Blasts from the past

Nicholas Hill

email me


22 November 2013

Terschelling Sands

Terschelling Sands I was reading this book again recently, because I had passed through that part of the world earlier this year. In many respects it is now very outdated, although in other respects, nothing has changed. The hazards of the sea are the same now as they were then. The book describes how Mulville and his family set off heading for Denmark, but contrary winds forced them into the shelter of the inland waterways of the Netherlands. Armed with new charts, they headed out from Terschelling and down a channel which, unknown to Mulville, had become blocked by shifting sands. They went hard on the sand, and it seemed as though the boat might be lost. Mulville put his wife, two small children, and the other member of the crew into the life raft, and cast them adrift. The idea was that they would then get taken by the wind onto the beach, and then go and get help. Naturally, things didn't work out that way.

One passage caught my eye, which no one in these more 'enlightened' days would ever write now:

They all sat down in a circle and Celia took out chocolate and gave a piece to each boy. She found a packet of biscuits in her bag but they were soaked in seawater and inedible. "Oh well," she said, "we'll all have a drink." She opened the bottle of brandy and poured some for Patrick using the top of a lemonade bottle in which she had brought water as a cup. Patrick put his head back and swallowed the brandy in one gulp and the cup was filled and passed to Adrian. He took a sip and spluttered "Mummy, it's very fiery stuff", but he too managed to drink the bottle top full. Celia and Anne each had a swig out of the bottle. The boys laid down in the sand and in one moment they were both fast asleep. Celia found a more or less dry packet among the cigarettes she had brought and she started striking the damp matches until suddenly one flared up and she lit it. She passed a cigarette to Anne and lit it for her from her own and then they both sat and puffed for a few minutes. Celia said "We mustn't stay here too long. The boys will have to be woken up before they get cold and we'll get cold too if we sit here for too long".

Celia was Mulville's wife, and Anne was apparently a nurse. The two small boys were six and eight. The idea of giving small boys tots of brandy would not be considered good parenting in today's world, and no one in today's sailing world smokes cigarettes any more.

PS - the illustration on the front of the book is excellent: my scan does it no justice!


18 September 2013

My new chart plotter ...

... is not a chart plotter at all. It is a tablet. There is a very great division in the tablet market between Apple's iPad and the rest. I have bought a Nexus 7, which uses the Android operating system. In one sense, it doesn't matter what you use - the important thing is the application and how it looks and behaves on the tablet.

nexus 7Of course, one of the problems is that these tablets are not properly waterproof, nor designed to be used in a marine environment. I've bought a tough case to house the Nexus, so that it doesn't matter if it gets bounced around. I keep it under the spray hood, away from any saltwater or rain.

It was bought for use in the Baltic, and the choice was between Navionics and C-Map charts. The Navionics wouldn't run on the Nexus at the time that I bought it, so I went for the C-Map. This works well, with the major objection that as far as I have been able to find out, it won't run in a standard North up display. Otherwise it has been extremely useful. Battery life seems to be about six hours.

For use in home waters, there is MX Mariner which uses Admiralty charts. These are very well displayed. You buy the charts separately from the UK Hydrographic Office, and they come with the cheerful warning NOT BE USED FOR NAVIGATION.

I haven't bothered with things like waypoints and routes. That isn't the point of the tablet - I do that on the laptop down below. What I want instead is a screen in front of me so that I can tell which buoy is which when I'm going down narrow channels or into harbour.

The screenshots below are of the C-Map and NX Mariner respectively. They actually do the programs an injustice: I've had to reduce the resolution of the screenshot in order to fit it on to the page.

nexus_cmap nexus_mx)

The C-Map image shows the final approach to Haapsalu in Estonia, and the MX Mariner is showing the entrance to Littlehampton.

You can of course do lots of other things with tablets as well as use them for chart plotters, but as far as I am concerned, that's their main use.


10th December 2010

Learning from Experience

For years - nay, decades, Yachting Monthly have run a feature on the last page called 'The Confessional'. At one time, I almost considered sending this story in - but it doesn't quite fit. There's no one big stupidity - just lots of little ones.

Virgo CenturionVery soon after buying Centurion, I decided I'd head for the Solent - probably Chichester. I looked at the charts I had, and decided that it would be a good idea to give Selsey Bill a wide berth, and go round the Owers. This was pre-GPS days, although there was Decca, which used radio beacons. Needless to say, I hadn't got one. Nor a working log. The only 'electronic' instruments on board were the depth sounder and a very old VHF (it had a limited number of channels - this was in the days when you needed a separate crystal for each frequency!).

