PC 249 Knockdown!

If you engage in an adventurous sport over many years, there are bound to be some occasions more memorably dangerous than others; and I am not writing about Tiddlywinks or Darts here! In PC 215 (January 2021) I described a near disaster off the Minquiers; in PCs 209 & 211 (December 2020) I wrote about drama off Arromanches and in PC 231 (May 2021) about grounding on the beach at Dhekelia in Cyprus.

Here’s another! In May 1969 I found myself one of the crew of St Barbara II, a 42ft Rebel sloop belonging to the Royal Artillery Yacht Club, for the RORC North Sea Race. This 180 nautical mile course ran from Harwich to a large buoy off the Belgium coast …..

……. then back up to the widest part of East Anglia before a run across the North Sea to Scheveningen and into Rotterdam, a course like a Z, from behind!

I knew two of the crew and we met the others in Harwich on the 14th May, a Wednesday evening. We stowed food and our gear and repaired to a restaurant for supper. The forecast for the 0800 hours Thursday start was overcast and cool, with occasional rain; blustery would sum it up!

The following morning we crossed the start-line in company with another thirty or so other yachts; three hours later there were few to be seen, as each skipper adopted their own course. From memory we were probably averaging five knots so the race would take us at least 36 hours. We rounded the mark off the coast of Belgium before sunset and headed back north towards East Anglia. After a long night we tacked around a lightship and by dawn were on the last leg, a long beat towards Holland.

A generic example of heavy weather sailing

The yacht seemed comfortable with a large foresail and full mainsail, but it was constantly wet on deck with spray and rain. Jon, Mark and I came off duty, somewhat damp on the outside and with general sweatiness inside, with the 0800 Watch Change, We gave control of the deck to James, the mate, and his two crew. My berth was the port-side bunk, requiring a degree of agility to get into at the same time maintaining my balance. The skipper was in his bunk, reading.

It happened about thirty minutes later; someone on deck noticed a line of clouds on the horizon a mile or so away. I can hear the next few minutes in my head as if it was yesterday.

Skipper? There looks like a squall coming (note 1); might be a bit too much wind for the Genoa. What do you want to do? Shall we change down?”(Ed. To the next smaller sail, capable of coping with a stronger wind.)

OK! James. Keep her on the same bearing and I’ll be up in a minute.”

I don’t think we have a minute. We need to act now!” The last word was shouted to impart a degree of urgency. 

I leaned out of my bunk to see the skipper putting his oilskins back on before going on deck. Suddenly there was a screaming sound as the line squall hit us, the yacht lurched and fell over on its port side.

Not St Barbara but something like this!

I looked up to see Jon trying to hang on in his bunk, which was now almost directly above me. The skipper was on the cabin sole and seawater was pouring in through the open companionway. On deck there were shouts:

Let go the mainsheet!

Let the foresail fly!

‘You OK Simon?’ (who’s lying sideways against the guardrails, half drowned!)

The rain was cold and vicious and everyone on deck was being thrashed by it. St Barbara II shuddered like a racehorse trying to rid itself of large flies and gradually came upright (Note 2).

Immediate actions like these are well practised and the crew on deck were all hooked on with safety harnesses, but no life jackets (Note 3). No one had gone overboard. The genoa was in shreds, the main undamaged; the wind speed indicator had stopped at 65knots. Several things happened in tandem. The foresail was changed and hoisted; the ripped genoa bundled below to be put into a sail bag; the bilge pumps started; the chart position fixed; the kettle put on; equipment checked. We got under way again, back in the race. And everyone probably had a cigarette!

Some hours later we crossed the finishing line at Scheveningen and made our way into Rotterdam Harbour.

Sailing can be dangerous but experience and training can mitigate injury and damage. Writing about the knockdown in the North Sea has reminded me of some personal damage. Generally I have managed to miss the main boom on its inadvertent swings across a yacht, learned that watches and signet rings are potential hazards and fingers don’t need to be wrapped around a winch at the same time as a rope.

Many years ago after a weekend sailing on The Solent, we returned the chartered yacht to its marina. As always, the clearing up and cleaning, both above and below decks, got underway. The yacht had a forward hatch, about 35cms square, able to be locked with a small gap or fully opened with the hatch cover lying on the deck.

