Wednesday, November 11, 2009


On a chilly November 11th, red flowers on lapels bring my mind back to a sunny August evening in Normandy, when I stood on a low hill carpeted with golden fields and striped with lush green hedgerows. On that summit stands a circle of stones, each pointing a to each nearby town or village, and naming it. Besides the name, a number has also been engraved into each stone; the price, in lives, paid for each village. Even the single-digit numbers seem terribly big.

Nearby, I walked a perfectly manicured lawn, reviewing neat ranks of very clean tombstones. Each has a name and an age, and usually a simple but heartbreaking message from a spouse or parent. The men beneath the stones are all very young.

These places are old now; but somewhere, new holes are being dug and a mason cuts new stones. Here is hoping that in some years, he will need to find other work.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Probable Pippistrelle

A furry stranger arrived in our garden this evening; he was found clinging upside down to a shrub. We watched as he began to scramble from twig to twig. Now and then, he would flutter a couple of feet, but couldn't quite get into the air.

Pipistrellis pipistrellis

A quick look at the small ears and nose and some leafing through my wildlife guides, I had him down as a Pippistrelle (Latin for "I squeak" - and I can confirm first-hand that they do). These little guys eat maybe two or three thousand insects in their nightly four-hour hunts, finding their prey with FM sonar - catching a fresh victim as often as every 4 seconds.

The trailing edge of his last wing seemed a little damaged; I took him from our cat-haunted garden, and left him hanging upside-down (the right way up, for a bat) from a tree.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Together, harmony

Sitting at the piano, tinkering with the motifs and fragments that might one day gel into a soundtrack, I rattle through variation after variation, evolving note by note the music I will need to accompany the landscapes playing in my memory's screening room. As a freezing desert and a distant mountain range float before my eyes, I search higher into the treble, trying for the phrases that will wrap the chill of distant glaciers around my viewer's skin.

Suddenly, an unexpected chord lifts me from the frozen wastes and drops me back in a cosy sitting room, where a warm weight, 11 kilos or so, rests on my lap; the chord sounds again, and I look down at the keys past a huge mop of blonde hair. Two chubby little index fingers descend again, and the chord rises for the third time. Then, a really gappy imitation of a scale... two huge blue eyes look up at Dad, and a huge gappy smile rewards my applause. 13 months old!

p.s. I love being a Dad

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Not getting wrecked

I wish I had read this post a couple of months ago. Reader, you cannot be too-well moored.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Time traveller?

Who is Alex Boote?

Thursday, June 11, 2009


My wife bellowed, then shot past the window, accelerating so fast that she assumed a reddish tint. I followed her out, and found her standing in front of the gate which guards our neighbour's yard, faced off against our very angry cat. Behind the gate, a very frightened juvenile starling huddled against a wall, shivering. No wonder: apart from being soaked in cat saliva, each and every tail-feather had been extracted from a now-naked behind.

Manouevering carefully to keep myself between the bird and any effective cover, I raced to catch it, expecting at any moment to be overtaken by the assassin (now using the cover of a high wall, to attempt a flanking manoeuvre). The little starling hopped and fluttered away from me for a few yards, then became hopelessly entangled in a dwarf pine - ouch! Seconds later, it was secured (in a former cat-carrier, the one we used for our cat (Sox) until he developed the muscle to simply shoulder his way through the door).


Google got me some key bird facts: starlings need lots of protein, and birds generally tail-feathers regrow in 4-6 weeks, their loss being a common defensive mechanism. I read that minus tail-feathers, flight should still possible (which made sense - not much survival value in sacrificing a tail if you have to walk away afterwards). Excellent news.


Our violently shivering little patient enjoyed a couple of hours resting and warming up in protective custody (our shed); fortunately for its peace of mind, it couldn't see our rascally cat as he tried, in succession, to tunnel through shed floor, to pry the doors open, to deglaze the windows. The would-be murderer was preparing to peel back the roof when I removed the patient to my car, and took off at speed, braking hard once or twice to shake any furry fiends from the undercarriage, and following up with a few hand-brake turns, just in case he was pursuing in another vehicle.

