Sunset over the anchorage at Playa Blanca – and it’s still 26°C in the cabin

Every year up until now, October has been the turning point. Time to start making my way home for Christmas – three months holed up in the Walton Backwaters with the seals and the geese, slowly poisoning myself with carbon monoxide as the charcoal heater leaked more and more smoke into the cabin.

Out would come the long underwear, the winter-weight sleeping bag – until, sometime around January, I would put the winter one inside the summer one … and still not take off the long underwear.

Maybe you don’t wish to know this. Anyway, this October, I am anchored off Playa Blanca in Lanzarote. The temperature in the cabin is 30°C, but with the breeze blowing through the open hatches, it’s cooler than the cockpit. Anyway, you can’t read a laptop screen in that kind of sunlight. Also, there’s enough sun and wind to keep the cheap little fridge going 24hours a day. Before lunch, I had a beer that was every bit as cold as it would have been ashore in the Sailors’ Bar.

Of course, things didn’t start out like this. My first attempt at leaving Falmouth lasted just 90 minutes. That was how long it took to realise that all the freshwater had leaked into the bilges where the automatic pump dumped it with the utmost efficiency straight over the side.

I considered carrying on, reasoning that I had enough water in bottles, beer in cans and the liquid content of tinned food to keep me going for three weeks. All the same, it wasn’t sensible. Also, it was easy to go back.

Anyway, one of the gas burners had packed up – not a disaster, but if I needed a gas engineer, Falmouth was the place to find one, not the Bay of Biscay.

As it happened, no sooner had I dropped the sails than the engine overheated. Abandoning this trip was turning out to be an excellent decision. So I sailed to within ten metres of the Falmouth Haven Marina pontoon and then motored for the ten seconds it took to reach the berth – and still the alarm went off.

Falmouth Marine Services came out that very afternoon and left me overnight with a heat exchanger full of neat descaler – whenever I had used this powerful acid, I diluted it as per the instructions. But then instructions are written for wimps. The next morning, the water flowed where it should.

The gas problem turned out to be a simple matter too. I managed to fix that myself (oh, alright then, the Facebook community told me what to do).

The water was another matter. Over the next three days, I made five excursions to the out-of-town trading estate at Penryn, home of Screwfix and B&Q. According to Google Maps, it is 2.5 miles on a bicycle. But I wasn’t on a bicycle. Half the time, I was pushing the bicycle uphill. The trip took 50 minutes (only 20 coming back, though).

Each time I made it, panting, to the top of the hill, I thought this would be the last. But, after the new components didn’t fit or weren’t compatible with the old ones or just dripped for no apparent reason, I had to cheer myself up by going out for dinner – something that should be a reward for getting it right.

By the time I had two water tanks that didn’t leak separated by an isolation valve that didn’t leak either, I was so pleased with myself, I went out to dinner again – to celebrate.

Finally, on the Friday (I’ve given up being superstitious), I completed the new Brexit paperwork a second time and headed out past Black Rock feeling that, at last, the adventure had begun.

I was a bit premature with this. After four days, here is a list of what didn’t work:

  1. The heat exchanger: Although it had been fine after its dose of descaler, evidently another little crab had crawled out of its home in a corner of the water jacket to block another tiny channel.
  2. The water-driven generator. Despite its new bearings, this refused to turn until the boat was doing five knots and, even then, didn’t charge.

Of course, that might have had something to do with…

  1. The solar panel failed to charge the battery. This goes through a regulator which also deals with the water-driven generator. The panel was certainly generating electricity – yet, even when I connected it to the wind generator’s completely separate regulator, nothing reached the batteries.

The worst of it was that all of these things exacerbated each other to produce an electrical crisis: My sole means of charging was now the wind generator which, of course, is least efficient when sailing downwind – which is what I hoped to be doing for the next thousand miles.

I went round the boat switching things off. I didn’t need the VHF – there would be no fishing boats out here. That was 0.2 amps. The instruments could go too – another 0.2 amps. I could always switch them on when I needed to look at them.

I discovered that the autopilot on standby still consumed 0.1amps – what a waste! I could turn off the AIS and the GPS because I was the best part of 200 miles from land, and so pilotage was hardly a concern – and as for being run over by a supertanker; well, I could keep a lookout – I should be doing that anyway.

I did switch on the masthead tricolour when it got really dark. This uses 0.2amps. Was it really necessary? I was well out of the shipping lanes since I was heading for an arbitrary point in the ocean 150 miles west of Finisterre, and I couldn’t think why anyone else would want to go there. Besides, a ship ought to pick me up on radar. The tricolour would be just to confirm I was a sailing boat – and I have noticed that ships in the open sea avoid me by at least a mile.

The switch panel looked very strange with only one clothes peg on it.

You may think that clothes pegs on a switch panel would look odd anyway, but I use them to show me what I need to turn off sometime.

At this point, I felt some sympathy for Tom Hanks and his crew in Apollo 13 when they’re trying to get back to earth on battery power that wouldn’t run a coffee percolator.

Anyway, I only needed to spend one night stumping around the boat saying: “Failure is Not an Option”. After breakfast, when the neat descaler had had its 24 hours in the heat exchanger, I started the engine and delighted in the sight of water pouring out of the exhaust. Also, now the batteries had drained all night, the solar panel found the oomph to charge them – so I wouldn’t need the water-driven gizmo anyway.

And finally, after a week of what I had calculated to be a two-week passage, the Portuguese Trades kicked in. These are supposed to blow north to south down the Iberian peninsular. Sometimes they do. This time, they did.

It was my first experience of trade wind sailing – albeit without the flying fish (although I did pass a turtle going the wrong way). For seven days, I ran under twin headsails, the main furled on the boom. In all that time, I only touched the sheets once – and that was to reef. A couple of times a day, the course would need adjusting but apart from that, Samsara ploughed along in a welter of foam reeling off, on one occasion, my best day’s run ever – 155miles distance made good.

I read, I ate, I listened to my 47hours of Spotify playlist – which, thanks to the fancy new phone, would actually play for 47 hours instead of stopping inexplicably in the middle of every third chorus.

And every day, it got warmer. By the time I had reached the latitude of Casablanca, I had stopped worrying. I was starting to enjoy myself.

***Track the old man at:

6 Responses to Adjusting

Cats and the cost of insurance

This is a story about the eighth wonder of the world – and , in the process, a lesson on how to get afloat on a budget.

Years ago, when the children were small, we gave a home to two kittens – a black one and a ginger one. We called them Treacle and Custard (what else?)

Being responsible pet owners, we had them vaccinated and microchipped. Next, we looked at pet insurance. It would cost £15 a month for the two of them – and that was only up to a certain age. Once they reached the stage of “old cat” ailments, the premiums would shoot up.

Instead, we opened a building society account and set up a standing order for £15 a month. They were never ill, and we never had to call on the “Cat Account”. In due course, Treacle was run over, and Custard simply disappeared. They were old. It was sad. But the children were teenagers, and by now, we had a dog. We got another pair of cats, too – and a hamster and two bearded dragons called Norbert and Kreetcha… and the rest….

It must have been ten years later when Lottie’s rabbit fell ill, as rabbits tend to. It was a weekend which meant the vet was on emergency rates. The bill, when it arrived, was something like £350, and the Thumper died anyway. The cats, of course, had never had a day’s illness in their lives, so it was decided they should bequeath some of their fortune to the cost of the dead rabbit’s treatment.

I had not paid much attention to the Cat Account over the years. Certainly, I had no idea how much was in it until I went into the Building Society with the passbook. This was the first indication of how long this story had taken to play out: The girl behind the counter had never seen a passbook. It was all cards now.

Never mind, the manager showed her how to print the transactions into the little book – and then, when it was full, to issue a new one – and then another when that one got filled up… and then a third…

The total, after something like 16 years years of £15 a month and the magic of compound interest, was somewhere north of £3,500. The cats had never seen a penny of it.

And that, as any financier will tell you, is the eighth wonder of the world – compound interest.

So what has all this to do with OldManSailing?

I am writing this from Lanzarote, the most northerly of the Canary Islands. If I go any further south, I shall be below 28°N – which means I needed to call the insurance company  to increase my insured cruising area. I called to tell them I was heading further south – The other Canary Islands, the Cape Verdes, Caribbean – all that.

