Welcome to The Minch

I suspect it’s an age thing, this urge to complete abandoned projects – to leave nothing undone…

I am back in Scotland and busy ticking things off the list as if I was in B&Q and about start on the bathroom.

To begin with, there were the Shetland Islands.

Of course, I had been here before – but only in an air-sea rescue helicopter which doesn’t really count. If you want to know what I was doing in an air-sea rescue helicopter, the whole sorry story is in the book. In fact, it takes up the whole of chapter five and gets worse as it goes along.

Also, last year, I spent 36 hours drifting around off Balta Sound feeding Pringles to a gaggle of seabirds as we washed up and down with the tide, totally becalmed.

So this time, I anchored and went to see the tiny and much-revered boat museum. The Shetland Islanders live very much in harmony with the sea, so it was a particularly cruel trick of nature to award them a weather system which ensured they had no wood to build boats. Trees here tend to blow over long before they grow big enough to cut down.

Shetland Boat Museum

So the islanders traded with the Vikings – wool for boats – and the Vikings delivered miniature versions of their longships stacked like soup bowls and only needing the thwarts to be fitted – thus establishing the well-known Scandinavian tradition of flat-packed deliveries. It is not known whether their 8th-century customers found the instructions incomprehensible and lost the screws.

Anyway, it turned out that the museum wasn’t actually in Balta at all but a couple of miles away in the next bay. I set out to walk – and just as well I did. Otherwise, I would have missed the UK’s most entertaining bus stop – not to mention the most northerly pub in the British Isles.

Nobody is quite sure who started improving the bus stop but bit by bit the locals have added a chair, a television (it doesn’t work, there’s no electricity) a library, chest of drawers, decorations and a dolls’ house which, on closer inspection, contains all kinds of cakes and pastries for sale by honesty box (it can be a long wait for a bus up here).

The Bus Stop at Balta

As for the pub; how could I turn down a pint in the “most northerly pub in the British Isles”? They don’t mention this but the Balta Light might also be the ugliest.

The most northerly pub, The Balta Light – ugly?

The most northerly fish and chip shop is at Busta Voe, on the other side of the most northerly headland, the Muckle Flugga (don’t you just love the names?).

Frankie’s is no ordinary “chipper”. It is a tourist destination – not just because of its position but because this is a chip shop like no other. Established 13 years ago by the Johnsons who started just about everything else in Busta Voe, from the garage and shop, to the bus service and hotel; and given the plentiful supply of seafood up here, they added mussels and scallops to the menu alongside the haddock.

I stayed two days so I could have both the pan-fried and then the battered scallops as well as the mussels with sweet chili sauce and then, the following day, à la mariniere. My enthusiasm was entirely wasted on the new proprietor, a dour man named Mark (there is no Frankie – that was the Johnson’s dog). Mark felt the menu was too extensive already. He was stuck with it because of the tourists.

He got his own back by refusing my offer of corkage if he would allow me to open a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc with the mussels. Ginger beer in a can was what I got.

Scallops and chips at Frankies

Then there was Suilven. You might remember Suilven, the astonishing mountain that looks just like a pepperpot and which I found myself walking towards last year. Indeed, I walked towards it for two hours without appearing to get any closer. It was only on the way back that a man in the car park told me it was an eight-hour trip, up and down. I resolved to return.


And return I did, anchoring in Loch Inver and setting off at eight in the morning with my walking poles and sandwiches. Just follow the track, the man in the carpark had said.

He didn’t say anything about a fork in the track. But that’s what there was – with a little cairn to mark it (a signpost would have been more useful).

Of course I took the wrong fork and ended up an hour later, having got well into the foothills of the wrong mountain and then, on the way down, falling into a bog.

I say “falling”. Actually what happened is that one walking pole disappeared up to the hilt, I pitched forward and my foot disappeared too, filling the boot with black and foul-smelling goo.

I returned to base camp; resolving, like Hilary, to try again.

The second attempt went like clockwork. I met another man who, this time, gave me precise instructions and sure enough, under a clear blue sky and with limitless visibility, I sat at the top of Suilven, leaned my back against a rock conveniently shaped just like an armchair, and marvelled at one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen.

At my feet was a landscape filled with more lochs than the Sassenach mind can comfortably comprehend. Far in the distance – impossibly far, considering I had apparently walked it – was the sea loch where Samsara lay at anchor, a tiny speck of white amid the blue and green.

I must say, I felt rather good about having reached the summit. After all, the book did say this was a mountain for the “fit hill-walker” and the calendar does insist I am 72.

The view from the top – but it’s steep going up (and steeper going down if you miss your footing).

To celebrate, there would be lunch at Café Fish. This is in Tobermory – quite the most picturesque little town in the islands. Every day at four o’clock the café’s fishing boat lands its catch on the quay outside the front door. Two hours later it is on your plate. When I was here last autumn, they were closed, having just the one door and unable to accommodate social distancing.

I had promised myself the Plateau des Fruits de Mer (and, hopefully a bottle of Muscadet instead of ginger beer) but they were still only doing takeaways so it would have to be The Mishnish restaurant which runs a close second.

Now, those who have been paying attention might find a seafood lunch slightly suspect for someone who watched Seaspiracy on Netflix and gave 18 cans of sardines to a food bank.  But shellfish, apparently, is environmentally acceptable.

It was afterwards that the trouble started. I had been banking on the bottle of Muscadet and stowed a lifejacket in the dinghy (not good to be seen off with the headline: “Drowned OAP sailor was pissed”).

Seafood at the Mishnish (my undoing).

But when I rose from the table, somewhat unsteadily after three and a half hours, a very passable Sauvignon Blanc and you can’t very well finish a meal like that without a Drambuie, it seemed prudent to go for a walk in the woods before braving the dinghy.

Can you believe that the fit hill-walker, the man who conquered Suilven, managed to fall over and dislocate his shoulder?

I don’t know when I have felt anything more painful – except when I tried to move my arm and the joint snapped back into place with an audible click. I still can’t lift the kettle with my right hand.

So I am stuck here until it mends. If I can’t trust myself in the dinghy, I certainly can’t sail 500 miles to Falmouth.

Besides, Tobermory is very pretty and there are other restaurants…


11 Responses to Scotland

  • A very interesting blog, it sounds truly wonderful.
    I hope you are on the way to a full recovery.

  • Hope the shoulder heals soon John very entertaining read can related to the walking always want to the extra mile.

  • I’m aware there are the makings of an article on the ‘Seaside Distilleries of theWest Coast’ but possibly there’s an article in ‘Fish Restaurants I Have Known’. After all, you do have to pass Newlyn…. or ‘not pass’, if you get my drift. Padstein doesn’t count.

  • Crazy tales, love it!

  • Oh dear John, I hope it was not too much tea from the kettle that caused you to loose balance. I’ll be putting the Shetlands on my to do list, maybe next year???

  • Best wishes for a speedy and full recovery.

  • Bad luck indeed. How Geraint Thomas managed to have his shoulder reset at the roadside and rejoin the Tour de France I can hardly imagine after your description! Best wishes.

