ME AND SAILING

By Martin McArthurInstruments


When I was quite young I was fortunate to have parents who liked to read and who encouraged us to do so too. My early reading was of Enid Blyton stories about upper middle class children having adventures (they were so posh!?), I really wanted to join them! Then I discovered Arthur Ransome and "Swallows and Amazons", also upper middle class children whose daddy was a naval officer and mummy a competent, pragmatic and sympathetic wonder woman - both also very posh; I wanted to join them too. The stories were fascinating: about how the children sailed in the lakes, then the Norfolk broads and briefly, in a story entitled "We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea", out onto the North Sea. These stories didn't set me off to sea as it was clearly a long way beyond my reach; I knew nobody who had a boat and I couldn’t afford one as I was from a working class background. There’s an expression: "If you have to ask the price, then you can’t afford it". However, I picked up some knowledge from "Swallows and Amazons", I understood a fair number of nautical terms and had a vague understanding of the principles of sailing a yacht.

The RAF intervened in my life; I was so taken up trying to learn a trade that my interest in sailing took a back seat. Why didn't I take the opportunity to join the sailing that was on offer at RAF Halton? Instead I took up horse riding and bought a motor bike; what stupid ideas they were!

A posting to Aden, on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, gave me the opportunity to sail in a very warm climate with fairly consistent winds. I was fortunate to work on 37 Sqn, Shackleton aircraft, on a shift pattern: twenty-four hours on duty, or call, and twenty-four hours, and alternate weekends, off call. Plenty of time off! Usually there would be no one else available to sail with so I would rig a GP14 dinghy with a jib instead of a mainsail and then sail single-handed, under reduced sail, out into the inner harbour which was used by dhows. On the odd occasion I would be invited on board one to drink tea with the crew; very strong tea with condensed milk, shared with numerous flies! They were very hospitable and were proud of their ship, giving me a conducted tour to see the spacious hold and the three very large diesel engines. These dhows were capable of sailing but it seemed that they used the engines more that the sails.

We were advised that we would be better to go to the yacht club, where we would be made very welcome, so off we went. When we arrived we were made extremely welcome by the French members! We were invited to drink anything we wanted from their bar; when it, unsurprisingly, ran dry we went out to the yacht and cleared out all of our supplies (stacks of duty frees!). We donated all we had to the club members and then proceeded to help them drink that too. In the evening they took us to a restaurant and fed us very well. Next day they were sailing to an uninhabited island out in the estuary for their annual picnic and, needless to say, we accepted an invitation to join them. There was plentiful wine, white and red, bread, rolls, croissants biscuits, hard and soft cheeses, cooked meats and just really good company. Sadly it all had to come to an end as we needed to sail back to Aden. The trip back was uneventful except for the 'marmite incident'. One of our crew was a fan of marmite and while he was on cooking duty one day he added a significant quantity of marmite to the meal he was preparing, with the result that it tasted really bad and very salty; he nearly went over the side!

From Aden, I returned to Leuchars and was soon back to the sailing club where I sailed frequently; I even went racing in the Fighter Command championships at the Welsh Harp reservoir in London. My crew at the time was Judy Hartshorn, a WRAF who worked in Air Traffic at Leuchars. I took my wife (to be) sailing off St Andrews sailing club. She was wearing a very pretty knitted skirt and top which suffered a lot when we capsized. She was very brave to come back after that event! I continued sailing the Albacores from the sailing club, attending regattas all around Fife; often I would make two round trips to the venue, towing two dinghies, one at a time, there and back. As our wedding approached sailing was relegated to the back seat and I stopped going to the club. I settled into married life, my wife and I were pleased when we were blessed with a baby girl, Fiona; she took up all of our spare time, so no more sailing for some years.

We were posted to Malta and spent a happy two and four months visiting the SNCOs’ beach club on Sundays after having been to the Sgts’ mess the night before. The tour ended early as 39 Sqn was posted back to UK and I, as a member of an obsolescent trade (Inst Fitt Gen, which was to become Aircraft Electrical Fitter), was posted to Kinloss there to await training into my new trade. The training eventually took place, I finished top of my class, and settled down at Kinloss, working at Nimrod ASF in charge of a team of electricians carrying out minor servicing. My luck was good, less than two years after my posting there the Maltese government had a change of heart and the British forces were invited back. Volunteers were sought, my application was in before you could say 'Jack Flash!'.

