Rod Heikell's very informal site on sailing around bits of the world and an eclectic collection of things nautical or nearly so.

Here be sea monsters

When the sun drops under the horizon and night falls, with the boat surging on through the sea and alone in the cockpit on night watch, there be sea monsters out there. And wild speculation.

First night out


Nature lovers

Effluent tales

ASMUT Urban legends of the sea

Penyllan's xmas message

Antedote for Monday morning commuters

Back to basics in the Med (eschewing nautical bling for sails)

Boatyard Blues

Pages relating to the Mediterranean on this site will eventually migrate to a new site MEDITERRANEO and when the site is fully up and running the Mediterranean pages here will be closed.

 Like Tell-Tales, this site will contain an eclectic mix to do with things nautical, or nearly so, in the Mediterranean. For sailing outside the Mediterranean stay here on TELL-TALES.

There will inevitably be some duplicaton between the two sites with pages that are relevant to sailing within and without the Mediterranean on both sites. These will all have the same page name so don't worry too much.


First night out

Its four in the morning and I haven’t slept. Normally I lie down in the cockpit and grab 10 or 20 minutes sleep before putting my head up to scan the horizon for ships. The autopilot is driving at the moment so no worries there. I’m 50 miles out of Kas on the southeast corner of Turkey and headed for Cyprus. Every time I go to put my head down another ship comes up over the horizon and I need to stay awake, stay alert and alter course if necessary to avoid these massive solid things. Most of them could run us over and not even notice they had hit anything. They must be coming up from Suez and heading towards the Dardenelles, hugging the narrow channel between the Greek islands and the Turkish coast, bound for the Black Sea and the ports around the edges of the old eastern bloc countries. I’m heading in the opposite direction towards Suez after a brief stop in Cyprus to collect crew and stock up with food for the passage down the Red Sea and into the Indian Ocean.

A small tanker seems to be heading directly for me, his two steaming lights right in line with our position. I’m hard on the wind, maybe 40 degrees off with the boat heeled over nicely and snugged down so I’m making 4½  knots in this light southwesterly more or less towards Cyprus. At night, even with crew, I put one reef in the main to give me a headstart if the wind gets up so all I need to do is wind a bit of genoa in on the headsail roller reefing. If the wind increases further I’ll put another reef in the main. I check on the tanker again and decide to start the engine and leave it on tickover in case I need to take  drastic avoiding action. A few minutes later I can see his green starboard navigation light so I know whoever is up on the bridge has seen me and altered course to clear me. I turn off the engine and settle back down in the cockpit. Its September but at sea the nights are getting chilly and I’ve got a sweatshirt and long trousers on to keep warm. Private Eye, the autopilot with his all-seeing single red eye, is on, giving a low grunt every now and again as it brings the boat back on course, letting me know that all is well and we are eating up the miles towards Cyprus.

I’m sitting wedged into the leeward corner of the cockpit and I’m listening all the time to the noises the boat makes. My body is aware of the motion of the boat as it gently rises up over a wave and cuts down the other side. Every now and again there is a slap as a wave hits us at a slightly different angle, but that’s normal and I don’t worry about it. All the normal boat noises are there: muffled creaks as the mast works and the boom compresses on the gooseneck; the sound of the sea hissing along the hull and exiting at the stern; the occasional slap of a wave as it hits the bows and a bit of slop runs over the foredeck; and an intermittent creaking and groaning from somewhere in the boat that I can’t quite put my finger on but which I know has always been there. Every now and again there is a foreign noise and I listen intently to see if it is a one off or whether it is another noise to add to my catalogue of normal sounds. There are some plopping noises forward, maybe those dolphins are back or maybe the set of the waves has changed slightly, but nothing that my senses tells me to worry about. This body sense of the sea is something all sailors are used to and you can feel small changes in the wind and the sea from the different motion and the different sounds the boat makes.

There are no lights below, but in the light of the waning moon I can make out the dim outlines of the saloon and the chart table, this small space enclosed by varnished mahogany that is my home, transportation across the sea and my survival capsule. You talk to a boat like a trusted friend. Promise her care and attention when you get to port. Trust her in bad weather when the seas wash over and the boat staggers on. In the cockpit the red eye of the autopilot and the green glow of the Bidata shows our speed at 5 knots now. No depths on the bidata out here as we are over a deep trench in the northeast corner of the Levantine Sea with 3000 odd metres of water, a bit less than two miles down to the sea bottom. At the masthead the tricolour illuminates the Windex and we are still around 40 degrees off the wind. I know that anyway from the set of the genoa and the mainsail, from the wave direction and the feel of the wind on the side of my face. I can hear a slight fluttering of the genoa as we head up a bit and then it disappears when we fall off again.

I am apprehensive out here. Not frightened, at least not yet, just aware with my senses on stalks as I listen and watch and feel the boat through the soles of my feet. I have an autistic disposition to deal with the immediate and my known world around me, to occupy myself with this boatworld and its various meanings. Any sudden change in the motion of the boat or a sound that shouldn’t be there and I strain my senses to monitor it and bring it back under control, my heart rate goes up and a little surge of adrenaline spikes my nervous system. To calm myself I look at the instruments, check the GPS display down at the chart table and look at the chart, make a rough mental plot on the chart and satisfy myself we are in about the right place on its paper world. And a cup of tea, the ritual of pumping some water into the kettle, lighting the gas and getting a tea bag out for the mug calms me and orders my world.

