Yellow

July 10th 2018

It’s only if you have children that you can name your favourite colour – after all, who else asks?

Yellow.

I used to paint my bedroom yellow so that it would be like waking up with the sun shining even if it wasn’t.

Back in the days when I thought I was going to be retiring rich and having my perfect boat built to order (38ft steel cutter) she was going to be called Shansi with a little painting of the Chinese Womble on the wind vane. I used to ghost-write Womble stories for Elisabeth Beresford who wrote the books. That’s how long ago it was.

And Shansi, the boat, was going to be bright yellow. Yellow hull, yellow decks, yellow mast – and caramel-coloured sails. Quite apart from the advantage of being somewhat noticeable, the good thing about a yellow steel boat was that the rust streaks would look quite attractive.

Well, plans are made to be changed and Samsara has a white hull and grey deck (not the right shade of grey but that is another story – and rather a tiresome one).

So, what was all this yellow I’ve been finding today?

About a hundred miles west of Ireland, the wind has been light all day and finally died away to nothing – well, not really nothing; I’m sure a lightweight racing boat with a full crew would have kept moving but Samsara is no lightweight and I draw the line at sitting up at the helm all night for the sake of putting on extra knot. Instead, I took everything down, shut the hatch and went to bed with two alarms leapfrogging each other.

It was the four O’clock alarm that was just in time to show the little boat icon on the plotter actually moving – but in the direction of Newfoundland instead of the Azores. That’s what you get with a windvane: The wind changes – and so does the heading.

In the normal course of events – four O’clock being somewhat before breakfast – I wouldn’t be up to doing much more than re-setting the steering. But this voyage is a bit like being in a pursuit race: The family arrive at Ponta Delgada at 1825 on August 1st and progress yesterday didn’t leave much leeway. So, pulling on foul weather gear over my pyjama shorts (clammy but convenient), I started crawling around the dew-covered deck setting sail which is not as easy when you’re pointing in the wrong direction and don’t want to start the engine because you’ve cranked so much grease into the stern gland it would be a waste it to turn the prop shaft.

So, headsail first to get her moving and a flow of air to help the mainsail go up without fouling the shrouds. Leeward lazyjacks off because it would definitely foul those. Then back to the cockpit and haul – yes, it worked. Don’t forget the topping lift. Then trim to course and, amazingly, bubbles start to move past the cockpit. The log wakes up and registers a speed – well, not exactly a speed – but movement, at least: 0.37kts…1.10kts…1.56kts…

Strange to think of this as progress but it definitely warranted breakfast in the cockpit.

Now, if you have looked at the “Good Health” page on this blog, you will see that the only reason I am able to do all this at my age is because of my collection of natural supplements (I don’t carry any pharmaceutical products at all – not even paracetamol). One of these supplements is a water-based curcumin (usually it’s only soluble in fat which means you have to cook with it to get it into your system). Mine comes in a little plastic capsule – slightly fiddly to pick out of the pot if you put everything in there together.

Which is, why, while picking out the Krill Oil and the Plant-Derived Minerals and so on, some of this stuff ended up on the floor. Of course, I picked it up. It’s not going to do me any good on the cockpit floor…

If I had known what was going to happen next, I would have been rather more careful about making sure I picked up everything – that I didn’t leave any capsules there to get squashed… and spew bright-yellow water-soluble curcumin into the deep, non-slip tread of my very expensive leather (not clammy) Dubarry boots.

It would have been fine if I had just stayed in the cockpit – or even gone below where I could tread the yellow all over the dark grey waterproof carpet.

But no, after my special (and quite delicious) cold porridge with sultanas and apple – and even a nectarine since, as usual, they had all ripened at once – it seemed that 1.56kts was no longer enough. The wind had veered some more and there was no doubt, she would carry the cruising chute.

That’s a palaver, I can tell you: Backwards and forwards to the foredeck: Unlock the forehatch from below, go up and open it, bring up the sail, back to the cockpit to pay off the sheet, scrabbling around getting the endless line on the right side of the sausage. Sometimes I don’t know why I bother – especially since, ten minutes later, the wind died and the whole thing was slopping about and threatening to wrap itself round the forestay. Safer to take it all down. Could leave it on deck – but better to do things properly, stick it below – and remember not to leave it sitting on top of the collapsible water can or that’ll leak…

So, you can see how much activity there was – and with so much of the action taking place in the rigging, it was hardly surprising that I never looked at the deck.

