ON BEING SHALLOW-MINDED
The world of sailing is full of received wisdoms, articles of faith that have become so ingrained in the water-borne psyche that they are accepted without the slightest review or reflection. Take, for example, the simple matter of keels. A sailing man is usually inordinately proud of the length of his appendage. The deeper it plumbs the depths, the better. Add a bit of hydrodynamic styling and you have the ultimate in sea-going machismo. A man has to have draft, after all, and plenty of it. Draft gives you stiffness, don't you know, and stiff is safe.
So runs the theory, and it will be expounded without fear of contradiction in every yacht club bar from Looe to Largs. From time to time I'm asked about mine. 'Got a good-sized undercarriage, have you?', the question goes, and given that these days my only sailing is of the ocean-going variety, a good red-blooded hunter-gatherer affirmative answer is anticipated. Something along the lines of: ' You betcha! A real humdinger! Low-slung and packing a ton of lead!'
My actual answer, whispered hesitantly and with more than a hint of apology, can bring a bar-room packed full of hulking foredeck monkeys and their imperious skippers to an instant, cut-glass silence. Eyes widen. Brows furrow. Heads shake in disbelief. Tongues tut. And then, after that brief first wave of sympathy, backs turn on me. The huddled conferences begin. 'Wow!'. 'You hear that guy?' 'Unbelievable!.' 'What a loser!' 'Idiot, more like.'
The fact is, my little yacht Mingming, twenty-odd insignificant feet, small of stature but, having ranged from Iceland to the Azores within the last year, big on ocean miles, is freakishly deficient in the draft department. I think you know what I'm talking about. Yes, she's a bilge-keeler.
The received wisdom is that the bilge-, or if you prefer, twin-keeled yacht does not cut the mustard for ocean sailing. It's the configuration of choice for retired heating engineers wedded to the east coast mud. It's for lily-livered inshore sailors. It's an execrescence of yacht design; an anomolous travesty; a triumph of boring shallow-water practicality over the purer principles of gung-ho hydrodynamics. Put another way, anyone venturing offshore with such wimpish righting tackle 'Can not', in the words of the great lefthander, 'be serious!'
Oh yes they can. I'll admit that when I first put to sea in Mingming I had reservations. I remained to be convinced. Now, some ten thousand or so ocean miles and by my best count at least eight gales or severe gales later, I am convinced. Totally.
Let me count the reasons why. First off, motion. The bilge-keeler does not have the aggressive righting moment of the deep-keeled yacht. This leads to an easy motion at sea, especially downwind. Squared off, Mingming displays none of the pendulum rolling so prevalent in deep-drafted craft. This is of course partly a function of her balanced junk rig.
Allied to this is the reduction of strain on the rig. The over-stiff yacht, with high initial stability, sets up a battle royal between gravity and wind pressure. Caught between the two are the poor old hull and rigging. You may be quite happy to go to sea in a yacht whose hull and component parts are constantly under many tons of compression and tension and torsion. I sail with an unstayed mast, so am particularly receptive to anything that makes life easier on that mast, the hull, and myself.
As important as all of this, and perhaps ultimately more critical, is that the shallow draft yacht is less at risk of capsize. It sounds counter-intuitive, but there it is. Deep keels trip the craft they are attached too. If the yacht is being pushed sideways by a particularly unfriendly wave, the keel acts as a brake below the waterline, but the hull just carries on. Result - capsize. The shallow draft yacht is not tripped - it just keeps on going sideways. I've experienced this many times.
And of course, when that voyage is finally over and you are approaching that nasty stuff called land, the bilge-keeler wins hands down. It's a go-anywhere, anchor-anywhere, dry out -(almost)anywhere kind of life once your lead-line can hit the bottom.
'A-ha!' I always hear in retort. 'A-ha! But you can't blinking well sail to windward, can you? There! Get out of that!' Oh dear. It's true that, if you're talking a degree or two of pointing ability, the bilge-keeler is at a disadvantage. However, that particular argument usually reveals that the arguer him or herself has precious little first-hand experience of the realities of sailing small boats to windward in oceanic conditions. Fact is it's usually desirable, and often absolutely necessary, to sail a little bit free anyway, to maintain good boat speed in the face of waves that can get rather large and resistant. For blue water sailing I don't think it makes the slightest difference whether a yacht is single- or double-keeled.
'A-ha!' I hear once again. Received wisdoms are difficult to dislodge. Being contrarian is a tough business. 'A-ha! Maybe, BUT, your bilge-keeler, it's tender, isn't it! Can't carry it's sail! There! What d'you say to that!' What I say is 'Bunkum!' Mingming, once she gets beyond a certain point, is amazingly stiff. I have tried deliberately to capsize her in the overfalls off Anvil point, and failed. She has been on her beam ends many times, but refuses to go any further. Being junk-rigged she sails nearly upright anyway, whatever the conditions. Strangely, it is the owners of single-keeled Corribees, both junk- and bermudan-rigged, who complain of tenderness. At least two that I know of have bolted on additional chunks of lead to their keels.
As far as I am aware, no serious analytical study has been made of the relative merits of one or two keels for ocean cruising. The argument always seems to be between long keels and fin keels. Bilge keels have never figured as a serious contender. Perhaps they should.
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IT'S ONLY A TIN CAN!
When you think about it, there's not much to a tin can. An empty one, I mean. A little cylinder with a bottom and an open top that may or may not be jagged, depending on your taste in tin can openers. Weighs hardly anything. Just about fits in the palm of your hand. Could be a bit whiffy inside but may equally be squeaky clean.
There's not much to an empty tin can, then, but they do seem to appear regularly on board when you're out sailing. It's not that we sailors particularly like empty tin cans. Far from it. It's just that at certain times of the day we feel a strange compulsion to examine and eat the contents of a nice fat full tin can. And hey presto! What we're left with is a satisfied stomach, if we're lucky, and yet another one of those empty tin cans.
We're also left with a dilemma, or at least most of us are. Because an empty tin can is, if you will pardon my Swahili, a bloody nuisance. An empty tin can is also extraordinarily reliable. If it retains the slightest sharp edge that will cut your finger, it will sure as hell cut your finger. If it still holds the tiniest smidgeon of sludge or liquid that will drip all over your smart new sailing trousers, you can confidently place £100 at 100-1 that it will indeed drip all over your smart new sailing trousers. If it has developed a ripe pong that will stink out your cabin, it surely will stink out your cabin as efficiently and comprehensively as a superannuated camembert. You can always rely on an empty tin can to do the things that empty tin cans do. In that regard, it will never, ever, let you down.
And because an empty tin can is so unswerving in the fulfilment of its appointed role in life you want to get rid of the damn thing as quickly and completely as possible. An empty tin can lurking in the cabin is akin to having the company of a hungry tarantula or an advanced species of African stinging wasp. You don't really want it there. You want it out, out! Now!
So whether you are two miles offshore, or two hundred or even two thousand miles offshore, surrounded by an endless expanse of watery wasteland, an awful, irresistible compulsion grips you. The solution is right there, before your very eyes. You know it's wrong but you can't help yourself. It will only take a second. No-one will see. No-one will know. You'll be rid of this pesky empty tin can for ever. It will plague and threaten you no more. All it will take is a quick arc of the arm. A quiet splash. A glug or two. And it will be gone. Out of sight, out of mind, out of your life for good. Problem solved.
I confess I've done it. More than once. I am deeply ashamed. It was just that at the time I couldn't help myself, you see. You must believe me. Please. The temptation was too great. My will was too weak to resist. It was the easy way out. Sure, there was a little voice inside, way down in the depths of my fractured brain, saying 'No! No! It's disgraceful! It's disgusting! You're polluting the ocean you love, for heaven's sake! You're poisoning the very life of the sea! Do not do it! Are you listening to me? Hello? Is there anybody there? Do not do it! DO NOT DO IT!' but my arm had already kind of developed a mind of its own and before I'd really realised what I was doing I'd… done it.
