Copyright Dominick Jones
Copyright Dominick Jones
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 being.
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 past us.
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 Sovereign.
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 again.
.....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 .....W---
.....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).