It’s easy to be nostalgic for the simplicity of pre-technology sailing, but we can still be in control of our communications says Tom Cunliffe


Life used to be so simple, didn’t it! It wasn’t all roses though. Back in the days before the general comforts of electronics, I had a few bad trips in the North Sea. My old gaff cutter had nothing hooked up to the batteries apart from running lights, a VHF radio and an echo
sounder. Navigation offshore was by sextant, but if it stayed cloudy we were down to dead reckoning alone, which is how things were one time on passage fromStavangerboundforthe Dover Strait.

The passage was a flyer with a strong northwest wind that just went on rising, and the only
refinements for our EP were bearings grabbed from passing oil rigs. We were taking a bit of a pasting and I had just kissed goodbye to the foot-high lee bulwarks, swept away by a sea complete with most of my safety gear. It was encouraging to see the Jonbuoy raft inflate itself so bravely, but I wept at the thought of its replacement cost as it sailed off towards an unfathomable future in the German Bight.

On the third night out, my wife started her watch at 0400. The weather had come on murky and it was so dark in the cockpit that she literally fell over Martin Smith who was at the wheel. The pair of them collapsed in a giggling heap as the boat roared on at nine knots into the foggy blackness.

A stink of gas blew down on the gale. That meant a rig to weather, but not so close
that its lights pierced the raging night. They pressed on, but Martin stayed up as an extra pair of eyes while Ros clung to the wheel.

The mist cleared with the dawn and when I came on deck, Martin, who looked as if he needed a shave, pointed out Smith’s Knoll lightship rising to the seas like a vision from the BBC’s 1950s tone poem – ‘To fish Smith’s Knoll / Where the big seas roll….’ They were certainly rolling that morning as we blasted by to disappear again into the heaving grey nothingness, bound for the North Foreland 85 miles away on course steered, distance run, a wing and a prayer.

In those days, I always felt a lifting of care when I slipped my dock lines at the beginning of a cruise. With no technology, my crew and I effectively ceased to exist until we sought out a public telephone or returned home to face whatever music had tuned up in our absence.

Our only weather bulletin was the Shipping Forecast, crackling dimly across the miles on Long Wave radio, with no more than a 24-hour prognosis and the vital ‘general synopsis’. Five- day forecasts were unheard of, so we read what we could into our home-made surface pressure charts and cast our fate to the wind. The occasional hammering was inevitable, but everyone was in the same boat and the lack of knowledge bred a philosophical acceptance of what could not be changed. In its way, it freed us from worry.

When I think about the general progress in communications technology for cruising sailors, I’m more than grateful. Cash of any denomination is available from holes in walls more or less anywhere, being caught out by weather on a coastal voyage is a thing of the past except for the chronically unlucky, our far- seeing echoes pierce the fog and email keeps us in touch with the world. But there’s the rub!

Useful it may be, but via email our creditors can hassle us, insurance brokers can demand premiums with menaces, and people we don’t even know can wind us up with stupid tweets.

The passport to happiness is having the discipline to switch it all off when we don’t really need it. With chart plotters we’ll never again thrill to find Smith’s Knoll materialising out of the mist, but by controlling our communications we can still experience the deep happiness of the simple sailor letting go the last springline and setting course for an unknowable horizon.

Tom Cunliffe