After our successful trip to Gibraltar I wanted to learn more about sailing and decided I would volunteer to help someone sail. From the trip around the Moroccan coast and the boat heeling over like it was about to sink, a single hulled vessel was well off my list. I hated them!!! All it taught me about boats was that mono-hulls were cramped, sank like a stone, probably turned over like they do in the film and worst of all it meant we’d have to sail around the globe on one leg!! Nope, if Gibraltar taught me anything it was that my original idea of a nice big catamaran was the way to go.
So, I was going to place an advert as a volunteer for catamarans only…. Although there actually weren’t many takers. There was only one in fact. A user called Floppy got in touch and explained that he had just bought a catamaran but it was in Preston and he lived in Great Yarmouth. He had devised a plan that meant once the refurbishment on the outside was finished I could help him sail it back to Great Yarmouth so he could do the inside refurbishment nearer home. His long term plan was to take his early 20s daughter and grandson sailing to India. He had 30 years sailing experience and was glad for the help. I was delighted!
A few weeks later I was on a train headed for Leyland, a small town just south of Preston where he would pick me up. Once in the car, he explained that due to some unforeseen circumstances the boat (a 1972 Prout Snowgoose) was not quite ready and that he would have to take me back home. His daughter kindly took me back home and then they went on their way back to Great Yarmouth. I cancelled my holiday and returned to work. Three days later he asked if I could go back to Preston the next day. I explained that I had already booked my holiday, cancelled it and giving 2 hours notice of retaking it would be out of the question. I said I could meet him at the weekend. He was not very happy at this delay but accepted that I had work commitments. It was arranged that I would meet him on the Sunday in Fishguard, a small coastal town in South Wales. He said he was going to get his brother to sail with him that leg.
Once again I found myself on a long train ride and due to the remoteness of Fishguard, the train arrived mid afternoon. I remember walking down to the quayside thinking that I should have found out a bit more about the Snowgoose. “Bombproof” was all I could remember, but to me it looked a little small. Floppy was happy to see me or so I thought, without going in I dropped my bag through the cabin door and we headed from the Quay up the the Ship Inn for a bite to eat.
I put this warning sticker in because in hindsight I should have probably reconsidered!
Anyway, it turned out that Floppy wasn’t really impressed as he had been waiting all day ever since his brother had left him, he asked if we could set off after the meal and sail through the night. This made some sense, particularly as he said the weather was coming in. We finished our food and jumped aboard and I started to help undo some of the lines. Whilst I did this Floppy lifted an electrical wire from his pocket and leant down to join up the battery to the engine to get it started. Already I wondering whether this boat was in great shape, but it was 11pm and I was in South Wales. It started OK and we motored out into the sunset.
Sometime after, I asked if we shouldn’t put up the sails (I was onboard to learn how to set the sails and “sail”) but Floppy explained that there was a problem with the mainsail. It turned out that this mast used slugs to attach the mainsail to it and that part of the runner that these slugs ran inside was missing… this meant that the sail would likely fall off the mast as you raised it. A small problem he explained, but one that meant we didn’t have a mainsail. So my dream of learning how to actually sail was already.. well sunk!
We decided to do shifts and as it was midnight, Floppy suggested I take over at 3am. So, for the first time since I’d arrived, I stepped inside.
I have shown some pictures here of the interior of a Snowgoose.. sadly these are not representative of the catamaran I was on. A stale musty smell hit your nose when you entered and this was probably from the rotting carpets that had been half lifted from the main saloon. Over to the right was the galley containing a very old camping stove on a white melamine top. On the left was an area for the helm station that consisted of a radio and a sat nav system. Beyond that was the head. My berth was at the front of the galley so I took my bag there and tried to unpack. I woke around 2:30 and went up to the helm and took over from Floppy. He said that the rear spaces were full of things so he would sleep on the area in front of the saloon.
