Its a Long Way to English Harbour
by John Tomlinson

One Man's Story of the 1979 Mini-Transat Yacht Race.


1. Beginnings

Cold and wet and dark.
It is the end of the 1979 PASAB Race (Penzance Around Scillies And Back).
It is the beginning of August and walking along Penzance quay I meet a friend, Brian Sanders. We have just been at sea for over 30 hours racing hard in "Rozelle" our vintage 1921 international 7 metre racing yacht. At 37 feet long and only 7 feet wide, she has been nicknamed "the submarine" and we are all tired and wet and cold and hungry. Someone suggests we go and get something to eat and it sounds like the best idea I have heard for days. An hour later, warmed by hot chicken and chips and a jug or two of Cornish Mead, the talk inevitably comes round to sailing, racing in particular. Brian has an E-Boat "Smiling Tree", that he has entered in the Mini-Transat, a singlehanded, two stage, small boat race from Penzance to Antigua with a stop over in Tenerife. Brian is giving us a progress report on his pet project. Unfortunately, all is not well.

His chosen "pilot" for the race has decided at the eleventh hour that he cannot make the trip, so the whole thing is near to collapse. Brian is not surprisingly upset as he cannot go himself due to pressure of work. He has already had six weeks off to do the AZAB. When I suggest to him that I might be able to take it on his immediate reaction is to say "Hold on, do you know what you are getting yourself into? Perhaps you had better sleep on it and let me know tomorrow." However I think I detect a twinkle in his eye as he sees the possibility of his brainchild coming to fruition after all. We meet up again the following night at the PASAB prize giving ceremony. "I definitely want to do it Brian, I can't miss a chance like this." He grins. "Well, we had better start talking details then, there's an awful lot to do………". Actually I am not altogether sure what I AM getting into but the next day we meet down at the boat and go for a preliminary trip out into Mount's Bay. It is the first time I have ever been aboard an E-Boat. Unfortunately there is not much wind, so I don't really get a good idea of her capabilities until we do a local race the next day with half a gale blowing. This is a bit more like it, quite impressive.

2. Qualifying

Brian Sanders in the other E-boat in 1979Two days later, with mixed feelings of trepidation, enthusiasm and more than a sprinkling of down right insecurity, I cast off on my 500 mile qualifying passage.
I have met up with Jacques de Reuck who has just arrived from Belgium in his mini "Vileda". He also has to do his qualifier so we decide to take roughly the same route out towards Ireland, back down towards Brittany and then up channel a bit before returning to Penzance.

It is the first time I have ever been offshore singlehanded (or anywhere singlehanded for that matter) although I do have a lot of long distance cruising under my belt including a previous trans-Atlantic passage.

It is also the first time I have sailed and lived on a boat as small as this for any length of time. Actually the size is not a serious issue as I am only 5'4" (1.6m) tall and I can actually stand up below with my head stuck into the observation dome that Brian has fitted.

I have much to learn over the next few days. There is no lack of breeze, but the time I spend swanning around with Jacques in the Western Approaches is fairly uneventful and I get to spend my time learning how to sail the boat, polishing up my fairly rudimentary navigation skills, which are a bit rusty at this stage, and generally dodging ships that always seem to pass in the night. It's quite comforting to have Jacques around too although of course he is not very close most of the time. We do, however, manage to keep in visual contact throughout the trip and on arrival back in Penzance I have a great list of jobs to do, but at least I am now thoroughly convinced that I am in for the ride of my life. I can see that Brian's enthusiasm is up to boiling point which has got to be a good sign.

3. Preparation

Brian is a great planner and without him I wouldn't know where to start. I quickly learn the value of making lists. Two new sails arrive from Bob Suggitt to complete the six I am allowed to take with me. (Main, No.1, reefing No.2, storm jib, drifter and spinnaker). The boat is equipped with roller furling gear on the forestay. We visit the Southampton Boat Show and buy or scrounge about a million things which all then have to be fixed either onto or into the boat.
In the week before the start the other boats begin to arrive. With only three main rules to comply with (the boats must be 6.5m max. length, be self righting and carry no more than six sails) there is obviously a great diversity of designs, from the overgrown International 14 of Norton Smiths "American Express" (no they were not his sponsors, he just used that credit card to pay for the boat) to Margaret Hicks' Hurley 22 "Anonymous Bay", with the E-Boat coming somewhere about halfway along the scale in terms of speed and weight. It is immediately obvious that I am not going to win the race overall, just one look at the assembled machinery makes that absolutely clear, but to do well amongst the production boats would be an achievement, and there is always the Anderson Prize for the Best British Boat to aim for.