It was a fine sunny day with the wind about F3. I set off into the unknown. Everything was fine for the first few hours, then came the first big puzzle.

On the horizon were sails - not just one or two, but perhaps forty or fifty, all bunched together. I looked at the chart - Worthing? Littlehampton? Forty yachts? Unlikely. Then ... maybe they were coming out of the Solent. Perhaps I was making better time than I thought I was. I tacked inshore, and saw the sails turn round and head in. Closer to, I saw dozens of Laser dinghies on the beach*. Chichester, I thought. Well, press on, and I can make Portsmouth.

But the wind died, and I found myself drifting about a mile from the shore. Then, to my surprise and alarm, I felt the boat bump. And bump again. And stop. I was aground. A couple of hundred metres away I could see a post**, obviously marking something - though I didn't know what.

I suppose I was stuck for about an hour, until the tide started rising and I was able to bump my way out. I could see the Isle of Wight, but the wind had now filled in again, and the island was dead to windward. Thus I was trying to beat against the tide to get there - a fairly fruitless pastime.

It was also getting quite late now - sunset couldn't be that far off. I decided I was getting nowhere - why not turn back and head to what I thought was Chichester? But by the time I got there the sun was below the horizon, and what I could see didn't look at all like Chichester. I hove to and scanned the chart. Nothing I could see bore any resemblance to anything on the chart.

But it was getting dark enough for buoys to start flashing, and I saw something - six short, one long. I scanned the Solent chart. Nothing there. And if I was near Chichester, then I should be seeing other lights. But there was just this one. In desperation, I pulled out the chart for Selsey Bill to Beachy Head, and started scanning that. Yes! Off Littlehampton. And everything fell into place.

So, what now? The Solent was out, since both wind and tide were against me, and it was now night. Littlehampton, Shoreham - not good bets. Only one thing for it then - back to Brighton. I'd have both wind and tide behind me. I discovered I quite enjoyed night sailing - just as well, really - and some hours later arrived off Brighton. In the lumpy seas off the marina, I crawled forward to pull the jib down (it was of the hanked on variety). But then, to my dismay, I saw the entry lights were on red.

Why? I wondered. No big ships go in and out of Brighton marina. For a moment, I thought they might close the marina at night, and I'd have to wait until dawn. I stood there with the boat pitching and rolling, thinking what to do now. Then a dark shape materialised at the entrance. Something large was moving out. Something really quite large.

I moved out of the way. In the dim light, I recognised what it was - a dredger! Eventually it backed away, then disappeared, as the lights went green. I was able to motor in, tie up, and get some well deserved sleep.

One phrase I hate is 'lessons learned'. To me, it smacks of the tick box mentality - put another few items on the form, and make sure you have ticked the box each time you go sailing. There is - or should be! - something called 'learning from experience', when you say to yourself, 'That didn't go very well. Need to do it differently next time.' You can make a long list of all the things I got wrong - but the most important thing is discovering why you got them wrong.

*I later discovered the Laser national championships were being held at Littlehampton!

**The Moxon beacon off Selsey Bill

PS - I should also say this was in 1986, long before the days of GPS, and at that time, I couldn't afford a Decca set!


23rd September 2009

Four Countries – Five Days

flags

...which is not bad going – although, to be honest, it isn't quite as impressive as it sounds. This was planned as the last major excursion of the year, so I might as well make it a good one.

Starting from Schaprode in the German bodden, I headed north to Klintholm, which was about 40 miles in all. At this time of year (coming to the equinox), you need an early start to be sure of arriving in daylight. There was very little wind, and I motored all the way with the wind almost astern. Apparent wind: 1 knot! Still, better than the wind on your nose.

I saw a boat with a very large (illegal!) Saint Andrew's flag arrive a little later, and guessed, correctly, he was Scots – although he had lived in Denmark for some years.

But where next? I looked at all the pilot books, and then something caught my eye – a small harbour in the south of Sweden called Abbekås. 54 miles – and it seemed to have some moorings that weren't box moorings!

So, off the next day, with a brisk SSE wind. Good progress, and the harbour master spotted me and directed me to some staging by the harbour wall. He seemed slightly surprised that I wanted to stay for more than one night, and also dismayed that I had no Swedish money (my first visit to Sweden). Fortunately, the restaurant in the harbour gave me some cash on a Visa card.