The grey deck (too pale by half) was now covered in random smears of bright yellow – and not just the deck (you can always scrub the deck). Every rope on the boat now seemed to be marked at intervals with bright yellow. At first glance I thought it was the manufacturer’s trademark – they haven’t made plain white ropes since the 70’s.

So, I scrubbed the decks. I knew what it was. I’ve had this trouble before. Also, I knew to scrub my boots first. But then, the more I scrambled around scrubbing, the more the stuff seemed to spread. I scrubbed the boots again, kneeling in the cockpit with a bucket of Atlantic to make sure I did a good job – that just seemed to make matters worse. In fact, when I crawled up to the foredeck to unhook the jibsheet from the anchor windlass, there seemed to be more than ever when I came back.

It was somewhere around this point that I discovered a second crushed capsule – still oozing its bright yellow cargo, had somehow got itself stuck to my knee…

It is now evening but not yet late enough for the other half of last night’s spaghetti putanesca. Samsara is under all plain sail and making four knots in the right direction. The hatch is shut because the North wind is chilly for July and somehow it seems like it’s been a busy day. I think I’ll add the other half of Sunday night’s tin of sweetcorn. Sweetcorn cheers you up.

It’s yellow.

 

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Welcome Back

Monday July 9th 2018

Start putting together the perfect day and sunshine has to come high on the list. Yes, the sun is shining – just a few high clouds but they’re mostly on the horizon. In this patch of the Atlantic it is a day of blue skies.

Blue skies and blue seas – that deep blue you only get with deep water and here, just south of the Hebrides Terrace Seamount, the seabed is over 2000 metres beneath the keel.

And progress is on the list too – the feeling that the destination is getting closer all the time. This is where the singlehanded sailor has the advantage: He can change the destination.

Yesterday the destination was causing trouble: The whole point of coming to Scotland had been to take part in the Rival Round Rockall Rally. It is 50 years since the first Rival yacht was launched and the owners’ association had the idea of marking the event by taking a number of these tough, seaworthy boats to that desolate lump of granite 200 miles out in the Atlantic which gave its name to a whole sea area of the Shipping Forecast: Rockall.

In fact, only three made it to the jumping-off point in Castlebay on the Isle of Barra – and one of them saw Rockall as only a part of their “big picture” which was to circumnavigate the Outer Hebrides. This meant starting with a 25-mile detour.

There was also a plan to land two people on the rock. After all, landing on Rockall is about as common as landing on the Moon. Clearly this was going to be quite an operation. It would take hours.

None of which seemed to fit in with my own “Big Picture”. For me, Rockall was just a turning point to get a good angle to the prevailing winds going down the Atlantic where I was due to meet the family in the Azores. I had 24 days to do 1,500 miles – so no time to waste. Certainly, no fuel to waste motoring into the wind and tide for the detour when there was a perfectly good short cut between the islands. I told the other boats I would see them on the other side.

I never did. Half way to Rockall, there was still no sign of them. Then the wind died and backed to the West. The other hundred miles might take another two days – meanwhile the other boats were loaded with fuel (one had an extra 50 litres lashed on deck). They would turn on their engines just as soon as the speed started dropping. By the time I got there the historic ascent of Rockall would history.

That was when the chart for the Atlantic came out. The Azorean island of Sao Miguel lay 1330 miles away on a bearing of 2200. Let’s just try an experiment – see what course we can lay: Lift the chain off the self-steering, put the helm up, trim on the other tack. Not too close, she’ll have to look after herself… Now, what course does the compass give us? Hey, 2230 – almost a straight line to the Air BnB Tamsin booked in Ponta Delgada.

So it was that sunset found me standing in the companionway with a can of Green King IPA (cool from the beer locker in the bilges) watching the windvane tracking us into Irish waters when there was a sigh close by.

It was a sound so familiar – a reminder of a life which is returning in almost every detail. And there, just off the quarter, so close as to be practically within reach, were two pilot whales surfacing – as they always seem to – so close together that they might have been joined at the hip.

