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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.