48 hours of fame

They do say that one small, spur-of-the-moment decision can change your life.

The last 48 hours have been like nothing I have ever experienced before.

It all began very innocently: I was underneath the galley trying to stop the water pump squirting all over the ready-use stores when Jeremy Vine popped up on Radio Two to tell Ken Bruce he would be talking about “What we will miss when Lockdown ends.”

Well, of course, my lockdown was a bit different. As you now know, I skipped it entirely – or rather, I took the social distancing instructions seriously. Boris said: “Two metres”. I went for 3,629 miles.

I sent in my pennyworth to Radio Two. After all, my sister had suggested that particular instalment deserved a wider audience.

Years ago, it wouldn’t have been a problem. I had a column in Yachting World – and another in the Daily Telegraph. But now I’m old and past it. Most of my former colleagues are long gone – although old hacks never die. They just pontificate on Facebook.

I did send a couple of emails to the Guardian, although it wouldn’t surprise me if they lost them. Certainly, they never got back to me.

But Jeremy Vine not only read my email. He read it out on air to all his 7.42million listeners. I have it here: “I am over 70 and they were telling me that I would have to stay indoors for three months. Instead, I went sailing on my own. I thought I might get arrested if I went through the Dover Strait and so I went over the top of the Shetlands, down to the Azores in mid-Atlantic (didn’t stop) and then back to ask ‘Is it all over yet?’ It doesn’t seem to be and I had such a good time that as soon as a spare part arrives, I’ll be off again.”

It was a shame I missed it. I was on the phone at the time. Still, maybe there would be a flurry of listeners wanting to contact me saying: “Has he got a blog? Has he written a novel? Does he have a magical health supplement? Can I join his remote business and get paid to go sailing too?

Actually, no. I spent the afternoon with Woody Allen’s autobiography – and then sat up until two in the morning watching Love and Death on Prime.

So, I was still in bed idly marvelling at the news from the USA when the BBC rang: Would I do a ten-minute interview with Jeremy Vine?

Well, of course I would do an interview with Jeremy Vine. I felt sure I could find ten minutes at 1.30 (it doesn’t do to seem too keen).

No sooner did I press the “end call” button than I was out of the sleeping bag, making a list of points to cover and rehearsing my off-the-cuff rhetoric. Mustn’t forget to mention the blog. What would he ask? Just how far offshore is Rockall? Is it cheating to measure from the mainland? The Nutella joke is good… Remember the blog – write that down in big letters and keep it next to the phone…

So: An early lunch, charge the phone, ringtone to “silent” … not the best signal off Trefusis Point but we’re doing it on WhatsApp…

Of course, the rest – if not history – is certainly destined for my collection of favourite anecdotes. I was still talking when the messages started pinging in: “You’re on Radio Two!” (Yes, I know).

I remembered to mention the blog – in fact Jeremy repeated it at the end, bless him. The afternoon went by in a blur. Everybody rang up. Everybody had heard it – although when Tamsin gave her mother advance notice, Eira said: “But our Radio’s on Radio Four.”

– Well, change it, then.

“I don’t think we know how…”

Hits on the blog shot up to 5,000 – and counting…

The BBC got through to say “thank you” and how well they thought it had gone – and then rang back to say that a literary agent wanted to talk to me. Would it be all right to give him my number? (Please, can I pay you to give my number to a literary agent?)

This turns out to be Jeremy Vine’s literary agent – and Anton du Beke’s – and a whole lot of other people who I’m sure I would know if I paid more attention to popular culture.

Would I write a book? He was sure he could find a market for it. I had a novel too? Self-published on Amazon? Maybe he could find a home for that as well…

Of course, I mean yes – please… A proper publisher… and book tours… and chat shows and all that champagne and those little canapes with the caviar that falls off onto the carpet…

Ah, but wait: Maybe I should get back to him – just in case there was an email in my inbox with a million-dollar advance from Random House…

He sent me his CV.

I have spent this morning writing furiously to make up for lost time – except that I keep stopping every time the phone goes ping and somebody else wants the magic supplement. It’s just as well Facebook doesn’t ping – the part-time money people come in on Facebook because I need to check their profile pictures first (don’t ask). Also, Kindle Direct Publishing has to be refreshed every 20 seconds in case someone else has bought the novel.

Naturally, Random House let me down (and the galley pump is still leaking) but the blog is up to 55,000 hits. More than 300 information packs have gone out for the magic health supplement and I’ve raised the good-taste threshold for profile pictures before I agree to talk about the money thing.

Meanwhile, the agent has gone off to play the recording to all those proper publishers.

If you missed it, here it is:


What is it they use to make sardine cans? You’d think they were boxing up nuclear waste, the weight of metal in those things.

