In praise of small yachts

I am undergoing a bit of a boat crisis at the moment.   As some of you are aware I have been a long term campaigner against the affliction of Poly Navicular Morbus (too many boats disease) and Two Footisis (the invariably erroneous notion that your sailing life will be enhanced by a slightly larger boat).

Last year my family decided that they wanted to join me the summer cruise in the North of Scotland. Five adults aboard a 22 footer is never going to work for anything more than a day sail, so I started looking for a larger boat for the summer. It had to be something I could buy and sell at short notice and the obvious candidate was Britain's most popular yacht - the venerable Westerly Centaur. There were 3,000 of them built-  26 foot long, twin keels, with full standing headroom, separate heads, v berth in the bow, sink, two spirit burners and a diesel inboard.

Some dismiss them as boxy floating caravans but they are tough, seaworthy and unbelievably spacious. I have always held that it is the view from the cockpit that is much more important than the look of the boat.

The Centaur came to me in a curious way. The former owner had contracted diabetes, lost his sense of balance and was ready to swallow the anchor. He said that since he got ill he had spent more time sailing with me on my films than in his old Centaur. A local fisherman had offered him £500 for the boat just for the value of the engine.  Gordon said he would rather see his old boat sailed than cut up so I went to have a look at her. She was ashore and grubby but really not that bad. I told  Gordon that she was too good to £1 so I suggested that I take her for a year, fix her up, sail her around the top of Scotland and then sell her and we would split the money 50/50.

It was six weeks hard graft and credit card bashing to get  her ready for launch. She needed cleaning up, through hulls needed replacing (£100), there was money owing for storage and crane in (£1000), she needed re-wiring (time consuming but cheap) and a new genoa (£700).

I then sailed her up the North Sea (500 miles in six days and five nights). The family joined me in Edinburgh and filled the boat with  bodies and their stuff.The weeks we spent aboard were tight but harmonious and everything was fine as we marina hopped our way along the NE coast of Scotland. I spent my days as chief catering officer, bog cleaner and entertainments manager.  I did very little filming but to have the boat filled with these vibrant, witty gloriously beautiful people was a real treat. That is a lovely thing about bigger boats - more people aboard.

We particuilarly enjoyed the Moray Firth which has charming harbours, delightful beaches, stunning cliffs, dolphins, seals, massive flocks of seabirds, crystal clear water and hardly any biting insects. The  Firth is Scotland at its very best.

After the family went back south to jobs and careers Jill and I sailed the Centaur up around Orkney and Shetland and back to Glasgow. We came to enjoy her commodious comfort. This spring I sold the boat for £8,000. Half went to Gordon and half to my bank account to mitigate the ever burgeoning sailing deficit. I was back to one small boat. I had looked PNM and TF in the face and turned away. I felt like a bit of a hero.

So it was that this March I drove up to Scotland and dug my 22 foot gunter rigged Hunter  out of the boatyard in Edinburgh where she had been resting for a year. I fettled her for the summer cruise and put her back on the water ready to take her on a series of river excursions up the Forth, Tay and Moray. I needed to  film all the bits I had missed while being a holiday rep/father/walking wallet/safety officer/bog cleaner.

I knew that scaling back to a smaller yacht would be tough - but I had no idea how hard it would be. Scotland had  a horrible wet spring and for a  two week  period Jill and I spent on the boat we only got out of the marina for one morning and one afternoon.

The other 12 days were spent cowering from the wind and the rain while Katie L bumped her fenders against the dock.

That was when I started to get a bit wobbly about my commitment to small yachts.   Three months on the bigger boat was lovely but the little cabin crammed with gear was a real challenge. Every time we wanted something it all had to be moved. It was like living in one of those puzzles where you slide the plastic tiles around to complete a shape. Making a cup of tea became a logistical challenge. It was easiest if one of us sat in the cockpit under an umbrella while the other person cooked. Best not talk about the plumbing.

The East coast of Scotland is the dry side, goodness knows how we will survive the wet west which gets over three times as much rain and faces all the worst storms.

As we pounded the pontoon through yet another depression I resolved to sell Katie L and buy another Centaur. Decision made and Two Footisis (actually Four Footisis) embraced.

Then the weather improved and Jill and I spent some brilliant weeks shallow sailing in the upper reaches of these fabulous rivers. We sailed under bridges, spent evening tied to trees along the shore, we woke to the sound of woodland birds and spent days up sand estuaries where the sea retreats over the horizon. Katie L sails like a dinghy, she is light and responsive to the helm, she can be rowed and paddled so that we can enjoy the birdsong without the clatter of the outboard and she draws just 13 inches. I fell in love with my little yacht all over again. I swore that I would never sell her and she is the boat I will sail when I am a really old bloke bumbling around the salt marshes of East Anglia.

However, my plan is to spend the next few years sailing around the West Coast of Scotland. It is a magnificent place with thousands of island, lovely harbours, brilliant wildlife ..... but  up to 80 inches of rain. We will need that extra space if we are to survive these Scottish three days rainshowers and still be on speaking terms

I am determined, for the sake of my marriage, to buy another old Centaur and knock her back into sailing shape.

However, I don't ever want to sell Katie L. I fear that in one wet Scottish summer I  have succumbed to both PNM and Two Footisis.  This is very, very bad indeed. I apologise to all SCA readers for my sanctimonious anti PNM and TF rants in the past. I am a sinner. Forgive me.



This is about Sailing around Britain.

2 Responses to “In praise of small yachts”

  1. 10 May, 2016 at 3:19 pmJon Appleton says:

    Really love your stuff. I’ve spent many happy hours sailing with you in spirit. As a past it sailor who’s last foray was to design and have built a boat to sail on the summit level of the Kennet and Avon canal I’m still in my 66 year ago world of Swallows and Amazons adventure and my first little ship, a canoe with a little sail. Upgrading through a fat 10′ dinghy on the Thames, through a nice Enterprise dinghy to a small twin keel Alacrity which my brother took over down on the Torridge in N Devon while I went surfing.
    Your photography is inspirational and your travels extraordinary. We’ve just come back from shore bound time in Orkney and really enjoyed seeing you sailing past the places we saw. Rousay sound a particular pleasure.
    Good luck with your further voyages. I’m looking forward to the west coast and the Irish sea.
    Yours, with thanks,
    PS. I did the ebay contribution bit.

    • 10 May, 2016 at 6:58 pmdylan winter says:

      cheers on all counts J
      maybe time to buy another little yacht for the sea

      or maybe build a duck punt

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