A swift delivery trip of a brand new yacht where ‘money was no object’ was declined by many skippers. When Max Liberson took the job, he found out why, he tells Dick Durham.
After a gruelling Atlantic circuit in his 38ft, engineless, ferro-cement, schooner, Gloria, Max Liberson was looking forward to a hassle-free coastal delivery trip in a brand-new boat.
It would be a summer jolly from Pwllheli in North Wales to the Hamble on the South Coast of England aboard a spanking new Dehler 35. “What could go wrong?” said Max.
The rugged Devonian and his tough mate had only five days to complete the passage as the owner had race meets lined up in the Solent and the forecast was for strong easterly winds.
Max’s old shipmate, the late Ed Whelan QC, the RYA’s top lawyer, had tipped him off about the assignment: “It’s a rush job so charge what you like.”
The delivery crew wasted the best part of a day getting there on a slow train that took in most of Wales. “It was very pretty,” said Max, “but it held us up.”
When they arrived at the yacht they discovered there was no cooking implements and the gas bottle was empty.
They rushed around and bought pots, pans and cups and a fresh gas bottle. Then Max checked the rig and found one of the split pins, used to adjust the rake of the mast, was missing at the foot of the forestay. He begged another from a neighbouring yacht.
“I was disappointed to find the mainsail only had two reefing points and also that even the smallest working jib was still vast.”
They set off and enjoyed a cracking sail with a beam wind offshore along the Welsh coast; “it was all sunshine and dolphins and we fought each other to get on the helm.” That was a large wheel around which the helmsman struggled to get into place. “Behind the steering position the transom was open and there was just a tiny length of wire to stop the helmsman being swept overboard, which I thought very unseaworthy.”
Once they rounded Land’s End the wind was against them so Max decided to motor-sail. “But soon the engine alarm went off. The thermostat had jammed, the engine was overheating.” There was nothing for it but to beat to weather under single reef main and jib. She seemed ok at first, but by the time they got to Start Point, the seas were unruly and building. The wind had increased to 32 knots.
“It was very unstable up on the coachroof in the heavy seas and as I pulled in the second reef, I slipped on the heaving coach roof and almost went overboard. I had a harness on, but if I’d gone over the side it would have been fatal,” said Max, “by this point, as the slamming and crashing increased, my affinity for the boat was waning!”
“The boat was overpowered so there was nothing to do but drop the mainsail altogether and sail under foresail alone, but it was incredible, she was still going
to weather like a torpedo. We accelerated up to eight knots and were hitting waves with ear-shattering crashes and because of the boat’s shallow entry, flattish sections, narrow chord length and light displacement, she was a devil to steer too.
“She was described as a performance cruiser, but in those conditions performance was the last of my concerns. In the troughs, the boat was slamming sickeningly and the whole rig was shaking and shuddering. I was in no doubt without that second split-pin we would have lost the rig. We had to feather her along, luffing up and constantly filling and then spilling the wind in the foresail, paying off to try to lessen the impact of the seas. It was very hard on the pair of us…totally exhausting. I wondered how much more of the slamming the boat would take before she suffered from serious structural damage. It was incredibly noisy and shook us down to the fillings in our teeth.”
After the second night, they could set a slightly easier course, but Max estimated they were too late to get through Hurst Narrows and into the Solent before the tide turned against them and so instead they headed for Portland Harbour.
Max’s tactics for stopping the boat was to drop the headsail at the last minute, fire up the engine, and run it just long enough to get a turn in before it seized up.
When that last-minute came, the engine failed to start, so they hurriedly opened the anchor locker only to find the plough anchor still in its bubble wrap. Max’s crew Peter ripped it open with his teeth!
“Fortunately, I managed to start the engine eventually and finally we moored up.”
With some tools borrowed from the harbour authorities, Max managed to get the engine thermostat working and they eventually motor-sailed into Hurst Narrows.
“Even against those relatively small seas, the boat slammed so hard, I was seriously worried again about damaging her hull, so I eased her down to 1.5 knots just to give her steerage way and let the tide carry us in against the wind.”
When they eventually moored up in the Hamble, Max discovered that every hatch in the coach-roof had leaked and the brand-new boat “looked like a bomb had hit it.”
The pair had to muster at 05.30 to clean up and “put the boat back together again.”
When the owner turned up she was gleaming once more and Max pointed out the extra split-pin he’d fitted at which the owner said: “Oh we only use one as we’re always adjusting it for racing”!
Max said: “I’m sure she is a great boat for racing in sheltered waters, but how on earth a boat like that could get Category A status in the RCD is beyond me. In my opinion, she did not fit the criteria of being seaworthy far offshore in the open sea.
Later Max ran into his old RYA Yachtmaster examiner who told him: “We’d all heard about it, but nobody around here wanted that job.”
The type of boat plus the time constraints and a forecast of strong headwinds had the old salts of the Solent making a collective decision to stay in the pub!
“It was left to a sucker like me!” said Max. “In the light of hindsight, it was clear we’d invoked an unholy trinity: New boat, new crew and a bad forecast.”
Max was the two Dicks first guest on the new Ocean Sailor Podcast. It’s out now on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, Spotify and Amazon.
When he is out of the lockdown he sails Wendy May a 26ft Maurice Griffiths 1930’s classic gaff cutter.
Liberson’s books: The Boat They Laughed At; about his Atlantic adventures in Gloria his £1,500 ferro-cement schooner, and 53, The Singing Yacht, about his second Atlantic circuit aboard Sarah, his self-modified Trapper 500 and other salty yarns are available on Amazon.