They came back with a package that stretched from the Dardanelles to the Gulf of St Lawrence.

“And how many crew?” asked the sales associate.

“No crew.” I told her. “Just me.”

“Ah, but we can’t insure you for singlehanded…”

This did not come as a surprise. I had heard that new customers were being limited to 24-hour passages if they were on their own – even in UK waters . After more than 30 years, they seemed to accept me as a special case.  But even so, the premiums were going up and up.

All over Facebook, singlehanders were grumbling. How were they supposed to get anywhere if they had to keep stopping every 24 hours? Anyone would think they were driving heavy goods vehicles…

I can understand an insurer wanting to see a survey (despite my very low opinion of yacht surveyors) but look where the trend is leading: In the USA, insurance companies have started refusing cover for any boat more than 25 years old.

Think about it: They are assuming that a heavily-built and well-maintained yacht from the 1960s, cruised extensively by an experienced couple is somehow a greater risk than something mass-produced in a factory miles from the sea and then bought and sold through a succession of indifferent owners who kept it in marinas, unused, while running a maintenance schedule limited to not much more than antifouling every year.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Insuring the boat – what they call “hull insurance” – or, as the motor trade would put it: “Comprehensive insurance.”

If you go for just third party and wreck removal, everything gets much simpler and a whole lot cheaper.

That was why, last year, I took the plunge and cancelled the hull insurance. It was a big decision – like not wearing a harness all the time. If I lost the boat, nobody would give me a cheque to buy another. If I was dismasted or struck by lightning, I would have to bear the cost of repair myself.

How much I will be able to afford depends on how soon this happens. You see, instead of hull insurance, I now have a “Cat Account”. If it happens this year, I will be looking for a very cheap boat indeed and a very short wish list for her. But don’t forget that Shane Acton went round the world in an 18ft Caprice…

On the other hand, if I get away with it for 16 years like Treacle and Custard, then maybe I won’t have to paint the deck anymore.

But then, I was lucky. If instead of falling in love with a £14,000 boat, I had set my heart on a ten-year-old 40ft steel cutter, costing £80,000, I wouldn’t be able risk this option.

One other thing: Just as not wearing a harness makes the singlehander very careful on the foredeck, so “cat insurance” concentrates the mind on setting the anchor properly and giving a decent berth to that lee shore…

3 Responses to Cats and the cost of insurance

  • I reconise what you say. I had been with a liverpool based ins co 30 years no survey needed then last year they want a full survey. I had to shop around.
    I actually got insurance fully comp for half the price i paid with …jm insurance but with restriction like no more sailing than 24 hrs single handed and any claim made single handed 25% off the value of the claim on top of excess.
    Third party was half the price of fully comp about 60% .
    My motto is its better to have insurance than not having it as long as it does not have too many restrictions and not too costly.
    Insurance companies can vary but i think many small yacht owners are becoming more concerned about the risks involved of an insurance company not paying out! than they are concerned with the risks of actually sailing.

  • Makes sense. As Treacle and Custard had nine lives I trust you will too. Safe passage and keep writing.

  • There’s more than a smidgen of sense here. ‘Tis pity thee and me are both a tad ‘old curmudgeons’, otherwise I’d be tempted to go share a beer or three with ‘e….


The one thing that really frightens me – more than the prospect of hitting the container; worse than having the Orcas take a bit out of my rudder, more pressing than being attacked by pirates – is lightning.

You can avoid Gibraltar and the Red Sea – and as for finding that container some dark night … well, if you’re going to worry about that, you’d better not go offshore at all.

But to be in the middle of an ocean with bolts of lightning cracking and spitting and smacking the sea all around you – is to discover in the most powerful terms just how small and insignificant you really are.

And it scares the living daylights out of me.

Consequently, rather like the obsessive who immerses himself in conspiracy theories, I have been spending hours trawling the internet, trying to find a way of avoiding this.

The research has not been encouraging. For instance, did you know that in Florida, the insurance industry calculates the risk of a sailing boat being struck by lightning is 3.3 in 1,000?

Never mind, I have decided Florida is off-limits too.

Meanwhile, it was time to look into lightning protection devices – particularly those wire brush affairs people stick on the tops of their masts. They cost around £200, and nobody seems to know whether they work – certainly, the manufacturers make no such claims, preferring instead to waffle about the “point discharge principle”.

I did find one company that would fit their gadget “at least two metres” above the highest point of my vessel and then connect it to a web of copper bonded to the bottom – all of which was going to cost more than the boat.

Another search came up with the statistic that I am more likely to be struck by lightning on a golf course. Still, if there is nothing I can do to prevent it, maybe I had better get ready for when it does happen.

Apart from the little matter of blowing out all the seacocks (I bought a large foam plug),  the main concern seemed to be melted electrics: Once the batteries and the alternator are gone, it doesn’t much matter what’s happened to the VHF, AIS, GPS  and so on.

However, boats today are rattling with portable devices. It seems like boasting, but aboard Samsara, I have two old mobile phones still loaded with Navionics charts, quite apart from the new one with the super camera – and that’s without counting the tablet.

All of which could survive in a Faraday Cage.

You need to know about this. This is wonderful. Apparently, in between inventing electrolysis and electro-magnetism, Michael Faraday discovered that a container made from wire mesh or metal plates will shield its contents from electromagnetic forces.

At the first sign of a thunderstorm, I could put all my portable devices inside a Faraday cage. Then, even if everything else had melted, I would still have rechargeable lights, my hand-held vhf and – most importantly – four devices running Navionics.

OK, so the purists will say I should have paper charts and a sextant. But consider the cost of paper charts for a cruising area that is getting bigger every year. Then there are the tables to stow – and the book on how to work out the sights, since it is nearly forty years since I last had to do it.

Compare that to five portable devices giving my position to three decimal places and enough charts to take me a quarter of the way round the world.

Of course, none of them will be any good once the batteries are flat, so the next item on the emergency list had to be a folding solar panel.

As for the cage itself, traditionally this is the oven but mine has a glass door, so doesn’t count. I looked up “Faraday Cage” on Amazon and discovered that they sell them (of course they do), but it is only big enough for car keys. Apparently up-to-date car thieves scan the electronic codes through your front door and then take the BMW off the drive.

So mine is a steel biscuit tin; big enough for everything – and maybe, even a packet of digestives to go with the cup of tea when all the fuss is over.

Of course, there may be another world war and somebody might shoot down all the GPS satellites, so I have a book called “Emergency Navigation” tucked away behind “Caribbean Pssagemaking”. This is full of advice about floating an iron rod in a bowl of water to find North and how to make a shadow board to measure solar time. I haven’t opened it.

I don’t suppose I’ll ever open it – because, right at the end of all this research – almost as an after-thought, I discovered there is, after all, a proven protection against lightning strikes.

It’s true. No yacht, anywhere in the world, has ever been struck by lightning if she had a Lego man stuck to the top of the mast.

Really, it has never happened. It must be true because I read it on the internet.

Ergo, as Mr Faraday would have said, if I were to stick a Lego man on the top of my mast, I would be on the right side of the statistics.

I went to some trouble over this. Whilst I could find no definitive answer to the question of which figure was best (a fireman, perhaps or a superhero?) I opted for a pirate with the boat’s name on his jumper.

Also, I did make sure he was facing to starboard – that is most important. How foolish would it be to become a statistic because the Lego man was looking the wrong way?

3 Responses to Lightning

  • I’ve just read your book – fantastic. I find myself in a similar boat both figuratively and literally although about 8 years behind you. Please forward the info on your supplement.

  • Thank goodness you found the solution John and thank you for sharing it with us. I’ll install one next time I’m up the mast.

    Given your publication, I assume you have arrived somewhere. Well done. Where?;Hope the passage went well.

    • Thank you. Lovely trip – twin headsails for the second week and only touched the sheets once. Best ever day’s run of 155 miles made good. Real Trade Wind sailing.




Yarmouth in the old days


Yarmouth today


You never forget your first love  – or first job, first car… or the first time you got drunk.

