April – third mate missing

We moved the boat back to our mooring in Cowes this month, but on the way our autopilot lost its sense of direction.

Whenever we are just two on board the autopilot is an extra member of the crew, and an essential third mate on longer passages.

With a big steering wheel for racing, it is hard to deal with the sheets on Spring Fever without putting the autopilot on. With Pepper, the smaller previous boat, we had a tiller, so on a solo watch I could if necessary steer for a while with my knees while trimming the sails or doing other cockpit jobs, and would not have to disturb the watch below – sleep is of course vital for safe crewing.

A small problem, we thought, so we asked Wroath’s, the Cowes electrical firm to check when they replaced our broken masthead light. But it turned out not only that the repairs would cost a large proportion of the price of a new one but that spares are hard to get for a 10 year old model. So that’s ¬£2,000 extra on this year’s budget for a new autopilot.

Thankfully, we are running twice that much below our target for annual spending, with very low bills so far this year, so it’s not too much of a pain to install a new one ahead of our hoped-for cruise to the east coast in May.

Meanwhile, better news on Pass Your Yachtmaster, the book I collaborated on with the original author, David Fairhall. It looks like Adlard Coles, the publishers, have a solution to the copyright problem that held it up. Fingers crossed. The text was delivered complete last June and the book has been ready for printing for months.

March: down to the sea again

The virus lockdown rules allow me to drive to the boat from this week onwards, so a day is at last in the diary for moving Spring Fever from her winter berth in Chichester to her permanent mooring in Cowes.

Now we’re hopeful that we might actually make that cruise to the east coast we cancelled twice last year, so I’ve been updating my Thames Estuary charts and pilot book and reminding myself of the different route options around and across the multiple sandbanks between North Foreland and Harwich.

It is always a fascinating pilotage exercise, partly because of its tidal complexity and partly because the sandbanks, channels, swatchways and buoys are constantly changing. Charts that have not been updated can be dangerous. In the 35 years I have been crossing the estuary, even ship channels have moved, and it can be by miles.

Fisherman’s Gat, for example, was a shallow unbuoyed shortcut for small craft over a bank the first time I used it, but is now the main big ship channel southwards. The nearest short cut is currently Foulger’s Gat, and to reach that you have to go through the Thames Array windfarm, which is spectacular when you are in the middle of it.

The Thames Estuary, 2020 chart

I’m explicitly banned from sleeping on board before 12 April, the RYA reports after seeking clarifications from the government. To make it more complicated still, we have to wait until 17 May before two people from different households can stay overnight. The upshot is that we’ll have to make it a day trip when we move the boat before the 12th April and cruising will start on 17 May.

We’re now glad we decided to leave Spring Fever afloat and in full commission over the winter, because we will not have the usual three day annual ritual of antifouling, launching, bending on sails and getting out and sorting all the equipment. We can load the dinghy on board (it was taken home for repairs) and go.

A few jobs left to do in Cowes: we’ll be installing a 50 gallon a minute emergency bilge pump to replace one of the manual pumps, and we have commissioned Wroath’s, the marine electrical firm, to go up the mast on our mooring to install a new LED tricolour and anchor light. The old one was smashed (was it hit by a gull in a gale?)

We’ll probably stay in British waters this year, to avoid the complexities of visiting the EU in the first year of Brexit re-regulation – which is still not completely clarified on either side of the channel – and with a virus situation that seems to be worsening. So after the east coast we may have a second cruise to the west country.

February – boat building, and a rediscovered sailing book

My most recent surrogate for sailing has been to watch You Tube videos from the Sampson Boat Company – an addictive glimpse into a  world where something beautiful, functional and powerful is being constructed out of wood, in a project run by an English boatbuilder working in the USA. I highly recommend it to anyone, boat person or otherwise, who wants to wind down from today’s tensions. This is a link. The YouTube viewing figures show that hundreds of thousands of others have found that out too.

Planking the hull of a 1910 Pilot Cutter being completely rebuilt at Sampson Boat. Still from YouTube.

