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.
Tourist Cape Town, Christmas and a sail to Saint Helena
A month in Cape Town passed quickly; a fascinating month, which included the typical cruising sailors’ diet of boat bits, tourist bits, sociable bits and unmentionable bits, plus Christmas somewhere in there. Briefly then….
First though I point out that Cape Town is made interesting less because of its scenic splendour, fine beaches and high quality wine (nice as they all are) than because it’s such a bubbling stew pot of people, folk from every corner of the planet. New African arrivals from most countries of the continent, people who have short term work here, freshly arrived Europeans, and others, all muddling along with the historic residents, African, Afrikaans, Cape Coloured, Indian and English.
It is a beautiful, yet for me an uneasy metropolitan city of contrasts: global glamour and awful poverty, striking city architecture, luxurious villas alongside desperate shabby townships, privileged wealth and struggling immigrants, the entitled and the misfitting outcasts, ragged down-and-outs at a Ferrari showroom. All this human life beneath the fabulous backdrop of Table Mountain and Lion’s Peak, and an overarching blue sky.
The racial divides and tensions are complex. Much too complex for me. I was going to tell you something about it, but remembered it’s best to gloss over the three minefield topics of politics, religion and Marmite – best not to upset people. “Cry, the Beloved Country” which I’d read as a youth, is well worth reading again.
With such warm welcomes everywhere, and outstanding friendly generosity and help, it would smack of ingratitude were I to dwell on the Nation’s difficulties. (And it’s not as if my nation, Britain, doesn’t have its own heavyweight problems.)
When here, you will often hear the words “This is Africa”, delivered with a fatalistic shrug, not because your knowledge of geography might be limited, but rather like the commonplace British phrase “it is what it is”; both being uttered to explain anything that is wrong, or fails to happen or seems ridiculous. Most tiresome.
However, this blog is meant to be telling you about Henrietta’s little adventure, not these rambling observations.
Memorable highlights for me?
Lunch with the Portuguese Cape Town community. Mainly originating in Madeira, they’d invited solo sailor Henrique (Madeira), who’d then invited Frank (German solo) and me (British solo) to go too. Wonderful generosity, white table cloths, real interest, a feast and excellent wine. Huge thank you to the local Portuguese.
Kirstenbosch Gardens. Perhaps the most beautiful, serene and magical botanic gardens I’ve seen anywhere in the world (and I’ve seen many). A fabulous variety of plants, textures and colours perfectly set in the rolling foothills behind the city and with Table Mountain behind. Visited twice but would readily have returned many more times. In fact I could live there.
A sweaty leg-throbbing clamber up Table Mountain – on a very hot sunny day. Ample water and a banana used. But some titanium definitely needed. Fifty years ago it was easy-peasy, but things change. At little over 1,000 metres Table Mountain isn’t even very high.
A wonderful Christmas Day with my kind host Michael (originally New York but long time South Africa), plus Othmane (Morocco to Cape Town, four years, on bicycle and skateboard), and Regina (Germany with Kazakhstan origins working here).
After four of the past six Christmases spent alone, usually at sea, it was an especially memorable, friendly and happy day. And much as I enjoy the company of my fellow sailors it’s good too to spend time with terrestrial friends.
Othmane Zolate from Morocco has been in Cape Town for two years now. He’s wide-eyed, gentle, modest and open, not born to either money or privileges, but with a local production company is now making a film of his four year cycle/skateboard trip for several African TV stations. (Out early in 2021, Netflix too). Here’s a link to a YouTube clip.
One of the many extraordinary people I’ve met during the past few years, his next venture is to sail around the world. He’s done a sailing course here in Cape Town and I’ve no doubt he’ll go on soon to his next venture. Bicycle, skateboard, African deserts and hardships on land will make life on a boat at sea seem oh so easy and relaxed – most of the time.
A few unlucky participants in the Vendée Globe (a singlehanded round the world non-stop sailing race) were forced to retire and their beautiful racing boats, the Formula 1 racers of the sailing world, found themselves in Cape Town. To my eyes they are beautiful and of course I’d love to sail one, but for cruising round the oceans give me Henrietta any day.
Soon it was time to move on. Home is still a long way away. The first step is 1,700 nautical miles from Cape Town to the little South Atlantic island of St Helena, perhaps 12 days; quite a long way but nothing special in the world of circumnavigation.
Changes to Covid rules in South Africa at the end of December 2020 had among other things banned the sale of drink. A new level of restrictions was introduced. All alcohol sales had been banned. No shop could sell it. Vineyard visits and wine tastings were over. Every bar shut down, restaurants and clubs such as the Royal Cape Yacht Club could no longer sell booze. The place died.