For me, it was in Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, Saturday night, October 24th, 1964.

Yes, that is very precise; for which I must thank my mother, who kept a meticulous sailing diary. I browsed through this recently – and, just as we all yield to the compulsion to look up old flames on Facebook, I was gripped by the desire to return to Yarmouth for a pint  (just the one) in the Wheatsheaf.

There was really no other reason to turn right after Hurst narrows – after all, there is a perfectly good anchorage under the castle.

But, in between the Facebook memories, I had been following the outrage at Solent marina prices – and Yarmouth, apparently, is not far behind Beaulieu.

But then a lot has changed in Yarmouth since the 60s.

We had a Sterling in those days – the forerunner of Kim Holman’s Twister – and marinas were not even a twinkle in a developer’s eye. Instead, there were rows and rows of trots and miles of miles of mooring warps to cause endless fun when the boat on inside wanted to leave.

The harbourmaster paddled about in a beautiful varnished rowing boat with impossibly long oars. He never appeared to do any actual rowing but with a pull on one oar or the other, he would spin and hover and ferry-glide to greet his visitors.

I have a notion my father called him “Charlie” while Charlie called Father “Sir” – which was the way things were done in 1964. If Charlie hadn’t been occupied with his oars, I am sure he would have doffed his ancient white-topped cap.

Charlie told you where to go and it was up to you to make the best of it – always with an eye to extricating yourself when the time came to leave. I am sure there were some diffident skippers who berthed on the windward side of the trot and then simply stayed for as long as it took to work their way over to the lee side. It didn’t help that in those days every third boat had a bowsprit.

Now, it’s all different. Now, the whole harbour is filled with the most enormous marina. Of course, there are bigger marinas in the Solent – at Haslar they need a golf cart to rattle around the pontoons checking who’s overstayed. But Yarmouth Harbour is still the same size so I suppose the marina there just seems bigger.

Also, Charlie and his rowing boat have gone. Instead, you call on VHF before entering (nobody had VHF in 1964) and a dory with a big outboard and a man in a baseball cap comes to meet you. Later, I learned there are three of these dories and they don’t just tell you where to go but accompany you, like a tug, to make sure you can get there – particularly if you have neglected the advice to have lines and fenders rigged ready on both sides.

It was while I was sorting out these and quietly drifting sideways that I felt a gentle nudge. The dory had pressed its well-padded bow against mine to straighten me out. It was like having a bow-thruster.

But to return to the story: A Sterling was 28ft – a big boat in those days and, since I was still only 15, my parents felt the need for a bit more muscle on the foredeck. For this, they enjoyed an apparently endless supply of medical students – courtesy of their good friend, the Professor of Rheumatology at the London Hospital.

On this occasion, the volunteer was one Ian Marsh. These days he is probably a respected and retired professor himself and might prefer not to be reminded of what follows (in which case he should stop reading now).

It was after dinner aboard that the future Dr. Marsh suggested we all go ashore. My parents, innocents that they were, saw nothing wrong in this respectable young man taking their 15-year-old to see the sights – after all, he was practically a doctor…

I, on the other hand, had read Doctor in the House and had an inkling of what kind of “sights” these might be. Sure enough, my guide had been to Yarmouth before and was familiar with its quite astonishing number of pubs. As I rowed him in the squishy black Avon Redstart, he announced that we would visit each in turn.

I don’t remember much about it beyond making a great many lifelong friends among the locals whose names I don’t recall now (let’s be honest, I couldn’t recall them the next morning). Certainly, I don’t remember the trip back to the boat or trying to creep aboard without waking the parents.

It turned out we needn’t have worried because while I slept the sleep of the dead (drunk), the future Dr. Marsh crashed about at two o’clock in the morning, stumbling into the cockpit to be sick over the side. Mother said it must have been the tinned salmon.

Restored by a huge fried breakfast, he next announced that we should cut a dash by sailing off the trot and gybing round under headsail. It would be the easiest thing in the world, he said.

My father, never one to refuse a dare, seized on this daft idea. Remember what I said about all those bowsprits? Within half a minute of casting off, I had one foot on someone else’s foredeck and was clawing the headsail down while everyone else gathered in the cockpit to throw warps – all of which landed in the water.

In the end, Charlie wafted over to deliver one of them to a boat on the next trot – something he did without comment. Eventually, we were extricated backwards and without cutting a dash of any sort.

I don’t suppose anybody but me remembers it but still, I was anxious that nothing of the kind should occur this time. Indeed, I stopped the boat an inch from the pontoon and skipped over the side, lines in hand, without so much as a cautious foot on the rail. I certainly didn’t need any thrusting.

Also, I really did have only one pint in the Wheatsheaf – memories of Tobermory are still tender (see “Scotland”, July 15th).

The future Dr Marsh – and my father (who never could refuse a dare).

6 Responses to Yarmouth

  • I have great memories exploring the harbour and helping out Charlie ( or at least I thought I was at the age of 10 !) my memories were that he always sculled his varnished clinker dingy.
    His friendship led me to traditional boat building in later years.

  • Always Enjoyable reading your stories – most entertaining ! Loved reading your book by the way

  • Wonderful. John. We must swap Bowsprit stories in Falmouth.

  • Those were the days. Is it much better now, I am not so sure it is. Once again an interesting story.

  • Good story, glad you are ok.

The Mini Voyage

The mini-break is a great idea: A three-day weekend: All the excitement and relaxation of a holiday without having to give up any holiday time. Bridget Jones lived for the mini-break.

You can have a mini-voyage too. Anyone who wants the experience of an ocean crossing without upsetting the boss or disappointing the family has only to think small.

I was in the mood for thinking small after getting falling-down drunk over the seafood platter in Tobermory (and actually falling down).

The resulting dislocated shoulder meant that the following morning, instead of scooting south behind the spinnaker, I was having trouble lifting the kettle.

In fact, it was a full two days before the arm showed any signs of being useful again – and by that time, the wind had gone.

This was serious. I had to be back home for a family party. Naturally, I could jump on a train from just about anywhere – but that gets expensive if you start from an island in the Hebrides (even with a Senior Railcard).

Day after day, the Windy app showed the route south in a sort of wishy-washy blue with tiny arrows wandering aimlessly. I’d be fine if I were to set off for the Azores. There was plenty of wind down the West coast of Ireland. But I couldn’t start the grand voyage yet – I’d overstay my 90 days’ EU allowance (thank you, Brexit).

On the other hand, looking at the daily charts, there was something to be said for the outside route: As long as I made for a point 100 miles off Erris Head, I should carry the wind all the way – even if it did add an extra 200 miles to the route for Falmouth. I could still be there in a week.

I made an expedition to the Co-op for fresh supplies, topped up with a can of water and left after lunch.

By dusk, I had managed 15miles.

That’s the way it is with voyages – if you have 700 miles to go, there’s no point in starting the engine on day one.

Conversely, there is no point in spending the night becalmed off the coast, staying up to look for fishing boats and ferries, when you can anchor just about anywhere in the Hebrides and sleep through the night.

And sure enough, by mid-morning the next day, the wind had filled in, the spinnaker grabbed it with both hands, and we were off on a course which, if continued for long enough, would indeed take us all the way to the Café Sport and a litre of ice-cold Sagres.

But I’ll be doing that in September. For now, I was heading for a little chequered flag on the screen marking a completely arbitrary patch of Atlantic, which – according to the Windy app – was the nearest point to the coast still boasting a “green” wind. Green is between ten and twenty knots. Green is what you want – green from the right direction is even better.

And it was. Of course, I lost the twice-daily updates as soon as the mobile signal dropped out southwest of Tiree. But isn’t that all part of a voyage? If you get Windy updates, you also get emails and Facebook loons and bank statements.

Instead, I sat in the cockpit and tried to take photographs whales. There was a small pod of them – no more than six or eight. They had the same blunt heads as pilot whales, but these swam independently instead of bunching together. Also, they were bigger – getting on for ten metres in length – and they kept their distance, not like the dolphins who swim around the bow and criss-cross under the boat. I decided I need a better phone – one with a decent telephoto lens.

