SAILING: Plain Sailing

This article appeared in Cruising Helmsman magazine in 1992 (Yaffa publications – Australia) – the third season of sailing the Eastern Mediterranean after Laranda’s hurricane damage.

Laranda flies a classic gaff-cutter rig, and is almost bare of modern equipment, but for Rob Weatherburn his boat captures the essence of the cruising life.” Editor

(Please click on the images for larger and higher res reproductions)

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Laranda – passing Fort St Angelo in Malta’s Grand Habour 

“I don’t think I could sail with you, Rob; Laranda hasn’t any guard rails, no stanchions, nothing. What’s to stop you falling overboard?”

I’ve heard that comment many times, and I often wonder whether there’s much point in explaining that I found those pieces of ‘safety’ equipment a menace; much more likely to trip me up and get in the way than stop me from falling in the drink. If the weather looks like turning nasty I rig lifelines; then I clip on my safety harness before moving for’ard. In the worst conditions I crawl along the deck, thankful that it’s relatively clear of encumbrances.

“And what about winches? There aren’t any! How do you sheet-in the heads’ls?”

Laranda is a long-keeled old gaffer at 29’6” from stem to stern-post and – after she was dismasted in a hurricane in 1988 – I put her back, from the Bermudan Sloop she had become just prior to World War II, to her original gaff rig. She’s not temperamental, seems to know more about what’s going on than I do, and when I do need to sheet-in the heads’ls, all I do is luff-up for a few seconds, take in the slack on the sheets, fasten them on the cleats, and it’s done, – and without any strain on the gear or the boat. We don’t need winches.

In the Mediterranean, Laranda draws attention to herself because she’s so often the odd-one-out. There, the ports and anchorages are crammed with splendid modern yachts of all types and sizes, countless flotilla and bare-boat chartered vessels bristling – proudly – with the latest and most expensive gear. Their sails are spotless, their immaculate plastic hulls shimmer as they reflect the glare of the sun, and many of their crews look as if they’ve just stepped out of the pages of an advertisement for the latest and smartest seagoing Designer clothes. (Do I hear accusations of ‘sour grapes?) Some time ago I overheard an American skipper talking to his charter guests he’d only just welcome aboard: “Dress comfortably and safely”, he said – “never mind the effect; you’re not going to impress me even if you’re determined to drown in your best clothes. And if you’ve been fool-enough to come aboard without a decent hat – one that has a strap to hold it on your head – it’s likely to be breezy where we’re going! (smirk) – go and get one before we cast off. You’ve got half an hour!” He was never noted for his tact…

Laranda’s basic looks are shared with most other ‘old gaffers’ – and although there are still plenty of them around, and the world-wide Old Gaffers Association is growing in numbers every year – we don’t come across many when we’re cruising in the Med. With her long bowsprit and jib fitted with some old Wykeham-Martin furling gear – (the type that allows you to drop the sail-and-all on deck if anything should ever go wrong) – self-tacking stays’l, jaunty tops’l and loose-footed gaff mains’l, she’s a boat from another era; but an anachronism she certainly is not.

David Hillyard built here in Littlehampton in England in 1934, and it probably never occurred to him that she might cross an ocean. She was conceived as a typical weekend cruiser of the time, and he never thought she’d venture where she’d need a self-draining cockpit. I’m only now getting around to sorting that – as a precaution against exceptionally bad weather. So far – she hasn’t needed it. Like so many other eell-designed and well-found vessels of the period, she can tackle almost anything. There’s nothing luxurious or grand about her, and there never was. I suppose that if I had to look for a comparison in an English car, she’d be in the ‘Morris’ league; certainly not a Jag, Rolls or Bentley. She only cost £575 when she was built, and that included her engine and suit of sails. No one could ever have accused her of having ideas above her station; she has style rather than elegance – she’s homely and easy to live with. The old girl’s getting on, but she isn’t really ‘old’ – as Gaffers go.

She’s no racing boat, but her passage times are as good or better than a lot of modern yachts of her size. She’s not deterred by an awkward sea, not pushed easily off her course, is a remarkably dry boat, and always gives the impression that, when the going gets really rough, she’s perfectly capable of looking after herself – and us. Even so, a lot of people are put off by ‘all those ropes’ on a gaffer, whilst others are scared stiff at the prospect of maintaining any sort of wooden boat. I wish I could convince them otherwise: there’s therapy in the doing: an escape from the every-day stress of life. Choices…

We all know that passage-making is only part of serious cruising, and that the majority of any yachtsman’s time is spent in port. It’s an entirely different ballgame whey you’re chartering a yacht for two or three weeks’ holiday, for then you’ll almost certainly want to get in as much sailing as possible. For the cruising helmsman his yacht is his mobile home enabling him to combine his love of sailing with the interest and fascination of visiting new shores and cruising grounds. It goes without saying that he must enjoy living aboard, apart from enjoying the sport and exhilaration of sailing, – for we’re not talking about spending the odd weekend in an anchorage a half-day’s sail from your home port. Cruising is a way of life, and every yachtsman tailors it to his or her own requirements.

