Lets face it, there never is a best time to go and do, so you just have to go and do as I am wont to say, particularly at 0307 as it was then. Gold lights on the black shoreline like ethereal stitches, full mocking sentinel moon, tea and granola in Mounts Bay, wind barely a partner as land fell astern – all images of a Penzance dawn.
Lunch with Mr ‘D’ – for Pippin came with a stowaway in the form of a Mr ‘D’ slow cooker, a bit like a modern version of the old Army hay boxes, in which stews could be kept going for days – perhaps even weeks; after all, Robin Knox Johnston managed a 72 day curry. Donald I call him and the guy on You Tube made using him look dead easy, which is why he was soon buried in the wet locker with a concoction inside him, doing his bit. Job done – or not; we would see. Meanwhile it was a grey, tedious start to the day, all slatting sails and the oily purr of the Yanmar as ships whizzed this way and that and Pippin began to stick her nose out into the Atlantic.
Midday was notable for 4 things; 1, sunshine began to arrive, 2 we passed the point where I could bottle out and head for home 135 nautical miles to port, 3 Army powdered grapefruit drink was actually ok and 4 – well I had forgotten that one by the time I came to record it. I was ok with things as they were, for there was a long way to go and I knew wind would join us sooner rather than later and so it did, as I sat down with Donald and am smugly pleased to report the skipper’s sausage casserole with cabbage was excellent.
I had brought along memories of old Army days in the form of 3 x 24 hour ration packs on the basis that there would be times when meal preparation was difficult and it was a good way to ensure one ate and drank the right things. My memories of these packs are vivid and fond, the packs containing as they did weighty tins of chicken supreme, suet puddings, cheese ‘possessed’, and hard tack, not forgetting delectable tubes of condensed milk and Aztec chocolate bars, which I have hunted for ever since. Now its all flat pack and instant, like something from Ikea – it just didn’t seem quite right, but I was keen to give them a go.
Anyway, tea with Mrs Woodman’s fruit cake went down well at sunset as Pippin defied the laws of hydrodynamics under the iron grip of that tough , uncomplaining old soldier Hercule the windvane, as she sliced the tops of the waves at sometimes better than 5 knots in 8-10 knots of wind (!), 140 degrees off port quarter. This was so unbelievable that I tried my second pair of glasses and looked again with the same result. Perhaps there was a powerful sluice effect running off Ushant, but that was now 80 nautical miles away and no, the engine wasn’t on.
As Day 1 closed I found it easier to rest than sleep, not because worries or fear filled my mind, but because I was ‘wired’ and didn’t want to miss anything. Next day I felt I had my sea legs for what went down stayed down and I was just fine, no sea sickness at all; I had even been deep down in the caves with Gollum for a couple of hours during the night, whilst the radar stood on sentry duty. Hercule kept Pippin unrelentingly at it, guiding her through the dark hours from Sea Areas Plymouth, past Sole and into Fitzroy, names I had only previously heard on weather forecasts, words which soothed my senses like the reading out of football results. As ever with a British skipper, the day began with tea as I briefed Hercule on a revised course now that we had reached latitude 8.
Some will know I have an obsession with sea state – that is the state of the sea around me as evidenced by the motion of the boat and my own state, rather than the terse official descriptions of Smooth/Slight/Moderate/Rather Rough etc. Today I thought the sea would officially be classed as Moderate, but I was inclined to call it Sloppily Moderate, like a badly dressed soldier on parade, with no idea which way to go or what to do next.
Breakfast brought another game of ‘search the locker’; it begins with deciding what to have, continues through a series of locker openings and much cussing as you stumble around and probably ends with something completely different for the meal. Today was Army Rations day, though I had already mutinied at the thought of ‘Fruitful Muesli with Milk’, which I clapped in irons in another locker, settling instead for toast and First Mate’s marmalade, with heart palptatingly strong Amercano.
Sunshine arrived later and the seas were bigger, but once again I was non-plussed by Pippin’s performance. True Pete Goss, her previous owner, would have had her screeching south under a bulging spinnaker all muscle and balls, but we weren’t doing badly with full main and un-poled yankee, touching 8 knots (honest guv) off a big ocean daddy and consistently beating 6 knots. Hercule had us 150 nautical miles from the nearest land by midday, heading in the general direction of A Coruna, as I sampled an Army tropical fruit drink and cereal bar, whilst looking out over a grey sea, with nothing visible by mark one eyeball or Quantum radar.
