wind free enough to carry the spinnaker.

This is kind of weird because, along with the enormous, diaphanous spinny, I have hoisted the trysail, the tiny, tough bright-orange storm sail. This is because, on the first day out from the Canaries en route to The Gambia, I contrived to break the gooseneck so, ever since, the boom has been lashed on deck while I look at options for getting it fixed in Grenada.

At the moment the best seems to be a Facebook friend sending me his old one – but finding out if he could get it off the boom wasn’t the top priority in the middle of a family Christmas. So that’s another reason for delaying the crossing.

Meanwhile, we’re still doing five knots in the right direction, the temperature in the cabin is up to 27°C and the beer is still down at 10°C

Even if it is the awful Cody’s stuff.

Spinnaker and trysail – an odd combination.

18 Responses to On passage

  • I enjoy your blog and I ve also read your book which is great
    I have been diagnosed lately with failing eyesight so although i am sailing down the Aegean Sea with my Nordship 32 I dont know how long i would be able to do so( Iam 67) so please keep sailing

  • Good stuff, keep it flowing, am putting together your latest videos

  • I’ve worked a lot of hours often two full time jobs. Hit 65 and turned to my wife and said its now or never. We often dreamed of sailing but life kids and work always got in the way. My wife looked at me and said NOW! We bought a 36 foot Bristol built in 1975. A beautiful boat that was meticulously cared for. We took sailing lessons in Florida and then moored our boat on the Hudson river. We spent our first season sailing just to learn and get a feel for the boat. It was just so rewarding. 2022 will be the year we stretch our sails a bit and start traveling. Montauk, Block Island, maybe a trip to Maine. After a day of sailing the muscles sometimes ache but the heart has soared. I have never seen my wife happier.

  • John enjoyed your book many thanks and safe travels

    • Thank you for your kind words. May I ask a favour? If you haven’t done so already, would you leave some Amazon stars? They’re so important. You can do this by going to your Amazon account and finding the book in “My Orders”. I should add that I am trying to light up all the stars by getting the average over 4.75 – so, if you feel the book merits it, five stars would help to do that. Thank you.

  • Great stuff, John. You wrote “…Cody’s. It said it was imported from Germany (possibly because the German’s refused to drink it).” Reminds me of France years ago when every visitor was offered a Gauloise cigarette which were pretty foul – it was considered that the French were trying to get everyone to smoke the fags in order to get rid of them!

    • Pierre Helias

    • Hello, of course I am French, and the Gauloise cigarette is the cigarette you have to smoke if you want to have any kind of discussion, the smoke is blue in color and putrid, but it’s what it is. Not for the timid. The P4, pack of 4, (sold to 12 years old in the sixties) which is made for left over of Gauloise manufacturing is what you smoke. Camel without filter is close.
      I stop smoking 32 years ago….

  • Hi John, I enjoy reading your blog. Hats off for going on these adventures. I am new to sailing and really enjoy saling around here in Cape Town, South Africa on my Peterson/Contention 33.

    Keep the posts and photos coming, I have told many of my locals of you and your website. Keep it up and be safe.

    Corné Els

  • Hi John
    I just saw a picture of a guy enjoying a pint in the Gambia !!!!
    Keep the blogs coming. Cheers John Wilky

  • Not sure you are fully equipped if you don’t have a case of Adnams with trip and fair winds.

  • Still folliwing the blog JP.
    Have a great trip to the supermarket.
    A couple of days should do it!

  • Love your blog, detailing your adventures, would love to go, but cannot pluck up the courage

  • Such a joy reading your blogs.

  • I so enjoy reading your blog! Thank you! From a cold snowy N.Ireland

  • Another cracking instalment! Was this sent from the Maldives??

  • Morning John, we snapped our gooseneck and had a very successful welding job job done on a Caribbean island but I’m sure someone out there has a tig welder for a few beers? Double bonus as rids you of the beer also..!

Then I woke up #1

Old Man Sailing, the book, included accounts of some extraordinarily vivid dreams which I started having once I had been on my own for a while. Whether these were a direct consequence of the enforced solitude, I have no idea – but they went down rather well.

Since this blog is an exercise in pure indulgence (I have no editor to tell me what to write or when – or, come to that, whether it is complete nonsense when I’ve written it) I thought it might be fun to include some more dreams here.

Obviously, this might not be to everyone’s taste so I shall call them all “Then I woke up…” (so that you can ignore them if you choose and just stick to the supposedly serious stuff…)

I was late arriving at Carriçal on the Cape Verdean island of São Nicolau. Carriçal is so small and so isolated that the street lights go out at ten o’clock when the generator switches off. I stuck my head out of hatch and Samsara’s masthead light was the only sign of life. Had it not been for the sound of surf on the beach, I might have been in the middle of an open ocean.

Going to bed, the darkness in the cabin punctuated by tiny, glowing LED lights of various gadgets on charge, I debated the best time to leave for Porto do Tarrafal, 20 miles along the coast. After that, there was another 40 miles to the deserted island of Santa Luzia. I should be able to leave after breakfast…

Odd, that no sooner did I have the anchor up than I set course to the east, rather than the west. Also, I had the wind behind me which was even more strange because the wind in Cape Verdes during January has been blowing from the north east ever since the earth first started spinning – they call it the northeast trades.

Nevertheless, we were going like a train with the sails goose-winged (the boom was no longer broken and lashed to the deck, because in dreams, everything is perfect).

Or not, as will become apparent.

Anyway, we were ploughing along in glorious sunshine doing six and seven knots when I noticed HMS Victory and Portsmouth dockyard to starboard. This was a slight concern because everyone knows that Santa Luzia is further up the English Channel past Newhaven, so the last thing I should be doing is going into Portsmouth Harbour.

Then a high speed launch – customs or coastguard or something – came bouncing across my wake (yes, I was going so fast I set up a wake like a motor-cruiser). He shouted something over his Tannoy – some sort of apology about not being able to raise me on VHF. I ignored him.