Laranda is – and has been – our comfortable home for about 5 months every year. She’s old-fashioned – all mahogany and pine below – no veneers, Formica or plastic – and because of, rather than despite the many knocks and bumps of the passing years, her saloon is easy-going and welcoming. There’s no ‘fridge, no gimballed cooker, no shower, no washing machine, no solar panels and no wind generator, – and we’ve never needed them.

It seems to me that lumbering ourselves with possessions is one of the basic mistakes of modern civilization; but yachtsmen must be a good bet for the luxury consumer market, for we’re continually bombarded with advertising for new gadgets – and that means that they must sell well. I know it’s unfashionable to extol the virtues of a simple life, but on a yacht – and especially on a small cruising yacht – too many gadgets that are intended to make life easier can end up making it more more complicated; – and worse – taking up too much space. How do I know, if I haven’t got them myself? Because so many of my friends have told me so, and have set about clearing them out of their boats. Never mind that I’ve never felt the need for them.

I’m not a stickler for tradition’s sake, and I’m the first one to look for a good hot shower when we get ashore, but I know that fitting a shower in Laranda is impractical, and it simply isn’t necessary. When we’re at sea I fill an used litre-capacity plastic water bottle with water, pierce its top with the points of my divider, and go on deck for a shower. That works perfectly well. Give it a go: you’ll probably not even need to use that little amount of water.

We don’t need a wind generator or solar panels because we don’t use much electricity. (No, I can’t serve ice with your drink, and there’s not chance of an ice-cold ‘tinny’. We don’t take up storage space with a cantankerous outboard – we haven’t got one, so we don’t have to carry petrol aboard. I don’t have a sat-nav – I’m happy to do the maths. I bought a hand-held VHF, but found I didn’t use it. On the other hand I have two RDFs on board, and have found them useful. I have an electronic calculator to work out my sights, and I also carry two books of nautical tables – just in case. (I’ve never really taken to Sight Reduction Tables), We don’t have an echo-sounder because my lead-line serves that purpose and also doubles as my anchor watch. (More of that later.) It all boils down to thinking that many yachtsmen are talked into buying too much stuff they could easily do without; stuff that doesn’t always ‘make life easier’, – especially when it goes wrong.

From the navigational point of view, relying on electrical instruments, (not necessarily doing without them), and not being able to fall back on basic navigational knowledge and skill – is plain stupidity; but I’m no longer surprised to find yachts that don’t include a sextant in their inventory. We were in Frikis – on the Greek Ionian island of Ithaca – when I got into conversation with an English yachtsman who was having trouble with his radio and compact disk player…

“Damned electrics” he complained as he sat in his cockpit with wires and bits-and-pieces of the machine draped across his knees -”there’s nowhere here to repair the wretched thing, and I’m afraid I don’t really know what I’m doing. Look at it; – it might just as well be a load of knitting!”

“At least you can fall back on your sextant if your sat-nav gives up the ghost” I commiserated.

“Oh, I don’t have to worry about that, old boy” – he replied – “I’ve got two sat-navs and radar on board. Never used a sextant in m’life,”

With astro-navigation – as with any other skill – one has to keep one’s hand in: maybe I’m a bit odd, but I enjoy it. Apparently, and to my amazement at the time, my English neighbour had never bothered with the skill in the first place, and that begs the question: what would happen if a storm knocked out all his electrics? And a lightning strike would do the same…

But… back to my lead-line and anchor-watch. One of my bugbears of lying at anchor in a strange area is worrying about the holding ground, and whether Laranda might drag or lift her anchor. Two years ago, I used a lead-line to check the depth in Bodrum harbour in Turkey, and anchored astern a modern Belgian yacht of about Laranda’s size. A few minutes later, her owner rowed over to introduce himself. His name was Arthur van den Steen and he invited us back aboard his yacht – Blue Moon – for a mea; with him, his wife, and daughter. Before leaving to row back to Laranda he said:

“I noticed you using a lead-line when you came in. Do you also use it for an anchor-watch?”

“No” I answered, wondering what he meant.

“You should – it’s easy – let me show you.”