Admittedly, this is not something that had occurred to me until I read that the Golden Globe racers were committed to throwing nothing into the ocean unless it was fully biodegradable.

That was a couple of years ago. The real clincher was seeing a YouTube video of the bottom of a harbour in the Mediterranean. It looked like a rubbish tip – completely carpeted with cans and bottles and broken bits of this and that – anything that should have gone into a dockside bin if only anybody could be bothered to take it ashore and dispose of it properly.

To my shame, I had never thought of this before.

My earliest memory of being environmentally conscious was back in the 50s when my father would lean over the side of our Folkboat while holding the neck of an empty beer bottle in one hand and a hammer in the other. He kept the hammer stowed in the corner of the cockpit for just this purpose. The idea was to smash the end off the bottle and let go of the neck without cutting his hands, getting shards of glass on the deck – or dropping the hammer instead (which did happen). When winch handles became detachable he used those instead – with the same sorry result.

Life became easier when Inde Coope invented Long Life Pale Ale in cans: Instead of the hammer, you had a little device which pressed a triangular hole into the top of the can (and a second one on the other side to let the air in as the beer poured out).

The greatest advantage was that, when the can was empty, you could make a couple of holes in the bottom and just toss it over the side and watch it sink slowly into the wake. Father used to say it was a better method of gauging the speed than the Walker log – although he did keep losing the little hole-punch.

It never occurred to any of us that there was anything wrong with throwing beer cans over the side – or any rubbish, come to that. As long as it would sink or make food for the fishes, over the side it went.

There’s a lot about this in The Riddle of the Sands with the skipper, Davies, forever deep-sixing anything he considered surplus to requirements. Back in the 80’s I used to amuse myself in ocean calms by dropping used batteries over the side and watching them go tumble slowly down into the depths twinkling in the sunlight… deeper and deeper…

You wouldn’t do that now. It’s no better than fly-tipping – and I did wonder how on earth those Golden Globe competitors were going to store all their gash for six months (or 322 days in the case of the last man home). In fact, there was a simple answer: As they used the stores, more space would become available for the waste.

All the same, you wouldn’t want to mix the two in the same locker. That’s how, on my comparatively modest six-week Lockdown cruise, I found myself running out of space.

Potato peelings could go over the side of course – and apple cores and onion skins (at least the bits that didn’t blow back all over the deck). It was the plastic packaging and the empty cans that were going to be the problem.

Without knowing it, I had trained for just this moment: At home, I used to get into terrible trouble for being really boring and trying to reduce the family’s volume of waste by chopping up and compacting everything that went into the kitchen bin. In my defence, I was the one who had to get it all into the wheelie bin which, now, is collected only every two weeks.

I became an expert at stamping on empty cans and blunting the kitchen scissors by cutting up ketchup bottles. At one point I became so excited that I went to see a patent lawyer with a view to inventing a kitchen waste shredder – the garbage equivalent of the home-office paper shredder. I still think it’s a good idea but apparently, you can’t get a patent until you have a working prototype. My enthusiasm didn’t stretch that far.

Now, of course, well on the way down the Western Approaches and with nobody to tell me off, I started snipping mushroom cartons into pieces the size of postage stamps and perfected my chopped-tomato-can-flattening technique: Place the empty can on the cabin sole with the base against your right instep. Press down on the open end with your left foot. Do a little dance to shift your feet and use the right heel to fold down the base of the can until it lies on the flattened side – thus reducing the cylindrical can to a single-dimension rectangle in twoeasy steps.

This is all very well for chopped tomato cans – even for the small (and therefore more tricky) sweetcorn packaging. But what about sardines?

The sardine tin is a completely different – indeed devilish – shape. It is not tall enough to enable any leverage from the left foot. It won’t even stand on its side if the boat is moving about.

Of course, you could argue that a sardine can is so small as to be insignificant in the environmentally-conscious sailor’s scheme of things. But I was carrying 49 of them. This provided a certain urgency.

I tried bending in the sides with pliers – then mole grips. I made some progress with the portable vice clamped to the companion steps (but that took longer than lunch).

In the end, it was back to the 50s – to Father’s solution with the beer bottles: Time to get out the big hammer.

This now lives under the chart table and I have developed a system of gentle taps building to increasingly heavy blows in order to fold down the centre of each side: You have to be careful not to hit your fingers and the ridged base of the tin can dent even the most robust workbench (or in Samsara’s case, the chopping board).

With practice, it is possible to get the sides level with the bottom. Then, all that remains is brute force to bash the ends into two compliant points. The whole thing ends up as a sort of kite shape. It’s rather artistic. More importantly, you can get 49 of them into a single gash-bag.

Do rinse them first, though…


Considering the urgency when all this began, it has dragged on, rather.

With 700 miles still to go to Falmouth, the gas alarm went off.