We manage to pass scrutineering OK which is nore than can be said for some of the others. "Smiling Tree" is well prepared. Quite frankly there are one or two boats here that I wouldn't take for a trip on the River Thames. It is difficult enough being only 6.5 metres long, and having 4,000 miles of ocean in front of you, but to build and rig your chosen steed like an Osprey dinghy, as some of these guys have is, I feel, asking a bit too much of lady luck. You have to try to stack the cards in your favour, even if you don't know how they will be dealt. My fears on this score are proved correct on more than one occasion over the next couple of weeks.

(Note: "Smiling Tree" has an extra layer of fibreglass mat on the inside of the hull, the spreaders are swept back more than standard and the Proctor mast is one section heavier than the standard spec. with twin backstays fitted. The standard rudder box has been replaced with heavy duty stainless steel pintles.)

My family come down to visit. Friends are down in the harbour each day, trying to help, but usually just getting under my feet when I have something important to do. Oh, then there are the press and radio and television reporters crawling all over the place, all asking the same questions. At times you wish you were out in the middle of the Atlantic having a bad time with the weather. But in retrospect, it's all part of the game we are playing and I suppose it is quite flattering, really that so many people are interested in what we are doing . It would certainly be a bit dull without them all.

4. The First Leg

September 29th. The big day is here at last. Final farewells, good luck wishes and shouts of encouragement from the quayside, and then………………loneli ness. I quit the harbour at 0930, hitching a tow out behind "Rozelle". Race start is 1100 BST. The wind is SE force 5-6. The sea state is very choppy with white water everywhere in Mount's Bay. It is going to be a lively start. At least the sun is shining, everything will be alright just as long as the sun shines! I have to sail around for over an hour getting the boat and myself together. Wet gear on, two reefs in the main, I'll leave the headsail till later on, just before the start. It only takes a couple of seconds to unroll it. The boat is covered in flying spray and we haven't even started yet. The sprayhood does a good job though. I think through all the days and nights at sea I am never quite so lonely as I am now, just before the start. There are about two thousand people waving goodbye and shouting "Bon Voyage", but they might just as well be a million miles away, they seem so far removed from what I am doing on this Saturday afternoon. I feel lost and near to tears.


I sail past Amy Boyer in "Little Rascal". She is crying a bit too, in fact I think most of us are, just a little bit. There are 32 competing boats inside the line, and at least as many spectator craft out here taking photographs. I nearly get run down a couple of times as boats come in too close to get pictures, which is all very ego building, but quite honestly, right now I really could do with a bit of room to myself. With the wind in the SE and a course from Mousehole Island of 220M I have had a good strong beam wind for the first 24 hours. 125 miles on the log. (No GPS remember). Not bad for starters. I have not eaten yet as it seems to be taking me some time to settle down due, I think to the nervous tension just before the start. I can see a few other boats still, but we seem to have dispersed a lot quicker than I would have thought. Enda O'Coineen is just behind me in the Limbo 6.6 "Kilcullen 2". The next day, in light winds I cross tacks with Bob Salmons "Anderson Adventurer", but he is not on deck and so he does not see me. It is a good job someone is awake around here. I talk with Amy on the VHF. She is about 15 miles SW of here. She is going well. Nice to hear a friendly voice.

I have 2 or 3 days of light variable winds and the trip down to Cape Finisterre is slow, taking about six days in all.

About now things start to happen with the weather. The wind is getting up and coming out of the south, on the nose. Should be fun.

