Henrietta and I left the Canary Island of La Palma, bound for England, before the end of April. It’s about 1,600 miles, four hours by aeroplane, maybe two weeks or so by Henrietta. I thought perhaps we’d stop in the Azores on the way.
I’d decide later whether to stop, but several sailors had told me of a small island called Santa Maria, one of the Azores archipelago that I’d never visited, so it was tempting. (In the end I did stop, see later.)
There’s little wind to start with but we slop along northwards at about two knots basking in hot sunshine. I’m always loathe to start the engine – dirty, smelly, brutish beast.
A few days out and a flying hitchhiker joins us. He’s a fragile and exhausted looking little fellow. As a bird spotter of limited talent, I can’t identify it. He’s probably blown far from his home and friends, and seems a bit lost. Surely not, do birds ever get lost I wonder?
After a few hours he grows accustomed to life on board and joins me in the cabin, resting quietly as I cook an evening meal. He’s not interested in the food I offer: crumbs of bread, finely chopped grape, boiled rice and vegetables. I name him Blip, not sure why.
Blip stays the night, sleeping over the bunk next to me, head lying peacefully over his back. The next morning he seems stronger, more alert, and when I look up from my book an hour later, he’s gone. We’re over 200 miles from the nearest land and he doesn’t seem very sure of himself, so I’m a bit concerned. Sure enough, like one of Noah’s doves, he flies back after half an hour, aware that there’s no land or friend within range. He seems stronger than a day ago and goes for a few short flights.
Another day and night passes, but Blip doesn’t seem to have an appetite, whatever I offer. So I’ve decided to take him to the Azores where he’ll perhaps find a new family and food he can enjoy. It seems a good reason to go to the Azores.
But the next morning, despite everything, he lies awkwardly on his side on the saloon berth. He’s dead. Not even a twitch of life. I feel very sad, he was an easy companion.
(Today, writing a fortnight later, bird watchers in St Agnes tell me Blip was a House Martin. He’d have been migrating from sub-Sahara Africa to Northern Europe. Blown off course or with poorly navigation he would have been hungry and tired, and as an insect eater, no wonder he didn’t fancy the food I offered.)
A couple of days later (and after more rain than I’ve seen in the past four months) I reach Santa Maria, the southernmost of the Azores islands, described as “The Sunshine Island of the Azores”. On arrival the sun does indeed shine once more. Formalities are soon done; the marina at this early stage of the season is pretty empty.
The Azores (Portuguese) are a mere 500 miles north of the Canary Islands (Spanish). That much latitude makes a big difference to climate. High season in the Canaries is winter; in the Azores it’s summer. Before May few visitors are around. It is delightful. Streets are clean and fresh, countryside green and fertile, flowers bright with colour. Portuguese people are almost invariably calm, friendly, helpful and generous; here even more so.
I enjoy a few coastal walks. A deserted museum with chatty curator. Lots of coffee, beer and usual boaty anecdotes with fellow sailors. The whole island is less than ten miles long, scattered with small hamlets of freshly painted houses and pots of flowers. Total population 6,000.
After a week it’s time to move on. With a deadline for getting to England I’m not inclined to re-visit the other islands of the Azores, not this time.
From Santa Maria it’s another 1,200 miles to southwest England, perhaps ten days or so. And, since forecasts that far ahead are unreliable in the North Atlantic, I just left, reasoning that there was bound to be a bit of bad weather somewhere along the way. Just go. Otherwise you sit around for ages waiting for that perfect moment – which never arrives – especially in early May.
In the event, weather gods were pretty amenable; my luck held, and it was a good brisk sail. Though it was hard to adjust to chilly weather, too much strong wind, big swell and two days of steady grey relentless rain, we reached the Scilly Isles in eight days.
Now I’m anchored at the little Scilly island of St Agnes. In a month or two it’ll be chockablock with anchored yachts, but now Henrietta is alone. This morning I find a fine cold day made fabulous with a rainbow and the screeching of overexcited oystercatchers. There are busy shag and excited guillemots diving for their breakfast too.
After over four months in the Canary Islands, mostly on my favourite island of La Gomera, it really is time to move on. I’ll probably leave from here, the island of La Palma, in a day or two.
Four months is the longest time I have ever stopped anywhere in the world in the past eight years on Henrietta. (Even covid restrictions didn’t hold me back for so long.) It has for the most part been joyful, interesting, restorative and rewarding to settle for a while. I’ll summarise these months of relative stagnation and peace below.
Now though the nomadic instinct has resurfaced. The urge to move has come back. Ants in the pants can never stay quiet for long. Before moving on I thought I’d quickly write this update.
For the ever-indecisive sailor, choices of where to go after the Canaries are very tricky. The trouble is, you see, you can go north, south, east or west.
Whichever direction you choose, there are wonderful delights and boundless possibilities. North to Azores, Mediterranean, Portugal, and Northern Europe; South to Cape Verde islands, then Brazil and South America; East to Senegal, Gambia and West Africa; or West, the most popular choice for sailors, to the Caribbean and then perhaps Panama Canal or North America.
The winds, predominantly northeast Trade Winds, favour voyaging south and west. Hence the huge annual winter yacht migration from here to the Caribbean. However, I’ve decided to go north. Winds are in the hands of the weather gods.
After many hours of consideration and talking with others of all the possibilities, I’ll probably go to England. It is my homeland and there are several matters to deal with, and the lure of Brussels sprouts.
Then, before the end of the summer, hopefully, I shall leave British waters again, once I’ve sorted out a few odds and ends, getting myself and Henrietta polished and strong. That, for Henrietta, is long-term planning: Wow! Plans devised for about six months into the future.
But, in case you’re interested, here’s how I’ve filled the past few months in warm winter sunshine.
