The Zone

This is a cautionary tale. It is mostly for my benefit.

I should begin by telling you that, even though I am writing this sitting on the lee berth while tacking laboriously along the South coast of Ireland in the vague direction of Baltimore, I have my phone beside me with the timer set for 20 minutes (actually 15 minutes 45 seconds because it has taken me four minutes and 15 seconds to work that out and write it down).

This is important because the more I think about what I’m writing, the less I think about where I’m going – and at the moment I am sailing at four knots in the direction of a French fishing boat called A La Garde de Dieu.

I know this – and also that the Frenchman is doing 3.7 knots so, obviously, he’s trawling which, in turn, means that everything else – absolutely everything from a supertanker to the Lifeboat and most definitely, me in my little boat – all have to give way to him. There is a good reason for this: Once a fishing boat has its nets down, it can’t stop and it can’t alter course – in fact, with all that lot hanging off the back, the rudder doesn’t work at all.

I know all about La Garde de Dieu because she shows up as an AIS target on the plotter – a little green triangle that I can click to find the ship’s name, course and speed – everything down to destination: “Fishing Grounds”. The Frenchman is four miles away. I have been able to pick him out with binoculars and, if the wind holds, I should pass comfortably ahead of him.

All the same, I set the timer because I have the laptop on my knees and I’m writing it all down – and as every writer will know, this is when you are at your most vulnerable.

I used to write for a living. In fact, I have spent more than 50 years writing. At my busiest – Fleet Street in the 80’s and 90’s – I could churn out 600 words an hour – very often dictating “off the top of my head” directly down the telephone (it was wonderful when they invented mobile phones and you could stride about while composing instead of being imprisoned in a smelly phone box while people tapped on the door with 10p pieces and said: “Are you going to be much longer?”

Of course, I ignored them because I was “in the zone”. In other words, the outside world had ceased to exist. There were only the words…

And that’s how it was about this time yesterday, somewhere in the middle of Saint George’s Channel as I sat in the same spot, a new book up on the screen and the words clattering out (I still think of them “clattering” as if this was my trusty Brother portable – the one held together with twisted paperclips – even though now the tiny plastic ASUS makes about as much noise as a mouse picking its teeth}.

Heaven knows how long this had been going on – which is the worrying part. If, instead of getting all productive, I had settled down to sleep, I would have set the timers – two of them on different phones with different ringtones. Somehow, if you’re going to close your eyes deliberately, the idea of being woken up to stop yourself running into anything seems terribly important. On the other hand, if you are awake already, surely you don’t need an alarm?

But what if the words have taken you somewhere else? A place where there is only imagination and time has no meaning?

An hour must have passed. It didn’t seem like it. Then, I swear someone said: “Samsara”.

Only that – nothing else. It was such a brief distraction that I was tempted to ignore it. I had just had the most brilliant idea and was keen to get it down before it slipped away. That’s the way it is with brilliant ideas; you have to pin them down before they flutter off and bother someone else.

However, most definitely, somebody had said “Samsara”. Surely, that must demand a moment’s attention at the very least. I cut loose a couple of brain cells to investigate while flailing clumsily after the brilliant idea.

The brain cells reported back; diffidently, so as not to disturb the creative flow: There was only one possible explanation: Since I was alone on the boat, the voice must have come from the VHF radio. Usually, this box of tricks remains silent – only waking up every three hours for Dublin and Mine Head Coastguard to issue their maritime safety broadcast. Sometimes, watch officers on the bridges of containers ships would discuss how not to hit each other – and of course, Irish lifeboats whizz about all the time chattering like teenagers on skateboards.

But now someone was calling me. I plucked the microphone from its clip: “Station Calling Samsara, say again.”

But all they said was: “Channel 10”

I switched to Channel 10: “Station calling Samsara, say again.”

And then this charming Irish voice oozed out of the speaker: “I was just wondering what were your intentions.”

What were my intentions? Why did he want to know about my intentions? My intentions were to get back to the laptop and that brilliant idea – whatever it was. Already it had one foot on the doorstep.

I poked my head out of the hatch.

And there – no more than 300 metres away, was a great big, bright blue fishing boat bashing straight into the wind and sea, sending clouds of spray flying back over the wheelhouse.

And if it carried on doing that and I carried with my four knots for Baltimore, we would meet in the same patch of water about in about… oh… one-and-a-half minutes.

