Installing flexible solar panels on our bimini

It’s been over a month since our “big yellow umbilical chord” has been out of it’s locker and used to attach us to shore power. Instead, we now rely on our new solar panels to keep our house batteries topped up. The difference it’s made to our cruising life has been substantial: no more searching for a working power socket when we arrive in a harbour, and no more running the engine (or generator) in order to enjoy a cool beer on a sunny afternoon.

Quite apart from the convenience of it, we’re now saving money by not paying to plug in to shore power, or for diesel to run the generator.

This is how our panels look on a particularly good day at anchor:

Although there’s nothing new about using solar power on a boat, the use of flexible panels on a bimini seems to be less well documented, so I thought I’d write about the choices we made and the approach we took in case it is of use to others.

Assessing our power requirements

Typically, the advice for estimating your power requirements involves creating a spreadsheet which lists all devices on board, their power consumption, and the time they are used for in a 24hr period. From this you can determine a theoretical number of watts (or amp hours) that you will need to generate to meet their needs.

To me, this advice sounds flawed. Can you reliably tell me how many minutes your 7 amp fridge runs in a 24hr period for example? Does your autopilot consume the same power when sailing in rough rather than calm seas? Clearly not.

Instead of adopting the suggested approach, I simply spoke with owners of similar boats which already had solar panels and determined how satisfied they were with them. The general line was “more is better”, but once over 200W most of the people I spoke with felt that they wouldn’t want to be without it.  Given these numbers, we measured the space available and decided to use as much of it as possible. This resulted in us buying 4 x 100W panels (400W in total).

Siting the panels

We don’t have an arch at the back of our boat, and didn’t want to incur the cost (both financially and aesthetically) of having one built and fitted. As we always sail with our bimini up, a bimini mounted solution seemed like a more sensible option for us. A downside of mounting the panels on the bimini rather than an arch would be the increased shading from the ship’s rigging.

Mitigating power loss from shading

Solar panels don’t like shade. Shading a single cell can cause the current running through the whole panel (and hence that panel’s power output) to drop significantly. Furthermore, this current ‘bottleneck’ will limit the current running through any other panels connected in series, affecting the output of the entire array.

To avoid the losses described above, the panels can be wired in parallel. The downside of this approach is that the current increases as more panels are added resulting in power lost as heat, and subsequently more bulky cables are required.

There are many resources on the net explaining the advantages between wiring panels in series or parallel, and to save regurgitating it all, I’ve summarised the key pros and cons:

  • Series, output current remains low and voltage increases as more panels are added:
    • CON: Shading a single panel reduces power produced by all panels.
    • PRO: As current remains low, smaller cable diameters can be used.
    • PRO: Modern MPPT controllers can convert the high voltage back to a usable charge voltage and current.
  • Parallel, voltage remains the same, but current increases as more panels are added:
    • PRO: Shading a single panel will not affect the output of other panels in the array.
    • CON: As currents are high, thicker cables are required to carry same power.

Rather than opting for either of the above schemes when wiring our panels, I came up with a hybrid design that aimed to strike a balance between the efficiency of a series installation, without incurring big losses when the panels would invariably suffer from shading.

My reasoning was that any significant shade from the boom or the mast would fall on either the port or starboard side of the boat, but not both sides at the same time, and in such cases it was important to retain the maximum available output from the unshaded panels.

In the diagram you can see that the port and starboard side pairs of panels are wired in series, and that these each have their own MPPT charge regulator. The regulators (aka controllers) are wired separately (i.e. in parallel) to the house batteries. Note: if you are planing a similar installation, that you must find controllers that can work together in parallel.

This design seems to work well and I’m pleased with the results. When one side of the boat is in shade, the opposite side generates the bulk of the power. Then, as the sun moves, and the shadows go from one side to the other, the previously shaded array becomes more active.

