Monday, 22 September 2008

The last row

I woke under the gaze of a disgruntled RIB owner. Opening one eye I watched him dealing out his disapproving stare between my embryonic form in the sleeping bag, my stern line attached to his craft and a grubby trail of footprints that crossed his boat to mine.

I gave him my chirpiest ‘bonjour’ in a gravelly croak that spoke of too much Pernod and a late night, but receiving no more than a look of jowly distain, took the opportunity to pack up and leave.

The morning sun, not long above the horizon, grilled my back as I rowed out to Cap Cerbère over a flaccid sea. Once on open water, however, small waves converged with eager curiosity and OB rolled and reeled. I inserted the centreboard and hoisted the mainsail for stability but still the sea jostled underneath tipping us every which way, and the boom took drunken swings at my head. If I ever want to recreate that long row, over the short distance, round to Portbou I need only to sit in the hot sun, balanced on a large ball while a willing volunteer randomly hits me on the head with a rolling pin—I’m sure they’ll be queuing up.

At Portbou I threw the anchor off the stern and took a line to a ring on the beach. Ashore, parasols and postcard stands, in the dappled shade of plane trees, lined the streets, their colours as fresh and alive as impressionist paintings. I walked briefly among the bright umbrellas before my spongy legs slumped me into a metal chair and my mouth ordered coffee.

I spent the rest of the morning flitting, from one degree of Hunter S Thompson-esque weirdness to another. I went to sea in a public toilet, I crested waves on a stone bench, I had conversations with the late Catalan writer Josep Pla and told Salvador Dalí how I’d sailed through his paintings and what I’d done with his ants.

I tried to put a stop to the nonsense with lunch, at a restaurant terrace under a plane tree, but a reproduction of Picasso’s La Sardana, depicted on my place mat, came to life under my plate. It was only when I stood up and walked across town to the boat that I stepped back into the real world.

I hauled in the stern anchor and, the oars fitting comfortably into my hands, manoeuvred out of the bay. I raised the main and mizzen to a hint of wind but found it too light to sail by and rowed the three miles round to El Platja del Garbet, my final destination. The rowing was slow and though I’d learned to pre-empt the swinging boom it still caught me out, clipping me behind the ear with a playfulness that I found trying.

I anchored in the bay off the north end of Garbet beach, amongst RIBs and launches moored to buoys, and settled down to spend a relaxed afternoon with my book and some beers while I waited for my friend Pep to arrive with a trailer, but the weather had other plans. Gusts of Tramuntana, forerunners of a more consistent blow, came scurrying round the headland and rushing down through the pines. I looked up from the first page to gauge how OB would swing, she seemed fine but as a more sustained gust bore down I noticed we closed with the boat behind. The anchor was dragging on the stony bottom.

Further out in the bay larger yachts weighed their anchors looking for better holding ground. They weren’t having an easy time of it and nor was I. I dived to reset the anchor, wedging it into the ground with my hands and dropping larger stones on top but even so it wouldn’t grip. The stones were sharp and slippery and littered with sea urchins. I must have re-laid the anchor four or five times and every time I came up for air the wind sang with a fuller voice. This wasn’t the afternoon I’d envisaged and eventually, as people left the stony beach, I rowed in and pulled OB up onto the shingle.

Safe again thanks to my versatile boat I dried, dressed and warmed up. Nearby a dry riverbed disgorged dusty whirlwinds onto the beach. They came dancing down between barren banks, coating the boat with grime. Then one stole my inflatable cushion and whisked it into the water.

Damned if I was going to lose any gear I stripped off and ran naked into the sea. I swam hard after my cushion, which tiptoed across the ruffled water with the grace of a ballet dancer. The cushion moved fast and I would never have caught it had it not paused to rub noses with its larger cousin the inflatable dinghy.