I’ve built three small dinghies from kits, all less than 12 feet, and renovated two others. But that’s in a completely different world, and  I can’t even pretend to be a boatbuilder round here – our next door neighbour is a professionally trained wooden yacht builder and repairer.

The hull of  an Iain Oughtred-designed Feather pram ready to turn over and fit out. I built it 7 years ago.

This month‘s other sailing surrogate was a book published first in 1961 called All Season’s Yachtsman by Peter Haward, a professional yacht delivery skipper, full of the most extraordinary tales of how to deal with heavy weather round the UK and down to and across the Mediterranean.

As a hired skipper, he often had to deal with yachts in poor condition as well. He experienced one terrible tragedy, when a young man crewing for him was lost overboard. A result of that was Haward’s development of the safety harness, and its subsequent widespread adoption on sailing yachts.

The book was lent to me by David Fairhall, who crewed for Haward and is mentioned in the book. All Season’s Yachtsman was a precursor to the classic text Heavy Weather Sailing, which appeared in 1967 from the same publisher, Adlard Coles, and is still in print, much updated. Adlard Coles himself wrote the first edition of Heavy Weather Sailing, and I can’t help thinking he probably  got the idea from Peter Haward’s book, which he had published on his eponymous firm’s list 6 years earlier.

I have just ordered my own paperback copy of Haward’s book, retitled and republished in 1990, from a second hand seller on Amazon, to keep next to Heavy Weather Sailing.

1990 edition


This month was almost entirely occupied by overseeing the building of a small barn-cum-garage at home. Now the roof is on, I see it happens to cover just the right size space for a workshop to build another Iain Oughtred dinghy one day, maybe bigger than the Feather pram, perhaps with a sail. Tempting. Who uses a garage for cars anyway, now modern ones are so rustproof? Most neighbours use them for workshops or storage.

I would buy another kit from Jordan Boats, the firm that supplied the feather pram. They’re quite basic, leaving much wood to be bought and made into components from scratch, but they do two absolutely crucial operations: the planking is computer cut, saving the skilled process of cutting and fitting every curved plank individually, which I’ve been watching on the latest Sampson video; and the hull moulds are outlined and ready to cut and assemble.

I’d keep any new boat modest in size. When I built a far simpler 11 foot hard-chine plywood sailing dinghy many years ago, I shared the workspace with a couple building a 20 foot wooden boat. That’s when I saw the cube law in operation: the amount of material and work involved in a boat rises roughly in proportion to the cube of the length, so I’d guess a 20 foot boat is 8 times as big a project as a 10 foot boat.

January – Brexit blues

After years of trying to work out what Brexit means for yachts, there are still some annoying issues yet to be cleared up, a month into the new regime.

The most vexed question is still VAT. Most of us do have an answer, though not the one we wanted: our boats lost their EU VAT status if they were not moored in a continental port when the transition period ended. That means that in future they can only be temporarily taken to EU countries.

But a minority is still in a potentially expensive limbo. These are the owners who have been away from the UK for more than three years, who may have to pay VAT for a second time if they return with a boat they bought and paid VAT on here.

Continue reading “January – Brexit blues”

December – checking proofs

With the new lockdown – boat and our home both in the highest tier of antivirus restrictions – winter sailing plans are off for the moment.

So the only boating thing getting done here is proof correcting for the new edition of Pass Your Yachtmaster, by David Fairhall and the late Mike Peyton, the cartoonist.

It involved writing a lot more new material than I expected – or perhaps I should have realised, given the speed at which electronic navigation, marine communications, emergency location, search and rescue and numerical weather forecasting have developed during the 38 years the little book has been in print.

Continue reading “December – checking proofs”

November – the sextant survives in the navy, & joy in little jobs

I learnt this month that Royal Navy officers still have to learn and practice astro-navigation with a sextant, despite the incredible array of technology at their disposal.

I was at a Zoom meeting with Rear Admiral Peter Sparkes, the UK National Hydrographer, organised by the Suffolk branch of the Cruising Association.

