Mustique

Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Prince William – Princess Margaret, of course…

And now me.

Mustique is not an island you can bypass. Mustique is one of those islands that actually deserves the words “unique” and “iconic”.

Just north of the Tobago Cays in the Grenadines, it really is the world’s most exclusive (and most expensive) holiday destination, contrived for the rich, the very rich, and the uber-rich.

The only way anyone else can get there is by rocking up on a boat.

Admittedly, they charge you £60 to stop (taking a mooring buoy is mandatory), but that gives you three nights and £20 a night in the Solent would be considered good value.

Also, it’s a lot cheaper than renting a villa or taking a suite at the Cotton House hotel.

I looked up the villas. OK, from the hundred-or-so to choose from, I looked up Princess Margaret’s 10-acre estate, Les Jolies Eaux, now owned by the Mustique Company and available to rent at $42,500 a week.

For that, you get 5-6 bedrooms, a “Media Room”, both a dining pavilion and a dining room – and a pool overlooking the Atlantic in one direction and the Caribbean in the other.

Your live-in staff comprise of a butler, a chef, a gardener and two housekeepers (all expecting a tip of between five and ten per cent.)

On top of that, you have to stump up another 10% for using the island’s amenities – everything from the tennis club to the tasteful wooden boxes to hide the litter bins when your butler serves a picnic on one of the island’s nine contrasting beaches.

There is no chance that you would baulk at the cost of any of this because, even before your booking is accepted, you have to be “approved”. This might be why 85% of the bookings are repeat business – the same families coming back year after year so that they’re as much a part of the community as the Jaggers and Hilfiger’s who own their homes on the island (Jagger has two).

But I wouldn’t be playing tennis – or going to the weekly cocktail party or inviting the neighbours round for dinner (everyone wants to show off their chef, and there is a certain amount of good-natured rivalry).

Actually, I wasn’t even supposed to see as much as I did. No sooner had the harbourmaster collected my money and given me a receipt complete with a 60-word disclaimer than I leapt on my bike to pedal off and tour the island – it’s only as big as Alderney, after all.

It seems the Mustique Company had not imagined that boats stopping here would conceal rusty folding bicycles. They assumed that if anyone wanted to see the island, they would hire a mule with a driver – not the animal, but a curious six-seater conveyance that is something of a cross between a golf cart and a dune buggy.

So, when I arrived at the airport and paused to photograph one of these things outside the bijou bamboo terminal (no private jets, please), a smart young man approached, slipping a discreet blue badge from his pocket: “Security”, it said.

Respectfully, he explained that the regulations prohibited anyone who was not a “resident” from wandering around wherever they pleased – something I should have learned from the information supplied by the harbourmaster.

I assured him the only information I had was the 60-word disclaimer. We agreed that I would make my way back to the harbour where I belonged. I got a little lost on the way, but it was remarkable how many polite security men I found to help me.

Still, it did mean I got to see the statue of Colin Tennant – Lord Glenconner – the man who made Mustique what it is today. He bought the island in 1958 when it was nothing more than a few wild goats and a ramshackle village. He paid £45,000 (£442,000 at today’s prices) and did nothing with it until his father sold the family financial business, leaving him without a job.

Oh yes, he did one thing – one very astute thing: He gave Princess Margaret ten acres as a wedding present. Lady Glenconner was her lady-in-waiting, and they offered the Princess the choice of a silver cocktail shaker from Asprey’s or a whole headland with the best views on the island. There, she commissioned the stage designer Oliver Messel to build her the perfect hideaway from her imploding marriage and the tabloid press.

If you have seen The Crown, you will know all about this – particularly the scene with Roddy Llewellyn and the sun cream – and the paparazzo in the bushes.

Those were the heady days of wild parties with young men in gold loincloths – although, it must also be said that the electricity had a tendency to pack up at awkward moments and there were no shops: everybody had to go down to the harbour and buy their food directly from the boat.

Or, at least, everybody’s chefs had to go down to the harbour…

As it became more civilized in the 1990s, Tennent moved on to another development in St Lucia, and Mustique became quieter – more family-orientated. You can see this in Basil’s Bar – a collection of huts on stilts built out over the water. This is where the two Mustiques meet – where it was always said you might see a fisherman dance with a duchess.

