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Sailmithril - ocean cruising adventures

10 year report


In New Zealand
Mithril at world's End, south Island

From puffins to penguins and 
sunshine to icebergs

On June 13th 2001 "Mithril" was 10 years old; a fact that has come as something of a surprise to us as we still refer to "the new boat" sometimes. Perhaps this is due to the long unfinished nature of the interior. It's only recently that we've stopped carrying plywood clamped up in the passage and our job list has become "fit fiddle" rather than "fit headlining". We've managed to sail some 83,000 miles in that decade; you can't have a "wee palace" and go places. To mark the anniversary I thought I'd recall some of the highlights of our voyages and bore you all with reminiscences.

Our shake down trip was 700 miles to Gibraltar begun in November 1991 - not an ideal season to take an untried boat into the Atlantic but we had a good passage and spent the next year in the Mediterranean re-visiting some of our favourite places and fitting various bits. In April 1993 we were anchored in the Beaulieu river to visit the famous boat jumble and procure yet more bits. One of these was a rubber dinghy and fortunately my sister was there with her car as we couldn't have managed it the 10 miles back to the boat between two bikes. Later that summer we sailed up to Iceland to 24 hours of daylight and visits to boiling mud pools and geysers. In the Westmann Islands a local told us about the volcano that almost engulfed the town in the '60s. From his front window he pointed out the vivid splashes of purple lupins colonising the bare mountain of lava. The white steeple of a small wooden church was completely outlined in ash-black. His hope was to see the cross against the blue of the sky once more as the clinker settled lower. In the town museum we saw relics of the Cod War - remember those grainy black and white films of trawlers in huge seas having their lines cut? Well we saw the tool that did it. Curiously, Icelanders consider cod a very inferior fish fit only for selling to foreigners and processing into fish digits.

Chile was to have been our next destination but Iceland had been so cold that we decided a bit of tropical heat was in order and went instead to the Caribbean for nearly 2 years. Every sailor should visit the West Indies at least once in a lifetime as they are a wonderfully diverse and colourful region with excellent cruising. We saw Grenada's carnival in July when the only respite from the calypso for 5 days was from 05 - 09 am when the "open all hours" harbour cafe closed; presumably to wash the dishes and snooze before the day's onslaught. Otherwise the same 6 songs blared at excruciating volume and distortion all day long. The carnival parade itself was a whirl of costumes, singers and steel bands. In Antigua at Nelson's dockyard you step into a little bit of English naval folklore where the buildings are wood with high ceilings, shingle rooves and small windows overlooking a village green and slipway with an enormous black and white capstan. The tall, dark and very elegant Creole ladies of Martinique use great colourful golf umbrellas as parasols and to clear their way through the daily produce market. In the Grenadines we anchored in lagoons of turquoise with islets of sparkling white sand and coconut palms on one side and the glories of the coral reef on the other. Here we snorkelled among huge shimmering, silver barracuda and shoals of tiny multi coloured fish. At Devil's island we lived off the land fishing and gathering coconut, mango and bananas while watching monkeys and scarlet macaw parrots flitting through the trees. This idyll was ended by the launch of a satellite from nearby French Guyana and we were forced by the French navy to move on. This turned out a good thing as the launch failed and bits of space age metal rained over the area.

As Peter was unable to get a visa for USA we sailed from Cuba for 49 days to Stornoway in the outer Hebrides. This longer route seemed one way of sneaking up on St. Kilda - surely we'd now have the westerlies that thwarted all previous attempts to get there. However arrival at the precipitous, windswept lump of granite brought a south easterly gale and we couldn't get anywhere near. The mizzle, drizzle, mist and rain of the Hebrides were something of a shock to the system after the balminess of the Caribbean as were the burning barricades and Drumcree protests when we arrived back in Carrickfergus on 08th July 1996 after some 30,000 miles. There was by now a bit of work to be done on the boat. We had come to accept the manufacturers assertion that no paint would bond to coal tar epoxy as we were like Joseph's coat we had so many different layers of paint showing. After a quick grit blast we settled on the black epoxy and no top coats. This has been much better. We also had to paint the mast as no varnish would adhere to the epoxy and the resin itself is not UV resistant so the wood was in effect unprotected. By December we were on the road again reaching south with the Mournes snow clad and shining in the sun.