Our return to Malta was more successful than the first tour, I bought a car (a new and duty free Simca); I could now get to the sailing club easily and my daughter, old enough not to need full time attention, could happily play on the (small) beach at the sailing club. I became a member of a syndicate allocated to an Albacore dinghy which I raced as often as possible, with a reasonable rate of success; especially good as my wife was my crew. We were a little underweight for sailing such a big dinghy but in light airs we were quite successful. I have six metal trophies, and five pieces of Mdina glassware which we won in a couple of years. The RAF Malta sailing club was really lucky to be allocated an Arpege thirty foot cruiser/racer, built in France by Dufour. I watched with envy as the select few would go aboard to cruise and/or race it. It took me some time to realise that unless I pushed myself there was little or no chance of taking part. Any time she was raced there were five crew so I waited and watched until the day arrived when they were about to cast off with only four on board. I didn't wait to be invited and went on. I would not say they were hostile, just a little stand offish? During that first trip I proved that I could steer an accurate course, make coffee and tea, carry out foredeck work and assist in general boat handling; and I understood all the nautical terms used. Following this trip I went on more and more until I became a regular member of the racing crew. My position was guaranteed when it was discovered that, not only was I an instrument fitter who was prepared to tend to the wind speed and direction gear situated at the top of the mast; I also was small and light so could be hoisted up more easily than some of the "foredeck gorillas" who could be quite heavily built.

At this time I found that I could return to reading about nautical subjects and at first discovered a book called "Ulysses Found" by Ernle Bradford. He had been navigator on a ship during WW2 and with him was his only book, the Odyssey. He read it several times and from it he said that he could see several navigational clues, mostly weather, sun, moon and star sightings (the wind in the Mediterranean blows consistently from the same direction in the same area, the Meltemi, Bora and Sirocco are well known examples) and from these clues he determined that he could follow Ulysses's wanderings described in the "Odyssey". I read the book several times and became quite enthralled with it. Later I even bought the "Odyssey", and the "Iliad". Ernle Bradford, having retired from the navy, bought a small(ish) yacht and set out to follow Ulysses. His account of his travels made fascinating, and very believable, reading. It was some years later that I read about another book concerning the "Odyssey"; it was in a novel written by Clive Cussler, who mainly writes fiction around nautical backgrounds and usually drops in an interesting (non-fiction) fact or two; it concerned a book called "Where Troy Once Stood". Finding this book presented quite a problem, first attempt was Amazon books, all examples were in excess of £300! Next I went to the local library, they didn't have a copy. Fortunately they were able to obtain a copy from somewhere down south (Bedford?). I took the loan (had to extend). What an interesting read, the basic facts were that the Trojan wars did not take place in the Mediterranean, Troy was located near to where Cambridge now stands, and the war was nothing to do with Helen of Troy, it was all to do with the exporting of copper and tin, mined in Cornwall and shipped to the continent via the Wash!

While stationed in Malta, Jun 72 to Sep 75, I continued to sail dinghies and, as often as possible, offshore. The RAFSA yacht "Flypast of Cowley" could be chartered for the minimal sum of £3.00 per day; we would often charter her for a weekend. On the Friday afternoon we would carry our ready-packed bags and prepared food out to the mooring, dump everything into the cabin and cast off, heading for Syracuse in Sicily. Kit and food were stowed once we were underway; we sailed all night and arrived at Syracuse early in the morning. As soon as we were moored and cleared by port formalities, customs and immigration, it was ashore armed with Maltese (plastic) string bags on a search of small shops for cheap Asti Spumante (Italian sparkling wine) which we took back to Malta for use as a mixer served with brandy. As soon as everyone was back on board and the Asti was stowed safely we were off again, headed back to Malta where the aim was to be back on the mooring before the sailing club bar closed! The whole weekend, with a crew of six cost us £6.00 charter (£1.00 each) and whatever fuel we used. As we mostly sailed the fuel costs were minimal and every member of the crew would have several bottles of Asti Spumante costing about 12.5 pence per bottle!

