Great Circle


Alex Ramsay

The Great Circle is a yacht race. The instructions are simple: sail round the world, leaving the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn to port. Completing the race is not so simple. And winning it is very, very hard – not only because of the weather, but because there are a lot of people sailing a lot of boats, and most of these people have to win battles with their personal demons before they can even think about winning races….

Great Circle was a bestseller when it was first published. It has been out of print for ten years. It is fast, furious, salty, authentic and unputdownable. Get the ebook here

Singlehand – The Latest Sea Thriller

singlehand front


The other day I was surprised to find that  it is more than seven years since I wrote a thriller. So I wrote another, featuring one Gavin Chance, hero, for want of a more precise word, of Black Fish. Gavin, in case you are interested, is the nephew of a certain Harry Chance, now resident in a home for reprobates in Marbella, and author of a deeply unsuitable book called The Bounder’s Companion.  Gavin has had a past in racing yachts, the police and the army. He was a handy enough racer, but did not make much of a mark in the public services – partly, perhaps, because at that time of his life he had a great enthusiasm for whisky. This tended to twist his worldview, and he spent a lot of time getting into trouble, and even more time trying to get out of it, as  readers of Black Fish will have discovered.

So it is ironic that in Singlehand, the sequel to Black Fish, a Gavin who has cleaned up his act and renounced whisky finds himself working as skipper of a superyacht belonging to an oligarch who plans to take some friends on a tour of the distilleries of Islay. It is hard to see how anything can go wrong. A hijack and a shipwreck later, it is hard to see how anything can go wronger. Not for the first time, Gavin finds himself  lost in a maze of disasters. But the only way out is forwards….

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Black Fish frontBLACK FISH is the story of a difficult passage in the life of Gavin Chance – yacht broker, ex-policeman and gone-to-seed Olympic hopeful. He is being hunted by his ex-wife and his creditors. And even more worryingly, by some representatives of the fishing industry who make their living massacring fish stocks and doing even worse things to people.

It is time for Gavin to go on the run – in a beat-up trawler, on a classic schooner, and in one-design racing yachts built for gentlemen and sailed by gangsters.

When Gavin is on the run, he  usually thinks he is running away from trouble. It is just one of the many flaws in his character that in fact he is generally running towards it…

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The smaller the boat the bigger the fun…

There is an increasing tendency for people who go about in boats to sail from marina to marina and watch TV when they get there. This is a bit like driving from supermarket car park to supermarket car park – all right if you like that kind of thing, but a specialised taste. My Minimum Boat column in Practical Boat Owner magazine was an attempt to turn the clock back to a simpler, more spacious (if more out-of-control) age. I was assisted in my research by Daisy, my ancient but elegant Cornish Shrimper, and various friends, relations and unwitting stooges. Nowadays Daisy has gone,  and I have put Minimum principles even further into practice on a Corribee I bought on Ebay and refitted along lines simultaneously luxurious and Spartan. Here is a sample.

Minimum safety

I was climbing onto the boat one evening this summer when I heard a hail from down the quay. ‘Oi!’ it said.

I looked round, and saw an odd-looking cove wagging a gloved forefinger in my direction. He was wearing a crash helmet, lifejacket with harness, double Gibb hook lifeline, whistle, strobe, built-in Epirb, GPS, waterwings, survival suit, knee protectors, shin pads, gloves obviously, and Suregrip rigger’s boots. ‘Yeah?’ I said. ‘Let me guess. You are off to the South Pole via both Capes and Tasmania, and you plan to do a little oil exploration and skydiving along the way, and you would like to know whether to turn left or right on leaving the harbour?’

‘No. I am assisting with the Rescue Boat for the Under Tens Oppie Race,’ he said. ‘I am the Club Health and Safety Officer and I cannot let you go to sea like that.’

Well, Daisy was nice and tidy, rig and sails perfect, plenty of fuel, all navigational instruments in place, radar reflector up, pumps everwhere, lights working, flares in date. I was wearing a lifejacket/harness combo, some clothes, and a thin coat of Factor 20, the sun being out and the breeze Force 3. But us Minimum Boaters are always ready to learn. I glanced at my watch. ‘You have half an hour before the race – ’

‘Better safe than sorry,’ he said.

‘- and I would like you to have a look at Daisy. I feel there may be issues. Perhaps you could help me see a way forward with regard to this one.’

The muddy eyes under the helmet brim brightened. This was the kind of bluff, sailorly talk he understood. ‘Clearly I  welcome an opportunity to input re the safety of your on-water leisure environment,’ he said.

‘Fine,’ I said, ignoring a faint ringing in my ears. ‘Hop on.’

He lumbered down the quay steps, slowly, because he kept clipping on and off the handrail as he came. As he stepped into the cockpit he tripped over his lifeline and fell. His crash hat bounced him off a fender and his nose hit the starboard side of the companionway.  ‘Mayday!’ he cried.

I brought him an oily rag from the first aid kit and told him to lie with his head back.

‘There are issues re your cockpit environment,’ he said. ‘I may sue.’

‘I am of course insured for three million squids third party,’ I said. ‘And if my no claims bonus is in danger I will bring countersuit down to you dripping blood on my teak deck. These issues, now. Please explain.’

‘Hard decks not bearing sign saying DANGER – HARD,’ he said. ‘Deep cockpit also inadequately signed. Possible flammability issues with teak decks. Boom unsigned, could give nasty bump to head or stick up nostril. Proximity to sea, cold, wet, moving in several directions at once. Lack of signs saying DANGER – TIPPY. No chainlink fence round edge of boat. Have you conducted a safety audit?’

