Learning to sail by JoJo

'Better drowned than duffers, if not duffers won't drown.' 
 Arthur RansomeSwallows and Amazons
Myself and my sister sailing Mlulu in Esterpona harbour.

My first command was a tiny little dinghy my father built for me in Durban, South Africa. I was not quite three years old and apparently when put in the dinghy I cried! Not a good start.

My next, more successful, command was a little pram dinghy with a sailing rig my dad built when we were living in Estepona. Called Mlulu, it was named after my little sister. I was now about 8 or 9 years old and I loved sailing this little boat around the harbour in Southern Spain. I have many happy memories of Mlulu and it was with her that I really started to learn about sailing.

At the mast on Mjojo
I spent my early childhood living and cruising with my family on Mjojo (a 42ft gaff cutter built on the East coast of Africa by my father shortly after I was born). These sailing adventures ensured that I  developed a very strong bond with the sea that time has done nothing to diminish. Houses are very convenient and have many useful luxuries, but I now realise I feel much more at home living on a boat. I much agree with Arthur Ransome when he says:
'Houses are but badly built boats so firmly aground that you cannot think of moving them. They are definitely inferior things, belonging to the vegetable, not the animal world, rooted and stationary. … The desire to build a house is the tired wish of a man content thenceforward with a single anchorage. The desire to build a boat is the desire of youth, unwilling yet to accept the idea of a final resting place.' Arthur Ransome
Racundra in Tangier before my father bought her.
After Mjojo was sold, my father bought Racundra (built by Arthur Ransom). I spent many happy
hours sailing on her in the Mediterranean, with my father, learning how to be a good crew. Maybe I should explain that I was not a very good crew at all.  I think I spent most of the time arguing, which is not the best quality for a crew. On one occasion I 'refused' to do the washing up. For this I was, quite rightly, thrown overboard! I swam ashore and went to cry on my mother's shoulder. Sadly I'm not sure I learnt my lesson. On one exciting occasion I vividly remember steering Racundra through some nasty squalls around Gibraltar while my father was on the foredeck bringing down the jib.

When I was 16 years old, I flew over to Fort Lauderdale, Florida with my father and we lived and sailed on his 27ft, junk rigged, Wharram catamaran called Tan Nui. I was still not a very good crew.  On one memorable occasion, in classic teenager fashion, I was in bed at 11am sleeping in a hammock. To get me up my father threw a bucket of water over me! I did more dinghy sailing during this time in a borrowed boat. I learnt loads in in this dinghy, most particularly that it's best to avoid collisions, after disastrously sailing the dinghy straight into Tan Nui leaving a big hole! I still cringe to think of that. I felt terrible about it, but I seem to remember that my father was, quite surprisingly, not too cross, and I did help to repair the hole. 
While we were in Florida we got a job delivering a fishing boat to Antigua in the Caribbean. I went along as crew, and this was the first time I held a night watch. During one night passage I woke my father, as instructed, to inform him that I had spotted the light of another boat. He had only recently got to sleep, so was not impressed, particularly as it turned out to be Venus! I know many people who have made this understandable mistake. Venus can be so bright and is often very low on the horizon and easily confused with a masthead light.   I had a wonderful time during this month-long trip. I particularly enjoyed learning to use the sextant. We did some sun sights, and I worked out our position on a number of occasions. We did not stop for long at any one place so this trip really inspired me to want to return one day and see more. 
We had a worrying time in the Dominican Republic. The customs officers went all over the boat searching for drugs. There were three boats chained to moorings in the bay, and we were told that their owners were all in jail! The most unsettling thing was that this was not our boat. We did not know her history so she could easily have been involved in drug smuggling in the past. How could we know? Then they found something. White dust in the fire extinguisher! They said they had to send it off to be analysed. So then we had three days to wait to find out the verdict. We were under 'house arrest'. This meant we had to stay on the boat, not leave the port and only go ashore if accompanied by an official. There was also the horrible possibility that they could have changed the white powder and 'framed us', if they had wanted to. But it all turned out well, and eventually we were allowed to depart. Well, what did they expect to find in a fire extinguisher! 
We witnessed the most memorable and spectacular sight off the North coast of the Dominican Republic. All afternoon we were surrounded, as far as the eye could see, by dolphins and whales. They were leaping out of the water and crashing about us. It was quite hard to steer through them, so we stopped and watched them for over an hour before we felt it safe to continue on our way. This was one of the most remarkable and amazing things I have ever seen.
Tan Nui in Fort Lauderdale in Florida.