Thumbing the TX button, I suggested: “I’ll turn to port.”

And did – very snappily indeed.

For the first half hour, as our courses diverged, I made a succession of resolutions about setting the timers whenever there was even the slighted possibility of finding myself “in the zone”.

But then, as the big blue fishing boat receded to a dot on the horizon, the thought occurred that he had not appeared on the plotter. If he had, the alarm would have gone off. But the screen was blank. It was still blank – meaning that his AIS beacon must have been switched off – or as they say, when talking about Iranian tankers supplying Syria, “cloaked”.

Now, why would a fishing boat do that? The obvious conclusion was that he didn’t want anyone to know he was there – not, for instance, the fishery inspectors … or possibly the competition. There could be any number of reasons why a fishing boat might want to be invisible.

And, of course, that would explain why he had not identified himself when he called me on Channel 16 – the coastguard monitor Channel 16. Come to that, everyone monitors 16 – including fishery inspectors and other fishing boats.

I began to feel a little better. If I was at fault for not keeping a lookout – then, he was equally at fault for trying to disappear.

… and if you think that, given the length of this explanation for what was, after all, only a couple of minutes of activity (albeit somewhat feverish activity) and you suspect that I have again fallen “into the zone”, you are absolutely right. But, take heart, by now it is Sunday afternoon, I am anchored in Baltimore Harbour, the wind is making mournful noises in the rigging and the rain is going sideways past the windows – if I could bring myself to look out of them.

Actually, The Zone is the better place to be.

The plotter – how it’s supposed to look

Lost at sea

Bosham Channel in Chichester harbour, after the pubs shut, sometime in 1934: A young man in an enormous clinker dinghy rowed backwards and forwards in the pitch darkness looking for his boat.

The young man was my father and this was a story that was told and re-told so that it became the stuff of family legend: He had set a riding light on the forestay so he could find his way back – but the light had blown out.

In the end, out of exhaustion and befuddled by an evening of beer, he gave up and climbed onto someone else’s boat, slept aboard, found some sausages for breakfast, left everything neat and tidy along with a note expressing his gratitude and sixpence for the sausages.

The moral was always to go ashore with a compass and take a bearing from the quay. That way if darkness or fog came down, you can always row along the back-bearing until you found your way home.

Swanage 80 years later and not much has changed: Samsara is anchored in the bay and the crew (a full crew on this occasion with number five son Hugo currently occupying the other bunk) decide to go ashore and explore. There is a slipway for the dinghy and after a while the sun comes out to help this rather faded seaside down show off its best.

A little shopping, a visit to the museum and heritage centre (a go on the antique “what the butler saw” machine) and a little excitement absorbed from the prospect of the town finally rebuilding its Albert Memorial to celebrate the bicentenary of the Prince’s birth.

Now it is time to return to the boat. Wait a minute: What boat? There is not a single yacht to be seen in the bay – just a uniform veil of grey: The fog has descended and visibility is no more than 50 metres.

Number five son is full of confidence: “Of course, we’ll find her. We just putter backwards and forwards until we see her.”

The skipper is already seeing the next day’s headlines: “Foolhardy pair lost at sea”, “Search abandoned for fog-bound father and son”. This is just the sort of situation that could turn into a tragedy: Unable to tell which way is back, they motor in circles until the outboard runs out of fuel. Feebly they row in what seems like the right direction, only to be whisked by the tide out of the bay and into the path of the high-speed ferry. It was there only that morning on the AIS, doing 32 knots…

But what you need in this situation is a 15-year-old mind and a mobile phone. The AIS had only been switched off as we came ashore. Any ship-tracking app would still hold that plot for the vessel’s last-known position. All that is needed is for one man to log in to FindShip, look up the destination vessel and navigate the “you are here” icon until the two meet at the same spot. Then with one to call out directions and one to steer…

…except that in this case the one calling out directions kept saying: “I’m sure this isn’t right. There’s a moored boat, we were nowhere near the moorings…more over this way…”

But sure enough, eventually, after a lot of “left-a-bit, right-a-bit”, Samsara appeared out of the murk dead on the nose – at a range of certainly no more than 50 metres.

“Told you so,” said the man at the helm.

His grandfather would have been proud of him.

