Breakfast is served

This is the big news.

Forget meeting Kirsten Neuschäfer in the Marina office. Forget the local paper coming to interview me today – they did.

The big news is that I have a cockpit table!

Being able to sit up for breakfast in the sunshine with your plate in front of you and not drop apricot jam all over your lap is, I would suggest, one of the (few) advantages of new boats over old ones and something I have been trying to contrive in my 1973 Rival for as long as I can remember.

In fact, this ambition for al-fresco dining pre-dates Samsara. I wanted a cockpit table in Largo – and that was back in 1981.

The problem was always where to put it – for one thing, the Rival cockpit is snug, to say the least – which is just what you want for bashing into half a gale, but not a lot of good for fine dining. Also, what are you going to do with a cockpit table when you set off into said gale?

The obvious solution – as always with small boats – was to delve into the Lin and Larry Pardey philosophy of making everything on the boat serve two purposes (half a dozen would be better).

I thought about the lid of the chart table or a bunk board (too big); maybe a washboard (too small).

Meanwhile, there were other things to think about – a new one-piece washboard for one. By the time I had slotted in the old one’s three pieces behind me, it was time to go out again.

And, I must say, the new washboard with Its window so you can see why you don’t want to go out there after all and its 12 coats of varnish, really is a work of art. It is only now that I realise it is neither too big nor too small for a cockpit table. In fact, if only I could find some way of fitting it with legs, it would be perfect.

But maybe…

If there was some way of mounting it on top of the tiller, it wouldn’t need legs, would it? Maybe some folding attachment underneath…

I will spare you the trial and error – there is nothing more boring than mad inventors trying to explain the development process. Suffice it to say that because Samsara’s original owner, the extraordinarily innovative Birmingham engineer who fitted her out from a hull, had contrived two raised locker lids for the lazarette (which could double as seats high enough to see where you were going), one end of the washboard (sorry cockpit table) could fit under the handles. Then it turned out that the plastic container which soaks my breakfast porridge was just the right size to support the other end (more dual-purpose).

It turns out the whole thing is as solid as a rock. The raised seats make an excellent sideboard. Now you could hold a dinner party in Samsara’s cockpit. Well, a dinner party for two, perhaps.

So don’t all turn up at once.

6 Responses to Breakfast is served

  • Great idea John ! I might look at doing the same on my little Sadler 25. Fair winds.

  • A cockpit table is a symbol of one of those luxury yachts and hight of decadence. You’ll be fitting another rudder next 😉

  • This just gets better and better! Sail on, buddy!

  • Ahh, dinner no longer a washout….

  • Love your idea. Duel purpose just makes sense on small boats. I only met one smaller boat than my 30 footer in the last 8 weeks (a Vancouver 27) as I chatted with them I devoured all their great ideas. Small is more fun and it keeps your mind active. Thanks for passing on your knowledge I use a lot of your it. Enjoy the rest of your summer. Greg

  • I say how very civilised – wot a clever chap!

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The old man and the golden girl

Does everyone have those days when everything goes wrong? When, in fact, things go wrong from breakfast through ‘til suppertime for days on end?

And yet, while the catalogue of disasters piles up like unopened bills on the hall table, a tiny voice at the back of your mind keeps insisting that at any moment – it could be the very next moment –  something absolutely wonderful is about to happen.

Or is it just me?

I came to Les Sables d’Olonne because it is the world centre for singlehanded sailing. If there was anywhere on earth to launch the French edition of Old Man Sailing, this was it. Only last week, the whole town turned out to celebrate Kirsten Neuschäfer not only winning the Golden Globe singlehanded-round-the-world Race – but becoming the first woman to win any round-the-world sailing event, ever.

And in the process, becoming the single most famous sailor on the planet.

 I had this idea that all I had to do was turn up in Les Sables d’Olonne, and I could somehow siphon off some of the residual excitement and turn it into publicity for what is now called Le vieil homme hisse la voile (apparently, that works better in French).

My one bit of good luck had been running into an Australian in Lymington who had read the blog and came to say hello… actually, he didn’t at first. Instead, he stood on the quay watching me faffing about at the top of the mast, wondering if I would be able to get down again (I had accidentally disconnected myself from all means of support and was hanging on with my knees, so I knew I would be able to get down – just a bit quicker than I hoped).

All of this culminated in the astonishing coincidence that the watcher on the quay had grown up in Australia in the same small town as Don McIntyre, who runs the Golden Globe Race. He could put me in touch. I could ask Don to pass me on to all his media friends. I would be all over the local television news! My picture would be in the paper! The chat show hosts would be lining up their sofas on the dock! This was going to be brilliant!

Actually, no. Don emailed to say that the trouble with sailing and the French media is that there is too much sailing and not enough media. In fact, he hadn’t been able to get a single outlet to review the GGR film…

And as for my offer to send him a copy of the book: apparently, he hasn’t read a book in five years – unless you count the trashy novel on the Atlantic crossing in his Mini 5.80…

So, it is something of an understatement to say that things were not going according to plan. I had emailed everybody I could find on Google. I had asked politely if I might leave leaflets on the counter at the chandlery and the sailmaker (at least that’s what Google Translate said I was asking, it could have been something else.)

And then I got a puncture in my back tyre – and then another one straight after because I must have pinched the new inner tube with the tyre lever when I was changing it. So, I had to walk all the way across town to the repair shop following Google Maps (which meant going by pretty way).

After all of which, would you believe the Amazon parcel with the six copies of the book I had ordered for all those journalists and chat show hosts and reviewers, had not been delivered to the marina office after all.

“But certainly, not at all, for you nothing,” as the girl behind the counter put it.

But see here. Amazon has said my package has been delivered in your box of letters…

“Ah, the box of letters…”

Her colleague went to look.

It was while he was looking that I noticed the woman at the back of the queue – the one with the wild golden curls and the faded T-shirt advertising Epifanes yacht varnish and not pushing in when it wasn’t her turn or demanding this and that of everybody in sight.

There was something terribly familiar about her.

