Displaying items by tag: Garry Crothers
When Garry Crothers (64) of Lough Swilly YC brought his Ovni 435 Kind of Blue into her berth in Foyle Marina in the heart of the City of Derry this (Saturday) afternoon at 1520 hrs, it marked the completion of an extraordinary adventure which had started as the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown fell suddenly into place in the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten in early May.
He is one-armed as the consequence of a motorbike accident in 2007, and though he had managed short single-handed passages, he was reliant on crew flying into the shared Dutch/French island to help him sail home the 3,500 miles to Ireland. The rapid spread of the pandemic to central America and the Pacific islands beyond had completely closed off his long-distance cruising plans there, and with the Lockdown in the Caribbean being imposed with increasing severity and indefinite length, his only options were either to sail the boat home with a crew, or to lay up with the limited facilities in Sint Maarten, and fly home himself.
But events moved so quickly that although the Transatlantic crew of his friend Ken Curry and his daughter Amy – with whom he’d made the east-west crossing in 2018 – had their flights booked, those flights were cancelled, while any fly-home options he personally might have immediately disappeared as well. It became increasingly likely that Garry – in a special at-risk category himself if the disease spread in its most vigorous form into the island – might spend months in total isolation on the boat in Sint Maarten.
The only way out was to sail for home alone, and he departed on June 1st for a difficult and often frustrating crossing. The Atlantic winds have been in a truculent mood, and it was only when he’d got to the northwest of the Azores that he made significantly good progress in winds from the westerly arc.
In this vid below, Garry demonstrates his one-armed skills for the Bangor RNLI bowline-tying competition - he found the time to do this while coming to grips with the totality of his predicament in the Caribbean.
Even then, the wind conditions were frequently unstable, which would have been a challenge for any able-bodied solo sailor, but for someone with one arm it was diabolical at times. Yet despite that, he retained his sense of humour, and his dogged progress towards northwest Ireland has been a source of inspiration and admiration for many, and a very absorbing distraction from the petty problems of Lockdown at home.
Yet he remained largely unaware of this, and when he was given a friendly and informed greeting by an Irish naval patrol vessel off the coast of Connacht on Wednesday, not only was he delighted to hear another human voice for the first time in 30 days, but he was astonished that everyone on board seemed to know all about him.
The level of welcome escalated as he progressed around the coast and into more familiar waters, taking the passage through Tory Sound while exchanging text messages with Alex Blackwell of the Ocean Cruising Club, who has been monitoring from his base in Clew Bay the progress of the OCC’s Atlantic fleet as the vessels displaced from the Caribbean head for the US, Canadian and European ports.
Off Lough Swilly yesterday (Friday) evening, a welcoming crew of his fellow Lough Swilly YC members came out in a big RIB (appropriately-named Slainte) from their base at Fahan, and provided him with a welcome-home hamper of Guinness, fresh wheaten bread, Kerrygold butter, Tayto crisps, fresh fruit and a bottle of whiskey. But tempting and all as it was to turn to starboard and head up Lough Swilly, Kind of Blue was committed to heading on round Malin Head and past Inishtrahull through the night to make her number this morning off Greencastle at the entrance to Lough Foyle where Foyle Sailability – with which Garry is much involved – have their sea base.
From there he had to complete the voyage with an accompanying flotilla for the passage today up the home waters of Lough Foyle, and now finally Kind of Blue is in port, the welcome is heartfelt, the remarkable Crothers family are united again, and Garry Crothers is very deservedly our “Sailor of the Month (Offshore)” for June
Garry Crothers, the indomitable 64-year-old one-armed solo sailor from Lough Swilly Yacht Club, hopes to get back to his Lough Foyle berth in Derry on Saturday after completing his Coronavirus Lockdown-enforced 3,500 mile marathon from the Caribbean in his Ovni 435 Kind of Blue.
This morning (Thursday) he is enjoying pleasant conditions as Kind of Blue passes the coast of Connacht far offshore, but as the day draws on the weather will deteriorate from the west, although the winds will at least remain in a favourable direction. While every attempt to comply with social-distancing restrictions will be in place at Foyle Marina as he reaches home, it is going to be a very emotional moment for his family and friends and many supporters when Kind of Blue comes up the River Foyle at the conclusion of this remarkable achievement.
