Three years ago at the Falmouth Classics, we drifted round the course in hot sunshine lagging behind luggers with bigger sails (and more skilled crews) and I came away wondering how to make Guiding Star sail faster in light wind.
The result was a new sail plan designed by Chris Rees, the shipwright who built Spirit of Mystery and Grayhound, and new sails cut by Steve Hall in Tollesbury. This year we kept moving in all but the lightest and most fickle breeze.
We enjoyed some good close racing with Our Boys, the one other lugger to take part in all three races . Phil and Liz sailed her superbly and even after their outrigger broke and they had to take their mizzen sail down, they beat us over the line. Still, Phil said we had them worried at times.
For a morning, we had wondered if we’d ever reach Falmouth. We sat in Fowey in fog so thick we couldn’t see the rocks at the entrance of the harbour. When it lifted briefly, we made a dash south.
The Falmouth Classics coincided with the G7 summit at Carbis Bay on the north Cornwall coast, and reporters covering the meeting were based in a two-storey temporary building in the car park outside the National Maritime Museum. We motored to our mooring past a barge carrying what I thought at first was a shameless attempt by Boris Johnson to pre-empt protests by climate activists.
It did look too good to be true, though, and when I saw workers in hi-vis vests taking the billboard to pieces the next day, I realised it was actually a shameless attempt by climate activists to get their message into the background of broadcasters’ live shots. In the event, the people who made it on camera most dramatically did so entirely by accident.
The Falmouth Classics had to be cancelled last year because of the pandemic and the organisers went an extra mile to welcome us all. When we picked up our mooring buoy, I was touched to find it had a label with the name of the boat. In the water taxi heading for the first evening’s pontoon party, we were hailed two women who I thought wanted to go ashore. In fact, they wanted to hand us bottles of beer and warm pasties.
This was Charlotte and Jess, who have turned Tethra, a 36-foot fishing boat built in Looe like Guiding Star, into a beautiful floating restaurant. The only sad part was that Charlotte was too busy to enter her own engineless lugger Gladys in the Classics racing. On previous form, she’d have beaten us all.
The passage back to Fowey after the regatta gave us one of Guiding Star’s best days: hot sun, a cloudless sky and the satisfaction of beating to windward in only a breath of breeze. By the end of the day, John was the same colour as his shorts and we tumbled into Sam’s bistro for a giant fish stew.
Many thanks to Ezster and Cathy for photos, Ezster on the boat and Cathy on shore watching the Parade.
Guiding Star has been relaunched after much painting and varnishing and a long list of small maintenance jobs. We’re planning some day sails in May, the Brixham Heritage Regatta is going ahead at the end of the month and the Falmouth Classics is on for mid-June – on the same weekend as the G7 summit a few miles away at Carbis Bay, so Falmouth will be full of journalists.
Plans after the Falmouth Classics are uncertain. I would like to go to France, which according to the government’s roadmap out of lockdown will open to visitors who’ve had Covid-19 vaccinations from 9th June. We’re registered for the Paimpol Festival and to judge from their Facebook page, the organisers are determined to go ahead.
However, if France is closed, we could consider a trip to Scotland or just staying on the south coast of England with forays to Scilly and/or the Channel Islands.
There couldn’t be a more beautiful place in the world to work on a wooden boat than Millbrook, up a muddy creek on the west side of Plymouth Sound. You can see the city across the water but the Rame peninsula, isolated on two sides by the sea and one side by the river Lynher, is a quiet world of its own.
Many thanks to Graham Butler for a host of small shipwright jobs, Alex Smerdon for painting and varnishing, and Nick and Adam from Fowey Harbour Marine for a new prop shaft coupling.
The first half-day sail of the season was a delight after the months of lockdown. We sailed a grand total of 16 miles out of the Sound to the Mewstone and back in bright sunshine and light breeze. Let’s hope for much more of that in the weeks ahead.
Squinting at a smartphone is no substitute for sailing. But the coronavirus lockdown has inspired some imaginative online events which have been so enjoyable that I hope they continue even after we’re back on the water.
