There’s nothing that embraces “back to basics” as cleaning your bilges out.

This is when I’ve finished… imagine what they were like an hour earlier

For those of you that are only hazy about the parts of a boat – say that you know the front and back are “bow” and “stern” but you are way off knowing your tumblehome from your baggywrinkle – the bilges are the bit at the bottom of the inside of your boat – above the keel but underneath the floor. They’re a bit like the back of your sofa, but with added diesel oil.

Tustler is alongside in the marina at the moment. She normally lives on a mid-river pontoon – one that you have to row out to (it’s way cheaper!) but in order to make it easy to sort her out, I bit the bullet and am paying the over winter rate at our local yard. Cowes has three marinas, but this is the one run by the harbour itself. It’s about five minutes from my front door (we have a joke in Cowes, which is built mainly on a hill – it’s five minutes down to the marina but at least ten minutes back up) and therefore gives me NO EXCUSE not to get down there and do things. I had planned to spend an hour fiddling with stuff and then an hour writing, but as with anything, it always takes more time than you’d thought.

There was a guy on the next pontoon, in shorts (it’s late NOVEMBER!!!), merrily washing his already pristine decks down. I made a note to polish the stainless steel pulpit – that’s note 37 on the To Do list by the way- and rooted around in the lazerette (the stern locker) for the bucket. Then – onto the key tools for the job:

A picture of me wearing knee pads
Essential kit for the over 30s
  1. Rubber gloves (I loathe getting anything, let alone engine oil, inside my nails)
  2. Eco-friendly washing up liquid. This stuff is going to inevitably end up in the ocean, so the eco liquid is a must
  3. Knee pads.

I discovered knee pads about five years ago and really can’t fathom why on earth I’ve never used them before. Get some. For anything. Wear them while you’re walking down the street. They’re fantastic. I have a natty pair of red and black builders knee pads which mean that I walk like a drunken sailor but scrub like a victorian housemaid. Can’t do without them.

This is the forward keel bolt. It’s a bit rusty…

There’s a couple of reasons why cleaning out the bilges is one of the jobs that moves from the “decorative” list to the “health and safety” one. First is the obvious – if your bilges are filling up with water, then it’s a good idea to empty them; and if you’ve got grit and odd washers (there’s always an odd washer) and snips of electric wire and ends of tape in there, it’s likely that your bilge pump will get gummed up. The second is about the keel bolts. These are the things – bolts usually about 3/4″ wide that are fixing the large lump of lead that stops the boat falling over to the bottom of the boat. If they fail (and in tragedies they have done) then the keel falls off without any notice and the boat rolls over. Tustler is a little over-engineered with six keel bolts, but when you’ve cleaned out your bilges, not only can you clean them, you can also see how they’re doing. One of mine – the forward one – is looking a bit rusty for my liking, but the others are absolutely fine. Once the surveyor’s had a look in January, I’ll know what I need to do.

A voyage for madmen - Peter Nichols

Cleaning out the bilges isn’t a nice task. I got through three pairs of latex gloves and half a bottle of washing up liquid. But it’s one of those things that brings you closer to the boat. There’s something about inanimate objects, particularly those you spend a lot of time with- boats, campervans (possibly vintage cars), that become more “animate” when you are living alongside, and in, them. It’s documented fact that single handed sailors not only talk to their boats incessantly (perhaps if the boats could talk back they’d tell us to “shut up already”) but long time single-handers have been known to unconsciously make two cups of tea.

Still, it’s done. And I’ve bonded again with my boat. And put a heater on board to tackle damp. I don’t think the next job will be quite so easy.

Time and tide wait for no woman


One of the problems with going back to basics is that you don’t know quite how far back you should go. So many things went wrong on that trip from Bembridge to Itchenor that it’s difficult to know where to start.
Some of you will be thinking “Bembridge to Itchenor? Ah! I understand the problem” but for those of you that don’t know the Solent, or (as one Texan colleague said when I worked with him in Dallas) “those tides are so crazy you just can’t relax”. He had a point, so let me tell you how it works.