Around five in the morning I doze off and sleep for an unintended hour. Deep sleep with lots of rapid eye movement and lurid dreams. I wake with a start and the adrenaline courses around my body as I frantically scan the horizon. Thank the gods, no ships, same progress though slower at something under 4  knots, wind dying off and veering to the west. All’s well on board.

Rod Heikell © 2006







There is a lot of talk, a lot of forum threads, a lot of worry and much consternation over piracy on the high seas. Piracy is the most consulted web topic for cruisers setting off across an ocean and the talk is of ‘whether to carry guns on board’, ‘whether to sail in a group or at least in an organised rally’, ‘whether to cruise XYZ route at all’. It’s all such a worry.

Or is it. Take one of the most worrying areas in real terms, an area where piracy does occur in the Gulf of Aden. In the years between 1995 and 2006 there have been 14 piracy incidents on yachts off the Yemen coast. Given around 250-300 yachts do the northern Indian Ocean route and on and up through the Red Sea every year, this gives you less than 0.005% chance of being attacked by pirates. In all these cases only one person has died and that was in suspicious circumstances anyway. None of us wants to be the victim of a pirate attack. Apart from the loss of equipment and money in the middle of nowhere, the trauma inflicted by pirate attacks must be horrendous – the sort of thing that doubles the heart beat when someone raps on the hull or makes a sudden movement, that breeds nightmares and paranoia. The trouble is it seems the paranoia is infecting the vast majority who have not been attacked, but who see pirates lurking in every craft that floats.

Recently a note was posted on a web site of a piracy incident. A trawler off the Cape Verdes was acting suspiciously. It came close to a yacht, well it approached to within a mile. It never showed the name on the transom. It changed direction at odd times. It didn’t answer calls on VHF Ch. 16. Now I’m not going to say there was no menace, but this sounds like typical behaviour for a trawler. They change course pretty erratically and it’s unlikely anyone on board spoke English. Moreover if any of us were fishing offshore for weeks and a yacht came up over the horizon, well wouldn’t it be fun and a break from routine to head in that direction for a bit out of innocent curiosity.

Most reports of suspected pirate activity are off this nature and to my mind they are nothing less than bored fishermen who are curious about this sailing yacht in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps they think we are acting suspiciously. There are of course real piracy incidents, but many reports are paranoia that should be put to one side. And are you really going to use a gun carried on board. I suggest you think about the tragic case of the great Peter Blake in Brazil. More than likely he would have lived, albeit minus some valuables and boat gear, if he had not gone below and brought out a rifle. Few yachtsmen have pointed a gun at another human being and pulled the trigger and the chances are that most of us would be just that hesitant moment too slow to take another life. We just aren’t built that way. Most pirates just want to grab the loot and go… and that’s what we should let them do if it ever, and the chances are remote, comes to that.

Last time we were coming eastwards from the Caribbean to the Azores I noticed a ship, pretty much a merchant ship in profile, steaming slowly across our stern at sunset. I called up on the VHF but got no response. The next morning there it was steaming slowly on a reciprocal course across our bows. I called up several times and eventually got a reply. ‘This is the US Navy ship in position 34.30N 40.00W on a true course of 20º, speed 6 knots’. I asked for it’s name, what it was doing out here going so slowly in the middle of nowhere (we still had 600 odd miles to run to the Azores), and whether it had picked us up on radar. To all questions I got a curt ‘I’m sorry, that’s classified information’.

Friends of mine, Wal and Barb had their own piracy scare in the Indian Ocean. On watch at night they saw a masthead light not far behind them. And it stayed there at a constant direction and speed right behind them. They changed heading several times to shake the pursuer off but he stuck right behind them every time they changed course. All through the night he followed, not getting any nearer, but not going away either. In the morning Barb discovered their pursuer was the man overboard light that had fallen off its bracket and followed them on its bit of string tied onto the boat at the same course and speed.



Nature Lovers

Something on boats seems to slough off the clothes, at least, or mostly, in warmer climes in the Mediterranean and in the Tropics.

I remember being invited on board in the Mediterranean by a well known yacht designer for sundowners. I duly dressed down, shorts and a T-shirt, and climbed on board at the appointed hour. There he was, with his lady, sitting in the cockpit in the altogether, not a stitch on, neither of them. It really is difficult to make conversation, polite or otherwise, when a little shrivelled pecker is gazing back at you. You just can’t help looking in that direction, and you can’t think of anything to say that doesn’t seem to suggest some double entendre, however vague the association is. I had to excuse myself early and went back to the boat wondering if this had really happened.

