Jonathan Footerman gave up his job, learned to sail a yacht, and now is having a go at it — on a boat more seaworthy than he is.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Taken from the first two chapters of ‘A Different Tack’, my book about abandoning office life to become a yachtsman – a tale from the waterside as the tide is rising. This is Part 2. Read Part 1 here.
“No!” said the girl in the tourist office, upset with me. “You are going the wrong way!”
We were in Santiago dela Compostela in April 2009, a delightful city in North-West Spain whose cathedral is a pilgrim destination from all over Europe. She spoke Galician Spanish as she refused me a pilgrimage certificate for cheap food and lodging along the way. I was no pilgrim, just teasing her, but genuinely seeking a map of the ancient routes that progress from one mediaeval location to another.
I had sailed up the Portuguese coast on a 40-foot yacht, and we had enjoyed ourselves up Spanish ‘rias’, as we liked to say. With miles of coastlines favoured by smugglers, the protected waters of these estuaries are ideal for training manoeuvres, like picking up a man overboard imitating a fender and bucket. I left the boat a local train ride to Santiago where I bought a bicycle to ride the pilgrim routes to France and rebuild fitness lost in office life. The bicycle’s derailleur soon broke, but before I found a replacement, the airy Galician plateaux were a spring delight on foot, strewn with yellow gorse, wild flowers and wooded copses, and patrolled by birds of prey. A few weeks later, I was sadly obliged to speed home by ferry from Santander, but I was a several steps forward in skill and fitness, happier than in decades.
So I signed up for more sailing courses end-to-end without a break, over-estimating myself. I got tired on a night passage across the Channel, and as we stayed at sea on a four-hour watch rota which allowed me little sleep, I never caught up and was soon exhausted. Concentration began to slip and one embarrassing mistake followed another, a reminder of the habit of excessive work and unhealthy living that I was determined to escape. Racing apart, the cockpit is no place for tough attitudes which ignore risks. At best they will spoil the crew’s fun, but solo they can threaten your life with things overlooked, as I would soon discover.
I did not feel low for long. A young girl on an on-shore safety course mentioned that she had a Corribee, a 21-foot mini-yacht which she had sailed around the UK just like Ellen Macarthur. It was a feat I wanted to emulate, and by the end of the lunch break, we had agreed the sale. No more training for me! In August 2009, I sailed Elektra from Gosport through the Portsmouth submarine barrier and into the Solent, in sole charge of my own yacht. I was as green behind the ears as Kermit, but in his words, Yaaaaay!
It would be late when I completed the 50 miles to Brighton at a best speed of 4 knots. An evening blow was forecast, 25 mph and above, with a swell which would increase the longer the wind remained in the West. A boat can ride safely over high swell, but a single breaking wave can dump many tons of water onto her deck and tumble her. So a factor in surface conditions is the wave peak-to-peak distance, the ‘fetch’. It shortens making a choppy surface when wind direction is against the tide, or when water becomes shallower, like the immense seas when deep Atlantic waters move into the Bay of Biscay. I lacked the experience to gauge surface conditions to the wind, but hundreds of vessels sail daily through the Dover straits and help would never be far: so let’s go!
Past the submarine barrier, a safe distance from neighbouring yachts in the crowded Solent, I tried to hoist the mainsail—and failed in full view. Yachtsmen love a sage remark, and were certainly telling one another He should point the boat upwind to take pressure out of the sail—except that an autopilot cannot hold the bow into a brisk wind like a crewman, and a small boat bucks like a rodeo horse as you cling to the mast in a force 4. A solo sailor is best advised to hoist the mainsail before leaving shelter, irrespective of marina rules to avoid collisions. Otherwise, allowing the boom to swing out downwind should work if the autopilot can hold 45° off. But with sideways drag, sail sliders will be tough to move up the mast slot unless well lubricated: mine were not.