I was more concerned with the fact that now I appeared to be in Venice and the canal was getting very narrow – the end of the boom scraping past the houses – startled faces in the windows…

I knew what I could do about this – an old tactic from my Laser days: centre the main – pull it in until the boom is on the centre line. It’s what you do when you find yourself close up behind the boat in front and unable to overtake because this is a race and you have other boats on either side. If you bring the boom onto the centreline, the wind can’t get into the sail and you slow down.

My trouble was that for some reason, the mainsheet was led through the blocks for the headsail furling line and that took it all around the deck – meaning that it was too short for me to reach it without leaving the helm.

So we just went faster and faster. I felt I should be congratulated on remaining calm. Some people might find themselves given over to panic, doing seven knots up the Rio di Palazzo, scattering gondolas like elderly pedestrians before an electric scooter. Yet I remained stoic and philosophical – but then, I knew that when I reached the end of the canal, I would find Chichester Yacht Basin. There would be plenty of room to turn round in Chichester Yacht Basin.

Anyone who knows Chichester Yacht Basin can pick themselves up off the floor, stop laughing and remember this is all a dream.

Anyway, it turned out that Chichester Yacht Basin now featured the Bridge of Sighs, incongruously connecting the palazzo to the nearest of the overpriced new houses they cluster like mushrooms around marinas.

Throwing the helm down at the last moment, I executed a snappy 90° turn and slammed into the 17th Century limestone carvings sideways rather than head-on … for which I felt I should be congratulated.

Instead, I had to put up with a five-minute tirade from the woman in the house telling me that now she wouldn’t be able to get out to collect her children from school because the council had to send someone to inspect the damage every time there was a “bridge strike” (it seemed this happened regularly – which was not surprising: it was a damn silly place for a baroque masterpiece).

I got the sails off, made fast to a couple of gargoyles and accepted her invitation to tea so we could exchange insurance details.

But when I gave her my card, all it told her was the 0800 number to claim her winnings in the Utility Warehouse £20,000 give-away.

Then I woke up.


9 Responses to Then I woke up #1

  • Sounds like a great book. your review make me want to go out and get it today. Thank you!

  • Wonderful! My dream would continue with the woman inviting me into her bedroom… and then I’d wake up!

  • Clearly, Noreen and I are partial to the same Vodka!

  • My 48ft Beneteau becomes adept at “skating” down (and up!!!) tiny streams in a few inches of water, perfectly balanced on the lead bulb which always fits exactly into the available width and slides smoothly on the mud. Perfect! No anchorage too small.

  • Well that beats having Tower Bridge open for me off the Shipwash LV. Mind you, I was at the helm at the time…

  • Perfectly fine with me JP – next time have a few slumbering thoughts on the ‘Cold Market Academy’ 🙂

  • “I’ll have a pint of whatever he’s drinking….”

  • I love it!
    My sailing dreams usually involve traveling on the water for a while and then sailing right up on a muddy shore, down a few muddy roads and trails, and sometimes back on the water. It’s not frightening. My boat and I are just traveling wherever we want to. It’s slow, peaceful, and the colors are always vivid.

  • I do not know what you had for supper but please print the menu

The lads

Tell me if I’m being patronising.

The other day, I wrote about the desperate situation for people in The Gambia – the economy on the floor, everyone scrabbling for just the basics of life – and how I felt obliged to take on all manner of guides and interpreters and pay over the odds.

Here’s something else: one evening, I anchored at Kuntaur, 133 miles up the river. This is where you stop to visit the ancient standing stones at Wassu. Inevitably a small canoe appeared alongside with a couple of lads offering their services. By this time, I knew better than to refuse – I’d only get hassled by another pair.

Of course, the following morning, four of them turned up. They were called Badou, Bilali, Del and Ibraima. Together, we set off on the dirt road for Wassu.

It was a fair old walk on a hot day, but they showed me the shortcut and pumped water so I could drink from the village well. We got to talking: they were all between 18 and 20, and not one of them had ever had a job. They just hung about the waterfront, hoping for someone like me to turn up.

To stoke the sympathy a little further, they got Ibraima to take off his scarf. In these days of COVID, it hadn’t occurred to me to wonder why a young man would wear a scarf around his face. The reason was because he had been standing over a petrol generator when it exploded – and no-one at the local hospital had heard about skin grafts. Maybe if I took a picture, someone in England would help…

Believe me, you don’t want to see that picture.

But it did move the conversation on to their situation, and before I had thought it through properly, I said something like this: “Look at it this way: you’re four your men who ought to be working. Working gives you self-respect. Working gives you a reason to get up in the morning. Your problem is that nobody wants to give you a job.

“But that doesn’t prevent you from working. Even if you don’t get paid, having to get up in the morning and go to work – relaxing at the end of the day after a job well done – that’s a good feeling for a young man to have.

“So how about this: Find your own work.”

At this point, they reminded me there was no work – none, nada, niente – or, as they say in Wolof dara.

“But look around you,” I told them. “Everywhere there is rubbish – garbage.”

And it was true. The whole country is one enormous rubbish dump – for a very obvious reason: if your first priority is finding enough to eat and the second is getting a roof over your head before the rains come, the little matter of putting a plastic bottle in a litter bin comes way down the list.

That’s if there are any litter bins…

Rubbish everywhere in a country where clearing up is not the top priority.

So here was a suggestion: “Get up every morning, the four of you, six days a week and clear up the village. Collect the rubbish and take it out into the bush, and burn it. What won’t burn, you can bury.

“Of course, nobody will pay you for doing it. Probably, nobody will thank you for doing it. But I can promise you this: after a while – a month, a year – whatever it may be, somebody will give you their empty plastic bottle instead of throwing it on the ground. They will ask if you wouldn’t mind taking it away and burning it.

Then some more people will do the same and – since you’re still busy clearing up – gradually the streets will start to look better. People will notice this. You will feel a sense of pride. The town will thank you for it – trust me, if you keep on clearing up, people will appreciate living in a place that doesn’t look like a tip.