Usually you are not in such close proximity. Yachts sail by or are parked in bays where a certain distance makes the view more palatable. Occasionally you get younger views, but mostly it seems to be unstable bosoms and stomachs that gravity has had a long time to work on. If not outright nudity then the men wear what a friend of mine, Anton, has christened the cock-sock and the women wear G-strings that disappear into wrinkled old flesh.

I’m not a prude in these matters and on passage in the Tropics have shed my clothing because it’s just too damned hot and worse, humid, so any clothing is damp the minute you put it on. But I’ve been fighting a battle with gravity and a gourmand’s curiosity for far too long and this body doesn’t look freshly minted from a season’s exercise in the gym, so when we get near harbour the shorts and T-shirt go on. I also threaten anyone who takes a photo of me in the nuddy with something worse than keel-hauling, though cousin Frank has intimated he has a snap of me in the altogether somewhere on passage between Sri Lanka and Thailand. I’ll kill him if it ever surfaces.


Effluent tales

Whenever two or three yachties are gathered together, a few beverages are consumed, stories are swapped, at some point the conversation will turn to toilets. A collective groan will go up and everyone will say, oh no, not toilet conversations, and then the tales will come thick and fast. Which marine toilet? Worst horror story of a blocked heads. Landlubberly urban myth about toilets on board. They are all there as the stories of 100 ft waves and Force 15’s recede and the glorious marine toilet takes centre stage.

I once started a column for a yachting magazine with a piece about the joys of fitting a new toilet that didn’t squish and leak revolting brown effluent everywhere. After rebuilding the original twice, a Raritan PH-II and probably the worst marine toilet in the world, after cruising the Caribbean and crossing the Atlantic with it, I felt justifiably elated when it was removed and replaced with a squeaky clean Lavac that worked like a well oiled machine and did the business without the need to mop up afterwards. The editor wrote me a terse note saying he didn’t really think his readers wanted to hear about toilets, and despite my protestations about the importance of this bit of boat kit, that they would have first hand knowledge if they cruised anywhere at all, even 5 miles from their home port, the piece on marine toilets was cut and filed in the bin.

Everyone has their own favourite story but these are a start. Puerile it may be and indicative of some sort of oral anal fixation, but we all tell them.

Cramping your style

A long time ago when I was running flotillas we had all sorts of people on the boats. Some were amazingly proficient while others were definitely lacking in experience. While sailing the boat wasn’t that difficult, berthing stern or bows-to in a harbour was definitely a trial even for the experienced.

One of the harbours we visited was Fiskardho and I used to sit in the Captain’s Cabin and when the boats arrived go and take their lines and give any other help needed as they berthed. I noticed one of the experienced crew coming in and ambled slowly, increasing to a run and then a sprint as the boat kept accelerating towards the quay. Customers at the taverna on the quay got up from their tables in expectation of the boat mounting the quay and landing on a table. I screamed for hubby on the helm to put it in neutral and turned myself into the human fender to stop the worst of the impact. Angry at the GRP repair to the bows I would have to do I went on board to find out what the story was. My star crew had badly cocked up. Hubby poked his head up through the hatch and asked if I could come back later as he had something important to do.

When I sat down an hour later with hubby he was contrite. His wife was a largish woman and not the most agile. He explained to me, sotto voce, that his wife had the runs, and so was on the loo when he came in. She kept calling to him as he was coming in to berth, distracting him so he got it all wrong, and then when he went below after tying up, it was to find that the impact with the quay had knocked his wife off the loo and she was imprisoned between the toilet and the bulkhead, unable to escape and highly embarrassed.

I didn’t charge him for the gel coat repair.

Under pressure

In Poros in the Aegean a friend of mine was cursing a blocked loo on a charter boat. Nothing seemed to clear it so he decided to unscrew the outlet pipe off the seacock. As he was loosening the jubilee clips there was an ominous hissing and then a low grumble from the pumped up toilet. I watched the window in the heads turn brown and heard a lot of frantic shouting from below. The friend emerged at speed from the boat and went straight over the side covered in brown sludge. The inside of the heads he cleaned up later.

Like wrestling with an anaconda he reckoned, though probably with worse breath.

Fighting it off

In the early charter days there were no holding tanks and swimming in an anchorage in the morning was often described as ‘an encounter of the turd kind’. On Tetra the heads was forward and the door closing it off also closed of the forepeak where I slept. I was famous for sleeping in in those days and a friend on board decided he wouldn’t disturb me and went for a swim in the anchorage to have his morning release. In my slumber I heard some splashing noises and muffled shouts and emerged on deck to find Richard trying to beat off the ‘floaters’ that seemed to be mobbing him in the water.

Just as well it was a secluded little anchorage and we were the only boat there or he would have alerted the whole anchorage to his early morning mission.



Urban legends of the sea

I’m not sure if ASMUT is a real invention or just another urban legend. It is reputed to be a merchant navy term and stands for Apocryphal Story MUch Told. I’ll drop the apocryphal, fictional, fanciful label right here or it will litter the rest of this article because the whole point of urban legends is that they are legends or myths. That does not stop them being told by someone who heard it from a reliable source who was a friend, a friend of a friend, lover or relative of someone who knew someone to whom it happened. If you get my drift.

