Beachy Head
Beach Head view.bmp
"Right, everyone on the port side," shouted Edith.
"Great leadership, F-a-a-a-t-t-y," muttered Toby, as he walked slowly over. He had a stutter.
Edith thumped him rather too hard and knocked his spectacles off.
"That hurt," said Toby. He picked up his spectacles, but didn't retaliate because Edith was much bigger and stronger than the other children.
Claire shouted: "Shut up, all of you. Dominick's just getting up to the cushion." Claire was in the bows, fifteen feet above the water, watching the cushion approach. She had been signaling me, 90 feet further aft at the wheel, because the cushion was long since hidden from view under the bow. Now she turned round to face me and extended her arms outwards straight from the shoulders, palms down. Flexing only at the elbows, she crossed her palms in front of her chest, extended them, and kept on doing so as a signal for me to cut the engine, which I did. The engine made too much noise for me to hear what she was saying. Everything had to be done by hand signals which was good: storms make a lot of noise, too.
I could see from the attitude of the bunch of children that the cushion was slowly making its way aft towards them. Or rather, we were slowly making up on the cushion. Virginia got a boathook, put it overboard, hooked up the cushion and landed it on deck.
We had at last completed a perfect Williamson's Turn. Here's what happens.
When the man goes overboard, you cut the screw momentarily if you have time, wait for him to clear it, note the course, put the wheel hard over one way until 60 degrees off course (how much depends on the ship), and then hard the other way until you are on a reciprocal course. You steam back to the body and fish him out just as we had fished out the cushion.
We'd been at it most of the day. It was sunny, flat calm. We were all getting a little fractious.
There had been a continuing discussion amongst us about safety. It was obvious what we were doing was risky. One course would have been to have stopped doing it, and to have spent the children's holidays in Blackpool. But, nobody wanted to do that, so the question resolved itself into what procedures were possible, and the consequences of the impossible.
As a starting point, we realized that turning the ship round, probably twice, was inherent in any rescue operation. I had toyed with the idea of backing down slowly on the theory that a man overboard would be likely to happen in heavy weather, so taking the sails off or cutting the engine would allow us to be driven back by the storm. However, we found that the ship took up a dangerous position broadside to the seas the moment we had no power. Coming out of the Elbe the year before, I had thought it would have been impossible to turn the ship round without laying her on her beam ends.
We decided to side step this basic difficulty and to see if there were other problems down the road assuming we had been able to turn the ship round. We had just demonstrated that the Williamson's Turn could be made to work in calm weather under motor. Under sail would present bigger problems, but one thing at a time. The next step was to get the body on board.
A scrambling net was a possibility, but would only work with a conscious active body.
Parbuckling was another stratagem which mightwork with an inert body. Ropes (at least two) would have to be made fast inboard, let down into the water, round the body and up again to people on deck who would then roll the body up the sides. In even remotely heavy weather, the derrick was useless because we had no means of controlling it. Consequently, not only could we not use its considerable power to get a sodden body out of the water but, more critically, we could not use it to launch our dinghy in order to get ropes round the body ready for parbuckling, or to drag the body into the dinghy.
Another method might have been to send a swimmer into the water to fix the ropes, but then we would have two people at risk, not one. Besides, a swimmer would really have to be a swimmer, probably in a wet suit, and physically tough. I would have been a good candidate, but it's not wise to lose your skipper.
Last summer and this, we had been edging towards the theory that it was less important to float once overboard than to arrange not to go overboard in the first place. Accordingly, we obliged ourselves to wear harnesses whenever our feet were off the deck, and at all times in heavy weather. I wasn't supposed to leave the deck at all, but I often had to. The harnesses were equipped with two large snap hooks so we could easily snap ourselves to a shroud. To move, the free hook was snapped to the next available point, the first one unsnapped.
We therefore never wore life jackets - why float if you can't be rescued? This is what one of Conrad's retired lighthouse keepers thought: it's against the Will of God to swim. When your time's come, it's come, he thought. A harness is much easier to wear, eat in, sleep in, go to the loo in, than a life jacket, so a harness was more likely to be worn.
No. Once over the rail, fine or foul, that was likely to be the end.
For our summer vacation, we had decided to leave the shelter of our nursery school on England's East Coast, where we could tide around among the sand banks from one little hole to another little hole, and to go round the corner to Newhaven, the start of the big wide world. I had been brought up a few miles away, at Rottingdean, and I liked the port. In my teens, we had often taken the ferry to Dieppe, which I loved.
With our three staysails we could proceed, more or less slowly in the right direction under sail, given a favorable wind. In unfavorable conditions, there was, of course, the engine. Our first stop round the corner was Ramsgate, and then it would be but a hop and a skip to get to Newhaven. After that, who knew? At least Dieppe. Maybe we just keep on going West. At that stage, we had the confidence of ignorance.
In Ramsgate, the benign weather we had been having that summer continued. I should have taken the rare Easterly that blew on our last day there, but didn't feel the pressing urgency. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?
Tomorrow brought, not just a return of the prevailing Westerlies, but a Channel gale, which decided to beat its way towards us as we pressed into its face in the opposite direction down Channel. We could have waited in Ramsgate, but we had a stout ship, a reliable engine, and anyway, as I was to discover three summers later, waiting for the right wind could be a long drawn out affair.
So, we left.
The first little bit of the journey was South by East, the wind off the land Northwest. We sailed with a soldier's wind - the wind abaft the beam. Fine fellows we thought ourselves, too. But, as our course veered Southerly, and then Southwest, the wind backed to the Southwest and we had to take down the sails to motor. Ahead, I could see the high cirrus clouds of a very wide depression, streaked with the gold of a hazy setting sun.
One by one, the coast towns lit their municipal lights, and slid by fairly well until around midnight. By Dungeness, we would be half way to Newhaven. Wide storms move slowly. If it didn't dissipate, we might have made shelter before it hit us. Even when the tide turned foul and Dungeness was well behind us, the coastal lights still slid by, slower, it is true, but by they went. And pitching (as we were) is a good deal more comfortable than rolling.
I had settled down to the slog - uncomfortable, but we would get there. Lights clumped together at towns everywhere along the coast. It was impossible to distinguish which town we were passing, and therefore to gauge how far along we were. It would be slow  going against a foul tide until daylight, but the loom of the Royal Sovereign Light Vessel was dead ahead. We would have to pass it close to. How far ahead I could not tell, and it was not so reassuring also to see the loom of the light on the Bassurelle Bank which was half way to France.
Someone else took the wheel and I went below.
Claire and I slept in the after cabin, not the most comfortable place in the ship. There was a lot of noise from the heavy steel rudder clanking back and forth, and the propeller itself was right below us. Rolling had the same effect throughout the ship, but our cabin was the worst for pitching, being at the end of the ship which rose and fell several feet every few seconds.
I was shot out of a doze, by the most tremendous roar under my very bed. The ship shook, and then the roar stopped. I lay suspended, waiting for a recurrence, as no one else seemed to be alarmed. Perhaps I had imagined the roar. Sleep wasn't easy. My bunk was rising and falling more than ever.
Then it happened again - a tremendous vibration which shook the entire ship.