Abbekås harbour in Sweden

Abbekås in Sweden. In case you're in doubt where to tie up, the word 'GASTPLATS' is painted on the wall. The meaning is fairly obvious - GUEST PLACE!

Then due south – now with a brisk westerly wind – to Sassnitz, back in Germany. Nothing much had changed since my last visit – empty pontoons closed off and accumulating more seagull crap, fishing boats creating wash all the time ...oh, they'd taken away the chemical toilets on the breakwater. So only the one night, before heading further south to Swinoujscie (free internet!) in Poland, this time with an even brisker wind.

Where from here? Well, back into the bodden (the bodden are a series of inland waterways a bit like a cross between the Solent and the Norfolk Broads, but extending over 100 miles!) to Ueckermunde, then a slow trip back to Neuhof where the boat comes ashore for the winter. They're charging the same as last year – 750€ – the main difference that the pound has sunk from 1.27€ last year to 1.100 this year. As a result, the effective cost to me is an extra £90. I sometimes read articles from economists that devaluation is a good thing – exports are cheaper etc. If that were the case, Britain would have the most successful economy in Europe.


24th May 2009

An embarrassing moment ... flag

Since my arrival in Estonia, I have found everyone extremely helpful and very hospitable. This morning I tested Estonian efficiency to its limit, and it came up trumps! It is, in many ways, a slightly embarrassing tale, but here goes.

It began soon after 7 o'clock this morning. The boat was hit by the wash from a passing pilot boat, and began rolling madly from side to side. I could hear things falling over in the cabin. After such a wakening, I thought I might as well get up.

I tried opening the door to the main cabin, but found it would open only a few centimetres. I was baffled for a moment or two, then realised what had happened. Next to the cabin door is the galley, with drawers for knives and forks, and so on. I must have left one of them unlatched, and it had slid open, blocking the door [the photo below, taken after the event, shows what I mean].

drawer

How to escape? There were two small hatches to the cabin, but they were just for ventilation. There were no panels I could unscrew to get out, and anyway, I had no tools with me. I was the only boat on the pontoon with anyone aboard. Then I remembered - my mobile phone, which I hadn't used since I had left Britain, was in the cabin! Maybe I could ring someone in England ... but there's a two hour time difference, so it was about 0530 there. Then they'd have to go onto the Internet, find Parnu Yacht Club, and call them from the UK ... maybe not. There was one option. Emergency numbers ...

I dialled the number. I got an answer, not surprisingly, in Estonian. I had to explain I was British ... yes? ... and I was locked on a yacht ... a yacht? you want sea rescue? ... no, no, no, I am at Parnu Yacht Club ... baffled silence, then which city? ... Parnu, the Yacht Club ... okay, name of boat? And this goes on a for a little while, until she hangs up.

I was a little worried - would she think I was a lunatic? (No comment) A hoaxer? Then I hear in the distance da, da, da, da .... The Fire Brigade was on its way!

I did have one other way of drawing attention to myself (apart from shouting in a very British way, 'Um, excuse me? Do you think you could give me a hand here?') - this was getting a coathanger, sticking a cap on top, putting my arm out of the hatch, and waving it about, hoping to attract someone's attention.

The thunder of feet down the pontoon! Chap in civvies climbs on, and we have a slightly awkward conversation - 'Er, no, not that hatch there, that one ... yes, it slides ... now if you could just close the drawer ...' And out I come, dishevelled, dressed in pyjamas. On the pontoon were four firemen, in their gear, helmets, the lot, carrying axes and hammers. I looked at these slightly apprehensively. The civvie said something to them. They all looked rather disappointed. 'Sorry for calling you out,' I babbled, 'very helpful ...' The civvie gave me a disdainful look and they walked away down the pontoon.

I suppose calling the emergency services might have been a bit over the top. Someone might have gone down the pontoon later in the morning (although I had no way of telling that someone was there). The sailmaker was due to call later that day ... on the other hand being stuck in the cabin for several hours did not appeal! I went round to the fire station later with a bottle of vodka to say thank you - a young Estonian women translated to one of the firefighters [not one that had come that morning] and promised to pass the bottle on. I hope she did.

Memo: check the drawers before going to bed. Keep the number of the local harbourmaster in the cabin!


28th January 2009

Round the Island Race flag

After Centurion, my first boat, I owned a Trapper 500, Black Prince, a very rewarding boat to sail.