Garry Crothers (64), of Lough Swilly Yacht Club and Foyle Sailability, was making good progress this (Monday) morning, with a speed of 6.6 knots in the right direction on his Ovni 435 Kind of Blue, taking steady chunks out of the 500 miles which now remain between the one-armed solo sailor and his home port of Derry.
Having been left marooned and alone in the Dutch island of Sint Maarten after the coronavirus-cancellation of scheduled flights which were to bring his daughter Amy and regular shipmate Ken Curry out to help him sail home to Lough Foyle, he was faced with either shutting down in isolation for an indefinite period in the island - a hazardous proposition as his age makes him high risk in relation to the pandemic – or else making the mighty effort to sail home alone. This was despite his one-armed status as a result of a motorbike accident in 2007, and it would involve lone voyaging all the way from the sub-tropical Caribbean to the still distinctly chilly and stormy North Atlantic in the approaches to northwest Ireland.
Having departed on June 1st, his progress was closely monitored through the Ocean Cruising Club’s routing and tracking service being provided by OCC Vice Commodore Daria Blackwell and her husband, Rear Commodore Alex Blackwell, from their base at Port Aleria on Clew Bay in Mayo.
As well, his many friends in Lough Swilly YC and Foyle Sailability have been ready with advice on technical backup when any problems arise, the most recent being a day ago as Kind of Blue reached the edge of the unseasonably cold weather which we in Ireland have been feeling acutely. The Eberspacher heater wouldn’t start, but Ken Curry was immediately in touch with heater ace Cian McAllister on Foyleside, and Garry being no slouch on technical matters himself, they soon had welcome warmth filling the boat.
Yesterday the forecasts for the final approaches to Donegal were so bad for later this week that Garry for a while was contemplating making his final approach around the east of Ireland. But fortunately, the meteorological expectations are looking slightly more optimistic now, and while it isn’t going to be summery by any means, Plan A of coming in past Tory Island and Malin Head is back in place.
It’s a heroic feat of sailing which can be followed here on the OCC Tracking system here
An overview of the system reveals the number of ocean-voyaging boats which Daria and Alex Blackwell have been monitoring and helping for the past two months and more with a supportive dedication which made them our popular “Sailors of the Month” for May. Several of them are Irish boats which were heading for sanctuary in either the Azores or back home in Ireland, on voyages which became increasingly urgent as the COVID-19 Pandemic took hold in Central America, the Caribbean and the southern states of the US on such a scale that restrictions and potential infection could be in place for many months.
People go off on long ocean cruises and the live-aboard life for many reasons, but if asked to sum up why they pursue their carefree nomadic existence with such dedication and enthusiasm, they’ll say they do it to “get away from it all”.
By “all” they mean modern life in its most demanding and disagreeable forms of crowded schedules and busy cities and traffic jams, with the noise and being stuck in the grimy day-to-day rut – the lot, in fact. Yet the irony is that in order to achieve the cruising dream, the complete structure of the modern world has to be in place to make it possible. In other words, you can’t get away from it all, unless “all” is always there, and fully functional in the first place.
So although most people regard the sometimes difficult experience of modern air travel as a mixed blessing, the remote ocean cruisers rely on a worldwide airline network in order to effect occasional crew changes, and sometimes get themselves home to handle the inevitable extended family situations which arise from time to time.
Then too, like many others while they abhor the incessant babble of 24/7 communication, most of them prove to be remarkably sophisticated in using some very advanced communication systems to keep in touch when they want, which is at a time of their choosing. And equally, they rely on an advanced society ashore which will provide them with accurate weather predictions and competent technical services when they come into port, when they will of course immediately plug into shore power in order to keep their multiple on-board systems functioning.
In other words, when the going is good, they’re getting the best of both worlds, slotting into the nearest outlet of a modern society for complex services when required, and then freely sailing away to some palm-fringed lagoon when the need for escapism and the “simple” life overtakes them. It sounds idyllic, but it takes a lot of planning and dedication and a steady level of quiet vigilance and sound management – plus a very large helping of good seamanship and technical expertise - to keep such shows on the road, and no-one would begrudge the ocean wanderers their success in achieving the dream.
