PC 161 – The Atlantic 1976


Way back in 1975, on a cool autumnal evening in Dempsey Barracks, Sennelager in Germany, I was sitting in my room in the Officers Mess of 39 Medium Regiment Royal Artillery, thinking how the last training exercise had gone. The mess orderly knocked; I had a telephone call, someone called Major Mike May. Hard to believe these days, when communication devices are personal and in your face, or should that be at your ear (?), but the Mess’ telephone was housed in a little cubicle off the main ground floor corridor. Outgoing calls were made via an exchange operator! It was a somewhat airless and dimly lit space, but doubtless privy to countless intimate conversations over the decades. I had sailed with Mike May a few times and this was really our only connection; so I was expecting some sailing-related question, but not: “Would you like to navigate an Army entry in the STA Race next year?”

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The STA (Sail Training Association) was an umbrella organisation for offshore sailing in the UK, but more importantly organised an annual international race for square riggers and sailing ships. (See note 1) I had taken part in its 1969 race from Portsmouth to Skagen in Denmark, so was familiar with its ethos of encouraging youngsters to develop their character through sailing. Additionally in 1974 I had had a fortnight sailing as a Watch Officer on the TS Malcolm Miller, a three-masted schooner. The 1976 race was from Portsmouth, England to Newport, Rhode Island, USA via Tenerife, in The Canaries, and Bermuda. These four legs would be sailed by different crews; we were allotted the Tenerife to Bermuda leg, a distance of just under 3000 nautical miles. Bermuda, an island lying some 600 miles east of the USA state of North Carolina, is 22 miles long but only one mile wide!

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After some crew training in The Baltic we, Mike May as Skipper, me as Navigator and ten other army personnel, flew to Santa Cruz de Tenerife on 21st May 1976 and took over the Nicholson 55ft yacht HMY Sabre.

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Two days later the race to Bermuda started; there must have been about 50 vessels, from huge ‘tall ships’ to lesser mortals like us. Offshore racing is strange; you have a crowded, manic surge across the start line, the skippers set their course and off you go. Most modern yachts can sail just below 40 deg to the wind, the tall ships probably only manage 60 deg; but their speed was much superior to ours, so their passage quite different! I don’t think we saw any other competitors after that first night, such is the vastness of our oceans! It’s a long time ago (!) but I think we organised a watch system of 4 hours on/4 hours off with a ‘dog watch’ to change the routine …… for three weeks.

So ….. days of watch and sail changing, attempting to squeeze another knot out of the yacht and our inexorable progress towards Bermuda. Ripped sails needed mending, gear needed maintaining, bread needed making – or should that be kneading? And with twelve people in a small confined space, the crew needed managing!

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The trade winds are the prevailing pattern of winds found in the tropics, from the east towards the west. Tenerife is some five degrees north of the Tropic of Cancer so we were able to take advantage of these favourable winds, flying the large spinnaker sail almost for two weeks, before a final few days of head winds and heavy seas. Somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic we were becalmed and this gave us all an opportunity to have a swim, although prudence ensured only one crewman was in the sea at any time, the rest maintaining a lookout for sharks!

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…….. and me! (Not thinking how deep the water was!)

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Fresh water was rationed to 1.5 litres per person per day – although we had an extra splash in a whisky at drinks time. The eventual lack of fresh food and the constant exposure to salt water produced some skin issues but otherwise the planned menus worked well.  Sometimes the nights seemed very long …….

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…… and at other times the conditions required much concentration …….

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We checked in with the Race Controllers every day by two-way radio, giving our position and listening to those of the yachts we saw as our competitors! Into our final week and we had head winds which gave us more movement and surprisingly some seasickness!

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No two yachts were the same and there was a handicap system. We navigated by sexton with sun and moon shots, converting our data by way of navigational tables and a Hewlett-Packard calculator the size of a house brick that had some computing ability, to a position on the chart ……. and were very pleased to find the tiny island of Bermuda right on the bow on the 10th June.

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We had arrived in Bermuda at the beginning of the hurricane season, greeted by cloudy and extremely humid weather. The Tall Ships gradually filled up the harbours and small bays and celebrations were numerous and colourful; thousands of young people enjoying a tremendous achievement, crossing one of the great oceans of the world. And if you’ve never tried Planter’s Punch, do so, but do it in the environment for which it was created; doing so back in Germany some weeks later it wasn’t quite the same! But we had done well and somehow managed to win some trophy.

Richard 19th September 2019

PS I even managed to catch up with an ex-school friend who lived there.

Note 1. Founded in 1956, the Sail Training Association (STA) became the Tall Ships Youth Trust. The current Tall Ships’ Races are organised by the Portsmouth-based Sail Training International.