“And here’s the thing: People in the next village will get to hear about you – and the local town. Heaven’s above, you might even end up on television.

“And one day – it might be a year, it might be five years – along will come an entrepreneur – somebody who owns a business, or maybe many businesses, and they will be looking for four new employees. Will they give those jobs to four young men who have never worked but just hang around the waterfront – or will they give them to the four who decided to make something of themselves and cleaned up their village and earned the respect of their community?

“Then you will get your jobs, and you will get paid.”

It was a difficult concept to take in, walking along a dirt road under the hot sun, heading for a bunch of stones people had put up 1,400 years ago – all in the hope that the old foreigner might give them a handful of grubby notes.

I plunged on: “Here’s something else. You want to be rich, right? Here’s how to get rich. It’s easy – but that doesn’t mean everybody’s going to do it.

“Here’s what you have to do: the first week your boss pays you, take 10% of that money (they understood percentages) and put that 10% in a secret place. Do the same next time you get paid – in fact, every time you have some money coming in after that, 10% goes in the secret place.

“When there’s enough, you put it in the bank – earn a bit of interest. One day you’ll have enough to invest it in something – maybe start your own business. But whatever happens, you keep adding 10% every time you have money coming in.”

“If you do that, one day, the money you’re earning from your investment will be more than the money you’re earning from your job or the income you’re taking out of your business. In other words, the money will be doing the work, not you.

“At that point, you can call yourself rich, and you won’t need to work anymore.

“You can hang around the waterfront.”

All this happened in the week before Christmas. On Christmas day, I was invited to lunch with the crews of two other boats – all of them retired. I told the story of the four lads who took me to the stones and the advice I had given them and asked whether I had been patronising (other people’s feelings not being my strong point).

But, “Oh no,” they said. It was good advice. Besides, I am an old man, and in the Gambia, the old are respected. Maybe it would make all the difference. Maybe this one small germ of an idea would change the course of four young lives. It was a lovely thought.

Of course, it would be better if they had a mentor. Otherwise, how long would they keep at it – that’s if they got started at all.

Who knows?

But, on the other hand, we’re all on WhatsApp.

11 Responses to The lads

  • I wonder. It’s an outsider’s view. Reminds me of when I lived in Johannesburg. Many areas you could park your car and come back to find it washed. Also not broken into. Sometimes really well, others, badly. The washer would come up and ask for a couple of Rand for doing the car. Pretty enterprising, especially as there was a time of year when the mulberries would colour the bird poo and leave wonderful purple stains on your white paint if it wasn’t removed quickly.
    I came back to my car one day, sure enough there was a guy asking for money for cleaning and guarding. I paid up and as I was getting in the driver of the car in front of me arrived. Usual discussion, I thought. But no, this guy wasn’t prepared to pay and told the guard/washer to do something useful…..

  • Not patronising at all – but it’s Africa – the women work hard and the men sit around drinking beer – one wonders if anyone in the Government is working to improve their country or just hoarding money in foreign bank account!

  • I also love this story and the good advice you gave them.

  • John, I still love your blogs, and especially the last two. The ‘lads’ have already displayed the ‘right stuff’ by latching on to you. You are not being patronising at all. It’s what the whole of Africa needs to be told. For too long we have been shovelling money down there without any follow up, mentoring, management etc. Much of the Charity money never reaches the parts where it’s really needed anyway. Those folk will never move forward unless a few locals take the initiative and start with simple, everyday tasks like you suggest. All it takes is a good idea and some effort. Keep on doing your bit. It’s worth a lot more than just handing out money.

  • I have a question – what will they live on while they are clearing rubbish?
    Have you seen them since?

  • It sounds like they are already entrepreneurs. This particular group were already making the effort to be up and about (before rivals) to catch your eye, and some of the contents of your wallet.

  • You are so right, and when they have a beautiful rubbish free village they will attract more tourists and consequently there will be more jobs.

  • Certainly not patronising, but they might see the goal as to far off in the future to directly affect their lives in the here and now. When the culture and way of surviving is food, shelter and trying to keep safe, it’s a tough nut to crack. Also, when you have nothing, saving is a concept that is difficult to conceptualise let alone do. However…, setting up an old ‘pen pal’ type mentoring program from afar might work. I hope it does 🙂

  • I love the story, and what good advice.

  • Well adviced to the young lads. Hope they realise the meaning of it all.



His name was Ibrahim. He was a Baghdad taxi driver, and he drove an ancient orange Toyota the size of a tank.

He drove it like a tank too.

However, as far as I remember, Saddam Hussein’s Russian-built T54s did not boast detachable dashboards. It was behind the dashboard that Ibrahim kept his international currency exchange.

As a keen young reporter for the Daily Mail in 1980, this was my first big foreign trip – and my first experience of employing a “fixer” – that essential combination of guide, translator, bodyguard and banker.

Over the years, I went on to know a variety of fixers. There was “Pipa” the rock-star (as far as the Czechoslovakia music scene was concerned). “Pipa” is the Czech word for the tap of a beer barrel – although his real talent was a fantastic news sense as he translated the morning papers over room-service breakfast.

“High-Tower” was the Beijing student (so-called because, unusually among the Chinese, he was well over six-feet tall). He made me sound authentic by peppering my copy with Confucius.

There was the taxi driver in Sri Lanka who took me to see the Tamil Tigers with an open can of petrol between my knees. We couldn’t put the cap on it because this was the fuel tank ever since the one at the back got full of bullet holes.

But whatever risks they ran (and whatever risks I ended up sharing with them), there was one cardinal rule: They all got paid an enormous amount.

Partly, this was because the exchange rate into the local currency was heavily weighted in my favour – but mainly, what I needed was loyalty.

Anyway, it wasn’t my money.

Now I think about it; there was also the man with dreadful teeth and a wall-eye in the fly-blown tea house on the Jordanian border who offered to get me a ride into Iraq in a sanctions-busting lorry if I came back at midnight…

This was the era of the hostages John McCarthy and Terry Waite. Midnight found me back in the bar of the Amman Intercontinental drinking brandy and sodas out of half-litre glasses.