Surely, it couldn’t be Kirsten Neuschäfer herself – only the most famous sailor in the world, the darling of the media, the one person with access to more free publicity than you can shake a fluffy microphone at…

The marina assistant returned holding an Amazon package with my name on it.

I thanked him absent-mindedly, while saying to the patient Epifanes person: “Should I be congratulating you?”

She laughed: “If you must.”

So, I did.

And I gave her a leaflet.

And I told her my story (she did ask).

Then I gave her a book – and inscribed it.

And gave her a whole bundle of leaflets to give to her friends (her influential friends in sailing and the media).

And she was friendly and down-to-earth and thanked me as if she didn’t have every PR person in the universe pressing their products on her.

And she posed with me for a selfie.

When I got back to the boat, there was an email from one Blanche Poisson, of the Les Sables Vendée Journal. She would be very interested to meet me for an interview.

We’re meeting on board on Thursday. She says she speaks some English, but otherwise, M. Google will be our friend.

14 Responses to The old man and the golden girl

  • When you roll out of bed and stub your toe on the way to the head, then a jar of pickles falls out of the refrigerator and covers the cabin sole on pickle juice and bits of glass, you may suspect that this is “one of those days”. This is confirmed when every traffic light is red while driving to the local Chandlers. This portends the chain of small events that will color the rest of your day. Small tests of patience that in relating them to spouse and friends will garner you no sympathy but only little smiles that silently ask; what is your problem? Well, the problem is that there’s no way around it, it is “one of those days”.

  • You jammy dodger!

  • Bravo to Kirsten for becoming the first woman to win a round-the-world SOLO sailing race, but let’s not forget Wendy Tuck, who was the first woman to win a round-the-world sailing race (the 2017-2018 Clipper Round the World race).

    Good luck with your interview tomorrow. I will look for the article in the paper next week.

  • What a lady.
    I was sure you were going to show us how it got worse, not the silver lining.

  • John,your amazing life journey keeps getting better and better. Joie De Vivre

  • Nice one John.

  • Fantastic! Hope you enjoyed the whole experience, by the looks on your face you did!

  • Good on ya john!

  • Wow! You got to meet the Most Famous Sailor in the World!

  • Absolutely brilliant!!
    Thanks for illuminating serendipity
    Three cheers Kirsten

  • Fortuitous, bien sur!
    Bonne chance!

  • Formidable Mon cher ami!

  • Cold market Academy springs to mind JP

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The baguette

It is a law of nature in France (maybe it is a law of the Fifth Republic) that nowhere in the country is more than ten minutes’ walk from a bakery.

This means that at 7.00 a.m, as another blazing day began in Les Sables d’Olonne, the town was up and out for the morning’s baguette du moulin.

And I was up with them, nose to the screen, following Google Maps’ little blue dots to La Moulin de la Chaume (boulangerie et viennoiserie).

Actually, I wasn’t just up. I was up and bathed (well, a flannel, the little blue bowl balanced on top of the loo and a kettle of water courtesy of the marina shore-power). A fresh T-shirt and ready to face – not just the day – but a most important week.

For I am here to promote the French edition of Old Man Sailing: Le vieil homme hisse la voile (literally “The old man hoists the sail”). The translator, Christian Calliyannis, normally translates poetry and insisted it was a much better title – it has emotion in the words, apparently.

Apparently, he is right because Olivier Piquer in Montreal, who has narrated the Audible edition emails: “You have a beautiful book.”

This was important because it is a bit presumptuous to rock up in the world’s headquarters of singlehanded sailing and offer oneself for interview (via an interpreter, of course) to TV and radio stations, the local paper – and, frankly, anyone else who will give me the time of day. Particularly, when only last week, they were debriefing Kirsten Neuschäfer on becoming not only the winner of the Golden Globe Race but the first woman to win any Round-The-World sailing event.

But then recently, I have received an ego-boost. A review for the last book, The Voyage, from someone called Cassidy in the United States on May 11th reads:

“John Passmore is my new favorite writer.

“It’s truly wonderful to read someone who infuses all their work with wit and charm. For better or worse, he is a self-aware individual who never attempts to hide his warts. Truly it’s the opposite, he embraces them with humor and acceptance. I can’t recommend his books enough. If you love sailing, you will of course love his works, but I’m certain you could never set foot on a boat and still greatly enjoy the time you spent in John Passmore’s tiny floating world. This is a quote from “Old Man Sailing” I now find myself sharing with everyone, “It is a great comfort to be stupid. Disasters about to happen do not trouble the minds of those too dim to imagine them.” If you can read that and not laugh, you simply have no sense of humor. We have all had that feeling. That moment when we realize the only reason we find ourselves amid a disaster was our own inability to see what was obviously coming our way. Read his books!!”

So, on the strength of that, in Baltimore at the end of the Jester Challenge, I went off on the bus to Skibbereen and got a thousand leaflets printed in French, complete with translations of some of the best reviews of the English version – along with boastful little sub-heads like “10 000 exemplaires vendus en anglais” and “882 évaluations Amazon. 4,6 étoiles”. If I didn’t get on telly, at least I could hand them out in a town which can’t really tell the difference between singlehanded sailors and minor deities.

I wasn’t deliberately setting out to test this theory as I embarked on the search for baguette. But Google Maps landed me outside the boulangerie Moulin de la Chaume only to find the door firmly closed. An ancient, curling print-out informed customers that the establishment would be closed from the 22nd of June until the 6th of July. A hand-written note beside it advised them that their baguette du moulin would be available from the distributor on the quay.

Retracing the little blue dots, I found no sign of a bakery on the quay. There were cafés open at a quarter past seven with Frenchmen arguing about politics over small cups of coffee and even smaller glasses of cognac. But no baguette du moulin.

Not wanting to interrupt their discussion about the riots, I looked around for someone else to ask. There was only the road sweeper in his orange jacket, emptying the bins. I polished a simple sentence and tried it out on him.