I swam doggedly back to the shore against the wind. Doggedly indeed for, gripping the cushion between my teeth, I felt like a spaniel retrieving a duck for his master. Wading out of the water I primly used the cushion to cover my nudity, unwilling to give the few amused observers more ammunition for their evening anecdotes.

Finally dry but chilled, I made the bed and climbed into the sleeping bag to get warm. I took up my book, The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow by AJ Mackinnon, but it was absurd to be reading about someone else’s trip when I’d just completed mine. I was happy just to snuggle in the motionless OB watching the water, the wind herding flurries of eager young ripples out of the bay to play with the wild white horses at sea.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008


Cerbère, like its cousin Portbou back over the border in Spain, is a small town set in a crook between mountains and dominated by a huge railway station. The main road flies on columns over the north side of the harbour. And from this grubby, dark corner of the port I watched the lights come on in the dowdy town. I had tidied the boat and made a quick trip to the beach to use the showers but finding them dry was still as salty as ever. All the same I roused out my shore going togs and tidied my hair before locking the boat, stepping ashore and negotiating the hard, flat land that tipped and tilted beneath my unaccustomed feet.

I swayed along the seafront observing the world from inside an alien bubble. Noisy machines swept passed at phenomenal speed, one addressing me with an impertinent blare, before hurrying on winking an orange eye. Brightly lit restaurant terraces displaying fresh, clean diners slid by like river tour boats. I saw tanned women with jewels, hairdos and gin and tonics listening distractedly to rotund men with shinning pates pronouncing dishes on the menus as if choosing the names of children. And all around the crackle of voices and laughter, woven with aromas of cooling tarmac, exhaust smoke, frying and mixed perfumes, the whole underpinned by the grinding hum of civilisation. I sat down heavily on a cane chair outside a bar and gripped the edges of the table while I waited to be served.

I ordered a Pernod and gradually sat back, suddenly infused with the most intense satisfaction. I pictured OB’s bow shouldering aside all those miles of water, the rat, the running aground and the pounding in motorboat wake. The boat had behaved phenomenally well. We’d been lucky, missing the really strong winds but we’d seen a bit of a blow all the same and she’d risen to the occasion in the same way that she seems to rise to everything that’s thrown at her, with courage and enthusiasm. Suddenly I had to check a wave of mawkishness.

Bringing my drink the waiter looked confused by my ear-to-ear grin and damp eyes, but he was unaware of his role as solitary witness to my maximum celebration.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Cala Prona to Cerbère

Out of the cove, going broad, I hoisted the sails double reefed. Not so long ago double reefed conditions seemed fairly extreme for Onawind Blue, but having seen her perform well in diverse weathers over 500 sea miles by sail and oar (this year), my confidence in our combined ability had grown such that I rushed, from the lee of the land, into the main body of the sea and the south easterly wind as relaxed as if under full sail in a force two.

So relaxed in fact that, despite doing six knots, I took the opportunity to get on with some housework. I swilled the dried salt off the decks and sponged out the bilges. Then, as I raised my head to check that OB held her course, we gybed—my first involuntary high-wind gybe in this boat. The boom caught me squarely on the forehead and, dazed, I threw my weight on the windward rail as OB swung to weather and water gushed over the lee side decks. I paused to recover, sails flapping, then meekly backed the main and got back on course now soberly paying more attention to the helm.

The wind was building. It looked like the forecast breeze had arrived and, aware of not having lived up to expectations that morning, was zealously making up for lost time, vigorously blowing the gate-crashing Tramuntana back into the mountains.

I held the increasingly heavy helm while OB hit seven and eight knots. Flying to France like this the journey would be over in little more than an hour. But the wind continued to rise and as the swell rolled up behind us OB started to surf.

Onawind Blue doesn’t plane; she can’t with a heavily rockered aft section and a narrow stern. To plane she would need a straighter, broader, flatter run aft. With such an underwater profile she would zip along, riding on top of the water at nine knots and more. In strong winds I could probably average an extra three knots. The trade off would be that she wouldn’t row as well or as fast. But I would rather have a one knot gain at slow speeds than a three or four knot gain at higher speeds.

