Five hours in as the sun rose, the swell slopped side to side, swinging and dropping Joker with a greasy slosh. The waves reflected the dawn, and as they became visible I found it hard to keep my eyes on the horizon. Hypnotically beautiful ever-blossoming hillsides, huge blue fists of power, glittering with infinite jewelled detail. The longer I watched them, the worse I felt. John and Sam’s cigarette smoke seeped into my nose and somehow blended with the waves in my head. I felt increasingly sleepy and held onto the guardrail with one numb hand. Trying to concentrate. On the horizon.
When the engine first overheated, Sam got out of the cabin and checked the water filter. It was no longer full of water. Must have fallen out like last time. I filled cups of water and passed him the grip tool to open the filter while John steered. It ran again for a while.
We had some wind, but it wasn’t giving us quite enough speed to make our desired landing time. When the alarm went yet again, we let it cool for a while and sailed.
My haziness cleared and crowded in again almost rhythmically. At a moment of clear windy elation when I felt on top of the world, I caught a whiff of smoke and suddenly turned and puked over the side. I felt instantly better. And nobody saw.
We tried the engine again, and it seemed fine. But as the boat heeled over more, Sam kept checking the filter. Sometimes it was pumping just fine, and other times it emptied out and had to be refilled.
Soon it was my turn to helm again. For the first 40 minutes it was the best place for me- looking straight ahead, flicking my gaze back to the GPS. Gradually my arms got tired from the constant hauling and I went off course more often. That meant looking at the onboard instruments more to get the angle right, which sent my inner ear spiralling into queasy wallow.
We had seasickness tablets and some freaky goggles allegedly recommended by the French Navy. But they were inside. If I tried to rummage through the oscillating cupboards I’d really get ill. The same went for getting the camera equipment out. My mental state focused down to holding onto my guts and the tiller at the same time. The possibility of speaking and moving, even moving my eyeballs too fast, receded like the clashing waves.
John and Sam would have helped if I’d asked. But they were increasingly busy dealing with the engine’s many issues. The overheating became more frequent. Sam checked the filter, inspected the impeller, refilled and refilled the system with water- only to find it had emptied out ten minutes later. We couldn’t keep running the engine in that condition- it could get seriously damaged.
I was puking more often, shuddering and twitching afterwards. John took over the tiller and recommended that I sit with my eyes closed. It worked- I didn’t mind the motion by itself. But after 20 minutes, every time I opened my eyes I felt worse. I was clutter, and the deck is not that big. I went below and lay on the bed.
Sometimes it occurred to me that at least I should turn on a GoPro and record my misery. Or Sam’s, as he tried one thing after another to fix the engine. Or John’s, as he worried over our pace and the chance of missing the tide on our way into Cherbourg without a working engine. I’d grope across the cabin, occasionally finding an audio recorder or GoPro. I’d open my eyes and sit up. Instantly I’d have to drop it and belt for the heads, at one point skidding over and cracking my shoulder. After hours of this, most of the batteries were dead and I was losing my will to open my eyes at all. Every hour or so they would fly open of their own accord and I’d haul myself upright for more racking heaves.
In the early afternoon, we sighted France. Just at the same moment, three tiny dolphins arced through the water next to us- then ahead, underneath, back to the side. John lit up as if they were dear friends he hadn’t seen for years. I felt the same but could only totter to the hatch for a minute.
The next time we restarted the engine, the key produced a dull click. Sam, at the end of his tether, was convinced the overheating had finally burned something out. John said it was probably the solenoid and started bodging copper wires into the starter. Nothing worked.
After a very tense few minutes, John remembered that our battery was new, and cracked open the cabinet. The rocking had dislodged one of the terminals.
As it got dark, the wind and waves calmed. I was able to stand, drink water, even helm a bit. The engine problems continued, even as the lights of Cherbourg got closer. Seven miles out, our sailing pace was far too slow. Sam finally gave up on the main engine and started the auxiliary outboard, fed from a large petrol tank. Shortly after we picked up speed, it died. The line from the tank wasn’t pumping properly.
John was losing patience. He went below to check the Almanac for rescue services- warning us it would probably cost £500 to get a tow. We were both crushed, but Sam made a final valiant effort. He persuaded John to help him decant petrol from the tank into a 5l bottle, and from there into the engine. They both got covered in it, which at least put paid to the smoking for a bit.
On that engine we motored the 5 miles into Cherbourg- stopping to decant and refill it. As we approached the harbour entrance, Sam was worrying over whether to refill once more.
“We don’t want to be stuck 10 feet from the pontoon”.
In the end, that’s exactly what happened. At 9.30 pm, 5 1/2 hours after we’d planned, we arrived in the marina. We’d been crossing the Channel for 19 hours. The engine choked and died as I teetered on the prow with a line gathered in my hands. We all stood quietly as Joker drifted, inch by inch, to a very gentle landfall.
Bonsoir, Cherbourg. Et Bonne Nuit.
