Grateful thanks to all who helped

Guiding Star is ready to go sailing again after several weeks of on-off winter work frustrated by gales, rain and hail. I’m very grateful to everyone who helped. Thomas devoted a week to sanding, filling and priming the topsides; Celia froze for a day at the bottom of the mast holding me at the top to work on the rigging; Jo slogged through the Plymouth rush hour traffic to bring the refurbished windlass from Millbrook; Andy primed and anti-fouled the hull; Cathy sanded and varnished locker doors; and Jen from our neighbouring boat, Midstream, broke off her own work to help to thread the throat halyard.

The weather was terrible almost all the time I was in Plymouth and sunny and dry almost all the time I wasn’t. Here’s the view from the cockpit in early March:

At least that gave plenty of time for indoor jobs. For three years, the heads door has been flapping because the latch was broken. I finally found a firm, Croft Architectural Hardware, which was able to mend and refurbish a bronze latch from 1937, and screwed it back on. There’s not much privacy on a 39-foot boat but it’ll be good not to have to jam the door with a towel or hold it closed with your foot.

Even more importantly, for two years water from the aft bilge, which drains the cockpit, has been failing to seep through to the sump in the mid-bilge, where an automatic pump sucks it overboard. I hauled out twenty lead ballast ingots, each weighing twenty kilograms and covered in oily slime and mud, and re-stacked them to leave a path for the water to flow. I tied a length of chain to one of the aft floors with bungee so it can be pulled backwards and forwards through the channel to clear any debris that builds up; a great idea from Will Stirling.

Between bouts of rain, I filled a handful of weak spots in the caulking with red lead putty and painted the seams with primer and the keel with red lead. When the weather eventually cleared, we finished the hull, topsides and primer on the bulwarks in five days of heavy work.  Gloss on the bulwarks would have to wait.

On the worst day of gales, I gave up work and took the ferry to Cornwall to spend the afternoon with Chris Rees discussing how to improve Guiding Star’s sail plan. Chris built Grayhound and Spirit of Mystery and converted Three Brothers, a Looe lugger very similar to Guiding Star, from a full lug rig to a “dandy” rig with a gaff main and a lug mizzen, just like Guiding Star. He had a host of suggestions to give the boat more speed in light wind.

The hot, nearly windless days of last summer which prompted the discussion seemed a long time ago when I rode the bus home along the cliffs west of Rame Head. At one point, the passengers had to get out of the bus to clear a chain link fence out of the road. I now know that a double-decker bus can stand a Force 8 straight on the beam.

Rame head gale
Sea west of Rame Head in a March gale

I went to London for a week, and Cornwall basked in spring sunshine. I came back to finish the gloss painting and rig the boat for a first sail of the season, and a cold east wind brought this:

The plan for a shakedown sail had to be abandoned but I did paint gloss on the bulwarks, refit the windlass, put the rigging back on (with vital help from Celia and Jen) and bend on the sails.

The windlass looked like a work of art when Jo brought it back from Dave Webster at Deep Blue Engineering. The Simpson Lawrence 500 was installed, I’m fairly sure, when Guiding Star was converted from fishing 82 years ago, and by last summer the mechanism was slipping and jamming and had to be nursed to crank the anchor up. Dave stripped it, cleaned it, welded a broken foot back on and painted it. I bolted it back onto the deck and tied coloured ribbons onto the anchor chain every five metres so we don’t have to guess how much we’ve laid out.

The ribbons are the colours of snooker balls with the idea that it’s an easy order to remember, but it’s a long time since I played snooker on Saturday nights at university and I mix up yellow, green and brown. However, I’m fine on blue, pink and black which mark 25, 30 and 35 metres of chain so we’ll just have to anchor in at least six metres of sea (chain needed = 4 x depth of water).


The best of 2018

Here’s what we did in 2018. If you’d like to sail with us in 2019, please look at the Sailing Dates and email the skipper, Paul.