She can surf however, and she does this by snuggling her flared stern into the wave face. Like this she can surge along with her backside half buried in foam until the bow starts to dig in and she slows down, settling for a while before catching the next steep wave.

On the first wave we hit ten knots. On the second we maintained ten knots for the whole rollercoaster ride. On the third and fourth too. On the fifth wave OB tried to broach. The helm was almost too heavy to hold and the long lath tiller bent into a great curve close to breaking point. I hove-to and had a think. We seemed to have reached a tipping point. Even with the centreboard raised the weight on the rudder had been extreme as OB tried to turn to windward. The thin rod that is the tiller and connects to the rudder could not take the strain. One option was to replace the tiller with a thick oar, this could be achieved quite easily with a few lashings, but the strain on the rudder and its fixings wouldn’t be lessened. The other option was to shorten sail. I struck the mizzen sail and got back on course.

Soon we were surfing again and the tiller rod flexed worryingly as I pushed against it trying to hold our course. Removing 1.2 square metres of double-reefed mizzen sail hadn’t made much difference. I stopped again. We were four miles from Cala Prona, five from Cap Cerbère and three from the main landmass to port. We had plenty of room and time and OB lay-to comfortably on the rough sea though the wind fairly howled—probably somewhere between 25 and 30 knots judging by the surface of the water. I felt calmer and more confident than ever and, I realised in the small moment I had to analyse my feelings, deeply happy.

But I wasn’t going to lie-to all afternoon, blissing out in a force six. I carefully lowered the mainsail, wrapped the cloth tightly round the yard and boom then made the package fast to the windward thole pins. (The oars were already in their strong-wind position, tied across the thwarts.) Then I shook the reefs out of the mizzen sail and hoisted it on the mainmast. I turned off the wind and away we hurtled again at seven and eight knots.

But the wind hadn’t finished rising yet and it wasn’t long before I lay-to again and put the reefs back in. With a mere 1.2 square metres of sail, as much cloth as you might find in the average pillow case, OB was comfortable a last. The tiller felt light again, although the boat still ran at 6 knots.

As I settled down to enjoy myself I noticed that clouds were gathering to the north. I remembered what Jaume had said about clouds, rain and the return of the Tramuntana and took the reefs out, urging us on. As the rain began the wind eased and backed to the east. I quickly reset the double-reefed main and put the mizzen back on its mast. 30 minutes later, now under full sail, the GPS marked a miserly three knots. The rain had stopped, just over a mile remained and the wind continued to fail, backing into the north. I started to row, just making three knots with the wind coming foul. But I could reach Cerbère on one tack and was determined to make port before the Tramuntana could gather its strength.

In the evening light I turned west round Cap Cerbère, stowed the sails and rowed into the harbour where I tied up alongside a medium sized RIB. At sea the white caps were racing south again.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Wind bound in Cala Prona

That day with the northerly Tramuntana pumping we knew we weren’t going anywhere. The people that I’d met on the small beach, Alex, Jaume, Carlos, Carmen and Ana called their respective workplaces or families to say that they were wind bound in Cala Prona.

As phones snapped shut the atmosphere in our little cove changed markedly. A Monday morning excuse had appeared, a perfect excuse, better than illness or vehicle problems, a legitimate reason to spend a relaxing day with friends in a beautiful cove; a day of beer and skittles on Fiddler’s Green. Though the only problem appeared to be a foreseeable shortage of beer around lunchtime. But fortunately OB’s stern locker had been restocked the day before in Cadaques. I had ten beers on board, a litre of wine and half a bottle of whiskey. They had a fridge. We were gong to be fine.

The wind had cleared the sky and we sat in the sun, sheltered from the breeze, chatting about boats and drinking beer. In preparing the trip I had allowed for a day of rest due to unfavourable weather and now, after five days of flat out cracking on I happily lay back on the shingle and gazed into the depths of blue above me.

