Sailing my life away, part 18



I am now away from home for about six weeks and have suspended for this issue a continuation of the story of Alchemi’s 1997 Voyage covering the leg from Oslo to Bergen.

Here then is a different style of article starting with a Digression illustrated by a Yarn, continuing with a response to comments on Part 16 omitted from Part 17 because that had already gone to press before I knew what the comments would be, and concluding with a second Yarn describing a personal experience of piracy though the incident was no more than petty theft carried out on land.

Fans of Old Trout’s work will recognise the start of a series (Pn, Pn+2) for n=16, 17, ? , ?

I hope readers will complete the Digression, and the Yarn within it first, because I have been motivated to write both by Endeavour’s comment about his role when the Chandlers were seized by Somali pirates.


There is an alphabet soup of acronyms in the world of marine regulation starting with UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law Of the Sea – briefly mentioned in part 2 of this series – and containing many more. SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea) is one of them and defines the institutions and procedures participating nations are supposed to implement in their own countries.

I take it that by now everyone knows that GPS stands for Global Positioning System so I’ll mention just two more abbreviations to help understanding of what follows.

The first is MRCC (Marine Rescue and Coordination Centre).  All nations complying with UNCLOS are supposed to have at least one – the UK’s is known as MRCC Falmouth and is operated by Falmouth Coastguard.

The second is EPIRB (Electronic Position Indicating Radio Beacon) that, as its name implies, has a GPS receiver within it.

All commercial ships registered in a country are required through national laws to carry a GPS receiver, radio receiving and transmitting equipment, and an EPIRB. Small leisure craft are exempt but many do carry some or all these items because their owners think its sensible to do so.

All MRCCs maintain records of all ships registered by their country, the communications equipment with which they are equipped, and contact details of an owner’s representative on land with whom they can communicate if necessary.

The idea behind this is that if a vessel becomes distressed for any reason (sinking, fire, pirate attack, medical emergency, etc,etc) it can use its radio equipment to broadcast a MAYDAY (from the French m’aidez), or a PAN PAN call, or if its emergency is so severe the radio equipment is out of action, that its EPIRB will do so when activated manually or automatically by water pressure or shock (they are also unsinkable and self-righting).

A MAYDAY call is used when there is an immediate threat to life and a PAN PAN when there’s a serious emergency that’s not immediately life-threatening.

Defined frequencies have been internationally agreed for such broadcasts and all ships and MRCC’s around the world are meant to maintain a continuous 24 hour watch listening out for them.

By these means it is hoped the position of a distressed vessel will be widely known and that rescue efforts can be co-ordinated by the MRCC concerned wherever in the world the vessel happens to be. The MRCC might for example ask one Ship to steam towards the casualty because it is nearest and allow others to proceed on their way, or it might contact a rescue organisation in the nearest country who may not have known about the emergency and ask them to take action, etc,etc.

I didn’t know before Endeavour’s comment that the Chandlers carried an EPIRB and that it had been activated but its clear from his remark that he picked up their signal and also knew it was one carried by a small yacht he could identify. I don’t know what his job was and leave readers to guess unless he’d like to reveal it (See “Comments” below for clues).

I think I also mentioned in an earlier article the case of Tony Bullimore whose yacht capsized during the 1997 Vendee Globe round the world yacht race when in the Southern Ocean 1,300 miles off the Australian Coast. I don’t know for sure but guess it was his EPIRB signal that was picked up by MRCC Falmouth who then contacted the Australian authorities who sent HMAS Adelaide to the rescue.    (The link is to a You Tube video containing a TV fim in which Bullimore comments on his experience that also contains some original footage of the rescue.)

That gave rise to another interesting aspect of all this – a section of the Australian public – fanned by some of their popular press, said they didn’t think the Australian taxpayer should bear the cost of rescuing a foreigner at great expense when he only needed help because he was engaging in a risky activity for his own enjoyment. The controversy went on for quite a long time but eventually died down, helped I think by the Australian Navy writing off the cost against their training budget (and it must have been one of the most real events the crew of Adelaide had ever experienced when training).


I finish this digression with one of my own experiences from 2003. That was the year I crossed the Pacific for the first time and was anchored in the lagoon on the west coast of Tahiti (no room the second time I was there in 2010 because the local marina had been allowed to completely fill the area with moorings for which they could charge a fee). I was some 250 yards from a buddy boat with whom I had more or less kept company since leaving Panama.   (Note – over such long distances buddy boats typically meet up at agreed rendezvous but are often hundreds of miles and several days away from one another whilst sailing.)

Alchemi was equipped with a VHF radio and an Inmarsat C transceiver of the type that was compulsory on commercial ships (she also had an EPIRB but that’s irrelevant to this yarn).

I was relaxing in the cockpit when suddenly the Inmarsat C set started beeping. When I investigated it was an “All Ships” broadcast from MRCC Alameda (in California) saying they’d just received an EPIRB distress signal from a vessel at lat x, lon y.       Having recently logged my own position I realised that was about  300 yards from me and 50 yards from my buddy boat.

