Get Afloat

The dinghy drawn up on the beach alongside ours is possibly the most decrepit yachting tender that I have ever seen – and I’ve come across quite a few wooden crates and soggy pneumatics in my time. As a rule, Mollymawk‘s vintage Avon is pretty much the tattiest thing in the anchorage, but this lumpen object leaves me awed. It appears to have begun its life as a plywood dory but all trace of wood is now engulfed by a crude, super-thick wrapping of fibreglass.
I turn, to find a grizzled, grey-haired mariner arriving on his bicyclette – a full-sized machine which he proceeds to toss into the rustic dinghy. I’m still folding my little circus bike when Monsieur rows away.

A boat, of sorts, in need of some tender loving care.
A boat, of sorts, in need of some tender loving care.

I don’t have to look to see where this old fellow is heading, because I can already guess which boat is his. It’ll be the rust-red one which came in last night; the one with the masts which obviously came from two other, smaller vessels, and the lid of a biscuit tin welded onto the hull just above the waterline. Rumour has it that mon ami nearly sank on the way over from the Azores; however, he isn’t planning to stick around and fix the problem. Later that same day we see him setting off for the Caribbean again.
“Pah! Eet is only a leetle hole! An’ I ‘ave a pump!”

Every now and then somebody contacts the Mollymawk website asking us to recommend a suitable yacht for cruising. More frequently people write telling us that they don’t have enough money to buy a boat but that they are saving their pennies; and sometimes we get e-mails from people who just want to let us know how lucky we are. This last lot would love to be doing the same thing, they tell us, but they will never be rich enough. Well… if they could see the kind of sieves that some people are happy to sail, they might think again.

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker

Crossing the harbour in a hollowed out tree is one thing. It takes a certain kind of something to want to set off across an ocean in such a craft.
Crossing the harbour in a hollowed out tree is one thing. It takes a certain kind of something to want to set off across an ocean in such a craft.

I suppose that most people would reckon that the reckless French mariner, aforementioned, is utterly mad – but if he is, then he is in very good company. He is merely continuing a long tradition of big voyaging in small, inadequate craft. One of the first men to risk his neck in this manner was “Venturesome Voss”, a one-time sailing ship captain. Jealous of the fame achieved by his peer, Joshua Slocum, Voss set out to girdle the world in a dug-out canoe. And he survived!
Perhaps one shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, the `Polynesians had already proved the worth of such craft when they colonised the Pacific, several hundred years before.

Even more impressive and startling than Voss’ expedition was the 9,000 mile voyage made by Fred Rebell, a Latvian anarchist, in the early 1930s.
Fred had already led an interesting life. Fleeing his Russian-ruled country with somebody else’s passport and a false name, he got a job as stoker aboard a steamship. When that adventure palled he stowed away on a ship bound for Australia, and on arrival he took up farming.
Farming turned out to be not so easy as Fred had hoped; and marriage… Well, that was another thing that he wasn’t too good at. (He had placed advertisements for a wife in the Latvian newspapers, paid the fare for his intended, and married the woman with all the romantic care and attention of a man shopping for laundry soap.) After Mrs Rebell upped and offed, Fred bought an 18ft sailing dinghy. He made himself a sextant, using a hacksaw blade as the scale… and then, with nothing but a canvas cover to keep out the seas, he set off for San Francisco.

Fred's yacht was only four feet longer than our dinghy.
Fred’s yacht was only four feet longer than our dinghy.

According to the title page of his book, Escape to the Sea, Fred was “in search of happiness” – and he reckons that he found it. However, the first thing which greeted him on arrival in the United States was arrest and confinement for having entered the country illegally.

When you gotta go, you gotta go

One can understand how it is that a man might be willing to risk his life to go cruising. Almost two-thirds of the surface of this planet is wet, and the little dry bit is getting more and more crowded. Why would anyone want to squat there, like a gannet on his nest, pecking at the others who come too close? Like a fledgling, who knows nothing of flight but who still spreads his wings, if you have the urge then you just have to obey it and go.
If you’re a god-fearing man or woman then I suppose you might almost see the adventure as a divine undertaking. If the Lord hadn’t meant us to go sailing, why would he have made the sea so big…?