I started reading Robin Knox-Johnston’s  A World Of My Own about his 1968 first non-stop circumnavigation – anyone’s first non-stop circumnavigation. It must have been more than 40 years since I last read it, and I was surprised to find that, out of the shipping lanes, he would sleep for as long as he pleased. On one occasion, he was worried that he had slept for 18 hours and missed Christmas Day!

This was interesting because, although the shoulder seemed to be healing, it ached terribly when I lay still. I knew this to be normal because, as always when something goes wrong, I had doubled the daily helping of my food supplement. When I did the same after spraining my ankle skiing, the pain woke me in the middle of the night. I presumed this must have been the soft tissue repairing itself because, in the morning, everything was back to normal.

However, on that occasion, I didn’t have an alarm waking me every half-hour. What with that and the throbbing shoulder keeping me awake for the first 29 minutes, the look-out system wasn’t working.

What would Knox-Johnston do? As I sailed farther and farther out to sea, the coastal traffic disappeared. Would it really matter if I slept for longer? The way I looked saw it, if the boat needed attention, she would wake me soon enough.

And so the sun shone, the spinnaker floated in its element, swaying gently from side to side, and the bow wave roared as the miles ticked down to that chequered flag while I slept the sleep of the afflicted (if not the just).

I am always disappointed to arrive and find that there’s no flag at the waypoint – just a limitless expanse of sea. Nevertheless, I doused the sail and turned Samsara’s head to Valentia on a brisk reach. Every three hours, the coastguard broadcast confirmed this wise decision: As predicted, there was still no wind in the Irish Sea.

There was no wind off the south of Ireland either. Look on the bright side: These were just the conditions I needed for sea-trialling the new auxiliary.

I think I have written before about my frustration without outboard motors. Back in the 1980s, when I had my previous Rival, Largo, I carried a little Suzuki 2-stroke and swung it around in one hand. To see me then, you would think it weighed no more than a loaf of French bread for a picnic.

When I bought Samsara, I set out to find another little Suzuki 2-stroke – not easy since they don’t make them anymore because of the emissions. But I didn’t want a 4-stroke. You can’t swing one of those about in one hand – partly because they weigh half as much again but mostly because if you happen to tip it upside down, all the oil leaks into the cylinder.

But the 2-storke was fine. Until it stopped working. There was always a good reason for this – as a variety of mechanics explained to me while proffering their credit card machines.

What I needed was an outboard that I could lift in one hand and which would never go wrong. What I needed was an electric outboard. No maintenance, no fuel, no emissions, no noise…

For £150 I bought what the Chinese manufacturer called a “trolling motor”. Admittedly, it didn’t go as fast as its petrol cousin, but it would push me in the little dinghy against a 20kt headwind and a harbour chop, and it would run for an hour or more if I reminded myself I wasn’t in a hurry and was sparing with top gear.

Better still, it would push Samsara in a calm – well, I presumed it would. Think about it: You can move a 10metre boat with one hand in calm water. Surely an electric outboard should get her going at half a knot.

All I had to do was find a way of fixing the motor to the boat.

This was my solution:

Yes, Heath Robinson would be proud of me. The old outboard bracket has been cannibalised with the addition of a couple of fenders to make a tiny catamaran which, secured alongside, tows the mothership rather in the manner of the yard workboat bringing her in for a haul-out.

It worked. The prototype needed a bit of adjusting for lateral torsion but it succeeded in pushing Samsara through a flat calm at more than half a knot.

For about half an hour. I think it was the jump leads that killed the idea: Getting the battery power from under the navigator’s seat up into the cockpit, over the side and down to the waterline called for 3metre jump leads. Even with the 80W solar panel on the stern gantry and the 150W collapsible array spread out on the foredeck, the voltage dropped like a barometer in hurricane season.

Still, it got me past one of the Skerries, and eventually, as always happens, the wind returned to blow us across the Celtic Sea to Falmouth.


That is to say; the wind was directly astern. By the time it reached Force 5, we were bowling down the Atlantic rollers goose-winged and reefed with everything strapped down tight.

Except for me.

I had to keep popping up every 20 minutes now we were back in amongst the traffic. Also, I had the aching shoulder to keep me awake.

I solved this by zipping myself tightly into my sleeping bag like a baby tucked snugly into its crib.

It’s not something I had thought about very much, but I did read somewhere that people who sleep on the streets should not zip up their sleeping bags because, if a bunch of drunks decide to have some fun with them, they will need to get out of bed and onto their feet fast.

It’s the same with people sleeping on boats with the wind behind them.

My first sensation was that I was no longer on the downhill side. The boat must have gybed. The mainsail, now backed but pinned to windward by its preventer, caused me to slide slowly but inexorably off the bunk.

It was while I was working out where my hands had got to, which of them could be moved and where the zip of the sleeping bag was hiding, that I fell directly onto the hard edge of the windward berth (now the leeward berth), hitting it – as you might have guessed – with my injured shoulder.

It was while I was lying on the floor whimpering and still trussed up like an eBay parcel that the thought came to me that nobody else was going to rescue the boat. It was just as well I was up to here with Knox-Johnston.

Yet, this was exactly what singlehanded voyaging is all about: The communing with the wilderness, the teaspoonful of philosophy, the frustrations and occasional interludes of euphoria – and, of course, the pain and the moments of sheer terror.

In eight and a half days, I experienced it all – and all without the carrots finding the time to go black.

5 Responses to The Mini Voyage

  • John, if you are still anchored behind Hurst, look behind you (towards the castle) last time we were this close was in Baltimore, 2019. Regards John, Sv Sancerre

  • I love reading this blog John, ever since I read your lockdown escape book. I fancy trying that fender auxilliary propulsion system, I have a Honda 2.3 hp though so may need some very large fenders for buoyancy!! Looking forward to the next post.

  • Hope you are on the road to recovery now John.

  • Thanks John, I love these blogs as I did your book. As safety boat helm for a south Devon sailing club, but someone with very minimal sailing experience, I am enthused by your adventures to learn to sail myself.

  • Once again a most entertaining story of what sailing really is, unpredictable, but fun. Thanks again for this most amusing blog.


Welcome to The Minch

I suspect it’s an age thing, this urge to complete abandoned projects – to leave nothing undone…

I am back in Scotland and busy ticking things off the list as if I was in B&Q and about start on the bathroom.

To begin with, there were the Shetland Islands.

Of course, I had been here before – but only in an air-sea rescue helicopter which doesn’t really count. If you want to know what I was doing in an air-sea rescue helicopter, the whole sorry story is in the book. In fact, it takes up the whole of chapter five and gets worse as it goes along.

Also, last year, I spent 36 hours drifting around off Balta Sound feeding Pringles to a gaggle of seabirds as we washed up and down with the tide, totally becalmed.

So this time, I anchored and went to see the tiny and much-revered boat museum. The Shetland Islanders live very much in harmony with the sea, so it was a particularly cruel trick of nature to award them a weather system which ensured they had no wood to build boats. Trees here tend to blow over long before they grow big enough to cut down.

Shetland Boat Museum

So the islanders traded with the Vikings – wool for boats – and the Vikings delivered miniature versions of their longships stacked like soup bowls and only needing the thwarts to be fitted – thus establishing the well-known Scandinavian tradition of flat-packed deliveries. It is not known whether their 8th-century customers found the instructions incomprehensible and lost the screws.

Anyway, it turned out that the museum wasn’t actually in Balta at all but a couple of miles away in the next bay. I set out to walk – and just as well I did. Otherwise, I would have missed the UK’s most entertaining bus stop – not to mention the most northerly pub in the British Isles.

Nobody is quite sure who started improving the bus stop but bit by bit the locals have added a chair, a television (it doesn’t work, there’s no electricity) a library, chest of drawers, decorations and a dolls’ house which, on closer inspection, contains all kinds of cakes and pastries for sale by honesty box (it can be a long wait for a bus up here).

The Bus Stop at Balta

As for the pub; how could I turn down a pint in the “most northerly pub in the British Isles”? They don’t mention this but the Balta Light might also be the ugliest.

The most northerly pub, The Balta Light – ugly?

The most northerly fish and chip shop is at Busta Voe, on the other side of the most northerly headland, the Muckle Flugga (don’t you just love the names?).