All of this comes to mind because I am back in the third world and, once again, I need a fixer. I sailed from the Canaries directly to The Gambia, that tiny country on the west coast of Africa which consists of nothing much more than the river – up which (130 miles up which) I would see hippos and crocodiles and the legendary Baboon Island.

The aspect which seemed to get lost in translation is that The Gambia is now a very, very poor country. The previous president (now in exile in Equatorial Guinea) sought to get a leg up by accepting Beijing’s offer to build roads and bridges. They needed roads and bridges to service the fish meal factory they had slipped into the small print.

To support the factory, a veritable navy of Chinese trawlers moved in hoover up a little fish called the sardinella – which just happened to be the Gambians’ staple food.

No more sardinellas also upset the ocean food chain and killed off the big game fishing industry – which, in turn didn’t do a lot for the tourism (the smell of fish meal drifting over the beaches didn’t help).

So last year, the locals set fire to the factory and 40 Chinese fishing boats – although the only building they managed to destroy completely was their own police station.

One way and another, the country is in a desperate state, and it seems that everyone is looking for a job. Never mind, Passmore arrived looking for a fixer – several, in fact.

The first was Muhammad who navigated me through the byzantine process of checking into the country (Port Authority, Health Department, Immigration, Customs, back to Immigration, back to Port Authority for the river permit… come back on Tuesday to finish with the man in the Health Department, then pick up the river permit..)

Muhammad was brilliant. He knew everyone. It was only later – after we had settled on a price for his services – that I remembered it wouldn’t be coming out of Lord Rothermere’s spectacularly deep pocket but my own rather modest cruising budget. Checking with Facebook friends, it appeared I had promised Muhammad many, many times the going rate.

Too late, he’d already shown me a picture of his baby daughter – they all do this. Ibrahim in Baghdad had a daughter who was diabetic. When I got out to Jordan, Lord Rothermere invested in a year’s supply of insulin (which probably ended up with the wall-eyed man in the fly-blown tea house.)

As I progressed up the river, I toughened up my negotiating skills, but it’s no good, the boat kitty would keep a family for a year – and the children are terribly cute.

But I  did get to see the chimps on Baboon Island (well, one of them) and heard a hippo in the night – they sound like Winston Churchill getting out of the bath. I missed the crocodile, though – despite rowing out at dawn in the little inflatable.

Maybe that was just as well. I’m not sure a little inflatable is recommended for a crocodile hunting.

Now I’m back at Lamin Lodge – the wood and corrugated iron restaurant open on all sides to catch the breeze above the mangroves. Mahmood,, the waiter, keeps me supplied with refreshments, and Bamba the drummer provides a background rhythm. As a temporary office, it beats all the Hiltons and Intercontinentals into a cocked hat.

The office

If you look closely at the picture, you can see Samsara anchored just next door – where Karim turns up every morning on his paddle-board to deliver fresh bread and collect the laundry.

Karim with the bread (and the laundry)

What did  I say about leaving…

Bamba on rhythm

5 Responses to Fixers

  • Very interesting information. Thank you

  • “Lamin Lodge”, what a fantastic venue, back in the 80’s, my wife and I holidayed in The Gambia”, and one of our trips was to Lamin Lodge for breakfast, brilliant. I didn’t receive your book for Christmas, but am working on it. Love your posts, long may they keep dropping in my in-box.

  • Gambia now that’s a bit different, would make a great YouTube story. Please keep us updated. PS i really enjoyed your book.

    • Thank you. May I ask a favour: if you haven’t done so already, would you leave it some Amazon stars (five would be most welcome – I’m trying to get past the 4.75 average so they all light up!)

  • Now that’s cruising! Shades of books written 60 and more years ago – like Millars’ “Isobel and the Sea – and a host of others on my shelves, venturers all beyond the confines of so-called civilisation. And yet you have the internet; such irony.


I was going to be a Spitfire pilot. We all were – backs to the wall, fighting to the death against a merciless invader…

This was 1959, an English prep school; War Picture Library with a torch after lights out. For the price of a Mars Bar, you could borrow Boddington’s flying helmet. It had P/O Boddington inked on the inside and smelled of rubber and sweat and excitement.

Ten years later came the film – Battle of Britain. I went to see it every night until the money ran out. Edward Fox with his silk scarf. Susannah York, fetching in her WAAF officer’s cap.

It remained a fantasy, of course – until now.

Admittedly, I’m not in a Spitfire, climbing through Angels Ten. But the fight for survival – the merciless invader. That’s all here.

And just because I’m a hundred miles up the Gambia, not at Biggin Hill – and I’m up against cockroaches instead of the Luftwaffe, it’s still as desperate a struggle as anything Michael Caine, and Douglas Bader and P/O Boddington had to face.

I knew they were coming, of course: the books and Facebook groups are full of warnings about not bringing cardboard packaging aboard (they lay their eggs in cardboard). There is advice about Boric Acid and Nestles Milk – but that’s no good in a dogfight.

Nobody forgets their first contact with the enemy: I was chopping onions, had discarded the papery outer skin and suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, a movement – a flash of scuttling shiny brown carapace.

Wheeling instinctively onto the attack, I stabbed with the vegetable knife. It went wide, but the enemy banked and ran for cover under the engine casing.

That’s when the training kicked in: Don’t let him get away. He’ll be back with his chums, telling them I’m a pushover – won’t last two weeks, just as Kurt Jurgens told Ralph Richardson.

So, fight like hell! Off with the engine casing. There’s the bastard, running for cover along the ledge above the CAV filter. Gun button to “fire”. Press the tit – but, Oh no! Out of ammunition (I’d put the vegetable knife down).

I grabbed a spoon, but a spoon is not a precision weapon. It wouldn’t fit into the corner.

Bare hands, now: slapping and missing until, with a cold and steely deliberation, I bring out a forefinger and crush him into the woodwork. Still, he won’t die: A mess of legs and whiskers stuck to the skin, waving defiance. The coup de grâce, then: I bring down the thumbnail; grind him in two.