Yet behind its successful achievement, there is this need for a functioning, efficient and civilized society in each port they visit, particularly when it’s a major port and they’re checking-into a new jurisdiction. For several decades now this has been the case in much of the world, so much so with long-distance cruising boats being made welcome almost everywhere that pessimists began to feel that it was maybe just all too good to be true.
If we wait long enough, the pessimistic view will eventually be fulfilled, even if only for a limited period. And the adverse effect of the global COVID-19 lockdowns on many ocean cruising projects has been a classic case in point, underlining the ultimate fragility of the civilised world system on which the free pursuit of the voyaging dream depended.
Thus boats in the Caribbean which had a global circumnavigation in mind immediately had their dream cut off by the virulent shut-down of Central America and the Panama Canal with it. The area has been so badly hit that the system may take years to return to anything remotely approaching normal. Yet then they found that the friendly Caribbean itself was no longer friendly, with fearful little island nations imposing lockdowns which made any free cruising impossible. And while it was an option to try laying the boat up locally and get one of the rapidly-reducing flights home to Europe, these options soon closed off, and the only choice was to sail home Transatlantic unless you were prepared to spend an undefined time – probably many months – in virtual isolation while discovering that an island Paradises can become an island Hell.
Bill Forde of Cork Harbour
For those who had got well into the Pacific, the circumstances were even more extreme. Either you got yourself very quickly to a larger island with proper boatyard or cyclone-proof marina facilities (if such a thing exists) and then managed to fly home, or else you were a stranger in an increasingly strange land, facing virtual solitary confinement for an alarmingly indefinite period.
Very quickly, the traditional and formerly almost quaint view that there’s no place like home became the motto for many of the ocean cruising community. The way that COVID-19 is spreading, erupting alarmingly just when over-confident authorities had declared it conquered, made any longterm cruising plans impossible, as rumours circulated about serious yet hidden outbreaks at some of the most popular world cruising areas.
Being alone or with a few chosen shipmates wandering among remote islands no longer seemed a special private delight. On the contrary, it became hyper-vulnerable isolation, your fate a matter of indifference to officials whose first and virtually continuous concern was with the well-being of their own community and nation, with a new range of rigidly obeyed and implemented hyper-strict regulations imposed from on high.
Sensing that this was on the way, experienced voyager Bill Forde of Cork – who sailed away into the wide blue yonder with his Beneteau 44cc Cajucito in 2016 such that she is now in the southwest Pacific – made the arrangements to lay up his boat in a proper boatyard in the well-run French territory of New Caledonia in a timely manner, and flew home to Ireland.
It wasn’t quite a “last helicopter out of Saigon” experience, but subsequent communication with friends who missed getting away have confirmed that an imposed and confined stay of indeterminate length in New Caledonia reduces the island’s charms to just about zero. However, Bill does hope that with the close attention and care the French give to their overseas territories, he will be able to rejoin Cajucito in September.
Another Irish voyager came within the Blackwell’s OCC Atlantic remit - this was Eamonn Washington from Wexford, with his Amel Super Maramu 53 ketch Travel Bug. He has been at the long-distance sailing for years now, but his exit from the Caribbean was brisk as the pandemic loomed – he sailed single-handed down the islands to Martinique to pick up two crew, then they went swiftly to Guadeloupe for two more, then with five on board Travel Bug headed rapidly for Ireland, and having checked in at Castletownbere close ahead of a gale, the boat is now in peace and seclusion in Lawrence Cove.
Both Ireland and the Azores became highly-desirable destinations with everything in the Caribbean starting to shut down completely, and many followed the track of the Quinlan-Owens family from Galway Bay as they struggled from Antigua on their 39ft ketch Danu of Galway with light winds – often from ahead – to reach the Azores, where the pandemic was being kept well under control to the point of local eradication. When they finally arrived, thanks to what Vera describes with refreshing candour as a bit of the “Galway Gab,” Danu became the first boat in Horta to be given complete pratique to sail freely among the now Covid-free islands.
While light winds plagued Danu in the final stages of reaching the promised land, this doesn’t seem too likely a scenario for Garry Crothers and Kind of Blue as they close in one the familiar coast of Donegal. But in the current very unsettled spell of weather, all things are possible. Yet even if calm does arrive unexpectedly, they’ve enough fuel on board to motor the rest of the way. But whatever way they get there, there’ll be the father and mother of a welcome when Kind of Blue comes up the Foyle and into her home port to complete a really remarkable achievement.
