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Voyages of the Nora Dane

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A novel dedicated to Jean’s mother, Brenda, who encouraged her to tell her story. Neither spoilt a good yarn by labouring over the facts. Any likeness to real persons in this dramatised re-telling is coincidental with no offence intended.  I thank Sherry for her patience, assistance and advice.

 

 

 

 

Preamble

In the corner of a suburban backyard is a rusting lantern.  Its burner, wick and mantle have long since disappeared.  Soon all but its glass lens will decompose. Children see it and ask “what’s that?”  They are told, “It’s an old ship’s light that’s brass plate reads Anker.”  This is the story of the lantern’s final journey under sail. It is a story of arrivals and departures; coming and goings sometimes as brief ships that pass or as final as the sailing traders’ passage into history.

 

 

 

 


First Voyage – Salvage or Tax

Chapter One –   A Mission to the Baltic

Chapter Two –   Passage to the Elbe

Chapter Three – Incident off Dungeness

Chapter Four –   Hamble and Home

 

 

Second Voyage Outward bound

Chapter One –    Passage Plans

Chapter Two –    Farewell

Chapter Three – Across the Biscay

Chapter Four  The Rock of Gibraltar

Chapter Five –    The Pirate Kings

 

 

Last Voyage – Homeward bound

Chapter One –    Turning a dollar

Chapter Two –    Escape to Cascais

Chapter Three – Return across Biscay

Chapter Four –   Hamble and homeless

 

 

The Seaman’s Word – A Maritime Glossary


First Voyage – Salvage or Tax

 

Chapter One – A Mission to the Baltic

 

In the northernmost Baltic seaport of Töre the Arctic winter of 1966 had come early.  The boats in the cove had been pulled ashore.  Those afloat were already iced in.

Captain Nils Larsen’s sailing ship, the galeas Nora av Sven, rode to her anchor some metres off the rickety town jetty.  Not that the anchor was doing much, as she was surrounded by the thick pack ice.  The Captain’s miserable reward for the late delivery of a pitiful part cargo of broken bricks was to be trapped from departure.

At the end of a bitingly cold day, the Captain’s son and sole crewman Piers was attending to the lamps.  Wearing fingerless woollen gloves he could barely feel, but like a thousand times before, he filled the kerosene burner, wound up the wick and struck a match.  He deftly sheltered its fragile flare from the flurries of snow as the wick caught alight.  After replacing the glass mantle it glowed brightly.  For some moments he cradled the mantle with calloused hands, feeling its delicious warmth on his numb finger tips, then for the final time he hauled the anchor lantern high up into the rigging where it shone out from the darkness like a star.

This final duty done, Piers strode to the aft cabin where he tried to avoid his father’s pleading eyes.  No words were spoken.  The money jar on the shelf was empty again, and that was that.  Piers gathered the sum of his earthly possessions in a knapsack, climbed to the deck and slid down onto the harbour’s snow-dusted sheet of ice, to tramp off towards the township’s lights without looking back.

 

 

The galeas, sometimes called a Baltic Trader, is a stout little schooner, typically of two hundred tons, game enough to poke its bluff nose into the smallest creek of the Baltic’s island-studded archipelagos, but large enough for passages over Arctic seas.  In the last century islanders’ harvest surplus of potatoes, grain and timber were traded for coal, farm machinery, some luxuries and always news from afar.

These ships were built from hewn oak frames supporting double pitch pine planking stout enough to cut through ice.  They were driven by gaff sails on Douglas fir masts, two or maybe three, with square sails on the foremast.  Their hulls carried an elegant sheer from bowsprit tip to heart-shaped stern.  A painted clinker longboat hung from curved transom davits like a pearl earring.  Described as having a cod’s head and a mackerel’s tail, these little ships would bash through a seaway to windward or scud homeward on a run.  None was stronger and longer lived than those built by the master ship builder from Marstal, Ring Anderson.  His craft sat on the water like swans.

The fleets that had once dominated the Baltic Sea were in decline by the 1960s.  Container ships and bridge building finished off what wartime U-boats had begun.  Struggling to compete with road transport their rigs and crews were cut back and auxiliary engines installed.  It was still backbreaking hand loading an island's summer plenty and the work was freezing in winter.  Worse still, when a cargo could not be found, profitless rocks for stabilising ballast must be sought, bought and loaded.

A father and son could just about manage what half a dozen men had done before.  But no son now wanted that life and the fathers could not do it alone.  A fire sale of these last working sailing ships, the galeas, was brokered by Christiansen’s of Copenhagen and others, and the adventurers of the world came looking for a bargain.

 

 

Jeff and Jean Hope were bargain hunters.  But where money is fluttering the taxman is alerted.  Ships relocating to English ports would be taxed from the last day of 1968, precipitating a race that jeopardised prudent seamanship.  Come storm or high water Jeff had a deadline of a month to select, purchase, refit and deliver the prize of a little ship to home waters.

For this purpose his delivery crew squeezed into a compartment of the London to Harwich boat train on the last Sunday in November, bound for Copenhagen.  On this unseasonably mild afternoon Jeff, Jean, their companion Bill and son Ranger were overclad in sailing suits designed for the Arctic.  Their compartment was entered from a main corridor through a narrow sliding door.  Inside, twin upholstered bench seats provided cosy seating space for eight persons, three of whom were already seated.  Above them, on the maple panelled bulkhead was an ornately etched mirror.  A shelf below held eight glass tumblers and a pitcher of drinking water, which was immediately upset on their noisy entry with much ado and apologies all around.

To the added discomfort of fellow passengers their already bulky attire was supplemented with voluminous sailing bags, a bulging leather satchel and a wooden crate.  Marked “fragile”, the rope-handled crate was plastered with labels depicting shattered wine glasses.  The guard had insisted that it be placed in the baggage compartment.  However finding it heavier than expected, and yet so easily manhandled by big Bill, he had been coerced into allowing it as cabin luggage.  It now propped open the compartment’s sliding door, half in and half out of the corridor, presenting an obstacle for every passer-by.

Now in middle age Jeff, an Australian, was noted for a raucous laugh that rivalled the kookaburras.  This gift was used by his family locate him in a crowd, and had prompted a famous comedian to ad lib “give that man a lifelong ticket to my shows.”

From boyhood Jeff’s resentment of authority was the bane of his parents’ and teachers’ best efforts to civilise him.  When scolded that he must learn his alphabet so he could chant it standing on his head, he had perversely learnt it in reverse to amuse the class; a trick that in later life did nothing to improve his office skills.  His frequent truancy was a blessing for those teachers, who preferred him to engage in pranks while paddling the bays in Sydney’s Port Jackson rather than in their classroom.

Jeff yearned to stow away on one of the ships that daily steamed clear of the rules and mediocrity of dull Mosman.  Regularly he would cadge a ride to steer the “SS Tanda” from Pyrmont’s frozen meat wharfs to the passenger dock at Woolloomooloo.  To him, the Great Depression described his childhood more than the state of the nation.  In January 1940 he finally escaped for Suez on the S.S. Orford, in convoy with twelve troopships, incredibly shipping with them horse drawn artillery from the first war.  So began his first adventure in the charnel-house of war.  The Orford and Jeff were flaming wrecks only months later.

As a signalman in the Egyptian Campaign, Jeff had to crawl out under the barrage into no-man’s land dragging a telephone and cable, to report target accuracy.  His threat to shoot the “sick donkey”, as he called the colonel responsible for his near death by friendly fire, was the last of several attempts to prove his mental unfitness for duty.  Jeff was recalled for court martial on the troopship the SS Strathallan, but detoured from Singapore days before Japanese forces invaded.  To avoid torpedos, as her sister ship Stratheden had demonstrated earlier, she zigzagged homeward through the freezing Southern Ocean; “via the South Pole,” Jeff would later claim.

In Canberra awaiting court martial, the fall of Singapore hardened the military to a back-to-the-wall mind-set.  Choosing between death by firing squad or manning an isolated signal station in occupied New Guinea, was not hard.  A year of hell in the jungle of Merauke left the corporal with the skills of a radio technician, a case of lurking black dog exacerbated by “wowsers” (as he defined those who spoil fun) and a discharge as medically “unfit” (as they defined those sufferers from paranoid psychosis).

Like many young men whose youth was robbed, Jeff's war experience was boredom laced with occasional terror.  He rarely spoke of his wartime experience but most tellingly he forbade firearms in the home, perhaps as much to avoid murdering in rage as suicide in depression.  An early plan to train as an electrician was abandoned with Jean’s encouragement for a soldiers’ re-settlement degree, and in another three years he was practising dentistry.  This was a profession that he was surprisingly good at, having strong hands, a craftsman’s eye and a detachment from causing pain to his fellow creatures.  The mouth of the world was wide open and waiting for him.

Jean was Jeff’s yang, reserved, pretty and so bright that despite Jeff's ebullient personality her radiance was never entirely obscured.  She was born to Brisbane gentry but despite her looks, love of books and studious nature she was a child tomboy. An accomplished sailor, she dressed as a boy (females were ineligible) to win the yacht club skiff trophy, a deception that caused her grandfather, the club’s Commodore, much angst.

During her Great Depression Jean was sent to the dry country west of Cunnamulla to her aunt’s Wittenburra Station.  Here, despite the flies and the heat she was delighted with this alternative to stuffy Brisbane.  On horseback they checked the hundred miles of fence lines, camping out under the Milky Way’s shimmering glow.  She learnt the habit of searching skyward; for rain clouds by day and the Southern Cross by night.  As well as her treasured books she always kept close by a green velvet purse.  It contained the rough opals that she collected as the horses’ hooves threw them on the solitary ridges above Wittenburra.  Even in this uncut state they were as mesmerizing as a meteor shower.

Jean’s first husband, Stuart, had been her childhood sweetheart and fellow skiff sailor on the pre-war idyll that was Moreton Bay.  When war was declared, she joined the Royal Australian Navy cipher office and Stuart enlisted for blue skies and a breezy life in its navy reserve, but as fate would have it he was posted to a Royal Navy mother submarine in the Levant.  The last letter she received described how the crew had rested and recuperated in the hills above Beirut.  “Stuey” and his friend had crashed their motorbike as they sped down the hill to the HMS Torment, ready to depart.  Due to injuries the friend was hospitalised and missed the boat.  What happened to Stuart was unknown.   The boat departed to secretly raid in the Aegean Sea but she and her sixty four crewmen were never heard of again.

Before the Allied success of the Battle of the Coral Sea, war strategists had drawn the “Brisbane Line”, earmarking indefensible territory to sacrifice on the inevitable Japanese attack.  The “Line” cut train communications one hundred miles to the south at Murwillumbah.  With Stuey posted missing and his widow trapped by Brisbane’s claustrophobia Jean’s life seemed over.  She was at the point of breakdown.  She bicycled over the mountains to catch a train to Sydney, to work in its cipher office.  From her employment Jean had a better idea than most of the progress of the war but it was years before she was officially notified that Stuart was considered lost.

At war’s end it was at the unlikely venue of a classical musical evening to cheer returned soldiers where Jean first met Jeff.  To say first is not entirely accurate, as during her navy work Jean routinely deciphered the dummy and real messages relayed to confuse the enemy through the New Guinea signal stations.  No matter how hard she sought a signal, replies from one of those jungle stations faded to static at supper time, to clear after breakfast the next day.  An official investigation found Jeff’s unit in such a desperate state of attrition from pestilence and trauma that they could only feel pity for them, and the matter was put down to magnetism.

Jeff was actually standing in at the stuffy musical evening for his more dignified brother John.  Meeting the still young and beautiful Jean, Jeff quizzed her with, “If you’re the widow where’s your weeds” followed by his explosion of laughter that rattled the crystal and burst fresh air back into Jean’s sombre world.  She remarried, this time the jolly irreverent adventurer.  She embraced his fun loving itchy-footed gallivanting and when it surfaced, bore his black dog.

Those episodes always began in good humour and conviviality.  But Jeff would inexplicably take offence at an innocent occurrence and his laughing eyes would glaze over.  With a snake’s tongue he would probe for a hurtful dart to project malice until he found tears.  The assault would culminate in a rant justifying a beating or the smashing of a cherished possession.  The children would hide under their blankets and hope that this time the storm would not burst into their bedroom.

It was after one such occasion that Ranger found his mother in tears, listening to Carol King on the radio singing “Clouds” and sweeping up the shattered glass on the kitchen floor.

“Why put up with this?” he asked.  Jean spun around and for the first and last time in his life belted him around the face so hard that it knocked him over.

“You know nothing,” she screamed, “It’s not your business.”

This episode may have steeled Jean to demand that Jeff seek medical advice, a condition that he unconvincingly evidenced by pinning a message on the bedroom ceiling reading, “Gone to see the shrink.”

After each tempest Jeff would creep back with wringing hands, tears and promises to never do it again so she would forgive him.  Now after twenty years of shaky teamwork and struggle they were Australian expats together mining a gold seam of booming dental practice created by the post war British National Health Service.  Their nest was empty and they were raking it in.

Crewman Bill was a dependable young English country policeman.  Already of stocky build he tipped the scales with his chunky gold jewellery; a signet ring with a letter W picked out in rubies, a flat knuckle chain necklace and a matching identity bracelet.  His ruddy face told of a fisherman’s youth, netting for sprats and gathering cockles in Hamble River’s quieter days before the marina was built.  Now he was after bigger catch to join the water police, but first he needed the qualifying deep water sea service.

It was a succession of coincidences that brought Constable Bill Short and Corporal Jeff Hope together.  Jeff had bought a 5 tonner folkboat Wombat to sail out from Hamble.  Incredibly, being neither British nor an officer, he was nominated by a crusty old Air Marshall for membership of the elite Royal Air Force Yacht Club, in gratitude for his swift wisdom tooth extraction late in the bar of a village pub, the “Leather Bottle” in Mattingley.

The Yacht Club was an old farmhouse nestling in a grove of shade trees with the River Hamble lapping right at its door step.  A splendid carved staircase descended into a foyer ornamented with ceremonial banners, prize plate and items of combat.  Its old drawing room was converted into a cosy bar where the club’s Commodore and forgetful old Squadron Leader were permanent features along with a gaming fruit machine at the far end.

The common belief was that it never gave back anything that was put in.  Few remembered any pull on its heavy operating handle offering more than two of the three pineapple icons required to release a jangle of winning coins.  The reason for this was that the barmen had studied carefully the machine’s behaviour so when it was due to pay out they would hover around ready to milk its reward.

One evening after the day’s sail races competitors were gathered in the bar talking of tacks, gybes, luffs and the like.  Two barmen were on duty together.  Suddenly both of them jumped over the bar racing each other to get to the fruit machine.  This fracas along with calls for bar service amidst side betting and cheering a winner caused a hullabaloo that caught the attention of Constable Short who was passing on his bicycle.  He quickly had both combatants by their shirt collars and separated for admonishment.

It would have all ended there, except that the confused old Squadron Leader had ripped a ceremonial bayonet off the wall.  In his enthusiasm to quell the riot he had tripped, thrusting the weapon straight at Bill.  As Bill ducked, his head hit the fruit machine’s handle so hard that he lost his front tooth.  It was an extraordinary stroke of luck that when the icons stopped spinning they landed on three pineapples, even more so that his prize was precisely the amount required to cover Jeff’s charge for a new ceramic bridge.  Afterwards Bill became captivated by Jeff, Jean and their adventuring, and then became ensnared as they reeled him in to help out with the anticipated hard yakka of a winter delivery of a galeas from Copenhagen to the Hamble.

Jean named her son Ranger after the next door neighbour whose Danish mother learnt English by reading cowboy comics.  She mistook the trio “Lone Ranger, Tonto and the horse Silver” for common names that would ensure her sons’ acceptance at primary school.  Her second son, Eric, narrowly avoided being named Tonto as she finally mastered the language.  Jean’s Ranger, who for convenience responded to being addressed as Rae, was now eighteen and scruffy with a taste for travel seeded by his parents’ wanderings.

Before aeroplanes superseded them the stately ocean liners ploughed ocean’s furrows between the continents.  Voyages from Australia to the UK and return were long enough in a world safe enough that kids were adopted by the crews. The nimble fingers of the foredeck Lascars had taught Rae every knot, bend and splice.  On the bridge the quartermasters had a fruit box handy so he could reach the wheel to steer the course when the old man wasn’t looking.

Even with these childminders, Jeff was uncomfortable with the commitments of fatherhood such that in episodes of the black dog he had driven all his children from home in their teenage.  Rae was packed away early to a fading boarding school on the Isle of Wight redeemed only by a remnant outward bound ethos from its founder, the revolutionary educationalist John Whitehouse.  On arrival the founding students were required to make their own beds, literally, and the surviving joinery and sagging horse hair mattresses remained the testament that following generations of students endured.

The big-eared, four-eyed, freckled colonial kid was always in trouble for pranks and misdemeanours that put him on the black-gowned headmaster’s blackest list.  Mr Babbitt had been a missionary in Africa, struggling with a devotion to Christ while visibly pained by a perceived duty to thrash the evil out of children.  It was during one of these beatings that in exasperation he asked Rae.

“Whatever will you do with your life?”

“I want to be a psychiatrist.”

This precipitated the most furious of abuses.  The missionary paced out the words “You-must-know-your-self-first” each word accentuated by the fiercest slash across the boy’s bottom, before Mr Babbitt collapsed in the corner, sobbing inconsolably into the folds of his black academic gown.  Satan had possessed him again.

Rae lacked patience for the tedium of bookwork.  Similarly after three years of woodwork lessons his sole creation was a pile of shavings, never achieving the required perfection of preparing a timber board with planed square face side and face edge.  He embraced the alternative freedom of the school boat house on Brading Harbour.  The 11 foot Cadet and 12 foot Enterprise racing skiffs were quick and wet when a gust flattened the sail so irretrievably that capsize pitched him into the freezing water.  Gasping from shock and gurgling for breath, he would thrash around to right and recover the craft, then sit in wind chilled sodden sloppies until back ashore; no wetsuits in those days - hypothermia was for sissies.

Rae preferred the old fashioned Pelican, a beamy old slipper in the whitewall boat tradition.  Its eighteen feet of close timbered elm hardly heeled when the loose footed mainsail bit the wind.  Past old St Helens Fort whose rusty ironwork creaked back at the gulls, past Nab Tower and beyond Selsey, Rae and the Pelican explored every Solent creek and swash way.  During holidays he crewed on the family yacht Wombat, sailing the Western Approaches and cross-channel along the French Atlantic coast.

Just as he was expelled from school for not responding to Mr Babbitt’s cane, Rae was similarly kicked out of home by a hatchet brandishing Jeff; a final act of parental violence.  He lived rough until he found regular work as a truck driver collecting soaps and essences from London’s East India Docks and delivering them to a cosmetic manufacturer in West London.  These were the days of broken cargo, so the wharf side aromas of coffee, malt, tar and squashed fruit became his daily respite from an otherwise dreary London.

Estranged from Jeff sufficiently long enough to dull memories of their violent parting, though with some trepidation he accepted the unexpected request to bury the hatchet and assist with the delivery.  In short, though in every sense there was some baggage in this little crew, there was plenty of experience: but nothing could have prepared them sufficiently for the first passage of the galeas Nora Dane.

 

 

“The Scandinavian” boat train gave a blast of steam as it lurched outbound from Liverpool St Railway Station.  The merriment of the delivery crew had spilt down the corridor attracting a small crowd in and around the compartment.

“Do boats like you are buying sink very often?”  A passenger had asked.

“Usually it’s only the once,” replied a beaming Jeff to chortles from the crew.

“You know that a boat carrying red paint just crashed into a boat carrying blue paint and the crews were all marooned,” Bill added, prompting more howls and foot stomping from all.

In this spirit of good cheer complete strangers were soon sharing their jokes and anecdotes, encouraged by peals of Jeff’s laughter.

“What’s the big box?”  A fellow passenger in a strong Nordic accent asked.  From his perch on the obstructing crate he pointed at the fragile glass labels, and giggled, “We av much spirits in Danmark, maybe expensive no, but you don’t av to bring your own.”

“It’s chock full of my current woes”, announced Bill.  “What is in it, Jeff, it weighs a bloody ton?”  Jeff’s reply was only to touch his nose knowingly and laugh like a mischievous schoolboy.

The train clunked over points and sidings, chuffing past back yards and parking lots until the city thinned into green meadow and hedgerow.  As it gained pace, whiffs of smoke and smuts of soot flashed by the window and its sound smoothed to a well oiled beat.  Eventually it was dashing along, painting a billowing smoke streamer between the landscape and the high cirrus clouds that streamed in from the west, not that the jovial passengers had noticed.  In such pleasant company it hardly seemed any time at all before the train’s furious pace eased and it clattered into the ferry port’s Parkestone Quay railway station.

Their ferry was built for the Iceland packet trade, having enclosed decks with the name England emblazoned along the grey wall of her sides.  Heaving and puffing with their baggage, the crew clambered up the gangplank just as an unexpected gust of wind blew off Jean’s cap.  It was deftly caught and returned by a bearded young American gallant with a gold ring in his ear.

“Hi.  Can I also help you with the rest of your baggage, Maam?” He offered.

“Its Jean”, she blushed, “No thank you, but...” looking forward she saw Jeff scowl and clutch the satchel more tightly and Bill’s stoic onward lurch with the crate slung over his shoulders. “...no, we’re fine.  Thank you so much again.”

“I’m Jack, no worries Jean, maybe next time.  See you in Copenhagen, on the water maybe.”

Three deep-throated blasts from the ferry’s horn announced that she had engaged stern propulsion.  Her after section shuddered as the propeller beat a muddy upwelling from the shallow river bed.  Each with its splash, the wharfies let go her mooring lines so the crew could winch them aboard.  The short winter’s day was fading as she inched backwards into the stream toward winking Shotley Spit beacon.  This was no Sydney Harbour liner’s departure.  No quayside blazing sky, no tugs or coloured streamers tossed in farewell by loved ones in vain attempts to delay the ship until the last heart thread broke at departure and adieu.  She simply sounded two prolonged blasts and swung around to port into the freshening weather.

A sole wharf-side stevedore raised an acknowledging hand as she steamed into the deeper waters of the Stour River’s channel, out past Landguard Fort into an inky black North Sea.  An unintelligible announcement over the ship’s intercom was interpreted as a reminder about lifejackets and a warning of a rough overnight passage to Esbjerg, their destination on West Denmark’s Jutland peninsula.

The men propped themselves against a swaying beer-slopped bar at the far end of the cafeteria.  A more subdued mood had overtaken them now that they were underway.  Nursing their frisky Carlsberg beers the talk turned to plans and logistics.  Though the passengers were mostly Danish returning home for Christmas, Jean had settled in the seated section with a broad spoken London husband and wife. “Call me Dora,” she insisted.  Between chasing their cups and tea-filled saucers sliding around the table Dora told how Doug had sold his trucking business to look for a houseboat in Copenhagen.

