Read Solitaire Spirit: Three Times Around the World Single-Handed Online
Authors: Les Powles
Tags: #Boating, #Travel, #Essays & Travelogues, #Sports & Recreation
For my younger brother, Royston. A loving and devoted son.
Chapter One On a Whim or a Wind's Whisper
Chapter Two Which Way Barbados?
Chapter Three the Hallelujah Chorus
Chapter Five Land of Hope and Glory
Chapter Six Feeling the Old Freedom
Chapter Seven Screams in the Rigging
Chapter Ten Yachtsman of the Year
by Paul Gelder
Yachting Monthly, 2002â2012
This book should probably carry a government health warning. It could change your life. For many people, sailing beyond the horizon is the ultimate adventure, whether alone, or with a partner or crew. The inspiration to cast off comes in many forms. For some it might be a book, like this one, or a hero they have met, or some more intangible, divine intervention. Intrepid solo sailor Mike Richey once said it was âthe splendid company at either end of a solitary voyage' that gave him part of the reason. The ocean in between gave him âa kind of harmony with the universe'.
Les Powles' Eureka moment happened as he walked along a yacht club's pontoon. He realised a sailing boat symbolised escape: freedom from mortgage, the bank manager and a career, plus a means to transport himself and a set of golf clubs around the globe.
He spent Â£7,000 and two years building a bullet-proof 34ft yacht named
, after the card game. But the cards were stacked against Les from the start. After logging just eight hours' sailing time, only two of them solo, he impetuously â some might say recklessly â set off across the Atlantic in 1975, bound for the Caribbean.
He described how he sailed to the wrong hemisphere in his first published article, âBarbados or bust', which appeared in
magazine. The sub-title was âLes Powles has trouble at the 19th hole'. His landfall turned out to be in Brazil, some 1,000 miles
south of Barbados! The magazine's editor, Des Sleightholme, was careful to add a footnote: âA highly amusing account that could have been far from funny. Mr Powles was lucky to get through with his life and his boat and learned from his experience. We would not condone anyone attempting anything similar to this voyage.'
Never underestimate British pluck and the spirit of adventure. We breed intrepid lone voyagers â from Francis Chichester and Robin Knox-Johnston to Chay Blyth, Mike Golding, Ellen MacArthur and Dee Caffari. A psychologist has profiled this unique band of brothers and sisters as âimpulsive, certainly eccentric, though not entirely barking mad'. Though it's surely no coincidence that the title of one best-selling sailing book is
A Voyage for Madmen
After surviving his first circumnavigation (1975â8), Les set off two years later on a second (this time non-stop) and returned in 1981 to be awarded the Yachtsman of the Year accolade by the Yachting Journalists' Association. He joked: âLike the chap released from a mental home, I now had a certificate to say I was not completely bonkers!'
In June 1988, aged 67, he set off on his third solo circumnavigation, returning eight years later in July 1996, to be awarded the Ocean Cruising Club's Award of Merit. By now dubbed âthe Ancient Mariner', this third epic voyage was, as usual, packed with incident. He was knocked unconscious, ran out of food and lost 5st, having rationed himself to a quarter of a tin of corned beef and two teaspoonfuls of rice a day. He was given up for dead before he eventually sailed into Lymington, four months overdue, to a media frenzy. Newspaper headlines proclaimed âAlive! (thanks to a teacup in a storm)' and âReports of my death are greatly exaggerated'. The
reporter said: âHe is so thin you could play a sea shanty on his ribs.' As weather-beaten as his 34ft sloop, Les, 70, finally declared: âI'm not going round the world again. Three times is enough. You start to get giddy.'
It was fear, as well as a crazy kind of courage, that inspired Les to sail around the globe three times. He had no desire to be one
of âtomorrow's people' â whom he characterised as âWe're off tomorrow... when we've bought a new mainsail. We're off tomorrow... when we've painted the topsides. We're off tomorrow... when we've bought a bigger boat.'
He foresaw the final excuse: âWe're off in a hearse.'
