My First Boat, Flicka Caraway
The first stories I heard about Pacific Seacraft and the Flicka came from a good friend of mine and experienced sailor Robin (Benjy) Benjamin. Benjy has made a life of small boat sailing. Over ten painstaking years he rescued and restored a lovely little wooden yacht he named "Blown Away". After getting Blown Away shipshape he moved to Falmouth in Cornwall and plied his joinery skills on the many yachts at birth in and around Falmouth marina. There he bumped into a small, unusual and rather appealing little boat called 'Caraway'.
Caraway had been built to order and shipped to England where her owner intended to explore the coast of Kent and Essex. She was immaculate, sturdy and had very appealing lines. She caught the eye. Benjy was taken aback by the boat and on first impressions laughed out loud at the audacity of such a small ship boasting so much bronze! When he took a closer look he realised that what he was looking at was a showpiece of quality in both design and craftsmanship. Few production boats had so much teak, such quality hardware and such immaculate installations. Caraway was to be a boat that played on Benjy's mind for a long time to come. He wrote an article for Practical Boat Owner magazine which included his own color photographs of her fittings and interior. It was to be the beginning of a story that would lead some ten years later to myself, sitting at my desk in a bank in London dreaming of my first boat.
Benjy met Caraway's owner Julian and they became friends. Julian later invited Benjy to deliver Caraway for exhibition at the Southampton boat show and further up the coast to her new home in Kent. He couldn't wait to get her out and see how she behaved. He'd been told she had lines that could be traced back over a hundred years to the lobstermen of Newport Sound. She was a tried and tested design that had safely brought many men back from the cruel sea. He was eager to sail a boat with such lineage.
On one particular occasion Benjy experienced a nasty gale in the dangerous area of Portland Bill on the Dorset Coast. He was with a novice crew, a friend called Fliss. He re-counts the story here:
"Our first trip was from Falmouth to Plymouth, a pleasant sail in gentle winds. The following day the forecast for the trip to Torquay was West 3 to 4. sounded good to us so we went. In fact long before we got to Start Point, the wind was up to force 6 and the waves were pretty big. However, it was sunny and the boat felt fine, filling us with confidence. we laughed as we surfed down waves. Not far away was another yacht, they were certainly moving about, their mast drawing huge arcs in the sky. Did we look like that too? Probably, perhaps worse but all was well. We were well impressed with the Flicka so when the forecast for the next leg across Lyme bay to Portland harbour was westerly 4 to 6 we decided to go for it.
However the forecast was wrong. We soon found ourselves 7 miles off Portland bill in colosal waves in a full gale. We listened to the radio and had a confirmation of what we already knew, we were in a proper gale in a 20 foot boat miles from a safe harbour. With just a scrap of sail showing we had no choice but to carry on. I feared changing course from a dead run in case we were broached. So Portland was out, we decided on Poole as the next safe harbour but we were still headed for the south side of the Isle of Wight so after 15 hours on the helm, I thought I'd just try and change course just a little. As soon as I did, a huge rogue wave came at us, you could hear it coming. Next thing we knew we were on our side and I was underwater and soaked to the skin. For minutes afterwards there was only the sound of the hissing water which was white as far as the eye could see.
Fliss took over for the rest of the way and took us all the way to Poole without incident.
Another time I ran her out of fuel when sailing back to Falmouth after the Southampton boat show. I was told that the engine had a 12 gallon tank but no one told me that was US gallons, so in fact I only had 10UK gallons AND a problem with blow back when filling meant I probably only had about 8 gallons! I ran out just before Start point but as luck would have it, the wind was in the SW and the tide would be just starting to flood when we arrived at Dartmouth. I sailed her right up to the pontoon and then rowed across to the fuel barge. Such adventure!"