In a quiet lay-by between a small river and some exceptionally beautiful parkland, I put the cat box on the ground and opened the door for a flight test. With no homes close by, I could assume there weren't too many lurking housecats, and with plenty of bare ground, a flightless bird could easily be recaptured, while a flying one could soon reach good cover and good hunting. There was a momentary pause: then, with an explosion of beating wings, the patient shot from the box, and made an almost immediate lift off, climbing in a straight and steady line to a perch in a nearby a tree. The thrill of flight was amazing, as if I had taken to the air myself. I stayed a minute at the tree-lined river bank, enjoying the golden light of early sunset on the mass fresh green foliage and the warmth of a June evening; and then I drove home, to be sulked at by my rascally cat.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Wrecking of Briongloid

The call came late in the evening from an unfamiliar number; a voice I had never heard before told me that Briongloid (Irish for "dream") was hard aground the rocks outside her home cove. Several hurried phone calls later, I was on the road to the coast, racing through the darkness in convoy with a hastily press-ganged brother-in-law, trying beat the water to our precious boat, and take the salvage opportunity presented by the approaching high tide.

A few miles down the road, the dash was ended by another call; a crew from a local boatyard had got her off. Too late to do any good now, we turned for home.


The next day, I saw her. Back on the trailer she had left so recently, her bottom paint still brush-fresh, but her hull now sadly battered, the smooth swell of her hull now sadly gouged and scraped, with cracks that penetrated the hull below the waterline. The rudder, refurbished mere weeks ago, smashed to matchwood, only fragments remaining attached to the gudgeons and the tiller. Inside, the flexing of her hull had cracked the interior. Below, a sinister crack ran right around the keel.

Not good.

Columba livia domestica

Our resident lap-warmer and dog-scarer was waiting at the door for his breakfast, wearing his most winning "poor starving cat" expression. The performance would've been much more convincing if he had remembered to clean his blood-soaked face...

It wasn't his blood; our back garden looked as though a lunatic anatomist had been doing his dissection al fresco. A blood-mad killer he may be, but he does very neat work, tidily discarding offal like the stomach and intestines. On this morning, he had dismantled a racing pigeon (his largest prey to date, owing to an unfortunate local scarcity of Struthio camelus). The unfortunate bird (hailing from a loft in Dublin city) had been carefully butchered by his experienced claws, the wings neatly jointed, and the head set off to one side as a trophy.

The most interesting anatomical feature remaining was the rib cage, picked as clean as a whistle, which allowed me to get a really good look at the keel, a high thin ridge of bone which projects from the centre of the chest, running vertically along the centre line. The size of this bone (I estimate it stood about 30mm proud of the rib-cage proper) indicated the huge size of the (since devoured) muscles - the living engines that can propel a pigeon through the sky at 45 miles per hour, for many hundreds of miles. Fantastic creatures.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Warp Drive

Early on a sunny Saturday afternoon, Briongloid slipped her mooring carrying mainsail, genoa, and a crew of four, and rode a rushing ebb tide into open water; her first proper sail of the season. Sails filled by a gentle force 2-3 from west-north-west, we began our first long tack west, our goal the vast arena of Holeopen Bay some 10km distant - my first proper sailing of the season.

Actually, I have omitted one "sail" from our rig: cut from denim, with an unconvential forked shape, it flew between the spreaders and the mast-top on Briongloid's flag halyard. I mentioned this addition to my (shore-based) wife in a mid-course phone call. On being informed of the current location of her brother's fiancee's trousers (they had been soaked during a lively dinghy transfer), she did not praise my sailorly ingenuity (the hoisting was done with a nifty combination of a snap shackle and a loop in the halyard created with the very wonderful butterfly knot, something I happened to have learnt the previous week). Instead, my wife inquired what, if anything, now covered the nether regions of her brother's "intended".
Proudly, I told her that said regions were well protected, since the lady in question was now wearing my trousers; this didn't reassure my wife quite as much as I expected*.

Hard-wearing and fashionable, denim sails remain a strangely rare sight on racing yachts

The outward trip was unremarkable; a fading wind persuaded me to motor the last km or so, and we dropped anchor where we planned at about the time we expected, in the strange shelter of Holeopen Bay, whose sheer walls rise two hundred feet from the sea. Our course mark was an ancient watchtower perched dramatically at the head of the cliffs, and it was in a small hollow beside that tower than three figures (wives, infant) - impossibly tiny from our anchorage - appeared and waved us a welcome. After a late lunch - which sadly we could not share with the cliff-top watchers - we hoisted the mainsail and prepared to raise anchor.

