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.
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.
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.