Imray, publishers of charts and pilot books, have started live chats with their authors on Fridays, also at 2pm. I was fascinated to learn from an enthusiastic video by Tom Cunliffe, who’s one of their authors, that the company is still a family business and prints its charts on a giant digital machine that looks a bit like a grand piano. Since the Admiralty has announced that it wants to stop printing its series of charts for leisure sailors, it’s exciting to see Imray’s Managing Director, Lucy Wilson, and her small team so passionate about keeping us all afloat.
Imray’s first live chat featured Rod and Lu Heikell, who have written six pilot books covering the Mediterranean from the coast of France to Turkey. They sailed round the world a few years ago and wrote a recipe book, The Trade Wind Foodie, which I bought as a lockdown bedtime read and found to be terrific. The recipes are all what you’d realistically cook on a boat, mixing and matching ingredients and not trying anything too elaborate. There are helpful suggestions about how to make yoghurt on board and keep vegetables fresh on long passages (wrap in newspaper), and a useful three-page Provisions List for Ocean Passages at the end.
My other treasured boat cook book is one I found in a secondhand shop in Brittany last year, Le Plaisir de la Cuisine en Mer (The Pleasure of Cooking at Sea). This also has a valuable list of basic provisions which starts: ‘Flask of port, half bottle of Cognac, flask of Pastis, bottle of dry white wine, bottle of Noilly Prat. This small cellar is to be carefully guarded, in fact hidden.’
The nearest I’ve been able to get to Guiding Star since the lockdown began is the marina webcam, which unfortunately for me shows the pontoons furthest from the boat. But I was thrilled when the marina tweeted some photos and I could see her.
The only pieces of the boat I’ve been able to touch for seven weeks are the galley pump and the handheld VHF, both of which I brought home to send for repair. The workshop at Classic Marine did a wonderful job of re-rivetting the pump handle and sent a service kit to replace the 30-year-old leather washer in the barrel with a synthetic rubber one. Standard Horizon repaired the case of the handheld where the charging contact had sunk into the body of the device. They warned me to rinse the device in fresh water before charging: if there’s salt water on the contacts, that creates a slight resistance which produces heat and softens the plastic around the contact so that it sinks into the body. I’d never have guessed.
As soon as we’re allowed to move, I’ll start to get Guiding Star ready for sailing. Coronavirus hasn’t stopped Steve Hall starting to make a new mainsail for the boat, loose-footed this time with the aim of providing more drive without upsetting the balance. The church hall which Steve usually hires to lay out sails hasn’t been taking bookings but he managed to use the local Scout hut instead.
As well has being loose-footed, so it can belly out more than a sail lashed to the boom, the new mainsail will be slightly larger than the old one. Chris Rees, who built the luggers Spirit of Mystery and Greyhound, has designed a new sail plan to increase the overall sail area and give Guiding Star more power in light winds. He’s extended the gaff and drawn a bigger mizzen and a new light-wind jib.
All the traditional boat festivals we had planned to join this season have now been cancelled, except for the big Brest Festival which is still saying it’s only postponed. However, if we’re allowed to go anywhere at all while the weather’s good, I’m still planning to sail to Brittany and down the Atlantic Coast of France to La Rochelle and back. I’ll keep the Sailing Dates page updated and send a message to the crew email list as soon as anything is fixed.
In the meantime, please stay safe and keep watching the fish feeding.
Do you remember the hot, breathless June of two years ago? I can’t go sailing yet this season; I can’t even haul out Guiding Star for painting because my wife, Sue, has mild symptoms of coronavirus and the whole family is isolated at home. So I thought I’d share a memory which I’ve finally had time to edit: Allan Hopton adjusting Guiding Star’s compass in Carrick Roads on one of those hot summer days.
Even in these days of satellite positioning and electronic navigation, merchant ships are required to carry a magnetic compass, so compass adjusters such as Allan are still working. Thank goodness, because I always suspected there was something odd about Guiding Star’s compass in its fine 1930s bronze binnacle. Most of the time, it seemed to read correctly but sometimes it seemed to be anything up to ten degrees out. Or was that just the leeway we were making?
My suspicion was correct. I had always imagined that if a magnetic compass was wrong, it was wrong by the same number of degrees whichever way it pointed. But Allan found Guiding Star’s compass deviated by several degrees only when the boat was pointing north-east. On most other bearings, it was fine. As you can see in the video, he fixed a tiny magnet to the side of the binnacle and the compass now reads correctly.