Soon all thoughts turned to food. They had intended to cook paella the night before and had brought the sofregit (the all important base of slow cooked onion, garlic, tomato and in this case, being in the region of the Alt Empordà, sausage meat and rabbit) with them. They just lacked the fish ingredients.

The wind was fading, the grop had passed. A fishing trip was proposed and I eagerly joined Alex and Jaume in the launch. We drove out of the cove and round the rocks to a place where Jaume had fished since he was a boy and there we donned masks and snorkels and, diving into toothpaste blue waters, harvested mussels and crabs from the rocks. After half an hour we had two net bag’s full and returned to Cala Prona where preparations for the meal were underway.

It was the best paella I had ever eaten, the grop, the cove, the fishing and the company each adding a layer of priceless flavour.

A gust of wind woke me from a delicious siesta. The south easterly had returned. Alex, also rousing, went for a swim while I studied the sky and the sea. I could see Cap Cerbère clearly across nine miles of water. With my destination in sight and a favourable breeze I was overcome with perverse doubts about my ability to reach France. I knew, and my friends had confirmed, that days like these could be battles between northerly and southerly winds. Jaume had said that if clouds formed again bringing rain then the Tramuntana wouldn’t be far behind. But the south easterly, having been denied free reign all morning was blowing strongly—strongly enough, I hoped, to keep the Tramuntana at bay. But still I doubted.

Then Alex returned from his swim with a pair of sunglasses in his hand. ‘I found these on the sea floor. You lost yours. They’re a bit effeminate but you can have them.’ I tried them on. The lenses were dark, the fit was perfect and I could handle effeminate. I said my goodbyes untied OB and headed out for France.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Why I don’t want a bigger boat

I watched as the sailboat’s keel and rudder ground into a large submerged rock. The two children were bawling as the skipper brought the anchor home, started the engine, dropped his stern lines and tried to motor off. But the yacht had stuck fast and each wave lifted it higher. The morning had turned chill, a fast-moving, leaden sky sped over a foam-streaked, shingle coloured sea and the sandwiched air rushed wildly, madly into the cove pushing the boat further onto the rocks. The skipper’s nerves were as taught as guitar strings, he ran forward, ran back, peered over the side, shouted instructions to his harassed wife and jumped overboard.

Up to his waist he stood on the submerged rock and heaved at the listing hull. He screamed orders at his wife at the helm, who in turn screamed at the children to go below. The situation was appalling to behold. From where I stood the man’s position looked dangerous, a large wave could lift the boat and pin him between the hull and the steep wall of rock. A man dived off one of the motorboats and swam to his aid. But to push the boat off from leeward seemed an impossible task. They needed somehow to reset the anchor and use the winch to haul themselves off—that or a tow from a strong boat.

I looked at Alex—he seemed to be thinking the same. I grabbed a length of line from OB’s cockpit while he roused his buddy, the owner of the motor launch.

The three of us piled in and while the owner, Jaume, started the engine Alex raised the anchor and I released the bow line. Jaume put the helm hard down and we span in a tight circle narrowly missing OB’s stern and powered to the other side of the cove. Broadside on to the wind we slowly approached the yacht’s lee. As we touched Alex sprang aboard and took the helm from the woman. She relinquished it gladly and went below where the cries of her children still rang.

The skipper, tendons and veins pulsing in his neck, urged us to push his boat hard, ‘Hard!’ with our bows. He was past caring about damage; any scuff to the topsides would be small compared to the wreckage being wreaked underwater.

Jaume opened the throttle as I held us steady, leaning over the bow and grabbing the yacht’s toe-rail. Water churned at our stern but the yacht held fast. ‘Ram it!’ shouted the skipper. ‘Ram it hard!’ Jaume and I looked at each other. Extreme measures were called for but ramming the boat didn’t appeal. I fastened OB’s length of line to the yacht’s bow cleat and to the launch’s stern. Manoeuvring carefully Jaume worked round to windward of the sailing boat and pointing his craft into the wind’s eye opened the throttle again.

