A Sailing Lockdown odyssey

When COVID-19 arrived in the UK, citizens were ordered to stay indoors for three months. Becoming an armchair yachtsman held no appeal for John Passmore, so, as he told Dick Durham, he set to sea instead.

In March 2020 John Passmore sat aboard Samsara, his Rival 32, in the marshy Essex archipelago of the Walton Backwaters, unfolding the charts for his planned escape. No way was he going to rot indoors for three months while the germ police patrolled the streets ensuring the Covid-19 curfew was respected.

His wife, Tamsin, didn’t mind. She knew that her 70-year-old husband would be like a bear with a sore head prowling their Woodbridge, Suffolk home if he was not allowed to sail.

Having decided the best way to deal with lockdown was to self-isolate in international waters, John stumbled across his first obstacle: there are no international waters in the Dover Strait.

“There just isn’t enough room,” he said, “Dover to Calais is 22 miles and presumably the French claim eleven miles on their side and the eleven miles on the English side are patrolled most energetically by the Border Force. I could see my grand voyage ending ignominiously with a tow into Dover’s Granville Dock, there to serve out my lockdown like a prisoner.”

So John’s flit to the broad Atlantic, where he had decided to sail his own AZAB (Azores And Back), would have to be made by sailing anti-clockwise around the UK and over the top of Scotland.

As he arrived in the open ocean, he started to take stock of the international situation. His radio broadcast the news that the whole world was in lockdown because of the pandemic. Plans to meet his family in Portugal for a holiday after his AZAB seemed in doubt. Even a visit to Horta, in the Azores, to paint the name of his boat on the harbour wall in time-honoured tradition, now seemed doomed.

“Should I just sail around going nowhere but killing time?” he said recalling the torment of Donald Crowhurst who did just that after faking his voyage around the world in the Golden Globe Race when his boat started falling to pieces. Crowhurst ended up jumping overboard, unable to face his sponsors, cheering crowds, TV cameras and newspapers. “I only had 86 followers on my blog and I hadn’t completely revealed my plans,” John said. 

The Rival 32 is a tough, workhorse of a boat, unlike the delaminating plywood trimaran poor old Donald Crowhurst had built, and John knew she would keep him secure
at sea. 

With her wind vane self-steering gear, she could be left to her own devices under headsail alone, while her skipper unbent and re-stitched a hole in her mainsail. By the time he’d finished the job and hoist the sail again, he was approaching Rockall, the isolated boulder 160 miles west of the Outer Hebrides.

Because of the reefs to the eastern side of the rock, John said: “A certain nervousness began to creep in as I neared it…being so close to something so remote is odd…and, although one is drawn to somewhere few have ever seen, you want to get away from it as quickly as possible too.”

It would be the last terra firma John would see until Graciosa, his turning point around the Azores, some 1,280 miles away. 

As a veteran ocean sailor, with a solo transatlantic under his belt, John reflected on the fact that the three sights a day he used to make with his sextant, plus the time put in with the sight reduction tables, had whittled away the hours on board. Now, with a chart plotter and a tablet pinpointing his position, course and speed every second of the day, he had time to kill. That time he spent leaning against a grab pole below deck or staring at the sea from the cockpit…until one morning, 350 miles from the Azores, he woke up to find his rotten old mainsail had blown to ribbons. In a way, this was a blessing because having set the trysail in its place, John next discovered the rotten old headsail was also starting to give up the ghost, but now he had a ‘dead mainsail’ to use for sail repair!

Having rounded the Azores he headed for home, looking forward to an anchorage in the Isles of Scilly until he was called up by Falmouth Coastguard who told him it was ‘closed’ due to pandemic restrictions.

So he sailed on to Falmouth itself, picked up a mooring and continued self-isolating as his 42-day, 3,629-mile passage caught the attention of chat show host Jeremy Vine. Vine spent 10 minutes interviewing him for his BBC Radio 2 programme after which John’s blog: www.oldmansailing.com went like the COVID-19 bug – viral, from under 100 hits every now and then to 20,000 in an hour.

This led to a publishing agent contacting the lone yachtsmen and asking him if he could produce 80,000 words for a book which John bashed out in an astonishing three weeks, based on his log kept throughout the passage.

In Old Man Sailing, John reveals how during his voyage back to Woodbridge, the second lockdown was announced: “I was creeping into harbours that were officially closed, touching nothing, avoiding everyone.”

The open ocean produces intense introspection, especially to the lone yachtsman, but John is driven by the fear of the dreadful alternative; staring blankly at a care home TV. A fate that could only ever produce the desire to be somewhere else.

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