But that wasn’t the reason I left. It just happened that way. I’d had a month in Cape Town, seen what I’d wanted to see, enjoyed a convivial Christmas and done enough shopping. I had the nomadic itch and wanted to move on.
I’d expected an easy passage northwards with following breeze and warm sunshine, so it was a horrible shock by day three to have a full gale, cabin soaked from a breaking sea that sluiced inside (I’d foolishly removed washboards for fresh air).
Feeling queasy, unwell, downhearted and exhausted, it was a rare spell when I asked myself what on earth was I doing on the wild ocean waves when I might instead succumb to advanced self-pity, lie around at home, hug a hot-water bottle and broach a bottle of whisky.
The crashing wave had made trouble for electronics too; AIS and chart plotter were out of action (fortunately partially fixed a couple of days later, along with my morale).
The gale, with howling winds gusting over 50 knots and harsh foam-crested waves, lasted nearly three days, much stronger than forecast before I left Cape Town. It definitely shouldn’t have happened. It was a wild downwind ride, all sails stowed and still at speeds over 5 knots.
Such conditions make you feel very small, insignificant and powerless in the face of nature – which indeed we are. It’s very rare to encounter them and in about 45,000 miles over the past five years this is only the second such occasion. After that wild start, it was a slow warm easy sail the rest of the way, an occasional gull or tropic bird for company.
Apart from very rare incidents of vile weather, time passes easily enough with on-board chores, minor maintenance, cleaning, cooking, reading, looking out enchanted by the confident dance, swoops and glide of occasional ocean birds, and the less confident skittery flights of flying fish, music, podcasts, thinking, planning, dreaming, sail trimming. And I find I’m tired, happy to sleep when I can.
If ever boredom threatens I remember my mother’s comment to a listless moody teenage son, “it’s only the boring who ever get bored”. And with routine established, boat tidied and feeling better in warm sunshine, St Helena soon comes into view.
In the end the passage took longer than 12 days but, as I’d known landing in St Helena would not be permitted till at least 14 days had elapsed since leaving Cape Town, there was no rush. I was looking forward to stretching my legs, chatting to fellow mankind, fixing broken Hydrovane bracket (a bolt had sheared in gale) and buying some fresh fruit and a beer.
Henrietta arrived in Cape Town last night after a busy and eventful few weeks sailing the stretch from Réunion; about 1,400 miles in one hop to Richards Bay in South Africa, then three hops and another few hundred miles round the bottom of Africa to here. I’m happy to be back in the Atlantic Ocean.
That’s it. If you want more detail you’ll need to read more below, but this is rather a rambling blog post. I’m sleepy.
From Réunion to Richards Bay, my first port in South Africa, and then on to Cape Town was an anxious business. I feared 2,000 miles of fearsome winds, wild seas and so on. That’s what I’d been learning about before setting out.
In practice, the anxiety came not from the reality but from reading and hearing too much beforehand. As so often in life the reality does not live up to the hype.
Having read books, blogs, internet sources and listened to others I’d come to expect some severe sailing. In the case of South Africa I’d learnt that there’s one low pressure system after another rushing in from the Antarctic Southern Ocean, each bringing wind reversals and seriously windy stuff and violent swells, just a few days between each episode of horrors. (This was all news to me. I thought South Africa had hot dusty game parks with lions and hippos inland, and warm blue skies with sandy beaches and lovely blue seas along its coastline. I’d been here before you see – though that was ages ago, 1973, and I was on my motorbike not a boat.)
Sailors suffer their own version of what I call ‘fisherman’s hyperbole syndrome’. This is a fairly harmless ailment that in bar room anecdotes and the excitement of hazy hindsight, converts ten inch mackerel into ten foot marlin. In sailors, this syndrome magnifies a strong wind and choppy sea to storm force winds and mountainous waves.
Nothing wrong with a good story but with time plus the distortions of Facebook’s opinionated commentators and its incubated falsehoods, in rounding the seas of South Africa we hear nothing but horrendous tales of treacherous conditions, foul currents, endless gales and dreadful fog, in which you put your vessel and lives at risk. After all there are an awful lot of wrecks. For me it wasn’t really like that. Thank goodness.
Please don’t take this to mean that it’s an easy bit of sailing. It isn’t. The Indian Ocean and South Africa in particular have given me the most challenging conditions of this journey so far. It’s really quite tiring.