On Monday 10th Dec I got up at my parents’ house for the last time. I made coffee and packed all the clean clothes hanging in their laundry room, while Sam worked on his laptop. Mum gave me a lift to Portsmouth Harbour, where I took the Gosport Ferry for the last time and lugged the bags to Royal Clarence Marina. On arrival I collected the new boat battery from the marina office, installed it and set it charging while I changed the stern light and cleaned the boat top to bottom.
Sam arrived at about 2pm, dropped off his things and left to buy boat bits and a current almanac from the Swindlery (Chandlery- a specialist boat equipment shop with essential boat items at absurdly inflated prices).
By 6pm Joker was in fine fettle, gleaming and neat inside. On the outside, her lines were flaked and stowed, engines fuelled, oil checked, the new flag I’d sewed for the Dan buoy fluttering from its pole.
I made a final trip to Morrisons for food supplies, nervously overstocking just in case we ended up at sea longer than we expected. On my return I cooked and we slept at about 9.30. John the skipper was due to arrive at midnight, and we planned to set sail at around 2.30am.
Just before midnight I was having an odd dream in which my friend G-Bob lectured me on the importance of healthy eating and a good night’s sleep. Suddenly Joker lurched and the hatch squeaked open. John had arrived.
It was minus 3 degrees outside, and the pontoons were slick with ice. Over the next two hours we made a huge thermos of coffee, filled and stashed hot water bottles around the cabin and dressed for the voyage.
Not my most svelte look. I resembled the Michelin Man with a bobble on top.
At around 2.30am we untied Joker and set forth into the night once more. Like last time it was dry and clear, though the moon was a tiny sliver in the sky. A ‘Hunter’s Moon’- which was the name of the yacht my parents shared with two other families when we were kids. One of my early boat memories is playing at scrubbing her down as a tiny child, while my parents did the real work- and eating boiled eggs with my friends Sarah and Polly on day trips to Hayling Island when I was six.
For the first two hours I did a lot of helming, keeping us on course with the help of the GPS and floating compass. After that John suggested I take 2 hours rest and come back on standby duty, and that the three of us rotate shifts that way and try to keep warm in between. My two hours of dreamlike dark and strange thoughts weren’t what I’d call sleep, but I was pretty comfortable- even when the wind picked up and started slewing Joker around. I loved hearing the water rush around the hull and knowing I was lying on my own bed- safe, but not safe.
But by the time I was due back on, the waves were sloshing us around in a circular slopping motion. Staying on course meant regularly having to yank the tiller hard.
I decided I’d be better off on deck with John than ‘on standby’ in the cabin. I’ve been seasick before and keeping my eyes on the horizon is always the best way to fend it off. It was cold, but also quite lovely. The dawn was gradually seeping in to the East as we finally passed the last of the Isle of Wight.
Sam sat below- not having much luck with sleeping. And about 30 minutes in, the dreaded sound of the overheat alarm put paid to his rest once and for all.
We’d consulted Steve the engineer about the surprise overheating problem when we got back to Gosport after the first failed attempt. After describing the checks on the pipework and seals we had undertaken, He said he thought it must be a fluke. That the water had run out of the cooling system when Joker heeled over, and an airlock had formed when we restarted and it tried to pump more water in. This was pretty demoralising in a way as it meant we could have carried on last time if we’d tried refilling the water filter by hand. But in another sense it was encouraging- meaning our engine wasn’t possessed by an evil spirit.
We had tried to recreate the problem in harbour but the engine ran fine on the pontoon or in harbour & the weather was too extreme to head out for the waves in the intervening time, so we were really down to crossed fingers.
Now we were about to experience a real series of challenges…
Our long-awaited crossing to France began beautifully. We set off at about 10.30 with our hired skipper John. He was a friendly but quiet and understated RYA teacher and professional skipper, who grew up in Brentford, sailing with his father and uncle. He came recommended by Des Purcell, who was going to do it originally. After going over the boat and the passage plan and eating dinner, we all had an hour’s snooze, then got up and pulled quietly away from the pontoon that had been our home for the past month. We expected not to set foot on England’s shores again for at least a year.
As we came out of Portsmouth harbour the cross currents pushed us from side to side and made inky-blue swirls with deep ripples and eerie smooth patches in the moonlight. The wind was right behind us.
After motoring clear of the harbour we raised Joker’s gleaming white sail and heeled over smoothly. Soon we were sailing with the moon ahead and to port, getting around 6 knots- nearly top speed for Joker. We turned the engine off and flowed with the splashing and sighing all around us and the stars sharp above. I was helming. Standing braced against the side and feeling like the goddess Artemis. It was all silver, black, white and icy, but with all my layers on, not too cold. I hadn’t dared hope the conditions would be so perfect for our crossing.
Then a low battery beep went off inside on our carbon monoxide alarm, and Sam went in and checked it. The battery for the boat electronics was getting low and we were relying on it for our GPS and radio. It was a surprise as we’d had both batteries tested the previous week and they seemed fine.
