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Finishing a solo circumnavigation: An extract from Solitaire Spirit by Les Cowles

With a rapidly dwindling supply of only rice and tinned mince left to eat, Les Powles makes the final miles home of a solo circumnavigation

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Now aged 92, Les has spent half a lifetime sailing and living aboard Solitaire. Photo: PPL / Peter Smailes

If he hadn’t chosen to write a book, Les Powles could well have remained one of the unsung heroes of the ocean, men and women who dare to do in secret what others make a loud noise over. 

Les is now 92. He still lives aboard Solitaire, the 34ft yacht he built himself for £7,000 and launched in 1975. After setting out with eight hours’ sailing experience to circumnavigate the world, he went and did it again successfully twice more. The second voyage was executed non-stop via the Great Capes of the Southern Ocean

Les was never one to save up enough money to do things according to the book, he just got on with it in his inimitable way. Solitaire Spirit is required reading for all who might feel the inclination to cock a snook at convention. In this extract, he is almost home after 11 months of circumnavigation number two.

His remarks about what food he has left and his refusal to put in for provisions say a lot about this quietly unstoppable character. The final sentence gives a rare insight into a surprisingly sensitive nature. A few months later, no doubt to his complete confusion, he received the Yachtsman of the Year award. 

From Solitaire Spirit: Three times around the world single-handed

Land’s End was 1,030 miles away on Wednesday 20 May 1981. The wind dropped, the sea flattened and Solitaire glided through banks of fog, a ghost ship returning from the dead. For dinner I opened another tin of mince and took out my rationed third. Solitaire made 82 miles in silence. 

Thursday saw us glide 113 miles, drifting in peace more or less in the middle of the Gulf Stream. Dinner: mince and rice. 

On Friday we bit off another 121 miles despite a stormy night reduced to working jib only. During the morning the weather cleared, leaving a high swell behind. I left Solitaire to do all the work while I sat contentedly below as we rolled along under the smaller genoa, thankful for the luxury of a following wind. For dinner, the last of the mince with, you guessed it, rice.

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Les Powles built his 34ft Bruce Roberts design Solitaire himself and has lived aboard ever since

Saturday saw us bowling along in rough seas under broken cloud, content to sit below out of the flying spray while Solitaire chopped off 130 miles under working jib. For dinner I had a change, one third of tinned beef and…

Sunday 24 May. Gale force winds and high breaking waves made sights impossible but good progress with just the working jib on a broad reach. Log shows 125 miles in the last 24 hours. Dinner: guess.

Monday 25 May. Squally winds from the north as we reached with working jib and three-reefed mainsail. I picked up the BBC last night for the first time in nearly 11 months. Batteries, like the crew, were nearly worn out. Dinner: minced beef and rice served with curry powder.

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Tuesday saw 801 miles for week 46, which Solitaire could have bettered with more help from me. We still had the working jib up with three-reefed main as the winds gusted from the north. Were I not so tired we could have been tearing along on a reach with a single reef.

I was feeling the cold, perhaps because my blood was so thin. Better that I kept what strength I had for the English Channel with its heavy shipping. Land’s End was now only 420 miles away. Soon I’d be with parents and friends, I thought — may they please feed me with anything but rice, bloody rice.

Wednesday. The winds died during the night but still we managed 90 miles. When I tried to start the motor I found the tank had rusted and lost seven gallons of fuel. Luckily I had eight gallons in plastic containers so I disconnected the fuel line from the tank and fed it directly into one of these. Warmly wrapped, I settled in the cockpit listening to BBC music before starting my last tin of mince, after which I would have only rice.

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Les Powles was awarded the Yachtsman of the Year title in 1981

Just before dark the wind strengthened and the main started to slam. Instead of dashing on deck I dithered and a seam ripped open after 28,026 miles and only a few hundred miles from home.

I replaced it with the mainsail from our first world voyage rather than waste time with a repair. Wednesday had not been one of our better days, what with the fuel tank and then the sail. Dinner consisted of curry powder on mince. Land’s End was now 240 miles away.

Friday 29 May. Becalmed since dawn and all I have left is half a gallon of water, half a tin of mince and less than two cups of rice. And I’m worried sick about my family. All morning I have been trying to catch the attention of fishing boats, asking them to contact them.

They come within a few hundred yards but when I start Solitaire’s motor and try to close them, they pull away and I lie lonely in a world of mist and lifeless sea. Dead reckoning shows Land’s End approximately 160 miles away bearing 075°, with Bishop Rock on the same bearing 30 miles closer.

Had I a good directional radio there would have been no problem pinpointing our position as we were now well within range of British and French stations, but mine was playing up.

Friendly arrival

Donning my warmest white sweater I sat in the cockpit while the boat idled on an oily sea. I was attracted by movement at the bow which at first I thought was a butterfly but, as it neared, I could see was a small land bird, black with bright blue markings.

For a while it performed acrobatics then, having sung for its supper, landed on the foredeck and walked towards me hesitantly, bowing shyly as if unsure of its reception. I slipped below for food. There was little with which to tempt him but a few grains of rice and sugar, which I put on a piece of paper, filling a saucer with fresh water.

Back in the cockpit I feared it had flown away until its head popped from around the mast as though it had been playing hide and seek. The bird took an age to reach the cockpit, then it flew directly onto my knee, stared at me, then ducked under my sweater and worked its way up until it lay above my heart, demanding care and protection.