Within five minutes there were a dozen of them spread out astern, in two’s and three’s – their blunt, jet-black heads breaking out of the white crests, the air filled with their explosive sighs. One group of four curled again and again, pressed together so closely, they appeared as one. They couldn’t have needed to breath that often. I think they wanted to look at me.

When had I seen this before? When was the last time I was alone in a boat embarking on an ocean crossing? I worked it out – 27 years ago. And yet everything was the same – as if no time had passed at all – as if these were the same friends come to check up on me as they might periodically just to see all is well.

“Hello!” I called out to them. “Hello again!” Silly, really…

And then something peculiar happened. One of the whales broke away from the others. That was odd, to see one swimming alone. Then suddenly it leapt right out of the out of the water – not high in the air like a dolphin or doing a somersault or anything. But it did turn right over on its back. I could see its pectoral fins quite clearly as it splashed back into the water.

Again and again this one whale performed its manoeuvre immediately astern while the others continued to rise and fall on either side. It might be fanciful but was there some sort of communication going on here?  Because there are more accounts of whales and dolphins appearing to communicate with sailors than you can imagine.

In which case, I like to think that what this one way saying was “Welcome back”?

And, yes, it’s great to be back.

 

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Explanation called for…

August 2nd 2018

I am sitting in a bar in Ponta Delgada, in the Azores waiting for Tamsin to arrive with the youngest two children. They have landed, apparently and will be arriving at our Airbnb apartment whenever the charming Portugese bureaucracy has finished with them (it is charming, very good for the patience and helps keep lots of people employed).

When they do arrive, I shall be seeking an explanation from 15-year-old Hugo as to why nothing has been posted on this blog since the Hebrides.

I have done my bit – writing the stuff in the first place and then sending it by very expensive satellite transmission to Hugo’s email address (whence it was supposed to be posted here – and he was charging me for the service!)

But nothing – nada, niente… an aching void.

Ah well, I suppose I’d better order another beer and do it myself…

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A magical moment in the high latitudes

27th June 2018

After the gales of the Fair Isle Channel, the passage down the west coast of the Hebrides was marked by calms.

And then this happened,,,

St Kilda

28th June 2018

I can tell you two things about St Kilda. All the people left 1930, unable to cope any longer with the hard life on this desolate piece of granite 60 miles out in the Atlantic.

Secondly, part of the reason was because the island’s gene pool wasn’t what it was: For hundreds of years there had been a tradition that if a young man could climb to the top of the gigantic sea stack which rises hundreds of feet out of the ocean next to the largest island, stand on the stone at the top, join his hands in front of him and then jump through the hoop made by his arms without falling off and plunging to certain death, then for one night he could have the pick of all the women on the island.

It was great for the young men. Who knows, some of the young women might have been quite keen too: A man who could do all that must have seemed like Justin Bieber and Brad Pitt all rolled into one. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the arrival of the Rev John MacKay in 1865, this resilient micro-community might still be there, subsisting on sheep and seabirds and defying the outside world. But even before the new minister got around to banning the singing of anything but psalms, dancing, games and storytelling, he put a stop to the heathen practices on “The Mistress Stone”.

So, dropping anchor in Village Bay, you might forgive me some preconceptions. After all, the pilot book makes much of the “comprehensive by-laws” of this World Heritage Site, the necessity to seek permission to land from the warden…

Undoubtedly, it is a fascinating place: The old houses are still there – and the original “blackhouses” without windows or chimneys where the people took what shelter they could with their animals to keep them warm when the peat gave out – and, then, of course, there is the quaintly named “street” – the new houses built in the mid-1800’s: Two windows and a chimney…

If I’d read up about it properly, I would have known that’s not the whole story: Since 1957 there has been a handful of MoD personnel manning the radar station over the hill but as far as I imagined, it was just the warden living in the Reverend MacKay’s old Manse next to the kirk. What an amazing existence…

The idea of spending a couple of days anchored in the bay, sharing the warden’s solitude was too much to resist – and exactly two weeks after leaving Suffolk, the anchor went down in Village Bay. In I could see it, six metres down in water clear as air.

More chain rattled over the gypsy, full astern with the engine to dig it in and then switch off.