Just clear of the protective headlands the ship encountered its first beam sea, lurching violently to starboard.  A table of full of crockery smashed to the floor.  At first it prompted a weak cheer, quickly followed by a collective groan as the ship recovered to the upright and rolled heavily back towards the weather.  The effect was as a rollercoaster’s plunge over a summit, jettisoning the stomach to hang airborne over the crest.  Dora visibly paled, excused herself and supported by Doug they joined a group now staggering towards the cabin stairwell.

As the cafeteria emptied regular travellers without reserved cabins bagged the vacant seats to hunker down, wedging themselves with their luggage and zipping themselves into their sleeping bags.  The coughs and sneezes, together with the smell of pies and disinfectant in the stuffy cafeteria, increasingly gave it the feel of a doctor’s waiting room.  At a whiff of vomit the bar grill shutter also rattled down.  Bill made for the cabin stairwell, and the rest of the crew sought a breath of fresh air.

Well clear of the land, the ship turned its nose northwards into a chill force seven, a near gale.  Determinedly maintaining its brisk schedule, it buffeted into the short North Sea chop.  It slammed through each head sea and dropped with a shudder into each successive trough.  Shouldering open the door onto the enclosed promenade deck, Rae swallowed an ice specked gasp and expelled a breath as white as smoke.  Following behind him, a few steps was enough for Jeff to declare,

“I’ve got to tell the Captain he’s going the wrong way.  Our tickets are for Denmark, not the North Pole.”  He stepped back through the door for the cabin with chill memories of the Strathallan’s Antarctic dash.

Arm in arm, hanging on while the ship plunged and careering sternward as she rose, Rae and Jean staggered aft towards the open section of deck.  Beyond the protection of the glazed shelter the deck was running with seawater flung from each wave’s encounter.  Above them the funnel and ventilators hummed from the furious exhaust of motors deep within the hull.  Black smoke hardly belched upward before the wind whisked it away into the darkness.  With each pitch forward the funnel’s forestays slackened and slapped crazily, then strained bar taut as she rose to the next swell, whistling in tune with the wind.  Hiding behind the shelter and taking care only to lean over the open rail between each deluge, the full force of the icy wind took their breath away.  For some moments they watched the foaming bow wave illuminated in the green pool of the navigation lights.

“Is this where you are Stuey?”  Jean mused.  Dismissing further thoughts of her private ghost she turned to Rae, “So good to have you back with us again.”

“It’s good to be back”, he replied, just as a fresh deluge of spray caught them unawares.  With salt water streaming down their faces they laughed and staggered back towards the accommodation doorway.  With a motherly kiss Jean retired, reminding Rae that he could bunk down on their cabin floor.

However after the strain of the reunion with Jeff, and the certain knowledge that he would ply them with pints of tea to wake them before dawn, (or their bladders would), Rae opted to stay topsides on the deserted deck.  Fitfully dozing and recounting the day, he imagined his girlfriend back in their Kew flat.  She would be tucked up under a warm duvet listening to the doleful notes of Leonard Cohen, already missing him perhaps, more likely contentedly asleep.  He got up to take another turn around the deck to get the feeling back in his toes.

“A minor inconvenience, but so good to adventure again,” his grinning face beaming into the black night said it all.

 

 

A bleak morning greeted the ferry at Esbjerg; a low lying coastal port hemmed by warehouses and bacon works obscuring the painted cottages of the town beyond.  Christian Christiansen, the ship-broker was at the bottom of the gangplank to greet the crew and ensure trouble free entry formalities.  He was a tall and swarthy retired sea captain, immaculately dressed in a black suit.

“Welcome to Danmark.”  Christian announced.  “You have everything with you?” Jeff patted the leather satchel and Christian smiled.

“Good, good.  We have a few problems with bank transfers lately.  Some scoundrels promise dollar transfers but none comes, so making owners nervous.  Cash is always best.  You got my telex with ship inventories?  Good, good.  This way, follow me.”

Jeff chased after this tall black-suited hare as he bounded to the front of the queue, and the crew chased after Jeff.  Christian waved them past a customs, officer who was surprisingly indifferent to the crate on Bill’s back, and out onto the street where a black Volvo station wagon was waiting.

“Oh what a big box!  Never mind, we all fit, plenty of room.”  With Jeff in front and the rest in the back they were soon heading out of town to cross Jutland, on their way to Copenhagen.  “We have short winter daylight now.  Not far but Danmark is many islands.  We have to bridge islands for Fyn and then ferry to Zealand.  We stop for breakfast on Fyn.”

The flat landscape of Jutland, peppered with pigs, some cows, farm houses and barns flashed by.  As they sped onward the back seat crew dozed.  Approaching Fyn’s pretty town of Middlefart they stopped for a hearty breakfast of bacon, sausages and rye bread.  Christian explained that there were three galeases for sale, all good and immediately available, but there were other buyers on their ferry so they must be quick not to miss the one they want.  The coffee barely touched their sides before they were back in the car, Bill squeezed in the middle.

 “Middlefart,” Bill announced, “Just how I feel.”

“Don’t you dare”, warned Jean.

“No, no,” laughed Christian, “In Dansk fart means to go quickly, to speed, you see, like we are going now.”

Jeff quizzed Christian on ship chandlers while Jean completed the ship stores order form, thoughtfully provided by Christian, as they rumbled into the cobbled streets of Copenhagen city, past tall gable-roofed houses with shuttered casements and coppered turrets.  The Volvo pulled into the curb outside the Hotel Strand.

“What are garneret kødbollers, Christian?”  Jean pointed at the item on the ship stores form.

“Very good, Jean, like tasty meat ball stew, very popular in Denmark”.  “No time to lose now. It will be dark soon”, said Christian.

Bill, Rae and the crate were thrown out and Jeff and Jean sped onward to view the three little ships moored around the corner off Nyhavn Canal.  After checking in to the hotel, Rae and Bill approached the lift where the attendant asked them.  

“You want fart up in lift with box?”  Rae gave Bill a reproachful look.

Farting in a lift is wrong on so many levels”, observed Bill.

 

 

At Nyhavn three vessels were rafted up on a shipping buoy by the canal entrance.  The first vessel, the Sri of Alders was a three-masted topsail schooner of over forty metres, hung with a cat’s cradle of wires, rope and chain securing the lofty top masts, yards and spars.  The massive ship’s wheel sat on an exposed quarterdeck, protected only by the timbered shellback scuttle that gave access to the cabin below.  She was very beautiful, but there was a lot of rigging to maintain, and a lot of hands needed to handle her.

“You have to be quick with this one as it is already under offer but settlement problems, with money too slow in coming through,” said Christian.

“Too big,” replied Jean.

The second vessel, the Nation, at barely eighteen metres looked like a tiny model of the Sri, exact in every detail bar her twin masts and cosy wheelhouse.  Jeff liked the wheelhouse, “but what could we carry in her?” he observed.

“Very good for a roomy houseboat,” prompted Christian.

“Too small,” replied Jean.

The last vessel was a two-masted Swedish schooner of 26 metres on deck and over thirty with overhangs of bowsprit and stern davits.  She was said to have been built by the master shipwright Ring Anderson in 1913, still young for a galeas.  Not long ago her rig had been cut down to a more manageable twin pole rig and a powerful engine fitted.  A small Christmas tree hung inverted in the rigging, a local sign indicating that the vessel was for sale.  Including the main hold and forward dry store she could carry 200 tons.  Over her quarterdeck was a wheelhouse on which the timber letters NORA av SVEN spelt her name.  Well almost. The letter S was missing leaving its outline bare of paint and the V swung inverted on the sole remaining screw.  If they had inspected her in the full light of day other signs of disrepair resulting from a long layup would have been apparent.  However, they fell in love with the stoutness of this little ship immediately.

“Just right” whispered Jean.

The owner was Captain Nils Larsen, a lanky and leathery old salt dressed in baggy overalls over a grubby tee-shirt; his only concession to the chill night air was his woolly cap.  Christian called him over.  The Captain carried an anchor lantern that he placed on the hatch top.

In a practised ritual he unclipped the lantern’s lid to light the brass burner within.  Once lit and trimmed the rings of light from its lens pooled over the hatch top.  Jeff withdrew several bundles of notes from the satchel.  He placed them on the hatch and like poker chips pushed them into the light.  Christian assisted as translator, though none was needed as the Captain turned to Christian and shook his head.  Another bundle, and then another was offered from the satchel until Jeff signalled that there was no more to be offered.  Jeff asked Christian if they might view the Nation again.  To the Captain the three thousand pounds sitting on the hatch seemed poor recompense for a lifetime of hardships making the vessel pay.  But it was enough to buy the little farmhouse with roses over the gate like the one his wife was born in and he had promised her if she would marry him.  A heated discussion ensued between Christian and the Captain. Christian finally summarized.

“Captain Nils says that the name Nora av Sven was his grandfather’s.  It has sentimental value, it means Nora and Companions.  He says you can have everything on board but asks you to change the name so his grandchildren might keep the name for their grandchildren’s use?”  In truth, Captain Nils was also concerned that the havoc these udlændinge (foreigners) would undoubtedly cause would be attributed to him by every fish wife and tale-teller in the Baltic.

Jeff, a master of expediency, studied the inverted V on the wheelhouse name plate. “No problem.  We’ll make the V an A and we’ll put a D for the missing S, so it will read NORA DANE.  If the Captain will pilot us out of the Baltic to Kiel, he has a deal.”

This proposition resolved all of the Captain’s reservations.  A silver hip flask emerged from somewhere in his floppy overalls.  As a light dusting of snow fell, they shook hands amicably, passed around a tot of schnapps, and the deal was done.

 

 

 

At dawn next morning the crew swung over the bulwarks onto the decks of the Nora Dane, now sitting alongside the wharf in Nyhavn’s canal.  Her construction resembled an ancient forest oak.  The cap rails were a foot wide and almost as deep, supported by close spaced oak stanchions rising through two foot wide waterways, the covering boards formed a curb over the vessel’s sides and deck edge, creating a gutter to direct water to the scuppers (deck drains).

Two masts, so thick that their circumference could not be fully embraced were held steady by multiple two inch wire shrouds.  To these, wooden slats were lashed. Called ratlines they were ladders for climbing the masts to handle the vast sails.  The main steel boom was over a foot in diameter, stencilled with five tonnes loading capacity. The triple sheaved pulley blocks through which its controlling sheets were reeved were the size of beer kegs.

Bill and Rae brushed the snow off the number two hatch top, knocked out the wedges and carefully rolled back the canvas tarpaulin cover.  One by one the weighty timber cover boards were hoisted clear, letting light flood into the cavernous hold below.  Captain Nils was true to his word.  He had left everything on board. Below were piles of ropes, wires, chain, ironware, lanterns, mouldy canvas, hessian sacks and empty packing crates. 

Jean explored the tiny galley deckhouse in front of the engine room hatch.  There was just enough room for a twin plate cast iron stove that was glued in position by years of black solidified lard.  Two saucepans and two tin mugs hung above it on spikes, and an old biscuit tin containing broken cutlery was nailed to the back of the door.

 

 

 

“Oh my!” she exclaimed, settling on her knees with a scrubbing brush before the glazed fire box door.  The constant need to refuel this hungry grate prompted her nickname for the demanding master, the “One Eyed Beast.”

Though hitting his head several times, Jeff had climbed down the ladder into the engine room and stooped to shine a torch.  A shiny green Volvo engine the size of a car gleamed back at him.  It was all good; clean oil up to its level, belts tight, no rusty leaks, stopcocks free, a workbench with tools, a not too grimy service manual and even a first aid box with a band-aid that he used.  Disappearing into the dark recess over the stern deadwood, a six inch stainless steel tail shaft looked plenty man enough for the job.  An acceptable trickle of water seeped in through the stern gland, though under the steel floor gratings the bilge water’s surface had an oily sheen.

“Have to wait until we’re clear of land to tackle that swamp,” thought Jeff.

A general cease fire of activities was called for at morning tea time.

“Not a chance of tea yet” admitted Jean, “I need to dig a well and mine some coal first.”

Jeff held a council of war, which in the early days of his command became common practice.  After everyone had put in their oar, he decided to go ashore and phone Christian to bring back breakfast, water and coal for the stoves.  Fuel was also needed for the cargo donkey engine in order to winch off the musty junk in the holds and winch on their gear and provisions.

It wasn’t until much later in the day that Jeff returned with Christian to find smoke curling up from the galley stove’s flue, and the crew enjoying a warming cup of tea with biscuits.  Under a pile of old tarps by the mizzen they had found the water tank and a store of coal, and cadged the biscuits from friendly locals on a trawler further down the wharf.  They had even started tinkering with the donkey engine but with less success.

The pate, ham, cheese, pickles and breads that Christian brought were more welcome than the deliveries of coal, provisions and more crates that began to pile up on the dock awaiting loading.  Christian instructed Bill and Rae on starting the donkey engine.

“It runs on anything”, he explained, “petrol, diesel, fish oil...You just have to get it hot enough”.

For this purpose a cannon ball of cast iron sat on top of the single combustion chamber. Bill trained a blow torch onto it until every side glowed a fiery red. Then Rae and Christian pushed and pushed its shoulder-height fly wheel until it was revolving at a great pace.  This done, Christian turned on the tap on the overhead tank full of diesel and the engine exploded into life.  Clouds of smoke pooled around them and the deck vibrated beneath their feet.

“Just make sure that you spin it the right way or it will run backwards” Christian reminded them.

After a shaky start they were operating the contraption like experts.  A simple dog clutch lever engaged the spinning gears to the winch drum that wound in the cargo runner. This cable ran from the winch drum to the head of the raised boom and down to the cargo hook.  They fished with the hook for bundles of old rope in the hold then wound them up clear of the hatch combings.  Next the winch drum’s brake lever was applied at the instant that its dog clutch lever was disengaged.  This was the trickiest part of the operation.  If not timed just right, the load would slip or the engine would threaten to snap the cable.  The boom with its load was then swung out over the wharf.  The brake was eased allowing the drum to unwind and the load settle onto terra firma, on occasions more firma than intended.  By dusk a noticeable pile of junk filled the skip bins on the wharf, having exchanged places with Bill’s crate, Jeff’s recently purchased sacks of coal and Jean’s provisions from the ships’ providores.  In fact there were rather a lot of provisions, especially the “garneter kødbollers.”

“Did you really want twenty four cases, Mum, that’s twenty four times twenty four one litre cans, or over five hundred kilos?” shouted Rae.

“Oops, I thought I was ticking twenty four cans.”

The day’s work was done.  However, Christian had not instructed them on how to stop the donkey engine.  Like trying to strangle a chook it seemed to be gaining fresh breath when they tried to shut the leaky fuel valve.  In desperation Bill thrust one of the hatch covers into the revolving machinery.  The engine instantly responded by rearing up on its mounting bolts threatening to walk off down the deck.  Only sitting on it restrained it until it finally gave up and expired.  In the blissful silence ice crystals formed on the hatch and sparkled.

 

 

That evening the crew gathered round the table in the dimly lit aft cabin, and Jean served up the first of the kødboller stews.  The general verdict was that the corned beef meatballs were probably the kind of rations that Amundsen might have taken to feed his huskies.  Then when he needed a decent meal he could eat the dogs.  Jean realised she would have to use all her ingenuity with the One Eyed Beast to trick the crew into consuming the remaining half tonne.

In the cosy warmth from the cabin stove below, with naturally iced Carlsbergs from the window sill, the conversation turned to Bill’s crate which had been stowed for safety under the table.  Clearing the tabletop, Jeff retrieved a jemmy from the engine room and used it to point to the extra crates delivered the day before, explaining that one contained a radar console and the other the deckhead scanner that he would install tomorrow.

“So that’s what you bought when you were supposed to be getting our morning tea, and what’s so hush, hush, touch your nose, I’ll tell you later about the box that you made me carry all the way from the Hamble.” Bill demanded of Jeff.

“Don’t blame me,” Jeff replied, “It’s full of what Jean hopes we’ll be lost without. No doubt it’s full of those ancient books that she’s made me cart around the world a dozen times. That’s why I call it Pandora’s box.”

“And who’s she when she’s at home?” Bill asked.

While the heavy crate was edged out from under the table, Jean summarised the Greek myth to a bemused Bill.  “In return for the gift of fire, Prometheus tricked the god Zeus to choose man’s gift of old bones wrapped in appetisingly roasted skin, rather than prime steak wrapped in entrails...”

“So he had a problem with kødbollers too?” Bill butted in.

Jean ignored him and carried on, “...in revenge Zeus created the beautiful first woman, Pandora, and gave her a box.  In curiosity she opened the box and all the pestilences that afflict man escaped before she snapped its lid shut, only retaining Elpis – expectant hope.”

Levering off the top of the crate, Jeff beamed, “Now we have the means, I can tell you our destination is...”, and from the top of the crate with all the drama of a magician he drew out an Australian flag that fluttered down to settle across the table top.  This was not the future that Bill had been planning.

“What?”  He spluttered.

Jeff next eased from the crate a Sailor Radio Transceiver and Radio Direction Finder (RDF), the Rolls Royce of marine radios of the day.

“We have the radar to burn through dark and fog, the RDF to point to safe havens and the radio to talk to the other side of the world”, he enthused.

Jean joined in, withdrawing rolls of paper charts.  “We’ll refit on the Hamble.  Then coast down to the Mediterranean.  We’ll wait for the hurricane free season before sailing to Panama and island hopping across the South Seas.  We’ll pay our way by passenger charters or shipping cargoes between islands.”

“And if that income runs dry,” Jeff continued as he retrieved a linen tool roll from the crate, “then I can still earn a bob or two with these.”  Opening it out he revealed an assortment of dental implements.  

Jean pulled out some notebooks and navigational manuals, a few leather bound novels and the old writing case that had been her grandmother’s. These were her sailing directions.

“Look I told you so, it’s full of books,” Jeff laughingly accused, “Pandora’s bloody box.”

Jean searched further inside the crate, feeling anxiously within its straw packing before her fingers touched her velvet purse.  Teasing open its draw string she sighted the opals from Wittenburra within, glowing with the iridescent colours of a coral reef.  She held one towards the light where its scarlet and viridian flares shone out as if dawn’s sunrise.

“Safe,” she smiled and tucked it back under the straw before anyone could notice.

The oil lamp spluttered and dimmed as the equally exhausted crew began to feel the aches from a long day’s toil.  A ladder led down to the main cabin below whose cheering pot belly stove kept a brass kettle gently simmering.  To the right of the stove a basket of firewood with old hemp rope and kindling was tucked below a porcelain sink; its brass tap drawing from the water tank on deck.  The sink’s overhead vanity cupboard once provided a mirrored door, now so pock marked with corrosion as to be useless for its purpose.  Its shelf was pierced to hold two glasses, one of which still held the Captain Larsen’s well used toothbrush.

To the left of the stove was a bureau whose lid opened as a table top to expose slots for pens and paper.  Jean’s grandmother’s writing case fitted perfectly on top of it.  A pretty brass oil lamp illuminated the Chinese marquetry inlay of the writing desk’s rim.

The dark oak panelled cabin appeared narrower than the Nora’s eight metre beam due to the double berths built-in on either side.  The top bunks were built close to the deck head with its protruding oak deck knees so reducing headroom.  Those bunks had high enclosing sides while the wider lower bunks had removable lee boards to restrain sleepers from rolling out in a seaway.  With the curtains of each pulled across, each sleeper had their own private compartment.

The cabin’s aft bulkhead was dotted by storage hatches with finger hole handles.  A larger door to a transom locker was propped shut by a small table.  A tattered floor rug and faded framed photo of a couple with a horse and dray by a farmhouse’s rose hung gate ornamented what was now Jeff and Jean’s new home.

By turns the toilers clambered down the ladder and tumbled into their bunks.  In the cabin’s warm fug of burning pitch pine and old hemp rope ends each drifted to sleep with phantoms of the day flittering across dimming minds. Jean dreamt of the opal waters of Moreton Bay with white sailed skiffs steered by bronzed pirates as they island traded their cargoes from meat ball bearing palm trees.  Jeff snuggled up to Jean with an unusually easy mind.  Their relationship had been shaky for some while, particularly since Jean’s insistence that he take medication for his tempers.  He had sorted out the doctor and convinced him that it was Jean who provoked the arguments, but he did feel bad about hitting her that last time, it hadn’t made things any better.  He’d done the right thing though, apologised and begged to be given one more chance.  Now with this new adventure everything was going to be different.  His thoughts drifted into a vision of him holding a swan’s neck as it dragged him across a lake.  At first unable to break free from an oozing foetid black surface, he pulled out his cap and paddling like fury they rose into the sky homing towards a shimmering celestial borealis.

Bill saw himself in an oak lined prisoner’s dock where a wigged and black capped judge was pronouncing his sentence, “to be transported for the rest of your natural life.”  As he swooned, the nightmare changed to him trapped in a flag-draped casket topped with bloodied and glinting instruments of dental torture.

Rae dreamt of his girl friend in Kew.  Her flaming red hair fell down to its floorboards, which he had laid back to dig into the pile of pestilent debris underneath.  Dull thuds rang from the shovel that hit upon something below, without warning the shovel broke through the bottom of a ship and at the inrush of green water, Mia shrieked.  Rae awoke with a start to the slap of water and creak of mooring lines as the Nora rolled to the wake of a passing ship.  The gentle chorus of snores, flapping halyards and lapping waves muffled by wooden walls soothed him. He rolled back over to re-join the other dreamers.

 

 

On the Wednesday morning it was still dark as Jeff plied the crew with brimming mugs of hot sweet tea and a, “much to do today sleepy heads.”

The fire had burned out.  The chill of the morning had glazed an icy crust over the water tank’s surface, and the sink’s tap was dry.  The crew had begun describing the day’s temperature by the number of layers of clothing required. Today was a two trouser day.

The only toilet was a barrel on the deck’s port shoulder with a pipe that led out through a freeing port and over the side.  For some privacy it was covered with a timber box and half door, and flushed using a bucket of salt water.  So once the tea had produced its inevitable result the crew must dress, splash their faces in the bucket of cold salt water, then drop their multiple layers of trousers on the dunny seat and fling the remainder of the bucket down the pipe.  Only Jean’s winning smile had befriended her sufficiently with the trawler’s crew further down the wharf that she was welcomed to use their washroom.  In short, once you were up on the Nora Dane, you were up, there was no slipping back to bed.

