Holding Tanks

How did we get to talking about a subject like this?

Honestly, wouldn’t you rather discuss the world’s most fabulous anchorages or who has seen the Green Flash or, heaven forbid, engage in the interminable anchor debate.

But no, people keep talking about holding tanks.

Certainly, there are some places where pumping the head overboard is simply forbidden – others where it is just not nice. Think about it: A curry last night and you get up to find the family downstream have decided to take an early morning dip in the crystal-clear water…

With the Jester Challenge sailing to Newport R.I. in 2022, I had been making tentative plans and one of them was to find some way to comply with the stringent United States effluent regulations. The obvious thing, of course, is a holding tank.

The only experience I had of these things was on a flotilla charter in Greece: Under the forward berth was a big, black floppy plastic tank which, with six of us aboard, seemed to fill up remarkably quickly. This wasn’t a problem because every day we sailed on somewhere new and as soon as we were five miles offshore, we opened the valve and the “contents” drained obediently overboard to contribute to the Mediterranean Circle of Life.

I looked into holding tanks – both rigid and flexible. The flexible kind did give me nightmares – I couldn’t help thinking about what happens if it bursts (you know perfectly well what happens. You just don’t like thinking about it.)

But the main trouble is that holding tanks take up a lot of space and they certainly complicate the plumbing.

For a while, I spent my days trawling through Facebook and the Composting Toilet groups. These were an education: Composting your bodily waste (lovely euphemism) generates a sort of religious fervour in some people. I imagine they wear sandals all the year round. There’s a lot of talk about living “off grid”.

The most interesting thing to learn about composting toilets is that the “solids” don’t smell unless mixed with the “liquids” so it is important to separate the two. Another interesting fact is that the “liquid” consists of 95% water – with only five percent of potassium, phosphorous and whatnot. In other words there’s absolutely no reason why that can’t be pumped overboard – even in a marina. Anyway, it’s sterile. The “solids” are what presents the problem.

Then, in answer to my question, somebody came up with the easiest, simplest and most efficient solution you can imagine. I tried it. It works. It costs nothing. It takes up no space.

Admittedly, it doesn’t sound very nice but, believe me, you’ll soon get used to the idea and be glad you don’t have to spend the rest of your life maintaining some pretty unpleasant plumbing and constantly searching for pump-out stations.

Here’s what you need: Some kitchen pedal bin liners. Some newspaper.

That’s it.

Here’s what you do: Deposit the “liquids” into the toilet first. This is most important – remember we don’t want them to get mixed up with the “solids” and all that entails…

Pump out – remember there’s nothing nasty in the “liquids”.

Now for the interesting part: Pump the toilet dry and line it with the plastic bag. Then spread a couple of sheets of newspaper in the bag.

Deposit the “solids” onto the newspaper. You will be surprised to find that the smell is not particularly unpleasant – but you can always use an air-freshener if you wish.

Put the toilet paper on top of the “solids”. Then fold the edges of the newspaper over everything and lift out the bag. You will need to expel the air before you tie the handles. Then it goes in with the gash to be deposited in the normal way next time you go ashore.

Of course, if you are not going ashore, you might not want to carry this little cargo with you on a long voyage. Don’t worry: As soon as you are well offshore, simply open the bag and drop the contents over the side. Since everything was wrapped up in newspaper, you can even use the bag again!

Now can we talk about anchors?


It was reading the Ocean Cruising Club’s Facebook page that made the decision for me.

On Friday, the Norwegian yacht Escape West posted: “We are in Curacao waiting for the morning light to go into our reserved space in the Spanish Waters. Then the coast guard call us and tell us Curacao is closed, we cannot enter their waters. Go away!

“We left St Martin Sunday evening and then Curacao was open and all we spoke to there said they have heard nothing of closing – so we left. Now we are here with myself, my wife and our five-year-old. Low on supplies and tired after the passage. Curacao authorities tell us to go but WHERE?

“We understand the virus threat and respect that but we cannot just go without knowing where and being prepared…”

That was posted on Friday. A few hours later, the club’s Port Officer for the Caribbean island reported the coastguard was prepared to use force to remove the boat from their waters.

Yesterday, after coverage in the local paper, the family were given 48 hours to buy provisions and prepare to leave – but where will they go?

All the sailing groups are alive with similar desperation: French Polynesia is “closed”, visiting boats told to leave Florida’s Key West, marinas in France and Spain in lockdown. Panama is still open but crews coming from the Caribbean are not allowed ashore.  Someone who had hauled out for maintenance and now can’t get back in the water described the trials of living high and dry on a small boat with three children under ten.

Meanwhile, I was in the Lowestoft Cruising Club’s visitor’s berth. I had set up base there for three months to do some work and save up for a new mainsail before setting off for Scotland and the Azores and finally Porto at the end of August where I was due to meet up with the family for a week in an AirB&B.

But how much of that is going to happen? Driving down to your boat is “non-essential travel”. If you haven’t yet launched after the winter, you can forget it for this year. In France they’re enforcing the curfew by refusing to open lock gates and bridges.

Hold on, there was a bridge between me and the sea: It opens ten times a day on request – but who was to say the harbourmaster would go on granting requests? Already there were reports that London was about to go into lockdown. Maybe he would take a leaf out of the French harbourmasters’ rulebook.

Besides, there was no point in continuing to stay in a marina if I wasn’t going to be allowed to visit potential customers – and if I had to self-isolate and work over the phone, where better to do it than anchored in some deserted cove? Followed by an exhilarating sail over a sparkling sea to the next deserted cove…

When you think about it, could there be any more effective way to isolate myself? The boat is low in the water with supplies (even toilet roll). I have water for 80 days (beer for 88). By the time I need to go ashore to re-supply, nobody will be able to argue that I haven’t been in quarantine.

I know it sounds anti-social but, honestly, this is all I ever wanted – to be on my own on my boat with no-one knowing precisely where I am. Sounds weird, I know, but by the time you get to 70, one of the great advantages is that you get to know what you like.

