Category: sailing

Contrary winds

longships from senitoa

I normally try to avoid including ‘sea and sky’ pictures here but for once I am making an exception since this was taken just last week from the heaving deck of the yacht Senitoa as she turned north towards Scotland. The scene could be almost anywhere in the world but for the presence of the lighthouse, which is known as ‘Longships’, and stands on a rock a mile west of Lands End, the extreme south-west point of the British mainland.

There has been a lighthouse here since 1791 but the first one to be built placed the light only twenty four metres above the sea and (a sobering thought) as a result its beam was often obscured by the waves that crashed over it. So in 1875 the present tower was built, bringing the light up another eleven metres in height. Until 1988 there might have been a lighthouse keeper or two watching us as we bounced over the lumpy seas but today, like all Britain’s lighthouses, things run automatically with only occasional human intervention when maintenance is required so we slip past largely unnoticed but for the occasional gannet.

A month ago a message I received from Spencer, a yachtie friend, to help him collect his recently purchased boat from Gosport in Hampshire and deliver it to Campbeltown Loch, has led to my peering out of the pilothouse window at this far flung corner of Britain. But it has taken more than a week of sailing to get here, far longer than we might have hoped, largely due to the influence of tropical storm Bertha after its remains crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Until its arrival we were all basking under a scorching heat wave, welcoming each wisp of breeze and every puff of cloud. But no sooner have Spencer, his daughter Claire, and I set off on Senitoa than the wind arrives by the bucketful, always blowing from just where we want to go, as if it is trying to prevent us from leaving.claire and spence on senitoa Just once or twice we do manage to raise the sails so that Senitoa can behave like the sailing boat she is but in the main we have to rely upon the seventy-five horsepower diesel engine to push us along, which is disappointing to us sailors.

The most southerly point on the British mainland is known as The Lizard, for reasons associated with the fact that it lies in Cornwall, a place which has its own language. As we motor past on our journey, the boat bumping and thumping into every lumpy piece of water, we have a brief visit from a large black mammal, which dives less than a boat length from our bow, just missing a nasty collision. I like to think that a Minke whale is the master of its environment and knows exactly what it is doing, perhaps is just being curious, but it gives us a treat and a scare both at the same time as its smooth black back rolls away just beneath our boat. And where are the photos I hear you ask? You have to be joking! There is barely time to catch breath, let alone get a camera out.

spinnaker tower with man

Miles further on and much closer to home we meet yet another batch of strong winds and take shelter in Dun Laoghaire, Dublin’s yachting playground. So keen are the locals to race their yachts that they dry-launch them from the quayside by crane with their sails already set so they can get to the start line for an evening club race. Surely this is yachting at its most intense, and is a million miles away from the leisurely pastime Kate and I used to engage in. Two hours later these same sailors are hanging off the bar in the yacht club exchanging yarns, no doubt, of how they missed that crucial tack on the finish line. We are, of course, on the doorstep of the capital city of Ireland so must expect to encounter a different pace of life, the rushing about, the money spent in pursuit of a few hours of pleasure after a day at the office. Perhaps we should be missing this.

Inevitably, I have barely returned home from the passage on Senitoa when a wind arrives from the south east, one that might have blown us home in half the time. Still, at least there was a big engine pushing us along, something the chap caught staring at Portsmouth’s Spinnaker Tower never had.

Time on the water

Arms straining, I pull myself up the sloping foredeck for the nth time and wriggle into position on the windward rail where my meagre seventy eight kilos helps to balance the boat as she accelerates upwind again, crashing and bashing through the waves. The next piece of sea thumps into the bow, jumping up and dousing me with salt water but my body protects the rest of our crew from a soaking, not that their gratitude is particularly overwhelming, I have to say. This wave is one of many I take full on for them, but I’m not complaining. I signed up for a week of racing on Owen’s 10 metre X-yacht, Jochr, and know full well that this is what goes with the territory, it is just part of the experience.

