Oars and outboards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can see, I had thought this through.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why wasn’t I rowing?

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

My biceps are coming along splendidly…

11 Responses to Oars and outboards

  • Very good to see you happy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yachting Monthly review

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 Responses to Yachting Monthly review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Then, another ocean or two….

    Fair winds and fishes!

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

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

The cost of waiting

The marina and the anchorage at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. Drone photo by Emmie and Tim of Shadowfax (www.chasing-contours.com)


Everybody’s waiting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 Responses to The cost of waiting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Now, here is some useful information!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Why, what do the fishermen do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Responses to Antifouling

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

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

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


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: https://www.noforeignland.com/boat/5260073720872960

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