Sailing my life away, part 14



Once again I thank those who commented on Part 13 and particularly the three or four who correctly pointed out my mistake in inverting the description of the speed of sound at sea level. Even worse, the mistake was carried through when I calculated the seconds between a lightning flash and the thunderclap in my example of how the difference can be used to estimate distance. Thats what comes of first composing and then proof reading an article in the small hours of the morning.

Fortunately, the purpose of the example wasn’t entirely lost because I actually “reverse-engineered” it after deciding I needed to give my imaginary sailor a half-hour warning of the impending wind and rainstorm coming his way. The corrections needed are to the words so they say – “the speed of sound in the atmosphere at sea level is about one mile every 4.7 seconds” – and – “…. if he’s lucky he doesn’t hear the thunder for about 40 seconds …..”.

I also thank Mike Minsk and Cynic who both drew attention to electrical phenomena in the atmosphere though in significantly different ways. I had never previously come across or imagined Mike’s observations that he has found evidence of regular clouds carrying an electrical charge and not just those with the familiar “anvil” shape. I don’t suppose light and fluffy small cumulus do but can well imagine larger ones or isolated nimbus clouds could – I’m delighted to acknowledge Mike’s experiments show the amateur spirit of scientific enqiry is still alive and kicking.

The YouTube videos uploaded by Andy Hall to which Cynic drew attention are a different kettle of fish altogether. I’ve only skimmed them so far but as far as I can tell he is challenging the classical interpretation of how several of our earth’s surface features were formed, suggesting instead the existence of incredibly powerful hot winds arising from primeval electrical storms similar to those present in the Red Spot on Jupiter. I shall definitely look into this in greater depth when I have time.

1642again asked if Admiral Fisher remarked war with Germany would break out when the Kiel Canal was opened. I’m not sure about that but the following may clarify matters a little.

The canal was officially opened on 20 June 1895 and the Science Museum in Kensington has some surviving film footage of the ceremony. However, it was widened between 1907 and 1914 to permit the passage of Dreadnought-sized battleships so perhaps Fisher made such a remark in that context. But was it Fisher who made the comment?     He and the Kiel Canal have another connection as you’ll read next.          I’m not a professional historian but I can imagine a student being set the task of researching the question by investigating original documents of the period..

As I mentioned in the note to Part 12 comparing the consequences of Prince Phillip’s death with those of Spain’s King Alfonso XIII, I have been re-reading Churchill’s essays on Great Contemporaries. One such is about Fisher and his biographer Admiral Bacon. Churchill knew them both because he was First Lord of the Admiralty at the outnreak of WW I, appointed Fisher as First Sea Lord in 2014 and proposed Bacon’s name to him as Admiral in charge of the Dover Straits.

Churchill’s account provides fascinating insights into how vitally important decisions were taken – I’ll mention just one in these remarks.      In Churchill’s judgement Fisher did a fantastic job in building up the strength of the Fleet and was ably aided in that by Bacon but he said about the latter’s indifferent performance in the Dover Straits job –

“he was a technician rather than a tactician”

He felt Fisher had similar tendencies and thought he used British Naval Power too much in a defensive rather than an offensive way.     He writes that Fisher had often talked about creating a naval blockade of Germany’s northern ports in the Baltic  to cut them off from supply of Scandinavian raw materials.     Churchill says about this  –

“Again and again, orally and in writing, I confronted him with the issue, ‘Before you enter the Baltic you must first block up the Elbe. How are you going to do this? ……. Can you divide the fleet and enter with a part while the Germans are free to sally out with their whole strength from either end of the Kiel canal?”

I must now descend from discussion about how the earth was formed and how wars were won and lost to answer k3fsdetdfs’s question about tacking.

Yes, it is a word used as shorthand to describe the technique used to sail in the direction from which the wind is blowing. The forward force moving a sailboat can only be generated when the wind is blowing from one side or the other because the sails just flip flop about if the yacht is pointed directly into the wind. So the only way of proceeding is to zig-zag as you so accurately describe the movement.

The angle to the wind it’s necessary to make depends on many factors.    In moderate breezes and waves it often ends up somewhere between 30 and 40 degrees from the desired direction but in adverse conditions very little forward progess can be made despite sailing a long way on each zig and zag.

There’s a trade-off between angle and boat speed so many navigational systems have computers and displays providing information on VMG (velocity made good).     The helmsman on a craft with such instruments tries to steer in a direction creating the highest VMG but in really adverse conditions one can actually be driven farther away from ones destination despite tacking away with all one’s efforts, especially if there’s a current in the same direction as the wind!

The word “tacking” is sometimes used to describe the process of changing direction from a zig to a zag or vice-versa when sailing into the wind and is accomplished relatively easily because the mainsail and its boom just moves slowly from one side of the boat to the other.

