Monday, 24 October 2022



Iron Bark III and I sailed from the West Indies to Ireland in the summer of 2021, then pottered up the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis where I rented a berth for the winter. Stornoway makes fine winter quarters. The harbour is well protected, I have friends in the town and supplies not available locally can be ordered in. I spent the winter continuing the apparently never-ending job of making Iron Bark III into an ocean-going vessel. 

Iron Bark III is an Alajuela 38, a GRP double-ender built in 1977. She has a strong hull and a stout rig but, having been used by her previous owners as a coastal motor-sailer, had accumulated a lot that was detrimental to my usage. Most of that clutter is now removed and I have done a considerable amount towards making her fit for ocean voyaging, but there is always more that can be done.
One job planned for the winter was to replace the standing rigging. I ordered the necessary materials in early January but did not receive the final bits until the last week of April. The rigger on the south coast of England who supplied the parts blamed the delay on Brexit, but that seemed unlikely. The French roller furler and Korean wire arrived promptly. The delay was caused by late delivery of the only UK-made components, the Sta-Lok end fittings. This meant I had to rush to get the job done before the harbour dues increased to summer rates. I jumarred up the mast 20 times in the space of four days, replacing one wire at a time to avoid the cost of hiring a crane to lift the mast out.

My UK tourist visa had expired and I needed to leave Britain as there was apparently no way of extending it. A short summer voyage north seemed attractive: Faroes, Iceland and, if possible, the east coast of Greenland. Unfortunately, the visa issue meant I could not visit Shetland or Orkney on the way. The spring weather was unsettled so I lurked in some of the Minch’s less-frequented lochs waiting for it to improve. I ended up in Loch a'Chadh-Fi, an arm of Loch Laxford, in the northern Minch. This was a fine place to wait before heading north, well protected with good holding and a convenient watering stream. It is quite isolated and I could not get weather forecasts by phone or VHF, but the isolation also meant that I was unlikely to be boarded by Border Force demanding to see my papers. John Ridgway and his wife Marie Christine live in a house overlooking the loch and the adventure school they founded; the school is now run by their daughter Rebecca and her partner Mark. I had tea with John and Marie Christine, whose fame and widely varied achievements are too well known to need re-iteration.
A common view of the Minch's scenery
Loch a'Chadh-Fi. It is not always foggy.

On 20 May, with an apparently fair wind (the hills around Loch a'Chadh-Fi make it hard to tell what the wind is really doing), I sailed for the Faroes. John and Marie Christine Ridgway rang their bell and waved goodbye from their house on the hill side as I sailed out. 

Once in the Minch I found a fair wind that carried me north, with Cape Wrath and the island of Rona intermittently visible through rain. Rain set in again as we approached the Faroes, but visibility was good enough for me to make out the lights leading in to Tvøroyri on Suđeroy where I anchored at 0200 on 22 May, having carried a fair wind for the entire 200nm from the Minch. 

In the morning I found the harbour master who rang customs for me. The customs officer took the boat's name over the phone, enquired how much alcohol I had aboard and that was the end of the formalities. 

The Faroes are a large pile of lava thinly covered by soil with almost no trees so I expected most older houses would be built of stone, as they are in the highlands and islands of Scotland. Instead, imported wood is the preferred material and has been for most of the history of the islands. Another oddity is that although the hillsides are dotted with sheep (Faroe means 'islands of sheep'), most of the mutton on sale is from New Zealand. The open countryside makes for pleasant, sometimes vigorous walking with superb views from the sea cliffs. 

Faroe, the islands of sheep

Trølkonufingur, the troll-wife's finger, Vágar,

Faroe sea cliffs, Stóra Dìmun

Faroe sea cliffs,  Suđeroy

I got to Suđeroy without meeting the ferocious tidal streams for which the Faroes are infamous, but had my share of them on the next move, a 40nm sail to Miđvágur on the island of Vágar, dodging close inshore to avoid the worst of the overfalls and foul tide. Miđvágur harbour is protected by breakwaters and has plenty of room to anchor or come alongside. The holding is excellent so I anchored off, always my preferred option. Miđvágur, like most villages in the Faroes, has a rowing club with several traditional Faroese pulling boats, much used by crews of all ages starting at about twelve years old. These boats look like miniature longships and the Faroese row like Vikings. 

Faroe pulling boats

The Faroese row like Vikings

I made bus trips to Tørshavn and Vestmanhavn on the adjacent island of Stremoy to see those towns but more interestingly to see the countryside and the network of road tunnels that go under the sounds between the islands and through the hills. There are about 20 road tunnels joining the Faroe villages with more being drilled, a big investment for a small community. Danish subsidies may play a part in their proliferation. 
Tunnel entrance, Faroe

I sailed for Iceland on 13 June with south or southwest winds forecast for several days then a northwest gale later in the week. It is about 300nm from the Faroes to Iceland and I intended to use the fair south wind to get to an Icelandic port before the gale-force headwinds arrived. Norđfjörđur, about half way up the east coast of Iceland, has an easy entrance and the chart suggested its small boat harbour is well protected, so I headed there. I decided against the next port north, Seyđisfjörđur, although it is a bigger place and the terminal for the ferry from Denmark, as the small craft berths looked exposed to a northwest gale. The wind held fair and early in the morning of the third day Iceland's snow-streaked hills appeared through rents in the fog. The fog cleared as I closed the coast and I tied up in the small boat harbour early in the afternoon. 