The line taughtened, wringing the water out of its fibres, and the wind whisked the drips away. The launch growled, whipping the water behind us to a maelstrom of foam. The yacht held. The skipper and his helper shifted their positions and in unison we heaved again. A groan came from the yacht’s hull. ‘She’s moving!’ somebody cried. And then, with a long drawn out, grinding snarl she slid off in to deep water. We motored gently forward. Alex carefully held the yacht head to wind while I undid the line, a gust pushed the launch hard onto the sail boat’s bow with a painful crunch of fibres breaking in glass and Jaume engaged full ahead before any worse could happen. The skipper swam from the rocks and boarded his boat via the stern ladder. His helper swam back to the motorboat and Alex dived and swam back to the launch.

We slowly drove back to the quay and tied up then witnessed the skipper paddling a small blow moulded kayak over to the rocks to retrieve his stern lines. ‘Leave the lines.’ Shouted Alex, ‘Come back and get them when it’s calm.’ The skipper scrambled and slithered on the rocks. He’d already cut his feet and shins but he climbed up the steep wall and untied his lines.

I agreed with his decision to regain his gear having myself lost important kit that morning. Increasingly material loss becomes less important, ‘don’t fret you can buy another one’ is true on land, but like ‘it’ll be alright on the night’ that attitude has no place on a small cruiser. I depended on every piece of gear and any loss, especially that of a line, could be a possible step towards disaster.

The sailboat motored out into the fierce wind towards its home base of Port de la Selva just three miles around the corner. Though mercifully short it would be an uncomfortable passage and I felt for that man, his wife and children.

With swell beginning to roll into the open part of the cove, and having seen what could happen if they dragged, the motorboats began to weigh their anchors. The first released its leeward stern line, then brought its windward line aboard as it motored up to its anchor. The boat manoeuvred tidily then headed out into the chop. The second boat however, having retrieved its leeward line couldn’t close sufficiently with the rocks to unhook the windward line. The line had been purpose built with a sturdy bight of chain at the end and this was looped over a stout finger of rock. They called over to where Alex, Jaume and I stood watching, asking if we could help by climbing round the cliffs from the quay to where their line was fixed and so unhook it.

I volunteered and found that the simple favour wasn’t so easily executed. I had to clamber over sharp rocks, dive and swim and climb out of the water up a vertical rock face to release the line then, finding myself stranded on an uncomfortable rock, watch as the large crew motored away. Confused in their relief to be leaving the cove, they waved and shouted their thanks to Alex and Jaume on the quay.

When I had swum back to the cove Alex explained why those sorts of water users didn’t deserve help. Working in the busy port of Palamos he was tired of seeing people behaving as if the status afforded them by boat ownership also endowed them with the right to demand assistance of others. When they had been too lazy or incompetent to secure their tenders or to think of a way of retrieving stern lines in a blow, Alex reckoned, they should suffer the consequences. Many people won’t sail to the north of Cap de Creus being too apprehensive about the conditions they might find, he continued, they think it’s Cape Horn or something. When they do come north of the cape they often get into trouble. It sounded like local pride to me but there were far fewer boats this side of the cape and the weather had shown what it could do to the unwary.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Riding with lady luck

With the sun coming up and anxious about the day ahead I left Port Lligat on day six. A favourable SE wind blew as predicted, but what wasn’t quite so favourable was that the breeze was expected to reach force seven by midmorning. The blood-orange dawn revealed many other sails on the water and three yachts with beautiful expanses of pink curves coming up directly behind us. But why so many boats on the water? Were they all rushing up to France before the stronger wind arrived? Something told me they were.