Under a sky again streaked with high cirrus cloud the chores from yesterday continued.  The donkey winch barked away as more and more sodden sails, sacking and rotted rope were hoisted from the hold and piled into the skips.  One’s own junk looking more valuable than another’s, the empty crates including Pandora’s box were lowered down into the forward hold where they quickly disappeared under strops and chains, lanterns, old sails with some life left in them and rot-free hemp rope. This could be unpicked for oakum, the fibrous strands used to wedge between planks for watertightness.

Jeff and the installation technician fitted the Decca radar’s scanner on the wheelhouse roof, next to the Sailor radio direction finder’s looped aerials.  In operation, both these needed to revolve without obstruction so some lifting and lowering of the mizzen boom was called for by the winch hands to check that no fouling would occur.  Finally in the wheelhouse the radar cabinet with its plate sized display screen and rubber daylight viewing hood was bolted into place, and the radio transceiver squeezed into the aft corner.  Only the task of leading the wires and connections remained.

Jean laid out some charts in the aft cabin and with ruler and protractors pencilled lines and footnotes regarding distance and waypoints, the latter being turning points along the intended passage.  The marked lines criss-crossed the chart to radiate out from Copenhagen, into the Oresund, around the Cliffs of Mons, across the Bight of Kiel and finally down to Kiel’s North Sea connecting ship canal.

Late in the day the unloading revealed the yard-wide top of the keelson in the hold.  This massive structure ran the full length from stem to stern posts.  Bolted to the keel below, it formed the longitudinal spine of the vessel, from which transverse foot square oak frames formed the belly of the hull, similar to a rib cage.  Like vertebrae, baulks called floors were sandwiched between keel and keelson providing an anchorage for through bolting the frames.  An outer skin of four inch pitch pine planking was doubled around the turn of the bilge and along the deck edge.  Here a beam shelf supported thick deck beams that themselves supported the four inch deck planking.  

The deck beams and frame tops were braced with knees adzed from crooked boughs of woodland oak.  Inside the frames a two inch layer or planking called ceiling provided a smooth internal surface so bulk cargoes would not clog the limber holes and bilge pump strainers.  Over most of the ship’s length was eighteen inches of wooden wall between cargo and the sea. At the sharper sections of hull there was no space between the frames and the bluff bow. This was covered with one inch steel plating for pushing through winter ice.

Clearing the hold below the level of the keelson became odorous. Methane and rotten egg gas emanated from a gritty and dead rat soup.  This decaying debris had to be hand shovelled into a rubbish bin for hoisting.  It took some days to clear the space sufficiently to load the gravel ballast necessary for stability and sail carrying capacity for the sea passage.

After the evening meal of spaghetti, crisp at the tips from not quite fitting in the saucepan, and lumpy kødbolognaise lashed with ketchup, Rae explored the forecastle with an eye to greater privacy from his older crewmates.  

In her early years half a dozen crew, a mate and a master were required to sail the Nora.  Slipping through the scuttle doors and down into the old crew’s quarters, Rae’s lantern revealed a damp cave bounded at its forward end by a trap door leading to the rusty chain locker.  At the other end a tiny stove nestled under the companion ladder.  A central pillar supported the deck under the windlass. Wrapped around it was an oval table top.  On each side were double bunks, as in the main cabin, though smaller and piled high with tins of part used paints and putties, bales of oakum and slabs of caulking pitch.

In a few moments tins and debris were flying up the scuttle onto the deck as Rae impulsively emptied the forecastle seeking its former glory.  Lighting the stove was not the brightest of ideas. Only the reckless do not consider how fire is the mortal enemy of a wooden ship.  As the kindling caught alight smoke spewed from the firebox door.  Rae’s efforts to douse the fire with damp rags only increased the smoke.  In the light of next day it would be plain to see that years of neglect had encouraged gulls to nest on the flue pipe.  Coughing and spluttering he was forced to evacuate and use the toilet’s bucket as an extinguisher.

Hearing some commotion on deck, Jeff called out into the darkness from the aft cabin door.

 “What’s happening up there?”

Slamming shut the scuttle doors to contain the smoke Rae called back, “All fine, just using the flush bucket.”

“Check the lines before you turn in then,” was Jeff’s reply, as he descended the ladder to the cabin, muttering, idiot of a boy.”

On deck the sliver of light from the aft cabin door went out.  Rae was unsure if he had reassured Jeff, and was surprised to still be so intimidated by his father.  Jeff always had an uncanny ability to detect guilt, extract a confession and mete out cruel punishment on his three young children, who responded by keeping out of his way if the black dog was around.  His hands as big as bear claws could clout you so hard that it dashed you to the floor with ears ringing and head swirling.  Sometimes it was a formal lashing with a leather strap, a coat hanger or lump of wood that followed some sin, perhaps raiding the pantry for corn flakes while the parents were out.  How he always knew of such misdemeanours made him even more fearsome until years later, when Rae had his own children, and recognised the tell tale crunch of sugar under leather soles on the kitchen floor.

But everything had changed one Sunday afternoon over a year ago.  Jeff was sleeping off a surfeit of liquid lunch when aroused by the chatter of Rae returning home with his friend Richard, the son of Jeff’s dental practice partner.  Jeff grabbed the fire grate’s hatchet to confront them.  He chased Richard off, shouting after him that his father was a rogue and he wasn’t about to let his son steal from him either.  Then he harangued Rae with a poisonous tirade, pushing him into a corner demanding subservience.  He threatened Rae with the hatchet while poking him in the chest to emphasise each rule of Jeff’s house.  This was the last straw for the young man grown strong and tall, who this time pushed back.  Rae disarmed him, slammed him against the wall and held his throat.  To his amazement, the bully blubbered for mercy.  Rae dropped him and walked out the door, not to return. Instead he slept rough. On the coldest nights he found a berth on college friends’ floors, until his exams were over in the summer.  In rage, Jeff burnt all Rae’s possessions.  They had not spoken again until the uneasy reunion on the “Scandinavian” three days earlier, but so far an accord prevailed.

 

 

On Thursday, over breakfast in the aft day cabin they looked out at the sleet and southerly wind that moaned through the rigging.  

“This signals the approach of a warm front”, pronounced Jean, illustrating this with pictures from Adlard Cole’s book “Instant Forecasting.”  She read out aloud an excerpt from it.

“Anticlockwise spiralling masses of temperate warm and polar cold air cross the Atlantic and pass over Europe’s coast, causing unsettled weather on their mixing edges, the fronts.  These low pressure systems may be heralded days earlier by streaks of high cirrus ice clouds called jet streams indicating a rush of over pressured air escaping toward a low pressure zone through the top atmosphere.  Dense cloud and precipitation occurs along the front where cold air meets warm water saturated air.  If positioned in the equator side of the system’s centre, the local observer will first experience the wind blowing from the south, until drizzle hardens to rain and westerly veering and strengthening wind at the passage of the warm front.  

“That’s what is happening now.”

Eventually at the passage of the cold front towering cumulonimbus storm clouds are typical, created by the cold air wedging up under the warm sector.  At this point veering northerly wind may be accompanied by violent wind sheer and lightning before the following showers peter out and better weather rolls in.  If you face the wind in the Northern hemisphere and hold out your right arm to the side you will be pointing at the lower pressure centre.”

She put down the book, eyeing the crew studiously over her reading glasses.

“So what’s the weather going to be like at the end of the week”, asked Jeff.

“Well that depends.”  Jean replied.  “The warm front might pass tonight and the low fill and dissipate, or it could be rapidly followed by the passage of the cold front with northerly storms, or the system could be become stationary but intensify days later when a following low pressure system catches up.”

“So after all that, you don’t know,” chided Jeff.

“We just have to look at the sky, check the barometer and cross our fingers,” she laughed.

In view of the foul weather Jeff relented from his schedule of hot morning tea and cold chores.  He called a lay day and proposed sightseeing and shopping in the city.  Rae was not feeling the best, so he elected to remain on board as mooring watch to take advantage of some peace and quiet.  Though their interaction remained cordial, a deck’s length distance between himself and Jeff was a mutually attractive precaution, so Rae continued renovating the forecastle.

He plugged and puttied the rivulets that streamed down from the beam shelf at the deck edge.  The stove was cleared and lit.  He polished up one of the old lanterns from the hold and filled the burner so its cheery glow lit up the cabin.  The bunks were scrubbed, and when dry, the streaks of rust were over painted in virgin white.  A scrap of plywood was shaped into the D required for the wheelhouse’s new name board, and another used for some artwork.  Anticipating the need for some off duty distraction, Rae had brought along a book to read and a roll of brushes and oil paints.  Daubing on the plywood with the rusted remains from grey and yellow paint tins resolved as a Mia standing on a windswept beach at sunset.  The painting was nailed over the anchor locker to complete a homely though paint fumed crew’s accommodation.

Feeling increasingly hot and dizzy he retired early to the sleep off what felt like a cold.  He left a note for Bill telling of the new crew’s accommodation, but Bill did not join him.  Perhaps his unsettling dreams of being shanghaied by hanging judges prompted him to keep a closer eye on Jeff.

While Rae slept, the crew returned late, having found a lively night spot in the city.  Jean had purchased a new rug for the cabin, woolly hats for all the crew and a little gas camping stove to relieve the necessity of keeping the one eyed beast fed with coal all day.  Jeff had bought a number of treasures.  A ceramic figurine had taken Jean’s fancy at the Royal Copenhagen Pottery.  It depicted a lounging bare footed sailor boy eating a biscuit from a sea green basket; his distant gazing eyes were a sky blue salt glaze as were his cap and baggy trousers.  He gave it to her, saying that as mistress of the rations it would give her protection.  For himself he bought a zany abstract pot from the same pottery, a testament to the gaudiness of the sixties.

Jeff’s more bizarre purchase at the “all things fur shop” was a stuffed dog, a small spaniel, complete with shaggy forelock and glass eyes.  Lying with its head resting on its outstretched forepaws this rabbit hair and wax doll was so lifelike that you would swear it was real, or on close inspection that it must be some sad remains enlivened by a skilled taxidermist. Jeff intended to entertain his English friends with this much more easily managed pet than their slobbering labradors or great danes.  He called it Fred.  At the same shop Bill had found some furry rabbit skin mittens that when worn looked every bit as though he had stuffed his hands up two unfortunate rabbits’ bottoms.

 

 

Next morning Christian was banging on the forecastle doors,

“What have you done with them all, no one is here.  You don’t look well Rae, are you ill?”

Rae didn’t feel well at all but he raised himself from the chill forecastle to seek out the crew.  It was another two trouser day.  He found them snoring by part harmonies in the cabin, otherwise dead to the world.  Jeff was sleeping on a new mat hugging a stuffed dog and an empty rum bottle.  Bill sat up so swiftly that he banged his head on the overhead deck beam, letting out a torrent of fisherman’s oaths that woke them all.  Even after stirring, their hangovers kept them far from their best.  Christian’s message was that Captain Nils was anxious to return home and that unless a departure could be imminent they should reschedule for after Christmas.  This galvanised action so that by evening they were ready to motor upstream through the lifting bridge to the ballast loading wharf by the Starndegarde.

Jeff had the motor, radar and radio operating when Captain Nils came aboard to instruct them on how to drive the little ship.  Dressed in the same overalls over a grimy tee-shirt, he nodded at the Nora Dane name plate but winced as he entered his old wheel house, now bristling with new technology.  It was not that he disapproved; the value of tools to thread the needle’s eye through darkness was self evident.  It was its expense, matching at least a third of his selling price.

“I should have held out for more”, he thought “but too late for tears, the deal is done, I just have to get rid of the udlændinge.”

The wheelhouse was too small for five persons, so Bill and Rae peered in through the open window to attend Captain Nil’s lesson.  The Captain grasped the top spoke of the metre-wide ship’s wheel and eased it back and forward.  He pointed to its central toothed hub over which a steering chain engaged, then passed back along the deck, around some pulleys and on to the tiller arm on top of the rudder.

He felt the chain and indicated with a thumb raised that the current tension was good, and demonstrated by wobbling his arm a loose configuration that was not good.  He spun the wheel its three complete turns to starboard until the rudder locked at hard over.  Then he pointed at the chain then his eye indicating that the tension should be noted at this position also.  He did the same turn to full to port lock and then back to amidships and held his thumb raised.

The Captain took pains in explaining the propulsion mechanism.  It was not the usual fixed shaft and propeller driven through a reversing gearbox, but a feathering prop with radically different manoeuvring characteristics.  On the back wall of the wheelhouse a large brass wheel was fitted.  The Captain brought his hands together, and with his finger tips touching, contra-rotated them to indicate the adjustable blades of a propeller.  Pointing at the brass wheel that controlled mechanism he held up six fingers pointing first forward and then backward to indicate the turns required to change between maximum swivel (pitch) for forward propulsion to aft propulsion.  

The rudders that steer a ship are only effective when wash flows over them.  To turn a ship from rest, the thrusting with propeller wash is employed.  This has the two components of axial thrusting (wash against the rudder) and transverse thrusting (paddle wheel effect of the propeller).

The Nora’s feathering prop’s shaft always turned in the same direction, likewise the transverse thrust nudged in the same direction for ahead and astern.  However the degree of the transverse trust relied on the coarseness of feathering.  When berthed starboard side to reverse out she must feather the prop for medium pitch ahead, hard over starboard then thrust water flow against the rudder so pushing the stern out to port, before backing out clear.  The process was physically demanding!

The Captain, having finished his instruction took a swig from his silver hip flask and waved his arms, indicating that all but the starboard forward spring should be let go.  To demonstrate the departure technique he spun the steering wheel hard to starboard, and drove the ship forward with three clockwise revolutions on the brass pitch wheel.  When the stern was well out from the wharf he centred the steering, backed off the throttle and signalled to drop the fore spring.  He then spun the brass pitch wheel nine turns anti-clockwise (the astern position) and reapplied throttle.  The Nora responded by backing out into the stream with the bow gently swinging to port away from the wharf.  When clear he backed off the throttle, turned the brass pitch wheel six turns clockwise and the Nora obediently chugged forward bound for the ballast wharf.

At the dock entrance they passed the Nation where Doug, Dora and Christian waved smiling from its decks.

 “See you on the Hamble.” Dora shouted.

“They must be going to buy her,” Jean confided to Jeff.

In short time they reached the ballast wharf, where the Captain brought her alongside for the night, so deftly that the crew had only to place the eyes of the mooring lines over the bollards.  Arrangements were made to load the ballast at dawn before departing for Kiel with the Captain as pilot. Rae, feeling hot and dizzy, made his excuses and retired to sleep off his cold, while in the aft cabin the guests and crew settled down to a supper of “chilli kønboller” and schnapps.  Soon laughter, riotous table smacking, barking and wolf whistles recalling a Viking feast in Valhalla echoed across Nora’s ice glinting deck.

 

 

Jeff found difficulty raising Rae in the morning.

“He’s burning up with a temperature”, he told Jean.

Rae was persuaded back aft to the cabin, where tucked up in the spare berth signs of delirium were noted.  This was particularly inconvenient as the crane to load the ballast was ready and the port officer for customs and quarantine clearance was due imminently.  Everyone made a pact to say that the crewman below was suffering from the effects of a last night on the town.  After all it was only one hundred and fifty miles coast hopping to Kiel if a doctor was needed, a twenty four hour passage at most.

Jeff and Bill removed both main hatch tarpaulins and stacked the hatch boards against the bulwarks.  The bucket jaws of the crane grabbed a one ton bite of gravel from the wharf to lift a leaking stream out towards the ship.  Here it momentarily paused with the bucket swinging over the hatch before the jaws opened to plunge down a clinking cascade followed by a resonating thud on the keelson.  Again and again the bucket swung over with its thud, a quiver of mooring lines and the rail settling another half inch lower against the wharf.

In the cabin, Rae rolled over sweating from the broken fever and shouted to the dog staring at him,

“For goodness sake Christian, stop knocking and come in.”

With fifty tons aboard and a steadying feel to the ship, the gravel was raked flat and tarpaulins stretched over it.  To fasten the tarps down, cargo straps were tensioned across the hold, and over that the old sails, hawsers, boxes and crates from the forward hold were relocated and lashed.  The hatch boards were replaced and the watertight canvas covers rolled over.  The beams were replaced in the combing’s retaining cleats and wedges were driven home, locking tight the covers.

 

All was secure, clearance approved, draught marks noted and the Australian red duster hoisted into a chill North-easterly; the breeze was forecast to ease.  Standard watches were assigned to the crew and recorded in the logbook; four hours on, four off, with shared dogwatches when all were awake from four to eight in the afternoon.  The cook was unassigned but always available if needed.  Bill and Rae, if sufficiently recovered, were to start the noon watch and Jeff and the Captain the evening watch.

At departure, under the Captain’s watchful eye, Jeff spun the wheels and tweaked the throttles, sounded three blasts and pulled the ship clear of the wharf like an expert.  A tall figure in a dark suit waved them off as the Nora Dane nosed into the channel toward the outer harbour, leaving the green coppered turrets, spires and gabled roofs of the city behind.  They passed the Sri now also relocated from Nyhavn. Yellow jacketed men were in the rigging, removing the spars and lowering them to others below on instructions from a figure on the poop. Jean was sure that he was the American, Jack, and shouted a hallo as they passed, but he did not hear and they left her in their wash.  To a steady beat from the engine the Nora passed the Little Mermaid then on past the Trekroner Fort to squeeze out into the Øresound in the Baltic Sea.

 

 

 

 


Chapter Two – Passage to the Elbe

 

As sight of a clear passage south between the Main and flat Salthølm Island opened, Jeff signed to the Captain his desire to raise sail.  The Captain responded by pointing to the north, tapping the barometer, and with a shrug of his shoulders indicating indifference.  Propping a jar of roll-mop pickled herrings against the steering compass he settled himself comfortably on the helmsman’s stool and took charge of the wheel.

Jean took this opportunity to use the dunny for her first time, and after experiencing the arctic breeze blowing up through the outlet pipe, christened it “Polar Bear Cottage”, a name that stuck.  The fight to push toilet paper down its pipe should have warned of the coming struggle to raise sail.  

When the deck crew signalled their readiness, the Captain swung the ship around until the compass card steadied on north; now driving directly into the weather the apparent breeze stiffened.  They rattled up the largest flying jib, flapping and whip-cracking like gunfire.  

In order to haul the creased canvas tight, Jeff took a turn of the halyard’s fall around the securing pin at the mast’s base, and held it under tension.  Bill stood on the mast’s pin rail and swung his full weight outward on the halyard, bending it away from the mast.  When Bill let it go, Jeff would haul in the gained slack to check it around the pin.  After several swings they had gained enough to pull the sails luff bar tight.  Jeff made the fall fast with figure-of-eight windings around the pin, and coiled it handsomely.

The maniacally flapping canvas was silenced by tensioning its port control sheet, made fast at the pin rail by Polar Bear Cottage.  Next the mainsail’s gaskets were removed allowing the voluminous sail to billow out over the hatches.  Anticipating this much greater challenge, Jean was sent to raise a bleary but recovering Rae.  Prudently, Jeff determined to reduce the sail area with a number two reefing.

Jean and Rae heaved on the peak halyard to rattle up the outer end of the gaff.  Simultaneously Bill and Jeff hauled its inner end’s throat halyard.  This pulled up the mainsail’s luff on its sliding mast hoops.  Jeff wound the main halyard’s fall around the mast’s base pin and again using the human lever Bill, they hauled the luff tight.  Lastly Jean and Rae hauled the gaff end skyward to tension the head and made all fast.

The whole operation took over twenty minutes of flapping and wallowing before the Captain held out a raised thumb and swung the ship around to south sou’ east, towards her first waypoint.  With the sheets loosened the racket ceased and the loose footed sails billowed out in the following wind.  The Nora lurched forward on a crest of foam.  The throttle was eased to idle and Bill and Rae retired for some shut-eye before their noon watch.

Bravely creaming down the channel, the ship’s stern settled into each successive trough before surfing down the next overtaking swell’s face.  A white furrow of wake stretched behind.  Even the Captain, deftly picking out herrings and slipping them down his throat, was exhilarated by this ride.  The wind steadily increased until noon when the ship was ploughing along, surfing down the swells at 15 knots and yawing wildly.

 

 

 

 

As the first waypoint of Dagør abeam approached, the noon watch relieved.  The building clouds to the north persuaded them to shorten sail.  They dropped the flying jib to replace it with the much smaller staysail, and fully reefed the main.  The ship slowed up immediately and steadied on the helm.  Sleet came in flurries, briefly hiding both the last sight of Copenhagen behind and converging ships ahead.  However the newly fitted Decca radar picked out the shapes of the coast and tracked other vessels most miraculously.

On reaching the waypoint they brought Nora onto the new course of south by west.  Falsterbro, a glowing smudge under the radar’s heading marker rotated clear replaced by shimmering speckles fifty miles ahead, where the high Cliffs of Møns, the next waypoint, should be.  As Falsterbro peninsula drew abeam on their port they eased their course a point to starboard, giving sea-room to an approaching north bound vessel that they had been tracking.  When past and clear they brought her back onto the charted rhumb line by using radar bearings.  At 13:00 the first of their watch’s hourly positions was duly recorded on the chart and entered in the logbook, along with distance run, barometric pressure, sea status, wind speed and direction.

An hour later the faint outline of what they took for Stevns Cliffs appeared abeam to starboard.  The lowering cloud base cast gloom over the seascape. Long swells were now rolling up from behind, many of them breaking with a wide trail of streaked foam.  The ship occasionally dropped into a hollow, throwing spray across the foredeck.  On deck the wind was bitingly cold, accompanied by snow flurries.  The wheelhouse barometer was dropping. It was three trousers weather. By turns they paid polar bear cottage a visit.  From the wheelhouse one crewman watched the other’s zigzag march along the slippery pitching deck, the three layers, sea boots and woolly hat preventing serious injury as they staggered and crashed to left and right.

At twilight and the first of the two-hour dog watches, Jeff and the Captain relieved the watch.  A force seven was blowing with the barometer still plummeting.  The Nora was making fast pace as the slow white flash of Stevns Lighthouse faded behind and the group four flashing Møns Lighthouse winked ahead.  They determined to keep the remaining sails up to steady her.  By the time they reached the next waypoint abeam of Møns she was surfing again.  The transom logline would purr as it spun off seventeen knots on the dial, then she would fall off the back of the wave and it would drop back to eight.

On rounding the Cliffs of Møns the course was altered to south west for Gester on Denmark’s southern tip.  This turn slowed them and gave some shelter from the northerly seas.  Towards the end of the watch Jeff scanned the long wave radio searching for the BBC shipping forecast.  Just before 18:00 the signature melody of “Sailing By” faintly crackled over the wireless followed by the calm voiced announcer describing each sea area by turns.  While the Baltic was outside the forecast area, “German Bight” on the Denmark’s North Sea coast was experiencing storm force ten, indicating the severity of the approaching system.