The point of urban legends or myths is that they are told as true stories and most of them are told as scary stories. All of the ASMUTS below belong to this category and the only problem I have is that they have all been told to me and it could be, in a couple of cases, that the story really is true. In fact when I related a couple of these to the dear deputy editor of YM his response was: I heard that from John Smith and he swore it was true. So in advance, if I tell your story here and if it did happen, my apologies in advance for relating it as an urban legend. Except it has become one because all of these stories have been placed in different geographical locations with variations on the theme and all of them, all of them are sworn to be true by the teller of the tale.

The supertanker

I first heard this related about a ship arriving in the Suez Canal and latterly of a ship arriving in Miami.

When the pilot came on board a supertanker he asked the captain if he had seen any yachts during the passage.

Not a one answered the captain. It was a long solitary voyage.

Well you should have seen at least one the pilot replied and took him down to view the mast and rigging hanging from his anchor.

Lost at sea

I heard this first about an Australian crossing the Indian Ocean and later of an Atlantic crossing.

A skipper short of crew was happy to pick up two girls on the dock to crew on passage across the Indian Ocean. Neither girl had sailed before but the skipper was happy to have company and female company at that. On watch at night the skipper fell overboard and, despite his cries, the two girls did not know how to turn the yacht around and pick him up. They drifted for two weeks at sea before being rescued and able to relate the tale.

The giant clam

I think I’ve read this in Boys Own type books and also heard it from an Australian yachty.

In a tropical anchorage a yachty dives over the side looking for a fishy supper and while on the bottom rests his foot on a convenient ledge. It turns out to be the lip of a giant clam which closes on his foot and holds him there until his air expires. The yacht is subsequently salvaged, but no-one thinks to look on the sea bottom under the yacht.

Novice rigging blues

I heard this first in the UK but have subsequently heard it from other sources and located in other countries - almost any country.

The novice sailor sets off in his brand new boat and while hard on the wind discovers the rigging on the leeward side is slack. He tightens it. On the opposite tack the leeward rigging is again slack and cursing the builder he tightens it. ….. as many tacks as you like in this legend until the mast is pushed through the bottom of the boat.

The involuntary organ donor

This is a variation on an urban legend that is told as much about shoreside activities as yachting activities. I heard it in Miami and it seems to be a prevalent myth in the US.

After a long passage the crew go on a run ashore. One of them gets lucky in a bar and tells the others that he is going off with the woman he has just met. Several days go by and the crew are jumpy as they are supposed to be leaving. They go to the police who tell them their friend is in hospital recovering. He was discovered in a hotel room with blood all over the sheets and a subsequent examination had shown a recent surgical wound through which one of his kidneys had been removed.

Mast attack

I first heard this about a couple in the Bay of Biscay and later in the Caribbean.

During a passage the husband decides he must go to the masthead to make repairs. He is duly hauled to the top of the mast and while up there he suffers a heart attack. His poor wife cannot find a way to get him down. Rigor mortis sets in and she must now sail the boat to the nearest port with hubby firmly clenched to the top of the mast. While making her way to port seagulls peck out his eyes.

The insurance job

I have heard this myth related for the Mediterranean and the Caribbean.

The owner of a large yacht finds himself in financial troubles and decides the only way out is to collect the insurance on the yacht. He enlists an innocent drunk as crew and they set off. At night he bundles the crew into the dinghy saying the yacht is on fire. While he tries to get the fire going he can hear the crew member calling to him, but assumes it just drunken bravado. Eventually he has a good blaze going and runs up on deck to get in the dinghy. He finds the crew sitting in the half submerged inflatable yelling that it has a leak and won’t stay afloat.

Inventory check

I have heard this several times in the Mediterranean.

When you take over a charter boat it is normal practice to check the inventory to make sure everything is there. One thorough charterer asked to see the kedge anchor. When it was explained to him that it was holding the boat off the quay in a normal bows-to Mediterranean mooring, he asked to be able to pull it in to check it was really there.


I have heard this tale related a few times in the Caribbean.

A male skipper, young forties, athletic, independent means, advertises in the lonely hearts column for female crew: GSOH, slim, non-smoker wanted for trans-Atlantic crossing, romance a possibility with a view to a more permanent relationship. He selects a young attractive female from the replies and together they set off across the Atlantic. She arrives alone in the Caribbean and explains that he fell overboard en route and although she searched for him, could not locate him. A local policeman suspicious of her story makes enquiries and finds that this is the third time she has crewed across the Atlantic and each time the skipper has gone missing.


All of these legends are of course true and you will know someone who knew someone who heard it first hand. That may well be, but in the interests of myth-making I have included one tale here that is entirely of my own making. Nope, I'm not going to tell you which it is and I only hope in the spirit of urban myths that it becomes an ASMUT over time.


Rod Heikell



From the Skylax blog

Penyllan's xmas message

This is a wonderful christmas email from Penyllan. They left the Canaries en route for Barbados and 300 miles out lost the lower shrouds - ALL OF THEM. They used lines as best they could to steady the mast and turned back to the Canaries where they renewed all the rigging. This email is their son Brendan's account and Xmas missive (Pete calls it libellous), reproduced here with his permission, a wry, dry and wonderfully witty account of drama at sea.