The first Charlestown Harbour Classic Sail Festival proved that Cornwall can celebrate its maritime heritage with as much passion, energy and fun as Brittany. Festivals in harbours on the French side of the Channel attract tens of thousands of visitors and top musicians, pouring money into the local economy and exciting people about the history of fishing, trading and privateering which shaped their country. Now, the English coast at last has a chance to catch up and we were thrilled to take part on Guiding Star.
Crowds thronged the eighteenth-century harbour walls to watch fifteen boats from the 63-foot three-masted lugger Grayhound to the 26-foot open oyster dredger Alf Smythers parade through the narrow entrance and negotiate a sharp turn into the inner harbour. They packed the quayside, where movies and television series such as ‘Poldark’ have been filmed, to dance to local bands Flats and Sharps and Mad Dog Mcrea.
The food was superb. HarbourQ barbecued sardines, sweet potato and halloumi with home-made relishes and sauces, and Bristol chef Rachel Bull’s served fresh local mussels and chips and oysters from her Winkle Picker caravan.
Several boats, including Guiding Star, were open for visitors and Cathy, Thomas and I took turns to stay on board to show people around.
On Sunday, there was a spontaneous sculling competition with prizes of rum made by the skipper of Ibis, Elle, who runs the Fal River Distillery. I’ve never sculled before but I had a five-minute lesson from Spike, who restored the 65-foot Lowestoft drifter Gleaner after bringing her back from Germany in pieces in a shipping container, and is a serious sculler.
Cathy’s video shows Spike powering up the harbour to win the race with her friend Viv on lookout in the bow, and me and Viv’s partner Chris going nowhere. Viv later took over from me and through sheer determination drove us the last fifty metres up the harbour where there was still a swig of rum in the bottom of the bottle.
We were up at six on Monday morning for all the boats to leave the harbour before high tide, and broad reached home to Plymouth. The light breeze gave a chance to try a mizzen staysail for the first time; it added most of a knot so we barrelled along, but the wind freshened and the weather helm started to push us towards France so it had to come down again.
The Festival was the result of a huge effort by a large number of people so thank you to all of them and to the new owner of Charlestown Harbour, Rolf Munding. This was a breakthrough moment and I hope the Festival will grow and grow.
What a welcome we had in Brittany! At the crew dinner on our first night in Paimpol at the Festival du Chant de Marin, Celia and I met Michel and Claire, who hadn’t been able to bring their boat because the engine had broken down. Over paella and bottles of festival red wine, raising their voices against a tide of sea shanties, rugby anthems and bagpipes, they urged us to sail along the coast after the festival to visit them in Trégastel, on Brittany’s ‘rose granite coast’.
English people sometimes make invitations like that just to be polite but this was France and we realised Michel and Claire meant it, so we made Trégastel our goal after the festival.
From Paimpol, we sailed 20 miles out of the Bay of St Malo and round the coast to the Tréguier river, where we found other friends: the crew of Le Grand Léjon, who had spent a day exploring an island in the estuary. Skipper Etienne came to meet us in their dinghy, invited us to dinner and waited without a word while we failed three times to anchor securely on the east side of the river. When we finally anchored successfully behind Le Grand Léjon on the west side, he ferried us on board for a sumptuous meal of freshly caught bass and mackerel baked with carrots, fennel, onion and white wine, washed down with wine, ginger liqueur and Odile’s mother’s home-distilled fire water. We ate, drank and sang. That’s Tina, Gilles, Etienne and Odile in the photo at the top of the page.
The next day, we beat 30 miles to windward to Trégastel past the nature reserve of Les Sept îles. I insisted on putting the mizzen up to go faster, as a result of which we missed the narrow, rocky entrance to Trégastel and careered a mile and a half further down the coast before I managed to bring all the sails down and Celia turned the boat round.
On the way there, I realised later, we had passed the tiny island of Yvinec, home of the young Bréton sailor Guirec Soudée who spent five years sailing 45,000 miles around the world alone except for a chicken called Monique. At the time, Yvinec was just another stack of rocks we needed to tack to avoid but I found out how close we’d come after I bought Guirec’s irresistible children’s book, The Hen Who Sailed Around the World.
