Sailing my life away, part 11



There were more than 3,000 comments on Part 10 of my story some 22 hours after it was posted and I think that is probably a number that’s fairly typical for those appearing under most GP articles whatever the subject. It is one of the site’s raison d’etres to provide a platform on which readers can express their opinions on any topic they choose.

The reason I liked the site myself, as a reader, was mainly because of the wide range and high quality of articles on subjects with which I was largely unfamiliar. When SB said he was running out of contributions I thought – I’ll have a go at producing some myself.

In practice, I have found writing these articles 25 years after the events described has been fun and rejuvenating. The shock of finding myself alone has faded over that time and I can now look back with satisfaction and pleasure at the new phase of my life that began when I decided to go sailing (ref Article 3 remarks on Jacques speech from “As You Like It”).

I have also felt especially rewarded by the many supportive comments from GP readers but I can’t possibly pick them all out from over 3,000 comments in less than 24 hours, amongst which I estimate about 99.5% are on matters unrelated to my article. So please forgive me if I miss folk within the 0.5% and don’t always respond to individual observations and questions.

Sometimes there is a common thread that runs through several comments and where I detect that I’ll try to write something general in response as I now do on:


Living on a yacht at sea for several days or weeks at a time is a very healthy lifestyle. One eats and drinks moderately because supplies are limited, though sometimes supplemented by line-caught fish like Tuna, Wahoo or Mahi Mahi. One gets plenty of fresh air and physical exercise. There aren’t a lot of deadly viruses or infections about above the ocean. One doesn’t usually become exhausted provided enough hours in any period of 24 are spent asleep or resting. If necessary it’s possible to keep operational for as long as 36 hours without a break. That’s about the limit because one’s efficiency falls off pretty rapidly towards the end and leaving the cabin or cockpit to go out on deck beyond that would be positively dangerous.

So, the main health risks are genetic, accident, over-indulgence from a career involving a fair amount of expense-account living and skin cancer from UV radiation.

Of course, when one makes landfall there are many more hazards from other people, sea snakes, sharks, crocodiles, creepy crawlies, and road traffic. Rabies from Bat bites was an unusual one I had to guard against on one occasion when I found late one evening that an island off Venezuela at which I had just anchored was notorious for them – protection was organised very stuffily by blocking all apertures through which they might gain entry into the cabin and almost perishing from suffocation instead. The road traffic problem is another Yarn in itself and I haven’t the space to tell it here.

One of the most common tropical hazards is that any skin puncture easily becomes infected and takes ages to heal, especially if it is a graze from a living organism like coral. Antiseptic powders are better than creams for these since they help to dry the wound that can otherwise become a pretty repugnant slush that can last for weeks.

I did try to protect myself as well as possible from the traditional “worst diseases” of Yellow Fever, Encephalitis, Cholera, Malaria and Dengue fever. I list them roughly in order of the period protection lasts from preventative measures. I seem to remember Yellow Fever vaccination was effective for 10 years, Cholera for 12 months, Malaria protection from tablets a few weeks and Dengue fever not at all because there are no known vaccines or other treatments that work against it. Mosquito repellent and netting is the best that can be achieved in some places.

I could go on, but I started this section as a result of comments on part 10 about prescriptions and the NHS. There weren’t so many managers or rules applied by the NHS in my early years and I was able to be out of the UK for several months at a time with the help of my son who would collect prescriptions for me from my GP’s surgery, pick up the medicines at a pharmacy near his home, and post them to wherever I expected to be. Sometimes, I could buy over the counter drugs that are only available on prescription in the UK (South America was good for that).

I did have a problem when I returned to the UK one year to find I’d been struck off my GP’s list because the practice manager had learned I was out of the country for more than three months.     I was able to prove, with the help of rules explained on the internet, that there is an exemption from that regulation for Mariners on British Registered Ships.       As I explained in my Part 6 article, Alchemi was a fully Registered British Ship and I was re-admitted to my GP’s list because I was demonstrably a mariner on her.

When I became too old to continue my sailing life I bought a caravan instead and went touring with it for extended periods in Europe and the UK until prevented from doing so last year by the Government. To illustrate that and break up all this text here’s a photo of the Cirque de Gavarnie in the French Pyrenees that I rather like.

Cirque de Gavarnie © AM

The relevance to prescriptions is that a fixed pharmacy doesn’t fit well with a peripatetic life either at sea or on land. As I generally hold libertarian views I think organisations should serve people and not the other way around, though I realise people running and working for Governments and Large Organisations prefer a more top-down approach – after all, that makes their life easier – in the short term at least.   I have said I’ll arrange collection of prescriptions at the surgery if the cost of four more envelopes and stamps a year will cause the NHS to bust their budget. Of course, if the Government keep me under house arrest until I die I shan’t be able to use my caravan again anyway so they will get the benefit of reduced NHS costs as well as keeping me under lock and key in the meantime (Sh! Don’t give them ideas).

