Don’t panic II

When the engine stopped just as I was getting away from Port Askaig, I could have scrambled to get back in. In the light of events, maybe that is what I should have done – but instead, I turned the key again, the engine started once more as if nothing was the matter and so I assumed it knew best.

All the same, I did hoist some sails very smartly indeed. And sure enough we had a cracking sail up to Mull… until the wind died again. With only ten miles to go it seemed a good idea to motor the last bit.

That was when I started to worry once more. Sure enough, after about an hour, the steady thump of the diesel paused, stuttered… and stopped.

I turned the key. It started again.

This was all very well in the open sea. What would I do if it happened just as I reached my destination.

Tinker’s Hole is one of the most popular anchorages on the west coast of Scotland. What makes it so special is that it is tiny and entirely protected by series of small islands. You tie your dinghy to a rusty ring set into the pink granite cliffs and scramble up to enjoy a vista of complete wilderness.

Threading your way in between the rocks with less than half a cable of space between them is no place to be becalmed if the engine stops.

Curiously, I don’t remember considering that I should call off the visit – head for somewhere sensible that I could sail into (and out of, come to that). I suppose I assumed that both times the engine had stopped, it had started again – and anyway, I would have to be pretty unlucky if it stopped at exactly the wrong moment just as I found myself up-tide of the rock (dries 2.3m) just off the entrance or in the middle of the entrance itself (less than half a cable wide). Before then, I could sling out the anchor – it was only 10 metres deep. Once I was in, I would be anchoring anyway.

The engine waited until I was in before it stopped. In fact, I was no more than a boat-length from the exact spot where I proposed to plant the hook. That was why we were idling in neutral. Clearly, the machinery had decided that if it wasn’t going to be called upon to do anything useful, then it might just as well shut down now… and did.

We ghosted to a halt and I lowered the anchor through five metres of clear water to rest nicely between two patches of weed. Now all I had to worry about was getting out again. Still, that could wait for the morning.

But in the morning the only other boat in the anchorage had gone. Samsara was all alone and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a photograph. So, straight after breakfast, it was into the dingy to row over to the rocks no more than 15 metres away and then climb up through the bracken and over the heather to the hill where – apart from spectacular views, it occurred to me there might be a mobile signal.

There wasn’t.

I stayed four nights in Tinker’s Hole which must be a record. There was a good deal of fussing over the engine but I couldn’t for the life of me find anything wrong with it. In the end, it seemed the obvious course would be to put into Tobermory before heading off into any more wilderness. There would be a mechanic in Tobermory, for sure. Besides, it has to be one of the prettiest harbours anywhere with all the houses painted different colours.

However, until I had a reliable wind, I wasn’t going anywhere.

This meant that on the second day, I packed some sandwiches, a can of beer and a Mars bar and set off on an expedition, returning five hours later utterly exhausted. The scramble up the hill the previous day had been the easy bit. This time I stumbled through shoulder-high undergrowth, climbed cliffs, fell into ravines and more than once wondered what I would do if I broke a leg.

In the end I came to “The Community of Erraid”. In happier times, I would have said hello but we don’t do that any more, do we? There was a tube of hand-sanitising gel on the gate to remind me. This is what it must have been like travelling during the time of the plague.

I have since looked them up. On the Isle of Erraid, live a small community who, in their own words conduct “a dynamic experiment where everyday life is guided by the inner voice of spirit, where we work in co-creation with the intelligence of nature and take inspired action towards our vision of a better world.”

If this had been in ordinary times, I imagine I would have a lot more to tell you about them. All I can say is that I saw people at a distance and we waved to each other.

That’s just sad…

Meanwhile, the longer I stayed in Tinker’s Hole, the more time I had to worry about getting out. For a start I wasn’t going to attempt it until we had some wind (hence the four days). At one point, I had decided I would have the kedge anchor on deck, the dinghy towing astern ready to row the anchor out to haul myself off the rocks if the wind should die at the wrong moment. In the event, I did no such thing but sailed out with the engine ticking over without the slightest problem.

But I was going to have to do something about this. My nerves couldn’t take much more…

9 Responses to Don’t panic II

  • Lovely photo. I hope you find the cause of your engine problem.

  • What a truly scarey set of circumstances, makes my leaking loo seem very tame! Wonderful photo’s though.

  • As a non sailor but with a very strong interest from land I have found these last blogs a rivetting read thankyou. As an ex mechanic can understand frustrations with engine many a breakdown call out only not find fault with diesel engine running when arrived.One ambition is to get out to sea.

  • Hi John,
    I have been following your voyage with keen interest and fully understand your embarrassment with a failed engine and having to issue a Pam Pam. Never happened to me fortunately, but a good sailing buddy had a similar experience as he was in the congested waters coming into Poros harbour Greece. Greek ferry skippers can get very excited and having the Coast Guard yelling at you “that you can’t anchor there” just added to the bedlam!
    As I was reading your engine travails, and as the fuel filter looks clean and I presume the fuel pump has tested OK, then perhaps you should look to your fuel tank for sludge/algae build up. Over the years it can build up and can block the outlet. I once had to throw half a tank of fuel away (not literally) and get the tank cleaned as it had ugly black sludge coagulated at the bottom.
    But hopefully you have sorted the problem by now?
    btw your last AIS signal seems to have been 11:31 on 3/10/2020 according to Marine traffic site?
    You were just off the island of Rum at the time

  • Well done for getting into Tinkers Hole..and you must have got out as you said there was no signal…similar turned out that an “olive” connector was not tight enough or had worked loose and was letting air into the engine and causing it to stop. The engineers in Cherbourg agreed that one’s usual engine checks would not have discovered it. Think they used soapy finding a puncture in tyre. So, it would be interesting to find out what was the cause. Our engine at the time was a Beta and the Nanni is built around the same Kubota block.
    Keep well, stay safe and which was better Lambs or Aldi?