Afterwards I felt awful every time. A criminal. A pig. A hypocrite. Yes, that's it, a great big marine-grade carbon-fibered hypocrite. But we humans are pretty clever. Or perhaps devious is the word. We can always find a way to rationalise even our worst actions. There's always a reason, an excuse, a justification. I mean, come on, it's only a tin can! What's all the fuss about? What harm is there in chucking one tiny little empty tin can into the great wide ocean?
Well, we all know the answer to that. And we all know that if you add up every sailor and every fisherman from Salcombe to Shanghai and from Kamchatka to the Kerguelens who is tempted to dispose of said can by said method then we are talking not one but thousands, if not millions, of said cans. And if we then add in the thousands of merchant ships and cruise ships which, illegal though it may be, are tempted to save their owners a few quid by hoiking vast quantities of assorted waste (including those industrial-sized cans used in the catering trade) over the side at the dead of night, we'll soon be running into the billions of those little nuggets of pollution.
Maybe the oceans can absorb all this dumping without sustaining long-term damage. Maybe not. Certainly the levels of trace elements in fish and whale stocks are approaching the danger zone - the end result of non-stop incremental pollution of the seas. Surely it's wiser to be over-cautious than uncaringly blasé, as many sailors I talk to are. And surely too it's a question of attitude. A true sailor should treasure the sea. To wilfully throw rubbish in it smacks of a lack of appreciation verging on contempt.
Anyway, I'm at peace with myself now. I've overcome this compulsion. I've reformed. I'm clean. Dried out. Born again. I've learned boldly to confront an empty tin can. I've mastered the art of picking it up without losing yet another finger. I know how to contain it, without spillage, in a plastic bag bought along specially for that purpose. I've developed arcane and subtle methods of ensuring that its whiffs and pongs stay permanently imprisoned.
At the end of my last long voyage my first act, once ashore, was to carry a large bin bag containing smaller plastic bags that themselves held even tighter parcels of accumulated detritus, the major part of which was an army of subdued and contrite empty tin cans, to the Plymouth Yacht Haven rubbish skip. I walked with a spring in my step - or would have, had I not still been in the rolling-around stage. My head was held high - or would have been had I not known that to walk along a pontoon with your head held high usually leads to an early bath. I glowed with the repulsive smugness of the reformed sinner. Thirty-eight days worth of empty tin cans bobbled and clanked on my shoulder. The ocean, and my conscience, were both that little bit cleaner.
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ON KEEPING OFF THE CHIPS
I struggle to keep off the chips. They've invaded our lives ashore and, increasingly, afloat. The seductive, moresome beggars are everywhere. These days just about everything you order comes with 'em. Not the fat greasy ones of yesteryear wrapped up in last night's Echo and well-doused with Sarsons. Not even those prissy anorexic frites from across the Channel.
Oh no. The chips that get thrown at you nowadays are hard-baked little monsters. You could probably cram a dozen in your mouth at one go. I wouldn't advise it though. You might end up well-informed, but you'd probably choke to death in the process. The modern chip is a pretty indigestible confection. Not really made for eating. More for taking over your life.
And thereby lies the trouble. The modern chip, that innocent little silicate wafer, cunningly crafted to be ingested into every machine and run everything on board from your auto-pilot to your anenometer, is the master of appropriation.
Every chip-driven gizmo links to a read-out. These days, to a big, dominating, mesmerizing read-out. Often this read-out links to another repeating read-out, so that if you can't catch the read-out here, you can catch the read-out there. On deck or below deck, banks of read-outs. Screens with numbers interminably flicking. Screens that draw the eye. Numbers for this, numbers for that. At any second, at any hour of the day or night, relentlessly, the numbers dissect and analyse, telling you everything from the current cut of your jib to your distance from Punta Arenas. In millimetres of course.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm a great fan of what these days is called data. If my school-boy Latin still holds up this means 'things which are given'. Gifts, if you like. And certainly, if you're feeling your way down the inside of the Goodwins in a good pea-souper, there is no greater gift than an accurate fix computed by that cunning little chip in your GPS.
That is a gift to be treasured, and worthy of a hundred thank you letters.
But too much data, too many gifts, too often proferred, too often received, risk making you lazy. Complacent even. If there is no longer any need to do it yourself, then of course you won't. If the sensors that connect to the chips are doing the sensing, then why bother doing any sensing yourself? If those smug little chips are just brilliant at working out the figures, why on earth should you pull out old-fashioned pencil and paper and struggle through a few sums?
Data, these continuous gifts of information, have their addictive side too. Not simply the addiction to having everything done for you and presented nice and pat on the flicking read-out. There is a more insidious addiction underpinning this - the addiction to the information itself.
Read-out addiction, I'd call it. It's a bit like being addicted to the ten o'clock news, only 86,400 (that's the number of seconds in a day, in case you'd forgotten) worse. You may be in denial, but you know what I'm talking about. That compulsion to keep checking the read-outs. A compulsion so compulsively compulsive that you just have to keep on re-reading the numbers, for their own sake, irrespective of whether, at that particular moment, they have the slightest navigational significance.
Well, I hate being addicted to anything. For a month or two each year I resist pouring that heady work's-over-and-I-can-relax glass of red wine when I start cooking the evening meal. Just to be sure I can still, if I want, do without it.
I dislike being too reliant on anything - particularly if it works in mysterious ways that I don't fully understand. You know how it is. Things that work in mysterious ways have a nasty habit of suddenly not working in any way whatsoever. Then where are you?
So, as far as I can, I try and do without chips. I haven't given them up completely, but they are strictly rationed. I have just the two, one in my hand-held GPS, one in my hand-held VHF. That's a pretty strict diet, I know, but it suits me just fine. It's an intake that keeps me lean, mean and alert. I do my own sensing, thank you very much, make my own assessments, work out my own little sums. They may not be accurate to within three microns or a couple of nanoseconds, in fact often as not they're as rough as guts, but they serve. They get me there.
And when I do turn to one of these little chips I savour the experience. On passage offshore a single noon GPS fix suffices. Having first crossed oceans well before the boffins first cooked up the modern chip, and having often had to keep up a dead reckoning for days, I still find a daily fix of that accuracy a marvel, more than enough for my stringent appetite.
My little GPS is unwrapped from its swaddling almost reverentially. Handled like a newborn child. Switched gently on. Proferred to the sky. The chip works its black art. I note down the result, then switch it off. Before returning it to its wrappings and container I touch it gently with my lips and whisper a quiet thank you. Gifts should be acknowledged and appreciated, not taken for granted.
So I approach my chips as if they were a good single malt or a rare caviare, to be taken in small doses at appropriate times. I relish that something special, that little extra focus, they can bring to my life aboard.
But I don't stuff my face with them. Binge-eating is out. It's hard, but it works. I feel better for it. I am slave to no-one or no thing. And believe me, once you've tamed your appetite, a couple of chips can take you a surprisingly long way.
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There is a well-known yacht on the East Coast called Patience. It is of course a Vertue. Puns aside, it is an excellent name for an equally impressive yacht. I sometimes think it wouldn't be a bad idea if every yacht afloat were named Patience. And every motor boat, fishing boat, ferry boat, cargo ship, container ship, RIB, run-about and, of course, every single one of those special gifts from heaven known as jet-skis.
This would give the coastguard a bit of a headache, though they are such splendid chaps (and chapettes, or whatever the feminine of chap is) that I'm sure they'd cope. Yacht-to-yacht radio contact would attain the rhythms and repetitions of a zen mantra: 'This is Patience, Patience, Patience calling Patience, Patience, Patience. Over.' 'Patience, Patience, Patience this is Patience, Patience, Patience. Go ahead please.' Nobody would ever again feel excluded from the airwaves.