Walking the hills and mountains of La Gomera with longish hikes every two or three days, it could be that I’ve walked nearly every single metre of the hundreds of kilometres of path and track that crisscross this charming island, and clambered up and down many thousands of metres. (Could I even become a guide for trekking on the island? I initially thought ‘yes that’s a good idea’ but alas the answer has to be ‘‘No, definitely not’. Trouble is, I get lost rather too often.)
Few activities other than sailing over oceans give me the uplifting and humbling delight of mountain walks. You’d be an impervious sort of brute not to love the birdsong, the butterflies, the flowers and trees, the rocky ravines and volcanic landscapes, forests and lush green valleys, the peace and timeless clear skies of an island such as this. To feel so close and connected to beautiful unblemished parts of the planet is a real privilege.
Apart from visits of friends and family from England, I’ve enjoyed meeting dozens of local and visiting folk from most corners of Europe, plus a handful from North America; together with the small number of resident or semi-resident sailors.
There have been Christmas and New Year festivities with lots of singing and dancing and fireworks, a Carnival fortnight and, yes, more singing and dancing and fireworks. (N.B. I like fireworks and I can’t dance)
Then there are local beaches for regular swimming, plus I learn Spanish, try to keep abreast of world events, and there’s reading and lots of excellent podcasts to challenge, inform and amuse…..and of course there are the chores that go along with life anywhere. I wouldn’t say I’ve been wildly busy, but I have seldom stopped.
People sometimes ask, and I ask myself, what it is that I miss about England. I’ve thought about it occasionally and yet, despite trying hard, can only come up with a rather limp and pitiful looking list.
Apart from the handful of friends and family in Britain who mean a lot to me, there really is not much. Perhaps BBC (though nowadays fairly accessible anywhere), varied lush green countryside (especially rural Devon), good drinking water, public libraries, familiar pleasing architecture, homemade marmalade and fresh Brussels sprouts. And, as I pay UK taxes I feel I earn a right to criticise and praise, where possible, my country’s virtues and priorities; (with other countries I’m more circumspect).
Thank you Canary Islands (and the coffee shops, bars, bus drivers and especially marina marineros) for giving me such a comfortable, secure and welcoming winter stay!
Porto Santo-Madeira-Porto Santo-Tenerife-La Gomera
Henrietta hasn’t sailed far in the past two months. Most of the time she has rested in comfortable anchorages and calm marinas. She may not have chosen it, and it won’t necessarily have suited her temperament. She would I suspect have preferred more time on the ocean swell, sails billowing in wholesome fresh breezes; surging over oceans wide, a dazzling white rush of water at her bow. Instead she has suffered marina blues, with the indignity of fish nibbling at her bottom.
In contrast, I have been pretty busy, fixing bits of her and me, talking, walking. I’m weary. Henrietta can write this update. So, it’s over to her………………………
Ok, if that’s what he wants. The skipper is always boss. But it has been a long time since I last put pen to paper, and I can’t remember much of what has happened. Even boats suffer from lapses of memory. This is a little bit of what I recall.
After a spell in the confines of Porto Santo harbour, I had a quick rolly return trip to Madeira. It was an easy sort of excursion, a 100 mile round trip, anchoring a few nights, so Michael could meet up with some lovely lively old friends from Bristol, eat ice creams and walk through the very upmarket suburbs of Funchal. (Neither of us is very upmarket and I was embarrassed by his scruffy worn out t-shirts and disgraceful sun hat, when the good folk of Madeira often have clean chinos, polo shirts and eye-catching straw on their heads.)
After that outing to Madeira we enjoyed another week in Porto Santo, before finally leaving at the end of November, once the boss had serviced my engine. (Although neither he nor I like engines, it is a great joy to have clean oil and new filters in my works; it’s a sort of colonic irrigation coupled with detox and high quality blood transfusion. Marine engines highly recommend it. I feel a lot better.)
Next stop Tenerife. I was anchored in a gorgeous spot, no houses, peace and the grandeur of majestic cliffs. Unsullied breathtaking nature. It was a shame that anchor chain got snarled on some old discarded mooring blocks. The boss dived down, couldn’t budge it, and had to cut the chain. Dived down again with rope to retrieve the anchor, returned with damaged ear and bleeding nose – all over my deck. (Think he’s forgotten he’s a pensioner). But I have my anchor back.
Onwards then to the city of Santa Cruz, which is the capital of Tenerife. Very fine it was too, tastefully lit and shining with Christmas lights. Pretty sociable for me with the constant goings-on of yachts joining the early winter rush to the Caribbean.
In Santa Cruz there are also lots of those huge grotesque boats called cruise ships, like ugly Soviet era housing blocks many storeys high, with cruising human beans doing their thing. They come to Tenerife in a steady stream of winter escape, stop a day, then disappear over the horizon. Very peculiar. But the beans take lots of photos and look as if they like it.
From the bustle of city life, the skipper takes me to the tiny island of La Gomera. He loves it here. I’m happy enough too. Don’t really mind fish nibbling my bottom; it helps keep it clean. With lots of fellow yachts and yachties, it has been a happy sociable spell.
We’ve had the excitement of watching the start of the Transatlantic Rowing Race.
As a yacht with sails, I can scarcely imagine what it must be like to rely on oars and human muscles, stamina and mind-boggling determination to get one across that massive ocean. There were over forty rowing boats that set off. After more than a month, the fastest are soon to arrive in Antigua. The slower ones, with just one person aboard may take three months or more.
I know my skipper, is full of admiration for those rowers. He felt privileged to have a tenuous link with one of the rowing boats and had a happy evening as their supporting family came for a drink in my cockpit. You can read more about the rowing race here.
And you can support the Friendship brothers (pictured before the start, below) here.
There’s then been a visit from one of the boss’s sons, called George, and they’ve left me alone as they’ve gone walking and swimming. The walks here are fantastic for their variety, interest and challenge. I float here in the marina’s clear water; they take buses to explore the island’s trails, returning at dusk with weary tingling limbs and strong thirst for beer.