I was fortunate to take part in an expedition to the Lipari Islands (north of Sicily); the skipper was the late Dave Elwell who used to take anti-seasickness pills for two or three days as he suffered badly from "mal de mer". On this trip we visited Vulcano, an adjacent island with the man feature of an inactive volcano. The whole crew climbed to the lip and was astounded to see, down in the pool of set lava at the bottom of the crater, there was a "ban the bomb" symbol laid out in stones. There was a very strong smell of sulphur in the air, little vents gave out the gas all over the sides, and bubbled out into the sea at the foot. The sea and mud on the bottom were hot, there were Italian tourists (and locals?) taking dips, slathering hot smelly mud all over themselves, supposedly for health? Some of us went into the sea to enjoy the heat but later I was told off by my wife when she had to wash the towel that stank of sulphur.

The most important event for me was to be selected to be a crew member when "Flypast" was entered in the Middle Seas race; this was one in a series of races sailed by the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) at the time and was a prestigious event. During our preparations before the race we were visited by BFBS for the crew to be interviewed by Gloria Hunniford! The race was started in spectacular fashion, our skipper was a bold aerial erector who was a very good sailor and he had us set the spinnaker as we approached the start line. His timing was perfect, just as the starting gun fired, we crossed the line. The start was in Marsamxetto harbour and we carried the spinnaker until we were clear of the harbour, only taking it down when we were at risk of broaching. This race was expected to take us a week to complete so we settled down, after dinner, into watches of four hours on six hours off so there were always two people in the cockpit, one of them fresh the other coming close to being relieved. From Malta the route of the race took us to the island of Lampedusa, on then to Panteleria, then the Egadean Islands at the western end of Sicily. After a long run along the north coast of the island we then had to sail around the volcanic island of Stromboli. From there we had to pass through the Strait of Messina, south along the east coast and then across the Malta Channel and back home. Six hundred and six nautical miles, took us six days at an average speed of four knots. During the run along the north Sicilian coast we were flying the spinnaker and, as is quite common running before the wind, the boat developed a roll which became so severe that the spinnaker boom was dipped quite deeply into the sea. The result was the spinnaker pole bent around the port forward shroud. This meant the spinnaker had to be lowered; a serious loss with a significant loss of speed. The pole was soon below deck and tools applied - we were mostly engineers! It took twenty-four hours to repair the pole and get the spinnaker flying again. We actually won Class 5; I still have the medal somewhere. The big Class 1 yachts were round in about two to three days! We sailed round the course in six days and the next yacht back to Malta (an Italian yacht) was almost a day behind us!

On another occasion I was honoured to lead an expedition to sail around Sicily following the course of the Middle Seas race. My instructions from our authorities were, as the Italians were in the preparations for an election, we must not go ashore as there was a risk we might create a diplomatic incident (who, me?). First two days went well but on the third day, as we were rounding the Egadean Islands at the western end of Sicily, the forestay parted! As things transpired it wasn't quite the disaster it could have been. We had a foresail set and that supported the mast, it was easily replaced (supplemented) by another rope so that when the time came the sail could be lowered. With an important part of the standing rigging broken I felt that this constituted a nautical emergency and necessitated a visit into a port, the nearest being Lipari. It took three days to arrange for a new forestay to be made and for us to fit it so, when we set off again, we had to set out towards Malta in order to make it back in time before the expedition ran out of time. We came close to being run down as we crossed between Sicily and Malta during the night. I had been in need of sleep and had to lie down. I gave strict instructions to the crew that if anything at all occurred that they did not understand, or caused them any concern, they were to call me immediately. I kept all my kit, oilies, welly boots, etc., on and lay on top of my bunk. I was called, not unexpected; we were in a shipping channel and a ship was approaching us having acted in an odd manner before settling down on her present course. The ship had been first sighted with her starboard navigation light (green) and both steaming lights (white) visible. This aspect changed to a point when all four navigation lights were visible (i.e. port and starboard, with both steaming lights inline). She was heading directly towards us! Then her course altered again so that the port navigation light was visible and the steaming lights had separated indicating that she was moving from right to left, across in front of us. The whole process was repeated then, at last, she turned directly towards us, at which point my crew reckoned that they needed a more experienced sailor in the cockpit. I listened to the tale and assessed the situation. We were headed south, towards Malta, with a following wind and had the spinnaker flying. As it was dark (happens at night?) the crew had switched on the steaming light so that they could see the spinnaker more clearly. What they had failed to realise was that they had changed the appearance of our boat from a sailing vessel (with right-of-way) to a power driven vessel over which the oncoming vessel had right-of-way! Through my binoculars I could now clearly see the bow wave coming towards us; there was no longer any time to drop the spinnaker to the deck, it had to be left up and we had to turn fairly sharply to port. By now I had had the engine started and we were sailing in the same direction as the steamer which quickly started to overtake us. As it passed I shone the Aldis light onto its bridge, the beam could clearly be seen on the inside roof of the bridge. There was no reaction! There was no one on the bridge! I concluded that during the night, on a lightly manned ship, there would be very few crew on duty, so that when my crew first spotted the ship it must have just reached a way-point and the duty officer had reset the autopilot course setting. The result of this was that the ship turned, slightly over-shooting the new course, then over corrected until eventually coming back to the intended course. Hence the confusing scenes (to my novice crew members) which had been compounded by our own lighting configuration. Had the ship's duty officer looked out from his bridge position and seen our lights he would have deduced that he was looking at a motor boat over which he had right-of-way as he was approaching us from our starboard side. We were obliged to keep clear! The ship passed, we resumed our course and reset the spinnaker, all was well but we had come VERY close to being run down and the big ship's crew may never have noticed?

