I was first involved in sailing when I was quite young in Burnham Overy Staithe, North Norfolk where we spent our summers in Burnham Thorpe. My elder brother, Hedley had built a ‘Sea Bat’ which was an early ply sailing skiff – similar to the later GRP Sunfish.
I subsequently acquired it and sailed at a variety of coastal and lake destinations.
Hedley, my next older brother (there were 4 of us) made more lasting connections with Norfolk, marrying a local girl and we sailed his GP14 from Overy and I enjoyed many happy days sailing with him including a memorable circumnavigation of Scolt Head Island.
While a young bachelor I spent two years in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia working on the new Airport project. During this time I raced a 470 at the ‘Red Sea Sailing Association’ on Jeddah Creek.
Upon returning to the UK and getting married to Paula, we bought a holiday cottage in Thornham, Norfolk, near my youthful experiences and I campaigned a 505 from Brancaster Staithe Sailing Club. Paula tried the trapeze but didn’t take to it after she was washed off and ended up trapped underneath the mainsail following the subsequent capsize – this did not help endear her to sailing!
The 505 was a fantastic and demanding dinghy but it was clear that it had to go once children arrived.
We needed something stable with the ability to get out of the wind and rain. Where children could be warmed, watered and wee and we could also make a ‘brew’.
So we took a mooring in Mow Creek in Brancaster Staithe and bought a used Sailfish 18 which we called Mowglee and which served us well as a young family for a number of years. This enabled me to do some limited (but probably too ambitious in such a small tub) adventuring. I sailed across the Wash to Wainfleet and down the coast to Wells and Blakeney all within the tidal constraints of the lifting keel and the two hour window each side of high tide in the harbours.
With Paula back teaching after the children started at school, it was increasingly difficult to fully enjoy the cottage for weekends so the mooring was adopted by brother Hedley, the Cottage was rented out and I bought a Dufour T7. This was a move up to 23 feet while still trailable behind a substantial car.
I was extremely keen in those days and I remember the first sail with my mate Jem, rigging and launching from the slip at Northney Marina, Hayling Island early one Saturday in February. We spent a freezing night in Bembridge harbour and I have a vivid memory of being wet, cold and shivering, huddled over the radio listening to the six (it was probably 5 in those days) Nations rugby.
My first channel crossing was accomplished in this yacht, dead reckoning with a smelly, temperamental 9HP two stroke Johnson outboard chugging back over a windless glassy sea at 3.5 knots having lost our Decca Navigator fix. On another occasion, Jem and I had a memorable cruise around the Channel Islands.
The Dufour was not a great yacht and it leaked and creaked so I was keen to move onwards and upwards. My 505 was a Parker build and the marque had been revered in Brancaster where there were a number of the cruising Parker range kept on moorings and I was rather taken by the then new Parker 31. When one of these came on the market, I jumped at the opportunity and part exchanged the Dufour for ‘Karisma’ and she was sailed non stop from Brancaster to Portsmouth where she was based for the next five years in Port Solent.
Having relocated to the Solent, I joined the Royal Victoria Yacht Club, based in Fishbourne on the Isle of Wight. I was pleased to be granted a warrant to carry the Club Burgee and defaced Red Ensign, a membership and honour I have maintained to this day.
Once again I adventured to the limit of prudence crossing Biscay to Northern Spain, countless passages across the Channel, to Ireland (see the 1995 account) and finally a circumnavigation of the UK (cheating through the Caledonian Canal) having sailed non stop to Inverness from Portsmouth because of self imposed absence constraints from the business.
Although as a family we had spent some memorable holidays cruising on Karisma, it was increasingly difficult to entice Paula aboard in the fickle British weather for much more than a reluctant long weekend so I knew that the next change had to be more commodious and based in sunnier climes.
On my anti clockwise cruise around the UK, I had spotted a 44 foot Jeanneau Sun Magic in Ardfern, Scotland and on closer inspection, I felt that this model ticked all the boxes for the criteria that I had set for my next yacht.
Having advertised the Parker before departure, I showed potential buyers around in Weymouth and a sale was finalised by the time I returned to Portsmouth. I viewed Sun Magic examples in Scotland and France before settling on ‘Asnautic II’ in the Balearics. Although an ex-charter yacht, she had been substantially refitted and looked fairly ‘tidy’. We kept her in Port Adriano, Mallorca which, with an adjacent beach, was very convenient while the children still enjoyed buckets and spades. Having discovered Port Vell in Barcelona on one of my ‘chaps’ adventures, I moved her there when the children graduated to ‘hanging out’ in a cosmopolitan City. This meant that we normally had their friends added to our numbers but it maintained family holidays and we had a very enjoyable 12 years there.
After a substantial refit following a stormy crossing of the Gulf du Lion, she was renamed ‘Hejira’ which has a resonance for me. Hejira was the name of a melancholy Joni Mitchell album from her ‘Jazz phase’ which was a favourite of mine and played repeatedly during my period alone in Jeddah. It is a reference to Mohammed’s flight from Mecca to Medina to escape the elders who threatened him, his followers and his fledgling Islamic faith. So it is also a flight from persecution and significantly, it took place in the area where I worked and lived. I have to confess to not having experienced persecution in my life but it is a pertinent allegorical reference to the escape of sailing.
