Inch by inch, I repaired the seam, trying to make the soaking oakum stick in place first, paying over the top and then fixing it with the lead sheath, the tingle. Apart from the problems with the lead, the seam had pulled through because of the rot inside, and so the oakum had nothing to get wedged into. Besides, the wet oakum had by that time swelled in the water. It was better than nothing, but not much better.
As I finished the repair, it became a little harder to breathe. The pressure gauge confirmed the bottle was nearly empty. Slow suck, another nail. Steady not to drop them. No second chance. Slow suck, hammer it in. Harder to suck now. Time to inspect the repair? Slow suck. Work my way along. Now too hard to breathe. Must come up.
I would have liked to have known immediately whether I had succeeded enough to stand down for the night. Could we have dinner? Could we have rest? Could we pause to consider the next step? Could we consider the longer-term implications? Should we just gaze at the leak from inside? With my mind on the level of water, my ear gauging the frequency with which the pump was triggered, I could not withdraw myself from the crisis sufficiently to do anything but waste my energies uselessly, knowing as I did so that the most prudent course would have been to consider rather than to fret.
Claire had had time on her hands while I dived; she employed that time to make dinner; there was food. I needed it. To the end, I never understood her ability to release herself enough from the anxiety of the moment, the preoccupation which in my mind meant life or death, or something pretty near it, in order to accomplish some task which would be needed only later. I was never able to do this - it became a problem which Cecilia ultimately solved in a quite dictatorial way!
It gradually became clear that the repair had succeeded enough to allow us to doze the night away, though constantly aware whether or not the automatic electric pump was beating the leak. Things got better towards morning. There were longer gaps when the pump was not triggered. It might be clogging up ( a bad sign for sea-going work), or merely taking time to drain out the last drops from the filthy bilges (a better sign). We slept at last.
I had my own diving compressor on board. I never dived for pleasure round coral reefs in clear, limpid water, not I. But I had heeded the PLA divers who had pointed out that I should be able to repair any part of the ship at any time, even when there was no support from the land. As the diving bottles filled with air, so I crept nearer the treadmill of heroic measures to save the ship. For, you see, the heroism of diving in the thunderstorm the previous day had now resolved into a commitment for another heroic act. I went in three times during the day after the leak to establish just what I knew and just what I didn't.
One cause for a little hope was the discovery of a rope round the propeller shaft whose free end must have given the seams real punishment. Usually the smaller ropes which get wrapped up round the propeller shaft are so pulverised there is nothing left to remove. But the bigger heavier ropes survive, and, obviously, are the hardest to remove. They have to be cut. By definition, the rope is usually wound round the shaft so tightly it is only just short of breaking. There is no slack to allow the knife in under the coils. Removing this particular rope was no easier than any other rope I have had to remove. That is: very difficult and somewhat hazardous, wielding a knife with force.
After about four hours spent mostly under water in the filthy conditions of a locked-in basin, I thought there was a reasonable chance I had made a medium-term repair. I could do nothing further afloat.
The pressure just to keep the ship from sinking had been so intense I had not considered the next step, either alone or with Claire.
"You'd better have a shower and warm up," Claire suggested. "I'll rinse off your diving things."
At that point, the shower space was planned and the pipes were in place to deliver water, but there was no shower bottom. Part of the reason was that an ordinary shower cabinet would have been too tall to fit, and part of the reason was that I was still trying to find some way out of draining the shower into the bilges. Since the ship had thus far had a history of being dry, I was less worried about it interfering with pumping results than about whether fresh water would cause rot. Nonetheless, at this stage it was possible to get hot water onto the body, wash and rinse, and that's what I needed, although under present leaking conditions I was reluctant to confuse matters. Claire pointed out the shower water was nothing compared to the amount which had been leaking in.
"We can't leave tonight, in any case," she added. "It's too late. And we will have pumped out your shower water long before we go to bed."
I went down for the shower, grateful to get warm. Leave tonight? Are we leaving at all?
When I got out of the shower, Claire had it all figured out. "Why don't we lock out tomorrow morning at high water, sit on the tier for 24 hours, and leave on Thursday morning?"
"Why would we want to sit on the tier?" I asked.
"You'll have a day of tides to see whether your repair holds. If it doesn't then you can lock back in; if it does, we can leave."
"Leave? I haven't thought about it. I expect the repair will hold, but it's in no sense a permanent repair. We can't take the children sailing around in the Channel with a repair like this one."
I then went into some technical detail with her about what I had actually managed to achieve. The real problem was that I suspected there was internal rot I could not see, and had therefore not been able to wedge anything into the seam. My repairs had been laid over the seam rather like a sticking plaster.
I ended up: "I don't want to move at all."
"It won't heal itself by staying here in this basin. I mean it's not like skin."
She had a point: we had to move somewhere. "You'd better find some mud," she added.
It had been a common occurrence with the barge to sit on the mud. In fact, they were built for this kind of life. I had become more accustomed to looking for patches of mud than for quaysides, which were not plentiful.
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