Middle of the night, October 6th . The wind is up to full gale plus a bit, from the south. I have got 3 reefs in the main with no jib on at all. Just reaching across these huge waves. Greybeards, I think they call them. Heading west at about 4 knots on the log. The noise down below is ear-splitting with the flat bottomed bow slamming into every breaking wavetop. I cannot sleep or cook any food. I am living on GORP. (good old raisins and peanuts). It is VERY uncomfortable. However, at least the boat is dry below decks, with the modified sprayhood up. It is this first depression that puts a lot of the boats out of the reckoning at this stage. Two or three have gone into Vigo or La Coruna, although of course I do not find out about this until much later on. Several rudders have been broken and one boat has broken up completely and sunk, luckily without loss of her skipper.

I seem to have lost contact with everyone and everything. There's a lot of water out here but not much else, it seems. I see a few ships, but they do not answer when I call on Channel 16.

The wind moderates to Force 6 or 7 in the mornings and gets up to full gale again during the night, always from the south or sou', sou' west. The going is very tough and I keep having this depressing feeling that I am last all the time. Navigation is mainly dead reckoning with the occasional RDF bearing thrown in, although I know I am fairly close to Portugal because I can see the ships in the south bound shipping lane just inside of me. However, with the wind in the SSW it is difficult to make any appreciable westing in these conditions as the making tack is on starboard which heads you in toward the coast.

The boat doesn't seem to be pointing very well with the jib out. I think the brand new forestay may have stretched a bit. It must have stretched about 6 inches I think, by the look of it!

For 6 days now I have been getting winds of between Force 6 and 9, and always from the south or thereabouts. The E-Boat is taking it well , surprisingly well, and is still bone dry down below, due entirely to the excellent sprayhood which keeps out all but the very finest spray. I would not be without it for all the world. Battery charging is a real problem as it is too rough to use the generator, which has to be set up in the cockpit. Consequently, I am having to be very prudent with my navigation lights, which involves staying awake most of the night and trying to cat nap during the day. Very tiring, however, sleep of any sort is hard to come by with the constant vigil for shipping and the incredible noise that the boat makes just crashing onward into these huge waves that have built up over the last week.

I am about 36° N now and the wind is freeing a little. Veering a bit more to the west each day. There is till plenty of it though, but a lot more sunshine. It is much warmer now and my navigation is easier and more precise as I can use the sextant for daily fixes. Only about another 500 miles to go. It seems funny to write down "only another 500 miles….."

I used to think that was a long way in a small boat.

Down to the last day or two now. Tenerife is about 30 miles to the south of me. First sight of land since September 29th . The temperature is around 90° F, not a cloud in the sky, not a breath of wind, not a ripple on the clear blue sea. Just a long lazy swell coming up from the south. I am getting a little sunburned, but no matter, the tan is a bonus.

A speck on the horizon materializes into the bridge of a large tanker. As it gets nearer I realise he is heading straight for me. I hope he is going to see me because I cannot move very quickly. He doesn't, he shows no sign of altering course. I suppose he is waiting for me to motor out of his path, he doesn't know I have no engine. Closer now. I get the sculling oar out and manage to move about 75 metres, just far enough to allow him past, but I get a huge wash from his bow wave. He just charges past, totally unaware of my presence. If he had run me down he would not have even noticed. 200,000 tonnes of Japanese steel travelling at 20 knots is not going to be seriously hampered by a Mini-Transat yacht. It is a bit disquieting to say the least. It takes me another eight hours to reach the finish. I have another quick squall just off the tip of the island and then I am becalmed ten minutes later in Santa Cruz Bay. I have to scull the last two miles in the dark. I arrive at 2242 GMT on October 15th. Elapsed time is 16 days 12 hrs 42 mins. Too long really, however only 12 boats are in before me so I am not the slowest. "American Express" arrived first, nearly 4 days ago, followed by a bunch of the French boys, and Amy got here in 11th place just 2 in front of me.