As I bore away for the cape of Cap de Creus I questioned my decision to go to sea that day. And, what is more, on an empty stomach. But this was part of our routine, wake at half five or at six, drink a coffee while preparing the boat, set sail with the dawn to catch the off shore breeze and stop 10ish for breakfast.

If the approaching weather was so bad as to warrant this northerly exodus of large sailing boats could I afford to stop, anchor, cook and eat? Or should I follow their lead and crack on eating bread and fruit on the way? I couldn’t make a decision and fear of sailing out into the notorious waters north of the cape made me dither. I’d missed much of the coastline to arrive here, and I was unwilling to sail straight past the shores I so wanted to see. I decided to stop for breakfast and make a decision based on how the morning evolved.

The island of s’Encalladora lies just off the cape and the passage between this rock and the shore is navigable in good weather. I headed towards it with the three yachts close behind. The wind in the passage became fluky and a contrary current setting towards the cape made its presence felt. But OB zigzagged from gust to gust, avoided being backwinded by tacking early and generally demonstrated that she’d learned a lot about getting the most out of the wind. Once out of the strait the larger yachts loosened sheets for France while I headed for Cala Culip and breakfast.

Beating up the long inlet I became aware of eyes upon me. The breakfasting crews of several yachts at anchor were interested to see OB’s lithe form smartly tacking towards them. The northern shores of Cap de Creus are desolate and windswept. Unlike most other parts of Catalonia there are no chalets and apartments, the grey-brown slate stone slides into the sea in long diagonals and on the few places where the stunted maquis can find a footing it remains close to the ground out of the wind. Cap de Creus reminds me of north Wales.

My aim was to anchor in deep water on the eastern most elbow of the bay near a small beach where a naked couple were just walking down from their fisherman’s hut to test the water. The wind came briskly off the land and soon I was in a position to anchor. But at that moment the yacht to leeward hailed me, I didn’t throw the anchor and started to lose ground, oh well, I’d just drop down and see what he wanted. I gybed to come under his transom and as the boom came across it just clipped my sunglasses, which I’d been wearing on my head, and knocked them into the drink.

I am not superstitious but I took this as a bad omen. Sunglasses are an important part of my equipment—half a day of reflected glare and my head is throbbing. They are an item that I wear almost every day of the year, that I choose with care and that I am prepared to spend money on. I sat under the French yacht’s lee cursing myself while the owner rained praise upon us. I was too gutted to lap it up but when he warned me about the weather saying that he was staying put to avoid it, I felt a chill as if the wind too had been from north Wales.

I turned towards the sea again. Silly as it may be, I felt absurd beating back up to anchor when I’d just said au revoir to the Frenchman. I’d just stop at one of the next coves. At sea the wind had strengthened, I put a reef in and, a few minutes later, still being over-pressed, another one. Without my lucky glasses I wasn’t going to risk the crossing. I sailed straight past the coves of Portaló and Galladera and made for Cala Prona, where there was an old fisherman’s refuge, somewhere to build a fire and sit out a blow. The wind was coming stronger and the sky was thickening and my stomach was screaming for food as I turned the corner, stowed the sails and rowed into the little bay.

The cove gives good shelter from the SE and as I rowed past an anchored sailing yacht, with a couple of lines to the shore and a couple of kids who were being berated by the skipper for the heinous crime of bickering, I realised that it was pretty tight for anything much bigger than OB. All the same there were two motor yachts, also anchored with lines ashore and a few smaller craft. A motor launch was tied to the quay by the fisherman’s hut and there was an untidy bundle of people and sleeping bags on the small half moon of shingle. I made for the beach; the only part of the cove protected from all directions, dropped the anchor off the stern and hopped ashore with a line, which I tied to a molar of slate.