Approaching Iceland

Customs and immigration were friendly but punctilious. Immigration was perturbed that I had entered the Schengen zone in the Faroes without having my passport stamped. How was anyone to know when my 90 days was up? It took several phone calls to Reykjavik to sort that out. The customs/quarantine officer used the old Maritime Declaration of Health, something that I have not seen for twenty years. It has six standard questions including 'Has there been an abnormal mortality amongst your rats?' I assured him my rats were healthy. 

The harbour at the head of Norđfjörđur.  Avalanche defences in the foreground.

Two days later the promised gale arrived, followed a couple of days later by another one so I was content to remain in harbour, if a little bored. The delights of the local village, Neskaupstađur, were quickly exhausted and the wet, windy weather did not encourage walking. There was another yacht in the small craft harbour, the 30 ft Elena, sailed by Björn Tegetmeyer, an interesting young German scientist. Together we scrambled up the hill above the town to look at the banks built as avalanche defences for the village and drove to Seyđisfjörđur in a rented car. Another interesting yacht arrived a few days later, Teddy from Ireland, owned by Nicolas Kats. Teddy is a stout 39ft steel ketch and Björn and I were invited aboard for a meal and yarn. 

Several large yachts stopped in Norđfjörđur while I was there, but true to their type, ignored the small yachts as being too insignificant to merit notice. This proved to be the case the whole time I was in Iceland. I was invited aboard every yacht that I met that was under 40ft and not one of 50ft or more. I thought Iceland might be free of this sort of snobbery but civilization is too close for it to have been left behind. This is in contrast to the more remote parts of the Southern Hemisphere such as Patagonia or Antarctica where the distances are greater and the seas a lot rougher. Anyone who sails there is probably a competent seaman and likely to treat anyone they meet as being one too, regardless of their boat size, budget or electronic gadget abundance. 

On 28 June I set off around the north coast of Iceland bound for the Westfjords in the northwest of Iceland. The distance is about 350nm and having waited for a fair wind I had an easy start. Two days out and north of the island of Grimsey, fog rolled in, the wind died and never returned with any force. We were north of the Arctic Circle and it was cold and clammy with enough fishing boats around to make getting sleep difficult. Drifting in those conditions had little appeal so I started the engine and for the next two days I motored when it was calm and sailed (slowly) when there was any wind at all, a tedious business. The midnight sun would have been more spectacular if it had been able to burn through the fog more often, but there were minke and pilot whales plus a couple of great whales too distant to identify and always many seabirds to watch. By the time I got to the Westfjords I was very tired because of needing to keep watch for fishing boats. 
Midnight sun north of Iceland

Pilot whales

In the Westfjords I anchored near the head of Veiđileysufjörđur and slept. Veiđileysufjörđur is uninhabited and surrounded by steep hills with a rough trail leading up towards the icecap. It is the sort of place that I would usually like, but is open to the southwest and the holding is indifferent in glacial till so I did not venture far from the boat. 

Approaching Veiđileysufjörđur

The low clouds draping the hills did not add to its appeal and two days later I sailed 33nm across the bay to Isafjörđur, the biggest settlement in the Westfjords. Isafjörđur harbour is tucked in behind an eyri, an old glacial terminal moraine and very well protected. A dozen or so yachts were crammed into the small craft harbour, rafted together on grubby pontoons. Rather than join them I anchored a few hundred metres off, well protected with good holding. It was a clean, quiet berth, but as it lacked an electric power connection and needed a dinghy to get ashore, I had it to myself. 

I topped off my water and diesel, did a bit of shopping and socialised with the crews of some of the smaller yachts, particularly Teddy. The stories of Iceland's exorbitant prices are true and my shopping was limited to bread, milk, vegetables and a little meat. I do not understand how the Icelandic economy works or how prices are set, but the exchange rate seems to be artificially high. Icelandic salt cod is cheaper in the Caribbean than in Iceland, alcohol prices are too high for an honest sailor to consider and even a coffee stretched my budget. 

The ice reports still showed too much ice along the Greenland coast for a small yacht to negotiate so, after six days in Isafjörđur, I went to look at more of the Westfjords while I waited for it to clear. I sailed 30nm to anchor behind a small eyri near the head of Hrafnsfjörđur. The fjord is uninhabited and surrounded by steep hills that were still snow streaked although it was now past mid-summer. There was a constant roar from the numerous waterfalls. 
Hrafnsfjörđur anchorage. The spit is an eyri.

For two days the weather was windy, cold and bleak. I huddled by the cabin heater, reading and feeling a inadequate for not being more venturesome. When the wind eased, I launched the dinghy and went for a walk. The streams rushing down the hillside were still snow bridged, but the bridges looked too fragile to trust. The bird life was prolific. Ashore ringed plovers did their broken wing act to draw me away from their nests and there were many wheatears. On the fjord eider ducks in same-sex rafts cooed and gabbled and two whooper swans whooped. There were Icelandic/glaucous gulls (I can seldom tell the difference), a few greater black-backed gulls and guillemots, both black and Brünich's. 

Three days after arriving in Hrafnsfjörđur the wind picked up to F7, funnelling down the fjord and swinging us close to the eyri. I could have shifted closer to the head of the fjord, but would have had to move again as soon as the wind changed. Instead, I got the anchor and ran back to Isafjörđur under staysail alone. I left at 1930 and arrived at 0330 but had no difficulty navigating as there is no darkness in July this close to the Arctic Circle. 

Icelandic fishing boats. The fish do not have much  chance

Back in Isafjörđur the ice charts showed the pack ice off east Greenland to be opening up but still not navigable for a yacht. A week later the ice looked as if it might be passable and the weather forecast was for six days of moderate weather followed by a nasty low-pressure system. I cleared customs, paid my harbour dues and sailed from Isafjörđur at 0600 on 22 July, hoping to make the 400nm across the Greenland Strait and through the ice into Tasiilaq on Ammassalik Ø before the low arrived. 