We started the engine to charge it, at fairly low revs. It overheated within a couple of minutes. It’s been about 4 weeks since we heard that screeching alarm.
John the skipper asked us about it and we told him about the previous overheating problems and how we fixed them. He decided we had to turn back, and Sam agreed. We sailed back into the wind which was much colder and bumpier, and came most of the way to Portsmouth on long slow tacks. Then we had to fight the tide to get in. Faced with the prospect of tacking back and forth in the bitter cold for the next 3 hours until the tide turned, we risked turning the engine on.
It started with no problem and behaved perfectly and got us back to Royal Clarence with ease. Which, though very lucky under the circumstances, almost made it worse.
We arrived back at the same berth at about 5.30am. John left almost immediately. He was pissed off as well. He said if the weather was going to hold he’d stay and try again. But that beautiful calm moonlit window is shut today and for the next few days- the wind is coming up again.
We’re sat in the boat now, essentially still in bed. Sam just went out in the bitter cold to get some DVDs, curry and booze from Gosport. But everything was shut. We are writing off today as a dead loss. Tomorrow we’ll track down Steve the engineer and get him to help us take the exhaust off the engine. That’s the last thing we can do to try and fix this problem before actually getting the whole engine lifted out.
Today is not a good day. We both feel numb from the let-down and physically exhausted. But until the alarm went off, last night was utterly amazing. And even the trip back had its moments.
I’m a novice sailor, and the fact that we hired a skipper to take us across the Channel means we were willing to abide by and respect his decision-making. It was very very cold out there, not somewhere you’d want to be for any longer than necessary- so any of our kit malfunctioning could have been dangerous. The chance that our engine may not have been reliable enough to get us in against the tide at Cherbourg was no doubt not worth taking. But I can’t help reflecting that we’d never have switched it on until we got to France if we weren’t relying on generating electric power for our radio and GPS in the first place. When we get to the Med and things warm up, I’m very keen to practice navigation without electronic gizmos and staying out long enough to catch the tide instead of motoring against it. The feeling of dependence on the engine and GPS was very strong last night. But people have been sailing for millenia without them. In the long term I’m keen to take a leaf out of Roger Taylor‘s book (all of which are well worth a read.)
(These pics- the nice ones- are courtesy of Judith Smyth, my mum- from a sail we took with them the other day. FYI, we did record much of these shenanigans and there will be footage and pics forthcoming a some stage. But today I just cannot be arsed. I hope you understand.)
We’re ready for the Channel crossing. Since moving onto Joker and out of my parents’ house we’ve shed a further chunk of inessential stuff, installed a new radio, a new radar reflector, our wind powered self-steering, dried out and scrubbed down the hull, dried out and had a survey done, then dried out and replaced a corroded skin fitting the surveyor found.
The drying out process has been quite tense every time, as we didn’t want to pay the £200 or so for a lift-out so we spent £45 a time to use the concrete square by the main pontoon at Wicor Marine, which empties at low tide.
While Lexia had a bilge keel that could settle on the ground, Joker has a single lifting keel and detachable beaching legs- two scaff poles with square bases that suspend from metal rings at the sides. The manuals we received had two different heights for the keel to balance with the legs, and both have been wrong. Once the keel touches down and you realise you’re off balance, you can’t wind it up because it’s bearing weight.
So each time we’ve dried out we’ve had to lash Joker to the pontoon with all the lines and fenders we have, attach the halyard (sail-hoisting) line and make sure she is leaning onto the pontoon side instead of outwards. Even with the keel and pontoon taking lots of weight, it puts a lot of pressure on just one metal loop embedded in the deck’s fibreglass. We step very very carefully around onboard and underneath, and can’t relax until the tide comes back in.
We’ve taken Joker out in the harbour a lot and got familiar with our routines for setting off and coming in. We’ve been watching the weather and getting nervous about the shortening days and worsening cold, wind and waves.
With all this and our sailing inexperience in mind, Sam decided we needed some help on the crossing. It’s a journey of about 12-15 hours, and if we want to do most of it in the light, we will need to set off at about 3am. Even then it’ll be getting dark when we arrive, tired, at a new harbour. Getting in somewhere is always the most stressful bit of a sail for us. (Here I touch wood, as this is only true in the case of an uneventful sail where mega-waves, breakages, hidden rocks and inescapable currents don’t intervene).
I pushed a bit for going it alone. I feel like this adventure has been pretty tame so far, despite the crash course in marriage and the many things I’m learning about boats. But Sam is the skipper and the journey would be a nightmare if we were tense and exhausted the whole time. It’s also possible that my role as the ‘storyteller’ of the trip and accompanying desire for drama and excitement gets in the way of my eye for safety. So we found a skipper and RYA teacher who agreed to help us over the Channel and paid him a deposit. Des also said that if all goes well he could give me my RYA Competent Crew certification on the way over.