If this year had gone anything like according to plan, today (Saturday) would be seeing the SSE Renewables Round Ireland Race from Wicklow getting going, with Afloat.ie providing a list of riders and runners in this column today, while getting ourselves geared up to bring you regular updates as the race progresses. And meanwhile, one-armed sailor Garry Crothers would either be cruising in the Pacific in his Ovni 435 with a minimum crew of two, or taking his departure from the Azores with his old friend Ken Curry and his daughter Amy to sail his boat Kind of Blue home to either Lough Swilly or Lough Foyle in northwest Ireland.
Yet instead, thanks to COVID-19, we’re all in semi-limbo, just hoping that the Round Ireland will still be sailed on its postponed date of 22nd August. And certainly, the entries are rolling in with vigour (44 at the last count), as it’s northwest Europe’s last best hope of a decent offshore race of international standards in 2020.
But the public health situation in face of the pandemic requires constant monitoring, and while it’s looking good for those Irish sailing pillar events that have been put back to late August and September, the sailing community are sufficiently mature to realize that this late-season 2020 programme is still very contingent on certain positive trends being steadily maintained.
That said, this weekend’s forecast of distinctly unsummery and sometimes very windy weather may well make some would-be Round Ireland crews grateful for the two-month postponement.
Yet while we wait, with sailing as we have known it for centuries, with its lively mix of sport afloat and intense socialising ashore very much on hold, our sport is gradually returning in muted form while complying with socially-distancing and limited contact bubble group requirements to make it possible.
At the local heart of it, the timeless solo-raced Laser – now 51 years old, and as good-looking as ever – has played a key role at club and sailing school level, so much so that when they got controlled sailing going at Greystones with 37 boats first time out using the full width of the in-harbour beach-and-ramp for distance-complying launching, the abiding impression was of “an explosion of Lasers”.
It’s all part of a gradual return to what might not be sailing normality for a full year, or even more, yet it’s definitely sailing of a sort. But in the meantime, we also need the inspiration of something which is in the league of great sailing ventures and challenges to encourage us to maintain patience through the sometimes tedious re-building of sailing, and we’re lucky enough to have two different examples.
One is going to be provided next week from Les Sables d’Olonne from June 24th to 28th by the Figaro Maitre Coque challenge in the Bay of Biscay for Ireland’s Tom Dolan and Kenneth Rumball in the Figaro 3 fleet of thirty, including many of France’s top solo contenders.
And the other is the continuing story of the solo voyage home from the Caribbean by one-armed sailor Garry Crothers, who is now well through the halfway stage in his 3,600 mile voyage from the Sint Maarten back to Ireland.
At the beginning of the year, after two years of Atlantic and Caribbean cruising with his Ovni 435 Kind of Blue, Gary was working on plans and notions of going on through the Panama Canal and into the Pacific. As his fellow voyagers would put it, The West was in His Eyes.
Yet the rapidity with which the onset and spread of COVID-19 changed everything was a stark reminder of just how much the modern pattern of ocean cruising among paradise islands and along exotic coastlines is dependent on general world peace, effective governmental systems, a functioning international air travel network, and widespread levels of reasonably good health.
When that health of the general population is threatened by a rapidly spreading pandemic which respects no normal frontiers, far from being welcomed as guests, the large international “standing fleet” of ocean voyaging yachts are seen as threatening potential carriers of death-dealing virus to vulnerable little island and coastal communities.
The clamp-down was as sudden as it was total, and instead of meandering the oceans in a carefree way, the ocean voyaging community – particularly in the Caribbean where they were faced with the onset of the Hurricane Season from mid-June onwards - found themselves having to quickly implement plans to lay-up their boats as best they could - sometimes in places of limited facilities - in order to get what might well be the last flight home.
Either that, or they resigned themselves to staying put as not-very-welcome guests of the nation, with the only other option being preparation to sail for home as soon as possible, abandoning their long-dreamt more distant voyaging plans for the time being and possibly even forever.
It was an anxious situation for even the most fully-resourced ocean voyagers. But fortunately, they had the support of their global body, the Ocean Cruising Club. Thanks to the control network set up by OCC Vice Commodore and Rear Commodore Daria & Alex Blackwell, there was guidance and monitoring available.