Lunch of Army bean and pasta salad was most tasty, though its effects remain to be seen – at worst it will be fine, as a gentleman may break wind, but should never go to windward unless he has to. I had never thought that latter comment true, but at 63 I do now and was blessing Pippin’s cosy wheelhouse.
Day 3 came on and I was feeling smug as I had done all the outdoorsy stuff, like fitting port side boom preventer to go with the starboard one, checking all deck fittings, done a bucket and chuck it job and helmed for an hour, whilst musing which side of north the wind really was on, all before the rain came on. Disappointingly I realized then that, at least downwind with a 3 metre swell, Hercule was probably a better helmsman than me. I appreciate that such observations might seem all rather dull, but hey! I was in the middle of a once in a lifetime adventure, doing stuff that I had never done before, like being at sea alone for 4 or 5 days in Biscay, stuff I might never do again.
I was getting used to privations like sleeping lying along the hull side, standing at 40 degrees to the galley, legs springing like shock absorbers, hanging on with one hand whilst applying Guernsey butter and First Mate’s marmalade to only slightly burnt toast with the other hand. It was whilst munching this delicious toast and looking at the chart, that I realised my bunk was 3,600 metres above the sea bed and wondered what might be down there – a sunken U boat, a pirate ship or perhaps an exhausted hapless returning Armada galleon. Whatever, as sure as eggs are eggs, there were things down there for these waters have seen the death of many a vessel, but at least their crews would now be at peace.
I had reefed before dark, as the predicted front was coming in a little early and I try to avoid having to go upstairs at night, especially in strong winds and big sloppy seas. Physically I was doing ok, though a little bruised and only one of my uninvited passengers was complaining, namely arthritis but only in a rather wet sort of way. Mentally, I was in my element and the clouds well off my foredeck.
By next midday, Day 3, the mizzle had stopped though visibility remained poor and Pippin continued to ride the seas with grace and ease, though the waves tugged her this way and that. The grey waves reminded me of stooped ancient wave captains, streaks of white in their hair, so majestic were they. Apart from 2 little birds, neither of whom survived their time aboard, I had seen nothing in this vast grey wasteland except jelly fish that looked like semi deflated party balloons and now, on the radar screen, what I took to be the French meteo buoy, which we looked as if were going to ram though my chart was very small scale.
Talking of meteo, that night the winds pushed 21 knots at times and the seas had become irritatingly contrary but Pippin ploughed across the shipping lanes in darkness, after which I did my best to shape a course for the NW Spanish coast. But right now there was only one priority – I had to sleep, so I snugged Pippin down with just a main sail, pointed her into deep water, posted the radar sentry and headed below leaving Hercule and Hastings to work together as a team, steering the boat safely through the tempest.
A few hours later, Hercule the iron soldier was in sole charge, with yankee flying, and the sun tried to join us – Spanish sun I reckoned, for it felt warmer too, though I was still wearing 2 thermals, gloves, neck scarf and woolly Shetland hat. 90 miles from Spain I decided to give the ‘Army Fruitful Mueseli with Milk’ a try. The weather became more Spanish, so I jettisoned a layer or two, though with no obvious improvement to my sartorial elegance, as the ugly black greyness overhead slipped off to play with the French. As the seas calmed, right on cue came the dolphins, 4 of them. What show offs these beautiful creatures are, as the skimmed showily alongside, and played in the bow wave all the time seeming to say; “Look at me!!! Me!! NOT her!”; so they played on as I took gigabytes of film of empty grey sea. One day I’ll catch a good picture.
Later, comfortably prostrated by the contents of an Army ration pack, I grudgingly admitted they were pretty good – even with the serious omission of condensed milk and Aztec chocolate bar, which had been replaced by squidgy packs of peanut butter and sesame sticks. Meanwhile what I knew with certainty to be the Spanish coast was but 20 miles off, though I was nowhere near A Coruna – but that’s the thing when passage making; you don’t sail to a destination, you sail in the direction of, so my plans had been reshaped to 2 options. One, Gijon to the east and 2, Ribadeo out west, the latter being the target of the moment if the wind held as it was. Incredibly Pippin slipped south at over 4 knots through the still night, and iron man Hercule kept her at it, so to speak .
Levity aside, there were fishing boats to avoid, more visible on radar than by mark one eyeball, if they were seen by eye at all and I was approaching an unknown coast on a pitch black night completely knackered. At 0330 British time, Pippin came to rest alongside an up river pontoon, 500 miles and just under 4 days from Penzance. Job done. I didn’t even stay awake long enough to drink my coffee with a dram.