Whilst some of the crew were cleaning below, I was sorting out and tidying away the halyards around the base of the mast, before fresh water was used to scrub the deck. With a brush in one hand and the end of the hose in the other, I was working my way from amidships backwards towards the bow.

I stepped back without looking. My foot fell into nothing. The next thing I knew was that my bum was on the deck and my right leg down the hatch. In getting into this position I had managed to scrape a large amount of skin from the inside of my thigh. Arnica, Savlon and rest …… fortunately my balls were OK!

It’s good to have adventures!

Richard 24th September 2021


Note 1A line squall is identifiable as a mass of dark low cloud strung out across the horizon; visible beneath are curtains of heavy rain, as though someone had pulled out a plug. The surface of the sea below the clouds is invariably rough.

Note 2 Yachts with a deep keel will always self-right, providing the wind doesn’t have anything to push against, like a sail; in this instance the crew needed to let both the main and genoa sheets fly!

Note 3 Back then life jackets were bulky and cumbersome to wear. Only in dire emergency would the skipper tell the crew to wear them. Their design has come a long way – fortunately!

PC 248 A Hundred Years Party

I gather that many years ago Celina’s brother and sister-in-law didn’t have a large wedding and subsequent reception. Time to make amends as the significance of the months of August and September 2021 is not lost on the Rocha Miranda family; in the space of 25 days my brother-in-law Carlos celebrated his 60th, my mother-in-law celebrated her 80th and sister-in-law Camila her 40th. We mark decades of years past in our lives as if these are more important than other anniversaries – not so; although always time for a party …… even in Covid times.

Sintra on the red splodge, Estoril on the blue dot!

Up in the hills around Sintra lies the Tivoli Palacio de Seteais hotel, a perfect place for one. The Palacio de Seteais was built between 1783 and 1787 for the Dutch consul Daniel Gildemeester. Various additions were made during the next 150 years, enlarging the original building and laying out new gardens and orchards. In 1946 it was bought by the Portuguese government and it’s been a hotel since 1954.  

In Britain we have thousands of these great mansions built in the C18th and C19th. We refer to them as stately homes, grand expressions of the architecture of the time and now recognise some of them as monuments to unequal privilege and wealth. The same can be found in many European countries and Portugal is no exception. In the UK the National Trust and English Heritage, two charities, now own a huge number, allowing their members to make their own judgments and observations.

The name Tivoli (note 1) takes me back to Denmark as the Tivoli Gardens, smack bang in the centre of Copenhagen, offers places to eat, places to drink and places to have fun. One hundred and seventy eight years after it opened, its 20 acre site is in the Top Ten of the city’s tourist attractions.

The Tivoli Palacio de Seteais sits on a hill overlooking Sintra (see PC 130): in the distance is the Atlantic Ocean. Fortunately it’s warm and sunny when we arrive as the town has a reputation of being cool. In fact it developed as the place for the Portuguese Royal family to escape to in the summer months, their equivalent of Simla in India. The duty manager Paulo meets us and takes us through the COVID registration; either proof of two vaccinations or a negative test is acceptable! We unpack in Room 12 and head off to the pool as we have a few hours before the Hundred Party starts.

          Francisquinha has come too; well, not to the pool! She knows she’s not allowed to join the party but she didn’t want to be left behind in Estoril and she understands about room service, cable TV and the minibar.

The Hundred Year couple, Carlos & Camila

The programme says drinks and canapés on an outside terrace, starting at five thirty …… but the hosts are still 30 minutes away! Someone’s shirt got a burn mark on it and there’s panic. Being a pedant for punctuality I roll my eyes to heaven but have mentally added an allowance of 45 minutes before I expect anyone to arrive. By 1830 the terrace has live music, waiters, drinks, canapés and six people; most of the 50 guests have arrived by 1900.

Waiters offer, musicians play, people chat, catch up; laughter ripples and mingles with the music as the sun makes its slow descent in the western sky. A few guests dance in a somewhat desultory manner, more to acknowledge the efforts of the combo, to thank them for their efforts. Two guests show off their musical skills.