Oh! There’s also been the joy and fun and absurdity of human Christmas and New Year festivities, and here also the Three Kings festival; a wondrous series of local song, music and dance, excited bean children, bopping bean youngsters and more, plus New Year fireworks. All this on an island just twelve miles across. I have been wearing my Christmas lights too!
Enough for now. Skipper is planning to take me back to Santa Cruz on Tenerife to sort himself out.
I’ve not been feeling inclined to write for a while. Haven’t felt inspired. There didn’t seem to be much to say.
But, in case you have wondered what happened to Henrietta, here’s a brief update. Plus, it’s a good thing if I pause awhile and think of what has happened. It’s not as if life has been totally empty and on hold.
Henrietta left Exeter Canal (SW England) mid-September, accompanied by me and a more-or-less lovely lady, Kimberly, from Florida (the wonders of crew by internet).
It would be nice to tell you that I simply jumped on board, cast off mooring lines and my bad shorebound lifestyle and picked up the wholesome life of a liveaboard sailor. I might have said that I used to do pretty much nothing on land except moan about the state of British decay and behave like a fully-fledged old grumpy whereas now I’m a new man bursting with good humour and fresh salty air. Not true.
In truth it hasn’t been like that at all. Apart from the fact that I didn’t do nothing on land its really been a case of swapping one set of pretty bad habits (the things I do as a landlubber) for another set of pretty bad habits (the things I do as a live aboard sailor).
Bad habits in a house include watching rubbish on telly, eating excessive loads of cheese, drinking a long way over the limit, biting my fingernails and sleepless nights pondering the nature of Britain’s woes. At sea, bad habits include chronic idleness, daydreaming, looking at waves, singing to dolphins and gannets, listening to Spotify, cursing Brexit and eating sweets, and continuing the sleepless nights but with a different set of preoccupations.
Adjusting from one set of bad habits to another takes a few weeks or months. I’m still in the uncomfortable transition zone, a mild maritime purgatory, where I’m a bit lost, don’t know what I’m doing on a boat, make lots of mistakes (couldn’t even get out of a windy marina without cocking it up and being ignominiously towed out backwards!), injure bits of my body I’d forgotten about and adjust to sleep deprivation, queasiness and ceaseless movement.
To get back to the sailing, after leaving Exeter, we popped in to nearby Dartmouth for final bits of new rigging (NB anything to do with sailing boats costs a bomb in Britain, with reliability and quality optional extras – avoid if you can), then sailed over to Northern Spain.
It was the nicest of several Biscay Bay crossings I’ve done: four days of sunshine, moonshine and good winds, stronger near the end, but altogether joyful.
We dabbled in and out of the Spanish Rias, anchored off scenic little islands, took a bus from the pretty village of Muros and milled around with the billions of latter day ‘tourist pilgrims’ who nowadays flock to Santiago de Compostela, feeling happily dwarfed and soothed by the magnificent architecture (and not in the least bit spiritual).
and took a bus to Santiago
Then, on to Vigo, and thence down the Portuguese coast to Viana do Castelo from where I enjoy a day trip to Porto, ticking off yet more of the tourist checklist. And a few days later, from the coastal town of Cascais, enjoy another trip to fascinating, historic and hilly Lisbon – an easy train ride from super swanky Cascais (where, sign of the times, anything a sailor needs such as chandlery or sailmaker has been displaced by worthless shops selling Rolex watches, high-end fashion and perfume).
This coastline now has some orcas who’ve taken to ramming small sailing boats, in several cases destroying rudders, even, I’ve been told, sinking one unlucky boat.
Why orcas do this is for now a marine mystery, but it does add to the anxieties of coastal sailing trips. Orcas are beautiful, highly intelligent and deservedly protected, but whether for play or war, they have been causing troubles for many sailors. No one really knows what to do. I just crossed my fingers and whispered nice things into the night sky, and all was fine.
By this stage the lady Kimberly from Florida (who works) had been exchanged for a delightful damsel, Merle from Hamburg (who doesn’t, for now). The former introduces me to the trials of internet working on a little boat. The latter is a gorgeous treat who introduces me, among many other things, to the fine cuisine of a dedicated vegan – sadly she was with me just two weeks.
And so once more I’ve found myself in charge of only my own destiny. I’m happy – most of the time.
Today, I wobble gently in the twinkling waters of Porto Santo’s little harbour. Porto Santo, in case you haven’t been here, is Madeira’s minuscule neighbour, some 40 miles away. It suits me with its friendly, polite and gentle residents, small mountain peaks and very low key tourism. There are fine sandy beaches and lots of hilly walks; warm winter sunshine too.
I meet a good assortment of friendly fellow sailors, am more gregarious than ever on land, and slowly, very slowly, get a bit stronger, more barmy, and more wrinkly and happier. It’s a good sort of lifestyle for incurable nomads, people like me, who don’t much care for camels or campervans, and love being close to Mother Nature.
As is often the case, I haven’t a clue where I’m going next, but I guess will gradually move on to the Canary Islands. (I’ve not been spending all those weeks with Duolingo Spanish for nothing.)
……. ………….. …………..
And now for something completely different.
Here’s something that’s been on my mind for a long while: Brexit. Don’t groan, don’t look the other way, don’t have a heart attack, and don’t do anything silly.
And if you are sick and tired of all things Brexit, read no further. Stop right now.
I bring it up, not because it’s a big event in global affairs. Compared to wars, climate change, poverty and such horrors Brexit seems irrelevant. I bring it up because blue water sailing is an international pastime – at least international among most affluent maritime nations, and now I’m in Europe my sailor friends are predominantly from EU countries. I’m asked why Britain left – as if we were all mad. Our decision is seen as equivalent to that of America electing Trump. And as holders of UK passports we are liable to time limits on how long we stay.
I know “the British People” voted to leave the EU. (We’re reminded of the British People’s wishes ad nauseam. [In fact it was well under one third of the population who voted to leave].)