Patience would win every race and every regatta. As long as she didn't retire, she'd even win the Fastnet. She'd also come last, but hey, it's only a race. The ships' registers, large and small, would be immeasurably simplified and sign-writers would develop untold skill and a thousand variations in painting, with craftsman-like patience, one would hope, those eight critical letters.
Personalised Breton caps, tea towels, whisky glasses, welcome mats, key-rings, sweatshirts, fender socks, bimini top holders and all the other indispensable accoutrements of the modern yacht would be mass-produced more cheaply, saving yachtsmen and motor boaters thousands, until, that is, the marinas cottoned on that there was some slack in the market and bumped up their charges. OK, maybe a yacht club bar full of hulking grinders and foredeck monkeys all wearing a polo shirt embroidered with the word Patience could lead to a spot of confusion, but think of the fraternity it would engender.
The benefits, therefore, would be many and varied. More important than anything I have so far mentioned, though, is the fact that the word patience would be on every sailor's lips and before every sailor's eyes. It would resonate daily in their heads and minds. Patience…patience.
And when they are tempted to take a dodgy shortcut through that rocky passage, on a falling tide, to save themselves that extra half hour, they may be lulled into a more seamanlike decision. Patience… patience.
They may be just that little less quick to the starter button, just because the wind has eased and, heaven forbid, they are not quite at hull speed. Patience…patience.
They would be less inclined to the rage and aggression that infests our crowded waterways. Less inclined to insist angrily on rights. Less inclined to barge dangerously through, hell-bent on saving or gaining, though I would call it losing, a second or two. They would become more laid back, more forgiving, more supple. Fist-waving stand-offs between yachties and motor boaters would become a thing of the past, a dim memory of other, less harmonious times. 'After you, sir, please!' would resound gently across the waves, rather than the 'Get out of my f****** way, you f****** m*****-f****** a***- hole!!' we all know so well.
The subliminal message may help them forget about where they hope to be in two hours' time and persuade them to enjoy the here and now. There is no rush. Look. Observe. Relax. They would enjoy themselves more, find delight in the small things that the impatient, hurried and harried sailor never sees and never cares about. They would realise that it's not always about arriving in double-quick time. It's about savouring the journey.
A little more patience may align them more closely with the rhythms of nature, the ebb and flow of its tides and systems. They may become more adept at harnessing these rhythms rather than trying always to overpower them. They may even discover the pleasure this brings.
They may discover too that patience is not at all at odds with the timetables of modern life. Sure you've got to get there. Sure you've got a deadline to beat. Haven't we all? You just learn to do it a little differently. Build a little more margin into your passage plan. Accept that you may have to leave a little earlier, arrive a little later. Learn to be just that little more flexible. It won't ruin your life. On the contrary it will, in time, enhance it.
Patience. The seamen of old knew about it. They knew that it was going to take as long as it was going to take and there was no point railing against it. Think of Cook. Every sight reduction required ninety or so stages. Despite that, and despite sailing a slow old tub, he surveyed and charted great tracts of unknown coastline, thousands of miles of it, at the far ends of the earth. Spare a thought for poor old FitzRoy, he of the shipping area, sent out by Their Lordships to survey the coastline of Patagonia. He didn't just sail round Cape Horn - he and his men made it their home. They delved into every stormy nook and cranny under the most inhospitable conditions imaginable, and patiently created charts that stand up to scrutiny to this day.
It doesn't wash just to say - oh, but in the old days they had plenty of time. Of course they didn't. They were sailing slow and unhandy vessels. Naval captains were required to fulfil their difficult commissions expeditiously and with minimum loss and expense. Merchant captains were beholden to their owners. Fishermen had to get their catch to market in good time.
Patience is not necessarily about time. It is a state of mind. It is usually allied to other good and seamanlike qualities - quiet determination, clarity of purpose, constant alertness. The Vertue is a great little boat. Patience is a massive virtue.
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ICE AIN'T NICE
Easter could have been a write-off. It was so damn cold that fitting out was out; staying in was in. I stayed in and read. And what I read, or more precisely re-read, for probably the fourth or fifth time was, appropriately enough given the snow flurries flurrying around the windows and the arctic gale regaling the gables, David Lewis's 'Ice Bird'. Or more precisely, Dr David Lewis's 'Ice Bird'.
Given that I'm off to sea again in hardly more the eight weeks' time, I'm not sure that this was altogether the best choice for a bit of light reading. It's a harrowing tale of derring-do in a more innocent age. A triumph of personal fortitude over chaotic preparation. More than anything, though, it is a book whose very pages seem to drip icy condensation over the best-warmed easy chair and leave your fingers frozen in sympathy with the self-wrought sufferings of the good doctor.
My copy of 'Ice Bird' is as well-thumbed as they come - an ex-public library copy bought for a pittance and sent to me by my father. The pages are stiff and grubby. The binding is in dire need of a re-fit. Several metres of sellotape struggle to keep it from mutating into a whole fleet of books. It is well-laced with officious library stamps and their arcane codes. It is, as far as I can determine, a first (1975) edition. It forms a welcome part of my secret stash of sea-going books, cunningly kept from public view on under-the-stairs shelving.
Lewis was the first to sail single-handed to the Antarctic mainland. He had previously sailed his Vertue, inevitably named Cardinal Vertue (it was going to happen sooner or later), in the first Transatlantic. He had subsequently turned his attention to the Pacific and made a name for himself researching and putting into practice the navigational techniques of the Pacific islanders. He had given up medicine and become an academic researcher and writer. Prior to the Ice Bird voyage Lewis, a New Zealander by birth, had a research post at the Australian National University in Canberra.
Put that way, it all sounds very orderly. In fact, after two marriages, both failed, and two sets of children, Lewis's personal life was in disarray. Worse still, the yacht in which he had been planning to make the voyage, the 39' Isbjorn, had just been lost, uninsured, at sea when, on her way to Sydney from the Pacific islands, under the command of Lewis's son Barry, she had suffered structural failure. The position then, just prior to the southern hemisphere summer in which Lewis was intending to make the voyage, was that he had no job and no yacht. He did, however, already have a book contract for the voyage and a modest advance - his sole financial resource. Word was out about his intentions. He had little choice but to press on with the project. It is hard to imagine a less satisfactory prelude to such a difficult and dangerous enterprise. The rushed, last minute, under-funded, seat-of-the-pants preparation that followed goes a long way towards explaining the ensuing catalogue of gear failures, oversights and often unnecessary privations that Lewis suffered.
It is also what makes it such a fascinating and instructional tale. The groan-inducing under-preparation is redeemed by Lewis's dogged determination and ability to suffer, suffer, suffer.
Let's look first at the under-preparation. Here is a good object lesson for the single-hander. Twice he put to sea with self-steering gears that had not been properly tested - one a Hasler-Gibbs, one an Aries. The first was not really designed for a yacht of Ice Bird's displacement. It did work satisfactorily, but was destroyed in his first knockdown. The second had a vital counterweight missing that rendered it useless in a Force 3 or less. It too was destroyed after about six weeks, probably by the warp that Lewis was towing at the time.
Lewis's preferred storm tactic, derived from Moitessier, was to keep sailing with a storm jib, running at a slight angle to the following seas. Beyond a certain wind strength and sea state, however, some sort of streaming gear was necessary. Lewis used a single thirty fathom warp, towing a couple of tyres weighted down with a small anchor. This was probably inadequate for his weight of yacht in those waters. It eventually failed to hold him stern-to, causing his second capsize. Had the warp been fixed to a bridle from each quarter, the terminal damage to his Aries gear may possibly have been averted.
Lewis did not appear to have a predetermined strategy in the event of loss of his rig. Given the high possibilty of a capsize and dismasting, this is surprising. In fact on both legs of his voyage he lost his mast after six weeks or so. He was better prepared the second time, having already had to construct one jury rig. However first time round it did take him a while to figure out that his heavy wooden boom would be a better jury mast than the crumbling aluminium spinnaker pole, and that it would in fact be possible to raise it.