Only in France would you find a road sweeper who not only makes an effort to understand your tortured grammar but actually takes you to buy your bread: “But certainly one may buy baguette du moulin. One may buy it from the automat for pieces.”

And certainly one might: A machine delivers warm bread down a chute every morning (and hot pizza by night, according to the sign).

It was a good start to the day – and given that, I turned to my new friend, the road sweeper and asked him: “Do you like the sail?” It was a reasonable question. He was, after all, resident in a town which turns out several times a year to line the breakwaters and wish Bon Voyage to one bunch of sailors or another.

But yes, he liked the sail. In Les Sables d’Olonne, all the world likes the sail.

I gave him a leaflet. He paused to read the headline: “Fascinating history which addresses well also to sailors or landlubbers”.

He smiled. He thanked me extravagantly.

And he put it in his pocket – not the bin, which was most gratifying.

An early morning walk through the back streets of Les Sables d’Olonne for the breakfast baguette.


10 Responses to The baguette

  • Hi John,
    I ‘m glad the classic boat channel on utube featured your yacht. As a 65 year old bloke, I thought I was too old to take up sailing. But you have inspired me. Like the isea of sailing around the world when you are a hundred.
    Also would like to enjoy a few beers without going to the head all night. Could you please send me the name of your supplement.
    Regards Mike Connors

  • Love the new hat and shades.

  • We enjoy your stories very much!!
    Rob and Anke van Breda

  • Good read John, have read your book and enjoyed it immensely! By the way do you have any tips for taking the mineral powder? I dissolve it in hot water but find it leaves a terrible taste. Cheers from another old sailor.

    • Yes, it’s absolutely disgusting, isn’t it. I dissolve it in the Fizzy Vitamins effervescent drink which is flavoured with pomegranate – reasoning that, at £11.47 a month, they’re not expensive and I’ve got to get my vitamins from somewhere.

  • thank you I love your stories

  • As usual I read and envey your lifestyle

  • They sure like Hollyhocks there

  • Nice one, John

  • Magnifique JP

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No joke

Ƒor a 6.5m boat, Anna Lusja II has a very powerful foghorn.

It’s electric. It would not disgrace a small coaster.

And it is pointing into her own cockpit.

When it went off in Baltimore Harbour, I nearly jumped out of my skin – and heads popped out of hatches for half a mile around.

But then Kris Matuszewsai doesn’t mind being being noticed. This is just as well. His home-built, self-designed breaking-all-the-rules boat is bound to get noticed.

Look at the picture – because no description is going to do her justice. Some of the failed attempts at conveying the last finisher in this year’s Jester Challenge are “a floating egg”, “a box under sail”,  “The Tardis meets Captain Nemo…”

Anna Lusja II

Let’s put it this way: Kris is an engineer who approaches problems from the perspective of “Here is the difficulty. How do we get round it?”

His difficulty, two years ago, was that he had sailed his 21ft Colvic Sunbeam, Anna Lusja I, from Greece to Portugal, the Canaries, the Carribbean, back to Europe and he really wanted a boat with a Great Cabin at the stern.

At the same time, he didn’t want anything over seven metres so that he could get it onto a trailer singlehanded. Also, he wanted a boat that could take the ground, that he could build himself and (after one forestay failure and three broken shrouds over the years), he did not want standing rigging.

Meet Anna Lusja II – 6.5m overall and 2.5m in the beam. Essentially square. Flat-bottomed with two ballasted asymmetrical retractable keels, twin rudders, steered by two whipstaffs; she has two separate cabins (the great cabin at the stern), a protected cockpit in the middle (green water has never entered the cockpit), two junk sails on unstayed masts and (well, why not) a composting head.

Kris sat in his great cabin, his elbow on a chart table winking with electronics and said: “I knew what I wanted.”

Kris Matuszewsai – I knew what I wanted.

You must admit that if you don’t mind being stared at, overhearing rude remarks from people in waterfront bars and everybody at the start of this year’s Jester Challenge wondering whether you are actually going to get over the start line at all – or simply drift sideways into Plymouth Breakwater, then the Ocean-going Bathtub might be just the thing.

OK, so he did arrive in Bushe’s Bar in Baltimore a whole day after everyone else. But on the way down the North Sea from Poland, with a stiff north-easterly behind him, he was clocking a consistent six knots and surfing at up to ten.

So, if you meet him in the Bahamas, be nice.

The great cabin


The cockpit – with two whipstaffs accessible from both cabins.



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Getting to the Jester

It was a bit like waking up on Groundhog Day – every morning, the Windy app showed the same forecast: a whole week of north easterlies.

Well, that was fine. I could stay in Sixhaven marina right in the centre of Amsterdam. I could go to Haarlem on the train and see the Frans Hals Museum – I’d already been to Leiden for the Saturday market and spent whole days following Google Maps down cycle paths and getting lost in the Van Gough Museum.

Best of all, the Aries self-steering was fixed. I was all ready for the start of the Jesters in Plymouth – but that was nearly three weeks away. All I had to do was make sure I got to the West Country sometime in the next month…

If you don’t know about the Jester Challenge, you should: It’s for eccentric (usually eccentric) singlehanders in very small boats who got kicked out of the OSTAR.

In the old days, like when I did the transatlantic back in ‘88, the smallest class – the Jester class – was for boats between 25 and 30ft. It was named after Blondie Hasler’s curious junk-rigged Folkboat, Jester.

But the Royal Western’s race committee, sitting in their expensive hotel accommodation in Newport, Rhode Island, after welcoming all the winners in their big boats, got fed up with waiting a month or more for the little guys to turn up. So, they raised the lower limit to 30ft.

A bunch of the excluded small-boat sailors promptly rebelled: “Sod it, we’ll organise our own event,” they said. “And we won’t have any nonsense about rules and regulations and safety inspections. Or prizes, come to that…”

So, on Sunday, 43 of us will set out simultaneously from Pwllheli and Plymouth to sail to Baltimore in Ireland with no more formality than having to sign a “blood chit” stating that if we sink, it’s our own stupid fault. Last year the destination was Newport – the weather was awful. Nobody got there – but on the other hand, nobody needed to be rescued. They all retired to ports around the Atlantic in seamanlike fashion with dignity intact. Two years before that, it was the Azores in the sunshine.