Personally, I think it’s going to be a great summer.

Storm Ciara

Buried in Gmail’s “updates” folder, among the Amazon orders (milk-frother, earbuds) and the daily inspirational quotes which never get read, was a message from Samsara’s insurance company: “All signs are pointing to storms on the North Sea and Baltic coasts. Meteorologists predict that hurricane-like gusts of up to 160 kilometres per hour are expected from Sunday at the latest.”

Apparently the reason for this was Storm Depression Sabine which was expected to become the most severe storm of the season and cause tidal surges and destruction willy-nilly. According to media reports clear parallels could be drawn with hurricane Xavier in 2013.

Boats and yachts in the water should, said the company, be laid in box berths  with additional lines and fenders available. On yachts with standing rigging, sails should be removed.

Then they wished me a pleasant weekend.

I was going to the pictures at the weekend. Really: For the past couple of weeks, every time I looked at Facebook or turned on the radio, people were raving about Sam Mendes’ masterpiece 1917 and I happen to have a fascination with the First World War. I called my 17-year-old, Hugo, the only one still at home. Yes, he would meet me at Ipswich station. We could have lunch and see the film in the afternoon – but it would have to be on Sunday. He had a paintball birthday party on Saturday.

By Thursday I was thinking that if it was very windy, I would have to deflate the dinghy to stop it blowing away, instead of just leaving it tied to the pontoon. And should I take the bike? I might get blown off it – or, worse, into oncoming traffic…

By Friday, it wasn’t just the insurance company talking about the weather. Now the radio weather forecasts were calling it Storm Ciara – and it was arriving on Sunday. The whole cinema expedition was out of the question. What if the dinghy flipped while I was in it? This was a good way to get drowned. I called Hugo and cancelled.

Next, how best to survive the storm? The insurance company would like the mast down – well, that wasn’t going to happen. They would like me in a “box berth” – secured by all four corners. I disagreed. Back in the great “hurricane” of 1987, Largo suffered quite a bit of damage from being in a marina. If it’s not crashing up against the pontoon, there’s the possibility of the pontoon itself coming adrift or another boat breaking free and causing mayhem.

No, give me a sheltered anchorage, preferably without any other boats and – best of all, surrounded by nice, soft mud. Oddly enough, that is a perfect description of Kirby Creek – and my anchor had been digging itself steady deeper into the mud for ten whole days.

I spent the Saturday making everything ready – putting a lashing round the mainsail (I didn’t need to take it off because I wasn’t going to have to worry about wind from the side. Samsara would be weathercocking around her anchor – which got another six metres of chain, increasing the scope from 3:1 to 4:1. Then I beefed up the chafe protection and added a hook on the chain for a mooring warp led to the sheet winch.

Really, the solar panel should come off but in doing so, there was a good chance I would drop some of the bits over the side. Instead, I lashed it down in all directions. After that, there wasn’t much to do but go to bed and wait.

Ciara was supposed to hit at 3.00 a.m. – the wind rising from 20knots to 40 in the space of an hour. The height of the storm with gusts of 63 knots (just under hurricane-force) were not due for another 12 hours. I woke on schedule to find the boat vibrating in the gusts but still in the same place. The creek under a full moon was a mass of tiny breaking crests.

Dawn showed them even smaller with the tide out – in fact it might have been pushed even further by the wind. The oddest sight was hundreds of small birds hunkered down head to wind on the mudflats. I went back to bed.

By ten O’clock people on Facebook were reporting the damage to their boats in the Solent. Somebody’s glass windscreen had been blown right off. I made an excursion on deck – mainly to check the chafe protection – one reinforced plastic hose inside another, both able to move independently. It was a pretty wild scene. I took out my phone and made a video for Facebook, clocking the windspeed indicator as it climbed down from 34knots.

As with everything else on Facebook, this revealed two separate (and entrenched) camps: “What does he think he’s doing out in this weather. As usual, it will be the RNLI who have to pick up the pieces…” and, from the other side: “If you can’t be on a boat at anchor in 32 knots of wind, then you need to acquire the skills…”

Oddly, nobody castigated me for failing to remove the headsail. I couldn’t see how it could unfurl and flog itself to pieces – not if I was there to keep an eye on things.

And so I spent the day looking out of the windows, listening to the news reports of floods and power cuts and disrupted travel (trampoline on the line). Once it seemed that everything was going to be all right in my small universe, I quite enjoyed the experience. The boat heeled to 15° in the gusts but since she wasn’t bucking to any waves, the gimballed cooker kept the coffee pot on an even keel.

It wasn’t until the late afternoon that it seemed to be all over. The tide went out again – even further than before so that it seemed we were surrounded on all sides by melted chocolate. Still, I could see what all the fuss was about – the barometer had dropped from 2018 to 988 in less than 24 hours.

Death on the foredeck

So here’s the choice: Have a heart attack or lose the boathook.

Not much of a choice really. It was a new boathook.

There is a tradition that old sailors die on the foredeck – at least there was until someone invented the electric anchor windlass. If you saw my post on the subject last summer* then you’ll know where this story begins: For most of last year I was hauling up the anchor by hand.

Not this year, though. Now the windlass is fixed. I wrestled it off the boat, drove it up to Norfolk and, with £500 worth of new motor it’s not going to give any more trouble (it had better not).

And so, the day after Samsara went back in the water following our three month Christmas break, I dropped anchor in the River Deben at a place called Sea Reach just upstream from the moorings at Felixstowe Ferry. Apart from anything else, I wanted to try out the windlass.

Actually, I couldn’t wait to try out the windlass – so I convinced myself I wasn’t in quite the right spot and started winding it all back in again. The windlass whirred away, clinking in the chain, grunting a bit as the big Rocna broke out of the glutinous Deben mud.