‘I am correctly dressed,’ I said. ‘My boat is seaworthy, even when some overdressed cretin starts crashing around in my cockpit – ‘

‘Unhelpful,’ he said.

‘Stop it and drink this,’ I said, handing him a glass of rum. ‘It is nose medicine.’

Health and Safety drained the glass. ‘It is alcohol,’ he said. ‘Modern studies show – ’

‘A pox on modern studies,’ I said, pouring him a bit more. ‘Stone age canoeist or Vendee Globe competitor, we ignore common sense at our peril. Common sense dictates that we take responsibility for our own lives and we do not trust them to foc’sle lawyers like you, and that rum can in certain circumstances oil a gritty soul.’

‘I am shorry,’ said Health and Safety, bursting into tears. ‘Very, very shorry. I had a chaotic childhood and ever since have shown a tendency to overcompensate by bossing people about.’

‘You have my sympathy,’ I said. ‘I suggest you go somewhere else and use your talents where they will be admired, like maybe North Korea, and leave those poor children in their Oppies to have fun.’

“North Korea, eh?’ he said, musingly. ‘How about Iran?’

‘Iran would be perfect,’ I said. “Now it is time for you to go.’

As his boots hit the quay steps and his Gibb hook clipped the railings, his back seemed to straighten. He turned, an expression of weaselly vindictiveness polluting the features below the helmet brim. ‘But before I get my plane,’ he said, ‘it is my duty to inform you that as Club Health and Safety Officer I have to condemn your craft for lack of adequate signage neglect of Best Practice absence of Quality Assurance and failure to achieve Safety Management Norms.’

‘I fear I am not a member, so naff off,’ I said. ‘I am however Safety Officer of my Minimum Boat. We have no injury accidents but expect a 100% mortality rate.’ I turned my back on the brute, tightened belt, adjusted braces, and headed for the uncluttered blue horizon.



A collection of these pieces, illustrated by the great Mike Peyton,  has been published by Adlard Coles, and has sold remarkably few copies, perhaps because Minimum Boaters would rather buy another kilo of epoxy than a book, which as all the world knows is a way of carrying hot air about the place.

My current column in Practical Boat Owner is called Flotsam and Jetsam, and is a selection of oddities culled from ancient lore, the classics, scurrilous gossip and the bizarre operations of organizations like the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, who assume that everyone in a boat is driving something that weighs at least 10,000 tons. What you might call a leitmotif is a month-by-month account of the restoration of the Corribee, see above.  And indeed here:

me in st custard chiz


Hortus, the world’s most beautiful garden magazine, contains hardly any pictures.

A Voyage in the West
The solstice has come and gone. The sundial’s shadow is a little black pool in the moss under the gnomon. It is hot and green – sweltering hot, and so green that the mind wanders nostalgically back to Hergest and a red rhododendron ‘Elizabeth’ in front of a cool white-barked betula jacqmontii ‘Jermyns’, with behind it the clear pink of a big Magnolia campbelli

Someone is sneezing on the far side of the hedge. They are high, cross sneezes, so the sneezer is the Duchess. Her blood is deepest azure, splendidly reactive, so she is allergic to just about everything. The situation is aggravated by the fact that she has declared a state of economic siege, dismissed all garden help, and taken on her own bony shoulders the Hope’s grimmer chores. The dawn chorus segues seamlessly into the howl of her chainsaw. After a light breakfast of anchovies and gin, she careers wildly to and fro on the lawnmower, cursing all trees. This process naturally stirs her allergies to fever pitch, forcing her to spend the afternoon on a daybed in the Turkish kiosk, smashed comatose on Piriton and smoking Capstan Full Strength against the wasps. At dusk she zigzags forth to reminisce.
The other night she gazed upon our brilliant embothrium, flared her nostrils to a whiff of woodsmoke, and started talking about Lochinch Castle.

A friend of hers visited this pile in the time of the last Lord Stair but two, famous as a man who would shoot his own grandmother if he saw her rising from a root field. Returning to the castle one afternoon, the friend became aware of a delicious, incense-like smell. He asked what it was. ‘Embothrium,’ said Stair, waving at the castle’s forest of chimneys. ‘Never burn anything else.’ This seemed to impress even the Duchess. Your embothrium is generally considered a shrubby object of no great height or bulk, and the fireplaces of Lochinch were apparently on a scale that required the service of a full-time stoker. The Gulf Stream coast of Scotland is evidently pretty useful embothrium country. So why were we hanging around in the Welsh Marches?

During the week that followed, we painted the boat. Then we hauled up some sails and headed west into a more or less sneeze-free zone.

Many of the great gardens of the British Gulf Stream were made before roads and even railways, and are designed to be approached and supplied by sea. There exists a splendidly vituperative mid-19th century correspondence between the strong-minded Augustus Smith, founder of Tresco, and the equally firm-willed Hooker of Kew. The difficulty was Smith’s hijacking a consignment of mesembryanthemums from a Kew-bound ship. Their bellowings, expressed in the blackest of ink on foolscap folded quarto, produced a froideur that lasted some ten years.

The Foxes of Falmouth were more pacific, as befitted a gardening family with its roots sunk deep in Quakerdom. Astonished visitors to the garden of Robert Were Fox at Rosehill found themselves picking lemons from trees in the open ground. His descendants, seeking to spare their families the diseases brought to Falmouth by ships from all over the world, moved out of town to found the valley gardens of Trebah, Glendurgan and Penjerrick. We sailed from Falmouth on a hot morning, and thumped for a couple of hours across a sea that walloped brine into our eyeballs. At last, the shores of the Helford River drew together ahead, and the anchor rattled down under the dour grey buildings of Glendurgan village.