From The Office Back to The Sea
As the years went by I began to get the longing to go back to the sea. I grew up on the coast. My father was a fisherman and I'd spent almost all of my spare time fishing, swimming, sailing and generally messing about in boats. Now I was stuck in London with a career at a desk tied to a computer and it was beginning to get me down. I'd take a few days off here and there and go to visit Benjy on Blown Away in his new home of Port Grimaud in the south of France. He lives on Blown Away with his partner Celia and their parrot Beaufort in domesticated yet confined bliss. They work the winters doing maintenance and repair on boats in StTropez and spend the summers sailing the Meditteranean. I've accompanied them on trips to Sicily and various islands on the French coast sleeping in the cockpit and trying to make friends with Beaufort. I am a master at sleeping on hard boards with my feet in a locker and my head overhanging the companionway steps. Beaufort finds comfort in terrorising me by jumping on my head early in the morning and screaming horribly in my ears.
Buying a Boat
Without really considering it consciously I had decided that I wanted a boat. Everything seemed to be moving in that direction as if I was being guided by some invisible benign force. I had begun to reduce the amount of work I did for other people to half a year or less. I was self-employed and had worked only three months in the city for a whole year. The money was very good and it provided the means to take control of my dreams.
I would buy a boat and take it to France. I could then return to London for 6 months of the year and contract in the city when I needed more money. As I battled to devise a way of financing my dream Benjy and I discussed in scrupulous detail all the issues involved in choosing the right boat. Being a wooden boat enthusiast and accomplished ship-wright Benjy could give me all the pros and cons of wooden boats from first hand experience. I went through all the possibilities, problems and benefits in my mind and actually imagined myself owning an old wooden yacht. The romance and beauty are undeniable and people were kind to old wooden boat owners. People would take notice and old seamen would come over and congratulate me on keeping the tradition alive. Many possibilities arose and if one of them had meant to be, my sailing future would have been very different.
There is a lovely old yacht designed by Albert Strange (Charm II) rotting in Brighton marina. She's a real gem and her owner knows it but as she sits there year after year rotting away he dreams of taking her far and wide but she never moves. She only rots and he's trapped by his pride into letting her fall into the sea before he finally admits he's a dreamer. If he had accepted my offer for Charm then I'd never be writing this article and since I have Caraway instead I have much to be grateful for. But I still wonder about her and how it might have been had that path opened up before me. It's a crime to let her rot and I hope some day someone rescues her. She's part of our wonderful maritime heritage and deserves better.
A Practical Choice
So it was I realised that a smaller, GRP boat with classic lines and some of the character of a wooden boat would be much more suitable for me and my needs. An old wooden boat would be a joy in many ways but I wanted to be able to sail sooner and be free of the worry of rot and worm if I decided to sail down from the med to the West African coast. I have some friends who own a lodge on the Gambia river and I dream one day of sailing down and turning up for a sundowner at Makasutu unannounced!
Benjy had told me all about Caraway and Pacific Seacraft. He wanted me to buy a Dana as he felt the Flicka would be too small for my needs. We talked loosely of going to the US and buying a second hand boat and sailing her back to England. We also talked of buying a brand new Dana if I sold my flat in London and took a giant leap of faith. A new boat would give great peace of mind and there'd be no chance of any unwanted items or DIY bodges on board. Anyway, I decided not to sell the flat since property prices in London were soaring and I was making on the place the whole time. I looked at re-mortgage instead. At the time I was working as a contractor in a bank in London. I started to search the internet for suitable boats in the UK. I looked at the Contessa 26, one of the best and most affordable small boats available. However, I decided that the lack of headroom would be a problem and kept my eyes open for something else. One day I noticed a Flicka for sail in the UK. This was unusual since there was only one that I knew of and that was Caraway. Could she be up for sale? I printed off the spec and sent it to Benjy. I also called up the brokers, and yes it was Caraway.
First Impressions: Caraway
Benjy called me the following day. He'd be in England in a few weeks time to visit his brother so we could arrange a viewing. Now, the price was way out of my budget and I still thought it was only a dream. I'd been rejected by lenders since I was now self employed and had less than two months books to show them so the finance was out of the window. I had no way of buying the boat but we decided to take a look anyway and see if we could get a sail. I'd never seen a Flicka before and couldn't wait to see the boat I'd heard so much about. We spoke to the broker and arranged to go down.