My boat, Samsara, at 31ft 10in, is technically too big for the Jester (but we know what they think of rules and regulations). Apparently, the skipper’s attitude is more important than overall length.

Besides, this year we will be in Baltimore for the gathering of the O’Driscoll clan. Last time, it was the Pirate Festival. I daresay the Guinness will flow just the same.

There has been only one small insect in the liniment: As I unfolded my bike in Ijmuiden to go and get my stupid black Brexit passport stamped by the immigration office on the other side of town, there was an important-sounding splash as a vital part of the chain tensioning mechanism dropped into the marina.

I walked to the immigration office. It was an hour each way. So that was one reason for stopping in Dover – there’s a Brompton bicycle agent in Folkestone. Also, my friend Patrick could get down to Dover in his camper van for fifteen pints and a curry. According to Windy, I could still get to Plymouth before the north easterlies dissolved into a weekend of calm.

It was with only a small degree of anxiety that I approached Beachy Head 24 hours late, flying along goose-winged with a reef in the main, four rolls in the jib and 80metres of 14mm multiplait in a bight astern to keep us straight. I cooked dinner (kidney bean chipotle with root vegetables and rice), and it was only as I was washing up that I felt the need to pay attention to the Aries and stop us actually bumping into Beachy Head (although more of that later).

Then, I had to go and adjust it again – and I still hadn’t finished washing up.

Adjusting the Aries is a matter of releasing a length of 8mm chain from an attachment on the tiller and fastening it a link or two further along. But this didn’t seem right – the tiller was all the way over to starboard, and there was no weather helm.

It took me an awfully long time to realise that where the tiller was pointing bore no relation at all to where the rudder was pointing. One side of the massive bronze casting which holds the two together had simply snapped in half – and the other side was bent and threatening to give way too.

Essentially, I had lost my steering.

Fortunately, I happen to know all about this. I have rehearsed the “steering failure disaster”.

That is to say, I have rehearsed it in my head. I carry a contraption called a SeaBrake, an Australian device which claims to do everything from getting you over those notorious Queensland harbour bars without broaching – and then stopping the boat from rolling her gunwales under once you’re anchored inside.

It can even be used for emergency steering – just tow it behind the boat with a line to each quarter and pull in the side you want to turn to. You can cross an ocean with a SeaBrake when an Orca bites off your rudder. You can certainly get to Plymouth.

…although, not with 80m of octoplait dragging astern – and with it, as I noticed now that I came to look closely, a large orange fishing float. How did that get there? It appeared to be wrapped around the rope. Anyway, it was kicking up a bow wave fit for a destroyer.

It disappeared as soon as I released one end of the line – which came in laboriously hand over hand and filled the cockpit – also it meant that the boat, with no steering and no drag behind her, started wandering all over the English Channel. I hove to and set about extracting the SeaBrake from its stowage behind the bike in the fo’c’sle. The bike is stowed behind the dinghy (I could tidy up later).

The SeaBrake

The SeaBrake has its own lines (45m, non-stretch) and needs a length of 10mm chain to help it sink – also, a fender on the tail end so that you can get it out of the water backwards when the time comes (I told you I’d thought about this).

It was only after I shackled the chain to the wrong line and rooted around finding the right size cable tie to mouse the pin that I realised this would all be a lot easier without a cockpit full of rope. Believe me, it was a very, very careful old man who set about paying out the warp without getting it round his leg or the gear lever.

Only when the cockpit was clear did I notice the chain lying on the floor, accusingly – not attached to anything.

This meant everything had to come in again. It was while I was cutting another cable tie, finding another shackle – not that one, the pin wouldn’t fit through the links – that my head torch ran out of charge. That’s the thing about rechargeable LED lamps – you don’t get any warning: One minute, bright as day – the next, total darkness,

And silence.

Funny that. The Force 5 that had blown us all the way from Dover seemed to have dropped away completely. Looking for some explanation, the only thing to be seen in the pitch darkness was the glow of the instruments – particularly the depth recorder… showing 1.4m.

Looking ahead, there appeared only total blackness – not a glimmer of horizon. Just the impenetrable black you get from looking at a cliff in the middle of the night,

A cliff so close that you have to look right up in the air to find the top of it.

So, that was what had happened to the wind – it was blanketed completely by Beachy Head. When I hove to, I hadn’t given much thought to which tack I was on. I was three miles offshore and rigging emergency steering wasn’t going to take long, was it?

Well, now we were in 1.4m of water, and Samsara hits the bottom when the little screen says 1.3.

Make it snappy: engine on, reverse – and back out with not a thought for the indignity of the situation.

Beachy Head (by day)

Then back to the job in hand: I think Australians buying the SeaBrake must all have secondary cockpit winches. If you haven’t, how are you supposed to pull in the line on the side you want to turn to?

I was about to get out the handy billy when common sense tapped lightly on the subconscious with a polite suggestion: Would it not be a better idea just to put into Brighton? Maybe the broken tiller would get me that far if I could only find a way to brace it, somehow…

I took a closer look. It was off-centre, but that wouldn’t matter – if I could just strengthen the broken side with something solid – and there’s nothing more solid than the big adjustable spanner: half a kilo of Halfords’ finest (rusty) chrome vanadium. Nothing would bend that.

It was while I was tightening the lashing and tying off the reef knots with my teeth that I looked over the stern – and there, trailing behind the boat like an obedient dachshund, was the servo-rudder of the Aries still tied to its safety line. The sacrificial linkage had snapped.

That was odd. In five years, it had never been subjected to the kind of force to threaten the legendary Aries cast-aluminium strength. Indeed, when I had one on Largo in the 1980s, that never snapped, either.

Maybe the big lobster pot had something to do with it. Hitting that at seven knots would be enough to slam the tiller over pretty hard. It would certainly be enough to pop the servo-rudder.

