Just Stopping By

We spent a couple more nights between Tresco and Bryher, taking occasional quiet walks on one island or another, moving and changing our anchor as the tides and winds got stronger and trying to reconnect with each other with what little energy we could muster. In the evenings, after the turn of the tide, pollock swam through the fast moving water and we ate their boring cod-like flesh with lemony rock samphire, which grows freely and plentifully on all the islands we’ve visited and has become a regular part of our diet.

Bryher provided us with more windswept viewings of seals, and fresh vegetables from a choice of little farm stands. Tresco, which is privately owned, was a less comfortable visit – the accommodation, shops, paths and fields were all tidy, branded with the soulless uniformity of a commercial resort, and expensive – the £15 per person charge even kept us out of the tropical gardens. While rowing home after checking out its (free!) views of trees and beaches we stopped to admire another boat’s dinghy. We were soon invited for dinner with the lovely German couple who owned it, and were fed three courses and good whiskey by them and their travel companion, chatting late in to the night while sampling ginger and salt fudge. I felt normal again, sociable even – the passage’s tension was finally lifting. The next day we set sail for St Agnes, our last one night stop before we were to head out for France in a promising weather window.

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A thrush joins us for a game of limpet draughts at The Vine restaurant, Bryher

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Gwen rockin’ and rollin’ between Tresco and Bryher

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Sunbather, Bryher

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Heading home from Tresco

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Tresco Abbey

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Rock samphire – tasty, nutritious and plentiful

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Weathering, Bryher

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Tresco views

The engine has worked fine since our very first motor trip, but after a lumpy sail to St Agnes Rich decided to check the oil level, and on hoisting up the cover found that an oily spray was covering the engine head. Three of the four studs that hold the exhaust manifold on to the side of the head had sheered off, leaving it mostly unattached and its exhaust fumes escaping. Over the next day or two he drilled them out, retapped them and screwed in new studs, and then he did the whole thing again more thoroughly over another couple of days when one of them didn’t hold. We weren’t going to France any time soon.

I have never known frustration like that which Rich feels for our engine. In all the time we were getting Gwen ready it was the only thing that depressed him enough to stop work on her altogether for several months. Some years later, in the last week it has, at times, brought him close to tears. But in between three or four hour sessions of hope turning to desperation, as fix after fix failed, even he was able to appreciate the astounding good fortune of the location of our confinement.

St Agnes had all the things we had hoped for from the Scillies – peaceful isolation when required, beaches, farms, nearly tame thrushes and sparrows, gardens, wild moors, a fantastic pub, a gallery with genuinely interesting pieces, and clear turquoise waters revealing all manner of life beneath. Oyster catchers and seagulls shrieked on nearby hills as we watched jellyfish of all sizes, from big blue splodges and creamy striped tendril bulbs to tiny shuttlecocks pulsating with movement, bumping by the boat over fat seaweed fingers. Our fisherman anchor held strong. Our moods improved, and we made friends with a fantastic Dutch couple who were anchored nearby and had just sailed round the world for two years in their ketch with their four year old daughter.

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Richard with the seagulls on Gugh

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St Agnes

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St Agnes from Gugh

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Red sky at night from our anchorage

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St Agnes

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Where the ferries hit St Agnes, from Gugh

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At the Turk’s Head pub, St Agnes

We had a great ferry day out on St Mary’s, exploring its ancient burial sites and scarily overcrowded supermarket, and on another day we walked across the thin sand bar at our anchorage to the neighbouring island of Gugh, home of the seagull horde. I started sanding the toe rails and rubbing strakes for painting, which ended in us enjoying a gin and tonic on the boat of my childhood doctor who happened to anchor next to us for the night. We played our musical instruments, Rich read books, I drew, and we grinned,  actually using this holiday destination for holiday activities.

One day I noticed a crick in my neck, which seemed mostly to go away by the next, so I rowed ashore in Bob for a run around St Agnes, and rowed back to be helpful on Gwen. The next day my neck hurt more, and by the next I had to stop rowing as any effort using my shoulders was shooting shocks of pain to the back of my head. By the time Rich sailed off to St Mary’s in Fanny to buy more supplies for the engine I was in constant pain and taking as many pills as was safe to maintain some sort of function, but failing. On two days, when the weather had finally got to tropical, I begged a lift ashore with him and created seaweed pictures in the sand on silent beaches, my movements restricted to those of an uptight robot, my head unable to look left or right. I found to my delight that I had enough forward neck movement to be able to swim in the sparkling turquoise  waters. I came home to sit still in the evenings before a sleep disturbed by throbbing aches, consoled only by the idea that someone might have happened upon my creations by surprise while on their own solitary walk in the sun.