But the hazards of sailing tend not to come from recognised tricky spots where we know we have to be extra careful, but from unexpected quarters. In hazardous places we carefully watch tides, forecasts etc. and we remain alert. Rounding South Africa we remain alert, but there’s no need to imagine it’ll be especially alarming. I experienced only two short-lived rough spells of 35 – 40 knots plus, and that was because I chose not to stop at East London or Port Elizabeth (because I’m mildly allergic to bureaucratic paperwork and knew such ports require it).
Anyway, the 1,400 mile passage from Réunion to Richards Bay in South Africa was a mix of calm and too much wind, but no serious gales. I was sorry not to stop in Madagascar but it’s still closed.
At Richards Bay there’s a warm welcome from Natasha the OCC rep, a Covid test, a wait, lots of paperwork, more waiting and, after a week South Africa immigration authority decides we visiting sailors may have visas. Passport is stamped and the visa gives me three months. They call us foreign sailors, “internationals” (which is true but sounds a bit grand I think).
As an aside, it is frustratingly ironic that as long distance sailors, in Covid terms, we are perhaps the purest people on the planet (extreme social distancing, prolonged isolation etc) and yet on arrival in a new country – if allowed to arrive at all – are often viewed more as 19th century lepers than purity personified.
Never mind, South Africa has opened its doors, thanks to extensive behind-the-scenes efforts by notable local individuals.
From the happy hospitality and welcoming Zululand Yacht Club of Richards Bay it was a short overnight hop to Durban. The less said about Durban the better. The silver lining was the Royal Natal Yacht Club which kindly gives visiting ‘internationals’ free membership and a bottle of red wine. The dark cloud is a striking but unlovely city where a solitary city walk to see parks, architecture and local life left me feeling uncomfortable and unwanted. But the beaches are nice enough. Suburbs I’m told are very nice. No hostility there.
I left Durban as soon as I could for a four day sail, nearly 600 miles round the southeastern bit of Africa to the charming lagoon at Knysna where green hills and a neat little town make for a picture postcard stop.
That stretch of coast includes record daily runs as there’s the amazing Agulhas Current that adds 3-5 knots to boat speed. Too fast, so I had to linger off Knysna waiting for the right conditions to get in. It’s a hazardous entry, 30 metres wide with big swell crashing onto rocks very close. (Commodore of the local yacht club tells me that Lloyd’s of London judge it the second most dangerous entry in the world.) Going in was fine; coming out a week later more alarming – no chance to take a photo.
But it was worth the wait to enter. Too many people have said ‘what could be nicer than Knysna’, but it’s true. The tricky entrance makes it untenable in strong winds or rough seas, and this entrance keeps the crowds away, but if you make it past the rocks, fast currents and shallow bar, there’s a friendly helpful welcome from the yacht club, and a small bright comfortable club house restaurant. And a relatively affluent small town on the doorstep.
On South Africa’s Garden Route Knysna is normally busy with tourists both local and international (not this year), and well-off South Africans have waterfront holiday homes here. Henrietta had a beautiful rest tethered to the visitor mooring where guillemots (or shags) dive and terns visited. She’s the only visiting yacht so far this summer. I spent days walking, kayaking, doing minor boat chores and eating. (South Africa has a wonderful range of fresh high quality fruit and vegetables, a treasure trove of fabulous food for a veggie.)
And then I moved on, a 290 mile leg to Cape Town. It includes the southernmost tip of Africa, Cape Agulhas, and takes you from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic; and then past the Cape of Good Hope and on to Cape Town. It’s a beautiful and magnificent piece of coastline, and lots of seals are flopping and diving around as Henrietta approaches.
So now I sit secure in the Royal Cape Yacht Club Marina waiting for clearance. Henrietta has a fine view of Table Mountain……Health officials arrived as I was writing so now I’ve done straightforward formalities and am ‘legal’. Free to explore.
Mountains, wine, hiking, more wine and it’s not a hedgehog
If you haven’t been here and you’re not French, you may not know much about Réunion. You may scarcely have heard of it. France probably wants to keep it a secret.
So first of all here’s some geography. It’s a French Territory (like Martinique and Guadalupe) a bit bigger than its nearest neighbour, Mauritius, which is just over 100 miles away. Both islands emerged from the same geological hotspot in the earth’s crust, though Réunion is much younger, a mere 2 million years. Hence it’s very mountainous with stark steep volcanic peaks everywhere other than on the narrow coastal belt, and lots of deep ravines. Madagascar is about 400 miles west of here.