BUT, big BUT, please can someone in the know remind me of the benefits of Brexit. All you folk who voted ‘leave’, many I dare say with daily experiences of EU cost and harm, or with current experiences of the ‘huge benefits’ promised, or buying and cherishing the Telegraph, the Daily Express or other such organs of selective wisdom and halfhearted truth, remind me. I can pass it on whenever I’m asked.
What are or will be or might be the benefits? (And before you mention abstract notions of freedom, sovereignty, independence, opportunity, please think hard and explain precisely what you mean.)
And if your considered response is that it’s ‘early days’ or ‘it may take a while’, please, oh please, tell me how long I must wait. Or must my children wait? (And of course I do not deny the EU has troubles.)
And if you are of a more serious-minded disposition and want to drag me through the reasoned beliefs and your convictions that elevate or benefit an independent little Britain in a globe of giants, please educate me.
I am desperately sad and often pretty angry at being a non-EU European. Now’s your chance to tell me why it’s such a good thing to have self-expelled Britain, why I got it wrong, why you’re right, and why I must open my eyes or be patient for the benefits.
OR please may you have the good grace or humility to consider you might, you just might have got it wrong.
After a spell on land – eight months in fact – it’s hard to decide whether to sail again or stay ashore. To sail or not to sail?
It is not so much a question of whether to sail again (I have done and certainly shall do more) as whether to be a normal and proper part-time sailor, like most folk (with smaller boat for local trips) or an improper full-time liveaboard sailor (with beloved Henrietta for longer overseas travels). I am lucky I suppose to have a choice.
Life on land through the past winter and spring has been pretty good to me: a home in a fine English city, wonderful family, a few good friends, an unchallenging routine, and an expanding waistline – all this in a country that’s free of major conflict, starvation, and serious oppression – albeit with a government that embarrasses me, policies that offend me and national self-image that seems woefully and extraordinarily misguided. (Wouldn’t blogs be dull without the odd opinion?)
But such matters are of little interest to others.
So I’ll move on to another trivial question.
Whether to continue writing this blog once more or simply keep my rambles to myself?
On the one hand blogs are self-indulgent, often a tedious rambling account of where I go, whom I meet and what I eat plus some ill-conceived opinionated drivel, and they’re rather time-consuming for both you and me.
On the other hand they may be informative, interesting and emotive. I guess it’s for the reader to judge. If you want to read, then do (and my tiny group of ‘followers’ does seem to want to); or, if you don’t want to read, then don’t (unless you really have nothing better to do).
So here we are, Henrietta and I together once more, bobbing at anchor in the Isles of Scilly – one of my favourite local destinations. I’m just back from the pub, in a good and tipsy mood, receptive to the delights of gulls and cormorants, enjoying the sounds of wind in rigging, clear blue sea and a setting sun.
It’s been a trial run from her winter berth on Exeter Canal, to see if boat and I still work ok. I reckon we both work all right, although nothing seems to be going very smoothly! I’d forgotten how uncomfortable and tricky sailing can be.
Boat (dear Henrietta) has Electrical Problems. They, the electrics, are, as they say, up the spout, with alarms going off as bits fail and instruments go wonky, sending an assortment of beeps and squeaks to tell me what I don’t want to know. This electric stuff was one thing that our sailing forebears didn’t have to trouble with (though the downside was they never knew exactly where they were and they had to ‘swing the lead’ to see how deep it was). On reflection I can see there were a few advantages in the sailing days before chartplotters and AIS and radar and echo sounder and GPS, and radio. Not many though.
I have muscle problems, balance irregularities and gastrointestinal woes. I.e. muscles seem to have disappeared under the winter delights of good cheese and chocolate biscuits and mashed potato. And sea legs have transposed into grade A flab and queasiness. Heaven forbid, I’ve almost been sick.
The bright point was setting forth and frolicking about on some of England’s hottest days ever. I didn’t need my thermal underwear.
And to finish this briefly (a few weeks later), I sailed for a few weeks along England’s gorgeous southwestern coastlines of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Hampshire (Isles of Scilly to Solent) fixing Henrietta’s delicate bits and redeveloping muscles and sea legs, meeting old friends, and finding new ones, and remembering how demanding and how rewarding life at sea can be. I’ve managed to avoid marinas on the south coast. (Nowadays you have to win the lottery or rob banks if you want to stay overnight in them.)
Henrietta has just been lifted out of the water so we can fix more bits. The mast has to come down too. Rigger has made suggestions tantamount to a death sentence. I have yet to decide where or when to go next. Will let you know – probably.
In July, in a little boatyard in Totnes, a few miles upriver from Dartmouth (England), Henrietta was hauled out of the water (she needed some work). I went to live in my house (I needed some work).
It felt very strange to live in a house. Too strange.
And so, after a few weeks seeing friends and family, I got back on my boat and went back to sea. Just for a while, for some end-of-season sailing – into autumn at least.
It was a mixed few weeks of late-summer English sailing: the novelty of fog, wildly varying wind and weather, gales and calms, warm sunshine and merciless rainfall. But the sea remained warm for swimming and blackberries were bountiful. We flittered east to Cowes and back west to Falmouth once more, before coming to rest a few days ago on the Exeter Canal just a few miles from home.
I was delighted to sail again with old friend Andrew, and to meet sister and cousins. And delighted too to sail again with Laura (last seen as crew in Sumatra and Jakarta), this time accompanied by Hendrik; and meet again Thom (last seen off the north Australian coast on his circumnavigation with little yacht Fathom). Then, once home, meet again Jenny and Simon (Fenicia, last seen in Dominica) and Nigel (Juliet, last seen in Portugal).
Ah! the wonderful joy of friends. On land I have few; at sea, many.
Landlubbing now In my house, front door has replaced companionway, bed replaced berth, hot shower in lieu of seawater swim, easy stroll to shop instead of dinghy or kayak ride ashore. All the trappings of normal urban life: traffic noise, council tax, limitless news gloom, unwanted emails, chronic parochialism, sensational headlines, unending junk mail and so on.