Now merchant bankers dance with their three-year-old daughters as they might at an up-market wedding reception. You can imagine Prince William twirling Princess Charlotte.

I stayed the third night just so I could experience the Sunday night “Sunset Blues” party. The music was first class – just as everything is first class on Mustique, from the lobster to the horses in the riding stables.

But I still felt like an outsider. It took me a while to work out why this was: I was the only one handing fistfuls of Eastern Caribbean dollars across the bar – or worse still, a whole handful of change that had been rattling about the chart table.

The rich don’t carry money. They certainly wouldn’t be seen dead with a pocketful of change spoiling the cut of their white linen trousers (£178 from LottyB at The Pink House).

Whether it’s a round of Mustique Whammies at Basil’s or ice creams for a gang of Manhattan teenagers invading the Sweetie Pie Bakery … on Mustique, just charge it to the villa.

5 Responses to Mustique

Bequia

The rum punch in De Reef beach bar was a mistake. I thought I was in Keegan’s beach bar – but then there is a beach bar of some kind every few yards along the mile and a half of Bequia’s coastal path.

Keegan’s had seemed rather special because it had a wonderful signpost with the mileages to New York and Berlin and London (4,283) and aphorisms such as “There are better things in the world than alcohol – but alcohol compensates for not having them” and “A Rum Punch a day keeps the worries away.”

The whole Island seems to consist of beach bars and rum shops and people in flip-flops and T-shirts saying “Sail Fast – Live Slow”. It’s been like this ever since it first became a Mecca for Caribbean sailors in the 80s.

In those days, it must have been like St Tropez was in the 60s. Now there are cruise ships in the bay and a man in uniform to shepherd me politely off the dinghy dock – even though I tied up there yesterday without so much as a by-your-leave.

And that’s another thing: In Grenada you chain your dinghy to the dock with a couple of stout padlocks and haul it out of the water at night in case somebody pinches it.

In Bequia nobody bothers.

It’s pronounced “Bequé”, by the way to the people in the know. I wasn’t in the know either when I first read about it back in the 90s. But it’s been moving up the bucket list ever since, and as soon as I got the boom welded back together, I set off north. It was only 40 miles.

Of course, all the best destinations require a bit of effort – so it took 18 hours, a torn headsail, the mainsheet parting company from the end of the boom and my dinner leaping off the chart table and upending itself all over the floor.

This may have been my own fault (actually, everything was my own fault – it usually is) – but, honestly, who was I trying to impress, attempting to eat off a plate with a knife and fork in 25knots of headwind?

It was a good thing I made enough for a second helping – and that was taken properly with a spoon out of the saucepan, feet braced against the leeward berth and pan-handle at 120°to the angle of attack.

But Bequia was worth the effort. This is a place that does not just welcome yachties; it seems to have developed entirely for our benefit. Every morning the boat boys whizz about distributing fresh baguettes and croissants. An extraordinary bright yellow trimaran can be summoned alongside to fill you up with fuel and water, provide a bag of ice for the Rum Punch and take away your dirty laundry.

I felt a bit mean that I hadn’t hoisted a proper courtesy flag. But think about it: there are 40 nations and dependencies in the Caribbean, and every one of them has its own ensign – so I bought a string of “Caribbean Bunting” off eBay and proposed to cut off the appropriate bit as required.

It looks rather cheap, flying there from the signal halyard like an afterthought – as if I don’t care any more about protocol than your average Frenchman. The French don’t even worry about their own ensign.

But, on the island where “living slow” is a way of life, who’s going to care?

It may be different in Mustique, tomorrow…

P.S. If you have been tracking me on NoForeignLand, you may be surprised to find that, apparently, I am in the middle of the Amazon rain forest. I have no idea why, and quite honestly, I’m beginning to find the whole site more trouble than it’s worth.

So I’m going to abandon it.

There are various ship-tracking apps where you can find me by entering the British ship Samsara and the MMSI number 232010712. The best seems to be Marine Traffic (Findship still has me in the Cape Verdes.)

