19 July 2017

Twentieth century sailing books

As a complete, and welcome contrast to the contemporary sailing books I've been reading, I found that Kobo e-books have some classics lurking in their 'store'.  There was a time when I owned both of Edward Allcard's books - more than once - but they have been left behind on various boats, I hope still loved and cherished.

However, I found Single-handed Passage was on offer and immediately bought it.  What a joy to read after my recent books.  Here is a man who is perfectly content to be sailing at 3 knots on his 34 foot yawl; he contemplates and 80-day passage with equanimity; he takes his mainsail down or heaves to at night so that he can sleep in peace; after two days of calm, culminating in a magnificent sunset, he writes "It was a fitting end to a delightful interlude."  What a sense of peace emanates from these few words.

Edward Allcard is at sea just because he wants to be.  He is not trying to prove anything or to compete with anyone - even himself.  He just wishes to take his ship from England to New York by 'the Southern Route'.  He looks at a couple of atlases, maybe a routing chart or two and sets off.  He has no schedule, no-one he has arranged to meet, no flights to catch, no job or business to 'get back to'. Occasionally he can pick up the BBC on his little portable radio and listens, bemusedly to dance music, with pleasure to the female announcer's voice.  He reads books, he contemplates the ocean; in calms he lies on the side deck and gazes into the incredible blue depths below him.  He takes plunge baths off the bowsprit and watches with resignation as the gooseneck barnacles grow.  He is a happy man with a deep understanding of why he is out on the ocean.

As I said, I have read his books before, but I don't recall reading this one with so much pleasure.  Maybe it's the contrast with my recent reads, maybe it's the contrast with the madness of today's world.  Whatever, it makes me want to go and do likewise.

I wouldn't want to be sailing his heavy gaffer; I would hate to be without a self-steering gear, where he seemed quite content to spend 12 hours at the helm; I don't want to cope with cotton sails and manila ropes, but maybe I, too, have lost much in my demand for easier sailing.  (And that's before we even talk about junk rig, although Mr Allcard does say he hated going on the foredeck.)  I suppose we all choose our level of challenge, but I think it's attitude that I'm talking about.  The attitude that accepts complete solitude; no communications and no sense of "I must go faster".  I think he and I are in harmony here.

There is no publishers name in this book (apart from W W Norton on the title page), so I can only conclude that this is a Kobo initiative.  If so, I hope they do more.

Kobo also have Ralph Stock's The Cruise of the Dreamship. It's very cheap, so may just be an e-book facsimile and a bit rough around the edges, but it is one of the most wonderful sailing books every written.


Two things I meant to mention.  The first was simply amplifying what I was saying earlier about Mr Allcard's wonderfully low expectations: he was very happy with a week's run of 522 miles, in fact so much so that he took Sunday off, something that he'd been intending to do at the outset, but because he had left late in the season, had felt the need to press on.  So hard was he pressing on that he was quite content with a run of 472 miles the following week.  472 miles!  Less than 3 knots!  Quelle horreur!  It just shows what an amazing difference self-steering gears have made to passage-making - and expectations.  The vast majority of boats crossing oceans these days, would have been motoring every time the speed dropped below 4 knots, let alone 3.

The other thing is much, much sadder.  Earlier in the book he passes a brown bottle bobbing along.  Not only does he comment on it (not something one would be likely to log these days) and speculate on whence it came, but he remarks on how few foreign objects he sees at sea.  And this from a low and often slow boat.  Later, as he admires his surroundings, he writes: "It was pleasant to think that all the beuaty of the sea had been unspoiled by the scar of civilization, and that I was lucky enough to enjoy exactly the same sights as" Columbus.  Not these days, alas.  Especially in calm conditions, you can't look over the side without seeing something plastic floating in the water.  You don't even come across those beautiful glass floats any more.

But I am one of the lucky ones: the first time I crossed an ocean was in 1975 and there was very little sign of plastic about then. While my memory lasts, I can enjoy that recollection.

29 June 2017

Twenty-first century sailing books

You will have noticed that I'm an old fogey: behind the times, out of date, on a different planet, even.  Maybe I always have been.

I ranted recently about Laura Dekka, but in fact she came right and finally stopped racing herself.  Good for her.  But why is this apparently so difficult?  The book I'm reading at the moment is by a bloke I actually know, and he's a great bloke with lots of Right Ideas.  However, I'm getting very irritated with him.  He's always wanted to do a long passage on his own.  Right?  He knows he will probably never do it again.  Right?  He is aware that the time is fleeting and that he should savour every minute of it.  Right?  Wrong.  At the moment, he is suffering temper tantrums and raving because there's not enough wind.  Worse - it's too hot and he has too little fuel to motor!  And his computer has died on him so he can't get his GRIB files!!  Horror of horrors.  He's in the Trade Wind zone: if he could get a forecast there would be nothing he could do about it, apart, perhaps, from having another breakdown.

And now he's worrying about his gas running out, so life has become, as he says, 'frugal' and he is measuring his water into the kettle to heat exactly what is required.  You mean he didn't do that before?  Surely every offshore sailor does this - if only to keep track of the water, let alone save fuel.  Isn't being frugal the watchword of the ocean sailor?