Total war.

Yet this is just the beginning. Over the ensuing days, the raids increase both in size and frequency. I keep a daily tally in the back of the logbook. The Nine o’clock news begins with Alvar Liddell reciting the day’s score as if it were a test match.

For a time, it is touch and go. The blackest day brings eleven incursions, eight kills. The cockroaches don’t give up. They come in numbers. I adapt my tactics: don’t go for two at once. Nobody can catch two rabbits…

Tally-ho! The carpet comes up, then the cabin sole: I burrow into the tins of chickpeas and bottles of mayonnaise until – there he is – backed up against freshwater manifold. Out with the forefinger.

It’s relentless: ten, a dozen sorties a day and no quarter given. After the early clashes, I would flick my victims into the galley waste bin – until I found one of them, mortally wounded, yet still trying to escape. After that, over the side, they went – over the stern, in fact – into the two-knot tide sweeping them away with the river. I wouldn’t trust the buggers not to climb up the anchor chain.

Of course, it couldn’t go on. Not at this level of attrition. There had to come a time when one of us would crack. Remember the scene right at the end, when the pilots are waiting at dispersal, lounging in broken armchairs, sleeping on the grass?

Edward Fox (he survived) folds his newspaper and looks up at the sky.

And the sky is empty.

Cut to the Luftwaffe packing up and heading for Russia.

It has been ten days since a cockroach has shown its face aboard Samsara. The battle is won. I’m not a hero – somebody had to do it – and yet the war grinds on: when I restocked the onions the other day, I sat in the dinghy peeling off the outer skin, dropping the pieces carefully over the side.

Do you think they sell Boric Acid in the market?

*You can read more about Boddington and his flying helmet in Old Man Sailing, the book:

9 Responses to Invaders

  • Merry Christmas JP, I was keenly looking forward to reading your update from sailing in the Gambia. Seems like you have been busy with your ‘invaders’. I wish you fair winds and safe passage on your adventure, hopefully without any “Freeloading Cockroaches”. Kind regards Bill

  • I remember in the 70s regularly swimming in the (then) abandoned volcanic Turkish baths on the island of Lesbos where we used to lie around the pool when too hot and were always joined by legions of cockroaches though they never touched us, recognising that we were alive. I rather enjoyed watching them pursue their busy lives… but I didn’t have to live with them!
    Happy Christmas to you all!

  • “We will fight them on the beaches……we will never give up!” Merry Christmas!

  • “Exterminate! Exterminate…!”

  • Nadolig Llawen John from Penmachno Snowdonia… love reading that little ‘espionage’ story ……. How are you and hope you well ?
    You put a smile on my face on Xmas eve especially as I’m just recovering after one hell of a 2 week suffering with chest infection/respiratory illness etc but thankfully the ‘magic pills’ antibiotics has started working and I can smile & laugh without my ribs hurting me… I have survived and feel I feel ready to fight another battle ‘peel the onions’ ready for cooking a Xmas feast maybe…

    Chilli powder is good


  • Well done John what hero you are. I was far more timid back in December 2015 when Arctic Smoke was attacked between the Canaries and Cape Verde. We simply deployed poisen and traps but didn’t finally get rid of the swine until our return to the UK the following year when they died of the cold!

  • Good luck, John. One of the ships I served on in the Royal Navy was a very happy efficient and clean destroyer without any unwanted creatures onboard – UNTIL we arrived at Gan on our way to the Far East where our Supply Office decided to buy sacks of potatoes because they were cheap, ignoring the protests of our Victualling Petty Officer who had enough to last until we arrived at Singapore. As the spuds were swung onboard, one sack split and lo! and behold! we had spuds everywhere and tropical cockroaches (Bombay Runners) running in all directions. Needless to say we were infested from that moment and the filthy creatures were everywhere – open your clothes locker and they were in residence, leaving messy marks on one’s neatly folded clean tropical whites. UGH! and UGH again.
    It took a while in dockyard for the ship to be de-infested. Cheap spuds! Nothing is cheap in this life – we get what we pay for but nobody had impressed that on our SO’s mind.
    Bon chance with the cockroaches, John. They are the very devil to eradicate.

  • If no boric acid, I hear that activated yeast and sugar are the weapon of choice by those in the know….. . Apparently the little fockers are unable to fart or belch; so the gas builds in their tiny shiny case until they explode…
    typically back at base, where their remains are canabilised by their comrades, thus creating, with careful timing, the potential for several for the price of 1. Good luck, old chap…
    tally ho!

  • Splendid stuff! As one who has spent half his life in the tropics and subtropics and who will on principle go as far as two steps out of my way to stamp on a cockroach, I applaud and commend your approach, which is positively Churchillian. Écrasez le cafard!

    (Be warned that they probably laid eggs).

Oars and outboards

What does an old man, sailing on his own, do for an outboard?

Well, l’ll tell you what a young man does – at least, what I did when I was in my 40’s on Largo: I had a little two-stroke Suzuki and I took it in one hand and climbed into the dinghy with it, swinging it around as if it weighed no more than a can of extra strong lager on a Saturday night.

So, when I started sailing alone again as an old man, I bought another little two-stroke Suzuki (it wasn’t easy – they don’t make them any more because of the emissions).

However, nothing else was the same. Somewhere over the intervening 30 years, my muscles had disappeared. My little stick-thin 72-year-old arms can no more lift an outboard than my head can cope with extra-strong lager. I could see that it would only be a matter of time before both of us ended up in the water – which do no good at all for the outboard (and not much good for me).

All of these changes have come together to contrive what I believe is a very neat solution to the problem of getting ashore, saving the planet and keeping the beer cold (the 3.8% Heineken).

At the end of last season, I was going home for Christmas and had everything loaded into the dinghy ready for the two-mile trip up the river to Waldringfield.

You will probably remember last Christmas and the prospect of it being cancelled with another lockdown: If I had the boat hauled out as I usually did, it might be moths before I got back into the water. Instead, I borrowed a friend’s mooring at Ramsholt.

