Roger Taylor's extraordinary solo small boat voyages have taken him to the highest latitudes so why is he swapping his Corribee for a slightly bigger Achilles?
Roger Taylor and Mingming II will be on stand G107 at the 2013 Tullett Prebon London Boat Show to discuss his solo adventures and offer advice to adventurous yachtsman.
As the pink-trousered racing set tug on their heavy weather salopettes to start the day’s dragon racing at the Royal Corinthian Yacht club on Essex’s bustling river crouch, no-one notices the club’s most adventurous sailor and greatest navigator as he methodically prepares for his next Arctic cruise.
Perhaps it’s not surprising. Few people would look twice at the lonely figure in mastic-spattered trousers working away on a scruffy old hull propped up on a trailer.
For years, Roger Taylor has been going nowhere slowly… deliberately so. but now, with a longer boat, his solo perambulations across the North Atlantic, Denmark Strait and Norwegian Sea are about to speed up – if you can call half a knot speeding up.
‘On a 60-day voyage, that means an extra 720 miles further north,’ he says as he crams more polystyrene into the lazarette of Mingming II, his newly acquired Achilles 24, which has a waterline a full one metre (3ft 3in) longer than his last boat. Most of us would extrapolate this boost in boatspeed to estimate the reduction in passage time to reach the Café de Paris in Cherbourg or the North Sea Yacht Club in Ostend. Not so Roger, a 65-year-old investment management executive, who goes to sea to get away from land – and stay away from it for as long as his wife Brenda and business demands will allow.
‘The sea is my destination. I’m not a caravanner,’ he says uncompromisingly. Roger sailed 20,000 miles in six years aboard the first Mingming I, a junk-rigged 20ft Corribee. His voyages included a foray into the Davis Strait west of Greenland, a circumnavigation of Iceland, and a voyage to the isolated Arctic island of Jan Mayen. In 2006, he retired in mid-Atlantic from the Plymouth to Newport Jester challenge and in 2008 completed the Azores Jester challenge in 21 days. This would be serious stuff for any yachtsman, let alone a solo sailor in an engineless boat 9ft shorter than the dragons flitting round the cans on the other side of the sea wall from the boatyard where Roger is working.
While Roger doesn’t believe in carrying a liferaft, he does believe in sailing one. Both the Corribee and now the Achilles are foam-filled fore and aft. The ends are completely sealed off behind watertight bulkheads and of course are very light. ‘Yachtsmen fill up their lazarettes with outboards, anchors and inflatables, which doesn’t make for good sea-keeping,’ he says.
There are no sliding hatches on either boat, all openings are sealable. The Corribee’s companionway is also sealed up and entry is made down through a tiny hatch, over which Roger rigged a collapsible sprayhood for use in light or rainy weather. Its frame is made of domestic copper pipe, so that when a wave bends it out of shape – as it once did, temporarily pinning Roger beneath the hatch – he simply bends it back into shape when the tempest is over. ‘It makes an enormous psychological difference having such floatation and water-tightness when a screaming gale sets in,’ he says. ‘The cockpit fills up, but it doesn’t matter as it’s so small.’ Roger created a second bridgedeck on the Corribee, also filled with foam, to make the cockpit smaller, so that as he steers with tiller lines from the hatch in the coachroof, being pooped is not a problem. ‘I analyse every risk, nothing is left to chance.’
The 15ft ash sweeps lying along the foredeck, which Roger uses to propel himself in and out of harbour when there’s no wind, will also double as a jury mast or a jury steering oar, should either be required. They can also be used as an A-frame, should he want to lower the mast.
Mingming I is fitted with aft guardrails – which Roger calls his garden fence – but forward they are removed. He feels the demarcation between sea and ship that guardrails create is both fruitless – they will not prevent a grown man going overboard – and psychologically wrong: ‘People feel they are safe if they’ve got them, but one hand for the ship, one for yourself and wearing a harness at all times is what counts,’ he says. ‘I never go on deck without clipping on’.
With such low freeboard, the Corribee is an easy boat for a man overboard to haul himself back aboard. The Achilles has higher topsides, which concerns Roger: ‘But you can’t have everything, as we know, all boats are a compromise.’