I got the main up by sheer force after 45 minutes and Elektra picked up speed, but with the wind behind she rolled like a drunkard. Waves kept swinging her beyond autopilot control which would beep hysterically. I could zigzag down the wind or use the jib alone (front sail) like a kite, but I was reluctant to lose time and decided to go deep for smoother water. That took me too far out to use my list of coastal landmarks—I had not pencil-charted the course, and would have to rely on the plotter to know where I was. The device was new to me and the demonstration no longer fresh in mind. The tiller is no place to try reading a manual, but I should have done, while I had the chance.
I had learnt to reef the mainsail (reduce its size) before rising wind forced me to. A metal ring part-way up the sail edge goes onto a hook on the boom to anchor a shortened sail, but I could not do it. Something was wrongly set up, a missing pin and over-tightened sail foot. Finding out now was too late, with the boat rolling, the prow bashing the water and spray soaking me from head to foot. I was wearing wind-proofs, my waterproofs put away on a fine day, more forward thinking! So two hours after the effort of hoisting it, I dropped the main and continued on the jib, with the outboard for extra speed.
Whatever instinct for sea conditions I lacked, the Corribee was going to teach me bluntly, and class began as the tide turned. I found myself bracing just to stand up, unable to leave the tiller and wondering what I was doing wrong. The Corribee will sail well through a gale with proper skippering, but is too small to be forgiving of poor technique. For six hours from 4:30 p.m., there is no log entry because I could not leave the tiller to the autopilot. When darkness fell, I was struggling to keep the prop in the water as three-metre waves from behind lifted the stern in quick succession, threatening to ‘poop’ the boat – drive the prow into the water and tumble her. I saw how well the Corribee shrugged off the danger, never looking vulnerable, certainly more sea-worthy than I felt working the tiller to find the most stable angles. With skill she could perch on a wave and surf it, but a wrongly-timed tug would drop her with a smack into the trough, killing her speed and dangerously swinging her beam to the waves. It was unrelenting effort, and I prayed that conditions would not worsen.
The illuminated eastern wall of Brighton marina was bright hyphen on the horizon, the end tucked into the western breakwater like a safety-pin. I angled towards it but the wind was gusting very high now, and heeled the boat alarmingly. So I stayed a mile off until I judged it abreast, hauled in the jib, turned hard to port (left) with the outboard at maximum and drove at it, intending to turn on arrival into the lee of the western wall. Now I only caught glimpses of lights as Elektra momentarily bumped up, until I realised that I had seen nothing but pitch black for much too long. A lucky flash of the red port light painted the wall barely two boat lengths away and heart in mouth, I slammed the tiller over, certain that I was about to rip the bottom out on the boulder defences. Elektra was bobbing like a cork in the water-echo from the wall but heading downwind again. Now I had to turn her around which I was fearful of doing at that stage, or else sail another 3 hours to Newhaven in deteriorating conditions. I wound up my courage… but try as I might, she would not turn. The prop would not stay in the water long enough to swing her round against the wind and waves. I centred the tiller, clambered back to the stern on all fours, tucked myself down into the handrails with my stiff knees screaming under me and my right arm holding on for life, and helmed with the outboard. My weight helped keep the prop down, but vision over the cabin was minimal and spray from the waves at the prow was streaming into my face. The few hundred yards to the entrance seemed to take an eternity, and when I unfolded myself wet and exhausted in the calm, I looked back amazed at how little weather created so much trouble. I berthed, made a cup of soup and wearily took stock.
At 10 p.m., the local council had switched off the wall lights. Nothing to do with the marina, but I was navigating on them, not the plotter or the harbour lights. I did not have my high-power lamp to hand in the darkness. The VHF handset has a long wire for use in the cockpit, but you must leave the tiller to get it. The battery-powered back-up, spare GPS and mobile phone were stowed out of reach. I could not have called for help, and I had not registered an ETA with the coastguard in case I did not arrive. I was in no position to know where I was if a mist obscured the marina with my charts under a seat in the cabin. Brilliant, a catalogue of unpreparedness courting disaster throughout the trip.
It took me a lot more under-performance to anchor the idea that I should never, ever find myself bound to the helm, a life-or-death rule of solo sailing. With the best technique in the world, you may still have to call for help and must always have the means to hand, as I was to find out crossing the Thames estuary.
Photo by author.