A dreadful day dawned with dark clouds, continuous cold rain and vicious winds. Utterly miserable and the worst day you could pick for a sail. We went anyway, driving to Burnham through congested roads lined with industrial estates and down to a small marina on a bleak looking estuary. A sail was out of the question and as both batteries were flat we couldn’t start the engine anyway.
Caraway looked pitiful. She was covered in algae, industrial soot, was poorly tethered and looked entirely dejected. It was clear she hadn't been looked after properly for years and was in need of some love. Benjy was appalled. He couldn't believe she could have been so unloved. Such a super boat that had been so perfect when new. How could anyone pay such little respect to something built with so much love and care? He nearly cried he was so upset.
In contrast I was ecstatic. I could see what she was and realised that her state could only work in our favour. We had bargaining power because she needed work and work means money. I knew she was the boat for me. In a funny way she reminded me of a childs toy. Everything had been built to take abuse. Hardware was chunky and appeared to have rounded edges. There were no cracks for things to fall down. The portholes were rugged and beautiful. She was dry and cosy inside despite the gale howling outside. I could stand down below and walk about. There was teak all over and it was properly fitted. She had a clock and barometer by Sewells of Liverpool, she had instruments by Brookes and Gatehouse and her rig was of a much heavier gauge than you'd expect on a boat with an 18' waterline. There was little I could find to be negative about except the price and the plastic cutlery.
The service from the brokers was shocking. You'd think that to sell a boat one would make an effort to clean her up and entertain the potential buyer. Caraway was filthy, neglected and we were left to wait in a shabby porta-cabin for patronising service. We left angry and felt it unlikely I'd get to buy her. Since I hadn't been able to re-mortgage I had no way of raising the cash and after a row we'd now fallen out with the brokers so we couldn't contact the owner direct. However, we had left my number with the broker in case the owner Julian was prepared to negotiate.
Later that day I got a call from Julian. He'd thrown out the brokers since they'd done such a poor job and he wanted to negotiate. This was a breakthrough. He’d accept a lot less than he’d originally wanted. Provided I pay up in full in three weeks and put a deposit down immediately. He’d keep the inflatable and life raft since I didn’t want those. What’s the point in having a life raft if it’s stuffed down the quarter berth? I’d rather not have one than suffer the cruel irony of drowning trying to get the liferaft on deck. Or the agony of trying to decided to either put out a Mayday or bring the liferaft on deck. So. The sale and price were agreed. Now all I had to do was raise the cash!
Raising The Cash: Banks
Oops. Slight oversight there since I didn’t have the cash and had no way of raising it. Better call the bank again I decided. There must be a way. So, after being told again that there was no way I could get a raise on my mortgage without six months books I asked them if there was a good loan I could get for the amount I needed. “You only need £25,000 the lady said?”. “Oh why didn’t you say?”. “You didn’t ask?” “Well, if you only need that we can put you straight through our fast track system which means you don’t have to provide proof of income and will get the money in less than 10 days! “
At last there was light at the end of the tunnel! Weeks of battling the office minds had paid off. I would be able to buy Caraway. All I had to do was borrow the deposit from my family and she would be mine.
Everything else is water under the boat. I borrowed the deposit from my mother and got the bulk of the cash from my mortgage lender. The crazy thing is that my mortgage repayments have actually gone down despite owning the boat! I was on a poor interest rate and since the financial ombudsmen have cracked down heavily on banks touting lower interest rates to new customers but not giving the same rates to existing customers they quickly put me on a better rate. Even more fortunate was the fact that my property had increased in value considerably since I bought and despite the extra borrowing there was little chance of negative equity. So doing it this way was far cheaper than a marine mortgage. I learnt a valuable lesson here. Banks rob more people than people rob banks. Take advantage of them and pressure them into giving you what you need. You might just get a better deal and a boat!
With the finance sorted I couldn’t wait to get the boat. Frustratingly it was March and the weather was appalling and I wanted to start playing immediately. My contract had ended I had plenty of time and was champing at the bit. Julian had kindly offered to help me sail her part of the way to her new home and show me the ropes. Unfortunately though, he was away on business for three weeks so I had to wait. It was an agonising time for me because I wanted to play on my new boat but I had to wait. It was to be a sad last sail for him but since he’d decided to sell after putting only 250 hours on the engine in 9 years I had little sympathy. He had resigned himself to a life of work and he only had himself to blame.