Cruising with the Jeanneau included the Balearic Islands, the Spanish coast, Mediterranean France, Corsica, Sardinia, Italy and Sicily and over the years, it provided varied family holidays and ‘chaps’ adventures, all very memorable in their own way.
Several factors conspired together to induce the next change of yacht. The French production (cheaply made) Jeanneau was getting tired and suffering a lack of regular maintenance and from UV degradation so that each repair exposed other issues needing attention. It didn’t have holding tanks for toilet waste so this limited the sailing area as more and more countries demanded this facility. Our period in Barcelona was coming to an end with the marina lease sold to a company controlled by an oligarch (see blog post ‘Tanks Jinx’) who gave notice to all the small yacht owners intending to transform the location into a ‘mega yacht’ destination. I was also considering early (semi) retirement from my company Atom Ltd with the prospect of a ”tax free lump sum” which broadened my buying options.
Over the years, experiences are gathered and other factors come into play to massage the features looked for in ones perception of the ‘ideal yacht’. It is very true that no yacht is perfect, compromises are made everywhere and one persons choice is abhorrent to another. With the exception of the Jeanneau in the Mediterannean, all of my yachts had been able to withdraw the keel, enjoy shallow access and ‘dry out’ between tides. This is a compelling feature both in tidal Northern Europe and reef strewn more tropical areas where the ability to access shallow anchorages, away from the deep keel throng opens up many more options. With the Jeanneau in the Mediterranean, inaccessible for spontaneous sailing, I crewed for a friend, Peter (see the ‘Repatriation’ series of blogs) who has a Vancouver, built by Northshore in Itchenor, Chichester Harbour. I was impressed with the solid build quality of the yacht and this lead me to consider the Southerly range, also built by Northshore with a swing keel feature for shoal draft and inter-tide drying. I had considered a Southerly when I purchased the Parker but the smaller models at that stage didn’t have a good reputation for their sailing properties. Taking a new look at the range and having a more generous budget, I focused on the 45 foot 135 which, as the former flagship of the Southerly range, seemed to ‘tick the boxes’ and would be sufficiently substantial for any world girdling fantasies I might harbor. The other features that I considered important were a spacious, en-suite master cabin (to ingratiate myself with my wife, Paula) with a double bed accessed from either side. I wanted a mast head cutter rig (matched with a high cut jib for visibility) with no running back stays and with single line slab reefing. I favoured a raised saloon with the improved all round visibility and increased stowage. Holding tanks were essential. I was keen to have a bow thruster and preferably, a manufacturer installed generator, air conditioning and an electric winch. From this basis I could add and modify to provide all the other features that I considered useful.
My reservations about sailing performance were assuaged by the Rob Humphreys design which promised good sea kindly performance. With only 29 made (at this stage), they were like hens teeth and maintained a high second hand price when they infrequently came on the market.
When touring the Northshore factory while they tried to sell us a new model 42RST (not a patch on the 135 – in my opinion…..), we saw a specially commissioned 135 (number 30) under construction, ordered by a discerning Australian. This was costing in excess of £500,000 and I subsequently saw her in Plymouth where I was kindly shown over her (my first viewing of a series III) and also, perversely, we subsequently saw her anchored off Positano in Italy. The 135 would fit the bill and the later series III with the twin rudders offered the best sailing properties and better accommodation. My one reservation was the lack of control of the stern when maneuvering under power as there was no prop wash control without a central rudder behind the propeller. It became clear that this shortfall had been identified by others and Northshore had, as a special (expensive) modification, added a third central rudder behind the prop affording the control that I was used to while increasing grip when carrying a large sail plan off the wind.
In the mean time, I had moved the Jeanneau to Baie des Anges near Nice with the kind help of my friend Andrew (and a couple of others). I am indebted to Andrew for both arranging a berth and for his immense efforts to sell her through his brokerage, ‘Marine Management‘. This was all substantially above and beyond a normal commercial relationship and I am most grateful to him in completing a successful and satisfactory sale. I joined the Southerly Owners Association, posted a wanted advertisement on their web site and commenced courting hull number 23, built in 2004 which was tentatively up for sale. Although the yacht turned out to be ‘not as advertised’ (I could write a book about this alone) and I ended up taking the Dutch surveyor to court in Holland, the deal had been done and I sailed her back from Dordrecht with the help of Andrew and Peter. The problems although substantial and enormously expensive (see the technical entry for modifications and improvements – under tanks and gunwale repairs) were not beyond repair and now, as a result of the repairs and improvements, I have a much better yacht than when she was new. As I have mentioned on the home page, she was re-named ‘Hejira’ after the Jeanneau was re-registered in Ireland as ‘Wave Dancer’.
The subsequent history is covered within this web site if you have the patience to probe the extremities so rather than duplicate, I will pause the story there.
Missing within each of these brief accounts are a multitude of great adventures, close encounters and embarrassing mishaps all worthy of mention but this is intended as a précis of my experience on the water and, when time allows, I may re-visit the account and fill in some gaps as a cathartic exercise in purging my conscience.
As a postscript, maybe I should mention that I have been qualified as RYA Yachtmaster Offshore for over 25 years and since added Power to the Sail qualification. I have a Commercial endorsement to both disciplines.