When I say I had everything in the dinghy, I mean the bicycle and everything I could get on it for the five-mile ride from Waldringfield to Woodbridge. That is to say, I had my rucksack and the carry-on bag which just about fits on the front.

The dinghy, with its pump, outboard and oars etc. could stay on the beach. I would come back for them later in the car.

You can see, I had thought this through.

The only thing I had not considered was the outboard failing to start.

Which was why I was a day late home for the holidays – having had to wait for the following day’s flood tide (you don’t row a tiny inflatable for two miles against the River Deben’s three-knot ebb.)

It was pretty much the final straw for me and the outboard. Over the years, I had spent hours with it in pieces in the cockpit. I had pored over YouTube videos on how to service a carburettor. I had spent enough on repairs,  practically, to buy a new one…

There had to be an alternative. Well, of course there was. I could have an electric outboard. They come to pieces. You can load them into the dinghy one bit at a time. They don’t break down. They need no maintenance. They’re kind to the environment. You don’t have to find somewhere safe to store the petrol (or buy it, come to that). What I needed was an electric outboard.

The only problem was that the ones made for the yacht market cost the predictable arm and leg.

But there was an alternative. It was called a “trolling motor” – designed for little boats on lakes. Top speed is about three knots and you need a 12-volt battery to power them. But you could get a brand new one for less than £150. Best of all, they weighed only 7kg – I really would be able to swing it around in one hand.

I’ve had it for a year now. It’s called a Haswing  Osapian 40 and I have an 80ah “marine and leisure” battery which plugs into the ships’ batteries to recharge (and when it’s not running the outboard, it pushes the little electric beer-cooler.)

The battery does weigh 17kg and has to be lifted in an out of the dinghy but it’s compact and has a proper handle and somehow that makes it manageable.

Obviously, you have to learn to think like a WW2 submarine captain – you can go further if you go slowly – about three miles, I reckon. But in emergency top gear, it has pushed me across Falmouth Harbour against a 20knot headwind.

So why does that picture at the top show me rowing?

It was taken in the enormous anchorage at Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, where it’s the best part of a mile into the marina and all the way down to the other end to the dinghy dock – or five minutes in a RIB with a 10hp four-stroke which two people had to hoist aboard with a purpose-built derrick.

Although, I did notice that in between the criss-crossing wakes, there would be the occasional little old man rowing a tiny cockleshell dinghy. It would take him twenty minutes – but old men are seldom in a hurry.

I’m an old man – and my little electric trolling motor in low gear would take me all of twenty minutes.

So why wasn’t I rowing?

The upshot is that now I have new, longer oars and stainless steel rowlocks in place of the broken plastic ones. Admittedly, I still can’t punch into a 20knot headwind like a rigid dinghy – or even a collapsible one – so, when there’s the prospect of a strong headwind, I take the motor just in case. Then I can clamp it amidships and set it to half-speed and row with a little help. It’s like pedalling uphill on an electric bicycle.

My biceps are coming along splendidly…

11 Responses to Oars and outboards

  • Very good to see you happy

  • It’s a lie John – you like whisky!. Happy memories of the evening at Titchmarsh. Safe passage and keep updating us on your ramblings marine and cerebral.

  • Wonderful stuff John keep it coming so many of us can relate to this…
    I remember my father with his Seagull outboard, you could hear it coming for miles !

  • As always very entertaining. I guess the minerals are helping those biceps come along nicely.

    • I think they must be helping – after all I can row (and winch) five months after the dislocated shoulder and the NHS website says recovery can take a year. Still need to do the exercise, though…

  • Love reading about your adventures – I’m in bed with really bad bronchitis – wish I had half your energy!

  • I’m not a boating person but your comments in this post resonate John.
    I too have moved onto low alcohol beers and my legs are not what they were, I enjoy ‘electrically assisted’ cycling these days.
    I really enjoy your postings John, keep them coming.

  • I cannot agree more with using an elderly – but well maintained – 2 stroke outboard, in my case a Mariner 2hp which has lasted since 1988 and several inversions. When I first tried lifting a new 4 stroke I thought ‘ OK, what joker has bolted this to the floor ? ‘

  • I love reading your blogs. Please keep them coming.

  • Old men and their electric toys eh JP – Onwards n Upwards John 🙂

Yachting Monthly review

This is nice: Yachting Monthly has reviewed Old Man Sailing and called it a “word-of-mouth bestseller”.

And there’s some evidence for that: the daily sales from Amazon tend to be higher than they were a couple of months ago – with a higher proportion coming from overseas. Now a Dutch sailing magazine has asked for a review copy.

It’s all very gratifying – particularly meeting someone new and finding they’ve read it already.

This would never have happened if had been picked up by a mainstream publisher.

The latest news is that the Audible edition is nearing completion – that is to say, the narrator has recorded it and is now dealing with the inevitable glitches and corrections. I’ll let you know when it’s ready.

… at least I will if I have a mobile signal. On Ed Sheeran’s Desert Island Discs recommendation, I’m now headed for The Gambia.

13 Responses to Yachting Monthly review

  • Excellent book, pressie for Xmas, couldn’t put it down, finished over 3 days, good for me. I’m about the same age as John and lots of words in the book ring very true with me. A refreshing change from the usual sailing books I read. Well done, excellent, look forward to the next one. Regards Chris (UK)

  • Hi John. You’ll maybe recall long agos at YM, and other places, after which we lost touch. You may even remember my name! Great to know you are back doing what you do best: sailing and writing. Holed up in the Highlands in front of a wood burner. Not as warm as your volcano but safer.

  • John, I have just read your book, it’s brilliant. I retired at the tender age of 66 in August 2019,and had planned to explore the Greek islands with my wife, but then instead we spent 18 months in lockdown. So congratulations on your escape, and on producing a jolly good enjoyable book. I particularly enjoyed your Laser sailing experiences, because I too suffered the injustice of always being last. My wife bought be my first Laser, which was quite old, so a couple of years later I persuaded her to let me buy a brand new Laser, as this would definitely improve my placings in races. It didn’t, and in the end I had to admit that my then 17 stone body mass was the root cause.

