This is the story of how we re-fitted our boat and took it from England to the Mediterranean and back between May 2017 and September 2021.
We have owned Mitch since 1999. Mitch is a Mitchell 31 Mark 2 Sea Angler, designed for taking parties of anglers out for fishing trips. The accommodation is minimal, with a small cabin forward, a wheelhouse and a large cockpit. When our children were young, we used the boat to transport them and their friends, cousins and beach toys around Poole Harbour, occasionally venturing as far as the Solent.
The children grew up, and our busy lives led to Mitch becoming shamefully neglected. By 2017, the boat had been in the garden of our house for several years, a rather depressing sight, with vegetation sprouting vigorously in the bilges.
My wife Sally and I were thinking of buying a sailing boat, with the idea of an Atlantic circuit. We had even looked at a couple of yachts, but we decided that we could not buy another boat while Mitch was neglected in the garden. Something had to be done, and so one day we went outside, with the intention of cleaning Mitch up and selling the boat for a nominal sum.
Mitch had turned us unwittingly into confirmed ditch-crawlers, and the draft of the sailing boats we’d looked at had been slightly off putting. As we sat on a garden seat after a couple of hours of surprisingly successful cleaning, I looked at the boat, and had a sudden thought:
“Mitch’s draft is pretty shallow, and we could probably get through the Canal du Midi”
I’d never done any canal boating, and didn’t know much about the Canal du Midi, but I did know that it led to the Mediterranean, and that it was too shallow for fixed keel sailing boats.
We spent the rest of the day cleaning, and in the evening we discussed our options. We could sell Mitch “as is” for a small sum, buy a sailing boat, and in a few years set off on our Atlantic circuit. This would be a bit of a leap in the dark, as we didn’t have much recent sailing experience, and we were not sure that we would definitely enjoy long distance cruising, or even what sort of boat would most suit us. Alternatively, it was clear that refitting Mitch was not impossible, and perhaps we should make use of the boat we already had to set off that year, on a smaller but probably still rewarding cruise.
We thought about our cruising goals. The Med seemed to be a good objective, and the canals the obvious route. In a few years we would be experiencing the Atlantic coasts of Spain and Portugal in our sailing boat, and the yacht would probably be too deep for the French canals.
There were a few obstacles to this plan. Firstly, the boat would require a lot of work and a fair amount of money. Secondly, Mitch was designed to take parties of anglers out to sea, not for any kind of long distance cruising, or canal work. The boat had little accommodation, and no amenities, not even a water tank. Its rudder is small, and Mitch pays no attention to it when going astern. There is no bow thruster.
We both work full time, so our cruising would be restricted to a couple of weeks or so at a time. Could we find berths for the boat in France? Would the travelling be practicable? Could we modify Mitch so that we could live aboard? We thought there was a good chance the answers to these questions was “yes”, and we wrote a spreadsheet detailing the work required and the cost, a pretty frightening list, but optimistic as it turned out.
This was in May 2017, and three months of exhaustion followed. The advantages of working on your boat at home are that there is no travelling, and all the tools that you own are to hand. The disadvantage is that it is very easy to overwork, which we proceeded to do with gusto.
We removed all of the wooden cockpit sole supports, and made a new structure. We made new cockpit boards, fitted the new Iveco N67 engine and ZF gearbox, water tanks, domestic water pumps, a cooker, calorifier and, wonder of wonders, a cockpit shower.
There were setbacks. Sally fell into the bilges when the cockpit boards were up, damaging her ankle, and I shorted a battery out with a screwdriver, burning my hand when I tried to retrieve it, and causing a merry little fire in the wheelhouse.
By August 2017, the boat was almost finished. A surveyor checked our work, and pronounced it satisfactory. The transport company came to assess the job, and it became evident the trees had grown significantly since we had put the boat in the garden. On the night before the crane was due I set about some radical tree surgery with a chain saw in a rented cherry picker.
Mitch was launched on the following day. It was not an unqualified success. I waved to the travel lift driver, and pushed the engine control forward, whereupon the boat moved smartly backwards.
We managed to get the boat alongside in the marina, but it soon became evident that there was a leak, and we discovered that the flange of the engine exhaust outlet, which was on the waterline, was leaking.
Slightly demoralised, we arranged for the boat to be lifted out, and started work again.
We replaced the (new) silencer with a lift version, and cut a hole for a new transom fitting well above the waterline. Sally’s laminating skills were once again in high demand.