Think of the English Channel as a large rectangular tin box. Fill your box half full of water. If your box is laid flat, the the water will be an even depth across the whole of the tin. This would be the channel without any tides.
If you pick up your box and tip it very gently towards one corner, then the water will flood towards that corner. But I doesn’t do it evenly – you don’t suddenly get all the water miraculously in the top corner (if you did, you’d probably have a very wet hand). Some of the water is sluggish and flows slowly, some – the water closest to your corner- would get there quicker, and the bit in the middle will create the majority of the flow, and move most strongly.

So this is what happens in the Solent. If you want to see a model, the nice people at Associated British Ports Marine environmental research (ABPmer) who are incidentally based just by the water in Southampton, have done this nice video. The red bits are the majority of the water flow- dark blue is the least. The graph at the bottom moves from low water Portsmouth -our major port- through to high water and back again.

But how does that effect sailing between Bembridge and Itchenor?
We-eeeell. The entrance to Chichester Harbour is the third – the furthest right- of the three entrances you can see on the top right of that video. If you watch carefully, around 43 secs into the video – just when all the water around it is a calm and out flowing dark blue, you can see the entrance to Chichester Harbour turn briefly red, meaning there’s a HUGE amount of water flowing out a channel which is barely 100 ft wide. My lovely Tustler is not only 50 years old, but her engine is too. It’s an original 11hp Volvo which probably ought to be in the newly reopened Cowes Maritime museum – or the school’s tech block so that 12 year olds can really get to grips with the kind of engineering that existed before silicon chips were heard of. One or the other. So trying to plug that tide with an ancient engine wasn’t probably the best idea.

Sad thing is, I knew that really. But the other problem is that Bembridge harbour is also “tidally challenged”: there’s a sandbank you can only get over for six or so hours in every 12, and that means you don’t get to choose when you leave, or can plan to get to the entrance to Chichester without thinking about how you’re going to get OUT first.

I did mean to get up at four thirty I the morning to leave on the early tide. I DID get up at four thirty to leave on the early tide… but that was the point that Tustler, bless her, threw her own spanner in the works. She just wouldn’t start.

I went back to bed.

When I woke up, the next tide was 8 hours away (and the engine still wouldn’t start)… and that made me late for the Chichester tide… which led to me spending a lot of time gazing forlornly at the Bar Beacon. And realising that I really needed to get back to basics.

Back to basics


18:43, Monday 10th August. I’m on board Tustler, my lovely ancient, 1970 we-don’t-trust-this-newfangled-glassfibre-stuff-so-we’re-really-going-to-make-it-thick 30ft yacht. I’m motoring in flat calm between West Pole at Chichester and the Bar beacon.

Not a breath of wind in sight

It should be Cowes Week, but Covid has put pay to that. So the Solent is full of sailors who are making up for missing the racing by doing whatever sailing stuff they can think of. Back home at the Cowes Corinthian Yacht Club, there’s a “not Cowes Week” party that’s been organised at short notice and everyone’s dressed up to the nines. I’m on my way to meet three Victory sailors, mates who I only get to see for dinner once a year – they live all over the place – and they’re in a Sadler 32 waiting for me at Itchenor. Problem is, I’m punching tide.

And you don’t want to punch tide getting into Chichester.
Bar Beacon
(c) – Go and visit Nick’s blog:

20:11 Monday 10th August. I’m still punching tide outside Chichester though I’ve made about 300 yards. Result! Tide must be easing a bit. Still no wind.

So here

From (c) Chris Miller

21:30 Under Tow, Chichester harbour and Itchenor

Not my finest hour – I seem to have forgotten all my training, knowledge and the stuff that gets under your fingernails from having sailed for 20 years (and countless thousands of miles – though many of those miles are around racing marks). Tustler’s run out of diesel, and the spare diesel can is at home outside the front door, full of (what I thought was) dirty engine oil. Transpires it was spare diesel (Doh!). But I didn’t find that out till later.