It was not until two in the morning that everything was squared away, and the big spanner proved that it should always be the first choice in a steering emergency: It took us all the way past Brighton, past St Catherine’s Point, Anvil Point, past Portland Bill, all the way across Lyme Bay. If there was any justice, it should get us into Plymouth on Saturday night before the wind fell light…

Actually, no, it didn’t. Instead, I spent Saturday night anchored in Starehole Bay outside Salcombe, waiting for the “westerly 8kts” promised by the Windy app early on Sunday morning.

Lunchtime found me going backwards, fiddling with the new Super Zero sail in two knots of wind while the Radio 4 forecaster got all excited about this weather pattern being set for the week and 30C in places away from the coast.

Two miles off the coast, there was an “occasional fog bank” with me in the middle of it, listening to the Eddystone’s mournful honking and trying to work out whether I had enough fuel to get into Mayflower Marina without stopping and having to anchor just where HM Harbourmaster says “No Anchoring”.

That was how I came to spend the next night in Hope Cove (which West Country sailors will know is all of ten miles from Starehole Bay). Five thirty the following morning had me rowing ashore with the bike and the empty fuel cans to ride the pretty Devon lanes to the Co-Op filling station at Marlborough.

Oh, I got to Plymouth in the end. Mark at MP Welding found the last brazing rod in Devon, and the rudder and the tiller now agree on where they’re going.

It might make a good story for the other eccentrics in Jolly Jacks.

Or maybe not; I just met a man who sailed from Emden in a 27footer…

5 Responses to Getting to the Jester

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By the crew, I don’t mean a row of matching T-shirts on the rail – or complaints from the foredeck that the sun goes behind the sail every time I go about.

Singlehanders don’t have that kind of crew. What I mean is the autopilot and the windvane. The one was getting far more attention than it deserved, and the other, none at all.

When I bought Samsara, she came with a Raymarine tillerpilot of indeterminate age. The previous owner insisted it worked – and it did.

Until I left it out in the rain.

I don’t mean rain going sideways in a 72-hour Atlantic gale with breaking seas that fill the cockpit so that the tillerpilot goes floating off like a bath toy at the mercy of a two-year-old.

No, it just rained and the wretched thing stopped working.

“Water ingress” as the local Raymarine agent called it. Obviously, it was a lot older than I thought. I bought a new one.

Within a month, that was back at Raymarine under the guarantee: “water ingress”, the report came back.

The second time it went back, they said they’d send me a new unit.

They never did – just the old one back again – and some free advice: “Don’t leave it out when it’s not in use.”

But what happens if I need to use it in the rain?

I found out in the Cape Verde islands – water ingress … and then again in the Caribbean…

By Grenada, I had realised I was never going to remember to bring the thing in every time it rained. So, I got the local sailmaker to run up a little waterproof jacket for it with a Velcro fastening at the back and a window at the front so I could see to press the buttons. It was rather like dressing a favourite doll.

But it didn’t do any good.

By the time I got back to Falmouth, I had already placed my order as soon as the mobile signal popped up off the Scillies – and this time I would have a proper autopilot, with the compass and the circuit board hidden away below decks. This one arrived in an enormous cardboard box full of component parts and manuals – and advice about routing the cables and avoiding electrical interference…

I couldn’t make head or tail of it. I sent it back and ordered another tillerpilot – and three months later, it was still in perfect working order. I emphasised this when I sold it on eBay and got Dave Jones of AdvancedTech Marine to order up another box of component parts, manuals and what-not. Dave knows all about electrical interference.

It seems a lot of trouble to go to just to get in and out of harbour at the same time as dealing with the warps and fenders.

Because the real self-steering is the Aries windvane. This came with the boat. It’s the lift-up version like the one I had on Largo back in the 80s – the same model that Jon Sanders choose. If it’s good enough for someone who’s been round the world eleven times on his own…

Aries owners tend to be a bit evangelical about their self-steering, so it is only right that once in my lifetime, I should make the pilgrimage to a little lock-up industrial unit on the north side of Amsterdam. There an ex-plumber called Lean Nelis repairs and manufactures what he unashamedly calls “the beautiful mechanism”.



Headquarters of the Aries empire

Lean Nelis

A new Aries on its way



I reckon my Aries is a 1990 version – which makes it thirty-three years old – and in all that time, I don’t think it’s had a proper service. I didn’t realise it needed one until Con Brosnan in Ireland showed me his (lying on the floor of his dining room like a piece of farm machinery in a barn).

His didn’t wobble. It didn’t clonk either. The whole thing seemed much more “solid” somehow. This was not surprising – as Lean was to discover, thirty years’ of wear on the main shaft had moved the stainless steel axis in ways that were never intended. In all, it took him 13 hours to put it all right what with all the wrecked bushes and bearings – and there were some extra hours devoted to sitting around the workbench surrounded by tooth vane carriages and pivot shaft spacers, drinking coffee and getting to know the neighbours.

This part of north Amsterdam used to be the artists’ quarter, and it’s still a rabbit warren of artisan workshops. For instance, next door there was Nico, who could talk for hours about rebuilding old bicycles.

Of course, there’s no money in old bikes – not in the Netherlands where everyone has an old bike – so the rest of the time, he repairs saxophones…

…saxophones? Did he do clarinets?

Sure, he could do clarinets.

The next day, I delivered mine. It hadn’t been serviced since before I took off for the Caribbean in 2021 – much against the advice of the last woodwind technician. The whole thing had begun to wobble, I told Nico.

He fixed it – replaced the cork, gave it new pads – and offered some free advice: Don’t let it dry out. Get a length of garden hose. Make some holes in it and push a damp sponge inside. Then insert the whole thing into the instrument when not in use.

Or, I suppose I could leave it out in the rain…

7 Responses to Crew

  • Just had your book for leap year present. Look forward to reading your adventure

  • I am learning to sail.
    Having achieved my Day Skipper recently, a couple of days out on a skippered charter in The Solent, I am ready for the 5day practical RYA course.
    Old Man Sailing I found to be an informative and entertaining read.
    Introducing to me so much about sailing I hadn’t thought existed.
    Disposal of sardine tins! Who would have thought!