Attaching the panels to the bimini

We used the services of Massimo, the local ‘canvas guy’, to attach the panels to the bimini and he did a first class job. The long sides of the panels are zipped and Velcro’d in place and the short sides are attached with Velcro only. The highest wind we’ve been in so far was just over 30kts and these fixings worked perfectly.

He also stitched cable bags between the panels that we can coil the cables into to keep things tidy.

You can see from the above shot that the boom is fairly close to the bimini. This means that it’s shadow is only cast over the panels when the sun is fairly low. For most of the day, we charge well from both the port and starboard arrays.

What did it cost?

Our choice of equipment has been influenced by us not wanting to install an arch. Flexible panels are more expensive than rigid ones but the gap is closing. If money’s no object and you elect to purchase a well marketed flexible ‘marine’ panel (like Solbian for example) then be prepared to shell out about £700 for a 100W panel. I sourced our panels from a reputable UK dealer for a little over £200 each. The controllers were about £150 each. With shipping to Italy from the UK, the total cost of materials was around £1200. The canvas guy charged us about €400 for the modifications to the bimini.

Finally

If you have any questions or relevant experiences then please get in touch in the comments section below.

 

 

 

 

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Morocco to Ibiza

We’ve finally landed in the Balearics. We’ve covered over 400 miles and it has been a tough couple of weeks getting here. This has been our route:

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(0) El Jebah, (1) Marina del Este, (2) Almerimar, (3) Cartagena, (4) Formentera

We sat out a storm at the anchorage in El Jebah in Morocco before making an overnight passage back to the Spanish mainland. I slept soundly while Helena sailed us in complete darkness through the traffic heading for the Gibraltar straits; by the time I came on watch all the excitement was over and I had a very quiet shift:

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From our landing port at Marina del Este we moved on to Almerimar, a popular marina with British ex-pats and apparently the home of the good old English Breakfast. The smell of English style bacon being fried was too much for me and I gladly found myself gorging on bacon sandwiches at lunch times. I don’t feel too guilty though as I managed to fit in a few quiet morning’s yoga sessions on the aft deck. It’s just the right size to fit a mat on; Hallberg Rassy really do think of everything.

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Almerimar is conveniently close to Granada, so we rented a car for the day and drove to visit the Alhambra, a stunning historic site with a Moorish palace, gardens and a fortress. This was something that had been on my must-do list before leaving England and it was a fantastic day out. The architecture was incredible.

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Almerimar was an easy place to kill time, and we could see why the ex-pats liked it so much. The marina is fringed by dozens of good tapas restaurants and there were chandlers and laundry facilities right on the dockside too.

We ended up spending ten days here waiting for the wind to change direction and, aside from the trip to Granada, we met up with some friends from the Cruising Association and spent time making a sun awning.

Helena taught me how to use her new sewing machine and between us we started to cut and stitch the fabric we’d bought out with us into something that would protect us from the heat of the midday sun.

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Disaster averted!

Taking long strides along the Costa del Sol, our next port was another overnight trip to Cartagena. On this leg, we had a serious problem with our battery bank while miles offshore. We first noticed a horrible smell at around 1:00 am, and tracked it down to the battery box. One of the big lead-acid batteries had started to cook itself. It was hot enough to fry an egg on and there was steam spouting from the screw tops. We immediately vented the cabin (the hydrogen/oxygen mix is very explosive and toxic) and disconnected the battery terminals to prevent any further current being delivered to it. It was still steaming two hours later but had cooled down and was clearly less volatile.

Earlier that night we’d listened to a mayday call from a French couple that had had an explosion on board. They were subsequently rescued from their liferaft by another yacht after a rescue plane spotted their boat in flames. We were thankful that we had dealt with our problem in good time.

Once in Cartagena, we ordered a complete new battery bank and had a local engineer install it and check over our charging systems for us. I apologise for what is probably the dullest photo on our entire blog, but it’s such a relief to have a properly functioning electrical system again; to get a sense of perspective for the size of the batteries, this is all contained under a single berth:

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Our final passage to the Balearics was the longest one of all at over 150 miles. We set off from Cartagena at around noon with high seas and a strong following wind.