  • Wonderful photos – I really enjoy reading about your adventures. Hope the shoulder gets better soon

  • Another great episode… sorry to hear about your shoulder, but it’ll take care of itself and you’ll be as good as new!
    Outstanding scenery and sites… certainly on my bucket list as I wait here in Mexico for the travel restrictions to be lifted so I can get on with my adventure (like yours) and head to the UK in search of my ⛵

  • Another lovely tale John. Just completed a much shorter but probably hotter walk on Santa Maria. Not sure what dinner will consist of or where it will be but i suspect laziness will make it the yacht club bar in the Marina.The Shetlands do sound wonderful.

  • Great stuff John. Lovely to have seen you in Lerwick. Hope the shoulder knows its place and behaves. Geoff

Fair Isle



The Kirk

It is easy to miss Fair Isle. I was on the way from Lossiemouth in northeast Scotland to the Shetland Islands because I keep going round them, but the only time I ever landed was in a rescue helicopter (but that is another story).

The plotter was telling me I would arrive at 2300 – which didn’t matter because there would still be full daylight up at 590 56’N but on the other hand, if I put into Fair Isle, I could be snugged down for the night in time for dinner.

And why not? I wasn’t in a hurry, and the only time I had visited this small lump of rock between the Orkneys and the Shetlands had been in 2018, sheltering from a forecast Force 9 – and then the weather had been so foul, I didn’t go ashore.

So I tweaked the reins of the Aries and put into North Haven (South Haven is no haven at all). In the morning, with my walking boots and my walking poles, I set out to look at the place.

Fair Isle is a small island – a very small island. Also, it is Scotland’s most remote inhabited island. Less than three miles long, it is home to just 50 people. It was an hour before I saw any of them. I had to step off the road to let a car pass since all the roads are single track and with no more than a dozen cars, there’s not much call for passing places. Anyway, nobody goes very fast because the sheep roam free.

Sheep are a big thing on Fair Isle – where do you think all those Fair Isle sweaters come from?

I made for the lighthouse. It had been my first sighting of the island through the mist – and that was where life on a very small island began to reveal itself. There was a picture of Princess Anne visiting in 1998 to celebrate Automation Day – this was the last of all Scotland’s lighthouses to dispense with keepers.

It was progress, of course. But, as the adjacent plaque explained, Fair Isle had two lighthouses (the 19thCentury German Government was most insistent about that; it was their ships that kept getting wrecked). Anyway, these lighthouses necessitated a total of six keepers and, of course, their families. When they left, “such a fall in population was a great loss to the community”.

It makes you think. It certainly made me think as I wandered round the cemetery and found that an extraordinary proportion of the gravestones bore the name of Stout.

“Oh yes, there were lots of Stouts,” said Eileen Thomson, who showed me round the tiny museum in the old community hall. “In fact, the records show us that there were two families of Stouts each with five children and all the five siblings from one family married the five siblings from the other.”

Then she said: “But there weren’t related”.

Not related?

“Well, not closely.”

You don’t like to delve into these things too obviously, so it was a relief when she volunteered: “Well, when they researched the history of the island, I think they found there just weren’t enough grandparents to go round. But what could people do? It’s a small place.”

It certainly is. Her own grandfather was a lighthouse keeper who came from Unst in the Shetlands and married a local girl. But, can you imagine the culture shock for her own mother, a London meteorologist, who had to adapt to a life where there was no electricity unless you ran a cable to someone who had a generator.

Even when the island did get mains power, it was only from seven in the morning until eleven at night.  Now they have three wind turbines and a miniature solar farm next to the school. The combination of long daylight hours in the summer and more than enough wind in the winter makes running the washing machine cheaper than anywhere else in Britain.

But it does make for a close-knit community. When someone dies, every able-bodied man helps to dig the grave.

There was something else too – which I discovered walking the surprisingly long way back to the boat: Beside the road was a plaque describing the events of January 17TH 1941: A German weather reconnaissance plane, pursued by two Hurricanes crash-landed on the island. Three of the five-man crew survived and were met by a small group of islanders, led by George Stout, who made a citizen’s arrest.

An RAF rescue launch was sent to collect the prisoners but ran aground in South Haven (I told you about South Haven). So an armed trawler was sent from Orkney but that too ran aground in the same place.

Eventually, the Lerwick lifeboat finished the job – they knew what they were doing in these waters.

Of course, it didn’t stop the rest of the Luftwaffe attacking both lighthouses a number of times after that. Among the casualties, the wife of the keeper of the south lighthouse, machine-gunned at her kitchen sink.

It says a lot for the hospitality of this tiny place that, after war, the pilot of the crashed reconnaissance plane, one Karl-Heinz Thurz, returned twice to the island to see his old friends.

You could argue that it was the least he could do, since it was the Germans who wanted the lighthouses in the first place.

9 Responses to Fair Isle

The Confessional

The Confessional

OK, so this is what you do: You take two men, one very skinny, one very stout. You lay the skinny one down on the quayside and get the stout one to push him gradually over the edge.

When half of the skinny one is sticking out over the harbour, he will fold at the hips, his top half flopping down against the wall (at this point, it is important that the stout one stops pushing and, instead, hangs onto the skinny one’s feet for all he’s worth).

This will enable the skinny one to reach down under the water and untie the dinghy painter from the ladder – where they secured it before going to the pub.

And before the tide came in.

I know this is the correct procedure because, years ago, I read a careful explanation in The Confessional column of Yachting Monthly.

Moreover, the participants were none other than the editor himself, Andrew Bray (the thin one) and his deputy Geoff Pack (the stout one).

The fact that two such experienced yachtsmen should find themselves in this predicament gives all us lesser mortals a good deal of comfort.

All the same, I spent half an hour poring over the tide tables. This was an expedition, and it had to be planned accordingly.

The whole sorry business began as I sailed very slowly the six miles from Inner Farne Island to the mystical land of Lindisfarne. On the way, we passed Bamburgh Castle standing on the shore above those vast Northumbrian beaches and looking so imposing that it just cried out for a closer look.

Bamburgh Castle

Besides, I needed an expedition before the family walking weekend in the Peak District. I didn’t want the younger generation thinking I couldn’t keep up. Anyway, I had my new boots to break in. The 18-minute walk to the bus stop promised by Google Maps would be a good start.

All I had to do was be sure to return at the same state of the tide as when I left. In other words, before it rose above the point on the harbour ladder where I had secured the dinghy.

There is something else you need to know about an expedition from Lindisfarne; something pilgrims have known for more than a thousand years: It is an island. If you try to cross the causeway at the wrong time, the North Sea will come rushing in and sweep you away to a watery grave.

This doesn’t happen nowadays, of course. Now it’s just the cars that get swept away. The people scramble up a set of rickety steps to a wobbly-looking shelter and wait until the tide turns.

The causeway with its refuge for stranded pilgrims

That wasn’t going to happen to me. Along with the tide and bus timetables, I had consulted Northumberland County Council’s “safe crossing times” website.

Everything would have been fine if only Google Maps’ 18-minute walk hadn’t taken 2hrs 40mins. I think they had measured from the wrong end of the island.

Of course, this left me with a dilemma: Would I be back in time before the road disappeared? Would the tide come up and submerge the harbour ladder?

Or would Something Turn Up?