We have a mixed bag of weather thrown at us, fairly typical for any summer in the West Highlands I guess, heavy rain and winds one day and light airs the next, but despite this our fortune in the rankings for our class remains good. For the final passage race, a long southerly beat down the Sound of Mull from Tobermory to Oban, my role is to ensure that the genoa passes smoothly around the front of the mast on each tack without the sheets catching on the front of the mast or the sail getting hooked on the guard rail. Aside from this I am ballast, the weight of me and the other crew making a minor but significant difference to the performance of the boat. Our skipper drives us across the Sound then back again, against twenty five then up to thirty three knots of headwind, as we fight to keep our place in the fleet of yachts that surround us. For hour after hour we battle on, hardly pausing for breath, until after four hours we find ourselves jostling for position on a finish line beside Lismore Light. The current is running fast here calling for fine judgement in close proximity to other boats but the gun fires at last signalling a good finish to the final race of the week, the end of six tough days.

West Highland Yachting Week                           West Highland Yachting Week

Jochr is on the far left of the picture, sail No. 9726

Our boat and crew have sailed through rain and shine, wind and calm, rough and smooth seas, enduring some excellent and challenging racing from which it takes my body some days to recover. At some point I will admit that I am too old for this sort of thing… but not yet.

As things turn out this year all this strenuous stuff follows soon after a family trip south into Yorkshire for a week long holiday on a narrowboat, motoring slowly along the Leeds to Liverpool canal, where the only real exercise is cranking the key to open the sluices on the many locks we pass on Megans Drum With us here are Mike, Eleanor and of course, wee James, for whom this is a first boating experience.

The term narrowboat means literally that and for good reason; these boats are built to fit the canals (or is it the canals that were built to fit the boats). The locks on our canal are just big enough for two boats, each a maximum of seven feet wide, to fit side by side with only inches to spare. The canals were built for working boats which often towed a ‘butty’, an engine-less load carrier, and it was essential that both boat and butty could fit in the same lock side by side. If the lock is any wider then all that happens is that you waste water. The overall boat length is an issue too as any more than fifty feet long and we’d be bumping up against the lock gates on the Leeds Liverpool. But given these restraints, it is quite surprising how much can be fitted in on board. On Megan’s Drum we have separate bedrooms, toilets and a shower, a fully equipped kitchen and dining room, storage for all our stuff plus the convenience of mains electricity for the microwave oven and the TV.

Our days on board consist of chugging slowly westwards through the Yorkshire Dales at no more than four miles an hour, the canal speed limit, so our pace of life slows to accommodate this. Being in charge of steering I get to watch my crew opening bridges and lock gates ahead of me then once through, I manoeuvre the heavy boat to the bank to pick them up again. It becomes routine, eventually, with each member of the team knowing what to do. Steering the long vessel around a tight bend requires forward planning, anticipation of the way the stern will swing, as the boat pivots about its centre rather than its rudder, but generally we manage to avoid bumping the canal sides too often or entangling ourselves with the trees that frequently overhang the water on one side. One can certainly imagine that life has always gone on at the same slow pace on the canals but (not surprisingly perhaps) young James finds it hard coping with the speed the world drifts by. He is often happier sitting below playing games on his ipad and we worry that he misses the herons standing knee deep in the shallows or the amusingly named and brightly coloured narrowboats that are floating homes to a sizeable population on England’s waterways.

At dusk all traffic stops and we too pull over and moor to the bank. The water becomes still, only disturbed by the movements of the odd duck, the occasional swan and fish rising to take flies from the surface. Now the tree-clad banks and the painted boats are reflected almost perfectly by the water creating a surreal inverted image.

Megans Drum on the LeedsLiverpool canal

Dublin and back

Like much of the British Isles, Carradale is experiencing a spell of unusually hot and calm weather, much to the chagrin of anyone choosing to go away on a holiday abroad at this time.

Carradale from Grogport

In the midst of this heat wave I receive a telephone call from a friend asking if I am free to assist in delivering a sailing boat from Dublin to Campbeltown, Ireland to Scotland. Having so recently parted with Cirrus, thus kissing goodbye to any chance of going sailing on my own boat, I jump at the opportunity this offers without a second thought. And learning that my services are required to help navigate and lend a hand on deck, raising and trimming the exotically made sails of a high performance racer, an X-Yacht, makes this all the more interesting.