We crossed the Greenwich meridian (with a little ceremony to thank Neptune for a safe passage) at 20:30, and finally arrived and dropped our anchor in Formentera the following afternoon at 13:30 hrs. Then we slept… and slept… and slept.

It’s nice to be sailing short trips again and we’ve already managed to find some great anchorages. I expect our next post will be all about our discoveries around the islands, but for now here’s a taste of what we’ve found so far:

And this is the view from our anchorage this evening where I’m sat sipping a whisky and writing this blog:

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The Algarve to Gibraltar

We left Portimao, and some very lovely neighbours, last Wednesday, the 13th May. We headed for the anchorage at Culatra, near Faro, and spent a lazy day there exploring the small fishing town of Armona. The pace of life here seems a million miles away from working in London, there are no cars, sandy streets, and it was fun to watch the fisherman bickering over one too many beers in the afternoon sun.

IMG_0704We were treated to another colourful sunset there that night:

IMG_0723The next morning we were up early and headed out just as the sun was rising and headed for the river Guardiana, that separates Portugal from Spain.

We’d been looking forward to exploring the river, but when we got there the wind was up and with it the waves. Given that we have a 2 meter draft and that there’s a sandbank running across the river entrance with a clearance of just 2 meters in places, we thought it a little too dangerous to enter given the state of the sea.

Instead we pushed on another 15 or so miles and headed to Mazagon, switching our courtesy flag to reflect our change from Portuguese to Spanish waters:

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Mazagon turned out to be an economical (just €20) but fairly bland marina to spend the night, so in the morning we headed out to sea again and on towards Rota.

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Rota was a real highlight for us. We loved exploring the winding streets of the old town. They offered shade from the sunshine, good places to eat and something of interest around every corner.

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To cope with the heat, the buildings have a heavy wooden outer door that leads to a shaded courtyard or entrance lobby. I found them beautiful and fascinating and couldn’t help but poke my camera lens into a few of them:

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Our dilemma in Rota was whether to stay or move on. In order to get into the Med, we would need to pass the straits of Gibraltar. This meant waiting for a suitable weather window that would allow us to pass one of the worlds windiest places at the southern most tip of Europe: Tarifa. The Wind in Tarifa is said to blow over 30 knots for 300 days of the year. It is impossible to take a sail boat through this pinch-point into the Med unless the wind is with you, or you pick one of the remaining 65 days of the year when the wind isn’t so strong.

All the forecasts we read indicated that there was only one day in the next week that would allow us to enter the Mediterranean; in two days time. If we didn’t get to Tarifa for this day, then we’d have to wait for at least a week before we could leave. As lovely as Rota was, and as close as it is to Cadiz (another place we wanted to see), we decided to push on again and head for Barbate, and then on to Gibraltar.

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Gibraltar doesn’t have much to offer in the way of beautiful architecture, or atmosphere. However, on the plus side, there’s a Morrisons here and a litre of diesel costs just 44 pence. So we’ve filled our galley with all the foods we miss from home, and our diesel tanks are now filled to the brim too.

Time to move on again! Where to next?

We’re back in the water

This year we’ve carried out some significant maintenance works on Amalia while she was on the hard. The engine has had a through overhaul with crankshaft seals replaced, and a sea-water pump rebuild.

There was some play in the prop shaft at the end of last season, so we’ve had that stripped out and the cutlass bearing replaced. While they were at it, Bluewater Algarve also dropped the rudder and have replaced the bearings in that too. The whole transmission system is now rock solid and felt great as we motored from the yard to the marina.

More visibly, Bluewater Algarve have anti-fouled the undersides and have polished the hull for us too. The results are excellent:

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In true Portuguese fashion, our 11am slot with the crane overran. The problem with this is that the wind in the Algarve generally picks up later in the day. When we finally relaunched, there was a strong crosswind and we needed help of a couple of burly yard-hands on the end of some strategically placed ropes to keep us from getting blown around.

