I sailed to the Isle of Man and back. Alone…

This is the story of my bravest and biggest personal challenge. It was my 31st birthday and I decided to challenge myself as a gift (yeah, I love myself), so I crossed the Irish Sea again to the Isle of Man, but alone this time. I was scared, it was scarier than I thought. The weather wasn’t as bad as when the “Beast From The East II” hit Ireland during my skipper course back in March with 4 meters waves, but I wasn’t the captain in charge at that time and I wasn’t alone. This time it was only Neverland and I and things got a bit messy.

“A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor…”

Day 1 – The Crossing

27th of September of 2018. 4:30 in the morning and my alarm goes off. It was still night and I woke up with an uncomfortable feeling of “what the f*ck am I doing?”. But just like every other scary thing I’ve done, I embraced the fear and went with it. “I can do this. I AM DOING THIS!”.

Weather forecast was half good (15- knots) and half rough (28+ knots gusts). Standard weather for that time of the year at the Irish Sea. Next day was even worse so that was my best shot. It’s worth to mention that I had the ‘blessing’ from my instructor:

Me: “Hey, I’m going to the Isle of Man this Thursday. Single handed haha any advice?”
Instructor: “Always be clipped to the boat! Don’t even disconnect for a second… enjoy! Sounds like a good adventure!”

That gave me a lot of confidence.

5:00am nav and head lights on, radio, AIS, plotter, engine, slipped the lines and off I went out of Dun Laoghaire Harbour into the night. 1st challenge was to cross Dublin Port channel. It wasn’t so busy at the time but I had to time my passage between some big ass cargo ships and ferries 20 times the size of my boat. AIS helps a lot! After that it was only about sailing on a straight line for 12 hours. Easy stuff…  if only everything went as I planned.

A couple hours sailing on a northeast course, wind between westerly and south westerly, moon on my shoulder and some colours start to pop in the horizon. The good part of sailing, sunrises at sea are just beautiful.

The good part of sailing… amazing sunrises.

3 hours into the sea and I got my first scare. I was sitting down and steering for some rest, sipping on my coffee and a lobster pod passed very close to the boat and I thought the boat was dragging it. My heart started pounding. “F*ck, this thing will get stuck on my propeller.” Went to neutral for a second and the lobster pod just stayed behind for my relief. Adrenaline pump. I was rushed for half an hour.

Then the wind picks up, and so the waves. 

Waves coming from the back of the boat makes it goes like a see-saw and you have to compensate on the steering wheel a lot to keep the course.

Quick fact: Seasaw was the original name of the boat when I bought… May Neptune forgive me changing it for Neverland being a much better name.

Smooth sailing…

A heavy gust of wind hits, the boat heels a bit more and the headsail starts flapping hard, autopilot engaged and I started furling the headsail quickly. The boat accidentally jibes, coffee cup falls from the holder and goes all over the cockpit. Finished furling, back to the helm, autopilot disengaged, engine back on and slowly jibed back into course.

Dramatic pause. My autopilot wasn’t holding course…

I can still feel the adrenaline rush right now as I write. It’s like waking up from a nightmare. My plan was so ‘right’, engage the autopilot whenever I feel tired and relax. But planning and sailing are enemies and I knew it, no I didn’t, not my autopilot, not alone. F*CK! (I said that word a f*cking lot on this trip).

Assessment time:
I’m alone in the middle of the sea and I can barely see land behind me (but the boat is floating fine), my autopilot is not holding course (just keep steering for now), there is coffee all over the cockpit and it is slippery (I have to clean this somehow), my coffee cup and lid is on the floor (pick them up and throw ’em in the sink from the cockpit), where is my 2 liter bottle of water? (missing… I’m very sorry for that, ocean =/), main sail is already on reef 2 (will definitely need a third later). Deep breath. Everything is alright.

Decision time:
Sail back for 5 hours or keep steering for the rest of the way for another 7 hours…?
.
.
.
Well, you know the answer, right?

It wasn’t even half way at this point and the plan was to get there and back! I confess I’m a very stubborn individual and when I want something, I don’t want anything else. So I got my shit together, rinsed the coffee with the stern shower hose and kept going. Oh yes, I had to steer for 13 hours nonstop that day.

At that point I had a few considerations because my autopilot wasn’t reliable and I just couldn’t leave the helm for longer than 30 seconds, so:

  • I’ll motor sail from now own.
  • I’m not raising the mainsail no matter what. I know from the forecast that I will need a third reef for sure eventually.
  • I’m also only unfurling the headsail half way.
  • I’m not rigging a preventer on the boom (unless the wind backs more southerly. Forecast says it will veer to northwesterly late afternoon. I was between a beam reach and a broad reach).
  • No toilet. Pee to the back while steering. This needs further explanation: I was wearing an overall waterproof trousers up to my shoulders, a waterproof jacket on top, a life jacket on top and attached with a safety line to the boat. You have no idea how difficult it was to reach it, stick it out and do it to the back while steering and not falling as the boat was rocking up and down and left and right. I’ll leave you to imagine. I’m glad I didn’t need to go for number 2.
  • Relax. I can do this.