I am a great believer in Mr Micawber and his splendid philosophy. I pressed on, passing the Lindisfarne Inn and its “Bunkhouse” – presumably for stranded pilgrims.

Sure enough, just as I reached the main road, a bus pulled up. I ran for it.

Normally, I do not run for buses. My life these days is lived at a sedate pace. Running for anything is behind me. Actually, it is beyond me.

But this time, gasping and red in the face, rucksack with sandwiches bouncing on my back, I chased that bus as it pulled first into the service station, then to its designated bus stop – and finally, finding no-one waiting, away again and back to the main road.

And there it stopped. Anyone who has waited for a break in the traffic on the A1 will confirm this. The bus was stuck, edging forward, airbrakes hissing, nudging at the passing cars.

I pounded after it. People at the petrol pumps cheered me on. Small children ran alongside like pacemakers in a marathon. I was making an exhibition of myself – but surely someone would take pity and give me a lift…

They didn’t need to: Panting and spluttering, fumbling for my face-covering and my bus pass, I hauled myself aboard.

It was the wrong bus.

This was not apparent until we were on our way. They say the Northumbrian accent is the most impenetrable of all – and the more the driver tried to explain, the more excited he became and the less I could make out a single word.

Anyway, there was nothing I could do. We were heading for Newcastle.

Then something turned up. After half an hour, we stopped at a place called Belford where the driver and all the other passengers urged me to get off – at least I think that’s what they were saying.

It turned out that we were parked behind another bus – the one for Bamburgh.

Indeed, it is a wonderful castle. I wandered the state apartments. I saw the dungeons – the bottle-shaped doorway where horsemen could enter at the gallop. However, eating my sandwiches on the battlements, there came the nagging thought of that 2hr 40min walk back. Not only would the tide be coming in, but it turned out my new walking boots were a little on the large side, and now I had a blister the size of a sovereign.

So I left early, missing a visit to Grace Darling’s grave – Grace Darling, the Victorian lighthouse keeper’s daughter who rowed to the rescue of a Farne Island shipwreck and is buried in Bamburgh churchyard (her effigy clutching an oar).

The bus took me all the way to the service station – although, as we now know, that is a long way short of the jetty.

But wait: What more could turn up? Another bus stop. A bus to the island – one that I never thought to investigate because who needs a bus when you can walk it in 18minutes?

Of course, the only trouble was that, like everything else, the bus was limited to “safe crossing times”, which meant that the timetable had been contrived by a cryptic crossword enthusiast. There was a table of dates – each with a corresponding letter. The letters referred to a table of “safe crossing times”. If I decrypted it correctly, the bus would get to the jetty just in time for me to untie the knot before it disappeared underwater – providing I could find a stout person to hold my feet.

To be on the safe side, I stuck out my thumb. I had tried this on the outward journey – after all, it worked in France in 1967. But times had moved on – so did the traffic.

Once again, I trusted something to turn up; this time, a battered hatchback with an ex-merchant seaman. He had come to pick up his girlfriend because it looked like rain.

The sun kept shining, so he took me all the way.

With ten minutes to spare.

…and Lindisfarne Castle

8 Responses to The Confessional

  • I enjoyed that.

    On Friday the 3rd of September 1971 (the 18 year old me was careful to keep a log) my 13 year old sister and I were just pushing off from the bit of beach by the shelter at Woodbridge ferry dock – we were camping cruising in an 18ft half decked boat) – when a rather dapper elderly gentleman asked if we could put him aboard his dinghy, as the tide had covered his anchor.

    Maurice Griffiths had probably been careful to pick the two teenagers who hadn’t read the first chapter of “The Magic of the Swatchways” and wouldn’t recognise him.

    But we had…

  • WOW! What an adventureful day – so glad you made it back in time. Exceptional timing, one could say!

  • Lovely, My homeland. The Northumbrian dialect is “ similar” to Geordie with 17 letters of the alphabet replaced with “r” pronounced at the back of the throat.

  • Visited Northumberland recently walked most of the coast upto Bamburgh impressive sights.

  • John Passmore was the Daily Mail’s ‘writer’ for many years, jetting all over the world so that his prose could help that successful organ reach even more customers. In this piece about a visit to Bamburgh Castle it’s easy to see why the late newspaper supremo, Sir David English rated him so highly. John could write about a circuit of his back garden and keep us hanging by a thread, laughing at the tomfoolery of life, or both.

  • All I can say is, I am glad you got there in time. A great story.

  • A great tale, as always!


After mentioning that I need to get the anchor chain galvanised, I was deluged with gloomy warnings that nobody does it any more. Chain is so cheap nowadays that it’s considered as disposable as electric kettles.

But I’m very attached to my chain. I expect it’s as old as the boat – so, 48 years – and, at a chunky 10mm, is far too heavy for a boat of less than 10metres.

On the other hand, it does match the 20kg Rocna and I sleep very well knowing I have all that down there on the bottom. Also, I remember the story of how Alfred and Rosemarie Alecio lost Iron Horse in the Indian Ocean.

I have tried to look up the reference. Nevertheless, I am so sure I remember every detail that I will repeat it here (and stand to be corrected). They had an old boat too – and, although they had no reason to doubt the steel fitting which passed through the wooden mast and to hold the shrouds (no I don’t know what it’s called), they reasoned that since it had been there for twenty or thirty years, it must need replacing. They had a new one made in the Far East.

It failed. It just broke and they lost the mast – and in due course, their beloved boat which was also their home. They were picked up by a tanker off Madagascar.

I have great faith in my chain – more than I would in a new one. The saving is by-the-bye.

The place to go used to be the Wedge Group in Birmingham. They had a machine that kept it moving in the tank so that no spots got missed. However, they have moved premises and didn’t feel it economic to set up the chain facility again.

One by one. I called all the other UK galvanisers on Google. One by one,  they called back and said they had stopped doing anchor chain, suggesting I buy a new one.

Except for Highland Metals in Elgin. They said, “of course”. Apparently, they hang the chain on wires and jiggle it from time to time. You don’t get a perfect result, but most people consider it good enough.

Elgin is only 15 minutes from Lossiemouth where there is a “man with a van”. So I shall put in there on the way to the Shetlands this year. Turn-around is two weeks, apparently, so a circuit of the Moray Firth and a few days in Edinburgh seems like a plan.

7 Responses to Galvanising

  • There’s a place in Wickford, Essex, which does galvanise….they did my mast step, bout two years ago. If interested will check it out.

  • You don’t need to go to Scotland! Try BMT in GT Yarmouth. Ask for David Cowley and mention my name.

  • John, once again thanks for a most interesting blog.

  • If the re-galvanising is ‘ less than perfect ‘ will you really be able to sleep on windy anchorages without extra worry ? 48 years sound a lot to me even for good stuff.

    • The reason I’m getting it done is not because I’m worried about the strength of the chain – even the last link which is attached to the stainless Ultra swivel still has more than 9.5mm at its thinnest. More important is the rust stain on the deck and the fact that I come away with orange hands every time I touch it.

      • Rust stains sound familiar to me, when PBO reviewed my boat I was told by David Harding I’d missed on making the front cover because of the stained foredeck !