4 Responses to Bequia

  • Glad to hear you got ypur boom fixed. Sounds like a great place to visit. I am now hoping to get to Panama for next March and have therefore put Bequia on my list of stops. Leave some Rum Punch for me please 🙂

  • so why was the rum punch a terrible miscalculation? sounds like a great idea to me! Looks like you made it to Mustique too. Excellent, very jealous

  • New post from old man sailing. Ah! Find a quiet time-slot, put the kettle on and enjoy some observations and musings from this man that is doing what I would like to be doing after retirement. (But probably will not)
    Please keep up the good work, it is needed in these turbulent times.

Publishers and agents

This caused quite a bit of interest when I posted it on a writers’ Facebook group, so I thought people might like to see it here as well.

I used to think that finding a proper agent and a proper publisher was the be-all and end-all for a writer. Now I’m not so sure.
Back in the 1980s, I thought I had written a best-selling thriller. My hero among writers was Ken Follett who started as a reporter on the Evening News. Once he was successful, I interviewed him over lunch at his local restaurant and he ordered Dom Perignon champagne and a claret that would have wiped out my entire week’s expense account – but he insisted on paying.
I sent my book to the Laurence Pollinger Agency. They told me to cut it from 108,000 words down to 60,000, said the result was “workman-like”, and started sending it round the publishers. All of them sent it back with modest compliments but declined to take it. One said it was “too good for the general list”, but since they had already chosen their lead titles, regrettably…
Honestly, how ridiculous is that?
So I put the novel away in the attic and forgot about it – until 2014 when the theme became rather topical. I thought it might be fun to self-publish it on Amazon. It sold a few copies, which was rather gratifying but hardly amounted to literary success. Instead, my writing was confined to this blog which by 2020 had 163 followers.
I kept this number rising gradually by writing posts about particular sailing topics and then posting the link as a comment when one of the subjects came up on a sailing Facebook group.
Then, along came Lockdown. But instead of Locking Down at home, I went off sailing. When I got back, I found myself talking about it on the Jeremy Vine Radio2 show – my ten minutes of fame.
By midnight that night, the blog had received 45,000 hits. More to the point, Jeremy Vine’s literary agent called to say that if I could write a book about it, he was sure he could find a publisher.
I wrote the book in double-quick time – a lot of it was on the blog already – and he sent it to his chums. All five of them came back and said they liked it but asked what was my “platform”. In other words, was I a contestant on Big Brother? Was I a pop star or Premier League, footballer? Did I have ten million Twitter followers? Was I Jeremy Vine, for heaven’s sake?
When they heard I was just a bloke who had gone sailing, they all regretted that the book was “not commercially viable”.
But, of course, now I had written it – and having one book on Amazon already – the obvious thing to do was put this on Mr Bezos’ electronic bookshelf too.
And, of course, I put a link on the blog.
A year later, it is still selling between five and fifteen copies a day. In the run-up to Christmas, this was running at 20 and 50 a day – and the other day, I was astonished to discover that it was the Number One bestselling Amazon sailing book in the USA.
Here’s another thing: If one of those publishers had accepted it, I would have been given an advance of – say – £1,500 (of which the agent would have taken 15%). The book, with colour pictures, would have been priced at £16.99 in hardback with a print run of maybe 2,000. My family and friends would have bought maybe 50 copies and, by the following January, it would be remaindered down to £3.99.
There would have been no second printing.
With Amazon, I was able to set my own price: £11.49 for the paperback and £6.99 for the Kindle edition, of which I receive £2.76 and £4.86 respectively. No pictures are included, but there is a link to the gallery here. During the current month, my income is £719 on top of $829US and $95AUS – as well as various smaller amounts from places like Spain and Brazil.
And, of course, I get to keep it all – before tax, of course.
Because the marketing is done entirely through the blog (which now has some 700 subscribers), people leave comments and sometimes mention how much they enjoyed the book. I am able to reply, asking if they would be sure to leave some Amazon stars – stars are so important.
And reviews, of course – one was so good I couldn’t resist re-posted it. Well, wouldn’t you, if someone wrote: “Now and again, something or someone comes along that invokes a shift in the way we think and view the world. Thank you, John, for opening my eyes to a new paradigm and a reality I thought was beyond the reach of a mere humble town planner. I’ve had a few laughs along the way and all for a few quid. I hope to buy you a beer in some far-flung place one day. Keep up the blogging.”
(Oh dear, I seem to have posted it again…)
Meanwhile, if I look carefully, I can see that, in among the sales of the new book are a few for the old one.
Am I despondent that those publishers turned me down? Not a bit – if they had taken me on, the book would have sunk without trace. Instead Yachting Monthly called it “a word-of-mouth bestseller”.
Now, I would advise any new writer to ignore the traditional route entirely.
Do it yourself – you won’t regret it.
And here’s a tip: One of the hallmarks of a self-published book is dozens of typos and mistakes in the text – you just can’t spot them yourself, no matter how many times you read it through. But a professional editor is expensive (and not always effective).
Here’s what I did: I included a line in the foreword asking people to email me any mistakes they found (just send me five words, including the error, so I can search for it). If they were the first to report something, I would refund the cost of the book.
Three people took this to heart and, between them, cleaned up the whole manuscript. Only one of them accepted the refund.
With Amazon, you can go back in and change things as often as you like – not a luxury you have with the traditional publishers.
Of course, I would be happier if Mr Bezos paid his staff a decent wage – and paid his taxes, come to that. But he’s paying me every month, so I can do my bit on his behalf…