Usually I don't have much time or opportunity for racing. However, I travelled to Alderney in August 2004 for a rally, and met Nick, who was hosting the event, in the bar of the Alderney Sailing Club.

"I've entered you for the Round Alderney Race," he told me.

Black Prince - a Trapper 500

I was a touch apprehensive. Alderney is somewhat rockstrewn. There are considerable overfalls. The weather was, shall we say, brisk. And I'd be taking on local boats who knew all the shortcuts.

Black Prince had separate hanked on jibs when I bought her, but as I singlehand a lot, I soon fitted roller reefing. The big genoa is fine up to the top of say F3, but is too much after that. I bought a blade jib - roughly a Number 3 - to put on for times when I knew it would be blowy. Fortunately I had that with me. The other issue was whether to reef the main: I decided I'd go for full main and small jib, which turned out to be a good choice.

The secretary of the sailing club worked out a handicap for me. Nick and his sailing partner Clive, who have homes on the island, joined me soon before the start. The first issue was the submerged part of the breakwater, notorious for catching out the unwary.

"Follow that big chap," they said. "He's got the coxswain of the local life boat on board."

I stuck to his tail and followed his wake over the breakwater. Outside the harbour, it was blowing around WSW F5, with quite a strong ebbing tide. The 'big chap', our rival for line honours, had a partly rolled genoa, and with our small jib, we were able to point 10-15 degrees higher.

It was certainly lumpy, and we took a fair amount of water over the bow at the bottom of the Swinge. The tide was slackening by then: the start time was devised so that you took the ebb to the bottom of the island and the flood back up the other side.

I was hiding behind the sprayhood (which any real racing man would have taken down!) whilst Nick and Clive stood at the rear of the cockpit clutching the backstay. It kept them dry, and more importantly, they could see where we were going. "Head for that rock there," they would say from time to time.

As we came off the wind, the opposition began to catch us, putting up a spinnaker at the bottom of the island. I hadn't a spinnie on board, and the blade jib was not a lot of use downwind. As we came back round the top of the island, we began to catch up again, but not enough to beat him over the line.


The results were announced in the sailing club bar an hour or two later. On corrected time, the 'English boat' [catcalls] had won. Mind you, there had been only four boats in the race. But it was a good race to have won.

At the end of the race, I had reached to start the engine, and felt the key twist in my hand, though fortunately not break off. I didn't fancy sailing back to the buoy, and the harbour launch were kind enough to bring us back, which was a bit tricky in that wind with all the other boats around.

Mainbrayce came out in the morning, and managed to silver solder the key [all the spares were at home, needless to say]. The engine still wouldn't start, however, and we found that the relay for the starter had a dodgy connection. Pulling it out and pushing it back in firmly cured the problem!


19th June 2008

No good deed ever goes unpunished ... flag

In an earlier post, I mentioned Rob Clark (who plans to sail round the world on a stochastic route, and who volunteered, foolish man, to help sail Prospero across the North Sea last April. I first met Rob when we were both Trapper owners. He was going cross Channel for the first time, and emailed me with some queries. When are you going, I asked? He told me. I realised that I was on holiday on that date as well. Why not go in company, I said? So we did.

Black Prince - a Trapper 500We decided to meet up on the buoys off Yarmouth, but it was too bouncy to tie up together, and I retired to another buoy for the night. We set off very early the next morning, in a flat calm, with the tide whooshing us out through Hurst Narrows and the Needles. Look at that smart mainsail!

We were in for several hours of tedious motoring, and the tide was now pushing us east. Our destination was Alderney, and I was relying on the change of tide to sweep us down there. Didn't work out like that, though. A breeze came up. We could switch off the engine and sail. The only snag was that Alderney was directly upwind. I knew that even with the tide behind us, we wouldn't make it. I hailed Rob and we altered for Cherbourg, which was so full we ended spending the night on the waiting pontoon, before getting berths in the marina in the morning.


in Cherbourg Marina

Black Prince and Bright Flyer in Cherbourg.


So, off to Alderney next day? Well, not quite. The forecast was for westerly Force 6. No good, I said to Rob. Why not go round to St Vaast instead? It's always worth a visit.