I get to Itchenor, eventually, finding (in the pitch black) Little Scarlet and her crew having cooked the planned barbecue on the cooker – I’ve got the barbie on board Tustler . Next morning, I reflect, embarrassed, about the seamanship that I seem to have forgotten. It’s time to go back to school. I hope you enjoy coming with me!

Victory Class, Zenia’s crew, Cowes Week 2020. Honest

Social Racing


So… Round the Island Race 2014.  We knew a week ago it wasn’t looking good.  The kind of weather strawberry sellers pray for for Wimbledon (if they need pray at all… A fool and her money…) was with us in spades and a huge high pressure system had established itself over the South of England- and our racetrack. Somewhere on the continent- or in the middle of the Atlantic- some poor benighted sods were getting blitzed by the edges of this champagne summer, but here on the Isle of Wight we had sunshine to die for.  And no breeze.

On any other day, we’d be sat on the pontoon or a mooring, dangling our feet in the Solent and waiting for the PRO to drop the AP over AP or to send us on for an early drink in the bar.  Four knots of breeze on the Bramble Bank is a recipe  for a pile-up on the line no matter what the state of the tide-and we were in full ebb.  No self-respecting race officer would send us off. But this is the day of the RTI; the shipping in the Solent, lifeblood of the UK’s import/export livelihood has been stopped for two hours; the pilot boats are booked on double time  and something like £52million of fibreglass and wood is primed to set sail with upwards of 16,000 enthusiasts on board in the third biggest UK sports event of the year. And some of us had been up since four, so we were damned well going.

Now, I am aware that my beloved Tustler is perhaps not the most likely of boats to be considered amongst possible winners.  A 1970 Hustler 30 is more known for her seaworthiness than her speed, in much the same way as the more round and geeky teenager was praised for her better manners or her hair than any pretence to beauty (again, in the 70s). In a good breeze, Tustler coulda had class, coulda been a contender, could -possibly I admit- been somebody, instead of a bum. Which, in light airs and with the greatest respect to my boat- is what she is.  But that didn’t stop us from trying to squeeze every last bit of a knot out of her.  Along with my builder, who looked charmed and bemused in equal measure (we always take a novice) I  had a pretty crack crew.  One of them had even won Cowes week on a day boat.  Not a mean feat.

I was nagged incessantly down to the Needles (and as a result we sailed through to the back of the fleet before one) and almost caught up the multitude of fleets in front of us until the breeze lifted them out around the corner and on the better each down towards the south. But the lack of breeze where we were inevitably meant we were going to end up motoring home. Going backward  – literally – past St Cats due to a swirling tide and zero wind was the final nail In the coffin of our over-optimistic race-plan.

The RTIR is an anomaly in yacht racing. On any other weekend in mid summer there may be four or five other regattas or events on our waters, sometimes to the extent where kindly race officers will point out that the orange inflatable buoys at the end of the windward leg, yes, the orange ones you can see clearly, are not the ones that we are racing towards. ( ours are obviously the camouflaged black ones that are out of sight).  The back of the fleet (essential in order to actually have the front of the fleet) will  spend time in the bar forensically working out how the guys at the front of the fleet managed to be there, until someone actually asks- the answer will undoubtedly be either ‘race more’, ‘get a new boat’ or, (harsh for a solent tactitcian) ‘ go the right way’. At which point we retire hurt; But admittedly usually with a pint bought for us by said charming sailing rock star.

Of course, you might ask why we bother racing in the first place? Which would be a very good question. Tuning your boat up so it would be the quickest in a fleet used to be a purely market function- the first back to shore with cargo would get the best price for goods; and the quicker and more effective your boat, the more likely you were to outrun the customs cutter. These days, if you get caught by the guy at the back of the fleet, he’s less likely to hang you for smuggling.  But still,  why do we race?