My family, wife Anne and eight year old Fiona, along with fellow Chf Tech George Aitken and his wife Helen, took part in a charter of the club yacht "Flypast of Cowley"; the plan as to sail to Gozo, around the island in an anti-clockwise direction and stop at Mgarr (Gozo's main harbour), Marsalforn (a small harbour in the north of the island), Fungus Rock (a sheltered bay in the west of the island, surrounded by high cliffs) and Xlendi (in the south) before returning to Malta. All went well and as planned we stopped in Marsalforn where Fiona expressed an interest in the dinghy which we towed behind us. She wanted to try rowing. She managed to reduce George to a giggling idiot with her uncoordinated waggling of the oars. She would go in circles for a bit, bump into the harbour wall and she became a world champion at "catching crabs"! We caught the action on 8 mm cine film (years later transferred on to a DVD), very funny. From there we went to Fungus Rock (so called because the Knights of Malta used to collect fungus from the rocks there and use them for medicinal purposes. The anchorage is reached by a narrow passage between rocks into a circular bay. There is a small beach and a small cave, leading into another pool. We had lunch there then, to prove to ourselves that we were very skilful sailors (?) we sailed out - no engine - against the wind; there were lots of very short tacks, but we made it, all the way under sail! Our next port of call was Xlendi, a village set at the end of a long narrow bay. We went ashore for dinner to celebrate the end of a very enjoyable excursion. I opted for a local fish (Lampuki) which unfortunately was out of season. The fish was taken from the freezer and, in light of the next day's events, was not adequately defrosted, or cooked well enough. Next morning I was seriously unwell, to the extent that I went back to my bunk. George was a reasonably competent sailor and all they had to do was sail from Xlendi down the south coast of Malta, passing the island of Filfla to starboard, to the sailing club in Marsxlokk. There was only one buoy, to be left to port all the way. As it was getting dark I briefed Helen, who was on the helm, to keep a look out for the buoy and make sure she passed it on our port side, and then went back to bed. I woke up as we neared the position of the buoy and was just up off my bunk and, looking out from the cabin window, was shocked to see the buoy passing by on our starboard side! Helen said 'I thought it was still far away!'. This demonstrated the difficulty in perceiving the distance to an object when there is no point of reference at night to compare size and brightness. Not long before this incident there had been a case where a yacht was run down at night in the North Sea. One man was on watch on the yacht (the other two below and in their bunks) and when he saw the lights of a ship decided that it was a large one some distance away. It wasn't! It was a small ship, and very close! Before he could resolve the relative facts the ship ran the yacht down, drowning the two sleeping crew.

My remaining time in Malta saw me sailing, offshore, on five more occasions; two trips to Gozo, one trip to Syracuse and back, just to top up our stock of Asti Spumante (really cheap then in Sicily), then an expedition to follow the course of the Middle Seas race, round Sicily including Lampedusa, Pantelerria and the Egadean Islands. We should also have sailed round Stromboli but had to miss that as the forestay parted and it took extra time to get that repaired.