I had sandwiches already made in the fridge and also loads of snacks so I would time myself between the waves to engage the autopilot and pop inside the boat, unplug my safety line, grab food (also water, check AIS, charge phone), plug back the safety line and run back to the helm in 30 seconds or so to fix the course which wasn’t already the same as when I left. I think I’ve done this five or six times only.

Well, this second part of the trip the waves were still a bit annoying at about 2 meters tops but the sun was out and the wind wasn’t strong. So half way across the sea I had my lunch and a beer to celebrate and boost the morale. It was as pleasant as the sunrise earlier that day, but not for long. I also passed by a fishing boat in the middle of nowhere and we waived at each other which made me feel less alone at that time.

Few more hours and land ho!

I could barely see the Calf of Man between the clouds but it was just about time. I was getting a bit worried actually, by my calculations it should have been visible an hour before but it was cloudy. My phone had signal at this point so I called Port St Mary to let the harbour master (Neil Collister. Great man by the way who helped me a lot over there) know I’d be there at around 7:00pm and ask for instructions on what to do when I arrive (I’ll come back to that later).

Northwesterly finally hits and hits strong! Boat heeling and sails flapping. I had to furl the headsail again and I had to go for reef 3. Bow into the wind, autopilot on, furl it quickly and check autopilot. Course was steady into the wind. Mainsail was flapping like crazy, boat bashing the waves, wind whistling loud, the front halyard banging on the mast. The symphony of hell. But the autopilot was holding course into the wind! You could almost see me smiling at this point, until my reef 3 (a single line system I had rigged myself and never tested) got stuck somewhere close to the mast. FUCK! (no asterisk)

Wind speed was over 30 knots, the boat was going up and down into the waves and my autopilot, well, I had to hope it would keep holding course. That was the most dangerous part of the trip. I had to walk to the mast and even though I was attached to the jackline, any mistake or mishap and I could be hanging by my safety line off the boat dragging on the water, hopefully conscious to climb back. Sounds dramatic I know. Nothing bad happened, the line was stuck where is goes inside the boom, I fixed, came back, finished reefing and steered back into course.

Deep breath. Relax, its rough but there is only 3 hours to go now.

Feel the wind blast…

Passed the calf of man and the gap between the mainland, I reached the Spanish Head, a big big, huge, enormous wall (pun intended) that provided shelter so I could take the sail down safely and motor to Port St Mary.

When I reached Port St Mary it was almost low water and the wall I was suggested to berth the boat was 20 meters high at that moment. I was supposed to approach that wall with 20+ knots winds throwing me toward it, secure the boat to the ladder, take two lines with 20+ meters, climb the ladder with the lines and secure the boat up there. Tired and alone. Not a chance… So I found a spot near the other moored boats and threw the anchor for the night. Still on time for the sunset…

Sunset view through the galley window

Proud of crossing on my own, it was time to enjoy the sunset, 2 big burgers, a bottle of prosecco and my own company. Happy days.

Day 2 – Time to explore the Island

Good morning Port St Mary.

The plan for the day was to have breakfast onboard, inflate the dinghy, row to shore, take a shower and go explore the Island. So I made my backpack, jumped on my dinghy and rowed to the wall.

Neil Collister saw me rowing there and kindly allowed me to tie my dinghy on his boat instead of bringing it all the way up the harbour safe from the tide which was on springs at the time and would go up 5 meters.

So I took my shower, got some tips about the Island and went for a walk around taking pictures like a classic tourist, went to Port Erin had some nice coffee on a local cafe and waited for the next train to Douglas. The Steam Railway is an attraction on it’s own and a must-do in the Isle of Man. 

Steam train @ Port Erin station

I got a cabin all for myself and the view was amazing.

What a trip… What a day…

Make sure to check the the dates, it doesn’t run all year. The ticket to Douglas was about 12£ return.

Douglas is the capital and largest town of the Isle of Man. The city is full of attractions including the Manx Museum (Manx, read as mænks, is a reference to Celtic people originating in the Island. Also tail-less cats). The Museum was free, which surprised me and felt that I had to leave a couple pounds in the contributions box. It presents 10.000 years of history of the Island and its Viking and Celtic past. It is a must-do as well. I also walked around the Marina and Douglas Bay taking pictures around. Looked for a pub to have some food (and beer of course) only to find out that their kitchens were all closed after 3:00pm, so I had beer and crisps for lunch. Class. Waited for the last train and back to Port St Mary.

Douglas Bay

Day 3 – Happy Birthday and the TT Race track on a classic 900cc Triumph Street Twin

So for those who don’t know, Isle of Man is internationally famous for motorcycle racing and has the title of “road racing capital of the world”. Its most famous event is the Tourist Trophy race or simply “The TT race”. A controversial racing event where more than one pilot dies every year! 2018 claimed 3 lives! Insane I know but as a motorcycle lover myself I had to give it a go so I went to Jason Griffiths Motorcycles and rented a classic 900cc Triumph Street Twin. The price was salty: 200£ a day + 1500£ deposit. Ouch. But it was my birthday and I deserved wanted it.

