Homeward Bound from the 2019 Jester Challenge

Mounts Bay Trawler

Chaucer’s saucy Canterbury Tales went down as well with my English class of pubescent boys as any set book at school can, but I held the distinction of being the only boy I knew who both enjoyed and read all of Milton’s Paradise Lost – even my English teacher thought that odd.  He then introduced us to Oscar Wild’s the Importance of Being Earnest and I was fascinated by the fictitious character Bunbury, designed to be used as an excuse to avoid unwanted engagements.

So it was that my ears pricked up when a very posh, languid voice rumbled over the airwaves announcing the arrival of yacht Bunbury into Penzance – well, I like to consider boat names, ready as ever to criticise, but what genius!  No shame in calling the RNLI with that name!

Penzance Trawler

I said goodbye to Bunbury (a Sadler 34, in case you just might be wondering) next morning as Pippin slipped through the narrow lock and out into Mount’s Bay, where I saluted the early morning with sails erect and set Pippin on course for the shadowy Lizard, visible across the Bay through the morning haze.  You must keep on your guard here, as lobster pot markers are numerous but there was still time enough to get the espresso on and enjoy my pre-breakfast Gentleman’s Relish.  It was a diamond morning, even to an old grump like me, and Pippin responded picking up her skirts and cantering across the Bay, guided by the inscrutable Hercule.

I often see large tankers at anchor in odd places off England’s South coast, as I did that day, and always wondered what they were doing.  It seems some anchor until the price of the fuel they are carrying has risen, to maximise profit.  Fair enough I suppose.

The wind was pleasantly in excess of the forecast for now, perhaps boosted by the cliffs and I felt again that there is something about the soft quiet of sailing; the gurgling wake, creak of the boom, rasp of rope on wire all sounds of sailing, sounds and sights that make it special, particularly with tea and sunshine.  Pippin greedily gobbled the gusts  and surged on but not for long, for the wind eased as we emerged from the shadow of the cliffs, whilst astern I watched chasing sails and a little inshore fishing boat scampering out to tend its pots.  Time, I decided, for breakfast proper and to check out the contents of my Army ration pack, a little like opening a Christmas present not quite sure of what’s inside.


I like to mark milestones, big or little, and to operate a rewards based system aboard, all in the interests of morale, and the conquering of the Lizard – SO much easier that 3 weeks earlier – was just the moment to award myself an ‘Army Fruit & Fun’ (puree); in my soldiering days, it would have been a tin of pears or prunes.  Still, it’s good stuff.

Lizard (2)

Unfortunately I soon had to gave up my search for the elusive wind that teased and promised but never came, and settled the sails in harmony with the  little Yanmar for a long run under autopilot.  At the back of my mind was the concern that once again the engine would stop, choked by Spanish sludge, something that I really, really did  not want in the midst of the shipping lanes in darkness.  I am not a great worrier but this concern sadly dampened the pleasure of this entire trip, a concern I would not necessarily have felt had the previous fuel blockage been sorted by an engineer rather than yours truly.

Monsters began to appear, as I settled Pippin on course for Les Hanois, full and low in the water, pushing aside walls of sea as they dragged their fat bellies along, bridge wings sticking out either side like ears on long faces.  These huge vessels can seem static when viewed by eye, but in fact they’re coming at you  at perhaps a mile in 3 minutes, not long to get out of the way when you’re flat out at 5.5 knots.

A little later, I awarded Army issue oatmeal digestives a 7/10, which was rather better than the Willis score in 1974 for hard tack biscuits and cheese ‘possessed’, which scored a minus though I could always find a sucker (even if I had to pull rank) to swap with.

I had never known the Channel so calm or the water such a light shade of green, its oily surface unpunctured by ripples as the sun shone and the little diesel chuntered on, pushing Pippin’s pretty bows in the direction of the Channel Islands.  The tidal effect over 24 hours or so would be roughly neutral, so Pippin’s course would become like an S shaped snake with the vague plan that she would reach the Hanois on the wings of the tide, not in conflict with it.

I seem to have magnetic powers of attraction for trawlers and that day was no exception, all of them seemingly hell bent on possessing the very patch of sea on which Pippin and I pottered.  It isn’t always easy to work out their direction, for often at night their navigation lights are hidden by powerful deck illumination and they move so very slowly.  These days I recognise many of them and wonder if they do Pippin, thoughts that accompanied chicken sausage and beans for lunch.

