Curious dreamer AND practical realist

In my last post – On Becoming a Skipper, there are two adjacent branches of the mindmap: ‘curious dreamer’ and ‘realist’. I have put a key against each one, because I think they are both important. 

You might say: “What! A dreamer and a realist? There’s a crew problem before you start.” Well, yes, there could be, but we are talking about one person – you, the skipper, plus a great deal of common sense. 

The practical realist keeps his/her feet firmly on deck and practices the art of the possible – here – now. The realist says, “This is the problem, these are the current resources available – (time, crew, experience, money). This is the solution, Let’s get on with it.”

The curious dreamer says, “What if. . .?” The dreamer uses his/her imagination and creates a wider framework for the realist to work in. The dreamer in you stretches the boundaries, expands the horizon, looks beyond the present and explores the possibilities. The realist in you expresses the solutions in current time. You need a realist when caught in a gale on a lee shore – although if he had listened to the curious dreamer he might have been able to avoid it in the first place.  

The realist will say, ”Your great-grandfather was an example of a practical man. Look how he coped with that storm.”

The next morning it moderated a bit when we soon got and entered the Bay of Biscay, when the wind shifted around to the South West and blew very heavy and we had to heave to. We found her a miserable sea boat. She would not come up and take the seas end on, but merely fall off and allow the seas to roll over her in the trough of the sea. We smashed away a good deal of the lee bulwarks to try and relieve her. After two or three days the wind veered to the North West, still blowing very heavy, when we had to get her on the other tack and smash away more bulwarks. (here)

The dreamer would say, “But he was a dreamer too. Look how things opened up for him because he signed on for that trip to Shanghai. He saw there were possibilities that would come out of the voyage and he took the opportunities when they came to him. Surely, he was both a dreamer and a realist. The two work together.

He went and told the Captain, when I was called aft and explained to the Captain that I had served 4 years at sea mostly in the Bristol Channel. When I was appointed pilot. We worked down the north shore to the Nash when the wind went a little more to the north, and the next morning we was going between Lundy Island and Hartland Point. We had a fine time down passed the Scilly Islands. The Captain was very pleased with my pilotage and thanked me very much. He hoped to repay me before we parted, which he did by lending me books and instruments and learning me navigation, that, within a fortnight of terminating the voyage, I went in at Plymouth and passed my first examination! (here)

So what of this blog? The realist will tell you, “This is not sailing. This is talking-about-sailing. It’s not the real thing at all.” The dreamer will say, “Ah, yes. But look how the framework changes. Every time I step on board I have a better understanding of what I am doing and a greater excitement in carrying it out. There are possibilities here that I have a mere inkling of, and, if the past nine months are anything to go by, many more that I no nothing about out about yet.”

Yesterday we went to the theatre in Plymouth. On the way we stopped to check Blue Mistress was secure. At 1700 on a Saturday evening in August in one of the crowded anchorages of Devon, in the drizzle and wind, only one boat was away from its moorings. This summer is for the curious dreamers. The practical realists are pacing up and down in frustration.

On Becoming a Skipper

“Make a list. Then work through it.”  

Good advice generally, but a list implies some sort of linear order – one item written after another. However you look at it, your brain makes the items at one end of the list more important than the other. And what happens to the items in the middle? Working through a list takes time, and, the human condition being what it is, the enthusiasm that greeted the construction of the list and dealing with the first entries will wane as time goes on. 

OK, a list works if you can afford to forget a portion of its contents, but what happens if your occupation involves items that are all of equal importance – each relying on the other for success? 

Take, for example, the knowledge, skills and attitudes required to be the skipper of a small boat, particularly if you want to sail single-handed. You need to get it all right, or at least a good enough proportion of it – in your own style. It might be helpful to know what Robin Knox-Johnson or Ellen MacArthur did in similar circumstances but they’re them and you’re you, and the circumstances won’t be exactly the same, and they’re not there to help you anyway. 

So how do you start? Well, “Make a list. Then . . . . .”   No, there’s another way, using a mindmap. 