Ashore it was all sea-bleach and orange lichen. But as we walked into the valley, the air stilled and the world changed, becoming muffled and green. Trebah, westernmost of the Fox valley gardens, depends on the tourist trade for its prosperity. Its trees are splendid, and its paths wind charmingly around the stream. A Zen monk might find the gee-whizz factor a bit high, but children love it, for they can swing like apes from the ropes provided and act the maggot to their hearts’ content. Monks will be fine at Glendurgan, and so will older people; for it is run by the National Trust, and is as a result hushed, reverent and accessible to all. Foxes still inhabit the house, comfortable and un-grand at the head of the valley. From the terrace it is a joy to contemplate the maze writhing intestinally up the western slopes, and admire the placing of the trees. Charles, the Fox in possession and author of a useful book on Glendurgan, claims that during the planting of the trees, his ancestor patrolled the terrace with a megaphone, directing the operations of vast squads of labourers moving reeling towers of scaffolding simulating copper beeches and magnolias. There is probably nothing worse than finding you have planted a hundred-foot copper beech eighteen inches too far to the east, and this Fox was taking no chances.

But when the Cornish sun blazes out of a sky of brass, or the Cornish drizzle weeps out of a sky of wet felt, Penjerrick is the place to be. It may be a bit disorderly for monks, and a bit slippery for valetudinarians. The anchorage is dodgy in some breezes, and it is a slight hike from the beach. But once you are in, the trees meet overhead, and a whiff of fox tangles in the ferns as you shoulder your way down the narrow paths. Where the stream has made the ground swampy underfoot, there is a proper gunnera jungle. This is not the polite, rather voulu gunnera thicket of other Cornish gardens, charming in its way, but carefully sculpted by strong men with sharp spades. This is the honest-to-goodness forest primeval, in whose pathless wastes the intrepid traveller can sit undisturbed on a stump and while away the afternoon looking up at the shadow-play of insects wandering to and fro across leaves backlit lime-green between the cathedral tracery of their ribs.

A long day’s sail further west, the Mount was doing its stuff. We went alongside in the harbour and crashed across an enormous meadow of red-hot pokers and started scaling the cliff-faces above. This is a garden weeded by abseilers and comprehensively replanted between 1976 and 2004 by my redoubtable aunt Helen Dorrien Smith, herself a daughter of Tresco Abbey. The rockery and the final approach to the Mount’s Victorian wing are now pretty much Tresco in style. The lower lawns, narrow and merely sloping, gaze out at a vast expanse of sea and sky over margins planted with (among other things) scented pelargoniums, pure-white deeply un-hardy dimorpothecas, and black aeoniums. The rock steepens as it rises, the terraces hacked out of the living rock now, walled on their seaward sides with an eighteenth-century cunning that directs the wind straight upwards; so that on a day when the breeze has scoured away every atom of haze, you can stand on the terrace and watch gulls fighting for a grip on the racing air, while the leaves of the Sparmannia africana on the wall behind you are moved to no more than a slight, non-committal rustle.

Out there on the horizon, Scilly is a series of blue crayon-lines hull-down in bright Atlantic.
‘Tresco?’ said the Duchess.

Tresco is a hard place to sail to, because the wind is always in the wrong direction. Besides, the cabin was filling up with plastic bags of cuttings. And the sun had been shining for so long that the weather had really got to break, and the trees would thrash around like inside-out umbrellas, and this extremely small boat would start behaving as if it was stuck in a washing machine.

‘Home,’ I said.

So it was away across Mount’s Bay, and round Land’s End into the Bristol Channel. By the time we got into the Severn we had had about enough of salt wind and Newlyn-School visibility. We were ready for some green in the air, and less of the fiery rum, and more of the golden light percolating through the lime tree and the glass of Chateau de Sours deep, bright pink on the table under it.

And here we are. The smelly geraniums have rooted, and the luma apiculata probably never will, but we are not amazed, by this or anything else. For there is a tower of swallows over the pond, and the click of ball on ball means that lawn sports, slow but ferocious, are on the go. And someone has lit the barbecue, and someone else is tuning a guitar by the bonfire we use instead of a patio heater. The smoke smells good tonight. Not of embothrium, for the Hope specimen is a mere bush. We are burning leylandii scavenged from someone’s mangled hedge. It makes fine aromatic firewood, showing that however grim a thing may seem it is probably useful for something. And here come the stars. The weather in the far southwest has gone bloody awful, but we don’t care. Out with the corks, and onward to moonrise.

from my Hortus column, Summer 2009

and another, from the Spring of 3013

Full Steam Ahead!

A long and landlocked winter has slabbered to an end. The covers are off the kitchen garden, where the worms have selflessly transported tons of muck into the depths. In the polytunnels the rows of intensely fashionable microgreens are about to turn into the less fashionable but infinitely more edible lettuces. Some of the larger puddles are receding, and a smell of deep green promise wells from the air.