It was as I moved pull up our anchor that a gust heeled us well to port, sending my brother-in-law (both on the foredeck) scrabbling for handholds; the wind was back, and stronger than before; I immediately amended my choice of foresail to working jib. Once underway, we enjoyed a brief glimpse through headland-traversing tunnels that give the Holeopen Bay its name, then turned to run east for home. The jib did little for us on this point of sail, and the Voice of Temptation began to whisper seductive suggestions; I cast a thoughtful gaze across the great blue sweep of sea about us, sizing up the frequency of the white caps which had begun to appear, the level of the chop. Then, I put a veteran dinghy sailor on the helm, briefed a veteran kayaker with iron forearms on the controlling of "kites", and assigned a near-novice sailor to help me on the foredeck.

Well, down came the jib, and up went the spinnaker, the huge mass of coloured fabric filling the sky above me as I crouched beneath it on the rolling foredeck. At first, it only half filled; then we dropped the mainsail, and Briongloid surged forwards. I have to admit that I was far from certain of a positive result - to a non-racer like myself, spinnakers are broach-inducing monsters, and my crew-briefing concentrated mostly on broach-avoidance and broach-survival. Briongloid, however, remained upright, and the great walls of Holeopen Bay shrank away with unprecedented speed, as our bow opened a long white gash across blue-black water. From bow to stern, we exchanged huge smiles. Briongloid's hull fairly sang now; she seemed to have donned seven-league boots. Faster and faster we went, our speed building until we began to surf.

It seemed too good to last; but it did last, and we rode that wind home on spinnaker alone, right to the cove mouth, a golden evening of fast and thrilling sailing with a crew of good friends, racing across an empty sea for nothing but the joy of it, a sail I'm likely to remember for some time.

The final turn to enter the cove required downing the magical spinnaker, my new favourite sail; but down it would not come. Inspection showed the halyard had a twist or two about the forestay. We let fly the leeward sheet to de-power our colourful, wonderful monster, but the wind still kept too much pressure aloft to let us get our sail back. To maintain steerageway, I had my crew raise the mainsail - and suddenly, the pressure eased, and down came the spinnaker. I'm thinking that the mainsail sheltered the spinnaker, easing the tension on the halyard. The working jib was still hanked on, so was raised again in moments, and soon we were sliding gently back into the river mouth, boat hook raised and ready.

* Wet trousers are a common calamity when dinghy transfers are as long and boisterous as ours tend to be; a cheerfully oblivious attitude to beating straight through tide races has contributed its share of wettings, too. I now make it a habit to carry at least one full change of clothes plus "emergency towel" in a dry bag, and it was these spares that I loaned out; it is a bit early in the spring for trouser-less sailing.

Monday, March 30, 2009


In which the saga of the near-sinking is concluded

In brazen defiance of ancient nautical tradition, the owner of the boatyard called with the news no boat-owner expects: repairs complete on time and under budget! Briongloid would be returning to the water on exactly the promised day.


On a calm and sunny Saturday, I found Briongloid floating calmly on the river by the boatyard, rafted to a fishing launch which itself was moored at a pontoon, her bilges drier than I could remember them. The tide was just right for escaping down-river - dead low, with the mud banks high, dry, and - crucially - visible. I ached to get Briongloid and her deep fin keel safely away from this alien place; you can't beat a fin keel for sailing into the wind on the open sea, but the same keel is a fatal vulnerability when aground on a mud bank (because if the water level should drop further, the boat will simply fall over, then flood when the water returns).

Before I attempted to get Briongloid down river, I had first to board with her dinghy and crew. The initial obstacle was the ramp to the pontoon - on this unusually low tide, it was as steep as a domestic staircase but with low-profile battens in place of steps. To my crew (my parents, combined age 144) it had something of the aspect of the north face of the Eiger. I made the first trip with a deflated dinghy (45 kg) on my back, descending backwards with hands on rails, as if using a ladder, then repeated the trip twice more, guiding my crew individually. They were too polite to say it, but I'm morally certain that they were reconsidering their decision to start a family.