Finally, one beautiful morning we set sail from Burnham on Crouch marina and plugged our way with the wind on the nose out towards the North Sea and round to the Thames estuary. It was a joy to at last be setting off in my boat. I immediately felt at home on board, there was definitely a sense of happiness in the boat. It’s sentimental I know but good sea boats like to go to sea and Caraway was no exception. She was determined to make a good impression on her new owner and this she succeeded in doing. The cockpit is probably the best small boat cockpit I’ve been in. You’d have a real job to fall out. There are comfy cushions, all the instruments are in the right place and you’re protected from the elements by a rugged spray hood; a godsend beating to windward in driving rain.
Ever since I bought Caraway I’ve felt that I’ve been blessed with a guiding spirit. My father, who died only a few years ago was a keen seaman and would have loved her I’m sure. When I began to seriously think about the idea of a boat I would wander along the beach and think about him and how he would certainly have said. “Yes, that’s a good idea go for it but make sure you read this book first and study these charts and watch out for these shoals and be careful of spring tides” etc etc. He knew the sea and I feel to this day that he was watching me as I took Caraway out into the open water and onwards to her new home.
Bringing Her Home
To celebrate the occasion and help bring Caraway round to Chichester Benjy came over from France on an agreed date in April. He was delighted since he loved the boat and wanted to see her in good hands. There was no flexibility in time because he had much work to do on his own boat after breaking his mast when some tackle failed. So we had ten days to bring Caraway round from Gillingham to Chichester; weather permitting. If we failed I was on my own or had to find a crew.
I don’t have a lot of experience yet and would have to consider the situation again in the event of getting port bound half way. In the end we were very lucky. For April we were treated to a completely unexpected heatwave and spent most of the time relaxing under motor in full sunshine with the tillerpilot steering and the cockpit cushions laid out on the foredeck. We did however have some challenging moments. Thick fog descended for most of passage from Ramsgate to Eastbourne and we had to be particularly careful with our navigation to avoid the sandbanks, wrecks and shoals that litter this part of the South coast of England.
We had an old Garmin GPS 45 that was my fathers. It refused to locate and it was only when we had finally reached our destination that I discovered it was struggling because it had a database of waypoints in Tanzania (where my parents lived for 7 years) and was trying to find itself based on those positions! The onboard network GPS had a dodgy LCD but did at least give us a reliable position. As it turned out our dead reckoning was so good that we nearly rammed a green channel marker that suddenly leapt out of the fog right on the nose! It was just as well we were paying attention and straining hard to see through the gloom.
As we approached Dover we considered calling the coastguard to ask for safe passage since Dover is a very busy port and ferries race in and out all day at terrifying speed. It was a mistake that we decided not to bother them and simply carry on hoping we’d been spotted on radar and be out of danger quickly. We learned a hard lesson when just as we were opposite the entrance a huge ferry came rushing out. We turned and went parallel to it for a while and then all of a sudden there was an enormous foghorn right behind us. Our hearts jumped in our mouths as we struggled to see what was coming. In moments a huge dark form appeared in the mist, bearing down on us at incredible speed. We turned again and headed astern of the first ferry at full speed. Benjy grabbed the aerosol foghorn that came with the boat and as he tried to fire it the plastic horn broke off in his hands! Our vocabulary narrowed sharply at that point to simple four letter words belted out at full volume.
The foghorn was a sick joke but the incident was typical of the way things can go wrong at sea. If something goes wrong it can spark what seems to be a snowball effect where other things start happening all at once. This phenomenon always happens exactly at the time when you least need it. It is my personal law of the sea. Beare’s Law. When something goes wrong at sea it is always followed by one or more things going wrong either simultaneously or immediately after.
Just when I was wondering what would happen next and trying to prepare for it. The depth gauge started reading 0 feet! What next? I thought. We carried on astern of the first ferry while the other one passed far too close for comfort to our rear. The huge monstrous black steel beast with thundering engines romped passed us like a charging buffalo.