  • My chain on Contender is also the original, coming up to 50 years. Both the previous owners and I had been in the galvanizing business, so we “knew where to go to get it done”. Yes Wedge used to do a good job, but while the demand still exists, they said it was uneconomic to repair the vibrating machine that jiggled the chain on withdrawl from the zinc. (I tried to encourage them to reinstate it). One year I got a group of yacht owners together and we did a group purchase, 25 chains and about as many anchors all regalvanized over a period of a few weeks. (allowing lots of time is attractive to galvanizers). But generally they consider it a pest, as its fiddly, and is really only a small order for most galvanizers. But my chain keeps on going.


The BBC says a Walrus has turned up in Pembrokeshire – a UK first.

Oh no, it isn’t: In about 1980 when I was at the Daily Mail, a Walrus washed up on the beach at Skegness. It was mid-summer – the silly season and as self-appointed silly correspondent, I claimed Wally the Walrus.

First up: What do you do with a lost Walrus? Well, you send him back to Greenland, of course.

How do you do that?

Ah, this is where the fun begins – and it lasted for the best part of a week: First, the local council has to knock up a crate for him. Who does this? The council’s works department… no, no, no, you’re losing the thread: The council carpenter is who does it – as in The Walrus and the Carpenter. We had a sub-editor with poetic tendencies who bowdlerised Lewis Carroll for the occasion.

Next, you persuade Iceland Air to air freight Wally for nothing more than the publicity it will generate (or rather, with the threat of the bad publicity if they refuse).

The World Wildlife Fund and the RSPCA sent their experts (including a very young Mark Carwardine) to see to Wally’s welfare and, of course, the Mail’s wildlife photographer Mike Hollist – a man with enough patience for all of us. We even had a fishing boat organised at the other end to take Wally across the Denmark Strait. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, I hoped something… There is nothing so dull as a newspaper stunt that goes according to plan. This had the makings of a story I would tell my grandchildren, not to mention the readers (at the time nobody had invented blogs).

It started looking promising as soon as we arrived at Keflavik International Airport, and the man who owned the fishing boat backed up his lorry to load Wally’s crate. It turned out that not only did he own the fishing boat but also Reykjavik Zoo – where, he announced, Wally would be spending the night… and many other days and nights until enough visitors had been tempted to pay to go and look at him.

Mention of the word “Zoo” did not go down well with the RSPCA and the WWF. A quick inspection of a muddy park and a few bedraggled animals confirmed that Wally might have been better off staying in Skegness. As it was, he was stuck on the tarmac at the airport with the wind whistling straight off the icepack. The RSPCA’s young woman vet, who had spent much of the flight with her nose pressed up against the bars of the crate communing with Wally, announced that the present situation could well be classified as cruelty… and blamed me.

Right next to Wally’s crate was an enormous hanger, wide open and inviting.

“Would he be alright in there?”

“He’d be out of the wind.”

We pushed him in.

“Shouldn’t we ask someone?”

“Take too long…”

This was absolutely true. One thing I had learned about big organisations was that nobody ever wanted to take responsibility for anything – and this was a very big organisation. This was the United States Air Force. Pretty soon I found myself being wheeled in to see the commanding officer – a man with very short hair and more medal ribbons than you could easily count. He sat behind an enormous desk, under an enormous flag and was called something like Hiram B. Sidewinder III.

He was also bored to tears. Everyone at USAF Keflavik was bored to tears. The only reason they were there was to provide a Search and Rescue facility if a B52 came down in the North Atlantic. No B52 had ever come down in the North Atlantic. Colonel Sidewinder was “Go” for excitement.

“Here’s what we’re gonna do,” he said with the certainty of JFK announcing the Moon Landing Program. “We’re gonna take the refuel tank out of a C130 – should give enough room for your Wally’s crate. Now you guys get some shuteye and we’ll have Go for 0600.”

So we closed the big roller doors on Wally and booked into the surprisingly luxurious hotel where we didn’t so much get some shuteye as have a celebration dinner and go for a dip in one of the natural volcanic hot spas that litter Iceland like puddles in Manchester.

The following morning we were back at the airport, all ready for “Go” at 0600. However, now the Colonel had morphed from JFK to Jim Lovell with “Houston, we have a problem.”

We did too. Someone had told the Pentagon.

It was like this: If the C130 was going to be out of commission, another one would have to be flown up from mainland USA to cover for it – after all, the C130 was there to refuel the Air Sea Rescue helicopter that would go to the aid of the crew of the downed B52 – if one should happen to come down for the first time ever during the precise 12 hours it would take to fly Wally to Greenland, fly back and replace the refuel tank.

Of course, the Pentagon could suspend B-52 flights for the duration but wouldn’t you just know it if the Ruskies chose that particular window to start World War III.

So what we had was a “No-Go”.

I began to shake my head. This was not good. So far, Skegness Council had helped save Wally by building him a crate, a North of England haulage company had helped save him by driving him to Heathrow and Iceland Air had helped save him by flying him free and gratis to Keflavik and now… and now…

I placed my cup of disgusting weak American coffee with obligatory cream on the edge of the desk and began to excuse myself: My deadline was approaching. The Daily Mail and its six million readers would be waiting for news of Wally…however disappointing and, possibly, however tragic that news might prove to be.

With a heavy heart and heavy tread, I rose to leave and impart to a waiting world… etc…etc…

“Wait!” The Colonel held up his hand – not an easy thing to do, given the weight of gold braid on his sleeve.

What happened over the next few hours, I can only surmise. I never saw the colonel again – but I did see a lot of the harassed young Captain who had been tasked with rescuing the international reputation of USAF Keflavik, the United States Air Force in general and God’s Own Country as an animal-loving nation.

One day that young Captain was going to be a Colonel – even a General. Here’s what he did from his little office in Iceland: He got the Pentagon to call the State Department – and the State Department to call the US embassy in Reykjavik… and the ambassador to call the Icelandic Foreign Minister – who called the Fisheries Minister – who handed the mission to the commander of their Fishery Protection Fleet.

For 72 hours the Icelandic Fishing fleet in the Denmark Strait would be left unprotected while a little grey Fisheries Protection Vessel – a sort of cross between a destroyer and a lifeboat – would take Wally home. The vet rushed off to tell him the good news.

Sure enough, the whole circus moved to the harbour where Wally was winched aboard and lashed to the deck (the vet giving him a running commentary through the bars).

The captain, a bemused man with a bushy beard and piercing blue eyes, revelled in a name that sounded something like Guðmundur Snorradóttir. The weather forecast was excellent, he said. We should have a smooth crossing (which might well have had something to do with deserting all those fishermen).

And so we ate our way to Greenland. Ask Mark Carwardine, if you don’t believe me – he spends a lot his time living on freeze-dried rations in desolate parts of the world while he makes his documentaries. But on this trip, we had six meals a day.

We started with breakfast – very Scandinavian, lots of raw and smoked fish, hearty breads to exercise the beard muscles. Then, for a mid-morning snack, we were offered a selection of cakes and flatbreads with more smoked fish and coffee. On to lunch which was a full meal of four courses with a choice of two or three dishes for each one. Tea followed at four O’clock with more cakes and then dinner at 6.30: The sort of meal that would not have disgraced a Mayfair restaurant. It took a couple of hours – but then we didn’t have much else to do… at least not until the table was filled once more with cakes and breads at 11.00n p.m. to fend off night starvation.