There were no instruments to look at and Floppy told me the compass wasn’t very accurate as it hadn’t been calibrated yet. He pointed to a star and asked me to head towards it as we were too far from land to use anything there to navigate. I was going to ask him whether the stars moved and wouldn’t following one mean I’d slowly go the wrong direction but he seemed quite keen to get inside in the warm as it had started raining. He told me to put my waterproof coat on and said he’d watch the wheel whilst I did so…. It turned out that there was no autopilot and nothing to keep the boat on course other than man it.
I came out and Floppy retired for the night saying he would be back at 6am. I diligently pointed the small cat towards the designated star and the weather DID come in. Waves pounded against the boat and periodically one would come over the boat and drench me to the skin. I had not prepared well and wet jeans clung to my legs. Thankfully I don’t need much sleep and the slight terror of being on board a boat in the pitch blackness with no harness nor lifejacket meant I had no problem staying awake until 7am when Floppy reappeared. By now the weather had abated and he asked me if I would prefer him to make a cup of tea and breakfast. Despite feeling quite queasy with sea sickness I gladly accepted a cup of warm tea and some hearty breakfast. The tea was thankfully piping hot and I drank it despite not having any sugar in it. It turns out Floppy doesn’t take sugar so had neglected to stock up on any. The breakfast was a cold Greggs sausage roll as Floppy explained it was the easiest thing to eat whilst standing. (Yes… I couldn’t sit down all night as the chair was so low I couldn’t see forward). I decided to stay on the helm until 11am whereupon the sun was out and I was ready for bed.
I got out of my wet jeans and into bed and slept for a few hours, I took over the helm again after having lunch of surprisingly a bowl of pasta twirls in water. It was about this time that I noticed that Floppy had been getting a wooden stick and dipping it into a hole every now and again. When I asked he said that he was a bit concerned we might run out of fuel. We carried on motoring regardless and whilst I had chance I decided to try and charge my phone as it was flat. I looked on the map and offered the suggestion that we should call in St Ives and pick up extra fuel if we were running low. Floppy explained that not many places did fuel and we should push on to Falmouth.
Evening came and my worry about the fuel grew. We had not stopped motoring for 18 hours and as evening drew in, so did the bad weather again. Floppy said I should get some sleep and take over in a few hours. Being inside did not suit me and I was sick a number of times as the boat rocked heavily, I decided I’d feel better at the helm so I put my wet jeans back on and went up.. When I took over, and due to my worry I suggested that we could put the jib up, this would help the engine, but by now the storm was Force 7. Floppy agreed and turned the engine off to raise the jib. To my horror, without tying himself to anything and without a lifejacket he climbed precariously towards the jib at the front.. without an engine and despite me trying to steer, the Snowgoose bashed up and down in the storm. After some time with him up front in the darkness with a torch in his mouth he returned. The jib went up…. And it had a huge rip down the leach. It was useless. Floppy decided to not bother and instead to use the engine again, it was only at this point did it occur to me that the only method of starting the engine had been in his pocket all the time. Had he fell overboard I’d have had no means of starting the engine or turning the boat around (as I’d learnt in Gibraltar) and saving him.
Engine started and jib rolled back I we motored into the night and into what turned out to be a Force 8!! By midnight or thereabouts (I’d lost all track of time by this point) some lights appeared in the distance. Floppy explained that he thought it was Falmouth, it certainly looked like it as there were a number of freighters docked around. He explained that we could motor on against both wind and tide for the next 3 hours into Falmouth or we could drop a drogue into the water, sit tight and manage it in around 2 hours with the better tide and weather the next day. We opted for the drogue. Floppy tied it off and dropped it overboard before we turned in for the night - shattered.
I was awoke in the early morning by what felt like a strange rocking motion. I looked out of my window and could no longer see the freighters that were there 5-6 hours ago. I went up and looked around and could see not one boat nor land in any direction… we were adrift. I woke Floppy and asked him to check our location on the navigation machine.