After returning to Tan Nui in Florida, we started to get her ready to sail her back to the UK. We set sail to cross Cape Hatteras Bay with a good forecast, but after a few days out the weather changed and it got progressively worse. It was a very nasty gale.  My father expertly steered us through the worst of it.  Tan Nui was running under bare poles and surfing very fast down massive waves.  After about 48 hours, with mostly my father at the helm, he lashed me to the mast and went down below to sleep.  The worst was over, the wind and the seas were beginning to reduce, and I was given strict instructions on how to sail down the waves, so as to prevent  a capsize. It was an exhilarating sail! I was on my own in the middle of the ocean and I loved every minute of it. When we made it back to land we found that there were two other catamarans who were missing, and stories of other boats making port with damage.  But we suffered no damage even though Tan Nui was very small.  She was a good little boat.  I continued part way up the North American inland waterways with my father before leaving him to continue towards the UK. I decided to stay in the States.
Tan Nui after her refit in Venezuela.

When I later arrived back in the UK, I somehow managed to get a job at Bradwell Outdoor Centre, on the River Blackwater, teaching sailing for the summer.  I did not have any sailing qualifications, but they gave me the job anyway.  So I spent a season sailing Wayfarers and exploring this brilliant East Coast river.  I learnt so many things, one of which was how to pick up a mooring under sail.  I was the laughing stock of the centre because I just did not know how to do it.  It had never been necessary before and here we were dealing with fast flowing tides.  But I did learn and became very proficient.  This summer season of sailing Wayfarers provided a solid foundation for which I am very grateful.
Skua with all light weather sails set.
Topmast stowed racing under working canvas.

Towards the end of that season a beautiful gaff cutter anchored in the bay, she was called Skua.  I met the owner in the pub that night and he offered to take me sailing. It felt good to be back on a big boat. I have to admit that dinghies are a bit wet and cold for me, particularly in the UK. I do like my creature comforts, and Skua had a wonderful coal range. Well, one thing led to another and I ended up marrying the owner of Skua.  We sailed her all over the East Coast and I did the RYA Yachtmaster shore-based course. That was it, I wanted to sail away into the distance! We bought charts and set off, heading for the Dournaneaz boat festival in Brittany. We had a great time sailing down the English Channel. We saw the J Class Valsheda sailing out of Cowes, and I really enjoyed being responsible for all the navigation.  This was before the days of GPS and we still used paraffin navigation lamps. It was fantastic to arrive in Lyme Bay and find that we were exactly where we expected to be. After being used to all that forgiving mud on the East Coast it was quite worrying navigating in an area with 'rocks'. We continued on our way to Cornwall, in time to hole up in the Falmouth Estuary for a big gale. We did not get to Brittany, we had a baby instead.  Baby Oliver was almost born on the boat, while we were living at Gweek boat yard in Cornwall.  We continued sailing around the SW of England and visited the Isles of Scilly.  After a few years I moved ashore.
An autumn sail in the River Crouch with the ADC in the background.
All sails set in the River Backwater.

For the next 20 years I lived in Cornwall running a street theatre company with my now husband Simon.  We have toured all over the world, and I have had many 'boat replacements' - a coach (in which we lived for a while), a circus tent (which blew down!), a bell tent to take on tour…. but the sea was still there, tempting me.
Island Swift with all sails set in Portugal.

It took our young boys, Finbar and Lochlann, to encourage me back into sailing. They had heard all the tales of my sailing past and wanted to have similar experiences. So thanks to our boys, and my wonderful husband Simon who said 'yes', even though he had no idea what he was letting himself in for. We spent a few years looking for the perfect boat and I set myself on a crash course of sailing.  I read loads of books, all my past favourites and many new ones, I did another Yachtmaster shore course, to bring me up to date with all the new rules and innovations. So much had changed! There was now GPS, which sadly means that traditional navigation is no longer used daily, but I also learnt how to use a sextant and did the Yachtmaster ocean course.
But I was terrified! Would I remember how to sail? Would I be able to keep my family safe?
We bought Island Swift from the Isle of Wight and sailed her down to Cornwall.  I was surprised and relieved that an old friend was correct, of course I could still sail. It felt like I had never left the sea.  I felt completly at home, it was wonderful.  But this was my first time as a skipper of a 35ft boat.
Since then we have sailed more than 5,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean.  I still can't quite believe it, but am so very happy to have completed this personal dream.  I would not have been able to do this without Simon's support and encouragement, and it is so very special to have shared this experience with my sons, Finbar and Lochlann.  
It must be in the family genes, there have been other sailors in my family ancestry and my oldest son Oliver is just embarking on his own sailing adventure.

'Things might have been a lot worse. Don’t you worry about it overmuch. When a thing’s done, it’s done, and if it’s not done right, do it differently next time. Worrying never made a sailor.'
 Arthur RansomeSwallowdale


  1. This is beautiful JoJo. I've heard you speak of little pieces of the story but it's so lovely to read all the episodes as one piece together with the pictures.

  2. Jojo, I've seen sky a in Falmouth, wondered where you guys are nowadays.... it's Jenna, mum and dad Jane and Nick. Boat: penlena