    All in all, an enthralling light read I would recommend.
    Your knowledge of yachting impressed me no end. To think, I will be looking to learn what for you is, just natural.
    Stay lucky John.

  • Fascinating, John! What an interesting chapter you are recording. Best wishes, Alick.

  • I get a lot of enjoyment from your stories. Thank you

  • Good story John, well up to scratch

    • Well done John, I am glad your recent brief stay with us provided some insight into the finer workings of the Aries windvane. I am certain the refurbishment will guarantee you years of piece of mind when the seas are climbing, and the chips are down…Fair Winds John.

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You can tell the age of a tree by counting the rings.

It’s the same with boats – except, with boats, you count cable ties.

I am well aware that Samsara is an old boat because any time I investigate the wiring, I discover that generations of previous owners have been most fastidious when adding new electrical gadgets – each one making sure to keep the wiring tidy by attaching the new cable to the existing network with cable ties – more cable ties.

This means that what started in 1973 as a single wire to the nav lights on the pulpit soon doubled up with the fo’c’sle reading lights … and then the blower to ventilate the wardrobe locker, a tape player, cool box, more lights for the fo’c’sle (why?) Then, we had all the stuff for the mast – lights, wind instrument and, in due course, a great fat information highway for the radar. And that was all before the owner before the owner before last added an electric windlass.

I was aware of all this, of course – and not unduly troubled. I just added a few more ties when I decided the perfect place for the fan was between the fridge and the heater (the theory was that it would draw cool air towards the one and then blow the warmed exhaust across the other – as I say, that was the theory).

And then, today, I set about installing the new “active” antenna for the Navtex. This meant routing it from the chart table back to the pushpit – although, of course, you do it the other way round because you’d never get the aerial through all the little holes.

Also, it meant taking out the old cable.

I believe I may be the first owner to think of this. Every time I look in a locker, I find redundant wiring – some of it already snipped off…some, indeed, still connected to 12volts at the other end…

Now I understand why. The old Navtex cable was secured at every opportunity – either to the cable for the stern light – which, like the port and starboard on the pulpit, had obviously claimed first mover’s rights. The stern light’s cable ties were screwed to the deckhead, the back of the navigator’s seat, the shelf above what might once have been a quarter berth. There was even a bit of conduit in there at one point.

And where the stern light cable went, so did the Navtex cable – and the autopilot cable – and a tiny and ancient bit of domestic two-core with a piece of plastic tape wrapped around it clearly stating “ply~??x”. I suspect that this must be some obscure translation of “compass light”. It was disconnected at both ends.

Meanwhile, how was I supposed to extricate it now that it had been joined by a GPS, a plotter, a wind charger and a water charger – each with its own collection of cable ties? I found five of them at one point – by which I mean five in the same place, literally on top of each other.

Like an enthusiastic gardener with a new set of secateurs, I set to work with the wire cutters.

This can be a problem. It’s not long since I snipped off the port forward cabin light. How was I to know someone had decided to route it through the front of the heads compartment and then back down the other side?

Gradually the pile of snipped-off cable ties grew – like dead-heads in July. A heap of ancient wire piled up alongside it. I could feel the boat getting lighter as I worked.

It would be interesting to know just how many redundant cable ties there were. It should be 50, of course – since the boat came out of her mould in 1973. But by the time I thought of counting them, I had already thrown them away.

Anyway, it would have been pretty pointless: I’ve been finding more all evening – under the table, under the tea towel, in my coffee cup (noticed that just in time) and – I knew there was something wrong – inside my shirt…



9 Responses to Wiring

  • With every respect, after reading this I must decline any invitation to go to sea with you in Samsara.

    But good luck to all who sail in her!

  • Always useful to remove all cut cable ties. They’re the perfect size to end up in the bilge jamming bilge pumps…

  • I can well relate to your pain. The original owner had asked for all skin fittings to be grounded, the extra wiring is good for attaching everything else to. To add to it they all run through conduit – whoever thought putting the cable ties on at regular intervals before pulling it through the conduit should be shot.

  • I really do enjoy reading your posts !! Living the dream !

  • And all the wires are the same colour. Tracing anything is a nightmare. I keep a “special “ length which can reach anywhere from bow to stern with a connector to join onto my multimeter. Oh the fun we’ve had. Btw my boat is 1974.

  • Wiring! oh what a joy……One question JP. When choosing the word ‘Secateurs’ did you have to look up the spelllling 😉

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Refit: The Rig

When you think about it, aeroplanes don’t go flying about with 50-year-old wings, do they?

The question came up while standing beside Tony Jones’s mobile rigging workshop with Samsara’s mast laid out horizontally. Tony was explaining how the sheave assembly at the bottom had dropped out in front of his eyes, the headsail furling gear had disintegrated in his hands and what really puzzled him was how I had managed to hoist the main – there being nothing left of the bearing at the top.

But a 50-year-old mast – built in the days when they were just starting on metal masts – would, he insisted, be good for another 50 years.

Particularly once we’d epoxied a steel plate in the place where there was currently a gaping hole.

Tony doesn’t believe in replacing stuff that doesn’t need replacing – as evidenced by his ”Mobile Rigging Service” – an ancient Mercedes van which hasn’t moved from its corner of Conwy Marina car park in living memory.

The rig was going to be another aspect of the Big Refit: A new Profurl system (Tony thought the new model Furlex looked a bit flimsy). Then there was new standing rigging, new halyards. He even talked me into a new VHF aerial combined with a Windex – “although we’ll have to move your little man”.

  • Well, as long as you put him back facing to starboard. He has to face to starboard, or he doesn’t work.