My final offshore trip of that tour was a family trip with friends Val and Clive and their two children along with my family, Anne and Fiona. We sailed to Syracuse via a little port called Marzamimi. We stopped there because it made for a good break for the kids and their mothers. We were there illegally as it was not a formal port of entry. Mostly we just stayed on board and swam; although we had to go ashore to get pizza and wine. Then we moved on to Syracuse where we formally arrived in Sicily with the customs and police and immigration, etc. From there we went on to Catania where we would have had difficulty tying up to the extremely high walls had it not been for help provided by American sailors from a big grey boat moored close by. The Americans were fascinated by our tiny (to them) boat with four adults and three young girls on board. Here we went ashore to a pizzeria where I fell asleep; nearly face down in my pizza! From Catania we headed for Taormina passing Mount Etna on the way. As we sailed close (several miles away, but still close) to the volcano we were affected by gusty wind conditions with variable directions. In the course of this disturbance our inflatable dinghy turned over and the oars fell out. This was not noticed until the oars were well and truly lost. Not a major loss, we could paddle using small paddles, and in Taormina we could swim ashore as the restaurant we used was on the beach. We stayed there for two nights; it was an idyllic spot, a circular bay surrounded by sandy beaches and the shallow water was quite warm. Departing early in the morning we set out to sail to Syracuse. The wind was quite brisk; probably a Force 4 and I recall at one time the galley was decorated with odd dollops of tomato soup - very colourful! When we arrived, after dark, in Syracuse we found only one yacht in the place where we would moor, usually busy with several boats of all shapes and sizes. We were assisted in mooring by a man who turned out to be the owner of the lone boat, it was quite a big motorboat and he was a Maltese, hotel manager who was very concerned about the weather; it was too rough for him to get back to Malta in his big motorboat! He was quite astonished to learn that we were going to sail there in our thirty foot sailing yacht, and with children on board! However he invited our wives and children to use the shower on his boat - he had one hundred and eighty gallons of water, we had a little less, our tank held just eighteen! The passage next day was unremarkable and we returned to our normal lives after a wonderful holiday. I remember the children delighting in sitting in the bow with their feet hanging down and occasionally being dipped into the sea as the yacht pitched, I also remember the good food we ate ashore, and on board, we swam a lot in the small harbours, Marzamimi and Taormina, and just thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Returning to the UK and to RAF Scampton, I was honoured to serve on 617 Sqn. I continued sailing as before, until I eventually bought my own yacht, managing fifteen further expeditions; one, on the HMSTY "Lord Portal" (fifty-five feet long), for fourteen days that took us from Rosyth, to Stavanger, Boulogne, Fecamp, Le Havre and Honfleur before returning to the UK in Gosport. I followed that with an examination for my ticket as a Yachtmaster on the RAFSA yacht "Slipstream of Cowley". Next was a surprise trip back, on detachment to Luqa with 617. During the detachment I chartered "Flypast" for three days and took some of the Sqn members on a short cruise to Gozo.

Next sailing took place from the British Kiel Yacht Club (run by the army as a joint service sailing centre. In the absence of an officer in charge I ran the offshore sailing club, including the running of a class teaching seamanship and navigation up to day skipper level during the winter months, and taking the students on practical training trips from Kiel in the summer. Altogether I ran four instructional cruises and I also took my family sailing twice.

On my return to UK I managed to make five further trips, on one I took most of the staff of the Air Electrical Bay from RAF Binbrook on a cruise in and around the Solent; did that on two occasions. Next was my examination for Yachtmaster Offshore (next step would have been Yachtmaster Ocean, but I never took that). I had an interesting week with a crew of (think there were three) RAF Wg Cdr dentists, where we cruised along the south coast as far as Poole.

My final trip with RAFSA was a near disaster. A friend had chartered the RAFSA yacht "Black Arrow" for a family cruise to St Malo (the same crew that went to Taorrmina, from Malta). We got off to an awkward start; as we approached the channel out of the Solent, in the west, the engine started playing up and we had to turn back to anchor in a bay under the lee of the land to carry out some repairs. Eventually we got under way and crossed the Channel to Guernsey. In Guernsey a decision was made to cross to the island of Hermm where we lay alongside the harbour wall near the ferry landing. The ladies in the crew, two wives and three daughters, were not entirely happy that passengers from the ferry walked past the stern of the boat so we were requested (as ladies do) to move elsewhere, to where they were not overlooked. During the course of the (unplanned) move there were mix ups, failures to communicate, delays and misunderstandings which all resulted in the yacht being grounded and ultimately losing her keel. I never sailed with RAFSA again!