5. The Stopover

I have 12 days in hand before the restart, which is good news. Amy has big problems with her mast and rigging. We play a bit and work a lot over the next few days. The Real Club Nautico plays host to the event and we have full use of the club facilities which are exceptional. Can you believe a fifty metre swimming pool? Their members are very helpful, especially one Steve Wrigley, an American doctor who seems to be on call to the fleet about 12 hours a day. He has a car, which is the ultimate luxury to anyone on a yacht, miles from home.
The break in Tenerife is very relaxing as it gives us all some time to get to know each other better. There are a few language problems but these are never insurmountable. Before the start (in Penzance) everyone was far too busy for socialising but by the time October 27th (the restart) comes around we are all much more together. With few exceptions the atmosphere is very friendly with the competitors helping each other out with repairs and routine maintenance. We are like a big family, brothers and sisters, all engaged in the same struggle to cross an ocean. Tension builds again in the last couple of days. Amy's new rigging arrives the day before we are due to leave. We restep her mast just before dark on the 26th. The start of the second leg is at 1600 GMT the next day., just off the Club Nautico and at 1230 I say goodbye to Amy who is in tears, because she still has loads to do. Her boat is a mess, but she is full of guts and she promises me faithfully that she will be on the start line. I sail to a small beach at San Andres, about 2 miles north, to clean the oil off the hull that was all over the harbour we have been moored up in. There is no way I am going to start this event with black oil stains all over the yellow hull. I drink loads of coffee, eat some lunch and generally get myself together. Norton is here too, with a couple of the others. I pass him the latest weather maps that he missed by leaving early. We exchange a few words but already we are miles apart, lost in our own thoughts about what lies ahead. The Atlantic Ocean.

6. The Second Leg

We up anchor and sail down the coast to the start. The wind is light and I am a minute or two late crossing the line, but still not last. There are two or three behind me. We have to make about a mile to windward to a turning mark before going south. I forget to take photographs. The genoa sheet comes adrift and I have to act quickly to get under way again. I can't believe I didn't check that! Still I am not last around the mark. I can see spinnakers going up all around me as I pass through the leaders. Amy is there with a big grin all over her face. She has made my day. I hope she makes it OK. I hope we all do. Two hours later the wind has risen to about Force 5 or 6. No.3, Daniel Marsault, is just ahead. I am not using my spinnaker, neither is he. I have full main, no.1 genoa and drifter both boomed out and I am going like a train……… surfing, surfing all the time, incredibly fast for such a small boat. The speedo log is on the stop at 10 knots almost all of the time. It is exhilarating, but I cannot leave the helm when she is like this. I don't know what would happen, something would break, for certain. I pass Daniel, he is not too pleased…. Ca va!
It is getting dark now, almost at the southern tip of the island. I am catching some of the other boats. Bob Salmon had a horrible broach just in front of me, a while back. Last seen heading for Los Christianos, due west, with his spinnaker in the water. I pass him. Masthead lights are all around me. Still flying along, but the wind is easing a bit. Good, I will be able to grab some coffee and food. I am right alongside Guy and Phillipe now, (nos.5 and 30, two Muscadets). Guy and I are shouting at each other in Pidgin English, or is it Pidgin French, probably a combination of the two. They both sound the same anyhow.

Beating now….. light wind from the south. Just full main and no.1 genoa. Dark….dark and quiet. I am with about 6 or 7 other boats, I hope we don't collide in the night.

Second day. Still with some other boats but they are leaving me in this light wind. There is nothing I can do about it……..nothing. Oh! For a big, big mainsail. Good visual fix on La Gomera and Mount Teide this morning, no need for the sextant just yet. I had some awkward squalls last night. A lot of work, reefing and unreefing. Tired today, not much sleep and it's hot……boy is it hot! I pick up some light northeast wind. It is good to get the big headsails boomed out again. The boat sails really well like this and when we are dead downwind, I don't think the spinnaker is any quicker. One small problem, the roller furling gear seems to be jamming a bit, I will have to check and oil it. Should have done it last week instead of helping the others.

I am starting to get into my routine again now. By Monday the 29th I have lost sight of all the other boats. Some are ahead and some have gone off to the south. That horrible "I wonder if I am last" feeling starts to creep back into my head. There is just no way of knowing. I can't get anyone to talk on the VHF at listening times, I can hear some of the others chatting in French but no one wants to talk to me in English. The barometer is still very high, but I have a reasonable amount of breeze. The first four daily runs have been 118, 129, 127 and 112 nautical miles respectively. I am aiming for 1000 miles in the first week, so I am a little down on that. I think maybe I should have gone a bit further south. Time passes.