Once clear of the land, the breeze was northwest giving a comfortable reach, but it died before midnight. I wanted to be clear of these waters before the forecast gale arrived so started the engine. When the breeze returned, it was a headwind, puffy and variable. I was now in the Irminger Current, a warm offshoot of the North Atlantic Drift that sets north and east up the west coast of Iceland. It kicked up a small, irregular sea that slowed us down badly. Despite using the engine intermittently, our average speed was below three knots. 

At 1510 on 24 July, the third day out, the first iceberg appeared, looming through the fog about 2nm away. We were 90nm off the Greenland coast and 200nm from Tasiilaq, in position 65°49’N, 030°56’W. I had hoped to be much closer to the coast before encountering bergy water and that the visibility would be good enough for me to find an ice-free area to heave-to and get some sleep before tackling the close pack along the coast. Meeting ice so far out and in fog dashed that hope. 
Bergy bit, sun and fog

Visibility varied from 100m to perhaps 5nm and we passed a steady stream of bergs and bergy bits. Some were very close before they appeared through rents in the fog. Although there was not enough ice to impede progress, a close watch was necessary. Heaving-to for sleep in poor visibility with that much ice about was riskier than I liked. I turned back out of the cold south-flowing East Greenland Current into the warm, relatively ice-free Irminger Current. 

Once back in open water, I hove-to and considered the matter. Getting to the Greenland coast was going to require a continuous watch for at least two days and, without someone to share the watch keeping, I was going to be very tired by the time I got there. The last part, threading through close pack near the coast, was going to be the most difficult and I would have to tackle this when I was most tired. 

One option was to heave-to for a day or two and hope the visibility improved, then try again. The gale was forecast to arrive in four days, which limited how long I could hang about. I have dealt with the combination of gale, fog and ice in the past and it is a frightening affair that I did not want to repeat. 
Watching for ice in fog. The lighter patch above the horizon centre right is blink from a hidden berg

At this point I found the bracket holding the alternator was broken due to metal fatigue. I could do without the alternator but the alternator belt also drives the engine's fresh water circulation pump. With the alternator loose I could not tension the belt which meant I could only run the engine for short periods and at low speed. The prospect of attempting to penetrate pack ice without an engine convinced me to abandon my attempt to get to Greenland. 

I tried to convince myself it was a prudent decision but it seemed more like an ignominious retreat without having given the ice off the Greenland coast a fair try. The redoubtable Tilman tried to close the coast still to near here in the pilot cutter Seabreeze with a full crew but without a functioning engine and lost his vessel in the process. His warning after losing Seabreeze that '...the lesson of this sad story is not to mess about in Greenland fjords without an engine' is undoubtedly correct, but quoting it sounds like an attempt to justify my abdication. I do not expect to succeed in every endeavour of this kind. Indeed, a perfect record of achievement is probably evidence of never having tried anything challenging, but in recent years I have become more cautious in marginal situations and as a result achieve less than I once did.

Recriminations could wait; I needed to address the immediate situation. I was about 40nm from the Arctic circle in poor visibility with ice about and there was a gale forecast. Also, I was without an engine though this was of little significance unless I was trying to negotiate close pack ice. I had no reason to return to Iceland so set a course for Ireland, about 1300nm distant. The first leg was south down the Greenland Strait for about 400nm, which would get me out of narrow waters and clear of ice. I could then alter course towards Bantry Bay, about 900nm further on. This leg might be rough at times but there would be no ice and plenty of sea room to deal with bad weather. 

Initially I sailed south with a light, fair breeze that gave slow but steady progress in fog and drizzle. The last ice disappeared into the haze at 2000 on 24 July, though I of course did not know this was the end of it. The water temperature rose 2°C which I hoped meant we were in the Irminger Current and beyond the ice. 

Two days later and 200nm further south and without having seen any ice for a day and a half, a front brought an abrupt wind shift to SW3, which put us close hauled on starboard tack. The wind increased and by 0200 the following day, 27 July, was SW6 and we were crashing along close hauled and close reefed, cold, wet and uncomfortable. To my delight the wind then veered to W5 giving a fast reach. This fine, fair wind held for a day and carried us to 60°N, the latitude of the southern tip of Greenland, where it died away to NE2. By noon on 28 July, four days after turning away from Greenland, we were out of the Greenland Strait, 400nm clear of Greenland, 250nm from Iceland and probably 250nm from the nearest ice. 

I had room to ride out a gale and could alter course to the southeast towards Ireland. I expected the rest of the passage would be straightforward, though not necessarily easy. Initially the breeze was light though generally fair, which was reflected in the next two day’s runs of 86 and 84nm. A SW4 then gave us a 106nm run. When it died away the wind that replaced it was SE6 gusting 7, a dead noser. With plenty of sea room, there was no reason to knock the gear or myself about so I hove-to and ththat day's run was only 23nm. The calm that followed this was short lived, quickly replace by a SW7, a fair wind but stronger than one would wish. I ran off under staysail only. As the barometer began to rise the wind veered to NW8, later easing to NW4; 74nm noon to noon. 
A fair wind

The next night, 4 August, was clear and starry. For the last two months the stars had been obscured, initially by 24-hour daylight and latterly by clouds, and it was good to see them again. Two days of moderate northwest wind and runs of 105 and 111nm took us to within 200nm of the Irish coast and back amongst fishing boats. There a high settled over us, bringing clear sunny weather, light airs and calms but with enough swell to set the sails slatting and crashing despite preventers, vangs, topping lifts and other rolling gear. 