It was all very relaxing – except for the vet who kept up her vigil, nose to nose with Wally’s bristling moustache.

Then, finally, in brilliant sunshine, we arrived off the sparkling shores of Greenland – about a couple of miles off them.

“This is as close as we can go,” said the captain.

“As close as we can go!” I think I may have exploded slightly.

We had come all this way, from Skegness beach (with the carpenter) down to London thanks to the friendly haulier – Iceland Air’s free freight – Colonel Sidewinder and Captain PR… not to mention the Pentagon, the State Department, the Icelandic Foreign Minister and his Fisheries counterpart…. and after all that, the unpronounceable captain proposed to stop a couple of miles short of the destination…

“Some things you cannot do,” he said in the sort measured tones you would expect from ancient Norse heritage.

Actually, he had a point. The final mile was blocked with solid pack ice.

“Wally will be fine,” said the Captain. “We move the crate to the edge of the deck, we open the door, he can dive in.”

Mike Hollist, the Mail’s patient wildlife photographer, had been listening patiently to all this and spotted a fatal flaw. It would take Wally about a second to dive from crate to water. The motor drive on Mike’s Nikon F4 might be able to crank out five frames in a second. In other words, the best part of a week of everybody’s time and thousands of pounds of other people’s money was all going to be zeroed into five frames – all of them pretty much identical.

We went back to the drawing board. We considered dragging the crate across the ice. We considered calling in a helicopter (the Americans could refuel it on the way)…

“We could put him on the ice,” said Mike – which showed why he kept winning awards for his animal pictures. “Put him on the ice. He crawls around for a bit. Then he dives in. How’s that?”

Mike looked at me. I looked at the Captain. The Captain looked at the ice.

“Maybe,” he said. “Not the pack ice. But maybe we get close to a big floe. Put the crate on the floe…”

“Open the crate,” said Mike.

“With you on the floe…” I suggested (this was looking promising).

But the Captain had seen that go wrong before: “Loose ice like this – very unstable. Can break up – crack – no warning. So, no people on the ice floe. Only Wally. He swims good.”

And so it was arranged: Two little rubber boats were launched to go and fetch an ice flow and drive it towards the ship. Mike stayed aboard because, as he rightly pointed out, if he was in one of the boats, he would have the ship in the background, not Greenland. If we didn’t have Greenland in the background, who was to say we weren’t dropping him in the Serpentine?

The ship’s derrick hoisted Wally in his crate high into the air and over the rail. The two rubber boats revved up and pressed the ice floe more firmly against the side of the ship.

And it was here that the Laws of Physics came into play. Oh, how I hate the Laws of Physics. If the number of times the Laws of Physics were divided into the sum of human endeavour you would get a very frustrating number indeed. On this occasion, the Force applied by the two outboard motors was transferred to the Object (The ice floe) but then it was transferred onward in the form of kinetic energy to the ship (against which it was pushed by the revving outboards) This meant we had Leverage – and with Leverage, you get a Fulcrum (In this case the centre-point of the ship) causing the whole vessel to rotate (the ice floe, Wally and the two little rubber boats with their revving engines, turning with it.)

“Wait, wait, stop!” I cried (I was on the bridge with the mistaken idea that I was directing operations).

The Captain raised a bushy eyebrow. Evidently, he was not used to people countermanding his orders.

“I’m losing Greenland!” came the faint voice of Mike from his vantage point on the rail.

“We’re losing Greenland!” I relayed to the captain in the manner of John Mills addressing Noel Coward.

“…and the sun,” Mike added for good measure.

But the Captain had had enough: “Mister,” he said. “This is a ship. It is floating in water. You cannot park it like a car!”

The pictures weren’t great when I saw them in the paper several days later. Wally emerged as a shapely black blob – backlit against the ice.

But Greenland was there – as large as life – in all its desolate glory with ice in all directions.

“Hammersmith,” Mike explained when I questioned him privately.

Hammersmith means taking two photographs, cutting them up, pushing them together and photographing them again. It got its name from the fiasco surrounding the newly-constructed Hammersmith Flyover in the early ’60s. It was so huge that even the widest wide-angle lens could not encompass all the diverging and converging lanes and bridges. So the photographer who was sent to cover the opening took several photographs, intending that they should be fitted together later.

They were – just in the wrong order: There were roads disappearing into the sides of buildings, bridges which ended in mid-air… of course, now they would mess it up with Photoshop.

I got two bottles of the Editor’s Piper Heidsieck for that.

You don’t suppose the Pembrokeshire Walrus is Wally’s great-great-grandchild looking for fifteen minutes of fame…

Postscript: (this goes on and on). My former colleague, Paul Fievez, takes issue with me and insists that the term “Hammersmith” refers not to the flyover – although that was certainly a later example – but to Hammersmith Hospital. It was there that another legendary colleague (now dead and therefore to be known only as “George”) was sent to photograph one of Britain’s first sets of surviving quadruplets.

Unfortunately, when George arrived, one of the little mites had been removed to intensive care and could not attend its photo-opportunity. Undeterred, George lined up the three remaining incubators, photographed them and then, taking a babe from one end of the line-up, whizzed it round to the other – and photographed them all again.

Everybody knows that all babies are identical and look like Winston Churchill, so once the two prints had been chopped up and pasted back together, nobody was any the wiser.

And until today, I suppose they weren’t.

Fievez only knows about this because, as a young snapper at the Mail, he once received a legendary Daily Mail bollocking from “George” who by that time was his boss. Apparently, Paul had failed to secure an important photograph, and George demanded to know why he hadn’t simply “Hammersmithed” it.

Paul, still wet behind the ears, had no idea what he was talking about – and so, was treated to the whole story.

* Paul has not retired completely from photography (they never do) but, very sensibly, has taken up the pen. At least with words, you can make them up. He assures me his novel Emperor Diamond is entirely made up.

** Those in the know will have worked out who “George” was – so Paul is now trembling at the prospect of another bollocking … this time from beyond the veil.

17 Responses to Wally


While technology’s most significant gift to the sailor must be the GPS, there is something that, to my mind, is even more welcome – and that is the Kindle.

I have just counted up and find I have 329 books on mine (the latest, Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens – an absolute delight).

Imagine how big a boat you would need for an onboard library like that?

But it is only since publishing my own book and being thrilled to find that Amazon counts it as a “Hot New Release” and deserving of a discount out of Mr Bezos’s (admittedly deep) pocket, that I have been paying close attention to how Amazon works.

While an appreciative review gives the author a warm glow of boosted ego, that’s not really what counts. This is just as well because I know that when I finish a book, I have every good intention of writing a review – and then rarely get around to it. Somehow there are always more pressing things to do than open up the Amazon account and click on “My Orders” and “write a review” – and even then you have to wait for the algorithm to approve it in case you said something that’s not allowed.

No, what counts are the “stars”. After the first half dozen reviews, it doesn’t matter how many there are – nobody is going to trawl through all of them. But the stars do matter. The stars really matter.