Triumph Street Twin 900cc. Fastest bike I’ve ever rode.

Quick tip: Do NOT go there on the 29th of September. The man who works there has his birthday on the 30th of September and since he does NOT work on his birthday, you’d have to bring the bike back the same day and still pay full price. He’d lent you equips for free though.

I wanted to go for the full racing track, so I was given a map and instructions to follow. It was incredible to see that people race on those roads at insane speeds of 200 mph with no wall protection or anything. At every corner there was somebody’s house or a pub or a church or a hill. They also drive on the left side of the road but I was already used to it for living in Ireland for a few years already. There was traffic at some points and I passed by a few very slow farm tractors. On the other hand, there is no speed limit at some points! And “the craic was 90 in the Isle of Man”. No, that is not a reference of speed in miles per hour. Trust me, I was doing 50 😉

Quick stop at the Great Laxey Wheel, the largest working waterwheel in the world built in 1854 to pump water from the Laxey Mines industrial complex. The mine used to produce lead, copper, silver and zinc and was closed in 1929. The entry price for the Wheel and Mines was 8£ at the time. The wheel is beautiful, check it out.


The mine is not so great… They give you a helmet to get in and you should be able to go all the all in and out in less than a minute. The wheel and mine complex has also some trails, but I didn’t have much time there.

So I returned the bike back to the shop safe and sound, got my 1500£ refund and hopped on a bus back to Port St Mary.

Went to the Albert Hotel pub, a 5 star rated “Great local pub” and also 1 star rated “Not great” (both probably written by social media raised millennials), for a few drinks and to watch Chelsea vs Liverpool. Apparently, everybody on the island cheers for Liverpool and you should have seem how happy they were when Daniel Sturridge tied the game at 89′. A guy was jumping on his friends back.

After the game and a few pints it was time to go back to the boat. I couldn’t drink much at the pub because I needed to climb down the ladder on the wall and row back to the boat. Wouldn’t be wise to do that alone and drunk. Good thing I still had wine and beer aboard. By the way, I ALWAYS have wine and beer aboard among some other heavier booze 😉

Day 4 – Day off

Went for a quick walk to sweat the alcohol and the hangover, bought some snacks and beers for the crossing back, payed for the mooring and said thank you and good bye to Neil. Back to the boat, dinghy in the locker, some checks and preps for the crossing next day, Instagram post, dinner, wine, set the alarm and good night! 

Day 5 – Crossing back with dolphins

5:00am and my alarm goes off. Quick breakfast, nav lights and instruments on, final checks and slipped the mooring line.

My strategy to sail back was basically the same: motor sail safely on reef 3 and mind the headsail when strong gusts hits. So there I went into the night back to Dublin rolling with the waves and dolphins!

It was daylight already when I saw these bottlenose dolphins around the boat. There was about 6 or 8 of them and I grabbed my phone and filmed. Such a nice way to start the morning.

The crossing back was really boring and my autopilot would still not hold course with the waves aft the beam, so I kept steering and munching and had a couple beers to pass the time.

10 hours of boring solo steering sailing and the wind shifts to the nose earlier than forecast. So what should have been 2 hours of sailing on a straight course became 3 and a half of tacking (zig zagging). I was extremely tired at this point and in serious need to rest, so I engaged the autopilot with faith and it was able to handle a close-hauled course with the waves forward the beam. Went down, grabbed a pillow, came back to the cockpit and laid flat. For about 2 hours I would get up every 10 minutes and give a full look around. I was wrecked.

zig zag

At night already, I was entering Dun Laoghaire harbour when the wind started to pick up to force 6. Sails down, piloted to my berth and crashed the boat on the pontoon (gently haha). I jumped quickly to tie her as fast as I could. Checked the bow and the pontoon and there was no damage. Finished tidying the boat, went for a loong hot shower, dressed up, zombied my way to The Forty Foot, ordered a nice and cold pint of my favourite beer and the biggest burger they had on the menu: The Empire State. Took me 10 minutes to finish what tasted like the best dinner I’ve ever had. Zombied back to the marina to a force 7 to 8 winds! It was only an hour after I arrived and I thought to myself what would have happened if I was still sailing at that time on those conditions as tired as I was. I was so relieved it was over at that point and all I wanted was to sleep, but I was also feeling lucky somehow and that bothered me a lot. Luck is not something I plan to rely on and that made me less proud. Anyways… it was over, I had made it and I was safe. I needed to sleep, so I crashed on my bed with an uncomfortable feeling of “Do I really have to go to work tomorrow?”. Yes. I can do this…

Trip Summary: 5 days, 27+ hours of solo sailing with strong winds, 40 liters of diesel, 6 dinghy rides, 3 burgers, several scares, autopilot problems, a steam train, an electric train, a horse train (yes, you read it right), a 900cc classic bike, the full TT race track, a giant water wheel, a mine, manx cats, the usual pints, a football match and sailing with dolphins. Thank you Isle of Man for another great adventure.

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