Channel Trawler

I was amazed to see a lobster pot marker 60 nautical miles from shore – 200 years ago kegs of smuggled brandy from Guernsey might have lain at the bottom of its tether, awaiting collection by Cornish smugglers (school project c.1968!).  Maybe today it might also be some elicit cargo of a less savoury kind, for this skipper at least.

The English Channel is a marine super highway, one of the busiest in the World and it was no surprise to see 27 ships captured on the radar screen, most of them unseen by eye though the long dirty brown cloud bank of pollution, that stretched from one horizon to the other indicated their physical presence.  It is said that just 15 of the biggest ships in the World produce more sulphur emissions in a year than all the cars on the roads everywhere.

This is believable when you realise that the engines of one of these nautical behemoths are big and powerful enough to probably provide the electricity needs of major towns.  The largest container ships for example, carry up to 1,6000 x 20′ containers, and are powered by low revving 2 stroke diesels of up to 108,000 h.p. a  mere 4,000 times more powerful than Pippin’s little motor.  These engines are 27 metres long and 14 high, weigh 2,300 tones and each guzzles 1,660 gallons an hour of the cheapest, filthiest, high-sulphur fuel – the thick residues left behind in refineries after the lighter liquids have been taken; the stuff nobody on land is allowed to use.  Pippin’s engine?  About 4′ x 2.5′, burning 0.5 gallons per hour of automotive grade diesel!  There are apparently 25 of thee humongous engines roaming the high seas today, with another 86 planned for the near future.

Channel Traffic

Three times during a night of sometimes painfully slow progress, I took a compass bearing on an approaching leviathan and checked again minutes later, each time satisfied that, though it would be close, the ship would pass by safely enough.  Meanwhile I heard panicky transmissions from a few other yachtsmen, all of whom were ignored.  I have a sort of 6th sense, when looking at approaching ships, a sense that told me that this particular ship was fractionally altering course; sure enough, it swept round Pippin’s stern, 1/2 a  mile off, before altering back to its original course.

It is my belief that ships are most unlikely not to keep a proper watch in this manic marine highway and are much more able to be able to calculate whether a collision will or will not occur than you.  On the whole, your best tactic is to maintain course and speed across the highway and not complicate matters by constantly altering course.  I am no expert in using my radar, but for me it is the king of instruments in such environments.

Channel Sunrise

Of course there is no chance of sleep deep in the Channel, a good excuse to exercise the espresso machine and to keep a good book going.  Dawn broke pink over a pewter sea and 5 nautical miles off Les Hanois dolphins came, feeding lazily nearby, occasionally breaking off to play in Pippin’s wake, not that at 5 1/2 knots there was much of one.

How nice to finish a long journey at a gallop, riding on the wings of a charging near-spring tide, more happy coincidence than brilliant passage planning if truth be told; so very much nicer than the dispiriting experience of slogging into a bully of a tide at barely more than 3 knots, harbour tantalisingly close, but hours yet to reach .

Pippin Returns Hanois

The Hanois reef, its black teeth that morning partly uncovered by the new flood tide, is a wicked place to be on a bad night as the unfortunate captain and crew of HMS Boreas found in 1807.  Despatched to rescue a Guernsey west coast pilot cutter, she had taken it in tow when during a manoeuvre, she struck the Hanois reef with fatal consequences for 120 crew.  Meanwhile the Guernsey pilots, seeing the danger, cut the tow and rowed furiously for the shore, which they made safely, not bothering to raise the alarm, behaviour not typical generally of my fellow countrymen I like to think.  Of course they may have been Jersey born, or perhaps French – that might explain it.

Today the reef slept, as Pippin puttered by, her engine having not missed a beat, I thought proudly, recalling my vomit stricken hour deep in the Celtic sea, clearing Spanish sludge from her filters.

Pippin Returns

On down Guernsey’s south coast at a canter to news on the VHF of a powerboat race soon to start in the Little Russel.  Round Longue Pierre, attracting the attention of perhaps over zealous race guard boats, excitement over the race palpable all round.  Off St. Peter Port an armada of boats waited patiently as the fast ferry slipped her moorings and gathered way, before Pippin slipped between the pier heads puttering on to her berth and home.