It was virtually guaranteed too that at some point sails would have to be repaired. Lewis omitted to take a sailmaker's palm, so that already difficult job was rendered even more tortuous. The other staggering oversight, for an experienced singlehander, particularly one sailing into ice, was provision of an alarm clock or any device to wake him. This meant that for the many weeks while he was sailing through fields of massive icebergs he was forced to heave to, to stop completely, in order to sleep. This hardly made for steady progress. The long stretches of sleep, without a regular watch, led too to several close encounters, potentially terminal, with those frozen monoliths.
Yachting apparel, as it was called in those far-off days, was, by today's standards, verging on the criminally negligent as regards its efficiency. I know. My first single-handed ocean voyage, that too in southern waters, was made just a few months after Lewis struggled into Capetown. My wet weather gear was an anorak (yes, a real one with a zip pocket across the chest) and a pair of waterproof over-trousers of a thickness only measurable in microns. I did not possess a pair of gloves. Sea-boots? Ha!
Lewis's clothing, for the first leg of his voyage, after which he got lucky with some higher-tech donations, was not a whole lot better. The permanent discomfort, down there in that murky, dank, dripping and regularly sub-freezing saloon, for week after week after week, all overlaid with a pervasive coating of gut-wrenching terror, is not pretty to contemplate. Fact is, he was permanently damp or just plain wet. The dampness was at times and in places a warmish damp where and when his body heat was adequate to induce it. But in effect he was living in an inescapable and all-encompassing cold squelch. Worse, incipient frostbite had so swollen and sensitised his fingers that every physical task was an almost unbearable agony.
And so it goes on. The head fails. The bilge pump doesn't work. The radios are useless. Things break loose. Containers smash. Every noxious fluid has its day all over the saloon floor. The stove packs up. The engine works intermittently or not at all. Sails blow out. Shrouds stretch. The forehatch almost goes by the board. The 1/8th inch steel of the coachroof is split during a capsize. The water tank freezes. Yes, it's another normal day at the offshore office…
But despite all this, Lewis, slight, shy, by his own admission not particularly practical, keeps going. Of course in many ways he didn't have a lot of choice. Having been dismasted pretty much halfway between New Zealand and Cape Horn, the options were limited anyway. Many times he was close to the edge of total despair at his predicament but he hung on, nursing body, spirit and crippled yacht round those high latitudes and to safety, first to the American Antarctic base on the Antarctic peninsular, then, on the second leg, a year later, to South Africa. As a doctor he knew that when the chips are down, as they certainly were in his case, the will and determination to survive counted as much, if not more, than purely physical considerations.
So my freezing Easter, spent in indoor comfort, well away from sandpaper, varnish and that nasty northerly, was by no means wasted. Reading Lewis's book reinforced once more my belief that complex gear, prone to breakdown and inimical of easy repair, has no place on a small yacht. It underlined once again the wisdom of jury rig planning and provision being made in advance of any voyage. It showed how dangerous and energy-sapping constant deck work can be and therefore that the sailor who can organise his yacht to minimise the need to exit the hatch will fare better.
Lewis's book also showed that, ultimately, you just have to hope that the probabilities don't stack themselves too much against you. Call it being 'lucky', if you want. The most rigorous and complete preparation, of the sort that should be undertaken as a matter of course, is no guarantee of a successful voyage. There are simply too many unknown and unpredictable factors out there, making total risk management an impossibilty. Which is, of course, no different from life in general. The dividing line between success and failure, survival and oblivion, is as illusory and insubstantial as a chalk line drawn on water.
Lewis had regular moments of anguish over what he called the 'morality' of what he was doing - abandoning his young daughters and putting himself at such risk. Well, he was driven to do what he had to do. It's unlikely that he would have been a better father by remaining 'safely' ashore, fretting and unhappy at suppressing his need to break, as it were, new ground. He accepted too that if it went wrong, there would be no way out. Unlike most of today's recreational ocean sailors he accepted that he had no right of rescue. As he put it: 'When we voluntarily step off the pavements we have no right to expect others to pull us back…Once embarked, we are on our own.' (Scroll down to the dark and murky depths of the Mariana Trench that this page is becoming, for my own concurring view on this, in the article 'Safety at Sea - A Radical View').
Thinking about this book and this voyage, trying to come up with the right ending for this little article, I realise that the title is wrong. Ice Ain't Nice. It has an alliterative appeal, to be sure, and was concocted on the back of Lewis's terror amongst the icebergs. But down there he experienced too moments of unsurpassed beauty and privilege. One photograph in the book, a double page spread of ice pack under an orange sun, sets off a spine-tingling frisson every time I look at it. I envy him having got to the last continent before it became just another tourist trap, another cruise-ship destination; before its magic and mystery became banalised on the travel pages of the Sunday supplements; while it was still a frontier that merited those terrible sufferings in its crossing.
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My cousin Jack's latest craze is the weather. Last year it was Mariachi music. The year before it was the history of the cigarette lighter. He's that kind of guy.
His garden fence now looks like the masthead of an Open 60. It bristles with gizmos. They all link to read-outs by his kitchen table. Nothing he likes better than to sit there, fortified by a glass of Chardonnay, protected by four well-insulated cavity walls, and immerse himself in the rain and winds howling around outside.
He can tell you anything you want to know about what's going on weather-wise on his particular fifth of a Devon acre. Just reads it straight off his dials and drums and digital doodackies. It's all pretty impressive.
'What about tomorrow, though?' I like to ask him. 'Tomorrow?' 'Yeah, and the day after. What's it going to be doing tomorrow and the day after?' 'Ah, well,' he says. 'Tomorrow and the day after, that's er…a different kettle of fish altogether. Can't be sure, really.'
My cousin Jack, the rankest most amateur meteorologist you could ever hope not to head up your weather routeing team, is surely right on that one. Safe in the knowledge of his own limitations he doesn't even try and pretend he can tell you what it will be doing tomorrow and the day after.
Out there, though, in the dangerous world beyond cousin Jack's four walls, lie armies of soothsayers, prophets and readers of the runes. They will swear on their mothers' graves that at three minutes past midday a week next Tuesday the wind will veer from WSW to SSW, easing from 13.9 knots to 12.7 knots.
They are not daft, these Cassandras, nor are they ill-equipped. They have doctorates in unpronounceable disciplines from ancient seats of learning. You won't catch one of them reading the tea leaves, or throwing pigs' entrails around. Not on your nelly. I doubt any of them even have a bit of old seaweed nailed to the doorpost.
We are now in the age of clairvoyance via satellite and computer model. Observation planes and satellites, observation buoys and balloons all…observe. Continuous streams of data are collated and fed into the mouths of insatiable computers. Every last morsel of information is digested, assimilated, transformed, transposed and finally translated into that marvel of visual representation - the synoptic chart.
I love a good synoptic chart. Those swirly lines and smudges tell an epic story. A never-ending struggle between the stolid forces of high pressure and those dastardly low pressure terrorists. One glance and you get the picture. Ha! Rain for the Germans today! They're still sweltering in Spain, I see. Yet another gale in Galway. Marvellous stuff.
Where things start to go awry is when the boffins start trying to predict the plot. Just like my cousin Jack, they are pretty good at telling you how things stand right now, though not perfect by any means. Unlike my cousin Jack they don't hesitate to tell you the storyline for the next few days or even weeks.
There are many times, of course, when their guesses are spot on. If those staid and slow-moving high pressure guys have got the upper hand, they'll more than likely be right. Stands to reason, really. At those moments the narrative has ground almost to a halt. Any slower and you'd think it was The Archers.
The problems come when the pace starts hotting up. When the posses of low pressure baddies come riding in. These guys are unpredictable. They didn't go to good schools. They haven't learned manners. The Geneva Convention means nothing to them. Oh no. They'll come at you any old how, weaving left and right, feinting this way and that before swatting you with a below-the-belt killer blow.