Today, just before committing this article for publication, I was told by a helpful lady at my GP’s practice there is an alternative to the auto-pharmacy route – it still requires collection from the practice but apparently there is now a system for collecting a physical “disc” that authenticates ones entitlement to medicines upon presentation at any UK pharmacy along with ones NHS identity number.     My uncles who died in WW II would have been pretty horrified to learn that “papieren bitte” were now required in England but I’ll give it a go and see what happens.        The outcome was that there was no physical disc but traditional paper copy prescriptions.     However, the pharmacy I went to whilst my car was being MoT tested didn’t have stocks of all the medicines prescribed – but, after a discussion, agreed to deliver without charge the ones that were not available as soon as they received new supplies!         What a carry-on.

Now, I can get back to what this article was intended to be about.


One day in the summer of 1996 that I’ve been unable to pinpoint I returned to Falmouth after a short expedition to find another Crealock 34 moored in the marina.

Dan and his two young crewmen from the United States had sailed across the Atlantic and then up and down the English channel. They had put into Falmouth on the return voyage because they knew that’s where Pacific Seacraft’s Agent was based. I was hugely reassured by this evidence of a successful ocean voyage by an older sister and comforted by the thought I had made a sensible decision about the type of yacht to buy.

Dan’s yacht had a few features I decided to adopt and one problem that affects all long distance sailors.


One of the most challenging aspects of long distance sailing, especially for solo sailors, is how to keep the boat moving in roughly the right direction as the wind changes direction and speed when the crew are asleep or resting.

With practice most sailors learn how to set just the right amount of sail area, distributed in just the right way between different sails to keep a yacht sailing in the same direction if wind speed and direction remain constant and waves or currents don’t change too much or too quickly.

Ideally this will also be achieved with the rudder in its central position so it doesn’t present any resistance to forward movement. Chances are that if the rudder needs to be off-centre the sails aren’t set as well as they could be. Achieving that state is called making the boat well-balanced (for the prevailing conditions) and that phrase summarises the more technical explanation that the resultant of all the many forces acting on the sails and hull pushes her in the desired direction without impeding movement through the water.

A difficulty arises if any of these variables changes because then the yacht can respond in unwelcome ways ranging from pointing into the wind with all sails flapping noisily, to rotating so one or more of the sails becomes “backed” with wind pressure on the wrong side and perhaps the boom crashing about from one side of the hull to the other.

Most of these ill-effects can be countered by movement of the rudder but unless a way can be found automatically to change it in the right direction by the right amount that needs a helmsman to be on watch all the time.

A modern answer to that problem is to have an electronically controlled auto-pilot, and Alchemi had one of those. But power is needed to move the rudder against resistance from the water flowing past it and though the electronics don’t take a lot of power the actuator that moves the rudder does. It is also vulnerable to parts wearing out through frequent use.

A practical and more energy-friendly and durable answer to the problem was devised by Blondie Hasler, hero of WW II and second to arrive in New York at the end of the first OSTAR (Observer Single-handed Transatlantic Race).

The idea of controlling a rudder by using a light air-blade that would remain upright if the wind direction remained constant, but be rotated sideways if it changed had been around in the model boat world since the 1930’s but Blondie developed it into a working device for full-sized yachts in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Self steering gear upper view © AM

His design is the basis of the many modern variants that have since been developed and made by others. They work by using the air blade movement as a signal to control the movement of a second blade immersed in the water at the yacht’s stern and use the forward motion of the yacht to generate the larger forces required to move the rudder and thus keep the yacht at a constant angle to the wind.

Self steering gear mounting frame and water blade hinge © AM

There are many secondary aspects of this idea that all need to be dealt with but Blondie’s version worked and became known as the Aries Wind Vane. It’s structures were made in aluminium to keep the weight down and other parts in materials available at the time.

Modern variants such as the type fitted to Alchemi are lighter and smaller by often being made in stainless steel and using bronze gears and bearings made from hard and wear resistant plastics.

Self Steering Gears © AM

They’re not infallible of course and don’t work if there’s no wind or if its direction and strength changes by a large amount that would require re-balancing of the sails if a human helmsman were in control.

But for long distance ocean sailing where close adherence to a particular course is not really important they have the huge advantage of keeping a yacht in the right general direction for hours on end without complaining, and without the need for food or an alternative power source such as an engine or a battery.

Dan had one brand-named Monitor made by a firm in California set up by a Swedish sailor and engineer who called his own – “Bob”.   Many other Crealocks had been fitted with the same equipment and shown to work well.