Not that this makes any difference to the Duchess. For some months now she has been locked in to her turret, and we toilers in the garden have become suspicious to the point where we have taken to making up excuses to pass under her windows. It is on the way between (for instance) the herbaceous border and the fig trees; so there are sudden pauses in the middle of weeding to go and break off the frosted proto-figs. During these transigions shoelaces frequently need to be tied at the tower’s foot, and an ear bent for the clank of gin bottle on glass, and an eye cast hither and yon for fresh Capstan Full Strength butts on the ground. Though if there were any butts, they would long ago have been used as the foundation of anti-greenfly potions. (Did you know, by the way, that some Australian birds have taken to making their nests out of filter tip fag ends? One of the banes of small-bird life is their attractiveness to mites and other insects, and the nicotine in the fag ends apparently ensures a lack of crawlers in the home environment. When I told the Duchess this she told me not to be disgusting and boring at the same time. She is really not in a healthy frame of mind, interested in the changing seasons and the passing scene. A psychiatrist would describe her as up herself. Though the general view of the household is that she has got post traumatic stress disorder based actually being nice to someone at a drinks party some time around Christmas. Whether or not this is true, she tends to wake up in the middle of the night screaming ‘Canapés! Damn all canapés’ and need soothing with massive draughts of chloral hydrate, of which we discovered a cask in the cellar the other week.)

But this is by the by, which is of course the reason it appears in brackets. We have, as it happens, been engaged in some largish operations during the closing days of winter. These have featured the construction of a couple of arbours, close inspection of the woods and various standard fraxinus ornus for signs of dieback, and the replacement of a enormous plywood egg with the plywood silhouette of a nude, loosely based on the statuettes awarded at the Oscars. I am further preoccupied with modifying a small yacht into a floating library-cum-coldframe, for a trip I am in the middle of making up the coast of Scotland. This is an interesting project, but the Duchess finds it, like the other stuff, tedious. And as all the world knows, a Duchess bored is a Duchess teetering on the brink of a vast lagoon of gin.

Then just as the daffodils were going over the telephone rang, and there on the other end was Nick Walker. Nick is the Captain of VIC 32, the only Clyde puffer still steaming up and down the west coast of Scotland. Once, the puffers carried coal, red herrings, passengers and any other cargoes they could find between the towns of this wild and beauteous area, separated by hundreds of miles of road but short distances by sea. Their adventures are chronicled in Neil Munro’s very funny Para Handy stories – indeed, Vic 32 played Para Handy’s ship, the Vital Spark, in a recent TV adaptation. Nick and a corps of volunteers have turned Vic 32 into a comfortable, if not actually luxurious, midget cruise ship. It is not generally known that steamships are almost silent. So passengers on Vic 32 sit in the breeze and even the sun, hearing the panicky cries of the oystercatchers along the shore and the bubbling yodel of Great Northern Divers in season…

Any minute now someone is going to say, wait a minute, Hortus is a gardening journal, not a rendezvous for seagoing steam freaks. Patience. There is horticulture in store. Here it comes.

The horticultural note is first struck by the tomato plants growing in Vic 32’s wheelhouse, warmed by the heat rising from the engine and brightened by the sun streaming in through the big plate-glass windows. It continues with the general flora of this part of Scotland, which is a kind of motorway pileup of the seasons – primroses flowering at the same time as bluebells flowering at the same time as orchids flowering at the same time as foxgloves.

But the highest type of horticulture is visible in Vic 32’s itinerary, which in the late spring takes in some of that fine family of gardens, warmed by the Gulf Stream, in which plants more closely associated with Australia than Caledonia survive and thrive. The first time I ever saw Ardmaddy was after a cold, wet and frightening voyage south in a very small sailing boat from the waters north of Ardnamurchan, where trees are a rarity and the mountains slink through the clouds like enormous surly animals. Ardmaddy sits behind the shore warm and elegant, with a tower, which owes more to the round towers of Ireland than the Franco-Germanic fantasies of the Scots baronial. The round towers were built, it was said, to protect the culture of Irish Christianity from the Vikings. The tower at Ardmaddy seems to exercise a similarly protective effect on the botanical treasures at its foot.

Here and at Arduaine, a few miles away by water, it is a help to like rhododendrons –  particularly in June, when Vic 32 makes her most horticultural voyages. But these are not sheets of grimly kaleidoscopic Home Counties hybrids. Species abound, and so do scented versions unknown outdoors by the shores of Virginia Water. The effect is more Bhutan than Basingstoke, but a Bhutan at the foot of whose glens the Sea of the Hebrides gleams dully, rolling, if you are lucky, with dolphins and whales.

A tedious distance away by road, but a hop and a skip by puffer, is An Cala, somewhat tamer than the two above, but kept temperate by the same Gulf Stream waters as its neighbours. Here, the echiums are as tall as (if slightly later than) the ones on Tresco, and there is a sort of post-Arts-and-Crafts matiness that can make you forget you are in Scotland at all.

This is the only worry I have about taking the Duchess on Vic 32. She does not really do matey, and her vision of Scotland has been largely formed in Accident and Emergency clinics following adventures at Caledonian Balls and grouse drives. In those days her idea of breakfast north of the border was to stump up and down the dining room with a bowl of porridge in one hand and a large gin in the other, Capstan Full Strength clipped between her fingers, which nicotine had tanned to the colour of the bark of an acer griseum. But that was then, and this is now. Perhaps she will behave.

So I have pushed a bit of paper bearing the magic words under her door. She will no doubt wish to travel on the Hebridean Princess, and so would we all, including the Queen, who uses the ship as a Royal Yacht since that unpleasant Mr Blair spitefully confiscated Britannia. But the puffer, being smaller, gets closer to the action.

Talking about which, the year is rolling on. It is time to mark the daffodils for moving, plant some more potatoes, cut back the buddleias, and perhaps put a couple of chairs within range of the big stone table. Scotland will not be fit for habitation for a month or two yet. Meanwhile spring is rolling like a green tide up the hills of the Marches, and we will have to work like demons to keep our heads above it, and if the Duchess wishes to sulk, that his her business, not ours.