After Rae and Bill relieved at the start of the second dog watch the sleet thickened into a blizzard.  Spray froze on the shrouds growing downwind as fingers of frost.  The wind continued to increase, veering to north east and dead astern.

Eventually the Nora was going too fast to handle comfortably so they called the evening watch early to get all sail off her.  Illuminated under the side lights Rae watched the main sheet stretching alarmingly each time the sail felt the full fury of the gale on the wave crests.  Before the relief had time to dress, the sheet suddenly parted, catapulting the steel boom and weighty triple sheathed blocks out to leeward.

As the Nora lurched to port, the boom crashed against the port shrouds, the frozen sail instantly shattering into streaming tatters.  Seawater flooded onto the deck in a wave whose foam cascaded from the lee freeing ports as she slowly lifted.  As the Nora recovered to roll heavily to starboard the boom swung back across the deck, its heavy blocks tangled in the broken sheets.  They slammed into the bulwark with a splintering of its planks.  By the time all the crew were on deck her head had been hauled into the weather, but she was still rolling heavily and the demolition ball blocks were smashing out bulwark planking on either side.  The Captain appeared in the wheelhouse.

“Not good” he said, this being the few English words that he had picked up from the foreigners.  He threw back a pickled herring chasing it back with a tot of schnapps to slither it down his gullet, and thus prepared he braced himself behind the wheel.

On the deck the crew were hesitant to subdue the boom and murderous blocks.  To get in the way would have been instant death.  Brave Bill saw his chance to flick the flailing sheet tail around a hatch combing. So hobbled they could all pull it back hard to the mainsheet horse.  

The gaff and rags of sail were still thrashing above in the rigging so again Bill led the charge.  Misjudging the weight on the gaff’s peak halyard he released it unchecked.  It curled in his hand, snagging around his chunky signet ring and dragging him metres off the deck before working loose.  He dropped heavily on the hatch edge to watch the glint of rubies as the ring bounced down the deck and rolled out of the freeing port.  

Though badly hurt he soldiered on until they had the sails secure and the Nora was brought back on course to the south west for Gester.  Only then, Bill was bundled down into the cabin.  His strained chest and swollen hand required pain killers, but the ribs were not broken.  His injuries were thankfully light due to the protecting layers of clothing.

The indications were for the gale deepening to storm force, they were a man down, the starboard bulwark gaped open, and their position was obscured by blizzard.  Their minds focused on finding a safe haven.

Jeff took radar bearings of prominent features and shouted them to Jean for transposing on the chart.  Six miles on their beam she identified the Grønsund, the shoal approaches to the protected Storstrømmen waterway separating Denmark’s Møns and Falster Islands.  She noticed that the Captain had already changed course towards its southern extremity.  He pointed dead ahead, nodded and held his thumb up.  His enthusiasm to seek shelter was echoed by a dozen ship sized blobs on the radar screen also converging towards Hestehoved Lighthouse.

Jean flicked through the “Baltic Pilot Book” that described its treacherous swashways; “Tolke Dyb channel, closed to the sea by shifting sand banks, Hestehoved Dyb and Nyt Lob, the southern channels with shallow bar subject to heavy swell in gales from north east.”  The Pilot book further described the approach from the north by skirting seaward of the outlying sandbanks until Hestehoved Lighthouse’s white sector came in line with the two mile offshore approach buoy.  This transit marked the passage to cross the bar.  Overrunning the westerly inshore course must be avoided as immediately after passage the channel turned hard to starboard, towards Grønsund Lighthouse.

Between snow flurries and at the top of the swells the red sector light of Hestehoved flickered in and out of view.  Every eye aboard scanned the darkness to starboard for the slow white flash of the approach buoy, but there was only a roaring of wind and surf.  

Suddenly there it was, dead ahead under the red sector. The Captain steered away and gulped another herring and schnapps.  As they closed, the buoy’s flash illuminated rolling hills of white water breaking over the banks everywhere to starboard.

All of a sudden the red sector flickered and turned white.  The Captain hauled the wheel hard to starboard so manfully that the Nora almost broached on its heel to port, swinging the stern davits perilously close to the buoy.  As she righted and rolled back to starboard, green water spewed in through the broken bulwarks.  The waist was lost to sight under this sea until she rolled back to port, heeling heavily under the weight of water rushing to leeward.  Another rolling swell roared in from the darkness and smashed her broadside.  Its effect was to bodily lift her, surfing sideways over the bar, grazing the bottom with many bumps before she was over and clear.  The propeller gripped once more, pulling her out from the suds into the channel, the Hestehved Dyb. Though now bashing into those swells, spray covered the Nora from end to end.  

At last they clawed around Skanse Pynt into the relative protection of Storstrømmen, with the storm a force ten and gusting.  Nosing through the blizzard to find a space to anchor, it appeared that half the coasters of the Baltic had the same plan.  Eventually they found a spot in the lee of an island, strangely clear of all other vessels, and let the starboard bower anchor swing free from its cat’s head to splash down into the water.  After several whacks on the windlass’s gypsy pawl the cable was freed. It rattled out to follow the plunging anchor to its bitter end.  However, the ship continued to drift back towards Skanse Pynt, the quarter ton anchor dragging across a sandy bottom.  The second bower was similarly let go and still she dragged, even until they felt the swell from the Grønsund once more.  Then suddenly she bit the bottom, the bow swung around to the wind and they came to rest, exhausted.

With some difficulty the anchor lantern was lit and hauled up into the forward rigging to join the many others around the Storstrømmen.  Here their moaning halyards blown taut defied the arctic blast, lighting white halos of blizzard in the darkness.  The news later reported a hundred less fortunate vessels lost or sunk during this storm of the decade, caused by violent secondary low pressure systems, too localised to be tracked by Atlantic weather ships, that had converged and had intensified with the existing gale over the Skagerrak.

 

 

A day later the storm had abated so they started to break out the anchors.  The windlass was operated by two crewmen swinging off the ends of reciprocating handles.  Each sweep of a long handle wound the gypsy’s drum only enough to bring the cable home a couple of links at a time.  It took Bill and Rae hours and a bucket of sweat to haul in the port cable and anchor. Still nursing his injuries Bill had to retire.  When Jeff joined Rae to help with the starboard anchor they yanked and sweated, the Captain motored around in near circles to reduce the strain on the cable, but they still couldn’t get it up, the handles were bending.

A coastguard vessel had been assisting some galeases that had dragged and were aground on the southern bank.  Watching the Nora’s antics they rumbled them pretty quick, advising them that their anchor had picked up the submarine telephone cable carrying the “hotline” between Washington and Moscow.  They were instructed to cut the cable because avoiding World War Three was a higher priority than an old scow losing its gear.  Rae heaved a sigh of relief.  Few good things came out of the cold war, but not having to wind in that last cable was one of them.

After two days holed up in the Storstrømmen waiting for the storm to abate, Nora was underway again.  Back out through a placid Hestehved dyb, around Denmark’s most southerly cape at Gedser, with a wind on her tail and a “bone in her mouth”, she foamed down the ice bobbing Baltic bound west for Kiel with its North Sea Canal.

The rhythm of sea watches took over.  New rope was reeved through the main sheet tackle and the damaged bulwarks were temporarily lashed together.  When called to polar bear cottage they waddled like penguins in three trousers and oilskins, dodging occasional spray that froze as it hit the decks.  They fought toilet paper down the pipe and dodged the flush bucket’s icy back spray.  All the while a warming pot of kødboller borscht simmered on the one eyed beast, the Captain savoured a fresh jar of herrings and all was good under the thin blue sky.  The glare of a low sun masked the German lowlands to the south until afternoon when gaunt Westermarkelsdorf Light was passed close abeam.

Jeff had placed Fred, the stuffed dog, on the wheelhouse dashboard, good heartedly joking with Bill at his start of watch

“We found another hand for your dogwatch”.

As stars replaced the sunset, Bulk Lighthouse flashed up ahead.  This black and white striped beacon marked the entry to Kiel Fiord and their turn for Nordmolle Light at the entrance to the Nord-Ostsee-Kanal.  The yellow code flag Q was hoisted, to request German immigration clearance, and the Canal Authority hailed by radio for instructions.  By Sunday evening they were tied up at their designated wharf at Holtenau, awaiting the canal pilot for 07:00 on Monday morning.

At supper there was as much kødboller borscht as beer, schnapps and good humour, and with good reason, for each of the crew had reached their own milestone.  Despite everything thrown at it the seaworthiness of their little ship had exceeded Jeff and Jean’s every expectation.  They were on course to meet the tax deadline, soon the Captain’s cap would pass to Jeff and Jean would have the privacy of her own cabin, free of additional guests.  

The Captain’s contract was done and once clear of the morning’s immigration he was free to find the little farmhouse with roses over the gate.  

 

 

Bill’s injury had resolved the dilemma he had struggled with for days; to return for the water police or surrender to the uncertain life of a pirate.  Jeff’s offer to put him on a plane back to the UK after the canal’s transit determined the choice.

Rae was as happy as a pig in the proverbial; adventure, perhaps tinged with a little guilt from imagining his girlfriend pining for him at home.

In the misty dawn the engine was reluctant to start.  Perhaps it was the milder weather that had caught it off guard.  Jeff and the Captain drained the diesel fuel filter, held its sample to the light and tweaked the fuel connections until eventually it burst into life with a belch of black exhaust smoke.  Each then paced the deck impatiently awaiting the pilot.

At the tick of seven o’clock Pilot Fischer, immaculately uniformed with a comically oversized cap, squeezed through the broken bulwarks.

“How thoughtful to have removed obstructions to my boarding,” the blonde young officer observed.  “Passports, ships registration certificate, now please?”

The Captain explained in Danish that having fulfilled his pilotage he was disembarking to find another galeas home, adding that he was glad to see the back of his life of toil and struggle.

“Anything to declare?  Have you illness or dangerous articles aboard?”

Pas på gale udlændinge,” the Captain replied, later found to mean, watch out for the mad foreigners.

The pilot scribbled on a carbon pad, issuing a copy to the Captain.

“Show this when departing Germany” he said. 

With a brief shake of hands and a feigned smile Captain Nils slipped over the rail and was gone without looking back.

He wouldn’t take even his toothbrush,” said Jean.

Or the photo in the cabin,” added Jeff.

I wonder if he left the schnapps?” said Bill.

The pilot took up position in the doorway of the starboard side of the wheelhouse giving a clear view of the canal bank.

Captain, please remove the fluffy toy dog here that interupts my view.  Your ship will maintain the eight knots minimum required through the canal?”

Jeff replied in the affirmative.

I see you have also most conveniently removed starboard anchor from cat’s head for ease of berthing no doubt.  You do have another plan to stop if needed?”

Jeff meekly nodded, pointing to the port anchor.

Very well, bring your vessel into midstream,” the Pilot instructed stiffly.

As if similarly intimidated, Nora’s engine coughed and spluttered a few missed beats. The pilot gave Jeff a dismayed look.

You are ready?”  He asked accusingly.

With a tweak of the prop pitch wheel the Nora overcame her initial retuctance to throttle up.  With another puff of smoke she idled out towards the end of a line of cargo ships.

Meanwhile, further down the wharf, Captain Nils had found another galeas willing to take him back to Copenhagen.  Before jumping aboard his moistening eyes caught one last look at the heart-shaped stern of his Nora av Sven, chugging out towards the ocean going ships.

Good luck to Nora and her new companions,” he sighed, ”they will need it.”

The Nora followed under the stern of a Maltese flagged freighter.  Passing through the lock gates they looked up through a yellow metal staircase hanging off the concrete monolith’s walls.  Up and up by platforms it disappeared in the mist overhead at a watch tower hung with signal lights.  The pilot explained that they had closed the gates a few days previously, a rare event at this end of the sea level canal, only required at times of very high water from storm surges.  Another freighter pulled in behind so that in this sandwich they were dwarfed, having to throttle up to keep pace with the big boys.

The reason that the pilot had chosen his position in the wheelhouse was clear once they cleared the lock.  On the starboard bank a bicyclist with a megaphone was assigned as sheepdog to this convoy of transiting ships.  He pedalled forward along the path shouting to the pilots ahead to slow their ships down and then back to the laggards telling them to speed up.  This surprisingly low tech solution worked, where so many ships’ radio stations so closely packed would have interfered with each other.

Passing under the Levensau High Bridge the sun broke through, glinting through its towering arch, high above the Nora’s sticks.  Despite Jeff’s contempt for the old enemy still lingering two decades since the war’s end, it wasn’t long before he was enthusing over the engineering and efficiency of every aspect of this German canal.

Having found that Jeff was a dentist, Wolfgang Fischer removed his pilot’s cap and asked Jeff to evaluate his most recent crown.  It is hard to stand aloof with a mouth open and a stranger inside it, so soon they were all in animated conversation, oiled by a brunch of borscht kødbollers pinned with cheese and pinapple cubes on cocktail sticks. Wolfie”, as he soon asked to be called, had enjoyed kødboller ever since his days as a naval cadet, though he had to admit that he had never tried them cold marinated in beetroot.  

Wolfie’s naval school training ship had been a galeas so these old craft were dear to him.  Though he was only ten years old at war’s end it grieved him that his navy had sunk so many of these beautiful craft.  He began enthusing over the architecture of the Nora, suggesting this or that improvement, so by degrees the pilot was gently bewitched by the Nora and her crew’s easy manner, just as they were by his dry humour.  Fred was even invited back to the wheelhouse where Wolfie placed his cap in an amusing slouch over the dog’s eye.  They all saluted Captain Fred laughing uproariously, an informality that was scowled at by the sheepdog trailing on the bicycle.

Bill snoozed on the hatch soaking up the sun.  Rae pottered by replacing the frayed footrope lashings.  As the day progressed the flat landscape of Kiel merged into lush meadows, woods and distant hills. They passed under Rendsburg High Bridge, the Schwebefähre; an engineering masterpiece of a suspended cradle that ferried traffic across the canal.  On wider sections the bicycle sheepdog would slow the convoy down to pass another going the opposite way.  Occasionally a tired old coaster was seen pulled up against the canal’s bank, the motor having expired, awaiting repair or a tow. When the Nora’s engine faltered a few times it was immediately pounced upon by the sheepdog, snapping at her heels with orders to “park up or keep up.”  Each time she quickly lifted her game to chug on and avoid an ignominious fate on the canal’s bank.

In the late afternoon the lock at Brunsbüttel and the termination of the canal was reached where it entered the muddy River Elbe.  The Nora was brought up alongside the pilot disembarkation stage where Wolfie, clutching a gifted carton of kødbollers, alighted.  For such a short acquaintance it was a heartfelt farewell.

“Don’t forget Hans,” he reminded them, a reference to his brother, also galeas smitten from youth as a naval cadet and now Captain of a banana boat trading from the Windies to the European seaboard.  Wolfie was sure their paths would cross.

“Woof, woof,” he shouted over the water, accompanied by a paw up salute.  They all laughed and waved as the Nora amid its convoy spilt out of the canal lock and into the River Elbe.

 

 

The Elbe is a major trading artery for the industrial north of Germany.  Thirty miles upstream is the city of Hamburg with its commercial and naval port.  It was a pivotal base in Hitler’s chain of U-boat pens that stretched along Europe’s west coast.  Here, half the Nazi’s slave labor force died building the impregnable submarine bunker pen, Elbe II.  As a consequence it was obliterated by the allies at war’s end. Hamburg is the home port of much of the German merchant marine, including Han’s “Hamburg Indies Freight Liners”.

Though the estuary widens at its mouth, the tidal stream cuts a narrow shipping channel only into the southern side, leaving muddy shoals and shallows over an expansive entrance.  Here is the historic port of Cuxhavn, with its ocean liner terminal for the Hamburg-to-America greyhounds that race across the Atlantic to the land of the hamburger.  Being close to the North Sea with its teeming Dogger and Fisher banks also made it the base of the German fishing fleet.

The waterway is always very busy.  It was dusk as the Nora chugged out of Brunsbüttel bound for Cuxhaven, their destination sixteen miles downriver.  Jean gazed over the rail into the muddy eddies of run-out tide.  In the half light she imagined a sailor’s face, looking up at her from under the water’s surface and mouthing words she couldn’t quite hear.

“This is old business, over years ago.”  She scolded herself.  “But why is it bubbling to the surface now?

The thoughts swelled and would not be subdued.

“It was all madness.”  She recollected.  “Twenty years ago all those fine young men killing one another.  And now here in this stream from which Stuey’s enemy departed, I sadly wave goodbye to a boy who might be his murderer’s son.  Was a guilt ridden wraith still seeping pestilence from the Elbe II’s ruins upstream?  Perhaps it sought forgiveness?  How could she forgive?  Was the apparition trying to say that Stuey was still alive?  Had he missed the boat after the motorbike crash and found another life?”  She struggled as hate and forgiving churned inside her head, but like this muddy swirling river she couldn’t make sense of any of it.

In this mental turmoil a persistent voice to was shouting.  “Where’s Stue bin off to”.  She held her hands over her ears but it wouldn’t stop and then Rae was tapping on her shoulder.

“Dad’s crook with you, he’s calling and you’re not answering.”

“You stupid woman,” Jeff was now screaming, “What the blazes are you doing? Stop fannying around and come and help navigate.  Where’s Steubenhofte light? Where’s our approach marker?  There are ships and buoys everywhere, it’s like Piccadilly Circus.”

Jeff would never master calm authority, and Jean’s ghost would not lie to rest easily.  His panic was underlined when two prolonged and deep blasts rattled the wheelhouse windows as a mammoth black entity blotted out the sky ahead.

“Steer for that red light”, Jean advised.

“But the chart shows wrecks over there.”  

“Plenty of water, 10 metres swept depth by the chart.”

The tanker passed so close that they exchanged waves with the watch officer on the bridge wing.  Through the swirl of its stern wash the twinkling lights of Cuxhavn were revealed ahead.  Within the backlight from ships, wharves and floodlights the single flash of Steubenhofte beacon shone through, marking the end of the mole enclosing America Haven and the ocean liner terminal.  Now orientated, they were able to thread their way through the red and green lit channel, through the entrance of the inner harbour and into the Fischerhaven.  

Amongst the fishing fleet they spotted another old galeas.  Throwing over old car tyres for fenders they berthed up alongside the Topaz, handing their ropes over to its welcoming crew.  With a last whimper and a cough the engine was shut down and the Nora was snug for the night.

Bill’s farewell was brief.  During his morning stroll for a shower at the Mission for Seamen he learnt of the imminent departure of the Cuxhavn to Harwich ferry.  He rushed back, clambered over the Topaz, onto the Nora, collected his gear, clambered back over the Topaz and shouted a goodbye.  The crew watched his large frame running down the wharf until it disappeared around a corner, and then there was only a crew of three.

 

 

These old sailing ships usually had a remarkable effect on anyone familiar with the style. Strangers would peek as if into a baby’s pram.  They would joyfully comment on how dainty, bonny or proper this or that was, prompting some anecdote that sufficed as the entry fee for a tour around the decks.  The crew found this goodwill wherever they berthed, and it was how they became friends with Otto and Steph, the owners of the Topaz.

As the Reich invaded their Dutch homeland these Jewish accountants had fled to Denmark, only for the Nazi machine to catch up with them when it too was invaded.  The Topaz’s sympathetic skipper was one of a host of galeases that bravely hid escapees under sacks in the hold to ferry them to safety across the Kattegat to Sweden.  The couple retained a great affection for this vehicle of their salvation and kept track of its comings and goings.  When the old skipper retired they bought it and were saved again, this time from a life of bookkeeping to one of roaming the narrow seas in trade.

Otto was a ruddy faced, white whiskered father Christmas of a figure, a self taught shipwright with a hold full of boat bits for sale. Having noted the bare skeleton of a Christmas tree still hanging in the rigging, he made quick work of checking what this galeas had to trade.  Apart from some ships navigation lanterns, he was sadly disappointed with the contents of Nora’s hold but was able to offer assistance repairing the bulwarks.

Having planned to take Bill to Hamburg for repatriation by plane, Jeff and Jean decided to go anyway.  There was business to do, most importantly, arranging insurance on the Nora and finding replacement crew for the next leg down to Hamble. In Cuxhaven, Rae was detailed to mooring watch duty, and to load additional fuel.  There was a growing suspicion that the storm had churned up some debris at the bottom of the fuel tank that might be the cause of the Nora’s engine failings.  Otto was hired to repair the bulwarks, with Rae as his helper.

Armed with a folding wooden carpenter’s rule Otto inspected the smashed starboard bulwarks, shaking his head and tutting with each dimension taken and scribbled down on a scrap of paper.  A couple of metres of cap rail were missing, leaving the splintered stumps of three stanchions poking up through the waterway.  The bulwark planking along that section had also been carried away in the storm.

In the depths of the Topaz’s hold lumps of timber were rummaged through, before an assortment was selected and hauled onto the Nora’s hatch top.  Otto carefully marked out scarfs to cut at each end of the splintered cap rail over the undamaged stanchion heads.  After a stern lecture on avoiding hidden nails, and the precaution of scanning with a powerful magnet, scarfs were laboriously cut with Otto’s treasured Diston crosscut hand saw.  The off-cuts were saved for templates.

Similarly, scarfs were cut on the damaged stanchions, this time with the lower side of the scarf facing internally, away from the bulwarks.  The remains of the bulwarks, four runs of three by ten inch plank were not so easy to scarf as they lay against undamaged stanchions.  The cut was started with a tenon saw and then completed using a razor sharp chisel.  The bulwark planks were marked out so the replacements would lie on alternate stanchions.

New cap rail and stanchion scarfs were sawn from Otto’s oak slabs, and shaped progressively with broadaxe, draw knife and then spoke shave.  There were no planed straight face sides or face edges as in the school woodwork room; all gentle curves in width, depth and length.  It was fortunate that the stanchions had broken away above the deck level or a more tedious removal of deck would have been required to get to the framing below.  Even so there was little more than a pile of shavings to show for the shipwright and apprentice’s labours before it was dusk and Steph was calling that dinner was ready.

What a spread it was for someone on a simpler diet; German sausage, cream cheese, baked potato and hot soup all thrown back with Holsten Pilsner.  They being quietly religious, a simple thanksgiving was said and the reward of the industrious began in earnest.  Rae did consider if a prayer before Jean’s next kødboller experiment might pay similar dividends.

A following sombre dawn began, shrouded in mist from the Elbe’s sandbanks, as Otto and Rae returned to work on the bulwarks.  The temperature remained cold enough for steamy breaths, though not for double layers of clothing.  Otto gave instructions for his lutting, the waterproofing mix that was to be spread over all jointing surfaces.  One part putty and one part white lead powder was thoroughly mixed as a paste.  Then red lead paint was splashed over all and mixed in until a creamy pink consistency was attained.

