A random message on social media during Covid-19 had Michael Chapman Pincher a little rattled initially. Was he the “Michael” of Puerto Rico in 1975?
A flurry of emails led to the return of a precious item — the log of his very first sailing trip. Not just any old trip, either. Having never actually been on a yacht before, he was enlisted as crew for a 37ft sloop named Gay Gander which was bound for the Atlantic ocean.
The skipper, John Francis Kearney Farrell, had sold up his farm in Co Meath and had bought the Rambler Class yacht with part of the proceeds. The plan was to set sail from Devon for the Canaries and cross over to Antigua by Christmas. Passage for the young crewman would be free in return for a contribution to rations.
Farrell’s “sailing companion” was Carola, in her late 40s. It would be several months before Chapman Pincher — son of the late Daily Express journalist known as the “great spy catcher of Fleet Street” — would realise that he was not the only one on board running away to sea.
While the skipper taught him the rudiments of sailing, Carola, who was escaping a violent husband with Farrell, read extracts from the Bible in between three-hour watches. She was not shy to share her many firm opinions, including her distaste for this “promiscuous” young generation now making the most of the contraceptive pill.
The author’s detailed notes and his decision to place himself firmly back in time make for some “non-woke” observations — he made the most of his shore time and credits several readers in his acknowledgements for catching any “nautical howlers” and stopping “the sex going overboard”.
There was no life raft, no radio and just two second World War flotation vests aboard. “If we have to abandon ship, no one will come searching for us,” his skipper said, reassuringly.
When the crewman did get “fired”, temporarily, it wasn’t for lack of sea skills. The couple objected to his table manners. Observing all was Stryder, the ship’s cat with a “primordial purr”.
As it happens, the friend in London who had mentioned that his father was looking for crew in the first place was Antony Farrell, now of Lilliput Press. Completing the circle, he writes the introduction to one hilarious, and at times beautifully descriptive, “manuscript-in-a bottle”.