I used the VHF to call my buddy, told him what I’d just learned and said the yacht I thought was in the position advised didn’t look as though it was in distress to me, but he was closer and already had his dinghy in the water – could he row across and investigate?

He did and called me back a few minutes later – “There’s no distress, they were all having a high old time, partying to celebrate their arrival here.”

Half an hour later the Inmarsat set pinged again. It was Alameda cancelling their previous call and explaining the earlier one had been a false alarm.

I learned two things from that experience:

The system does work


It’s value is degraded by False Alarms

I don’t imagine any commercial ships did “immediately” change course for the vessel that was reported to be in distress and I guess that’s become normal with most ship owners and captains saying to themselves – “time and fuel cost money, wait for confirmation the problem is real before spending ours”


I was glad at the response to my Reflections on Piracy because I did want to introduce a shocking note of reality into any discussion of the subject and used the Chandlers’ story to do that.

I was particularly pleased to hear from Endeavour that he was an active participant in the unfolding drama as it happened.. To help other readers understand his comment and its significance I reproduce the relevant part here –

Extract from Endeavour’s Comment

“I well remember the Chandlers. In fact I was probably the first person on the planet to put their EPIRB signal together with their blog and determine they had been kidnapped.”

Endeavour has given us another hint about his role back in 2009 in an exchange of comments with Polar Opposite Variant on Part 59 of AWS’s “The Swaling”  – “I cannot claim to be an astrologer but astro-navigation is part of training for navigators in the RN…”     Putting that together with his earlier remark that another job involved pirates I wouldn’t be surprised if readers concluded he was a Navigater on HMS Cumberland that was on Piracy Patrol duties when the Chandlers were taken, but too far away to intervene.      If that’s right it would be another example of how the SOLAS system works in practice.

I continue to bask in DJM‘s enjoyment of my articles and loved his photos of Crook and the glasses of Smithwick’s available there.

I must explain to Tom Jones that one of the disadvantages of world cruising late in life is that it leaves no time to make deep and lasting friendships at home. Most of my contemporaries seem to have either died already or to be suffering from dementia or other illnesses of old age, so although I may still have a few yarns I don’t have many social contacts to whom I can spin ’em. That’s one of the reasons I’m enjoying doing so here even though I don’t get free beer.

Mrs wattyler‘s remarks and the chain that ensued from her post with contributions from Mrs Raft, Polar Opposite Variant, Craig O’t Norfeest, and others, need a somewhat longer response.

Escapism is a word I’ve really only come across before in the context of fictional entertainments like those of PG Wodehouse, Passport to Pimlico, Restoration Comedies, Whitehall Farces, Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday and so on – a transportation of the mind to another and more light-hearted place than one’s normal environment.

Thinking my articles may have helped readers make such an escape from the gloom, dreariness, bogus science, and fear mongering of the Government and Media over the last 15 months is enormously pleasing.

I was less happy with the slight hints of dissatisfaction at the routine nature and lack of excitement in mrswattyler‘s own life but noticed they had a light rather than a resentful tone and were qualified by the words “so far”. Should still be plenty of time yet then, and perhaps her daughter will provide exciting news when they have one of those ‘phone calls.

A loving family is a prize beyond price as Craig knows.

I’d like to add a bit more detail to my story in case mrswattyler or anyone else is under the wrong impression that I came from a privileged background, free from work, privation and worry, and was able to swan around the world on a private yacht all my life.

I actually came from humble origins, was a grammar school boy in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s when rationing was still in force, not many houses had central heating, larders were much more common than fridges, washing was still done in tubs rather than machines, there was no TV let alone computers or mobile ‘phones, etc,etc.

I was the first of my family to attend university, and started work as a wage-slave before the end of the 1950’s. I was married with a young family and a mortgage by the 1960’s and continued working long and stressful hours until the mid 1990’s. Then, as readers of Part 1 may remember, my life was turned upside down and I knew I had to do something different because the form of retirement towards which I had been  looking forward was no longer available.

By the way, housekeeping is usually worse on a small yacht than in a home ashore because space is so limited.    There’s nowhere to place things temporarily – to clean thoroughly behind the cooker usually requires the d**n thing to be disconnected, taken off its gimbals, and removed from the boat altogether.  Nor is life at sea all fun, games, sunshine and relaxation, but hey, people wouldn’t think I was helping them to escape from routine if all I wrote about was the difficulty and dullness of boat-keeping chores.

I loved the other exchanges in the thread and later comments, particularly

Old Trout’s for the exquisite excerpt from the film “Brassed Off”.

It shows the Brass Band of a mining village threatened with closure. rehearsing Rodrigo’s “Concierto d’Arenjuez”. I include a link to it here for any who may have missed it the first time around.


Although the Vikings are the best-known raiders and pirates of the early Middle Ages they were by no means the only ones.

In fact, wherever there was a stretch of sea between two land areas on which people of different ethnic and tribal origins lived, you could rely on one group robbing and pillaging the other, and sometimes doing the same along their own coasts.

Thus, the Celts of the British Isles attacked the Anglo Saxons, the Slavic people of the Balkans did likewise to the Venetians in the Adriatic, and the Muslim peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa found the Iberian Peninsula, Southern France and Italy to be useful targets for robbery, rape and pillage.

