"Four Men in a boat", continued. By " Shipmate"

21 CHAPTER TWENTY ONE (Knock Down)                     

He stood alone on the half open bridge of a forty-five foot sailing boat that was pounding into the great Atlantic Ocean waves some two hundred miles off the coast of Portugal.

Never had he felt so miserable, apprehensive and on the verge of being frightened.  He was cold and damp.  The wind was gusting up to sixty knots turning the tops of the waves into a ragged spume that was all the more worrying as in the failing light it resembled breakers.

The ‘Camper Nicholson’ ketch was well founded and its crew comprised of four relatively experienced sailors who had left Brixham in Devon full of eager anticipation and cider, bound for the Mediterranean Island of Minorca or more specifically its Capital Mahon.

They had planned to keep well to the west of Biscay in the hopes of avoiding the notorious seas by staying in deep water.  This they were gratified to achieve but found themselves in a different sort of deep water two hundred nautical miles off of the coast of Portugal.

As a result of the immense seas, one of the crew became totally incapacitated and retired to his bunk where he stayed for thee days.

The lonely vigil of the watch keeper was somewhat tempered by the dusk turning to night on the basis of what you can’t see is not so frightening.  Unfortunately, imagination and the eerie pale illumination of the navigation lights were sufficient to conjure up all kinds of threats.  Although his sight had been temporarily obscured, the sound of the winds howling and the occasional straining and cracking of the sails, did little to comfort him.  The boat was pitching and rising far too much, even to make a hot drink.  As a qualified Master Mariner he knew all about keeping Thermoses ready and regretted ignoring such basic practices.  At least, he reflected, without eating you didn’t need the loo but he new he must not become dehydrated.  They always joked with a new crewmember particularly when suffering from a hangover and feeling unwell at the motion of the boat,

“You know what will make you feel heaps better?”

‘What?”

“A glass of warm oil with a hair in it.”

Often they’d leave a bottle of ‘spring water’ lying about for the unsuspecting who until they took a gulp were totally unaware that a bread crust had been added to the water.  They even had a saying for the results, ‘A Technicolor yawn.’

Now the joke was on the unfortunate duty sailor who was recalling all this which made him feel even worse if that were possible.

Why they never thought of staggering the watches to accommodate the absence of one of the crew remains a mystery.  They had agreed to work three hours on and three off with two men to each watch.  The Skipper, whose name was Neville and the ex Master Mariner, John, were each to share their watch with the slightly less able seamen namely Rod an architect and Keith a playboy.  Keith was a part owner and was partnered with the skipper and Rod, the jester who was never quite sober, kept John company that is until Rod succumbed to ‘mal de mere’.

Nobody thought to make a log entry when it happened.

 Perhaps they were too preoccupied or maybe the truth of the matter is that the log pencil went missing which, as it happens, was quite understandable as chart tables and pencils are not expected to remain together when the boat ‘ turns turtle.’

None of them had envisaged this happening when they discussed their imminent voyage in the ‘Sprat and Mackerel’s’ public bar on the evening before their departure.

Rod was in fine spirits or to be more precise was full of spirits.  Neville said he could never hit the dartboard even when he was sober and John as is the custom of seafarer’s world over had only sung the ‘Bumblebee’ song three times before taking a nap in anticipation of his duty.  Keith, as usual, avoided a hangover by not over indulging and encouraged everyone else including strangers to take part in the revelry.  The others could never quite work out whether Keith was a bad drinker who suffered too much or a scheming companion who appeared to take part but was unable to let his hair down.

In spite of their apparent casual appearance they were fairly responsible once at sea and ensured that their vessel and all it’s equipment was in good order.  No expense had been spared but alas when the sea decides, no amount of equipment or expertise can prevent disaster although its true to say that those with more expertise and sound equipment will often stand a better chance of avoiding problems.  This is undeniable, that is until a giant wave approaches when one is a couple of hundred miles offshore.

John was in robot mode.  When off watch he was in his sodden sleeping bag that took almost the entire time he was off watch to warm up.

