17 CHAPTER SEVENTEEN (A fishy business).
Anyone who has left Portland Harbour in a small boat will have experienced concern about the notorious Portland races that are treacherous even to bigger craft.
Known to appear in various locations, depending on the state of the tide and the winds, the steep over falls worry the sailor into thinking shallow water is in the vicinity. No matter how experienced he is, all of his knowledge and instincts will be contradicted on encountering these unusual waters.
He may have been told by local fishermen in one of the local Pub’s before leaving Weymouth, that if headed West, that he should keep close to land.
The trouble is, the passage is so narrow it goes against all training and common sense, to take this route. At the beginning and end of the tidal cycle, is a calm period known as ‘ slack water’, that provides a window of opportunity but it still takes a certain amount of knowledge and courage or previous experience, to enter the narrow channel. Once in, one encounters daunting up- surges and swirling eddies together with occasional breaking waves that serve only in re-enforcing one’s doubts.
The phenomena is caused by two main factors that really comes down to a hard and uneven sea-bed and the confused and chaotic tides, as they are swept around Portland Bill having been tamed and funneled by the mile upon mile of pebbles along the gentle curve of Chessil Beach.
Once through the violent waters, a more settled pattern to the surface is encountered and the mariner can relax and enjoy the steady regular motion brought about by the unhindered wind and waves.
It was in these circumstances that our ‘four men in a boat’ (five actually) found themselves on their way to Brixham in Devon, intending to overnight in Torquay where Keith’s mother in law lived, to pay their respects.
It was getting dark as they rounded Point and turned to starboard on the last leg across the bay before entering between the harbour walls, bound for the new marina.
It was a clear night and the experienced crew readily spotted the red and green flashing lights. The sails were taken in and stowed and the engine slowly propelled the yacht towards the harbour entrance.
Once in the harbour, the helmsman put the engine out of gear while they ‘took stock’.
The illumination was adequate but there was no sign of a berthing attendant and they had failed to get a response on the VHF radio suspecting the frequency had been altered from that shown in their outdated ‘pilot book’.
Due to the belatedness of the hour and them not wanting to miss dinner before the Pub’s closed, they decided to save money and defer their berthing at the marina until next day. It would be easier in the light and would have the sanction of the harbour authorities.
Instead, they had spied an ideal temporary berth alongside a large high-sided day-trip boat, used for taking holidaymakers for trips across the bay. The enclosed cabin made it difficult to tie up to but they eventually succeeded before using the inflatable dingy to run mooring lines on the ‘bight’ to the buoys fore and aft. The whole procedure took about half an hour so they were anxious to get ashore to eat and slake their thirst.
The short distance from their yacht to the marina pontoon was negotiated without problems in spite of there being five of them in a dingy designed for four. Returning later, proved to be another matter.
The exit gate from the pontoon was the first difficulty they were to encounter. A code was needed both for egress and ingress.
After waiting for twenty minutes or so for a berth holder to return or depart, they became impatient when nobody turned up, so they decided to scale the gate. Of course the powers that be had anticipated this possibility and as a consequence, the coils of razor wire surpassed anything wartime concentration camps, displayed.
However, they hadn’t reckoned on the effect that denial could have on a thirsty sailor which was to ‘fine tune’ their resourcefulness. Five minutes later they were all safely over, although Paul England, the stoutest of the group, swore blind that the tear in the seat of his pants, was already there.
To most people the ‘hole in the wall’ means a cash-dispensing machine but in Torquay there is an ancient timber- framed ‘Inn’ of the same name that existed centuries before the cash machine existed.
Notorious with seaman over many generations, the hostelry has become well known for its exceptional dining but its public bar still retains its traditional charm. It was here that the eager party was headed and as they entered the warm convivial atmosphere, it seemed that a party was in full swing. It was most unusual that someone else had begun the singing and although the rendering of ‘an old mill by the stream Nelly Deane’ could hardly be accorded the term ‘sea-shanty’, it was certainly an indication of what was to follow.
