We were going to sea for the first time in two years.....
As we were being locked out of the Albert Docks in which Gray had been for 21 months, the lock keeper made the usual sallies about going round the world, to which I modestly replied I would be glad to make it to the end of the river. Claire was, of course, discussing with the other lock keepers which part of the world to have at our feet. We spoke with two voices while we waited for the water level to sink from the dock to that of the Thames outside.
I strolled past the engine room hatch. It was the end of a beautiful day, the end of a tiring and in many ways dispiriting 21 months, the beginning of a night on the tiers outside, smelling the river, secretly confident that we would, in fact, go round the world....
A routine glance down the hatch. There was water everywhere, pouring in from somewhere astern, and being chucked all over the place by the fly wheel, which was now deep in water. I told the lock keeper to fill the lock again: we had to return to the basin. I couldn't bear to leave the deck and go below to get my diving things. Claire staggered up the narrow companionway with a mass of unyielding rubber, the lead weight belt, the clanking air tank, goggles, fins, pressure gauges and all the rest.
As soon as I could, I started to back the ship very gently out of the lock into the basin, deeply apprehensive that the wash of the reverse slipstream from the propeller would scour out more seam.
There was going to be a thunderstorm. The water was now less splashy. For a moment, hope. Then I realised deeper water doesn't splash so much. It was clearly coming in fast. I decided not to waste time mooring the ship. The thunderstorm would blow us onto some quayside somewhere.
When I got down beneath the ship, I knew where to go. The winter before, it had always been difficult to pick out the exact spot when revisiting it to stuff up the seams. This time, the seam a few inches in front of my eyes was visible because it was clean and empty. I worked along the seam a little. Empty in both directions. Should I establish how empty? Should I start work anywhere I could? Immediately? The quantity of water coming on board was clearly huge. The bottom was covered in weed which swayed this way and that as we moved gently in the storm. On the fringes of the open seam, the weed lay down neatly like combed hair, a slightly different colour, sucked towards the seam by the flow of water. I knew the rush of water must gradually be scouring each end of the open seam, making the hole longer.
The ship's keel shuddered as we connected with the quayside. I collided spongily with the hull.
Claire had just finished tying us up when I got back on deck. I asked her to collect the tarry bitumen paying for a quick smother of the leak. I thought I could probably mix it with oakum to stiffen it. From the outside, I had no means of knowing whether I was being successful. This is always the problem with leaks. Someone on the inside has to signal what's happening - by tapping on the wood, or some such - while the diver works on the outside. For that, the leak has to be small, and not buried by bilge water, and of course the signalling system has to be set up in advance together with all the planning for the repair of the leak.
None of this was in place. In any case, the leak might be invisible inside under bilge water. It was my first catastrophic leak. I was not to know that 20 years would go by before the next catastrophic leak, six years after I sold her. It sank her.
This time, I controlled the panic breathing, remained under water, smothered the leak step by step, and surfaced to find the pump gaining on the bilge level.
The lock staff was about to go home. Without taking my diving suit off, proud of my conquest, I waddled over, the crutch flap of my wet suit swinging awkwardly between my legs, to tell them we wanted to leave after all.
As I waddled, so I reflected, then turned round, and found that indeed the repair had pulled through the empty seam and had started up all over again. Heavy thunder clouds made it so dark it was difficult to see even above water.
The only alternative to diving again was to turn my back on the ship and walk away. I knew from previous experience that I was the best placed to effect the speedy repair required to avoid sinking. I had seen a wooden barge with neglected open topside seams fill up enough with rain to immerse these open seams and go down in a hurry, just across the basin from me. I had also seen the immensely powerful machinery which had been brought to raise the barge so that it could be towed away to sink in a more congenial spot, the ship cemetery I fantasized about for the next 13 years. They brought huge airbags, pumps of a size I could scarcely imagine, and a wreck-lifting vessel which listed so badly with the effort that it demonstrated without a doubt what a vast and expensive problem it was to remove a wreck. If I walked away, that was what would happen, I would be found, they would hunt me down in my comfortable London house. I would have to pay up - and lose the ship I had worked on for years. Maybe lose the house, too. The ship was uninsured (though not from choice: we could never get cover of any sort).
So I buttoned up the cold wet rubber, saw the air tank was now so low that it, not me, would book end the operation in success or failure. The air I needed to breathe from the tank would give out before I did. I had an alternative idea of how to build on the previous repair to make it more secure, with lead tingles on top, so that even if it started to leak again, the flood would not be so bad, and the pumps might be able to cope to get us through the night. I had not used lead in the first place, because it is difficult to work with. A strip of lead is soft enough to mould itself to the side of the ship, but it's heavy and doesn't want to stick to the tarry stuff in the seam. I really needed three hands: one to hold the lead against the side, another to hold the copper tack ready to drive through the lead into the wood of the ship, and a third to hold the hammer. With only two hands, I got some of the copper tacks started into the lead, but they didn't like to stay there and some fell out before I could drive them into the wood. It was depressing to see that I was not the first to have driven copper nails into the hull at that point. There had been trouble before. Slowly, I worked in bitumen paying and oakum, and tingled it over with lead, hoping that the rot was not so extensive that the copper nails would go right through the hull. And to keep my body pressed up against the ship's side so I could work, I had to keep slowly finning with my legs, as the PLA divers had taught me.