Once afloat, the travel-lift operator managed to skilfully catch the bottom of our keel with one of the slings and drew us as far forward as possible before finally releasing us.

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We opted to clean the topsides ourselves and were faced with some pretty nasty boatyard grime. No amount of scrubbing would have got this off, so we used a light cutting compound:

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And after a lot of polishing, Amalia is looking more like her old self again:

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In addition to all the scrubbing, we’ve had time to get the running rigging and sails back on, we’ve checked all electrical systems, updated the charts, inspected the anchor and chain, and I’ve been working on installing a permanent WiFi booster (more on this in a later blog).

We fly back home later this week and will return at the start of May to start our summer cruise towards the Mediterranean. We can’t wait!

If you’d like to keep up to date with how we’re getting on, then take a look at our Facebook page.

The Spanish Rias

It’s hard to believe that we’ve been in Spain for three weeks already, so I’ll keep this blog entry brief and let the photos do the talking.

After crossing Biscay and arriving in Ria de Vivero, we stopped overnight at Ria de Cedeira as we travelled west back along the coast to La Coruna, our originally intended port of arrival in Spain. I’d been to La Coruna earlier in the year as part of a delivery crew, so it was nice to be able to spend a few days getting to know the city rather than dashing straight off to the airport to catch a flight back to the UK.

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From La Coruna, we rounded Cape Finisterre, and headed down towards the southern rias. Finisterre is another feared headland which has claimed many ships in the past but the conditions were ideal when we passed it:

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Heading south we visited Corme, Camarinas, Muros and Portisin. On the sail from Muros to Portisin we fished for mackerel and managed to get our supper for the evening.

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This area of Spain is where the Spanish spend their holidays and I’ve not heard a word of English spoken anywhere – they’ve managed to keep  this charming area a well guarded secret. One of the highlights for us was the old town in Combarro, a beautifully preserved traditional fishing village:

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From Combarro, we stopped at Ria Alden (a lovely anchorage) before heading down to The Atlantic Islands of Galicia National Park where we spent a few days anchored off a white sand beach, and took long walks through forested hills:

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We are now in Bayona, yet another charming Spanish city and just a few miles north of the national park, enjoying more Albarino wines and great seafood. We will depart to cross the border into Portugal later today.

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Port hopping along the north French coast

It feels like we’ve been on the move for ages already, but I’ve not found the time to sit and write anything. Now that we’re just about ready to set off on the longest leg of our trip this summer it feels right to mark the occasion with a blog update. Tomorrow we will spend our last night in France before setting off across Biscay for Spain. If the winds are kind to us, we will be there after three days, in time for the weekend.

After arriving at Boulogne last week, we’ve moved westward along the French coast stopping at Dieppe and Fecamp before arriving at our favourite stop: Honfleur.

Living in Kent, we are used to pretty medieval towns, but have never seen anywhere quite as well preserved as Honfleur. Street after street of pretty buildings and alleyways.

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We arrived on the 21st June, the summer solstice, and moored up alongside the town quay (that’s us there in the middle):

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That night we joined our friends Robin and Claire, who have sailed along with us in their boat from Ramsgate, and enjoyed good food, live music (it turns out the French know how to play blues rock pretty well) and packed streets:

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We have spent the past few days exploring the Channel Islands, and are now in Jersey where we have picked up Maarten who will be crewing with us across Biscay.

Leaving England

We’re finally under way on our summer cruise to Portugal!

We set off at 7am from Ramsgate to catch the ebb tide in the English Channel, expecting strong wind and currents to take us south past Dover and Calais to our first destination: Boulogne Sur Mer.

And what a great day’s sailing we enjoyed. A solid F5 the whole way with wind speeds of around 20 kts and a current of almost 3 kts helping us along as we dodged the ferries outside of Dover harbour.