I was anxious about arriving late because Michel had texted during the afternoon to say that he and Claire had invited friends for drinks at 7.00pm to meet us. When he collected us from our mooring in a RIB driven by a volunteer from the local Sauveteurs en Mer and we splashed onto the beach, we discovered that one of the friends was the correspondent of the local newspaper, Le Trégor, and I spent half an hour struggling to tell the story of Guiding Star in French.
Celia and I were overwhelmed by Michel and Claire’s hospitality. We found ourselves in a room full of people, drinking crisp white wine and eating fishy delicacies on crackers and Claire’s delicious savoury cake. Trégastel is a beach resort and there are plenty of holiday homes along the granite boulders of the shoreline; but these were people who had grown up here, perhaps moved away for work but had kept their connections and retired here. At the end of the evening, Gaël generously sculled us back to Guiding Star in the deepening twilight. It was a wonderful evening.
Top music at the Paimpol festival: for me, the Colombian band Puerto Candelaria playing joyous, passionate tunes at one in the morning on a stage on the big schooner De Gallant.
After Paimpol and Trégastel, we sheltered from a storm moving up the Channel by sailing six miles up the Tréguier river to Tréguier itself, a small mediaeval cathedral city with the finest shellfish restaurant I’ve ever eat in, Poissonerie Moulinet.
We stayed a day longer than planned because of an engine alarm, but that meant we heard a concert by baroque chamber group Le Banquet Céleste with the sublime counter-tenor voice of Damien Guillon. Here’s a recording of them performing the Bach Psalm 51 after Pergolesi which made the climax of the concert.
After that, the least said about the crossing back to Plymouth, the better. The wind blew fresh from the northwest where we wanted to head, Celia had a rare bout of seasickness, and somehow when we weren’t looking a wave or a gust ripped off and snapped the port whisker-stay bracket. We had to take down the jib, reef the bowsprit and motor the last 60 miles.
The people of Looe know how to throw a party. Every two years, they host the Looe Lugger Regatta, welcoming two dozen old luggers including most of the handful of boats which were built in Looe in the glory days of Cornish fishing, such as Guiding Star, and still survive a hundred years on.
This year was even more special: thirty years since the tradition of the regatta was revived in 1989. Looe Sailing Club laid on two buffets the length of the fish market, and on Saturday night, crews and town folk danced to local ska band The Mighty Offbeats until the concrete floor was wet with beer.
The winds were light and fickle but enough for two races on Saturday and one on Sunday. In the first race, we tried our gennaker, a cross between a big jib and a spinnaker which Guiding Star inherited from another boat. It can’t cope close to the wind because it’s set flying, but with the wind on the beam and Celia helming, the boat hit six knots at times. By the second race, the wind was getting up so we swapped to our usual jib; I helmed and struggled to tack the boat because I forgot to ease the mizzen so we ended up near the back of the fleet.
On Sunday, the sun beat down on a glassy sea and we sat at anchor till early afternoon before Brian on the committee boat spotted signs of an incoming sea breeze. We did well on a couple of agonisingly slow downwind legs but were then caught by a bewildering 180-degree wind shift.
Guiding Star with our light wind gennaker
Glassy calm on the second day
The committee boat
The trophy; Paul Greenwood on the stage
We finished the regatta half way down the fleet but did win a trophy for sportsmanship. I hit a mark right in front of the committee boat (Brian’s trawler) in the third race and thought I should fess up rather than be disqualified, so radioed to ask what was the penalty.
There was a puzzled silence until someone said, “You get to go round another mark.” Naively, I persisted until the voice said firmly, “Well, we didn’t see anything.”
We pressed on, and I was very touched that evening to find that my honesty was worth a trophy. (Everyone had to hand their trophies back immediately because, well, one from two years ago went missing, but we have the photographs).