          It’s obvious that the hotel management want the guests to move into the elegant dining room and eventually we do, a little later than they might have liked! I imagine the stress in the kitchen as we are a party of 50. The Brazilians have copied the Portuguese in their love of food, and the more the better; the generous menu shows five courses.

The starter is a crêpe filled with Bacalhau (salted cod, considered by some close to divine); it looks and tastes good but there’s too much! The Peixe (fish) course is a meal in itself, a lovely piece of Sea Bass with a huge mound of sweet potato mash, with added sugar! For my entrée I am presented with 300g of filé mignon; I eye Celina’s mushroom Risotto slightly jealously! The sobremesa is a slice of Apple Crumble with some beautiful Cinnamon ice cream; the latter is very welcome! And still we haven’t finished as Camila’s baked two cakes (note 2) …. candles are blown out, the cakes are sliced and distributed and both Brazilian and English versions of ‘Happy Birthday To You’ ring out across the crowded room.

The elegant dining room, known for its murals, the following morning.

My abysmal lack of ability to speak Portuguese is tackled by Nuno, a Lisbon lawyer at my table. He leans across his wife Rita (Note 3) and says it’s easy for the Portuguese to learn another language …. and boasts that all they need is three months max! His own English is 80%. But if you are Portuguese there’s a need to learn another language unless you limit your travels to Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, The Azores or Madeira. I do not need to learn it, I want to, but the vocal chords get stuck …..

The party draws to a close and guests make for their rooms or for a taxi. Room service breakfast the following morning is followed by a dip in the pool before a taxi back to Estoril. The one-way system around Sintra is extremely long and it’s some time before we pull up outside Avenida General Carmona 368.

A good and generous celebration; espetacular and maravilhoso even.

Richard 17th September 2021


Note 1 Tivoli was, some scholars believe, the name of a Roman town 20 miles east of Rome, used as a summer resort and noted for its waterfalls.

Note 2 Camila is building a very successful celebration cake business – Camila Vasconcellos at http://www.instagram.com>nacozinhadecasa

Note 3 Her sister and brother-in-law ran a beautiful beach resort at Picinguaba, to the west of Paraty in Brazil, a place to unwind, a place to watch men fish and maybe to eat their catch. (See PC 10 March 2014)

PC 247 Collections (1) or “I wish I’d said that!”

The last time I had to write any essays was for entrance into the Army Staff College in 1978, with papers on International Relations and War Studies. A great tip was to liberally drop appropriate quotes into the essays, hopefully giving an impression of being well read; like ‘Jaw! Jaw! Not War! War!’ (Note 1). Little did they know!

Not sure about you but I would hazard a guess that occasionally you come across some words, some comment, some observation, my grandparents would have used the French expression ‘bon mot’, that stops you in your tracks; you think “That’s so nice! That’s wonderfully apt! How beautifully expressed! Etcetera.” I certainly do and am often so moved to jot down those words in my Notes app on my iPhone. (Note 2) This postcard covers some of these, attributed where possible but if not I acknowledge that I did not write them!

One of the most amusing autobiographies I’ve read was the late Clive James’ ‘Unreliable Memories’ (1980). Of his writing, Australian James (1939-2019) wrote: “All I do is turn a phrase until it catches the light.” All of us who want to turn our thoughts into words look for that, I guess, wanting them to ‘catch the light’!

Philosophical individuals have written much the future:

The future is just mere speculation. Now is the time to live tomorrow’s memories.” Like ‘live today as if your last’, but who does that, even if you acknowledge the wisdom of the direction? Then this little encapsulation: “Yesterday is history; tomorrow is mystery.” The rhyme of history and mystery is cute although it still comes back to living in the present. Try Yoga meditation if you want to learn how to be in the present. There is also a reminder that history can teach us a great deal; today we are forgetting how important is the study of history, of events and societies’ reaction to them.

Memory is an unreliable friend.”  It’s been described in many ways, this storage of our experiences, our data bank, no more so that over the last year or so when individuals have tried to redefine the word ‘truth’! Then I read ‘The Spaces In Between’, an autobiographical account of the early life of Caroline Jones, a yoga enthusiast and good friend. She writes about one’s ability to recall experiences: “…..  I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings – and who is to say that my version is true anyway? Who is entitled to say what is true in any family’s history? It is all shades of grey, interpretations and misinterpretations: something that passes one person by might be the thing that tips another onto a different journey; and all, in the end, coloured by imagination and weakened by unreliable memory.” Exactly: so simply put.