It is possible to sail directly downwind in a modern “Bermudan Rigged” yacht but that usually requires special sails or special arrangements to hold out the regular sails.    Close attention needs to be paid to keeping the boat pointing directly downwind, or very nearly so, because the balance of forces betweeen each side can be very easily upset with all sorts of undesirable consequences.

For that reason, when sailing downwind, I often preferred to sail at an angle to the direction in which I really wanted to go because it was faster and didn’t need so much concentration.     Sometimes that required a zig or a zag and the process of making that turn downwind is called gybing.

Gybing is more difficult and dangerous than tacking because a  point of instability arises as the boom holding the mainsail transitions across the boat when the wind is dead astern.    Unless the end of the boom is very carefully controlled it can move rapidly across the boat until it can go no farther as  its fixture to the mast crashes into its limit of travel and the sail wraps itself around the stays holding the mast in position.       The whole boat can judder and shake if that happens.  The skipper and crew sometimes do too.

When the boom is properly controlled, the application of a sudden force on a different side of the boat requires equally firm control of the rudder to prevent a violent change of boat direction.         For these reasons, when wanting to change direction whilst sailing downwind in strong winds I often preferred to complete a full circle and make the change as a tack instead of a gybe since that is so much easier to control and worth the loss of time and distance entailed.        Racing sailors would never consider such an option but then, their yachts are often crewed by strong young men rather than retirees with deteriorating reaction times and physical capability.

Alchemi’s best and fastest point of sail was when the wind was in the middle 60 degree sector between dead ahead and dead astern.      She would happily zip along at 6 knots or so in winds of round 20 knots strength for hours on end under such conditions and needed very little movement of the rudder to keep her going straight. Her very best performance was when she covered 160 miles in 24 hours – an average speed of over 6.5 knots in a boat with a 26 foot water-line length!

Betty Swollocks asked how one deals with a lightning strike on a small yacht – my instinctive reaction is to say – keep your fingers crossed. At a slightly more practical level it would be sensible to avoid contact with any good conductor of electricity. But all experience shows the actual point of contact the discharge makes is unpredictable and though lightning conductors fixed to the top of aluminium masts have been designed they don’t offer reliable protection. Once a high voltage discharge occurs its quite likely a good proportion of the yachts electronic equipment will be destroyed. That happened when I was in Singapore once when another yacht, a few feet away on an adjacent pontoon, lost all its navigational instruments that way.   I suffered an analagous discharge from shore-power once but that deserves another out-of-sequence yarn so I’ll leave it for another time.

Finally I realise I must soon devote some space to answering El Cnutador’s repeated requests for something about pirates, but that won’t be in this article because I’ve already used up so much space on these comments.


Modern Denmark has one land connection to Continental Europe – the Jutland peninsula – but is otherwise an Island Nation with its capital situated on the island of Sjaelland. (This island is sometimes written as Zealand in English texts but it should be noted Abel Tasman was a Dutchman and, as the first European to discover New Zealand, named it after the Dutch province and not the Danish Island.)

The largest island between Jutland and Sjaeland is named Fyn (pronounced something like (fy)-oon with the f and y making a single sound). The straits between them are called the Lille Baelt, and the Store Baelt.  The stretch joining the two in the north is the Samso Baelt. The largest town on Fyn is Odense, famous as the birthplace of Hans Christian Anderson.

My plan for the second stage of the first leg of Alchemi’s 1997 cruise was to sail these three Baelts and round the south eastern corner of Sjaeland to finish up its eastern coast at Copenhagen where there would be a change of crew – all as shown on this map from my Journal.

1997 Cruise. First Leg – second stage. © AM

This plan could be accomplished in a series of day-sails without requiring overnight passages and in that respect was easier than the first stage from Wolverstone to Cuxhaven.

It did though need a new technique at several of the marinas at which we stayed. Unlike most of those I’d visited previously many of these had pile moorings. This is a cheaper way of creating a marina because it uses just one floating pontoon to which one end of the yacht must be secured and two piles at the entrance to each berth to which ropes from each side at the other end of the yacht can be tied to hold it in position. Movement from ship to shore and vice versa is then accomplished by climbing over the bow or stern depending on the direction in which the yacht entered the berth. This is less convenient than just stepping off the side-deck but securing the yacht in the first place is often the most difficult part of the operation, especially if there is a cross-wind or current.

It usually necessitates approaching close enough to one pile as the yacht enters the berth for a crew member standing on the deck amidships to pass a rope around the pile, or through a ring attached to it, and walking away from  the pontoon as the boat moves towards it until a shout indicates the need to stop the motion by passing the rope over a cleat before the yacht runs into the pontoon. Once the boat is secured with a single line both fore and aft there follows an extensive “tidying up” period until a pair of lines at each end hold the yacht securely in position against both fore-and-aft and sideways movement.

So it was at Marstal the first day after leaving Kiel, and having a fine sail between the two.

We had come to the Baltic looking for sunshine, a calm sea and a 14 knot beam reach and here they all were – marvellous.