  • Sounds familiar to me too! I had a similar Nanni engine problem and it turned out to be the exhaust elbow almost completely blocked solid with carbon. Took an experienced marine engineer many hours to establish this.
    I’m in Largs Yacht Haven at the moment getting to know a Bavaria 33 I picked up here last week.

  • Sounds familiar! At least, when everything possible has been tried and the wretched thing doesn’t work at all, one can passage plan with that certainty in mind.

    The surroundings sound gorgeous. Very jealous!

Dont Panic!

Talk about leisurely… all I had to do was get up in time for lunch and then motor the 20 miles to the entrance to the Sound of Islay. There was the little (but magnificently named) Am Far Eilean Bay just at the entrance where you can anchor for the night before catching the tide as it begins its race through the sound after breakfast.

And it does race – five knots at springs.

If you have read my ramblings about ocean calms, you will know that I don’t like to use the engine except for getting in and out of harbour but then, if you have a thousand miles to go, what’s the point?

Twenty miles, on the other hand is a different matter – especially if the difference means having to wait another day for the wind.

I turned the key. The worshipful Nanni rumbled into life with due obedience. This is worth noting because once or twice over the past week or so, it had developed something of a stutter – slowing down before resuming its business (and increasing my heart rate at the same time).

Anyone would think this was a fuel blockage. I know all about fuel blockages. What happens is that the stuttering becomes more frequent until eventually the engine stops and you have to turn the key again. Eventually, if nothing is done, obedience goes out of the window.

We hadn’t reached that stage yet. Sometimes you never do. But it was something to keep an eye on as we puttered out of the bay and through the little passage inside the island of Texa (or Caolas an Eiolein) as I had learned to call it.

It’s fairly dull business, motoring. I suppose that’s the reason motor cruisers go so fast, creating enormous wakes that shake the wind out of sails – motorboat drivers can’t wait to get somewhere.

I  didn’t have the luxury: Putt-putt-putt at four-and-a-half knots past the Laphroaig distillery and the Lagavulin distillery (they have their names painted on their walls in enormous letters), each with it’s plume of blue peat smoke hanging in the air.

To seaward, the Mull of Kintyre was a sort of purple colour on the horizon. They’re certainly right about the scenery up here. I would have liked to see a submarine, though – apparently they’re as common as seals because of the base at Faslane. All I got was another yacht going the other way – a Halberg-Rassey with it’s distinctive blue stripe and reinforced windscreen. About 35ft at a guess – and it had to be a guess because he didn’t have his AIS switched on; that would have told me… and his name too…

It was past teatime when we got to the entrance to the sound and the engine stopped.

It stuttered once and then stopped – and this time, it didn’t start again.

Now, a loss of power shouldn’t worry a sailing boat – unless it happens in the middle of a tricky manoeuvre in a marina surrounded by a lot of gleaming potential insurance claims or, perhaps, in a narrow channel strewn with rocks and with a five knot tide running just when a flat calm renders the sails useless.

And it did. There was not even a ripple as Samsara glided slowly to a halt.

Of course, she didn’t really glide to a halt. She just halted in the water – and the water was moving inexorably into the Sound.

Obviously, I turned the key again. The engine groaned but didn’t chug.

I checked the tank: Nearly full. I checked the glass bowl under the first fuel filter – yes, full of fuel with a tiny layer of water at the bottom where it should be. What else could I do? I have little expertise in electrics – but once the starter-motor starts turning, a diesel doesn’t need electricity. Could it be the fuel pump? If it was, what could I do about it here and now?

And come to that “here” was not where it had been. Before I removed the engine casing and started peering into the mysteries within, we had been moving at 0.3knots into the Sound. By the time I emerged having achieved nothing, this has risen to 0.5.

Admittedly this is far short of the frantic five knots found in the narrows. But it has to work up to that – and quite clearly, the process had begun. What made it alarming was that one of the interesting aspects of the Sound of Islay is Black Rock.

An extraordinary number of places have a Black Rock. Maybe this is because most rocks are, indeed, black – or maybe it just sounds more scary. Falmouth has one in the middle of the harbour entrance.

The Sound of Islay’s black rock and it’s attendant reef is marked by a green buoy to stop people running into it. But, of course, this is only if that someone has some control over where they’re going.

As with all things to do with the sea, there is a correct course of action when you find yourself setting off somewhere but have no control over exactly where and that is to throw out your anchor. Grab a hold of the bottom. Stay put.

I looked at the depth recorder: 42metres. I carry 50 metres of chain so it would reach the bottom but no anchor will hold with the chain vertical – that’s how you get it up. So, I couldn’t anchor. Yet, now the progress up the Sound and in the direction of Black Rock was up to 0.6kts.

What I needed was a tow.

That was how I came to think of the Halberg-Rassey which had been going the other way not a quarter of an hour earlier. In fact I could see him in the distance. Anybody who has a boat like that is bound to be a decent type. He would give me a tow, I was sure of it – take me back into Port Ellen where I could find an engineer. Should I take him a bottle of malt as a thank-you?

Except, of course, he was far too far away to hail – or to see me if I were to stand on the foredeck brandishing a coil of rope which is the sailor’s equivalent of a hitchhiker’s thumb (and worked so well when the engine stopped in a similar calm on my very first outing with Samsara back in 2017).

I would have to call him on the radio. But who to call? If his AIS had been switched on, I would have known his name. As it was, I could hardly broadcast: “Halberg-Rassey sailing yacht to the south-east side of Islay, possibly making for Port Ellen….”