Unfortunately the weather has been bad for both the initial windows he had in his schedule. The day before yesterday we thought we’d be going on Friday and got VERY excited. Then Des emailed us and said he couldn’t do it. The next window is looking like 2-3 December, and even then we’re at the mercy of the weather. So pray to the sea gods for some clear days around then, people.
In the meantime we’re paying around £200/month at the well equipped Royal Clarence Marina in Gosport. If we had housing to pay for as well, that would seem like a lot. As it is our house, it’s cheaper than living almost anywhere in the UK. But we’re SO ready to go.
Calling on Poseidon, Amphitrite, Aeolus, Triton and the Nereides. Sirens, Harpies and Gorgons, stay away!
In the morning we sheepishly phoned the marina office for a lift to shore.
The next few days were all about finding an engineer to look over the engine and tell us if it was worth keeping. Russ had thrown a spare engine in with the price of Joker, which was great- but it was the same deal there- an unknown quantity, and it would have cost hundreds at least to lift it in and try it. Much better to keep it for spares.
My parents’ friends Lynne and David have a boat at Gosport and spoke very highly of their engineer, Steve. Trusted personal recommendation is always good, as anything to do with boats can be insanely expensive. You might as well shell out for someone honest and competent.
We set off to Royal Clarence Marina in Gosport. Just as a test we got her up to top revs, but the overheat alarm went off, so we crept along for the rest of the journey. Steve met us on the pontoon, a friendly grey-haired man who seems to live in his overalls.
It took him ten minutes of listening, feeling and tapping to tell us our engine was definitely worth keeping. He then told us four easy things we should try for starters: Cleaning the water filter, changing the impeller, changing the oil and running Mortar acid through the engine instead of RydLyme. I took notes on how to do it all. Steve then helped us get booked in at the marina, and said he’d be on call if we needed anything. Later that day he drove Sam out to buy the acid. For all this he charged us £20. Gent.
The spare impeller was in Joker’s well-organized lockers already, as were Russ’ tools and a full bottle of fresh engine oil. We embarked on an afternoon of unscrewing gnarled old engine bits, pumping out gross black oil and pumping in the fresh golden stuff. Sam replaced the impeller but on reassembling it all, the gasket wasn’t working and water squirted out of the screws. We tried tightening it in different way a few times, but by that point we were hungry and Sam was getting despondent. I legged it to the shops to get some food.
When I returned, Sam was beaming.
“I cut up the cardboard from a houmous tub and made a new gasket!”
This is the kind of DIY that makes him the happiest. It worked really well too.
I got involved, and started getting to know the engine. This is the first engine I’ve ever really met. They’re clever aren’t they? Apart from the planet death and that.
After a couple of runs of acid, plenty of gak was coming out of the seawater cooling system. We slept another night with it fizzing away in there.
Joker is a lovely home, and luxurious compared to the tiny bare bones arrangements in Lexia. There are cupboards and lockers all over the place to we can compartmentalize and tidy away. We’re never surrounded by mind-tangling piles of objects. There’s a gas stove we can stand in front of, so we don’t need to hunch over our meths burners hoping they don’t fall over and spill liquid fire through the cabin. The interior is lovely mellow wood instead of bare white fibreglass. By far the biggest improvement is the space. I’ve realized through living on Lexia that I don’t need a big living space. But for comfort and sanity, I do need to be able to extend my arm and not hit anybody else in the face. And I do need to be able to stand up to put my trousers on.
And having a flushing sea-toilet is BRILLIANT. You can sit down, your head doesn’t hit the ceiling, your feet can rest on the floor, you hand-pump seawater up into the bowl and pump it all out again so it stays clean. There’s fresh running water foot-pumped from the water tank to wash with, and you don’t have to emerge sheepishly through the sleeping/cooking area with a bucket of piss and slosh it out over the side.
These are my new definitions of luxury, and Joker fulfills them all. It’s also nice to have new definitions of luxury. We’ve learned something about our needs.
The next morning we went out in the harbor and ran the engine hard. For 30 minutes. No overheating. Sam kept checking with a spot thermometer Steve lent us. It was a little high but never over the limit.
Once we realized we’d fixed it ourselves, I wanted to do donuts. Sadly, Sam’s more sensible approach to boating prevailed. But we celebrated that evening.
Research, self-education and perseverance. Those have to be survival skills.
Sam is not one to give up easily and hand over the reins to a paid professional. It’s one of the things I admire about him; he learns from every experience. The Googling and forum-consulting resumed with a vengeance on our glum return from the broken engine. First of all we needed a tool to remove the broken screw. Despite dire warnings that we could further damage the thread, we bought a device for a few quid and returned to Joker the next day. (Sam’s note: Don’t buy the screw in ‘easy out’ but rather the square one that you bash in.)
Russ was deep into moving boats about, as Ashlett Sailing Club geared up for lift-out- when most boat owners get their boats out of the water for winter. Russ pushed us some more on how we were going to get her off the moorings, and joined the chorus of pessimism on our ability to fix it.