Below is a group of skills and attitudes for skippers that I first saw listed in a book – (and my apologies for not noting which one), early last year. It struck me as interesting, well thoughtout and a good starting point from which to build my own skills, so I copied it down. Then I forgot all about it. I found it again this week. 

This is an exercise in getting it all together – and keeping it together. It’s an exercise in converting someone else’s thinking into my thinking. If it appears to you to be an exercise in the blindingly obvious, bear with me, some of it is – but these are the early stages of a much longer enterprise. 

Here’s how I’m going about it. 

Step One: Create a new mindmap. Call it, in this case, ‘On Becoming a Skipper’. Add two branches – ‘Practical Skills’, ‘Theoretical Skills’. Add sub-branches for each set of skills, taken from the original list. Now we’ve developed an image of a complex subject which appears all on one screen.  However, at this stage, the content is still someone else’s work.  

01. On Becoming a Skipper
Step Two: Begin to sort the branches by adding icons based on your own style and needs. Pencil = work on this, cross = not ok, tick = ok and so on.  
02. On Becoming a Skipper
Step Three:Think about it for a while. A couple of days after producing this, I added ‘rigger’ and ‘purser’, the latter being very relevant at the moment.  The point here is that it is not a fixed picture, we can alter it at will. 
03. On Becoming a Skipper
Step Four: Rearrange the skills and attitudes into some sort of order that suits your current needs and style. What are you going to do with what you are learning here? (Or, in this case, what am I going to do?) 
04. On Becoming a Skipper
Step Five: Keep this image at the front (or back) of your mind. Every now and then something else will occur to you and you can add to it. This is a work-in-progress to maintain a balanced approach to growing as a skipper in an age when traditional apprenticeships are not always available or appropriate. The sea is still the sea, sailing is still sailing, and we all need to learn the same stuff regardless of the way we do it. 

As for me, I shall revisit this file regularly. I can see where I need to be working now and I shall add another level of branches, going deeper into each topic, but always the overview will be there.

Maybe we shall look at it again later in the year and see what’s happening.   

Inshore Craft 1

“We treat the past as a foreign country, when, in reality, it was occupied by the same people as us.”

I’ve forgotten who said that but I was reminded of it when I saw that Edgar March’s “Inshore Craft of Britain: In the Days of Sail and Oar” has just been republished.

It was first published in 1970, and covers small working boats of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. Reading it, I was fascinated that an island as small Britain should have developed so many different shaped boats to perform more or less the same thing. Each locality had grown a different tradition. These working boats were, in effect, visual versions of regional accents. Thirty five years later, I am still fascinated.

Three reasons for liking this book:

1. For the boats themselves – as complex objects, with lines and detail, some more elegant than others, but all with a functional beauty that fitted their surroundings.

2. They were true examples of the the concept of ‘form following function’, made more substantial in that they were the livelihood of their owners and crew. Here were small boats constructed in local yards round the coastline of a small island. They varied in shape, in design and in size, not just from region to region but often from harbour to harbour, the only limitation being in the wood and materials used in their construction.

On the face of it, looking back from our mass-produced, communication-efficient world, it can be difficult to understand why this Falmouth Workboat, photographed off Polruan in Cornwall 

Falmouth Quay Punt

should differ so much from this Coble, photographed at Seahouses in Northumberland.

sea 062

After all, they were built for more or less the same purpose.

In fact, the answer isn’t so difficult. Take one island, facing north, south, east and west; take tides, currents, prevailing winds; take a long, varied coastline, some stretches steep and rugged, some shallow with sand and mud, some exposed to the weather, some with large safe deep harbours, some with just a rock or two for shelter. Add a function – fishing, trade, piloting, transport.

Even today, these factors would make a difference to shape and form, but think what centuries of experience of local conditions would do. Think about the materials that would be available in one part of the country that weren’t in another. Think about the traditions that would have grown up around a particular coastline. And to really understand what it was like, you need to take one other factor into account:

3. The owners and crew who sailed in them. They represented the way of life of countless small communities. This was a world where experience counted, where fathers passed their skills onto their sons and, less so in those days, their daughters. Here were local communities, not necessarily isolated from one another but certainly separated, who developed their own craft specifically for the coastal conditions in their area.

