"Anything for the exciting life"
I thought as we skidded across the white flecked rollers beneath
Dunnet Head on the edge of the Pentland Firth. The 20ft Shetland
foureen was going like a train and Andy Bryce her owner, looking
more like an Orkney fisherman than the scientist I believed him
to be, sat at the helm of the little double ender obviously at
home and enjoying the wild weather.
"How much will you take for her?" I yelled above the
"Three hundred pounds, that's what I paid to have her built,
you can have her for that"
Three hundred! It was 1972, I was 22, and it was all the money
we had, yet she was just what we wanted. I thought we would never
find a more suitable boat for less.
So Julie and I bought The Aegre, 21ft (6.4m) long overall with
a beam of 7ft (2.1m) built of mahogany planks fastened clinker
fashion with copper nails.
Of classical Scandinavian design, there could be no doubts about
her seaworthiness. In the seven years since she was built, Andy
had been using her for daysailing and racing with an annual trip
across the Firth to the Orkneys. She had obviously been well looked
after and seemed to be exactly what we were looking for.
In '70s Britain, in the vanguard of the sailing boom, Shetland
boats were not a well known design, but teaching sailing at an
Adventure School in NW Scotland, where I had spent much of my
time aboard a 16ft (4.8m) version, had taught me their extraordinary
seakindliness. I had always thought that if I could get a bigger
one and deck it in, I could take it almost anywhere.
A summer of looking and talking to people in Scotland had finally
led to The Aegre. With the help of an empty fish lorry returning
to the West Coast, it wasn't long before she was bobbing at a
mooring in Loch a'Chadfi, just off Loch Laxford, where the John
Ridgway School of Adventure was situated.
Teaching sailing on this wild and remote stretch of the Scottish
coast had given me a thirst for adventure. I dreamt of ocean cruising
with my wife Julie, but for now I just wanted a small sailing
boat for coastal cruising, perhaps to sail down to the South of
England at the end of the summer
When we bought her, The Aegre was decked in forward of the mast,
aft she was open apart from narrow sidedecks. She had a long deadwood
keel and all the ballast was internal, comprising about 10cwt
(508kg) of Caithness slate cut to fit the bilges. She was sloop
rigged with the main set as a standing lugsail.
For the cruising we had in mind we decided to continue the decking
aft so we would have somewhere protected to sleep while underway,
and also to build in buoyancy chambers to float the boat if she
should be holed or capsize.
But overall we wanted to keep things very simple. No motor,
no fancy rig, no flushing toilet, no shower, no freezer, no electrics,
no holes in the hull.... But unsinkable, able to survive a complete
capsize and rollover, inexpensive, realistic and yes, probably
uncomfortable too. My thinking was strongly influenced by English
Rose 2, the dory in which John Ridgway and Chay Blyth had rowed
across the Atlantic in 1966, which I was very familiar with.
But before we knew it the summer was over and we hadn't even
started any work on the boat. John Ridgway suggested we ask an
elderly, highly respected local boat builder, Bob Maciness, to
do the decking during the winter while we went south to more lucrative
As John said, "He could make a proper job of it and then
next winter when you sail south, you wouldn't need to stop in
the south of England, but could carry straight on for Madeira,
even go on across the Atlantic to the West Indies!"
Madeira? The West Indies? Who said anything about them? Julie
and I were stunned by the idea. John knew the size of our boat,
he knew us, and he certainly knew the sea. Spending 92 days in
an open boat rowing across the North Atlantic must have given
him more than a suntan! But perhaps he was right. After all it
had been done in smaller boats. And so we decided, if all went
well we would sail for Madeira and then, perhaps, across the Atlantic.
Macinness was a big man in ancient blue overalls, with enormous
hardened hands and a weather beaten face. He hardly raised an
eyebrow as John leant on the gunwale of The Aegre outside his
battered old nissen hut boatshed high on the hill above Scourie,
and sketched the ideas for the decking on the back of an envelope.
"The West Indies eh ...heh heh heh...." Bob chuckled
to himself, his eyes sparkling. He looked up at me over his scratched
old glasses, "I wouldn't mind coming with you" he said
nodding agreement to take on the work, "Heh heh, that would
fix my arthritis".
Bob would finish current work he had and then build the decking
whilst we returned to London for the winter and work to make money
to pay Bob and to fund the trip the next year. We would return
to Scotland in the spring. But there were so many uncertainties.
Could we earn enough money, could we complete the modifications,
fit out and the sea trials before the end of August the next year?
Were we and the boat really up to it all?
Now go to Part 2 - Preparation, about
the evolution of the interior design, voyage planning, self steering,
and the trial voyages around the north west coast of Sutherland.