There’s this Chinese Proverb: “I hear and forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.” So ‘doing’ something gives one greater insight than simply observing or hearing? So better to play the piano than listen to someone else’s efforts, or enjoy looking at a painting rather than painting? Food for thought! (Er? Cooking rather than eating?)

I enjoy reading the wisdom of the Zen philosophers, especially the stories of the Muddy Road and the tale of the Cup of Tea. In the latter Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868 – 1912), received a university professor who came to enquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” Both stories illustrate how we get obsessed with our own ego.

I often find that a phrase in a foreign language sounds more romantic than if read in English. Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321) was a Florentine writer, poet and philosopher best remembered for his ‘The Divine Comedy’, a journey through the souls of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. I recently read a quote from his Paradiso: “L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stele.’. Although lovely, I don’t think the English translation has that same magic: ‘The love that moves the sun and other stars.’ One of his more popular quotes is “Remember tonight for it’s the beginning of forever.”

There are a great many quotes made by people at the end of their time on earth. One I read the other day stays with me: “We loved this earth but could not stay!” Then there is the story how Harold McMillan, Prime Minister of the UK from 1957-1963, sat in his chair with his evening whisky, finished the glass and murmured: “I think I will go to sleep now!” ….. and died. He was 92.

The Academy of St Martin’s in The Field Chamber Orchestra

The late Sir Neville Marriner was the founder and conductor of the Academy of St Martin’s in The Field orchestra in London. One day, irritated during rehearsals by the piercing sounds of a pneumatic drill being used in the road outside the church, he stormed out to confront the chap. “Are you interested in sex and travel?” “Of course!” said the man. “Well, fuck off then!” The music theme reminds me of Sir Graham Vick’s comment: “You do not need to be educated to be touched, to be moved by opera.” Which piece of opera touches you, gets inside your emotions?

Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts thing together to see what they mean.” Jonathan Sacks was notably the Chief Rabbi from 1991 to 2013. Ennobled, Baron Sacks was also a philosopher, peer and very much a public figure.

I really hope you enjoyed some of these? There will be more – to be continued ……….

Richard 10th September 2021


PS In PC 245 ‘Tagus and Cascais’ I mentioned the Niagara River. Coincidentally this popped up in Facebook this week, a rare photograph of the dry falls in 1969.

Note 1 Attributed to Sir Winston Churchill

Note 2 If you read books on a Kindle or some electronic device you can see which passages others have found profound/interesting/apt/funny/poignant.

PC 246 The Five Senses

You might think from the title of these scribbles that I am going to write something about the human body, taking a leaf out of Bill Bryson’s book ‘The Body: A Guide for Occupants’. Well, I am but only to frame these thoughts and give them some cohesion.

Have you unconsciously started listing them, these five basic abilities we have? For those of you who are missing one or more, I feel sorry for you as our colourful life will have lost some of its tones. For those of you whose sense of taste or smell was ruined by the after-effect of a Covid infection, I hope they return, functioning as well as ever. Writing in last weekend’s Times, the author Kate Weinberg’s article in Long Covid had this: “Then, one morning, my cup of tea tasted like hot water and my eggs like scrambled Polyfilla. (Note 1).”

We see, we hear, we touch, we taste, we smell, but this is not going to be about three monkeys! My sixth sense woke me at 0610 this morning and I realised I hadn’t written anything about it! (see Note 2)

Up above the marina, in an older part of Cascais, Portugal, is a restaurant I have been to a couple of times before, called 5 Sentidos – Five Senses. The name always stops me in my tracks and then I get the delightful subtlety of it, as the whole process of ‘eating out’ can be really enhanced by the active engagement of all senses.

A large church, Igreja Paroquial de Nossa Senhora da Assunçăo, overshadows the plane trees that line the square, along one side of which lies Largo da Assunçăo and the ‘5 Sentidos’.

 Having circled the church (Can you circle a square?) looking for a parking space and been unlucky, we head off to the underground car park between the marina and the castle. Cascais has, like any town, a parking problem, made worse by the Portuguese habit of believing that parking restrictions apply to everyone else but themselves; they park on street corners, half on pavements, on pedestrian crossings (Note 3).