There are those that go round the Island for the craic: the stag parties, the corporate jollies: the floating equivalent of the Southampton girlies who dress up in their Primark fascinations and polyester frocks for a day at the Ascot races. There are the boats – cheap or slinkily glitzy- who have a family tradition that this is the day that they sail together  despite what auntie Maxine said to uncle mike last time they met in their cups. What a friend of mine calls ‘social racing’.

Then there are the racers that care about the racing, the ones who stare forensically at tell tales for three to four hours (my neck still hurts) and every class passed is another knocked out in corrected time. There are pro sailors who race socially on the RTI, and those of us who went there in the hope of a sea breeze coming in. (It didn’t.  And a folk boat won. Of course).  This year the race was so slow that when a friend of mine finished at six pm we all nodded and thought ‘that’s good’ even though last year they were in the pub by lunchtime.

And still I wonder, why does everyone do it? It can’t be for the glory.  There are fast boats, tuned up boats, boats that race with an excellent crew, who knew the day before that they wouldn’t, couldn’t win.  Why did they leave the dock, or their beds at four in the morning, to go out onto a racetrack that favoured a boat half their size? Many of those who retired included these expert boats , pro or not, who didn’t need to take in the slo-mo sightseeing tour of the Needles to ge to the evening party they were inevitably heading to, even if this did include this years highlight of seeing one of the Solent’s best known navigators sticking his charge right on the top of Goose Rock. We giggled in the pub.  But nicely. Because that was one of our tribe, out in our element, trying his best to beat the ridiculous odds that the weather had thrown- or gently rolled- at us.

Maybe someone else can put it into words.  Maybe, maybe this is Masefield at his finest.

Although no one, ever, could feel that they were out on the lonely sea or sky on the Round the Island. It’s not that kind of race.



Antifouling as an Ood


I’m not one to go for a broody bloke.  Can’t be doing with the suspense. I’d be worrying about whether I’d said the wrong thing or put the wrong stockings on and he’d probably be contemplating what sort of thing Hamlet would eat for breakfast.  Nah, I need an up-and-at-it tell-it-how- it is kind of guy.  So if you asked me whether David Tennant was my cup of tea I’d probably pass.  Think of it as an opportunity for the rest of you.  And Matt Smith?  Well personally I like a guy who has the balls to attempt both a bow tie and a fez, but fancying a bloke that’s only two years older than my step-daughter does seem a bit unseemly.  But Peter Capaldi?  Give me a smooth man with an edge any day. Perhaps one that’s just a little bit risky, a little bit uncertain. Mmmmm*.

So you might be wondering what the recent casting of Dr Who has got to do with the maintenance programme on a 30′ yacht.  To be honest, if you’ve never watched Dr Who, and wouldn’t want to, then you’ll be wondering what the hell I’ve been going on about anyway- but hang on in there.  There is a point to this.

I’ve been spending a bit of time underneath Tustler and one of the big ideas at the beginning of January was to strip all the antifoul back and clean up and polish underneath. Up till now, I’ve not been the most attentive of her undersides: I’ve never really been planning to race her so the fact that her hull and keel have the smoothness of surface that you might find on the shins of a hockey player or a practice tee for first time golfers hasn’t really worried me that much.  But for some reason this year I had big aspirations (that’s what comes of going away for new year and dreaming too much); and we’ve also found ourselves in the yard next to Drumbeat, a beautiful (and fast) Contessa 32 whose undersides are the equivalent of putting Beyoncé or Jennifer Lopez- or even Pippa Middleton depending on your taste next to, well, probably me actually.

Of course, just like the idea of me going to the gym everyday to do a legs, bums and tums class (I can look like Beyoncé, honest:the guys in the adverts said so) fairing off Tustler’s gluteus Maximus was never going to happen either.  So I had to man up and admit to myself that I had neither the time nor the inclination to do all of that and settle for sanding the last coat off as far as possible to make a surface that would stick.