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On the night before we left we visited the boat of our new Dutch friends. Rich had probably fixed the engine this time, he thought, and we would need to get away to St Mary’s for vittling before we attempted the crossing to France. I was still in pain and so was Hajo, the man whose boat we were visiting, so it would only be a quick visit for one drink. Two beers each, a whole bottle of delicious rum and several hours later we returned to our boat quite squiffy, heads filled up with anecdotes and inspiration. What Hajo and Jeanette had told us about their trip made us ever more convinced that we could go where we wanted, that eventually we would stop fighting, that the world of cruising sailboats was full of good people. But also that our boat would always require a crazy amount of work, and fill our heads with the endless jobs lists and practical necessities that it has done over the last month and a half.

We sailed here to the main town island of St Mary’s last night, and it was another tense sail. Rich is stressed and nervous of using the engine, and we’re both below par physically, particularly me. My neck is improving and I am coping better with Rich getting agitated when we sail, and though it isn’t fun it isn’t the huge trauma it has been in previous trips – we both get tetchy, but it passes – my annoyance at his attitude is well suppressed but for the odd sarcastic comment, which I quietly suspect he deserves. The latest engine fix hasn’t worked either, but at least we know the thing will get us out of trouble if we’re in danger and get us in to an anchorage when needed, and the engine place on St Mary’s have been hugely helpful and lent Rich a kit to put in heli coils when we get to France. I’m looking forward to going – I think we’ll get better because I think we have to.

I’ve vittled with as many passage snacks and treats as I could carry, and now we’re passage planning for tonight. Catch you in France. Probably.

 

Night Watches and Nightmares

Woah, it’s a long one. Grab yourself a drink and I’ll tell you scary stories about two beautiful, distressing trips on one big assed boat.

Part One
We begin where I last left off, back in the Shire and unsure about France due to predicted winds that just refuse to stay westerly. I get a text from my dear friend Big Joe (of cutting down our mast fame) asking where we’ll be in a couple of days. I don’t know – it’s either Brest or Calstock, come and see us either way.

When his day off arrives France is definitely out. We check the tide times and go and pick him up from a marina in Plymouth, and after lunch sail up the Tamar towards familiar but as yet un-Gwenned territory. The sun is shining, the wind is favourable, and the coffee already has a smidge of brandy in it (a Big Joe specialty, he’s brought a big bottle) as we pass between the Torpoint ferries and onward to the Tamar Bridge. Joe’s had a big week and is dog tired, so this relaxed sail suits us all down to the ground, however far down that might be.

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Brunel: our first bridge

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Big Joe – put in charge for having the best smocks and sunglasses

By the time we hit the fine meandering channel towards Calstock I’m on the tiller. It’s quite a treat for me, having to follow the deepest part of the river – visible on the chart we’ve taken outside but also in the gentle changes in ripples on the water – rather than adapting my course to the wind like we do out at sea. Rich and Joe deal with what the wind is doing, I just drift down the strong tide with an eye on the depth sounder and moored vessels that need to be avoided. Occasionally I bung the engine on in case my steering goes in slack winds, and at one point I think I’m doing fine going round a boat when Rich calls back urgently to make me push the engine forwards or I won’t make it, but otherwise it’s all pretty easy going. Huge banks of grasses reveal little houses and distant fields, and we hardly see a soul save for a handful of boats motoring the opposite way. We’re telling stories, eating ginger nuts and discussing the merits of composting toilets.

When we arrive at the pretty waterside village of Calstock there are a bunch of lovely houses, a garden floating on the water covered in ducks and praise be! a pub, and there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to put Gwen. The one spot with an anchor on the chart is of course taken, and there isn’t much in the way of deep water on this narrow channel. We go past the village towards a leafy corner turn which the chart says is deep enough, and we motor in to a spot among the trees, which turns out to be too among the trees for any of our liking. With one anchor down it is decided that another needs to be deployed for keeping us still when the tide rushes back, and this is then exchanged for a rope round a tree, after which another anchor can be put across the channel in the grassy mud bank to keep us away from the rocky tree lined side. This bit takes ages and is all quite exhausting so I give up on pointing and nodding and go make us all a second lunch.

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Rich not sure about where he’s anchored. This is the sort of facial expression to which I will be paying heed in the future.

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No idea when I took this

Later that night we are sitting on deck in the twilight after a muddy pub trip ashore and a big old Thai curry, drinking wine and brandy and enjoying the surroundings. We decide it’s time for bed several times and don’t go, and the night gets darker. We make it inside but I pop out for a cigarette and find that the stars are now gleaming across the curve of the milky way, so we all pop out again for another brandy. The now gently moving river reflects the stars and we wonder if distant shapes in the water are rats, otters or logs. Finally, after half the giant brandy bottle is gone, we go to bed.

