Unsure of my Position

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A ship, a compass, a cloud and the sun

Motley: mot'li

Adj. : Having elements of great variety or incongruity; heterogeneous.

Noun. : Having many colours; variegated; parti-coloured. A tunic. Reference to the king's fool of medieval times.


The wave is spawned in the North Channel; that narrow strait between Northern Ireland and south west Scotland where the long, heavy Atlantic swell smashes into the chaotic mess of the Irish Sea. The strong south-flooding tide fuses these unequal mates and the offspring of this unholy union is a bastard in every way. Swallowing up a couple of its siblings; the wave immediately dwarfs its peers. Bullied along by a rising northerly gale and that implacable tide, it begins its long march south.

Hour after hour the wind rises; screeching as in torment. It is a tough night for any ship at sea in this savage, howling madness. The tide turns, forcing the waves to shorten and pile up even higher.

Many miles to the south, the wave keeps growing; roaring like a night monster seeking its prey. Having devoured yet more choppy swells, it has become a Great Wave; what some mistakenly call a 'Rogue'.

Now it thunders down upon a small boat, a 42-foot ketch, already working hard to hold its course; squirming and heeling. The helmsman is an old salt. He feels the presence of the wave; knows what it means. His head turns as he fights the kicking wheel and his eyes rise, ever more unwillingly, up, up, up to the foam spitting crest, and he thinks 'Well, — my old boots'.

The monster seizes the stern and hoists it high so that the bow drops and the boat careers wildly down the wave, accelerating swiftly and....we have to go. Have to leave it there. It seems we've started in the middle of the Irish Sea and that's against the law. Even the Irish wouldn't do it. Back to the beginning: Scotland. Scotland's not so bad....

Pregnant grey clouds drag their swollen bellies wind-blown across the wrinkled, frigid loch. It's April of 1998. I'm freezing to death and trying to work out how on Earth I ended up here.

Think of a dream. Go on, think of a really corny, head-in-the-clouds dream. How about buying a boat and sailing off to exotic, sun-blessed, tropical waters? Yeah, that's the one; highly unimaginative, but that's the plan. So what the hell am I doing, sitting in the saloon of a yacht in the cold dark waters of Gareloch, just off the Clyde, in Scotland? I'm basking in Scotland's sultry April climate, that's what. Stupid question.

The wind is shrieking, the noise level acute; plenty of creaking and groaning, not just from me, and even with the halyards well lashed there's some slapping, too. But it's not always like this.

A couple of days ago I watched a tepid, brassy sun slide behind the mountains mirrored in a glassy loch to a glorious natural symphony. The flock of eider is voicing its demure affront at the salacious moans of the grey seals. Above them fly oyster catchers, terns and all manner of land birds. Thirty yards away a proud pair of nesting swans is objecting to the proximity of a disreputable looking heron. There's a still, perfect magic in the air. So I head for the pub.

The reason I'm here is that I've come to buy this boat. The chap who's selling it is a retired army officer of such exalted rank and refined accent that he makes me feel like a peasant just listening to him. He's posher than the Queen! (God bless her!). I shrink before his flat vowels and Etonian pronunciation.

The boat is a Slipper 42 ketch. The Brigadier tells me he's Irish and that he wanted a name that was Irish and had something to do with slippers. He went to the local library and discovered that there was a kind of slipper made in the western islands of Ireland. It's a very local and highly traditional, specifically western Irish, product. That's how the boat came to bear the unfortunate name 'Pampootie'. That's the first thing to go; it's going to be 'Motley'.

I get the impression that when the Brigadier says he's Irish he means that he's from one of those English families that owned Ireland in the days before the rebellion when everything was tranquil and feudal and the peasants knew their place; the good old days of oppression and starvation under the kind patriarchal fist.