Frankie’s is no ordinary “chipper”. It is a tourist destination – not just because of its position but because this is a chip shop like no other. Established 13 years ago by the Johnsons who started just about everything else in Busta Voe, from the garage and shop, to the bus service and hotel; and given the plentiful supply of seafood up here, they added mussels and scallops to the menu alongside the haddock.

I stayed two days so I could have both the pan-fried and then the battered scallops as well as the mussels with sweet chili sauce and then, the following day, à la mariniere. My enthusiasm was entirely wasted on the new proprietor, a dour man named Mark (there is no Frankie – that was the Johnson’s dog). Mark felt the menu was too extensive already. He was stuck with it because of the tourists.

He got his own back by refusing my offer of corkage if he would allow me to open a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc with the mussels. Ginger beer in a can was what I got.

Scallops and chips at Frankies

Then there was Suilven. You might remember Suilven, the astonishing mountain that looks just like a pepperpot and which I found myself walking towards last year. Indeed, I walked towards it for two hours without appearing to get any closer. It was only on the way back that a man in the car park told me it was an eight-hour trip, up and down. I resolved to return.


And return I did, anchoring in Loch Inver and setting off at eight in the morning with my walking poles and sandwiches. Just follow the track, the man in the carpark had said.

He didn’t say anything about a fork in the track. But that’s what there was – with a little cairn to mark it (a signpost would have been more useful).

Of course I took the wrong fork and ended up an hour later, having got well into the foothills of the wrong mountain and then, on the way down, falling into a bog.

I say “falling”. Actually what happened is that one walking pole disappeared up to the hilt, I pitched forward and my foot disappeared too, filling the boot with black and foul-smelling goo.

I returned to base camp; resolving, like Hilary, to try again.

The second attempt went like clockwork. I met another man who, this time, gave me precise instructions and sure enough, under a clear blue sky and with limitless visibility, I sat at the top of Suilven, leaned my back against a rock conveniently shaped just like an armchair, and marvelled at one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen.

At my feet was a landscape filled with more lochs than the Sassenach mind can comfortably comprehend. Far in the distance – impossibly far, considering I had apparently walked it – was the sea loch where Samsara lay at anchor, a tiny speck of white amid the blue and green.

I must say, I felt rather good about having reached the summit. After all, the book did say this was a mountain for the “fit hill-walker” and the calendar does insist I am 72.

The view from the top – but it’s steep going up (and steeper going down if you miss your footing).

To celebrate, there would be lunch at Café Fish. This is in Tobermory – quite the most picturesque little town in the islands. Every day at four o’clock the café’s fishing boat lands its catch on the quay outside the front door. Two hours later it is on your plate. When I was here last autumn, they were closed, having just the one door and unable to accommodate social distancing.

I had promised myself the Plateau des Fruits de Mer (and, hopefully a bottle of Muscadet instead of ginger beer) but they were still only doing takeaways so it would have to be The Mishnish restaurant which runs a close second.

Now, those who have been paying attention might find a seafood lunch slightly suspect for someone who watched Seaspiracy on Netflix and gave 18 cans of sardines to a food bank.  But shellfish, apparently, is environmentally acceptable.

It was afterwards that the trouble started. I had been banking on the bottle of Muscadet and stowed a lifejacket in the dinghy (not good to be seen off with the headline: “Drowned OAP sailor was pissed”).

Seafood at the Mishnish (my undoing).

But when I rose from the table, somewhat unsteadily after three and a half hours, a very passable Sauvignon Blanc and you can’t very well finish a meal like that without a Drambuie, it seemed prudent to go for a walk in the woods before braving the dinghy.

Can you believe that the fit hill-walker, the man who conquered Suilven, managed to fall over and dislocate his shoulder?

I don’t know when I have felt anything more painful – except when I tried to move my arm and the joint snapped back into place with an audible click. I still can’t lift the kettle with my right hand.

So I am stuck here until it mends. If I can’t trust myself in the dinghy, I certainly can’t sail 500 miles to Falmouth.

Besides, Tobermory is very pretty and there are other restaurants…


11 Responses to Scotland

  • A very interesting blog, it sounds truly wonderful.
    I hope you are on the way to a full recovery.

  • Hope the shoulder heals soon John very entertaining read can related to the walking always want to the extra mile.

  • I’m aware there are the makings of an article on the ‘Seaside Distilleries of theWest Coast’ but possibly there’s an article in ‘Fish Restaurants I Have Known’. After all, you do have to pass Newlyn…. or ‘not pass’, if you get my drift. Padstein doesn’t count.

  • Crazy tales, love it!

  • Oh dear John, I hope it was not too much tea from the kettle that caused you to loose balance. I’ll be putting the Shetlands on my to do list, maybe next year???

  • Best wishes for a speedy and full recovery.

  • Bad luck indeed. How Geraint Thomas managed to have his shoulder reset at the roadside and rejoin the Tour de France I can hardly imagine after your description! Best wishes.

  • Wonderful photos – I really enjoy reading about your adventures. Hope the shoulder gets better soon

  • Another great episode… sorry to hear about your shoulder, but it’ll take care of itself and you’ll be as good as new!
    Outstanding scenery and sites… certainly on my bucket list as I wait here in Mexico for the travel restrictions to be lifted so I can get on with my adventure (like yours) and head to the UK in search of my ⛵

  • Another lovely tale John. Just completed a much shorter but probably hotter walk on Santa Maria. Not sure what dinner will consist of or where it will be but i suspect laziness will make it the yacht club bar in the Marina.The Shetlands do sound wonderful.

  • Great stuff John. Lovely to have seen you in Lerwick. Hope the shoulder knows its place and behaves. Geoff

Fair Isle



The Kirk

It is easy to miss Fair Isle. I was on the way from Lossiemouth in northeast Scotland to the Shetland Islands because I keep going round them, but the only time I ever landed was in a rescue helicopter (but that is another story).

The plotter was telling me I would arrive at 2300 – which didn’t matter because there would still be full daylight up at 590 56’N but on the other hand, if I put into Fair Isle, I could be snugged down for the night in time for dinner.

And why not? I wasn’t in a hurry, and the only time I had visited this small lump of rock between the Orkneys and the Shetlands had been in 2018, sheltering from a forecast Force 9 – and then the weather had been so foul, I didn’t go ashore.

So I tweaked the reins of the Aries and put into North Haven (South Haven is no haven at all). In the morning, with my walking boots and my walking poles, I set out to look at the place.

Fair Isle is a small island – a very small island. Also, it is Scotland’s most remote inhabited island. Less than three miles long, it is home to just 50 people. It was an hour before I saw any of them. I had to step off the road to let a car pass since all the roads are single track and with no more than a dozen cars, there’s not much call for passing places. Anyway, nobody goes very fast because the sheep roam free.

Sheep are a big thing on Fair Isle – where do you think all those Fair Isle sweaters come from?

I made for the lighthouse. It had been my first sighting of the island through the mist – and that was where life on a very small island began to reveal itself. There was a picture of Princess Anne visiting in 1998 to celebrate Automation Day – this was the last of all Scotland’s lighthouses to dispense with keepers.

It was progress, of course. But, as the adjacent plaque explained, Fair Isle had two lighthouses (the 19thCentury German Government was most insistent about that; it was their ships that kept getting wrecked). Anyway, these lighthouses necessitated a total of six keepers and, of course, their families. When they left, “such a fall in population was a great loss to the community”.

It makes you think. It certainly made me think as I wandered round the cemetery and found that an extraordinary proportion of the gravestones bore the name of Stout.

“Oh yes, there were lots of Stouts,” said Eileen Thomson, who showed me round the tiny museum in the old community hall. “In fact, the records show us that there were two families of Stouts each with five children and all the five siblings from one family married the five siblings from the other.”

Then she said: “But there weren’t related”.

Not related?

“Well, not closely.”

You don’t like to delve into these things too obviously, so it was a relief when she volunteered: “Well, when they researched the history of the island, I think they found there just weren’t enough grandparents to go round. But what could people do? It’s a small place.”