PC 160 Change

Change: Noun – “An act or process through which something becomes different

I can’t believe it’s a year since PC 132 (8th September 2018) when I wrote about September, the new start, the new ‘year’ …… life rushes by …… you seriously need to grab it! (The irony is that that PC ended with a cartoon about Brexit – plus ça change plus c’est la meme chose)

The Number 50 bus pulled into the stop on the south side of Palmeira Square in Hove; “All Change, please! All Change! This service terminates here.” announced the driver in a loud voice. We had been expecting the service to continue into central Hove and were momentarily incredulous and surprised. Some of the other passengers seemed equally uncertain, but the regulars knew this was their final destination and were already on their feet and disembarking, unfazed. I reflected, as my feet landed onto the pavement, that this was a little example of how we react to change. Change is a constant; for some it’s a surprise, welcome or not, for others it’s fact that you just deal with. In 1964 Bob Dylan sang about ‘The times they are a-changin’ as though change was unique to his ie my generation, but every generation copes with change, be it brought about by the Industrial Revolution that heralded the modern era, or the Digital Revolution that’s creating exponential change in every aspect of our life. (See Note 1)

Sometimes the change is totally outside of our control, like being made redundant from your job. Many years ago I had the privilege of working with people who had been made redundant, assisting them to find some other form of work, paid or not. Moving them from the old world ……. into a new one.

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We all know it’s not the individual that’s made redundant but the role, but we identify with the role, so feel it personally. I know, as it happened to me! For some, acceptance is a long time coming ….. but come it does. The key is to let go and look forward.

You might have wondered why we were on a bus coming back from Brighton; it doesn’t matter if you didn’t as I am going to tell you anyway. For the last seven years we have practised our daily hot yoga in Portslade, driving along the seafront and turning north by the beginnings of Shoreham Harbour. There was a free council car park we could use and, if that was full, there was always a space at the nearby Tesco supermarket. When we were in Portugal, the door to the studio was closed to us.

One door closes, one chapter ends, another opens, always. When we returned home we signed on at Yoga in The Lanes in central Brighton. The costs of car parking in the city are prohibitive, so we are using the frequent bus service along Western Road. It’s interesting to compare the cosy, isolated, insular car journey to the very public experience of a bus service. But it’s working well …… and this gets us back to Palmeira Square, and that terminating bus! We walked the rest of the way home.

This change of routine has also started me thinking about the necessity of owning a car. With no daily yoga commute, for the first week the car simply sat in its parking space, which costs me £600 per year. Add our Road Tax, insurance and servicing costs, factor in some depreciation, and my mind thinks ‘This is mad! Why don’t I just hire one when I need it?’ And we may get to that ….. but the immeasurable factor is the ownership issue, that at the drop of a hat I can walk down the road and get into my car and go somewhere, now, instantly. Heart and head in conflict.

Change to our daily routine has almost coincided with the start of the Academic New Year (see PC 132), so for thousands of our young it’s either the start of schooling, or a new form in the same school, or a different school or indeed later in September the start of university, flying the parental nest. Some of our chums’ children have done really well in the examinations, getting into their chosen university or with enough good grades to confirm their choice of the next level of academic study. Others of course have not been so lucky and the gentle discussions start to identify where and what the solution might be. There should be no losers, no labels attached at this stage of life.

My parents’ generation held great store by having a long career with one organisation, with one company, the ambition to rise up through the levels to senior management. I think myself fortunate that that view came to be seen as restrictive to the development of ones skills and talents, that exposure to a variety of cultures, company leadership, management and disciplines ensures a better, fulfilled, more able individual. Change!

You probably have heard of the analogy of the frog in a beaker of water? A frog is placed in some water and the water is slowly heated; the frog dies, quietly. Drop a frog in a beaker of hot water and the frog will jump out. Gradual insidious change kills! For we need to change the way we think, in order to change the way we feel, before we can change our behaviour. The great George Bernard Shaw is quoted as saying: “Those who can’t change their minds cannot change anything” ……. but a chum recently stayed in a hotel room so small that she had to leave it to change her mind!

Last Saturday in the evening, after another yoga session, we boarded a bus for home. Obviously I have a doppelganger living in the city, by appearance but not by character, for the driver took one look at me as I presented my Bus Pass and muttered: “I hope you’re not going to be any trouble this time?” My imagination went into overdrive as to what my look-alike might have done on an early journey! Life huh? They say, whoever they are, that ‘Change is as good as a rest’; that to enjoy life to the full it’s good to be having periods of challenge, of change. So go on, challenge yourself, to change …….

Richard 5th September 2019

Note 1: I subscribe to The Times newspaper and have both digital and paper editions in the UK, only the former abroad. And now, even if I wanted to, you can’t buy an international paper copy of The Times aboard. A sign of the times maybe!

Note 2: The Jewish New Year this year is 29th September.

Note 3: The numerate amongst you will realise, at one postcard a fortnight, this should be PC 158! You got a couple of extras this year.