5 Responses to Publishers and agents

  • Well we’ve certainly enjoyed reading it John and so has the next generation in the family. Who is tie Mr Bwzos?! Keep on sailing John and may the waters be kind to you Cap’n!

  • John, I hope you don’t mind, but I am adding you to a list. Already on the list is John Noakes (I loved Blue Peter as a kid), James Wharram and Pip Hare plus a few others I can’t remember at the moment. These are people whose lives I have enjoyed or am enjoying viewing from the sidelines and people whose wake I might find myself following. I bought your most recent book on Kindle, I think I might buy the paper version too. Keep doing what you’re doing!

  • Excellent tip for budding writers!

  • We , your community of readers be it the blog or the book appreciate it as much as yourself your lucky strike with Vince ‘s interview and the events that followed which allowed us to discover your book and blog . We also appreciate that apart from the lucky strike there is a story , a writer and a humble enough person to almost convince the rest of us anyone can try it . We reckon though how brave you really needed to be to do what you did and how beautifully , funny and interestingly you put it on paper . We wished we had such a story to tell to start with . Thank you and congratulations for the success story . Keep it coming
    Fernando. Tarifa Spain

Not a straightforward crossing

Grenada

I’m going to try and put a positive spin on this: After all I’ve said about not consulting doctors and carrying no pharmaceutical products aboard Samsara, I arrived in Grenada and went straight off to find the health centre.

For most of the 23-day crossing from the Cape Verde Islands, my major preoccupation was whether I was going to lose an arm – and if I did, how I was going to cut it off myself with the aid of the breadknife and a bottle of rum.

…or whether I would chicken out and chuck myself over the side instead.

This was not your average Atlantic crossing.

The 2125 miles between Mindelo and Grenada is supposed to restful – restful to the point of boredom with every day the same – the ship sailing out of a golden dawn and reeling off fifty miles in perfect sunshine before plunging into another spectacular sunset.

To be followed by another fifty miles under starlight so bright that you get a crick in your neck from considering the significance of one little boat when compared to the infinite universe laid out upside down for your inspection.

Even so, the prospect of breadknife surgery on the chopping board does claim the attention periodically – like, for instance, every half-hour or so.

All this needs a bit of explanation:

Two days before leaving, I went to buy the beer. I hired one of the lads who hang around the harbour to carry it back for me – there were going to be 72 cans, after all. While in the shop, I brushed my arm against the sharp corner of a shelf. My porter noticed the blood before I did and made me dose it with hand sanitiser (which stung horribly).

I don’t bother about these things too much because I am so stoked up with my food supplement that I very rarely get an infection – and if one should start up, I can see it off by taking a second helping in the evening.