I offered to help Sam get the thread out- I’ve got those spindly fingers after all- but he refused. I was vindicated when 15 minutes later he emerged with a huge grin and brandished the remains. Turned out I’d been turning the damn screw the right way after all! It was just old.
Once we’d replaced it we poured in the RydLyme, ran the engine for a minute to fill the cooling system, and returned to Mum and Dad’s with all our fingers and toes crossed.
The next day Sam went back and ran the engine for 20 minutes, tethered to the pontoon. To his delight, no overheating. We packed that evening for our first night on Joker, planning to head for our new moorings up the Portsmouth estuary, towards Fareham.
It was clear from our first cosy night on board that we’d made a major upgrade. I could bang on about the comparative sanity and comfort of Joker’s interior at length, but that’s for another post. This one is all about struggle. Yeah.
The following morning Sam was buzzing all over in a state of nervous tension- checking tides, GPS devices and getting me to turn the engine on and off repeatedly. I was excited about our first inter-city journey on Joker, but it was only a hop down from Southampton.
“It might be fun love, you never know. It’s a gorgeous day. People do sometimes sail for pleasure.”
His response was a tight smile before he jackrabbited off to the prow to check the halyard again. Within minutes of setting off I was at the helm, in seventh heaven. I love the ‘present-ness’ and the relaxed but ready focus that is forced upon you when sailing. All was bright light, big sky and sparkling water. Oh, and about six different yacht races right across our path. We probably should have gone round the edge but I enjoyed the challenge of getting through while keeping out of their way and managed it very smoothly. Even Sam’s nerves couldn’t resist the beauty of the day and Joker’s sleek movement. But we couldn’t glide forever.
The tides into Portsmouth are really tough as the currents around the Isle of Wight cause a lot of criss-crossing. There’s also a lot of huge traffic at the entrance to the harbor so small boats have to lower their sails and go through a tiny channel at the edge. As we entered the tide tried to sweep us first to the West and then as we got further in, it was straight against us. Shouldn’t be a problem, at full throttle. We revved the engine and started making headway, though it felt like an inch at a time. The rickety wooden rollercoaster of Clarence Pier loomed, almost static to starboard.
Suddenly, the overheat alarm howled.
We eased down the engine but it kept going.
I shouted to Sam “Let’s go back out and sail some more, we can come in when the tide turns”.
“We can’t. We have to get in now. It’ll be dark later.”
He leapt into the cabin as I held the tiller against the currents. A steady stream of yachts passed us with ease on both sides, pinning us in the middle. I could hear Sam on the radio.
“We’ve got engine trouble, can we get some help?”
We were advised to get out of the main channel and wait. We still had to keep the engine running to stay in one place.
Ever the documenter, I glanced at the GoPro strapped to the transom. Maybe we could at least get some footage out of this.
The battery had died.
Two men in a dinghy with a 60 horsepower outboard reared up towards us, and Sam threw them a line. The noise was immense and it got tougher to hold the helm straight. The rescue guys were shouting and gesturing at me to cut the engine, but the boom was lashing back and forth and Sam was still up at the prow. I leapt into the cabin, cut the engine, leapt back out and started grabbing at the boom. Sam was still sat at the prow, yelling
“Get up and STEER! STEER!!”
So I did. As the dinghy towed us into slack water I felt crushed and angry. I’d been left in the cockpit with everything to do and no help, just panic, yelling and blame.
“You’re a shit Captain, Sam.”
“Sorry. I know. I’ll work on it.”
In sullen silence, we made it on low revs to our new moorings. Past patchy grey battleships and a constellation of white yachts. Past the landmarks of my hometown, transformed to a fairytale skyline by the view from the water. Our spirits gradually calmed and lifted.
Our new moorings were windswept pontoons strung across the estuary, inaccessible to the shore except by dinghy. Sam had a rummage for our dinghy oars. We hadn’t packed them.
We ate some bread and sardines from the cupboard and went to bed.
On leaving London we moved into my parents house in Southsea, Portsmouth- half an hours drive from Joker’s moorings. We liked Joker and had put down a deposit but still weren’t sure if we were going to buy. But, having sold our home for the second time this year, we had to go somewhere. And home is where they have to take you in.
My parents are as ever immensely helpful and generous. Dad is retired and Mum’s time is flexible since she stopped commuting so they’ve been able to take part in our adventure more than expected. Taking a day to help us through the 29 locks at Devizes was brilliant. Mum making two trips from Portsmouth to London and back with everything that we had on Lexia was far beyond the call of duty. But we really want to get sorted and get on with our adventure. Otherwise it’ll be ‘How to Survive the Future? – Move back in with your parents!’ (Not inconceivable as a decent future strategy, but more on that in a later post…)
When we arrived we went straight to Ashlett Sailing Club for our first outing. The owner Russ was there, a tanned 86 year old Cornishman who lives 10 minutes from the club, and manages the moorings. Russ is not up to skippering these days, but his friend Chris offered to take us out. Chris is an influential club member, and his passion for junk rigs shows in unusual numbers of them at ASC. He was warm, friendly and commanding- the sort of overwhelmingly competent person who makes me nervous to touch anything on the boat for fear of revealing my ignorance. But that’s my problem.