Silence.

Then: “Beep-Beep-Beep…”

You know that annoying sound which large earth-moving vehicles make when they reverse – that they make incessantly because they’re always reversing?

Well that is the sound of St Kilda today.

It just so happens that, now the World Heritage people have seized on it, the place has to be done up – which means that now it is not only home to the warden and the MoD but also about 25 construction workers living in a row of green Portacabins.

There are hoardings with artist’s impressions of how the St Kilda Accommodation and Infrastructure Project will be in keeping with the ambience of this historic location (once they’ve torn down the hideous power station and taken away all the Portacabins).

In the meantime, there’s quite a community. John Sikorsky, who calls himself the Ranger, not the warden, has a Seabird Ranger as well – and an archaeologist. Altogether, you have almost as many people as the 37 islanders who were evacuated to the mainland all those years ago.

Their names are written on slates in the fireplaces of their old houses – and in the kirk, on the open page of the Bible, there is the list of deaths from the 1870’s – mostly in infancy.

For £190 you can take a high-speed trip from Harris – two-and-a-half hours each way which leaves five hours on the island. Actually, that’s plenty. The gift shop doesn’t take long.

There was also what appeared to be a converted fishing boat which took eight passengers on a sort of mystery tour – the mystery being that the skipper would decide on the destination only after listening to the forecast.

Or you could join a cruise ship. Yes, they call at St Kilda. John the Ranger goes aboard to give a briefing and warn the passengers not to leave the village. Not only are there no fences or warning signs to stop them falling off a cliff but, if the weather turns, that’s 300 people who have to be ferried back to the ship before the swell threatens to capsize tenders at the pier.

It hasn’t happened yet but, just thinking about it, where would you put 300 cruise passengers for a night on St Kilda? The Blackhouses? There are plenty of sheep to keep them warm…

Arrival at the St Kilda group. Calm again!

The new houses built in the mid-1800’s – every modern convenience (chimneys and windows).

…and a Blackhouse.

The weather changes quickly here.

The Best Beach

3rd July 2018

This was a must: The pilot book describes Vatersay Bay as “the finest Sandy Beach on the East side of the Outer Hebrides” and it is fabulous – white sand and crystal clear water that would not be out of place in the Caribbean – and, as you see, not a soul on it.

To give myself an excuse to go ashore (not sure why I needed one), I took the gash (rubbish) with me and walked up to a little group of houses. After the beach, they were a bit of a disappointment – somewhat shabby prefabs with a temporary air about them. But then, until 1991 when the causeway to Barra was completed, building materials had to come by boat.

Of course, the whole Island has a complicated history when it comes to settlement. Until 1906 it was left to the birds and seals but then, men from Barra landed and claimed they were exercising their ancient rights to the land. However, the owner of Vatersay, one Lady Gordon Catchart, would have none of it and took them to court. Despite massive public support, “The Vatersay Raiders” were sentenced to two months in prison.

But Lady Catchart’s heart seemed to have gone out of the fight and she sold the island to the wonderfully-named Congested Districts Board which allocated crofts rather in the way West London councils allocate allotments.

Chasing the ether

4th July 2018

Remember when people used to like to “get away from the telephone”. What ever happened to that?

I have just spent three weeks trying to find a mobile signal.

Obviously, sailing long distances, there are going to be times when you are out of sight of land and we all know the UK networks don’t even stretch across the English Channel. But last autumn, coming round from Wales and this spring, down to the West Country and back, I was never out of touch for more than a few hours at a time.

The trip from Suffolk to the Outer Hebrides, however, has been a learning experience. After leaving the Norfolk coast behind on June 17th, it wasn’t until I got to within five miles of South Uist that I was able to call anyone. That was on the 30th – and I still didn’t get any data.

So, arriving in Castlebay, the capital of Barra, a metropolis which boasts a hotel, a post office – even a Co-Op supermarket – imagine the disappointment at being told: “Ah now, you’ll be wanting the 4G signal for that. They’ve got it up in North Bay. But there’s free wi-fi in the community shop.”

