Arctic Ocean Challenger 67

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What kind of boat do we need to circumnavigate the Arctic Ocean next year? Answer: a big steel one. If you hit a growler (a semi-submerged ice floe) hard, a plastic boat will be holed and will sink pretty quickly. Wooden boats ditto. And when in 1996 we hit one in the Southern Ocean with an aluminium boat (Spirit of Sydney), it left a very big dent in the hull. Steel is much stronger, and the ideal material for high latitude sailing. However, it rusts.
I’ve just surveyed one of the steel Challenger 67s in Dublin. I had a good look around the boat and then the owner kindly took me for a test sail. She’s a powerful boat, steady, with the feeling that she could sail upwind for ever.
Although she’s lovely boat she’s a bit shabby and will need a lot of work. 55 tons of it.


Sailing around the Solent

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This week some old friends from the 2011 Everest expedition and I went for a sail around the Solent. Using a Beneteau Oceanis 37, we cruised to Weymouth, Yarmouth, Poole, Lymington, Cowes and Port Hamble.
It was great to have a refresher on tides. The Caribbean has weak tides of around 18 inches in most places, but the UK has strong ones that influence everything on the water. My friends were very adept at calculating the ferocious tides that pour past the Needles, and it was great to see us doing nearly 9 knots over the ground.


Sunny Lochranza

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The crew of Curlew- first mate Gina and I- went up to the Isle of Arran a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to see Lochranza again, the village on the sea where Curlew is registered. Lochranza is her home port, although she hasn’t been there yet. The idea is to end her world journey there.


Arran was looking glorious in the sunny June weather, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
The odd thing about islands is that you keep going back to them. I was conceived on the Isle of Arran, and I suppose I will keep returning until I die. Our family decamped there every summer holiday, coming up from England to stay with my grandmother. We didn’t live in the Front House, her solid sandstone terraced house in Brodick, but squatted in the Back, a tiny, two-room cottage with wooden cabins behind it in another, recessive Back. Grandmother came too. From here, in an atmosphere of paraffin lamps and the smell of damp, come my oldest memories of Arran.

The reason for my grandmother’s seasonal move was to make room for the Folk. Nearly everyone in Arran seemed to let their houses to the holiday- makers from Glasgow. Standing in the Firth of Clyde has truly made Arran “Scotland’s holiday island”, but somehow its very popularity blinds people to the fact that this is one of the real gems of the British Isles.

Robert Burns seemed blind to Arran, too. He must have seen the Arran hills from the inland Ayrshire farms where he spent his youth, but he fails to mention the island in his writings. This seems unaccountable; as you arrive at the town of Ardrossan to catch the ferry you cannot fail to be impressed by the view across 14 miles of sea – if it’s not raining. Then you may just see a dirty grey smudge. But on a clear day Arran floats there in all her glory.

At once you can see why the island claims to be a Scotland in miniature. In the north, savage peaks jag against the sky, their flanks streaked with white burns. In the middle the glens dip down to Brodick, the main village, and to the south are the softly rolling lowlands, interrupted by the shape of Holy Isle.

You can take your car on to the ferry, or, better still, your bike. As the ferry approaches Brodick Bay on the eastern side of the island you may see measured mile markers further up the coast. The Clyde-built liners used to time their trials speed against them; this stretch of water is where they first stretched their sea-legs.

Arran is immeasurably ancient; it was an island before the mainland of Britain parted company with Europe. We know this because its spectacular physical structure was the battleground of the early geologists, the Neptunists versus the Plutonists. The views of the latter prevailed: it is now believed that the northern granite peaks were the result of an upwelling of molten material from the Earth’s interior, since eroded by time – and the hammers of generations of geology students, who have come every summer to chip away at the 500-million-year-old bones of the island.

As the ferry ties up alongside Brodick pier you can see that the coast road goes in two directions – of course, it’s circular. It’s 56 miles round the island, and it can be cycled in a day. It’s also a great way to see Arran. If you go northabout you do the difficult bits first. You pedal through Brodick, around the broad bay named by the Vikings, perhaps gazing up at Goatfell, the highest mountain of the island. Just under 3,000ft, it’s not big enough to qualify for the Munro system, which suggests that only mountains over that height are worth climbing. This serves to point out the absurdity of a system based on size.

Arran’s mountains are some of the finest in the world, being finely shaped, accessible in a day and surrounded by sea. Across the bay, beneath Goatfell, is Brodick Castle, a red sandstone symbol of the power of the feudal system, repeatedly sacked and rebuilt. A study of its blood-soaked history leaves you feeling rather grateful for living in our own age.

One of the absentee landlords, the 12th Duke of Hamilton, preferred to carouse in Nice with his expensive mistress, Amelia Gioia, on an income of pounds 140,000 a year. Meanwhile his tenants were being thrown off the land to make room for the cost-effective black-faced sheep. Now you can enjoy tea while admiring the castle gardens, which have fine rhododendrons.