I could do an “All ships” broadcast. Maybe there would be another yacht about – or a kindly fisherman…But in that case, I would have to announce that I required assistance: The correct procedure would been to preface it with “Pan-Pan” which is the radio code for “Urgency” just as “Mayday” is “Emergency”. The trouble with that is that it all begins to become rather official and the next thing you know, the Coastguard will get involved and the Coastguard’s default procedure is to call out the Lifeboat.

I didn’t want the Lifeboat. I would die of shame.

On the other hand the little red arrow on the screen was still pointing resolutely into the Sound – and in the Sound was Black Rock – waiting… (possibly salivating…)

I stood in the companionway, the engine casing open in front of me, the VHF radio switched on.  Channel 16, the calling channel, glowing on the screen.

That was when I asked myself what was the sensible thing to do. Forget dying of shame and being self-sufficient and taking responsibility and all that. What was the sensible thing to do?

It was a question I have grown very used to over the past three years: The boat is pounding into a rising wind and sea, every elderly joint is protesting, the rigging is bar-taught. Reefing means you must struggle into foul-weather gear and go crawling up the deck to reef. What is the sensible thing to do?

Or you have returned too late and find the dinghy on the other side of the sand bar which separates St Agnes from The Gugh in the Isles of Scilly. The tide is racing across it, already thigh-deep and doing four knots. The book says it is dangerous to attempt a crossing at such times. What is the sensible thing to do?

You are helpless, becalmed and with no engine. You are being sucked into a ten mile stretch of water, only half a mile wide at its narrowest – and if there is a chance of missing black rock on the way up, remember the tide will turn in two hours and sweep you back again for another go… and by the way it will be dark by then…

What is the sensible thing to do?

I took the microphone and thumbed the Transmit button: “Pan-Pan…”

To give Belfast Coastguard their due, they waited for my second broadcast and then a few minutes after that to see if any of the “all ships” might offer a tow before they waded in and “tasked” the Islay Lifeboat to come to my assistance.

Of course, once I knew I was saved, I regretted most bitterly causing such a fuss. If I could have done it without the certainty of even more embarrassment, I would have called again and told them  to cancel everything – rather as one were deciding not to go out for dinner after all and so wouldn’t be needing a taxi home.

Instead, while I waited, I dismantled the fuel filter and found it as clean as when it came out of the box.

Then the Lifeboat arrived and passed me a hawser as thick as my wrist. They would take me to Port Askaig, they told me. The little ferry port is half way up the sound. With the tide, it took no time at all, keeping to the west side, away from Black Rock and warping me round with utmost efficiency to lie again the harbour wall.

The shore crew were there, of course – all the guys who hadn’t made it in time for the launch. As with all lifeboats crewed by volunteers and supported by public donations, everyone was as friendly and helpful as could be – and also, as understanding when I kept on embarrassing myself by saying how embarrassed I was and how sorry to have troubled them. I had panicked, I said – the five knot tide… Black Rock…

“Oh aye,” they told me. “Black Rock. That’s no place to be around without your engine…”

Come to that, was there an engineer in Port Askaig?

“Oh aye, we’ll send Peter to you. Peter’s from the garage. He’s our mechanic.”

And sure enough, half an hour later, Peter appeared. He would be glad to have a look. Would tomorrow morning at 7.15 suit me?

Well, if it wasn’t too early for him…

I spent a miserable night of recriminations. How is it that only after the event, you realise what you should have done?

Of course I could have anchored – not with the 20kg bower anchor and the 50metres of chain but with the lightweight kedge. It’s an aluminium Fortress with amazing holding power and designed to be used with just a short length of chain and then rope on a 5:1 scope – which, at the point when the engine stopped, meant that I would have needed 210 metres of rope. It sounded an awful lot. But I could manage to find 210 metres from somewhere, surely. Think about it: 50 metres of its own warp, plus 30 metres for the drogue I lost off Guernsey last year. Then I had two 15metre spinnaker sheets, various mooring warps totalling another 45metres. I could take off the mainsheet. That must be 20 metres… nearly there. What else have I got? There’s some skanky old stuff at the bottom of the Lazarette – say 20 metres in all. That takes me to 175… I’ve got miles of 8mm line but you can’t anchor a five tonne boat on 8mm. Of course! I had the headsail sheets, each of those is ten metres – that’s 195. Come on, come on, there must be another 15 metres somewhere. How about the topping lift – I could always go up the mast and put it back later…

Of course I could have anchored and waited for the wind. I’d have been fine – and then, when the wind returned, I could have sailed back to Port Ellen – even if it was dark. And there would be a mechanic there in Port Ellen. He might have a boat of his own to come out and see me – or surely I could organise a tow into the marina…

By the time I’d dwelt on all this and done the arithmetic, my brain would not let me go back to sleep – still, Peter was turning up a 7.15…

At seven o’clock, I had the engine casing off and everything ready for him to fix.

By 7.30, there was no sign of him – and I was beginning to think how much more embarrassing this could get if he turned up and the engine started. I ought to try it.

Of course it did start. It ran as smoothly as ever. I let it run, almost willing it to stutter and stop. But now, as Johnny Cash would have said, that engine ran just like a song.

There was nothing for it, I had to call and cancel Peter: There is nothing more difficult for a mechanic than finding a fault when it’s not there. But I didn’t have Peter’s number. There were people in the Lifeboat building, none of them remotely surprised that Peter had not turned up – and now he would have started on his day’s work at the garage…

On the phone he was as affable as ever – and pleased the problem seemed to be solved.