Come to think of it, the windlass didn’t just grunt. It complained loudly. In fact, it faltered, sweating amps in all directions. Eventually, very slowly, the anchor emerged … with the most enormous ground chain hooked up in it. This was no mere 10mm riser. This had to be 16mm at least – and I couldn’t see the ends of it. Presumably, they trailed down on both sides the full five metres to the bottom. No wonder the poor windlass was struggling…

It was at this point that the new motor admitted defeat. When I pressed the button again to try and get the tangle within reach, all I got was a mutinous “click” that spoke of overload, smoking windings and £500 down the drain. Meanwhile, we drifted gently in the direction of the moorings – and beyond them, the Deben Bar … and the North Sea….

Mind you, we weren’t drifting very fast. Not with all that ironware dragging along the river bed after us.

That was how I came to reach for the boathook. The way I looked at it, all I had to do was lift the chain over the tip of the anchor. (If only the windlass had kept going for another half a second, it would all have been within reach and I could have got a rope on it, dropped the anchor out of the way and all this would have been rather dull.

Over the years, I have been given a great deal of advice on choosing boathooks (your own height in hickory with a solid brass fitting on the end – for sharpening, so you can skewer pirates…)

Call me a wimp, but I went for the flimsy telescopic variety so I could get it in the cockpit locker.

Actually, to give the new boathook its credit, it did succeed in lifting the chain – all 57kg of it. (I just looked that up: 16mm chain weighs 5.7kg a metre – but, of course, you have to double that because it was hanging down five metres on each side.)

The only problem was that now the entire 57kg was hooked onto the boathook … the plastic, telescopic boathook … which commenced its own protest; a sort of tortured screeching as it extended to its full length.

This was when I started making my own noise. If I let go, we would be free but I would lose the boathook. On the other hand, if only I could pull the chain up to deck level, I could shift my grip to the business end and then the whole thing would flip upside down and the chain would simply drop off.

Except that the boathook was now extended to its full 2.1m – which meant that the weight was increased by two to the power 5.7kgs per metre. In other words, more than an old man on the foredeck should be lifting if he wants to sail another day…

15 knots!

A Facebook friend kindly asks to hear about more adventures. How about this one…

I didn’t mean to be out in a Force 9.

That sounds like something out of Arthur Ransome.

But, honestly, in Blood Alley Lake round the back of Poole Harbour’s Brownsea Island, the forecast was for W 5-7 occasionally gale 8. All I had to do was get to Dover and clearly I was going to do it in double-quick time.

It was somewhere south of St Catherine’s Point with half the headsail poled out on one side and two reefs in the main on the other and everything strapped down tight, the log hovering between seven and eight knots, that Solent Coastguard came up with one of their deadpan Maritime Safety Announcements: “Dover, Wight: Westerly severe gale 9 imminent”.   Not “possibly” or “occasionally”, you notice. Not “later…”

This would have been all very well; after all, Brighton was a port of refuge. But already it was dark – the kind of dark October night that makes longshoremen shake their heads and stay in the pub – and the entrance to Brighton Marina is no place to be in pitch dark in a Force Nine.

Besides, I had a Rival and, although I am preaching to the converted here, a Rival knows what to do in a Force Nine. She sits down in the sea. She doesn’t leap about but picks her way through the unpleasantness. The only part of the process that is at all inelegant is the size of the bow-wave which would look better in front of a supertanker.

And all the while the Aries carves a series of elongated S-bends through the water, never quite gybing and never quite broaching but just going faster and faster, the harder it blows.

Which was how we ploughed on through the night. Midnight came and went, so did one and two O’clock in the morning. I debated hauling over the lee-board for my ten-minute kips but in fact all was calm and cosy in Samsara’s cabin – almost as if what was going on outside lived only in the met office imagination.

Actually, no: The wind built and so did the sea. By dawn the apparent wind was over 30 knots and I did once see 10.6 on the log as we surfed down a particularly steep wave. Exhilarating, certainly – I was only concerned about how sensible it was. The seas weren’t breaking yet but they were getting very big indeed. Also, it looked as though Samsara might dig her nose into the back of a wave and then I would have green water sluicing down the deck; but that buoyant Rival bow kept on rising. Still, it did occur that, in the open sea, this might be the time for heaving-to.

However, Eastbourne is not Nuku Hiva and suddenly the gap between Dungeness and the westbound shipping lane was beginning to look very narrow indeed. It was a case of gybing or getting the main down altogether. From choice, I would take the wind out of it first but somehow that didn’t seem like an option so, instead, I took a leaf out of the gaffer handbook and de-powered the sail.

Gaffers have a useful technique which goes by the wonderful name of “scandalising”. This involves dropping the peak halyard and lowering the gaff below the horizontal. On a Rival, you can get something like the same effect hauling on the topping so much that the boom sticks in the air like a cockerel’s tail-feather. This makes it possible to stand at the mast and claw down the sail without worrying about being thrown over the side. Now we could bring the wind onto the quarter and dispense with the spinnaker pole. We were still doing seven and eight knots through the water.

The book says to call Dover Port Control two miles off the entrance. I was fairly prompt about this – after all, we were covering a mile every six minutes and there was going to be no chance of “maintaining my position” if a ferry decided to come out.

Meanwhile, I pulled up the binoculars and inspected the entrance. Normally this is a pointless exercise. You can sit at anchor in a stiff onshore breeze and see no sign of breakers on the beach – but try and land in a dinghy and you’ll soon find them.

Looking at the Western Entrance in close-up, the word “maelstrom” came to mind. The gap seemed very small indeed and appeared to be filled entirely with white water.

The tide was racing past so I was going to have to go in sideways which meant heading up into what was now, without any doubt at all, a really “severe gale” even though it might not feel like one with the speed we were doing. If I turned into it with any sail at all, Samsara  would go over on her ear and, in breaking water, this might not be good.

Even with a bare pole, would the engine inlet stay submerged long enough to sustain full revs? We were going to need full revs on the little feathering prop too make headway in this.

Look on the bright side. It was quite exciting…

I don’t think I’d ever experienced anything quite like it. Did I say a Rival sits down in the sea? Forget that. In Dover harbour entrance with an onshore Force 9, they get thrown about like a bath toy with a two-year-old who doesn’t want to get out.