Continue reading “November – the sextant survives in the navy, & joy in little jobs”

October – the shortest season ever

That’s that, for the moment: new lockdown, can’t go to the boat for an autumn mini-cruise or even to do some maintenance, so sum total of this year’s sailing is 5 days in the Solent. I try not to contemplate the cost per day.

We have however decided to leave the boat fully in commission in Chichester Marina (above) over the winter and into next season, with sails bent on and engine not winterised. This is because Spring Fever was launched only in mid-September, so gear and antifouling have not just finished a long, hard season.

Continue reading “October – the shortest season ever”

August – still waiting, but planning

For multiple reasons, this year’s launch has had to be put back again to 1 September. We haven’t missed much because of the delay, since the weather has been awful.

Essex and Suffolk are still the objectives, and the delay has given some time for preparations, including buying the latest edition of East Coast Pilot. With its predecessor East Coast Rivers, I have editions going back to 1981.

Continue reading “August – still waiting, but planning”

July – launch date at last

So far the only boating I’ve done the entire year is rowing my little dinghy to harvest some luscious but otherwise inaccessible early blackberries hanging over the water.

This lovely little lapstrake boat, a Roger Oughtred design called a feather pram, is too fragile to want to knock it about on beaches as a yacht tender, so I keep it safe on our pond.

Continue reading “July – launch date at last”

June – tide turning

It looks as if we’ll be free to go cruising on Spring Fever from 4 July, the day the renewed easing of Covid-19 controls starts. While we will not be ready for early July, at least we can now plan a sail, possibly to the Essex and Suffolk rivers.

Pin Mill, near Woolverstone, Suffolk

Following the end of the ban on overnight stays on boats, Cowes, where we are at the moment, has reopened to visiting boats that book a berth in advance.

Continue reading “June – tide turning”

May – a narrow escape in Venice

Sad news from Venice, where the historic Trabaccolo trading vessel I went to write about for Classic Boat a few years ago has been swamped and damaged by a bad leak. The vessel was saved by the pumps of firefighters who came alongside Il Nuovo Trionfo where she was berthed near the Salute, at the entrance to the Grand Canal. Apparently the boat’s own pumps had failed, though the reasons for the leak in the first place are not clear. The water flooded the engine, and videos show it swilling around at the level of the saloon table top, submerging much equipment.Firefighters alongside with pumps, St Marks Square in the distance

Il Nuovo Trionfo has now been pumped out and towed to a yard for repairs ashore, where she is now. Continue reading “May – a narrow escape in Venice”

April – sea fever

It’s the time of year when we recommission Spring Fever, paint the bottom, ready the gear and sails, update the charts and clean and polish the hull. These essential rituals lead up to that perfect moment when we head out from the harbour and the bow first rises to the swell from the sea – a clich√©, I know, but it is a spring-time experience always  to savour.

That’s impossible with the boatyard shut and we, the owners – as a slightly-older category of person – banned from leaving home. It’s only when I can’t get on a boat as the summer approaches that I realise quite how much it still means after all these years. Sitting here in Suffolk, 20 miles from the coast, the east wind smells of the sea and, if I’m not careful, I’ll soon be reciting John Masefield.

Continue reading “April – sea fever”

March – Spring and fever

Our plans are changing rapidly, just like everybody else’s in all walks of life in Europe. Sailing now has to be a peripheral concern, but we still have to work out what to do with the boat, and indeed whether we can sail it at all this year.

No sooner had we decided to go to southern Brittany rather than our original destination of Spain than the fight against the Covid 19 virus made that new plan difficult and probably impossible. It is only a couple of weeks since we applied for a 12 month mooring for Spring Fever at Arzal on the lovely River Vilaine: not surprising we haven’t heard back, because southern Brittany has a local concentration of infection, and the marina is now preoccupied with far more urgent matters. It has announced a strict plan to protect its staff and customers. Continue reading “March – Spring and fever”