26-27 May Brixham Heritage Sailing Regatta

An unexpected challenge of navigation and nerves. Read more…

14 June Suhaili Falmouth 50 – Parade of Sail

We sailed to Falmouth on the 11th and 12th to join a Jamboree of Sail to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Golden Globe, the first single-handed non-stop round the world race. Sir Robin Knox-Johnston led a Parade of Sail on Thursday 14th on Suhaili, the original boat in which he won the race. Read more…

22-24 June Falmouth Classics

The largest classic boating event in the UK. We came third in the luggers class after some exciting sailing in very light winds and a heatwave. The cover image on the gallery of images of the event is us! Read more…

6-8 July SW Gaffers Annual Race and Rally, Plymouth

For the first time, Southwest Gaffers held its annual race and rally in Plymouth, Guiding Star’s home port. There was racing on the Sound on Saturday 7th July and a sail in company up to Saltash on Sunday 8th for a pasty. Read more…

25-29 July Douarnenez Temps Fete

A wonderful two weeks of sailing, music and food. The one race for working boats was too stressful for photos, though… Read more…

13-23 September cruise to Isles of Scilly

This turned out to be a cruise to Guernsey instead, where we found unsettling memories of the Second World War and stunning nature. Read more…

Winter work

Thomas and I made a start on the winter work. We took off most of the running rigging and I spent several days in one of the old RAF seaplane hangars at Plymouth Yacht Haven re-varnishing the spars. Working into the evening in the empty hangar as a northeast wind rattled the big sliding doors, it was eerie to think Lawrence of Arabia knew this space when he was reinventing himself as Aircraftman T.E. Shaw at RAF Mount Batten in the early 1930s.

I left Thomas alone with the angle grinder and he cut off the windlass, which we drove to Dave Webster of Deep Blue Engineering in Millbrook for refurbishment. It’s a manual windlass which you crank with a hand spike and frustrated us all year by working on the backward stroke but not on the forward so it took twice as long as it should to haul up the anchor. I emailed a photograph to Dave asking for advice and when he immediately recognised it as a Simpson Lawrence 250, I knew I’d contacted the right person. When we got to Millbrook, he had two others in a queue.

Thomas wanted some advice on restoring the roller reefing on his own old wooden boat, so Dave suggested he ask a bearded chap in a woolly hat wandering through the boatyard carrying two supermarket bags. He turned out to be Nick Skeate, one of the world’s most famous gaff rig sailors. Forty years ago, he lost his boat on a reef in the Pacific so he designed and built a replacement in New Zealand and has since sailed her three and a half times round the world.

She’s Wylo II, a 32′ gaff cutter with a steel hull, wooden deck and a sail plan designed for long-distance, short-handed passages: two similar sized jibs so shortening sail means simply rolling one up rather than swapping a large jib for a small one, and an enormous topsail for light winds. Nick’s spending the winter in the mud at Millbrook rather than the sunshine further south because he has some repairs to make, so he showed us round.

Nick has sold the plans of Wylo II so there are now 50 versions of her afloat.

wylo II
Nick Skeate in the original Wylo II

Guiding Star will come out of the water at the end of February for two weeks to renew the anti-fouling and paint the hull and bulwarks. The big job left over from last winter is to strip and re-varnish the coachroof, forehatch and tiller.

By April, we’ll be ready to sail. I can’t wait.

Ghosts in Guernsey

We didn’t plan to go to Guernsey. We wanted to visit the Isles of Scilly to explore wildlife and enjoy the Taste of Scilly food festival in what we hoped would be settled September sunshine.

Tropical Storm Helene put paid to that. By the day before we were due to set sail, the remains of this hurricane looked likely to miss Scilly but leave five metres of swell. So we decided to go in the other direction and hop among the Channel Islands.

A fresh southwesterly breeze gave us a fast crossing from Plymouth and at one point it looked as if we’d make St Peter Port in the early hours of the morning. However, the Coastguard warned that the Platte Fougere lighthouse marking the northern approach to St Peter Port wasn’t working reliably, and I thought we’d better turn south and come round the other side of the island.