I decided to buy one and it later steered Alchemi for thousands of miles without a problem until just before the end of my sailing career when I had to maintain it in Mauritius after wear in the plastic bearings degraded its performance so much it gave trouble on a crossing of the South Indian Ocean from Australia to the Mascarene Islands (Rodriguez, Mauritius and Reunion).


I kept a journal whilst sailing but only to record contemporary events and not to illustrate an article such as this. In order to provide these illustrations I have had to range widely over my photographic records. The results I’ve used are respectively from:

Self Steering Gear upper view – 2001, leaving Yorktown, Chesapeake Bay, USA

Self steering gear mounting frame – 2001, relaunch after storage, Chaguaramus, Trinidad

Self steering gears – 2014, Self-steering repairs, Port Louis, Mauritius


Windmills and water mills were of course developed centuries ago and the same principles applied in the 19th to generate electrical power soon after Michael Faraday, Clerk Maxwell and others evolved enough theory for engineers to put their ideas to practical use.

Whereas I had chosen direct conversion of wind energy by specifying a windmill Dan had chosen the watermill route. That uses the forward motion of the yacht to spin an alternator. There are several ways of achieving that and designs I had looked at before settling on a wind generator included two types I had already discarded.

The first is one that allows the main propeller shaft to “free-wheel” when a yacht is under sail and thereby turn an alternator mounted on it. I didn’t like that method because it creates wear on the shaft and its bearings at all times and can also be noisy.

An alternative approach is to mount an alternator at the stern and spin it with a free propeller launched into the water and connected with a special type of rope capable of transmitting the torque involved.

I had discarded that idea when considering a British design that fixed the alternator to the stern with a rope harness held in position to the stainless steel safety rails around the cockpit. The model I had looked at was really intended for larger yachts and there wasn’t enough space between Alchemi’s rails to accommodate the generator and its harness.

As an American, Dan had naturally looked at US designs and found one using a fixed attachment to the hull to locate and hold the generator. He was full of praise for its performance so I ordered one of those too.

In later years I did use my watermill sometimes and when set up on long passages it did produce useful quantities of power provided the boat was moving quickly enough. It didn’t start generating until boat speed was above 3 knots but then rose rapidly to about 3 amps and continued to increase more or less in proportion to boat speed until reaching maximum speed of just over 6 knots. A continuously available 6 amps is a serious amount of power – enough to drive the electrical autopilot or keep the radar on all the time or recharge the batteries to restore power used by the windlass or the refrigerator etc.

There were disadvantages however – the propeller was’t easy to launch without knots forming in the rope resulting in a failure to spin and a large drag holding back the yacht’s movement. The propeller was pretty difficult to withdraw – gloves were essential because there was a lot of power in the still-spinning propeller as it was drawn-in, and the rope already withdrawn would coil about and tie itself in knots like an angry python until the propeller was out of the water. It then took ages to sort it all out and recoil it into a manageable shape for the next launch.

There was also a risk of over-charging the batteries unless they were protected by a voltage regulator but then the power had to go somewhere. I learned that lesson when smoke started curling from a cockpit locker during Alchemi’s first Biscay crossing as the regulator overheated. In my ignorance I had failed to install a heat dump so the power had somewhere else to go.

I kept the water generator for many years but tended to use it less as time went by and in the end had to throw it all away as it seized with rust for lack of maintenance.

Like my wind generators, and even a solar panel I bought several years later, all these devices had a negative energy account over their working life – ie more fossil energy was used in sourcing their materials, making and transporting them than they ever produced. But then, I was trying to make electrical energy available on a yacht because I couldn’t carry all the fossil fuel I would otherwise need to sustain my comfort and lifestyle whilst on it. I didn’t install them in an attempt to slow down or halt man-induced “climate-change”.


Control switches for a Crealock 34’s electrical distribution system are mounted in a panel or panels on the starboard teak cabinet lining the hull beside the Navigator’s table at the front of the quarter-berth entrance.

I had already found these could be rather easily knocked accidentally when moving in and out of the seat, and when moving the berth cushions or accessing the quarter-berth to position or retrieve items stored there.

Pacific Seacraft had protected Dan’s control panel by attaching to it a simple teak frame faced with a perspex shield with cut-outs allowing the switches to be operated as required but protected from accidental movement. I asked Pacific Seacraft to make one for me which they did and gave me without charge in recognition of my agreement that Alchemi be exhibited at the 1996 Southampton boat Show.

Like many simple ideas it worked brilliantly and I was ever grateful for having met Dan because I doubt I would have thought of this improvement had he not sailed into Falmouth one day.


One of Dan’s reasons for seeking out Pacific Seacraft’s UK Agent was because he had run out of gas for his cooker.