The control centre could have been anywhere in the world with good electronic links, but as it happens the Blackwells live beside their own hidden anchorage deep among the islands of Clew Bay in Mayo. So as a result, their remarkable Irish-based transoceanic efforts of support to many boats and saw them becoming our “Sailor of the Month (International)” for May, an award which was enthusiastically and deservedly widely acclaimed.
It has been and continues to be a very international operation, including of course several Irish or Ireland-bound boats, such as the Hanse 540 Vibe to Crosshaven, the German-Irish Bee-Fenix family with their Hanse 430 Saoirse safely back to Malahide, and the Kinvara and Galway Bay family of Vera Quinlan and Peter Owens with their children Lillian and Ruari on the 39ft steel ketch Danu, getting from Antigua to the Azores with a minimal wait in quarantine isolation in Horta until the islands lifted restrictions last Monday (June 15th).
But while these crewed vessels were able to do things in a reasonably clearly-planned way, Garry Crothers with his big Ovni 435 in the little Dutch island of Sint Maarten found his situation going from acute to severe. Had the COVID-19 not arrived, he would probably by now have been be in the Pacific, with his longtime Derry shipmate Ken Curry and one or two friends or family to give the Philippe Briand-designed aluminium Kind of Blue (she was built in 2003 in Les Sables d’Olonne, where else?) enough crew to do justice to her exceptional sailing and sociability potential.
Yet instead, the options seemed to be closing off on an almost hourly basis. The basic plan was scaled back until the minimum requirement was that Garry get Kind of Blue to Sint Maarten where the famous airstrip – pilots call it the one-chance landing – provided an outside link which would bring Ken and Garry’s daughter Amy to the island, and they’d leave as soon as possible for the Azores and home.
It was quite a comedown from the lovely plans of endless Pacific cruising. But as the situation deteriorated from day to day, Garry increasingly realized just how vulnerable, how exposed and alone, ocean cruisers - and particularly solo sailors can feel - as the defences ashore slam shut, and the drawbridges are pulled up to exclude potentially virus-carrying visitors.
For the flight plans by Ken and Amy were blown away to extinction amidst the escalating international air traffic cancellations. And although there were other long-term ocean cruising boats in Sint Maarten, their crews were already much depleted, so he drew a blank in finding just one shipmate among them.
He was faced with either digging in on the island until some easing of international air travel arrived, or sailing alone the 3,600 miles for home, because at the back of his mind was the thought that he could be immured in Sint Maarten for months, and he was determined to walk his daughter and shipmate Amy down the aisle at her wedding in September.
In the end, there was only one choice, and on June 1st, Kind of Blue took her departure sailing solo from Sint Maarten, preferred destination the Foyle Marina in Derry, for her lone skipper felt that once he had the ocean rhythm going, taking the tempting stop at the Azores would put him off the pace. And anyway, the centrally-windless Azores High-Pressure Area was likely to be building, but going well west of the islands and into the Atlantic westerlies far northwest of them would be the best option for a June Transatlantic west-east voyage, while still being a major challenge for a solo one-armed sailor in a 43ft boat.
Who is Garry Crothers?
So who is Garry Crothers? Even his age seems a matter of debate, as he first made a story on this as being aged 62. Then it was upped to 66, but in fact, he’s 64. Whatever his age, he has lived several lives, yet he’s lucky to be alive at all, for back in 2007 he had a life-changing motorcycle accident which he has resolutely refused to prevent him continuing to lead a very full and active existence.
He’s originally from Bangor in County Down, where he started his sailing with dinghies and then Sigma 33s in Ballyholme Bay. His focus shifted across Belfast Lough to the University of Ulster campus at Jordanstown where he did radio studies, but every bit as importantly, he met Marie from Dunloy in the far north of County Antrim in 1974. And while he - after graduation - went off to travel the world as a Radio Officer in the Merchant Marine, they kept closely in touch such that when she started a career in social services in the City of Derry in 1980, it was the beginning of their long association with that unique place, where for some time now – they were married in 1984 - their family home has been in Culmore on the west shore of the Foyle, where the city is veering into Donegal.