They don't give a fig for computers either, these ruffians. Don't give a damn if they mess up all your nicely constructed charts and story-boards. Slap an ASBO on one and he'd laugh in your face. These are the hard men of the sky, outside of the law. And they take no prisoners.
Trouble is, these are the fellahs we sailors want a good fix on. We don't mind mixing it the good guys, except when they run totally out of puff. We can put up with their over-inflated self-importance. Just look at how they spread themselves all over the place, once they get settled!
But the baddies, that's a different matter. We'd rather like to know what they're up to. When one of those rag-taggle mobs comes screaming through town, firing their six-shooters and scattering mayhem and lawlessness wherever they turn, we'd rather not be in their path.
What I've learned, though, is that whatever the weather wizards say you probably will end up in their path. I've heard it too many times. Relax, man! That latest outfit will pass way, way to your south. Oh yeah? There's a mob riding in from the north west, but don't you worry boy, they ain't packing much iron. Says who?
I have a golden rule. Just the faintest whiff of one of those guys coming over the horizon and I assume two things. One, he's coming my way. Two, he's mean. That way I'm never caught with my back turned. My defences are up. I'm ready, if necessary, for a good fight.
Anyway, I've just had a call from cousin Jack. He's fed up with the Great Outdoors. Last night's storm blew down his weather station. He's giving up this meteorology lark. Taking up home brewing instead.
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A SHORT INTRODUCTION TO THE MINGMING TEST
This month I'm going to introduce you to the Mingming Test. You won't need a pencil or paper, just a bit of imagination. Oh, and a sledgehammer of course.
But first, some background. I conceived this little test while berthed in a Cowes marina. My yacht Mingming is only a little fellow, by the way. Hardly takes up any room at all and being painted mostly grey is easily overlooked.
So there we were minding our own totally inconsequential business when a large and imposing yacht came in and berthed alongside. As she came close her bulk threw a large shadow over us. The sky was blotted out. Day almost became night. From the safety of my hatch I surveyed the great white wall of her topsides, now just a few inches from my nose. The north face of the Eiger had finally found the Medina.
The plummy cut-glass accents of the couple on board could be heard resounding around the ridges and escarpments above. God, it must have been cold up there! 'All right,darling?' 'Yes, darling! A foot or two further forward perhaps!' 'That better, darling?' 'That's perfect, darling!' 'Jolly good, darling!' And so on. You know the script.
Having successfully moored their alpine landscape my new neighbours no doubt began to survey the surrounding lowlands from their lofty perch. I'm guessing on this one - nothing on their deck was visible from my height of eye, as ever roughly equivalent to that of a waterboatman.
I sat there and contemplated the awesome heights of this newly arrived natural feature. I tried to work out what advanced mountaineering techniques they used to climb up to and descend from the high plateau above.
A movement caught my eye and I looked slowly up. My neck felt as it does at the end of a day at the air show. I was amazed to find that even at that distance I could detect the faint outline of a blue-rinsed perm coming slowly into view above the cliff-top. This masterpiece of tricological sculpture framed two piercing eyes and a mouth like a healed stab wound. The eyes looked down and the whole ensemble jolted. Had someone poked her with a cattle-prod? Hell no - it was worse than that. She had, for the first time, seen the two little travesties alongside. Me and Mingming.
'Good heavens!' she said, craning dangerously forward, the better to see. I'll say this for her - she had a good head for heights. 'What on earth is that!' She stared a little longer, then realised that there was life aboard the toy boat down in the watery valley below.
'I say!' she shouted. 'You down there! Yes you! You don't go to sea in that… that…thing, do you?' Despite the distance, she didn't need a megaphone. They could probably still hear her in Switzerland.
'Of course!' I shouted back.
'Well it's jolly unsafe and it shouldn't be allowed!'
Call me old-fashioned but there are some things that get up my nose. This particular thing had all the right ingredients for a nasal ascent. I had a flash of inspiration. 'You want to do the Mingming Test, then?' I yelled back.
'What in earth is that?'
'Very simple, madame. We shall sail our respective craft, that is to say me my modest little yacht and you your Helvetian canton, to a nice remote spot, preferably about a thousand miles west of the Azores. Once there we shall lay alongside, rather as we are now. I shall then take out my 14lb sledgehammer and bash a ruddy great hole in the side of your boat, below the waterline of course, then a similar ruddy great hole in the side of my boat. We shall then wait ten minutes. At the end of those ten minutes we shall have a further discussion about seaworthiness. If you are still there to participate, that is.'
The two eyes stared. The stab wound worked nervously. Finally she found her best retort: 'You're a horrid little man and I don't like you!' This woman had been to finishing school, that was clear. Repartee delivered, the ice queen retreated to her mountain lair.
The Mingming test, you see, is nothing more than a rather subtle way of finding out whether a boat is unsinkable or not. Doesn't quite fall into the category of 'non-destructive', but what the hell, it shuts people up.
Everybody should at least think about the Mingming Test, especially if they are contemplating going offshore. More than a couple of hundred metres offshore, that is. The seas abound with their own version of the 14lb sledgehammer - sleeping whales, submerged rocks, containers gone walk-about, half-drunk jet-skiers. One of them'll get you one day. However big you are.
I myself would never go to sea in a yacht that did not pass the Mingming Test. I can't understand why it's not mandatory for every new-build to be unsinkable. Easy enough to do with today's lightweight, high-volume designs.
Thing is, I've researched all this very carefully. What I've found is that that there are only two positions a yacht can occupy relative to the ocean. You can be either on top of it, interfacing helpfully with the air we so like to breathe, or at the bottom of it, hobnobbing with wrecks and very weird sea creatures. I'd take the former every time.
On top is the place to be and, for my money, in my own boat. I'm puzzled why offshore sailors in particular don't make more effort in this regard. Why they seem so prepared to let their pride and joy spiral down through the depths. To lose their ship and exchange it for a flimsy bit of rubber tube that may or may not inflate.
I'd rather stay at sea level for another reason too. I suffer from altitude sickness. That's why I was relieved, but somehow not surprised, when my new neighbours omitted to invite me up to their bivouac for a well-chilled drink or two.
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A CATALOGUE OF ERRORS
There's no denying the convenience of buying the occasional bit of kit on-line. As long as you know exactly what you want, that is, and can put up with having to wait at least a day or two before getting your hands on it. It does save a lot of traipsing round. Just log on, log in, load up your digital shopping trolley with a pile of goodies, use a bit of encrypted code to further enlarge your personal debt, and hey presto! Done! All that remains is to await the life-enhancing clunk of a heavy parcel hitting the door mat. Or, if you've really gone to town, the grunting of the delivery man as he struggles up the driveway bearing large and heavy boxes well-stuffed with all the necessities of the sailing life.
Yes indeed. The mechanics of rapidly extracting large amounts of dosh in return for the fast delivery of dubious items of consumption is as well developed in the marine sector as anywhere. Littlewoods and Argos could probably learn a thing or two from the leading purveyors of must-have yachting accoutrements. They have got this down to the very finest of fine arts.
And, given the margins by which anything that hints of 'marine' or 'yacht' can, with seeming impunity, or at any rate with no apparent purchaser resistance, be loaded, who can blame them? At least with Littlewoods and the like you know you're getting cheap tat at cheap prices. Fair enough. On the marine side, what we are mostly offered is cheap tat at exorbitant prices.
Lest you think I protest too much, let me give you a few examples. Prior to last year's voyage I bought two LED headlamps. You know the sort of thing. One of those hands-free jobs you wear round your head. Makes you look like Arthur Scargill might have looked if he'd ever been down a mine. Very useful for deck work, chart work and so on. Anyway, I bought one at a stall at our local market for a fiver. In a moment of total stupidity, fearing lest the first one should give up the ghost at an inopportune moment, I bought another very fancy-looking one with a high-falutin' trade name, from a well-known marine chandlery. It pains me to say it, but I paid nearly thirty quid for this marvel of lumen-dispensing engineering. Ouch. For that money you'd expect to get a portable version of the Eddystone Lighthouse, with a two hundred year guarantee thrown in.