There were 20 ‘factory built’ junk-rigged Corribees and Mingming I still has her original mainsail. ‘I replaced the top two panels, but the junk rig is very easy on the sail,’ said Roger, ‘it doesn’t flog, it’s an easy angle to the wind and of course it is fully battened.’
Just below the rubbing strake at the stern of both boats, Roger has fitted chainplates for Jordan series drogues. Both boats also have a skeg-hung rudder: ‘I wouldn’t go to sea without one. The skeg gives so much directional stability for the self-steering,’ he says.
His new boat, the triple-keeled Achilles, was a water-filled wreck lying unloved and neglected in Neyland, Milford Haven. He paid £1,500 for her including the outboard, which he will sell on ebay.
‘It’s a noble thing to give an old boat a new life and the environment can do without another new boat squashed into some marina,’ he says. ‘No production boat is seaworthy enough for what I want to do, and I feel I’ve asked enough of Mingming I. After all, she’s only an estuary boat. I can customise the Achilles to my specification and end up with a seagoing craft for under £6,000. I’m not concerned about speed.’
There are two major aspects of Mingming II that Roger will benefit from. The first is having two berths available, which means he’ll always have a leeward bunk. He was thrown out of Mingming I’s single berth two years ago, breaking a rib, because it was on the windward side. The second is a tiny forehatch that allows him to work at the mast without going on deck.
As with the Corribee, he will glue carpet cuts right around the Achilles’ hull from the topsides to the coachroof – this takes care of warmth and condensation. ‘When you are at zero degrees, it’s amazing how much difference it makes. my body heat and the heat from my spirit cooking stove soon make the cabin very cosy.’
He keeps one locker beneath the stove uninsulated and this acts as his ‘freezer’. In the Achilles, he has already taken off the cast iron central keel and is replacing the 1in studs before re-fitting it. For her junk-rigged mast, Roger purchased an aluminium lamp-post for £700. ‘It’s a lot cheaper than a custom- built mast, which would have set me back £2,500,’ he says. The exposed coachroof windows will be replaced with more seaworthy portholes.
He will be ready to launch in the summer of 2013, and following trial sails on his native river Crouch, he will road-trailer Mingming II to Whitehills marina on Scotland’s moray Firth.
‘I’ve sailed the length of Britain before and it’s the far north that interests me,’ he explains. ‘I want to get off soundings as quickly as possible, away from shipping.’ Roger is planning to venture further up the Davis Strait in the spring of 2014, or head east instead and into the Barents Sea. born in West Kirby on the Dee estuary in 1947, he learned to sail in a cadet dinghy. He has worked, among other things, as an ice-cream seller, farmhand, barman, bingo caller, labourer, carpenter, schoolteacher, and classical musician. When he was 23, he signed up as an able seaman aboard a charter Tall Ship, Endeavour II, which was wrecked on the east coast of New Zealand. It was the subject of his first book, Voyages of a Simple Sailor.
Since that shipwreck, Roger has vowed to only put to sea in vessels he has had a hand in rebuilding, sailing them solo on his own terms. It’s a philosophy that has served him well: before Mingming I he built a 19-footer and twice crossed the Tasman Sea in her.
After publication of his second book, Mingming and the Art of Minimal Ocean Sailing, he was awarded the Jester medal by the Ocean Cruising Club for ‘an outstanding contribution to the art of singlehanded sailing.’
I leave Roger drilling holes in the bulkhead he is about to fit to the Achilles 24 and join some yachtsmen at the bar of the Royal Corinthian. One of them says to me: ‘Half the people here just don’t get what Roger’s all about.’ Hopefully, the other half do. For those who do not, his superbly written books – among the best contemporary literature available about sailing the sea and man’s place out there – should provide the answer.
Roger’s third book is published by Fitzroy Press: Mingming and the Tonic of Wildness (£9.99) is available direct from his website, www.thesimplesailor.com, which also has fascinating accounts of his past voyages.
This article was originally published in the December 2012 issue of Yachting Monthly.