Nonetheless, when living on land, it is undeniably good to enjoy a hot shower (even a bubble bath, even a very bubbly bath), plus easy access to shops, reliable communications, unlimited electricity and gas, a big bouncy bed, a washing machine and television. But such things are just cotton wool and padding. They crush one’s vitality. They simply seem to muffle the essence of life.
And whilst it’s true that life on a small boat has elements of discomfort, confinement and inconvenience, plus travelling bureaucracy and endless chores, the awful truth is that for now I feel more at home, more fulfilled, happier and probably healthier on my little boat. When afloat I feel aware, liberated, interested and thoughtful in a way that eludes me with dirt-dwelling, shore-bound life. My comfort zone at sea may often be sleep-deprived, challenging and awkward, but it’s preferable to a comfort zone of risk-limited absurdity, day-to-day trivia and a sense of entrapment.
I’m reminded that at sea I love the closeness of nature and constant awareness of being alive. I know the phase of the moon and every subtle shift of wind and waves. I’m acutely aware of the presence of boundless universe, the warmth of the sun, the harsh power of strong winds, the beauty of clouds and majesty of ocean swell. The joy of seeing birds as they dive and swoop and soar, or just bob peacefully upon the waves; the never-ending delight of dolphins leaping at one’s side; sometimes a whale, and, in warmer waters, the scatty glistening flight of flying fish. A raw rocky coastline, distant clusters of human habitation, the overarching sky and infinite variety of clouds.
It’s only in the great outdoors that we are aware of such things. And nowhere has more of the ‘great outdoors’ than the world’s oceans.
For the past six years of sailing I have felt happiness and fulfilment far outweigh ennui and melancholia. On land for now the reverse is sometimes sadly true. It probably wouldn’t be the same for you. Almost certainly not.
Could be I’m just a freak, a compulsive waterborne nomad. And I am quick to point out that I really do have absolutely nothing to complain about on land, that I live in England’s most enchanting county (Devon), in the country’s best small city (Exeter), in what is perhaps the most civilised continent in the world (Europe), have wonderful neighbours on a friendly street, and do enjoy beautiful local countryside and the easy pleasures of television.
It would be a gross generalisation and simplification to suggest people thrive on a modicum of discomfort and risk, but I suspect that though the human quest for seemingly unlimited and costly comfort, and risk-free life may give us longer lives, bigger bums and fairer skins, it is for the most part really very silly – just another manifestation of Homo Sapiens gone barmy.
But that’s enough of my ramblings! I hear my friends telling me to shut up, and to stay well away from such stuff.
Here are a few photos from the last months of sailing in England.
Here are a few dry facts and figures from the past six years of active sailing with the long suffering and invincible Henrietta.
Year 1 (2015/16): Atlantic Circuit 11,830 nautical miles.
Henrietta and I reached England a few days ago. We had a mostly gentle sail from the Azores, often too gentle. We wallowed quite a lot of the 1,300 mile way in a heaving ocean with too few breaths of wind. But the wind picked up later. And then it was very strong, much too strong, with heavy rain and on the nose. Horrible and uncomfortable, and I decided to heave-to for only the second time in six years. Perhaps the weather gods were telling me firmly not to come home.
Wind died and tide turned as I reached the Lizard, England’s most southerly point – high cliffs with rocks (and wrecks) strewn nearby. I started the engine. It faltered and died soon after, fuel intake pipe blocked with gunge, doubtless disturbed in rough Atlantic seas.
There followed an anxious hour as I sailed in fickle fluky whisps of wind, stemming the tide, to anchor in a tiny cove under the Lizard lighthouse. (Don’t try and do this if you’re of a nervous disposition.)
Fixed a temporary fuel supply and motored on to Falmouth in calm sunshine next day, to anchor in one of my favourite spots beneath the imposing sight of the National Trust’s Trelissick House. I’d been here just over five years ago. Next day my dear sister meets me for a car trip to Truro and lunch on the north Cornish coast. (In case you’re wondering about quarantine, I’d done 14 days isolation by that stage).
Somewhere along the way from Azores to England it got cold. I fished out long trousers, fleece and a pair of socks, a tog 13 duvet, even a woolly hat. A mug of hot soup was good at lunch time. The lavatory seat felt cold. Yes, you may say it’s the middle of summer, but my feet felt chilly.
Then I sailed east towards Plymouth and anchored off the charming little Cornish villages of Cawsand and Kingsand. It’s wet and windy now so Henrietta’s the only boat still at anchor, and I stay aboard and write this update. Yesterday was fine and I took these photos.
Even though I wasn’t born in England it is my home country. As far as I know there’s no hint of Scottish, Welsh or Irish in me (even though those countries seem to have more exciting and romantic associations than English – I’m not sure why).
So, as a more or less pure and steady Englishman, let me give a few first impressions of my homeland.
The air is cool and fresh, food is superb and cheap, people are for the most part friendly and helpful (even if they are reserved and don’t smile much), buildings are a rich mix of age and style, streets clean, public transport works well, shops are well-stocked and hugely varied, countryside and coastline are exquisite, BBC radio is the world’s best. Those are a few of the good things.
The less good? The country has always been obsessed with the weather (with good reason) but is now also obsessed with health in general and Covid in particular (with bad reason). Beer and wine, those staples of advanced civilisation, are absurdly taxed and hence ridiculously expensive. Rules, regulations and paperwork are out of control (and if you thought it came from Brussels, you may have been wrong. It mostly comes out of our very own Civil Service – and always has done).
For the very first time in my long life and having sailed in and out of the country on countless occasions, this is the first time ever that I’ve been told to complete paperwork. (You, and this includes several good friends, may believe that one day Britain will be a better place without its union with fellow European countries but, thus far and in my experience around the world, it has been profoundly bad and expensive news ever since that fateful day in June 2016. …Phew! got that off my chest. I can of course discuss this with you at great length – but not here.)