  • Good morning John, we crossed paths in Lerwick and I’d no idea I was chatting with such a famous well travelled man. I’d just like to say thanks for your time and the advice you gave me regarding my Aries wind vane. I had it working perfectly for the rest of the season all due to you. Many thanks. Really enjoying your book and enjoying the blog. I’m jealous your season is still ongoing. Fair winds. Greg

  • I love this guy’s book.I read old man sailing in 2 days. Wish he would post more often.

  • Hi john.wonderful, damp and dull here, quite envious really. Beats a bar meal at the wiffler after training eh.?
    Keep safe Pete

    • Ah, remember The Wiffler – and those Mercure Hotel trainings with Kevin and Auntie Nellie…

    • …but yes, the sun is shining, the thermometer said 27C at lunchtime and 330ml of supermarket Estrella 4.3% is 16p.
      (Rum’s not much more than £4 a litre either. This could all go downhill and I haven’t even got to the Caribbean yet…)

  • A couple of young lads from near here/Bath bought a Contessa 26 and scrounged some RYA Day Skipper Course Notes…. then headed south from L’pool, I think. Before long, they were wintering in The Gambia and had a whale of a time, by all accounts. Of source, they stayed well clear of local politics and ‘organised business’. “The locals were great”, they recounted.

    Then, another ocean or two….

    Fair winds and fishes!

  • I’m taking Will’s copy of your book home for safe keeping as we both enjoyed it. ( had hoped to ask you to sign it when at pasito blanco, but I did not see you ) at home also a friend tried to pass on to me his copy of your book I had to say I’d all ready got it !

  • Hi John,
    The Gambia !!? Is it ? So no Xmas in UK ! I don’t blame you at all !! Bit jealous really !
    Crossing after that ? Or more south like Ascension ,St Helena ,Tristan da Cunha ?
    Anyway enjoy your time . God speed .
    With my warmest regards

The cost of waiting

The marina and the anchorage at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. Drone photo by Emmie and Tim of Shadowfax (


Everybody’s waiting.

That’s what you do in the Canary Islands at this time of year. The boats have to get across the Bay of Biscay by the middle of September to avoid the equinoctial gales – but they mustn’t reach the Caribbean until the end of the hurricane season, and that means not setting off until the middle of November. So, for two months, they wait.

A lot of them are just parked in marinas – their crews flown back to the office. The rest exist in a peculiar sub-tropical limbo of cold beer under awnings.

The first week I was here, I stopped in a different place every night. That’s what you do when you’re cruising. Now I haven’t moved for two weeks. It took a while to realise the Canaries are not like Essex.

Well, of course not: The temperature is in the 30s. From twelve until four, nothing moves. I’ve given up soap – instead, I dive over the side before breakfast…

But, there’s more to it than that. Essex is full of rivers, so you can creep in around the mudbanks and find a sheltered spot whatever the weather.

The Canaries are extinct volcanoes (actually not so extinct – the one on La Palma is blowing off at the moment). Anyway, it means there are no estuaries. The only places to stop are open bays where the Atlantic swell rolls the onions off the chopping board or marinas where the man behind the counter shrugs sympathetically and tells you it’s high season. Not only does this mean high prices, but you might have to move on tomorrow because he’s got someone else booked in.

So there’s a great tendency for everyone to stay put – particularly the ARC boats.

The ARC is the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers – a massive event in which 200 boats with 1,200 crew sail across the Atlantic from Las Palmas to St Lucia all at the same time. It is one of the great mysteries of the sea that they don’t all bump into each other like a regatta of seven-year-old in Optimists. The event is massively social and hugely expensive, which means that most of the boats are seriously posh. This year, some of the catamarans have three decks, like wedding cakes.

It does seem rather a waste that they leave from Las Palmas, because – for some reason that nobody seems able to explain – the capital of these islands boasts the cheapest marina in Europe. They quoted me €55 for eight days. It’s like being in Southampton’s Port Solent – but the only time I stopped there for a night, it cost me £40. I could have stayed in a hotel.

Ah, but wait: In Las Palmas, this municipal generosity extends not just to the marina but also to the anchorage next to it. So that must make it the cheapest anchorage in the world!

Well, obviously, most anchorages are free. But it is one of the cruising yachtsman’s perennial moans that over the past 20 years, harbour authorities have sought to cash in on their local topography. For instance, halfway up the Truro River in Cornwall, where seafarers have sheltered for nothing ever since the first caveman stopped to fish from his coracle, the harbourmaster now turns up in his launch to relieve you of £7. There is no landing stage, no water tap. Nothing has changed in a thousand years – except for the introduction of “Harbour Dues”.

Yet here I am, securely anchored just off the popular Playa de las Alcaravaneras – high season and all that – and paying €1.42 a night. That doesn’t even cover the cost of the paperwork (there’s plenty of that). Also, they let me leave my dinghy in the marina and fill up the water can while I’m at it.

For a small additional charge, I could queue for the showers with all the ARC people. But if the sea is free and about the temperature of bathwater anyway…

13 Responses to The cost of waiting

  • As an even older man (78) I loved your book and blogs which I have just discovered. As a late covert to sailing after crewing for Frank Mulville in 1995 I have sailed a 22ft Catch22 across the channel for 20 years but have now been encouraged to venture further afield.

  • Great wordsmithing: “The rest exist in a peculiar sub-tropical limbo of cold beer under awnings.” I can see and hear it all.

  • I just discovered your blog and thank you very much. I am sixty two years old, I am a little French Auvergne who has exactly the same dream. I am preparing my departure for Mangata, my Cheoy Lee offshore 38 from 1979 based in La Rochelle. Sorry for my bad english.I use Google traduct . Is your Book tra’slated in french?