With a family started, he left the Merchant Marine and sailed into a job in the rapidly-developing IT department in Queens University Belfast, where he rose to a position of unusual power as Senior Network Manager. The commute back to Derry was manageable, the family became two daughters - Amy and Oona, one now a doctor, the other a dentist – and his sailing continued from Lough Swilly with his steel sloop Mexos, which included extensive Hebridean ventures, while there was also other cruising with skipper Alan Seaton from Coleraine.
Meanwhile, at Lough Swilly he’d found a kindred spirit in Ken Curry - who was later to own, sail and cruise a Sadler 25 - as Ken was developing an interest in the Sailability concept in a cross-border context, which began to interest Garry with his technical turn of mind.
But this became more focused after 2007, when there’d been the motorbike crash. Garry was buzzing along – and I can’t imagine he was exactly going slowly - when a car ahead of him tried to make a sudden U-turn. The resulting crash was horrific, and it would have done for a lesser man, but we’re talking somebody very special here. Somehow he gradually emerged from a litany of injuries – several of them unbelievably severe – until in the end the only real problem was that while the surgeons had saved his very badly damaged left arm, he had little function in it, and it caused chronic and frequently acute pain.
For nearly ten years he battled with the burden of this arm, exploring all forms of pain relief while busy with others things such as developing Foyle Sailability with Ken and others. In 2015, four Lough Swilly and Derry yachts – one of them commanded by Garry – cruised a round Ireland fund-raiser in 2015 from their sea base at Greencastle in Donegal to Sailability Centres at Carrickfergus, Carlingford, Royal St George YC in Dun Laoghaire, Kinsale, Galway and Killybegs.
Meanwhile, the slow but sure mills of the legal process had been grinding on, and eventually, Garry received compensation for the 2007 accident. The accident had been life-changing, but so was the amount of the compensation. So while he’d sailed and cruised for some time in his own little steel sloop, this gave him the opportunity to up-grade big time, and he made a very shrewd choice indeed in going for an Ovni 435.
But with this remarkable acquisition entering the equation and all sorts of fresh possibilities of serious voyaging arising, another decision was needed. For nearly ten years Garry had been struggling to make his left arm into something useful and relatively pain-free instead of a sometimes excruciating burden, and he felt he was making no progress.
So Ken knew that maybe something was up when he got a phone call one Sunday evening in 2017 from Garry to see would he like to meet for a pint of Guinness. It was by no means the first time they’d shared a pint together, but this was special, as the upshot of it all was that Ken soon learned that, after much thought, his friend was having his crippled arm removed in an operation in the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald on the far side of Belfast the first thing next morning.
Yet he’d barely had time to reflect on the most convenient route from Derry round Belfast to visit his shipmate post-operation in the distant Dundonald hospital before the phone rang late on the Tuesday afternoon: “Are you coming for a pint?”
Garry Crothers had been away to Dundonald, he’d had his wasted arm removed, and he was now back home in Derry and feeling great and virtually pain-free and a just a little bit thirsty.
So clearly we’re not dealing with some run-of-the-mill guy here, and this vid from the recent RNLI Bangor Online Bowline Tying Competition shows him managing his condition with such competence that it makes you think the rest of us might be just a little over-laden by having two arms……
The passage home from the Caribbean has not been easy. Even though Garry has what Daria Blackwell agrees is an almost Zen-like calmness with a sensible determination to keep up his sleep levels, the tropics at night served up disobliging squalls, such that through one long period of darkness, he was struggling to save his main after one of the full-length battens started to come adrift and threatened to wreck the entire sail in the fierce gust.
Just think of what would be involved in doing that yourself with your two strong arms in full daylight, and you begin to get some idea of what Garry has overcome. Now, at last, he is into those classic Atlantic westerlies which aren’t as classic and as steady as we’d like to think, but for steady showing of sea miles they’re vastly preferable to hot squalls from all over the place, and as he has enough fuel for 700 miles of motoring, Ireland is almost within reach regardless of what now happens to the sails.
That said, sailing is his thing, and given half a chance, Kind of Blue is a real joy in which to sail the ocean. We wish him good luck, fair winds and a safe landfall, for, in his voyage, he is sailing for all of us. He is sailing for the Round Ireland fleet which didn’t go today, and he is sailing for the Clipper fleet which won’t now be arriving in Derry in August.
You can follow the progress of Kind of Blue and other OCC boats as entered by Alex Blackwell OCC here