At one point he told me a tale of how Princess Anne had visited his Officer's Mess and some civilian bounder had spoken to her for twenty minutes with his hands in his pockets! I put that bit in italics because that's how he said it; I'd never heard spoken italics before. I gather that this happened quite some time ago but I thought the old boy was going to burst. I replied straight-faced that such an outrage wouldn't have happened in my mess. Yeah, right; fat chance of Princess Anne paying a social visit to the senior rates' mess. I think he was a bit upset about selling his boat to an OR (Other Ranks - army speak for pleb). Where was I? Oh yeah; Scotland. Scotland's not so bad....

So this is Rhu. It's really nice. A couple of miles from the resort of Helensburgh between Glasgow and the nuclear submarine base at Faslane on the north bank of the Clyde; Rhu is a small, cute, mostly affluent village and that's about it. Helensburgh is altogether more complicated. The seafront is a stereotypical seaside resort. There are fish and chip shops, a pier, amusement arcades and a funfair on the gaudy, low-budget promenade. Just a few streets back, and uphill in every conceivable way, stand the substantial granite mansions of the wealthy merchants, lawyers and football stars of Glasgow. The upper slopes of Helensburgh with its serious golf club, are a millionaires' ghetto.

Meanwhile, down the road at Rhu marina; I got down to the difficult (for me) business of getting to know the only boat I have ever owned. This is a slow process. My only company is George, my dog. I thought I would have my girlfriend for company but at the last minute she decided against it. She said she was a free spirit and really fancied the idea and as soon as I bought the boat she bought a house and settled down. Leaving her was not easy, so I've decided to become celibate. It'll be simpler and more suitable to my wandering lifestyle. And it's a Good Intention.

Anyway, I've still got George; he's faithful, obedient and he loves me but he's not a lot of help. Mostly he just accompanies me when I go down to the Rhu Inn to get drunk (Rhu Inn - ruin, get it?). Rhu has a lovely pub and they give George free beer. George is a beer monster and not the least bit discerning.

I'm not sure how this custom began. The pub is furnished with small tables which seat up to six people. As someone gets up to buy a round for the table they also buy a half pint for George. He's getting more beer than me and he's not paying a penny. The locals say that we stagger home in unison. That's alright for George; he's a lurcher.

This Scottish beer is very good; much too good. Getting the boat ready for her first trip with me is delayed but, finally, we're ready for the trip to distant Falmouth.

A friend of my dad's, an experienced sailor, is travelling up to keep me company along with two friends of mine who know nothing at all about yachts. My dad's friend is called Roy; my friends are called Kevin and Richard.

Roy arrives first. A bluff Northerner in his late fifties, he seems competent and easy to get along with. Once Kevin and Richard arrive we repair to the pub to enjoy a few pints of Caledonian charm and plan the coming week. First order of business is a quick sailing lesson for the lads the next day. Actually, the very first order of business is waiting for me to arrive because last night I went home with Wendy. Roy takes charge of the lesson as I'm still feeling frail and he does a good job. We split into watches; Kevin is with me and Richard is with Roy.

Together we aim to get from Rhu to Falmouth in a week calling in at Bangor in Northern Ireland and Wicklow, or perhaps Arklow, in the Republic of Ireland on the way. The first week in June should offer good sailing weather for the trip. We have a week to do a trip which, taken in one bite, should last three days or so. What could possibly go wrong? Only the first of many stupid questions; or perhaps the second.

Chapter 1 Haggis, Guinness and Pasties

Rhu to Bangor in Northern Ireland. (One day)

When you sit down to make a passage plan for a voyage where tides are important there's really only one thing to do. Forget consulting tidal atlases and looking up the time of high water Dover. All you have to do is set your alarm for three o'clock in the morning. There's no science to this, it just always seems to be that way. We carry the ebbing tide all the way down the Clyde and catch the first of the helpful south-going flood through the North Channel into the Irish Sea. We enjoy a pleasant reach with light winds under somewhat grey and murky skies. Almost within sight of Ireland, at 3pm, the wind dies. So we furl the jib and drop the main and carry on under the engine and mizzen only. About that time we're joined by a fleet of small trawlers. It's amazing that, however often you change course, you're always in their way. I sometimes suspect it might be deliberate. The sun breaks through the rising cloud base as we enter Belfast Lough and a dull day eases into a benign evening.