The ocean - It must've been meant for something.
The ocean – It must’ve been meant for something.

You could even get totally carried away with the idea and convince yourself that the Almighty was a sailing man, himself. As if the overall design of the world were not sufficient proof of his disdain for terra firma, the little details make the matter quite certain. Consider the winds and the ocean currents: they form a conveyor belt which offers to ferry us right around the ocean – or right around the world, if we so choose. And look at all those little islands liberally scattered across the big blue desert. What were they meant for if not as stepping stones set in place expressly for the benefit of mariners?

Thinking Outside the Box

Our French friend, Jean Philippe, heard the call. He got as far as Brazil before he wrecked his first boat on Rio’s famous Copacabana. Well, if you’re going to make a fool of yourself you may as well do it in style!

Back home he went, with the intention of spending four years earning the dosh to build a new vessel; but after a few weeks in La France he knew he couldn’t hold out for that long.

Jean Philippe doodled himself a boat – knowing him, it was probably scribbled on a cigarette paper – and then he set to work as fast as he could, with plywood and epoxy. The construction of his amazing skimming dish was forced through in just two years, and although she isn’t the kind of craft that I, personally, would wish to own I cannot help but admire the skill and ingenuity of her builder.

The boat is about forty foot long and has a pair of lifting keels, one on either side deck. The helmsman’s seat is an aluminium chair which came from a camping shop, and there are also a couple of plastic chairs, requisitioned from a pub, which can be used either below decks or in the cockpit.

The cabin is open-plan – largely because Jean Philippe didn’t want to waste time building an interior – and it contains a number of canny little features. For example, the door to the cockpit slides out and doubles as a table-top, the support being made from a large drawer.

Many and most delightful are the parties that our friend has hosted in his cabin, and many the miles that he has covered, up and down the coast of Brazil. How the boat would fare in a heavy sea I wouldn’t like to say, and I do hope that she never hits a whale or a shipping container… So does Jean Philippe; he’s under no illusions. But he just had to go.

“Man marks the earth with ruin, but his control stops with the shore.” (Byron)

If you’ve never crossed an ocean then I guess you might not understand what this is all about, so I’ll explain:

The whole of the Western world is tangled up in tarmac.

The network of asphalt ensnares every least little village, tying it into the system; and the fingers are reaching out, casting the net of black ribbon over the rest of the world.
You know how it is…
But they can’t spread their tarmac snare across the trackless sea.

Top Secret meeting of the Sea People
Top Secret meeting of the Sea People

Little boxes built out of concrete and glass lie scattered across the whole of a landscape which once was green and lovely. Homes, they call them, but these sterile units are not fit to be the abode of anyone with a soul. A being with a soul needs to feel the touch of nature, and nature has been utterly banished. Nature is dirty. Nature carries disease. Nature eats wood. Nature is inconvenient. Keep it for the TV screen and for afternoon walks across a tame countryside.

But you can’t tame the sea.

Machines run hither, thither over the razed and ruined land, chasing each other with pompous purposefulness. Along the arteries they go, hurrying from the heart of the beast to the bowels. Veins carry the cargo of plastic to the lesser organs. Capillaries reach out to the hamlets. They’ve got everything and everyone covered; they’ve even netted the Romanies!

But they haven’t caught the Sea People.
(Are you beginning to get my drift?)

They can't spread their snare across the trackless sea.
They can’t spread their snare across the trackless sea.

Like cattle, the people tumble out of the trains and cars. Like cattle, their children file into the classrooms. Obedient as androids, they recite the anthem:

“We are the Chosen Ones. We have 90% of the world’s wealth – but don’t worry ‘cos we’re going to share it with the poor Africans.

The world is dying and we are to blame, but we’re going to be good now – we’ll start tomorrow – and everything will be okay.

God is good, but we don’t believe in Him anyway.

Matter cannot be destroyed. Nature abhors a vacuum. Man is the most highly-evolved being on the planet, so he’s bound to pull through.

Let’s all be friends. Let’s build a better world. Here, have an iPod and some plastic clothes pegs.