At least it meant there was some gas – too much, in fact. The last time I returned from the Azores, I ran out of the stuff. This time I had three 7kg cylinders. The trouble was that rather a lot of it seemed to be in the bilges.

Still, after pumping at nothing for 100 strokes and flapping a tea-towel at the sensor, it did agree to turn back on long enough to cook a plate of pasta (just as well I like it al dente).

But that was only a temporary concession. A couple of days later, the gas lasted only long enough for couscous. By the time it refused to allow me a cup of tea, I had chosen a new cooker out of the Force4 catalogue and was getting used to the prospect of 500 miles of what I liked to think of as “iced coffee” (Nescafe, Nestles Milk and water from the fridge).

As soon as the Isles of Scilly broadcast the faintest whisper of a mobile signal, I was on the phone and justifying £499 worth of stainless steel with flame failure devices on all burners and a thermostatic oven.

The trusty Flavel Vanessa was 47 years old, after all. It was time it retired.

Delivery on the new one would be 5-7 working days, they told me. I would have to go to Pendennis Marina – I couldn’t see how I could get an 18kg package almost half a metre square from the Harbour Office, out in the dinghy and then hoisted aboard at anchor off Trefusis Point – at least, not without dropping it on my toe or in the water.

In the end, delivery took longer than 5-7 working days – something to do with the Coronaviris pandemic (have you noticed that everything gets blamed on the Coronavirus pandemic, rather as people used to sigh and say “It’s the war…”)

That would have been OK if only I hadn’t plugged into the marina’s 240volts and made a cup of tea. Oh, the joy of a hot cup of tea!

But was it worth it for £34.90 a day in marina charges?

This was not something that concerned the other residents. For instance Mariette, the 42m Herreshoff gaffer had plugged in a cable as thick as your wrist. She might have been built in 1915 but she has a washing machine to run.

Alternatively, there was Mike on Blue Gypsy – even older than me and living in retirement in the marina after a lifetime in the Pacific. If you were going to stop and look at Mariette because she seemed brand new but still had a gaff rig, you were certainly going to look at Blue Gypsy. She started out as a Nonsuch but Mike ditched the wishbone masts and put up a junk rig. Five minutes after pausing to look, I was sitting in his cockpit with the rum bottle and he was pressing a camping stove on me.

Just as well too: The new gimbals didn’t fit. They would have to go off to Falmouth Boat Construction to be welded (and delivered after hours to the night watchman to ensure social distancing).

This was getting expensive – and I hadn’t even started with the gas engineer to connect it. I did consider doing it myself but couldn’t find anyone to sell me the bits and, anyway, this being gas and inherently dangerous, it would be sensible to get the job done properly.

It is at this point that I am going to show you just how sensible – in fact, just how dangerous. Indeed, at the risk of over-dramatising the situation, just how close I came to not being able to show you at all … because I would have blown up 700 miles south-west of Land’s End.

The source of the leak turned out to be not the trusty Flavell Vanessa (still going strong after 47 years) but the 47-year-old copper pipe connecting it to the cylinder. Someone had decided to run it through a reinforced plastic hose for protection. A good idea, you might think.

James of Marine Gas Solutions did not think it a good idea at all. He knows only too well that there is nowhere in a boat that the water cannot get to – which is all very well as long as it can get away again. In a reinforced plastic pipe it just sits there… for decades… slowly turning the copper pipe into turquoise powder. Until it looks like this:

“You’re very lucky you didn’t go bang,” was the way James put it.

We decided that the only reason I didn’t was because I still haven’t managed to stop the steady drip from the stern gland. That means a lot of pumping goes on – and it’s become a habit to add a few extra pumps of nothing for luck.

Having admitted all this, I now expect the anti-gas fraternity to descend on me with all their gloomy predictions. So, I had better explain that I have tried paraffin and I have tried alcohol and, over the years I have concluded that gas is readily available, wonderfully convenient and, as long as you take sensible precautions, it is perfectly safe.

If you’re lucky…

3,629 miles of isolation

3,629 miles of isolation

I missed lockdown.

Well, I didn’t actually miss it, I avoided it.

I went sailing by myself. I’m over 70 and the government wanted me to stay indoors for weeks on end and – as I now understand the term – “shield” myself.

So, for 42 days and 3,629 miles (measured by noon-to-noon positions), I removed myself into an isolation so complete that the nearest human beings were on the International Space Station as they wandered overhead 15 times a day. I wouldn’t be back now, only I managed to destroy the mainsail – and that was just part of the fun. Considering I was just trying to avoid getting bored, a lot seems to have happened in the last six weeks.

In fact, it all began at the end of March with reports that the French authorities had banned all recreational boating – and were enforcing it by refusing to open locks and bridges. Pleasure craft at sea in French territorial waters would be arrested.