A year later we were in Tierra del Fuego looking at very different snow covered mountains - the Andes. Chile was a real adventure for us and probably the only real wilderness we'll ever visit. The weather was wild too with only one day in five fit for cruising. Magellan strait must be one of the windiest places in the world and we were unable to make it northwards through the channels. It took us a fortnight to progress 100 miles and eventually we stopped beating our heads against this wall and sailed downwind to the Beagle channel. Here we sailed narrow waterways with magnificent mountain scenery and crunched our way through small ice cubes melting from glaciers. We saw hump back whales close up, beavers checking their dams at sunset and even an otter cracking open mussels with a stone. Cape Horn wasn't on our direct route but you couldn't come all that way and not go round it so we waited for a suitable day and ducked out into the Southern Ocean before sailing on to the Falklands.

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In the Falklands we saw our best selection of wildlife. The islands are very sparsely populated and penguins, sealions and birds have plenty of space and privacy. They are also quite unafraid of people and we were able to get up close and personal. It's a windy old place and in Stanley the 4 mile fetch down the harbour meant we often got ashore only once a week. It really is a little piece of England though with Tesco bread and baked beans coming by ship and English papers twice a week. The local radio station played lots of country and western and one couple we met had a signed photo of Daniel O'Donnell on their living room wall.

From the Falklands to New Zealand you sail the Southern Ocean by way of the five Great Capes - Horn, Good Hope, Leeuwin, South East, and South West. It's a curious thing that the only one we were close enough to see from the boat was Cape Horn. Some of the others we also visited by land. When people hear where we've been they always assume that we've seen some awful weather and so we have but we've never felt threatened by storms at sea. Mithril is big and heavy and very comfortable and in really awful conditions we leave only a tiny rag of headsail flying and retire below. The boat then seems to bob like a cork with only the biggest of the waves coming aboard; while below we recline in comfort with a fire lit if necessary. It's a fine experience to juke outside to look around at 50 degrees south and smell your own turf smoke. Stormy weather is much worse near the land and dragging anchor in the Falklands saw us on the beach for 36 hours. There was no permanent damage but the wary nervousness of anchorages lives on.

In Cape Town we had a spectacular berth beneath the towering Table Mountain. We did a lot of interior maintenance there and a lasting memory is of gin and tonic at the end of the day listening to the call to prayer from the local mosque and being mesmerised by the table cloth cloud cascading like a waterfall down the mountain. We also crewed for a weekend on a big plastic racing boat and it was great fun to have someone else make decisions about reefing and bear the financial consequences of any error. Our longest passage has been 63 days from Cape Town to Fremantle in Western Australia. We both like long voyages and don't get bored or tired of the empty ocean. Birds are great companions then flying close to the boat to see what we are. Sometimes you even get to tell individual birds apart especially the giant wandering albatross which may make a daily visit over the whole course of a passage.

Landfall is always exciting and Australia was no exception. In all we've spent 18 months in Aussie, 10 of them travelling by land. After 6 months by sea we'd been in 4 different ports on the mainland. It was unthinkable to leave after seeing so little. Biddy the bus was a great find. A 17 year old van costing 200 pounds and we drove nearly 25,000 miles in it and still sold it for 400 quid - not bad going that. Looking at a map to drive right round Australia is 22,000 kilometres and we reckoned on doing about 25,000. In the event we did 42,000 kms. But we saw nearly all the highlights of the country - Uluru which used to be called Ayers rock, Kakadu aboriginal art sites, Ningaloo reef, some of the tallest trees in the world and a lot of the most unusual wildlife in the world from crocodiles and fruit bats to wallabies and wombats. We camped in the bush and often cooked on an open fire. And best of all we never, ever had to even think about the weather.

Now we're back on the briny and in New Zealand preparing for the next part of our voyage. We will cross our outward track at the western end of Magellan Strait but that completes only a short circumnavigation. It's not until we cross the equator again that technically we've gone right round the world. It's been an eventful 10 years which has passed very quickly. We've had some marvellous experiences and met loads of great people. Undoubtedly a boat is the only economical way of seeing the world for an extended period and we don't regret our decision to take such a long time over doing it. Given the choice again we would probably build the same boat - certainly not one much smaller. An aluminium hull would be lighter and much easier to maintain but more expensive and awkward to build. So what's in the next 10 years for "Mithril"? We would expect to arrive in Northern Ireland in the summer of 2002 after a non-stop passage from Chile and then we might have another go at the Caribbean before going round the world again by the warmer trade wind routes. We certainly won't be hanging up the anchor just yet. Email in particular has changed the way we do things in the last decade and we get to keep in touch with many more people much more easily. No matter how long it is between cyber cafes or how often we change from our intended track missing mail is no longer a problem. Thank you for your emails over the years; we cherish them all.

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copyright Geraldine Foley.