The gale had arrived two days earlier and grew steadily in strength from a mere force five in the Beaufort scale to a storm force nine.  A fishing fleet with boats of around one hundred and twenty foot long, was encountered on the second day and even only about a quarter of a mile off, completely disappeared in the troughs.  An added worry was they often fished at nights without lights so it was necessary to occasionally start the engine to keep the batteries charged for running the radar.

Towards the end of his watch John’s brain was active even if his body was numb.  The worst bit by far, he reflected, was the overwhelming feeling of helplessness, which gradually crept up on him.  Two days sailing to the nearest land on a treacherous course; no U.K. air sea rescue facilities.  With the weather forecast to become even worse, they were totally reliant on their own capabilities and those of the boat.  In the end he knew it would depend on the stamina and knowledge of the crew, as more often than not, boats survived long after the people.

Why did they do it?  Little did he know he would be reminded in just over three day’s time.

Just after midnight at change of watch on the third night everyone was very subdued.

John had just climbed into his sleeping bag and was thankful to hand over his responsibilities, albeit for a few hours.  Just as he was drifting into the comfort of sleep he became aware of a sound like an express steam train.  The thirty odd ton vessel was picked up like a matchbox with seemingly little effort and rotated three hundred and sixty degrees beam ways.

In the pitch black of the main cabin, chaos took place.  The sea came cascading into the cabin from all directions.  Pots, pans, cups and saucers mixed with books charts, spares and hundreds of gallons of water.  Bits of paper were everywhere.  Oddly the perpetual motion of the boat pitching and rising relentlessly in the waves had ceased as the vessel lay wallowing and filling with seawater.

John was wide awake in an instant and clambering into the cold floods managed in the dark by feel alone, to engage the lever operating the main engine pump.  By sheer coincidence or instinct Neville had simultaneously started the engine and the highly efficient pump discharged massive volumes of bilge water providing sufficient buoyancy to ride the follow up wave.

John, half naked and wet through, topped the bridge stairs and said to the Skipper, “ What the f..k was that?”

Nev replied, “Thanks mate, I think we just made it.  Check Keith.  He went aft to read the Log.”

Out on deck it was quite scary particularly as John had loaned Keith his safety harness earlier when he knew of Keith’s intention.  Because John kept watch on his own he did not leave the steering bridge to check the log that was streamed aft from the poop.  Luckily, ketches have a mizzen mast at the stern and Keith was hanging on for dear life.  Although he was frozen to the bone by the howling wind and still half naked, John made his way aft clinging to the mast stays for safety to assist his shipmate, who in the event didn’t need much encouragement to abandon his task and return to the relative safety of the cockpit.

It was discovered later that the log had been a casualty of the swamping as well as one of the ten millimeter stainless steel lifelines that had been broken cleanly in two by the force of the massive wave.

They reefed in the Genoa and motor sailed for the rest of the night to keep the head up to wind to ease the motion of the boat while the pump continued to empty the bilges.

The weather remained ferocious and only subsided as they approached land and their absent shipmate Rod stumbled unsteadily on to the aft deck remembering to relieve himself on the leeside.  When questioned about the encounter Rod reluctantly admitted that on waking he had discovered his berth had succumbed to the deluge in spite of it being about a foot higher than the others.  His recollection was unclear however, as he attributed the source of the water as being his own business.

It was dark by the time they made landfall and normally they would have anchored off until daybreak but they were so anxious to be on dry land, that they decided to make for port.  Their entry was hampered by most of the instruments becoming inoperable being submerged in salt water and the only full-scale chart of the area had been lost overboard.  A tiny chart in an ancient pilot book was all they had to guide them and many of the lead lights and features had changed.

All four men peered through binoculars at the distant shore lights tantalizingly beckoning them closer. 

Suddenly Rod said, “There’s the entrance lights over there and pointed about ten degrees to starboard.  They all stared hard and Neville from the wheel said, “Are you sure?”