I would usually douse the mainsail in these conditions and enjoy the quiet, but with no working motor and many fishing boats about I kept it up to give steerage way. The slatting was more than the mainsail’s gooseneck could stand and it disintegrated. The gooseneck was an example of the sort of thing too common on yachts, made to look good but only suitable for fair-weather sailing. I had already replaced numerous bits of highly polished, totally inadequate yachty nonsense (bow rollers, rudder head and so on) but, although it was on the list, had not yet built a new gooseneck. I lashed the boom to the mast and kept sailing. The wind remained light so my fix was never tested, which was fortunate as it looked insecure. 
Waiting on wind off the Irish coast

The light airs and calms persisted as I slowly closed the Irish coast. It took me three days to make the next 120nm, with much slatting of the sails. On 9 August a light breeze carried us the final 20nm into Bantry Bay. I anchored behind Dinish Island near Castletownbere, 16 days after turning away from Greenland and 19 days from Iceland, having sailed 1696nm to make good about 1550nm. 

Drifting into Bantry Bay

I did not go ashore as Castletownbere is not a port of entry for Ireland, but spent two days at anchor making and fitting a replacement bracket for the alternator, using material I had aboard. It was still flat calm when that job was done, but now I could motor 20nm to Bantry to clear in. 

Once the entry formalities were dealt with, I set about fabricating a new gooseneck. I had enough stainless steel plate and rod aboard for the job and the necessary tools but it would have been easier with access to a drill press and metal worker's bench. Grinding, cutting and drilling 6mm metal plate in the cockpit is messy and difficult and I am an amateur metal worker at best. I cannot generate enough power to weld aboard so I took the gooseneck parts together with my welding machine to a friend's place on Whiddy Island and welded it up there. The result was strong and functional if a bit agricultural, the antithesis of its predecessor. 

In light of my poor showing trying to get to Greenland, I decided to do something less strenuous next. On 12 September I sailed from Ireland towards the Caribbean intending to take whatever interesting warm-water diversions I could find along the way. No more ice (for now).

Thursday, 14 July 2022

Atlantic wanderings: Caribbean to Scotland

On 5 May 2021, having spent the past two years in the eastern Caribbean, I cleared from Carriacou, intending to sail to Ireland by way of Iceland. Two years is a long time to spend in one place; blame it on Covid travel restrictions plus a slow refit to convert the new-to-me Iron Bark III to an ocean-going vessel. The new Iron Bark is an Alajuela 38, a GRP double-ender designed by William Atkins and build in California 1977. When I bought her she was fitted out for short coastal passages in fine weather with all the paraphernalia that goes with that sort of sailing. To make her capable of at least a fair-weather, temperate-latitude voyage, I threw off a pile of irrelevant clutter (air conditioner, autopilot, fridge, pressurised water, water heater, a huge hardtop, barbeque, half a skip load of wire and hose, the list goes on) and added a proper anchor, Monitor wind vane, replaced the running rigging and inspected the standing rig. In the Caribbean I rebuilt the rudder head, built new hatches, modified the sail plan to something that usable in more than force 4, built anchor rollers that were strong enough to be relied on, rebuilt the bowsprit, built lockers that would function in a seaway, sorted out the fuel system and on and on down an apparently endless list. There was still much that was less than ideal on Iron Bark III but I hoped that I had done enough for her to make a summer Atlantic crossing safely. I also hoped that harbour rot had not dulled my abilities too badly. 

Before refit

and after

The breeze was ENE 6 when I left Carriacou, brisker than I would have chosen for a shake-down sail. For five days the wind held fresh to strong giving me a fast reach north through the island chain. The daily runs reflected this, including one of 165 miles under double reefed main and staysail only. A week out from Carriacou in 26°N we lost the Trades and sailed into typical Horse Latitude weather with four days of variable wind and daily runs under 80 miles. 

Across the Atlantic with an unplanned stop in Bermuda

Eleven days out and 200nm east of Bermuda, the wind increased to NE6 then veering to E, squally with heavy rain and the barometer falling; a depression was approaching. The wind veered further to SE6 and, in expectation of the arrival of the cold front I tucked in the third reef. A few minutes later a line of squalls convinced me to drop the main entirely and carry on under staysail alone. The wind continued to veer and strengthened to S8/9 with the barometer still falling. We ran on in a very rough sea with only about 50 sq ft of the staysail showing. 

At 1500 hours the front arrived and wind backed abruptly to NE10. To say I was surprised by its strength is to considerably understate the matter; this is not the sort of weather I expected in the latitude of Bermuda in May. I ran off under bare poles, deployed the Jordan drogue, lashed the tiller amidships and scuttled below, peering out occasionally. The scene was wild. The whole sea surface was covered in thick foam and the air filled with spray, but although a steep sea quickly built up it not breaking heavily. The sky overhead was clear and blue but spray reduced visibility at sea level to less than half a mile. The drogue kept the stern into the seas and there seemed to be no immediate danger of broaching. I tried to photograph it but the camera lens was instantly blurred with spray. 

With the passage of the front the barometer rose 10mb and I logged the wind as N10/11, with squalls to hurricane force and some of the squalls lasted a long time. There was now considerable weight in some of the breaking seas. At that point the Monitor wind vane's servo paddle tore free from the gear and, held by its safety lanyard, beat a tattoo against the rudder that was loud enough to be heard over the general mayhem. I crawled aft and retrieved it; working on deck in those conditions was thoroughly unpleasant, verging on dangerous. With the drogue streamed and the tiller lashed, the self-steering was disconnected so losing use of the Monitor did not affect my current situation. 