It’s dark, and I hear Rich’s alarm go off and see his pants and legs disappear up the bedroom hatch as he checks on our position in the changing tide. He returns and we mutter and fall asleep.

It’s dark, and I hear Rich stir and go up the hatch again. He moves about on deck quite a bit, and is noisier than before – maybe chain, maybe objects being dropped, maybe footsteps – I’m quite drunk and I don’t know. I look up at the hatch and see very little. There’s a thud and he yells “Everyone on deck! Now!”

I pop my head up “What’s happening?”

The engine is being started.

“Look at where we are”.

Rich is dashing about doing things very quickly. I look, and even in the dark I can see that one side of the boat and our mast above me are in the branches of a huge overhanging oak tree. This means the body of the boat is right up against the rocky side of the river. Rich is releasing our second anchor line from a cleat and tells me to go down to the saloon bilge locker to let the rest of the chain out. I stumble along the deck and down past Joe, who is dressing and asks what’s happening.

“Look at where we are!”

Back in a lit room I lift the half-closed lid in the floor and pull the chain so it can freely escape, and it does at an alarming pace. I realise the end is not attached and will soon disappear so I grab what I can and follow it in to the aft cabin, yelling as loud as I can over the clatter of chain whizzing out of the locker and the noise of the engine “I can’t stop it! It’s all going to go!”

Rich’s face appears at the hatch “Don’t fucking hold it! Let go!” he barks at me. I stare at him “but…” “Let fucking go or you’ll lose your hand”. I let fucking go. “Never ever hold on to chain that’s going out like that…” he is yelling at me but I am in shock now, watching the last of the chain tear chunks out of the aft hatch before miraculously becoming jammed in its corner and stopping a few links short of the end.

I put my dressing gown over the loose dress I’ve worn to bed and follow Rich back on to the black of the deck as he releases the tree line. Gwen swings round across the river and stops when we hit the soft mud bank. My breathing is becoming a little short but I am able to function, and somehow I end up on the tiller steering us back out of the mud, using the noisy engine to keep us in place against the tide that is shooting into us. Rich and Joe are trying to release an anchor from whatever it’s caught on at the bottom and I am watching a buoy and a boat I can faintly see in the darkness to keep track of my position, with Rich yelling “forwards a bit” “don’t just use objects behind you” “I said FORWARDS”. I am drunk, it is dark, I am being yelled at constantly, sometimes with what sounds like real anger, and I am trying not to let how scared I am show so it’s seeping out in quiet little hyperventilating breaths. I am on it. I am sobering up. I am doing as I’m told to the best of my understanding. I can’t feel the cold. I don’t know when I last blinked.

This bit seems to last an age.

Eventually there is progress. Joe comes to take the tiller and I try to help Rich with the last bit of hauling our huge fisherman anchor aboard – it’s so heavy he has to take a few rests – I don’t know how he lifts it at all. The sky starts to get a little light and when both anchors are on board Rich pops off in the dinghy to get the line back from the tree. We all breathe again for a moment. Rich and I haul the dinghy on board, streaking my chest, hands and dressing gown with last night’s mud. At last, daylight reveals mist in the water ahead, Joe goes for a nap, and I put on some clothes and spend the next couple of hours keeping Rich company on deck while he drives the boat back out of the channel and towards Millbrook in thick Cornish mizzle.

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Gwen’s souvenirs

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Post-traumatic “sod off” disorder. Me minus sleep.

On the way he tries to explain what happened in the night, but both of us are near delirious with tiredness so it is not until we’ve dropped Joe off in Plymouth with a hug and a look of “what the hell?”, and anchored in the safe and sure depths of West Mud that I understand. Even then I’m not sure I can remember it to tell you now. A dragged anchor and swinging round one tree into another were involved. The boat could have lost its rig in the oak or done worse to the hull on the rocks. Rich apologises for shouting at me and I tell him it’s okay, he needed to shout. I sleep a heavy afternoon nap and we lounge for a while before more sleep. The next day we leave for Scilly.

INTERMISSION

Part Two
In the morning I am revived. A little shaken, still, but awake enough to know that it should pass. We have a big trip ahead of us and we motor over to Plymouth for me to buy passage snacks from Lidl while Rich returns Gwen to anchor in Cremyll to sort out yesterday’s mess on deck. I return to him via the ferry I used to take to work, and he picks me up in Fanny from the Cornish side with an hour to spare before our intended departure.