Once we're comfortably berthed in the splendid marina at Bangor, and after we tidy up and clean ship, we splice the main brace. This is easily my favourite naval tradition. This is also the conclusion of two crew members' first ever voyage under sail. Kevin and Richard have never really sailed before and their quick competence and unflagging enthusiasm are impressive and refreshing. Before we get to Falmouth I will be glad of them.

Having showered and changed, the serious business of the day begins. Run ashore. The town is neat and tidy, at least in the centre. We briefly explore the attractive seafront and, since we're now in Ireland, we go for a Chinese meal. Next day we go shopping, after a good greasy spoon breakfast at which we're served intimidating quantities of soda bread.

Bangor is part of the 'Gold Coast' region of County Down and, as such, is generally affluent and loyalist. There's a lot of money and pro-British sentiment in this area. Bangor has a couple of claims to fame. In 1300 it was one of only four towns in all of Ireland to get a mention in the Mappa Mundi. It appears that Bangor was world famous 700 years ago. Ah, how quickly fickle fame fades. It's also the birth place of the politician David Trimble and the racing driver Eddie Irvine. He couldn't get out fast enough. That's a lousy joke, but, since I don't have any better ones, it stays in.

I do know the history of the troubles well enough to know that they have visited Bangor and I imagine that the proximity to Belfast must have been felt from time to time. This is the closest I've ever been to Belfast and I wonder if there might be some little suspicion at least. I couldn't have been more wrong. People are open, friendly and helpful wherever we go. The fact that the town is so neat and clean and normal is almost eerie. It feels like Switzerland-on-Sea. Once the stores are stowed and weather reports digested we fill with water and fuel and make ready for sea.

The forecast is treacherously reassuring. The radio and fax printouts conspire to promise a peaceful and undemanding sail through the night. I like night sailing; it's peaceful because you can't see the scary stuff. The wind is currently a north-easterly force four or five, signalling an easy broad reach, backing to a northerly force three to four during the night. Everything seems to be set perfect for a pleasant night cruise down the East coast of Ireland. I should have known better. The bloody Met office gets me again.

Bangor to Wicklow (One night)

Isn't this where we came in? Yup! And it was a bitch of a night. I don't know how many times the Met office have pulled the same trick. I do know they catch me every time. The bloody wind does nothing that it's supposed to do. It stays stubbornly in the north east and rises to a full gale and then some. The Irish Sea is like my ex-wife, shallow and disturbed. We leave Bangor at half past one in the afternoon; by midnight we're surfing 20-foot waves. With only a handkerchief of genoa open and a reef in the mizzen we're touching 16 knots downhill. (Yes, that's supposed to say downhill). It feels very strange to be standing, at midnight, at the wheel of a 42-foot three bedroom surfboard. If this night is Mr Toad's Wild Ride, does that make me Mr Toad? Don't answer.

Roy certainly doesn't like it at all. He asks me for a life jacket. I explain that the harnesses we're already wearing are much more useful. If he falls overboard he could be on the other side of the very next wave and I couldn't even see him; much less get to him. I explain that rather than floating in a jacket, he's better off floating in a boat. I offer him mine. He accepts. Problem solved. Good man.

One small, curious event does take place that night. Whilst Kevin and I are standing watch, Richard offers to make us a cup of coffee. This in itself is unusual since more tea is consumed on my boat than any other liquid, even rum. The curious part though, is that Kevin vigorously specifies real coffee and not decaffeinated. When the coffee is served Kevin becomes hugely agitated. He heatedly insists that the coffee is 'decaf' and asks my opinion. I'm utterly unable to distinguish because I'm a tea drinker and for me all coffee, especially instant, is rubbish. The quarrel blows over in the face of more pressing issues of the moment but later the event is to have a tiny footnote.