No different from us today – they faced the problems of the time and had to solve them. They laughed like us, they cried like us, they succeeded, they failed, they loved, they hated – just like us. They knew what hard work meant. Some did it well, some badly, a few brilliantly. Some were successful financially and went on to do more, some were less so. But their knowledge, skills and attitudes came from doing, from experiencing first-hand. It took longer to gain them, but the best results lasted as long, if not longer, than ours will today. Those hard-won abilities created individuals in a world that needed individuals.

There is one major difference between are ancestors and us today. We have access to more knowledge and more skills, and at a far younger age, than those who came before us could possibly imagine in their wildest dreams – (think Google, endless courses, books, journals and DVDs). But, despite this, our basic ability to absorb and use our new-found knowledge has not grown in line with our sources. In the end, we learn best by doing too – and it still takes time. All the rest of the stuff that comes our way is ‘on approval’ – and we are becoming increasingly swamped by it, struggling to be individuals in a sea of often irrelevant information.

So what’s your point, Bill?

I don’t have a romantic view of the past but I do have a respect for those who learn from experience – and I don’t care whether they were born in 2007 or 1007. (At this point, it would be easy to bang on about our not learning the lessons of the past, but that’s for others to do).

What I would like to do is to stay with boats and to use the concepts above – a) boats themselves, b) the fact of their form following their function, and c) the crews who sail in them, and, as I travel around the coasts not just of the UK but further afield, record, if I can, examples of craft that are being used today that represent this long line of experience. No doubt, some will exhibit a high quality of craftsmanship, some less so. But it isn’t the quality I want to pick out here. What interests me are the solutions to maritime problems that work in particular circumstances. Like this small fishing boat moored in Trikeri on the Pelion Peninsular, on the Aegean shores of Greece.


I do not pretend to be an expert. Inevitably, my efforts will be random observations and certainly not comprehensive. But, this is not an academic study, it is a record of small pleasures, pleasures I believe I share with many other people.

It is also a record of concern, a concern I also share with many others. Times are changing so fast that much hard-won, long-term experience is being sacrificed in the name of easily-found, short-term expediency. We badly need to hang on to some of that experience.

So, my entries to this blog over the next year or so will include an ‘Inshore Craft’ series of images. I hope they will be of interest to you. Please feel free to add your own if you wish.


New phase in the Blue Mistress story

Today marked a new phase in the Blue Mistress story.

It was time to decide on exactly what the spring refit will involve – jobs, time, costs.

Richard from the boatyard came and helped move us forward – very diplomatically I thought, although he needn’t have been. We agree where we are going with the boat, we just needed to agree the process of getting there.

Waiting for refit - January 07

Basically, we have to ensure the deck is watertight before we can do anything below. So this will be the focus for 2007.

It will involve removing all the deck fittings, including some recent ones, reseating them, replacing and making watertight the lazarette hatch covers, replacing the window ports, repairing grp, stripping and recoating the deck. The mast will be removed and the rigging checked.

She is booked to come out of the water and placed under cover in March, and will need to be dried out (with dehumidifiers) first.


That’s all I’m going to say on the subject for while. It’s grit your teeth and cross your fingers time.

The spray hood needs repairing

The cold/flu, or whatever it was, is finally leaving me and I am beginning to think clearly again.

Spent a very pleasant few hours on board this morning “messing about”. Bright sunshine and enough wind to dry the boat out with both hatches open.

I removed the spray hood and have taken it to the sailmakers for repairs.

There are two problems with this spray hood. Firstly, I am pretty sure it wasn’t designed for Blue Mistress. Particularly irksome is the fact that the retaining straps are in the wrong place, especially the starboard one – (see below. In the image the forepart is unhooked). Guess where it has ripped.