It's a while since I crossed an ocean, but I have done so many times and it was always a 'rule' that we didn't use our engine at sea.  Apart from anything else, the amount of fuel we carried was so little that the progress made would be negligible: just noise and heat for very little.  But much more to the point, the object of the exercise was to sail from A to B.  And, perhaps foolishly, I can think of no other reason to go on a sailing vessel from A to B unless you want to go sailing.  So I am totally bewildered.

What is wrong with these people?  You're on a sailing boat for heaven's sake, not a huge launch, not a ship.  You don't have a schedule: that's the whole point of undertaking great, long ocean crossings.  You are there to get from A to B under sail, using your wits, your skills and, above all, your patience, without which a sailor is nothing.  What's wrong with a quiet day on the ocean, going nowhere?  (Well of course the poor bugger has a bermudian rig, which is thrashing about whereas if he had a nice, junk rig, the sail would sit quietly, stopping the boat from rolling and ready and waiting for when the wind arrives.)  It gives you time to clean the galley properly; to go through the fresh supplies carefully; to (in his case) transfer fuel from the jerricans that he carries lashed to the guard rails in lubberly fashion; to have a leisurely sponge bath; to cook something a bit special; to lean over the side and watch the myriad tiny creatures in the sea (and mourn the plastic that comes past every few seconds); to sit in the cockpit with a glass of wine or beer and admire the clouds reflected in the sea and to reflect yourself, on the near-impossibilty that you are on this small boat, all alone in the middle of a vast ocean.

But does our hero do any of this?  No, he rants, he raves, he frets that he's not making any progress.  Well, buddy, some of the progress you could make is inside your head and this is being completely lost to this puerile obsession with needing to get there.  You have, quite simply, lost the plot.  And the tragedy of all this is that when you finally arrive at your destination, when you realise that it's all over, you will look back and want to weep at the opportunities you wasted, the energy you squandered on anger and frustration, the incredibly rare time for peace and contemplation you were offered and threw away.  Back in the futilely busy world of the twenty-first century, tweeting here and Facebooking there, complaining that you have no time you will regret for ever that when it was handed to you, dressed up in warmth, sunshine and quiet, you rejected it.

So sad.  So different from the books I read as a young woman, where people from (supposedly) far less busy lives and times, could relish the gift of being still and going nowhere.

05 June 2017

Taking your time

I've been reading Laura Dekka's book, One Girl, One Dream.  I put off reading it for ages, under the misapprehension that she was another victim of ambitious parents, being persuaded to break a record.  It was only after I heard an interview with her on the radio, that I discovered she was someone very different.

In many ways, Laura is the person I wish I could have been.  Bold, daring, self-confident and a fine sailor.  On the other hand, she's not that practical, although I have to keep reminding myself that she's only 14: she is so mature that she comes across as an adult, and even assuming the self-editing that would have come along when she wrote the book at age 16 or 17, she would still be regarded by most as 'only a kid'. 

However, she is, of course, very twenty-first century.  The boat is put together by Other People and she seems frightened of even mending a sail.  Again, she was only a girl and had hardly had a lifetime to learn skills, but her attitude seemed to be that one does things when one has to, but ideally, you bring in someone else to do the work.  It would be interesting to see what she's like now.  Does she repair her own sails and rigging?  Can she replace wiring?  Has she gone for a simpler boat, or does she still have all the bells and whistles that one can understand a young single-hander would want/be talked into.

I was amused by her feeling of relative poverty: she had, (as far as I can make out) two engines in the boat, AIS, chart plotter, radar, SSB, etc, etc, but in addition she had an inflatable catamaran to play with (what a sailor this girl is!), a small inflatable dinghy and a larger one, so that she could use an outboard motor!  In addition, she regularly ate out and had money for a drink or an ice cream ashore, when the fancy took her, and joined other people in hiring cars and other touristy things ashore.  As I said, very twenty first century.  I'm getting old!

However, I found two rather sad things in the book.  She had no time to cruise - well, she was trying to circumnavigate and while she was at it, she had decided to go for the record of youngest circumnavigator.  And, of course, the lucky girl had her whole life ahead to go cruising, so I can understand that.  But what is far more sad, is that no-one had ever taught her how to heave to and wait it out.  Not only bad weather - she is far too feisty to do that anyway, to her bad weather is a challenge - but tiredness, going too fast, calms for that matter.  She loves being at sea, loves the peace and quiet, but as soon as the boat speed drops - below about 4 knots it would appear - on goes the engine.  She never felt that deep peace of being totally becalmed on a tranquil ocean and simply waiting for the wind.  Nor did she ever appear to enjoy the incredible pleasure of barely trickling along with a hardly discernible chuckle at the bow of the boat.  Worse, I really believe she didn't know how to heave to, because on occasion, she took the risk of going into a strange harbour at night, relying to a certain extent on not having any bad luck, because it would appear she didn't know how to stop her boat and wait.

The poor girl made all her landfalls by GPS (which, again, at 14/15 I can understand).  Doesn't everyone?  I guess so, but it's a shame to miss out on that incredible magic of feeling that you personally created the land that is appearing just where you hoped it would.  All voyagers should do this at least once in their lives.  But it's her relentless urge? conviction? lack of imagination? that made her turn on the motor when the wind dropped, that I feel sorriest for.  The boat always had to be travelling quickly and if the wind dropped, well that's what the engine is for. She probably never even knew what she was missing, but the I deep regret on her behalf that she never got to feel the true peace of being alone with her boat on a completely calm, smooth and empty ocean - empty even of wind.