Similar practices developed in the Far East. We know for example that the Tang Dynasty in China (roughly 600-900 AD) devoted considerable resources to protecting Cities and Traders on the coasts of the Yellow Sea from piratical raids.

I think Voltaire was on to something when he said “History is nothing more than an account of how some people have accommodated themselves with the property of others” – or words to that effect (with a poor internet connection I haven’t been able to verify the exact quotation.)

I originally imagined I’d be including here a section on piracy in a part of Europe that’s also significant from a sailing viewpoint and had already drafted some of it. But I’ve decided to keep that for later use and conclude this article with:


I mentioned in Part 16 that I had been in the Seychelles the year before the Chandler incident.

I didn’t like the country very much – that was because of the people rather than the physical surroundings which were beautiful.

I won’t say a lot about the background here because its strongly linked with something else I have in mind for an embedment about piracy within my own story, but some explanation is needed to put my Seychelles experience in perspective.

In summary, sovereignty over many of the Western islands in the Indian Ocean was disputed between the British and the French in the 18th and 19th centuries and the French were in the Seychelles first. Indeed, the islands were named after M Jean Moreau de Sechelles, Louis XIV’s Minister of Finance in the 1750s, and the principal island after Bertrand-Francois Mahe, a very successful naval commander from the same era.

The British captured the archipelago in the early 1800’s but didn’t rename them. They got their own back though by calling the capital city Victoria (yah! boo! sucks! to you fro****s).

At about this time, or soon after, the British drive against slavery picked up steam and they settled on the Seychelles many slaves liberated from the former French colonies and by payment of compensation to the British Plantation owners who succeeded them. Most slaves were of African descent though some were ethnically Indian. A fuller account would also describe how more recent settlement of people from Chagos added to the mix.

I hope I’ve said enough to explain why many citizens of the Seychelles are descended from slaves and very poorly rewarded labourers. They are similar in that respect to those of Haiti and Jamaica though in the first of those they won their own freedom by revolution and in the second by escaping to the Blue Mountains.

Superimposed on that background is a lot of new money that has arrived because of the success of the country in promoting itself as a tourist destination. Some citizens have done very well as a result and are very rich. A few in the middle get by with reasonably rewarded jobs providing services to the rich locals and tourists.

My interactions with the locals left me with a feeling that many had a chip on their shoulder from the history of their forebears and some resented visitors whilst others exploited them. This was a completely different impression from the one I had enjoyed on some of the less frequented Polynesian islands in the Pacific.

The physical surroundings were equally beautiful though and that takes me finally to my story of being robbed. In retrospect it was my own fault as I’ll now explain, but I don’t think it would have happened in other places in the world with a happier background.

Victoria is situated on the north-east coast of Mahe and I had heard how beautiful parts of the west coast were, so I sailed round and anchored in Port Launay. It was indeed beautiful.       Wanting to take a photo that captured the colours was the source of the problem.

I rowed ashore after anchoring and started to take a look around. The road was thick with trees on either side, completely obscuring a view of the bay until I walked up the hill a bit where there was a short break on the other side of the road. I needed to change lenses on my camera and put my bag down to get the telephoto one out and make the swap. Having done that I foolishly left my bag on the side of the road when I crossed it to step over a couple of feet of low scrub at the verge and take the shot.

You can probably imagine my horror when I turned round to go and pick up my bag only to see it already opened with some of its content scattered beside it and a crouched figure going through my wallet. He sprinted off down the road when he saw me coming and being much younger, leaner and fitter, was easily able to evade me and jump into the rain forest before I ran out of puff.

All my possessions were still there. So were all my credit cards, driver’s licence, and all notes except the Rupees I’d recently bought.

A tourist car came along soon after and seeing I was disturbed asked what the problem was. That’s when I compounded my foolishness by telling them. They said they’d report the incident at the police station in xxxxx as they passed and advised me to stay where I was until the police arrived. Naively thinking the police might bring a tracker dog that’s what I did.

Well, the rest of the day was wasted as the police did arrive, took me back to their station and paraded me past all the cells in which they had prisoners locked-up to see if I recognised any. I didn’t, but they all glared back at me making me feel I’d better leave the island asap because I was now a marked man.

I also had to answer interminable questions, write out a statement, and sign an “Indemnity” form releasing the Seychelles Government from any liability if I left the country before the crime was solved and the cash recovered (the police seemed keener on getting this form signed than they were on finding the thief).

I can now look back on this incident with wry amusement at my own stupidity when I was a youthful 71-year-old. It was quite upsetting at the time though.

Port Launay in the Seychelles © AM

The bay and the water in it was beautiful, as you can judge for yourself from this photo.


By the way, you may notice Alchemi’s front sail is missing. That’s because I’d taken it to a local sailmaker for repair. He cheated me and I had to import a new one from South Africa so I wasn’t able to leave as quickly as I would have liked. The people I’d seen in the police cells didn’t get me though – either they couldn’t find me or were still in them when I finally left!)

To be continued …………….

© Ancient Mariner 2021

The Goodnight Vienna Audio file