We putted off down river, dead centre in a narrow and unmarked channel; nobody comes this far up river except locals, so why mark it? Clutched in one hand, I held my guide: a composite aerial photograph covering the first few miles of meanders. Taken at low water, the mud banks show clearly, as do landmarks on the river banks. I was betting that the outside of each bend would be deep, and the inside shallow...


This strategy worked beautifully for the first few bends, and soon we were alone on a stretch where the banks were silent and wooded, occupied only by watchful herons. Then, so gently that I almost thought I had imagined it, the bulb at the base of Briongloid's fin slid softly into the glutinous grey muck of the river bed. The best route away from a grounding is backwards; but full throttle in reverse gear did nothing but stir up some interesting vortices. For now at least, we were a fixture, essentially a small blue fibreglass island. Not a skipper's proudest moment.
Whatever my parents (never previously shipwrecked in their combined 144 years) thought of my seamanship, they were merciful enough to remain silent.

On a falling tide, this grounding would have been a serious mistake, liable to lead to a pretty severe wetting, at least for Briongloid. However, secure in the knowledge that the combined gravitational efforts of (a) a rock the size of Austrailia and (b) a spectral type-G star were, at that very moment, reversing the flow of the river, we did exactly what the likes of Charles Stock would do - made mugs of tea, and buttered the home-made scones supplied by a far-seeing wife.

Just when the scones were beginning to run low, eddies swirling out from under the hull on the up-river side revealed that the incoming tide was rising fast, reversing the flow of the river, and stealthily slipping over the mud. Reassured that Newton's laws still stood (more or less), I took soundings to port and starboard from bow and stern, revealing a definite gradient towards the stern. Adjusting my theory of the location of the main channel to this data, I was able immediately to motor free. After that, the keel touched once, but stuck no more; and off we putted down the Bandon River, breasting the current as we crossed from bank to bank chasing the main channel, watching rural Ireland slip past; apart from pastures and trees, the main features of that stretch were a ruined tower house, a demolished bridge (giving the submerged piers a very wide berth).

Near Kinsale, houses began to appear on the banks; passing under the road bridge (having checked for anglers and their dangling hooks) we entered the harbour proper, and at last met other boats, the usual miscellany: a gorgeous wooden yacht of classic lines and vintage, ultra-modern racing machines, a herd of gin palaces, a fleet of trawlers, a solitary coastal cargo ship - but all moored up tight - on a gorgeous March Saturday, we were the only boat on the move. As I tied Briongloid into a visitor berth at the KYC, I felt the sway of the pontoon, and smiled; we had reached the sea.

Friday, March 06, 2009


Spring is coming fast now, daffodils and crocuses in full bloom, sunsets and dawns pushing back the night. "Any day now", the men at the yard where Briongloid lies sleeping beneath her tarp will make her hull watertight again; after that, I want her back in the sea at the earliest opportunity.

So, it's time to get ready. The flowers of rust blooming on her iron keel have been ground away, exploding into powder beneath the stainless steel bristles of a rotary brush on a cordless drill, and the bright metal exposed beneath locked away under two barrier coats topped off with a clean new coat of the most toxic anti-fouling I could find.

Outfit for sutiable for either WWIII or minor boat repairs

However... most detachable bits of Briongloid still seem to be living in our shed, waiting for repairs, improvements, or outright replacement. The biggest and toughest project has been the repair of a damaged cockpit seat. The cracks (inflicted before I bought her) had grown too big to ignore, so it was time to tackle a new task: repairing GRP (a composite of epoxy and glass fibre cloth).

A little preliminary research taught me that fibreglass is a fantastically useful and tough material (can be molded into any shape, drilled, filed; does not rot or rust) . It also taught me that exposure to epoxy resin and the catalyst required to harden it is bad news (industry websites talk airly about fumes and hospitalisations). Also, the reaction that hardens the epoxy is exothermic - get the mixing wrong badly enough, and say goodbye to your shed.

