Having bought The Aegre in Scotland and left her with Bob Macinness in Scourie to deck her, Julie and I returned to London for the winter to earn money to pay him and to fit out the boat. As I recount in the book, all our spare time was spent thinking through not just a coastal passage from Scotland to the south of England but also a possible voyage on to Madeira and the West Indies.
Reading the books of others who had done it, making ever-growing lists of things to do, equipment to buy, knowledge to gain, and problems to solve, and all the time working, the money starting to come in.
The most thorough resource we found was the book Voyaging Under Sail by Eric Hiscock.
We had always been enthusiastic readers and now found and devoured Hiscock’s book ‘Voyaging Under Sail’, their experience-packed follow-up book to their almost all-encompassing ‘Cruising Under Sail’.
‘Voyaging under Sail’ was all about crossing oceans in small yachts on a budget and, in the early 1970s, was perhaps the best primer for anyone planning an Atlantic cruise on a small traditional sailing boat. It seemed to cover every aspect of such a voyage. We read and re-read it.
Applying what we learned from Hiscock’s books, our plans evolved. John Ridgway’s Madeira to the West Indies proposal across the Atlantic in the warm North East trade winds started to seem quite possible.
In The Voyage of The Aegre book, I discuss our evolving thinking regarding every aspect of our future voyage, from engines to liferafts to radios, chronometers and sextants, food and water stowage, everything we could think of. Following is a bit more detail on some of the items.
Radio Receiver: Deciding on no engine and being long before onboard solar or wind power generators, we elected for a simple battery-powered transistor radio receiver. We found one that could receive Short Wave and Radio Direction Finding signals (RDF).
Would it be up to receiving time signals on the short wave at sea and position finding using RDF? Could we keep it dry?
For food stowage, we used strong polythene ice cream boxes that were nested together. Fifty years later, I still have some, now in the garage, used to store nuts and bolts, still with their original gaffer tape labelling.
We planned to take a lot of eggs, and to store half of them in ‘water-glass’ a solution of sodium or potassium silicate that solidifies on exposure to air. The remainder we coated in vaseline. Would the eggs last in tropical heat?
Self-steering: During this winter, we researched and bought a self-steering system. We planned to sail the full 24 hours of every day, and there being two of us, we thought we could and should always have one of us up and on watch, looking after the boat. Auto-pilots and alarms that would go off if the boat went off course or detected a hazard ahead via radar, or if the wind direction and strength changed, were still rare on smaller sailing boats and just wishful thinking for us. Besides, we only had one single berth at sea. So one of us would always be up, but that person didn’t want to be steering all the time, but be free to do boat maintenance, cook, navigate and so on. So we needed some form of self-steering system to keep the boat on course, or at least on a consistent course relative to the wind.
Model yachts had had wind-vane-based systems for years, but yachtsmen were slow to adopt these aboard full-sized vessels. In the modern era, Chichester and Hasler, competitors in the first Observer Singlehanded Trans-Atlantic yacht race (OSTAR) in 1960, pioneered the use of wind-vane-based systems and by 1972, there were several models on the market. At the upper end was the ‘Aries’ system that used a small rotatable horizontal dipping vane to turn an oar in the water, causing it to swing one way or another as the yacht sailed along, acting as a servo and providing a substantial force via lines to a wheel or tiller. Powerful, reliable and expensive, it’s still available today.
At the other end of the scale were a variety of simpler devices, some using trim-tabs on the main rudder, others with no underwater parts.
One of the simplest was a wooden kitset system, known in the UK as the QME, comprising a balanced, horizontally pivoting wind vane. Once the boat was on the desired course, this was rotated so that one edge aligned with the wind, at which point the counter-balanced vane stood vertically. If the boat went off the prescribed course relative to the wind, the wind would blow the vane over one way or the other. This would pull or release lines attached to the tiller (which controlled the rudder steering the boat). The tiller would be pulled over so the boat would be turned back towards the desired course. Once back on course, the wind would press evenly on each side of the vane, which would come back upright. The lines would return the tiller to its previous position, the boat continuing on the desired course. With no servo-oar, this system clearly wasn’t going to have much power to bring to the tiller, but if the boat was small, and the steering light, might it not work quite well?
Back in 1972, the QME kits only cost 75 pounds. But would it steer The Aegre? I hoped so. The rig and hull of The Aegre were well balanced, and little pressure was needed on the tiller to keep her sailing in a straight line, aided by her full-length keel. We crossed our fingers hoping it would steer The Aegre and ordered one. I would assemble and try it in Scotland.
We went to the London Boat Show that winter, and amidst the glossy white fibreglass boats was the liferaft and small dinghy in which the Robertson family had survived in the eastern Pacific following the sinking of their yacht Lucille the previous year. Their book, Survive the Savage Sea, provoked our thinking.
Should we take a self-inflating life raft? In The Aegre book, I explain our arguments for and against, which led to us deciding that no, contrary to popular wisdom, we’d be better off equipping The Aegre herself to be, if needed, our liferaft. Would this prove to be a fatal decision? Aah, the confidence of youth.
Yachtsman Steven Callahan made a different choice in 1981 when planning a single-handed voyage across the Atlantic in a 6.5m sailing boat, pinning his survival plan on an inflatable life raft. In January 1982, he departed the Canary Islands for the West Indies, but his vessel was badly holed a week later when it hit an object during a night storm and filled with water. It didn’t sink immediately due to watertight compartments built in. But he did soon abandon the vessel for a six-person Avon life raft. Initially, this was tethered to the swamped yacht, but the line soon broke, and the yacht drifted away. The life raft slowly drifted westward in the South Equatorial Current. Callahan kept himself alive with water from a solar still and spearing fish. 76 days later, fishermen picked him up off Guadeloupe in the West Indies. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adrift:_Seventy-six_Days_Lost_at_Sea
Over that winter in London, there seemed to be no end to the lists and questions. But gradually, we worked out solutions, helped by Capt O M Watts’s thick mail order chandlery catalogue. Then, with some money coming into our bank account, we slowly started to buy items on the list.
A significant purchase just before Christmas, was a sextant, the instrument at the heart of navigation using the sun and the stars. Somehow, buying this expensive little item was a statement that we were serious. We purchased a ‘Bosun’ half-size sextant; I had never held a real one before. I loved its sturdy brass frame, compact polarising filters, and its promise of the deep ocean.
Then, with the help of ‘The Sextant Simplified’ by Capt OM Watts and ‘Celestial Navigation for Yachtsmen by Mary Blewitt, I started to unravel the mysteries of astro navigation. Having studied optics, I had a head start and soon learned how to check the sextant’s alignment and calibrate it. Then, I would go out into the London street to take sights on anything: the sun, moon, streetlights, and passing satellites. I lacked a true horizon and just pretended that bit.
But I was still immersed in studying coastal navigation and soon put the sextant aside for a few months, planning to practice fully with it when we were back in Scotland, where I would have a clear sky and no street lights. And even the chance of trying it at sea on The Aegre.
Another significant item was a main compass; we chose a Silva box-mounted one, which John and Marie Christine Ridgway generously bought for us. They ordered it in February, and it finally arrived in April.
And so that winter passed, working all hours to make money, which we quickly spent on boat gear for The Aegre. Then, near the winter’s end, we packed it all into the back of the Morris 1000 Traveller our friend Jamie loaned us and headed back to Scotland.
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