There were little devils in my head tempting me to remain abed – it took a determined
effort to get into gear and out into the Holyhead morning. A little concentration over porridge was
necessary, as any solo departure needs a little extra planning – where to put fenders, which order to remove warps, what is the wind doing? Where do I want A-Jay to go when I reverse out and where might she go instead?
This time Team A-Jay did just what I expected and by 1100 we were powering under full sail for the Langdon Buoy West of the Skerries about which much scary stuff has been written. I was expecting NE Force 3 or 4, but we had a top end F5, perhaps because of the headland, plus a full 30° of tidal leeway as expected. Mainsail dropped down the track Team A-Jay dug her 2.5 tons of lead ballast deep and ploughed happily on. The wind was cold and at odds with the blue sky and sunshine but didn’t stop the enjoyment of the sailing, or Helen Castor’s Joan of Arc and a Sam Llewlyn novel.
As we crossed the shipping lane the tide became more favourable as a ‘light weight Frenchie’ slipped past heading towards Holyhead, a reef in each sail for some reason. Amazingly 2 sea gulls flying in formation arrived just as I reached for my nose bag, but they soon realised I wasn’t the sharing type and set off in pursuit of the disappearing Frenchie.
Sam Llewlyn’s murder and mayhem lasted until 1700 by which time the Southern tip of the Isle of Man began to reveal itself more clearly. In over 500 miles of sailing on this trip we had NEVER managed a whole day’s sailing, until now – I barely touched Smiley until it was time for Yanny to take us in. Wart Sound, Chicken Rock, Calf of Man and Spanish Head all slipped past and by 2000 we were snuggled up to a buoy, just after high water watching an 80 foot catamaran come laboriously alongside the breakwater. Even at this hour, powerful motorbikes could be heard inland, getting ready for the last 2015 TT races.
Arriving at high water proved a sound tactic as the ‘S’ shaped course on the chart showed, though there was a strong West going counter eddy close in to be countered as we arrived.
A brisk row ashore next morning revealed Port St. Mary to be a little jewel of a place though I sensed sadness too, for much of it either seemed to be up for sale or was being developed as homes of the rich. Back aboard I could hear the cheery ‘toot! toot!’ of an invisible train as the wind increased and the cloud came down. We’ll stay tomorrow to rest a little more, whilst I wrestle with indecision on destination, for the North Passage to Scotland is not to be taken lightly.
Life at sea is never dull and that evening I heard the lifeboat being tasked. 10 minutes later and 50 yards away, 30 tons of the RNLI’s finest orange and black began to move out of the harbour, returning an hour later with Wee Gem, a very wee speedboat with 7 aboard.
I guess 600 odd miles alone in adverse weather and some challenging conditions will catch up with anyone, for it inevitably saps strength, will and morale. In such circumstances, as I now found myself in, a sound tactic is to line up a series of little treats such as a nice wash, shave, breakfast and run ashore for a leisurely coffee and a chat with the proprietor. On a whim I took the little Manx steam train to Douglas sharing a carriage with a couple of voluble Aussie sheep farmers who, understandably, struggled to ‘get’ the geography of Guernsey.
Sheep and cows in fields, a cap of grey cloud over the mountains, smoke billowing from the engine which toot tooted its way along, people smiling and waving at the many crossings, neat gardens and tidy yards; real life slipped by. I didn’t tarry in Douglas and enjoyed the company of a mad barn door sized Swede, a small Welsh Norwegian hippy with hay fever – and a girl in every port I had no doubt – and, inevitably, an Aussie this time with a vast suitcase. We had a common bond – motorbikes and it was exciting to briefly catch sight of the Supersports screaming past the start/finish line, round and over the train through the smoke, crazy! The day was rounded off with a wet, bracing 1/2 mile row back to Team A-Jay for final preparations for a pre-dawn start.
Up with the gannet next morning, anticipation and excitement banished any negativity and we sailed smartly off the buoy earlier than planned, simply because I was ready, though it would mean another hour or so of adverse tide. As we rounded the breakwater a vast 3 deck motor yacht lurked in the near distance; Calf of Man was soon off to starboard and I was looking forward to “Force 4 or 5, decreasing 3 later, sea state slight”.
‘Sod that for a forecast’ said Boreas and as we rounded the lighthouse West of the Calf, he threw 26 – 28 knots at our bows and the sea responded with delight doffing the occasional white cap over Team A-Jay, as we struggled through the headland tide rip at a snail’s pace. ‘Oh well, Déja vu’ I thought as we plugged on into a typical day but with surprises in store.
Within 2 hours, the tiller mounted retaining pin for the autopilot, repaired at Padstow, sheered off – which generated some very loud expletives, which rather enjoyably relived tension. We had 40 miles to go to Bangor and it was bouncy, slow progress so no autopilot meant many more hours at the helm.
Shortly afterwards the Selden kicker, which supports and holds down the boom, disconnected itself from the base of the mast. To steady things down, I decided to put a reef in to the main at which point the starboard mast mounted block holding the stack pack rigging broke off, creating a mess of dragging rope and flapping canvas. This wasn’t good, but it wasn’t critical and I was still determined to head North for Bangor.
That was until the engine lost power and stopped; I knew exactly why – it was a fuel problem, but Team A-Jay was not now in any shape to continue safely into this for another 40 nautical miles, so we bore away onto a broad reach for Ardglass in Northern Ireland 18 miles West, engine off and sailing like a train. Fortunately I had read up on this little harbour, though had made no passage plan for it.
Minor disasters apart there were as so often, special moments, such as watching tough little guillemots take off from the waves, all revs and no go but great survivors and the seal, who popped up to see what we were up to but clearly found us to be of no interest whatsoever.
Nine hours out from Port St. Mary, we docked. A relaxed old local, mug of tea in hand said; “nicely done – solo too.” That made me feel very good but I was glad he couldn’t see the chaos aboard. An hour later A-Jay was minus stack pack and the kicker was fixed. The delightful chap in the yacht club, who could not have been less than 85, reckoned he knew people who could fix things for me ….
Later I saw him wandering around the pontoons followed by faithful hugely magnificent Arthur the cat ….. follows him everywhere apparently. “I feeds him you see” said the old man, which would explain the cat food on the marina office counter.