The Old Man

Silence

The mother of all broaches played out to the accompaniment of Maurice Chevalier singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”.

It happened somewhere off the Grand Banks during the 1988 Singlehanded Transatlantic Race. I was having a clear-out recently and found the article I wrote for Yachting World.

That was in the days when you cut two enormous holes in the cockpit and plumbed in a pair of waterproof speakers. Then there was the Motorola radio cassette player… and, of course, the box of cassettes: How do you choose 30 tapes to take with you across the Atlantic? At least with Desert Island Discs it’s not real. If you can’t live with just eight records, you can always listen to the rest when you get home.

Now we have Spotify with every piece of music ever recorded and a tiny waterproof speaker which doesn’t need any wires at all and demonstrates the fact by flying from one side of the cockpit to the other where it bounces, still happily churning out Willy Nelson.

Although it was Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” that was on as we emerged from the Casquets Traffic Separation Scheme, the Genny drawing nicely in the light North Easterly. If the GPS had calculated correctly, we should reach Torquay by dusk. Frankly I didn’t care if we did or we didn’t. I could stay out here forever: There is nothing, absolutely nothing more pleasing than doing five knots over a flat sea with the boat not even rocking. It’s as if there’s no resistance and the momentum just builds and builds until the wind and the sails and the hull and the water reach a sort of equilibrium which will continue forever – unless, that is, one component falls out of balance.

In fact it was thinking this as I watched the white water zipping past the cockpit that I realised there was one thing missing – the sound… the sound of rushing water. Not the crash and surge of a boat charging over breaking waves but the smooth, subdued “hiss” as she slips along as if there’s no effort in it at all.

Except, of course, I couldn’t hear the “hiss” – just Bob Dylan. I turned him off – and that was the beginning of a magical twelve hours when the middle of the English Channel might have been the Atlantic’s Central Abyssal Plain or some lost and unvisited corner of the Greenland Strait. Because gradually the light North Easterly died away. The speed dropped off and with it, all sound until Samsara was moving, apparently without any propulsion at all, at a knot and a half.

The sails hung in their aerofoil shapes, apparently with no air to hold them there. It was like perpetual motion – except, of course there is no such thing and, sure enough, the knot and a half dropped to one knot and then half a knot and eventually, the Aries vane gear could no longer cope and we turned in a dignified half circle and stopped.

It was now dusk, when I should have been arriving at Torquay, but instead, I furled the sails and allowed the boat to drift with the tide. Taking the good glass from its own locker in the galley and a cold beer from the bilges I sat in the cockpit and listened to the silence.

And this was real silence. The kind that, if you concentrate very hard, you can hear a sound in your ears which is really the nerve-endings straining to do their best but giving up and reporting “nothing received”.

The AIS* was receiving OK. The plots showed that in fact there was no other human activity within seven miles as the little green triangles followed each other in an orderly queue down their westbound lane.

It was only later, poking my head up through the hatch in the middle of frying onions, that I realised this time there was a sound – a deep, almost imperceptible throb: The engine of a big ship – the sound which – reverberating out of a fogbank used to fill me with such terror. Now the AIS showed me exactly where he was – even that he was the Maersk  Santosa, 319 metres overall and carrying dangerous goods, harmful substances or marine pollutants (Category B) and heading for Newark at 23.5knots. His RAIM, I can report, was not in use – but I don’t know whether that is helpful or not. What I do know is that on an evening like that, you can hear a ship’s engine at a range of five miles.

I listened to him until the sound faded to nothing.

Of course, real life re-asserted itself eventually. At about three in the morning, there appeared to be a bit of a breeze but I didn’t trust it until it had put in some effort and showed that it could still be blowing at four O’clock.

So, I am writing this in Meadfoot Bay outside Torquay (don’t need to pay Harbour dues until tomorrow) and the little rubber speaker is playing Humphrey Lyttleton’s Bad Penny Blues. The good glass is out again and there’s the other half of last night’s putanesca sauce. In fact, under the influence of proper jazz and the very small bottle of wine which is even now reaching cabin temperature (heater going gently because May is not really summer), I might even get out the clarinet and play the sun down – after all, I’m the only one here…

The Old Man

  • AIS – Automatic Identification System. This transmits ships position and details to other ships. Incidentally you can track me by downloading and app like Findship and searching for Samsara and my identification number 232010712.