I was in Lowestoft – with a bridge between me and the open sea. I left that very day and holed up in Walton backwaters while working out what to do. Nobody will find you in Walton Backwaters. That’s why the smugglers used to like it there. As April wore on, it became clear that this epidemic was being taken seriously. I had thought about isolating in isolated anchorages in the Shetlands and Orkneys but then the Highlands and Islands authorities appealed to camper van owners to stay away and I supposed that meant me too.

In the end, there seemed only one option: Stay clear of territorial waters altogether. If I was more than 12 miles offshore, what could anyone do? I began victualling for an extended voyage.

It would have to be extended because obviously, sailing was now socially unacceptable – if not specifically banned. Titchmarsh Marina closed down. Moorings in the Walton Channel stayed empty.  Meanwhile, hidden round the back of Horsey Island, I began to lay my plans like Richard Attenborough in The Great Escape: I would have to avoid the Dover Strait: The French would arrest me if I strayed onto their side and since that only left ten miles of the English half, I imagined that if the Border Force found me they would ensure I got no further than Granville Dock .

That left the North Sea.

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 42 days – sailing up the North Sea, over the top of the  Shetlands and down the Atlantic to The Azores. I would have gone round them had it not been for the mainsail. I didn’t just tear it – I was quite used to doing that. Soon after Rockall, I had to take it off and spend eight hours sewing a long rip along a batten pocket. No, this was complete sail destruction. There wouldn’t be enough sailmaker’s thread in the whole world to put this back together.

It meant that I spent a whole afternoon hove-to off Graciosa tapping into their mobile signal to organise a replacement, second-hand sail. All I had to do was tell Exchange Sails where to send it. But with Portugal locked down, who could say when it would arrive in Horta? Meanwhile, with a good southwesterly behind me, I could be back in the UK in ten days.

While all this was going on, the Maritime Police called on VHF wondering why I was spending a second day rolling about off the pretty little village of Porto Vermelha (lots of white houses with terracotta roofs). I needed to use the phone, I told them. Yes, I would definitely pay them a visit in happier times…

Anyway, it was just as well the “Round the Islands” idea died when it did because it turned out the shredded main was only the start of the trouble: I’d hardly set course for Falmouth when the cooker sprang a gas leak. Admittedly it is the boat’s original cooker – meaning that it is 47 years old, a venerable Flavell Vanessa in fashionable beige, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.

To begin with, there was just a whiff of gas. Then the alarm sounded and shut off the supply at the cylinder. I flapped a tea towel at the sensor and pumped a hundred strokes of nothing out of the bilges and tried again, just about getting the pasta al dente. Within a week, it wouldn’t even boil enough for a cup of tea. That was how I became the world’s leading authority on all the ingredients you can add to a tuna salad (peanuts, sultanas… not Nutella…)

All of that, of course, is before we even get to the leaking freshwater tank. At the time, I think I made too much of this, catching every dribble of drizzle, measuring each cupful that went into iced coffee (well, cold coffee made with Nescafe Azera and Nestles Milk). I even tried to get into the Scillies to fill up rather than spend another 36 hours beating up to The Lizard. The trouble was that the St Mary’s harbourmaster spotted my AIS signal and asked the coastguard to read me the riot act. The Scillies, like the Azores, were “closed”.

In the event I still had five litres to spare when I dropped anchor in the pool at St Just – and nine cans of beer. You can live for the best part of a week on nine cans of beer…

I rather hoped that all the fuss would all be over by now. Picking up the BBC news with the Graciosa mobile signal, I noted that the RYA were trumpeting the Return to Boating.

Sure enough, as I finally filled the tanks at the tap on the Trelissick House landing stage, two families arrived in RIBs and tied up on opposite sides of the pontoon. Then they sat down on opposite sides of the central railing and enjoyed their picnic, chatting happily across the mandatory two metres.

It was the oddest sight I think I’ve ever seen – but apparently everybody is perfectly used to this. Maybe if I’d had some news, I would be more acclimatised. My cheapo short wave radio receives only one station – in Serbo-Croat.

Still, it made good copy for the blog. The trouble is, there’s far too much of it: In my newspaper days, I used to write at the rate of 600 words an hour which I found adequate for a daily paper without interfering with mealtimes. Old habits die hard and it takes a long time to get home without a mainsail. Now I have enough for a book. I could call it The Self-Isolating Sailor. I could put it on Amazon.

If I do, and you would like to read it, subscribe and I’ll make a point of letting you know.

The mainsail – not enough sailmakers thread in all the world…

…but the trysail sets beautifully.

Noon positions

Off we go – at nearly eight knots!

Porto Vermehla – white houses with terracotta roofs.

Dawn over Rockall

… and Rockall was the last sight of land.

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