With Fanny on deck and the stowing done we set sail for Scilly for the second time this year, this time intending to include our first ever overnight sail. Our course is set for eight miles south of the Lizard which we’ll reach around midnight if the north westerly wind holds. The sea calms down a while after we pass Rame and the sun shines just the wrong side of the big toe staysail, shifting to the right side for afternoon napping or sundrenched tiller shifts. Cornwall sits to our right, Geordi holds our course and we enjoy doing a few jobs, playing a bit of ukulele and eating a whole lotta snacks on the gentle roll of the sea. The sun drops behind a cloud over a wind farm near the Lizard and beneath it a wide line of  pinkish gold glows between cloud and earth, reflected in the rippling peaks of dark blue waves.

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See what I mean?

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Big bright boat

Rich figures that he’s better at waking up and I’m better at staying up late, so I get assigned the first night shift from 11 to 2am, and get on it after we’ve rounded a big ugly ship. I have gone from four layers to seven, wrapped in as many jumpers as will fit inside my salopettes and coat, with a life jacket and strap keeping me tied on to the push pit. Night vision kicks in quickly as we’ve turned off all but the red nav-table light inside, but I have a little red light head torch strapped to my harness to check our bearing on the compass if I need it. I stop doing this after about ten minutes – we’re going as close to the wind as can be comfortable and there’s not much more navigation that needs doing.

Over my shift I occasionally untie to go down below and look at our course on the GPS in the aft cabin, just below where we steer. I grab myself a pain au chocolat from a galley drawer but go no further inside, letting Rich zizz away in the forward cabin. I trim the mainsail once after noting a drop in the wind, and for a while Geordi doesn’t want to play ball and I hand steer for an hour or so, happy for something to do to keep me awake. I readjust Geordi and put him back in charge, gazing at the stars above me and occasionally searching the horizon. It is as black as anything but for the stars and a few boat lights, and it’s incredible how much you can see even just by the tricolour light at the top of the mast, and how well you can spot any luff in the sail from sound alone.

I eat to stay awake. I try to remember some French. I try to think in a Scottish accent. I see a shooting star and note it in the log book. I enjoy some respite from the advice and discussions I have to follow when Rich is with me – I am in charge. I am alone on the sea and it feels amazing, and my three hours seem to pass so quickly that by the time I go to wake Rich and make him a coffee I feel as though I could go for another hour at least. This notion is knocked out of me by the warmth of the saloon and after a quick progress report I am soon sleeping soundly below decks.

Rich wakes me to look at a deep red sunrise, and then kindly lets me sleep again until the end of his shift half an hour later. Somehow in this short time the wind drops off completely, and he goes back to bed leaving me in charge of a becalmed boat on a flat pastel morning sea. It is huge, peaceful and beautiful, and entirely useless. The GPS says we’re going backwards, and the fluttering sails bash only slightly more or less depending on where I point the tiller. A seagull swims slowly up behind the boat, paddles awkwardly up beside it, and then overtakes us.

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Sunrise, also over the Lizard, which confuses the hell out of Rich

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Hoisting the topsail with his head in the stocks

When Rich returns he puts up the as yet unused topsail he’s been fiddling with over the last week. It hoists but does nothing in the sunny stillness. We decide to motor for an hour to make up the distance we’ve gone backwards on the tide, and after that the wind seems to return, further from the south, for our final push to Scilly. This time, we’re going to make it. Our course stays good as we push along, stripping layers of jumpers down to t-shirts, reading aloud and getting on with more fun jobs and even more eating as the Scillies get ever closer. Our new topsail isn’t perfect but it’s getting us a bit of speed, and for the first time ever we have Gwen’s full rig flying.

As we come close to the Scillies we plot our angle of approach, and decide we’re too early for our original high tide plan and that we’ll sail around the north side as far as we can and then motor in between Tresco and Bryher on the west. Two sailboats are heading our way from the north east and as they approach I work out (because I still have to think hard about these things!) that they have right of way. Rich says it’s fine and we decide we’ll probably pull up a bit behind the first, but I’m a little nervous of doing this and he assures me he’ll come up on deck when they get close.

He gets some food going. The boats get closer. He pops up, and then back down, and I don’t know what he’s doing. “Rich, can you come on deck please?” I nervously shout down, as they’ve got to the point across from us where we agreed we’d turn. He comes back up to me, visibly angry, and starts telling me off – he was just going down to check what angle I needed to adjust to. I say “but they’re…” he shouts at me “I have to do just one thing, I was in the middle of doing it and you started demanding that you needed me to come up here and…” I am being shouted at as the boat gets closer, and I turn us gently behind it as we’d agreed earlier. I try to interject to tell Rich, but he starts telling me again how he just needs to go and look at this one thing. I’m sorry, I say. He carries on. I yell “I’m sorry”, angry now, as he goes back below decks and says “you need to turn ten degrees”. I’ve already turned it. The boat goes by, an easy and unterrifying distance from us.