Arthur’s anchor watch was one of the best tips I’ve had, and I’ve made use of it ever since. I drop the lead-line from the for’ard deck, and once it’s touched bottom I decide how far I’ll let Laranda move from her position before warning me that she may be dragging. Let’s say I opt for 20 feet. So, once the lead has touched bottom, I payout another 20 feet of line; then I secure the line – at that length – to a convenient cleat, and pass it behind something – a fork, for example – that will prop my for’ard hatch cover. As soon as the boat moves more than 20 feet the line pulls out the prop, and the hatch slams closed and warns me of what’s going on. How far you’re prepared to let you boat move or swing is entirely up to you, and your decision has to take into account the proximity of other boats in the anchorage. Of course the anchor-watch will also warn you of a shift of wind, but I always prefer to know about that in any case. Arthur’s anchor-watch is simple, easy to use, never lets you down, and doesn’t rely on any electrical wizardry. It’s as handy on a modern yacht as it is on an old-timer, and you can curl up in your bunk, safe in the knowledge that the boat will wake you if she needs you. Use anything of appropriate height for the prop, but don’t forget to secure it to something to save it going overboard.

Some of us can afford to own and maintain large and expensive yachts, and others make considerable sacrifices to own any sort of craft. Most of us have to decide where our priorities lie, and organise our lives accordingly. We live in an affluent society and take our luxuries as a matter of course, but many of the countries we visit are not as affluent as ours – far from it – and even if we’re cruising on a shoe-string, that shoe-string is only relative; the local people in those poorer countries look upon us – with our yachts – as ‘rich men’. Yachtsmen and women – even more than the usual tourists – are made welcome because of the money they bring to those countries; it’s as simple as that. We all make valued and often long-lasting friendships along the way – but that’s not my point.

Occasionally one hears complaints of an incident resulting from blatant resentment of the fact that you have ‘all that money’ – but not often, and then there may be good reason for it. Some yacht owners ask for trouble – and get it; prejudice, bigotry, and ‘class-consciousness’ – hand-in-hand with nauseating condescension – still emanate from certain echelons of the yachting fraternity, and serve to give us all a bad name… and then there are the unfortunate cases of dishonesty on the part of yacht owners themselves. They make matters even worse.

A few years ago I introduced some people to a yard in Malta; their 65 foot steel yacht had been damaged in collision in Alexandria harbour, and their insurance company was footing the bill. Those repairs – and some extra work – took the best part of a year, and that extra work was to be settled from their own pocket. The owner of the yard was a friend of mine, and because I had introduced the business to him, and on the strength of our friendship, he knocked a good percentage off their bill. Those guys paid with a cheque on the day the left, but they must have stopped payment even before they handed it over. My friend – the owner of the yard – rang me as soon as he had word from his bank, but he didn’t blame me for the incident. And the guys with the big steel yacht? Gone – they’d scarpered: left Maltese waters immediately. Yes, I was embarrassed, and I learnt a timely lesson from the experience.

Sitting writing about that reminded me of something I’d read – years ago – in William Howell’s book White Cliffs to Coral Reefs – and I’ve just found it…

Chapter Eight – Looking back on the voyage.

“….Let us face the facts. Sailing is an expensive business. Wanderer II was only twenty feet on the waterline and she cost almost £1,000. She was really too small for the job, and by small I mean uncomfortable. Extra gear and sails cost me £250. Expenses for two years were a further £500. In short, a cruise like Wanderer Iis will cost you £2000. If you haven’t that sort of money, don’t go.

“One of the bad things that that I have to say about my voyage in Wanderer II is the suspicion with which I was treated in places as far apart as Barbados and Vancouver. I found yachtsmen in small ocean-cruisers are sometimes regarded as ‘spongers’. Too many people are sailing into ports these days – with no money whatsoever – and expecting that they will be given something for nothing. In fact, there are boat yards along the eastern seaboard of the United States where, if you are flying the Red Ensign, you will be asked to show the colour of your money before any facilities are available. So be fair to yourself, your fellow yachtsmen, and your hosts in the countries which you expect to visit: don’t go ocean-cruising unless your finances can stand the strain….” Wm Howell.

I’ll risk being accused of getting on my soap box and teaching how to suck eggs, because I still think it’s worth quoting the old clichés: “It’s how you treat other people that will influence how they’ll treat you”. Come to think of it, there’s a book that puts it rather better: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And just as important – ‘ it ain’t wot you say, but the way wot you say it’. (I wish I had the knack of getting it right more often than I do.)

Laranda makes many friends. If we’re anchored off, people row out from the shore and pop over from nearby boats to look around; if we’re at a quay we find that landlubbers are just as interested as fisherman and yachtsmen; – they want to chat and ask about her history. Mediterranean sailors always take in interest in her design and construction – she’s what they think a yacht should be – and I could have sold her a dozen times during her last cruise in the Eastern Mediterranean. Of course I’m proud of her, and tickled pink when someone admires her, but I’m more pleased for her than I am for myself.

Short of some unforeseen disaster, she’ll be around when I’m dead and gone. Hillyard should be more proud still, for it is he who knew what she would be about, and it was he who breathed life into her timbers and gave her style and character.

David Hillyard knew what he was about.

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Laranda departing Astypalaia – Aegean Sea 1989

Copyright Rob Weatherburn © 2016