Steve breathes a huge sigh of relief after realising why his boat won't steer

It is difficult to believe how two days can start so differently; yesterday I couldn’t sleep, usually a sign that I need to do something, which in this case was a sail change from spinnaker to gennaker – down a gear if you like. It was getting a bit marginal for the spinnaker, and so it was a job well done – boat speed up and the boat more stable, and hence a load off my nerves. As I finished, I watched the dawn come with surprising rapidity, as it seems to down here. At first a finger’s width of amber light across the Eastern horizon that swiftly began to illuminate the underneath of the clouds in front of it with every shade of red and purple; it was absolutely stunning, and I stayed to watch it until the sun was up properly.

This morning, however – at about the same time – again unable to sleep I decided to change down to a Code 5, which is like a rolled up mini spinnaker for stronger winds, as the breeze was hitting 30 knots regularly. I went through the motions, rolled away the gennaker, took it down, bagged and stacked it at the back of the boat on deck, and as I was preparing the Code 5 there was a big bang that I felt through the boat – “Oh, we’ve hit something” I thought – not an unusual occurrence if you sail in the English Chanel which is absolutely full of flotsam from shipping and rivers, and so I carried on and put up the sail, but when I unrolled it I could not get the boat to steer.

Without further ado I rolled it up again, which is no mean feet in 30 knots of breeze, and looking over the back of the boat I convinced myself that the wash was different from the starboard rudder and the earlier collision had broken the tip off it. What went through my mind was pretty grim; the thoughts of coming so far to wind up in Cape Town to do a rudder repair or retire if I didn’t have enough materials on board to fix it. At the very least I’d be re-starting at the back. I went all through the steering gear checking that the rudders hadn’t been knocked out of alignment and everything seemed OK, so in desperation I gybed the boat with the ballast on the wrong side to get the rudder out of the water – it was OK! Minus a big chunk of it’s orange paint, but otherwise unscathed.

So what was wrong with it, why wouldn’t it steer? I put a second reef in and then – we were off with me feeling like a fool! The size of the swell and the increased breeze during the sail change just meant that the boat was going too slowly (ten knots) for the rudders to work, and I had heard the bang, put two and two together and made six! It’s there in the Ladybird book of sailing on page three “If the steering doesn’t work and the top guard wire is underwater, try putting in a reef!”

Suitably humiliated but much relieved, I unrolled the solent and had a stress free half an hour in bed before putting the Code 5 up and getting going again. The highest speed so far is twenty two point six knots by the GPS, but it is a bit nerve racking as with reduced mainsail the top of the mast wobbles about like nobodies business! I am assured that is OK, and it’s still up at the moment I’m pleased to say!

Over the past few days I have been sitting here full dressed at the chart table waiting either to reduce sail, or for broaches or breakages, I have been pushing fairly hard with sails I don’t know yet, and when you do try and sleep it is very shallow and not satisfying as you are a bit on the edge of your seat, so to speak, hence the fact that I have not written anything in the past few days, not because there hasn’t been anything to talk about, because there has been much to report on other than just boat stuff.

I am now in albatross country – not the really big wandering variety, the ones that are regular visitors to me have a black back, but they are still pretty big. I have always rushed to see them when they go scooting by at a distance. You can see their wings flexing with the weight of their bodies, as they make some pretty dramatic but effortless turns to skim the waters surface and then soar up for a look round. Their flexing wings give me some comfort regarding my flexing mast! When I had my snooze this morning I looked out of the door to see one looking in at me! He was flying behind the boat and having a good look inside, which was really quite something for me.

The whole place is awash with birds, dozens of them at any one time. With the exception of some pigeon-like birds, which are small and plump, all of the seabirds here are of the racing snake variety – pointy wings and streamlined bodies. There is none of your fish and chip eating seaside gulls here; they are all serious flying machines! There are some all blacky-brown birds with clown’s eyes painted on in white that fight and squabble amongst themselves, but there are numerous other types too. It also seems to be a haven for small squid, and there must be countless millions out there. This morning one was in the cockpit – I don’t know how he got there. He was silver grey and about eight inches long. When I touched him he shrank back inside his mantle so only the ends of his tentacles were poking out and he looked very comical! He got sent back over the side. There were some others that had been washed into a rolled up sail at the back of the boat – one was no more, but the other two were OK and got put back over the side. They are obscure but beautiful creatures with their big eyes, but I’m not sure I’d like to meet a giant one though!

Anyway, the breeze is building again and I’m going to have to do something about my sails – late lunch again!