More to the point, it was still early enough to take the last two hours of tide out of the sound and get to Tinker’s Hole before a North Westerly gale arrived tomorrow.

It was only after I had cast off and was manoeuvring backwards that the engine stopped…


One Response to Dont Panic!

Must be avoided.

It’s a terrible thing to have to admit but the Pilot book for the Hebrides was still in the bookcase. This revered collection of wisdom, researched over generations by the bewhiskered gentlemen of the Clyde Cruising Club is said to be essential for sailors in these unpredictable northern waters.

Now I was out of the Irish Sea, maybe it was time to get serious – to stop navigating by mobile phone as if I was in an unfamiliar high street and Googling “pub near me” – and since I would be going north rather than south to get from one side of the country to the other, I had it fixed in my mind that I wanted to go to Tinker’s Hole.

Tinker’s Hole, on the far western extremity of the Island of Mull, had been a must-see destination for years. The new generation of Clyde Cruising Club gentlemen describe it as one of the most popular on the west coast: “In places it is less than half a cable wide and on the east side the shore consists of sheer walls of pink granite.”

All I had to do was get to it. Meanwhile, Islay was in the way. I’ve been to Islay – pleasant enough and lots of whisky but when you’ve done one distillery tour…

The obvious thing to do was keep plugging on: I was already two days out from Carlingford Lough, what was another 24 hours? I set a course to round the twin peninsulars of The Oa and Orsay at the end of the Rhinns of Islay. By the time I got there I would have a hatful of wind – force seven on the nose according to the forecast – but once I turned the corner, it would be with me. I set a waypoint a mile off the Oa, adjusted the Aries and Samsara romped off on her adventure.

Since she didn’t need me, I thought it might be a good idea to get the book out – after all, some of these islands up here set up tidal races off the headlands…

What did I find: “Because of overfalls, both the Oa and the Rhinns of Islay should be passed at a distance of several miles”.

But, clearly, that might not be enough to make the pluckier mariner see sense, so there was this as well: “Some of the worst overfalls in the UK extend for up to 8miles WSW of Orsay where there is an underwater cliff 50-75metres high. With any sea running at all the area must be avoided.”

OK, point taken. I slipped into Islay’s Kilnaughton Bay just as the sun was setting.

A good dinner followed by a taste-test to compare Lamb’s Navy Rum with Aldi’s £9.99 alternative, an episode of the new series of Ghosts on iPlayer – and not having to wake up every 20 minutes all through the night… sheer luxury (even though I’ll have to watch Ghosts again because I fell asleep.)


3 Responses to Must be avoided.

The Logical Route

Carlingford Lough and the Mountains of Mourne

So that’s it: I’m going by the logical route.

The “Logical Route” has a certain ring to it. This was what the great French singlehander Bernard Moitessier suggested to his wife as the best way to get home from the South Pacific in time for the school holidays: Instead of flogging all the way over the top of Australia, across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal and across the Mediterranean to Marseille, wouldn’t it be much quicker and certainly a lot less distance to nip round Cape Horn?

This was 1966. Hardly anyone had sailed a small boat round Cape Horn – and those who had told terrible tales.

The Moitessiers made it – and, in doing so, set a record for the longest voyage in a small boat – 14,216 miles in 126 days.

But I’m not going round Cape Horn. I am going to Blyth in Northumberland – and I have been sitting here in Carlingford Lough on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic debating how to get there.

First, a little explanation: When I bought Samsara, she came with a good solid spinnaker pole and a flimsy little stick which hardly deserved the name of whisker pole. The first thing I did with this was to bend the piston mechanism on one end.

Then the mechanism on the other end.

In fact, I bent the pistons and had them straightened (and weakened) so frequently that it might not have been an accident that on the way back across Biscay in the aftermath of Storm Ellen, the wretched thing slipped its lashings and disappeared over the side.

What I needed was a proper spinnaker pole to replace it. For one thing, I wouldn’t keep bending it. Secondly, if I were to get a spare headsail, I could fly matching twins and (thirdly – and not insignificantly) quite the best jury rig is constructed by using two identical poles as an “A” frame.

I posted on the Rival Owners Facebook page a plea for anyone who had a pole they didn’t need – after all, how many people fly symmetrical spinnakers these days?

Sure enough, another Rival 32 owner said I would be welcome to theirs.

In Blyth.

I was in Liverpool at the time and feeling rather delicate after a particularly good evening with my son Theo, the medical student. As the crow flies, Blyth is hardly more than 100 miles from Liverpool.

Another point in its favour is that it is not terribly far from Matlock in Derbyshire – and I was due in Matlock for the annual family walking weekend in the Peak District. I could get a train from Blyth.

The only trouble was that the 100 miles from Liverpool to Blyth was all land.

The sailing options were to go over the top of Scotland or, alternatively, back down the Irish Sea, up the English Channel and north from there – 900 miles in all. Also, I was beginning to think of the English Channel rather as a trucker thinks of the M1.

Obviously this is going to provoke all those South Coast sailors to catalogue the delights of Salcombe, the Newtown River and even Brighton Marina. So I should explain that, if you don’t stop,  those 300 miles from Land’s End to the North Foreland really can feel like Newport Pagnell to Donington Services (I did it six times, one year).

The northern route, on the other hand, had a lot going for it: Not only was it only 560 miles but it would tick a lot of boxes. Regular readers may remember that when Lockdown was first mooted, I had a notion to self-isolate in the Orkneys (until the local authority up there pleaded with second-home and campervan owners – and, by implication, yachtsmen – not to come and swamp their little hospital).

