Finish Line in Sight

Holyhead was getting to me, even though it was where I received my first salute for voyages made from a very pleasant fellow inmate. I shall remember the final night, 26th May 2022, as Pippin tugged and surged at her restraining ropes that jerked and squeaked in protest as I rolled in harmony, sleep a distant shadow. The morning came grey, cold and windy and so desperate was one crew, they left only to turn round at the end of the breakwater and scuttle back.

The forecast suggested the elements would calm by the afternoon and I wasn’t waiting a minute longer, so I cast off helped by a new friend and raised sail in the safety of the huge harbour. The seabed and breakwater belong to the ferry company and it was suggested that they are instrumental in the delay of plans to rebuild the marina destroyed in thecstorm of 2017.

It was still breezy and choppy but I didn’t care we were off and anyway I was transfixed by a new hazard up ahead. Over the years I have diverted to avoid many types of floating obstacles – but never a flying one, until now. Just up ahead was a small helicopter, hovering 50′ above the sea intent on what I have no idea. Just before I called him up to ask him to blow me across the sea to Ardglass, he pulled up and flew off, Pippin 100 metres off.

I had determined not to drop below 5 knots, jogging pace, so it was a journey much aided by the Yanmar though just then Hercule the Hydrovane and was in charge. He doesn’t like me to interfere so I dug out my battered copy of Das Boot and got comfortable. At 5 knots, it takes a very long time before you feel you are getting anywhere and I became certain that the Isle of Man, 20 miles off, was jogging alo g beside us so static did it appear to be.

Isle of Man on the chart plotter

But with night came signs of progress, and I let Miss Lemon the electric tiller pilot, come out to play with inscrutable Hercule as I rummaged around for some scoff. There are strong tides in the Irish Sea and I kept Miss Lemon busy with course changes – you can’t sleep at all in coastal waters with tides, not just because of the traffic, but also because of the need to regularly check and adjust course.

Ardglass, my destination, is a tiny place and though I had been there before, I had no wish to enter in the dark so slowed down to arrive with the first flush of dawn. Accessed down a very narrow shallow channel flanked by rock and mud banks there is little room for error, but with 2′ beneath the keel, I brought Pippin alongside – helped by Paul who jumped off his boat onto the guano strewn pontoon, wearing nothing but his underpants; it was 0330!

On my last visit in 2015, an old man and his cat Arthur, hugely magnificent and disdainful of all, met me. Imagine my surprise when they greeted me next morning, the old man now 89 and Arthur a stately 16. Ardglass was a previous home of Pippin and Gerry Burns, master mariner and a previous owner came aboard later, crushing my arthritic fingers in his huge paw. He had just bought a boat but still agonised for 2 days when Pippin hit the market. Kindly, amusing and indomitable, Gerry described his first heart attack and 5 subsequent bypass operations, though looking at him you would never know. At 67, he is the same age as me and I felt quite inadequate with no such stories to tell – yet.

Naturally it was grey, dark, cold and blowy, but what do you expect? This is Ireland for Heaven’s sake, the place you stand behind a wall to shelter from the rain because it blows horizontally. It is also the place I have awarded the Willis prize for rain as noone does rain quite like the Irish. But I was on a mission, for I was desperate for sweet and sour pork for reasons unknown to me so I headed for the Chinese restaurant I had discovered in 2015, a place where quantity marginally pips quality and the wine comes in tiny plastic bottles. I was too embarrassed to ask for 4.

0900 and I was going, full oilies for it was, you guessed it, a freezing, grey, blowy Irish morning. Two neighbours helped me but instead of following as they had planned retreated back to their warm cabin for bacon and eggs. It really was very tight and I had to really gun the motor seemingly inches from the mud banks to force Pippins bows through the wind. I felt quite chuffed as I knew several pairs of eyes were following my antics through cabin windows and I was pleased to disappoint them.

Nosing out of the channel, I turned Pippin North, straight into 16 knots of wind and quite big seas. But there was no option as I had to make Donaghee Sound, between Copeland Island and the shore at the corner into Belfast Lough before the tide turned; and it was 35 miles away, so no time for mucking about. Staysail out, sheeted in tight, hang on tight, put Miss Lemon in charge and go for it. So we banged and crashed our way, but Pippin isn’t easily deterred and she managed beautifully though movement on board was impossible without hanging on like a limpet.

Pippin in Bangor Marina

A few hours later we were closing the Sound when a windsurfer shot out from the shore and screeched to a halt 15 metres from Pippin, took one hand off his sail, waved jauntily shouting “Hi!” before spinning effortlessly and careering shorewards at 20 knots. I would have called him a dirty show off, as he was clad only in briefs and was sporting a disgustingly impressive 6 pack – but I was so darned impressed, I could only admire.