We were safe and so we thought but then as we went into the clear I could make out the hazy shape of something else coming down on us. It was a huge sea-cat to port and fortunately for us it was travelling about 1/3rd of it’s usual speed. We eased off on the throttle and waited for it to pass. Then, breathing huge sighs of relief we sped off (well at 4.5 knots) to safety. I wasn’t convinced and for some time after I squinted into the gloom and banged on anything metallic I could get my hands on until the fog finally lifted and sunshine greeted us.
It had been a sobering experience and I wondered how it would have felt had we been engineless in the windless fog.
“That was a test”. Exclaimed Benjy. “These things have been put up to test us and see how we perform”. “It was scary wasn’t it but we did ok and we survived.” “Yes!”, I agreed. “But next time I’m calling the coastguard or waiting for the fog to clear. Anything’s better than being at the mercy of those monsters! That was terrifying!” “What did I say to you when we planned the sail in May?” asked Benjy. “Fog off Dover I replied!” “Yeah, didn’t I tell you we’d get everything and we have. Sailing in the Solent is a good place to learn. When you get to the Med you’ll think it’s a breeze. No tides and much warmer weather.”
From then on it was Eastbourne marina for the night where they kindly treated us to smelly toilets and grubby showers for the bargain price of £15 (about $23)! Marinas are a rip-off in the UK which is why Benjy moved to France . For a 6 meter boat for one night it really is daylight robbery. In general French marinas are half the price. I pity poor French sailors making the trip across the Channel to be greeted by miserable staff, dirty facilities and ridiculous prices. I don’t imagine they stay long.
Eastbourne to Brighton was a lovely sail in bright sunshine with a F2-3 on the beam for much of the way. Caraway took us by surprise by managing 4 knots in very slight airs and with a dirty hull. I couldn’t wait to see how she’d go after a good scrub. We’d tried to clean her at berth by hauling her over on one side from the pontoon but couldn’t do it properly. She would go over to a point and then she became very heavy. It was reasurring to get an idea of just how much weight was moulded into that solid little keel.
From Brighton we had a miserable run to Chichester. It’s one of theose stretches where you can’t win in a small boat. The prevailing winds are always on the nose and you can only plan to have the tide on your side at best half the way. There’s nowhere to run to if things go wrong and there’s the peninsular of Selsey Bill to negotiate near the end. It took a horrible 12 hours punching the tide and beating to windward under motor in a tight chop huddled under the spray hood to reach Chichester harbour. There were only two moments worthy of particular mention. A pretty little seagull with bright black eyes followed the boat for a while flying about three feet above our heads in the cockpit. I decided it was a Little Gull when I looked it up later at home. And a struggle with a lobster pot marker caught on the rudder near Bracklesham Bay. I had images of lashing a knife to the boat hook and going over the side to cut us free before Benjy got us off going hard astern at full throttle.
I was very happy with the way Caraway behaved. The Looe channel off Selsey bill is no place to be in a small boat on anything but the mildest of days. But Caraway made us feel very secure despite some nasty looking waves rolling in from the West. I manned the helm since ‘Neville’ the old Navico autopilot was suffering from stress and kept giving up. Benjy lay on the forberth reading a book and all was well. Caraway slid over the waves with a very kindly motion and eventually brought us safely into Chichester where we picked up an empty mooring in the Bosham Channel for the night.
Arriving in Chichester
Chichester harbour is a really lovely place. A nature reserve with wetlands supporting all sorts of bird life. It’s a winding estuary with several marinas and lots of cosy places to anchor up for the night. It gets very busy in the summer months but on a weekday in April when the weather is fine it’s a joy. As well as being a safe place to keep a boat it’s a good place to learn to sail too. It has everything to challenge even the most experienced sailor. The tide can be fierce, especially in Springs and it falls incredbly quickly. In minutes you can be aground when you thought you had time to spare. Many a careless yachtsman has been caught high and dry on the Chichester bar on a falling tide and there is no more public place to be humiliated. Your incompetance is there on display for all to see for what could be a whole 6 hours. Needless to say I always take extra care to be sure there’s enough water when entering or leaving Chichester harbour.