But here she comes, out of the tower door, dressed in an orange Tarmac boiler suit and some of her second-best diamonds. She pulls a hoe from the toolshed and makes a couple of dummy swings, like a golfer at the tee. Clearly she means business. Thank goodness for that.

Sailing thrillers

As you have probably worked out by now, the sea is one of the ruling passions of my life. While cruising and racing in boats ranging from dinghies to megayachts, I noticed that they have a kind of pressure-cooking effect on the emotions. It might be the trivial fury of someone whose last chocolate biscuit has been stolen when she is two thousand miles from the nearest shop. It might be the thwarted ambition of a man who has invested millions in a giant yacht, and has been cheated in a race. Or it might be the usual levers – greed, jealousy and spite – beefed up when surrounded by water.

So I wrote a series of sailing thrillers, set in and around the fishing village of Pulteney, on the southwest coast of England. Pulteney is a village once inhabited by fishermen, since bought up by bankers. It is the place you keep your boat for the winter, probably to have it refitted under the benevolent guidance of Charlie Agutter, local yacht designer, whisky drinker, and occasional detective. Pulteney is a place where you meet people who will be the other side of the world next week, and hear their stories. The object of these books is to give you all the thrills of yachting with none of the excess moisture, and to keep your heart in your mouth long past your bedtime.

Dead Reckoning
People lose their cool on boats. I had always wondered whether this ever went as far as murder. In this, the first of the Pulteney books, I decided to make it happen..

Charlie Agutter has designed a revolutionary boat. Then his brother is killed sailing one, and the design is blamed. Griefstruck Charlie knows better. With the Captain’s Cup races approaching and fortunes hanging in the balance, Charlie suspects sabotage. He needs to find out who has done it, to win back his good name, his livelihood, and to win the race. Oh, and to save his sister-in-law’s life…

“Slick, readable, racy and punchy – an outstanding thriller”

Sunday Express

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Blood Orange
Multihulls are the fastest things on water. After a trip across channel in a racing catamaran that left me deeply excited but with two black eyes from green water coming across the foredeck at thirty knots, it was obvious that I had to write a catamaran book.

French multihull sailors are the Formula One drivers of the sea, with the nerve, the power, and the temperament. They do not take kindly to British sailors horning in on their circuit. So when a man is washed off the trimaran Street Express in an Irish anchorage, the police know where to look. But appearances can be deceptive….

“Sam Llewellyn sends the salt spray flying”
Sunday Express

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Death Roll
I once ran the day shift in a bar in Spain’s Costa del Sol. Here I met two brothers from East London, one of whom could knock out a donkey with his bare fist, and the other of whom did stuff that I cannot mention, except to say it was very illegal, indeed. There are a lot of boats there, huge amounts of money, and not much extradition.. The stories just fall into your lap.

When an elderly boatyard owner suddenly decides to go visiting on Spain’s Costa del Crime, there are those who say it is perfectly natural. His wife is not among them. She says it is right out of character, and asks her friend Martin Devereux, a twelve-meter sailor full of nothing but bad attitude, to investigate. And very soon after that, Martin is wishing he had never started….

“An immaculately timed, tense adventure”
Mail on Sunday

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The west coast of Scotland is Europe’s finest and loneliest cruising ground. The same year I went there for the first time, I met a fisherman who had discovered the secret of the steady income, so much sought after by fishermen.. When he occasionally trawled up a WWII naval mine in his nets, he received big-scale compensation for lost fishing time. So in his shed he had started a collection of these mines, rusty, lethal, and sweating nitroglycerine, for use on slow fishing days. You will understand that this was too hot to ignore.

What happens when a divorce lawyer sailing in the North of Scotland picks up a man who has fallen overboard from a ship in the middle of the night? For one thing, nobody thanks him. For another, his life seems to be in danger. But then it turns out that there is a lot more than his life at stake. Things like unexploded mines, and toxic waste, and the his ex-wife, and his future with the woman he loves….

“A brilliantly conceived and executed thriller, with stunning set pieces…. written with unflagging pace and elegance”
Literary Review

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Blood Knot
Autumn in the Archipelago between Stockholm and Turku in the Baltic. Millions of birds are migrating,, elks swim among the thousands of islands, and the Finns are picking mushrooms, some of which are not toxic. It is a beautiful, mysterious place to sail.

The Tall Ships are gathered at Chatham, in the Thames Estuary, for their annual race. Vixen, owned by ex war correspondent Bill Tyrrell, has eight young offenders on board, for the good of their souls. In the middle of the celebrations, they discover a ninth person – a dead Russian, wrapped round the propellor. There is plenty of explaining to do. But nobody is listening to Tyrrell’s explanations, particularly when his past starts messing up the present…

“The best seaborne thriller in many a tide”

Daily Mail

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La Rochelle is a lovable town, and a great relief to find at the end of a lumpy voyage across the Bay of Biscay. But behind its beauty is something harder. It was besieged by Cardinal Richelieu during the Huguenot era.. And its fortifications, beautifully intact, still hint at a capacity for violence.

Nobody sails like the French – the speed, the style, the pride, the seamanship. And, as Mick Savage, boatbuilder, is about to discover, the violence. Because someone out there seems to have taken against Mick. And his friend Thibault Ledoux owes money to people it is not wise to owe money to, and it looks as if he may wind up dead. The sexy, complicated world of La Rochelle’s big-time sailors is dangerous as hell. And not only because of the weather in the Bay of Biscay.

“For excitement, elegance and sheer virtuosity, Llewellyn’s books sail rings round the competition” Literary Review

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Maine does fog like nowhere else in the world. The sea is green and icy cold, full of whales, bursting on marble beaches. Inside the fog lurks a culture that is ancient and insular and sometimes hostile – an ideal background for weirdness and mayhem.