We're heading for a GPS waypoint in the Irish Sea; positioned so as to give us the choice of going into Arklow or Wicklow. Arklow looks a prettier and more sheltered harbour, however it has a bar (a shallow area, usually a river mouth, where rough, breaking waves frequently occur) across the entrance. The next morning, when decision time arrives, there's still a big swell running and our arrival there would be rather more dramatic than I would like. I opt for Wicklow. This is a much more commercial harbour, less pretty and with much less protection from the northerly swell. But, with no bar, at least we can get in.

There is one other minor factor involved. During the night whilst I slept (and therefore quite clearly not my fault) we have missed our approach GPS waypoint by the razor thin margin of eight and a half nautical miles. GPS is almost entirely responsible for the amazing growth in sailing as a hobby. People no longer have to learn how to navigate, or so they think. Owners argue over the true accuracy of the system, but most agree that it will locate you within a couple of metres. An error of eight and a half miles, therefore, is quite an achievement.

We're now faced with a couple of hours of flogging across the face of the ragged swell and, with now much less wind to drive and stabilise us, we roll like a puppy on a rug. I have had happier times but, eventually, we get there.

Our arrival is another farce. Roy's on watch at the wheel. As I said, the harbour is quite open and there's still quite a swell inside. Roy decides to head for the river. This is around a very tight bend to the right (starboard, as we salty folk say) and fully invisible to us. As soon as I see where he was going I shout from my position on the stern to express my opinion to the contrary. We turn sharply to the left (port, as we salty folk also say) and gently run aground. Oh sh*t! (Which we salty folk say quite often).

I bravely hide my disappointment and call Richard and Kevin to the bow whilst instructing Roy to go hard astern. It works, thank God. We eventually tie up at the harbour wall. This isn't very comfortable but reasonably safe. Kevin has also been in the navy, three years before the mast. He ties Motley up with so many figure-of-eights that we look like a frigate.

George is hoisted swiftly, if not elegantly, up the wall. We simply tie a halyard to his doggie life jacket and haul him up. In order to effect this operation; Richard winches, Roy holds George on deck, Kevin awaits George's arrival at the top whilst I cling to the wooden fendering half way up the harbour wall as a guide. In mid operation, just as George passes me and I have a faceful of demonstrative tail, Kevin asks me if George is happy. I reply to the effect that, from my perspective, it's difficult to see if he's smiling. George immediately strikes up urinary relations with this sovereign republic. George is in no way a diplomat but he's very happy. So that's fine.

On the subject of George, and of dogs generally. I saw on Discovery that they have a sense of smell 2500 times more sensitive than ours. Why, then, is it that I can identify a dog turd on the pavement from the other side of the street? I know what it is and all I need to know about who deposited it. George, however, has to put his highly acute olfactory tackle within the tiniest fraction of an inch from the offending article to carry out his analysis. Oh, and when he's finished he wants to lick my face. Bleaaaaaaargh! OK. Back to Ireland.

A chap comes along on a bicycle. He explains that he's the Harbour Master and it would be very good luck for us to cross his palm with silver; an extraordinarily common superstition in practically every port. We ask about the showers. There are none, so we head off into town to look for a hotel which might, subject to the same superstition, lend us the use of their ablutions. We eventually find such a haven but it's distant, difficult and dear. Having been turned away at a health club and a hostel we're finally relieved of 10 pounds to avail ourselves of a cubicle at the Bridge Inn. Still, it's a good, hot shower and much needed. We're beginning to smell like Frenchmen. Later we return to that same pub to eat and enjoy our first pints of Guinness on Irish soil, very tasty.

After the meal we play pool and drink more Guinness in another bar, called the Leitrim Lounge. Richard falls in love with the barmaid, a traditional pub sport. During the course of the evening, Richard confesses to me that last night's coffee had, indeed, been decaf. Why? I'll never understand people. At closing time we return to the boat to spend a bouncy night and wait for the weather to improve.