First a temporary batten was tacked in the position that the new top bulwark plank would go and the new section of cap rail was dry fitted, requiring a little shaving here and there before it would slot in nicely.  Each new stanchion’s scarfs were plastered with lutting and clamped into position against the batten.  The cap rail was again placed and marked on the underside for the mortises that would be chiselled out to accept each stanchion’s head as the tenon.  The cap rail scarfs and mortises were plastered with lutting and driven down into place until excess pink squeezed out of the joints.  Spikes were drilled for and driven diagonally through the cap rail into the stanchion heads.  Alternate stanchion heads were spiked from different directions to ensure they locked the cap rail down firmly.

Next the lowest bulwark plank, exuding a perfume of pitch pine, was similarly lutted, driven up against the stanchions and through coach-bolted home at the scarfs.  Once in place the top edge was drilled to accept dowels of pine, mating with the next plank fitted above until the last plank was rub fitted against the cap rail bottom.  All fastenings were driven down below the surface and filled with extra thick Otto’s lutting, followed by a coat of red lead priming paint, ready for undercoating in the morning.

They stood back to admire their work.

“As good as new,” said Otto.

“Better,” replied Rae.

It was as Rae was undercoating the repairs early next morning that Jeff and Jean returned, all in a rush, as the forty five gallon fuel drums were arriving and the Nora had to be warped along the wharf so they could be rolled aboard directly.  The delivery driver had practised the knack of tilting the barrel to a precise angle where it could be rolled along under control.  However, it took the three of them and a lot of expletives to roll each of the four barrels on board then lash them up against the rails.  The performance was closely watched by Otto who had been alerted to this sudden sign of departure.

“I think you have scraped a bit of fresh paint off my repair,” he volunteered, to draw attention to his bill not yet being settled.

Jeff had to admit that it was “better than before” and the hard negotiating began, settling on a reduced fee on account of a pair of fine side light lanterns from the Nora’s hold.  Now only three lanterns remained.

At the same moment the two professional yacht deliverers slid over the rail.  As arranged by wire they had arrived on the morning’s ferry from Harwich.  Most encouraging was that Ian McKinsey had been recommended by the Commodore of the RAF Yacht Club, where he was a regular crewman on their top notch racer the Bloodhound.  Tim, his less experienced assistant, had been brought along for the experience, one he was to remember for all the wrong reasons.

 

 

 

 

 


Chapter Three – Incident off Dungeness

 

Ian had been engaged to assist with engine servicing, although his greater skill was in seamanship.  He was immediately tasked with changing the contaminated fuel and cleaning the fuel filters. Nora’s 300 horse power engine was soon purring again.  Never one to waste the day, Jeff had the mooring lines promptly dropped.  The Nora was chugging through the outer harbour into the Elbe’s buoyed channel before the new crew had swung their swags down into the forecastle.  The main cabin was now the exclusive domain of Jeff and Jean, shared only by crewmen “Fred” who had now established permanent occupancy on the mat in front of the cabin stove.

The wide estuarine sheet of apparently placid muddy ebb carried them downstream, only the swift passing of buoys and approaching traffic indicating their real speed.  They were swept out past the Kugelbake beacon, then the port hand low Neuwerk and Scharhorn Islets as the multitude of uncovering sand banks revealed themselves as ribbons of breaking surf.  No wonder the chart was peppered with wreck symbols radiating from the estuary!

Soon the distant silhouette of craggy Helgoland was sighted to starboard against a radiant blue sky.  All on deck was lashed down and the final black top coat of the repaired bulwarks gleamed by the time they bobbed out of the current into the German Bight, the sun sparkling on its milky green waves, white foam dancing along the hull’s waterline.

They continued to make good time, reaching the Elbe light channel marker before noon.  Here they made their easterly course change to skirt the hundred miles of coastal sandbanks to port, well clear of the fringing Friesian Island chain.  Standard watches were again assigned to the crew and recorded in the logbook; four hours on, four off, with shared dogwatches when all were awake from four to eight in the afternoon and the cook unassigned but always available if needed.  Rae and Tim started the first noon watch; Jeff and Ian were assigned the next evening watch.  Favourable conditions continued, the hourly chart plot revealing a line progressing at a healthy nine knots.

The radar was of the original cathode ray display type, whose glowing screen was viewed during daylight through a rubber light shielding hood requiring a dedicated observer. Once again it proved invaluable, not for identifying the low sand island’s intermittent echoes, but for the hundreds of ships’ traces, so closely spaced that they appeared almost as solid lines making through the sandbanks for the German Bight ports of Hamburg, Bremerhaven, Wilhelmshaven and Emden.  Clusters of dozens more dots milling over different banks to seaward indicated the fishing fleets.

 

 

Just before four in the afternoon the first dog watch sighted by radar the seaward face of Nordeney Island abeam.  The two shorter dog watches between 16:00 and 20:00 enable a social period around supper time when all the crew are awake.  It also rotates watches over time through all periods of the day.  After a meal courtesy of the cook and the one eyed beast, the crew sat in and around the wheelhouse exchanging yarns.

Ian McKinsey was a wiry, close-bearded young man in his thirties.  He was courteous, affable and not shy of telling his story; an activity that filled his watches.  His schooling was irregular due his serviceman father’s overseas postings, leaving him with a taste for travel, hiking and sailing.  Despite gaining trade qualifications as an electrician, those tastes had drawn him in to yacht delivery.  He told of working for the rich and famous on the white boats from Fort Lauderdale to the West Indies, as well as professional crewing on the yacht racing calendar in the Solent and Cannes.  He claimed that glowing testimonials from satisfied owners had created such a demand, and he had been paid so handsomely, that he had recently registered as a business.  He handed Jean his card printed with Yachtmaster-Engineer Ian McKinsey delivers anywhere anytime above a clipper ship logo.  She instinctively ran her fingers over its flat printed surface and noted that the print was not embossed.  The war had been a great social leveller, but quality remained apparent to the discerning.

Tim, whose reticence for self promotion was as pronounced as Ian’s forwardness, opened up with little of his story. He was at university studying languages, had no girl friend, played cricket and was happy with rules and moderation in all things.  Excepting the RAFYC yacht races for which Ian had enlisted him. Those races he described as quite exciting.

The ship ploughed forward under a mackerel-streaked sky with its magnificent sunset.  A dark purple cloud band masked the eastern horizon but a golden thread illuminated Baltram Island’s beach, and the higher dunes on Wangerooge and Spiekerooge, touched by the last rays of sun, appeared as if on fire.  Left way behind in their wake the darkness had engulfed Langeoog Island but the church steeple at Esens stood out like a beacon beyond.  Jean was reading “Riddles of the Sands”, a novel of espionage and yachting on the swashways of the Friesians in Kaiser Wilhelm’s time.  All the while she pointed out the islands and their place in the novel.  Up ahead, past Nordeney, the dunes and towers on Juist and Borkum momentarily shone crimson with the last of the setting sun, quickly replaced by winking shore lights on nightfall.  At first the stars in Orion’s belt lit up the horizon, but as the Nora drove under the cloudbank even the brilliant glitter from northerly Polaris was extinguished.

At that moment the Volvo whimpered down to an idle, wheezed, coughed twice, and then, as if finding the courage to face the night, powered up again to continue its methodical beat.

To be on a low, shoal and unknown shore at night is a worry, more so with a temperamental engine.  So at the start of Jeff and Ian’s evening watch consideration was given to make for an anchorage behind Schiermonnkoog Island, its lighthouse beaming clearly at 45º to port.  

Employing the navigators’ technique of doubling the angle on the bow, half an hour later four miles on the log occurred when the light bore abeam (90º) to port.  The right angled triangle plotted showed that their distance off was also the distance on the log (four miles), a fact confirmed by radar range.  Their dead reckoning however should have put them at a safer six miles offshore, the discrepancy clearly indicating the strong tidal flows in and out of the channels between the fringing islands.

With this intelligence and Jean’s hair raising descriptions of the shifting sands inshore, Jeff was keen to press on, steering further offshore into the night to meet his tax deadline on UK shores.  By the time the midnight watch relieved a moderate south westerly breeze had set in.  They had been skirting the German (West) Friesian Island chain but now with the high Ameland Light passed and Terschelling Island abeam they were in Dutch (East) Friesian Island territory.  To leave behind the ghostly reminders of the naval war was also an obvious relief to Jean.

Occasionally the Nora would buck over a shorter wave’s chop and, falling into the hollow beyond, spray would lash across the wheelhouse windows as sparkling ruby reflections of her port side light.  This necessitated greater vigilance to identify approaching ships’ lights.  Taking their inshore course had so far avoided the busy offshore traffic lanes of ships, but it did not lessen the risk of encountering fishing boats or even larger vessels that may be entering into one of the channels between the islands.  Most critically, if the “aspect” of a ship ahead showed a red sidelight it must be given way to under the international collision avoidance rules.

 

 

The watch easily passed in idle conversation; of classic sail racers, the Ashes’ rightful home, Moby Dick and Ahab and the little Dutch boy with a finger in a dyke.  Ian related the tale of the club’s Squadron Leader who had ditched his flaming Spitfire into these waters, and had rafted home to Blighty with a finger up to Mr. Hitler’s Luftwaffe.

Just after two o’clock in the morning, with 154 miles since departure showing on the log, they reached their Texel Island waypoint and changed course for the English Channel.  Steering away from Texel light on the islands north they came around to the south west directly into both a building chop and the main shipping lanes.  The ship’s motion became frisky and the spray more frequent.  Soon Tim whispered,

“Oh merde, le mal de mer à nouveau,” and left the wheelhouse for a pace around the deck.

By the early hours of Friday morning they entered the Channel Approaches in a skittle alley of large ships all around them.  The radar was painting so many ships’ traces that they had to turn its display scale down to twelve miles in order to discriminate individual dots.  Even so at least fifty were close and pursuing similar, reciprocal or crossing courses.  The rule is simple for vessels ahead and approaching.  Both must turn to starboard, passing with red to red sidelights.  Vessels behind and overtaking must give way to the overtaken until finally past and clear.

Crossing vessels were easy determined from the radar screen.  Its display mode was in relative motion, technically described as the combined movement of both your “own vessel” and “another vessel”.  To separate the vectors of “own” and “another” vessels required drawing a geometrical a plot, taking several minutes. It was not possible to plot all the dozens of crossing traces.

A solution was found in drawing lines from the radar display centre (the current relative position of own ship) to the fastest moving and closest targets.  If any of those appeared to be tracking down the line towards the centre then a greater risk of collision was likely, so a priority plot could be completed, both to identify it visually and determine avoidance action.  

This solution was working well. However, its workload of radar and visual watch for crossing vessels now making for and from the great seaports of Europe became so demanding that the carelessly close approach of one overtaking tanker escaped their attention until almost too late.  The black behemoth approached from astern at 20 knots, its side lights showing green and red, then green only, then red only, indicating an indecision only resolved in the last minutes by its passing Nora narrowly to starboard.

Nora’s stern was firstly hit by its surging two metre bow wave, which rolled her to her beam ends scooping up a lather of seawater and throwing her bow towards the blackness under the tanker’s bows.  Tim, at Nora’s wheel, instinctively countered this roll by steering away, only to find that the bow wave had advanced along Nora’s side to push against her bow.  Now the wave pushed away Nora’s bow, sucking her stern into the slipstream under the towering steel walls of the tanker’s mid-sections.  She wallowed with deck water streaming out through the freeing ports.  Moments later, the tanker’s stern wave hit Nora’s stern, rolling her again to her beam ends and throwing her bow inwards again toward the tanker. Immediately after, the extreme opposite yaw occurred, terminated by wallowing in the rough chop of vortices of the tanker’s stern wake.

The off watch crew clambered to the deck, only to watch the tanker’s stern light march off ahead leaving as its wake a churned highway of foaming ocean.

“I’ve never seen Fred move so fast,” Jeff declared.  “He did two somersaults and ended up on his head!

The helplessness experienced when vessels pass too close is called “hydrodynamic interaction”.  Its only cure is to pass further away.  After this fright the whole crew remained on deck to assist, even after the scheduled watch change and until the daylight relieved the need for additional lookout.

At dawn a fiery sky, dropping barometer and strengthening southerly wind forewarned the approach of a warm front, confirmed after the dulcet tones of “Sailing by” and the morning shipping forecast.  Afterwards Jeff twiddled with the tuning until he found a station broadcasting the rumpety tump of comic opera that he alone so adored.

They were passing over the hallowed waters from which the pirate station Radio Caroline had battled the British government over pop music, until defeated and towed away by Dutch salvagers to recover their debts the previous spring.  The crew insisted that Jeff re-tune in tribute to a station that boomed pop at a volume and clarity previously unheard on the tinny “trannies” of earlier listeners.  So the rhythm of watches pleasantly rocked and rolled through the day with Jimmy Cliff’s “Wonderful world, beautiful people”, Elvis being “All shook up”, Roy Orbison “Crying”, the Beatles “Talking about revolution” and Bob pleading “Honey just allow me one more chance.”

“Gilbert and Sullivan would have given that number more punch”, Jeff muttered.

 

 

Apart from the cross channel ferries, most other ships were now lining up to thread the eye of the needle through the Straits of Dover on the same or reciprocal courses as the Nora’s.  She weaved through the shipping, making regular small course corrections as greater sea room was called for.  These were the days when satellite positioning systems (GPS) were in their infancy.  The dedicated radio navigation installations such as Omega, Decca and Loran were too cumbersome for smaller vessels.

Jeff’s war time experience as a radio signalman had honed his skills in radio direction finding (RDF).  The principle was to rotate your radio aerial until the lowest reception of a shore beacon was received, thus indicating that the beacon’s direction was perpendicular to the aerial’s axis.  The method enabled homing towards a beacon or crossing twin bearings to find your position.  Radio propagation errors reduced the reliability for position finding on frisky small ship platforms.

Using a sextant to determine a position from a heavenly body was accurate to a mile, but not when overcast as on this passage, and at that time the crew lacked these skills.  They had relied on fixing their position at the point of land’s departure then steering in the planned direction (guesstimating an allowance for current and leeway) and crossing their fingers that hours or days later they would recognise a feature near the intended landfall.  The repeated changes in course were recorded as a zigzag line across their chart, introducing the high possibility of a culmination of small errors.

But the radar again proved its miraculous capabilities for pilotage.  On the longer range England’s Kent coastline showed up like a detailed map, inching towards them in a comforting confirmation of what the chart’s dead reckoning was showing.  This was both the boon of radar and its curse, for just as a listener would hear nothing from a poorly tuned radio, a navigator would not detect danger on a poorly tuned radar.

The Foxtrot Lightship dead on course was passed, and by nightfall as it flickered into life they came up with North Foreland light tower, the head of the Thames estuary and the marker for the off-lying Goodwin Sands.  Their treacherous reputation for dragging ships to the bottom must have intimidated the Volvo, as it once again whimpered down to an idle, wheezed, coughed twice, and then stopped.  

For an agonising few minutes the Nora wallowed in the very entry of the eye of the channel’s needle.  Jeff wound over the starter motor without success.  In desperation he pumped the throttle lever a few times and advanced its setting.  As the batteries reached exhaustion, the motor fired once, missed several times and then fired again.  A pall of black smoke belched from the exhaust stack as it chomped up like a beast biting off more than it could chew.  Then, to everyone’s great relief, it slowly cleared its throat and powered up again to continue a methodical beat down channel.

 

 

Rae and Tim relieved to start the evening watch as they passed Dover Harbour’s twinkling lights, its white cliffs hidden in the darkness.  Once past of the Varne Shoal patch they eased the Nora around to the new course of sou ‘west by west.  Flurries of sleet blew in as the wind suddenly increased to a force seven (a near gale).  With the increasing headwind the Nora started bucking hard into the short channel chop.  The decks were soon glistening from spray and the engine grumbling once more.  After each swell hit, her bow rose and the motor laboured.  Then she would crash down the back of the wave and the motor would wind itself up in a recovery.

At midnight the front hit, accompanied by southerly squalls of force eight gale and gusting.  They plotted their position as six nautical miles due south of Dungeness Headland.  A little afterwards the engine lost power, spluttered its death throes for some minutes then gave a last gasp and stopped.  Despite their efforts Jeff and Ian were unable to restart it.  They emerged from the engine room with expressions as black as their hands, clutching the dismantled components of the mechanical fuel pump.  They needed a spare part that was not carried aboard, and that was that.  The little ship wallowed helplessly, bending to the gusts that inched her towards the distant leeward headland.  In a strangely quiet wheelhouse Jeff bent over the now useless steering wheel absently fumbling with the plungers and sealing rings of the broken fuel pump.  His was consumed by a black wave of disappointment.  How had they got so close but so far?  Whose fault was this shit?

On deck the wind was howling, lightning flashing and rain sheeting down.  Ian sprang to the challenge of clawing off the land with a flush of an ocean racer’s blood.  So far their windward passage had provided no advantage for the sails, but now, driven by storm and high water, Ian marshalled the crew to raise the forestaysail, mizzen and runt of a main in double quick time.

The old mainsail, festering, mildewed and baggy had been salvaged from the hold to replace the one blown away off the Grønsund.  Not surprisingly they hadn’t raised it half way to the peak before it blew out all a clatter and lashing, adding to the pandemonium of the deck.  They got her sailing, but only just, as the wind and tide relentlessly pushed them towards the slow flash of Dungeness Lighthouse.

“Radio,” a reasoning voice broke over Jeff’s black reverie.  “Call for assistance and tow,” Jean repeated.

Simultaneously the wheelhouse door flew open with Ian’s dripping face shouting over the crescendo of the elements.

“Sails for steerage now all up skipper.”

Jeff was immediately dragged back from the black dog’s despondency to purposeful command.

His broadcast of: “Pan pan, Pan pan, Pan pan, all ships, this is Nora Dane off Dungeness without propulsion power requesting assistance with a tow to a safe haven,” echoed from every ship and shore radio station for fifty miles around them and immediately a powerful signal replied.

Nora Dane this is Tug Schnitzler Hercules, please confirm Lloyds Open Salvage Form agreement, provide position and agent’s details.”  A Germanic accent instructed.

The LOSF is a contract in which the salvaged agrees to an independent tribunal’s decision to fully recompense the salver for the expenses in successfully saving a vessel and its cargo from peril or distress.  This was not the tow that Jeff had in mind and he clarified his intention as a tow request, not salvage.  The same voice from Hercules repeated verbatim his initial message; their conditions were non-negotiable.

Jeff then tried to put out tow request calls to other ships on several frequencies, but each time he found his broadcast was being jammed by a powerful and close transmitter.  All the good that the Kiel Canal pilot “Wolfie” had brought to post war reconciliation came tumbling down as Jeff identified this as a duplicitous wowser whose just reward had been the axis defeat.  His recovery from defeated dentist to fighting digger was remarkable as he blasted out a demand for assistance to a British ship from another in British waters.

An older and warmer voice took over on the Hercules, requesting that the Nora fire a red distress flare so that her position could be pinpointed.  Now alert to trickery, Jeff instructed that a white parachute flare, a position indicator only, be deployed.  Ian aimed the flare canister up towards the wind and squeezed its operating lever.  With a whoosh the flare shot high into the sky, exploding to drift down on its parachute, illuminating a wild sea and the dark outline of a large ship close by.

The Hercules claimed not to have seen the flare and requested that a red flare be deployed.  The intention was clear - if a LOSF was not forthcoming, then a self-declaration of distress by a red flare was sufficient to claim the Nora as salvage.

The front had passed swiftly but a high wind and sea remained.  Despite their efforts to claw off, with every tack they lost ground.  They were now within a mile of the beach, the single warning flash of the lighthouse looming brighter and higher.  At this rate they could be stranded within an hour.  In truth, they were now in a situation of grave and imminent danger, the definition of distress.  But the Hercules had not figured that they were dealing with the veteran of Merauke who had so hoodwinked the Imperial Japanese Forces that they abandoned expanding their conquests, and Jeff was now onto their game.  

Using the radio DF he tracked the signal’s emission as coming from the large ship half a mile to leeward.  In a masterpiece of brinkmanship Jeff instructed the crew to raid the flare box and pick out every flare that wasn’t red.  All at once they expended their entire reserves of white, green and yellow flares so the sky lit up like fireworks night.  Simultaneously he radioed to the Hercules informing them that Nora was carrying a consignment of flares for the United Kingdom Coastguard, a believable claim when explosives were routinely carried in small sail carriers, and that if they required more crates to be opened please confirm with UKC, and oh, by the way, “if you can’t see us our radar can see you, and we log you at a quarter mile to leeward of us.”

The dark object that had been shadowing them suddenly turned on a Christmas tree of its lights on its multiple decks, shimmering like an alien mother ship emerging from the depths.  No word could describe it other than huge.  Like a tug boat on steroids this vessel was capable of towing super tankers of two hundred thousand tonnes, the largest structures in those days.  Search lights pierced the darkness in all directions and water streamed overboard from its cooling pumps giving it a diabolical appearance.

While Jeff and Jean manned the wheel and radio, Rae, Ian and Tim were in the bow awaiting the passing of a towline.  Despite the vessel’s thousands of tonnes displacement, its stern was of the low work deck tug style with a height barely that of the two hundred tonne Nora’s bowsprit.  Under the Hercules’s flood lights they could see half a dozen crewmen preparing the throwing lines and three inch diameter steel wire towing cable.  Her bridge towered over the Nora from where, no doubt, the salvage skipper was considering his catch with less concern than a gorilla chancing upon a flea.

Such underestimation of Nora’s fortitude was as arrogant as his earlier underestimation of her skipper’s mettle, demonstrated when Hercules first powered back towards Nora, ostensibly to pass the towline, but more likely to ram her and create distress by the damage.  As the ships collided Nora positioned at the top of a wave, her ice breaker bows poised like a quivering broadsword.  As she dropped onto the Hercules her steel sheathing sliced a tear through the Hercules’s taff rail, bulwarks and deck with not the least damage to herself.  The tug’s crew scattered for cover yelling to the skipper, who responded by powering the Hercules clear of harm’s way, hesitating a quarter mile distant to lick his wounds and reconsider how to best deal with this troublesome gnat.

Steadily they had been drifting inexorably towards Dungeness Light, and now a white line of the surf could be made out.  This prompted a second more measured approach by the Hercules.  On the Nora’s bow the crew heard a throwing line whistle in from the dark and thud down over the bow rail.  They pulled in the half inch line to which was attached a two inch messenger rope which they continued to pull until the weight of it indicated that the attached steel wire cable was close.

The towing cable had to be passed up through Nora’s hawse pipe providing a fair lead when wound in by the windlass.  Ian leaned out over the starboard bows rail to push a loop of messenger rope up through the hawse in plain view of the Hercules’s deck crew.  Astoundingly, the Hercules chose this moment to de-clutch her cable drum, allowing tens of tonnes of cable to freewheel overboard.

