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3,629 miles of isolation

3,629 miles of isolation

I missed lockdown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That left the North Sea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…but the trysail sets beautifully.

Noon positions

Off we go – at nearly eight knots!

Porto Vermehla – white houses with terracotta roofs.

Dawn over Rockall

… and Rockall was the last sight of land.

49 Responses to 3,629 miles of isolation

  • Enjoyed reading this, would be great to read more.

    • Have you been informed about the 100 kilometer ban on boats less than 49 feet in length ,apparently orcas have been attacking small boats in north west Spanish waters

      • Yes, I read about this. The first time I head of it was back in 1988 when a fellow-competitor in the OSTAR, Dave Sellings, was sunk by a group of 200-300 pilot whales (at least that’s what he thought they were). According to a marine biologist these attacks could just be adolescents having fun – rather like teenage gangs of humans like to go on the rampage. I just hope it’s not the ocean population taking revenge on us land-dwellers for what we’ve done to their habitat…

  • Waiting for the book to read

  • Please write the book.

  • Great stuff, Lockdown is why I sold all my cars and bought a sailboat.

  • Many thanks for this account… good to hear that there is real life out there after 70…!

    • Uncle John what a fantastic read yes a book beckons with lots of your wonderful pictures all the best Captain Blackbeard

  • Amazing, I have a plan to do the same in my wooden Twister.
    What’s your boat?

  • Good trip well done and thoroughly enjoyed your account of it, would be very interested to know what stores you took for 42 days at sea?

    • Thank you. Actually, I had provisions for 106 days (245,367 calories) because I intended to be away until this Covid19 thing was all over. I imagined that would be at the end of the summer. The trip was cut short because of the mainsail damage and I didn’t fancy flopping around in the Azores High with only a trysail. The stores list is in several parts (as I kept adding to it) and written in a notebook rather than available to cut and paste. But I can tell you that it included 50 cans of beer and 49 tins of sardines. I should have bought fresh mung beans (after two years, they don’t sprout) and eight jars of peanut butter turned out to be overkill…

  • Sounds like one hell of an adventure – I look forward to reading the long form book!

  • Hola John, thank you for sharing your experience, next time I’ll copy

  • Good to hear from you as ever, John. Somewhat more adventurous than many of us left house maintaining instead of boat maintaining and sailing.

  • Thoroughly enjoyed your story , i anchored at walton back waters many years ago ,as i sat in the cockpit enjoying a bernard cornwell book the sun was setting and the evening was magical , it dawned on me that the story that i was reading was set around that area ,my imagination ran riot and i swear i heard the sound of the viking axe and the swords of Alfreds men clanging away .

    Solo sailing is the best form of self isolating that a man could experience

  • Good man John,
    Entertaining as always. I really enjoyed that read….whetted the appetite for a whole lot more. Glad you got the mainsail sorted. I am looking forward to hearing the saga of the Mainsail. You know where my Rival is if you need any ‘spares’.

    Fair Winds and Following seas,

    Con Brosnan

  • Well done John. Quite an Odyessy! Look forward to hearing more details. It looks like you have made Falmouth now. Hope you get a good rest and can get hold of that new mainsail. By the way I see that Ebay has a Flavel on it. I replaced my trusty one last year just before the JBC and was lucky enough to find one from a river motor boat so no corrosion! I got one day’s sailing in last week – the first of the lockdown so you are well ahead! I hope to get Arctic Smoke lifted and her engine reinstalled at the weekend. Very best and hopefully may see you somewhere later this year. Tom

  • Well done. I will read the rest later. A beginning of a book I feel. Just wonderful,Love from Gayle Force in Cornwall.x.

  • Thank you for your story! I would read your book – the story of how you shredded the main for starters.

  • Low on provision or limited ability to prepare food makes for interesting combinations and you were obviously pressed when considering tuna fish and Nutella! Fun read – thanks

  • Hi John,
    I think you have achieved the best solution to “self shielding”. I am in the “Weald of Kent” on a caravan site, it’s not good.
    Good luck with your travels, would love to read the book when you publish it.

  • Well, that was more exciting than our lockdown! An excellent read and I look forward to reading more of the same. All the best, John.

  • Great to hear about your latest adventure, but sounds like it didn’t run to smoothly towards the end.

  • Hi John, Wow! What an adventure. My boat never makes it further than the heads of Sydney Harbour!
    Well worth a world pandemic to read this!

  • Keep going John. I want to read more.

  • Well, that’s ticked a box!

  • Yes. Great read.

  • ‘Twas a pleasure to read, JP, and I look forward to the Longform version.

  • That was great John glad you didn’t stay in the Walton backwaters. Fair winds I look forward to a copy

  • Brilliant!

  • + 1 more copy here John!

    • Best read I’ve had all quarantine.
      Thank you and wishing you a healthy year.

  • Great read John, well done

  • Most interesting read for several months, I look forward to more please.