Also, I have never visited the northern Hebrides or any of those dramatic sea lochs. I could go to Mull and Skye. I would see Cape Wrath…

Admittedly, this would be happening at the end of September and for most of October and all the books tend to dwell on how quickly the weather can change and how very rough it can get up there with wind over tide in the Minches. But weather forecasting today is remarkably accurate up to 48 hours.

After 48 hours, it becomes rather more like newspaper astrology.

For instance, this time yesterday, I had decided that the Scottish option was a non-starter when the Windy App offered this for the four-day forecast.

By this morning all that “red wind” has shifted south:

Still, if it does shift back again, there are more anchorages in the Hebrides than there are salmon and I have a whole month to cover 560 miles. I can afford to spend a few days snugged down in some deserted anchorage with the stove lit – self-isolating.

8 Responses to The Logical Route

  • That sounds a good plan, beautiful sailing waters and much more interesting and exciting than the southern route. Have fun!

  • I barely know anything of the terminology you are using, have only sailed with the ‘out-laws’ who liked a gentle flutter up & down their nearest estuary: however your tales are so charmingly told it’s causing me to research & find out!!
    Good luck with the top: if you get chance to alight in the Orkneys check out the ‘Ring of Brodgar’: it wont disappoint!

  • Sounds like a good plan. Enjoy the trip and your new pole!

  • Hi John, I did that very route this summer as part of my round GB trip although I anchored in Dundalk bay rather than in Carlingford. If day sailing the northern section or looking for shelter I can recommend the anchorage at Loch Ewe (Aultbea) and Loch Ned (east of Head of Stoer), nearby Port Dhrombaig looked good on paper but waves were breaking right across the entrance when I got there (it was quite windy) Loch Ned was fine.

    The Rispond Bay anchorage at the entrance to Eriboll is crammed full of mooring and pot buoys, avoid, also avoid Portnancon – limited space due to a buoy and kelp. Ard Neakie opposite was fine.

    Stromness marina is to be recommended with v helpful volunteer staff but I suspect the showers etc will still be closed.

    If you stay in Blyth for any length of time try to get on a finger rather than the visitors section which is a bit exposed – I was stuck there for 12 days (with the YC closed for most of it) waiting for a weather window and glad to be on the inside. John. SY Sancerre.

  • Good luck, Scotland would be my choice but Everyman makes his own choices!?!!

  • Aye, there’s sense and merit in ‘Northabout’. You’ll hardly have left the green glens of An’rim behind before you’re inside the welcoming arms of the Sound of Jura, where there are oodles of anchorages…. and that continues much of the way up towards Wrath. But you’ll likely need about as many anchors as anchorages due to the acres of fishfarm debris abandoned on the bottom everywhere that looks at all enticing.

    Ca’ canny!

    And fair winds…..

All the time in the world…

When you get old, there is great satisfaction in re-visiting youthful passions. When I was a teenager I discovered the writer Nevil Shute who, most famously, wrote A Town Like Alice and On the Beach.

Now I have joined a Facebook group called Shutists and discovered several of his books that I knew nothing about. In particular, Pilotage, written in 1924, which centred around the author’s twin passions of sailing and aviation. The publishers felt these were not of general interest and rejected the manuscript with a politely encouraging note. However, they did publish his next effort which was full of spies and murders and, to my mind, not nearly as good.

The “lost novels” were found among Shute’s papers after his death in 1960 and published in a single volume since they contained some of the same characters. One passage, describing sailing in the 1920s, I found so evocative that I posted it on a sailing group and it seemed to strike a chord:

There was nothing to do on deck; he remained in the cockpit till the vessel had found her position and was riding quietly to her anchor; then he went below and trimmed the riding light. He spent an hour working in his little vessel, an hour of occupation and comparative happiness that carried him on till after dark. He trimmed every lamp in the ship, filled the tanks of the engine, cleaned the Primus stove, set his riding light on the forestay, pumped out the vessel, unpacked his bag and arranged his clothes in the tiny cupboards, put the patent log in a safe place with a bottle of rum and another one of turpentine to keep it company. Then he laid his supper very elaborately and supped off cocoa, bully beef, and a boiled egg, topping up with bread and jam. He scraped the mildew off the top of the jam and deposited it in the slop-bucket; he was particular about what he ate.

The ensuing discussion got me thinking about the pleasure of just being on your boat and pottering about doing the sort of things which, in a house, you would consider boring domestic chores.

At the moment, I have no choice but to be on my boat. I arrived in Liverpool to see my son who is studying at the University here. No sooner had I passed the bar buoy than he sent me a text saying that one of the staff in the bar where he works part-time had tested positive for COVID and now he had to be tested too.

Providing he gets the all-clear, we will meet for dinner on Monday. He apologised for having to make me wait another five days.

“No problem,” I replied. “I have all the time in the world…”

And I do. I am anchored in the river opposite the marina (and therefore not paying daily charges) and I spent the whole of yesterday pottering and tinkering and as perfectly content as Nevil Shute’s 1920’s yachtsman.

I re-fitted the foot of the main into the boom track where the clew had pulled free. While I was at it I marked the halyard to ensure that in future I let it off just the right amount for reefing…and while I was about that, I simplified the lazyjacks which had caused so much trouble for the old sail and had me sewing for eight hours en-route to Rockall.

I glued the piece of wooden trim back onto the galley where I had stepped on it during the passage up from Falmouth. I wriggled into the engine bay to tighten the stern gland and, while I was there, topped up the oil in the gearbox – and for good measure, checked the engine oil as well. Then there was the first of the winter supply of charcoal to be decanted into paper bags – and the chimney to sweep – that’s done by dropping the pin from the old anchor shackle down from the top with a piece of line dragging a kitchen scouring pad behind it.

I spent a happy half hour experimenting with new ways to stop the halyards slapping and, I must say I’m pleased with the result.