It certainly is. Her own grandfather was a lighthouse keeper who came from Unst in the Shetlands and married a local girl. But, can you imagine the culture shock for her own mother, a London meteorologist, who had to adapt to a life where there was no electricity unless you ran a cable to someone who had a generator.

Even when the island did get mains power, it was only from seven in the morning until eleven at night.  Now they have three wind turbines and a miniature solar farm next to the school. The combination of long daylight hours in the summer and more than enough wind in the winter makes running the washing machine cheaper than anywhere else in Britain.

But it does make for a close-knit community. When someone dies, every able-bodied man helps to dig the grave.

There was something else too – which I discovered walking the surprisingly long way back to the boat: Beside the road was a plaque describing the events of January 17TH 1941: A German weather reconnaissance plane, pursued by two Hurricanes crash-landed on the island. Three of the five-man crew survived and were met by a small group of islanders, led by George Stout, who made a citizen’s arrest.

An RAF rescue launch was sent to collect the prisoners but ran aground in South Haven (I told you about South Haven). So an armed trawler was sent from Orkney but that too ran aground in the same place.

Eventually, the Lerwick lifeboat finished the job – they knew what they were doing in these waters.

Of course, it didn’t stop the rest of the Luftwaffe attacking both lighthouses a number of times after that. Among the casualties, the wife of the keeper of the south lighthouse, machine-gunned at her kitchen sink.

It says a lot for the hospitality of this tiny place that, after war, the pilot of the crashed reconnaissance plane, one Karl-Heinz Thurz, returned twice to the island to see his old friends.

You could argue that it was the least he could do, since it was the Germans who wanted the lighthouses in the first place.

9 Responses to Fair Isle

The Confessional

The Confessional

OK, so this is what you do: You take two men, one very skinny, one very stout. You lay the skinny one down on the quayside and get the stout one to push him gradually over the edge.

When half of the skinny one is sticking out over the harbour, he will fold at the hips, his top half flopping down against the wall (at this point, it is important that the stout one stops pushing and, instead, hangs onto the skinny one’s feet for all he’s worth).

This will enable the skinny one to reach down under the water and untie the dinghy painter from the ladder – where they secured it before going to the pub.

And before the tide came in.

I know this is the correct procedure because, years ago, I read a careful explanation in The Confessional column of Yachting Monthly.

Moreover, the participants were none other than the editor himself, Andrew Bray (the thin one) and his deputy Geoff Pack (the stout one).

The fact that two such experienced yachtsmen should find themselves in this predicament gives all us lesser mortals a good deal of comfort.

All the same, I spent half an hour poring over the tide tables. This was an expedition, and it had to be planned accordingly.

The whole sorry business began as I sailed very slowly the six miles from Inner Farne Island to the mystical land of Lindisfarne. On the way, we passed Bamburgh Castle standing on the shore above those vast Northumbrian beaches and looking so imposing that it just cried out for a closer look.

Bamburgh Castle

Besides, I needed an expedition before the family walking weekend in the Peak District. I didn’t want the younger generation thinking I couldn’t keep up. Anyway, I had my new boots to break in. The 18-minute walk to the bus stop promised by Google Maps would be a good start.

All I had to do was be sure to return at the same state of the tide as when I left. In other words, before it rose above the point on the harbour ladder where I had secured the dinghy.

There is something else you need to know about an expedition from Lindisfarne; something pilgrims have known for more than a thousand years: It is an island. If you try to cross the causeway at the wrong time, the North Sea will come rushing in and sweep you away to a watery grave.

This doesn’t happen nowadays, of course. Now it’s just the cars that get swept away. The people scramble up a set of rickety steps to a wobbly-looking shelter and wait until the tide turns.

The causeway with its refuge for stranded pilgrims

That wasn’t going to happen to me. Along with the tide and bus timetables, I had consulted Northumberland County Council’s “safe crossing times” website.

Everything would have been fine if only Google Maps’ 18-minute walk hadn’t taken 2hrs 40mins. I think they had measured from the wrong end of the island.

Of course, this left me with a dilemma: Would I be back in time before the road disappeared? Would the tide come up and submerge the harbour ladder?

Or would Something Turn Up?

I am a great believer in Mr Micawber and his splendid philosophy. I pressed on, passing the Lindisfarne Inn and its “Bunkhouse” – presumably for stranded pilgrims.

Sure enough, just as I reached the main road, a bus pulled up. I ran for it.

Normally, I do not run for buses. My life these days is lived at a sedate pace. Running for anything is behind me. Actually, it is beyond me.

But this time, gasping and red in the face, rucksack with sandwiches bouncing on my back, I chased that bus as it pulled first into the service station, then to its designated bus stop – and finally, finding no-one waiting, away again and back to the main road.

And there it stopped. Anyone who has waited for a break in the traffic on the A1 will confirm this. The bus was stuck, edging forward, airbrakes hissing, nudging at the passing cars.

I pounded after it. People at the petrol pumps cheered me on. Small children ran alongside like pacemakers in a marathon. I was making an exhibition of myself – but surely someone would take pity and give me a lift…

They didn’t need to: Panting and spluttering, fumbling for my face-covering and my bus pass, I hauled myself aboard.

It was the wrong bus.

This was not apparent until we were on our way. They say the Northumbrian accent is the most impenetrable of all – and the more the driver tried to explain, the more excited he became and the less I could make out a single word.

Anyway, there was nothing I could do. We were heading for Newcastle.

Then something turned up. After half an hour, we stopped at a place called Belford where the driver and all the other passengers urged me to get off – at least I think that’s what they were saying.

It turned out that we were parked behind another bus – the one for Bamburgh.

Indeed, it is a wonderful castle. I wandered the state apartments. I saw the dungeons – the bottle-shaped doorway where horsemen could enter at the gallop. However, eating my sandwiches on the battlements, there came the nagging thought of that 2hr 40min walk back. Not only would the tide be coming in, but it turned out my new walking boots were a little on the large side, and now I had a blister the size of a sovereign.

So I left early, missing a visit to Grace Darling’s grave – Grace Darling, the Victorian lighthouse keeper’s daughter who rowed to the rescue of a Farne Island shipwreck and is buried in Bamburgh churchyard (her effigy clutching an oar).

The bus took me all the way to the service station – although, as we now know, that is a long way short of the jetty.

But wait: What more could turn up? Another bus stop. A bus to the island – one that I never thought to investigate because who needs a bus when you can walk it in 18minutes?

Of course, the only trouble was that, like everything else, the bus was limited to “safe crossing times”, which meant that the timetable had been contrived by a cryptic crossword enthusiast. There was a table of dates – each with a corresponding letter. The letters referred to a table of “safe crossing times”. If I decrypted it correctly, the bus would get to the jetty just in time for me to untie the knot before it disappeared underwater – providing I could find a stout person to hold my feet.

To be on the safe side, I stuck out my thumb. I had tried this on the outward journey – after all, it worked in France in 1967. But times had moved on – so did the traffic.

Once again, I trusted something to turn up; this time, a battered hatchback with an ex-merchant seaman. He had come to pick up his girlfriend because it looked like rain.

The sun kept shining, so he took me all the way.

With ten minutes to spare.

…and Lindisfarne Castle

8 Responses to The Confessional

  • I enjoyed that.

    On Friday the 3rd of September 1971 (the 18 year old me was careful to keep a log) my 13 year old sister and I were just pushing off from the bit of beach by the shelter at Woodbridge ferry dock – we were camping cruising in an 18ft half decked boat) – when a rather dapper elderly gentleman asked if we could put him aboard his dinghy, as the tide had covered his anchor.

    Maurice Griffiths had probably been careful to pick the two teenagers who hadn’t read the first chapter of “The Magic of the Swatchways” and wouldn’t recognise him.

    But we had…

  • WOW! What an adventureful day – so glad you made it back in time. Exceptional timing, one could say!

  • Lovely, My homeland. The Northumbrian dialect is “ similar” to Geordie with 17 letters of the alphabet replaced with “r” pronounced at the back of the throat.

  • Visited Northumberland recently walked most of the coast upto Bamburgh impressive sights.