We must grow. Things must get better and bigger. Industry; the economy; my bank balance – these all must expand…”

Leaving only bubbles - and a few onion skins and so forth. (Our Brazilian friends, Gean and Elias making their first offshore passage in company with Mollymawk)
Leaving only bubbles – and a few onion skins and so forth. (Our Brazilian friends, Gean and Elias making their first offshore passage in company with Mollymawk)

O’ woe to the human race! What fools we are! We didn’t have to wait for a War of the Worlds, with aliens over-running the place; we’ve done it ourselves: we’ve trashed our only home and swapped it for an easy life. We’ve swapped the health of the planet on which we reside for fast cars, plastic bags, Kleenex, disposable razors, and a few other labour-saving devices.

We don’t need anything so unsubtle as Orwell’s authoritarian government to tell us what to think and what to do. We’ve got the telly, with Eastenders and the 9 o’clock news. Football is the opium of the people, keeping them happy and quiet. Football, and Jamie Oliver, and Wildlife-on-One.

But out here, on the ocean, we travel lightly, leaving only bubbles in our wake; and we think our own thoughts. We can’t save the planet, but we won’t be a party to its destruction.

Then again, I guess there are people who just go cruising to see the world……

Come Hell or High Water

Whenever we hear from people who can’t yet afford to buy a boat I wonder.
Firstly, I wonder what they are doing right now; whether they’re really saving every penny, or whether they’re sitting in the pub or buying a new iPod. Then, I cast my eyes around our latest neighbourhood – wherever we might happen be – and I wonder precisely what kind of boat our correspondent has in mind.
Something flash and fast?
Dream on! Enjoy the comfort of your fantasy world while your life trickles away. Flash boats are not for dreamers like us. They’re for get-ahead people who understand money and the making thereof.
Something seaworthy?
Now you’re talking. Seaworthy does not have to be flash and fast – on the contrary. But in order to survive and thrive aboard a cheap seaworthy boat one does need to have a certain flair for DIY, in all its forms, and a certain almost fierce independence.

Build Your Own

Nick Skeates in the cabin of Wylo II
Nick Skeates in the cabin of Wylo II

Nick Skeates is seventy-something years old, has been cruising for more than half of this time, and is one of the most independent and self-sufficient people that I have ever met. He is also one of the nicest – which comes of being one of the happiest. And this happiness is his despite the fact that, in financial terms, he is probably just about the poorest yotty afloat.
(Yes, there is a lesson there.)

Skeates’ attitude to life represents the very best of what he would call The Right Stuff.
When Skeates wrecked his first small boat and washed ashore, penniless, in New Zealand, did he give up?
Did he say to himself, “I’ll have to get a job and start again”?
No, he did not.
Given the choice between working hard to buy a boat and working hard at building one Nick opted for the latter. First he designed a vessel which was both seaworthy and, at the same time, easy and cheap to build. Then, having constructed a sound steel hull, he fitted her with a cheap gaff rig and flung together an interior made from second-hand materials. Within a couple of years he was on his way again.

Wylo II - a most seaworthy and simple design, fit to take the thrifty sailor anywhere he wills
Wylo II – a most seaworthy and simple design, fit to take the thrifty sailor anywhere he wills

For Nick Skeates, shipwreck was merely one more adventure in the life of an ocean vagabond. It afforded him a wealth of experience which might otherwise never have come his way.
In the long run it also provided him with an income. For the past forty years Skeates and his Wylo II have been merrily cruising wherever the wind and their whims take them, and – because he lives most frugally and responsibly, requiring little in the way of comfort – the expenses of the endless expedition are all met by the sale of his boat plans.

Nick Skeates doesn’t have an e-mail address, but if you fancy the idea of building a cheap, strong, surprisingly fast, but very simple boat, drop us a line and we’ll send the man a smoke signal.

Be sure to place your order well in advance since the communication can take as long as a year.

Be Less Ambitious

Ten Percent is a 26ft Sadler. Pictured here in Salvador, Brazil, she has been home to her owner for more than 15 years.
Ten Percent is a 26ft Sadler. Pictured here in Salvador, Brazil, she has been home to her owner for more than 15 years.