For those not in the know, which means anyone in the world of yacht racing who has been asleep for the past thirty odd years, the Danish company X-Yachts has never manufactured anything else but boats specifically designed for the keenest of racers, high performance machines built with a view to speed around a sailing course. Ryan & Owen with TrixOne could deduce from this that crew comforts would be sparse on such a vessel, excess weight sacrificed for sailing performance, human needs taking second place, but fortunately for me the more modern boats have interior fittings and furnishings which match their sailing performance and make them a pretty good choice for someone who wants the best of both worlds – speed and comfort.

So it is that after half a day of travel by road and sea I find myself in a marina in Malahide (just outside Dublin) stepping on board to find my berth on Trix, a rather beautiful ex-racer. Owen, his wife Joanna, son Ryan and I soon find ourselves preparing for the voyage, tracking down the many sails and the various other bits of equipment which at one time or another some keen owner had seen fit to store on shore in the quest for improving performance, stocking up with food and other essentials and finding somewhere to stow everything on board in such a way that we can still stretch out our bodies in sleep. In all it takes the four of us two full days of preparation but finally we sort out how enough of the electronic equipment works to make it safe to leave and have run up and checked over the engine. By then the tides will only let us leave at the unholy hour of four the morning, this being the time when there is enough water for our two metre draught to slide out of the river to the sea.

There is a cool and rather clammy feel to the air at this hour but despite this Ryan, Joanna & Owen on Trixwe sniff expectantly for a gentle breeze so that we can hoist some of the exotic sailcloth we have on board and see what this boat can do, not too much wind, of course, but a little of the ‘light and variable’ that was in the forecast. Experience tells me however, and this passage now serves to confirm this, that when the weatherman uses this phrase he is really trying to say ‘take the dog for a walk and forget sailing today’! For three days we glide northwards along the Irish coast accompanied by the put-put sound of our engine, the sails adding nothing to our boat speed. Each day early morning chills are soon replaced by scorching sun, for which we are grateful, but the only wind passing over the boat is that made by our own passage through the still air. Not until we are much closer to home, at Glenarm in Northern Ireland, does the air begin to move at all.

The point of stopping here is that our trip coincides with the Cushendall Sailing Club’s annual combined race day and we are soon joined there by other boats from Campbeltown for a sailing race between the two clubs. On Trix, however, realisation soon dawns that were are going to be raising sail and competing in the race on an untried and untested boat. We will be tacking the boat for the very first time only after the race has started, on arriving at the first turning mark of the course. And there is some wind. Will we be up to it and what chance can we possibly have against the other fully trained and highly competitive crews?

Our motivation is intense as we harden in the sheets at the start line and Trix takes off like a scalded cat, barely in control at first, but then gradually as the race progresses the crew find their places and we get into the swing of things. It soon becomes clear that this is indeed a very fast boat, one that can out-sail most others of a similar size given proper handling. After a poor start, one boat after another slips behind us; we slide softly by trying to keep the smug expressions from our faces. Amazingly by the time the finish line is in sight we have crept up to second position although right on our stern now we can hear the bubbling forefoot of our closest rival, their black reaching sail straining forward. With such a small crew, we had made the decision to forgo the use of a spinnaker and we are now being overtaken rapidly with only fifty or so metres to go. Somehow we hang on, giving no quarter, to take second place honours across the line and give us all the buzz of excitement that racers everywhere will know. On handicap we are knocked down to 7th place overall but at least we can be proud that we had made a strong contribution to Campbeltown Sailing Club winning the race series, the first time for some years.

I would like to say that the final leg of sailing trip was as calm and uneventful as the first but on the day after the race we have to cross the dreaded North Channel, that twelve mile wide strip of sea between Northern Ireland and Scotland which funnels and accelerates the tides flowing into and out of the Irish Sea. We set off off early, motoring with no wind at all, but once clear of the land the breeze fills in and the sea starts to jump about in an alarming way as it so often does here. Changing to a smaller headsail under these conditions is a real challenge but between us we manage go get it done and plodding on, we arrive safely back in Campbeltown in bright sunshine by the middle of the day. Many thanks to Owen and his family for putting up with me and for giving me the sailing fix I needed. Gaffer by Copeland Island

The end of a difficult year

Last night neither Kate nor I slept well, our minds forever running over the events of the day before. The process of ‘letting go’ was proving to be much more difficult than we had foreseen. Yesterday Kate and I took our leave from a very treasured friend, the boat that has kept us safe at sea for the past thirteen years, the floating home we have always felt comfortable in, no matter where we were, no matter what the weather was doing outside.Cirrus Cat off North Foreland