The Lego Man is now leaning at a crazy angle. I can’t see why it should make him any less effective. If you want to know how a Lego figure dressed as a pirate and with the ship’s name across his chest comes to be at the top of the mast, you’ll have to read

But there’s not much point in new rigging if it’s attached to old fastenings. I’d been carrying around the deadweight of the new deck bolts for a year – a fellow-member of the Rival Owners Association had been given a quote for fabricating new ones, and the owner of the machine shop explained: “Of course, they’d be cheaper if you had half a dozen sets all at once – or a hundred would be cheaper still…”

He never did get a hundred takers, but there must have been about a dozen of us who chipped in. But was it really necessary to go up from 10mm to 12? They’re massive.

Actually, this didn’t seem to be such a bad idea when I removed the old ones, and one of the nuts turned out to be cracked right across.

Then we got at the chainplates. If you know your Rivals you will recognise that these come in two parts – one each side the main bulkhead and they’re designed to be bolted together to squeeze the wood between them and it’s the friction as much as the bolts themselves which is supposed to stop them moving.

On each side, one of the plates has a flat top like the figure 7. This is to take the deck bolt.

Except some extra strain by some daft skipper holding on to too much sail for too long (not me – never me, of course) had caused the 3mm steel to bend so that the flat tops of the 7s were now angled awkwardly upwards.


We took them to Richie.

Richie Williams runs a metal workshop out of a cowshed in Glenadda. It hasn’t had much attention since the cows moved out, but Richie can do marvels with metal. He once replaced the bushes on my self-steering without having the slightest idea of what it was or how it was supposed to work.

The new chainplates are 5mm, and the flat tops are reinforced with what somebody decided to call “gussets”. I don’t think they’re likely to bend – although I mustn’t delete the picture of the old ones. Maybe it will help me see reason when I get over-enthusiastic about beating into a Force Seven – even if I do now have an extra layer of chopped strand mat on each side of the bulkhead.

And yes, the mast is up again – and it has taken me from North Wales to Amsterdam where, yesterday I painted over the epoxy rather in the manner of a crone applying make-up with a trowel.

Nobody at Sixhaven marina (a third of the price of St Katherine’s) has said anything. Indeed, I have even had some compliments – there’s no point in going to all this trouble if you don’t get compliments…

4 Responses to Refit: The Rig

  • Good to have good look at the real engine of your boat, the standing rigging and the sails!! Our boat (and mast) will be 50 years old next year. Next winter I will give the riggen an extra inspection and intend to replace some seacocks. Also critical items.
    ( tip: some harbours around the Haringvliet in the south of Holland are even cheaper than the Six harbour in Amsterdam)

    • Great reading your blog as my sailing days draw to an end. That you sail a Rival makes me wonder if Two Brothers Sailing have ever checked their rigging to this extent. Thanks and keep blogging!!!

  • It makeś you wonder how long it would’ve been until the mast failed on you. The good thing is you got there first and you have someone sensible doing the work. I don’t think in the longer term you’ll regret 12mm bolts or reinforced chain plates with gussets!

  • As I have said before not sailed but have a great interest in boats from land find all this information fascinating thanks

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Refit: New sails

When Nelson took over the Victory, she was already well over 30 years old. He asked the Admiralty for a refit.
The bill came to more than the ship cost to build.
Well, Samsara is going to be 50 years old this summer, and I got her five years ago as cheaply as you can buy any old fibreglass boat these days.
Also, last year’s circuit of the Canaries, the Gambia, Cape Verdes, Grenada, up to the BVIs and back to Falmouth was essentially a trial run to see what I really needed before I headed off for the long term.
That’s right. I shall be departing in September, and the boat, at least, will not be coming back for ten years or more. So, I needed to get her right. I needed a Big Refit.
I returned to Conwy in North Wales. That was where I got her, and Barry Lovell and his crew at TLC Boat Repair had done a grand job then. I gave Barry the new list. He blinked a bit.
I’m not going to catalogue it all in this post. That would make it much too long. So let’s take it a bit at a time – and start with the best bit: The sails.
As regular followers of this blog will know, I have not had a good relationship with Samsara’s sails over the past few years. She came with three headsails and two mainsails (not to mention working and storm jibs). Suffolk sails made me a trysail – and thank heavens they did: it was all that got me back after the mainsail disintegrated 150 miles off the Azores.
Then there was the headsail, which sailmakers kept telling me had “plenty of life left in it” – but still kept gathering patches. In the end, it gave up off the north coast of Anglesey. There didn’t seem to be much point in trying to rescue it – the working jib took me the rest of the way.
I didn’t care. I’d been to the Boat Show. I’d spent an hour on the Crusader stand with Paul Lees. I had become somewhat over-enthusiastic.
By the time I hauled out the credit card and paid an enormous deposit, I had ordered a new headsail and main in Vectran and something called a “Super Zero”, which is a massive sail made out of some sort of space-age laminate to be set on its own furler from a miniature removable bowsprit.

Interestingly, this would not be poking out a metre in front of the rest of the boat – that’s for gennakers and the like. This just needed a point to take the tack which kept it away from the regular headsail furler.
I have to say it’s amazing – and I can sail closer to the wind than I can with the new Vectran headsail.

That’s pretty good in itself – much smaller than you would expect (it stops a metre short of the masthead , high-cut so I can see under it and the clew is only just aft of the mast. This means it still sets well when rolled in a blow – but it did leave me under-canvassed in light airs (hence the Super Zero).
Apparently Vectran sails will go on setting well because they don’t stretch. All that can happen is that the stitching wears out – apparently, you have to line up the holes to sew it back together because it’s so tough you can’t push a needle through it.
I hadn’t realised quite how tough until I tried to furl it – it’s like handling sheet metal. Nor had I opted for full-length battens because I’d always been quite happy with Samsara’s short ones. Also,  I have bitter memories of the tiny nuts falling out of Largo’s long ones in the middle of a Biscay gale.

The new sail, however, brings difficulties of its own. To begin with, it took me a full ten minutes to furl the thing  (I believe I’m getting better at this). Also, I notice that Kirsten Neuschafer on Minnehaha chose short battens. Apparently, the long ones can jam if you try and reef with any wind in the sail. Anyway, if short battens are good enough for the Golden Globe winner…
Meanwhile, you can’t have a new mainsail without a new sail cover – and it would never do to have a tatty old sprayhood…
Next, the rig…

12 Responses to Refit: New sails

  • Hi, I am interested what Vectran sailcloth was used by Crusader for your sails – they seem to have a few on their website. Was it their own Vektron cloth? Very interested in how the sails perform and last!