When someone kills your sister and her country-and-western singer boyfriend in Ethiopia, you might think that it is an ending. But for George Devis, it is a beginning – of a sequence of events that starts with a murder in a transatlantic race, and leads up the eastern seaboard of America and into an international conspiracy. It is a conspiracy that it would be nice to walk away from. But once you have found out it exists, it is too late to walk away…

“This rare treat should send readers in search of Llewellyn’s earlier novels”
American Bookseller

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I have always been a keen collector of whirlpools – the Old Sow in Eastport, Maine, the Corryvreckan off the Isle of Jura, and most of all the Maelstrom in the Lofoten Islands, immortalised by Edgar Allen Poe (who never saw it) I am also disgusted by Norway’s whaling policies, an exploitation of natural resources that dates from an earlier, more fascistic age. These two things together lie at the root of this book.
Seventy-eight-year-old Ernie Johnson, scrap dealer, Spanish Civil War veteran and dyed-in-the wool leftie, sails towards Ireland in his rustbucket freighter Worker’s Paradise. When Customs searches the ship, they find a huge arms cache. Ernie says he has been framed, but he would, wouldn’t he? The only person who believes his innocence is his nephew, Fred Hope. And Fred is no saint himself, having a dodgy past in ecoterrorism and other blood sports. But Fred investigates. And finds himself way over his head in some lethal business. Including the Russian mafia, stolen art treasures, whale poachers, and political ghosts from the Fascist past. Oh, and the North Sea…

“An ingenious story, well written and so detailed in its description of the Norwegian Sea that you can feel the chill in your bones”
Mail on Sunday

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Ray’s Dazed Kipper Manual
is a manual of seamanship based on best practice and appearing monthly in Classic Boat magazine. Goodness knows who writes it; someone called Samson Post, apparently, though it seems improbable that this is his real name. I have been given permission to reproduce a few specimen lessons here. I hope they may be of some use, if only to show mariners what to avoid.

There are plenty of seamanship tutors around these days. The French have the Glenans manual, bless them. The British have our own type, quite unlike the French model because we draw the line at sleeping three to a bunk. The Americans can safely be ignored, for their habit of laying their buoys the wrong way round causes severe disappointment. But there is always room for one manual more; in particular, a manual aimed at people who like to go sailing in boats that are past their first youth. So we are going to start one, and this is the introduction to it.
It will not, like the Glenans manual, talk a lot about la Psychologie du Mal de Mer. Unlike American how-to DVDs, it will be silent as regards Lunker Action on Bass Boats. And it will not attempt to squeeze the prospective navigator into a course of exams commencing with Competent Cradle, passing through a linked series of twenty-eight qualifications all of which cost several hundred quid to acquire, and terminating with Burial at Sea (final).
So what is it then?
Ray’s Dazed Kipper Manual is based on nautical wisdom bearing the toothmarks of generations of professional seafarers. Modern manuals tend to stress safety. This only makes the student seafarer nervous. The Dazed Kipper manual places the emphasis firmly on survival. The voice of experience, delivered at a volume audible above a force 9 breeze with thunder, will eventually bring the student seafarer to the stunned, pickled condition that characterises the experienced mariner. And there is no voice on the seas around our island home louder or more experienced than that of Ray Doggett.
Of who?
Of whom, you mean. Captain Doggett, or Ray as he is known to his three friends and thousands of enemies, is a hardy British seafarer of advanced years. He absorbed salt water with his mother’s milk. Now it runs in his veins, combined with alcohol, Stockholm tar and of course blood. He has worked on Thames barges, J-class yachts, garbage lighters and deep-sea trawlers. His many circumnavigations under sail are legendary and highly fictional, and he has survived the bankruptcy of six boatyards, for all of which he was responsible.
By an intensive process of brainstorming, idea showering, and very noisy arguments culminating in fist fights, Ray and I have devised a syllabus for the Manual. We feel it is a quality assured contribution to the literature, aimed at growing the skills base of marine leisure participants in the runup to the Olympics; or as Ray puts it, taking a few quid off them RYA bastards.
Inevitably, comparisons will be made between Ray’s Dazed Kipper Manual and the RYA Day Skipper Manual. There will be significant differences. RYA students will be encouraged to avoid sunlight, sail clean plastic boats with odour-free bilges, and take hot (but never scalding) showers at sea. They will know exactly where they are at all times, update their charts continuously, and may come to regard the occasional sea voyages they can cram into their busy timetable as vexatious interruptions to a lifelong schedule of exams.
Ray’s students may feel that a glass of rum is a warming breakfast beverage, that there is a sentimental joy in using charts passed on without updating by elderly great-aunts, and that a tiny bit of tobacco smuggling is a handy way to offset the shocking expense of yachting. Dazed Kipper candidates, confronted by an exam, are expected to fail it. Ray was second mate of a tug at the age of fourteen, and everything he knows he made up. Dazed Kipper students will be expected to do the same; the Manual will merely provide hints, amplified by sage maxims from Ray himself. Provided he is not upside down in the snug bar at the Anchor.
So in the months to come, we will work our way topic by topic through the arts of seamanship. We will begin with the Naming of Parts, then Choose a Boat, develop Cruising Skills, give mature consideration to Elementary and Advanced Smuggling, and know where we are most of the time to within about twenty miles.
Now you will have to excuse me, for some friends of Ray’s have just done a bank job and the safe will make a perfect anchor for the Vicar’s mooring. Further information in Classic Boat magazine. Notebooks out, pencils at the ready, mine’s a rum, same for Ray. See you then!