Now I don’t know how to explain this. If it had been Falmouth we were looking at the night before, we had managed to drift around the Lizard and towards the Scilly Isles!. To this day I don’t know where we were, all I do know is that the Scilly Isles were about the same distance behind us as Lands End was ahead. I was furious. Due to the low fuel I asked Floppy to use the radio and ask them for advise as to where the nearest fuel dock was. He said that “You only contact the lifeguards when you are in distress!” I said “I AM distressed!! I’m distressed because we have no sails, limited fuel, no safety gear and are drifting towards the Scilly’s” He asked if we should just head there as it looked nearer on the map and it was with the flow… I said no, get on the radio. Falmouth coastguard suggested heading towards Mousehole as we could refuel at Newlyn, so I looked it up on the map, got on the helm and headed there.
After some time Floppy took the helm so that I could try again to recharge my phone ( I hated not being able to communicate with people). But after eating barely more than a sausage roll and some pasta twirls since we embarked I was tired and went to sleep.
When I awoke I asked Floppy had we got to Newlyn… I think at this point he had misheard, because he said he was headed for Newquay where there was fuel! I explained that in my limited knowledge and opinion, a boat with barely enough fuel to get to Falmouth would not have enough to get back up to Newquay. I told him instead to head for St Ives as it was nearer and I would work out a solution there. Floppy was not happy at all. At this point I could get a albeit poor phone signal and rang my wife. I explained I was going to try and get in touch with the sailing club at St Ives. Would they come out to meet us and act as a taxi service so that I could get ahore, hire a taxi, get some fuel, bring it back and re-fill the tank on the boat.
She rang back some time later and explained that St Ives in Cambridgeshire couldn’t do that.. and so she had got hold of the Harbour Master at St Ives Cornwall. She texted me his number and I rang him. St Ives didn’t sell fuel but he would help us out and sell me some of his. Noticing an outboard strapped to the stanchions I asked Floppy if he had a dingy.. he said yes so I explained we’d get it out, attach the outboard, get ashore, get a taxi, fuel, return, refill and set off again (he had been insistent on keeping to his schedule)
In getting the dingy out I found two lifejackets, but the weather was better now so I just threw them back in the cupboard. Sadly, Floppy never had a pump and the prospect of blowing it up by mouth seemed a bit too daunting. On the radio the harbourmaster said he would come out to meet us.
As we neared St Ives and looked for the overnight mooring on the outer part of the bay, a large 14 metre 18 tonnes Shannon lifeboat came hurtling out of the harbour towards us. At first I honestly thought someone must be in trouble and worse off than us... But as it did not sway from our direction it became clear they were here to meet us. Inwardly I was overjoyed and when they met us and a lifeguard jumped aboard and helped Floppy get on a mooring. The harbour master was on the lifeboat with a big cheesy grin on his face and explained that once he'd spoken to the lifeguards they were delighted to help and knew it would not be an emergency but would use it as a training exercise.
Now thinking I was going to get on terra firma anyway I’d already packed and it was a very short conversation whether I wanted to get off the boat - Before Floppy had turned round I had loaded my bag and jumped off. I shouted to him that I was going ashore to sort things out. In reality I’d had enough.
On the way back into St. Ives aboard the Shannon I re-told my ordeal and was assured by the lifeguards that 30 years' experience does not necessarily a good sailor make (he also said that from the sounds of it, I knew more from my year in the classroom than the owner of the boat. As we came into the harbour it seemed like the whole town had stopped to watch what was going on. A lifeboat being deployed is a big thing and I felt embarrassed that I'd caused such a commotion. A tractor hooked the Shannon up and dragged us back to the station. I was very grateful and have supported the RNLI ever since. The work they do is exemplary.
Too late to head home I booked myself in at the Sloop Inn and had a lovely shower followed by a hearty steak and chips. I paid £20 to the harbour master so he could give some fuel to Floppy.
I watched him from my window dock the following morning on the high tide and collect the fuel. I explained in a text that I didn’t feel safe aboard and that with fuel I wished him all the best with his journey to Great Yarmouth. I never got a reply and never heard from him again… but I have to thank him for one thing.... I learned a lot!!