Not half as pleased, mind you, as I am about inventing a new knot for attaching a temporary headsail sheet when poling out. Yes, I’ve looked it up and didn’t find anything like it. We shall see if it works better than the reef knot which shook loose when there was no tension on it. Only then shall I claim my place in history.

And there was more: I removed the eyelet for the cockpit grating which was stopping the petrol can fitting into its chocks, I investigated the overheating trouble with the engine, cleaned the saloon hatch, re-distributed the stores from the bilges to the ready-use lockers, mopped up the puddle from the leaking washing-up liquid bottle, threw away two jars of mouldy peanut butter, investigated the fo’c’sle locker and discovered a bag of very soggy onions, a somewhat suspect sweet potato and a perfectly good butternut squash…

By the time I was ready to change out of work clothes for the evening and sit down with a beer at six o’clock, I wouldn’t have given you tuppence for indolence.

6 Responses to All the time in the world…

  • As I do not sail, most of the terminology used in your blog is unknown to me. However, I have a good imagination and your writing allows me to exercise that. Just like listening to the radio, I imagined myself pottering about in the boat, happily doing those tasks – and in vivid technicolor. Personally, I enjoy the domestic chores you describe as boring for the same reason – substitute “just being on your boat” with “just being in your house”. The simple pleasure of pottering with random purpose. Enjoy the time with your son!

  • Trustee from the Toolroom. One of my top five reads of all time. Simple, illustrates the value of integrity and living up to your responsibilities. Closely followed by No Highway and Round the Bend.

  • I’d like to revisit some of my old passions, too, John. But there are hazards in that. My ould knees might take up up to the top of Buaichaile Etive Mhor – but not back down, and my old ticker wouldn’t let me run again from some earlier of my amatory ‘crimes’.

    I’ll needs must make do with fading memory….

  • Welcome to Liverpool John, hope the river is not too choppy! The weather is set to improve ☀️

Sticky and smelly

Writing this, I am a bit sticky and also rather smelly. I have just completed the most unpleasant task on the boat. I feel so good about myself that I have the urge to share it.

I have cleaned out the greywater tank.

“Greywater” is that euphemism covering everything from washing-up water to the mixture of seawater, mud and rust that dribbles out of chain locker.

The reason the tank needs to be cleaned is because it is emptied by means of a float switch and in time the grease, decomposing crustacea and nameless gloop from the shower tray collects in a jelly-like, putrid mass around the switch and stops it working.

When this happens, the pump does not run and the “greywater” oozes out of the top of the tank into the bilges where it slops around making everything else sticky and smelly.

Then the whole apparatus has to be disconnected from its four hoses (three pouring in, one pumping out) and also from the electrical connection which, of course, has rusted solid.

Just to add to the fun, since this relies on gravity, it has to be sited as low as possible in the bilge so you have to do all this upside down.

Which is the easy part.

Once you have it out and into the blessed fresh air of the cockpit, you have to put your hand inside the revolting receptacle and fumble for the nuts to remove the switch. Any satisfaction in discovering that indeed it has been immobilised by a deposit the consistency of blackcurrant jam but smelling strongly of drains is outweighed by the disgusting process of spooning the stuff out on the blade of a screwdriver.

I hope I haven’t put you off you tea but now that I have it sealed once again out of mind beneath the cabin sole and have washed my hands three times to remove some of the whiff of putrefaction, I have a request:

Can anyone suggest anything I can pour down the sink that might do the job for me?

A bouquet of violets for the first person to come up with a workable solution…

21 Responses to Sticky and smelly

  • I dont know about boats John but in the world of campervans everyone swears by throwing cheap coca cola down your drains and then driving around for a bit. Apparently that stuff destroys and removes all sorts of sticky smelly stuff!

  • Hello John. Filthy job but someone has to do it! How about a drain cleaner product that breaks down grease etc in a ‘u’ bend. I think it exists in a bio version if required. PS it’s an acid so be carefull.

  • It’s a complete waste but alcohol has santinising properties. Sorry have not got sensible solution. Your explanation of the task was enlightening. All the best…

  • Vinegar and boiling water

  • It sounds as though a requirement for most of the repairs and maintenance on your boat is require you being a contortionist as they appear to involve huge amounts of climbing stretching hanging upside down getting dirty and ideally having 3 hands. Have you investigated one built and designed by a woman ?

    I digress. Your smelly putrid greywater tank problem. Having no idea how often you have to empty it – is there anything on the market you could add via a plug hole that might aid decomposition along the lines of products used with a cess pit? You can or used to be able to buy little packs containing SShhh gobbling enzymes you just popped into the tank that were supposed to thrive on such a diet. Having said all that presumably many others have a similar problem so perhaps it has been already been looked into.

    How is your water maker experiment progressing ?

  • Hi john,
    Many moons ago when we did flotilla holidays we were asked to take vinegar for toilet and basin treatment to be used on a daily basis usually overnight to minimise the gunge build up. The boats appeared clean and unsmelly so maybe it worked.


    Barry Kadwill

  • Oh John you have just had us in tears whilst eating my poached egg on granary. As you know I am well acquainted with the below stairs services and I’m afraid to say that after some 65 years of studying the problem the best answer I have found is copious quantities of vick applied south of the nose, and think of something pleasant. You could always recite the story of the airport cat to distract yourself .keep well .

  • Hi John,
    Have you tried Dettol disinfectant, it should stop the gloop forming, but if it doesn’t it will smell better!

  • You reminded me of the recommendation NEVER to cook and merrily eat the contents of an Alderney crab inside the boat. One is reminded olefactorily of the event for ever…

  • Excellent work. Keep this for your CV in case you wish to apply for a toilet cleaner.