The barman was quick to notice the ‘Bretton’ caps and waterproofs and without being asked sent over five dripping pints of Bass brewed locally, which was a favourite of the seafarers who frequented his tavern. They hoped that the surreptitious ‘wink’, indicated that their initial drink was on the house.
John, the navigator, was looking forward to a large ‘Gordon’s and Schweppes’ but he was too polite and thirsty to do other than justice to the foaming brew which he downed in one so he could order his much desired tipple at the start of a new round. Neville said he would prefer a lager but the remainder stayed on the Bass.
“Three pints of Bass bitter, a pint of Stella and a large G and T with ice but no lemon please,” was the order for several rounds before a table in the dining room became vacant.
The fifth member of their party was a large German, known by the name – Horst. He was a business partner of Keith and acted as Keith’s company’s agent on the Continent. The others thought that for a German he was quite humorous and almost displayed some of the quirky characteristics of an Englishman. This was thought by Keith to be attributed to the two years or so that he had studied at Southampton University.
Like many big men his demeanor was gentle but in common with most of his countrymen his voice was loud and emanated from below a heavy drooping moustache. The kind that had been popular in the first World War in Britain but was soon out of fashion. Many of the continentals, however, still displayed a liking for this kind of facial adornment.
It may have been the name association, unwittingly suggested by the barman’s generosity, but with the exception of Horst they all ordered sea–bass. When it came to Horst’s turn, he ignored the others suggestions of ‘sour-croute’ or’ brat-virst’ and instead asked for a pair of kippers.
Unfortunately the waiter was Polish and thought he asked for a pair of slippers and it took some time and involved much merriment before he settled for steak and ale pie.
The joviality proved infectious and soon most of the restaurant was joining in on the choruses of ‘Rule Britannia” and for Horst’s benefit ‘Lilly Marlene’.
Dinner over and three bottles of Poulet Montrache later, they all adjourned to the public bar, where luckily a large table and seats by the fire had just become vacant.
It may have been the drink that caused Horst’s gentleness to turn to clumsiness but the bikers, whose leathers ended up on the floor, were not best pleased. Horst nearly saved the day by picking the jackets off the floor and then blew it by commenting that he had seen better plastic in Germany.
By and large, sailors enjoy a brawl but not when outnumbered by two to one so when local fishermen sided with them the odds became more weighted in their favour and led to a stand off.
The roar of the ‘Harleys’ shattered the peace as the Bikers revved up defiantly, before leaving a short while later.
The display by the Hell’s Angels, of Swastika’s together with other Nazi symbols and their eventual stand down, prompted the locals in the bar to a rendition of old wartime favourites.
Paul England, although only in short trousers at the time had picked up many of these at family parties, so was able to accompany the singers on the well-played but tuneful, piano. Strains of ‘a long way to Tipperary’ and ‘bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover’ echoed around the harbour. Later in deference to the lone ‘ Australian ’ in the bar the usual emotional words of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ were sung leaving subsequent verses to the ‘Oz’ who was the only one who knew all of the words.
Only four of the party set out on the return journey. Keith had excused himself earlier to see his mother in-law or so he said but the others were unconvinced being sure it had more to do with getting out of scaling the razor wire and a comfortable nights sleep.
Neville, the Skipper and John, the navigator, were soon over the obstruction on top of the gate. The two heavier men remained on the other side. Unlike the experienced sailors they were unused to drinking so heavily and neither had ever had to climb a barbed wire fence to get home.
It had rained heavily while they had been in the ‘Hole in the wall” and the dingy had taken on quite a lot of water. John, with the aid of a cut-off plastic bottle, began to bail the dingy out. Neville sat on a bollard and lit a cigarette, contentedly puffing away while awaiting the two remaining crewmembers.
Unable to get over the gate, the German by nationality and England by name felt rather helpless. Paul sat down on a lobster pot and also lit a cigarette while the more resourceful German searched around for a means to help them. He soon came up with an idea.