For those of you who know about Antifouling, you’ll understand the dire warnings about working with the stuff. I sort of knew it was mildly dangerous but when at least three blokes of the Peter Capaldi persuasion (I.e up-and-at-’em types) had issued dire warnings about face masks and goggles I not only went off to B&Q to get stuff, but bought the upgraded breath-through-your-ears respirator thingy.  And hence, I set to my poor boats bottom dressed not unlike (what I remembered to be) an Ood.


Ok, so it’s possible that I didn’t actually look like this- for one thing, my goggles, like the ones that you had for exploding sodium over the Bunsen burner, very soon had a patina of fine black spots such as you get from using a 4″ roller too close to your face (and so did my face).  And the face mask had not one but two different filters on the outside: but admittedly didn’t look like undercooked chipolatas, so maybe I’m exaggerating.  Perhaps just a little bit.   But it felt like I looked like an alien. And my Dickies overalls do bear a resemblance to Ood kit, though mine (designed especially for women, and therefore obviously with the waist incompletely the wrong place) have a natty red lining to the collar.

Of course I might be going the wrong way about it to attract my very own Peter Capaldi.  It occurs to me that the Ood were actually baddies** in the canon of Dr Who characters, and doing a skimpy job on the underside of my beloved Hustler doesn’t really show me as a stickler for anything much.  But she will be back in the water much, much quicker than if I’d tried to make a Pippa Middleton of her (or indeed me). And maybe there will be a sailing guy out the that likes the occasional woman in a mask. Going slightly slowly-of course, so he can catch up.

*just in case you really want to laugh at my misadventures with blokes, do dip into Rosy’s 2012 Valentine   No Oods; but no Peter Capaldis-or even Matt Smith’s  either.


**I am corrected -rightly that the Ood weren’t baddies.  Apparently they were a ‘gestalt race of telepathic humanoids’ well, I didn’t know that.

The Diesel Engine as Porn


Laid waste by a chest infection last week, my self-promised maintenance weekend on the boat was poleaxed before I could even attempt to stick a sharp screwdriver through the oil filter to twist it off.  Outside the window of my flat, the Solent looked flat and inviting with bright sunshine and what seemed like little wind.  A perfect weekend for scrubbing out bilges or even having a go at the endless woodwork.  Instead I’m down to a choice between Series three and four of the A Team (the original 80s box set) or tidying up the endless amount of books that seem to have erupted onto the floor of the sitting room since I finally emerged, Livingstone-like from the box jungle that had previously been the spare bedroom.

Diderius Erasmus once wrote ‘when I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any over, I buy food’.  I know this, because it is printed on the side of a bag that you can buy in Waterstones, and which two of my friends (two!) have bought me in the last couple of years.  (I suspect they were the ones who have helped me move house).  Any reader will know that Books tend to expand- to breed if you will- to fill the space that there is available (and just a little bit more- just like us humans). Any reader who lives alone in a four bedroom semidetached house with three receptions rooms will understand quite how many books that makes.  Well, you will if you’ve ever moved house after living there for ten years.  I reckoned that I must have had something like 40 boxes of books prior to moving.  And throwing them out feels just like a cull- you know you have to do it but it feels inhumane somehow.  Perhaps the next generation of books, instead of being electronic, will be bred like lemmings: be able to throw themselves off a cliff.  Or, in the case of books bred in the West Country, into the closest fast moving body of water.

Many readers might also recognise the ‘read by osmosis’ theory of purchasing books.  For those of you that are able not to go near a bookshop without having actually finished reading all the tomes that you own, I salute you.  I still hold that if I own a book then I will know it’s content at some point. The reading of it seems optional.  It must do.  Otherwise how do I explain the fifty or more books now on my bedside bookshelf which I’m sure I’ve never opened.  Either that or they are the most unmemorable collection ever.