By 2030, some 5-1/2 hours after the passage of the front, the wind had eased to NE9 and although the seas were steep and breaking, the drogue allowed us to ride them with little heavy water coming aboard. Four hours later it was down to gale force but lingering in the cockpit was unpleasant so I cowered below, pumping intermittently. By dawn the wind had eased to N6 and the seas were no more than rough so I roused out to assess the damage. 

It was considerable for such a short-lived, though intense, blow. The drogue is attached to a pair of chain plates bolted through the stern bulwarks. One chain plate was missing, its mounting bolts sheared, leaving the drogue attached by the port chain plate only. The tiller was broken with the stub jammed on the toerail shoving the rudder hard over. Finally the fresh water tank was contaminated with sea water. The water tank filler is not quite flush with the deck and something (perhaps the drogue as it ran out) had torn the filler cap off, allowing sea water to flood the tank. 

During the Carriacou refit I had rebuild the rudder head, replacing the wooden cheeks and the first 60cm of the tiller with a fabrication welded from 6mm stainless steel. The original tiller was a bit over 2m long so I cut down to 1.5m and slotted it into the new stainless steel section. The wooden part of the tiller looked insubstantial against the new metal sections but I convinced myself that the wooden tiller had steered the vessel for 45 years without any metal reinforcement so it should be adequate. It was not and broke where it was slotted into the metal section. I should have followed my instinct and built a stronger tiller. Despite the rudder being jammed hard over and the drogue streaming out from the quarter due to the loss of one chainplate, the Jordan drogue kept Iron Bark's stern within 10° or 15° of the wind and nothing but a few wave tops broke aboard. A bit of brutal gouging of the teak toerail with a chisel freed the tiller and a couple of hours of heavy hauling got the drogue back aboard. 

The wind vane paddle had detached because it had lost its hinge pin, something that would be difficult to fabricate and replace at sea so I was reduced to hand steering or steering with balanced sails. The stump of the tiller was too short to give enough power to steer the boat. To overcome this I rigged up a relieving tackle to the stump. The contaminated water tank meant that I was down 30 litres of fresh water in cans. Although nothing in that list was truly serious, continuing 2900 miles on to Iceland was unattractive with Bermuda only 250 miles away, so it was there that I turned to refit. 

I was tired before I started retrieving the Jordan drogue. By the time it was aboard and stowed and I made sail, I was sore too. For the next three slow days I spent long hours hand steering towards Bermuda using that awkward relieving tackle system. Tiredness and lack of recent sea time are the only excuses I can offer for the mess I made of anchoring on arrival in Bermuda. I dragged on the first attempt (too close to another boat hence too little scope) then the windlass failed when I tried to re-anchor. Eventually I called across the a friend, Adam Seeber on Millennial Falcon, who was anchored nearby. Adam is young and strong and together together we retrieved the anchor set it properly. 

At this time (late May 2021) Covid quarantine restrictions in Bermuda were strict and I was confined aboard for five days until I had two negative PCR tests, then allowed ashore for shopping only for a further 10 days and a third negative test. Bermuda's Covid rules were enforced rigorously but in a thoroughly professional, courteous manner. 

While quarantined I made a new tiller from a fender board and, when allowed ashore, bought new mounting bolts for the drogue's chain plates. I also made a metal emergency tiller, something I should have done in Carriacou. I refilled the fresh water tank then stripped the windlass to find its problem, which was that the commutator on the windlass motor was so badly worn that the carbon brushes were no longer making contact. I replaced the brushes and extended them with wooden wedges but this was at best a temporary expedient. There was also leak in the chain locker and I spent several days fibre glassing in that confined space to seal it. 
Making the new tiller

A chance-met Bermudan yachtsman arranged for me to have my second Covid vaccination shot, necessary because I had sailed from Grenada before I could get it there. Despite a shortage of vaccine elsewhere in the world, Bermuda had enough to vaccinate a transient foreigner and an efficient system to administer it. My admiration for Bermuda went up another notch. 

Ireland announced it would be open to fully vaccinated travellers from 19 July so I decided to sail there directly without going via Iceland. This gave me an extra couple of weeks in Bermuda, which I used to do some of the things left undone done during the Carriacou refit. Finally I jumarred up the mast to inspect the rig, topped off provisions and water and on 18 June cleared for Ireland. The windlass failed, predictably, before the anchor was half-way home. I hauled the anchor up with a messenger to a cockpit winch, motored through the Town Cut and made sail. 

A mid-summer, mid-latitude crossing of the North Atlantic should be an uneventful affair provided there are no hurricanes. And thus it was, a slow, easy passage with only the odd midnight tumble-too to reef and no equipment failures that could not be easily solved. Almost the only incident was on 1 July, about half way across the Atlantic in 39°31.9'N, 045°39.0'W, where we passed close to a metal isolated danger buoy, adrift, unlit and large enough to be a danger to small craft. Instead of marking an isolated danger, it had become one. 

About 160 miles off the Irish coast we sailed into an a calm through which we drifted for three days, slowly closing the coast. On 19 July, the day the border was due to open, I was still 30nm offshore so motored those final miles to anchor off Bantry, 31 days from Bermuda having sailed about 3100nm to make good 2700nm. 
Becalmed off the Irish coast

Helena Willes, a friend from New Zealand, arrived in Bantry to join Iron Bark. She was understandably keen get moving to see something of the Atlantic's Celtic fringe but I needed to sort out the windlass; a 33kg anchor is too heavy for me to haul without mechanical assistance. There was not a suitable windlass in Ireland and UK suppliers regarded the post-Brexit paperwork to be an insurmountable obstacle to exporting one so we sourced it in Germany. Fitting it required fibre glassing in a new mounting pad, shortening the bowsprit, cutting new hawse holes as well fitting new solenoid and deck switch. I also replaced the chain as the old chain was American and their chain sizes have little standardisation within that country and are entirely incompatible with those used in the rest of the world. The whole affair took nearly to a month, which we spent anchored off Whiddy Island or Glengarriff. I have friends in both places so it was a social time. 