As we walk towards the restaurant we sight early diners already occupying the pavement tables. Then another sense is immediately assaulted – the large sonorous church bell chimes the half-hour: “boonnnnggggggg”. It’s so loud that I think maybe this wasn’t the best choice of places to eat, if this happens every 30 minutes! Fortunately it must have been rung for some other non-temporal reason as it only rang once more while we were there. Reminds me of stories of urbanites escaping to the country and complaining about the rooster’s crowing and the cows mooing!

Walking up the steps to our table on an outside terrace, my heart sinks for near where we are to sit is a table of three men and a woman and one of the men, an obvious Englishman, has a loud voice and finds everything he says funny. ‘I just need to get over my reaction!’ I think!

Our bottoms touch the slatted, painted wooden chairs and we settle down. The table has been chosen as a nod to Covid advice but also as inside can be a little claustrophobic on a warm evening. Unfortunately it’s not a warm evening; this Atlantic coast is cool compared with the Algarve’s down south or further, through the Straits of Gibraltar, along the Mediterranean coasts and we are grateful for a nearby space-heater.

Adriana brings the menus and takes the drinks’ order. When I am eating out I try to choose a dish I don’t normally have at home. I spy Camarão à Braz; ‘sounded interesting’, I thought ‘and I love shrimps’. ‘À Braz’ means cooking the shrimps with onions and minute potato sticks, all bound together with scrambled eggs and sprinkled with parsley and black olives. Bacalhau (salted Cod) à braz is the more famous version.

A restaurant’s choice of the size of plate in interesting. If it’s small yet piled high with food, we think ‘how generous!’: extremely large plates with large portions are for Americans. On her last visit here my mother-in-law had had a huge plate of rice with a thimble of chicken curry in the centre; rice is cheap!

When my dish arrives I am reminded of my teenage years when a packet of matchstick-shaped chips or sticks was a treat; these are they, simply made soggy and eggy. My first mouthful tastes ‘interesting’ …… but that’s as good as it gets. I pick out the shrimps but struggle to finish the mound of now mash, my taste-buds covered with a glutinous coating!

There’s the general murmur of low muted conversations around us when we stop to listen, when our own chatting pauses; sounds of people eating, waiters waiting and occasionally a little snippets invading one’s own hearing. Across the terrace the 3+1 table have been asked to vacate to a table on the pavement as it’s passed 2100; we have no such restriction and order puddings. The ice bucket wobbles on the uneven slats and condensation forms on its shiny surface; tempting to run my finger down the outside! Ah! The tactility of cold and wet!

Having discovered from Adriana that the orange tart on the sobremesas menu was ‘off’, which was a pity as it sounded unusual, I opt for some chocolate soufflé instead and head for the loo. Cascais is old, and the street drainage system whiffs; inside the unisex loo there’s that damp, musty smell that is often present, no matter how many scented candles or smelly sticks abound. There is no lock on the outside door so I keep a wary eye out for another visitor!

And on the topic of smell (note 4), you remember when it was permissible to smoke inside a restaurant? With diners at different stages of their meal, it was irritating to get the whiff of someone else’s cigarette smoke across your delicate Sea Bass! This evening any smokers are banished to the pavement tables and the evening breeze keeps the smell away.

We signal for the bill with the international wave of the hand, settle up and, threading between the tables, step out onto Largo da Assunçăo, the assault on our five senses complete. Out into the night of Cascais.

Richard 3rd September 2021


Note 1. Trademarked ‘Polyfilla’ is a type of plaster used for filling small holes.

Note 2 The five senses keep us informed about the physical world. A sixth sense Proprioception “allows us to keep track of where our body parts are in space” (?) Quite! Normally we describe it as our ability to perceive something which isn’t actually there, or hasn’t happened – yet! It was also the title of a Bruce Willis horror film in 1999.

Note 3 In Madeira it was so bad I surmised that pedestrian crossings were there purely for drivers to have more certainty of nudging a pedestrian; they never stopped!

Note 4 This sense is called Olfactory – which I find difficult to pronounce! And taste is officially known as gustatory.