Pippin had travelled 129 nautical miles in 27 hours, almost all under engine, at a sedate 4.75 knots, which was just fine by me for I really had  not wanted another bruising passage no matter how fast.  Indeed, I had not managed anything like what I had intended in 2019, but could take some satisfaction in the realisation that I can justifiably claim to be a true Jester Challenger.  Even so, Pippin and I had still managed over 800 nautical miles and, importantly, all systems had been properly tested and found up to the task.  Yup she is a good wee ship is Pippin.

Meanwhile plans will soon be in hand for passages much closer to home for the rest of the summer, with more regard to choosing pleasant weather before weed can grow round my waterline and the pleasures of shore-side life weaken my sea going resolve.  Who knows, I may be able to persuade family to join ship for some of it, which will be lovely.



By ajay290

Celtic Sea Breakdown

Pippin slipped away from her dock pushed by the dying ebb tide at pretty well exactly 0900, my sleeping neighbour David still abed (he declared he was a 9 hour a night man!).  It is alarmingly shallow – if you prefer a mile beneath your keel as I do – in places, as you head out into the vast Cork  harbour from Crosshaven.  Once again I had the entrance/exit route to myself and made the most of it, plumb down the middle of the ship channel, Pippin pushing hard into a very short sea, her speed barely above 3.5 knots.  It was at this point I realised the forecast was on the optimistic side of reality, as I watched the pilot boat head out to shepherd an incoming tanker, rearing and diving, throwing spray high over her bows.

In the relative quiet of a bay I put a reef in the main, furled the yankee and headed out  in the direction of Land’s End 130 or so nautical miles away.  It was on the rough side for smaller boats, as shallow seas so often are, and it was hitting Pippin on the beam, but she rolled and dived comfortably and charged off at an easy 6.5 knots – what a girl!  Once again I had the feeling that her passenger wasn’t as happy as she.

The master plan was to make direct for Guernsey, if I managed to sleep, or Penzance if not.  Well I managed plenty of rest, but no sleep for the motion of the boat was lively, though I managed to consume almost a whole book by the end of the journey.  During the day the wind was nudging 25 knots, the sea confused, not that Hercule the Hydrovane cared – it was business as usual, come what may for the old trooper.

I saw a few trawlers and not many ships but as dusk fell, a little modern gaff rigged red coloured yacht passed half a mile off, her skipper standing high in red oilskins, battered by the elements.  Tough guy, for she was small but going well.  The only other yacht was a biggie heading rapidly South, West of the Scillies so I guessed for Spain or France.

I always check out the weather and sail plan before nightfall and usually put an additional reef in for the dark hours, so much safer to do in daylight and at 2000 I did just that.  It didn’t slow Pippin and perhaps the motion was a little easier and my radar alarm only disturbed me twice before dawn.  By daybreak the wind was a puppy of 16 knots, though as I had suspected, Pippin’s bowsprit was aiming for the Scillies 40 nautical miles ahead, so I tacked East to close the Cornish coast, crossing North of the TTS (the route ships converge on to clear North and South of the Scillies and Land’s End).

I was just beginning to think things were going pretty well when the engine, which was running in neutral to charge the batteries, after a long day and night powering the fridge and instruments, coughed and died.  I knew exactly why – the primary filter was clogged with the crap I had inherited from a small garage in Spain last year.  I had checked it, and guessed – wrongly – that it would take me home.  These lovely diesels don’t demand much from their boss; just clean oil and fresh diesel and they’ll run forever, and I had failed it.

Well, I have never changed a filter or bled a diesel but I was going to give it a damn good try, though you can imagine the chuntering going on in that wheelhouse just then.  The boat’s motion was all over the place and lifting off the heavy engine box, getting at the fuel filter and trying to find the right spanners, which I knew I had …. somewhere, was taxing for an old git with a bad back.

Fortunately the filter was a new Racor, which I had watched being installed and on which I had been given a verbal brief on draining and changing it.  The engineer had also fitted an electric lift pump for bleeding and boy was I glad he had.   Trying to remember all this, whilst bent over first a smelly fuel filter and then an equally smelly hot diesel engine, combined with Pippin imitating a horse in the Grand National caused the inevitable result – I was violently sick, which also didn’t help.  Fortunately as I cracked each bleed nipple in turn and flicked on the electric pump, first bubbles and then pure fuel flowed in seconds, something that could have taken half an hour or more with the pathetic little Yanmar manual lift pump – if you could reach it at all.

