Linda wasn’t up to a voyage, so Mr Chesworth came up along, instead. We left Lagavulin at six one morning, sails up – no engine – and wafted silently out of the harbour. I looked back often at our Hebridean Island home, but the weather was so right for a voyage that nothing now would make me turn back.
An hour later the wind died. We had to get to the North Channel – that neck of water between Northern Ireland and the Mull of Kintyre – whilst the tide was tumbling South, so we turned the engine on. I’m always a bit surprised when it starts.
By mid afternoon we were off Belfast and popped in for fuel – the wind was forecast ‘light’ for a few days and, who knows, we might have to motor all the way to Cornwall? At the entrance to the Marina the engine died so we sailed to the fuel pontoon. It’s not behaviour they encourage …but the girl who served us dismissed our transgression with an hospitable flutter of her hand. She was girl-next-door-gorgeous…and happy as a lark.
‘I’ve got the best job in the world.’ she told us.
She offered us a berth for the night which after a struggle with my emotions I turned down – fumbling with £35, and doing the paperwork would have bought us another 10 minutes in her company.
We set off again at five pm, engine on, sails up, whirring our way down the coast of Ireland. At midnight my Mum sent me a text from Cuba, where she was on holiday. ‘How was I getting on?’ Just fine thanks. I helmed the boat through that night, skipping bed, because I was having a lovely time.
We couldn’t see Dublin the following day. We should have been able to if it wasn’t so hazy over the land. We pressed on South. We were aiming to get through a narrow passage of water – 4 miles wide – between the rocks off South West Wales, marked well out to sea by The Smalls Lighthouse, and an entirely imaginary obstruction on the other side. Imaginary, but dangerous enough: Traffic Separation Schemes aren’t marked on the water with buoys – instead they’re marked on the chart. They are motorways for the juggernauts of the shipping world. Looking at the wilderness of water around you, you wouldn’t know that you were in one until a tanker steamed over the horizon, coming straight for you, bow-on. So we wanted to avoid that bit …nearly as much as we wanted to avoid the rocks.
It’s hard to steer a boat exactly downwind, by hand, for hour after hour – the boat doesn’t like having the wind coming from behind, anymore than a Peacock does, and constantly tries to turn to face the wind. When we lost concentration we broke some gear. But the ships we saw – perhaps bound for Liverpool – went wide and clear.
The engine failed again in the late afternoon – I didn’t even bother to find out why …it didn’t matter because the wind drove.
That night – or that morning – we were escorted by Dolphins from half-past three until ten past five. The moon shone silver onto the sea, and the black backs of Dolphins tore holes in its surface, blew, and punctured it again as they crashed back to the deep.
At dawn we passed the lonely-looking Smalls Lighthouse. A yacht – the first we’d seen – passed behind us heading for Milford Haven, a large harbour on the South coast of Wales. Half an hour later he was gone.
During the day, which began bright and windy, we ploughed a trough ever further offshore into the Celtic Sea. By late afternoon the wind grew light, and we were drifting. I’d just announced to Mr Chesworth that I was going below to see if I could get the engine going …when over his shoulder I noticed a great shape rise out of the water like a submarine missile that’s run out of steam, and crash back in. It was a whale – possibly a Humpback – broaching. It did it five more times. I was more impressed than Mr Chesworth – he was telling one of his stories and resented the intrusion.
I got the engine, it ran for an hour; then I coaxed another hour out of it, then gave up. We drifted.
That night was dark, the moon hidden behind clouds. When Mr Chesworth was in bed, a cluster of lights came over the horizon amongst which I spotted both a red and a green light. That’s not good news. The red and the green lights of a ship indicate which side you’re looking at – if you can see both, it’s heading straight for you. I didn’t worry unduly because it was still a long way away; and in any case these things usually sort themselves out. Furthermore, at sea a vessel under motor has to give way to a vessel under sail.
Ten minutes later it was closer, and I could still see both its red and its green light. Having calculated that he would just squeak by to my right, I kept to my left – but we were sailing at 1mph, so I couldn’t help much. By his lights I knew he was working, and should have looked up the particular arrangement of lights he was exhibiting to see what work he was doing …but I was tired, this was my third night without sleep. I should have called him on the radio to announce my presence …but the radio wasn’t working. When he came too close I should have motored out of his way – but the engine wasn’t working. It’s unusual for two boats to approach so close together sixty miles offshore.
Suddenly his spotlight came on, intensely bright; and began straking the water all around me. At last he’d noticed something on his radar, dead ahead, and was trying to find out what it was. A moment later he’d got me, the light was so bright it hurt my eyes. I heard raised voices. The light scanned the water to my left, urgently, found it clear, then kept me so brilliantly illuminated that my sails seemed to be glowing in the darkness. More raised voices, a roar of engines, and suddenly the vessel swung into the water on my left.
My feeble attempts at keeping out of the way had left my boat at a standstill, rope and sailcloth hung limp around me. Now, with the vessel clear, I bent low under the sails to see ahead, and to get myself back on course. At first I couldn’t believe my eyes – there in front of me was the dark hulk of an unlit boat, slicking across my bow, filling the horizon, towering over me. I say unlit – it had one small red light in front, but that was so far to my left that I didn’t notice it at first. It curved past me, silently, quickly.
The lit boat I had seen was towing this dark hulk on a line which might have been a quarter …even half a mile long. The lit boat would have passed me on my right-hand side – the tow line would have snagged me; the un-manned towed vessel would have run me down. No one would have realised what had happened. No one would have known where to start looking for us.
Towing vessel, on passage, Land’s End to St David’s head …thank you for maintaining a diligent watch.
I had a brainwave about how to get the engine started, and began work at 3AM upside down in the bilge. By six I’d got it going and I begged it to keep going until we got to the Longships Lighthouse off Land’s End – if it did we would just get round with the last of the tide …if it didn’t we’d be pushed backwards again. Four and a half hours later I found myself a bit closer to the Lighthouse, and the rocks on which it sits, than I had intended – perhaps 100 metres away …just then the engine failed. Well, I only asked it to get me to the Lighthouse.
A wind sprung up – a bit more wind than we needed really – for the next thirty miles, with too much sail up, we galloped past Penzance, and across Mounts bay. It was as though Caol Ila, our boat, had just realised we were back in Cornwall, and was sprinting for home. We passed five Chinese cargo ships lying at anchor – imaginatively given names like: 7; …23; 42; and 17.
I dropped Mr. Chesworth off at the town quay in Falmouth, under engine, thanked him, and pushed off, then the engine failed again, leaving me drifting amongst a dozen craft at anchor. I pulled out a sail, managed to draw clear of the docks, dropped my own anchor off the smart village of Flushing, and rowed over to visit John and Pam on board their boat for a G+T, and a floured fillet of Mackerel in a soft bread Roll. Possibly one of the best meals I’ve had.
The sequel to Phoenix from the Ashes – which I hope will be called Linda’s Boat is Painted Green – has been written; I’m editing it now. I’ll let you know as soon as it’s available. I hope it won’t be too long.
Thank you to everyone who has posted their review on Amazon. I’m honoured, encouraged, and taking notes of the bits you like. If you can think of something that should have appeared in the first book, but didn’t, this is the last chance to mention it so that it gets into the second book. For example, someone very wisely suggested ‘A map’.