Spray Hood

Secondly, the main sheet track stretches the full width of the forepart of the cockpit. This means that when the sheet is pulled in tight, it can chafe the after edge of the spray hood. I don’t normally sail with the hood up, but did need it on a couple of memorable occasions. That’s when I discovered the chafing.

Most of the damage was done on the mooring during rough weather. The main sheet came adrift allowing the boom to swing. My fault, I should have double-checked before going ashore.

I have now attached the main sheet on the end boom ring, and am watching the track to be sure that it takes the different angle.

The hood will need to be reinforced, with an extra ‘gusset’ on the starboard side, and we’re considering a pvc strip which will allow the sheet to slide more easily if the same situation arises again.

The Eddystone Lighthouse

On Friday, I sailed to the Eddystone Lighthouse. The Inshore Waters forecast reads:Lyme Regis to Lands End including the Isles of Scilly.
24 hour forecast:
Wind: west 4 or 5, backing southeast 3 or 4.
Weather: fair.
Visibility: good.Sea
State: moderate becoming slight.
  The Eddystone is west of south out of Plymouth, some 10 miles off Rame Head. The gps says it’s 24.2 nautical miles from Blue Mistress’ mooring to a point one mile eastward of the light and back.A steady south east wind means a close reach out and a broader reach home.It’s a great day to go, if you start early.  I start late, dropping the mooring at 1220 on a falling tide. The clouds are beginning to clear.The wind is heading me up the Tamar, so, to make up some time, I motor into Plymouth Sound, passing across the ‘bridge’, the narrow passage that spans the shallows west of Drake Island. I set sail immediately, pleased to shut down the engine. It feels like cheating to motor the previous 2 miles. Second error, on the mooring, I rigged the working foresail. It seemed right at the time, but, now we are sailing, it is obviously too small and heavy for the wind. It takes Blue Mistress across the Sound and out to sea but too slowly. I will have a good sail, but I won’t make the Eddystone and back by dark.I delay changing to the lighter jenny to watch Brittany Ferries’ Pont Aven to pass. There is no clue to whether it is heading for Roscoff or Santander.Third error, perhaps less of one, I am too close and she takes our wind – but not till she is at least a quarter mile passed us. We roll and flap for a while in the turbulence and she swings swiftly on her way – oblivious. 

Fourth error, I have forgotten to rig the jack lines, which I only remember when I am in the bow changing headsails. The swell is not particularly uncomfortable, but there is always a point at which the voice on your shoulder reminds you – mine can be quite strident sometimes, like an overexcited parrot! But the jenny makes all the difference; we romp along at over 5 knots, into the sun, with the lighthouse visible on the horizon. Now it’s a question of will we be able to get there and back before dark? I set a time of 1530 to turn for home. 6 knots

Fifth error, or rather, a problem. I can’t get the autohelm to maintain a course, which is ridiculous because it’s always been fine before. Is it Murphy’s Law that says that if something can go wrong, it will? I drop all ideas of doing those useful “little jobs about the boat” and settle down to sail her myself. And what a fantastic afternoon’s sail – straight out to sea, a clear blue sky, a slight swell and enough wind to carry us along merrily. Her Majesty’s navy was on exercise when we left, but disappeared after an hour or so. There were a couple of other yachts heading for Plymouth and two or three fishing boats and that was all. Behind me, I could see far down the coast of Cornwall to the west and along the Devon coast to the east The Eddystone Lighthouse

At 1540, the lighthouse bore due West, 1 mile, (how good timing was that?),and we turned for home, increasing our speed to an average of over 5.5 knots to be back in the Sound a half hour ahead of time.    

We goose-winged gently up the Tamar on a dying wind as the sun set ahead of us over Cornwall and, having picked up the mooring and set the boat right, I rowed ashore in the gathering gloom. 

I wrote this with the thought that I would just state the facts (that parrot again), but I cannot avoid the romance of it. I am sure it means little to anyone else, but I find it difficult to write this without a leap in my heart – on Friday, I sailed to the Eddystone Light.