Sunday, March 6, 2011


A magnetic compass on a steel boat is a capricious thing.   Mine had to be in a central position in the cockpit that would somewhat interfere with the passage of the helmsman to and from the tiller.   Consequently it was mounted on a board which sat loosely in slots athwart the cockpit, so it quickly could be put aside.   Ten days later this turned out to be a hazardous arrangement.   Meanwhile, before leaving Holland to cross the often foggy North Sea, I did a rough calibration of  this vital instrument, by aligning it with a dock of known orientation.   However, as we left the coast on a compass heading for Harwich, England, the angle between our course and the shoreline seemed wrong.   I attributed the discrepancy to perspective, but an hour later we passed a coded buoy that indicated our course was about 15 degrees off.   Two hours after that we came upon an anchored lightship prominently marked "G-R", which confirmed the error. ......   The picture below was scanned from a 56 year old 35 mm slide, unfortunately made on Ektachrome film.   Some photos in this blog are about as old, but look much better because they were made on Kodachrome.

Rex in Swalker cockpit.  "G-R" lightship, where we corrected our heading.
Slack ropes and flag and placid sea indicate no wind, so we were motoring
 A G-R crew member shouted, asking our name and destination.   To conceal my mistake I replied "Dover", towards which in fact we had been heading.   We adjusted our course 20 degrees right, to almost west, and continued through the clear night with the north star directly on the right (translated from the nautical "abeam to starboard") as a reassuring guide.   It was September 24, and since the sun had risen exactly in the east all over the globe only 3 days earlier, eventually the red dawn behind us further confirmed our route.   As the next evening approached but Harwich didn't, I tried to get our position using the current Consol system.    This involved counting dots and dashes from 2 special radio stations, and triangulating from a special chart, but the Russians were broadcasting on top of the signals.

We had aimed to the right of the port of Harwich, so as we approached the English coast we confidently turned left, and finally heard the welcome faint bleat of the Shipwash lightship. From my diary: "The pilot book has 4 pages of tangled jargon about Harwich waters, and says it is a difficult approach even by day, without a pilot vessel.. Our chart shows many wrecks, shoals and other obstructions".   We were entering with the advantage of a rising tide, but the disadvantage of navigating solely by interpreting points of light on a black background.   We got stuck once, but in 5 minutes were freed by the rising waters.  A half hour after we finally found a dock to tie to, an impeccably attired Customs agent arrived to check us in, as courteous and cheery as if he had not had his sleep interrupted at 2 AM.

The next day we motored 8 miles up the River Orwell to the Royal Yacht Club at Cat House Hard, where Rex left for Holland.   Is the Hard an odd name?    Compare that of the excellent pub there, the Butt and Oyster, and Bury St. Edmunds, where I spent the next 3 days at the home of PJ and his wife (see "Holland" section of this blog).   It is sobering that what was a temporary deviation in her smooth exterior is now a man more than a half century old.

A couple fed me twice at their cozy home on a converted barge.   They gave me some some medical supplies, including morphine and Benzedrine pills.   They said Benzedrine would be valuable when I must stay awake, but did not tell me of its dangers.   More important for the safety and beauty that resulted, they convinced me to go to Gibraltar via the French inland waterways and the western Mediterranean Sea, to avoid the violent cold storms that prevailed in October along the Atlantic coast on the direct route to Gibraltar.

It was late September, the waterways would start to freeze in a few weeks, and there were yet more preparations to be made.   A professional came from London to adjust and calibrate the compass.   His fee was a quite reasonable twenty 1956 dollars.   I filled the water and diesel tanks, the latter especially important because of the severe fuel shortage resulting from the new war over the Suez Canal.   I found time to absorb, permanently, the beauty of the Orwell.   I walked miles along its shaded grassy banks to the ivied walls of the old "public" (English for "private") school at Woolverstone, and watched the iconic sailing barges as they were skillfully tacked upstream on the narrowing twisting river. The barges and skills are no more, but perhaps may return when the world exhausts its cheap oil.

October 2 I began my longest solo sail since the protected Ijsselmeer.   As I approached the sea I ran aground in Harwich again, but this time on a falling tide, and was saved by deft work with the sails and motor.   The day was otherwise uneventful except for close looks at two lightships, and
 outside the 3-mile limit  a big platform atop two concrete cylinders, which was a  "sea fort" (click)  remaining from the recent war and later appropriated by a "pirate" radio station.   As I rounded the broad mouth of the Thames River and entered the English Channel at dusk, the wind died completely.   I started to lower the slatting sails, but a halyard jammed at the top of the 36 foot mast.   The mast lacked steps, so climbing its varnished surface as it swung like a wild inverted pendulum was one of the physically most difficult things I've ever done. As I abruptly descended I stepped on the compass board, which broke in 3 pieces. I repaired it, but later found I had introduced a 10 degree error.

An arm of the Gulf Stream accelerates to pass back and forth through the English Channel funnel, making for strong turbulence that is only partly predictable, and a tidal range exceeded only in the Canadian Bay of Fundy.   That's why the Goodwin Sands (click),
a vast sandbar in the middle of the entrance to the south end of the Channel, is littered with hundreds of shipwrecks from Roman to modern times.   Not all are known and buoyed.   The coded North Foreland light, which should have been to my right, appeared ahead instead.   I steered for the light, not realizing that the altered compass and capricious currents had brought me onto the edge of the infamous Sands.   However, the chart and tide tables indicated I had sufficient clearance over all unbuoyed wrecks.   The night was cold, moonless, and black except for a distant light on the English shore that appeared only when the Swalker was atop a swell.   Suddenly there was a loud thud from below.   The boat heeled abruptly and was swung around by the waves.   I knew immediately I had struck an unmarked wreck.   The boat was lifted free on the next swell, but in the next trough the crash was louder and the boat heeled more, indicating the Swalker was lodged higher and more firmly on the wreck.   I think a wood or Fiberglas hull would have been holed.   Clearly the third impact would be the final one, and the sea would pour in the hull, grounded on its side. I had no life raft, and the nearest land was miles away, over a cold dark sea.   In an automobile crash the perception of time must be extended more than mine was then, but in the period occupied by 3 swells the seconds became minutes, as I went from shock to the Valley of the Shadow to gratitude.   On descent from the next swell there was no crash, only the soft sibilant swish of the sea, which had carried me over and free of the obstacle.

A French idiom for orgasm is "le petit mort", the little death, apparently an ironic reference to the crescendo of sensation.   It is said that a sneeze is briefly like death, since breathing and pulse are briefly arrested.   I had just had my little death, and it resembled not at all those other two.

Rain began, so I put on oilskins.   The lights flanking the entrance gap in the Dover breakwater were apparent near dawn.   Although the Sands incident had certainly gotten my attention, I had taken a Benzedrine pill to stay awake, and later realized that the substance decreases competence while increasing confidence.   To maintain my heading between the red and green lights marking the sides of the harbor entrance I had to constantly adjust my heading because of the apparent swift cross current.   After a while I suddenly realized those lights instead marked the two sides of a passing ship.   That was quite like trying to drive between the lights of what seem to be two parallel approaching motorcycles.   I corrected my course, and soon docked inside the sheltered harbor, beside the mouths of two WWII submarine pens, and had a long sleep.
When I awoke, the captain of an adjacent freighter invited me to dine
 with him and his officers, while the crew repaired some broken fittings on the Swalker.

No comments:

Post a Comment