Glengarriff is an excellent place to work on a boat; the protection is total and the holding excellent, a good thing as there was an extended period when hauling the anchor would have been difficult. The weather was fine and Helena spent her time walking and foraging for blackberries and mushrooms; she is a fine chef and the quality of the food on Iron Bark improved dramatically. Helena is good with animals and soon knew the name and pedigree of every donkey within an hour's walk. 

There are crossroads in the sailing world where you meet sailing friends last seen half a world away. Glengarriff is one of them. On a previous trip I anchored in Glengarriff to find two foreign yachts there: Irene, American, last seen in Chile and recently arrived in Ireland by way of the NW Passage and Kraken, Australian, last seen in Antarctica. On another occasion I stumbled into a Royal Cruising Club meet in Glengarriff that I did not know was happening as I had just arrived direct from the Falkland Islands without any comms en route. This time I met Nick Dwyer on Selene, last seen in New Zealand.

This enforced stop allowed me to renew my passport through the Australian consulate in Dublin. For various reasons I did not fit in to their computer system so, like any misfit, I was batted between government departments then cast adrift. It took weeks of messing around and an appeal at ministerial level to get my passport renewed. The Australian civil service could learn a lot from Bermuda.

 Eventually the new windlass and chain were installed and on 22 August we motored down Bantry Bay in a flat calm to Castletownbere where we went ashore to watch the Irish hurling final on television, described to us as 'a grand thing, twenty-two Irishmen in a field beating each other with sticks'. The next day, in continuing calm, we motored around the corner of Ireland and anchored in Ventry for the night and drifted on the next day with just enough wind take us close to Skellig Michael to see the monks' bee-hive cells and to Little Skellig to see the huge gannetry. We sailed on overnight at Inishmore in the Arran Islands, anchored and walked up to see the iron age fort of Dun Aengus. One wonders what on Inishmore, a fairly barren island, was valuable enough to justify the effort to build such a huge defensive structure. The Iron Age was clearly not all peace and love between neighbours. 

We sailed to Carraroe on the mainland so I could catch a bus to Dublin to collect my new passport, then overnight to Inishbofin, which has a fine pub with good music, good walking and, if you are fortunate, corn crakes. Helena rowed across to a fishing boat to buy some fish and returned with a bucket full, all payment being refused other than that for a lobster that she ordered for delivery the next day. With such excellent raw materials and Helena's cooking skills, food quality on Iron Bark reached new heights. 

We moved on reluctantly after four days at Inishbofin. It was now it was early September and I wanted to be on the west coast of Scotland and within reach of the shelter of its sea lochs before the onset of autumn gales. Our last anchorage in Ireland was the lovely bay of Little Killary, where we went ashore for a walk and to feed the midges before sailing for Scotland. 

It is about 275 miles to Mull, which took three days in fair and generally moderate breezes. Helena kept watch by day and I by night. A pod of dolphins surfed the quarter wave to Helena's delight, and there was a minke whale off Tyree. The breeze headed us in the Sound of Mull and we beat up to Tobermory and picked up a mooring early on 7 September. 

Tobermory is a tourist town of no great appeal, chosen as a place to clear into the UK because it is big enough to have a harbour master and mobile phone reception. I never know what to expect when clearing in using UK Yachtline. Sometimes they demand ship's papers, last clearance and passports to be photocopied, certified by the harbour master and faxed to them, other times they appear to be bored by the whole affair. This clearance was of the latter sort. The harbour master was completely uninterested and Yachtline scarcely more so. 

With clearance into fortress UK out of the way, we bought the Clyde Cruising Club guides for Scotland, had a couple of pints of beer and next morning sailed to Loch Drumbuie. This was much more to our taste; a well-protected, empty anchorage with good walks and no need to depend on a mooring or to pay for the privilege. Now that we were among the sea lochs we could slow down as there was always shelter close by to ride out bad weather. The only issue is that deep within many of the lochs weather forecasts are difficult as VHF and mobile phone reception is poor. 

We meandered northwards around Ardnamurchan Point to Loch Moidart and anchored in a pool protected by a picturesque island complete with a ruined castle. The channel into the inner part of Loch Moidart is tortuous with one section that is too shallow to pass at less than half tide. Our entry would have been easier if I had not miscounted the islets, got lost and strayed out of the channel. We did not run aground but there was not much water under the keel when I realised my mistake. 

Quiet sailing in the Minch

Moidart, complete with ruined castle

Moidart: good walks

And the ruins of villages abandoned during the Highland Clearances

We lay in Moidart for three days, during which time we walked, looked at villages abandoned during the Highland clearances and foraged for chantelle mushrooms. Helena hitch-hiked 6 or 8 km to the nearest village to get internet access so she could send off a a graphics design file to New Zealand for a job she was doing. Helena has long hair and I have noticed that people with long hair have better success hitch-hiking than those whose hair is short; perhaps I should grow mine. 

Thence to Canna, which is by far the best anchorage in the Small Isles. It is well protected and has good holding provided the anchor sets before it is fouled by kelp. We walked (it was too late in the year to see any puffins in their nest burrows), went to a music workshop by James and Kathy McKenzie of Shawbost on Lewis (I had met James in 2015 when he gave a concert in Stornoway) and Helena treated us to the Canna Cafe's deservedly famous seafood platter. This was despite me being in the bad books for disrupting the cabin while sorting out an alternator problem. It is depressing how quickly pulling out tools and parts for a minor job renders a previously orderly vessel uninhabitable. 