I feel something of a misfit in England. But then I always did. Perhaps everyone sometimes feels the same. It will be hard I suppose to reintegrate. Was I ever ‘integrated’? Do I even want to be? Things to think about in the weeks ahead.
It’s good to know though that the world, both in and a long way outside Britain, is packed with people who are overwhelmingly friendly, kind, generous, colourful, honest, interesting and long suffering. I feel I could live in many places (if younger and if they’d let me). But of course, outside your home country, you cannot be too critical of the things you don’t care for. That would be rude and ignorant, even dangerous. So for now and for a little while I’ll stay here in Britain – and be as critical as I want.
Perhaps I’ll write another post for this blog once I’ve looked at a few log books to find some facts and figures, and summarise a five-year sail. And I’d like to get back to my starting place, Lymington.
Henrietta needs a month out of the water. I’m on my way to Totnes for lift-out. It’s a little town in Devon, a few miles upriver from Dartmouth. After 18 months and over 17,000 miles sailing since she was last hauled out, there are lots of things to deal with.
It was a long slow sail most of the way from Martinique to the Azores, not at all a straight line, trying to skirt high pressure areas of little wind and then with head winds. With a broken alternator as well and Hydrovane working loose, I was happy after 25 days to reach Horta Harbour.
But I enjoyed most of the journey, my fifth time solo across the Atlantic. As you sail northwards from the Caribbean, hot tropical steaminess eases to fine sunny days and comfortable cool nights. Many dolphin, a distant whale, occasional seabirds, swooping shearwater, petrels and other gulls, and vast areas awash with patchy Sargasso weed, I love the feeling of senses awakened and of the reality – an insignificant human speck in the vast blue swelling ocean with sunlit days, and the endless timeless panorama of stars at night.
The harbour and marina of Horta are busy but efficiently managed. Several boats arrive every day and anchor at this maritime crossroads – boats from all around the Atlantic. A dayafter getting here we’re tested, confirmed healthy, form-filled and free to land. Being ahead of the main rush I was soon found a secure spot to raft alongside others inside the little marina. Henrietta’s now been here almost a month.
I like Portugal. It is surely the most civilised, interesting, friendly and underrated country of Europe. The Azores’s nine islands are especially lovely, uncrowded and unspoilt.
Days pass with walks along paths and up hills alight with hydrangea, wild rose and agapanthus ; sociable drinks and meals with the many Europeans here, including a happy chance meeting with friend of a relative, en route to the Mediterranean; and there’s always the inevitable list of boat maintenance work. I’ve perhaps grown lazier and slower, a day’s work taking a week, a long walk now a shorter one.
A day trip on local ferry to the neighbouring island of Pico took me to Portugal’s highest mountain. It too is named Pico, and at 2,351 metres, nowadays and until new body parts are fitted, too big a climb for me. It was instead a bright day of exploration on rented scooter through the lanes and villages of this hilly island, small colourful stone houses, tiny plots of vines in dark lava-stoned walls, and smiling greetings from gentle people.
All I’ve seen of the Azores both now and five years ago, when I last sailed through, is enchanting. There are still two more islands to visit but they must wait till another time.
Now it’s time to sail on to England. I await more helpful wind.
I’ve been here in Martinique for two months now. But before I tell you of life in Martinique, here’s a quick postscript for Saint Helena – that tiny isolated island of some 4,300 inhabitants in the South Atlantic, where Henrietta was not to linger and I was not allowed to land.
Skip the next few paragraphs if you want to read only of Martinique.
I did at first write rather a lot about Saint Helena, several pages in fact. I’ve deleted it. It’s best not to upset too many people. In any case no one really wants to read too much horrible stuff (that’s what the newspapers give you).
The British Overseas Territories are a formidable topic for study, Saint Helena is just one of those Overseas Territories. So, prudence being the better part of valour (is that what people say?), I’ll spare you the the first draft.
The good news is that Saint Helena reopened to visiting yachts at the start of April.
The sad news is that in having looked more closely at the island’s recent history, decision-making and funding, I seem to have uncovered a can of worms, several cans in fact. I hesitate before telling you…….actually I shan’t tell you much. If interested, you can find out more and ask your own questions.
One of two matters worth a look is the new airport. At best it is an amazing project completed despite its complexity, at worst it’s a serious “embarrassment” and a ”fiasco” – according to the UK Public Accounts Committee (Airport Report )
The other matter is Lord Michael Ashcroft, a keen advocate and lobbyist for Saint Helena. He might be wealthy philanthropic angel or self-serving villain, or simply one of those rather powerful misguided missiles. It all depends. He’s perhaps all three. In any case his influence and involvement with the island is interesting. (Lord Ashcroft) (Ashcroft on St Helena Covid )
As for British funding for Saint Helena, for 2020/21 the UK taxpayer pays “up to £34.3 million”, around £8,000 per inhabitant.
Cost of the airport to the UK taxpayer “up to April 2016” was £238.9 million (over £55,000 per inhabitant). Further work on the airport is ongoing. I’m waiting for a further reply from FCDO (UK Foreign Office).
That’s enough about Saint Helena….moving on to Martinique………
First I’d like to sing my praises for the French. Just look at what they’ve come up with.
After the Eiffel Tower there’s camembert, good wine, exotic underwear, Tour de France, Pasteur, Flaubert, fine perfume, the guillotine ……You’d perhaps consider the French to be creative, inventive, cultured, sexy and adventurous. But you’d not think of the French as particularly sensible; well I wouldn’t. They’re often charming, generous, adventurous, outspoken and beautiful…but not notably rational.
Yet, when it comes to the tiny little business of how to treat long distance cruising sailors in the time of Covid, France, at least outside mainland France, is one of the world’s most reasonable and considerate of nations.