I know that if I am thinking of buying a book, I check to see it has four or five stars – and that hundreds and hundreds of different people awarded it those stars. After all, if there are only a couple of dozen, they could have come from the author’s family – all those doting aunties who like to tell their neighbours they have a “nauthor” in the family.

Also, please remember that your stars won’t go anywhere unless your device is online. If you bought the paperback edition, you will have to go into your Amazon account, onto the “My Orders” page and leave your stars there.


One Response to Stars

  • I’m cozied up with a wool blanket and the dog and your stories. A great way to spend a day as a liveaboard on a boat covered with snow.
    P.S. Your book is on my Kindle and I just submitted my 5-star review. ☺

Charcoal heater

The temperature in the cabin is 9°C. This morning it was 5°C – and that was after I unzipped the two sleeping bags (one inside the other) and released the fug within. It went off like a bomb.

So the subject is cabin heaters – something that exercises the Facebook sailing groups almost as much as anchors – or come to that, guns.

So here is everything I have learned from three British winters with a small charcoal heater.

It came with the boat and a little plaque announcing that this was a Hampshire Heater – but no instructions. The vendor explained airily that there was nothing to it: “Just fill it up with lumpwood charcoal and light it by pouring methylated spirit onto the wick. You can top up with paper bags of more charcoal.”

That first winter, I learned that it wasn’t quite as simple as that – for instance, not having any paper bags the first night, I made the discovery that if you add a shovelful of loose charcoal while it’s burning, the heat blows coal dust all over the deckhead.

Lighting it wasn’t so easy either: The wick, made of some sort of solid fireproof material, seemed unable to absorb the meths which then spilled all over the base of the ash-tray causing an explosion of blue flames and singed eyebrows.

At first, I solved this by reserving a spoonful of ash to leave on the top of the wick to absorb the meths – but then found it simpler to drip the spirit onto the wick so slowly that it had time to get itself absorbed.

Then there was the problem of too much smoke. It took a long time to get this sorted: Clouds of choking grey fumes would pour out of every orifice – including the supposedly airtight seal at the top. I have decided this is what happens when the fuel gets damp (not surprising on a small boat). The solution is to shut down the vent until the smoking stops and then open it just a crack – and then more until the chimney is hot enough to send the smoke in the right direction.

So it is important to buy the fuel in plastic bags and, once opened, keep them tied up between refills.

And that’s another thing – buying the fuel. There’s no problem in the summer when every garage keeps a stack of convenient plastic 5kg bags on the forecourt for the customers’ barbecues. But you don’t need it in the summer, do you? It’s in the middle of January that you need to keep 30kg bunkered in the fo’c’sle. You can buy it from a coal merchant of get it delivered by Amazon – but that way, it tends to come in 10kg bags which are more troublesome to stow.

So charcoal is by no means perfect – although it is carbon neutral, which is more than you can say for diesel. I used to say that if I had a bigger boat, I would go for diesel anyway. Maybe it isn’t so good for the planet, but you can buy the fuel anywhere, and you don’t end up with coal dust all over the place.

Give me a bigger boat, I said, and I would have a Refleks – the heater of choice for Danish fisherfolk in the Heligoland Bight. Also, I would install it on the floor not half-way up the bulkhead so I have to sit with my feet up on the opposite bunk to stop them from freezing.

The trouble is that only once have I seen a Refleks on a 32ft boat – and that involved chopping off a third of the port berth.

Then I read Paul Heiney’s book One Wild Song about his cruise around Cape Horn and discovered that much of it was spent fretting about the diesel supply and having to ration his heater because every cosy evening was stealing fuel from his engine.

Of course, there are plenty of other options: Forced air, gas, paraffin (kerosene) not to mention weighing down the boat with half a ton of wood burner (and with wood, you’d need to tow another boat behind to carry it all). Also, charcoal is cheap: You can buy a 5kg bag for £4.50 from a coal merchant – although it might be £5.50 on a garage forecourt or £8 on Amazon.

At least with diesel, the price is pretty much the same everywhere, but I did some comparisons, and there was no doubt about it: Hour for hour, charcoal was about half the price.

Next, consider this: If you’re going to be carting diesel back to the boat, you will need cans to do it – and they will take up just as much room as the bags of charcoal. The difference is that, in the summer, the empty bags will have been thrown away, but you’ll still have to find room for the cans.

Of course, if you have a 200litre fuel tank, maybe you don’t have a problem after all – as I say, the conclusion seems to be diesel for bigger boats with budgets to match – but as so many small boat sailors have found, a charcoal heater with its small size and its simplicity has a lot going for it.

Which is where we come up against the problem: There appears to be no-one, anywhere in the world, making a small charcoal heater for boats. Early on, when I spoke to the Hampshire Heater company, the managing director, William Baird had decided to retire and was closing down.

In doing so, he was following the Cowes chandlers Pascall Atkey who stopped making their Pansy Heaters years ago. Now you can get a good price for either on eBay.

This proves the demand is still there. Surely some stainless steel fabricator somewhere would like to start up a little sideline – in which case Mr Baird tells me he would consider selling the business.

If you’re interested, let me know and I’ll put you in touch.

Smoke escaping – close the vent

The wick with a spoonful of ash burning methylated spirit.

14 Responses to Charcoal heater

  • Hello John,
    I’ve just axquired a Hamphire with my new boat and it appears to be the same model as yours. Could you spare the time to give a detailed account of firing the brute up. I’m half afraid ot it!
    Cheers, James

  • Extensive test of heaters from a guy who lives on his boat in the far North: He prefers the Refleks.

  • Check out samovar heaters on “wish” ,at 60 quid a pop ,might be worth looking at

  • Hello i had a Taylors drip feed diesel heater on my then Roberts 36 it kept the boat snugg even with snow on the deck. recently i have fitted a chinese copy of the eberspacher heater from ebay for les than £100.00 plus the same again for stainless exhaust etc. it worked staight out of the box and is happy under sail. you only need the 2 kw model to heat your boat. there are a couple of groups on facebook with lots opf info. cheers Les

  • Can you afford a Taylor’s? Less than an Ebersbacher(!) but it’ll be Spring before you get one as they’re made to order I see. I had one in my old 30ft gaffer years ago and it was toasty. Even had a water tank on the chimney for never ending brews.
    Out put is allegedly 2kw so it’s not bad for the main cabin but an Ebersbacher is 5kw I think but heats a 30ft boat nicely – so long as you have shore power to keep up with the battery drain long term

    • I don’t think much of the forced-air types because the battery drain (if you’re on shore power you can use a fan heater). The Taylor’s is an option if one day I plan to stay in a cold climate – but, as you say, expensive.

    • See EBay item 353350302770

  • I had a Pansy stove on my old Alan Buchanan Yeoman Junior, Powder Monkey and I wish I’d known – or had the practical application to work out – that the charcoal needed to be dry. I guess mine must always have been damp as all the Pansy was good for was turning herrings into kippers while I waited on deck hoping the smoke would dispel before my body temperature matched that of the air.

  • Interesting stuff John. What are your thoughts on the Dickinson stoves? I have an Eberspacher knock off, Chinese style. Works well, great value but these blown air beasts are a tad noisy. I value using diesel and not having to source another bulky fuel. With you on Refleks by the way!