When we first made the decision to sell Cirrus Cat around the middle of last year it had seemed such an obvious thing to do, brought on as it was by the changing circumstances in our lives recounted here, We always knew that a buyer was unlikely to be found quickly, given what we are told is the shaky state of the world economy, so we sat back and waited, thinking that time would allow us to adjust to the concept of her not being ours any more, of not having a sailing boat, not having this particular sailing boat. So when the day finally came when a man called Niclas crossed over from Sweden to take a look over (and under) our pride and joy we took this in our stride, telling ourselves how lucky we are that Cirrus would be going to a good home where she will be looked after and cherished. Until, that is, the moment came when the deal was done. Everything on board had been explained – how this works, how that fits together, what this rope is for, what that piece is for – and it was time for us to leave, time for us to wave farewell not just to our boat but also to this chunk of our lives. Time to walk away. Then it began to hurt.

It had been a tiring day. We had arranged with the harbourmaster in Tarbert to use the facilities of his port to dry out in the morning so that a year’s accumulation of barnacles could be scraped or blasted from Cirrus’ hull. She would not be going far with that lot on board. Goose barnacles up to 30mm in length had made the bottoms of the keels their home and they must have been very disappointed, even aggrieved, when the pressurised jet of fresh water stripped them from their anchorage. Ordinarily I would make a point of apologising to them for my behaviour but after an hour or so crawling about beneath the boat, in the rain, soaked with spray from the pressure-washer, I had little apology left in me. While we waited with Niclas, his brother Matz and son Simon for the tide to return and float us off we chatted (thankfully in English) about their plans for their new acquisition whilst showing them around the boat, letting them explore every nook and cranny and every piece of equipment they could find. When Cirrus began to float we fired up the engine and motored to out to sea for a short test sail, which proved to be a longer one, so that Niclas could see that everything worked as intended and happily Cirrus did not let us down once, despite the winter of relative neglect, proving once again why we have kept and loved this boat for so long.

Back on our marina berth, all that remained was to pass over the Bill of Sale and shake hands with the new owner. Suddenly we found ourselves without a reason to be on board, we were on someone else’s boat! Full realisation did not come until much later, in the early hours of the following day, when it began to occur to me that I had left our boat in the hands of someone with only a novice’s knowledge of her handling. Manoeuvring a catamaran, particularly at slow speeds and in a tight space, is a black art which I have, sometimes painfully, learnt over the years we have owned her. I can say, with no disrespect to Niclas, that nobody else has that knowledge. And yet he is about to embark on a passage back to Sweden which will start with a traverse of the Crinan Canal, a narrow yet busy waterway, with hazards to negotiate on either side. The wind will try to take charge, requiring rapid actions and precise solutions. What have I done, I thought, leaving our beloved Cirrus in the hands of someone so inexperienced in her moods?

By the time morning came our tired brains had more or less sorted themselves out, and we feel happier now about what we have done. We have begun the process of letting go, of moving on, looking forward to exploring the Highlands from the land instead of from the sea. In a few months time our son Mike will have had his last chemotherapy treatment session and a difficult year will, we hope, be at an end. It will be time to start reclaiming our lives for ourselves.

Mal & Graham at the Rest

The farewell to Cirrus comes soon after saying farewell to my mother, whose funeral took place earlier this month. Fashion dictates sober dress on an occasion such as this, something that does not come easily to either my brother Graham nor myself. I feel my mother would have appreciated the effort we made and would have seen humour in that together we could easily have been mistaken for a pair of Mafiosi.


HollyMy leisure-time reading has just taken me to a book by Mike Carter, a man who cycled around Britain a few years ago, coincidentally going the same way around the country as we did on Cirrus Cat, anticlockwise. As it happens his journey took place during the same summer as well, which may account for the fact that the conclusions he draws on the state of the country, and the welcoming attitude of its people, were very similar to our own. But of all those he met and wrote about I was most struck by his account of Steve, the ferryman who takes passengers across Salcombe Harbour in Devon. Himself a well-travelled cyclist, the simple wisdom of this man almost took my breath away. His view of life and of how he feels we should view life’s many challenges, made me re-read this section of the book several times until I had committed to memory something I felt I should take away with me. “Finishing lines are good”, the author quotes, “but their most important role is to get you over the start line in the first place.” How true this rings today when too often we are focussed upon goals and achievements, so many of which are meaningless in their own right, when it is the journey itself that is important.

