Sea not slippers for octogenarian Paul

FOR a man who describes himself as a natural coward, Paul Packwood seems to tackle life's challenges head-on and emerge the other side with a smile on his face.

FOR a man who describes himself as a natural coward, Paul Packwood seems to tackle life's challenges head-on and emerge the other side with a smile on his face.

When folk started wondering out loud if it were time he gave up this sailing lark, it got him thinking. Throw in news of a maritime celebration off Southsea to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, a festival that would be fun to witness first-hand, and a plan began to form.

With his 81th birthday on the horizon, he would sail alone down the River Orwell in his 18ft estuary cruiser Plover, run parallel with the south coast of England - taking in those Trafalgar celebrations - turn at Land's End, travel up the Bristol Channel, and return to Ipswich via the Kennet and Avon Canal and the River Thames.

And, by golly, he did it. Most of it went swimmingly - much to his surprise, he now confesses! - but there were moments of drama on the high seas. Technology did its worst: his echo sounder packed up, making it hard to gauge the depth of water, and gremlins affected his satellite positioning gadgetry. From time to time his petrol engine also went on the blink.

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One day, slightly unsure of his exact position because of fog around Bognor Regis, Paul sailed close to a tall metal beacon at about 6mph. As he drew level there was “an almighty metallic clang” and Plover stopped dead. Paul, standing in the cockpit, was thrown into the cabin. He suffered two gashes in his forehead, the blood staunched by a tea-towel, but luckily his glasses remained intact on the floor.

More crucially, there was no seawater gushing in beneath the floorboards. (Plover, more than 50 years old, is made of marine ply, not the more modern fibreglass.)

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He was able to continue but the collision, probably with some kind of submerged concrete object, broke his right thumb. It would later be diagnosed at Haslar Naval Hospital, near Gosport, and the displaced end manipulated back into line under local anaesthetic.

Mini-drama number two came one morning off the northern coast of Cornwall. High winds and choppy seas were forecast, and Paul was caught almost literally between a rock and a hard place. He had no maritime charts for the passage beyond Hartland Point but knew few ports of refuge lay ahead. If he turned back, however, he would be sailing against the tide and in increasingly poor conditions. And he also wasn't sure he could find the entrance to Padstow.

Paul decided to take advice from the coastguard, but got only interference on his radio. He decided to turn back.

Conditions were “bouncy”. The outboard motor was not happy in the heavy swell when the stern was lifted almost clear of the water. The skipper was therefore happy to see the “marvellous” Padstow lifeboat appear through the spray and offer to tow him to port - a trip that took five-and-a-half hours. (Paul learned later that the shorewatch organisation had monitored his attempts to contact the coastguard, thought he might need assistance as the sea was “lumpy” and daylight wasn't finite, and alerted the lifeboat.)

Such moments of concern were unusual, though, as Paul's chronicle of the 58-day cruise in the summer of 2005 - The Thumbnail Circumnavigation - makes clear. Considering the numerous variables that could go awry, things went very smoothly.

It was, he reflects, an enjoyable adventure. “It's a dream I had for yonks. I'm delighted I was able to do it; surprised as well.”

Really? “Oh yes. I'm not a betting person, but if you had asked me before I set off, I'd have assessed my chances at 30:70 of doing that trip. I was lucky with the weather; on the outward trip especially. So, doing it - and getting back to Ipswich without mucking up our birthday plans - was terrific.”

Those plans involved a joint celebration with his wife to mark the fact they were both official octogenarians.

Margot, he says, is a very good sailor, but her interest in taking to the water waned when their three children were young. Boating became a pastime Paul enjoyed mainly on his own.

He says his good lady doesn't worry about him as much as she used to. “She doesn't approve, really, but on the other hand she doesn't try to stop me any more,” he laughs. “I think she realises that, deep down, I'm going to come back and I'm not going to be absolutely stupid. I mean, if the worst that happens to you is that you break a finger, well, so what? You can do that in your own garden!”

The worst moment on his trip was probably that sudden halt. “It could happen to anybody. I've been a lot closer to a lot of other things without coming to grief like that. And I still don't know exactly what it was: obviously some kind of concrete obstruction.”

With regard to that other slight wobble, off Cornwall, he'd have been all right, wouldn't he, even if the lifeboat hadn't turned up - or is it too hard to say?

“Yes, it is difficult to tell. I should have been all right. I had no intention of sailing at night in the Bristol Channel, so the reason I turned back was that I'd have the tide with me. With the fuel I had, I thought that should get me back to Padstow before nightfall.”

Plover wasn't really built for heavy seas, but was “quite adequate for the job”, so he didn't have serious qualms when hatching his plan. “I didn't deliberately set out to sail in bad weather, though sometimes bad weather caught me out. I'm not mad, or at least I don't think I am! You plan your trip. But boating really, even with modern aids, is a fairly complicated business and it's fairly easy to get caught out and make mistakes, and get lost. You never know what's going to happen.”

Is there time to think about the enormity of the task when you're out there, alone? He'd circumnavigated East Anglia in the past, but this voyage took him further west than ever before, and was literally uncharted territory at some points. Did he ever feel frightened?