If you’ve been isolated at sea for an extended time (and you’re still alive), the odds on your being a carrier of the bug are virtually non-existent. This is understood by the French – in Réunion and Martinique anyway (the two French island territories I have visited in the past few months). I have been allowed to come here, to stay, do boat repairs, go shopping, walking, swimming and subject to local rules, carry on with life. Good sense prevails. They’ve not forgotten the importance of liberté.
There’re not many places where decisions are so sane. The list of countries that have treated long-distance yachting folk as insufferable and unwanted is surprisingly long – countries which you’d normally think of as sensible. I shan’t name them. But I shan’t forget them.
It’s always good to reconsider our preconceptions.
Countries that are accepting yachts must be benefitting financially from the business we bring. Certainly in Martinique and Réunion (and in Cape Town) boatyards are busy, and skilled workers are fully booked up.
Martinique is French territory. This delightful Caribbean island let me in. I needed to do repairs, and after six weeks at sea needed food and water. They check papers and passport to confirm where I’ve been, ask if I feel well, then I’m free. As I say, I’ve been here two months.
Given that movement around the Caribbean islands is now troublesome (though perfectly possible) with ever-changing rules and restrictions (plus spells in quarantine, testing costs etc), I’ve taken the easy option and stayed in Martinique, sailing all over the place, while fattening up on good bread, cheese and wine, and making more effort to learn more French.
Time passes fast and easily enough. Among the hundreds of boaters anchored in the main anchorage of St Anne are some of those wonderful and indispensable human organisers who arrange small social events, activities and self-help. We’re an international crowd, understandably dominated by the French and, as always with the cruising community, overwhelmingly friendly, good humoured and supportive.
To help keep moderately sane and fit, and to fight-the-flab, I join others for aquarobics (they call it ‘noodling’, the long tube of colourful plastic being a noodle – a frite in French). And often walk a few miles along the coast or up a mountain, kayak ashore for shopping or a meal, go snorkelling and attend occasional mini- parties.
But busy anchorages are not really my cup of tea, so I’ve spent most of the time, a few weeks, sailing slowly around Martinique stopping wherever looks sheltered and pretty, exploring lesser known, out-of-the-way places.
It is a mountainous volcanic island, three times the size of the Isle of Wight (Southern England). This ‘island of flowers’ is pleasingly spectacular with towering peaks, fine forests and exquisite beaches. Coral and fish life is poor alas, though turtles and rays are plentiful; and there are many pelicans, frigate birds and other sea birds.
The highest peak here, Mount Pelée, is a bit higher than Britain’s highest mountain, 1,397 metres. It’s a volcano which exploded in 1902 and was the most deadly volcanic eruption of the 20th century – the entire town of St Pierre (which was then the capital) was destroyed; nearly 30,000 people were killed (the sole survivor a prisoner in his heavy stone-walled cell); and the ships anchored offshore were sunk (now popular dive sites).
There are dozens of anchorages up the sheltered west coast, most with a few boats bobbing about. The capital, Fort-de-France, a thriving and colourful hub of activity (somewhat suppressed by global bug), a very active sailing school at Schoelcher giving hours of entertainment. My favourite stop, Anne Couleuvre, a so-called ‘day anchorage’, a bit rolly (overnight just me) and at the start of an especially beautiful forest walk in one of several Nature Reserves. And there are many peaceful anchorages along the east coast too, nestling behind the reefs which give protection from the Atlantic swell.
Recently further restrictions have been introduced. Even small gatherings are no longer allowed, cafes and so on only give takeaways, many shops have shut.
So in a few days I’ll head for the Azores. It is another big hop, about 2,300 miles, perhaps two or three weeks’ sailing. It’s what thousands of sailors have been doing for a very long time. It’s roughly what I did myself a few years ago.
St Helena, over the equator once more and on to the island of Martinique. World circuit completed.
What do you really look forward to when you reach your destination after a long passage? What have you missed during those solitary rolly days on the big empty ocean?
For me, approaching Saint Helena, it was a chance to walk and stretch my legs, meet people and chat, emails and WhatsApp with family and friends, a meal out perhaps. And then there’s always the excitement of new local interest with history, architecture, novel foods, wildlife, ways of speech, strange customs. So much to explore and enjoy.
All of that was denied in St Helena. Since leaving Cape Town the rules for St Helena had changed. In fact I left South Africa on 30th December, rules were I believe changed at a St Helena Council meeting on 31st December. As I have no internet at sea, I had no way of knowing.
On arrival a VHF call from the port tells me I can’t land. I’m not allowed to leave the boat. I’m not to approach any of the other cruisers (there seem to be four or five occupied boats that must have been here for a very long time – what on earth are they doing?) I have to leave the mooring within 24 hours. I must go away.
Talk about feeling unloved and unwanted.
Covid paranoia on this tiny remote and isolated island has reached new heights of absurdity and two weeks’ quarantine in total isolation many hundreds of miles from all human life forms, plus a negative test on arrival is not enough. Now, quite simply, one is not allowed in. (I smile at the silly thought that Napoleon would never have been allowed in. When he was exiled here, just think of the dreadful bugs that were around in his country, France, and Britain, horrid diseases like smallpox, typhus, yellow fever, polio, cholera, typhoid, scarlet fever, plague plus all those viruses like measles, mumps etc. He of course was sent here and died here.)
Plenty of other countries have applied the same draconian emphatic ‘NO, GO AWAY’ to sailing boats, but they’re not British territory; it’s not for me to comment, none of my business. But Saint Helena is a British millstone; UK taxpayers keep it afloat. I feel I can comment.
To say I was very disappointed and quietly seething understates my sentiments. Presumably a caucus of local politicians made this decision. I’m checking which decisions, if any, have to be rubber stamped by Foreign Office in London. Research to be done. Questions to ask. I’m awaiting replies to my first round of emails.
This little outpost of 4,500 people is almost entirely sustained by aid from the British Government. Around half its GDP, nearly £20 million is for Government Services alone. That doesn’t include the $374 million spent on what was dubbed ‘The World’s Most Useless Airport’ which was completed four years ago.
