Leo Goolden tells the story of his voyage from Falmouth, England to the Caribbean, much of it solo and without GPS, in his rebuilt 25-footer.
(Article of Courtesy Classic Boat Magazine)
I hoist the mainsail with the mooring lines still tied. A few curious faces peer over the railings. “Is that a Folkboat?” says an old fella’ with a bag of chips. “Where you off to?” “France!” I say. He gives me an odd look and wanders off down the stone quay. I hoist the jib, untie the spring, and flick the bow line over the bollard.
I back the jib, holding the clew to leeward on the foredeck until the bow falls off a little, and then give the wall a good kick from the stern. I take up the slack in the main sheet as Lorema bears away and the sails fill, the wake widens, and I hear the sound of the water accelerating over the clinker planks.
As I pass Trefusis point, I turn and wave goodbye to Falmouth and Cornwall and all the friends I have made there – until next time. After two years it feels like home, but I am finally embarking on the trip I have planned for so long, and I can barely contain my excitement and nerves. I am heading south, destination unknown, and it feels good.
Unbelievably, that was nearly 10 months ago now, and as I write this on a palm shaded patio in the Caribbean, with a cup of tea and a view of my boat Lorema in the bay down below, I have to look back and try to piece together the defining points of the journey, and shape them into a digestible story.
Having sailed out of Falmouth, I crossed the English Channel in convoy with some lovely friends in the tiny Gaff Cutter Katla, also engineless, chatting on the VHF, spotting pilot whales, and dodging quite a few blocks of flats. We were becalmed for hours near l’Aber Wrac’h, and finally both of us took a kind tow from the Luke Powell Pilot Cutter Amelie Rose just before dark, into a harbour full of inebriated Cornish folk on their way down to the regatta at Douarnenez. We joined the magnificent procession the next day, and the festival lived up to its amazing reputation.
The voyage continued into south Brittany, popping into various small islands and sampling their cheese and wine, scratching heads over tidal atlases, sometimes alone and sometimes in convoy with Katla. Wherever I arrived, I was welcomed warmly and my feeble French was politely endured. One of my favourite spots was Isle Groix, which boasts an excellent boulangerie and a harbour-master who let me stay for free because he appreciated my sculling.
A broken tiller and a salvaged bicycle later, I set off across Biscay, for my longest solo passage yet. Someone upstairs obviously didn’t want to discourage me quite yet, as I was lucky enough to have northeasterlies all the way across, though they reached a near gale on the last night. In La Coruña I anchored inside the harbour, just off the fairway, in a protest against all the no-anchoring and expensive marinas to be found around there. I repaired my rescued French bicycle and pedalled around that lively city, drinking beer and eating tapas with any bystander unfortunate enough to get in the way. There were two other singlehanders there – a mad Swede with an unstoppable party in his wake, and a very Zen Chinese guy in a boat even smaller than mine! We made a strange team, and sailed in very vague convoy around the beautiful Rias of Galicia.
Leaving Camariñas, my handheld GPS bit the bullet. The other GPS on my phone had been on the blink for a while, so I was without satellite aid. Disgusted by my initial urge to turn back, I pressed on – what kind of sailor would decide otherwise? Around Cabo Finisterre I sailed through the night, dead reckoning and taking bearings where I could. Approaching Ria de Muros I encountered fog and very light wind, punctuated with the occasional gale-force squall. Bizarre and worrying though it was, I was managing to navigate on the bearing of one light that I could still see, until the powers that be judged it to be daytime again and they switched the thing off…
Eventually things cleared up and I managed to get in to Muros. I was a little shaken, but the wonderful satisfaction I felt was enough to convince me not to replace my GPS, and so I continued without.South to Porto, gorgeous Porto, where I left all the yachts behind in industrial Leixões, and berthed right in the middle of the city with a Norwegian Pilot Cutter. Before leaving I kidnapped a rather lovely Swede, and showed her the delights of low-tech sailing by getting becalmed, lost, stuck on a lee shore, and finally arriving late in the wrong port. Unbelievably, she elected to stay on board, and we continued together around the coast of Portugal and southern Spain and up various beautiful rivers, encountering only the odd lightning storm and horrible tidal race along the way.
The next leg to Morocco was the first offshore passage sans-GPS, and was challenging and tiring. Elin, the Swede, proved her seawomanship by baking bread in a frying pan, on a paraffin stove, on a Folkboat, in a gale, as we surfed downwind with just a small jib up. Several days later we spotted Morocco in roughly the right place and, due to worsening conditions, had to beat into another gale between heavily breaking bars towards a port which might or might not have been there (nonexistent navigational lights). Oh, and it was raining. Hard. We managed to get into El Jadida though, and tied up in the ramshackle fishing harbour before the real storm arrived. I seriously considered trading the Folkboat for several camels, but after a week of friendly bartering, we were ready to go to sea again. Before that though, I had to visit my grandmother, Lorema, after whom my boat is named. A very inspirational and strong woman, at 94 she was about ready to pass the baton, so I went to spend a week in the UK with her. She died just after Christmas after we had arrived in the Canaries, but her memory sails on with her family and in the planks of my boat.