And so, I set to work in my back garden on a frosty night, wearing disposable coveralls over full foul-weather gear, plus rubber boots, nitrile gloves, a respirator, eye protection, ear protection and an LED headlamp - full "WW III Apocalypse mode". The respirator in particular is very impressive - putting it on, air becomes weirdly (and reassuringly) scentless. No word yet on what the neighbours think I'm up to in that shed.

The first attempts at patching were very messy indeed; fibreglass fragments seemed to get everywhere, and the epoxy seemed to have a life of its own, apparently keen to go everywhere but onto the fibreglass cloth - a bit like working with honey that hates you, wants to poison you, and will explode into flame if the bread to which you apply it has too much butter. However, after several iterations of the patching procedure, I began to think that perhaps there was a chance I could survive the procedure; even better, the seat I was repairing actually started to look, feel, sound strong again (no more creaks from where the crack used to be). After a little tidying-up work (file, angle grindge, rotary brush, peeling off masking tabe), it looks as though this might actually have worked.

One week to launch day...

Monday, February 16, 2009

Light Jet: a taste of private travel

For a recent trip to Stuttgart (work, not pleasure, although I enjoyed it so much it might as well have been a holiday), I left the world of scheduled flight, and instead of the usual 737/A320, traveled by light jet - a Cessna 525B Citation CJ3. Although I've been on private (unscheduled) flights before, it has always been for short, informal flights in uncontrolled airspace - and very definitely not in light jets, but small prop-driven craft, most older than I am.

Starting at the airport, this experience was definitely a little different; not quite as nice as the General Aviation hop-in-and-away-we-go, but I did get a handler to walk the "PAX" through crew security, and then, on the ramp, a minivan waiting to carry the PAX to the 'plane, where the co-pilot placed my luggage and my jacket carefully in the rear cargo bay (whose carrying capacity is probably pretty similar to my car's). I began to feel a little over "sir'd" and over-cosseted.

Sir's plane awaits

On-board, aeronautic realities - i.e., planes need to be sleek - came up hard against passenger expectations; passenger seats are comfortable, but convey a sense of having been squeezed in - six in the usual forward-aft configuration with small folding tables between the facing pairs, and two more facing port and starboard respectively, one in the windowless rear, one just inside the door, where I sat - giving me the benefit of a window behind my head, plus the one in the door, plus a pretty good view through the windscreen, the cockpit being more or less continuous with the cabin. This felt to me a lot like a boat interior - the same conflict between the available space and the level of comfort the occupants want to achieve. This 'plane came without a loo, a configuration that is more or less reasonable, based on typical four-hour endurance. Flying like this is definitely a luxury- but the luxury is in the freedom of traveling where and when one chooses, at a time that suits.

Half-bulkheads separate cabin and cockpit; these also provide the only interior storage, and on this plane, included the tiniest fridge I've ever seen (just large enough for a few half-bottles of champagne, as I discovered). A lack of fridge space is probably a blessing in disguise in a 'plane with with a four-hour endurance and no loo, however...

I did try working on my laptop, but in my (comfy) jump seat, this wasn't easy - the fold-up tray on a standard airliner would really have helped. Eventually, I gave up on work, and, instead, primed by my perusal of the excellent Aviatrix blog, bombarded the friendly skipper with questions on instrumentation, navigation, redundancy, and anything else I could think of. The cockpit instrumentation really impressed me - a considerable step up from the last instrument panel I saw close-up. Three big colour displays can show nav points, aircraft attitude, engine and fuel burn stats, collision avoidance data (plotting the beacons of other planes - nothing for migrating geese just yet, who so far refuse to carry the necessary transponders), weather radar. A nice detail is that the nav plotter knows, literally, the lie of the land all over Europe, and thus can squak a "terrain!" warning if the pilot seems in danger of fluffing the approach to some interesting valley runway.

Independent power buses, generators and batteries give a reassuringly high level of redundancy. The mechanics of the plane are nice too - a tank in each wing can be switched to feed either engine, or both. I asked about icing; turns out those little jets have hot air to spare - so it is routed into the leading edge of the wings, heating them to boiling point. Pretty nifty. I asked about range: this little bird holds two tonnes of fuel in her wings, which give her about four hour's endurance with full passenger load at a sensible cruising height (40,000ft, say). Crouched (not much headroom) behind the pilots, I could watch the digital display as the fuel burned, and see an instantly-updated prediction of remaining fuel at destination. Cruising at around 400 knots, a lot of ground can be covered with that fuel load - at a rate of about €2,000 per hour - which, while not quite bargain basement, struck me as pretty reasonable, especially if you have 8 passengers (although their weight will affect the range).