The joy oh the joy, followed by a celebratory vomit, as the engine coughed and ran as sweet as a nut, though I don’t know why a nut is considered sweet in that sense.  Of course the skipper’s amazing brilliance was captured in the log and later I gushed about it to long suffering wife Angie.  I am  not making too much of this because though my theoretical knowledge of basic engine stuff is pretty good, my practical experience is zilch and my confidence not much better.  But being out there, with only your own resources to hand, is a pretty good motivator, and I want to finish my sailing days without a visit from those great guys in their blue and orange boats, the RNLI.

The last hours of the journey down past Longships and round Land’s End into lovely Mounts Bay was a 50:50 motor-sail, both to charge the batteries and to make quite sure the engine was running just fine – which thankfully it was.


Penzance Lugger

Penzance.Harbour Entrance

Penzance Harbour Entrance

My patented method for capturing a mooring buoy solo first time every time (well, almost first time every time), involves running gently alongside the buoy and using a length of chain, each end attached to a rope, which I drop over the buoy (having remembered to attach said ropes to the boat of course, not necessarily a done deal) and put the kettle on, before fitting a proper mooring strop.  35.75 sleepless hours out that tea tasted good and although as the crow flies the journey was only about 155 nautical miles, Pippin had travelled 186 (a further 7 hours) averaging 5.2 knots – about the same as my run from Shetland to Whitehills on the North Scottish coast 4 years before.  It was time to call Angie and brag about my automotive brilliance.


View Across Penzance Harbour

I won’t say yet again how much I adore barmy Penzance Harbour — oops!!  I just have -but I really do.  The harbour guys, who once towed Pippin in when her engine start played up, know the boat now and are always so helpful and friendly.  The shower code is the same as 15 years ago – in fact probably the same as 1989 when they were installed, the few power points are almost all inaccessible, if they are there at all,  and the water hose is likely to be at full stretch 2 boats away.  The office card machine didn’t work 15 years ago, and still doesn’t, but it wouldn’t be Penzance if it was all slick and shiny.  Certainly those pesky twins Elf and Safety haven’t visited, or they would never have approved the rickety ladder up which I gain terra firma, 3 metres above Pippin – a. it is further away than I can safely reach with my little chicken legs and b. it hangs from a chain and groans audibly and wobbles when I haul my bulk up it.  One day, perhaps not so far off, it will give up and collapse into the harbour with whomsoever happens to be on it, and no doubt Penzance will never be the same again.

I am not the only one to be captivated – I recall a Swiss couple who loved the place so much, a one night stop-over turned into a 6 week sojourn, by which time they were growing herbs on the poop deck.  As for Pippin and I, we’ll stay and rest, clean up and wait for nice gentle conditions for a back friendly 24 hour run home across the World’s busiest shipping route.  Disappointed not to be continuing North for further adventures, perhaps even a feeling of failure?  Of course, both those things.  Sensible not to be?  Definitely.  But we will continue cruising for the summer, nearer to home.

Incredibly Pippin is a small boat these days which had the advantage that the 3 very large boats coming in next day were rafted up elsewhere.  Meanwhile I am moored alongside a lovely local gaffer and met the self-build owner.  Its a small World, for he knew of Pippin and her owner 2 back – I suspect he might have been hoping to buy her, but PG got there first.


Penzance.Centre (4)

There is a Chinese restaurant in Penzance, where you can gorge all night at the buffet for less than a tenner – so I did, though probably ate half of what other diners put away.  The lovely waitress noticed immediately when I took a soup bowl and Chinese soup spoon to tackle my lychees for pudding, and brought the correct implements, which I confess I hadn’t spotted; well of course I told her that she had done well, passed the test.  Giggling she then pointed to the fridge full of gateaux, the last line of the buffet, whereupon I explained she would not wish to clear the mess if I tried to scoff a slice of one of those.  I guess she wasn’t used to customers actually not completing the whole course and who admitted they were, frankly, stuffed.  A group of comfortably upholstered ladies at the next table clearly thought I was a wimp and wobbled, salivating, over to the gateaux fridge.

Penzance.Drying Harbour

You can’t have a curry on board Pippin without banana, peanuts and poppadum’s – so it was a real triumph to acquire these on what was very likely the last day in Penzance.  As I write, the sky is blue, the wind pleasantly warm and just brisk enough – true its not quite the best direction to get Pippin home, but we will make the most of whatever hand we are dealt.

In the meantime, a gable notice seemed to sum things up nicely:

“Laughter is the best medicine….

or Gin ….

or Whatever”.


Pippin and her New Friend



By ajay290