The Community Shop and café does indeed have free wi-fi – it’s just that, whenever I looked, about a dozen people were crowding the three small tables, sitting over cold coffee and poking at iPads. Instead I went to the Castlebay Hotel and sat in the lounge (no-one else did). At £4.50 for an obligatory pint of McEwans, it made for some expensive emails.

Cheaper to send a letter, of course. I know because I thought it more appropriate for my 22-year-old son who is about to leave to teach English in China for a year – the post office sold me a single envelope and a single stamp.

In the end, there was nothing for it but to move to North Bay – and what do I see when I look up?

Flannan Islands

27th June 2018

Flannan Islands are uninhabited. I’m not surprised.

They’ve got an automatic lighthouse and two landing places with concrete steps but one set was  washed away years ago and the other is no longer maintained and might not be there even now – but who’s to say?

All the same, I’m beginning to think I live here.

These fifteen lumps of granite looked rather beautiful – in a desolate sort of way – as I approached at sunset last night. There is some grass growing and a lot of white from the thousands of seabirds which clearly think this is the perfect place to call home.

Nevertheless, I passed in the night a few miles off on the way to St Kilda which is also uninhabited but hasn’t always been (where lies a story).

The problem with passing the Flannan Islands at night is that, steering by the wind, what would happen if the wind were change while I was asleep? I could be on the rocks.

The secret here is to work out how long you want to sleep for, then work out how far you could travel in the wrong direction in that time – and then set two alarms to make sure you don’t…

All the same, it doesn’t make for a peaceful night. More than once, I woke before the alarm. Lying there, listening to the water going past the hull, there was a tendency to wonder what should have caused this sudden wakefulness – after all, it appeared that I was not just awake. I was fully alert. Something was up. Was this Chiefy keeping watch?

Of course, it could be the islands themselves. There’s something odd about the Flannan Isles: Every Scot knows the story… how the three lighthouse keepers mysteriously disappeared a few days before Christmas in 1900.

Conspiracy theorists had a field day with this one: They had  been captured by pirates, eaten by seabirds, abducted by aliens…

One way and another, it would be foolish to go back to sleep with that sort of thing going on. So, unzip the sleeping bag (God, it’s cold). It’s also dark (wait a minute, I’m wearing the indoor wooly hat which rolls down over the top half of my face the blocks out the light. I’m blundering around in a blindfold).

First check is the plotter which shows the boat still on course, the islands well astern – a group of fishing boats ten miles away – have to watch them; unpredictable things, fishing boats and once they’ve got their gear down, they have right of way over everything else, rather like cyclists in Holland. Pull the hatch back and stick my head out. Now it’s really cold. Boat seems OK, Flannan Islands still there at a safe distance. Doesn’t it ever get dark in these latitudes?

And this happened two or three times – quite apart from the alarms going off every hour, so what with one thing another, it wasn’t a particularly good night. I shall be glad to find some peace in St Kilda.

 

 

Heat

26th June 2018

We made three miles towards our destination last night.

It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. In the same eleven hours, we sailed six miles through the water. It’s just that we weren’t going in the right direction.

Yes, you guessed it, on the hottest day of the year in England, there was still drizzle in the North of Scotland – drizzle and incessant headwinds. I’ve worked it out: We have had headwinds now for seven days in a row – first of all North Westerlies on the way up the East Coast towards the Orkneys. Then Westerlies across the top (strong to “near gale” Westerlies to make sure the sea stayed good and rough after the full gale that saw Samsara scuttling into Fair Isle).

And finally, just as I get to the top of the Hebrides, ready for “left hand down a bit” to St Kilda, what do I get: First of all, a flat calm to announce the coming change in the weather – and then, can you believe it? A light South Westerly.

And more drizzle.

Some things are just not fair. There’s only a hundred miles to go after something 850 during which there hasn’t been a single complaint (well I don’t remember it) and now this.

I was all ready to enjoy today: I had taken advantage of last night’s calm to wash and change my clothes for the first time since Fair Isle. I even got undressed and climbed into a sleeping bag – it was Heaven.

And now, I poke my head out of the hatch to find a light headwind and drizzle. What does Ken Bruce call it on Radio Two “Dreich?”