Our guests clearly enjoyed the trip. Patrice and his son, Ariel, were on board and at one point I though I might need a crow bar to get them off the helm. The autopilot didn’t get used at all but I expect this will change now that it’s just me and Helena on board again.

Patrice treated us all to some fabulous French cuisine at La Matelote which overlooks the beach in the evening. This morning he and Ariel left to catch a train back to Calais, and from there on to home in London.

Today, Helena and I have explored Boulogne. The heart of the town is a pretty medieval walled city with tight cobbled streets:

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Some of the shops were of particular interest for Helena:

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Tomorrow we will set off towards Dieppe where we hope to meet up with friends who are travelling towards the Channel Islands in their boat.

The Cornish Coast

We arrived in Penzance from the Scilly Isles on the 29th August and from there we sailed the next day around Lizard Point to meet my Dad in Falmouth. We spent a lovely evening there sampling yet more fish and chips and later, the delicious local beers.

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The next day turned out to be a day for reacquainting with old friends from Uni. We shared tea and biscuits on board with John Salter and his parter Claire before setting sail for Fowey.  After a windy sail, we arrived in Fowey, and I received a FB message from Ian Utting and Sally Fincher who spotted us arriving in the harbour from the flat they rent there each summer. We joined them for drinks later in the evening, and they showed us around. It was a pretty impressive place, and even had its own landing jetty for us to moor the dinghy on.

We then set off for Cawsand Bay, in the entrance to Plymouth harbour, a major naval base. Along the way we tried our luck at fishing and once again, caught a couple of great looking pollock for the pot.

We spent the evening on anchor in the bay watching the warships coming and going, before settling in for the night.

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My Dad had seemed to bring the wind with him, as we enjoyed a third successive day sailing on to Salcombe. Helena and I came here when we first chartered a yacht years ago. It was lovely to return to somewhere that we had great memories of only to have them reinforced the second time around. The mooring fees were reasonable, the harbour staff friendly, and as we were nearer the end of the season than on our last visit, the place was just a little less crowded and all the better for it too.

Our second guest for the week, Rob, joined us in Salcombe and we continued on to Dartmouth the next day. Rob, spurred on by my dad’s success with fishing, spent a fruitless day trying to catch us something for dinner – luckily we had meatballs on board so we didn’t go hungry. I guess he could have tried blaming it on the sunstroke that had caused him to collapse exhausted on the sofa that evening but I have proof that this was all faked:

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After being teased endlessly by my dad for being a crap fisherman, Rob gave it another go the next day as we headed for Lyme Regis. This time, with a change of lures, he managed to hook in nine small mackerel that we fried and ate with a fresh salad for dinner that night. Even Buxton seemed impressed:

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The last day’s sailing for this week was around Portland Bill and The Portland Race, a notorious stretch of water – this comment is straight out of the Shell Channel Pilot book and had what I expect is the intended effect on this reader:

Portland Race is the most dangerous extended area of broken water in the English Channel. Quite substantial vessels drawn in to it have been known to disappear without a trace.

After a lengthy study of the area’s tidal charts, some very careful planning, a full crew briefing, and a dose of seasickness tablets for all on board we set off to round Portland Bill. It would take us around four hours to get there, which should coincide with slack water. Our plan was to head further offshore if the conditions looked too rough. As it turned out, we needn’t have worried as the waters were benign enough for us to head much closer inshore than we had initially expected and we had a great view of Portland Bill as we rounded its southernmost point:

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I’m currently sat in what seems like a much bigger, and a significantly quieter boat writing this blog. I ferried Rob and my dad ashore in the dinghy earlier this morning, and they’ll make their respective ways home from there.

Helena and I are now planning the remaining week or so of our journey. We will be in the Solent area getting a few maintenance jobs completed on the boat for the next few days. We will then head on along the south coast to our home port of Ramsgate to complete our circumnavigation some time towards the end of next week.