Eager to be of service the Agent had promised he would persuade me to let them have my American 20lb bottle that I hadn’t started to use because I’d also had installed the smaller Camping Gaz bottles and regulator more common in Europe. Somewhat reluctantly I agreed to do so after the Agent promised to get my bottle replaced with the one from Dan’s yacht that was almost new and that he would get refilled for me.

My reluctance was justified because the Agent couldn’t keep his promise since there was no internationally agreed set of standards and regulations for leisure gas equipment and systems – perhaps there still isn’t because I had continuing problems on this score for the rest of my sailing career.

Each country used to set its own requirements and to have different ones from every other country. It probably still does unless the International Standards Organisation has resolved the differences by now and the EU has forced harmonisation within its member states.

I think that’s rather unlikely because I was briefly a member of one such ISO Committee charged with harmonising standards way back in the 1970’s and know how difficult it is to get agreement (unrelated to gas systems in my case). The problem in doing so derives from long-established commercial interests of firms in each country that have led to the National Standards, whatever they are – British Standards in the UK, ASME standards in the United States, TUV Standards in Germany, Australian Standards in Australia, and so on.

Gas systems are particularly prone to contradictory requirements because of safety considerations and the risks of explosion and fire. What may have begun as reluctant agreement between competing national firms has been magnified by National Governments’ desire to avoid accusations they have failed to protect their citizens. To limit that political risk Governments everywhere have processed their ideas as legal requirements in their own countries with the help of many civil-servant hours spent regulating every detail and blocking every loophole that might be used to avoid them.

In this particular case for example – US standards and firms require Gas Bottles to be made of aluminium to avoid corrosion and pipes linking them to appliances to be made from special rubber to avoid the risk of cracking. British standards require the Bottles to be made of steel and pipes of copper to reduce the risk of accidental puncturing or perishing respectively. Australian Fibre-glass bottles are approved for use in Australia but not in other countries.     In some countries, like the UK, another aspect of this problem is that one supplier has such a large market-share they are semi-monopolies who preserve their dominance by retaining ownership of the bottles and accept an empty return for a full one instead of refilling bottles owned by their customers.

In most developed countries gas suppliers who will fill customers own bottles usually require them to be Nationally Approved ones, hard-stamped by an approved station as having passed a relatively recent safety test.    Sometimes a struggling traveller can find an Independent supplier in a remote location who will fill an unfamiliar bottle provided it has such  a hard-stamped proof of integrity.             That can be technically accomplished pretty easily because transition fittings permitting gas to be transferred from a holding tank to a user’s bottle are readily available in most places around the world with the difficulty arising from legal and regulatory differences rather than physical ones. It’s even possible to fill an empty bottle from a full one using gravity to drive the liquid between them though I’ve never attempted that myself.         There is a similar problem in some poorer countries whose Governments have often adopted a developed country’s standards as their own.      However, in such places, whilst traders and local officials will initially demand strict compliance with regulations they can often be persuaded to allow an exception for a foreign traveller who adopts a friendly way of dealing with the problem.       I don’t remember having to leave such a place early becuse I had run out of gas.

In my own case in 1996 and 1997, neither the Agent nor I could get the bottle I inherited from Dan refilled in the UK, Germany or Denmark but a supplier in Sweden later agreed to help me out, without the need for an extra-friendly approach, as long as I kept quiet about it, but with Propane rather than Butane.

This account is really straying into territory to be covered in a later article because Butane is much less volatile at low temperatures and that’s why Propane is a much more common fuel in cold climates even though its specific heat is somewhat lower.      Sometimes, gas burning appliances need to be modified if changing from one fuel to another though some manufacturers have designed their products so they can use either.    Fortunately Pacific Seacraft had fitted one that did – branded as Force 10 by the Canadian company that builds them and has an extremely reliable system for supplying spare parts anywhere in the world.        Later in 1997 and after arrival in the Shetland Islands, I was able to buy a Calor Gas bottle full of propane which is a common fuel in Scotland because its colder there and Camping Gaz bottles filled with butane aren’t readily obtainable.

A reader will quite understandably be confused by all this and the only solution for a member of the public wanting to move between one country and another is to be prepared to carry as many adapters and regulators as he can and trust to claiming his equipment is internationally acceptable because it is certified for use in his own country. If you’re prepared to chance your arm you could try claiming your country has a mutual recognition agreement with the one you’re visiting.    That probably wouldn’t work for Brits visiting any EU country at present because they made such a big issue of not granting Mutual Recognition rights in the recent Trade Negotiations.

The only other solutions I’ve been able to imagine are to buy Gas Bottles, Regulators etc approved in the country being visited, eat and drink in restaurants, or leave before you run out of gas, unless you’re prepared to subsist on cold food and drink.     The same problems arise when caravanning.

To be continued ……….

© Ancient Mariner 2021

The Goodnight Vienna Audio file