A sailing boat stood alongside the fence in a wooden cradle. Horst took a handle from an ancient mobile crane about twenty yards away and scrabbled aboard the yacht. The handle fitted. He hoisted the boom and swung it outwards securing it with the stays. He found a length of stout rope and made a makeshift sling.
Back on the jetty he helped Paul fasten the sling under his arms and returned to the yacht, where, with the aid of the winch, he was able to hoist Paul gently into the air. Next, he threw one of the stays over the fence and Neville and John heaved in on the tackle while Horst eased of the restraining stay. Paul swung deftly over the fence and was lowered by his German colleague down the other side. The whole episode took only about ten minutes and John clambered back over the fence to assist with Horst’s similar rescue. The sling was placed around his ample back and under his arms. John was well practiced at using the hoist, which was known as a ‘coffee grinder’ to the seagoing fraternity, and Horst soon became airborne. Neville and Paul heaved on the stay and slowly Horst was winched over the fence.
Perhaps Horst was a little heavier than Paul or maybe the sling had been weakened by the initial use but whatever the reason just as Horst was halfway over the sling broke and the cargo was deposited unceremoniously on top of the fence. It was just as well that German is a little known language in Devon as the guttural expletives that followed, caused even the hardened seaman to look startled.
It took nearly an hour to extract Horst from the damage and when they left in the dingy they were somewhat chastened by the sight of the hitherto secure barrier, lying flattened and trampled on the pontoon.
A loud incessant banging came from above, disturbing the deep alcohol induced sleep of the Skipper of the yacht and his sailing companions. Neville, the skipper, pulled on a sweater and a pair of strides. He opened the deck hatch and staggered out on deck. He was faced with two burley men who were wearing dungarees and long rubber sea boots who glared at him menacingly. The larger one said. “What are you a doing of here?”
Neville replied, noting it was still quite dark, “Waiting for dawn so we can go alongside.”
He glanced at his watch. It was just after five a.m.
“You’ll have to move,” said the other man.
“It’s a bit early for trips round the bay,” responded Neville.
“Funny man,” said the first man. “We are going out to set a few lobster pots for our own use before the normal day starts so you’d better shove off!”
Neville stood his ground. “You may not have noticed we’ve got slip lines on the buoys so you can just let go without disturbing us.”
“This is our mooring so it’s not a question of disturbing you or otherwise. In any case there won’t be enough room for us to swing.”
“Our lines are sound, “said Neville, “so you can pull yourselves round on us. It’ll make it easy for you.”
“Please yourself, “replied the bigger man, “unless you go of your own free will, I’ll cut you adrift.”
“Shouldn’t if I were you,” cried Neville becoming a little angry, “there are five of us aboard including two Rugby players who definitely won’t appreciate being woken up. So be a good fellow and go and frighten the lobsters and leave us alone.”
Neville went below to avoid further confrontation and pointedly shut the hatch.
John was brewing some tea and said, “well done Nev.”
They drank their tea in silence, listening as the pleasure craft started her engines and a short while later, slowly got under way.
As a parting shot the helmsman of the tripper called over that he would report the yacht to the harbour master and he gave a sharp burst on his engine that caused the yacht to bounce around on the mooring in a jerky motion which spilt the tea all over the cabin floor.
“They’re not real fishermen, ” said John and Neville agreed. “ Probably drive a taxi in the winter to stay out of the cold.”
Using the dingy John rowed a bow line to the pontoon that he made fast to a cleat. He repeated the exercise with a stern line and Neville using a geared hand windlass, pulled the yacht steadily towards the vacant mooring opposite while slacking off the buoy ropes and eventually taking them completely in. The yacht gently came alongside the pontoon, which was fitted with a rubber apron and therefore didn’t need fenders. Back springs were tied and a couple of breast lines completed the mooring up.
Neville and John strolled down to the Harbour Office and were met by a charming old gentleman who was the out of hours duty officer but he admitted that he used to be known as the night watchman.
They reported the incident with the day-tripper and also mentioned that they had caused moderate damage during the night by not having the code.
The old chap made a note in his log and asked them to come back after eight to officially register their arrival with the day staff.