I’m angry. I was the one on the tiller, the one who had just needed a little reassurance, and I’d got a mouthful instead, making the whole thing harder. I hadn’t known he was looking at the GPS or that he was tense about any of this manoeuvre. I hadn’t realised until now that the 28 hours we’d been sailing were taking their toll on either of us. When the danger is gone and I’ve returned Gwen to our course I shout back at him at how unfair it had been, but his rage is still spitting and he isn’t prepared to hear it. When I open my mouth to speak again he says “let me know when we get there”, disappears far inside the boat and shows no sign of coming back.

I am alone again, only this time I am heading straight for an island strewn with rocks, some of which I can only see on the chart, and I have taken Geordi off for the last manoeuvre so I can’t leave the tiller and go inside. I’m scared as hell even though there’s some distance to go, not knowing when, or if, Rich will return. I can’t motor in to my home at Southdown on my own, let alone sail the perilous rock paths and dramatic tides of this unknown place. I can’t do this on my own, but I must. As tears form in my eyes I attempt to get Geordi working, and fail to get him steering but have him holding the tiller enough to grab a look at our position on the GPS inside. Then, looking at the chart outside again I decide that it’s safest for me to head in a more northerly direction, far from where I judge the submerged Hard Lewis rocks to be. I can then take a wider route around the islands than planned, using the extra time to work out a few things, as I can’t yet be free to check our location or deal with bringing down the sails alone. I am repeating “hard lewis rocks, hard lewis rocks” to myself, trying to stay calm and steering while tears run down my face.

This bit also seems to last an age.

When I next see Rich he appears from the forward hatch, far down the boat, and I have taken us north of the route of any potential danger for the forseeable. He sees me there crying and sits at the front of the mast, looking ahead away from me. All the anger and fear I’ve been trying to keep in starts seeping out again in those little hyperventilating breaths, which turn into heaving sobs. He walks back and yells at me “stop that stupid breathing shit” “can’t you just chill out?” I try to calm my breath down, and I am relieved that he is back, but I fail, and he keeps shouting.

When I manage to stop he tells me where to point the boat, goes and checks the GPS, and spends the rest of our journey occasionally giving me practical orders. I just want to get to the anchorage and for all of this to be over, so I do my best, silently looking out at the strange passing rocks and islands to breathe some beauty in to this horrible situation, only speaking when absolutely necessary to the sailing. We glide between rocky peaks, sideways down the tide at an angle I estimate from a transit drawing on the chart, and just about manage to keep from arguing until the anchor is down between the beautiful and very different islands of Tresco and Bryher.

Hours pass and nothing is said. Then I mention it, and the evening builds in to an insane and bitter argument. When it’s done, I hug Gwen’s mast. I ache. I feel guilty about my anger, and feel angry. I go to bed alone. It isn’t discussed again for two days.


The next day I have a shower, put on a frock and take Bob over to Bryher. Excitement builds as I row across, already spotting half-familiar sights on the island I used to work on 17 years ago. I marvel at the things I had forgotten – the sweet smell of sun-baked ferns, the succulents that cover grass and beach land alike, the beautiful turquoise colour of clear shallow water over near-white sand. I see a seal bobbing about, and I go to my old hotel at Hell Bay which has changed almost beyond recognition and pay over three pounds for a single coffee, which I drink among tame garden birds.

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Bryher being good for my soul

My mind turns to more positive things – how, despite everything, I have learned so much this last month and steered decently in the face of adversity these last few days. I resolve to look after myself, make my own support for my worries and celebrate my achievements when nobody else will. I can’t not sail, so I just have to be good crew without needing help and harden myself to the way Rich gets when he’s tired and tense, and how I get when I’m tired and tense, and how threatened he gets if I cry, and how easily I brood. I can’t not sail, I love it too much now. Eventually experience will make things easier. I think of Arya Stark in Game of Thrones (a girl has no name) learning all she can from a cruel master until one day…

Yeah, maybe it’s not all workable. We’ll figure something out. We always do.

Scilly is still beautiful, and I’ll tell you all about it next time. Scary stories have to end and I’m pretty sure this is the best place for that to happen. I’m sitting in the New Inn on Tresco right now, gazing around, sure that I danced on some of these tables one night a long time ago. I would say sorry to leave you with only these tales of woe, but now you have something a lot less miserable to look forward to! And so do I, I’m sure.

We’re here.