A day later, a fresh crew took me home to the city by the sea early enough for a normal evening at home after working a full office day overseas; we flew very nearly a great circle course home, chasing a truly beautiful sunset west at 40,000ft. For now, I won't be making a habit of flying this way, but here's hoping the coming of the Very Light Jet will make this kind of travel more routine.

P.S. Estimating my carbon footprint for the journey, I find that my flight was surprisingly efficient - according to my back-of-the-envelope sums, my own car would have emitted nearly as much as my share of the jet's emissions.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Sinking, Part 3

Being the third installment of a tale of a watery tale begun here and continued here.

At last, Briongloid was safely on her trailer. On a snowy afternoon, I left The City early to go the boatyard and get a look the problem from the outside. I love the approach to the boatyard: it lies near the navigable limit of a tree-lined river - very scenic. This time, the tide was low, and some very interesting boats were sitting high and dry in the mud. The channels deep enough to carry Briongloid are narrow, sinuous, and unmarked.

Once at the yard, diagnosing the problem didn't take very long at all; on her starboard side, well below the waterline, an ancient mechanical log (its display long since lost) protrudes from her hull. For non-boating folk, a log is a device for measuring a boat's speed through the water; the earliest logs actually were logs, or at least splinters. Since I carry a hand-held GPS, and always (so far!) sail in sight of land (so can take bearings with a hand compass), a log is not really an essential item - especially since, like most skippers, I can usually estimate my boat's speed quite accurately. When I had last seen the log, its protruding arm carried a small propeller which turned as the water flowed past, the rotation being carried into the hull by a wire rotating within an outer protective sheath.

The Leak

Since then, as the photo shows, something had ripped that little propeller clear of its mount, exposing the core, and pulling the base of the instrument loose. Looking at the damage, I was amazed poor Briongloid had survived - the damage looked absolutely frightening, exactly the sort of thing that persuaded me to leave damage control plugs next to all through-hull fittings. Looks like the through-hulls which feed and empty her sea toilet are innocent after all - but what did I hit? A guilty memory of the time I snagged my own mooring bouy sidles into my mind's eye...

After a quick chat with the owner of the boatyard, we had a repair plan: I would get the boat as dry as I could, and put on a tarp (low-skilled work, suitable for a bungling boat owner). A de-humidifier will be left inside to dry her further, sucking every possible drop from her bilges, fittings, even the hull itself. Then, a nice man from the yard who knows what he is doing will drill out all remains of the log, and glass over the resulting gaping hole, fairing the repair with epoxy. Finally (we hope), we'll drop Briongloid back in the river, and see if she still floats...

As the sun went down, I began a long, long list of boat-related jobs, loading my long-suffering car with things to fix and things to dry ( soaking sails, soaking cushions, hatch covers, wash boards, a rudder, etc.) . I also spent quite a lot of time down in the bilges with pumps and a sponge. Ah, the glamorous life of the yachtie!

The afternoon sun had melted what little snow lay on Briongloid's deck; later, as the sun set, and I scrambled about the decks with pointy tools, measuring tape, and tarpaulin, the water turned quickly to ice. I found skating up and down her decks to be a highly disconcerting experience; on her trailer, she is a tall boat, and I didn't fancy the drop. Extra respect to all you high-latitude sailors - how on earth do you manage to stay on board when your boats are not only ice-covered, but moving?

Venus was brilliant between the snow-clouds by the time the last knots on tarp were secure. This far up-river, most yard inhabitants are low-draught motor launches, fat and squat, with a sprinkle of lifting-keel pocket cruisers, and our boat stood out; in the cool light of the half-moon, the silhouette of an enshrouded Briongloid looked tall, sleek, fast, and a little bit mysterious.