Harbour Manoeuvres.
It is time to consider manoeuvring in confined spaces. The sea is big, but harbours are not, and they call for a special range of skills and mental attitudes.
Ray’s time as a tugboat skipper has made him intolerant of the delicate evolutions of yachtsfolk. He reckons that if you show real conviction people will get out of your way, and eight times out of ten he is right. He is rarely in command of anything small enough to get into a marina, so he knows little about them, except that they tend to be padded round the edges, which saves wear on fenders and any Golden Virginia that may be packed inside them.
Ray reckons that in order to leave the quay, you untie the lines and engage ahead and astern until you see clear water, when you engage full ahead (or astern if the clear water is behind you). For coming alongside, he recommends the standard method: motor towards the quay, attach bow line and fender, and screw the stern in by using prop wash on the rudder. When sailing a charter boat or one belonging to someone else, you may choose to omit the fender. When helming a large yacht or small merchant vessel, you may prefer to use the T-Bone.
The T-Bone.
Engage Full Ahead. Sound siren. Drain glass. Ram quay at 90º angle. Vessel will stop, unless quay falls down, in which case vessel was too big. Step ashore. Head for station.
The T-Bone with Turn
for use with good strong granite quay. Engage full ahead (see above). Drain glass. Ram quay at 90º angle so bow digs in to coping. Apply full right or left rudder to taste. Bow is held by rock in which it is embedded, so stern will swing using bow as pivot. Sound siren to drown harbourmaster’s screams. Attach bow line. Step ashore. Head for station.
The Braunston Snatch
Approach quay on converging course, half ahead. Stand by aft cleat or bollard nearest to quay, holding loop of stout line or lasso if preferred. Drain glass. Engage neutral if you have time, but don’t worry if you don’t and the mooring line is a strong one. As rope drops neatly over quay bollard, take swift turn on cleat and surge until way is off boat, at which point bow line can be attached. Possible outcomes:
1. boat stops
2. rope breaks
3 bollard shoots out of quay and demolishes wheelhouse
4 cleat shoots out of boat and demolishes harbourmaster’s car.

NB as its name implies, this is a technique derived from Ray’s days on the Inland Waterways Lime Juice run. In the
Braunston Snatch – canal version, the boatman drains glass and throws a turn over the bollard which is an integral part of the top lock gate as his stern passes it. This not only stops the boat, but closes the lock gate. In an ill-maintained canal, the top lock gate may be pulled off its hinges, leading to the ramming and consequent destruction of the bottom lock gate and flooding on a Chinese scale.

RAY says: They may complain, but you will end up tied up. Mine’s a rum. Next month? Fine. Tara for now.

Emergencies. Summoning Help
At some point in your boating career you will be almost certainly be torpedoed, hit a rock or catch fire. Do not worry. This is perfectly normal and happens to just about everyone. Usual procedure is to fire flares in all directions until they are used up. There are many VHF distress aids, including the recently introduced GMDSS, which in combination with DSC, GPS and of course a vessel’s MMSI has provided increased functionality in casualty location and communication as regards distress.
Naturally Ray Doggett is not in favour of this newfangled bilge. If he wanted anyone to know where he was, he says, he would give them the address of his lodgings. The bad thing about the sea is it is cold wet and rough. The good thing is that nobody can find you when you are on it. His opinion is certainly tinged by the fact that he sees the Coastguard as first cousin to his natural enemy the Customs Officer, and that a successful rescue may interfere with a profitable insurance claim. Still, it is just possible to admire his sturdy if rather furtive spirit of self-reliance. It is against his better judgement that we include in this Manual a system for issuing the the old-fashioned MAYDAY.

Sending a MAYDAY is simple. Whatever Ray says, the Coastguard wants to help you, and will be respectfully sympathetic to your plight. Make his life easier by remembering the simple mnemonic OMIGOD. Procedure:
Switch on VHF. Tune to Channel 16. Put thumb on TRANSMIT button. Scream:
O we are going to drown. O we will all die. O we are too young/old/weak/beautiful
M mayday. mayday. mayday. mayday. mayday. Is anyone there MAYDAYEEEEE
Identification? You mean the boat’s name? Then say so. Bloody hell I can’t remember but it is dark so what difference will it make anyway just get in your helicopter and get out here. Oh
O God I wish we had never bought this ruddy boat This is awful. What a

It is possible that the coastguard may not think you are sufficiently important to rescue, and will ask supplementary questions, such as
Q: What is your position?
A: Area sales manager, Western Europe. (exaggerate if you think the truth is insufficiently impressive).
Q: Oo. Wow. Cool. And how will the helicopter be able to identify you?
A: There are quite a lot of boats out here in the dark but we are the only one on fire.
Q: Stand by.

RAY says: Well if you must you must, I suppose. But remember, when the winchman comes down to fetch you up, be sure and offer him a swift rum if available. They get cheap fags in the Forces so it is important to get off on the right foot.


Emperor Smith – the man who built Scilly
When Augustus Smith became Lord Proprietor of the Isles of Scilly in 1834, the islands were approaching the final stages of anarchy, dereliction and famine. Smith was a man with advanced social theories. He saw in Scilly the ideal laboratory for testing these theories.

His wise but arbitrary rule soon learned him the nickname of Emperor – loved by some, hated by others, respected by all. During his reign he tirelessly championed the weak against the strong. He rebuilt farms, quays and houses, and introduced an educational system forty years in advance of the one prevailing on the mainland. And he founded and laid out Tresco Abbey Gardens, still one of the wonders of the world, though no longer (as in Augustus’ day) populated by forty ostriches.