Before Ian could let go of the messenger he was catapulted over the bow.  Rae grabbed his disappearing legs and went over behind him while Tim grabbed Rae’s legs and followed them both.  Tim and the bowsprit netting saved them from being pulled to the bottom, but the bow plunging under each wave dunked and rinsed them several times before the drenched and spluttering crewmen were able to regain the safety of the deck.

Jean was so infuriated by the shambolic negligence, if not murderous intent of these salvagers that she grabbed the microphone and, even scaring Jeff, announced that if anyone suffered any more harm she would shoot the rabid dogs in a dark alley as they deserved.  Like all their messages it was broadcast as public correspondence.  Whether the unlucky censure from a lady or the Hercules’s drift into the surf line prompted the change of behaviour, within minutes the tug had passed a line with no more nonsense. It was secured and finally she was tugging Nora clear of the beach on a tow back to Dover.

 

 

Tim and Rae took over the dawn watch shortly after four that morning, while the other watch collapsed in exhaustion.  They followed the yellow and white stern light of the salvage tug a mile ahead as it forged slowly through the dark without further incident.  The slow night’s tow ended in Dover’s outer harbour on the morning’s low tide, too late to cross the shallow sill into the inner basin.  By the time the towline was shortened to manoeuvre them to a tidal wharf adjacent to the Hercules’s mooring it was approaching nine in the morning, the Saturday business hours of the Port Authority Office.

At the mast hounds they flew the yellow signal flag requesting customs and immigration clearance, but they need not have bothered. As minor celebrities of the marine radio their story was common knowledge.  The trawler crews along the wharf had given their thumbs up as they passed to the ballsy lady who put up with no truck from salvers. 

The gang plank was no sooner down than the awaiting customs officer strode on board and down into the cabin, asking to see the explosives and manifest.  He was quickly reassured that there were none, and was about to tick his clipboard when he noticed Fred.  After peering, poking and prodding with his pen he conceded that although it was in sufficiently poor taste to be banned in Her Majesty’s realm it was horse hair so permissible.  To Jeff’s great relief, no import tax was due on the Nora.  They had beaten the deadline.  

As soon as their passports were stamped Rae was dispatched to take the broken fuel pump to London for dealer repairs.  He trudged head down along the wharf, overladen with the heavy pump and slung over his shoulder a knapsack crammed with cans of kødboller.  Before he reached the port gate two black capped figures sped past in a Citroen goddess motorcar, swerving to a dust-clouded stop at Nora’s gangplank.  He heard the trench-coated henchmen’s loud demands for the Captain to accompany them.  Moments later the black Citroen retraced its course with an anxious Captain pinned between burly sailors in the back seat.

Jeff later described how he had been frog-marched like a Gestapo captive into the Port Authority Office and in the presence of the Harbour Master instructed to sign a LOSF.  Jeff telephoned his insurer, and to his amazement they instructed him to sign the form.  The calculation of odds by the City of London gentlemen was that paying out a comparative pittance on salvage for Nora to encourage the Hercules to stay in their patch was preferable to their exposure if a disaster occurred without her ready availability.  Unsaid of course, was now that Jeff had made a claim they would just claw it all back in increased premiums.  Also disappointed but not surprised that the insurer had no interest in fair play, the Harbour Master sympathetically arranged to squeeze Nora into the locked basin until repairs were completed.  Reluctantly Jeff signed and was released to find his own way back to the wharf.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Chapter Four – Hamble and Home

 

Rae was once more on a train clattering across the English countryside, this time bound for London.  After a month’s absence he was as joyful at the prospect of a hot bath as being reunited with his girlfriend Mia.  It was Christmas time.  Unlike the last journey this modern electric train was almost empty.  He placed his luggage on the opposite row of seats and immediately fell asleep.

Rae first met Mia at Technical College where a disparate group of students had chosen, or been obliged, to complete their final school certificates.  Her doting father was manager of Westminster Bank’s security, an occupation that honed his suspicious nature, particularly of his daughter’s suitors.  What time work left him was filled with caring for his delicate wife and crumbling stately home.  Mia made a figure with long red hair driving to college in her birthday gift, an antique Austin Four motorcar.  This white box on bicycle wheels was lovingly maintained by the estate gardener.  Mia was reared with few boundaries in a large playground to grow into a liberated woman that some less kindly described as wilful.  Rae’s first impression was that she was unapproachably posh.

Through the grapevine Rae heard that Mia was looking for a flatmate in London.  He moved in to find her generous heart and cuddly body.  The flat was in the lower storey of a row of brick terraced houses in Kew, at that time still a working class area.  It was long and narrow, its dark corridor leading through a kitchen and laundry to the outdoor privy, in a strip of wild garden backed by the railway line.

This was a delightful retreat in the height of summer and soon the flat became a London stopover for the old college gang.  Lazy summer picnics idled away weekends on the garden’s long grass, but for the rest of the year it was cold and damp.  The only heating was the glowing gas fire in Mia’s room.  One autumn evening while listening to music in her candle lit bedroom their laughter and wine melted into caresses and they became lovers.  Rae’s friend, the dependable Marty moved into the second bedroom as it had now become free.

Rae was jolted awake by the train guard shaking him,

“Victoria Station, wake up laddie, end of the line here.”

He rushed to the underground’s escalators, past the Christmas tree and carol singers and down into the windy bowels that reeked of electrical sparking and transmission oil.  The fuel pump was delivered to the mechanics out at the Mile End Road and its return to Dover arranged.  This duty done, Rae took the tube for home, but first stopped at the florist to buy a bouquet of roses.  Before noon he was skipping across Kew Bridge with a swelling tide in the river below.  At the flat’s festive doorstep it was Marty who opened the door.  Relieving Rae of the bouquet he stated,

“Thank you for the flowers, you shouldn’t have.”  Then with disapproval he added, “The lady has found another,” before returning to his bedroom.

Tony, one of the college gang, simultaneously stepped out from Mia’s room. His apologetic look said it all. “It just happened; it was the music, laughter and wine.”  Rae was shattered. He followed Marty to his room. With his head spinning he collapsed on his sofa.  Shortly afterwards Mia found him.

“So, you decided to come back early.  You could have written!  Tony is taking me home to spend Christmas with Mummy and Pa, Merry Christmas, goodbye.”  Then they left.

 

 

The same rising tide in Dover had enabled Nora to warp over the tidal sill into the snug inner basin of Granville Dock.  Here she awaited the return of the repaired fuel pump.  During this operation of moving the vessel with rope warps the seriousness of Tim’s injury in the towline passing became apparent.  His body had been the anchor pin that held the crewmen to the boat and stopped them from going under.  This now manifested as arm and shoulder strain so painful that immediately they were secure he apologised and discharged himself from further duties.

Jeff, still brooding over the salvage, was further piqued by Tim’s need for the train fare home to Southampton.  His face glowed red as he began huffing and puffing, his breath steaming in the cold morning air.  He scolded his crew about their obligations to assist until the contracted destination of Hamble.  Like the salver’s thugs he ordered them to accompany him to the wharf head tavern for a further dressing down.  Jean recognised the signs of his simmering towards a boil and escaped to seek out a bath at the seaman’s mission.

When they reached the tavern they found that despite the early hour some mariners had already sought its refuge.  Inside though dimly lit through dirty dimpled glass windows, its low oak beams reclaimed from the HMS Victory’s gundeck, its nicotine yellow walls and warming log fire all created a cosy haven from the cold morning.  As a Christmas wheeze, the landlord had placed a sprig of mistletoe over a stain on a beam said to be the hero of Trafalgar’s actual blood, shed as he famously asked, “Kiss me, Hardy.”

The Nora’s crew were immediately recognised as the minor celebrities of the night’s salvage.  Already the talk of the town, they were pumped for more.  Jeff obliged with colourful tales of derring-do and for a while quite forgot his rage, even shouting drinks all around and announcing that he would pay brave Tim’s fare home.  It would be deducted from Ian’s fee, of course.  Such tightfistedness towards those loyal to him but largesse towards complete strangers was incomprehensible to Ian.

As they tumbled out of the doors to put Tim on the train, a passing comment from the strangers about the game lady sorting out the salvagers stuck in Jeff’s craw.  His rage revived.  By the time Tim was away and they had made their way back to the Nora Jeff had rolled this comment through his mind a dozen times and he was on the boil.  He burst into the cabin to confront Jean.

“You vicious gossip, you’ve been spreading it all over town that I am an idiot and you are the smartie pants.”

A now dumbfounded Ian, witnessing this Jekyll to Hyde transformation, slunk off to the forecastle.  In the cabin Jeff badgered and heckled Jean with a tirade of accusations going back through decades of his perceived hurts, concluding that she honoured her previous husband more than her present one.  Jean sat silently, only nodding by way of answer when some object was slammed too noisily, or a wagging finger came too close.  In the forecastle Ian could hear the shouts, smashes and a loud crash, then Jeff’s footsteps on the deck overhead as he stomped out over the gangplank and back up to the pub.  Ian ran down the deck to the cabin where he found Jean sitting on the floor, surrounded by a scattering of books, broken crockery and the upturned table.

“I’m alright, he didn’t hit me,” she sobbed.  “He doesn’t mean it.  He can’t help himself.  He’ll be fine tomorrow.”

Jean was right.  In the morning she found Jeff asleep on the mat clutching Fred and an empty rum bottle and gently awoke him.  He said he couldn’t remember a thing from the night before, and then he begged for forgiveness.  It was the worry, the responsibility, the rum, and he would never to do it again, and that he would call his friend Terry to come and help them on the last leg of the passage.

 

 

Back in Kew, Marty was urging Rae to get up off his sofa.  Boarding school had taught him not to rely on loved ones, but Rae still felt the ache of loss. He had tossed and turned all night, first in anger and then despair, until despondency overtook him.

“You can’t mope around all Christmas.  There’s a party in Knightsbridge.  All the toffs will be there.  It’s a fancy dress, so we can gate-crash.  No one will know we aren’t invited.”

Rae rifled through the flat and found a black wig and some makeup.  Marty topped his usual blue jeans and checked shirt with a red bandana and black sunnies.  They peered at themselves in the corridor’s mirror and laughed at the Lone Ranger and Tonto, the cowboy and Indian twosome, peering back.  

The party was a humdinger of sparkling lights, loud music and excess.  The shared terrace house was chock full with wild revellers; costumed animals, historical characters and all the beautiful creatures of Carnaby Street.  Each floor’s landing allowed access to intimate bedrooms reflecting the weird and the wonderful of each host’s world.  The carnage of spilt special brew and acrid smell of incense soon had Rae’s head reeling in those intoxicated swoons that feel as if your brain is swirling down a drain.  He ultimately slid down the wall under a Beardsley print, its peacock dress merging into a gold toothed smile that mouthed “Nice maan” while a strawberry in tights hassled Marty to “Show us your shooter”.  Orange robed holy men were clashing bells as he passed out on the third floor landing.

“Wake up mate, it’s morning. We’ve got to go.”

For the second time in twenty four hours Rae was jolted awake, this time by Marty shaking him.  The Sunday morning traffic was already heavy as they stop started on Marty’s motorbike down Cromwell Rd, the main artery out of West London.  Suddenly a station wagon stopped dead ahead but the motorbike didn’t.  Marty smashed through the car’s back window as Rae flew skyward, landing with a crash on its roof, his feather and war painted face blearily staring down through the windscreen below.  The occupant’s trauma from this Wild West attack was probably more lasting than the physical injuries to the twosome.  Drunk-numbed with good helmets their strains and grazes were minor.  The bike was in a much sorrier state and had to be pushed home.

A few evenings later, still nursing their wounds, the duo sat on the wall in Kew by the public phone box awaiting their callers.  Jean rang at the pre-arranged time. Marty overheard Rae’s answers.

“Oh good,” (the fuel pump had arrived).  No, he couldn’t come down to rejoin the Nora as he’d fallen and strained his back.  He was OK and didn’t need to see a doctor.  Yes, he was he eating properly.  “You take care too.  Say hello to Terry from me.  You have a good Christmas too.”

An almost identical call followed from Marty’s mum except that it included the invitation to come down for Christmas in the country at the weekend.

On Christmas Eve, just as they departed for Marty’s parent’s home a letter arrived for Rae.  He recognised Jean’s handwriting and put it in his knapsack.  It turned out to be a fine gathering of friends and relations with all the cheer of the season; mince pies and homemade ale and sherry.  Sitting by the Christmas tree after his temporary family had gone to bed, Rae opened Jean’s letter.  It described their final stage of the passage from Dover back to the Hamble. He read:

“Jeff was a bit in the dumps after the tow so we asked Terry Finese to visit.  You know what good company Terry always is and how he always cheers Jeff.”

Terry was a charming wastrel, so tall that he had to stoop his head under the beams of their shared local pub, the Leather Bottle in Mattingley.  The Anglo-Irish soul’s delightful story telling was all the funnier for the lilting accent with which he told them.  His country aristocrat’s dress was always understated; bespoke tweed clothes made to never wear out and consequently always tatty with age.  He was the only one of Jeff’s drinking companions that Jean liked, as much due to his grasp of the classics as his witty repartee.  Jean’s letter continued:

“With Ian’s help Jeff had fitted the fuel pump so we motored out into the outer harbour to test it.”  Jean wrote.  “It worked so well, it was such a lovely day and Terry was so on form that we just kept going.”

 

 

Rae knew this coast so well that as he read it was as if he was actually aboard, watching their progress.  They had rounded that obstacle of Dungeness that had nearly killed the foredeck crew the week before.  Soon after the white chalk cliffs of Beachy Head reared up against a blue sky.  By noon the shingle beach of Brighton was astern and the chimneys of Shoreham Harbour abeam.  Always keen to reduce the kødbollers, Jean cooked some up with fried egg for lunch as the crew sat chattering in the sunshine at the wheelhouse door.

What day do your eggs fear the most, Jean?”  Terry asked, then answered, “Friday of course.”

“Oh you’re so silly, Terry,” she teased over the crew’s laughter.

“Oh, don’t say that Jean, I was really getting on top of improving my self-esteem, but you’re right, I don't deserve it at all, at all.”

Not to be outdone, Jeff interrupted.

“When I went to the doctor he said I was as mad. I said that’s a bit strong, I’ll want to get a second opinion. So the doctor says alright, you’re totally beyond hope too, but keep taking the pills.”  He laughed raucously, while his audience, unsure if this was a joke or a confession, tittered uneasily.

The crew maintained their lively chatter throughout their passage, rattling out yarns and shaggy dog stories.  In such delightful company on this beautiful day, the Nora skipped along the South Coast leaving a sparkling wake on a cobalt sea.

They steered well to seaward at Selsey Bill, keeping clear of the green shoal waters of the Owers banks.  The Nab Tower had appeared ahead and behind it the chalk outline of Culver Cliff on the Isle of Wight.  Terry pointed out the high ground of the South Downs rising abeam and noted that they should be called the Ups.  As they passed Portsmouth they dipped their ensign to an anchored warship, and to their glee Her Majesty’s Navy dipped back.  They entered the Solent, studded with white sailed yachts also enjoying the idyll of the day.

In the late afternoon they passed the Hamble Point buoy, its twin black top marks warning of the shoal banks ahead that were quickly drying with the strong ebb tide.  The familiar Jack in the Basket entry beacon was next sighted in line with the conspicuous red roof ashore marking the leads into the narrow channel.  Jeff sighed in relief that they had finally made it.

Though he had made this entry a hundred times, he must have picked the wrong roof or her draught had been too great, as the stern of the Nora clipped the edge of the submerged mud bank then lurched to a halt.  Her bow had been set off but her deep stern was pushed on by the relentless tide.  There was much fury in backing and forwarding the engine to try and dislodge her, even talk of shovelling out the fifty tons of gravel ballast, but she stuck fast.  As the water evaporated and mud surfaced all around the Nora settled and gently tilted over.

At that moment the life raft canister, that had sat snugly on the engine room roof through the worst of storms, slipped from its lashing and rolled onto the main deck.  Here it broke open and with a mocking wheeze the life raft’s gas bottle self-deployed, slowly inflating its black rings and bright orange canopy.

 

 

Jeff and Terry slid the life raft over the rail and into the water, making use of it to paddle around to ensure that the Nora was stable and would not topple over as she dried out.  Once satisfied they left Ian and Jean aboard and paddled up the river to the RAF Yacht club jetty, not without difficulty against the strong ebb current.

Looking out towards the jetty the barman dryly noted that Jeff Hope had returned with his new yacht.  The Commodore peered through the window and remarked,

“I thought it would be much bigger.”

The old squadron leader joined in to chirp “Good man, I didn’t hear that he had to ditch, you can’t stop those diggers can you, eh!”

While Jeff and Terry slaked their well earned thirst they entertained the bar with yarns of fun and adventure.  In high jinks, Jeff scribbled a note on the back of a beer mat. It read:

“Now for Sale: parachute, used once, never opened, small stain.”  He pinned it on the notice board beaming with boyish glee.

Terry sidled up to a pair of stout ladies sitting by the bar. “I do so love to hear the brogue of my emerald isle, you two ladies must be from Ireland too?”

One of them corrected him, “It’s Wales, dumbo!”

Overstepping the mark in rivalry with Jeff for the cheapest joke, he mocked the innocent reply.

“OK…so you two whales are from Ireland?”  

The lady parried back, telling the rude bean-pole to catch the next boat home, eliciting cheers of encouragement from around the bar. The score of offensiveness thus settled, the ladies beamed in their victory.  Even the old squadron leader tittered as the entire bar joined Jeff’s raucous laughter, so loud that villagers down the street nodded to each other.

“Jeff’s back then.”

In the meantime, the tide relentlessly ebbed away from the Nora’s perch.  Oyster catchers paddled around on the mud banks pecking for worms and sea gulls settled on the rails.  Ian patrolling his lonely deck bore the bitter humiliation of being “ahoyed” by each passing yachtsmen returning home to roost.  Even Bill came out with the water police to have a look.  Fully recovered from his injuries he trudged around the hull patting it as you would a pet dog.

No business cards were handed out by the clipper ship deliverer that evening.  The anonymity of darkness did not come quick enough as Ian ferreted around in the forward hold for two red lanterns that with the anchor lantern were statutorily required to signal their situation.  Jean wouldn’t let him out until he had sought out her stowed crate.  To her relief he confirmed that it was safely stowed below, with its hidden purse of opals from Cunnamulla.

As a full moon rose the tide lifted the Nora back on her feet, floating her free before the drinkers had returned.  They had been enjoying their carousal so much that they lost track of time and started back late.  When they eventually did start their arduous paddle the strong flood tide was now full against them.  They had only got half way down stream when they saw the Nora steaming towards them, and she was not slowing down.

They waved and shouted.  They flashed their torch.  How could their bright orange craft in the gleaming moonlight not be seen?  Leaving them in the slop of her wake the Nora sped by with Ian at her helm, fixedly concentrating ahead.  The Nora continued up the river as they gave chase, not slowing until she reached the pile moorings at the old Saltings.  Ian nosed her in between the fore and aft piles by the rusty hulk of the old warship Gannet, and Jean secured the lines.  He had lowered the lanterns when they refloated and was about to blow out their flames when the red-faced paddlers in the liferaft caught up with them to clamber up onto the deck.  That same angry visage of a huffing and puffing tight-fisted Jeff at the Dover tavern confronted him again.  Ian put down the anchor lantern with its beams of bright light pooling around the hatch top and announced his ultimatum.

“Your vessel signalled that she was aground.  I recovered her after you abandoned her in peril.  Agree Lloyds Open Salvage conditions or pay all Tim’s and my delivery fees and expenses.”

“Well there,” piped up Terry as he pulled out a silver hip flask as old as his tweed jacket, “he’s got you for the lesser of two evils there now Jeff.”

A great weariness washed over Jeff. What an arduous voyage it had been.  He did not have the energy to put up any further fight so he softened and agreed to the lesser of the demands.  Along with the witness, Terry, they sealed the deal with a slug of rum from the flask of reconciliation, before Ian finally blew out the lantern.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Second Voyage – Outward bound

 

Chapter One – Passage Plans

 

Of all England’s South Coast backwaters, the River Hamble harbours more graves of failed adventures than any other.  This spur of Southampton Water provided a natural protection from sea raiders sufficient to encourage King Henry V to create the Royal Navy on its banks.  His greatest of medieval warships, the Grace Dieu, was built there so English kings could set pirates on the French with royal patronage. With her lofty fore and stern castles for firing down on lesser prey she ventured to sea once only.

A single sail to the Isle of Wight was sufficient to prove the unhandliness of the 2000 tonner and ended in the crew’s mutiny.  She was towed back and beached where she was built until a chance lightning bolt set her afire.  Sunk in a weedy pool her blackened backbone still endures, lying with her consort, the Holy Ghost and others with forgotten names.

Where cormorants perch on ribs that poke out from the muddy bank four thousand live oak and beech from the New Forest were split and hewn for her triple planking, smiths welted thirty tons of cherry red iron and riggers twisted miles of yarn on Rope Walk.  Nowadays the quiet river is the haunt of yachtsmen and ramblers.  Only humps and dips between grassy clumps tell of its industrial past.  Reeded salt marsh swells its stilled meanders and whispering woodlands overhang where the tide scours to the water’s edge.

In this backwater, Jeff and Jean over-wintered on the Nora, moored in seclusion a mile upstream from the village of the river’s namesake.  On their oaken island retreat the Nora’s water gypsies were content; their days measured by the ebb tide’s wadder prodded mud banks and the following floods that sent the gulls wheeling skyward.

Jeff was always up early to tinker with his little ship; checking his fishing lines and polishing the brass bell.  He had wired up independent generators to service utilities and lighting, thus enabling some of the luxuries of the landlubber.  The oil lamps were stowed below in the forward hold and temporarily forgotten.

Apart from the sunken wrecks further upstream, the hulk of warship HMS Gannet moored next to them was their sole companion on Saltings Reach.  After decommissioning, the square rigger had been renamed Training Ship Mercury.  The rotted masts were removed and her leaking decks covered with tin roofs, giving every appearance of a prison hulk.  She had been used for years to train poor boys for the navy.  Those days were now over and she lay abandoned to gulls that roosted under the rusted eaves.  Sometimes a vessel would pass too close, occasioning the colony’s squawking chorus of fluttering complaints.

Wearing sea boots and a fisherman’s jumper Jeff declared his retirement from the cares of the world.  He had become a riverside familiar who saluted back to passers-by with a beaming smile and cheery “how do you do?”