  • John Passmore was the Daily Mail’s ‘writer’ for many years, jetting all over the world so that his prose could help that successful organ reach even more customers. In this piece about a visit to Bamburgh Castle it’s easy to see why the late newspaper supremo, Sir David English rated him so highly. John could write about a circuit of his back garden and keep us hanging by a thread, laughing at the tomfoolery of life, or both.

  • All I can say is, I am glad you got there in time. A great story.

  • A great tale, as always!


After mentioning that I need to get the anchor chain galvanised, I was deluged with gloomy warnings that nobody does it any more. Chain is so cheap nowadays that it’s considered as disposable as electric kettles.

But I’m very attached to my chain. I expect it’s as old as the boat – so, 48 years – and, at a chunky 10mm, is far too heavy for a boat of less than 10metres.

On the other hand, it does match the 20kg Rocna and I sleep very well knowing I have all that down there on the bottom. Also, I remember the story of how Alfred and Rosemarie Alecio lost Iron Horse in the Indian Ocean.

I have tried to look up the reference. Nevertheless, I am so sure I remember every detail that I will repeat it here (and stand to be corrected). They had an old boat too – and, although they had no reason to doubt the steel fitting which passed through the wooden mast and to hold the shrouds (no I don’t know what it’s called), they reasoned that since it had been there for twenty or thirty years, it must need replacing. They had a new one made in the Far East.

It failed. It just broke and they lost the mast – and in due course, their beloved boat which was also their home. They were picked up by a tanker off Madagascar.

I have great faith in my chain – more than I would in a new one. The saving is by-the-bye.

The place to go used to be the Wedge Group in Birmingham. They had a machine that kept it moving in the tank so that no spots got missed. However, they have moved premises and didn’t feel it economic to set up the chain facility again.

One by one. I called all the other UK galvanisers on Google. One by one,  they called back and said they had stopped doing anchor chain, suggesting I buy a new one.

Except for Highland Metals in Elgin. They said, “of course”. Apparently, they hang the chain on wires and jiggle it from time to time. You don’t get a perfect result, but most people consider it good enough.

Elgin is only 15 minutes from Lossiemouth where there is a “man with a van”. So I shall put in there on the way to the Shetlands this year. Turn-around is two weeks, apparently, so a circuit of the Moray Firth and a few days in Edinburgh seems like a plan.

7 Responses to Galvanising

  • There’s a place in Wickford, Essex, which does galvanise….they did my mast step, bout two years ago. If interested will check it out.

  • You don’t need to go to Scotland! Try BMT in GT Yarmouth. Ask for David Cowley and mention my name.

  • John, once again thanks for a most interesting blog.

  • If the re-galvanising is ‘ less than perfect ‘ will you really be able to sleep on windy anchorages without extra worry ? 48 years sound a lot to me even for good stuff.

    • The reason I’m getting it done is not because I’m worried about the strength of the chain – even the last link which is attached to the stainless Ultra swivel still has more than 9.5mm at its thinnest. More important is the rust stain on the deck and the fact that I come away with orange hands every time I touch it.

      • Rust stains sound familiar to me, when PBO reviewed my boat I was told by David Harding I’d missed on making the front cover because of the stained foredeck !

  • My chain on Contender is also the original, coming up to 50 years. Both the previous owners and I had been in the galvanizing business, so we “knew where to go to get it done”. Yes Wedge used to do a good job, but while the demand still exists, they said it was uneconomic to repair the vibrating machine that jiggled the chain on withdrawl from the zinc. (I tried to encourage them to reinstate it). One year I got a group of yacht owners together and we did a group purchase, 25 chains and about as many anchors all regalvanized over a period of a few weeks. (allowing lots of time is attractive to galvanizers). But generally they consider it a pest, as its fiddly, and is really only a small order for most galvanizers. But my chain keeps on going.


The BBC says a Walrus has turned up in Pembrokeshire – a UK first.

Oh no, it isn’t: In about 1980 when I was at the Daily Mail, a Walrus washed up on the beach at Skegness. It was mid-summer – the silly season and as self-appointed silly correspondent, I claimed Wally the Walrus.

First up: What do you do with a lost Walrus? Well, you send him back to Greenland, of course.

How do you do that?

Ah, this is where the fun begins – and it lasted for the best part of a week: First, the local council has to knock up a crate for him. Who does this? The council’s works department… no, no, no, you’re losing the thread: The council carpenter is who does it – as in The Walrus and the Carpenter. We had a sub-editor with poetic tendencies who bowdlerised Lewis Carroll for the occasion.

Next, you persuade Iceland Air to air freight Wally for nothing more than the publicity it will generate (or rather, with the threat of the bad publicity if they refuse).

The World Wildlife Fund and the RSPCA sent their experts (including a very young Mark Carwardine) to see to Wally’s welfare and, of course, the Mail’s wildlife photographer Mike Hollist – a man with enough patience for all of us. We even had a fishing boat organised at the other end to take Wally across the Denmark Strait. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, I hoped something… There is nothing so dull as a newspaper stunt that goes according to plan. This had the makings of a story I would tell my grandchildren, not to mention the readers (at the time nobody had invented blogs).

It started looking promising as soon as we arrived at Keflavik International Airport, and the man who owned the fishing boat backed up his lorry to load Wally’s crate. It turned out that not only did he own the fishing boat but also Reykjavik Zoo – where, he announced, Wally would be spending the night… and many other days and nights until enough visitors had been tempted to pay to go and look at him.

Mention of the word “Zoo” did not go down well with the RSPCA and the WWF. A quick inspection of a muddy park and a few bedraggled animals confirmed that Wally might have been better off staying in Skegness. As it was, he was stuck on the tarmac at the airport with the wind whistling straight off the icepack. The RSPCA’s young woman vet, who had spent much of the flight with her nose pressed up against the bars of the crate communing with Wally, announced that the present situation could well be classified as cruelty… and blamed me.

Right next to Wally’s crate was an enormous hanger, wide open and inviting.

“Would he be alright in there?”

“He’d be out of the wind.”

We pushed him in.

“Shouldn’t we ask someone?”

“Take too long…”

This was absolutely true. One thing I had learned about big organisations was that nobody ever wanted to take responsibility for anything – and this was a very big organisation. This was the United States Air Force. Pretty soon I found myself being wheeled in to see the commanding officer – a man with very short hair and more medal ribbons than you could easily count. He sat behind an enormous desk, under an enormous flag and was called something like Hiram B. Sidewinder III.

He was also bored to tears. Everyone at USAF Keflavik was bored to tears. The only reason they were there was to provide a Search and Rescue facility if a B52 came down in the North Atlantic. No B52 had ever come down in the North Atlantic. Colonel Sidewinder was “Go” for excitement.

“Here’s what we’re gonna do,” he said with the certainty of JFK announcing the Moon Landing Program. “We’re gonna take the refuel tank out of a C130 – should give enough room for your Wally’s crate. Now you guys get some shuteye and we’ll have Go for 0600.”

So we closed the big roller doors on Wally and booked into the surprisingly luxurious hotel where we didn’t so much get some shuteye as have a celebration dinner and go for a dip in one of the natural volcanic hot spas that litter Iceland like puddles in Manchester.

The following morning we were back at the airport, all ready for “Go” at 0600. However, now the Colonel had morphed from JFK to Jim Lovell with “Houston, we have a problem.”

We did too. Someone had told the Pentagon.

It was like this: If the C130 was going to be out of commission, another one would have to be flown up from mainland USA to cover for it – after all, the C130 was there to refuel the Air Sea Rescue helicopter that would go to the aid of the crew of the downed B52 – if one should happen to come down for the first time ever during the precise 12 hours it would take to fly Wally to Greenland, fly back and replace the refuel tank.

Of course, the Pentagon could suspend B-52 flights for the duration but wouldn’t you just know it if the Ruskies chose that particular window to start World War III.

So what we had was a “No-Go”.

I began to shake my head. This was not good. So far, Skegness Council had helped save Wally by building him a crate, a North of England haulage company had helped save him by driving him to Heathrow and Iceland Air had helped save him by flying him free and gratis to Keflavik and now… and now…

I placed my cup of disgusting weak American coffee with obligatory cream on the edge of the desk and began to excuse myself: My deadline was approaching. The Daily Mail and its six million readers would be waiting for news of Wally…however disappointing and, possibly, however tragic that news might prove to be.

