We were pitching so badly, the
propeller was coming out of the water. I had heard the same thing in
the Esjberg ferry on the way to buy GRAY, but I thought this sort of
thing happened - like insanity - to someone else, not me.
You know how something complex can
become apparently simple in a feat of intuitive visualisation? I
realised that the half wave length of the waves must now be comparable
to the length of GRAY, and sufficiently steep to expose her propeller
on the downhill side. Quick calculation: might be 20 feet high. (The
height of a breaking wave does not exceed one seventh of its length;
our keel was 75 feet long; say, the last 5 feet out of the water;
double that to 140, divide by 7 = 20; problem only ceases if waves are
bigger or flatter).
The consequence chilled me: slowing
down would do no good; we could increase the apparent wave length by
going diagonally at the waves, whereupon we would roll, perhaps
dangerously. Either way I was caught.
So, I tried reducing the engine
revolutions. As I had thought it didn't really help, but the propeller
raced less fast. So, I edged her over to port, and the rolling started.
Perhaps I should call it what it was: corkscrewing, a most
uncomfortable situation, but possibly the best compromise for the time
However, it would surely soon be
over, as the loom of the Royal Sovereign had now become a light.
In the early hours of a bad day when
shapes begin to be more discernible than they were, any lights you can
see are a great comfort. It's hard to gaze at the compass hour after
hour, and keep it where it should be. Besides, our compass errors had
been determined in the Kiel Canal only for a level ship. I had no
notion of what the heeling error might be, and the compass was dancing
around all over the place.
First the shore lights went out at
the appointed time when municipalities considered their responsibility
to the public was over for the night. There was too much spray and haze
to see the shoreline itself. But, there was still the light of the
Royal Sovereign dead ahead until, two hours later, that too went out at
its appointed hour. We were left in the murk with none but a perilous
compass to steer by, abandoned to our fate. It is a dismal time when
man's friendly lights have left you, and celestial light has not yet
reached you. Neither God nor Mammon to plead to.
I was tired. There was nothing to do.
I slept. The Royal Sovereign went past. I didn't see it. Others did. By
the time I got up again, Beachy Head was abeam. The wind freshened and
the sea increased. I was surprised by how small the light seemed to be,
set at the bottom of a towering cliff of white chalk. We had just
rounded the headland, and gradually this tiny red and white candle slid
Then it stopped.
Then it began sliding the other way.
We were losing ground.
The tide had turned foul against us.
It had the meager compensation of calming the seas. I went back to bed
leaving Claire at the wheel. I dreamed we had rear-ended into the Royal
A couple of hours later, I was
awakened by a throbbing succession of racing propellers. Up at the
wheel, Claire shouted down: "We've been hit by a squall." I
could hear the wheel jerking her around the wheelhouse. Beachy Head
disappeared, probably somewhere ahead now, blotted out by the rain and
scud. The ship corkscrewed.
I was fed up with waiting, didn't
care any longer whether we sank or swam, couldn't bear to wait in these
terrible conditions for another two hours for the tide to turn.
I increased the revolutions. The
propeller kicked out, but no worse than before, just as I had
calculated. Between squalls, Beachy Head light came out from behind the
cliff, stood still against the background, and then slowly started
creeping towards our beam.
I knew Newhaven must be ahead, not
far. For half the distance, we could probably get glimpses of the
cliffs, but for the last bit, the chart showed the coast receded and
lowered. We might not be able to see it. By the time we were level with
Newhaven, the tide would be running heavily in our favour, and would
kick up a tremendous sea, punching to weather as we were. I did not
fancy the prudent course of keeping out to sea until Newhaven was
abeam, risking that maelstrom beam on as we followed the deep water
ferry route at right angles to the shore. We might overshoot Newhaven
for one thing, and for another it would take longer to go round two
sides of a triangle.
We should go direct, keep the seas on
our nose, and get into the lee of the Newhaven mole that much the
sooner. But, the direct route lay over some shallow patches, just
before the entrance to Newhaven harbour.
As we picked up speed over the
ground, so the apparent weather became worse and worse. We began
shipping serious seas. Some of them were sufficiently high that, even
in the wheelhouse, normally 15 feet above the water, I couldn't see
over them. That figured with the occasional 20ft waves I had
calculated. Claire, who is smaller than I am, was now being hurled
around by the wheel, so I took it and she went below, feeling sea sick.
No more navigation. But you can't function sea sick, any more than you
can walk around with a broken leg. It's not a question of will power.
Roger came up from the hold. He had been feeling sea sick in his
hammock. It had hit the underdeck several times, he said.
Toby followed him out of the
deckhouse door. Virginia wasn't anywhere around.
Toby, calf deep in water in the
fathom long waist between the aft facing deckhouse door and the quarter
deck step, took off his thick glasses, and started to polish off the
spray. Under the shelter of the deckhouse, he was reasonably safe. He
had neither harness nor life jacket. He gazed round the deck rather
absently, and saw that the plastic minisail was coming adrift from its
mooring on the side of the deckhouse. I could see that he was letting
go some of its lashings so that he could re-do them and keep the
minisail from going overboard. He was working on the weather side. A
huge green sea came stalking over the three foot high bulwarks and
soaked him. Then we rolled heavily to weather again, and another green
sea came on board. Our rail went under this time. We must have been
35º over. The loose minisail lashing was nearly free.
I was safe, relatively speaking. If
he were swept over by the next green sea, it would be my decision not
to turn round.
I didn't call Claire.
Between seas, Toby took a heave on
the lashing, then a turn, then sweated it up, stole the slack, sweated
again, belayed it, wiped his spectacles with care.....
.....and went back into the
deckhouse. It was over quickly.
He was 16 at the time.
This 160-ton ship was no longer
behaving like a ship, but like a dinghy. We must be over the shallow
patches - the waves were being tripped up. I was no longer able to
steer as such because the pressure of the water was too great on the
rudder. But, I was able to feel for a slack in the weight, steal some
slack, and then prevent the wheel from turning back. As far as I could,
I luffed up to the bigger seas, and then payed off to keep the way on
us, then luffed up again and payed off. Dinghy fashion.
.....Claire couldn't have done this
anyway, even if I had called her up. She would merely be hurled around
.....or, would she?
Something seemed to be ahead of us.
Not sure what. Stand on grimly. Little by little, it got more solid.
Stand on? Into danger? A glance at the compass. It was swinging, but
seemed to be in the right place.
No reason to change course; no reason
not to; terror to stand on.
It was the mole, but not what you
might have expected of the mole. It was a giant mound of tumbling
water. Calm water in its lee? Does calm water still exist? Yes, calmer,
but not calm.
We belted into Newhaven unable to
stop. An official with a loud hailer ran alongside us as fast as he
could, rapidly losing ground, and yelling to us where to go.
Virginia came on deck. She had been
sitting on the chemical toilet for the last several hours to prevent it
from upsetting while her whole world crashed around her. Lid down? No,
up: to make a more secure connection. Inside the hold, oily bilge water
had shot through the listings (the gap in the lining left for servicing
the hull from the inside) and onto our bunks, our food. Somehow a box
of nails got into the brine crock, which still had its lid on. Some
oranges bobbed around in the bilge water by the keel.
.....Toby .....Williamson's turn
.....Toby ......harness .....Williamson .....harness .....Toby
.....Out, damned spot. Out, I say.
Later, we heard the maroons go off to
call out the life boat. Some other poor sod.
The Newhaven Watch had recorded a
steady Force 7 (28 to 33 knots, a moderate gale), with gusts up to
Force 9 (41 to 47 knots - up to 54 miles an hour - a strong gale).