In the Canaries, the tiny island Graciosa stands out in my memory for its prehistoric landscape and its lack of development. We met several friends, old and new there – Ben and Philippa, who were thinking about crossing the Atlantic with their two tiny toddler girls (they are now here with us in Antigua!); the amazing Hans with his enormous wooden catamaran that looks like it has been torn from the earth; and several Wylos, the boats distinctive in their capacity both for crossing oceans and for containing unusually interesting people. One of them, of course, contained their legendary designer Nick, and a good quantity of rum to be tasted.
Christmas passed in Las Palmas with Swedish glogg, and then Elin jumped on a plastic catamaran to cross the Atlantic in relative comfort. I sailed south to the Cape Verdes. The trip was wet – eight days of big, big swell, continuous waves over the boat, not enough sleep, and too many clouds for consistent astro-navigation. I arrived safely though, in Mindelo, where I made more preparations for the big trip and savoured the feel of solid earth beneath my feet.
Finally I set off across the Atlantic from Taraffal, a tiny village on the west coast of Santo Antao, where I had spent a valuable couple of days relaxing after all the intense preparations. I drank, ate, and made music with some wonderful people there, and left feeling content and relaxed, and just a tiny bit hung-over.The Atlantic crossing itself was everything I had expected it to be but could never have really imagined. It was terrifying, inspiring, boring, hair-raising, meaningful, and very empty – but not necessarily in that order. My home-made windvane self-steering, which had been so faithful all this time (and had been thoroughly overhauled in Mindelo), couldn’t deal with the huge amount of Sargasso grass that seemed to cover the entire Atlantic, and so after a day of leaning perilously over the transom with a boathook, I took the whole thing off and sailed the next 1,700 miles using jib-sheets lashed to the tiller. Other problems included a jammed main halyard and an infection in my knee. Thoughts of DIY amputation ran through my head until I finally sighted land after 20 days of reefed main. It is a navigator’s most satisfying moment, when after three weeks of sun and star sights, and only one VHF call to a passing ship for a position, a piece of land appears when and where you expect. Of course, if you are singlehanded, no one has to know if it was the piece of land you were expecting or a different one.
People often ask me how I slept and what I ate, which confuses me slightly, because I did both things in almost exactly the same way as everybody else. I ate lots of food, fresh and tinned, cooked and raw, and I slept when I was tired, without an alarm, until a noise or some sense of intuition awakened me. When coastal sailing I wake every twenty minutes – but try doing that for three weeks and see if you can still work out a star sight.
I arrived first in Martinique, and like many after a long solo sail, felt thoroughly bizarre. It was raining and I had to go to MacDonalds to use the Wi-Fi. I didn’t know anyone and didn’t want to. Luckily, an old git named Rob rowed over and came to the rescue. He sailed a little red Falmouth working-boat, had some incredible stories of shipwrecking and subterfuge, and shared with me a sense of bitterness and a quart of rum, as well as some friends back home. I gave up thoughts of getting back on the boat and doing a Moitessier, and came back down to earth a little.
I sailed on to Dominica, where I felt like I had just arrived in the Caribbean – the colours are bright and the music is turned up, the roads suck and the smell of ganja mixes with the smell of raw, unadulterated life. The language on the island is English, but you wouldn’t know it – the accent is as thick as the rum is strong. I soaked up a little fire and pushed on through some horrendous weather to meet Elin again in Guadaloupe. We continued north together, eating coconuts and hunting deserted anchorages, making friends and moving on.Next stop Antigua, and shortly after dropping the anchor off Pigeon Beach in the other Falmouth harbour, I snorkeled to check the holding. On the way back I picked up a glass bottle from the sea floor to put in a bin, only to find that it was an unopened bottle of rosé wine from Waitrose, of all places! I emerged triumphantly to a surprised Elin and we set about demolishing it. This welcome little omen was a clue to the good fortune we would encounter in Antigua.
Several weeks later, my tools were sharp once again, and some wonderful friends and connections had been made. We raced Lorema in the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta, tearing around in the wake of the J-class Rainbow, dodging Cariacou Sloops and trying to avoid being cut in half by enormous schooners such as Elena. To our surprise, we even won our class and came away with a few trophies – the crystal decanter is a particularly practical thing to have on a Folkboat.
At Antigua Classics 2015 Lorema won 1st Place in Vintage Class C, the Smallest Boat Trophy, the Best Young Skipper award, and a Special mention from the Jury in the Concourse d’Elegance.
THE BOAT AND REBUILD
Lorema is an engineless Nordic Folkboat. She came to me in poor condition and without a name, and I have struggled to find out all of her history, but believe she was built in Sweden in 1947. Soon after I bought her, the mast snapped when a chainplate pulled out. I rebuilt her in Gweek, where I blagged, borrowed, begged for advice, and lived in various uninhabited shacks and boats, often sharing my bed with copper nails and rainwater.
The transom, topside planks, most of the deck, beamshelf, some deck beams, frames and plenty more were replaced. I also decided to deck-over the cockpit, for storage and safety in the open ocean.
The whole project was done on a shoestring, and would not have been possible without the amazing generosity that I experienced in that boatyard.