So we set off the next afternoon to take the flood tide with us, aiming to arrive at around high water. The sky was a little ominous, but to begin with, the breeze was F 3 to 4 dead astern, and with the tide under us, we were making good ground speed - which made the apparent wind seem less. It strengthened as we came round Barfleur. I was under full sail, and nearly closehauled. The boat was over on its ear, and once or twice just pulled up to windward, out of control. But we were nearly at Barfleur now, and I could start the engine, turn up into wind, and roll away the jib.

As I started to motor towards the channel to the harbour (St Vaast is tucked away behind various pieces of rock), I saw something in the water - white, and quite large. I couldn't quite make out what it was, so motored over to have a look.

The square white object turned out to be an inverted catamaran dinghy, with two large Frenchmen trying to right it. They were struggling: sometimes they would get it up to about 30º to the horizontal, before the wind took it, either flipping it right over the other way, or sometimes swinging it round as it weathercocked, and tipping it back again. I didn't know how long they'd been there - fortunately they were in what like wetsuits. I was singlehanded, but Rob had picked up someone at Cherbourg who wanted a lift east. Rob eased up, and tried to help them right it, but with no success. We tried radioing the harbour, but no one answered.

Finally, Rob took the Frenchmen on board - they must have been exhausted. I said I'd stand by the inverted dinghy, which was being taken out to sea quite fast by the wind and tide.

It was quite some time before I saw the lifeboat heading out from St Vaast. It ignored me, and made for the dinghy. In which case, thought I, I'll leave them to it. But it was getting late, and the tide was dropping. I put the engine on virtually full revs, despite the overheating alarm sounding (I had a leak from the freshwater cooling side, but at that stage, it wasn't too bad). Rob had told the marina I was still out there, and I was hoping to get in before the tide got too low.


chartBut about a mile from the entrance, Rob came on the VHF: they couldn't wait any longer, and were shutting the lock gates. Okay. Engine off - give it time to cool down. What now? It was blowing quite hard. I had two choices: anchor off the harbour, or sit out here. I knew I wasn't going to get any sleep either way, and, on balance, it's always better to have plenty of sea room. The wind was offshore, so I wasn't going to hit anything if I stayed out there. I hove to: no sails up, tiller down to leeward. The wind tries to move you downward, the keel converts some of this to forward motion, and the rudder tries to keep the bow up into the wind. The end result is that you end up going downwind and a little forward at about a knot.

The tide was taking me out to Barfleur, so after an hour or so, I turned the boat to go the other way, then back again ... then the cold front came through, with gusts of wind and heavy showers. At one time, I had about a metre of genoa rolled out, and no other sails, and was making six knots! By the early hours, my track on the GPS looked like the doodle of some crazed child. At around 4 a.m., the wind had eased a little, and the tide was coming up. I made my way fairly carefully - it was still dark - along the approach channel, narrowly missing some anchored boats, and finally into the marina. Rob was tied up just to the right, and I rafted up against him. He put his head out briefly to say good morning.

I sat in the cockpit for a little longer, and I saw a bloke emerge from a small wooden boat. Hope I didn't wake you, I said. No, no - I'm just about to go. Where to? Chichester. Ah, I said, the wind's NNW and fresh. A bumpy ride back, he replied.

The chart on the right shows the area: there is a light on Pointe de Saire which flashes Oc (2+1) - I saw a lot of it that night. Made a useful reference point though. The red cross is roughly where the dinghy was. The big blue line is were I spent about nine hours going backward and forward. If the chart looks a little odd, it's because it's a very old one ('additions and corrections to 1982'!), with depths marked in fathoms! (One fathom is six feet, or just less than 2 metres).

We never did see the two Frenchmen the next day. A bottle of wine might have been nice.


June 7th 2008

Wasserschutzpolizei! flag

motoring coneIs one of these familiar? It should be. Do you use one as you should? For the uninitiated, it is a motoring cone. If you are a sailing boat, and have the engine on and in gear, then you should display an inverted cone in the rigging at the bow. This tells other vessels that you are not sailing, and that you are a power driven vessel. You can no longer claim your rights as 'vessel under sail' under the Collision Regulations. Sadly, though, they are very much the exception rather than the rule in British waters. The convention seems to be that if you see a boat moving along briskly with main up but no genoa, then it's motoring.

Not so in German waters! The reason why it goes by default in British waters is that there's no one around to police it, whereas in Germany there is the Wasserschutzpolizei or 'Water Protection Police'.

