Until We Sail Again

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.

My favourite is the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth’s live fish feeding on Wednesdays at 2pm. Who knew there was so much to this? They train big groupers and sharks to swim up to a target held in the water to make sure each fish eats its fair share. They hide the octopuses’ food in a wooden toy because the animals are so intelligent that they need an intellectual challenge.

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.

Lucy Wilson shows Tom Cunliffe round her family firm

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.

Guiding Star’s new sail plan by shipwright Chris Rees

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.