Need I tell you the denouement ( as we writers call it, or would if I knew how to coax an e acute out of my keyboard) of this sorry tale? You've already guessed it. Yes indeed. My cheap old market-bought one - which was, incidentally, also a damn sight easier to switch on and off - still does proud service. It was the supposed aristocrat, this Rolls-Royce of the forehead-borne searchlight, bought at Rolls-Royce prices, that quickly expired. Probably all that wet and damp you get at sea was too much for it. Made it feel faint. Gave it a touch of the vapours. Never expected to get out of the marina, after all.
Another example. Last year I invested in a complete weather centre for Mingming.
Yes, I bought a barometer. From a chandlery. At a moderately eye-watering price, considering that, despite the well-known French trade-mark, it was probably made in China and is not really a complicated mechanism. So did this one also unilaterally decide to take early retirement? Not exactly. But it was obviously not primed or prepared for the realities of the sea-going life. First decent bit of heavy weather and the glass cover fell off. Close examination revealed that it was evidently glued in place by no more than a couple of dabs of what looked like yesterday's sago pudding. Took half a roll of gaffer tape to keep the thing in place for the rest of the voyage. Very disappointing, but never mind, think of the generous contribution I had made to this particular chandler's balance sheet.
Anyway, this diversion into my shopping expertise is not the main point of this article. The thing is, once you have surrendered all your most intimate details to the on-line end of the chandlery business, you become a permanent fixture on their data-base.
Which in turn means that you cannot avoid becoming a regular recipient of their catalogue.
In my case it gets even worse. I've made the mistake of ordering stuff from home and from the office. I'm therefore on many data-bases twice, at different addresses. So I get two copies of the same catalogue. Oh joy.
There is something about marine chandlers' catalogues that send me into heart-stopping paroxysms driven by equal mixtures of despair, fury and unbridled amusement. To use one of the finest and most expressive terms to have been coined in the English language for many a year, they leave me gobsmacked.
The marine chandlery business has, for one, become adept at developing what I call 'the infinite series of consumption'. The basic premise is that whatever item you may be selling, there is always, always, some further additional and related item that can be purveyed on the back of it. And therefore another item that can be sold on the back of that one. And so on. Ad infinitum.
Let's take, for example, the fender. Every yacht needs a few, so what better item to get embarked on an infinite series of consumption? Why stop at selling mere fenders? What else can be created to develop and enlarge the fender series? Let's persuade boat owners that they need to protect
their fenders. Let's invent the fender sock .
Good one. How about some fender sock shampoo?
Love it. Fender sock shampoo holder?
Brilliant. Fender sock shampoo holder cabinet?
Yes,yes! Book that Caribbean holiday! Fender sock shampoo holder cabinet cleaning brush?
Marvellous! They'll sell like hot cakes! How about a fender sock shampoo holder cabinet cleaning brush replacement head?
Wicked! Wicked! Send off the down payment on the Spanish villa! I know - fender sock shampoo holder cabinet cleaning brush replacement head storage box?
Inspired! Thank heavens there's room in the garage for another Ferrari! Wait! Wait! I've got it! The ultimate! How about - are you listening! - a fender sock shampoo holder cabinet cleaning brush replacement head storage box FENDER??
Oh, too much! Too much! Enough already!
You get the picture. The infinite series of consumption. Endless chains of items stamped out of plastic in third world sweat-shops and sold on at stellar mark-ups to their cost of production. With the marine catalogue as their showcase.
Then there's the lingo. Cataloguese,
I call it. It is, as its vaguely Iberian-sounding name suggests, a shorthand patois set against a background of much hand-clapping, heel-stamping and self-satisfied oles.
(There's my e acute problem again. Damn.) Superlatives abound. Everything is the lightest/strongest/most advanced/best value.
(Ole! Clap,clap! Stamp, stamp!) A bit of technobamboozlement never goes astray. Comes with a protective ecopolybiridium antiexogenous coating.
(Clap,clap! Stamp, stamp! Ole!) Well it would, wouldn't it?
Let's not forget the appeals to our vanity, our laziness, our fear of rejection. Special Introductory Offer!! The new FirstMate Invisible Hairnet!! For the little lady aboard! This stunning new hairnet, specially crafted out of dimonocarborundevlar fibres, is invisible to the naked eye! Keeps your perm perfect! Even in a Force 8! The lightest, strongest, most invisible hairnet yet invented! No more combing!
(Ole! Clap,clap!) No more awkward knots!
(Clap,clap! Stamp,stamp! Ole!) Amaze and impress your friends as you arrive back at the marina with not a hair our of place!! Look younger! Look prettier! Look COOL!! Choice of shapes: Bob, Bunches, Beehive. One colour only - the FirstMate Invisible Hairnet's revolutionary autochameleopolysynthesising cellular structure means it adapts instantly to your particular tint or dye.
See next page for full details of the following indispensable items:
FirstMate Invisible Hairnet Maintenance Kit
FirstMate Invisible Hairnet Maintenance Kit Holder
FirstMate Invisible Hairnet Maintenance Kit Holder Cleaning Kit
FirstMate Invisible Hairnet Maintenance Kit Holder Cleaning Kit Travel Bag. Look the part as you arrive for that weekend on the high seas!
DON'T MISS OUR PERSONALISATION OFFER!! All the above can be enhanced with your personal monogram, yacht name and tasteful anchor motif. Choice of fonts. Only £12.00 extra per item!
And so it goes on and on. For page after glossy page. Marvellous stuff. Amazing. Infuriating. Mind-boggling in its attentiveness to the most dead-end minutiae. Somewhere armies of compilers must be beavering away to produce these things. Putting together the lay-out and the blurb and the pricing for thousands and thousands of marginal products. Every single one the subject of design, production and a high-level photo-shoot. What industry! What devotion to the cause of commerce!
Yet there seems to be something mad about the whole business. Surely all a leisure sailor wants to do is to get away from the press and stress of daily life and spend a bit of time messing about in boats? It's not really that complicated. Sure there's stuff you've got to have. But not a lot. The question should not be 'What do I need?
but 'What can I do without?
Everyone from the sages of old to the most experienced world-girdling liveaboards will all tell you the same thing. The less you need, the happier you are. The other side of the coin is obvious. The more you need, the less happy you are. The marine catalogue is simply one weapon amongst the marine marketeer's vast amoury for persuading us that our needs are greater than they really are.
It is a very effective weapon. Trouble is, it's hard to resist. I should know. I've just ordered a FirstMate Invisible Hairnet…
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Unless you're a confirmed and fully paid up East Coast sailor, you've probably never heard of Tollesbury. It's the kind of place you only find on the twists and turns of the tortuous Essex sea-board. Whether you're heading there by water or by tarmacadam, you have to make something of an effort to find it. The watery end of Tollesbury squats uncomfortably at the confluence of tidal creek, salt marsh and mud flat. The land here, and the final bit of narrow road, doesn't really end. It just peters out in a welter of old sheds and yards and mud-berths. Tollesbury justs falls, with no pretensions to grace or style, into the Essex marshes. If you need a bit more precision, Tollesbury is located on the north side of the broad expanses of the River Blackwater. Like most of the Essex villages thereabouts its proud sea-going tradition is founded on winter fishing and the summer provision of paid crews for the great J-class racers.
For many years I made regular pilgrimages there. It was, after all, much cheaper and quicker than a hike down to Lourdes, and much more fulfilling for my tortured soul. Apart from the pull of its rugged beauty, and believe me, that motley collection of tattered sail lofts staring blindly out over the grey marshes, with only the far cry of a curlew for accompaniment, can tear at your heart strings as effectively as any pretty Canaletto, I was drawn to Tollesbury by one thing. Boats.