Joker is an Etap 26, a boat made with an ‘unsinkable’ hull. (We never tempt fate by typing or saying this without quote marks). While the Etap can get a hole in it and leak, its double hull with foam filling has enough buoyancy that even full of water it can still float and sail.
It’s caught the attention of 2012 Doom Prophet Patrick Geryl and friends, who have picked it out as the best possible place in which to survive the apocalypse. They’ve created this video from the old Etap marketing material, and Etap are hosting it on their site. So, perfect then! As far as we can make out, Joker is the only junk rigged Etap in existence.
Chris was a big fan of Joker and talked her up as we set out into the harbor. And boy, was he right. On top of the cosy wood paneled living quarters, her light, elegant cream sail glides up and down the mast like butter and catches the wind beautifully. Her hull responds so elegantly to the wind and waves that I felt exhilarated and safe at the same time.
But the engine? Argh. Having heard there were problems with overheating at high revs, we insisted on running it hard. After 5 minutes at top speed, the overheat alarm was howling like nails down a blackboard.
For the rest of the trip, I could see Sam trying not to enjoy it too much- staying cautious and holding back. I was already head over heels and ready to throw chunks of capital from our house sale at this gorgeous boat until she was good to go. Sam is often more sensible than me.
Back in Portsmouth, he started calling engineers. The first one sucked his teeth and said the engine was discontinued after 2 years in production, the parts were impossible to get, and it was likely the engine block was irretrievably clogged with sediment from its seawater cooling system. Ouch. Over the next week Sam threw himself into in-depth Googling and sailing forums, and started seeing some light.
We decided to try running RydLyme, a sediment-loosening acid, through the engine, and if that didn’t work we’d reconsider buying Joker. A replacement engine, including lift-out and work costs, would come to about £5k. We couldn’t justify that, and started looking at other boats. But none of them measured up.
Next time at Ashlett, Sam got down in the engine hatch to try and open the tube to pour in the acid. I took an interest at first, then retreated to the comfy seats to read. After 15 minutes of strenuous upside-down grunting, Sam asked me to try.
“You’ve got skinny wrists and little fingers”.
Pleased to be involved, I slipped my hands round the engine block and got the spanner in position. I started the awkward process of unscrewing a weathered piece of brass I couldn’t see. Sam hovered anxiously, asking if it was hard to turn and if I was sure it was the right direction. I was pretty sure. It was getting looser. We joked that I would be the mechanic from now on. I felt good. Learning stuff. Doing stuff. Competent.
Suddenly, the bolt fell off. Sam rummaged for it and brought up a sheared-off stub of brass thread. The stub was warped and wedged into the pipe, impossible to get out with our tools and hard to reach.
“You must have turned it the wrong way.”
“Have I broken the engine?”
“Oh. Shit. Sorry.”
We reeled for a bit. I felt useless and cursed my dumb spindly hands and mechanical idiocy.
Out of a dull silence, Sam said “Well, we probably have to buy it now don’t we?”
Just then, Russ appeared.
It was hardly the jubilant transfer of ownership any of us had hoped for. Russ was sorry for us.
“This… it’s not how it should be, is it my boy?”
He knocked £300 off the asking price there and then. Sam and I shook on it gratefully, anticipating a long list of engineer’s bills.
On the journey back we swung between the excitement of committing to a beautiful boat, and the frustration of having to pay someone thousands to fix our problems for us. Even if we could get the brass thread out without damaging the pipe, there was still the overheating problem- and who knows what else?
Not, in any sense, ‘How to survive the future’. More like ‘How to make stupid mistakes and squander your resources’.
But maybe the interwebs could save us…
After two months as a trio, it was time to send Lexia out of our lives. But how?
Once we’d made the decision to switch boats we pootled more happily through our London times, gradually getting our legs under us again, shooting interviews and hooking up with friends. We started coming to terms with losing Lexia over the days, and getting cautiously excited about Joker- though we still hadn’t run the engine and had only paid a deposit. But as Sam heard nothing back from the ad on the sailing websites he became convinced we were going to have trouble selling Lexia. October is the time many sailors get their boats lifted out for the winter. That’s why Russ reduced Joker’s price- it’s tough to sell a boat on dry land. Being on a canal in London wouldn’t help with finding likely sailors. All the options we thought of for getting her anywhere fast, whether to sell or put back at her Bristol moorings cost at least a few hundred quid.