I motored out of Kroeslin Marina one bright and sunny morning. There was the slightest of breezes. I trickled along on not much more than tick over, autohelm on, and hoisted the mainsail. I put on a few more revs, then heard a loudhailer from behind. A Wasserschutzpolizei boat. He got closer, realised I was British, and switched to English.

'You have sail up! You have motor on! You have no cone!'

All of which was true.

'You have cone?'

'Oh, yes,' I lied.

I rummaged in the locker. I knew I had an anchor ball, but a motoring cone? Didn't think so. Wasn't in the locker, anyway.

'I go and look for it,' I yelled back, and went below.

What now? Give it three minutes, and I'd have to go up and say I'd 'lost' it. Except that ... I looked through the windows, and the launch was disappearing at high speed. Ah. Give it another minute or two.

By the time I came back on deck, the launch was on the horizon. So I carried on - though with a wary eye out in case it decided to come back. Well, the wind got up, and I was able to sail without the motor after that.

Finding a chandlery is not always easy: I ended up buying a cone in Stubbekøbbing. Unfortunately, the lady in the shop didn't speak English, and I couldn't see what I wanted. I drew a sketch of a yacht, cone in rigging, on a piece of paper, which had her baffled. She called her husband, who looked at it, frowned, then the light dawned. 'Ah,' he said, and went off to fetch one.

Denmark doesn't seem to have any police boats, so I didn't worry there. I flew it coming down from Helgoland to Nordeney: apparently the area is well policed to keep you out of the shipping lanes. If you stray into the lanes, it's an immediate fine. No doubt they watch out on radar. There wasn't enough wind to keep up the boat speed, and in an area as busy as this, it was a good idea to have the genoa rolled up.

But be careful in Germany: the police are watching!


21st January 2008

How to Give Yourself a Scare flag

Last summer I visited the Ecrehous, which are not much more than a clump of rocks north east of Jersey.

Les ecrehous at low water

Pictures courtesy Jeffrey Matthews

Prospero is on the bouy far right [actually rafted up against against another boat]. The others were in before me, and the tide was running out quite fast. I slowed down for a recce, and wa just about to move on when I saw a funny patch off water about six foot off the starboard side. It was obviously a rock just below the surface and we were drifting onto it rapidly. I slammed the engine on full throttle and just avoided it. My crew said it was worth it just to see the expression on my face. A little later, safely tied up, we saw the pinnacle break the surface as the tide dropped. It would not have been a good move to have hit it ...

The friends we were with have a small house perched on the rocks where we were well fed and dined. We left late afternoon for St Peter Port, a little off the wind in a good F4. A Swan 39 left half an hour after me, and didn't catch me up before Guernsey!

Update!

Jeffrey also sent me another photograph, which not only shows his own boat [foreground left], but gives a perfect view of the rock I so narrowly missed [marked with red arrow].

Ecrehous rock

Fiften minutes earlier, and it would have been lurking deep enough not for me to see it, but shallow enough still to hit it. Fiften minutes later, and its ugly head would have reared above the surface.

I had been nicely on course until then, but I stopped to survey the moorings. A bad idea when the tide is rapidly sweeping you sideways. It doesn't take long to be pushed out of the channel.


24th November 2007

Riddle of the Sands

I bought the DVD of Riddle of the Sands not long ago, and watched again this evening.

It was filmed in 1978, but wears quite well – after all, the setting is the Frisian Islands in the 1900s. I think if they tried filming it there today they'd have problems with all the empty seascapes, now that the islands are filled with large plastic yachts, and the shore littered with windfarms.

It's a rare book which I can't get to the end of, but Riddle of the Sands is, unfortunately, one of those. I just find it ... tedious.

The film simplifies the plot, but does it well – at least, as far as I can tell. It's good Boys' Own stuff, with stirring performances from Michael Yorke and Simon MacCorkindale. The transition of Michael Yorke from foppish man about town to action hero isn't entirely convincing, however. Jenny Agutter isn't altogether convincing either. The sailing scenes are, on the whole, well done, and the feeling of the islands is well captured. Today, the harbours are very different – I spent half the film trying to spot anachronisms! – and the filming never shows the harbours in wideshot, but concentrates on the area which has obviously been chosen for its 'authenticity'.

I was there last summer, stopping at Nordeney and Borkum. I didn't go through the 'watten' – the channels between the islands and the mainland – for two reasons. One was that I was going the 'wrong way' – it's easier to go west to east, and I was going the other way. The second is that I have a copy of Mark Brackenbury's Frisian Pilot (rather outdated now – published 1979), and he suggests a maximum draft of 1.5m for the route. I draw 1.8m, and wasn't going to risk it!