Of course, I could cheer myself up with a French Fancy or even a slice of bread and apricot jam (I made loaf of bread in the calm – I must write about that) but sugar is like cocaine: It doesn’t last very long and then you just want more…

I looked at the little electronic weather station. Pressure rising, not that you’d notice… but, wait a minute what’s this: 12.5o C – as Southern England prepared for a new “hottest day of the year” record…

Well, that was a couple of hours ago. Now I can tell you that I wouldn’t swap places with anyone on Brighton beach. The charcoal stove is fired up – once I got the seawater out of it (how did it get there?) I just checked the thermometer again: 23.5o!

Mind you, I didn’t notice this for a while. I had made the mistake of sitting on the leeward (downhill) berth to write this – it seemed that on the leeward berth, the laptop was less likely to slide off my lap. But you have to remember that hot air rises – which means that all the cold air burrows its way underneath – right onto the leeward berth.

I am now sitting to weather, as us old salts would call it, and I’ve had to move along the berth away from the stove.

We’re still not going in the right direction but it doesn’t seem to matter so much. It’s coffee time – the problem now (yes, there is always a problem) is that while I have a whole spare box of Cherry Bakewell Tarts, there are only two French Fancies left. Of course, I could have that slice of bread but the loaf smelled so good when it came out of the oven that I had four slices there and then – and it doesn’t look so big now…

 

Fair Isle

21st June 2018

I may never come back to Fair Isle.

After all, how many people visit Fair Isle in the first place: A tiny lump of rock midway between the Orkney Islands and the Shetlands off the North coast of Scotland, it is barely more than a mile long and famous for two thing: Fair Isle sweaters and seabirds.

And if I showed any sense of occasion, I should go ashore and look at it. But then I’m not supposed to be here at all. I had safely passed it to the south – and very forbidding it looked in the oily yellow light of a stormy dawn.

I had chanced to hit the Fair Isle Channel at the exact moment the tide turned against me – and much stronger than I expected, it proved to be. So instead of “popping out into the Atlantic” as according to the plan, the track on the plotter seemed to be going backwards and forwards over the same stretch of sea.

And the Shipping Forecast’s “occasionally gale 8” seemed to have become a fixture. By breakfast time, I had the storm trysail set and was calculating that I could always heave-to and slide backwards the way I had come.

And then, unbidden, a bored Scottish voice filled the cabin. It’s always a bit alarming for the single-handed sailor when this happens. But if you will leave the radio turned on, then it’s bound to happen. Reception was poor and while it was obvious this was some sort of coastguard broadcast, I couldn’t make out where he was based – and worse still, when he started reading out the gale warning: “Gale force 8 to severe gale force 9”, I seemed to miss the part where he explained which sea area this referred to…

If it was area Fair Isle, then it was bad news. A gale is bad enough but a severe gale is disproportionally worse, like earthquakes on the Richter Scale…

Then came the clincher: “Outlook for the following 24 hours: North-westerly gales continuing.”

There are times when common sense takes over. Fair Isle was just five miles away with a narrow rocky inlet called North Haven which offered good protection from North Westerlies. I could be there in a little over an hour.

It took longer, of course. These things always do but now Samsara lies at anchor in an impossibly small space between the pier, the rocks, the slipway and an awkwardly-placed lobster pot just opposite a huge ocean-going fishing boat hauled up in what appears to be a man-made gully hewn out the rock. I’m beginning to realise what kind of weather ranks as normal up here.

So now the charcoal stove is fired up, the wet clothes which festooned the cabin have gradually dried and been put away, there appears to be no mobile phone signal and only Radio One. I could have blown up the dinghy and gone ashore to explore but quite honestly, I don’t want to. At times like this, your world can get very small. I had a comfort lunch of beans and eggs. The other half of last night’s mixed bean stew only needed warming up for dinner (seems like a lot of beans). Thank heavens I picked up a cheap lighter in a convenience store last summer “just in case” – the gas lighter has packed up and all the matches are damp.

Meanwhile the awkwardly-placed lobster pot marker turns out to be a seal which remains motionless for minutes on end just staring at me. Eventually he dives, swims under the boat and looks at me from the other side.

 

Meanwhile the BBC forecaster seems to know nothing about the mysterious Scottish “outlook” so maybe sI shall be off again tomorrow – with dry clothes, a good sleep … and full of beans.