The driving force behind reviving the tradition of the Regatta has been Paul Greenwood, who went to sea aged sixteen in the early 1960s on one of the five wooden luggers then still fishing, I.R.I.S.. She used her three engines, not sails, but the conditions on board were as punishing as in the nineteenth century: a skipper and five crew hauling a mile and a half of nets over the rail by hand, sleeping crammed into a tiny, fetid cabin in the stern. Paul’s two books, Once Aboard a Cornish Lugger and More Tales from a Cornish Lugger are vivid, funny and sobering.
Richard had to leave us in Looe to go back to work on Monday morning but Celia, Thomas and I had a perfect, warm day’s sail back to Plymouth, during which we saw a grey seal with its head out of the water sunning itself.
The committee said on their Facebook page afterwards that they were “all getting on in age now and creak more than some of the boats in a gale” but “everyone has decided to go for one more in 2021”, which is great news.
Thank you to Paul, Mike (“make those lines bar tight and you’ll be all right!”), Brian, the wonderful cooks of the Looe Sailing Club and everyone else who gave the fleet an unforgettable event.
The amusement arcade may be the site of James Angear’s yard where Guiding Star was built in 1907
Celia during a perfect sunny sail back to Plymouth
Topsail setting well
Many thanks to Richard Lockhart for the photos of Guiding Star, and to Thomas for the photos of the fleet on the glassy Sunday.
This photo doesn’t do justice to the state of the old paraffin cooker by the time I finally despaired of it. Despite hours of effort and a lot of money on spare parts, the oven burner still leaked, one of the top burners heated feebly and the cracked cast-iron top was flaking with rust. The oven door wouldn’t seal even with a bent piece of wire to hold it closed.
Happily, there’s a small firm in the south of England which refurbishes Taylor’s stoves for much less than the eye-watering cost of a brand new one. Taylor’s Heaters and Cookers are engineering artists. When our replacement cooker came down the pontoon on a trolley, I couldn’t see the difference from a new one.
The old one was wheeled away in part-exchange and I was left with several plastic bags of pieces to install the replacement. I spent a peaceful day sawing and bending copper pipe and screwing up eight separate joints to connect the fuel tank to an on-off tap, a filter and the cooker itself. The swap gave me the chance to move the fuel tank lower in its locker so it sits at a better angle for pumping up the pressure.
Lots of compression joints
A paraffin stove is an entertainment to light, but I wouldn’t change it for a gas cooker because it’s safer. Gas explodes; paraffin needs to be persuaded to burn hot enough to boil a kettle. First, you pump air into the fuel tank to put the paraffin under pressure. Next, you fill a cup under the burner with meths and light it so that it heats the burner for three or four minutes. Finally, you turn the paraffin on: the oil sprays onto the underside of the hot burner and vaporises, and you light the vapour, which burns with a hot, blue flame.
If you try to light the burner too soon, the paraffin oozes out in liquid form and a sheet of yellow flame leaps up and smears soot across the galley ceiling. It looks alarming but it’s not very hot.
So, now we have a working cooker with an oven, a grill and two stove-top burners. It might be time to bake Guiding Star’s own bread.
If you too have a paraffin stove on its last legs, you can reach the experts on 07984 692766.
We started getting in tune early for June’s Festival of Salt Cod (La Morue en Fête) in Binic on the north coast of Brittany. The wonderful French lugger Le Grand Léjon joined the Brixham Heritage Regatta over the May bank holiday weekend and invited us on board to sing shanties and drink kir in the sunshine.
Le Grand Léjon is a replica of a nineteenth-century cargo lugger built to carry sand: below decks, she’s cavernous and although she’s only a couple of feet longer than Guiding Star, she displaces thirty tons. Etienne, in the green shirt below, is co-founder of a sea shanty group called Fortunes de Mer which has been working for fifteen years to collect and sing songs from ports all along the Channel coast. Many of the shanties are very funny, about clueless captains, drink-sozzled sailors and fishermen dreaming of hot, salty Paimpol beans (which do actually have an appellation d’origine protégée like Camembert and Stilton).
Rodolphe on accordion
Gilles on guitar
The racing in Brixham wasn’t our finest hour, since I mis-estimated how long it would take to reach the start line and arrived ten minutes late to see the two other boats in our class, Le Grand Léjon and I.R.I.S., already half-way across the bay. By the time we got back to the pontoon, the other crews were already breaking out the kir again.