With a heavy heart and heavy tread, I rose to leave and impart to a waiting world… etc…etc…

“Wait!” The Colonel held up his hand – not an easy thing to do, given the weight of gold braid on his sleeve.

What happened over the next few hours, I can only surmise. I never saw the colonel again – but I did see a lot of the harassed young Captain who had been tasked with rescuing the international reputation of USAF Keflavik, the United States Air Force in general and God’s Own Country as an animal-loving nation.

One day that young Captain was going to be a Colonel – even a General. Here’s what he did from his little office in Iceland: He got the Pentagon to call the State Department – and the State Department to call the US embassy in Reykjavik… and the ambassador to call the Icelandic Foreign Minister – who called the Fisheries Minister – who handed the mission to the commander of their Fishery Protection Fleet.

For 72 hours the Icelandic Fishing fleet in the Denmark Strait would be left unprotected while a little grey Fisheries Protection Vessel – a sort of cross between a destroyer and a lifeboat – would take Wally home. The vet rushed off to tell him the good news.

Sure enough, the whole circus moved to the harbour where Wally was winched aboard and lashed to the deck (the vet giving him a running commentary through the bars).

The captain, a bemused man with a bushy beard and piercing blue eyes, revelled in a name that sounded something like Guðmundur Snorradóttir. The weather forecast was excellent, he said. We should have a smooth crossing (which might well have had something to do with deserting all those fishermen).

And so we ate our way to Greenland. Ask Mark Carwardine, if you don’t believe me – he spends a lot his time living on freeze-dried rations in desolate parts of the world while he makes his documentaries. But on this trip, we had six meals a day.

We started with breakfast – very Scandinavian, lots of raw and smoked fish, hearty breads to exercise the beard muscles. Then, for a mid-morning snack, we were offered a selection of cakes and flatbreads with more smoked fish and coffee. On to lunch which was a full meal of four courses with a choice of two or three dishes for each one. Tea followed at four O’clock with more cakes and then dinner at 6.30: The sort of meal that would not have disgraced a Mayfair restaurant. It took a couple of hours – but then we didn’t have much else to do… at least not until the table was filled once more with cakes and breads at 11.00n p.m. to fend off night starvation.

It was all very relaxing – except for the vet who kept up her vigil, nose to nose with Wally’s bristling moustache.

Then, finally, in brilliant sunshine, we arrived off the sparkling shores of Greenland – about a couple of miles off them.

“This is as close as we can go,” said the captain.

“As close as we can go!” I think I may have exploded slightly.

We had come all this way, from Skegness beach (with the carpenter) down to London thanks to the friendly haulier – Iceland Air’s free freight – Colonel Sidewinder and Captain PR… not to mention the Pentagon, the State Department, the Icelandic Foreign Minister and his Fisheries counterpart…. and after all that, the unpronounceable captain proposed to stop a couple of miles short of the destination…

“Some things you cannot do,” he said in the sort measured tones you would expect from ancient Norse heritage.

Actually, he had a point. The final mile was blocked with solid pack ice.

“Wally will be fine,” said the Captain. “We move the crate to the edge of the deck, we open the door, he can dive in.”

Mike Hollist, the Mail’s patient wildlife photographer, had been listening patiently to all this and spotted a fatal flaw. It would take Wally about a second to dive from crate to water. The motor drive on Mike’s Nikon F4 might be able to crank out five frames in a second. In other words, the best part of a week of everybody’s time and thousands of pounds of other people’s money was all going to be zeroed into five frames – all of them pretty much identical.

We went back to the drawing board. We considered dragging the crate across the ice. We considered calling in a helicopter (the Americans could refuel it on the way)…

“We could put him on the ice,” said Mike – which showed why he kept winning awards for his animal pictures. “Put him on the ice. He crawls around for a bit. Then he dives in. How’s that?”

Mike looked at me. I looked at the Captain. The Captain looked at the ice.

“Maybe,” he said. “Not the pack ice. But maybe we get close to a big floe. Put the crate on the floe…”

“Open the crate,” said Mike.

“With you on the floe…” I suggested (this was looking promising).

But the Captain had seen that go wrong before: “Loose ice like this – very unstable. Can break up – crack – no warning. So, no people on the ice floe. Only Wally. He swims good.”

And so it was arranged: Two little rubber boats were launched to go and fetch an ice flow and drive it towards the ship. Mike stayed aboard because, as he rightly pointed out, if he was in one of the boats, he would have the ship in the background, not Greenland. If we didn’t have Greenland in the background, who was to say we weren’t dropping him in the Serpentine?

The ship’s derrick hoisted Wally in his crate high into the air and over the rail. The two rubber boats revved up and pressed the ice floe more firmly against the side of the ship.

And it was here that the Laws of Physics came into play. Oh, how I hate the Laws of Physics. If the number of times the Laws of Physics were divided into the sum of human endeavour you would get a very frustrating number indeed. On this occasion, the Force applied by the two outboard motors was transferred to the Object (The ice floe) but then it was transferred onward in the form of kinetic energy to the ship (against which it was pushed by the revving outboards) This meant we had Leverage – and with Leverage, you get a Fulcrum (In this case the centre-point of the ship) causing the whole vessel to rotate (the ice floe, Wally and the two little rubber boats with their revving engines, turning with it.)

“Wait, wait, stop!” I cried (I was on the bridge with the mistaken idea that I was directing operations).

The Captain raised a bushy eyebrow. Evidently, he was not used to people countermanding his orders.

“I’m losing Greenland!” came the faint voice of Mike from his vantage point on the rail.

“We’re losing Greenland!” I relayed to the captain in the manner of John Mills addressing Noel Coward.

“…and the sun,” Mike added for good measure.

But the Captain had had enough: “Mister,” he said. “This is a ship. It is floating in water. You cannot park it like a car!”

The pictures weren’t great when I saw them in the paper several days later. Wally emerged as a shapely black blob – backlit against the ice.

But Greenland was there – as large as life – in all its desolate glory with ice in all directions.

“Hammersmith,” Mike explained when I questioned him privately.

Hammersmith means taking two photographs, cutting them up, pushing them together and photographing them again. It got its name from the fiasco surrounding the newly-constructed Hammersmith Flyover in the early ’60s. It was so huge that even the widest wide-angle lens could not encompass all the diverging and converging lanes and bridges. So the photographer who was sent to cover the opening took several photographs, intending that they should be fitted together later.

They were – just in the wrong order: There were roads disappearing into the sides of buildings, bridges which ended in mid-air… of course, now they would mess it up with Photoshop.

I got two bottles of the Editor’s Piper Heidsieck for that.

You don’t suppose the Pembrokeshire Walrus is Wally’s great-great-grandchild looking for fifteen minutes of fame…

Postscript: (this goes on and on). My former colleague, Paul Fievez, takes issue with me and insists that the term “Hammersmith” refers not to the flyover – although that was certainly a later example – but to Hammersmith Hospital. It was there that another legendary colleague (now dead and therefore to be known only as “George”) was sent to photograph one of Britain’s first sets of surviving quadruplets.

Unfortunately, when George arrived, one of the little mites had been removed to intensive care and could not attend its photo-opportunity. Undeterred, George lined up the three remaining incubators, photographed them and then, taking a babe from one end of the line-up, whizzed it round to the other – and photographed them all again.

Everybody knows that all babies are identical and look like Winston Churchill, so once the two prints had been chopped up and pasted back together, nobody was any the wiser.

And until today, I suppose they weren’t.

Fievez only knows about this because, as a young snapper at the Mail, he once received a legendary Daily Mail bollocking from “George” who by that time was his boss. Apparently, Paul had failed to secure an important photograph, and George demanded to know why he hadn’t simply “Hammersmithed” it.

Paul, still wet behind the ears, had no idea what he was talking about – and so, was treated to the whole story.

* Paul has not retired completely from photography (they never do) but, very sensibly, has taken up the pen. At least with words, you can make them up. He assures me his novel Emperor Diamond is entirely made up.

** Those in the know will have worked out who “George” was – so Paul is now trembling at the prospect of another bollocking … this time from beyond the veil.

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