So when, 24 hours into the voyage, the arm showed signs of infection, I took another spoonful of the white powder.

Now, the fact that it was white powder is important: In the six years since I have been ordering this stuff every month, it had always been light brown – an artist might call it light ochre – and tasted horrible. But a monthly order is no good if I keep moving around – particularly in other countries… and especially after the export chaos that is Brexit. So now I buy a year’s supply at a time. This lot arrived in Falmouth. I stowed the cardboard box under the forward berth.

When I opened it in the Canaries, there was clearly something wrong: this powder was white – and tasted of nothing. It might have been baking powder or cornflour. It certainly didn’t seem to be my wonderful supplement.

I emailed the company. They assured me they had sent me the real thing – the difference in colour and taste was something to do with a chance variation in humidity during the freeze-drying process. All the magic ingredients would still be there. I was not to worry.

And so I didn’t – until one day when I was kneeling on deck, working on the toe rail. Suddenly, I felt that unmistakable sensation of sunburn getting started – not in any of the usual places like the shoulders or the top of the head (by this time I was as golden brown as the Ambre Solaire advert). No, this was the soles of my feet – as white as a newborn baby’s – and now, unusually, upturned towards the midday sun..

Without a second thought, I went and fetched the atomiser from its clip above the chart table. In this, I keep a solution of the powder. This really shows you what this stuff can do: just spray it on, and the burning sensation stops immediately. Of course, you don’t go brown either, so I had to ration it on my knees until they matched the rest of me. It even worked when I burned my thumb on the heater. The next morning there was no blister – nothing to see at all.

Yet, a solution made with the white powder had no effect. I might as well have used plain water – the soles of my feet carried on burning. I had to go and find a pair of shoes.

This was a worry – especially as the company was sticking to their explanation. After all, what did I know about it?

Meanwhile, another customer who was taking it on my recommendation wrote asking my advice. I could only pass on what I had been told. But this man did know a thing or two: he had started life as an analytical chemist and he said the humidity explanation was nonsense. He reckoned they’d run out of the usual stuff and substituted something else.

I was sure they would never do a thing like that, but I went back to them – ending up on a Messenger call with the managing director. Once again, he sought to put my mind at rest – although he would exchange my supply for a consignment of the brown version if that was what I wanted.

 By this time, I was halfway up the Gambia. I might be stuck there for months waiting for a package from the UK. Clearly, I had no choice but to take the MD at his word.

And so, on January 18th, I set sail for Grenada.

On the 19th, the ship’s log carried the legend: “Bandaged arm”. We had covered just 44 miles. I was still close enough to turn back. It would mean beating into the light trade wind, and I was without a mainsail, having broken the gooseneck on the way to Africa. I would have to rely on the trysail for windward work. In this wind, it might take 36 hours.

Besides, I had a plentiful supply of the supplement, and it had always healed infections before – just take another helping at bedtime. Even if this was a different colour, I would trust the MD – he was the expert, and I couldn’t believe this idea of him substituting something else…

Of course, it would have been better if this had not been a trade wind crossing. Every day was the same – hours of sitting in the sun and discovering that if you can’t be bothered to get dressed in the morning, it doesn’t half cut down on the laundry when you get to the other side. On the other hand, reading a book every 24 hours does leave unusual crease-marks in the new suntan. I suppose nude models don’t sunbathe with their feet braced on the other side of the cockpit because the boat is rolling through 40° every two seconds.

Mind you, I did wake up one night to find us charging along at seven knots, much over-canvassed. Glancing at the plotter on the way out, I was surprised to see we were heading back to Africa – clearly in the grip of a baby hurricane.

They do this: A tiny disturbance kicks up in the gentle easterly airflow, and the next thing you know, a miniature but intense low-pressure system is in action. In the summer months, the higher water temperature feeds it with energy and turns it into a full-blown hurricane which hits the Caribbean chain like an express train, turns sharp right and lays a trail of destruction all the way to the Carolinas.

I took down all sail and lay a-hull for twelve hours. I didn’t see the point in trying to beat into 35 knots when the passage was going to take three weeks anyway.

And it did take my mind off the arm.