In common with many other rural towns away from the large conurbations Marstal has low profile buildings in clean and attractive streets.

No waffling by crew please © AM

It also has  a long history as one of Denmark’s prime ship-building and seafaring towns .    Also in common with many other local connunities Marstal is served by modern technology in the form of a combined heat and power system.     In cold climates these are more thermally efficient than large centralised electricity generation and independent heating of individual premises.     In Marstal’s case that was complemented by early adoption of “Green” electricity generation with installation of solar panels.

The world’s largest solar power plant (in 1997) © AM

Denmark has also capitalised on its position to trade in electricity, selling German Nuclear and Coal fired power to Norway and Sweden in the autumn and winter, and Scandinavian hydro-electric power to Germany in the Spring and Summer, and making a margin on sales in both directions!

The weather next day was fine and sunny but with less wind. We anchored overnight off the small island of Brandso and the day after  had a long and fast sail in a strong wind to Juelsminde on the Jylland coast.     In this photo of the harbour entrance you can also make out Alchemi’s stern inside the rather short  pile mooring on the left hand side.

Entrance to Juelsminde Harbour © AM

On the way we marvelled at the sight of several traditional sailing craft like this fine Schooner.

A Traditional Schooner under full sail – © AM

Schooners and Ketches are both two-masted craft with different sail plans. A schooner’s aft mast is higher than the front one and a ketch’s is the other way around.   A barque is larger still and has three or more masts.

We were truly amazed by the number of schooners, ketches, barques and other craft from 100 or more years ago that we saw, sometimes with several being in sight at the same time. Most of them seem now to be used for adventure training of young people.

The Baltic Sea  has such a narrow and convoluted connection with the North Sea it contains about five times less salt and is more like a very large lake of brackish water.  In the Danish archipelago, Jutland and the islands are also close together and there is insufficient distance between them for large waves to build up, so the water remains pretty calm whatever the wind strength and direction.      These factors make this region a wonderful sailing area in the summer.        However, they also result in a relatively short season because  many harbours become ice-bound in the winter and in these latitudes the days are cold and short.             Danish sailors therefore take to the water in large numbers in May and June when the weather is warm and the days long.

One of my companions had a pen-friend who lived on the small island of Sejero off the north west coast of Sjaelland, so we diverted from our planned route to meet him at Hvanso on the larger island. Here we were helped to moor by a sailing schoolmaster and his wife. Like all the Danish people we met they were very friendly and in this case particularly so since they lent us their key to the local Sejl Club so we could have showers there. They also took us the following day to a local event that seemed familiar, and yet to be conducted in better weather and a more orderly manner than we had come across before.

Car boot sale at Hvanso © AM

The next day, sailing down the Store Baelt, was particularly interesting because the Bridge now carrying a railway and the E20 motorway linking Norway, Sweden and Denmark to the rest of Continental Europe was still under construction at the time. Here’s a photo of the missing centre section taken as we passed beneath it.

Storebaelt bridge under construction © AM

Our next stop was an anchorage off the small island of Omo. This was notable for the following incident.     David surprised us by appearing on deck in his swimming shorts and shocked himself when he dived into the clear but cold water. He shot up Alchemi’s ladder in a trice but dived back in again to show his hardihood – but one repetition was enough!

David takes the plunge at Omo © AM

The next section of my Journal starts off by recording

Now began our trials by depth.

These waters between Sjaelland and Falster (at the SE corner of Sjaelland) are generally shallow and the channel, which is quite deep is rather narrow.

The journal continues

But in retrospect as we inched our way up the east coast they seemed generously deep and the channels wide. In fact we soon ran out of channel altogether and cautiously felt our way for six miles with just 0.5 metres under the keel –

except for those heart-stopping moments when the gauge went 0.5, 0.3, 0.2, 0.1, 0.1, 0.5 ….

Finally, just as we were completing our last manoeuvres in preparation for anchoring, Alchemi came gently but firmly to a complete stop. We couldn’t get off by reversing but taking our courage in both hands and engaging forward gear again with slightly more throttle saw us gently slide off the mud towards deeper water and we were afloat again.

There were more shallows the following day until we found a narrow channel used by fishermen that we followed to a safe water mark in Fakse Bugt whence we had the relief of a fine sail to Rodvig.  Here we were back in holiday Denmark with ice cream stalls, beach huts and the town’s main claim to fame – a small museum with historic marine engines on display.

These were interesting enough but I thought the most  fascinating display of all was this notice under a small working model –

A Notice in Engleutsch      ©    AM

It’s not far to Copenhagen from Rodvig and having passed the rather dull waterfront we moored Alchemi in Svanemolle marina because of its large capacity and good transport to the City Centre.

The others went off to explore the city whilst I stayed behind to start cleaning up the boat and changing the engine oils in preparation for the next leg of the voyage.

To be continued …………….

© Ancient Mariner 2021

The Goodnight Vienna Audio file