Our son Mike’s journey is now complete and whilst Kate is supervising his introduction to Carradale life, something he seems to be taking to rather well, I am wrestling with the estate agents dealing with the sale of my mother’s house down south here in England. I feel as though I am having to push through treacle to get anyone, solicitors included, to even attempt to speed things up. It is as if the whole English sale and purchase system is geared towards sloth and even to suggest that things could be done quicker is met with surprise and alarm, horror even. Small wonder the housing market is in recession at the moment. The contrast with the more efficient Scottish house buying and selling process, where much of the work is done up front by the seller, is self evident and I know which I prefer. Estate agents, however, are of the same mettle all over the universe.

Grumbling over.

I take a weekend off to visit friends Rich and Gerry and help them celebrate Rich’s retirement from full-time work. Joining us is the other Richard whose retirement last year we tried to celebrate in a weekend of sailing on the sheltered waters of the River Swale in Kent, and when due to atrocious weather we were forced indoors.Fishing smack in the Swale This time around the weather looks far more favourably upon us and in the middle of a brief heat-wave, we all take to the water on board Waxywoo II and Courageous, respectively a yacht and a sailing dinghy. The silt-laden waters of the Swale and the River Medway are places where traditional sailing boats are plentiful so it is far from unusual to pass by some beautifully restored piece of floating wooden history like this ancient fishing smack. Our own craft are a little more modern but over two days on the water we manage to sail, swim, potter around a few creeks on the Isle of Sheppey and generally have a ‘Swallows & Amazons’ type adventure with plenty of scrapes and jolly fun. Just what I need to take my mind off the madness of house removals.

Wendy with her babiesRich and Gerry generously feed and water me at their Dungate home where we find that in our absence, Wendy, one of the badger-faced ewes who live in the orchard behind their house, has given us a real treat by producing two fine lambs. She manages the whole business entirely on her own, with no human help, so we are very proud of her, although she does look a little sheepish in this picture.

Hovering expectantly around the comfortable barn where Wendy had installed herself was our old friend Hot Horns, a ram who loves having his thick coat tickled just behind his head.Hot-horns the badger-faced ram In fact he is tolerant of almost any human attention he can get and although he wasn’t saying much one has to wonder whether he was an active participant in Wendy’s big event.

My mother is now finally re-locating, making the long journey north, and will stay in our home until she can take up residence in the house next door which she is buying for herself. She has great plans, naturally, to add new features here and there, to decorate the place to her own taste throughout, to tame the wilderness that is the garden, and no doubt there will be a long list of other jobs in the months to come. Once again a member of our family plunges into a house renovation project. Mere age alone cannot stop this – it is in our genes, I fear. At least it will take Mum’s mind off of the fact that she has left behind the over-crowded warmth of south-eastern Britain with its tame hedgerows and tightly clipped lawns as she struggles to adjust her eyes to the rather less kempt surroundings of the scenic Highlands with its dramatic views and rugged mountains.

plane interiorThe final part of her journey is inside the fuselage of a twin-engine Otter aircraft piloted by a lady we all assume is the air hostess… until she takes her position in the driving seat. Flying in a plane this size is flying in the raw, intimate and noisy, unlike the insulated, flying-above-the-clouds Airbus 319 that brought us as far as Glasgow. Propellers whirling we pick up speed then spring into the air and level off just high enough to clear the chimney pots then head towards the Isle of Arran whose mountains loom at us on the horizon. This being a new experience for me my camera is shooting in every direction, sometimes capturing part of the plane in shot (oops, is that the wheel!) or sometimes a yacht sailing not far below us. power station chimneyAt times we are so close to the ground that it feels like we might just bounce off it and a power station chimney we pass over looks almost close enough to touch. But we do clear the peaks of Arran then soon we are starting our descent to Campbeltown Airport where we make a gentle landing then taxi towards the tiny terminal building just as a fire engine rushes towards us – normal procedure, apparently.

Kate has driven out to meet us to complete this lengthy journey, the finish for me but the start line of a brand new journey for my mother.

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