  • Wow. You are amazing. Yes please

  • A great read. Good to hear from your

  • I’d love to hear more of your isolation tales

  • I’ll have a copy please John, a great story that I look forward to reading in full! Thanks for sharing this snippet…

  • Well that sure is one heck of a way to self isolate! Glad you’re here to tell the story, and a great story indeed it is.
    Fair winds and calm seas to you.
    …. & may you get your cooker cooking and get a cup-a (tea) of for yourself.

  • I enjoyed reading that. Looking forward to reading a long form yarn from you in the future. How did the mainsail get that new shape?

  • Respect to a very inteligent man!

  • that was a brillant inspiring read John. Keep it up, all the best from Ireland

  • That’s quite a story John and I salute you! Keep posting.

    John Willis
    S/V Pippin

  • That sounds like one helluva adventure during this time. Did the thought of being the sole survivor on earth ever cross your mind the way I do when isolated for long periods of time? I have been anchored in a remote bay in Mexico for 12 weeks but I occasionally see someone now and then. I am so ready to get back to normal but then again will this virus spread even worse? All we can do is wait to see because I have no clue if it’s going to get better or all go South. I know one thing for sure, I feel safer knowing I can sail into the sunset if things get crazy. We may not be welcomed at foreign countries but hopefully we will find someplace to reprovision before feeling lost at sea.

    • hi John, we from the two masted Kalim spent isolation in the channels of Patagonia and Chiloé, but no way we could make of it a story as fun as yours! Bravo for the sailing and great work on the paper, keep at it. Cheers

  • Bravo!


There used to be a time when you could get lost on a boat – well, not exactly lost … but, maybe you might experience that nagging sensation of being not quite where you thought you should be.

Of course, this didn’t matter too much in the middle of an ocean – the sun would come out tomorrow and all that…

Then along came GPS and we all knew precisely where we were every moment of every day – right down to the last decimal place on the LCD screen.

So how is that in this age of digital navigation I found myself in the middle of a ploughed field, staring at Google Maps by moonlight and wondering where I’d left the boat?

Well, actually that’s not a fair question. I knew exactly where I’d left the boat – anchored comfortably at the south end of Kirby Creek in Walton Backwaters on England’s East Coast. Anyway, if I wasn’t sure, I could always use the Shipfinder app on my phone because I had taken the precaution of switching on the AIS for five minutes before I left (a little trick I picked up when coming back to the dinghy and finding Swanage Bay had gone opaque}. No, the difficulty was navigating the Essex countryside – particularly the myriad farm tracks which don’t feature on Maps.

It had all looked so easy in daylight. I had anchored in my favourite spot and left Samsara in the care of the seals and geese while I took the dinghy up to the little jetty on the edge of the saltings. Then, manhandling the folding bicycle up the sea wall, all I had to do was pedal along it for quarter of a mile without riding into the mud on one side or over the 10ft drop on the other, before turning left at an isolated barn – the only feature in this fabulously wild landscape – and start on the best part of a mile up a cart track through the sugar beet fields to the farm where the track turned into a concrete lane. Half a mile up this and I would come to the road. All I had to do was turn left to Kirby-le-Soken (two pubs, two churches, one shop).

This, I should add, is currently my commute to work – yes, I’ve gone back to work for a bit: You can read all about it on my Facebook page The Network Marketing Blog. It means that for a couple of weeks, the dinghy ride, the muddy ascent of the wobbly staging and the ride along the sea wall is going to become just as much a routine as the District Line used to be from Chiswich Park to Kensington High Street.

It was just that Google Maps’ version of Deans Hall Farm, Kents Hall Farm and Hall Farm itself was not a patch on Transport For London’s version.

With sunset somewhere in the middle of the afteroon, I was well aware that it would be dark by the time I made the return journey. I had two tail lights (one on the top of my high-viz cycle helmet) and three front lights – two of them flashing, no less). I was a bit like a two-wheeled Christmas tree.

And, so I progressed – highly visibly – past the first farm track: That couldn’t be the one because it smelled strongly of farm and I didn’t remember that.

The second turning seemed much more familiar. It progressed from concrete lane to muddy track. There was a farmhouse with cosily-lit windows. I imagined the ruddy-faced farmer presiding over a table with a picture-book farmer’s wife and half a dozen rosy-cheeked children tucking into home-slaughtered crackling and cider.

By the time I ended up in the ploughed field, I hoped they choked on it.

Hauling the bike out of the mire (have you ever manhandled a folling bicycle? It keeps on folding on you) I set off back up the lane – only to find that much of the ploughed field was now wedged firmly under the rear mudguard so that it was only with the greatest effort that the wheel could be made to turn at all.

How do you get a clod of mud out from under your mudguard in the dark, in the middle of nowhere and, certainly, miles from any useful implement? Well, why do you think it’s called a mud-guard?

In the end, I had to use one of only two biros I had with me – and still the wheel only rotated under protest. By the time I regained what passed for the “main road” I felt I had competed in the alpine section of the Tour de France.