By mid-August 2017, the boat was ready for another launch attempt. This went smoothly, and we took Mitch for a trip round Portland harbour to work up the autopilot. I was rather concerned because the engine, though running apparently faultlessly, would not go faster than 1400 rpm. I had several theories, such as there was insufficient supercharge pressure, there was too much backpressure in the exhaust, or the propeller was incorrect, as the Iveco engine's full speed was 2800 rpm, rather than the old Ford Sabre's 2600 rpm. I put pressure gauges on the inlet manifold and the exhaust, but I could see nothing wrong.
The only thing missing was the cockpit tent, which arrived the day before our intended departure for France. On that day we worked extremely hard, arriving home late and exhausted.
On 13th August 2017, after only about an hour’s sleep, we went back to Portland early in the morning, and set off
There was not much wind, but a confused sea left over from recent strong winds, and the boat’s motion was very lively as we headed towards Guernsey. As the hours rolled by, I realised that we had made a serious misjudgement, by setting off without having had a day off.
Sally had succumbed to seasickness and exhaustion before we had cleared Portland Bill, and I was only kept going through fatigue and seasickness by the excitement of actually being at sea in Mitch. I was worried that if anything went wrong, I would not have the reserves of strength necessary to deal with an emergency.
Luckily, the new Raymarine autopilot and chartplotter worked faultlessly, and the engine ran steadily at 1200 rpm, giving about 8 knots. We passed through the shipping lanes, sighted the Casquets, then Alderney, and eventually Guernsey, picking up a mooring off Baucette Marina at about three. The mooring was a bit rolly, but Sally bounced back quickly, and we made dinner with our new cooker, and slept soundly under our new cockpit tent.
Beaucette Marina is unique, a former granite quarry which was connected to the sea in the 1960s by the Royal Engineers, who used copious quantities of explosives to blast a channel in the hard rock.
We awoke early the following morning, amazed that we had actually taken Mitch across the Channel and spent a night aboard, with everything we had worked on and installed functioning as we had hoped. We had done proper passage planning the night before, and this was to become our invariable practice. We plot the intended course, and some alternatives, on paper charts before inputting anything into the chartplotter. It is to be admitted that some of our charts are very out of date, often black and white fathom Admiralty charts inherited from my father – but I believe they give a useful overall view of the route.
We started the engine, let go the mooring, and set out towards Roscoff. Sally was rather improved, and I was feeling better. We went through the Little Russel, and the Roches Douvres were in sight when the engine faltered, and then stopped. We managed to deploy the Tohatsu, and were pleased when it gave us about 3.5 knots, fast enough for the autopilot to work. The closest port was Lezardrieux, and so we altered course towards it. The problem, of course, was water in the fuel. I was not thinking very well, and so it took me longer than it should have to realise what was going on.
In the end we entered the Trieux estuary on the main engine, and went up the river to Lezardrieux marina. We left the boat on a pontoon, and went by taxi to the ferry at Roscoff, and rented a car to drive home from Plymouth. I had to be up early the next morning for a site visit in Nottingham, and I must say that I have rarely felt so disorientated as I did that day. This turned out to be a common event – on the boat, we experience so much, so quickly, that we have “sensory overload”, and returning to the everyday world is rather unsettling.
We returned to Lezardrieux, an attractive town on the tidal Trieux river, by ferry and car a couple of weeks later, with the intention of taking the boat to Roscoff for winter layup. We took the boat down the river and anchored near the mouth, ready for an early departure, but when we set out the next morning, the world seemed rather unfriendly, dark and cold, and as we were still worried about water in the fuel tank and the engine's inability to run at more than 1400 rpm, we went back up the river to the town, and secured a winter place in the yard for Mitch.
In November 2017 we were back in Lezardrieux. After lengthy plotting of engine output against the propeller curve, I thought it was unlikely that the propeller was to blame for the engine's slow running, and had come to the conclusion that the fuel injector pump must have been incorrectly set. I turned the engine carefully so that No 1 piston was at top dead centre on the firing stroke, and removed the injector pump, disconnecting the starter motor and leaving the engine in that position.
We removed the propeller for refurbishment, and replaced the propeller shaft Cutless bearing. Removing the propeller shaft nut was quite difficult, and we had to scout around the yard to find a piece of box section to increase the leverage on the spanner. We pumped out the fuel tank and cleaned it thoroughly, a nasty job as it contained was a great deal of emulsified fuel. It was evident that I had missed a lot of water when I had cleaned the tank when the boat was in the garden.
That was the end the first season of Mitch's travels. We had not done many miles, but we had rescued the boat from dereliction in the garden, and had successfully taken it across the channel. A little adventure, and we couldn't wait for more.
It would be four years before Mitch returned to England.