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Having always been keen on wandering over the hills and mountains, in 1969 when I broke my back in a road accident it seemed natural to me to take up single handed sailing as being the only way that I could achieve the freedom and independence that I was used to and loved. To visit the remote places that had become the very essance of my life, far from roads, houses and people -- not that I particularly dislike them, I just utterly love to get away from them occasionally.
My first experience of sailing was in a dingy in a flooded disused quarry near where I lived in Kent. This was with a club and it convinced me that single handed sailing on the sea would be the best substitute for my mountaineering activities. Unfortunately, whenever I asked the advice of experts about the purchase of a sea going sailing craft that I could handle on my own they would tell me that I was mad to think of such a thing and the only advice that I could get was to forget all about it.
I did forget about it for a time. Instead I took to drifting down mountain rivers and rapids in an inflatable dingy but that's a different story, except that one day I planned to drift from Chepstow at the mouth of the Wye to Bristol using the tidal currents. I did this on my own, except for a friend who drove me to Chepstow and watched while I inflated my dingy, launched it and drifted away on the first ebb of a spring tide. This friend was the only one who knew about this adventure for I knew that If anyone else had found out about my plans they would try to stop me.
It was a cold sunny Autumn Saturday in 1973. Being a lazy person Normally I prefer to drift down rivers just relaxing in my dingy and admiring the scenery as it drifts past but on this occasion I rowed down the river from Chepstow partly because the river was boringly slow and partly because I had to arrive off Avonmouth before low tide so as to avoid being swept back up the Severn estuary towards where I'd come from. After an hour I'd passed under the huge bridge that carries the M4 and was swept out into the Severn estuary. Then I started to row into the center of the estuary where I thought that the current would be stronger. After rowing for about 10 minutes I stopped and looked around. It appeared as if I wasn't moving. This I found very disappointing after all I'd read about the strong currents hereabouts. Then I cast my eyes upon the shore only to notice that the trees there where all moving rapidly in a northerly direction in relation to the hills behind them. Then of course I realized what was happening. I was in fact moving but the water around me was moving at the same speed as me. Consequently I had no sensation of motion. This is a well known phenomenon to people used to the sea but to one used only to drifting down narrow rivers it was a surprise. Soon I arrived at The Shoots. This is a place where the whole flow of the Severn Estuary is compressed into a narrow channel between two large areas of rock. It is above where the Severn Railway Tunnel is. According to The Canoeists Guidebook To The British Isles this place has violent turbulence and whirlpools. In fact my main reason for this adventure was to experience this exciting place. Unfortunately I had been to quick. When I arrived there the tide had not ebbed enough to uncover the rocks to the west of the channel and the really exciting turbulence hadn't started. To make matters worst an easterly wind had started to blow me back towards the Welsh coast away from an area of disturbed water in mid channel that looked as if it could have been interesting. I resumed my rowing in a easterly direction in an attempt to rectify the situation but all I managed to find was a few interesting overhanging waves. The rowing had not been in vain however as I soon found myself off Avonmouth nearly three hours early and the still strongly ebbing tide was conspiring with the easterly wind to carry me far out into the Bristol Channel. It was a matter of rowing flat out to prevent this from happening. I just managed to reach the tip of Portishead point before being washed away. Here I landed deflated the dingy and started to drag it up the beach. It was a very laborious task. It must have taken me at least half an hour to drag it halfway up the beach when a child carrying a fishing rod came onto the beach. I asked him the way to the nearest road and deduced from the reply that it was going to be rather difficult to drag the dingy that far. Consequently I reverted to my original plan, reinflated the dingy, dragged it back to the sea and waited for the tide to start to flood so that I could drift up to Avonmouth and Bristol. Meanwhile the child had started to fish and we chatted until the tide turned. He said that Portishead point wasn't a very good place for fishing, he preferred fishing off the nuclear power station at Hinkley Point where he usually caught huge cod.
Eventually the tide started to flood and I drifted up to Avonmouth where a man in the coastguard building shouted an inquiry as to whether I was all right. "Fine, thanks" I shouted back and commenced drifting up the Avon towards Bristol.
When I got to Pill I decided that it would be impossible to get all the way up to Bristol and catch the last train to Neath where my friend was going to pick me up so I decided to row up a small creek called Pill to a station and catch a train from there. Getting ashore at the head of this creek necessitated squirming on my bottom through mud over a foot deep dragging the dingy behind me which in turn resulted in me leaving a trail of Bristol Channel mud all the way from there to Neath.
This was a very successful excursion. It went more or less to plan, it wetted my appetite for the sea, and more important, it convinced me that I could manage a vessel on the sea on my own.
My next step, also fairly secretive, was the purchase of a 14 ft catamaran that I could construct or take to pieces and put back in the car in about 4 hours. One cold Spring morning I drove my car onto a beach about a mile south of Caernarfon (Fforydd Bay), threw the parts of the catamaran out of the car, constructed it, drove the car to above the high water mark, then sat in the catamaran and waited for the tide to come in.
I had many happy days cruising around Anglesey and the Menai Straits in this cat. However I needed a vessel with some accommodation on it if I wanted to go any distance. I also worried about what to do if it turned over, for although it would have been difficult to turn over, it would have been impossible to right again if it did.
My next vessel was a keel boat (Wildfire class) about 16 ft long with a forecastle in which I could sleep with all but my feet sheltered from the elements. It was self righting thus overcoming the two biggest problems that the previous boat had. By now I had enough confidence and experience to convince the people at a boatyard that I was not mad and I managed to get them to launch the boat for me at Uphill near Weston Super Mare. This was in the glorious hot summer of 1976 and I sailed down the Bristol Channel putting into harbours on the north Devon coast at night. For about a week I sailed from Weston Super Mare to Minehead, Porlock, Ilfracombe then round to Instow after an attempt to find Lundy in the fog. On a future occasion I crossed the Bristol Channel from Ilfracombe to the Mumbles in South Wales. However my true love was the Islands off the west coast of Scotland and if I was to go there I would need an even more substantial vessel with a proper cabin. This is why early in 1977 I purchased a 17 ft yacht (Pirate class) from the boatyard near Weston Super Mare that had helped me to launch my previous boat.
People often ask me what modifications I have done to it to enable me to sail it. Well, it is a fairly standard vessel. The most significant devices to make life easier for me is a roller reefing headsail and my own very simple system of ropes for picking up mooring buoys. In 1977 bad health prevented me from sailing any further than Milford Haven where I found a fairly permanent mooring for the boat. In 1978 however I sailed to the Isle Of Skye off the west coast of Scotland. This was in the month of April and I took most of the month to get there because of the bad weather. I sailed via the Menai Straits the Isle Of Man and round the Mull Of Kintyre, instead of going through the Crinan Canal, as I don't think that I could operate the locks on the canal single handed. I then had the time of my life cruising around the Inner Hebrides all summer and sailing back south in the month of September.
During this voyage I had managed to cope with storms, fog, calm and in fact all the conditions that the experts had told me that I could not manage. Above all I felt that I had regained the freedom that my accident had taken from me eight years previously. Particularly when I sailed into Loch Scavaig, it was as if I'd regained the use on my legs. I had regained my ability to visit the remote places that I loved so much. It was as magic as when I first walked there 18 years earlier.