  • John – any chance you can make the images a bit bigger? with an R34 I am intrigued by the detail

  • When the ship that is tired returneth, With the signs of the sea showing plain,
    Men place her in dock for a season, And her speed she reneweth again.
    From The Laws of the Navy by Rear Admiral Hopwood.

    You’re doing a great job, John! Best wishes, Alick

  • Love your blog and at 57 hoping to get into sailing proper. More of a google sailer at the mo . Must retire !! Taking the plant based derived and now fighting off all those children bug at school! Thanks big guy!!

  • Hi John, Steve from Stroud here. This is not related to your latest post but I was walking through Weston-super-Mare today having taken my Grandson on a train trip from Stroud. As we headed for the seafront, (there’s no harbour at Weston incidentally), I noticed a tattoo parlour; Samsara Inks. Any connection? Do you have a tattoo? As all sailors used to have.
    I’m still enjoying your blog, keep up the good work.

  • My Vectran 150% Genoa for Sancerre was like that at first, a major job just to hoist singlehanded, 12k nm later it’s still going strong and looks like it will continue to do so for a long time yet and is as easy to hoist and furl as the cheap Dacron sail it replaced

  • Where is the 10 year trip taking in John. I’m refitting and then sailing to Tasmania, slowly. Mohht run across you. Stu

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Van life

The refit is almost complete. It is time to move back aboard. It is time to move out of the campervan.

Yes, for the past six months, I have been living in a Ford Transit.

This was the logical choice. Obviously, I had to move off Samsara – the cabin being torn apart to get at the chainplates, the central hatch and whatnot.

I did consider renting a room, but how much would that cost? Besides, how boring is renting a room? How depressing!

But a camper van… now that could be fun – and I would have wheels into the bargain.

The more I thought about it, the more of a brilliant idea it seemed: I could do a tour of the children at their northern universities, I could visit friends – including the old school chum in Scotland I hadn’t seen since we were both 19 and hitchhiked to the South of France…

And so, for six months, I lived in a space even smaller than the boat – 2.9m by 1.8m and with headroom of just 1.4m to be exact – but then, didn’t I once spend weeks at a time in an 18footer?

And it was fun. 

For one thing, I became a part of that little-known undercurrent of 21st century culture: vanlife.

This is what happens to people who fall out of the bottom of society, hand back the keys to their grotty flat and take to the road where they blossom and flourish (there’s a film about it – look up Nomadland).

I joined the VanlifeUK Facebook group – which turned out to be full of advice on the error codes of Chinese heaters and where to find a water tap. Then there is an app called Park4Night which tells you the nearest place you can stop without getting moved on by the police and provides useful information about the scenery, the local pub and whether you will be troubled in the middle of the night by doggers trying to peer through your curtains.

I chose a Transit over an out-and-out motorhome. Purist vanlifers would not be seen dead in an AutoSleeper deluxe. With a van, parking overnight on a residential street, you might be mistaken for a tradesman. It’s called “stealth camping”. Maybe I should have invested in a bit of signwriting rather than the go-faster stripes it came with.

On the very first night, parked off the road in the middle of nowhere on the way back from the dealer in Derby, there was an enormous crash on the side. Honestly, I thought someone had run into me. 

It was only the local farmer going home late on his quad-bike and probably resenting someone being tucked up without a care in the world.

Another time, somewhere in the wilds of Cambridgeshire, a polite tap on the door: I was cooking dinner and looked out to find two uniformed men and a van emblazoned with “Security”. With the utmost courtesy, they explained they were contracted by the local parish council to break up travellers’ encampments.

Commenting only on the delicious smell of frying onions which wafted from my sliding door, they agreed: “We can see you are a mature gentleman. You’re not going to cause any trouble, so we will wish you a pleasant evening and ask you to move on in the morning.”

I assured them I would – just as I assured the churchwarden in Yorkshire that I was only in the car park at ten o’clock in the morning because I had flattened the engine battery trying to charge my laptop. The AA would be along directly.

Reading about it now makes me think that, actually, it was all a bit more interesting than I remember. The original plan had been to write a book about it: Old Man in a Van – I think I may have the first chapter tucked away in the microchips somewhere.

But in fact, life in just over seven cubic metres soon became fairly mundane because I was not constantly on the move, seeing new places, meeting new people. In fact, I stayed for most of the time in the marina, parked right next to Samsara and plugged into her electricity supply at night (she hogged it during the day to run the dehumidifier).

Also, I had to get out before eight in the morning to avoid being blocked in by the boatyard staff with their travel lift, tractor and trailer, JCB and so on – quite apart from the possibility of them plonking a 50footer across my exit. I’m sure they did it deliberately – although maybe living in a space somewhat smaller than a Devil’s Island prison cell might have sparked a bit of paranoia. 

One way and another, the more I think about it, the more interesting it seems. Maybe there’s a book in it after all.

Meanwhile, if you fancy sampling vanlife, I can recommend it – and, if you like small boats, there’s the ideal vehicle on eBay just at the moment:

2 Responses to Van life

  • When I was building the toilet for my boat (yes, I had to build it because the so-called composting heads offered comercially are too big and too expensive), I visited several of these van web sites and Youtube channels to do my research as most of them have a desiccating head in one form or another. Its amazing how self sufficient these people try to be, hats off to them, living a lifestyle not too different from us cruisers. I hope you didn’t mention that cruising on a sailboat you could a lot farther and a lot more fun. The anchorages are already over populated 🙂

  • I had a lovely lady, a Spanish physiatrist, who worked with me on rebuilding my boat. Her dream was to own a van, and so she did, she owned two of them. Now I understand there is a van culture. Good luck with the rest of your boat projects, they never seem to end.

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