Peter & Jan in Lanzarote before heading westawards.

© Brendan Metherall

Subject: Brendan's xmas message from Penyllan
Date: 12 Jan 2008 20:06:00 -0000

Seasons Greetings from Penyllan, whose crew had prepared themselves for a less than exuberant celebration this year on account of the weather. Would sound a rather banal reason to those bound to dwellings built on more solid foundations, but sailors do not discuss the weather to pass the time, nor because they’ve run out of more interesting topics of conversation. No, with much deliberation, scratching of heads, scribbling on charts and consultation with other sailors – themselves perched eagerly
at their radios, forecasts at hand, latitudes, longitudes, wind speeds and isobars circling in their salty minds, only needing a few verbs and adjectives to form meaningful sentences – after all this we decided that the turkey would remain in the freezer; that Jesus wouldn’t mind; that in any case, the transition from Julian to Gregorian calendars made fixing the exact date of Christ’s birth difficult to say the least, and after a quick hands-up: two agnostics and an atheist; none of us able to attend
the stock-take sales that otherwise mark the occasion (weren’t gourds going cheep the day after the lord was born!?) – all made for good reasons to delay Xmas, at least until the wind steadied below 20 knots or the barometric pressure showed an upward trend.

       So the day passed much as those sea-bound days preceding it, with much lively discussion on the speed and direction of the wind supplanting the more traditional exchanges of seasons greetings. We enjoyed a modest main meal of pork chops with stewed apple, instant mash and limp beans cooked to the Captain’s taste. To say they’re limp is an understatement. They arrive on the plate practically digested. But I couldn’t complain. On this occasion, the meal was prepared by the Captain, so I had no leg
to stand on other than the two folded beneath me (the Cabin boy must sit on the floor at mealtimes) and I was not about to stand lest I bang my head on the ceiling again. Beans weren’t worth getting all hot and bothered over anyway. If I’d wanted to start an argument I’d have talked about stowage. Aboard Penyllan this is the most contentious topic by far.

       There isn’t any. That’s the whole deal. Penyllan is fighting three weight divisions above her class. She’s so loaded down with stuff it takes 15 knots of wind to even budge her. Her bum looks big in an every stretch of water she’s sailed over! I blame them both: the Captain and the Mate. He needs to be prepared for any breakage or problem no matter how unlikely; spares for everything, tools for any job. It has it’s upside, particularly when something breaks, but his greatest fear – ironically –
is the sum of all the others: That one day Penyllan will sink under the weight of all his contingencies.

     The Mate is something else again. She won’t throw anything out, has a story about every Tupperware container; knows where and when she bought it and more often than not, the name of the person she bought it from. She has a big container for big clothes pegs, and a little one for little clothes pegs. No kidding. A whole system. She’s the same with food too. Can’t stand for anything to be wasted. It’s not uncommon for a meal to be served with an announcement along the lines of: “I used the asparagus
just in time. Another day and I’d have had to throw it out!” or “There was mould all over the first two layers of the cabbage, but once I peeled them off, look it’s perfect!” Such statements are in no way intended as a disclaimer. It’s a tremendous source of pride for her to have avoided such a calamity! Never sold anything in her life, my mother.

     So at this particular dinner, lunch or whatever you want to call it – it makes no difference when you’re all up at different times of the day and night – we’d discussed stowage, we’d gone to town on boiled vegetables, and it isn’t long before the conversation turned back to the weather, the possibility of a storm and that a second reef in the mainsail would be prudent. Such a reef was made good by the Captain and I, and after a while I retired to the shelf next to the anchor locker for a few
hours rest before my midnight till 4am watch: we drew straws apparently, though I don’t remember this at all. It must have been when they plied me with all that liquor back in Las Palmas: fancy being shanghaied by your own parents – twice! Fancy drawing the graveyard watch both times!

     For those of you who may not have heard the news, this Xmas day fell three days into our second attempt at the Atlantic, our first having been shortened by a rigging failure that occurred not far from where we were currently positioned. In truth, had we thawed the turkey, we would have been celebrating the passing of that fateful point in the ocean with more gusto than of that barn birth of twenty centuries ago (give or take a week or two). But without wishing to sound completely irreverent,
my thoughts of late had dwelt less on His great suffering than on our own during the return to the Canaries when over two days and nights we’d motored  into heavy seas, mast threatening to collapse onto our sleepless heads with every wave. Herein, I suppose, lies the difference between the mortal and divine: that we’re inclined to dwell more on our own suffering than that of others. That, I suppose, and that very few of us are born in barns. But I never in all my life expected to see the Captain
knelt in prayer before a cross, yet here he was bowed before our swaying, single-spreader mast, head down, praying for a miracle.