Squeezing myself into the driver's seat, tucking my head below a wandering tiller (still attached to a rudder that my boot would barely close on), I left her to the night.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sinking, Part 2

Having established that our beloved Briongloid was letting in something on the order of 40 litres of sea water every 24 hours (see Part 1), it was time to get her hauled out and fixed by the yard that fitted the loo (and the leak). So, last Saturday, I got up before the sun did to drive to the cove and sail her to the yard.

I pulled up on the slipway just in time to see the sun touch the western face of the cove, painting the steep slopes and cliffs in warm gold. The air was crisp and clear, and the sky perfectly, completely blue, and only the gentlest of sail-able breezes ghosted in from the sea - the perfect January morning. This sailor had the cove entirely to himself: the convenient (but exposed) moorings by the slip were empty - too many storms these last months - and even half a mile across the water, where the inconvenient (but gale-proof) moorings lie, Briongloid was one of the last three boats, surrounded by a sea of empty buoys.

Aboard, things were good: the automatic pump wired in the previous week had kept up with the inflow; even better, the solar panel seemed to have kept up with the pump's power consumption, even now, at the least favorable time of year (short days, sun always low in the sky, plenty of cloud). I ran up the main and the working jib, and Briongloid and I rode the ebb tide out of the cove.


In open water, conditions were just as beautiful; Briongloid moved smoothly over an achingly blue sea, framed by a crystal-clear horizon to the south and the cliff-girt Old Head to the west. The dawn picked out gold highlights on the land, and the low angle of the light threw every detail of the sea caves and precipices into sharp relief.

I looked longingly south and sea-ward... but Briongloid and I had a flood tide to catch, the boat yard being far up-river, and so I turned my eyes from temptation and hugged the land, passing inshore of the reef that guards the mouth of my first stop, a harbour downstream of both the destination boat yard and a crucial low bridge. My chart showed plenty of depth on my chosen route, but my faith in the Admiralty was sorely tested when a long low swell to seaward rose up and steepened to become a perfectly peeling breaker, on course to catch us beam-on. As a surfer, I can say that it was a beautiful wave; as a sailor, it inspired an intense desire to find some very deep water, and stay there. A few seconds later, that gorgeous, murderous wave subsided into the depths (as promised by the Admiralty chart); and I resumed breathing, switched to worrying about the sandbars in the outer harbour.


For me, growing up as a free-diver and sailor in an unusually wide and deep bay, open water has always been a refuge; in the waters of my boyhood, "narrow" meant "less than a mile wide", and "shallow" might mean "50M". Now, entering the very alien environment of a long, bending harbour that also happened to be a river mouth, I concentrated very hard indeed on lining up features from the chart with the land-marks and buoyage.

Motoring in a silky-smooth calm, all went smoothly - except that every now and then, my outboard would be seized by gremlins, and Briongloid would pivot sharply to port, and make a run for the nearest sandbank. I planned to devote some serious attention to that treacherous locking nut, and also to do some proper swearing, just as soon as I had less than four simultaneous tasks to worry about.

Briongloid and I passed on serenely (but with occasional abrupt swerves and even more abrupt corrections) up the harbour mouth, slipping unnoticed below the great battlements of the fortress; I winced at the thought of what those interlocking fields of fire would do to a boat catching them on its length. Soon, we gained the inner harbour, and I prepared to dock solo at a marina for the first time in my life (we have always been swing mooring kind of people). As always, the secret to solo sailing lies in preparation; I had already cleated on two long ropes - one at the bow, one at the stern - and hung every fender out to port (having checked the chart, and established the orientation of the visitor pontoon relative to the wind), and carefully read and re-read the art of pontoon docking (grasping for the first time the role of springs). I gritted my teeth, throttled back till I barely had steerage way, and prepared to dock...

In the event, Briongloid made it very easy for me; she came gliding in very slowly smoothly to an empty visitor poontoon, turning to meet it nearly at a tangent; I didn't even need flip the engine into reverse, but simply stepped ashore and checked her movement first with my own weight, then with the stern rope, finally with the head rope. Seconds later, my little craft was secure, and I was wondering what I had worried about.


A little later, C and Junior turned up; with the help of passing strangers, we rigged the mainsheet as a block-and-tackle in the bows, and dropped the mast. By now the was rising, and so was the tide; time to go, but the boatyard phoned and postponed my river pilot. We'ld not make the boatyard today.