On seeing the results of Horst’s emergency landing, they decided to rope off the area to prevent anyone getting hurt or caught up in the netting. The watchman had given them the gate code so they were able to temporarily secure the damage on both sides.
By the time they had finished their provisional repairs it had just gone seven so they decided to head for the café at the end of the jetty for a full English with two mugs of tea.
John was deep into the morning paper when Neville asked if they should pull them up.
“Pull what up?” Asked John.
“The lobster pots” said Neville.
“What a great idea,” replied John, “we could put something appropriate in them.”
“I can smell a competition coming on,” said Neville just as breakfast arrived.
After settling for their meal they returned to the Harbour office that was now a different place. All hustle and bustle. A pretty young girl manned the phones and two uniformed officials went about their duties.
The senior of the two was identified easily, due to the gold braid on his epaulettes. He finished a conversation on the VHF radio with a fishing boat and gave his attention to the two arrivals.
“St Jacut”, he said, “the night officer left details. Just as well you arrived this morning. Our night security officer left a note that the motorcycle yobs tried to break in near to your berth. Damaged the fence something awful. Just as well we’re well insured. Might have to move you if your staying long.”
“Just last night,” said Neville were off to Brixham later.”
They paid for a night and left a note for Keith before they left, advising him that they would be in Brixham.
Anxious to leave before anyone changed their minds, John and Neville cast off without waking the other two and slipped quietly out of the harbour entrance, waving at a crowd of school children on an excursion who were sketching the scene from the end of the harbour wall.
The day-tripper was returning for its normal activities of running visitors around the harbour and visiting prominent spots. It studiously ignored the yacht as they passed but the name on its stern, after Nelson’s flagship, did not go unnoticed.
The yacht headed in a southerly direction to round Berry head just before ten. Carefully avoiding the rocks, they nudged towards the shore in a tiny bay where they brought up the anchor and shut down the engine.
The silence was palpable and caused the remainder of the crew to be awakened by the lack of noise, each with sore heads. Horst drank a can of lager in one go to take his mind off of his wounds and Paul settled for a large black coffee. Another ten minutes passed before either of them realized that they were no longer in Torquay.
Horst seemed to have started a trend and before long a case of lager graced the cockpit bench to fortify the sailors while they deliberated on their day’s activities.
A number of floats were strategically placed around the outlying rocks surrounding Berry Head, under which lay baited lobster traps. Each float carried a flag to enable recovery in rough weather and the floats carried markings of the fishermen or sometimes the owner’s name, which also occasionally appeared on the flag.
John was particularly interested in floats or flags bearing the name he’d seen earlier and using powerful binoculars spotted five candidates. He boarded the rubber dingy, started the outboard, and headed for the shore. The two buckets he had brought with him were soon filled with fine sand and he returned to the yacht.
The bilges were a handy place to keep items that were not often used, such as bottom scrapers and the like. John remembered a box of surgical gloves kept for Painting and retrieved these together with a small funnel. He then tied up the thumbs and the two small fingers. He filled the rest of the gloves through the funnel and sealed the hand openings with white ‘gorilla’ tape (waterproof variety). The end result was a hand with two fingers distended to form a ‘vee sign.’
All four of them were caught by the mood and they boarded the dingy carrying the inflated gloves in a bucket. The other bucket remained empty for now.
All five pots had their contents replaced with one of the gloves and they returned to the yacht with a bucket containing five lobsters.
Keith was waiting to take their lines as they arrived in Brixham and moored adjacent to the lifeboat.
A fine bottle of ‘Alsace’ complimented the fresh lobster cooked to perfection by the Skipper who’d been taught in Martha’s Vineyard a year earlier by a creole chef of renown,
They raised their glasses in a toast to Nelson’s Flagship: The Victory.
– – – – – – – – –
There is nothing so effective for learning about the true nature of ones friends and acquaintances than sailing with them twenty-four seven on a small boat. Paul England was not, and never would be, a seaman although he possessed many of the characteristics. He was strong, fearless, drank, and his language was less than genteel. He had been brought along as a sort of ‘make weight’ and had fitted in well having a particular affinity with his cabin mate, the other heavy weight, Horst. It therefore came as quite a surprise that it was him that came up with the solution.