Pedalling up the coast, you pass through Corrie, reckoned by Asquith to be the prettiest village in Europe, and home to the founder of the publishing Macmillans. For one bizarre moment you double-take, and then realise that the bollards of the tiny harbour are painted to look like sheep. Black-faced sheep. Looking left as you pass through Sannox you can see right up Glen Sannox to Cir Mhor, a dramatic mountain view. It’s a struggle up and over the Boguille, where the road leaves the coast and takes to the hills, but behind you’ll see a great jagged ridge, with the terrible Witch’s Leap.

“Arran of the many stags,” declaimed a Gaelic poet; in November you may see a stag rendered black and frightening by wallowing in the peat bogs. Then it’s a long, winding free-wheel into Lochranza with its grim castle, and views of the Mull of Kintyre. This is where I once saw a yacht anchoring and promised myself that one day I would try to sail around the world, climbing mountains on the way. One day in the future Curlew may arrive here and quietly creep into her home port.

Now the road turns south along the flat shoreline of the west coast. Remote and sparsely populated, this side of the island feels Hebridean. Past a row of white cottages at Catacol, wonderfully named the Twelve Apostles, and past the guest house once run by members of my family. Up the glen is to be found a species of service tree unique to Arran. I remember going on an exhausting expedition up there with my father to find one, while my mother – another native of the island – found a tree by the road after a leisurely lunch.

It’s easy pedalling on this side of Arran; your tyres sing as you cycle on the polished Tarmac and it can feel surprisingly lonely. The sky seems huge; the oystercatchers whistle along the shore. Nothing much has changed here for thousands of years, and the great stone circles at Machrie remind you of the ancient owners of this land.

The names slip by: Torbeg, Drumadoon and Sliddery Water. Suddenly you find yourself in a tropical rain-forest. Appropriately, Lagg is at the southern end of the island; the palm trees and lush undergrowth are an indication of the warmth of the Gulf Stream that washes around the island. Tea at the hotel here is timely, as now you are returning northwards.

In Whiting Bay you will pass the path up to the Glen Ashdale falls, where Arran suddenly looks like the Caribbean island of Grenada, where Curlew is being repaired. Grenada is smaller than Arran, but is a sovereign country, grows acres of spices and supports a population of hundreds of thousands. Arran’s population is 3,000 at most. The difference? Year-round sun.

Now Holy Isle is coming into view in the huge, natural anchorage of Lamlash bay, which once accomodated the whole Home Fleet. Saint Molaise lived here in a cave (as was fashionable in the sixth century), and for hundreds of years Holy Isle was a place of Christian pilgrimage. Now it is owned by a sect of Tibetan Buddhists who have made the island-within-an- island a centre for ecumenical, ecologically friendly contemplation. The Buddhists are trying to leave their Wheel of Life to reach a finer place, but as we gasp over the hill from Lamlash we have come full circle on our journey.

Now we can speed back down to Brodick pier. The northern hills look good from up here, frozen in a snapshot from their million-year lives. This is what Arran so powerfully evokes: the infinity of time. We are just shadows that flit across the land; all we can do is celebrate it.

Sailors love thinking up ludicrous names for their beloved boats. We have seen a big power-boat roaring past Miami Immigration and Customs flaunting the name “Full-of-Cubans.” Then there are the wealthy ones with “Tax Seavation”, “Aquasition” and “Currensea”. The elderly are represented with “Seanile” and the divorced with “She Got the House.”
But my favourite is “Never Again 2″. It somehow sums up the whole crazy bi-polar experience of boat ownership: the horror and despair of the latest repair bill, followed by the quiet joy of a moonlight passage between Caribbean islands.


Laying Up

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After climbing Aconcagua and driving down to Patagonia it was probably a bit much to expect to get some sailing this season, too.
We got back to Curlew, our aging steel yacht, to find that still more welding had to be done. After two months of repairs we got her “splashed”, or lifted into the water, and we set off again. We got as far as St. Georges, the capital of Grenada: about 14 miles, before I noticed weeping sea water around a sea-cock, and more patches of rust in places I had dared not look.
Nick Williams at Technick has been doing a good job, so we’ve decided to give Curlew back to him to do sufficient repairs to get us across the Pacific next year.
We have now run out of money so have returned to the UK to try to earn enough for the next leg of our voyage. The paperback edition of Last Hours on Everest is out so I will try to encourage some more sales of that. Gina has been doing proof-reading jobs and hopes to land another TV job.
Before we left I carefully put all the electronic devices in the oven. Why? A lightening strike, very common during tropical storms, would take out any device with a circuit board unless you put it in a Faraday Cage- which is what a stainless steel oven is.
Boats suffer on land, and there are other laying-up jobs: taking off the sails so they don’t flap during storms and knock the boat off the stands. Wiring up the batteries to the solar panel. Putting all the clothes and bedding in plastic bags to prevent mould. Taking all the batteries out of GPS devices and torches. Spraying the engines with rust-proofer, and taking the rubber impellers out of the pumps, as they don’t like being squashed in one position.
When I get back in October this whole process has to be reversed.
Next season I think we should just keep going. Ports rot boats, and crews.

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