It's hard to know where to start on this. It's not just that, at the creek-side end of Tollesbury, there were boats everywhere. There are plenty of places where there are 'boats everywhere' and which leave you pretty indifferent. At Tollesbury, boats took on an organic quality. They seemed really to be growing, sprouting up, everywhere there was enough space for a keel and a few frames to take a hold on life. By the roadside, on any old patch of dirt, down in the creeks, out in the marshes, and in the one organised bit, the old marina itself, boats insinuated themselves into every last corner of the landscape.
And what boats! Smacks and prawners and bawleys and barges, all in various states of undress and disarray, weird old tubs, gentleman's yachts, converted lifeboats, 'projects', some gleaming with recent optimism, others well past abandonment, cruisers, smart or tattered as the case may be, from the boards of Holman, Buchanan, Dallimore, the inevitable selection of boxy (his term, not mine) Griffiths' swatchway crawlers, mostly well-tended by retired heating engineers and the like, old Folkboats, Blackwater sloops, squat little bilge keelers of every provenance, you name it, if you looked hard enough into every last nook and cranny, you would find it.
There was no greater pleasure than to spend a wintery afternoon just wandering around, drawn on from one little delight to the next. Here was the great life-cycle of the boat, and man's insatiable drive to get afloat, laid out in a hodge-podge of successes and bitter failures, triumphs and tragedies, conceptions and executions superb and awful. The good was breath-taking, the bad too. Let's go the whole hog - here, amongst rotting frame, fresh-painted top-side, rusting chainplate and sweetly-turned bilge, one could discern a metaphor for the whole of life itself.
The sharp-eyed reader will have noticed, in this description of this muddy, magical place, the exclusive use of the past tense. Ah yes. The present tense would, unfortunately, require a different tone.
Not so long ago I was back in Tollesbury, for the first time in a while. A friend had bought a yacht there, and I was to help him deliver it back down the coast. I was looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with the marina, having a quick shufty at the no-doubt interesting collection of craft always to be found there. Driving past the sheds and sail lofts, nothing much seemed to have changed. Boats strewn everywhere. Work in progress. Work long since unprogressed. The old red light ship still stuck out in the marshes. A hundred peeling old tubs still grinding out their holes in the mud. Plus ça change…
The smile that was welling up inside me faded as we drove into the marina. Oh no! Not here too! Surely not!
But it was true. Unequivocally, painfully true. White-out had come to Tollesbury. Stretched out before us was a right royal snowfield. A sparkling glacier. The icepack of the Weddell Sea had found its way into the dingiest, most delightful corner of Essex. You know what I'm talking about. Wall to wall plastic of the immaculate kind.
Boat Show pristinity. Everywhere you cared to look. Just about every berth now housed, in place of a one-off character, thirty five glistening feet of indentikit well-machined and industrially-polished clonage.
Time was when the first stage in assessing the interest in a crowd of moored boats was a quick survey of masts. You'd look for the odd men out - taller, shorter, wooden, pole masts, unstayed masts, schooner rigs, whatever broke the monotony. Look under these masts and you'd find the interesting stuff. Time was at Tollesbury when it was just about all pure interest, when it was all a great mish-mash of every conceivable way that something can be made to float and move. Now the masts and their inevitable appendages and attachments could all have been drawn from the same mould.
It was a shock to see how quickly this snowy wasteland had encroached so comprehensively into such a resolute backwater of loving tradition and devil-may-care originality. I'd guess it's taken no more than five years or so for the balance to shift from one to the other. The Greenland ice-cap may be in melt-down, but the soulless white-out of the over-sized mass-produced yacht is, for the moment, in rude health. These 'bergy bits' get bigger by the year. They pack tighter and tighter. They don't move much, but they have taken over. Seems there is no escape.
(Once you're caught in the pack-ice, your fate is pretty much sealed. You'll never get out. It will squeeze you until every rib snaps and crumbles. It will pressure you up and out, away from the water somewhere beneath. It is not resistible. And unless you are careful, it will ruin vour vision. The unremitting glare of white-out will blind you. If you succumb, chances are you will be lost forever...)
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MAKE DO AND MEND
I read recently about a woman in New York who had resolved to get through a whole year without buying anything new. Apparently there is a growing movement along these lines in the USA. It has an appropriate name, but I can't remember it. This seems like one great idea, especially as it originates from the most profligate user of resources on the planet.
It stands to reason that over the long term we can't go on and on chucking stuff away and replacing it with the latest shiniest version. The world's population grows inexorably. Marketeers find ever more pervasive and persuasive techniques to induce us to consume. Acquisitive middle class urges take increasing hold in the vast heartlands of China and India and the other emerging economies, creating billions of new consumers. But, in the end, our resources are finite. There is only so much and it can't last forever.
We're not stupid, and I'm sure we all recognise, deep down, that despite our apparent wealth, we just can't go on having whatever we like whenever we want it. Just thinking about it, even doing a bit of high moralising and low pontificating, is all very well, but what counts, as the lady in New York has rightly decided, is practical action.
During Mingming's last voyage, her rig took a bit of a battering. Three battens broke. The fractured ends of the battens tore their pockets. A four foot length of sail leach ripped and was roughly resewn, from the hatch, by hand. By the time we arrived in Plymouth, things aloft were in a sorry state.
For the last couple of weeks of the voyage, I amused and consoled myself by planning the sparkling new rig I was going to have. After 27 years, I thought, the old girl deserves it. We'll go for the latest designs and techniques in sail and battens. We'll have a fancy cambered sail and the last word in articulating battens. We'll replace all the cordage. I seriously considered whether I might even go for a new mast to hang everything on. I knew that even without a new mast all this would, relatively, cost a fair bit. All right, let's talk real numbers. It was not going to leave me with much change out of £2,500 or so. Almost as much as I'd paid for the boat in the first place. It wasn't money I could ever get back on a resale, but what the hell, I could afford it. The lure of the new and shiny had taken a deep hold on me.
This lasted for another week or two once I was ashore. I de-rigged Mingming, ready for transporting her back to the east coast. The sail and broken battens were put gleefully to one side. I thought I'd never use them again. I was lining myself up for a bit of shopping therapy...
I thank the weather for helping me see sense. It was a sunny Saturday in early September. I knew I was going to have to make a decision soon. What the benign conditions allowed me to do was to drag the sail and the various bits of the dismantled battens out and spread them on the lawn. I walked round and examined everything carefully. I sat in a chair and stared at it all. I considered the position as rationally as I could. I did some sums. I thought about that lady in New York.
I never did order a fancy new sail and state of the art battens. Fundamentally there was nothing wrong with the sail. Nothing that three or four afternoons with a needle and palm couldn't fix. The battens too are now almost completely rebuilt. Three new lengths of 32mm plastic waste pipe cost about £20. The rest - the spruce and douglas fir cores - I've made by scarphing broken bits, and using some leftovers from the timber used to build my sculls/jury mast/jury steering oar.
It's not about saving money - although I won't deny the warm and self-satisfied glow that being a couple of thousand quid better off can generate. It's about the more fundamental principle of getting the most out of the least. Of rejecting the instant throw-away. Of making these finite resources last as long as possible.
It's also about the rewards of sorting things out yourself. It's difficult to explain this. You either understand it instinctively or you don't. Let's put it this way: when I next sail Mingming - and that will be on May 31st next year, bound from Plymouth to the Azores - my relationship to and feelings about the sail and battens will be different than they otherwise would have been. They will also be quite different from those I would have had for a new rig.
I will have spent the winter handling and rebuilding these vital components. I have examined every stitch and seam of the sail. Many of them are now my own work. I have dismantled the battens and reconstructed them from scratch. I now know exactly how each one is made, what materials have been used, where joins and potential weaknesses may be. I have a clear mental picture of how everything goes together. The work I have done has allowed me to develop a physical feel for the whole.