The tide had other ideas. It swept us sideways so strongly that we couldn’t make any progress southwards at all. We spent two hours sailing back along exactly the track we had come. I calculated in the end that we might as well go back to the first plan and approach St Peter Port from the north. We’d used up so much time that we would now be arriving in daylight, so the unreliable lighthouse wouldn’t matter.

It took all morning even with the engine on to push against the tide that by then was sweeping up the Little Russell channel and reach St Peter Port. We berthed in an almost empty harbour: the sailing season seemed to have ended suddenly in the Channel Islands.

Escape shaft
Escape shaft 75 feet deep in the German underground military hospital and ammunition store

Maybe the weather forecast had something to do with it. We’d missed Tropical Storm Helene but two more named storms, Bronagh and Callum, were driving in from the Atlantic. Even sheltered in the crook of Brittany, we were in for strong winds. After a short discussion, we took the harbourmaster’s offer of four nights berthing for the price of three and decided to do any island-hopping on a ferry rather than sail ourselves. As it turned out, we had to wait two more nights for the aftermath of Storm Callum to die down and even then, had a rough and windy passage back to Plymouth.

There are worse places to be stuck than Guernsey, though. The island is beautiful and soaked in a unique history which most people in Britain hardly know. I’d never understood the odd legal status of the Channel Islands: they are the last remnant of William the Conqueror’s Duchy of Normandy, loyal to the Crown but never integrated into the United Kingdom and so never part of the European Union. In the 1970s, when the UK joined the EU and we started to eat Dutch tomatoes subsidised by the Common Agricultural Policy, the tomato industry which had been a mainstay of the Guernsey economy died in a decade. But Guernsey and Jersey were able to grow a financial services industry beyond the reach of UK and EU regulation.

Dark memories of the Second World War crop up all over Guernsey. The island is within sight of France and along with the other Channel Islands, was occupied by Nazi German troops within days of the fall of France in 1940. I was unsettled walking into the Tourist Information Office to see a large photograph of German soldiers in coal-scuttle helmets marching in front of Lloyds Bank.

Hitler saw great symbolic value in occupying what he saw, slightly inaccurately, as British territory. He imagined the British would do anything to get the islands back and poured in thousands of troops to defend them and thousands of workers, many of them slaves, to build concrete fortifications. The British government, though, was realistic. It saw no chance of recovering the islands without terrible loss of life and simply ignored them until after the Allies had retaken Normandy.

The German underground military hospital and ammunition store on Guernsey remains as concrete proof of Hitler’s futile obsession. Dug out of solid rock at the cost of many deaths among slave workers, the hospital and store were always damp, so ammunition had to be covered in tarpaulins. The 800-bed hospital was used for only a few weeks, when some of the German casualties from the Allied invasion of Normandy were brought here. When it became clear that the Allies were not going to attack the Channel Islands, the wounded men were brought back into the sunlight and treated in normal hospitals.

When the weather forecast kept us in Guernsey for an extra two days, I went in search of my own local history. My aunt Marie was very proud to come from Guernsey, although she was born in Essex just after the First World War and I’m not sure how much she ever lived on the island. I recently inherited a bible from her which belonged to her grandfather, and a happy morning in the Priaulx Library identified the farmhouse where he had lived in St Peters in the Wood. The oldest part of the building dates back to 1450 and the gable is pierced as a dovecote. The main farmhouse dates from the 1860s.

Beating into a northerly Force 6 gusting to Force 7 on the way back to Plymouth made for heavy work on the tiller. With two reefs in the main but both headsails up, Guiding Star didn’t balance. We do have a storm jib but I’ve never had it out of the bag and was hesitant to experiment now: a good lesson would have been to try it out on the pontoon on one of the days we were stuck in harbour.