To give you an idea of what was going on, the companionway padlock, a great lump of metal which sits in the corner of the cockpit unless I remember to put it away, jumped clean over the side in disgust.

But the engine – worshipful Nanni – kept thundering on and gradually we clawed our way past the end of the northern mole and into what passed for calmer water.

The harbour launch ranged up alongside – rather close, it seemed to me as I clambered about organising warps and fenders. Maybe he had been ready for a rescue.

Just to show what happens when you think it’s all over, I missed the cleat coming into the pontoon and demolished the electricity pedestal. Later, over a calming cup of coffee, I pulled out my phone – something I needed to check…

Once I’d got the main down as we came up to Dungeness, I had been astonished at how much calmer everything seemed with just the jib – and yet the log still showed a very respectable 6-7 knots. So how fast had we been going with the main as well?

Navionics has a “Maximum Speed” function if you know where to find it. Of course, it doesn’t account for the tide which had been running at nearly three knots nor the fact that satellite positions sometimes need to catch up with themselves.

Even so, the maximum speed on that memorable overnight passage from Poole to Dover had been 15.1kts.

It’s a record I’m not sure I want to break.

Weather forecasts

They’re talking on Facebook about mid-ocean weather forecasts. They’re always talking on Facebook about mid-ocean weather forecasts – Iridium and grib files and SSB modems and whatnot. The Old Man’s head is beginning to hurt.

Actually, it put me in mind of a time, years ago, when I was talking to a fellow competitor at the sponsor’s reception on the night before the OSTAR.  He seemed a pleasant fellow. I invited him to join our SSB schedule.

“Ah,” he said, holding up an admonishing finger. “With such a radio, you are not truly alone.”

He was right, of course. The singlehanded passage from Plymouth to Newport was terribly convivial: 32 days in the middle of nowhere, meeting up three times a day on the megahertz to compare notes, make silly jokes and drool over each other’s culinary imagination (the reality was something different).

At one point I threw a party to celebrate James Hatfield’s MBE (please don’t park on the south lawn and remember to close the gate because the polo ponies are out).

Of course, you could argue that a long-range radio was a safety feature: When Robin Knox-Johnson went quiet half way across, we could have raised the alarm. Instead, we judged (rightly) that there was probably a good reason for it and he would be furious if we launched an international search and rescue operation.*

Aboard Samsara, I did invest in an Iridium Go for a trip to the Azores a couple of years ago. I thought I was rich at the time – and bright enough to understand the instructions.

It was awful, I spent hours crouching over the tiny screen worrying about how much it was costing as the microchips attempted to download civilization.

In the end I sold it on eBay. Now it’s just me and the VHF which stays on all the time. Mind you, that was nearly the end of me one dark night on the Grand Banks when some anonymous trawler skipper woke me up with: “Hey sailboat that just crossed my bow: Say, Buddy, you don’t wanna try that too many times.”

I ejected through the companionway without touching the sides, landing in a heap on the cockpit floor, still with my sleeping bag round my ankles … and absolutely nothing in sight. We never did find out which of us it was that nearly went to the bottom that night.

*There was a good reason for Robin Knox-Johnston dropping out of the radio net. The doyen of solo yachtsmen had needed to shift his battery to get at something or other and reconnected it back to front, producing lots of smoke and blowing up his alternator. Then he discovered Suhaili was sinking – albeit very slowly. He limped back to Plymouth pumping all the way but with reputation intact.

Largo ready for the 1988 OSTAR

Trust your anchor

I just reviewed a book for the Ocean Cruising Club – Happy Hooking: The Art of Anchoring by Alex and Daria Blackwell. It’s over 350 pages long – and this is the third edition!

Clearly, if you want to grab a yachtie’s attention, just bring up the subject of anchoring.

Take a look at the sailing groups on Facebook – they’re full of arguments about anchors. Sometimes it seems the new generation of ground tackle causes more trouble than Trump or Brexit. It’s safer to bring up religion.

Certainly, I had no idea I was stepping into such contentious territory when I wrote about choosing a new anchor back in 2017 (August 19, if you’re looking for it).

Also, in those days, I had never heard of an anchor watch app. It turns out there are several of them. This summer I downloaded something called Anchor Lite. It nearly gave me a heart attack: At two O’clock in the morning, a police siren went off in my ear.

That was the alarm to tell me I had dragged 20metres already. Hadn’t I better do something about it? After all, weren’t the rocks less than 100 metres away? Quick, start the engine – would the windlass work? It takes at least a minute to get the chain hook off… Damn, stubbed my toe. Where’s a clothespeg to hold the companion lock open – I need both hands to slide the hatch…

And all this while the anchor was dragging…

Except, of course, it wasn’t. All that had happened was that the boat had shifted sideways as the wind changed. The rocks were now even more than 100 metres away. If the Anchor Lite thing had any sense, it should have played soothing music instead.

As I shuffled back into my sleeping bag, nursing my stubbed toe and banged head – yes, I managed to collide with the hatch in the rush to save the ship – it occurred that we never had all this trouble in the old days.

In the old days, you set your anchor (you didn’t just “drop” it, by the way) and then you relaxed, knowing that you were safe.

Of course, in those days when the CQR was the favourite, you did drag – but very, very slowly as the great lump of iron ploughed its way along the bottom as it was supposed to. When the wind got up, all the diligent skipper had to do was keep a track of his transits to see how fast he was going backwards. But he didn’t get any nasty surprises.

With the new generation of anchors, there’s no need to drag at all.

Of course, I could be tempting fate by writing that line – on the other hand, I do have a 20kg Rocna and 10mm chain on a 9.7metre boat.