When I look at the rig operating well, I will feel pleased and proud. If it goes wrong I will only have myself to blame, but I will be in a much better position to fix it quickly and easily. Neither of these propositions would apply to a bought-in solution.
Make do and mend. The philosophy of our frugal grandparents, and of a certain New York matron. It has a lot going for it.
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MAD ABOUT MARINA
Years and years ago, so long ago that the edges of my memory are as frayed as a old rope end, I used to conduct an orchestra. Don't ask me how I landed a job like that but I did. It was during a period of down time from the lifelong sailing obsession.
There was a viola player in this orchestra I fancied something rotten. She was tall and nervous. Blushed if you so much as glanced at her. I guess she was pretty. Maybe not. But whatever she was, she got my blood pulsing. When you're the boss it doesn't do to fraternise too much with the troops, so nothing came of it.
I've never forgotten that silly little crush. I'm reminded of it almost daily. Why? The object of my desire was called Marina. I'd never heard the name before. Didn't know the word existed, in any form. I'd known plenty of girls called Mary or Marianne. I'd heard of marines and mariners. I knew you could marinate stuff. But marina? Nope. It was this edgy girl, with the name fit for a mermaid, who first made me aware of it.
Well, in just a couple of decades the word marina has entered our vocabulary as comprehensively as internet, i-pod, Iridium and EPIRB. For the modern day sailor, there is no way of escaping it. It really doesn't matter how independently minded you are. Even if you are an avid user of mooring, anchor, wharf or jetty you will soon find that wherever you are there is a marina near you and, at some point, you have no choice but to use it.
In principle, the concept behind the marina is faultless, from both the user's and the owner's point of view. The user gets a safe, secure point to tie up, complete with toilet and shower blocks, water, power, slip facilities, chandlery and usually a handy bar and restaurant. And of course a wireless internet connection. Absolutely brilliant. No worries about anything. Step on and off. Everything to hand. Almost as good as being at home!
The owner's initial high investment is repaid from healthy long-term berthage fees, even healthier short term visitors' fees and all the ancillary earnings from cranings out and in, scrub-offs, shipwrighting and all the rest of it. What's more, as time goes on and more and more Mr and Mrs Newley-Richardses pop down to Earls Court or maybe Excel to snap up the latest Odyssey, and as moorings become scarcer than red on a marina operator's balance sheet, the marina business becomes a quasi-monopoly. And that is just fantastic. If you happen to own a marina.
Now, not many of us do in fact own marinas, just as not many of us own our own little gold mine. That's a sad fact, but there it is. What's more, as far as I can see, the ownership of marinas is falling into fewer and fewer hands. OK, ownership doesn't just 'fall'. It is schemed at and fought for. It involves big money and big risks. But we can all think of an old-fashioned friendly yard or two that has been hoovered up into the modern marina machine. Birdham Pool for example. Fambridge on the River Crouch.
What's more, we see more and more consolidation at the top end of the feeding chain. My guess is that before too long, the whole multi-million pound marina sector will be carved up between three or four dominant players. Of course they are doing anything but playing. They are building scale, branding, standardisation. The berthing industry is being corporatised and commoditised. It is being subsumed too into the wider business of waterside real estate development.
And it probably doesn't end there. If companies are assembling portfolios of marinas, which right now they surely are, then the object will be to capitalise on those portfolios. Chances are they will be sold on to even bigger conglomerates. Associated British Ports (ABP), for example, is already in the game, owning marinas and collecting your fees. ABP itself is owned by Admiral Acquisitions (UK) Ltd. Admiral has a mix of institutional shareholders. Amongst these, believe it or not, is the investment arm of the Ontario Municipal Employees' Retirement System.Oh, and the government of Singapore.
It's a far cry from the family-owned yards some of us are still lucky enough to deal with. Where you're on first name terms with the boss. Where he knows and cares personally about the boats in his charge. This is not to say that marinas are not friendly places. Generally they are welcoming to a fault. Often, though, it is the bland and meaningless friendliness of the hospitality industry. The berth-holder is just another punter, to be kept happy as long as he pays his bills.
For most sailors, the loss of the personal touch and the increase in costs is probably adequately offset by the superior facilities of the modern marina. It's a trade-off most are happy to go along with.
But something about all this gnaws away at me. It's the vision of a future in which most of our waterside facilities, and swinging moorings too, are in the hands of global financial institutions. A future in which boat owners have become no more than corporate income streams, to be securitised, packaged and sold on to the highest bidder. The highest bidder will of course be the one who sees the most potential for squeezing out yet more revenue.
Don't laugh. This process is already well under way. My young man's crush on the viola-playing Marina was, I admit, a pretty silly aberration. The way things are going with the modern marina should be taken very seriously indeed.
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THE JESTER CHALLENGE - A PERSONAL VIEW
The Jester Challenge is a curious phenomenon. Although notionally a transatlantic 'race' based on Blondie Hasler's outline for a Transatlantic Single-handed race Series Two, it is at the same time a lot less than that, and a lot more.
It is a lot less in the sense that it is not really a race in the accepted sense of the term. It is simply an opportunity for like-minded skippers to cross the Atlantic, starting at the same time. Skippers time themselves in and, quite frankly, nobody gives a hoot who gets there first. It is a lot less too in the sense that it is not really an 'event' at all. There is no organising committee, no rules to speak of (even the notional maximum thirty-foot length overall rule is happily broken), no entry fee, no inspections. The Jester Challenge exists, that is for sure, but in a resolutely indefinable form.
It is this indefinability, in fact, that gives the Jester Challenge its strength. The Jester Challenge is more than anything an idea, a concept. Each individual is therefore free to interpret it as he or she likes, and to take from it what they will.
Although the leaping off point for the Jester Challenge was the disenfranchisement of yachts under thirty feet from the OSTAR, it is about much more than boat length. The Jester Challenge is a rallying point for those who despair of the creeping regulation and the over-commercialisation that now pervades our sport. It is a focal point for those who want to see responsibility back in the hands of individual skippers, rather than committees. It is a symbol of defiance against nannies and rule-freaks.
I am sure that it is these symbolic aspects of the Jester Challenge that has touched a real vein of feeling in much of the yachting community. It is not simply a challenge between 'competing' skippers, but a challenge to the status quo. It shows that things can be done differently, at a more relaxed, intimate, human level. It shows that there is a valid place for something other than the mad, corporate-driven, Formula-One type frenzy of modern ocean racing. It brings it all back to one dedicated skipper and his or her relatively straightforward and inexpensive yacht. The yachts are self-funded, lovingly nurtured and, in contrast to those of the modern ocean racing fleets, not in any sense expendable.
The first Jester Challenge has been, inevitably, a relatively modest affair. Expressions of interest from potential participants were at a very high level. About sixteen skippers formally entered (not that there are any formalities apart from a statement of intention), and ten yachts started. However it is a beginning. I am convinced that the next Challenges, to the Azores in 2008, and to Newport, Rhode Island in 2010, will have many more starters.
At Plymouth we had a regular flow of visitors and well-wishers to our assembly point. Many were yacht owners already thinking of entering future events. It was very clear from the interest shown and the comments made that the Jester Challenge had touched a chord with the ordinary sailor. The general consensus was that it was a 'great idea'. One chap, Colin, drove all the way from the Scottish borders to lend a hand in whatever way he could. John, an Australian yacht owner, flew over from Geneva to act as unofficial photographer. At least two local skippers gave me their contact details and urged me to get in touch if there was anything I needed - even if it was just a lift to the local supermarket.
All that brings me back to the real appeal of the Jester Challenge. It is about simple human endeavour on an approachable human scale. The Jester Challengers are not demi-gods piloting impossibly sophisticated leviathans at keel-breaking speeds, just ordinary everyday sailors who want to go that little bit further. The Jester Challenge is for Everyman, and that is to be treasured. Back to top
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