     And his prayers, it seems, were answered. We made it back mast intact; fixed the rig; got drunk; drew straws, I lost again and now I’m back in my little cot, three days out again, three hours from the midnight watch again. I shouldn’t complain, otherwise it’s the plank or a keel haulin’ and Penyllan’s massive girth takes a good haulin’ to get a Cabin Boy around.
     But thankfully, it doesn’t take long for me to sleep. Not having to digest my beans helps a great deal as does opening the fore-hatch a few inches to let in some air. Soon I’m dreaming: I find a secret doorway next to my cot. Through stacks of Tupperware, moved aside, the space opens up in front of me. There’s a king-sized bed and more than enough space for my backpack; a whole cabin as yet undiscovered by the Captain or the Mate. I sink into the lush, dry mattress stretching out my legs, then

     It’s 22:30, 10:30 in Melbourne. John Howard sits alone in his living room, wearing his favourite Sydney 2000 tracksuit. He watches as on his flat screen TV, Ricky Ponting strides to the centre of the MCG for the coin toss of the Boxing Day Test. Jeanette is in another room, unpacking boxes. In downtown Melbourne, shoppers storm department stores trading blows over kitchen appliances. On Sydney harbour sailors make final preparations for the Hobart race.

     Back at Christmas, I’m awake, have the lee-cloth down and am attempting to climb out of my dream but it’s all uphill. What’s more, the hatch, opened just a little, is spewing water, most of it directly onto me.

     The ocean’s Christmas present to Penyllan is a freak wave delivered with all the gusto of a hundred Santas. No need for a chimney, the wave crashes through every opening available, making some of it’s own along the sides of the cockpit, where Mum stands startled, having been showered with the sea-lion’s share of the Atlantic’s bountiful gifts. The boat righting itself jolts me out of bed. There are torrents still falling from the forced main hatches and a water-fall cascades down the companionway
steps. There’s enough water in the main cabin to boil a thousand beans, or blanch them depending on taste. The Captain is up in the cockpit and the companion-way doors are slammed shut. I guess I’ll go down with the ship then, I think, but soon realise, with great relief, that I’m not being shut in. It’s the water being shut out. We’re not in fact sinking, it just looks that way.

     In all the excitement, one of the life rings decides to jump into the sea, flashing it’s strobe to it’s own personal techno as it disappeared behind us, and another strobe goes off in a cockpit cupboard where one of the lifejackets self-inflates. It’s a disco-extravaganza. The chart-table computer keyboard also over-indulges and is to be more than useless the following day, but every Christmas party has it’s casualties.

     And if a party can be judged by the amount you have to clean up afterwards then by this measure ours is a doozey, though people that say this seldom stick around to help out. As much as I can remember, none of Penyllan’s regular crew got to piss in the pot-plants or pewk on the Venetians and then twist them shut so no-one will notice. These are figurative examples of course, but it is the ocean that has all the fun at our place, leaving us to soak up its excesses with already wet bedding, towels
and clothing. It arrives with a bang, gives of itself generously, but then leaves before we had time to say “thanks, but we’d have preferred a fish”.

     So we squeegee and soak up what we can, change into dry clothes and salvage the bunks as a priority so sleep is at least possible. I am deeply thankful there were stores of dry bedding stashed away. That this was one of those contingencies prepared for. But I sleep fitfully nonetheless. My dreams are haunted by disasters at sea. Penyllan is sunk to the ocean floor. Weeks later we share a life-raft. The Mate sitting opposite, speaks in a croaking, parched voice barely audible across the cramped
interior of the raft: “Better eat the rest of your father before he goes off.”

     I wake without an appetite, but manage to digest the eggs a bacon prepared by the Captain. I break a coffee cup. The mate spills hers across the cockpit. We laugh that laugh of resignation that comes at the end of shared hardship. Merry Christmas, says the Captain and it is in it’s own way.


Antedote for Monday morning commuters

Antedote for Monday morning commuters

© Lu Michell

Skylax on passage from Antigua towards New Zealand. First long leg from St Maarten towards Panama.

First Watch 2100-0000 Panama 420NM to leeward, St Maarten 720NM behind us.

First reef tucked in the main and about a #2 sized amount of genny out on the furler.

How good can it get?

15 knots steady aft, flat seas and 3 knots, yes 3 knots of favourable current helping to boost a modest 6 knots over the water. Mole (the autopilot) is fussing gently at the helm and I am propping up a beanbag against the cockpit coaming.

A bright waxing moon slides across the sky, undimmed by passing clouds. Ursa Major points to Polaris and Orion leads Sirius and Gemini on a march towards the horizon.

Ahh, a cup of Earl Grey to refresh, and I’m ready to scan the horizon for Panama bound behemoths with us in their sights.

What a difference a day makes.

Last night we were scorching along with 25 knots up our chuff, Mole manfully dealing with the rolling seas trying to push us around. A more modest moon was easily obscured as BBC’s (Big Black Clouds) rolled over us, bringing squalls, and wet ones at that. But that’s all forgotten as we slide along now – just offering thanks to Herb for the advice on where this current line lay, and of course, to Mole and Skylax, with whom we are just passengers.


Good currents. Unlike tides, as Neptune discovered, don’t demand something in return for its favours. It just gives. Until it runs out of giving, peters out to nothing, leaving you feeling, well, guilty as you feel short changed. When really you know it was just nature’s, or maybe Poseidon’s helping hand.