Yes, it is massively over-sized but I have never used more than 3:! scope* and, used properly, it has never dragged – not once. Take a look at the screenshot of the Navionics app: This was Braye Harbour in Alderney, the UK Channel Islands, where the swell comes in like a freight train in anything from a North Westerly to Easterlies. The track shows a couple of days when the wind swung from SW to NW and puffed up to 40knots, throwing spray 20metres in the air as the waves hit the breakwater and setting Samsara bucking her chain enough to upend the coffee all over the bunk cushion.


But, although she pulled back and stretched the rubber snubber to more than twice its length, I don’t believe that anchor shifted more than half a metre (which it would have had to do as it dug itself deeper and deeper into the sand).

Compare that screenshot to the second one which I have just taken after two calm days in Poole Harbour, swinging to the tide in Blood Alley Lake between Brownsea Island and Furzey Island.

Blood Alley Lake, Poole

The point of this is to say that if you trust your anchor (and how well you set it) you should not need an app. All that an app will do is sow the seeds of doubt about what’s going on down there on the bottom. You will not sleep well – either because the police siren will shoot you bolt upright and crashing into the deckhead or because it hasn’t gone off at all and you have to check that it’s still set, that your phone hasn’t gone flat or, indeed, that you still have a GPS signal and the alarm for that didn’t go off.

OK, so I do sometimes wonder about the 10mm shackle between the chain and the anchor. It really ought to be one size up but it’s the biggest that will go through the bow-roller. Besides, it has a breaking strain of 10tonnes and the boat only weighs 5.3.

Anyway, there’s the snubber to take out the snatch loading and I’m getting a Dyneema strop to back it up.

If I didn’t have that to worry about, I’d only find something else.

At least it doesn’t wake me up in the middle of the night with a siren in my ear…

*Scope: When my father taught me about anchoring back in the 1950’s, we never used more than 3:1 (and I don’t recall adding the freeboard – but then, in a Folkboat there wasn’t much). So, it came as a surprise that the Rocna manual recommended a minimum 4:1 and 5:1 in anything of a blow.

Admittedly I do “round up” the calculations so a depth of 3.1metres becomes 3.5 … and 3.6 becomes 4.0. This makes more difference in shallow water which is where you need more scope – so it seems to make sense.

The Scilly Isles

Passing Through – The Scilly Isles 

(2,300 words)

There is no closer bond than the one between the singlehanded sailor and his boat – until he rows ashore, that is. Then he wants to be joined at the hip to his dinghy.

Mine was on the beach at The Gugh, the smallest and least-populated island of the Scilly Isles – that charming archipelago off the south-west tip of England. To say The Gugh is small is to say that it measures half a mile by less than a quarter. To say that it is the least-populated is also accurate: It has two houses. One is empty and the other is home to a man called Alan – and thank heavens for that…

Mind you, The Gugh is only an island at high tide. The rest of the time, it is joined to the much larger island of St Agnes by a narrow sand bar. This means that it is easy to think of them as one island.

That is a mistake. I went to look at The Gugh and its prehistoric standing stone and two peculiar houses with the curved roofs (so they don’t blow off). Then I planned to go and look at St Agnes which is twice the size and with a population of more than 80. This means that I left the dinghy on the Gugh side…

I did pull it up well above the tide line, I tied it to a rock … with three or four other rocks holding down the first rock … and then another couple in the dinghy itself to stop it flying away. Believe me, that dinghy wasn’t going anywhere.

And so, without a care in the world, I set off for The Old Man of Gugh and Obadiah’s Barrow (where they found a skeleton buried in the sitting position surrounded by a dozen urns full of human remains).

St Agnes was much more cheerful. For a start, it had the Troy Town Maze. Now, I don’t know what sort of image this conjures for you but surely something involving theme parks or stately homes: Certainly a major “visitor attraction”. According to the guide book, it was laid out by a lighthousekeeper in 1729, adding to a much earlier maze. That one may even have had Viking connections since similar designs have been found in Sweden. However, now we’ll never know because in the early 2000’s a well-intentioned visitor took it upon themselves to rebuild the maze with new stones from the beach – thus completely thwarting the archaeologists’ attempts to date it. 

Troytown Maze

Actually, when you see it, you can’t blame the helpful visitor. This has to be the most unimpressive maze ever to make it into a guidebook – even if walking around it is said to promote well-being.

Ha! (see below).

Still, if I hadn’t gone looking for the maze, I would never have found Troytown Farm Ice Cream which has to be absolutely the best anywhere – made from milk from Scilly’s only dairy herd (11 cows).

So, what with one thing and another, it was a contented old man who dawdled back picking blackberries and wondering if you could make crumble with cooking oil instead of butter. That was why it was quite late by the time I returned to the sand bar and the dinghy.

Except, the sand bar wasn’t there any more. Now there was only a maelstrom of churning white water as the spring tide raced between the islands at upwards of four knots. As the guidebook says, helpfully: “It is dangerous to attempt the crossing at such times.”

Over on the other side, the water was lapping at my dinghy. Instantly, the singlehander’s primal urge kicked in: Surely, if I went to rescue it now – before the tide came up any higher… I bet I could walk across. It would only be knee-deep… perhaps thigh-deep – but I didn’t mind getting my shorts wet. Even if it was waist-deep…

There must be some medical term for this instinctive rejection of all common sense.

Fortunately, the prospect of drowning acted as an antidote – or rather, drowning and being described in the local paper as “a pensioner” – not to mention the lifeboat coxswain’s comment about “weekend sailors”. 

With considerable effort, I hauled myself back from the brink and made for the pub. If in doubt, make for the pub.

Simon, the landlord, listened sympathetically as if he had heard this before (which he had – many times). He and Angela had been corporate IT geeks until they sailed here in their 35footer four years ago and found The Turk’s Head looking for new owners. Simon put all the other customers on hold while he searched for a phone number for “Alan”. I hoped Alan would be at home. Of course, he was at home – where else could he go at high tide? He promised to have a look.

After that, there was really nothing for me to do but sit in the pub for the next four hours while the tide finished coming in and started going out. So I had a beer – and then another beer – that took twenty minutes. Then Simon showed me all the artefacts he had brought up from wrecks around the islands – can you imagine an entire cargo of bells, the sort that summoned the servants in Victorian households?