On Wednesday mornings the gulls would announce the arrival Commander Clissold’s launch at the Nora’s boarding ladder.  So tall that he had to stoop to enter the day cabin, with a ruddy face and a mop of blonde hair, Commander Peter would shout out, “Permission to board?” with such authority that it felt remiss not to pipe him aboard.  This spry old gentleman was a distinguished mariner and now trainer at the Nautical College downstream.  No more learned person could have been found to teach the mysteries of sailing by the stars.  During the week between Peter’s visits Jean studied his books on navigation, seamanship and meteorology.  She watched the huntsman Orion stalking through the Milky Way by night and the cloud’s weather warnings by day.

When winter shook an angry fist, rain beat on the deck and wind gusts rattled the shrouds with awesome power.  Such weather would confine them on board.  They were as snug as could be in the cabin’s cocoon, though sometimes in the heaviest of rain a defiant drip penetrated the deck edge to puddle on the port bunk.  They read, played cards, made love and laughed to make their own sunshine until the clouds rolled back.

Jeff bought a rubber dinghy to ferry back and forward to the village downstream, a more convenient option than lowering the heavy clinker stern-swung longboat.  Most afternoons they motored up to the yacht club for a shower and change from their grotty yachty attire to dress for dinner.  After collecting their mail they enjoyed a social hour at the bar.  During weekdays the club’s cheery Commodore and forgetful Squadron Leader were always welcoming, though the latter sometimes needed a reminder of who they were. At weekends friends would visit and there was always a mix of bravadoes to be relied on for a salty yarn or wicked laugh.

Jeff was a popular personality at the club as much for his largesse as his cheek that in an era not known for political correctness pushed the boundaries of humour to the outrageous.  Despite the great class levelling post war, the notion that superior bloodstock had kept the globe pink remained common in the vapid air of white Protestant colonial society.  Had it not been all about who was fittest to inherit the world and its booty?  Jeff’s racist and misogynist offensiveness was rarely censured, being taken for a satirical caricature.  The trenches had taught him a curse for every cast, creed and condition of humanity which he as delighted to deliver as any toddler finding his first naughty words; poo, bottom or willy.  Whether pommie, dago, chink, tyke, fuzzy wuzzy, didicoy, hippie, dole bludger or digger of any sod on earth other than his, he would happily denigrate them all in proportion to the quantity of wine he swilled and the encouragement received.  It was not that he acted on any of these verbal assassinations, even with the blood vessel bursting vitriol that he reserved for the mean spirited and war profiteers, singled out as wowsers or Jews  His intention was to build camaraderie based on a notion that everyone loves to hate someone.  The trick was to be sure of who hated whom.  Not checking over his shoulder in public while pontificating this piffle had once earned him a black eye, but he did not learn from the experience.

On return from the club Jeff and Jean would promenade the decks like newlyweds hand in hand listening to their newest luxury, a record player, or just watching the twinkling stars.  On fine nights the music with the distant hoot of a woodland owl danced over the river; its dark waters splashed with silvery lights from the village downstream.  Just as the seagulls settled for the night cooing gently in their feathery beds they also farewelled each serene day.

Not that it was all bliss.  Life on the Nora could also be hard, heavy and uncomfortable.  A month earlier Peter had helped Jeff locate the old admiralty anchor from the Gannet, buried for decades in the mud banks of Saltings Reach; a perfect replacement for that lost in the Storstrømmen.  Pulling and coaxing it from the mud’s grip, Jeff and some companions laboured for days with a borrowed mooring barge, eventually freeing it sufficiently to tow the beast down to the marina.  As the three of them manhandled it onto the jetty’s pontoon Jeff doubled over in pain.  For months the anchor remained there awaiting his recovery from the hernia.

 

 

Although Jean was sublimely content with their isolation, Jeff had itchy feet.  The impatient Scorpio needed fresh vistas, a new audience, a departure and an arrival.  A series of incidents progressively brought such a bad taste to his mouth that a departure was precipitated.

It all started when Jeff’s Irish friend Terry came to visit.  Because of threatening weather Jean stayed aboard while the boys motored down to the club.  On arrival the barman and the Commodore greeted them as warmly as the fire that flickered in the open hearth.  The Squadron Leader dozed in the armchair next to a half-full tumbler of single malt.  Only two other members, drying off on stools by the bar, had braved the rainy evening.

The bar-side chat quickly turned from the weather to the favoured theme of wild nights - smuggling.  Justification for the many and varied ways of denying the Crown its cut from the innocent pleasures of grog and cigarettes was not considered necessary, particularly by Jeff, whose grievance towards taxmen, wowsers and latterly salvagers and insurance companies remained painfully fresh.

The Commodore told of the yachtsman who had returned from France with almost a barrel of brandy cunningly concealed in plastic tubes hoisted up with the halyards inside the hollow mast.  He would have got away with it if not for swigging back what would not fit in the tubes.  The customs were alerted to look closer by his breath smelling like a distillery, pointing at this and that until his pained reaction gave the secret away.

Not to be outdone, a fellow perched on a bar stool reminded him of Bert; a yachtie who had bought fifty cases of wine from the bonded store in Cherbourg.  Bert weighted the cases so they sank and then towed them across the channel from a rope tied to the rudder.  The steering was almost disabled but with slow progress he managed to get to his moorings at the Saltings without detection.  Then one at a time he hauled the barrels into his dinghy, its oars wrapped with towels to muffle splashes, to ferry them into the reedy marsh.  The dinghy was so overloaded that its sides were barely awash.  After offloading his stash, his now buoyant dinghy would return to the yacht.  He would have got away with it but for the bird watcher who noted Bert’s nightly dives below the yacht.

“You take supplies to a yacht, not away from them, don’t you?”  The bird watcher had reported to the revenue officer.

A dozen tales of incredible cunning beguiled the listeners, each completed by a cheer, a slug back of their drinks and Jeff’s insistence to shout yet another round to the health of pirates everywhere.  There were tales of secret compartments, of swallowed gemstones, of hemp woven ropes, of drugs up mules bottom’s that burst prematurely, of blackened gold bar shoes so weighty that the smuggler could not raise his feet but only slide along, all thwarted by vigilant customs or by tip-offs before they even started.

“You only hear about them that get caught, not them getting away with it like those out there tonight” concluded the Commodore.  

A dash of wind-gusted rain rattled the window panes, silencing the company into thoughts of what might be going on beyond the fire’s warm flicker.

“Sup with the devil and he will consume you!” shouted the Squadron Leader suddenly, giving everyone the most terrible start.  “Remember Black Jack,” he continued, “that old trawler that Bob bought.  He bought her for smuggling and it killed him.”

A story unfolded of how Bob had slowly fitted out the Black Jack on the Hamble over the years.  He had made no secret of his plans to smuggle between islands in the Caribbean.  Finally he took the newly finished vessel on a dry run out of the Solent and around the Isle of Wight.  She behaved better than his wildest expectations.  However, he was barely back through the Needles when the customs rummage crew boarded her.  They could find no dutiable items aboard of course; there were none.  But despite Bob’s pleas of innocence the customs officers refused to believe that anyone would take such a big boat out around the Island with no ulterior motive, especially in the dead of night.

Bob was furious as they stripped the old trawler looking for contraband.  First they dismantled the great cabin that he had painstakingly lined with panels of burr oak, each one a slightly different shape.  As they passed the panels out onto the deck the rummagers chalked a number on the back to aid correct replacement.  As each panel was passed out, Bob in a pique rubbed out the numbers so they had the devil’s job trying to refit them.

The customs officer was so unamused that he retaliated by stripping back the rest of the superstructure.  Then he had her put ashore to remove the planking and eventually they stripped her right back to her keel.  Bob was left with a pile of timbers. Though they found nothing and had to pay him a cursory compensation he was heartbroken and died soon after, with his palm tree and rum dreams unfulfilled.

Terry and Jeff had caroused for so long in the club’s cosy company that by the time they set off to return an inky black night had closed in over the river.  In high spirits with wild ideas to cheat the revenue they rollicked down the marina wharf only to trip head over heels on what appeared to be a bundle of old rags.  Crawling in the dark and rain the bundle was identified as a stout but senseless body.  They immediately responded in a drunken revival attempt.  Terry pounded on the victim’s chest while Jeff gustily performed mouth to mouth resuscitation.  The stone cold cadaver had died from a heart attack hours earlier.  It promptly regurgitated; the vomit accelerated by Terry’s pounding spilling over Jeff’s mouth.

By the time policeman Bill had attended and the ambulance had taken the body to the morgue it was the early hours of the morning.  They arrived back on board the Nora to find that Jean had thoughtfully left a pot of mushroom gruel with lumps of kødboller on the “one eyed beast’s” hot plate.  Unsurprisingly Jeff had no appetite for this dish and spent a restless night hanging over the side retching.  Terry cruelly found this hilarious; not so Jeff, who called the dish “dead man’s soup”.  It became one of Jean’s stock recipes to serve up any morning that hitting the bottle had left Jeff liverish and ill tempered; a revengeful reminder of that bitter taste left in the mouth.

The episode unnerved Jeff, emphasising the fleeting passage of life and escalating his yearning to move on before it was too late, though too late for what he could not put his finger on.

 

 

Then, one spring afternoon everything suddenly changed. Jean was down in the cabin at the time, sitting at the Chinese patterned writing desk, thinking of what to write to her mother in Brisbane.  On the shelf above the sailor boy figurine, the one Jeff had bought her for luck in Copenhagen, gazed down with dreamy sky blue eyes.  It reminded her of how homely the Nora had now become. She took up the pen and wrote:

Nora Dane, C/o RAFYC, Hamble, Southampton, 4.4.1969

 

“Dear Mother,

 

Thank you for your letter of 29th April. Yes Jeff got your wire, thank you.  He was only 5 days in hospital - hernia operation 9:00 am Monday, standing up by 9:00 pm, walking to the loo on Tuesday, having a bath by himself Wednesday, whingeing about the food on Thursday and out of the hospital 9:00 am Friday.  The Surgeon instructed him to return to Hamble by train but he wouldn’t have this; we motored down in the mini minor, a really awful trip for him taking hours.  We stayed one night ashore then were out on the dinghy on Saturday, clambering over the side of the boat and up and down rope ladders.  The Surgeon had said don’t attempt stairs.  On Sunday he had a paintbrush in his hand all day, painting out the new kitchen.  On Wednesday we had to go back to London to get the stitches out, and the Surgeon said you can now attempt a little light activity for a few hours a day. What a laugh!

The new kitchen and dining area in the forward hold are now finished.  The colour scheme is blue and white and I have a beautiful vinyl floor called Teheran.  It looks like neat little Persian tiles.  I also have a deep freeze, a refrigerator, electric rotisserie spit, stainless steel sink, water heater, vacuum cleaner, floor polisher, electric iron, gas stove with jets and an oven, television, record player, radiator and electric food mixer.  Everything is built into the curving sides of the bows, and the great oak beams and heavy planks give it a lot of character.  Soon I’ll have a proper staircase down there, and not have to clamber over the hatch and down a rickety ladder.  We had our first meal down there last night, and it was really civilized. The roof is 8 feet high!  The old galley on the deck has been turned into a temporary wash house as we still have no bathroom or lavatory – that’s next...”

Suddenly a cacophony of gull screams disturbed her thoughts, and on climbing up the companion ladder to identify the cause she found feathers raining downwind from the Gannet onto the Nora’s decks.  Another old galeas had nosed into Saltings Reach, her cooling water cascading from an engine that panted loudly after a tiring journey.  With a cloud of black smoke she blasted her horn to signal going astern.  It was the Nation, with Doug and Dora leaning out of the wheelhouse whooping and hollering to announce that they had made it.  Moments later the Nation crunched into the side of the Nora like a whale’s calf hugging its missing mother.  Mooring lines were frantically passed and old tyres hung out as fenders.  All the while Dora’s pet bull terrier yapped and leapt at windblown feathers.  It was some time before the commotion quieted sufficiently for them to come aboard to tell their story, but from that moment Jeff and Jean’s peaceful haven was no more.

A pot of tea and a plate of ginger biscuits sat on the hatch top by the time the Nation’s crew shut down her engine and came aboard the Nora.  Dora introduced her son David and their dog, Winston, who immediately lifted his leg and to wee contentedly on the brass stanchion that Jeff had just finished polishing.

“Oh just look at the little dear!”  Dora cried.  “He won’t do it on the Nation.  He’s been bursting to let that go.”  The dog’s attention next welded onto the biscuits.  Anyone reaching for the plate received a pleading look and expectant whimper, apart from Jeff whose least movement elicited a low growl.  Dora went on to recount in her cockney lilt the saga of their passage from Copenhagen on the Nation; it was hard to get a word in sideways.

“Just our donald duck, my dearie.  The thing was exactly what we wanted, wasn’t it Doug?”

“She means what luck, Doug translated.

Dora continued, hardly drawing breath.  “And the engine was a four cylinder, a Perkins, just like the one in Doug’s old truck. Christian was so clever showing Doug where he could put a sitting room, bedrooms, kitchen sink and all, wasn’t he Doug?”  She patted his knee.

Doug only raised a bushy eyebrow and persevered in silently rolling a cigarette.

“He even showed him where the bathroom would go, didn’t he Doug?”

“You’ve got a bath?”  Jean queried.

“Oh yes my turtle dove, but got to jimmy giraffe ‘cause we ain’t got no water to go in it.”  She laughed raucously.  “We all use the same water like we used to when Doug used to come home covered in grease.”  Jean’s interest waned after that advice.

Dora explained how they had followed in the Nora’s tracks a week later, but had got stuck with bad weather, hiding inside the protection of the Friesian Islands.

“You know I get as seasick as a dog,” she admitted.

They had realised that they would not get back to England in time to avoid the new import tax so they made for the Hook of Holland and the Meuse-Rhine Delta.  They steamed past Rotterdam and far from the sea up the River Lek until they found a quiet boatyard near Vreeswijk.  Amongst the old barges the canal froze over and trapped them until the spring thaw.  It was here that Doug and Dave had completed the conversion of Nation into a comfortable live aboard, and also learnt from a wily old Dutchman all about flags of convenience, and how to avoid national taxes.

“That’s why I didn’t recognise the Nation with that Dutch ensign flying.”  Jeff chuckled.

“We’re hamster jams, today,” replied Dora, “but tomorrow it might be more convenient to hang the flag on its side so we’d be frog’s legs, or we might even hang it upside down and on its side so then we’ll be from wherever land.  No-one knows the difference.”

Jean was unsure if flying the code flag Tango (meaning I am engaged in pair trawling) or if the flag of land locked Paraguay could count to gain free practique to a foreign port, but bit her lip and kept quiet.  Besides, she was keen to see the Nation’s conversion and followed Dora onto her for a guided tour. All very ship shape it was, with its oak staircase leading down to a carpeted saloon, lit from the skylight above.  Armchairs circled a fine pot belly stove.  In the shadows beyond the stove’s warmth photos of the family and Doug’s trucks hung comfortingly.  Behind the stairs a compact galley gave access to a larger pantry store.  A corridor with bamboo print wallpaper lead forward past six cabins, to a magnificent enamel bath tub, its lion’s claw feet spanning the width of the vessel.  Jean was so impressed.

Jeff was up at the crack of dawn the next morning when he noticed one of the fishing lines was pulled taut.  In great excitement he reeled in the silvery beast only to become distracted by a warm soggy stream down his trouser leg.  Winston was contentedly peeing on him. Shouting and kicking at the dog, Winston fought back, his fangs bared, alternately tugging at Jeff’s trouser leg or leaping at the fish that danced from the line.  Dave was alerted by the kerfuffle and shuffled over the rail from the Nation to separate the brawling pair, but the fish had loosed from the hook and slithered down the deck to escape through a freeing port.

Jeff burst back into the cabin shouting in fury at Jean to prepare to depart immediately.  With some difficulty she calmed him down sufficiently to discuss their preparedness; such things as a crew, stores and bunkers, let alone that anchor still lying on the jetty by the marina.  So they sat down and drew up a list.

They discussed how to start their voyage to the other side of the world.  The first stage would be down to the Mediterranean to await the hurricane-free season to cross the Atlantic to Panama.  From there, they would island hop across the Pacific, trading between the Islands to make ends meet.  

They needed fuel and supplies, as duty free as was possible.  They needed Rae back to work the deck, and they needed some fit young people who could pay their keep and help with the sails.  An engineer would be useful and after the hernia experience, a nurse for emergencies.  Perhaps if Jeff found some dental work she could assist.  Jean’s suggestion of travelling in company with the Nation as a safety backup, at least for a while, was not well received, but this seemed a minor detail.  Jean was instructed to immediately write to a newspaper advertisement for crew.  While Jean penned the letter, Jeff calmed his impatience by raiding the galley for chilli powder.  Starting at the bow and moving aft he rubbed the hot powder on all the vertical surfaces that may have attracted Winston’s unwanted attention.

That afternoon the Saltings Reach residents, all six of them if you count the dog, squeezed into the rubber dinghy for a wallowing wet ride down to the village.  Where they alighted at the marina, flags billowed in the gentle breeze and yacht’s halyards clinked on their masts.  They trudged up Rope walk, a cobbled laneway that led from the water’s edge past jewel box windowed cottages with vine draped porches and seahorse door-knockers.  Snowdrops still covered the churchyard and daffodils burst from grassy tufts of wayside corners.  The warming sun gaily lit hanging baskets of snapdragons and sweet peas.  Insects hovered in the hushed shelter under garden walls where spring had most advanced.  Winston refused to christen any of these perfectly good sites.

The group separated when they reached the town green to pursue their separate business.  Jean and Jeff found the red pillar letter box.  She rechecked the Times Newspaper’s address on the envelope containing the crew advertisement.  She turned to Jeff for assurance.

“Do we do it then, no turning back until the biscuit barrel is empty?”  He nodded in agreement.

They gently slapped palms in a silent confirmation as Jean slipped the letter into the slot.  They then returned to meet back up at the club to collect their mail and have a drink.  Here, an unexpected letter was waiting for them from their daughter, Jancy, informing them that she and her partner were returning to England from an Australian posting that had been unexpectedly cut short.

As usual at the bar Jeff insisted on magnanimously shouting every round, but became snakier and snakier as Doug did not offer in return.  He was not a drinker after all.  Once identified as a wowser, Jeff’s relationship with the Nation’s crew deteriorated.  

The group’s loud and coarse accents had raised eyebrows from some posh youngsters in the bar.  Not that the club’s members were snobbish. Unlike some service clubs of the day, the Air Force was a model of egalitarianism where Cockney and Australian were welcomed alike as the victors. It was Jeff who judged a person by their affluence rather than the club.

But after the dog finally found the carpet the perfect thing to water, a young Hooray Henry loudly declared that bludgers living on the wrecks upstream lowered the tone of the place.  Jeff was wounded as if by a dart.  He couldn’t help but agree with the oik!  He secretly felt the same about the crew of the Nation.  But it was a consolation that his plan to move onward was now in the hands of the post office.

 

 

Some days later a group of nurses sat around a canteen table at London’s St Pancras Hospital geriatric department, sharing chat and biscuits on their morning tea break.  In this former workhouse’s aged drear, blonde Nurse Best shone like a flower in the sun, as much from her long legged beauty as her warm demeanour.  Catherine’s schooling on the Western Australian wheat belt had taught her to ride and shoot as good as the boys could.  When they grew up these eligible young farmers knocked at Miss Capability’s door, but none were invited past the veranda.  They eventually stopped bringing flowers.  She had dear thoughts for them all, as brothers, not lovers.

“Almost thirty and still scaring off the boys”, her mother annoyingly commented as each of Cate’s girlfriends married.

The squeezed social horizon of her country life was so contrasted by its boundless landscape that she took the boldest of decisions to escape to Europe in search of adventure and maybe even romance.  Two years later her life had stalled in bedsitter land; a far cry from her dreams of being romanced along the Champs-Élysées or serenaded by a gondolier on the Grand Canal.  

Cate Best felt more like a wallflower than ever, trapped in sensible shoes by her careful decisions.  In tending to the bodily needs of the irritable, the infirm or the plainly dotty her greatest excitement was avoiding the unwanted attention of consultants with wandering hands.  It was time to go home.  When her friend passed another biscuit with the morning newspaper, she also pointed out an advertisement in the personal column.  It read:

“Sailing ship departing for Australia.  Crew wanted - Free passage, contribute to keep only - Sailing experience, engineer or nurse desirable - Write to SV Nora Dane, RAFYC, Riverside Walk, Hamble.”

The name Nora Dane captivated Cate; a mix of domesticity with a hint of Viking adventure.

 

 

On the other side of the city, Rae and Mia were reconciled after the chill winter.  To improve her father’s opinion of the boy friend, he had taken on a traineeship with the respectable shipping agent, Burrow and Filtch.  Wearing a suit and sombre tie he arrived each morning at their warehouses lining the quays of the Pool of London below Tower Bridge.  In a panelled top floor office a dozen other trainees sat at desks overloaded with manifests and account books.  A supervisor sat at the largest desk, shouting out destinations and consignment requests that came in on his bank of telephones.  

Shipping agents acted for shippers to consign their freight to a suitable ship.  Their fee was calculated on the space that many odd sized crates (broken cargo) required in the ship’s hold.  The calculation of how tightly the crates could slot together was called cubing.  The skill of a sly agent was to get away with overstating the cubage fee due from the shipper while understating the cubage payment settled with the ship.  The ship was none the wiser that the agent had pilfered hold space to sell on to another shipper, the manifests being doctored to appear as one big consignment.  The profits could be substantial.  One trainee boasted that he had fleeced the World Health Organisation for the cubage of three Landrovers and several Lorries of aid to Africa.  Rarely the loading crew would notice an inconsistency, but a backhander to the ship’s master or to stevedores to drop a crate of saleable cargo to rifle all greased these wheels of free trade.

This scam was facilitated by a punch card machine reminiscent of the fruit machine at the Hamble yacht club.  Every shipper’s details and cubage was routinely typed on the machine’s keyboard noting each spare capacity filched.  Then a large handle was cranked that bit out a punched card.  The cards were filed in long wooden drawers by their destinations and sailing dates.  Close to sailing a needle was threaded through the pack and any cards with free space were eased up to be inspected.  Then a frenzy by telephone followed to find a buyer to match the garnered cubage, with the senior shouting to the trainees for a match in their manifests.

Through the grimy attic windows Rae could glimpse the river.  It swept down towards Greenwich, lined with all manner of trading ships loading and unloading their broken cargoes for Africa, the East and the Americas.  Rae hated the tedium of the office and distained the cheating expected from trainees who wanted to get on.  It was with enthusiasm that he received the letter from Jean asking him to be the mate of the Nora for the intended passage south.  Mia would not come.

“Me on a boat?”  She had scorned.  “Your heart is somewhere else, so you may as well follow it.”

She was right.  She gave him a St Christopher medallion and he gave her a friendship ring.  They kissed goodbye with regrets, though none sufficient to stay.  Much to daddy’s relief he shouldered his knapsack and by nightfall was back in the forecastle of the Nora, the oil lamp swinging from the deck head and the pot belly stove glowing.