Now, as forecast, the wind rose and rose, until it sang in the stays of every mast in the marina. The once-glassy waters of the harbour now rose up in a vicious chop, and tried to bash Briongloid to pieces on her shelter-less visitor pontoon. On the other side of the pontoon, massive 45 and 50 footers sat near-motionless in perfect safety, while I almost cried to see our poor little Pandora enduring such a battering. Could her fenders really hold against such impacts? Had the mast still been up, I would have been seriously tempted to brave the gale and simply sail back to the safety of our cosy cove. I tied and re-tied her lines; then added heavier ones; then checked and re-checked her fenders; and finally, feeling like a rotten traitor, I slunk off, and left her to the gale.

P.S. Although I spent most of a Saturday either in or immediately outside a town with hundreds of yachts, Briongloid was the only one that I saw move so much as an inch. Bit sad, really.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Sinking, Part 1

Briongloid was always a wet boat; ever since I launched her, pumping her bilges has been a regular pre-sail ritual. On overnight stays, I got used to pumping out in the mornings. Every now and then, I would work my way around her deck, looking for weaknesses and blasting them with sealant. Bucket-testing proved I was making progress, although oddly, her bilges didn't get any drier.

After a couple of years of pretty regular sea-faring - and equally regular pumping - I selfishly left Briongloid entirely unvisited for two months or more , til an e-mail forwarded by a friend of a friend told me all was not well...

Briongloid - heavier by 2000+ litres

He was right. As my dinghy skipped across the inlet, my heart sank further and further. Boarding her felt very strange; although logic told me that another 70 kilos should not sink her, an older part of my brain took one look at her freeboard and engage "fight or flight". My first act was to - very gingerly - inch up to the foredeck to see what difference my weight would make to her attitude in the very worse-case scenario. A boat this length (just under 22ft) shifts slightly under her crew's weight, which never bothered me before - I trust my keel; this time, every tiny shift in balance seemed like an opener to a death-plunge.

Logic was right; so an immediate sinking was out. I pulled out the wash boards (a kind of door into the cabin, for non-sailors) and horrified - if not very surprised - to see that water had filled her as high as her bunks. It was my great luck, though, that although the sea had already claimed cushions, charts, tools, it had not reached - by about an inch - the battery that powers all things electrical aboard Briongloid. Very, very gingerly, I got the battery to a place of relative safety. Then, I rigged up the electrical bilge pump that I hadn't quite got around to permanently installing, and watched order return to the cabin. Fifty minutes and above 2000 litres of seawater later, the pump sucked dry - but not before I had gingerly tasted the flood. Salt water.
Oh dear.

In a fibreglass boat, sea water really doesn't have a lot of routes into the hull. Unlike, say, a wooden boat, the hull material itself is continuous - no seams. Typically, the hull will have a few piercings, though - in Briongloid's case, several bolts for her fin keel (with about 440 kg of ballast down there, having lots of bolts is nice), and also two thru-hulls for a loo I had installed. Now, one of these had nearly killed her - but which one?


I ran the electric pump till the remaining water was too low to reach; then, I got a little further with a manual pump. After that, I rigged up a pretty hair-raising contraption involving Briongloid's battery, an inverter, and a tiny water pump intended for a desk-based fountain. Finally, I actually sponged up every remaining puddle that could be reached. With the bilge as dry as I could make it, I retired to the cockpit, and spent an hour or so admiring the view - which, it has to be said, is pretty fine (house prices around here are - or were - just over the million euro mark - quite a few orders of magnitude above the price of Briongloid and her mooring). At the end of my hour. a puddle had collected in little fibreglass pocket below the loo's thru-hulls, and I was practically jumping for joy. There is a leak, yes - but it is fixable.


having had an automatic bilge pump rigged, my mind was at ease again; I put-putted across the inlet in perfect serenity an hour or so after sunset, and nature's mood matched mine, with the waters almost spooky-still, and just a hint of mist in the frosty air. The blackness around me was pierced only by warm windows of the cove's few houses, and the brighter heavenly bodies - like Capella, a bright beacon above the invisible slipway, and Venus, putting on a fine show high above the silent forest. The winter sky is a beautful thing.

Coming up next: off to the boatyard.