We left by the northern entrance to the Little Russell and the last of the east-going tide pushed us dangerously close to the rocks north of the island of Herm. When the tide turned and we headed north, the leeway pushing us west was so great I thought we’d end up in Falmouth rather than Plymouth. The disturbed sea made us all feel sick and the cabin reeked of paraffin. It was only after we arrived in Plymouth that I realised the cabin lamp had been swinging and jerking so wildly that it had been oozing enough oil to make the cabin uninhabitable.

By next morning, though, we were sailing gently under a cloudless sky within sight of Start Point, spotting dolphins. Soon, we had to put the engine on to move at all across the glassy sea.

Still several miles from land, we saw what we thought was a small bird darting round the boat. It looked too small to be a seabird and had an odd, fluttering flight. We realised it was a bat, exhausted and looking for a perch. It tried to grab the leech of the mainsail and circled the mizzen where our red ensign had wrapped itself round the top of the mast in the wind. After several attempts, the bat clung onto the flag and crawled inside its folds. We knew how it felt.


Filling the cracks

I’d say there’s a direct link between climate change and wet sleeping bags last week on Guiding Star. Weeks of heatwave opened up decks seams all over the boat and when the weather broke with a storm at the end of July while we were in Douarnenez, the rain poured in.


Back in Plymouth, we spent a day working on seams. Iga and Celia put masking tape on the worst seams, which seemed to cover about a third of the boat. Inspired by Tim on Alert, I put aluminium foil over the cooker and boiled the pitch in the galley to fill up the seams. Iga mastered the big soldering iron to melt the old pitch into the new and smooth the seams.

There’s still a long way to go. We didn’t have a caulking iron to harden down the seams before adding new pitch; that’s on order. But we made a start.


Wild racing and great music in Douarnenez

I don’t have any photographs of our racing at the Douarnenez Temps Fete at the end of July because we were too busy avoiding collisions to take any. The organisers set a short course between just two buoys so several dozen heavy working boats charged up and down, bowsprit to bowsprit, for an hour; splendid for the holidaymakers on the stands overlooking the bay but wild on the water.

DWZS3946 edit
La Canalaise storming along. Imagine several dozen working boats of every size charging head on at each other; that was our race

The stress was not helped by the pre-race briefing having been entirely in French and a lot of the skippers speaking only English, so not everybody was clear about the start line or the course. However, we survived unscathed and went for a splendid sail across the bay afterwards, followed by our best meal of the festival; steak tartare with aubergine slices fried in honey, and Lebanese soft cheese with tomatoes, strawberries and black wheat at Le Balto Ivre. A fruity but not sweet organic wine, too; Les Varennes from Les Roches Seches. I know photos of food are a trope but this was special.


The music at the festival was amazing, too. Unlike traditional regattas in Britain, which seem put on mainly for the enjoyment of the sailors taking part, the Douarnenez Temps Fete pulled in tens of thousands of people of all ages with music on two stages and food in restaurants and marquees along the harbourside as well as the forest of traditional boats. My favourites were Nøkken, a collaboration between Danish folk singers and a French band, and Thomas de Pourquery‘s ecstatic jazz.

Thomas de Pourquery in full flight

There should have been a luggers’ race on the Saturday of the festival week; but on Friday evening, the sunny weather broke and a storm blew in from the Atlantic. We woke to wet sleeping bags and a crew briefing that racing had been cancelled.

Our passage across the Channel from Plymouth was straightforward with heatwave sunshine and a gentle breeze. Guiding Star’s new AIS system helped to identify commercial ships which might pass close; the only two which came anywhere near close altered course well away from us. Next morning, we hove to off the Ile de Vierge lighthouse to wait for the tide through the Chenal du Four, and watched dolphins feasting on a school of mackerel. We spent the night in Camaret to avoid arriving in Douarnenez in the middle of the night.

Our passage back was less easy because we had to broad reach all the way in an uncertain southwesterly wind, and although the weather was fine, the storm had left an Atlantic swell which made most of us seasick.