12th November 2007

Donald Crowhurst – 'Deep Water'

This was shown recently on Channel 4, but I bought the DVD.

It's a slightly surprising topic for a full length feature film, but it sustained interest throughout, and never ran out of steam, which says a lot for the production.

I was obviously much more interested in the sailing side, and, by and large, I was not disappointed. There were certainly no gross errors that I noticed, no dodgy 'computer simulations'. There was also a fair amount of contemporary footage which, at the time, went to the cutting floor, but which has since been retrieved.

The one disappointment was that the film concentrated on Crowhurst, Knox Johnson, and Montessier, and almost completely ignored the rest. It would have been good to have heard more about them – their boats, and why they had to give up.

The film also gave a good feel for the sheer impossibility of the event, given the boats of the 1960s – and it could have elaborated this further. The only two which could or did make it round were Knox Johnson and Montessier, in solid, robust boats. Even so, Knox Johnson, in his book, describes the repaitrs he had to make underway – repairs which would defeated someone who was less practical and resourceful. (Suhaili took part in the Round the Island Race a couple of years back. We were running down from Bembridge Ledge to the finish, a light southeasterly behind us, struggling to make it before the race closed down. Suhaili came past a little way off, and the Great Man shouted something like: 'Don't think we're going to make it in time.' I shouted something banal in reply. Looking at Suhaili today, one is astonished at how small she is.)

Crowhurst's boat was a trimaran, built from plywood. To be honest, I think it would have had no chance in the Southern Ocean, and Crowhurst knew that, deep down, he had bitten off more than he could chew, and was afraid to back out for reasons of pride and money. It's a sorry story, but what would you or I have done in his shoes?

I think by the end, he had completely lost touch with reality. One thought occured to me: if he had a liferaft, he could have punched a hole in the bottom of the boat – preferably when he was close to a shipping lane – got into the life raft, and said, when rescued: 'Sorry, chaps, no time to rescue the logbook.' Or, 'Look, it got soaked.' But in the end, I think he had tried in so many ways to cover up, that finally it was all too much for him.

It also shows the difference between boat building in the 60s, and today. Now, the question is not whether you can get round, but whether you can do so at a steady 20 knots! So much for the 'they built 'em better in those days'!

A thought provoking film - especially for those of us who sail any distance single handed!


4th November 2007

Nick Ward - 'Left for Dead'

Nick Ward was aboard the yacht Grimalkin during the 1979 Fastnet Race. Grimalkin was one of the boats which was rolled over by the seas, probably more than once, and dismasted. Just before the roll over, a decision had been taken to abandon the boat for the life raft - a decision Nick disagreed with. After the boat had righted itself, Nick and another crew member were, in the words of the title, 'left for dead' by the rest of the crew.

The book describes his experiences quite vividly, and is well written. It is certainly worth reading.

I read Rousmaniere's book 'Fastnet Force Ten' years ago, lost my copy, and recently bought another. What is the fascination of books such as these?

First of all, if you sail out of sight of land, there is always the possibility you might get caught out in bad weather - perhaps not Fastnet or Sydney/Hobart weather, but there is always the chance the forecasters have got it wrong [and we all have tales of that!]. What's the best course of action? Could you cope?

Well, the average cruising boat is not going have the strong crew that a racing boat might have, and racing boats, when faced with a forecast of F6 or 7, will shrug, reef down and head out. They will do it when you won't, and they will have the experience to do it. However, even if your sailing is just the occasional cross Channel trip, there is something to be said for heading out of harbour on days when the wind is blowing, simply to find out what it's like. One of the messages these books send is that when things get rough, everything becomes ten times more difficult. Experience might be hard earned, but is worth acquiring.

From the sailing point of view, Ward's book is interesting. I could have done with more on what it was like being out there as the storm built. It is well covered, but inevitably a lot of the focus is on what happened after he was left on the boat. But this too has its interest - one of the lessons of the Fastnet is that things were not secured well enough, and I know I've been guilty of that even in a F5 - things have landed on the floor which should have been stowed more carefully.

It's certainly worth a read - it's a good story well told. It's worth remembering that the chances of being caught up in something like this is fairly remote - although it might give you a fright, it also gives you food for thought.

Ward's Left for Dead on Amazon

Rousmaniere's Fastnet Force Ten on Amazon