One way to get going with your cruising dreams is to scale them down. Be less ambitious, not so much in terms of where you go but with regards to the size of your boat.
The ideal cruising yacht is about forty foot long. The bigger you go, the more expensive it all gets – whether you’re painting the hull, or buying a new sail, or (perish the thought) paying for a mooring – and the bigger the boat, the harder the work of sheeting in the genny, hoisting the main, or weighing anchor.
The smaller you go, the scarier the seas… but your bills won’t be so big and you won’t need the strength of a gorilla.

Before you rush out and buy a Leisure 17, I must add a caveat to this advice: a small boat is NOT as safe as a bigger one; and if you are going to buy something small then it absolutely MUST be of a seaworthy design.
When the wind gets going, and the waves get bigger, and push comes to a mighty shove, a big, basically unseaworthy boat will stand a much better chance of survival than a small unseaworthy boat.

One often comes across yotties cruising in boats which are lacking in some way. Plenty lack what I would consider to be a proper keel, and some of the newer kind lack a transom.  (As the advertising blurb would have it, they “soften the transition between the cockpit and the sea”… as if that were a desirable thing!)  Jean Philippe’s boat lacks both of these necessities – BUT HE KNOWS WHAT HE’S DOING. He knows what his boat is capable of, and he is willing to take the risks associated with careering around the ocean in a speed machine. Moreover, although Jean Philippe’s boat is basically just a Laser, it’s a big Laser!

The most un-oceanworthy boat ever designed is probably the bilge-keeler. As a vessel in which to explore the creeks and rias of Southern England it is absolutely ideal, but in Biscay, in a gale, a small bilge keeler is about as safe as a beer barrel.

Despite this, one does occasionally find bilge keeled cruising yachts pottering about where they ought not to be, on the high seas. As I have said, when it comes to unseaworthiness, big is best, and a big bilge-keeler can generally weather the gales, if not the storms. But a small one probably won’t.

Little Ben - Fine for the Solent on a good day, but not the ideal vessel for crossing an ocean.
Little Ben – Fine for the Solent on a good day, but not the ideal vessel for crossing an ocean.

The bath toy shown in this photograph is Little Ben. Her skipper, Jim, had already circumnavigated in a larger yacht, but finding himself in reduced circumstances he down-sized.
Little Ben travelled safely all the way from England down to the Canaries and from there Jim took her on across the pond. So far, so good – but rumour has it that whilst sailing in the Caribbean the little yacht was picked up by a wave and rolled right over.

As I say, you can cross oceans in a boat which is designed only for inshore sailing in a light breeze… but you take your life in your hands.

(Ocean-worthiness is explained and discussed at length in How NOT to Build a Boat)

Shoe-String Cruising

A smaller boat is not the only way to cut the costs of cruising. The best way of all to save money is to adopt a simple lifestyle.
Until recent times the vast majority of cruising folk mended their own sails, rowed their dinghies, and were content to live in a manner which would be classified by Oxfam as “below the poverty line”. Twenty years ago, almost nobody cruising in the tropics had a fridge; nobody had a watermaker; and nobody would even have thought of motoring through a calm.


Cut costs and keep fit - If this old codger can scull 28 tons of boat at half a knot you can surely have a go at shifting something lighter.
Cut costs and keep fit – If this old codger can scull 28 tons of boat at half a knot you can surely have a go at shifting something lighter.

If you want to cut costs, think of that infernal combustion engine as an item of safety equipment. And don’t buy an outboard. Buy the kind of dinghy which rows well.

If you are able and willing to look after the boat yourself – scrubbing off against a wall, sewing the sails when they tear, and mending the engine and the pumps as needed – then you can further reduce your costs.

You don’t need a chart plotter, or any of that kind of jazz. A radar is handy if you can find a second-hand one going for a song, but if all you can afford is a GPS you’ll get by.
You don’t need any fancy sail furling systems.
You don’t need Kevlar running rigging.
You don’t need to pay someone to service your liferaft; indeed, many of our friends don’t even have liferafts. (We have two – one is 25 years old, and the other we found in a dustbin – and we service them both ourselves.)