First settled by the French in the 17th century, sugar became the mainstay of the economy, with firstly slave labour from Africa, and then indentured labour from India and elsewhere. Hence the population mix today. In Réunion’s case it’s roughly a third each of people with origins in Europe, Africa and South India, plus a handful from China and elsewhere, all with lots of intermixing from earliest days, total over 800,000 people who mainly live in the coastal towns. I find it delightful.
Those born here are Reunion Creole and often speak a local French creole language, which I’m told is similar to Mauritius creole. But totally incomprehensible for visitors like me, who must try and use French, which is the official language.
That’s your geography and history lesson for the day.
For me, life here could be very easy, even easier if I spoke much more French.
It has all the comforts of France, everything from fresh baguettes, myriad cheeses and bottles of Bordeaux, to good infrastructure, clean streets and well-stocked chandleries. Bins are emptied promptly. Cafes, bars and restaurants abound.
People seem much more laid back and friendly than in much of France. Cars usually stop for pedestrians at zebra crossings, and we exchange friendly ‘Bonjours’ with a smile. People everywhere seem happy to chat with me.
The only reason Réunion is not so very easy is that the island has all these super steep mountains, which were created so we could go hiking.
And since the seas are so full of unfriendly sharks that visitors only swim or surf a little bit, we all go mountain walking instead. Or to be precise, some go walking. Others run or ride their bicycles up and down these crazily steep slopes.
The place is covered in a network of steep hairpin roads, the hairiest hair pins you’ll find anyway outside your granny’s dressing table.
This allows access to hundreds of well-marked paths. As in the Alps there are excellent signs, maps and splodges of paint, so no one ever gets lost – except me.
And if mountain walking is too tame for you then every year they hold an international mountain ultramarathon, reputedly one of the toughest races in the world. It’s designed to bring out and satisfy the masochist in you – something the French excel in (see also Tour de France, Marathon des Sables, Vendée Globe – a question to ponder: is masochism an under-reported part of the French psyche?).
This year the Réunion endurance run, La Diagonale des Fous, Madmen’s Diagonal, will be held this week, mid-October (probably explains why in the time I’ve been here there are so many people running up and down these extremely steep and rocky paths – running!).
The course covers 166 km, with a total climb of nearly 10,000 metres (significantly more than Mount Everest).
There are over 1,000 entries, far fewer than usual, and winners usually finish in less than 24 hours; others may take three days. Although I have done a few standard marathons in my time, the thought of four marathons run consecutively on rocky and muddy little paths with Mount Everest included, leaves me incredulous. Even ambling along the paths in sedate style is a seriously tiring affair.
If you enjoy mountain walks in an exquisite variety of scenery both above and below the clouds, with fabulous wildlife and glorious views, Réunion is a dream.
If you’re not up to walking, then there are hundreds of helicopters. There are perhaps more helicopters per person than anywhere on earth, though I’m only guessing that. (For one well populated area in the Cirque Mafate, it’s how residents get their food supplies. They walk a couple of hours up a mountainside to where they keep their cars, drive down to a supermarket, leave their shopping for helicopter delivery, drive back up the mountain, and walk down to their homes. Not really popping out to the corner shop, is it)
While thinking of most, highest, biggest, etc, Guinness Book of Records stuff, I can tell you that Réunion, apart from its amazing number of helicopters, has records for heaviest rainfalls on earth (over 1.8 metres in 24 hours is one such) and for its size is one of the most biodiverse places on earth too. Its cirques, ramparts and pitons give its National Park (40% of the island) UNESCO World Heritage status.
And so for more than a month I’ve been wearing out joints and organs that are little used with life on a boat (ie. legs and lungs). Plus eating a lot and enjoying a subdued and civilised social life with the twenty or so visiting and resident boats.
We’re a mixed bunch of visiting boats, mainly French, but including Scandinavians, Chilean, Canadian, Madeira, Swiss, Réunion, Spanish, German and me (English). Réunion has new-found popularity with world-cruising sailors while both Mauritius and Madagascar remain shut.
I cherish and value the international goodwill and friendly helpfulness that are so much a part of cruising life. About half of us, maybe a dozen boats including me, will head for South Africa in the next few weeks, before the start of cyclone season.
Oh! This little creature that I stopped to chat with on one of my walks is not a slimline hedgehog, as I’d initially thought. It’s a tailless tenrec. It seemed friendly. Apparently good to eat. Maybe a useful word for Scrabble too. I’d not heard of tenrecs.