Now aged 86, Les still lives on his boat, in Lymington Yacht Haven, on the Solent, where he has a free berth for life. He has recently been seen re-painting the decks of
. He still calls himself an âamateur sailor' and he still has that knowing twinkle in his eye. Above all else, he still remains an inspiration.
From a deep sleep to panic: Christ, she's aground on the reef again! Struggling from my bunk on legs that will not respond, I hear a baby's cry and a man's soothing voice, speaking in a language I cannot understand. Trying to pierce the gloom through sweat-filled eyes, I realise I am no longer aboard my sinking boat, but bed-bound in a small white room. Moonlight through a window touches wall-mounted posters about pregnancy before outlining rafters that disappear into blackness. Then memory floods back.
The population of TutÃ³ia, a small fishing village on the Brazilian coast, had increased that day with the birth of a child howling its first protest at the same moment that a wreck of a man lay near to gasping his last. I had been half carried, half dragged from my boat and into their hospital, blister-faced, with feet infected and groin swollen. Sailing, I had once read, was a peaceful pastime punctuated by moments of extreme excitement but after my experience on the reef a week earlier âextreme excitement' seemed the ultimate in understatement. As to those pregnancy posters on my wall the only thing I'd given birth to was a yacht called
or, as she was registered,
Solitaire of Hamble
She was conceived in South Africa towards the end of 1968: before this I had spent two years working as a radio engineer in
South Yemen where I had taken to golf. But knocking little white balls over the desert held no future and I had flown to South Africa to practise my newly-acquired skills on grass, which led first to employment by an electronics company and then, indirectly, to sailing. One morning I wandered along Point Yacht Club's jetty in Durban where cruising yachts from all over the world had come to rest, colour splashing from their fluttering flags, and was struck by their freedom. They were not shackled to land by chains whose links were forged by careers, mortgages and fashion: their mooring lines were but spiders' webs so fragile that they could be broken on a whim or a wind's whisper. Suddenly I wanted to throw my arms wide and scream at the heavens, âYaaaaaaaaHoooooooo!'
But an Englishman of course doesn't do that sort of thing, not at ten o'clock on a Sunday morning, not in Durban.
I gave thought neither to sailing nor to the vessel itself, simply appreciating that a boat could be both home and transport for self, suitcase and a set of golf clubs from A to B at minimal cost. Early 1969 found me back in England with only Â£2,000 to my name, a sum that was hopelessly inadequate for the sort of boat I coveted. So I took a contract in Saudi Arabia as an aircraft radio engineer and pushed my savings up to Â£4,500, only to return home to yet more inflation. At this stage I met a young English couple just back from two years' sailing in the Mediterranean, who were now off around the world in a beautiful 45ft sloop. Believing them to be experienced I considered myself lucky when asked to act as crew, but we motored most of the way to Gibraltar and I can recollect no single incident or experience that proved useful on subsequent voyages, unless it was a strong desire to sail alone. I would make blunders but they would be mine rather than someone else's: they were certainly not the yacht's and never the sea's, whose roar can burst an eardrum, but, when it comes to excuses, is profoundly deaf. No, I would sail single-handed. Alone.
After another stint in Saudi Arabia the beginning of 1973 found me possessed of the respectable sum of Â£8,500, by which time the price of the type of boat I wanted had jumped to more
than Â£12,000. Then I chanced on an advertisement in a yachting magazine: âCome to Liverpool and build your own Nor-West 34, hull and deck, Â£1,300'.
I promptly made an appointment, and one cold morning in January drove through Liverpool's leaning dock gates, easing the throttle to prevent tyre slip on the oily cobblestones. The dock's stagnant waters housed a waste of pans, cans and blackened bottles and on the adjacent rusty railway lines weeds flourished. A mouldering brick building, about 900 x 90ft, with a high sloping roof showing gaping holes, was the boat builders' headquarters. Two modern cars, parked by high sliding doors, hinted of better things to come inside.
I edged mine alongside, wondering whether to brave the drizzle that was turning to rain. Making a dash for the doors, I grabbed the padlock and heaved. Nothing happened. Minutes later I was still attempting to get in, only now I was being tried out for Arsenal and taking running kicks at the door. All I wanted was to force my way inside and tell them what they could do with their stupid boat.