Talking of feeling short-changed, and BBC’s.

What’s happening to the Beeb’s famed short wave World Service? Cuts to many of its transmitters leaves us without a handle on the outside world. Forget ‘saving’ red diesel. Saving the short wave World Service would do much more for cruising sailors out of wi-fi range.

No ships.

No BBC’s either. And yes, it did. Peter out. The current, I mean. The good current. My good current! Ah well. But maybe if we gybe over we can find it again? Maybe. Maybe that’s just it. Wind’s picked up a bit – even without current we’re making 7½ knots. Mole’s keeping the building waves at bay with a deft flick to starboard, but he’s not finding it too hard to deal with for the moment. Not turning the wheel beyond one spoke past amidships – any more and we’ll look at taking in a bit of sail to keep things easy.

A ship

Quick surge of adrenalin as I strain to ‘read’ the lights. Ah, that’s ok; he’s not going to bother us – should just slide down our port side at no less than 6NM or so. Back to business as usual then. The current was good for my spirits, though. By the end of day three of a passage I can feel a bit low. The initial surge of adrenalin (part excitement, part anxiety) on leaving St Maarten has worn off, and you’re feeling a bit tired as your body struggles to accommodate your erratic sleep patterns. A boost of a 170NM 24 hour run just helps to pick you up, and you find your body slipping into a natural rhythm where the idea of sleep in 3 hour snatches quite normal.

Just took in a bit of genny and altered course a couple of degrees to help Mole out.

Are you a tweaker?

We once had a guy join us for a trip across the Atlantic. "Are you a tweaker?" he asked as I let out a bit of genny on the furler and altered course to keep it full running wing and wing downwind. Sheepishly I sat down. He didn’t like tweaking. It didn’t work out. He left in Lanzarote. But the point is, is tweaking good or bad? Personally I think it’s a sign of someone who has, for the first time, an autopilot capable of driving in almost any weather, leaving you with clearly not enough to occupy your hands.

Oops, wind’s veered slightly; genny’s by the lee and threatening to collapse. I dial Mole down a couple of degrees. Inveterate tweaker or prudent sailor? I think I’m a bit of a coward really. As I roll up most of the genny and turn away from one large BBC which seems to have blotted out all but a couple of stars. I try to let it slide pass, with just the trailing edge leaving a few large splats of rain. And a bit lucky.

Time to wake Rod with a nice cup of Earl Grey. And to fill in the log.



This is a pretty faithful copy of an entry scribbled in our ‘unofficial’ log, made on watch from 2100 to 0000 on April 14th 2008.

Mole is our Raymarine linear drive autopilot (black, solitary, lives in a hole in the dark, and very aggressive!) who we love dearly.

Herb is the famous Herb Hilgenberg – VAX498 – of Herb’s Atlantic Net on 12359kHz at 2000 UT (check in from 1940). He doesn’t normally expect to cover routes west of the Caribbean, but if you email him to let him know your plans he will usually oblige with his usual exacting forecasts and gems such as the current information he gave us. Many thanks again, Herb.


Back to basics Med



Concentrating on the basics, like sails, instead of nautical bling


Talking about sailing in the Mediterranean, and especially about sailing in the Mediterranean 25 years ago can sound a bit like that Monty Python sketch.

‘You were lucky. I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work twenty-nine hours a day … But you try and tell the young people today that... and they won't believe ya’.

And yet buried somewhere in between the good old days and the glittering arrays at the Boat Show we seem to be missing the point about going sailing and cruising, the basics have got mixed up with the toys that have a by-line something like ‘essential for every cruising boat’ or ‘don’t leave port without one’. Its all for your safety, your convenience and you would be a fool not to have one on board. And yet.

The first boat I sailed down to the Mediterranean in 1976 probably should have been confined to port, or at least to the Solent. Roulette was a tad under 20 foot long, an old hard chine ply boat that alledgedly conformed to the then Junior Offshore Group, though I doubt they had in mind offshore meaning Biscay and the Mediterranean. Roulette had an engine of sorts, a 4HP Stuart Turner that the wonderful records at the Stuart Turner base in Henley (as was) listed as a water pump in W.W.II. It worked for around 60% of the time though we carried only enough fuel to motor 30 some miles, assuming it was flat calm. A capricious engine tunes the hand and brain to sailing well in every bit of breeze and for the most part we sailed Roulette everywhere without recourse to the smell of a flooded two stroke and a lot of cussing.

This preamble is not just a trip down memory lane. One of the most enduring cliches on the Mediterranean is that ‘there is too much wind or too little’. It pops up everywhere, often from people who have never been there or maybe taken the odd charter or two and what it really tells us is that the modern diesel engine and a modern imperative to get places on time has smuggled its way into the sailing we do, not just in the Mediterranean but in most places. The too much wind that is talked about usually equates to the normal 20 knots plus Trades in the Caribbean and the too little wind to anything under 10 knots.