So where now? Google Maps offered three farm tracks – none of which went anywhere near where I estimated the jetty to be (should have stuck an electronic pin in it). I had dismissed the first – but on the other hand, the third appeared to be miles away.

I turned left and investigated the first again. Sure enough there was a farm down there – and a pond, which I remembered. But no unpaved track going any further…

Back to option three – which was another two miles back in the opposite direction. There were some familiar features down that one – speed bumps, a high hedge… sugarbeet… a pond…

And then, of course, another muddy field.

I’d had enough of this. I’d been peddling up and down getting nowhere for an hour. I was covered in mud. I had the other half of last night’s spaghetti putanesca waiting for me (made with sardines for extra zizz).

I would ask at the farmhouse (I’m not proud).

Given that there is plenty of spare land in North Essex, the farmhouse was at the end of a long, sweeping, crunching drive. The farmer was at the door long before I reached it – which might have had something to do with the fact that I was still flashing like the Regents Street decorations.

“Ah,” he said. “I know exactly where you want to be.” And he did too – in fact it was his mooring I had borrowed for the adventures described on November 16th last year under the short but apt title of “Mud” (yes, more of it).

So where did I need to go? You guessed it, back to the first turning – the one I had dismissed right at the start of this shambles.Sure enough, there was the dinghy waiting obediently at the jetty – and, in the distance, Samsara’s automatic anchor light shining like a welcome-home beacon.

The destination by daylight

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2 Responses to A magical moment in the high latitudes

Mr Kipling

June 19th 2018

This is me being philosophical.

Five days into a passage from Suffolk to the Outer Hebrides (which is about as far as you can go without leaving the country) and I am off the North East corner of Scotland, have been listening to gale warnings for the past 48 hours and the Navtex machine has just spewed out the following information: “Sea area Cromarty gale now ceased.”

I could have told them that. If I poke my head out of the hatch, my hat does not get blown off. Not to put too fine a point on it, there is no wind at all. None. We are going nowhere.

I woke from my afternoon nap (to differentiate it from my morning nap, my evening nap and my various night-time naps) to the sound of sails slatting from side to side, the boom banging and the self-steering clonking.

This is what happens when the wind suddenly stops. One minute it is blowing a “strong wind” as the meteorologists would have it – and the next you have a calm (I looked it up. “Sea state: Calm, glassy, like a mirror.” This was not even Force One which is “Ripples like scales are formed.”

This is when the Old Man must stop thinking about progress. After all this is not a race. I have no-one to measure myself against. So, a distraction is what is needed. There are two distractions on this boat. One is Mr Kipling’s Cherry Bakewell Tarts and the other is Mr Kipling’s French Fancies.

If you’re not familiar with British supermarket shelves, Mr Kipling is baker. He has a little corner shop just off the High Street where he produces the most wondrous cakes and pastries – a sort of Willie Wonka of the bakery world. As often as not, he will pop an extra macaroon into your paper bag with a conspiratorial wink as if to say: “Don’t tell Mrs Kipling”.

At least that is the image behind the brand dreamed up by the advertising agency employed many years ago by the vast conglomerate (Kraft? Unilever?) which owns the Mr Kipling brand.

Anyway, I was in Sainsbury’s doing the last-minute victualling (serious stuff like corned beef and porridge oats) when I couldn’t help noticing that Mr Kipling’s Cherry Bakewell Tarts and his French Fancies were on Special Offer – and we do love a special offer.

So far, so good. The colourful boxes were stowed away with everything else – at least, the Cherry Bakewell Tarts were – what happened to the French Fancies, I have not the faintest idea.

To coin a line from Titanic: “There are only so many places they can be. Find them Lovejoy. Find them…”

Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem. They would turn up. But a calm does funny things to the mind. Suddenly a French Fancy was the only thing that would do. Previous love affairs with Cherry Bakewell Tarts were forgotten in the frantic search – digestives cast aside – Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers chucked in with the cook-in sauces. Packets and packets of Penguin biscuits (why so many) ended up in with the rusty chopped tomatoes…

There was a moment when I sat back on my haunches in the middle of the not-very-large cabin, surrounded by packets and tins and jars and came to my senses. The logic went like this: The French Fancies were here. It was just that I couldn’t see them – like looking for the butter in the fridge (I’m looking for butter in a gold wrapper. How am I supposed to see butter in a plain wrapper).

So here was the deal: I would make a cup of tea and have one of Mr Kipling’s Cherry Bakewell tarts. Only after that would I put everything away – and if, in the course of restoring order, I happened to chance on the French Fancies, well… I could reward myself with one of those as well – and another cup of tea.

And do you think I found them? Of course I found them. Right next to the Cherry Bakewell Tarts – only they were in a slightly smaller colourful box (Fancies are smaller than Tarts – it makes sense). I was looking for a box the same size.

I had hardly finished the last mouthful, carefully collecting the crumbs by squashing them with my finger (I must be watchful for deteriorating personal habits) when I realised that the whole world had leaned over a bit and there was a delightful chuckling sound as the water started moving past the hull.

We were on our way once again.