Wicklow is a fairly pretty, fairly quiet little port. What I mean is the town is fairly pretty and the port is fairly quiet. There is some modest commerce, mostly in wood, and the popular television series Ballykissangel is filmed near there in a stunningly beautiful village called Avoca, on the banks of the river of the same name. The central theme of the programme is that a Catholic priest falls for the local beauty and vice versa. I wonder who thought of that! We see many advertisements for extras in the windows of local shops but staunchly resist the allure of stardom.

Other than that Wicklow seems to devote itself to being picturesque. The name derives from the Danes who called it Wykinglo. It was a major naval base for the Vikings until the twelfth century when the Anglo-Norman invasion drove them out. This led to a long feud between the English and the native Irish for possession of the territory, and you can see why. Wicklow County is gorgeous. It's a land of lakes, rivers and mountains and much of it is a national park, and the fishing is justly famous.

We need good weather for the last, longest and potentially most demanding leg of our journey to Falmouth. Ahead of us lies Lands End. My Admiralty chart does not pinpoint the locations of individual wrecks, so many are they. There's simply a hatched area with the notation 'numerous wrecks'. Hmmm, that's a bit worrying, frankly.

The weather improves to the extent that the wind almost dies away altogether. There's a very light southwesterly zephyr. The sea lays down and pretends to die; lying bastard. We go from one extreme to the other, which is to prove typical of this trip.

Wicklow to Falmouth (Two days)

Prior to our departure from Wicklow, I waste a good deal of time on a passage plan to sail to Falmouth based upon the forecast southwesterly breeze. Once into open waters, however, we find no wind at all. Condemned to motoring; we head south. I hate motoring: it's noisy, smelly, the boat doesn't settle well and I'd rather buy beer than diesel. If I wanted to motor I'd have bought a motor boat. The southern zone of the Irish Sea is called St Georges Channel and it's a maritime traffic jam. At around midnight we find ourselves surrounded by ships. There are four small merchantmen, two fast ferries and a slow tug. Good grief! Of course we're motoring so we have no right-of-way, in fact of all of these ships only one is in a position to give way to us. I simply put the motor into neutral and wait for them all to go away.

The rest of the voyage is uneventful until we approach Lands End. This interesting patch of sea is further complicated by the presence of two major shipping lanes. These are like maritime motorways and they run parallel north-south just off the Cornish coast between the mainland and the Scilly Isles. The lane closest to the mainland is the northbound one which means that the nearest ships will be heading straight for us.

As we approach our craggy doom that evening, the wind backs until it directly opposes us and increases violently. As the light and the visibility fall away to almost nothing the waves rise in inverse proportion. These are sailing's less attractive moments and the ones we always talk most about. Just to make things more challenging our handheld GPS decides to take a rest. I'm what the RYA describes as 'unsure of my position'. We navigators are never actually 'lost'. I know where I am: I'm in the shit.

So dense are the clouds that, although it's early evening and early June, it's already dark; the proverbial dark and stormy night. Every single wave is breaking over the bow and landing squarely on me thirty feet back at the wheel. The boat is leaping and bouncing like a spring lamb and thoroughly drenching me every five or six seconds. Thankfully perhaps, I can see nothing. Roy wisely declines to come on watch. He points out that as I live in Cornwall I clearly know these waters better than him. Oh bu**er! I've never sailed around Lands End before. I'm making it up as I go along but that's not what the crew wants to hear. Turning over and over in my mind is the thought 'Don't mention the Fastnet Race'.

As a swift aside at this quiet moment, and since we're talking about the Fastnet Race (yes we are): My old squadron assisted during that mess. If you look at the footage you'll see some Wessex 5 helicopters with an Ace of Clubs logo on the side. Well that's 771 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm and far and away the finest search and rescue outfit in the world. So there. Back to a lumpy Lands End.

I decide to go and look for the Bishops Rock lighthouse. Richard has come on watch, which is handy, as he's the tallest of us all. I tell him to stand directly behind the spray dodger and look over it for a light whilst I head directly for some of the most mortal rocks known to mariners. It may appear the counsel of despair, but the Bishops Rock lighthouse has a nominal range of 24 miles. I'm counting on seeing it long before we physically interface with granite. The one worrying thing is that we've already passed within eight miles of the Pendeen light, with practically the same range, without seeing that one.