Helena wanted to see Skye so we sailed up the Sea of the Hebrides to Loch Dunvegan and picked up a mooring as there is little room to anchor there. Dunvegan has an excellent, quirky vegetable shop run by a rosy-cheeked, white-haired elf but little else of interest. We took a bus to Portree, which confirmed my previous prejudice that the bridge to the mainland has transformed anywhere on Skye within reach of a road into a motor home park. 

We fled across the Little Minch to the Isle of Lewis and anchored in Loch Seaforth for two windy, squally days during which we did not even launch the dinghy, then sailed north to Loch Grimshader , still on the east coast of the Isle of Lewis. There we were boarded by Border Force, who appeared to be underemployed and looking for ways to justify their existence. 

Grimshader is a well protected anchorage close to Stornoway making it a pleasant alternative for those who dislike marinas to using the one in Stornoway. The bus service on Lewis is good and we used it to go shopping in Stornoway and to see the Neolithic standing stones at Callanish. The only thing Grimshader lacks is a watering stream or tap within rowing distance of the anchorage. 

On 4 October we sailed across the Minch in drizzle to anchor behind Isle Martin in the mouth of Loch Broom, lit the heater to dry out and went for a walk on Isle Martin. A day later we sailed down Loch Broom to Ullapool to see old friends. I like the village of Ullapool and its people and was pleased that so many of them remembered my last visit on the old Iron Bark II. Ullapool would be higher on my list of desirable places if the anchorage was not so open to the east and deep. The harbour authority has eight visitor's moorings which alleviates this problem, at a price, but dinghy work in a northeast wind of any strength is difficult. 

From Ullapool, we sailed down Loch Broom to the Summer Isles, a lovely spot, thence again across the Minch to Grimshader. I had decided to spend the winter in Stornoway, as I had done in 2014/2015. Stornoway is an interesting town, the harbour is well-protected and the marina fees in winter are low. We lay in Grimshader for a week then, in late October when harbour dues in Stornoway fell to winter rates, moved Iron Bark to her winter berth in the Stornoway town marina. Helena left, the standard of the food fell and I got on with the apparently endless task of transforming Iron Bark III to a voyaging vessel.

Thursday, 10 June 2021



Bill Tilman (1898-1977) lead an extraordinary life, first as a mountaineer and explorer of remote, high altitude parts of the world, then later sailing a succession of pilot cutters to mountains that he could climb from the sea. He chronicled these expeditions in fifteen books that are superb examples of all a travel book should be. This is not the place to try to summarize such a life; that is best done by reading his books. They are available as two compendium volumes, one consisting of his seven mountain/travel books and the other of his eight sailing/mountain exploration books. In addition all fifteen volumes have recently been reissued by Lodestar Books with all original maps and photos plus new introductions and afterwords. The following is one of those new introductions.

Although Tilman spent longer traveling to the high latitudes in small vessels than he did trekking and climbing in central Asia he seems never to have developed the same affection for the Arctic landscape or its people as he did for the Himalayas. Perhaps this was because he knew central Asia in all its seasons and moods, something he never achieved in the Arctic. All his voyages to the high latitudes were made in summer, which in both the Arctic and Antarctica is no more than a short interlude between winters. In the polar regions winter is the dominant season; without spending a winter there, any appreciation of the polar regions is superficial.

Tilman knew his brief summer trips gave him a biased view of the place and considered wintering in Greenland. He twice mentions the possibility in his books, once in “Mischief in Greenland’ after his first voyage to Greenland and again in ‘In Mischief’s Wake’ when describing Mischief’s last voyage. Tilman achieved so much in his life that it is unreasonable to wish he had done more, but the world is poorer for not having a description by a writer of his caliber of a winter spent in a small vessel frozen into a remote polar bay.

Then and now, a small vessel is by far the most effective way to explore places like Greenland, Antarctica or Patagonia. To see the full round of the seasons the same boat frozen in the ice makes a good winter camp. Having transported its crew and all they need to the winter site, it then provides them with shelter for the winter and carries them and all their gear away again when the ice melts. Compared to a hut or even a tent ashore, its environmental impact is minimal. All that is required is a stout vessel with survival systems that can be kept working in the cold. There is no need for a large vessel or one specially built for such a venture. My own Iron Bark, a 35 ft steel gaff cutter of no particular distinction, has spent a winter in the ice of Antarctica and two winters frozen in Greenland; any of Tilman's pilot cutters could have done the same.

I expect that if Tilman had decided to spent a winter in the Arctic ice he would have chosen some bay remote from any settlement. Mischief could certainly carry enough food for her crew for eight or ten months of winter and enough fuel for cooking and melting drinking water, if not for heating. In Patagonia Tilman arranged for fuel to be delivered to a predetermined depot and he could have done something similar if he had wanted heating oil for a winter in Greenland. Even if this was not possible, spending a winter in an unheated boat with an insulating cover of snow is not particularly difficult, certainly easier than it was for the Inuit who until recently spent their winters in relative comfort in snow houses heated by nothing more than a stone lamp burning seal oil. 

A small vessel with a snow cover is quite habitable when heated by a nothing more than couple of candles and the intermittent use of the cooking stove. How habitable depends on the boat, but the interior temperature will probably rise above freezing once the cooker and candles have been lit for the breakfast and stay there for most of the day. I spent a winter in Antarctica on Iron Bark with only enough oil to run the heater for eight hours per week and although it was seldom comfortable, the lack of heating was no great hardship.