Nothing could have made me move, neither storm nor tempest. For hour after hour I sat, unmoving, worried about my family but strangely comforted. For the first time in nearly 11 months, Solitaire and I were no longer alone.

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Photo: PPL / Peter Smailes

Shortly before dark it came out of its hiding place and flew into the cabin. I made a nest of cotton wool and placed the food and water beside it. Then a faint wind sprang up and Solitaire started moving, trying to hold a heading for home.

With thoughts of more fishing boats in the area I switched on our running light, lay on my bunk and to the faint accompaniment of passing waters, slipped into a restful sleep.

I awoke to find Solitaire’s cabin pitch black. The wind had strengthened and we were moving quickly but the sea was flat so nothing was straining. I checked our course and looked around for shipping before remembering my new shipmate. Finding a torch I searched the cabin, only to discover a fluffy mound on the chart table, head to one side, its eyes finally closed.

Saturday 30 May. No noon sights possible. Since raising sail yesterday we have been beating hard on a south-easterly through drizzle and fog, trying to head eastwards but slowly being pushed too far north. It’s going to be a bad night. To prove it, I dine on half a cup of rice and the last of the mince with curry powder. All I have left now is half a cup of rice.

Monday. Logged 81 miles with more tacking into strong gusting winds from the east-south-east accompanied by heavy rain. Solitaire is sailing as close to the wind as possible but water is very short and unless I turn and run with the wind, there’s no way I can catch any.

Noon position by faint RDF and dead reckoning shows us ten miles beyond and 30 miles below Lizard Point, with Lymington less than 150 miles away. For dinner another quarter cup of rice mixed with curry powder to make a weak soup, a terrible recipe!

First sight of land

With dawn the outline of land appears, the first I have seen for 326 days. Since noon yesterday conditions have been ghastly and the radio is reporting the worst storms for 20 years with lightning turning night into day. Our deck and running lights vanish in heavy downpours of rain as a blinding zigzag destroys my night vision. I imagine Solitaire being found, her mast struck by lightning, a burned, shrivelled figure at the tiller. 

Scenting she was nearly home, Solitaire moved effortlessly over a flat sea as the mist lifted. Then Lyme Bay fell away from us and we could no longer see the land. As we neared Portland, the Royal Navy started to appear. By noon we were 20 miles from Portland Bill but land was still invisible.

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Solitaire Spirit: Three times around the world single-handed by Les Powles is published by Adlard Coles, RRP: £12.62.

Late that afternoon the wind dropped completely and the sun emerged. For the first and only time in the English Channel I took a sun sight, which put us east of Portland, time to come on course for Lymington. No matter what happened I wanted to be home the following day.

For dinner I had eaten a spoonful of rice with powdered milk and sugar. Now there was nothing. As the sun set we picked up a faint breeze from the west and Solitaire crept home like a runaway child uncertain of its reception.

I started the motor, reduced the throttle until it throbbed in a contented tick-over, and held a close-hauled course for the Needles, 25 miles away. The three knots we were making meant a dawn arrival. Perfect. I spent the night in the cockpit watching the shore lights to port and ships’ navigation lights to starboard. I was tired and the slow beat of the engine made me feel sufficiently secure to nod off from time to time, only to jerk upright. 

Just before the dawn I must have drifted into deep slumber for on awakening all signs of life had disappeared. Solitaire’s engine still held its constant beat as she pushed through banks of fog but our course had changed slightly, taking us farther south into the shipping lanes. Without a trailing log I had no idea how far we had travelled, but when I tried the RDF I heard a weak signal from St Catherine’s Point, halfway down the Isle of Wight, and decided to home in on it.

Breaking out of fog

With dawn the sky lightened and the fog eased. When we broke out of one bank St Catherine’s lay off our bow, and the greens and golds of patchwork fields greeted me for the first time in 329 days. In the small, box-like homes ashore well-fed people drank water that flowed from taps, talking together with faces that showed love and kindness.

After so long with only the background noise of wind and sea and the expressionless front of a portable radio, we were close to the old sounds, of a footstep, the bark of a dog. When the wind blew, it would no longer start the blood racing; we would hear only the rustle of leaves in bending trees.

I turned Solitaire north-west to the Needles Channel ten miles away. Tipping the last of my water into the kettle, I washed my face and boiled the rest for a final cup of tea with my last tea bag. Now we had neither food nor water, just half a cup of sugar and a quarter tin of condensed milk.

At 0915 on Wednesday 3 June 1981 Solitaire entered the Lymington River, nodding to the line of mooring buoys she had last seen on 9 July 1980. In the yacht haven a solitary figure awaited us. Keith Parris had been the last person I had spoken to when I left; it was appropriate he should be the first to welcome me home. “Where the hell have you been?” was his greeting.

As soon as practicable I rang my family. My father, over the moon, spoke first, having long since given me up for lost. Then I asked to speak to my mother, only to learn that she had died eight weeks earlier. I returned to Solitaire and made my last entry in the log:

Wednesday, 3 June 1981. 0915 GMT. ‘The end of week 47 after 329 days and 28,496 miles at sea. Arrived Lymington Yacht Haven and learned that my mother has died.’

Solitaire had shown me the world. Now I was lost.

First published in the March 2019 edition of Yachting World.

The post Finishing a solo circumnavigation: An extract from Solitaire Spirit by Les Cowles appeared first on Yachting World.

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