After that, it seemed to be time for another beer – and, considering the way the evening was panning out, I had better have dinner and was joined by a couple from Devon who were similarly marooned. The Scillonian, the Scilly Isles ferry from Penzance, had suffered double engine failure. People were having to bunk up where they could.

As for me, I rushed back to reclaim my dinghy as soon as I could without drowning. Shame –  had I obeyed my usual instinct and stayed in the pub until chucking-out time, I would have been there to join the celebrations at the safe arrival of Safe Arrival, another Rival 32 like Samsara. Her crew of three lads from Falmouth had sailed straight from Greenland – 16 days – at the end of a four-month climbing cruise. Angela broke out the rum.

These guys deserved it. They had been by far the smallest boat in those northern waters – and almost all the others had been steel and aluminium and kitted out for “expedition sailing”. Safe Arrival’s only modifications were a solid sprayhood and a couple of windsurfer masts for pushing the bergy bits out of the way. 

But then The Cove at St Agnes seemed to be a gathering place for all sorts of interesting boats. There was an ancient lugger with a bumpkin sticking out the back which must have been half the length of the rest of the boat at least. They hung the ensign off the end of it – with a lead weight to hold it down.

Then there was the brand new Rustler 57 I mentioned in the “Experts” post – but I wasn’t in their league. However, I had already made a friend of the Frenchman in the peculiar catamaran with a mast on each hull. I had anchored rather too close to him in Tresco and then drew even closer as I went to move the next morning. 

“Don’t worry, I am here,” he had said as he stood by to fend off. Now, here he was again – and, whatever you think of big cats, his boat was something really special. 

Marc had been around multihulls all his life – building them, designing them, sailing them. They’d all been called Kalim – ever since his first when he sailed the Atlantic as a young man to sit at the feet of his heroes, Dick Newick and Mike Birch. In the end, he spent most of his life out there refining multihull design.

Now, with Marielle, he has his ultimate boat – as he put it, his “Old Man’s Boat” – simple, spacious, light and fast – designed for sailing in the tropics and, actually, very beautiful.

How fast would she go with her two wing sails? 

At 15metres overall, her designed top speed is 24 knots but that’s not important. What matters is the average and the latest Kalim is designed for daily runs of 200 miles – which means the Galapagos to the Marquesas in not much over two weeks … while the crew relax on the park bench. Yes, they have a park bench at the back of the cockpit in the sun. 

Le Kalim.

Le Kalim.

If you fancy a Kalim yourself. You’re out of luck. For the first time, Marc’s design is not for sale. As he said: “As soon as you start selling your ideas, you have people wanting to know where they can put a second head or a washing machine… I’m done with all that…”

He doesn’t even have an outboard – instead, a slender rowing skiff he designed himself. Marc likes rowing – doing it properly with crossed hands.

The Scillies were always going to be full of interest – if only because of the anticipation: I had been trying to get here for forty years. The trouble was that the pilot books made the islands sound so terrifying that I ended up sitting in Falmouth or Penzance listening to shipping forecasts and biting my nails. Writers of pilot books love this sort of thing. Even Reeds, not given to hyperbole, says: “The Isles of Scilly are exposed to Atlantic swell and wind. Weather can be unpredictable and fast-changing. Thorough planning and sensible precautions especially with regard to anchorage and ground tackle are recommended. Boats have been known to drag on fine sand…” There follows a whole column of dangers to avoid.

New Grimsby Sound from King Charles’ Castle, Tresco

The first time I came here was on the old Scillonian in 1965 as a 16-year-old biology student on a field trip. Mostly I remember the New Inn on Tresco where I ordered my first pint of beer (my father would only buy me halves, saying that no Gentleman would be seen with a pint). We stayed in a bothy and were served fiery curries by an old sailor who dropped ash into the pot from the Capstan Full Strength glued to his lower lip.

Obviously, I had to go back to the New Inn. But, it’s all changed now: The old bar was demolished in 1997 – conveniently just as a German cargo ship on autopilot hit the rocks off Newfoundland Point while the crew were asleep. It was loaded with wood and, in the best traditions of the Scilly Isles, the islanders helped themselves. The new, extended and wood-panelled bar looks lovely.

Don’t criticise: As the Rev John Troutbeck, 18th Century vicar of St Mary’s, put it: “We pray thee, Lord, not that wrecks should happen but that if any wrecks should happen, Thou will guide them into the Scilly Isles for the benefit of the inhabitants.”

Shipwrecks and the Scillies go together like crab and mayonnaise. In the Abbey Gardens, you can find a museum of figureheads retrieved from the sea – and of course, it was the Scillies where Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s fleet piled up in 1707, prompting the race to find a way of determining longitude.

Sculpture, The Tresco Children in the Abbey Gardens

As a 16-year-old, I couldn’t see the point in spending good beer money looking at exotic plants and museums but I do remember looking longingly across New Grimsby Sound and wishing I had a boat. For there was Bryher – as tantalising as a tropic isle on the other side of a sparkling lagoon. 

Actually, Bryher is well worth visiting anyway – if only for  “the smallest museum in Britain”. It’s probably the smallest museum in the world. It’s the old phone box and is dedicated entirely to the 1989 film When the Whales Came based on the book by Michael Morpurgo. The best part of the story is that, having signed Paul Schofield and Helen Mirren for the leads, the director needed a child to play the central character. After scouring the mainland stage schools, he found her on St Agnes. 

All the island people had been recruited as extras – simpler than trying to find accommodation for outsiders. One of those extras was eight-year-old Helen Pearce. All she had to do was play herself – a half-wild nymph of the sea and sand. The critics loved her. 

Over on the other side was the Hell Bay Hotel. I mean, you just have to go and have a beer in somewhere called the Hell Bay Hotel. It’s not actually in Hell Bay as such. As the barman explained, there wouldn’t be much left standing after the winter gales – and the guests didn’t look the type to rough it. In my shorts and crocs, I took my beer onto the terrace.