To be fair, I add that the local Harbour Master, Steve, and his staff seemed bemused by (but respectful of) the new ruling, and were of course obliged to follow their government directives. I needed a new bolt for self steering, that had sheared off in the boisterous Cape Town conditions, and they found this for me, plus a box of food to help me on my way.
I enjoyed some swimming in the clear blue sea off Henrietta’s stern as well. A bit chilly but I feel clean and fresh. It cooled my frustrations too.
One of the ugliest looking settlements I have ever seen anywhere on earth scars the cliff top and ridge above the anchorage of St Helena. This eyesore is the capital of this isolated outpost in the South Atlantic, a jumble of chaotic ugliness called Jamestown. You could not devise a more unsightly set of dwellings were you to try. That’s what it looks like from offshore. Folk on land may tell me otherwise.
The crumbling grey brown cliffs that loom over the anchorage are home to sea birds, mainly masked boobies and white terns I think, but the high cliffs look dirty and threatening rather than majestic, not a pretty sight.
It is wonderful though for me to imagine the history of long-ago sailing ships calling in on their passages to and from the Far East – days before the Suez Canal when St Helena was a welcome port-of-call for provioning (as it is for me right now! ).
It’s a long way from St Helena to the Caribbean, nearly 4,000 miles.
To break the journey and add interest, I toyed with the idea of stopping at the Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronha, but it charges extortionate fees even for brief stops, and I wasn’t clear about quarantine rules. I thought too about Surinam, but learnt that I’d be faced with a week of quarantine on a mosquito infested river, and that restaurants were take-away only and, the killer for me, no tourism to the interior. So, just kept going to the Caribbean….
It is essentially an easy journey across the South and North Atlantic Ocean, even if quite a long way. More or less reliable Trade Winds north and south of the equator, a patch of Doldrums somewhere in the middle. Hot sunshine and grand empty blue ocean all the way.
I was about to say not much happened. But then I remembered that on day 17, I started a new tube of toothpaste….
….Then it all came flooding back. A lot happened. In fact I’ve never yet sailed a long ocean passage without some drama to disturb life. It’s just that I’m extremely proficient at forgetting horrid stuff. You have to be or you’d give up.
Early on and tired of slow progress in light winds I fished out the cruising chute, which had lain unused for three years. I seldom use it as it’s big and hard to handle alone if the wind gets up, and it doesn’t add much to speed except in these very light downwind conditions. Plus I don’t much like its colour or pattern; letter-box red and silly flat white chevrons near the edges. It is gaudy and loud, and looks out of place and clashes with the beautiful natural blues of ocean and sky.
Once hoisted, all went well and speed picked up. The great big red nylon balloon swung and rolled with the swell. Even if I still didn’t care for the colour we were moving faster.
But then, after three days and nights and in rising wind, the tack line (short bit of rope at bottom corner of chute) had chafed itself to extinction and broke free. I’d not spotted it weakening.
As they say, with wind growing stronger by the minute, all hell broke loose. The giant red nylon blob was wildly angrily flapping itself forward of Henrietta, the shackle a demented murderous lump of metal flying everywhere. The noise was awful. Time to do something.
I’ll spare you the details, but if you’ve ever had the excitement of regaining control of a spinnaker or gennaker that’s gone berserk, you will know how hard life can be – and how many muscles are needed. It took me over an hour to recover the sail, fit a new tack, trim the sail and get going once more. I was bruised, grazed, burned, sore and blooded. Hands and knees, whole body, needed a holiday. I was shakey and pretty much knackered – but at least, I thought, letter-box red hides the blood stains. That’s more than enough drama for an Englishman in retirement.
Two more days of red blob sailing and then it had to come down. Surfing down the waves at over eight knots is no fun for Henrietta and makes me very nervous. Wind was much too strong and my armpits smelt of garlic (sure sign that anxiety levels were way through the roof). We were not in a race. It took nearly an hour lowering the beast and stowing and tidying up before life was back to something more sensible. I had a good wash too, and soon smelled sweetly of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo (it makes bubbles with seawater).
The Doldrums are not necessarily all calm. They weren’t for me. Instead they gave four days of wildly variable winds, intense rainfall, some calm and frequent squalls. Better equipped sailors have access to weather forecasts and can find the best longitude to cross the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (the proper phrase to describe this unsettled, and often calm, equatorial band across the ocean). I just went the way that experience had found most favourable in the centuries of sail trading vessels.
After that it was a fast sail for the next 2,000 miles on to Martinique, just one small semi-open Brazilian fishing boat, over 400 miles from its home. They offer me a fish, a big tuna I think, but it’s too tricky to slow or go close enough. But such kind gestures make me want to sail to Brazil – another day. A few other fishing boats, I guess from French Guiana or Trinidad were around too so it’s not an area for much sleep.
Then, one full month after leaving Saint Helena and nearly seven weeks out of Cape Town, Henrietta took me into Martinique. The bay at St Anne is a mass of masts bright in the early morning sunshine. There are hundreds of yachts here, more boats than I’ve seen in the past two years. Clearance at the port of Le Marin takes five minutes.
Martinique marks the end of Henrietta’s trip around the world. We were last here four years ago.
I should perhaps have a glass of champagne. But there’s no crested flute on board; no champagne either. A tin of beer is fine. Perfectly amazing in fact..
Then, the icing on the cake, a long peaceful night of calm undisturbed sleep.
I suppose I ought to feel happy, elated even, to have sailed around this unique and wonderful planet. It is true that I’m pleased, especially as four years ago I was very unsure what to do, feeling a bit creaky, weary, and lost. Thought I’d just have a look at more islands in the Caribbean then sail home and complete a second Atlantic Circuit. But I didn’t; instead I carried on westwards.
For me it was never a dream; and I’ve never had a ‘bucket list’. I just went. Henrietta looked after me.
Perhaps it really is best to try something rather than regret never having had a go. I do not know. Don’t ask me.