A fellow Jester, down from Tobermory, was there to meet me at Bangor Marina and it seemed a good opportunity to consume the chilled bottle of Lanson Black Label in Pippin’s fridge. Before we hit the town, though haring 137 years between us and both being arthritic, it was a gentle, hobbling sort of hit.

Bangor Marina office

The weather is variable, but latest indications are that escape might be possible in 2 days, across the infamous North Passage where the Irish Sea spews it’s tides back and forth into the Atlantic. Keen to finish now, the Willis master plan includes the option of pushing on to the end, without stopping. But who knows for plans are but the intentions of the moment

It’s empty – because it’s raining again
Sancerre, my Jester friends very well organised craft

But in the meantime, there’s a town to hit again – if we can manage to hobble there as on pedestrian crossing en route requires us to make maximum speed to clear the road before the light goes red. Frankly we’re safer at sea!

Cheeri as we Guerns say

By ajay290


Damaged remains of the Holyhead storm

I don’t have my log books with me, but Pippin and I have covered thousands of miles together, not all happy for me if truth be told, but that says more about my limitations than hers. We’ve been together in winds from 0 to 40+ knots, waves from ripples to maybe 25 feet, and the only one who has ever been concerned on occasion has been me; Pippin has been mistress and Hercule Lord of all.

Oh you’ll miss her, friends said, but the funny thing is I won’t for I don’t look back as I’m not going that way, so I will carry only fond memories with me as I trudge on, no regrets. The important thing is to have plans, but even more important is to actually enact those plans, for there never is a best time to go and do – so just go and do.

Except I am sitting here in Holyhead, 5 days without a shower, awaiting an easier ride, listening to 24 knot gusts build to 33, so I am not going to go and do; heavens sake I’m an OAP! But I am lucky, for just as being a Jester earns membership of one select group, so custodianship of a Francis 34 Pilothouse of which there are only 6, brings membership of another even smaller group.

Gerry Burns, master mariner, won’t mind me involving him in this blog for he is a previous owner of Pippin, and lives near my next destination, tiny Ardglass in NI. Who better to assist with my interpretation of local weather and indeed, to meet me there? His advice proved a great comfort as I swung wildly, like Irish weather, between sod it lets get out of here, to let’s have a glass of hair restorer and await better times. Though I do find the latter emotion comes more naturally these days.

As some will know, I have a love hate relationship (mainly hate) with the Irish Sea, a body of water pummelled from above and below by tidal water jets squeezing between narrow rocky necks, accelerating tidal flows and creating maelstroms of colliding water in high winds. This is further stirred up by the depressions that track high across this sea Hell bent on seemingly endless mischief.

But I remained surprisingly upbeat, even when a boat filled with cruise ship passengers pulled alongside as I stood in my birthday suit, scrubbing my marbled limbs in the pilothouse, whilst the wind blew and Pippin tugged restlessly at her tethers. Perhaps I’m now on YouTube, but whatever no more came, and my local neighbour opined that I probably had put them off though he also felt they were a tad too posh for Holyhead. I subscribed to his latter theory, though liked him a little less when he theorised that the weather was all my fault.

Pippin alongside in Holyhead

It was chilly so I decided to seek a fleece at the chandlers and met a nice young chap, except he said just what I didn’t want to hear – this time last year he was sunbathing on the beach in perfect sunshine. The first mate has often said I carry a front in my rucksack and it seems she’s right, but maybe there’s a little sunshine and a fair wind in the pocket of my new fleece.

I also needed gas and just as there was no hot water in Holyhead, so there was no gas, but I was not to be defeated and mounted a taxi in pursuit of the evasive ether. I will report success in obtaining gas, but would rather not report at what financial cost! There is no diesel either, but that was OK as I had plenty.

Downtown Holyhead is tired but if you allow your eyes and mind to feast only on the evidence of dilapidation, you will miss the whole point of the place. What you get is unerring friendship and kindness and not one dog walker, of which there are many, passed without a cheery greeting. For my mile walk to town I took off my smart shades and wore my older clothes so as to fit in more, and was not surprised to discover I had no chance of replenishing my stock of Gentleman’s Relish or dark roast espresso.

Pippin relocated for strong winds

Talking of rations, a quick trot to a nearby hostelry resulted in the worst curry ever, period. It was so bad it was amusing and I certainly didn’t have the heart to tell the nice waitress, who came to check all was well. Contrast that with a very simple, basic little Thai restaurant which provided excellent fare for £12.

Sea Cadets arrive. Tight squeeze


Sea Cadets arriving. Tight squeeze


Holy Island

Incredibly the sun is out and the noise of the wind in the rigging is down to a moan so hopes have risen for a break out tomorrow. So I’ll leave you hare and hopefully report next from the other side.

hwyl fawr

By ajay290


I have been known to enjoy the occasional meal and glass of hair restorer with friends, convivial events filled with laughter and friendship. It explains the additional ballast I so comfortably wear.