    Best wishes

  • I’m afraid I don’t have a solution (ha!) other than bicarb & vinegar which cleans a lot of domestic grime, not sure if suitable here.
    How often do you have to do this?
    (A bouquet of violets…what a charming image! Thank you just for the idea of such)

  • Just about to drink some tea and go to sleep – your post has reassured me that at least someone somewhere has had less fun than I have todaygood luck finding a solution!

  • My suggestion would be to have a complete spare ready to go, remove/replace, drop the old one in a bucket of bleach, clean and store for next time? I guess space/cost/weight is a problem, all part of the fun!

  • John, I have fitted float switches in many tanks from fresh to septic and quite few in between. They don’t require any maintenance and would be ideal for your application.
    Getting sticky and smelly isn’t how you should be passing your time.
    If I can help I will.

  • Soda crystals and white vinegar!!
    I had to clear my touring caravan kitchen sink drain pipes recently. It worked well and no too vicious to wreck yer pipes! Follow instructions on Soda packet.
    Best o luck

  • Toilet Duck. Miracle stuff for smelly bilges. Geoff

  • Don’t envy you that job.
    I put Blue liquid ( for caravan toilets) down my heads which seems to convert the solid matter by some magic into a liquid. I don’t have sink waste going into the holding tank so don’t know what effect detergent might have in the blue stuff. But I don’t emit solids so that’s an achievement!

Chain locker

No, it’s not a pretty sight. But this is what I found in the chain locker after I had emptied all the sails out of the forepeak – and the big ball fender – and wrestled with the fastenings of the access hatch … while drifting around outside the anchorage at two o’clock in the morning.

Admittedly, I was drifting around in the middle of Falmouth Harbour so there was plenty of room – especially at two o’clock in the morning.

As you can imagine, I felt pretty smug about being prepared. I knew there was a chance this would happen. I had just crossed Biscay on the coat-tails of Storm Ellen and it was one of the roughest passages I can remember. Despite having the wind on the tail right up until the last five miles, the boat got chucked around so much that the Bluetooth speaker jumped out of the deepest fiddle on the lee-side and hurled itself uphill onto what was supposed to be the windward berth. Then the autopilot hopped out of its supposedly secure stowage and made its way via the navigator’s seat to the floor (it still works).

So, I knew what the chain would be up to. Actually, I could hear what the chain was up to. The best description I can come up with is the sound you get from shooting a load of gravel out of a tipper truck. That is the sound 50metres of 10mm chain makes when it is thrown into the air, turns a slow-motion somersault and lands upside down. Given that it weighs over 100kg, you now have some idea of just how rough a crossing this was. I thought I was riding on Ellen’s coat-tails. Clearly, I was sitting on her handlebars.

Whenever I suspect acrobatics have taken place in the chain locker, I make a point of hauling all the chain I’m going to need out on deck well before I get into the anchorage. On this occasion, it took the usual jiggling at ten metres, a good yank or two at 20… but at 30 metres, the chain would not budge at all. No wonder, when you look at the knot it had got itself into. Normally the solution is just a matter of taking the weight off and giving it a good shake. This time I had to pick it apart as if it was a shoelace.

So, perhaps now is a good time to recant all my previous advice on how to stop the chain piling up in a pyramid so that as soon as the boat heels, it falls over and jams itself.

That is not a chain jam. A chain jam is the result of the normal laws of physics in action. All the same, I did once buy a traffic cone (no, I did not steal one off the road, I went to Toolstation and bought one). The idea was to cut the top off it and bond that into the floor of the locker so that the chain would be disposed around it.

This did not make the slightest difference.

The next idea was to create a slope for the chain to slide down in an orderly fashion. I painted a plank and wedged it in place – and, I must say, this worked very well for a year or so. Once the paint wore off, the chain stopped sliding and started its pyramid on the board – meaning that the top reached the deckhead and blocked the hawsehole so the last few metres wouldn’t go down at all.

Anyway, neither option defied the effects of a really rough sea. I imagine nothing will. This is just something we are going to have to live with – like foul-weather clothing that becomes porous after two seasons and fishing boats that turn off their AIS.

5 Responses to Chain locker

  • John, what a journey! Maybe something to consider is dividing the locker horizontally as it seems to be deep. It needs two to work out. A glue gun and some plywood. See if this works and then a more permanent fix. This may create layers of chain storage. The reason for two is one below and one above bringing in the chain.
    You might put the question to the apprentices at Pendennis shipyard.

  • Your chain needs regalvanizing. I know who can do that!

  • I used various pieces of wood, metal & strong plastic shapes to achieve an orderly arranging of downward flowing chain. Yeh, each worked fine for a few times then ‘back to the pyramids’ ! I think An an anchor well accessible from above, with drain out holes, worked much better on my baby Rassy.

  • Blimey John, now I know I haven’t encountered anything really bad! BTW, reading your book ‘Trident’. Very good. Well done.

  • Your descriptive writing is delightful! “I thought I was riding on Ellen’s coat-tails. Clearly, I was sitting on her handlebars.” I could feel the precarious, balancing act you were in, flying into the stormy seas – face first. I was a bit disappointed that there was no magic solution to the chain-piling problem at the end of the post. The struggle continues.

Bean sprouts

I would like to introduce you to my bean sprouts. I would give them all names if this wasn’t a proper farming enterprise in which sentimentality has no place. Anyway, they’re destined for the pot after three days so there’s hardly time to get to know them as there would be with chicks or piglets.

This is the final piece of the self-sufficiency jig-saw – that is to say, I am now able to survive without going ashore for a hundred days.

I carry 230 litres of water and can get by comfortably on 2.2litres a day.