Some things on boats are just disgusting. I have written about the Joker Valve – an essential piece of the sanitary plumbing which must be replaced periodically. But if you think the Joker Valve is disgusting – at least the old one gets thrown away (hopefully sealed in a plastic bag).

But what about the Outlet Hose? This is the bit that connects the Joker Valve to the outside world – which means that everything that passes through the one, also has to pass through the other.

However, a new Outlet Hose is a lot more expensive than a new Joker Valve. Moreover, it doesn’t wear out, so you can’t justify replacing it. Instead, it has to be cleaned.

Let me explain why (you’re going to enjoy this): The combination of human waste and salt water – as passes through the marine toilet – causes a built up of calcified “material” on the inside of the outlet hose. This is rather like domestic pipes getting furred-up or arteries being choked with cholesterol.

Domestic pipes get replaced. Clogged arteries involve surgical procedures which don’t bear thinking about.

Actually, clearing the deposit in an Outlet Hose doesn’t bear thinking about either. Here’s how you do it.

Remove the hose, take it ashore, find a nice open space with a good hard surface and swing the hose three time around your head before whacking it on the hard surface.

I should add that this is tremendously satisfying. It clears the hose in no time at all. However, the cleared “material” does come flying out of the end of the hose and shoots off in all directions. Fortunately, most passers-by have no idea just what that material is.

I used to think that the contents of the Outlet Hose and clearing them out was about the most disgusting aspect of boat-ownership.

But no, I have found something even more appalling.

Here’s what happens: The galley sink drains into a “grey water tank”. Grey water is that type of boat effluent which is one up from “black water” (I’ll let you use your imagination on that one).

Actually “grey water” sounds quite attractive – like something to do with interior décor and water features.

It’s not: Do you have a kitchen drain at home that sometimes gets blocked with grains of rice and slivers of onion and coffee grounds? How does that smell once you’ve neglected it for a few weeks.

Now imagine all of that in a plastic tank in the bilges. It should be emptied by a “gulper” pump – that is, one which is designed to cope with rice and onion and coffee grounds. What do you suppose happens if the gulper pump gets switched off accidentally. The Law of Gravity will still cause the sink to drain all that “grey water” into the tank and if it doesn’t get pumped out, it will overflow – escaping into the open bilges.

And since the bilges are down there somewhere (out of sight and out of mind), you won’t know anything has gone wrong until you smell it.

This is when you take off the top of the engine casing and shine a torch down through the pipes and wires into the bottom of the boat.

For a moment or two, I couldn’t understand why the usual puddle of seawater was orange. The last time I saw orange seawater was in Bilbao in the 1970s – before anyone got excited about pollution. But, when you think about it, I do use a lot of paprika.  Paprika turns the washing-up water a brilliant orange, doesn’t it?

So the bilges – indeed, every part of the boat underfoot – is now coated with a sticky deposit of orange goo which smells, unmistakably, of drains.

I don’t even want to think about what I’m supposed to do about it.

8 Responses to Disgusting

  • John, may I suggest about 20ml of Dettol Disinfectant. Works a treat in my caravan!

  • Hi John, a fellow OCC member here. Very much enjoying your and your latest has brought memories flooding back of running a flotilla of Mirage 28″s in Greece in the 70’s. The preseason fitouts to get the boats ready for the summer required the overhaul of about 30 Lavac toilets. Needless to say this wasn’t the most enjoyable part of being a flotilla skipper but strangely enough beating the crud out of the inlet hoses in just the manner you describe was in some degree therapeutic! At least by that stage you were back out in the fresh air after being heads down in the heads changing the joker valve and cleaning out the unmentionable stuff that had been left at the end of the previous season!
    Hoping we meet up somewhere along the way as I am hoping to be cruising Scottish waters and beyond in 2021.
    Keep the posts coming!
    Bluey Hellier.

  • Let me tell you a little story about outlet hoses. I have a 1998 Nauticat 331 which we have owned from new and have over the years changed the joker valve when it no longer stops water feeding back into the toilet bowl. One summer we have my two grandsons on board and they have been taught to always use lots of toilet paper at home. We’re moored in the Beaulieu river and the grandchildren use the toilet but it want pump away. My daughter tries then so do I but can’t pump anything, it is solid. I change the joker valve, no difference but I can see the outlet pipe is jammed full of paper. Luckily we have a second toilet in the aft cabin as I know this is a boat yard job. The yard took 2 hours to unthread the outlet pipe which went a tortuous route through bulkheads to the seacock. When examined it was so badly silted up only half an inch core was left in the centre. A new pipe was threaded and all now works perfectly. An expensive lunch time stop but the old pipe had been in service for fifteen years so I guess value for money it was just about OK.

  • Thanks for that John – I was just about to have lunch…..

  • Is the grey water tank a Rival feature? Not come across it before!

    • Not standard but a good idea because if the sink goes to a seacock it won’t empty on starboard tack. On Largo, I used to force the last of the washing up water away with a plunger. Because the tank is so much lower, it always drains. It also takes the water from the shower tray and the anchor locker so (theoretically) you should have dry bilges. In practice…

  • ‘I don’t even want to think about what I’m supposed to do about it….’

    If ever there was an excuse for acquiring a new boat, this is it!

  • Swinging the heads outlet hose about, flexing it and whacking it on something is exactly the same way I clear mine. That “stuff” that builds up is hard and crystalline and brittle. It breaks easily, and if dry, just tumbles out the pipe. Somewhere.


When I was eight years old we graduated from a dinghy to a “proper boat”. Torgunn was a Folkboat  – 25ft long. She had a cabin. The whole family could sleep on her. We could sail to Holland!

It was time to get properly equipped and so my father took his crew to be fitted for oilskins.

This was 1957 so they weren’t really oilskins – not sailcloth treated with linseed oil. On the other hand, no-one had thought of Gore-Tex either. These were hard PVC which stuck to itself and was cold and clammy when you first put it on – and then got hot and sweaty if you went and did anything.

My two sisters, being the foredeck crew, had trousers and smocks with integral hoods so they could crawl around with the North Sea breaking over their heads.

Father and I, being in charge of the cockpit, were more dignified in long coats and short black boots (nobody had thought of yellow boots). On our heads – or course – we wore sou’westers.

Mother didn’t have any of this stuff as far as I remember. I think the idea was that in any sort of weather that called for oilskins, somebody would have to be making tea.

By the way, this is no reflection on 1950s women on boats – after all Beryl Smeeton had sailed round Cape Horn by this time, being both pitchpoled and rolled on the way (and still countersinking the screws when she repaired the smashed deckhouse in the middle of the storm.)

And now, more than sixty years later, I have gone back to oilies.

Judging by the Facebook arguments on the subject, I won’t be the only one. Everybody seems to be asking everyone else for recommendations for the best “foulies”. For years I was a Henri Lloyd devotee – then Musto came along. Helly Hansen, I tried – and finally, with Samsara, back to Henri Lloyd.

And, of course, all of them were brilliant – warm, comfortable and dry. Also, the clever Gore-Tex fabric was able to “breathe”, doing away with all that clammy, sweaty business on the inside. I remained a Gore-Tex devotee for years.