One morning along the towpath, Sam had noticed an intriguing and ramshackle arrangement. Two boats joined together, the front one an open sailboat 10ft long or so called ‘Scoundrel’, full of useful looking scavenged bits of pole and rope. The one behind it was a 17ft cabin cruiser called ‘Beryl Burton’, sitting low in the water and built up from the deck with a patchwork of wood and tarp in the shape of a Wild West covered wagon. But the part that really caught Sam’s eye was the cycle-powered propeller mounted on the back.
Sam had looked into cycle power for Lexia as we planned our journey, and if we hadn’t been planning to sail her I think he’d have tried to rig one.
A couple of days after Lexia went on sale, Sam was passing as Beryl’s owner was leaving- a tall man with a dark topknot and far-out eyebrows called Rob. He was proud to show off the propeller but said she was sinking and he had to bail her every night. They got talking. As a fan of low impact travel, Rob had done a lot of research into sailing and was interested in junk rigs. He needed a boat that was dry and safe, and what with the extra 5ft of room, he was excited to meet Lexia. He looked her over, and offered us a “great classical guitar” as part payment. Sadly we don’t need one.
We offered her for £1500, the break-even price for what Sam spent on her including the original purchase, but not including the hours he spent working on her. Rob took it on the chin and left to consult his friend Jules who’d helped him design the propeller.
In the meantime, Jamie from the Apocalypse Gameshow dropped by to collect a DVD of our films so far, to project at the show. (It’s a hilarious and cathartic exploration of the spectrum of apocalyptic myths and scenarios, in which audience members compete to join the Gameshow’s post-apocalyptic Dream Team. Another post and video to follow on that.) Jamie has an incredible store of tales from his 14 years living in the area. Apparently a bridge we passed under along Hertford Union canal was where the first ever train murder victim was shoved off the train.
When we told Jamie our battery had gone flat and the problems it was causing he suggested we visit his friend Jules who’d be happy to charge it for us. Turned out to be the same Jules who designed Rob’s bike propeller.
We drank tea at Jules’ place, a thoroughly hacked co-op house with food growing on the valley roof and healthy, ripening grapevines descending to the back garden. A nest of workshop and storage spaces were stuffed with tools, stacks of broken bikes and waste wood. When Jules was ready to leave he jammed on a bowler hat, grabbed a bike and summoned his yellow dog Spike. Five minutes later we were back at Lexia. Our sleeping bag, spread out to air on the roof, had been drenched in a heavy cloudburst. Before we could feel crushed, Jules had it bundled in his bike basket and the heavy battery strapped on the back. “I’ll dry it off in my bathroom. I’ve converted it to a sauna”.
Feeling more chipper, we went to our friend Petra’s house to take up her offer of washing and drying our clothes. On our tipsy return at midnight, Rob called us to say our bedding was ready. We went back to Jules’ house and gathered it up from the hot bathroom, fitted with a wood burner. It was soft, toasty warm and faintly woodsmoked. We went to bed feeling very well looked after, and hoping that Rob could get together the money for Lexia.
A few days later it was a done deal. We spent the rest of the week planning the next phase and hanging out on Lexia and at friends houses. I shot an interview with Emily James about activism and optimism, organised another with Mark Stevenson about technology and optimism and tried to document the moving out process while also packing, lifting and moving out. Sam planned, schemed and researched. And we both did lots more lugging of course.
In the meantime, at least 3 other people expressed a serious interest in buying Lexia. One guy was going to take her sailing in the epic race The Jester Challenge, which gave us a vicarious thrill on Lexia’s behalf. But in the end, Rob really needed somewhere to live, the circumstances were too perfect and he was too nice a guy to disappoint.
On the day, Rob and Jules spent hours helping us pack and fill Mum’s car. Mum made 2 heroic trips to take our stuff back to my parents’ house in Portsmouth.
As we left Lexia moored and empty on the canal, Rob was dancing from foot to foot with excitement, waiting to move in.
Goodbye Lexia. Sorry it didn’t work out.
And thanks to all our dear friends and new friends who fed us, helped us and made us laugh on our unexpectedly long stay in London. Like most places, I think it’s better by water.
On Monday we went to Southampton to view a bigger boat. She’s beautiful. She feels like a real home, small but with everything you need. Russ, who sold her to us, is in his 80s and has a frozen shoulder. He was quite wistful about parting with her but just wasn’t taking her out anymore. He’d just come down for a cup of tea in the cabin and watch the other boats coming in and out.