So who was Augustus Smith, and why did he never marry, and what possessed this sprig of a Home Counties banking family to attach his fortunes to wild, lovely Scilly? This book uses material from hitherto unseen and inaccessible archives to paint an extraordinary picture of the public, private and secret life of an extraordinary and colourful man.

The Worst Journey in the Midlands
illustrations by Chris Aggs
I wrote this book after living out of England for six years. When I returned, I found that the travel book had taken over from the novel. In place of characters, chance encounters along the route. In place of plot, itinerary. In place of protagonist, narrator. Eager to keep up with the trend, and even more eager to satirise it, I filled up the holes in an ancient open boat, and rowed it from the source of the Severn to the Houses of Parliament. This occupied the wettest October since records began. The book has been described as ‘a little masterpiece of gloom.’ I cannot argue with this.

The Bounder’s Companion; a manual of Good Advice, by Harry Chance
I met Harry Chance in a casino in Aruba some thirty years ago. Even then he was a strange figure, toothbrush-moustached, Panama-hatted, out of his time. But after he had taught me how to play Persian Monarchs (cut a deck of cards; highest card wins) I found myself greatly in his debt. In exchange for his letting me off this financial obligation, I agreed to ghost-write his laws for easy living. I am often asked if the book was a success. Well, the librarian of the House of Lords tells me that of the four copies of the original edition bought for the House, three were immediately stolen. You may draw your own conclusions.

By the way, I found out the other day that Gavin Chance, the protagonist of my thriller Black Fish, is some sort of nephew of Harry’s. Which just goes to show that unreliable narration runs in families.

Small Parts in History
Great events often have small causes. Think of Kermit Tyler, on radar watch at Pearl Harbour, who in 1942 dismissed a huge flock of approaching echoes as a flight of geese, only to find out the hard way that it was in fact the Japanese Air Force. Think of the ancient peasant woman whose cakes Alfred the Great burned while he schemed the invention of the British Navy. Think of William Webb Ellis, first man to pick up a football and run with it. Without these nonentities, history would have been very different. There are seventy-seven of them in this book, all obscure, all crucial.

Yacky dar moy Bewty! A phrasebook to the regions of Britain (with Irish supplement)
The English-speaking traveller in non-English-speaking countries is well provided with phrasebooks. In England, things are different. Stray thirty miles from home or arrivals lounge, and you will find yourself in a country whose language is totally unfamiliar. Baffled and stammering, you will find yourself in danger of misunderstanding, impatience, and xenophobic violence. This book provides a handy guide to the languages of Britain’s regions, and will spare the reader a load of embarrassment – pointing out, for instance, that a pony is a small horse in the country, £25 at Newmarket Races, and something really disgusting in Southeast London. No home should be without one.

Hell Bay

Hell Bay front cover d

My ancestors lived on Tresco in the Isles of Scilly, thirty miles or so west of the westernmost point of Cornwall. It is a place of great beauty and violence, warmed by the sea but exposed to waves that have come all the way from America. This novel begins in 1829. It is rooted in a battle between two men for the love of beautiful Mary Prideaux, witch, healer, child of islands unchanged for thousands of years. One of the men is Nicholas Power, a Dublin doctor fleeing a shameful past. The other is the iron-willed philanthropist Augustus Smith, come to the islands to carve an ideal kingdom from the stubborn rocks and the even more stubborn people.
The novel is an interweaving of historical fact, fiction and rumour, against a background of passion, mayhem and shipwreck. Hell Bay has sold nearly 100,000 copies in the Isles of Scilly (population about 2000)

“A thumping great novel”
The West Briton

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The Iron Hotel

The Iron Hotel

Several Februaries ago, I read a newspaper story about a rustbucket freighter that had run itself aground on New York’s Coney Island beach, and discharged a swarm of illegal immigrants into the freezing surf. It had taken them three months to travel from the South China Sea. Conditions on board had been bad. But it was hard to find out just how bad, because the immigrants had either vanished into New York or been repatriated. So I decided that I had to write a novel about life on a ship full of illegal immigrants. The research for this book took me into meetings with pirate-hunters in the Sulu Sea, conferences in the boardroooms of Hong Kong and all the way across the Pacific in a rustbucket freighter.

“Llewellyn’s writing is clean, flowing, unaffected, sometimes with a touch of poetry… may he sail on and on”

New York Times

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The Shadow in the Sands

I have always admired Erskine Childers’ book The Riddle of the Sands. For one thing, it was the first modern thriller. For another, it is one of the greatest novels about living and sailing on small boats. The story, in case you  have not read it, concerns the discovery of German plans to invade Britain in 1902, and their thwarting by Davies and Carruthers, a pair of amateur yachtsmen. The Riddle’s only flaw is that the villain, the renegade and class traitor Dollmann,  drowns himself from shame at the denouement.

This flaw has always bugged me – I have met many villains, and none of them showed any trace of this  kind of self-sacrifice. So after several cruises in the Frisian islands I wrote The Shadow in the Sands, being the story of the events of the subsequent year, told not by a gentleman yachtsman, but by Charlie Webb, a paid hand or hired crewman on a gentleman’s yacht. This is the first book in which a paid hand has his say. The perspective is working-class, the language earthy, the yachting unsportsmanlike. The book can be read on its own, or as a continuation of the Riddle – which everyone should read.


The Sunday Times

“A racy and first-rate continuation of the Riddle of the Sands”

Mail on Sunday

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© 2020 Sam Llewellyn