Raffles (Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles) is best known as the ‘founder’ of Singapore, and is now a part of the Singapore brand. He was one of those incredibly capable, energetic, ambitious and visionary men who carved a place in history.
He journeyed home after his time in the east over this same Indian Ocean some 200 years ago.
He and his wife and two remaining children had set out from Bencoolen (now Bengkulu in Sumatra) on the Fame, bound for England. But less than 60 miles from shore the ship caught fire and sank.
They lost everything: all Raffles’ collections, writings, artwork, gold, jewellery, “135 hefty crates, apart from the live animals” (which included a living tapir, a new species of tiger and unknown types of pheasant). They were lucky to survive with their lives. Any further offshore and they’d have been unable to row back.
Remember, they weren’t sailing for fun or for adventure. They just wanted to get home. I don’t suppose they enjoyed it at all. But that was the nature of international travel until not so long ago: dangerous, uncomfortable, slow.
Eventually they found another ship, the Mariner, and left Sumatra in April 1824, reaching St Helena (Napoleon had died there three years earlier) in July, and England in August. Imagine rounding the Cape of Good Hope in mid-winter storms.
(While they were on their way home, the Treaty of London between the British and Dutch was signed. This ceded British stations in Sumatra to the Dutch, and removed Dutch opposition to the British in Singapore. Another bit of the colonial jigsaw was fixed.)
You may not find that bit of history interesting but I do. It puts our own Indian Ocean sailing adventures into perspective to realise how relatively easy and safe are our modern day travels.
For me this was an unexpectedly long crossing, the bug having shut off stopping en route at Cocos Keeling (Australian territory – I was curtly told that to stop there I’d be contravening both the Customs Act 1901 and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands Emergency Management Ordinance 2012. Just imagine what horrors might await an errant Pom. I sense this guy was longing to clap me in irons.)
And so it was just over 3,000 miles to the little bit of French territory, La Reunion.
The Southeast Trade Winds are well established now and wind direction steady.
Where else can you sail 3,000 miles on one tack, reaching all the way, over clear deep blue sea, scarcely seeing another vessel, and with warm sunshine most of the way? It was the kind of sailing you might enjoy one day in fifty in Northern Europe. And it went on for 23 days non-stop.
The downside was that half of it was a bit rough and windy. The other half was very rough and very windy. Both Henrietta and I felt a bit bruised by the time we reached Reunion.
At an average of just over 1,000 miles a week (6 knots) in just over three weeks, it was my second longest non-stop solo passage.
Henrietta has performed well, of course. The mainsail has rarely been needed, just a reefed genoa had us zipping along for most of the time. Hydrovane self-steering never in doubt as we skedaddled down the deep blue white-crested waves.
A few seabirds appeared, some boobies, a couple of gorgeous tropicbirds, and shearwaters magically soaring and swooping over the waves, somehow travelling upwind into 30 knots of spumey sea. And suicidal flying fish occasionally end their days on deck.
It does occur to me sometimes that aeroplanes may be pretty dull and spew a lot of carbon dioxide, but they are oh-so quick and pretty comfortable too. They cover in less than two hours what takes most yachts at least a week’s continuous sailing. But aeroplanes make me nervous. Plus I’ve really appreciated no news, no contacts, no gloom, no land-dwelling anxieties, and none of the silly stuff we tend to live with for so much of our lives.
Above all, slow sea travel can bring you such fabulous happy feelings: the endless majesty of ocean swell, the unsullied ocean breeze, sparkling starlit nights; and then the heart lifting and body-tingling joy that comes with landfall after a long time at sea, the emotional high of a new unknown island.
I approached La Reunion before dawn. There was indescribable otherworldly beauty in a town in the north (Saint-Denis, the capital) with its twinkling lights glittering like gold dust scattered up the dark dark grey mountainside, all set beneath the bright silver globe of a full moon. And little bits of phosphorescence flashed in the passing sea.
Arrival in Le Port, Reunion a few hours later was quick, easy and efficient. Though the port approach seems to be in an acceleration zone where wind was over 30 knots, the marina is calm. I later find there’s no acceleration zone; it was just a very windy day – a rare event on the west coast.
Staff and neighbours give warm welcomes and Henrietta is tied up in two minutes, customs officials arrive and clear me in five more minutes. All done. No charges, no excessive paperwork, no passport stamp (luckily Britain not yet sufficiently Brexitted for that)…just a freshwater shower…..and I’m off to a boulangerie and U Express supermarket down the road. Yum! ( N.B. If you sail here, you should submit paperwork before leaving your last port).
I’ll probably stay here a month or so. Lots to do……