Although the discomfort of a winter in the high Arctic would not have bothered Tilman, his erratic crew selection methods may have caused him problems. At times he had trouble keeping his crews motivated and disciplined for a few months at a stretch on an ocean passage in relatively benign latitudes. The stress of a long winter’s night in the ice would certainly have been too much for some of his crews, while others would have thrived on the challenge. The potential for crew problems when living in a cold, dark vessel through the winter is considerable. Antarctic bases spend a great deal of effort screening numerous applicants for a few winter positions and still have a significant failure rate, and they are living in conditions that are palatial compared to a small vessel frozen in a remote bay.

A couple who have lived and sailed together for long enough to be used to one another’s quirks is undoubtedly the best crew for such a venture, but given Tilman’s well-advertised aversion to women on his vessels, that was never an option. A single-hander is not going to have difficulties with crew but a pilot cutter is too much for one person to handle, so this option too was closed to him. The relatively large crew of a pilot cutter means there are plenty of hands to share the workload and provide company but there is a real risk of serious conflict within a group of five or six, particularly in the dark months when the sun never rises.

That said, having company through a polar winter makes it easier to get through the long winter’s night. I have spent two winters alone in the high latitudes, one in Antarctica and the other in Greenland, and each time found the dark of the long winter’s night (80 days in the case of my solitary Greenland winter) hard on the mind. In comparison, the winter that Annie Hill and I spent frozen into a remote bay on Greenland’s west coast in latitude 73°N passed pleasantly, and not only because the food was better and the bunk warmer. While I doubt if the long night would have bothered Tilman, with or without company, one wonders how his crew would have fared. The darkness depresses many people, even those brought up with it. Greenland has the highest suicide rate in the world, chiefly among young men: food for though if planning such a venture.

Dramatic photos such as those of Shackleton’s Endurance have lead to the expectation that any vessel in ice will be subject to pressure, forced upward and crushed. While this may happen to a small vessel caught in the open by moving ice, the opposite occurs in a protected bay – the vessel gets dragged down as the ice thickens. A vessel frozen into bay ice is not subject to any lateral pressure provided it is moored far enough from the shore to be clear of the shearing pressures of the tide crack and in water deep enough that the sea does not freeze to bottom causing pressure ridges. Indeed, once firmly frozen in the vessel becomes part of the floe, safe, warm and with an apron of ice all around to protect it from collisions with stray bits of ice.

New ice is formed by the freezing of seawater-saturated snow lying on the surface of the floe and the ice thickens from the top. As the process repeats itself the first-formed ice remains at at the bottom of the floe and is pushed deeper and deeper as the winter progresses. Unless a vessel can emulate the Fram and withdraw its rudder, propeller and bobstay, these projections become embedded in that first-formed ice and drag the vessel down. While the ice is thin the vessel can break it and float near its normal lines. Later as the ice thickens she is becomes firmly stuck in it and pulled down, but not by the full thickness of the ice because of the phenomenon of pressure solution which allows the vessel to rise through the ice to a limited extent. Iron Bark was drawn down by between one and two feet in the course of each of her Arctic and Antarctic winters and I would expect something similar would happen to a pilot cutter.

The simple, robust equipment on Tilman’s pilot cutters would have worked well through an Arctic winter. Without deliberately attempting to emulate him, indeed without any knowledge of his methods, most of Iron Bark’s equipment is identical to Tilman’s, an example of convergent evolution. Paraffin (kerosene) stoves work at temperatures that butane or propane do not. They can be kept running with a basic stock of spare parts and burn a compact, widely available fuel. Even now, there is nowhere in Greenland to refill a propane bottle, but paraffin is sold in every village. Candles are a more reliable source of light than electricity with the bonus of providing a little heat. They also give an early warning of inadequate ventilation as they dim and gutter long before oxygen level fall to that critical for humans. Frills such as pressurized water systems that Tilman would never have contemplated for a summer voyage become completely irrelevant in winter when everything is frozen.

For the rest, living on a small vessel in winter requires a little fortitude and considerable patience. The alcohol for preheating the stove itself needs warming before it will burn, pens will not write and toothpaste does not squeeze from its tube until warmed in an inner pocket, liquid detergent freezes and rum is a slushy solid. None of this would have bothered Tilman, but it may have been a problem for some of his crews.

Advancing age sometimes requires changing methods, if not objectives, and perhaps Tilman’s later voyages (excluding that final one on En Avant) may have been happier and achieved more in a smaller vessel. Instead of persisting with pilot cutters after the loss of Sea Breeze, it may have been better if he had replaced her with something smaller. By that time Tilman was not making long traverses or climbs that required an extended absence from the mothership. A vessel that could carry three people and be managed by one for a day or two while the climbing party was ashore would have served his purposes and been easier to crew, sail and maintain.

Given Tilman’s preference for older wooden working vessels, a Falmouth Quay punt or a small ex-fishing vessel would have been obvious candidates. Such vessels were at that time cheap to buy and run, seaworthy, capable of withstanding hard usage and require minimal mechanical equipment, all important considerations for a vessel in Tilman’s hands. As an example, Pauline and Tim Carr have done splendid things in the Falmouth Quay punt Curlew, sailing and climbing in both winter and summer in South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula. A similar vessel could have carried Tilman plus another climber and a ship keeper to all the places that Baroque sailed, as well as being able to spend a winter in Greenland’s ice if Tilman had chosen to do so.

But this is all speculation, and impertinent when applied to someone of Bill Tilman’s accomplishments. He lived a full life and left us a legacy of fifteen magnificent books, more that enough for one person.