I bake my own bread once I’ve exhausted the astonishing longevity of Kingsmill’s 50/50 sliced variety. The boat is full of canned beer and tinned food – and, of course, Pink Lady apples seem to have discovered the secret of immortality.

That left only two essentials – salads and fresh vegetables.

So, welcome to mung beans.

You may remember that on the self-isolation cruise back in April and May, I complained that these refused to germinate after three years – they just went a funny colour and started to smell. Now I have a new bag. In fact, the smallest I could find in the Amazon store was 1kg which seemed an awful lot considering I need only a tablespoonful a day – and not every day at that.

I have three little plastic pots with 2.5mm holes drilled in the screw tops. A spoonful of beans just covers the bottom of the pot. Soak them for 24 hours and then drain the excess water into yesterday’s pot… and from there into the one started the day before that…

It’s perpetual motion. In three or four days, that tablespoonful which just covered the bottom of the pot will be filling it right to the top – even poking its little pale green tendrils through the holes in a bid for freedom.

Bean sprouts are, of course, full of all the goodness you would get from lettuce or broccoli so I souse them in salad dressing or throw them in the pot at the end of cooking. The best thing about this is that there is none of the guilt you get with lobsters – all that screaming…

Bean sprouts are mute.

But the greatest discovery is that they are just as good a gherkins in my trademark mayonnaise, gherkin and HP sauce sandwiches. The problem with gherkins is the bulk and the weight of all those enormous jars. Bean sprouts taste just as good and you still get that satisfying crunch with the first bite. Also, they’re always fresh so they don’t go soft over time.

Flushed with this success, I plan to branch out and experiment with alfalfa sprouts. Meanwhile, I hope this has been useful. I had thought of telling you why I am sitting in a ria in NW Spain instead of with the family in Portugal but that seemed pretty dull stuff, full off complaints about quarantine regulations.

But bean sprouts… you have to admit it: Bean sprouts are exciting…

14 Responses to Bean sprouts

  • That’s fantastic! I remember meeting a nomadic guy who lived off the land in New Zealand and he had a similar system going on in his back pack! He would catch a wild trout and eat better than most of us do in so called civilisation 🙂

  • I think you could add some sardines and make it really interesting. Unless you have eaten them all

  • Very inventive and thoroughly enjoyed reading….! You could spice them up with a few chilli flakes on the sandwich? Might make you thirsty for more beer….not a bad thing?

  • John

    Gosh. Bean Sprouts? Not very tasty.
    Before you go on the adventure please get some herbs, like dill. Add to bread mix, a bit of baking soda and hey – beautiful dill dough.


  • Got to recommend the alfalfa. Highly nutritious! If you really get into sprouting I get the biosnacky pack from A. Vogel. Really amazing what you can grow from a few small packs of seeds and a covering of water. Take care.

    • I agree, I’ve been sprouting Alfalfa for years, I love it, and so easy to grow in a sprouting jar or just a jar with a sock and elastic band! I love it in a sandwich.

  • Hi John, been out in the sun too long?? PS: give my regards to the beans.

  • John, an excellent lesson in alternative cooking. At the end of all this there will be enough material for another book. I have just enjoyed Trident and am trying to compose a review.

  • Very healthy apparently, full of nutrients at this early stage of life.

  • This seems an amazing way of getting fresh food and I wonder how many other yachties have discovered this. I must pass this on..
    Here’s to you Old Man Sailing for many delightful years to come.


  • Hi John,

    I was just thinking that while we are enjoying Boris Eat well for less I will be thinking of you tucking in to a bean sprout sandwich.
    However I will not feel smug because I know that you will be getting a huge buzz of satisfaction and I will feel a cheapskate.

    Bon voyage


  • Well done you!

Here we go again.


Preston is back in Lockdown, more face-covering regulations are about to come into force for the rest of the country. I’ve had enough of this. I’m off.

I’m supposed to meet my family in Porto in ten days. There’s a following wind. I could be there in five.

The question is: Will they be there to meet me? At the moment anyone returning from Portugal has to self-isolate for 14 days – and they have jobs and studies to go back to.

Me, I don’t have to be anywhere and quite honestly, I’d rather be elsewhere.

So here’s the plan: As soon as a new pump for the galley arrives (delayed by fog in the Scillies) I shall head south, get close enough to the Portuguese coast to make a phone call and find out whether the holiday is on or off. If it’s off then the last thing I need is marina fees, paperwork and all the tapas bars closing at 8.00 p.m.

I think I might just turn right instead.

There are no COVID regulations in mid-Atlantic. There is, at the moment, an enormous area of high pressure so I could find myself spending the next month sitting in the cockpit with a sunhat, a cold beer and a good book.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

15 Responses to Here we go again.

That’s done, then.

Well, that’s it. The book is finished. After my ten minutes of fame on the Jeremy Vine show, his agent contacted me and said he was convinced there was a book in it – if only he could get in the shops before people stopped talking about Lockdown and moved on to the next big thing (Brexit again?)
Anyway, two weeks of sitting in front of a screen for twelve hours a day and it’s done – sent off, out of my hands now.
Tomorrow I shall say goodbye to St Helen’s Pool and move down to St Mary’s where, hopefully, a new pump for the galley will have arrived and I can top up with a few fresh stores and then the forecast looks good for leaving for Porto at the weekend.
Meanwhile, you will find there is a new page on the blog: Cheap Watermaker. I have always wondered why these have to cost £1,000 when the technology has been around for years. It would have been a great comfort when I was down to eleven litres and a few cans of beer.
But now someone is making one for less than £100. You can see it at on the tab above.

10 Responses to That’s done, then.