The most exciting half hour came as we sailed out of L’Aber-Wrac’h due north through the narrow Chenal de la Malouine, where the rocks either side of the channel look close enough to touch and the fast-flowing tide churned up the shallow water. Photos from an iPhone with a wide-angle lens can’t show the tension.

Celia helming through the Chenal de la Malouine; La Malouine is the rock over her starboard shoulder. It means ‘the woman from St Malo’; an old local grudge?

The Cruising Association website says of the western Channel crossing from west country ports to the tip of Brittany: “This adventure is for robust crews who know their collision regulations, have strong stomachs, can navigate in strong tidal streams and can pilot into rock encumbered harbours and calculate tidal heights correctly.” They got that right.

Thank you to Celia, Emma and Iga for being the perfect crew; competent, collaborative and calm! We had a wonderful two weeks.


Some more photos of the trip:



South West Gaffers Rally

Most of our trips begin, and end, in the Clovelly Bay Inn in Turnchapel. Guiding Star’s berth in Plymouth Yacht Haven would be two minutes away if we could walk on water, or even just organise a dinghy, but it’s only 15 minutes the long way round on the South west Coast Path. The Greek lamb in pitta bread and the seafood chowder are wonderful; not slimming but richly tasty.

The South West Gaffers first Festival of Sail in Plymouth gave us a day of light wind racing in the Sound and then a day sail up the Tamar to Saltash Sailing Club for pasties.

I found the racing frustrating because I couldn’t get Guiding Star moving in the light airs. We were the biggest boat in the fleet and the start line across the restricted width of Cattewater gave us little space to put sails up, so we crossed the start with the topsail still on the deck.

Out on the Sound, several smaller boats passed us on the beat to the windward buoy, despite all I’d learned in the Falmouth Classics about not pinching in very gentle wind. We made up ground reaching and running but then I failed to spot two boats on starboard tack as they started their second lap, and had to wear round 360 degrees to avoid them. Thomas, Ian and I had a happy, hot day, though.

Guiding Star racing in front of Plymouth Hoe. That mizzen’s not working properly, and we haven’t got the topsail up yet. Photo by Jane Bryan

Local photographer Jane Bryan took some splendid photographs which reveal part of our problem; the mizzen was creased and losing power because the strop holding up the yard was a few centimetres too far aft.

At Saltash the next day, Guiding Star was too big to come alongside the Saltash Sailing Club pontoon so we anchored in the Tamar and were kindly given a lift ashore. The wind freshened from the day before, especially once we passed Devonport dockyard, so we rocketed up and down the river.

Many thanks to Judy Hales on Theta for this photo of us entering the Narrows, where Mount Edgecombe blocks the southwest breeze and the tide turning the corner chops up the water. The mizzen’s working better today

Heatwave sailing in the Falmouth Classics

The sun was hot and the wind was light, and we struggled to keep up our speed into the wind by comparison with more experienced lugger sailers on Gladys and Our Boys. However, we managed third place behind them in the lugger class and had a glorious time.

Thomas with a pint of Tribute and Paul with the coffee mug for third place in the lugger class

Kim was keen to stick to the racing rules but this was a traditional boat regatta so when Grayhound appeared over our shoulders trying to muscle her way across the start line, clearly upwind of us and completely in the wrong… I let her. She’s something like 80 tons and Guiding Star is 16.

Thomas used to be a photographer for Reuters in war zones across Africa so his images are worth a gallery of their own:

Celebrating Robin Knox-Johnston

Here’s Sir Robin Knox-Johnston sitting on Suhaili, the original boat in which he made history 50 years ago by becoming the first person to sail alone, non-stop around the world, winning the first Golden Globe race; next to him is Bill Rowntree, who photographed the start and end of the trip for the Sunday Mirror and created some of the most memorable images in sailing.