Recently on returning from the Caribbean in Skylax we needed to get the boat from Gibraltar to Greece before returning to the UK for a bit. In July we set off to do the trip direct. Near the Balearics headwinds of Force 6-7 threatened so we pulled into Andraitx for a couple of days before setting off again. Looking at the log we sailed for more than 70% of the time and that was with a crippled headsail that was going to be replaced in Greece. The point is that we don’t mind sailing slowly in light winds at 2-3 knots, in fact I positively love it, especially at night when you slowly slice through a calm sea under a starry sky and so many shooting stars you lose count.

Nor do we mind whipping a couple of reefs in and snugging down for a good thrash. Last summer in the Aegean we saw so many sailing yachts motoring in the meltemi on what would have been a broad reach if any sails were up, the mast describing great arcs across the sky as the boat rolled and yawed over and through the waves, that we gave up making oohs and ahhs in exclamation at such folly when they could have been so much more comfortable with a bit of sail up and going faster as well. Somewhere along the way the whole purpose of the exercise, to go sailing in exotic climes, has been lost and these wonderful sailing machines have become houseboats.

When you next look at your budget forget interlinked all-singing-and-dancing displays with flashing lights and multi-display screens. Look at your sails. We need to replace our old main on Skylax, not because its falling apart, but it just doesn’t do the job efficiently anymore. It’s a sieve and lets more air through than gets funnelled over it. So a new fully battened job is on order. Last year we replaced the roller reefing genoa, changing the old cut-down 80% jib for a 145% job with foam luff, leach and foot tensioners and above all solid dacron that works to funnel the wind. You need a big headsail wherever you sail in the world because in my experience you generally get more lighter winds than you expect and heavier winds are rare. And frankly I’m not too worried about the cut of my jib (which is awful on roller reefing systems anyway) when the wind gets up.

And take a look at all those blocks for sail handling. We are getting two new genoa cars to make it easier to adjust the lead on the sheet and new roller bearing blocks to make it easier to roll the sail up. Travellers need to be easy to adjust and the main sheet should have good blocks on it that make it easy to trim the main. There are all sorts of ways to tweak sails to get the best out of them and we shouldn’t let the racing boys have all the fun.

Cruising chutes are wonderful beasties, especially with a snuffer to make the handling easy, but we need to be honest about things and most of us find it all too much of a chore to get it out, rig it, and then use it for any length of time. If you have a big genoa on roller reefing gear (on seven tenths I used to have a 155% genoa) then most of the time that will do the job.


Boatyard Blues

Boatyard blues... and joys

Boatyard blues


Arriving off Easyjet in Athens at 1230 local time we sprint for a taxi to try and make the 1330 bus to Levkas. We miss it by a couple of minutes but see a bus for Preveza leaving so sprint over (with 40 Kg of luggage each!) and flag the driver down. Don't you love Greece. He stops the bus, opens the luggage bay and bustles us on board where we buy the tickets. At the first stop at Rio we buy water and some chocolate milk to keep us going (oh and an ice-cream for Lu). The only trouble with the Preveza bus is it takes a wayward route through Arta and lots of little villages before finally deciding to head for Preveza itself. We phone Joe and he tells us he will pick us up in Amfilokhia at the eastern end of the Gulf of Amvrakia and take us to Levkas, well to Nikiana actually where we drink lots of beer and wine and tell tall stories.

Tuesday morning we are in the yard. Arriving at the yard everything is covered in dust. I am Mr Mop for the rest of the morning cleaning off dust, birdshit and anything else that got blown over the decks. And then somehow we have to make a small space down below where we can sleep and make a cup of tea.

By evening my winter sloth is shot through with aches and pains: arms, back, legs, thighs, and neck all feel like they have been wrung out and then squeezed back together like plasticine. Up and down the ladder. Did you bring the wallet? Bugger! Up again and down again. And then joy O joy - off to the O Kontos taverna for beers and dinner. And then home to bed.


Mr Rubadubdub in the yard


09-05-07   Yards are a pet hate topic amongst liveaboards. Nearly everything a yard does will be criticised and chewed over in innumerable and often bitter forum and bar chats. They can never do any job right and they charge too much for too little. Why? Because I, the 'I' talking about it, didn't do it. If only yards were more like us.

I don't think so. I have recommended boatyards in the past and in some of my articles because I thought they were good yards for a number of reasons: good toilets and showers, friendly staff, useful workshops, handily situated, or sometimes because they had a certain ambience that made you want to come back. The problem is that one liveaboards paradise boatyard appears to be another's hell. Or is it just that there are people out there who have to bitch about just about anything and recreate the hell they believe they are leaving behind, in the place they are in. As Strabo said: We carry the same sea and sky with us when we leave our native shore. So maybe these were just the sort of people you wouldn't want to bump into in the local pub or on the No. 37 into work.

Anyway I was about to join the bitching club when I gave myself a hefty kick up the rear with an admonishing: if I really wanted it to be right then I could spend a few years here doing just that instead of getting someone else to do it and going sailing. So mea culpa and NO, I'm not joining your mean minded club to winge about yards and work contracted out. I'm going sailing after a bit more cleaning and some repairs to get us on the sea soon.


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