Brixham is the only deep water fishing port left on the South Coast and in spite of the European Union restrictions, it is still busy as many fisherman land their catches there to benefit from the well established auction house and the rapid access to North European Markets.
In the summer, the activities attract a small but important tourist trade, resulting in an almost carnival atmosphere.
The ‘Spratt and Mackerel” opened early on market day and it was here that the sailors drank their breakfast. Over the years they had befriended some of the local fisherman who also arrived early to quench their thirst. Many tales were told over a ‘pint’ or three and local knowledge was imparted that became logged away in the sailor’s brain to be recalled later, if needed.
Horst was an avid listener to the stories, whether because he found it difficult to understand the Devonshire lilt, or in order to regale them later to his friends in some alehouse in Bremen, no one knew. Perhaps it lent him some credence, for he keenly wanted to be a sailor and although he wore his peaked cap at a jaunty angle and carried a sailor’s rucksack it was probably as close as he would ever get. Rumour had it, that he owned a seventy-foot pre-war wooden sailing barge that had become the scourge of the River Brest.
Horst was due to return to Germany the next day to get back to his family and work. Germans took their responsibilities seriously.
It had been agreed to sail across to Torquay in time for him to catch the first fast train to Paddington and he had re-arranged a flight from the City Airport. Apart from his kit bag and carry-on he had no other luggage and the big man favoured carrying his kitbag on his shoulder as depicted by American sailors on movies.
John happened to catch a glimpse of Paul putting his wallet away as he returned from the toilets accompanied by Trevelyan known as ‘Trev’ who skippered the deep sea trawler ‘Ocean Spray’.
Being a Saturday, the crew broke up. Keith returned to his wealthy relative, hopeful of being remembered when the time came and John went part way with him in search of a ‘betting shop.’
Horst and Neville went shopping and Paul said he felt tired and would catch up on some lost sleep. They had agreed to meet a seven in the Yacht club for a livener or two before dining, though it had been arranged to meet Keith in Torquay next morning, when they dropped Horst off.
“Can you smell something?” John asked as they stood at the circular bar of the Yacht Club.
Nobody could but Neville asked, “what kind of smell?”
‘Sort of fishy’” said John.
“What do you expect in a fishing port. Frankincense?”
Paul shouted a round and the conversation returned to the normal subject of wine, women and song.
They dined well on the club’s limited but ample menu and adjourned to the comfortable lounge to sit round the fire to take coffee and brandy although Horst requested Rum.
His ample body filled the ornate ‘Captains chair’ and he sighed with contentment.
“I feel bloatered,” he said.
Paul nearly creased up to stop himself from bursting out laughing.
Neville kindly corrected the German.
“You mean bloated!” he said.
“Yes, yes Nev’, now you mention it, you’re quite right.”
— — —
There was no sign of Keith when they tied up on the pontoon early next morning. The only available berth was opposite the damaged fence and was coned off. They figured that they wouldn’t be long so they moved the cones to one side and were gratified to find that the gate code remained unaltered.
It was a short walk past the theatre to the station and they didn’t have to wait long before Horst’s train arrived. Complete with luggage Horst boarded the near empty train and they bade each other farewell.
As they toured the town for a café open for breakfast, John reflected that it was sad that they might never meet their sailing companion again.
Neville agreed and added “For a German he was quite a good bloke, we should have got him something to remember us by!”
Paul couldn’t help stifling a chuckle and as the others thought he would be the most cut-up they were somewhat surprised.
“Do you remember what Horst ordered in the “hole in the wall?” he said.
In unison John and Neville replied that they couldn’t.
“He wanted kippers, ” Paul reminded them.
“So he has got something to remember us by.”
A wicked grin creased his face.
“I stuffed his kit bag with them, courtesy of the ‘Ocean Spray’ and tightly laced it closed so it was effectively hermetically sealed. Probably won’t open it until he gets home!”