“Yes.  Certain,” cried Rod, “I’ve got a gut feeling,”

“Bugger your gut, ”Neville responded from the helm, “I’m surprised after four days in your cart you’ve got any feeling at all.”

Rod went very quiet for the rest of the passage and Neville’s unkind but truthful remarks may have been the cause of Rod’s departure.  Two days later he caught a flight back to the U.K. from Gibraltar.

Entry was finally made into the inner harbor at Vigo at about one a.m. and it was as though someone had waved a wand as the wind suddenly died.  The anchor was brought up in a firm anchorage and the crew, less Rod who had volunteered to mind the yacht, were revitalised and made for the shore. 

Anyone who has been to Vigo will know it’s not exactly New Orleans or even New York and the three survivors instinctively found the only hostelry open that was in the Sheraton International.

It is a credit to the night staff and their training that caused them to ignore the arrival of the three fun seekers who made straight for the all night bar.  Currency was not a problem as they had at least two Amex cards with them.  A real problem was their appearance having slept in their clothes for four or five days and being unshaven.

However, the beautifully turned out clientele in the bar were tickled at the appearance of the unusual late night customers all wearing ‘Breton’ caps and getting up to bizarre antics accompanied by the evening suited pianist on the grand piano.  The floor tiles in the bar area were black and white chequers which encouraged John to perform the sailors hornpipe mingled with a dance that appeared to be some weird form of hopscotch, much to the amusement of the locals.

The party really got going when Keith, in his customary way, bought drinks all round that for three of them, who had completely empty stomachs, was the cause of the evaporation of whatever inhibitions that had remained.

Neville was an accomplished player of the piano but this was limited to one tune.  He had the whole bar including the barmen joining in singing Frank Sinatra’s, ‘New York New York, I’m singing it now’ etc etc. while he expertly tickled the ivories.

John not to be outdone grabbed the ‘mike’ from the top of the piano and needing no encouragement started on the “Bumble bee’ song.

He too had the ensemble joining in, although on reflection it is more than likely that they were unaware of the words they sang.  Tears of laughter rolled down some of the elegant customers cheeks as everyone sang the bit that goes …” Bzzzz… Bzzzz….  Get away you Bumble bee, I ain’t no rose, I ain’t no honey suckle flower, 

Get off my f…g nose, I ain’t no……….’

Hangovers are always worse when you get tanked up on an empty stomach, Neville thought enviously of John’s apparent miraculous powers of recovery.  He supposed it was years of training at sea where drinking and working was about all there was to do.

Rod had left early without saying good bye but it was as though he had never been there, which to all intents and purposes, was almost the case.

An hour or so before lunch they assembled in the tiny bar along the jetty for a livener that reminded them that they hadn’t eaten.  They were ravenous, there appetites had returned with a vengeance.  Mussels were the specialty of the house though perhaps not the best thing on an empty stomach.  With no wives to advise them they tucked in to huge bowls of the local equivalent of ‘Moules Marnier’ accompanied by great hunks of bread and washed down with copious amount of beer and rough red wine.

Keith, being more practical or possibly less ‘merry’, proposed that due to the weather they abandon the rest of the voyage until later.  Neville and John however were keen to continue having quickly forgotten the last few days.  It was settled in the usual way.

They were each to have a coin and would take it in turn to toss there coin so it slid as near as possible to the stone step leading to the bar.

They all had to start about fifteen foot away on the ‘ockey’ as in playing darts and the winner whose prize on this occasion would be the choice, was person whose coin was the nearest to the step.  If your coin actually hit the step you became disqualified.  If all three were disqualified, as often was the case, depending on how much they had drunk, the competition would start all over again.  A relatively simple game that over time had seen the exchange of hundreds of pounds and the allocation of many unusual tasks.

Both Neville and John hit the step so Keith who was to toss last claimed victory but not before they insisted he toss his coin in case he too hit the step.  Of course Keith being true to form tossed his coin barely a yard.  They were to go home.

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