So, out of Scilly’s five inhabited islands, that left only St Martin’s and St Mary’s (I wasn’t going to start on the 50 uninhabited ones.) 

I got lost on St Martin’s trying to work out the difference between Higher Town, Middle Town and Lower Town, not to mention Lower Town Quay and Higher Town New Quay and Higher Town Old Quay. Signposts would have helped.

St Mary’s has lots of signposts. It needs them because the typical St Mary’s visitors are devoted couples of a certain age who walk slowly from one commemorative bench to the next where they sit down once more to admire a slightly different view.

Maybe that was why the 1970’s Prime Minister Harold Wilson liked it so much – you can imagine him sitting there puffing his pipe with Mary beside him, making up her poems. He’s buried in the churchyard now – among all the poor, dead sailors.


Back in the early 90’s when I used to write the Dogwatch column in Yachting World and had just moved aboard for what was supposed to be a life-long cruise (for what happened to that see “The Old Man’s Story” page) the then editor, Andrew Bray, came up with the idea for a second column – a three-monthly series on the places we visited. 

It was to be called “Passing Through” and the idea was to give a flavour of the ports – the characters, the pubs, the boats, the history… and some pictures,  of course.

I think it must have run for about three years – until we stopped moving and finally gave the whole thing up as a bad job and rented a house. But it was well-received while it lasted.

Well, I’ve been looking back over the photos of the week in Galway and thought to myself: “That would have made a great “Passing Through”.

The next thought was how sad it was that there was no point in suggesting to Yachting World that I should start writing again. Yachting magazines aren’t what they were. Does anyone read them now? It’s all video blogs…

And then, gradually, the suggestion filtered through that I had a blog…

Fair warning, though: This is 2,000 words.

Passing Through – Galway

You’ll like Galway. You don’t have a choice – the lock gate only opens for two hours on each tide so once you’re in, there’s nothing to do but drink Guinness and listen to traditional Irish Music.

Actually, I can think of worse ways of spending a week of gales.

Because that’s what we did, my 16-year-old son Hugo and I. His flight out from the UK had been booked for months – carefully scheduled to get him back in time for his GCSE results – and of course, I had to make darned sure I was there in time to meet him.

So I sailed straight from Falmouth, pausing only to wait out a force seven headwind in a protected little pool at the entrance to Portmagee Sound.

In fact, I arrived early enough to stop at Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands. There are two things you need to know about the Aran Islands: Aran Sweaters and ruins.

Every day the tour boats disgorge swarms of Americans and Italians and – well, tourists from everywhere. As soon as their feet touch the ground, they split up and head off in two different directions – half to the cycle hire shop to pedal off to the medieval fortress of Dun Aengus, the other half to the Aran Sweater shop.

I looked round the sweater shop – after all, I wear a sweater all through the winter and there are holes in both elbows. However, I couldn’t see the beautiful and unbelievably soft woollens on display lasting much past the end of November.

So it was off to the fortress. They charged for entry, of course – and the entrance was a 20-minute walk from the fortress itself. Alternatively, there was an award-winning ice cream shop…and anyway, I’d be coming back again with Hugo, wouldn’t I?

For culture, I pedalled off to the “Nine Churches”. It would be easy to miss these. I managed to find two surrounded by a neat graveyard with Gaelic inscriptions continuing long after the churches had been abandoned. But despite clattering all the way down the track to the sea, there was no sign of the other five.

When I got back, feeling a little cheated, there was a minibus waiting. The driver, an obvious character in a baseball cap and a Zapata moustache, sat biding his time while his passengers milled around the ruins.

So I asked him for directions to the other seven.

“Ah,” he says. “There are only the two.”

– Then why do they call them “The Nine Churches?

“Well, that’s just what they call them.”

I did think of asking why but sometimes in the West of Ireland, it doesn’t do to ask too many questions…

I still had two days before Hugo arrived and wanted to look at Samsara’s hull. There was a convenient quay at the entrance to the Kinvarra River. So there I was in the middle of the night poking around in the mud beside Parkmore Quay (built with money sent by the people of Canada, apparently) when suddenly there was a “hello” from the top.

Since I might look a bit suspicious, I explained that I would be drying out in the morning and wanted to check that the keel wouldn’t be resting on a boulder or something. The pair of dog walkers, as they turned out to be, understood completely – that was their boat out there, the green one (it was pitch dark).

In the morning, as I knelt in the mud with a packet of scouring pads and discovered my very expensive Coppercoat anti-fouling was falling off, the couple returned. They came down and looked. They were sympathetic about the state of the bottom but complimentary about the Samsara’s lines and, seemingly on the strength of no more than this, invited me for dinner.

Being an Englishman and not used to invitations from people I hadn’t been properly introduced to, I made some excuse. 

But later, I wondered had I done the right thing? After all, people were different over here. They were friendlier…

I called and left a message – and that evening Anne came and collected me and I presented her with a bottle of wine that had survived six months in the bilges and a loaf of boat bread – and Alan returned from selling a guitar and another couple turned up – and we had a very convivial evening.

It was the same in Galway. No sooner had I met the harbourmaster than he was whisking me off for a Guinness – four, actually.

Hugo arrived on schedule – and so did a whole string of Atlantic lows, one after another. 

Well, if you’re going to get stuck somewhere, I used to recommend Dublin. Now I recommend Galway. First, there was the Guinness which is not the same as it is in England because they pour two-thirds of it with Nitrogen and only the last third with carbon dioxide. Then there is the music – everywhere in Galway there is music: In the pubs, in the streets – Tig Coili is the famous music pub but right outside any day, you can find the Galway Street Club, a loose group of enthusiasts who play just for the love of playing (although they don’t do badly out of the equally enthusiastic crowd).