Well, I seem to be all alone now. I have not heard anyone on the radio for a couple of days and I certainly have not seen any other boats. There are always the flying fish and storm petrels, of course, maybe even a shearwater or two, so I guess you are never really alone out here. But it does feel a bit solitary at times. The trade wind I had a few days ago has gone and the breeze is light and predominantly from the south, which, with my course to steer of 255 true puts it just too far forward of the beam to hang up the kite.

Eighth day out, November 4th. The breeze has been just about zero all day, maybe Force 1 at times. I record my lowest mileage of the trip so far…. 79 miles noon to noon. The sea is glossy flat, with along lazy swell coming through from the north west. I hope the trades will settle in soon. I really should not have tight sheets in this part of the world. My position today is 25°07'N by 31°24"W. Very slow progress. I hope against hope that everyone is having the same problem.

1000 nautical miles covered in 9 days 0 hours and 13 minutes. A bit slower than I had hoped but not too bad. The second 1000 should be quicker, the last 700 quicker still. I am getting lots of rain which enables me to keep myself, my clothes and the boat very clean, which is excellent for the crew's morale. We are picking up a little more speed now, but nothing spectacular, 4.5 to 5 knots at best most of the time. Not much chance of surfing. The Navik works very well in these conditions and so I have to steer very little, which suits me fine as I get a bit bored just sitting and steering.

The days keep rolling by. The daytime is filled with drinking coffee, (tea is no good without fresh milk), steering, eating, sunbathing, navigating, sail trimming and thinking, lots of thinking. When the sun is out it gets incredibly hot, even very early in the morning. Late afternoon and early evening are always cooler because the sails tend to shade the deck from the westering sun. At midday I just can't stand on the decks in bare feet, (I never wear shoes), which makes it a bit awkward when you want to get a noon shot of the sun.

Better now with the log on 1400 or so. About half way. The breeze has picked up to Force 3 or 4, but there is no need to reef yet. It blows only from the south or south east, so no good for kite, just main and drifter most of the time. Mind you, the drifter has to come off in a hurry if a squall hits, or I could lose it. I lost the spinnaker halyard last night. The splice came undone at the end. It's a pity because I was using it to get the drifter up all the way to the mast head and now I have to use the spare genoa halyard instead. I could do with some news to read about the others or from home or of friends, but I guess they don't deliver mail out here. I talk to myself quite a lot instead. Luckily I am not having trouble with my brains like some of the other guys did on the first leg…. I find I can take the solitude and quiet very well…….except that my left hand keeps grabbing at my throat and I start shouting "Get down, get down" at the top of my voice.

Also I keep asking myself if I want a cup of coffee, but I think its all only temporary. It will be all right on the night, as long as the sun keeps shining.

I cross the Tropic of Cancer, 23°30' N. There is supposed to be a dotted line all the way around the world just here somewhere, but I can't find it. Oh, well, another childhood myth exploded. I can see a ship! I have been down making some lemon tea and emerge for a look around. There is a huge tanker just off my starboard quarter. She is in ballast. Probably on her way to the Gulf for another load of black gold for the thirsty old US of A. I check the chart and find I am close to the New York-Cape Town ship track. I should have seen her sooner, my watchkeeping is getting a bit slack.

About now I have some quite good daily runs……up to 135 miles. Not brilliant but a great improvement on a week ago. I am still getting lots of rain squalls too, mainly late afternoon. At around 2000 miles on the log I see two more ships within eight hours of each other. Again on ship tracks so I was expecting them. I pass 2000 nautical miles on the log at 2105 on November 13th. I eat the chocolate egg that Amy gave me for a "special occasion". It has a plastic model man inside it and I put him together next day after breakfast. I wonder how Amy is fairing. I have a day of strong wind, up to Force 7, well reefed and making good progress to the south west, but still this annoying southerly wind in the north east trade wind belt. It shouldn't be happening to a nice guy like me.

