A charter holiday is never without some issues, so a sailor must be a good mechanic and engineer as well as a competent seaman, says Jonty Pearce
Jonty Pearce: It was a joy to finally set off from Armadale on Skye in a fleet of four yachts after the long journey up from Malvern. Each yacht had food and kit for six crew; it took a few hours to get it all stowed and to get the skipper’s and charterer’s briefings done. After a last minute fill with water (always worth checking) we were away. The forecast was a blustery Force 5 to 6 gusting 7; gusty enough to trigger a warning that the Mallaig ferry might not run. With winds from the northerly sector for a few days it made sense to go south, so Arisaig was chosen for the first night’s stop. Protected by rocks and reefs, this haven has a winding approach well marked with perches; as long as we were not arriving as dusk fell there should be no problem.
The best laid plans can come to grief. When I tried to raise sail having dropped off the moorings it was obvious that something was amiss; the previous charterers had transferred the first reef to the third (a common practice if you have three reefing points but only two pennants), but had failed to return the tack and the clew to the correct rings. The resulting mess was a mixture of first and second reefs. As it was too breezy to risk an un-reefed mainsail I elected to sail down under genoa alone and re-reeve the pennants when safely in harbour. In fact we rocketed down using a half furled genoa and using the main would have been overkill.
In no time at all the fleet gathered off Arisaig where we waited while one yacht tried to start their engine without success – totally dead. They elected to follow us in under a scrap of jib with a buddy yacht standing by for a tow if needed. It was a brave decision for this rock-strewn and twisty channel albeit on a rising tide, and an alongside tow was soon needed when they lost drive and steerage way after turning onto a windward transit. The other two boats had gone on in and taken moorings; by now the light was starting to fade. We watched as the successful tow came in, and lit up appropriate buoys with a bright torch. But one rank after another of mooring buoys were passed; the wind was too strong for the tow to turn the twin bows into the wind. Eventually, on the innermost rank of moorings, a pick up buoy was brought on board, only to be lost again. The pair slewed, and in the process the one working propellor became snarled up on a mooring line.
At least the boats were now moored, but by the stern. The engineless yacht was led by our third boat to a mooring, and the prop wrapped yacht dropped its kedge anchor for security; this was a job that could wait till morning. The next day dawned calm and sunny; the wind had come round to the east and had dropped as forecast, and the kedge anchor had taken the strain off the entangled pick up buoy. I took my wetsuit and mask across for Jonathan, the cruise commodore and skipper of the crippled yacht. After 40 minutes in the cold Easter water the ship’s breadknife had done its work and the line was cleared. The mooring was spliced back to A1 condition with new rope while Jonathan enjoyed a hot chocolate laced with rum. He had done well; it was quite a physical ordeal for a pensioner. He found that a mooring line secured to run under the hull made it easier to pull himself down and keep in the working area. Gladly, we remembered to bring it back on board before starting the engine!
Meanwhile, the engineless yacht had managed to start it by shorting a screwdriver across the solenoid terminals, so they set off back to Armadale to have the ignition switch problem rectified. We faced other issues during the cruise including blocked holding tanks and tripped fridge breakers, but these were fixed without outside help. The salient learning point is that yachtsmen have to be multi-tasking mechanics as well as good seamen; you never know when an incident will occur or a bit of kit will go wrong. Resourcefulness, experience, and being good with your hands are qualities that are invaluable on our seas. Having a qualified marine engineer on board is even better.