So back to the pile of books – around a hundred- that are saving me from having to Hoover the lounge carpet. Inevitably there are a large pile which are vaguely on a subject related to sailing. I’ve managed to sort them into piles- ‘racing tactics’; ‘race trim’; ‘the book of Sail trim’; ‘the rules 2009-2012’ all in one stack. ‘Ocean navigator’, ‘the pocket book of stars’ ‘complete Yachtmaster’ and a variety of logbooks in another. ‘Cruising alone’ ‘The logical route’ and ‘last man across the Atlantic’ go into the pile along with the sailing -related novels by Sam Llewellyn of which I’m fond.  I’m just sorting out a pile topped by a pamphlet called ‘using your collapsible lobster pot to best use’ when my builder friend drops in, as it’s started to piss it down and he’s in the area.

We retire to the (visible) chairs with a cup of tea.  Well, he does, and I’m back on the floor sorting. Yes, there are still more. The 1953 edition of ocean navigator gives way to a much more up to date 1980s copy and I wonder if a late 70s version of the Atlantic wind pilot has any relevance now to post global warming weather systems.  I decide to keep it just in case (the plea of the book addict. Now you know why I had 40 boxes of the things).  I begin to unearth, finally, the manuals that might be of use for refitting the boat, many of which have featured in that invention of satan, the Amazon ‘selected for you’ list. I find that I have three different manuals on Diesel engine maintenance, along with my beloved Calder. There’s another one on ‘How Boats Work’ which you might imagine was the sort of thing I’d give to my ten year old niece for Christmas, but there’s been many a bloke in the yacht club writing down the vital statistics of this particular illustrated beauty.  You should see the picture on the centrefold!  I have The Complete Anchoring Handbook (not something I’m good at.  I’ve read that one from start to finish) and two books on sail maintenance and repair.  Two books, note, but I don’t own a palm.

Somehow in this lot is an illustrated folio sized hardback called ‘Make Better Love’ with a picture of a couple of mostly naked 1990 models on the front of it (humans I mean, not boats) .

‘Cor!’ Says my mate, sipping his builders. ‘Porn!’

‘I can’t remember where I got that’ I reply, blushing

‘Youve got loads’

‘Huh?’ I say

‘Three books on Diesel engine maintenance. One on outboards and a guide to touching up your gel coat.  And you wonder why we get on! Those are the kind of books a girl should have. Pure self-indulgent engineering porn’


What have I let myself in for?


Saturday morning. It’s the 25th January, and, for once, it’s quite a nice day. It’s the day I’ve set myself to start getting to grips with sorting out Tustler, my lovely (and somewhat resilient) 30′ yacht.  She’s had to be resilient.  As a first time owner, with a history of bad engineering experiences (ancient and crumbling camper vans), a sketchy idea of how to clean a boat scratched together only from yachting courses, and absolutely no idea of what I was doing with a engine, I’m really probably not the choice of owner a self-conscious and mildly prideful yacht would choose.  As it is, she conveys disapproval and reproach in a way only a yacht owner could understand was possible.

This year’s maintenance plan is really last year’s maintenance plan: but I was so nervous about doing the wrong thing I didn’t really get going.  I have a good plan of what the wiring all does- up to the point where it becomes a piece of modern abstract installation art on the bulkhead made of incomprehensible wires attached to god knows what. I know that the bilge paint needs re-doing, and that all of the wood needs varnishing. (That’s not a surprise- all the wood always needs varnishing.  A friend of mine started doing his half way up the Bristol Channel once – under motor- on the first delivery trip home). I think that the anti foul probably needs stripping back, and that the mast lights need re-running.

But as to how.  Well, I’m a bit lost at that.

So today I’m going to duck it a bit.  I’m going to go and buy some proper propylene glycol antifreeze (all the chunky oddly bearded experts on YouTube sites like ‘boatsUS’ and ‘WestMarine channel’ advocate the pretty pink stuff with a green label) and if in doubt I’ve found that you can’t go wrong with another purchase of wet and dry glass paper. Surely going to B&Q is the first step in a maintenance program? It’s definitely much less scary than, well, actually getting on board.  I can start properly, tomorrow.

If it doesn’t rain.