It’s a lovely morning, sunny with light winds from the northwest, although there is a ‘strong wind warning’ on the inshore shipping forecast. I check the sky, and sure enough there are mare’s tails high above, long wisps of blown cloud against the blue. It takes me quite a while to get everything properly set up, as if I am slow and clumsy this morning. By the time I get off the mooring and am motoring down the river, there is a gusty 18 knots of wind over the deck, enough for me to feel happier with a reef in the mainsail.

I set a course close-hauled across the Plymouth Sound toward the lighthouse, passing gently through the wind shadow of Drake’s Island, then heeled over, fully exposed to the westerly wind funnelling between the hills behind Cawsand Bay. Out beyond the breakwater, where the ebbing spring tide meets the English Channel, the waves are short and sharp. Coral pitches through them, rearing her bows in the air then smacking down hard, sending up sheets of spray. She pokes her nose right into a big one which breaks over the foredeck, sending solid water slopping back toward the cockpit.

Then things start to go wrong. As I tack, one of the genoa sheets runs right through its block—I had failed to check that the stopper knot was in place. The genoa flies free in the wind, and pulls the other sheet through as well. No stopper in that one either, what was I thinking about this morning? I furl the genoa and make my way forward to retrieve the sheets, leaving the Aries windvane to keep Coral slowly progressing through the waves. But the pitching is horrible, I stagger about, my knee spasms and my legs get tangled in my life line. I manage to retrieve the sheets and get them back in place, but by the time I am back in the cockpit I not enjoying myself at all—maybe I am too old for this?

No matter, I set the genoa again, and Coral again pounds through the waves. I look past the Mewstone to Bolt Tail in the distance, clear in the bright sunlight. Feeling confident again, I wonder if I might take a chance with the winds and go with the strong tide to Salcombe. Then a big wave knocks the bows round and at the same time I am startled by a crash behind me. The tiller lines are hanging loose, the block that secures them rattling around on the cockpit sole. The impact had forced the tiller over, Aries had tried to compensate and the shock had split the thick teak mount that holds the block in place clean in two. I take the tiller and steer by hand into the shelter of Cawsand Bay where I drop the anchor and inspect the damage. It clearly is not wise to even think of going to Salcombe in this rough weather, particularly without reliable self-steering.

For a while I am really fed up: somehow I had persuaded myself that the weather would be good for a final trip down the coast. But it is still a lovely day, even though the lunchtime forecast is for even more wind and rain overnight. After making some temporary repairs and a light lunch I decide to take the now flooding tide up Tamar river to the Dandy Hole where it will be sheltered and peaceful.


Some hours later Coral is upriver at anchor. I have found just the right spot where the water deepens to nearly 30 feet at high water, tucked under the steep bank of trees that curves round and shelters this bend in the river. It is dark outside, the windows an opaque black, but it is snug in here. The Tilley lamp is working well, hissing gently and throwing off a pleasant warmth; a light jazz vocal is playing through the loudspeakers. I can hear the rain pattering on the cabin roof, water gurgling past the hull as the ebb picks up, the occasional clatter of halliards on the mast and the clunk of the anchor chain.

I check my emails: my friend Sarah asks if I am sailing. I reply, “Yes, on the boat, very windy and just started tonight’s rain. I am anchored in the Dandy Hole up the St Germans River, the weather is wild around me but this is a sheltered mud hole you can only get in and out of at high tide.” Her reply pings back, “Terrific. It sounds very alive. I find it very inspiring that you have found a way of truly connecting.”

I laugh. That’s what she thinks. She doesn’t know how disappointed I was not to be able to go along the coast, how miserable I was staggering round the decks to retrieve the genoa sheets, how my knee really hurts where the cartilage is torn. She doesn’t know I wondered if I was too old for all this. But then, she doesn’t know just how quietly contended I am right now.  And she is dead right: all of this is connecting.

I poke my head through the companionway. It is truly dark.  The trees up the bank seem very close, a black shape towering above us. Now I am outside I can hear the wind through the branches, sometimes whispering, then roaring louder in the gusts. The sky is a blanket of dirty grey, the cloud hanging low down, just a paler line along the horizon showing that downriver are the bright lights of Devonport. But pinpricks of light show isolated houses on the river bank and from time to time the loom of car headlamps scans across the dark.

So am I “truly connecting”? The lesson from today is, as always, to accept what is, not push for what I wish for. The winds were too strong and too uncertain to justify taking the tide to Salcombe. The breakages were unexpected, but not drastic. My slowness in getting myself together, the mistakes I made, well, that was how I was today. All this is part of single-handed sailing.

The Dandy Hole is a refuge, and the cosy cabin a refuge within that refuge. It is good to be on my own with my boat and the wild elements. Thinking through my response to Sarah’s email gives me a sense of perspective. It helps me see that what is really important is not whether I get anywhere but that I just get on with encountering the world: pressing myself against what is possible yet working within my capabilities. Being open to what comes.

I step back into the cabin. After the clean night air I notice the hint of burning paraffin. The rain picks up and clammers on the roof for a while, then slows again, followed by the more measured rhythm of larger drops falling from the boom.  Bedtime: I must be up early in the morning to catch the first of the ebb down the river.