A horrible black morning. Rotten, squally, wet and windy. Then a real gale, then flat calm again. Very frustrating and not much progress. Changing rig continuously all day. Log is now on 2235. Position is 19°30'N by 52°45'W. I don't believe it, the wind is east south east. Up spinnaker. Only for a few hours though. Drop the kite, sheets in again. So it goes on, day after day. Feeling a need now for fellow human beings.

I hear a familiar sound. Sharply exhaled breath – whales – where. Christ, right behind me! Now alongside. He passes ahead and away. Majestic. Wait – another one, right up close, I can almost touch him. They move so slowly. First you see the head and then hear the exhalation, then the back rises, shiny and black, with that ridiculously small dorsal fin, last, just a flick of the huge tail, and then he is gone again. I suppose I should be scared, but I am not. Just amazed. Now there is another one right under the boat. He passes just under the keel. About 35 or 40 feet long, nearly twice the length of "Smiling Tree", with those huge white pectoral fins, I wish I new their names. Humpbacks. I feel very close to these huge creatures. We have a lot in common, them in and me on the ocean that is our life, our support. They must be just about the most beautiful things I have ever seen. I hope they can survive the onslaught of my fellow men.

Another day, I notice the log is fouled with Sargasso weed. I pull it in, clear it and when I stream it again it is not working so I retrieve it and find the rotator is covered with teeth marks and one of the wires is bitten through. Sharks? I wonder, or just an inquisitive dorado?

The breeze gets lighter and lighter, the weather hotter, the speed slower. The daily runs get less, 118-98-91-79----. Antigua seems along way off. I should be getting 150 miles a day here in the north east trade wind. Mind you it is only November, which is a bit early for solid trades. They say you should not leave the Canaries until December 1st if you want a trade wind passage. Still, we had no choice.

On the night of the 20th I spot the loom of St. Johns, the only sizeable town on Antigua. At dawn the next day I am just off the island and moving in ever so slowly under main and spinnaker. I see one or two cruising yachts motoring in, but I have to sail. An American yacht "Sophia" comes over to say hello. They give me the lowdown on who has arrived, it sounds like almost everyone. They throw me a couple of cold beers which taste like something from heaven as I ran out of warm beer about three days ago. I brought 21, one for each day of a three week crossing.

I pass Cape Shirley and Harman Point and drop the kite just yards from the line. I coast over at 1736 GMT November 21st. Twenty five and a bit days after leaving Tenerife. Arnold comes over in his RIB and tows me in to moor alongside the Admirals Inn. I am just a few short steps from my first Planters Punch.

A lot of the other boats are in and the welcome is beautiful. There are lots of friends here from Santa Cruz, and some from Antigua when I was here three years ago. It is so good to be here. I only manage to finish 19th on this leg, but because some of the boats that beat me were so far behind in Tenerife, I manage to hold on to my 13th place overall, which is about 4th production boat. Also the Anderson Prize (for Best British Boat) is safe from the clutches of Bob Salmon, my nearest rival. Although he arrived in Antigua before me he was so far back in Tenerife (four and a half days) I finish 3 days ahead of him on aggregate.

Actually, I feel quite pleased with myself. I have sailed over 4,200 miles, single handed, in an overgrown Enterprise dinghy, at an average speed of just under 5 knots, and that's not slow by any standards.

A couple of congratulatory telegrams arrive a few days later, and that seems to make it all worthwhile. In any case, Antigua is not a bad place to be at this time of year, so I might as well sit back and enjoy, it has sure cost me enough effort getting here.

Problem is Brian will be wanting his boat back soon.

C'est la vie!

7. Epilogue

I sailed "Smiling Tree" down to Guadeloupe for a little post race socialising with the French contingent and from there I arranged to have her shipped back to Le Havre by a French shipping company. Unfortunately she did not arrive in time to be on display at the Earls Court boat show, which had been the intention.
"Smiling Tree" crossed the Atlantic again in 1981 under the name "Age of Steam".

Brian ailed her himself this time. Another E-Boat "Ocean Delivery" also entered and completed the trip. She was owned and sailed by Ian McDonald a delivery skipper from St. Maarten in the Dutch West Indies.

by John Tomlinson