    • Bonjour Jean Claude, Non, j’ai bien peur que le livre ne soit disponible qu’en anglais. (J’espère que vous pouvez comprendre cela. Moi aussi, j’utilise Google Translate !) Cordialement, John

  • Hi John, just a suggestion, why don’t you post your stories on instagram with one of those lovely pictures you take? Thanks, take care, love your blogs even though I don’t usually comment, I read them all 🙂

  • Thank you for the latest ( the cost of waiting) it’s dull and very still here in Alresford Hampshire. and the leaves are turning golden. Take care. Ursula j Weller

  • I’ve been watching the developments at La Palma for a month. Quakes have been building steadily over this time from daily average of 2.5 to current average 3.5 with a couple of >4.0 thrown in. The possibility of a big quake with ensuing landslide leading to tsunami from La Palma has been written about for decades as you might already know. I use an iPhone app called Earthquake to monitor the developments. It is unlikely the UK would be unaffected by such a tsunami, which could impact the whole Atlantic. Take care.

    • I can see Earthquake Alert and Earthquake Checker etc. But nothing just called Earthquake. Also, I seem to remember from the Christmas Day Tsunami that boats anchored in deep water hardly noticed anything. The trouble only started when the surge hit the beach.
      I am 370metres from the low tide mark and anchored in 11metres (at low tide). Does this mean I can stop worrying – before I start…

  • Now, here is some useful information!


The Swan Inn at Noss Mayo on the River Yealm – the perfect place to dry out for a scrub.

Like most of the world’s great discoveries, the perfect solution to the antifouling problem turned up when I was looking for something else. I could tell you what it is right now – in a few words, as it happens.

But that would be a waste of a good story – and it is a good story…

When I bought Samsara, I had a lot of money left over and thoroughly enjoyed spending it – there was the fancy feathering propellor, the new solar panel, upgraded electrics – all the things that usually spend years on the wish list.

And there was Coppercoat antifouling. If you look it up in the search box, you will see I have written about this elsewhere. It has not been a great success (which is the fault of my hull,  not the stuff itself). Anyway, I’m stuck with it now. I’m certainly not going to pay all over again to have it taken off. Instead, a couple of times a year, I lean the boat up against a wall somewhere and spend three hours underneath with a bucket of water and a packet of scouring pads cleaning off the weed  while green slime drips in my eye.

It’s not something I look forward to. Never mind, at least I can choose a nice place to do it. The River Yealm is a nice place, and if you’ve got a little boat, you can dry out in front of the Swan Inn which does a very nice pint when you’ve finished.

Except that I couldn’t get started. Do you think I could find the scouring pads? I knew exactly where I kept them (stuffed down behind the seacock under the galley sink). But this time, they weren’t there.

That was how I found myself pedalling all the way up to the bridge and then down the other side of the creek to the Co-Op at Newton Ferrers. You would think a Co-Op would have a pack of scouring pads. Not in Newton Ferrers.

Instead, they suggested the garage at Yealmpton. Seeing how far that was, I phoned ahead. They didn’t have any either.

Having gone to all this trouble, I asked in the craft shop (what do you think they said) and the deli…

Eventually, since I had tried everywhere else, I tried the chemist. Oddly enough, they had some of those half-sponge things. Apparently, they used them for cleaning the chemistry set. They were only £1, so I bought them – not that I thought they would be much good for cleaning the bottom of a boat.

By now I was so obsessed by the whole nonsense that I explained it to the man behind the counter.

It was a moment as significant as Moses getting to the top of the mountain and saying: “Actually, I was looking for some tablets of stone. I don’t suppose you’ve got any…”

Because then the man behind the counter divulged the best-kept secret in the history of boat maintenance. He did it with all the sense of occasion that he would employ in taking a tube of hemorrhoid ointment off the shelf and sliding it across the counter.

Here is what he said: “Why don’t you do what the fishermen do?”

  • Why, what do the fishermen do?

And here it is. This is what the fishermen do: They put half a bottle of bleach in half a bucket of water and get a garden spray – the sort of thing you use for greenfly – and they spray the bottom of the boat with bleach. That kills the weed. Then, over the next few weeks, it falls off. Fishermen don’t want to pay for expensive antifouling. Bleach is cheap.

I didn’t believe it. I mean, who would? If it was that simple, why didn’t everyone know about it?

All the same, if there was a chance of avoiding three hours scrabbling around under the boat with the green slime…

I didn’t have a garden spray in the cockpit locker, so I used the brush that goes with the dustpan. It turned out to be ideal for slapping on the bleach. Instead of three hours with the scouring pad , it took me just 30 minutes – although I suppose, I should also count the other two-and-a-half hours watching it dry from the pub terrace.

Well, of course, it didn’t work. A week later, there was still a fringe of weed a couple of inches long all around the waterline. I’d gone to all that trouble for nothing. Serves me right for being so gullible. I expect the chemist dined out on that one for the rest of the summer.

But wait. It is now fully two months later. I am in the Canary Islands. The water is warm. I have been swimming off the boat and, as you do, I dived underneath to see what was going on down there.

Would you believe it? There was not a scrap of weed to be found anywhere – not the fine green beard that grows on the waterline. Not the barnacles around the prop and the rudder – just a light dusting of algae that came off in clouds when I brushed it with my hand.

Of course, I do have to quieten my conscience about adding half a bottle of bleach to the world’s oceans a couple of times a year.

On the other hand, my saucepans have never been so clean.

3 Responses to Antifouling

  • You’ll be sorry, John if Carrie hears about your escapades – Boris will probably ban all sales of bleach…

  • Genius! Thank you so much for this eye-opener. Who could have thought of such an elegant solution to a major pain in the ass problem? Turns out the local fishermen could! No more spending tons of money on various concoctions. No more spending hours on various sailing forums arguing which antifouling stuff works well in a particular location, but does bugger all in another place with different water salinity. It’s all about bleach! That stuff has been around for ages, it is cheap, widely available and it works. And most importantly it is so easy to apply!

  • Always good to hear from you! What type of boat would you recommend for us? We would love to sail to the Caribbean. I have been looking at Hallbergs, Cape Dory, and Alberg.