We had done the trip from Gillingham in so little time we were delighted. Only four days to do about 250 miles gave us 5 days to spare, leaving one to get Benjy to the airport. We set to work on Caraway immediately. We bought new ropes, a new battery, installed a battery charger and shore power so the batteries could be charged from the mains. I went up the mast and cleaned and polished it from top to bottom. We serviced the engine and replaced the exhaust elbow. We scrubbed and scrubbed her all over, we cleaned the spray hood and bought some canvas treatment fluid. We serviced the winches. Then we replaced all the ropes with modern hemp style three strand. I prefer three strand since you can splice it easily. We re-organised the ropes so that the second reef could be put in from the cockpit using the Cunningham hole. This would mean that as it got progressively more unpleasant I wouldn’t have to go to the mast. Single handed sailing would be a breeze as everything was already geared up to be done from the safety of the cockpit. We made new sail ties, ordered new fenders, replaced bulbs, put a new battery in the clock, adjusted the barometer and polished the topsides. I cleaned all the portholes and we emptied her out and cleaned the cabin thoroughly. I teak oiled the interior and stripped and cleaned the toilet and pump. Benjy tuned the rig and made up a list of jobs for me to get done.
Bringing Caraway Back to Life
In a few days Caraway was looking like a new boat. The list of jobs to be done included treating the bowsprit which had been left to rot when the varnish had flaked away. We weren’t sure the spruce had survived and plan to take it off and have a better look at a later date. Benjy plans to make me a new one with some spruce that came from the mast of a legendary Scottish Fyfe dismasted near St Tropez. I like the idea that Caraway will have another piece of wonderful maritime history in her bones.
Her engine was badly neglected and despite engineers claims that it had been serviced and inspected regularly the water pump was leaking and had been for some time. Sea water had been dripping down the engine and causing corrosion. The pump would have to be repaired and the engine cleaned and repainted. Replacing the exhaust elbow had been done at the advice of Cellar Marine in Falmouth who are a ray of sunlight in the gloom of the British boat industry. If the membrane in the exhaust elbow is corroded on a Yanmar 1gm10, which is likely when the engine is so little used, sea water can get into the cylinder head and destroy the engine. When we inspected the elbow this was nearly the case as it was badly pitted. So, thank you Cellar Marine for your advice, I will recommed you to everyone I meet. If the boatyard at Burnham had been half as conscientious both the elbow and the pump would not have required attention.
The stern gland was leaking. It hadn’t been re-packed since new and I would have to learn how. An electric bilge pump had been installed. Badly. In fact everything that had been done since she left Pacific Seacraft had been done badly. I could only be grateful so little had been done. The fool who installed the pump had been too lazy to do the job properly and instead of drilling a hole for the pipe in the fiberglass structure that the engine sits in he had pulled out a rubber bung that serves the purpose of preventing chafe and rammed the pipe into an existing hole alongside another hose. This hose carries sea water to the engine cooling system. When the engine runs the pipe now rubs against the raw fibreglass and will eventually wear through. The result being water flooding into the boat and the engine overheating. This is typical of British boatyards. Not a care in the world for the boat or the safety of her owner. The only priority to save time and get the maximum financial return for the work. That is ultimately why I bought a Pacific Seacraft yacht. I will do most of the work on her myself or will get trusted friends or recommended engineers to do things for me and I will oversee what they do and be sure they do it right.
Who, after all will put their life at sea at the mercy of strangers, bodgers and cost cutters; those who will be comfortably seated at the bar while you are subjected to their incompetance, laziness and thoughtlessness at sea in a gale?
Pacific Seacraft understand what going to sea is all about. They have built a deserved reputation for quality and workmanship in their product. I will inspect every inch of my boat before a voyage because I hate to leave anything to fate. Extraordinary things can happen at sea but I have a great deal more confidence setting sail with the knowledge that my boat was built by the legend that is Pacific Seacraft.
All images © A.Beare.