The arm was not doing well. Admittedly, natural healing does take longer than a course of antibiotics – all the same, I was used to seeing the inflammation begin to die down after a couple of days. This was just getting worse.

After a week, I had a hole in my arm the size of a pea and every time I changed the dressing, this would erupt with green pus, like an indoor firework.

A week after that, the hole seemed to be closing up – but another one next door to it appeared out of nowhere, producing pus of a greenish-brown hue. Whether this was an improvement, I was not qualified to say.

The First Aid chapter in the almanac had a section on “Open Wounds” (between “fishhook injury” and “bleeding – internal) but the only help from this was that applying a tourniquet was now out of date and risked “loss of the limb”.

Loss of the limb was something I wish they hadn’t brought up. Whatever happened over the coming days or weeks, it was going to be a very private drama. This would not be one of those occasions for mounting an international rescue operation, diverting supertankers and summoning naval vessels equipped with operating theatres – the skipper being ordered to scuttle his yacht before being lifted off.

The log tells me that for 16 days – between day four and day 20 – I saw no other vessels at all – not even on the AIS. So, a Pan-­Pan Medico call on my little VHF set with its 15-mile range would have been about as much help as Hornblower’s speaking trumpet.

Also, taking the view that health and safety does not apply over the age of 70, I carry no EPIRB. (If you didn’t know this and find yourself aghast, there is a full explanation of the reasoning behind it in the book – and don’t forget that Alex Honnold climbed the sheer face of El Capitan without ropes or safety equipment of any kind “for the fun of it” – and he was only 32.)

In retrospect, it was all a lot of fuss about nothing because eventually, I sailed into St George’s with all limbs intact and the breadknife only blunted on my attempt at a stoneground loaf with out-of-date yeast.

But I did have unfinished business with the supplement company: as far as I was concerned, here was proof that there was something wrong with the white powder. I started emailing round other customers – specifically those who I knew had to buy it in bulk like me. This has become normal since the chaos that is Brexit. My new-found friend Frank in Lisbon had to wait three months for his first delivery. Now he wrote: “My arthritis is coming back, and in general, it feels like the powder is different. I’ve been taking it for three months now, and the effect is zero. With the brown stuff, I had better joints after a month or so. Now I am back where I was two years ago, despite taking two spoons every day.”

Forwarding this to the MD, I added for good measure that I had been obliged to increase the size of the font on my laptop and the dislocated shoulder from getting falling-down drunk in Tobermory was keeping me awake again – something it hadn’t done for months.

To give him credit, he accepted all of this without question – obviously, people who had taken only the occasional month’s holiday from the brown stuff hadn’t noticed the difference. He would replace our supplies with the right colour. He would get the wrong kind analysed. In future, he would refuse to accept anything but the original formula. All remaining stocks of the suspect powder would be spread on his garden…

The no-good stuff – almost pure white.

The good stuff – the colour is brown/beige – what an artist would call “light ochre”

The white “No Good” powder does not dissolve in water – in which case, how can it be absorbed into the body?

So, in the event, there was no harm done – except, of course, to my immune system, which will now have to recover from being knocked askew by a course of antibiotics for the first time since 2016.

And as for the positive spin – well, it does show that the stuff works.

As long as it’s the right stuff…

A passenger. This incontinent booby took up residence and refused to get off for 48 hours. Every time I suggested it, he took off, flew a couple of circuits and came back. In the end I gave up.

22 Responses to Not a straightforward crossing

  • Hello John
    Let me say I really enjoyed your booking is excellent.
    I am going to ask the same question, where can I get the magic formula? as I too am now getting old and think it might help in my latter years and my wife needs a boost to her immune system.
    Thanks for any reply.

  • Just read your article, very interesting as always, regarding the supplement, for info I’ve just received my order and it is a fawn colour and tastes awful, take care and looking forward to your next episode

    Paul

      • I know they changed suggested intake and I’m sure it all depends on one’s needs. However do you take a single scoop (gives about 0.8g) when at maintenance level?