Sir Robin brought Suhaili to Plymouth for a rally organised by the southwest section of the Cruising Association to celebrate the anniversary. Several of us then followed him to Falmouth, his original departure point, for a three-day jamboree and a chance to see skippers and boats competing in a re-run of the Golden Globe.

Sir Robin is ordinary and extraordinary. He talked to anyone who came up for a chat, spent the afternoon in the pub watching the rugby and nearly got into a fight with a Scotsman who took his seat, and hung his washing over the boom like any of the rest of us. But he had the courage, determination and seamanship to sail alone in an age without GPS, satellite phones or downloadable weather charts; and to keep going when his gear failed and all the other Golden Globe competitors dropped out or went mad; two committed suicide and one sailed a second time round the world rather than come home.

It was a privilege to join a small band of perhaps two hundred passionate sailors for the events in Falmouth: a press conference in the Chain Locker pub to introduce the skippers in the Golden Globe 2018 race, sailing small family-priced, long-keeled cruisers and navigating with sextant and paper charts as Robin did 50 years ago; a book signing by Sir Robin; and a talk about the original and the new race by speakers including Bill Rowntree, who showed some of his famous photographs and told the story behind them.

Falmouth made little of what was a historic event, though. Plymouth grabbed the right to host the start of the race but then couldn’t find sponsors and lost it to Les Sables d’Olonne in France. There was little publicity in the town and no events to pull in lots of spectators. The mayor of Les Sables d’Olonnes said he expected 100,000 people to watch the start on 1st July; surely Falmouth would have wanted a crowd like that?

Many thanks to John and Martin for crewing Guiding Star to Falmouth; and special thanks to Martin’s friend Rich for lending us his pickup truck so we could retrieve the dinghy outboard from servicing in Penryn.

Feeling our way in the Brixham Regatta

The Brixham Heritage Regatta turned into an unexpected challenge of navigation and nerves. 

We made a good start across the line in very light wind and mist and willed our way north across Torbay to the first buoy. The one other boat in our Lugger class, Le Grand Lejon from Brittany, weighs nearly twice as much as Guiding Star and fell steadily behind.

However, that was about the end of the race. After we rounded the buoy, boats headed off on different tacks for a long beat south to the windward buoy near Berry Head, but the mist quickly thickened into fog and soon we couldn’t see any of the other 30 boats in the fleet; not even the three 80-foot Brixham trawlers, which are hard to miss. Visibility dropped to 50 metres.

We pressed on for half an hour, navigating by GPS and staring into the fog to keep watch. We heard on the radio first one, then two, boats withdraw from the race. The wind freshened and for a moment we hit 5 knots. But then the Regatta committee abandoned the race entirely and called all boats back.

Thanks to Sarah’s friend Peter Hunt for this shot of Guiding Star drifting in the mist before the start

Many thanks indeed to Matt for running our radio comms, Mark for helping to navigate, Paul for knowing every inch of Torbay and Brixham Harbour, and Emma and Sarah for calm helming.

I have no idea how the Regatta Committee worked out the results, but we were delighted to win the beautiful Toni Knights Lugger half-model for the first lugger. We were also surprised and happy to be awarded the Noss Marina Shield for Friday’s passage race from Dartmouth to Brixham, even though we were the only boat taking part and had to motor almost all the way because there was no wind. But we did turn up!

Full results are on the Brixham Heritage Regatta website.

Sarah, Emma and Paul with the Toni Knights Lugger half-model trophy. It’s a model of his own boat, IRIS. Sadly Toni wasn’t able to take part in the Regatta this year

Next morning, the sun shone from a cloudless sky.

Rafted against the beautiful Breton lugger Le Grand Lejon

More photos below of the Regatta and our passages up from Plymouth and back again. Many thanks to everyone for their photos.

I’m only sorry there are no photos of the epic bacon, egg and fried bread sandwiches made by Jon on the passage up from Plymouth to Dartmouth and Brixham. It was a pity there wasn’t much wind for sailing, Jon, but it was wonderful to have you on board.

Sail on a 1907 Cornish fishing boat