When the rum bottle falls over

Harbour rots ships and men – and I had spent long enough in harbour painting the decks, trying to work out why the anchor windlass has a mind of its own…

All I want to do is to get going. If I could head for the Channel Islands tomorrow, I’d be off like a shot. However, despite all the lists of things to do, I had completely forgotten that I passed my radio operator’s exam in 1987, have long since lost it and anyway a lot seems to have changed since.

Now I am due at the Shearwater Sailing School in Woolverstone on Sunday to take it again (and I have homework to do first). In other words, I couldn’t go far – but I just had to go somewhere.

This is why, for no particular reason other than the thrill of it, I hoisted the anchor (and a good deal of mud) out of the River Stour and set off for Mersea Island, some 30 miles round the coast. It really was the most wonderful feeling. For one thing Samsara is a much faster boat than I realised – certainly faster than I remember Largo used to be. Maybe it’s the feathering propeller – maybe modern sails make all the difference but coming out of Felixstowe and across to the Naze we were clocking more than seven knots and overhauling much bigger boats (all of which seemed to have in-mast furling).

There was a fresh wind blowing out the South West, a blue sky with fluffy white clouds and I discovered that one of the most useful features of AIS* is that it makes a much more precise business of choosing to declare a race against another boat which just happens to be going the same way. Now you don’t need those discussions with the crew (in my case, imaginary crew) about whether you really are overhauling her (or, come to that, weathering on her).

Now all you need to do is look at the screen and you get the other vessel’s course and speed. It does spoil a good argument, though…

Of course, as the wind picked up and the other boat wound in a bit more of his in-mast furling (probably on an electric winch), I had to clamber back and forth to the mast to take in a reef – and I’m still working out the best way to do it.

I was just beginning to feel that my new system wasn’t quite as foolproof as I imagined when The End of the World approached from the starboard bow. If you’ve seen a line squall coming at you across open water, you will know what I mean. I might have been under a blue sky, but to windward, all was shades of grey with a grey curtain extending down from the clouds to the sea.

Abandoning all thought of the first reef, I raced through my new system to tie in the second – and was just about to put four rolls in the already working-sized jib, when it hit.

Samsara went with it, putting more than half her side deck under water. She came up, of course, and accelerated but she was still over-pressed. This was solid wind – and not a good thing with the Wallet sandbank close under our lee. If I tacked now, I could get away into clear water and also use the tack to put those four rolls into jib.

All was going according to plan and I was sweating in the main when there was an odd noise. It was rather like the creaking of a rope under extreme load – but not quite… I looked up to the block at the end of the boom. That was where the strain would be.

And then, thinking at first that there was an unpleasant dirty mark on the sail, I realised that what I was seeing was grey cloud… through the sail. There was a horizontal split maybe 10cms long just above the second reef pennant.

The first thought, of course, was whether the whole thing was about to go. The instant solution was to get it down. All clear with nothing under the lee, I wrestled the whole sail onto the boom and tied it down, all the while gritting my teeth (over the sail ties in my mouth) and waiting for the sound of more tearing sail cloth.

Of course, the wind died after that as the squall went on its way to cause more havoc further up the coast. For the sake of some sort of progress, I tied in the third reef and we sailed sedately into the River Colne with a tiny scrap of mainsail and a full jib.

Anchored at the back of Mersea Island, I have just phoned a sailmaker in Woolverstone  who can repair it on Monday. But I’ve still got to get there and the question is whether to risk a stick-on patch just to give me a full sail. If I have a decent wind – and a following wind, at that, I won’t need it. I have a cruising chute or twin headsails. We’ll see…

Meanwhile I was interested to see how things had coped below. Since Samsara’s hugely experienced previous owners created a wonderful sense of space in the cabin by dispensing with the upper level of lockers and installing open racks instead so that the saloon now extends the full width of the hull, there is a worry that in violent weather various items will start flying about. In fact, on the list of things to do before setting out into the Atlantic, is a reminder to make nets to keep everything in place should we suffer a knockdown.

Well, two apples took flight and I think it might be a good idea to eat them sooner rather than later. And, oh yes, the rum bottle fell over, probably in disgust.

 

*AIS: Automatic Identification System – a vessel tracking system compulsory for large ships and popular with yacht-owners.

The Old Man