        • A single scoop is only 300mg. That was never enough. The standard adult dose was 600mg. I consider that is OK up to the age of 60. When COVID struck, I was taking 900mg. Since then I have been taking 1,200mg (and haven’t caught it yet…)

  • Thank god you’re okay! Seems the last I heard you were in the Med. Need to catch up on your travels. Hope to see more on the blog soon.

  • Didn’t the Stones have a song about the brown stuff ?

  • Hello John

    Sorry to hear of your travails. I don’t think that’s quite the mot juste but you’ll get my drift.

    Serendipity stumbles on to the stage again – I was minutes away from placing an order for 3 months’ supply when your post landed. Paying in South African Rand for a British product is a painful experience at the best of times, so buying a dodgy powder would move the pain to exquisite level.

    I shall hold my order until the mists clear.

    Read your book (OMS) with chuckles and enjoyment. Looking forward to Trident.

    Stay safe.

    Kind regards

    Angus

    • I would say you are safe ordering now. Being in South Africa, you will have to email David anyway and you can ask for his assurance that you will be getting the “light ochre” coloured powder not the white.

  • Thanks, for sharing your adventure, however adverse. Your reports are inspiring. Glad you are fareing better.

  • Sounds very unpleasant and must have taken the shine off the crossing. Good copy though . Glad you are on the mend now and hope you can enjoy the rest of the cruise.

  • John I hope your keeping well. I buy the plant minerals after reading your book in a bulk order I haven’t received any recently since Autumn time last year 2021. all mine are the usual yellow/brown colour it’s brilliant I swear by it as it has been a game changer for both my husband and myself. When I next order I will make sure I mention your problem and check it’s not the white stuff. Thank you for bringing it to our attention. Safe travels and keep safe. Regards Jim and Joyce

  • Hi John ,

    Glad to see you have done your crossing .
    Regarding your supplement , I have been taking it for a few months now and no spectacular improvements on my health ! But it is going a bit better .
    Anyway , I do remark that I received a monthly one couple of months ago which does not look like the previous one ! It was more whitish !! Instead of a more yellowish !
    So , who know ? You talk of a brownish Color ? What do you mean exactly by that ?
    Me I would describe it more as a light ocher !
    Anyway , take care and wait to read more of your sailing .
    Alain

  • Please let me know what this powder is, I could certainly do with some! A really great story, as usual.

  • Me thinks I will be placing an order for the Brown stuff JP. Stay as safe as lone sailing permits.

  • Well that’s interesting John. On your advice and recommendation I ordered this product some time ago, took it for a couple of months or so but noticed zero positive or in fact any effect. It was definitely a white rather than brown powder! It’s probably a bit late in the day to look for recompense or a supply of the proper stuff [I chucked the rest of it out – and cursed you for a knave and a vagabond] and it’s not cheap. Great shame.

  • Wow! Scary experience. I can only assume you are waiting to discover the efficacy of the usual stuff, being light brown, before disclosing what it is and how to order it. The fact that the formulation had been adulterated does not inspire confidence in the company’s quality control. Are you now taking the “right stuff” and off the antibiotics? How’s your arm?

    • Awaiting the package of brown stuff. Yes, it does not fill one with confidence in the company (in 2017, they reduced the content from 600mg down to 100mg without telling anyone – the full story of that debacle is in the documents I send to interested parties). On the other hand, it does restore confidence in the brown stuff. What they’ve been playing at, I just don’t know.

  • Dear John,
    I am pleased to hear you have got better. I suspect it was your body that fought off the infection rather than the supplements. Most people on a normal diet do not need supplements and taking too much of some supplements can be harmful. Some alternative medicines from the Far East contain dangerous ingredients – but patients feel better until they get side effects!
    Glad you got yourself checked out by a doctor afterwards anyway. Doctors would far rather help at an earlier stage if they can, than at a late stage. We’re here to help, you are not ‘troubling us’

    Best wishes,
    Monty (Trauma & Orthopaedic Surgeon, with interest in musculoskeletal infection)

Rowing

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.

    Thanks

  • 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.

    Cheers
    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 you.safe 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.

Fixers

 


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.

Invaders

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: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Old-Man-Sailing-dreams-lifetime/dp/B08TQ9KV48

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

    Lorraine

  • 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).