On every corner, you will find someone with a guitar or fiddle or just a penny whistle. Some of them barely into their teens – others old and grey and stooped but still going…

I was keen that we should see a game of hurling – the peculiar Irish sport which seems to owe something to hockey but also to basketball and tennis with maybe a bit of rugby thrown in – and certainly the egg-and-spoon race… 

After messing up the buses (Galway has three bus stations), we took a taxi to the Gaelic Athletic Association’s Pearse Stadium and saw Kinvara beat Carnmore – so narrowly as it happens, that the final minute had the entire Carnmore team crowded round the Kinvara goal brandishing their hurleys in the hope of snatching the vital three points. It didn’t happen but it did give a very good impression of what the Battle of Lough Neagh must have looked like.

This gave us such an appetite for this most exciting but unrecognised sport that we simply had to go and find a spot in the Front Door pub and watch Tipperary snatch the national title from Kilkenny. No wonder they wear helmets. 

There was a day when it stopped raining – although it didn’t stop blowing. So we hired another bike from the West of Ireland Cycle Hire, stuffed it into the cargo bay of the bus and set off for the Burren. This is a huge and rocky chunk of landscape on the south side of  Galway Bay which might look pretty barren but in fact, is home to 70% of Ireland’s collection of wildflowers.

If you’re cycling, be warned, it does go up and down a lot but we stopped at St Fachtnan’s Holy Well and dropped a coin in for the GCSE results. We could have taken The Old Bog Road but there was a small sign saying “This road is subject to flooding” – well, it would be, wouldn’t it?

Later, over lunch and more Guinness at Cassidy’s Bar we discovered that the Old Bog Road runs across the bottom of what is Europe’s largest “disappearing lake” – that is to say that it’s five metres deep when the rain finally stops and then takes a couple of days to drain away through underground caves and “swallow holes” before the weather turns “soft” again. 

Cycling the Burren was a grand day, as they say over here, apart from one tiny detail: Our bus back to Galway was due at 4.50. By 5.20, the locals who were waiting, scattered up and down the pavement, sitting in doorways, poking at their phones, assured us that it would be here directly (sure, it’s a bit late sometimes).

After three-quarters of an hour, when it still hadn’t turned up, Hugo and I repaired to the pub opposite – whereupon the bus arrived. The driver – the same one who had taken on the outward trip – appeared resolutely unconcerned: “Sure, it’s been busy today,” was all he offered.

We were too late to get the bike back, but the guy at the hire shop let us off. He was a Londoner, but London Irish so that counts.

In the end, we did get to sail. There was a 48-hour gap in the weather towards the end of the week – enough to dash over to Kinvara, about seven miles, take the tide up to the village and go to the pub. The pilot book says “The passage should be undertaken with great care and continuous use of the echo sounder.” 

We crept up,  just about maintaining steerage way, the tide doing most of the work and our noses pressed to our phone screens and the Navionics app.

Of course, after a couple of pints in the Pier hotel, we went back a lot faster – but then Hugo was driving, exhibiting all the resilience of youth.

I missed him when he left.

Then Con Brosnan turned up from Dublin half a day late and complaining about the traffic. Con is another Rival owner but his boat seems to have taken root in the yard in Gibraltar so it was back to Murphy’s bar and then, walking along the pontoon and feeling that Ireland had got the social juices flowing, I stopped in my tracks at the sight of biggest, most solid, most classically beautiful boat you can imagine. 

This was FlekkerØy, a 1936 Norwegian pilot boat with not a winch in sight, fabulous woodwork, a 10ft clinker dinghy stowed upright on deck, deadeyes…

And yet there was an enormous Rocna anchor, a full-size Raymarine plotter in the cockpit. Modernity where it mattered – tradition where it belonged…

Bjornar Berg and Klara Emmerfors met in a boatyard – he was the mechanic and she the shipwright. FlekkerØy started life in 1936 as a pilot boat for the island of the same name and carried on in service until 1968. Bjornar bought her in 2005 and now they have cruised to the Shetlands, the Faeroes, Iceland, Greenland, Nova Scotia – all the way down the coasts of Canada and the USA to the West Indies.

But the Caribbean was not a success. FlekkerØy’s 12m (by 4.6!) of woodwork absorbed every Joule of heat and promptly released it into the already-sweltering cabin. The two Norse people, more used to thick sweaters and two heaters for half the year, just couldn’t cope with this at all. So they headed North again. 

I asked where they were going after Galway but they simply had no idea – nor did they know where they were going to spend the winter. 

“We’ll see,” said Bjornar. “For now, we like it here.”

He had a point.


I don’t like towing a dinghy. It slows you down, it gets itself into trouble. In the worst-case scenario, you can end up losing it. That’s why I carry the smallest, lightest (only 10kg) I could find – you can deflate and stow it in five minutes so who needs to tow it?
But what I witnessed 20 miles North West of the Scilly Isles yesterday beggars belief.
First, there was an alarm from the AIS: A 12m pleasure vessel approaching at 12 knots – so it had to be a motor yacht. Anyway, sailing yachts don’t call themselves “Pleasure Vessels”. But there was something odd about the name of this one: TT Elysian.
“T/T” usually stands for “Tender to”. But nobody puts an AIS transponder on their dinghy – and anyway, what kind of dinghy do you find out in the Western Approaches – doing 12 knots in those big Atlantic rollers?
Then I looked more closely and saw that there were, in fact, two little green triangles – one overlapping the other. The second one was called Elysian – another “Pleasure Vessel”. But this one was 66m, also going to Lorient.
Sure enough, as they passed astern, there at the end of a very, very long line was a small, speedboat. Well, when I say “small”, the AIS pointed out that it was longer than Samsara but it did look very small compared to the mother ship.
Was it too big to get aboard? Could the 16 crew not be bothered? Did the owner know? Can you get away with treating a $500,000 Riva that way?
I’ve since looked online and found that Elysian is available for charter at $448,000 a week – and, let’s face it, isn’t that typical of the way people treat charter boats?
If you happen to find yourself rafted up alongside somewhere in the sun one evening and you get chatting to the owner over a beer, you might let them know…