A staple diet of lentils, rice, pasta, and ermmm... yummy home-made chocolate cake
A staple diet of lentils, rice, pasta, and ermmm… yummy home-made chocolate cake

Most important of all, you don’t need to eat Kellog’s cornflakes, asparagus, and steak. Your average cruising bum lives on pasta, risotto, vegetable curry, and dried beans.  He shops in the market with the locals and learns how to cook knobbly brown things and prickly green things. If he’s French, he goes off spear-fishing while his wife home-schools the kids. If he’s really hard up he goes strand-loping at low tide and brings back a pan-full of mussels or clams.
Eating is the cruising yotty’s main expense, and it’s pretty much the only one which is unavoidable. How you deal with this will make a lot of difference to your finances.

What are you waiting for?

If you’re keen to get afloat cheaply, don’t bother scouring the classified ads in the yachting press. Get the word out onto the grapevine and you’ll be surprised what bargains you can find.

From time to time during the course of our travels we have come across yachts which were just begging for someone to take them on – yachts which have been abandoned in a foreign port when the owner died; yachts which have been bounced on a reef and which are now for sale very cheaply; yachts which are a little too small and tatty to appeal to any but a desperado. They’re out here and up for grabs. Post your details on a yachting forum and you just might be lucky enough to make a match.

Mollymawk on the Bahia (photo by Caesar)
Mollymawk on the Bahia (photo by Caesar)

Then again, if you are at home with DIY and can spare the time, building is a good way to get afloat – provided that you do everything yourself, and provided that you grasp every opportunity to use second-hand materials.
A friend building a Bruce Roberts 53 from new materials and with the help of a carpenter spent five years and £250,000 on the project.
Meanwhile, Mollymawk is fifty foot long and she cost £25,000. If we had been willing to cut corners – if we had been willing to compromise on strength and safety, for example, or to sacrifice some of our ideals – then she could have been built much more cheaply.

In the end, it’s all just a question of how desperate you are to cut loose and come cruising.


  1. Alex Penninckx

    A example of what you are explaining can be find on the website of Roger Taylor, and in his book MINGMING & THE ART OF MINIMAL OCEAN SAILING

    I appreciate the interesting article and your inspiring attitude towards sailing.


  2. Hi Jill
    I have really enjoyed your interesting stories and wonder if you can help with some information about moorings in Brazil. But first let me tell you a little of our sailing adventures. Sandy and I set out from Cape Town in our 40 foot steel sloop in 1996 and then spent eleven years making a circumnavigation before returning to New Zealand and selling our beloved yacht. It was very painful and now we have severe withdrawal symptoms that can only be cured by our getting another yacht. We are presently in England and we have seen and are about to buy a yacht that fits our reqirements in Florida. Our plan is to leave Florida in early December and make our way via the Caribbean to Brazil. We want to round the Horn and enter the Pacific in mid December and would like to find a suitably inexpensive place to leave our yacht in Northern Brazil whilst we return to England for a two or three months. On our previous voyage we stopped in Jacare and anchored near Brian Stevens yard who at the time allowed yachts to leave their vessels in the river in front of his place for a reasonable fee Brian would keep an eye on one’s yacht and go on board from time to time to check all was in order. During our stay it came as quite a shock for Brian and I to discover that we had both been born in the same maternity hospital in Bromley Kent at about the same time! But I have since read on your site that Brian is now concentrating on building catamarans and is not now getting to involved with chandlery or moorings. I have also read that there is also a small yard called ‘ Rubeiros’ owned by a Brazilian with the name of Zinn or similar. If you have any information about this yard which may very well be in Salvador (where we previously spent a few months) or have information on any other yards you think may fit the bill please let me know.

    I look forward to hearing from you and continuing to follow your travel via your website.
    Happy travels


  3. For years I have wondered what kind of dinghy is shown above, with the two youths sailing. It looks like a nesting dinghy. I have not been able to find another like it in any picture anywhere on the web.

    Thank you for your wonderful writing and adventures.


    1. Caesar  (Mollymawk crew) 

      Hi Kirk,

      The dinghy is a custom design built by a friend. It does indeed nest. It’s 14ft, foam-sandwich GRP.
      The current rig, seen in the photo above, is from a Moth / Europa racing dinghy.

      You might be interested in this article: The Search for a Suitable Sailing Tender – where sailing dinghies in general are discussed and this one is featured.

      We did say we’d write more about it, which we never have… but see the comments on that article where there is a bit more info and some discussion of other nesting dinghies.

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