On rare occasions such a meal has led me unexpectedly onto a new path, such as happened in 2000 when a particularly convivial meet resulted in both a hangover and a job as general manager for Shell – but that’s another story.

Fast forward to March 2022, when I reported to the Taj Restaurant for a curry supper with a lovely friend, dynamic serial entrepreneur – and ex chief stoker. He raised his Cobra and sighed, for, he reported, he was simply too busy to use his little motorboat – would I like it? Yes I exploded, spraying chewed Poppadom, for I had been considering what sort of boaty adventures I wanted next.

I love thinking, dreaming and planning ahead but if truth be told, this was a little premature. But I knew such an offer would never happen again and I believe in fate; some being had arranged this for me.

My extensive research had led me to realise that what I wanted was a minimalistic tough little motorboat with a single diesel, cross Channel capable and fast enough to at least halve my current passage times. It had further revealed that this breed of boat no longer existed for they have been replaced by speedy ‘yoghurt pots’ with huge, thirsty outboards, costing upwards of £100k new, an amount the first mate was never going to accept.

And what I wanted was being offered to me over a vindaloo at a 10th of the cost.

Back home there was a brief awkward moment as I briefed the first mate, an accountant, on my scheme to buy another boat, but the ice was melted when the price was mentioned. Thus I became Admiral 2 boats Willis, proud owner of a fleet. Great, except it was perhaps 3 years premature and I hadn’t told Pippin.

My Azores trip had shown up my inadequacies and brought the realisation that I no longer wanted to play alone on the oceans; been there, done that as my first mate put it and anyway she said, you need a project for my little battle cruiser is several years older than my kids, both well into their 3rd decade.

It just happens that a Jester pal is a yacht broker and he offered a generous discount for a fellow Jester and so Pippin hit the market and phones began ringing within 3 hours. YES REALLY.

To cut a not very long story short, Pippin was bought by a lovely man who had previously owned a Francis Pilot House 34, which he sold and regretted doing so ever since. Yes he paid top price, but Pippin is a very cosseted boat indeed.

Which is why I am writing this from a cold, windy, deadbeat Holyhead for I had offered to deliver Pippin – before I discovered he lived in Glasgow, over 600 miles from Guernsey.

I left home for a very pleasant and enjoyable cross Channel trip to Plymouth to deliver some kit to friends Pete and Tracey Goss. Naturally a little hair restorer and some hearty meals were shared, before Pippin and I pushed on to Penzance against wind and too often tide. Anchored off the harbour, the seas rose as I tried to commune with Gollum deep down in the caves of darkness, to little avail.

So, grumpy and bleary eyed, we set off for Milford Haven, a challenging distance for a geriatric solo sailor for in coastal waters you dare not sleep. Passing Longships Lighthouse on the back of a galloping tide at over 8 knots boosted morale and I began to believe we might beat my expected 24 hour passage plan.

I don’t know why, but trawler near misses always seem to happen at 0300, when you’ve dog tired and so it was again. Things got very sticky as the gap closed to 1/2 mile. He had switched off his AIS identification transmitter and refused to answer my VHF calls; why? Because he was where he shouldn’t be, doing what he shouldn’t be doing!

It is very hard in such circumstances to know what direction a working trawler is going, particularly as some go round in circles and with a top speed of 6 knots Pippin simply can’t sprint out of the way. We passed each other 200 metres apart in pitch darkness with the wind rising.

With 21 knots across the deck, Pippin was going like a train and I slapped her wheel and grinned with pride; good girl! Milford Haven is a huge harbour, one I had sailed into before and it was a joy to drop the Rocna in the comfortable lee of cliffs near Angle Bay, 5 hours ahead of schedule.

We rested in Milford Marina, before locking out for the long passage to Holyhead, a marina destroyed in the storm of 2017. Again Pippin astonished ne with her speed and comfort even as the wind rose, though comfortably from behind. Hercule the windane and was in his element, ably assisted by Miss Lemon, a newly acquired portable autopilot to which he was connected. Miss lemon had the calming effect of steadying him as we powered down the bigger waves, working together in satisfying harmony.

Once again Pippin made a mockery of my passage plan surging several hours ahead, with the disadvantage that we arrived in the pitch dark rather than early morning. By now the wind was a full throated 25 knots and the idea that I could find a lee under Holy Island was quite wrong. Once again I found myself far out on the end of a pitching bowsprit tackling wildly gyrating hopelessly tangled sheets (ropes that control the fore sail) just as I had had to do whilst fighting my way to the Azores – except this time the water wasn’t warm.

Fortunately I was in familiar territory for I had been here 7 years before and it was a relief to tie up, albeit to the shattered remains of a pontoon, 6 hours ahead of schedule and sleep.

I’ll leave you here, as the wind begins to sing in the rigging, winds that will keep ne here a few days yet, before I can push on up towards the Clyde.

By ajay290