Lexia is a lovely boat, she sails and moves beautifully. While it’s warm outside you couldn’t ask for a sweeter moonlit shelter. What she isn’t is a comfortable winter home for two tall people. Maybe for two very small, very intrepid people. A pair of ninja pixies. (And if you know any, direct them here: http://www.apolloduck.co.uk/display.phtml?aid=271866)
Doing this voyage with Joker (still not sure if we’re keeping the name- suggestions welcome!) will mean having a toilet (as opposed to a bucket), large water tank (as opposed to three 5l plastic bottles) and separate bathroom and kitchen sink areas. It will mean that one of us can get up and get stuff done while the other lies or sits in bed. It means we only have to get up and face the day after we’ve got clean and properly dressed. (No more half-asleep, half-dressed urgent wee missions encountering surprised joggers on the towpath. Result.) It means getting up or going to bed can be achieved without disrupting our entire living space. It will mean things get lost less easily as there can be separate cupboards for our clothes, camera kit, food, utensils. It will mean things get less dirty less quickly, and eating will be safer as the place where we cook won’t be next to where our feet climb down into the boat. In general, storage and work surfaces for objects that need to be clean will be further from the floor. It will mean having a much more powerful engine to keep us well out of the way of huge ships and get us out of danger more easily if we run into rough weather.
It’s basically a great idea. It was a good decision to shake on buying her, especially as we got a good price.
But can I get Sam to smile this morning?
He’s been working on Lexia on and off for 2 years, and for 6 months she has been his main focus outside of work. He’s painted, scrubbed, sanded, fibreglassed, learned grinding and welding, bid for depth sounders, GPS, radios, waterproof tubs of all sizes. And now, whether we get her towed back to Bristol or sell her- the preferred option- all that work has reached a dead end. He keeps thinking of new reasons to be sad. The hassle of moving and getting rid of her, the waste of effort, love and care. Most heartbreakingly,
“I could have spent all that time sailing her”.
In contrast, my focus during that time has been moving out of our house, working on video edits and developing this project. Although it’s not as fully formed or funded as I’d hoped at this point, the site and videos are still happening and are portable from one boat to the other. Sam tried hard to get me down to work on the boat with him all that time, but I was usually too busy. As our departure loomed I was more involved, and now she’s been my home for a month, but the relative levels of our emotional investment are clear from Sam’s face.
I know he’ll get over her. Once we’re living on Joker, the apparent self sufficiency of her setup will prove to be illusory and he’ll have plenty to fix up and scheme over. That’s the nature of boats. In the meantime though, I spent a few hours last night showing Lexia some love and making her a comfier home for this last stretch. It’ll be sad to see her go.
We don’t have much space. Lexia is a very tiny boat. Very tiny. The main cabin area functions as our kitchen, living space, work space and kit charging station, and our bedroom. When we want to go to bed we pull out a layer of mattress and sheet of ply to make a double. When we get up, it goes back in to make a single to sit on.
We can sit up in bed but not suddenly. If we want to get into the prow or even into our respective cupboards behind the bed/kitchen area we have to curl up into a ball and swing our legs round while simultaneously hunching our backs, then push our legs out straight(ish) and we’re in a relatively normal sitting position. If we do then want to get into the prow, which functions both as a shed and- if we are meticulous about tidying everything away- as a sort of padded foetal reading pod- we have to plunge headfirst into it, roll sideways onto our backs, pull our legs in after us and then extend them to the other wall and start having a relaxing read.
Though I’ve written this in the plural, only one person can do any of this at once. Once one of us- let’s call them the Exile- is in the pod, or more usually sitting outside in the cockpit, the other has the living area to themselves. The drawback of this privileged position is that they then become the Fetch-Monkey.
With access to all the food, utensils, tools, books and all other useful objects, the Fetch-Monkey has to seek, find and provide everything the Exile needs. If they fail to do so, the Exile gets to climb into the living space and rummage around, generally messing up whatever the failed Fetch-Monkey was doing and getting both our legs all tangled up.
Doing an immense amount of bending and stretching to perform the most basic tasks is doing wonders for our core muscles. On reflection though, I’m not sure that living in a miniscule space is particularly applicable to any of the future scenarios we’re trying to prepare for. I guess if we did have to ‘bug out’ in our boat or hide in a cave or under some floorboards together it would be good to have a head start on the psychological and practical aspects of tiny spaces.
It reminds me of a conversation I had with Heath Bunting about his travels in India. He said he saw a whole family living in a tiny shack right next to a busy motorway. Three generations, with small kids and a grandmother who dressed beautifully every day. If anybody toddled a few inches to the right or left of the shelter they’d be killed by the stream of fast traffic. But somehow they were living and raising a family there. Heath said he was appalled at first, and then impressed. He said it forced him to reconsider his knee jerk reaction of concern and pity and acknowledge a resourcefulness and adaptability in that family that he’d do well to aspire to. When I think of that story I feel quite crap for whining about a lack of personal space.
In terms of UK society though, our situation is often either amusing or appalling to others. A neighbour at our current East London moorings who lives in a widebeam houseboat asked me the other day- quite unprompted- whether we were ‘acclimatising for the apocalypse’. He was quite tickled when he realised he’d hit the nail on the head.
But the space issue is starting to feel like the main obstacle we are dealing with and almost the least relevant to the things we are trying to learn.
That’s why, before we head across the Channel, we’re going to check out a boat in Southampton. It should offer nearly double the living space, twice the engine power and an unsinkable hull. I feel a bit guilty about betraying Lexia as she’s been our home for a month now.