Rafted against Golden Vanity and Le Grand Léjon
Beating on port tack
We changed crews on Monday. Sadly, Thomas had to pull out of the trip to Binic because of an infection, and Kate and Celia had to go back to work. Andy and John joined the boat.
Le Grand Léjon led us across the Channel on Tuesday morning, reaching in a cracking westerly breeze on a big swell which turned all our stomachs. We slipped the town pontoon in Brixham at dawn and anchored in the River Trieux seventeen hours later, an average of nearly six knots. Early on, Le Grand Léjon left us behind, using what Etienne later called “un petit appui de moteur” (a little help from the engine) but by late afternoon we caught them up.
I felt confident entering an unfamiliar rocky anchorage at night across a fierce tide because we were following the immensely experienced Etienne in his home waters. But just when we were about to drop the anchors, all the electrics on Le Grand Léjon failed and they had to navigate the last few hundred yards by torchlight. We were saved by Navionics on my iPhone.
Brixham to Brittany in 17 hours
Le Grand Léjon leaving the River Trieux anchorage
Binic, like many harbours in Brittany, is a mile from the sea at low tide. The gate to the harbour needs eight metres of tide to open so we had only half an hour for a dozen boats to funnel through the entrance and berth. Once inside, though, we had the perfect layout for a traditional boat festival: a long pontoon the length of the quayside, so that visitors could look down on the boats.
The outer harbour at high tide
Guiding Star on the pontoon
Storyboards for each boat
Crowds on the quay
Ship owner’s mansion
Newfoundland salt cod made fortunes
The two shores of the Channel celebrate parallel but separate histories of the sea. On the English side, people remember the Armada, Cornish smugglers, Nelson and the netting of massive shoals of pilchards and herring. On the French side, the heroes are the privateers of Saint Malo Bay who seized Spanish galleons and, later, English merchant ships, and the men who for nearly five hundred years crossed the North Atlantic to fish for cod in the fog and sub-zero cold of the Newfoundland Grand Banks.
The French call it La Grande Peche, the Great Fishery. Binic and ports along the Channel and Atlantic coasts of France lived from Newfoundland cod until the 1970s, when governments reacted to disastrous declines in fish stocks by declaring exclusive economic zones around their coasts. Britain nearly went to war with Iceland over cod; Canada shut the French out and an industry died.
The Newfoundland fishery took men away for six months of the year in brutal conditions. They crossed the Atlantic on big three-masted ships but the fishing was done by line from small boats called dories, carried stacked on deck. Two or three men would scull into the freezing fog to set lines. At the end of the day, they hauled the fish in and had to find their way back to the ship; sometimes, they never arrived. On board, the catch was gutted and salted by men and boys working long shifts, soaked in icy water and up to their elbows in fish guts and blood.
Even in the age of steel ships and diesel motors in the 1960s, the fishery was exhausting, dangerous work. At the Binic festival, retired fishermen in their seventies and eighties gave talks and a demonstration of gutting and salting. One man told how he’d fallen overboard and spent three quarters of an hour in the bitter water but had been rescued by two Portuguese fishermen. He wept when he said he’d been taken to Portugal two years ago to meet one of them who was still alive.
The Association du Grand Léjon, the non-profit group of about 120 people who maintain and sail the boat, organised the maritime side of the festival and treated us to a magnificent buffet of beignets de morue, fritters of salt cod with young nettles accompanied by potato and rutabaga mash, caremelised carrots and salad, with yet more kir before the meal and white wine during it. We sat at long tables in a community hall with shanty groups singing on a stage and everyone joining in long lines of Breton dancing after we’d eaten.
Fortunes de Mer sang Breton songs and then invited all the English crews onto the stage to join in The Leaving of Liverpool. If you have good eyesight, we’re in the bottom left of the postcard they made of the event.
On the spur of the moment, I bought a kilo of salt cod from the gutting demonstration and carried it home across the Channel and on the train to London, mostly unrefrigerated, and found a recipe for beignets de morue. They had a great taste, the texture chewier and the flavour more intense than fresh fish. Try the recipe!
Glorious sun but no wind for the return passage
The French navy’s L’Etoile du Roy on its way to Normandy 75th anniversary