Until this summer. You see, now I am a full-time sailor. Before, it had been weekends and holidays (five years living on the catamaran didn’t count – we tried not to go out if there was the possibility of getting wet). But now, after three years aboard a proper seaboat, the latest suit seems to be completely porous.

This revelation crept up slowly: First, the stylish jacket and salopettes seemed strangely heavy when it came to hanging them up after a lively trip. Then they were still damp the next time it came to put them on – and finally, there was the discovery that my clothes underneath were sopping wet around the knees and elbows. By the time this had reached the back and shoulders, I was asking for advice. I had washed them in special waterproofing detergent. I had sprayed them with waterproofing spray. What was going on? They were only three years old after all…

The advice came flooding in: Iron them – the waterproofing is activated by heat. Paint them with liquid Fabsil – the aerosol product is useless and expensive: Apply the stuff with a paintbrush – the more the better.

I bought three litres and used the lot – and then ironed it in for good measure.

None of this made the slightest difference. I began to suspect that manufacturers of foul-weather clothing rather like the idea of their customers spending the best part of £1,000 on a new set every three years or so.

Then someone suggested the French-made Guy Cotton clothing. It’s what fishermen wear – PVC and tough as old boots. Of course, you can’t buy it in chi-chi yacht chandlers – at least not the ones I frequent. But in a proper ship chandlers in Mallaig, I found shelves in all colours and sizes.

Well, not quite all colours: Bright orange for the fishermen or yellow and blue for the yachties. And it appeared that PVC has come on a lot in the last sixty years: This was soft and pliable. The fabric had a sort of lining bonded to the inside to take off the chill as you pulled it over your head. Naturally, there was no attempt at “breathability” – but then, as every fisherman knows, if you want to keep the water out, the best way is to keep out the air as well.

Also, at around £80 a throw, compared to £800, it had to be worth a try. I could spend that much of Fabsil.

And here’s what I found: Not only is this PVC completely waterproof but I’m not even inconvenienced by the cold and clammy/hot and sweaty dichotomy: Because they don’t come with a loose inner layer to keep you from the soggy outer layer, they are much easier to put on in an emergency and take off while waiting for the next one (knowing that it won’t take long to put them on again when the emergency arrives).

All of which means that as soon as I get below, I do take them off… with the added advantage of not soaking all the cushions when finally I do sit down with that cup of tea.

Guy Cotten Peche Smock

7 Responses to Oilies

  • The main issue for the ladies who wear the full Musto outfit is not a bit of damp, but how to have a quick wee without having to strip off the bulky coat and then the salopettes, usually also having to ‘back in’ to in a tiny tiny space the size of a broom cupboard, elbows hitting the walls to hinder progress further. And in the time it all takes with boisterous bad weather motion, increasing seasickness begins to remind you to get back on deck and fix an eye on the horizon super quick. And once all the gear is pulled up and put on to an almost comfortable state, boots reset, its probably time for another wee. I haven’t sailed for some years and often wonder if a more practical outfit for us girls has been developed.

  • It was interesting to read “oilies”.We had 25years in the Chandlery/clothing business in the 70s 80s 90s
    and were the first importer of guy cotten to uk when we owned a company called Cruisermart.I think you were a customer? We sold the company in 1990 and came to live in Woodbridge and often meet up (or used to….) with your Parents in law Eddy and Eira at the Cherry Tree.Good interesting stuff Joker valves included

  • John, you have performed a great service to your fellow sailors. I have been wondering what to do about my now leaking wet gear.

  • Interesting- but where does the internal condensation go? If it can’t get out it soaks into the clothing. I agree your views about the durability of boating gear and next time my knees and shoulders come out wet I’ll be looking at industrial gear from the offshore firms like ( no connection. Just find them helpful especially on life raft servicing).
    Off course my best foullie gear is the wheelhouse!

    • You’re right. If you wear them for hours at a time, the moisture would end up in the clothes you wear under the oilies. However, they are so easy to take on and off that I just take them off every time I go below so it’s not an issue. In the event of having to be on deck for hours at a time, I imagine clammy inner-wear will be the least of my worries.

  • Interesting…. This could be what I need. I’ve had a look at their site, but its not easy to work out exactly what’s what. Steer please – which range did you go with? Looks like the Agri range might be appropriate.


There is so much discussion about Coppercoat anti-fouling I thought I should post my pennyworth.

For non-sailors who would like to persist with this post, Coppercoat is a brand of antifouling paint intended to stop things growing on the bottom of your boat. It does this not by using the normal chemicals but copper powder held in epoxy paint. A light sanding exposes the copper and, as Nelson knew, there is nothing better than having a copper bottom.

When I bought Samsara she had about ten layers of conventional paint below the waterline. Since all of it would have to come off, it did seem like the ideal opportunity to upgrade.

Besides, she was a cheap boat. I could afford to splash out on extras.

However, I did have a bit of history with copper antifouling. Back in the 1990s, I had tried something called CopperBot on the catamaran Lottie Warren. Within a year, it developed enormous blisters.

The consensus was that because the boat had been built in a shed in Falmouth without today’s strict humidity controls, the Atlantic winds had blown a good helping of moisture into the lay-up.

That wasn’t going to happen this time. Not only had Samsara been epoxy-treated already but it was now mid-summer and anyway, she had been sitting on the hard for months. Indeed, the survey found not so much as a percentage point of moisture. The yard made a beautiful job of it. The finish was like glass.

So why did it come up in blisters three months later?

As you can imagine there were a lot of anxious phone calls between owner, yard and manufacturer (with everyone blaming everyone else).

Eventually, we all decided to blame a fourth party – the company which had applied the epoxy treatment back in the 1990s. Conveniently (or perhaps consequently) they were long-gone. Anyway, the consensus was that the treatment had been done the cheap way: Instead of three coats of filler and then two of epoxy, they had applied one of epoxy first which smoothed out a lot of the bumps so they could get away with only two applications of filler before finishing with a single layer of epoxy – which, of course, didn’t keep the water out.

Since nobody was offering to finance a new application, I decided to live with it until I couldn’t avoid painting over it.

And then something odd happened.


It didn’t get any worse.

The blisters broke and fell off, leaving little white spots like a teenager’s chin. But by the third year, I realised there weren’t any more of them. Each time she came out of the water, I photographed the problem and there seems no doubt about it: The before and after photos were identical (and the one above shows the worst of it).

Admittedly it does look a bit odd but the spots are mostly well spread out and in between them the copper does do its stuff: When I dry out against a quay in June or July to grease the prop and change the anode, I take a pack of pan-scourers underneath and, scrambling around in the mud in my B&Q waterproofs, I can clean the slime and the occasion strand of weed in a couple of hours.

So yes, Coppercoat does work. However, I would suggest applying it only to new epoxy – or, best of all, a brand-new boat.

3 Responses to Coppercoat

  • Very interesting and good advice.
    Have a great Christmas.

  • John
    As a non sailor but with a keen interest from land I have found your posts informative and interesting.
    Merry Christmas and happy new year to you.

  • I know nothing about any of this but somehow find it interesting reading it! Hope you are doing good, all the best.