I immediately started cooking breakfast. The group on the beach looked across with barely contained curiosity and while I mopped my plate with bread one fellow stood up and came over. He introduced himself as Alex and explained that they were locals from Portbou. As we chatted we noticed that the wind was faltering, over France to the north the upper sky was livid above thick dark clouds. I climbed out of the boat and walked across the beach to better study the weather. The air between the clouds and sea was tinged with an unhealthy yellow as if stained with weak Pernod. ‘Un grop.’ Said my companion. The local word ‘grop’ refers to a particular type of summer storm. Sudden and violent and so localised that it doesn’t make the weather forecast a grop forms rapidly usually bringing strong wind, thunder, lightning and a spattering of rain.

I could see an army of approaching white caps marching over the metallic sea. The Catalan flag, which had been snapping stiffly over the hut, died on its staff. Then came a hollow pause, like that of an infant marshalling its grief after a fall, and then the Tramuntana hit with all the thunder of stampeding buffaloes. The wind brought thickly charged air and a kiss of salt spray and I looked north with eyes half-closed, leaning into the blow. Behind me OB was safe, although she tugged at her lines like a spooked nag. But out at sea I could make out yachts with their sheets loose and sails flapping, others already double reefed were scudding back to shelter under the lee of the cape. I thought about how OB and I might have coped if we’d been out there, with too much wind to sail and a slate-toothed shore under our lee…

As if in answer, my thoughts were interrupted by a nightmare clonking and grinding as the boat anchored at the cove’s entrance dragged onto the rocks, the crew’s palpable fear electrifying the cove.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

It’ll be alright on the night

I worked for a time in theatre where the phrase ‘it’ll be alright on the night’ is frequently used, partly because it happens to be true. Heightened nerves and adrenaline adding gloss to even the most sketchily rehearsed pieces. In small boat cruising, however, according to Frank Dye, who took a Wayfarer dinghy from Scotland to Iceland, there is no place for this attitude. Unfortunately it seems to be ingrained in me.

Dye prepared his cruises meticulously and given that he achieved his goals I felt there was no harm in trying to ape him when I came to prepare my trip. Though worried and awed by the elements, as everyone who sails should be, I am happy to deal with them; it is part of the joy of being alone on the sea. (I know we’re not in the southern ocean here, or even that far off shore, but in a small boat a force four with sufficient fetch can feel like a gale) What concerns me are the million things that can set a train of minor events in motion, be it ants, rats, sun cream in the eye or a tangle of line. The sum of petty coincidences that will land you in a situation that worsens exponentially.

You can’t make allowances for every eventuality and although it sounds obvious and slightly priggish thorough preparation did give me peace of mind. Having already undertaken a cruise I found this one far easier to prepare, knowing that time spent studying the cruising grounds and local weather patterns is as important as gear selection. If I have one reservation about my kit it’s that I didn’t take a spare anchor. I managed without because I have a versatile boat but I won’t be leaving home without one again.

Having taken measures to overcome as many possible problems as my experience allowed me to imagine, and feeling that I was leaving nothing to chance, I was blessed with extraordinary good luck on this cruise.

I wrote the above a few days ago. And this afternoon I have been given a sober reminder of why ‘it will be alright on the night’ just won’t rub. Out sailing OB, for the first time since I returned, I heard a loud crack and the main mast and sail toppled to leeward as if felled by an axe. It was no problem, I simply hauled the rig aboard, furled the sail and stowed it, then rowed the half-mile home. But it could have been a real disaster had it happened on my trip.

I had never been happy about that length of wood and shouldn’t have used it for my main spar. It had too many knots and, at the back of my mind, I knew it. But by laminating it, I reasoned, the weaknesses would even out—it would be alright. However, there was a large knot of deadwood exactly where the mast passes through the deck—the point of utmost stress. And here the mast sheered.

The broken spar reveals the true size of the knot. Probably a quarter of the wood at that critical point on the mast was useless knot. I had no idea it was such a whopper and am surprised the spar lasted as long as it did considering some of the conditions it has seen.

I am elated that it didn’t happen on my trip and delighted to be given the opportunity to make another, better spar. This time I will start by ordering some prime wood.