Richard hasn't been looking for long when he suddenly shouts 'lights, lights, lots of them!' I'm not expecting to see Penzance from our current position, so I request clarification. He duly complies, shouting 'lights, lights, lots of lights!' This, being much clearer, puts my mind at rest. I briefly raise my head between deluges to see the salvage tug patrolling the zone between the northbound shipping lane and the shore. It looks like a hotel. Sh*t, it looks like Las Vegas! At least I know we're in the right area but when they send that beast out you know things are likely to get expensive. When, finally, we do see that light, we're only about a mile or so away, just the tiniest bit close.

Now certain of our position and more comfortable in the lee of the cliffs, we set course for the Wolf Rock light, another unattractive piece of real estate, which we duly find. I have already calculated the course from there to the Lizard, so I finally hand over to Roy. Before I can sleep however, there's the small matter of the GPS to be resolved. By drying out the antenna connection I manage to get it working again. I now have one and a half hours of lumpy slumber to look forward to. Oh joy!

When I awake, at midnight, and resume my post at the wheel, I find a very different world. We have left the thrills of Lands End behind us; done with all the sound and fury. Now the world's a still, almost sleepy, place. The sea's calming down nicely; the furious wind has vanished completely. The only remaining problem is the visibility. We're tightly swaddled in the densest fog I think I have ever seen. We are definitely back in Cornish waters. All we lack now, for a full house, is an iceberg.

Kevin goes below to make a cup of tea and a sandwich. As he climbs back up from the companionway he's facing astern, looking over my shoulder. His eyes pop and his jaw drops. 'Have you noticed that?' he squeaks. I glance around and then up to see the bow of a cargo ship seemingly loom over us. We do a quick 360 to the left (port, remember) and he carries serenely on his way. Thinking back, he probably wasn't all that close but it certainly appeared so in the dark and the fog. I wasn't really frightened, honest.

The rest of that night is quite enchanted in its own strange way. I make radio contact with a ship I previously served on and we renew contact with an old friend. One of the participants of that Irish Sea traffic jam was a tug towing an oil platform. He's had to go well wide around Lands End in the southbound shipping lane. This has lengthened his trip substantially. So miserable has been our progress that he now catches us up. We have a chat. He's headed for Hamburg. He also has absolute right-of-way and is closing on us from astern. He asks me if it would help if he turned a little to the right (starboard). I reply in the affirmative and he avoids us. What a nice man.

Early the next morning we stumble upon the fairway buoy for Falmouth. Without further drama we enter and tie up. After two storms, being becalmed, wreathed in fog and almost rammed, we have arrived. This is the first week in June. This is summer sailing around Britain. Out of our planned week we have spent three days and three nights on passage and the rest of the time alongside. I was later to learn that, among the cruising community, this was a disproportionately high percentage of sea time.

We also heard later that whilst we were extricating ourselves from the Irish Sea traffic jam and only about 100 miles to the east of us, the famous, vastly experienced and revered Eric Tabarlay was drowning off the coast of Wales. Good grief. What a very sobering thought to us maritime morons. 'Whale oil beef hooked' as we salty folk too often say. (Say it out loud - think Cornish).

Perhaps this is the moment to explain how I come to be the owner of a 42-foot ketch. I'll try to be brief. In May 1975 I joined the Royal Navy as an artificer apprentice. (At this point lots of ex-navy types are groaning, 'Oh no, a bloody tiff'). In 1985 I was back in Cornwall after three trips patrolling the Falklands when a somnolent female of indeterminate age decided to decorate her vehicle with my motorcycle. Three years and three operations later the Naval Medical Review Board decided that my future was as a limping civilian. The resulting civil case brought me an insurance windfall sufficient to purchase the boat. So off I went. Well, why not?

I've always wondered: Why is orange jam called marmalade?

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