I think we both have quite mixed emotions right now. It’s a great feeling to be on the home straight, but its equally sad to think that this fantastic journey must soon come to an end.

Learning to fish, and the Isles of Scilly

We left Ireland on Sunday the 25th August and took on our last long passage of our circumnavigation, across the Irish Sea. The forecast was for a decent breeze, but the sea conditions were set to be moderate/rough.

The first day went well and we tried out our new fishing gear as we passed the small islands just outside Kilmore Quay. I reeled in the first pollock, and then Helena caught the (marginally more impressive) second:

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Later in the day we were followed by dozens of dolphins. They came racing over to us before playing across our bows. At one point we had three or four groups join us like this all from different directions and, although impossible to count, we estimate that there were between thirty and forty dolphins zipping around the boat all together at one point.

As the evening closed in and we were getting further offshore, the direction of the waves changed entirely and they became much bigger, hitting us across our rear quarter. The wind was also coming from directly behind us which, in combination with the waves made it virtually impossible to sail. To maintain our course we ran the engine through the night and took our three hour watches in turn. The clear skies allowed the bright moon to light the surreal watery landscape around us; it was a beautiful and quite humbling scene.

In the morning, as we approached Scilly, I sailed in slightly calmer seas while Helena slept under Buxton’s watchful eye:

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Scilly is a stunningly beautiful group of islands about 20 miles south west of Cornwall. I took this photo just as we were arriving at the entrance to New Grimsby Sound on the north side of Tresco, it was tricky to make out the entrance between the rocks:

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We’d been joined on deck by a small fish that must have decided that he’d had enough of the Irish Sea and that life on board with us would be better. Buxton wasn’t too impressed and didn’t seem to know what to make of a meal that hadn’t come out of a packet:

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We spent three nights at anchor in the Scillies (there are no marinas), and moved from one stunning location to the next each day. This is us anchored in Old Grimsby Sound, where we spent the second night:

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Sadly there wasn’t enough wind to kitesurf but I did dust off the kites and have a play on the white sandy beach that you can see in the background. Another few knots of wind and this would have been just about the most perfect kitesurf spot imaginable.

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The last night was spent alone in a very remote anchorage. There were no other boats there and absolutely no light pollution which, combined with a perfectly clear sky, meant that the view of the heavens was incredible and we could clearly make out the Milky Way.

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This morning we set off to find another anchorage. As we worked our way around the north side of the islands, we realised that the sea was flat, and that the wind direction was good for a crossing back to the mainland. With Cornwall clearly in sight the temptation to take advantage of the good conditions won us over and we changed course for Penzance. We are now at anchor just outside the harbour there, in sight of St Michaels Mount.

Tomorrow we will round Lizard Point and head for Falmouth where we’ve arranged to collect my Dad. He’ll be joining us for a few day’s as we head along Cornwall’s Jurassic coast.

If you’d like to see more photos from our circumnavigation, then take a look at our Facebook page

Buxton disappears again!

Once again there was panic on board this morning as we couldn’t find Buxton!

We’d spent the night at anchor outside Rosslare, a busy ferry terminal, so there was no pontoon for him to escape on. If he wasn’t on board, it could mean only one thing: he was away with the fishes!

I’d seen him in the night when I’d got up to silence a few things  that were bumping around as the boat rolled in the wake from the ferries, but in the morning when I got up it was just like Lossiemouth all over again and he was nowhere to be seen. We searched in all the cabins, and the heads, and under the table where he generally hides himself away. The port holes were barely open so we couldn’t see how he could have managed to even get out on deck but we still searched the topsides anyway.

Then we thought we heard the jingle of his collar. Sure enough, it led us to him. He’d managed to climb into one of the cupboards I’d opened in the night to fix a rattle. I’d closed it again in the morning inadvertently shutting him inside:

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So, a short panic and a false alarm. Thank goodness.