“Not scared, but worried! 'Am I doing the right thing? Have I got enough fuel? Am I going the right way! I wish I could see properly but I've got all this damn drizzle on my glasses!' You're a worried man when conditions are not ideal.

“All the time - and I suppose this is one of the attractions of sailing as a pastime - you're faced with decision-making. No matter how bright the sun is, or how calm the water is, and even how familiar you are with the location, you can never relax for very long. So all the time you have got a little nagging feeling; and that gets much greater, of course, when it gets a bit rough and you don't know the area.”

Paul admits the angle about him being past his nautical sell-by date was “a bit tongue in cheek and slightly exaggerated”, but there was truth behind it: a combination of good-natured leg-pulling and some people's genuine belief that he ought to be mooring for the last time.

“But I didn't use the trip to prove anything,” he smiles. Sounds like he did it because he fancied the challenge and wanted to witness the Trafalgar celebrations. “Exactly!”

Next up is a date at the London Boat Show to sign copies of his book. Publisher Seafarer has a fine stable of writers, he says, and he's tickled pink at metaphorically hobnobbin' with them.

Plover, the boat he's had since early 1988, is resting in the front garden of his Ipswich home: adorned by Christmas lights. Are the pair of them likely to embark on a great adventure this year?

“I would like to get across to the Channel Islands or, if the winds are going to be persistently the other way, go to Holland and do a round trip there.” The only fly in the ointment would be the requirement for a single-handed crossing at night - not an enticing prospect among all the shipping.

“I may have to content myself with going to the Channel Islands, on to Calais, and crossing back that way. But if I do that I will still be like a dog with two tails!”

(The Thumbnail Navigation is published by Seafarer Books at £8.95. ISBN 978 0 9550243 4 4)

PAUL Packwood's “thumbnail circumnavigation” is but the latest chapter in a life neither dull nor predictable.

He was born in Bristol in 1924 but wasn't very old when his family moved to Ipswich. During demob leave he took a course at the Ipswich School of Commerce and met his future wife there.

Paul finished his degree in Walthamstow, married Margot, and then they were off on a three-year honeymoon, backpacking. When they returned in 1950, virtually all they owned was in their rucksacks. They lived in digs in London and for nine months Paul couldn't get a job. Then a chance popped up in the youth service in Dagenham.

“The idea appealed to me, apart from the fact I was working nearly every night.” It was also a fair hike from their home in Lewisham - a journey Paul undertook by motorbike, through the Blackwall tunnel or on the Woolwich ferry.

Unfortunately, the job fell prey to cuts in the service after a couple of years. Paul went back to college, gained a PGCE and taught in Wimbledon for nine years: economics, commerce and social studies.

He quite enjoyed it. It was a running staffroom joke that if “Pack” was in school, the blinds were down - because he was always showing films - and if they were up, he was out on a visit. “And that really was my attitude to teaching. I wasn't a born teacher, really, and I used to hate the marking! We were living on boats and I wasn't interested in marking loads of homework!”

Ah, yes: boats.

For about nine years, from 1956 or so, the Packwoods lived on a series of vessels. They could afford only a caravan or a boat, and didn't fancy the former. In Brentford dock, sitting in black water, was the beginning of a 20ft houseboat. They bought it for £60. There was head-room for 16 of the 20 feet, “but then only if you stood in the middle”. The couple moved it to Terrace Gardens, Hampton, lived on it for more than three years “and had the time of our lives”.

It was 6ft wide. If you lay in bed and put your arms out, you could just about touch the walls on each side. “Although it was tiny, if you looked out of the windows you had lovely long-distance views. It was like living in an observatory, with ducks and swans nibbling along the banks.”

The Packwoods were living on boats when both their daughters were born.

Following the death of his father, Paul moved back to Ipswich in 1965 and took over his parents' house not far from Rushmere Heath.

He got a job in the youth service at what is now Holywells school. Following a merger, the vacated Nacton Road girls' school premises were transformed into the Murrayside Club. It opened in 1971 and Paul was its first leader. The club established a reputation as a vibrant centre, mainly for older teenagers - including holding Friday night gatherings for punks! He was there until he retired.

What's the appeal of sailing?

“Well, there are so many things. I've always liked exploring. When I was a kid, I used to cycle all around, poking my nose in here, there and everywhere. And there's a lot of challenge in moving a boat where you want it to go. There's the helpfulness of other boating types. When you're on the water, there's a sense of fraternity, which is lovely.

“And I suppose there's a sense of achievement. I'm quite happy with my own company. When I'm on board I live very simply; I'm not a good cook - I just open a few tins and heat up the contents. Almost anything tastes good with a glass of wine when you're sailing!”

Cruise news

Length of voyage: 58 days

Days lost because of weather: 13

Hours under sail: 21

Motor-sailing: 56 hours

Motoring in rivers and canals: 77 hours

Motoring off coast: 128 hours

Cost: £903, including £215 for 240 litres of petrol and oil, and £228 for boar repairs and charts

Paul Packwood's boat, Plover, is thought to be the last surviving example of its type. The Seatrekker was an estuary cruiser designed by CR Holman, of West Mersea, near Colchester, and produced by Wrights of Ipswich.

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