A sandy haired young man called Edward Spry was also working not half a mile from the Tower Bridge.  Ed knew from the earliest age that he would be a millionaire.  To achieve this single minded ambition he skived off school to deliver newspapers, hawked filched eggs and windfall apples, and on a lucky day a road kill rabbit.  He hid his earnings under the hen house floor boards until his fourteenth birthday when he set off for London.  Ed started as a barrow boy in Smithfield Market before capitalising on his animal husbandry skills by apprenticing as a butcher.  Five years later his ability to a chop carcass was as remarkable as that of charming the lady customers.  They invariably asked after him, either to enjoy the pretty boy’s flirtation or by mistaking his surreptitious overcharging as favoured service.

“Don’t let the boss see but I’ve slipped in an extra sausage for my special customer”, he would whisper, wink and in that furtive distraction a few coins for old stock were fleeced from under an unwary old hen.

He was doing a roaring trade until the request by a portly lady “I want a prime rump”, received his cocky reply “Sorry lady, I’m a butcher not a magician.”

But this time the boss saw the shillings that he short changed her.  Before being flung from the shop in disgrace, by habit he filched a pound of meat in newspaper and slipped it into his pocket.  When he got home he rolled open the bloodstained newsprint and read the Nora’s advertisement.

“Australia,” he thought, “a lamb ready to slaughter!”

Bryn Ridge and Lisa Dove also saw the advertisement.  Lisa’s lonely life had been ticking away as biology teacher in the suburbs of Melbourne.  She took a skiing holiday in the Australian Alps to make friends.  The staid teacher fell headlong in love with her handsome ski instructor, a confirmed bachelor.  Bryn at first denied his feelings for the beauty with dark ringlets.  She wasn’t an heiress, and was a tad older than him.  But the more the free spirit wriggled and kicked to escape his affection for her, the more entangled he became.  They had travelled the world together but became stuck in dreary North London, mainly due to Alfie.  Lisa was a sucker for a stray dog with sad eyes; it had attracted her to Bryn, so when their flat mate scarpered leaving his pet mongrel behind, Lisa took him in.  Now Alfie was an impediment to their further travelling, but she could not abandon him any more than she could abandon Bryn.  She knew that her man would come good eventually.  He would stop the foolish taunts he used to deny his love and ask her to marry him.

“What better way to travel home with a dog than on a boat?”  She suggested to him.  To Bryn it seemed a perfect way to reach the South of France; the freedom of mountain air with its rich and fabulous après ski set.

 

 

Following the advertisement a dozen applicants came to Hamble for the selection interviews.  On that morning a priority had been to move the old anchor from the marina pontoon to the Nora’s cat’s head.  What better way to test the applicants’ enthusiasm?  However, the first three bewitched Jeff at the club bar with such fine flattery that they talked him out of the job, insisting that it was a hernia waiting to happen without the assistance of a contractor.  They jollied him to party on the Nora while Rae rowed the longboat back to the pontoon, determined to complete the task.

A quarter ton admiralty anchor is a notoriously immovable object; its stock and flukes counter-posed to embed in the sea bottom.  Rae thought that if he could balance it across the longboat’s sides he may just get it off its stubborn resting place.  He noted the floating pontoon falling with the ebb tide and the jetty access gangway rising.  At low water the longboat might just pass beneath.  Rae tied ropes from both ends of the anchor to the pontoon and the jetty.  Thrusting and turning an oar through the ropes they tightened and shortened until the anchor reluctantly shifted an inch.  Thus, by degrees he drew it out under the gangway toward the jetty, and waited for the tide to drop.

At low water the longboat still would not fit under.  There was nothing for it but to sink the boat deeper by filling it with water until it would slide under the gangway.  Only then he gingerly lowered the great weight onto the gunwales while bailing to prevent sinking by overload.  With the prize straddling the longboat he paddled back to the Nora.  The donkey engine was hauling the anchor up to the cat’s head before the drunken applicants stumbled out of the day cabin to see what the noise was all about.  Jeff was the first to admit that help like those guys was not worth having.

From the mixed group that came to be interviewed on the Nora, a crew of nine was assembled.  Jeff was the skipper, Jean the navigator and Rae the mate. Cate Best became the nurse and would move into the bunk in the main cabin.  Paul Parker, a college student and son of a jeweller friend had some sailing experience and was welcomed into the forecastle, as were Ed Spry and James Oakes, a yachtsman from the club.

Bryn Ridge and Lisa Dove discovered at their interview that Winston was one dog too many for Jeff.  However, Lisa was sure the skipper would accept Alfie if he got to know him.  On the night before departure she hid him in a duffle bag and smuggled him into the forecastle.

A plan was now drawn up to sail for Gibraltar, and there wait until October when the West Indies hurricane season was over.  The passage would first cross the Western Approaches of the English Channel in a shape up passage over to the French coast then, with all ship shape, sail out wide across the Bay of Biscay.

Jean had stored some tea-chests belonging to their daughter, Jancy, when she and her partner moved to Australia the previous year. Now they were returning by ship to England, so the chests of bedding, ornaments, pots and pans were loaded aboard the Nora, to be transferred to the SS Fairstar at Lisbon.

The Hopes were familiar with the Western Approaches.  Each season they had ventured across to the harbours along the Normandy coast.  Their little yacht Wombat had gained an adventurous reputation as the earliest arrival and the last departure of each season.  Of all the havens on the Normandy coast, Cherbourg is the finest for a small yacht.  It is capable of accommodating the largest of transatlantic liners and is the final continental bridgehead for the Americas.  The town is proud of their maritime heritage and anything else that is brave about the sea.  The Wombat’s colourful captain had made friends with a sailing family of solicitors who treated him like visiting royalty.

They first met Guy Pinson and his sons at the Cafe de Mariner at the quay of the Avant Port, the inner basin.  Who could ignore the jovial Jeff as he applauded everything French with cascades of laughter bubbling over with the vin ordinaire?  They became guests of honour at shops and tabacs belonging to clients of the notable family, which was everywhere.  Jeff was dubbed Mr Muscadet, the name of the local white wine.

They were most honoured by an invitation to lunch into the bosom of the family.  On the outside the Pinson residence was tatty in the French manner of understatement.  The exterior walls were cracked and pocked with bullet scars from the liberation.  Paint peeled from shutters that swung forlornly on loose hinges.  But through a fortress door of live oak, a French regency palace was hidden.  Under a chandelier of a hundred crystals, the whole extended family from grandmothers to grandchildren sat around a mahogany table groaning with the bounty of the land and the seas.  Toasts were stood up to France and Australie, to Cherbourg and to the Wombat, and to the lasting friendship between all toilers on the sea.

On one occasion when returning from Cherbourg Jean was not aboard to temper Jeff’s impatience to meet a Monday morning deadline.  With the seaways brimming with spring tides and Jeff fortified with confidence from a bottle he set out into an equinoctial gale.  They lost their way as they approached the English coast and were sucked into the overfalls of the Portland tidal race.  Great waves reared above them before collapsing in thundering in deluge across the Wombat’s decks.  The compass card, the only illumination other than lightning spun like a top. Rae clung onto the tiller, blinded by spray, drenched to the bone and deafened by the shrieking wind.

Jeff battled to hold his footing and tune the radio.  The rest of the crew, incapacitated by sea sickness, lay groaning in the water sloshed cabin. The radio’s response to his distress calls was a voiceless squeal of static.  As the little ship’s ribs started snapping Jeff poked his head out into the mayhem of the cockpit.  To steady himself he jammed himself within the hatchway to aim his Very pistol heavenward.  The first flare burst into the romping storm clouds to be instantly obliterated by a furious lightning bolt exploding overhead.  The second flare survived and was quickly answered by maroons from the shore, calling to arms their saviours, the crew of the Weymouth lifeboat.

 

 

Nora’s crew were ready and waiting for departure, the fuel and deck gear was aboard and Jancy’s tea chests were stowed with the other crates in the hold.  Jean insisted that for safety they should travel south in company with the Nation.  However Dora was reluctant to depart, both for her fears of seasickness and for Winston, who did not travel well.  Jeff suggested that the Nora would first make for Cherbourg to wait for the Nation.  Rae would return to Hamble to pilot the Nation over to Cherbourg the next day.  It was only a day’s passage after all.  After these shake up cruises the Nora and the Nation would sail south together for Gibraltar.

In order to forestall further dalliance and in thoughtless generosity, Jeff lent Nation the Nora’s rubber dinghy as they had no liferaft.  This was a decision that he would regret.  Peril on the sea is not caused by a single event, but by the culmination of minor incidents.  To halt a spiral to disaster requires thorough contingency planning, and not giving away your dinghy.

By this time Jeff was almost beside himself with impatience to be off.  For him the order on the Nora was spiralling out of kilter.  The seagulls were overrunning the decks, these barnacles lashed to Nora’s sides were slowing him down and they wouldn’t even shout a round.  Worst of all, that mongrel Winston was daily marking off territory on Jeff’s deck.  Even the chilli didn’t stop Winston’s little puddles.

In desperation Jeff propped Fred up under the ship’s bell as a guard dog.  A fishing line from the bell to Fred’s jowls opened to bare a fang when the bell swayed with any passing wash.  Jeff stood back to admire his creation, and noted with pleasure that when a seagull approached to poop on his shiny brass bell it quickly took alarm and flew off squawking.  He called Jean up to see his masterpiece but was disappointed when she laughed so much that she almost wet herself.

Jeff was ambivalent towards animals and children.  He was good with pets and small children.  He threw things for dogs and mystified toddlers by magically retrieving coins from behind their ears. He appreciated the independence of cats, though was suspicious of black ones.  He could ride a horse, but preferred transportation operated with a key.  He marvelled at creatures’ cuteness but would rather they keep at a distance; goldfish in tanks, birds in the trees and dogs outside was the proper order.  Jeff’s parents had banished animals and naughty children to the dark yard.  This had nurtured empathy with pleading eyes.  He wondered if his fights with Jean were about provoking those frightened eyes that softened his heart.  The stuffed dog Fred was a perfect solution to his needs, a cuddly loving companion that wanted nothing.

The next morning Jeff awoke to the ship’s bell tolling loudly.  He lay for a moment thinking it must be a fire alarm before he realised its true meaning.  Rushing up onto the deck he found Winston had torn Fred to shreds. With the tattered remains of his fur and stuffing hanging from his mouth the pit bull growled at Jeff, refusing to give up his prize.  This was Jeff’s Rubicon.  This was a declaration of war.

On the night before departure the new crew met up at the club for several last British ales.  All but Ed had arrived as they left to board the Nora to settle in and stow their gear.  Jean had prepared a now traditional feast of kødbollers and with raised glasses they merrily drank to the success of the voyage.

After a big day the deck crew had retired early to the crowded forecastle and the ladies of the cabin were already sleeping soundly as Jeff savoured a nightcap tumbler of rum.  He reeled in the fishing line by the longboat’s stern davits, leaving the lure dancing in the night breeze, temptingly just beyond a small dog’s reach.  He then scraped his unfinished plate of kødbollers and gravy overboard, not minding that most of it spilt over the outer end of the boat davit.  All was quiet save for the snores from below as he sat hidden in the shadows of the after day cabin.

Moments later, Winston jumped over onto the Nora’s decks, peed on the hatch combing and sniffed his way down the deck.  Jeff heard him jump up on the davit, high above the fast ebbing tide below.  He heard him gobble up the gravy and meat balls, and then snap and claw at the lure as it tantalizingly danced to his right or his left. Winston got crosser as he got dizzier, finally making a fatal lunge ending in a quiet splash and a muted yelp from down below.  Jeff reeled in the lure, and savoured the last drop of rum, musing, “Torment Scorpions at your peril.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Chapter Two – Farewell

 

On a sunny morning of the last day of April the Nora departed the Hamble bound for Cherbourg.  She was battened down, all was stowed and the blue burgee of the RAFYC proudly fluttered from the mast head.  The crew dropped the mooring lines so Jeff could ease her free of the Nation and clear of the complaining seagulls.  Despite the early hour, a small crowd had gathered to wave goodbye as she headed downstream.  One was Ed, who had arrived just late enough to curse his luck in missing the boat.  As they passed the club the Commodore quipped to the Squadron Leader.

“How far do you think they will get?”  The Squadron Leader dryly replied, “If they get past the river mouth without going aground they’ll be doing better than last time.”

The tall figure of Commander Peter waved from Warsash Pier.

“Use one hand for the ship, and keep one to save yourself,” he shouted the sailors’ caution.

They rounded the sandbank off the Jack in the Basket Beacon to feel the first splash of the Southampton Water.  The Nora was back in her element. Her foam-spangled wake arced behind as the Nab Tower lighthouse was rounded and swell from the Atlantic first buffeted her progress.  Jeff braced himself at the wheel and ordered to make sail. Paul and Rae loosened the foresails, followed by what seemed like acres of the main’s white canvas rattling skyward.  As they sheeted them home the Nora took a leap forward over a larger swell, throwing a dash of spray gleaming onto the foredeck.

As the white chalk cliffs of the English coastline faded behind, each crewperson’s gaze betrayed something of their hearts.  Jeff, Bryn and Paul with brave talk scanned expectantly forwards into the blue horizon.  Cate, Lisa, Jean and James stood silently in the stern sheets looking back for homely cottages with roses around their doorways.  Rae looked abeam at Culver Cliff on the Isle of White. He remembered his childhood’s first tearful night of banishment to Bembridge School. It had been a full moon.  The light of the Nab Tower flashed through a frozen night, across the Solent and up over the glistening playing field, through the dormitory window panes and onto his cold pillow.  To staunch his tears he dreamt of escape on a passing ship just like this one.

“Did another dream there now,” he pondered.

The passage of the Nora to Cherbourg was unremarkable, notable only for the brisk spring breeze and constant vigilance required to dodge traffic converging through these Western Approaches to Europe.  Streaming smoke from the stacks of all manner of shipping appeared over one horizon, crossed then disappeared below the opposite horizon; oil tankers for Rotterdam, warships for Williamshaven, liners for New York, a timber carrier for Dieppe and tramp steamers for anywhere.  By late afternoon the radio mast and Fort de Roule on the mountains behind Cherbourg were sighted as they passed the offshore approach buoy.  The harbour’s Outer Rade is enclosed by a circling wall pierced by several entry passages, each guarded by its fort.  They glided through the Passe de l’Ouest and signalled the code flags G and Q for a pilot and free practique for customs and immigration clearance.  Minutes later the pilot launch was aside putting their man aboard.  He conveyed “welcome” from Monsieur Pinson and courteously directed the little ship on through the Inner Rade into the Avant Port, the town basin.

Here things did not go as well, due to a failure of communication and a flamboyant French pilot.  The Nora’s reverse gear selection required six turns of the variable pitch control wheel, not the flick of the wrist as in modern Morse control levers.  Not familiar with the Nora’s slow response, the pilot instructed Jeff to turn towards the dock wall and engage reverse, a command that Jeff jumped to but could not fulfil.  A group of fishermen sitting on the wharf looked up as the bow sprit and crew of wildly shouting foreigners hurtled toward them.  The Nora hit the wall with a whack and bounced sideways.  The bowsprit slewed along the top of the wall picking up fishing boxes, dismounting bicyclists and obliging pedestrians to leap the sweeping scythe, crying “merde” in complaint, until the vessel was tamed sufficiently to warp her tight against the dock walls.  Mr. Muscadet had arrived!

Monsieur Pinson waiting to greet them was thrilled at their dramatic arrival. He dropped onto the Nora’s decks with welcoming Gallic kisses for “mon ami.”  With great flourishes of his arms, he introduced the local newspaper reporters who peered down expectantly from the dock wall.  He had brought them so that all Cherbourg could hear of the adventurers’ brave story.

The stowaway dog, Alfie, though bursting to pee, had obediently kept hidden in the forecastle until this moment. Smelling the lampposts and grass with the relief of Columbus’s crew sighting land, he streaked across the deck, bounced onto the hatch and up onto the wall stopping only at the first bollard.  Thinking momentarily it was Winston returned from the dead, the blood drained from Jeff’s face.  He had to sit down momentarily until he saw the dog properly.  Before he had time to work himself up into a storm, Lisa was pleading for forgiveness, Alfie was doing the doleful eyes, and the cameraman was clicking around to capture this great doggie side-story.

“What’s he like as a guard dog then?”  Jeff felt forced to ask.

“He is so loyal,” Lisa replied, “he will never wee on the deck and he will not leave your side.”  

Alfie jumped up to lick Jeff’s face.  Jeff pushed him aside, telling him to “Fuck off Alfie.”  With those words another crewman was signed on and assigned his nickname.  The happy crew posed for the camera man on the wheelhouse roof.

 

 

 

 

Fog turned to drizzle.  Then rain-lashed stiff breeze rose to a blow to be chased off by a further hot sun. This was the weather pattern that followed their ten day stay in Cherbourg.  These maritime coasts where warm fronts fight with cold fronts account for Normandy’s reputation of experiencing all seasons during a day.  

The strain on the anchor cable from the great storm in the Storstrømmen had pulled the fastenings under the windlass.  This bout of sun and breeze further opened the seams so heavy rain now penetrated into the forecastle.  This was not an issue when on passage as the off duty crew could hot bunk.  But now with Rae, Paul, James, Lisa, Bryn and Alfie all accommodated before the mast there was little room to side step any persistent drips.

The crew turned its attention to caulking tight the open seams in the foredeck planking.  First the old seam’s oakum packing was hooked out.  Fresh oakum was made by rolling out long wads of old hemp rope fibres.  This was then driven into the seams with a blunt chisel shaped caulking iron. The wad was twisted while tamping down hard with a wooden mallet to ensure that a continuous coil was recessed just below the deck’s surface.  Finally, “Jeffries Marine Glue” pitch, was boiled up and ladled into the recess of the deck seams where it cooled and set hard.  The occasional spill or overfill was scraped back and returned to the boiling pot. .The crew joined in with a will at this dirty task.  The rhythmic clinking of caulking mallets and the smell of boiling pitch filled the days.

 

 

One morning a replica of the medieval trading cog the Godwin appeared out from the mist, working its way into the Avant Port.  The shipwrights who built these first replicas used the side views from medieval paintings upon which to base their construction.  In the absence of plans they prescribed the three to one length to beam ratio of ballasted modern yachts.  The unhandliness of these replicas was legendary.  They heeled over with the slightest breeze, until experience taught to use an almost rounded barrel hull, as had been their original shape.

The Godwin was a beast to sail and to manoeuvre.  As she approached her berth a group of trainees were crowded in the bows, by necessity standing on the flaked out hawsers ready to pass to the shore.  As she turned to come alongside the bowline was smartly lassoed around the bollards on the quay, but the wind caught her from the other side, heeling the vessel over nearly on her beam ends.  An unfortunate young recruit had his leg in a bight of rope that tightened so suddenly that it pulled him over and into the hawse pipe.  Here his leg could squeeze through but his body could not, the limb being torn off.

Cate and the crew were watching in horror.  She rushed over to the other side of the basin but there was nothing to be done.  The ambulance was already there and a paramedic was holding the boy’s head in his arms as he died from blood loss.  The terrible fate of the young man served as a reminder to the crew of the Nora of the dangers in their trade; the need to use one hand for the ship but to keep one to hang on, the importance of securing any tool taken aloft from falling back to the deck, and above all to avoid standing in the bight of a rope.

James had grown more and more homesick with every mile that separated him from England.  The discomfort of his forecastle lodgings, the stench of pitch in his clothes and finally the incident on the Godwin became all too much.  So when Rae was detailed to return to Hamble to pilot the Nation over to Cherbourg, James jumped ship to a cross channel ferry. His cruise was over before it had begun.

 

 

In the cabin, Jean opened the writing desk’s lid and patted the sailor boy figurine’s head, as it sat on the shelf above.  It helped her to marshal her thoughts for writing, and since Fred’s untimely end it had become her ship’s mascot.  She listened for a while to the clink of the caulking above while putting her thoughts together.

“It is all going well,” she surprised herself by this uncharacteristic optimism.  “Yes, very well,” she said to the sailor boy, then put pen to paper and wrote:

Nora Dane, C/o Cherbourg Yacht Club, 2.5.1969

 

“Dear Mother,

 

We left England on Tuesday, and had a fine crossing to Cherbourg in perfectly splendid weather; hot sun and blue sea all the way.  Cherbourg is built on a hill facing the sea and our friends had seen old Nora coming from a long way off and were down at the quay to meet us.  Some of the younger ones sailed out in dinghies.  Everyone was interested in the strange old boat.  We got a pilot to bring us in, hauling up and pulling down the appropriate flags - it was quite a surprise when they replied immediately.  We are tied up in the centre of the town.

We’ve had a fortnight’s shakedown and wonderful time here.  The hairdresser called for me in a taxi and did me a complete beauty treatment, refusing to take a penny.  Alfie, the dog gets free steaks whenever we dine out.  Naturally Jeff, the publicity man has been working overtime and now has the town all sorted out.  We were interviewed by the local radio and had a TV camera on board - it was very funny and we will see the TV programme tomorrow night.

Enclosed are some snaps and newspaper cuttings.  This letter is going back to England by Thoresen Ferry with Rae who is to return with the Nation, our sister ship that will go on with us to Vigo.  A member of the crew who only wanted to come as far as Cherbourg is also returning so I must close now.  We expect to leave for Vigo this week. Post to the RAFYC Hamble as usual.  They will forward to us.

Love, Jean”

 

 

When Rae arrived back in the Hamble he found the crew of the Nation in some ado.  Winston had been missing for a week.  They had searched the vessel and the woods and the pastures either side of Salting Reach.  They had advertised a reward on the post office’s noticeboard.  Rae had dashed their last hope that he had stowed away on the Nora, so a great melancholy afflicted them.  While Dora was still for continuing the search, Doug and Dave counselled that they must accept the inevitable, that their little Winston was gone.  Reluctantly they determined to leave their sorrows behind.  They departed on the evening tide with no fanfare or farewell, the tricolour of France fluttering from the stern.  The customs launch tailed them at a discreet distance until they cleared the Nab Tower, but with the fading light all dimmed into the darkness astern.  Rae plotted the course for Doug and Dave, planning to get a sleep in before his midnight watch.  Settled down in the unusual luxury of a cabin to himself, he quickly fell asleep to the restful gurgling of wash splashing along the Nation’s side.

It was some hours later that he was almost thrown from his bunk as the Nation wallowed from a suddenly aggravated sea.  He half dressed and clambered up into the wheelhouse.  The ship was blindly forging ahead on autopilot through the thick of the traffic lanes with the watch, Doug and Dave, stretched out on the wheelhouse benches snoring soundly.  Towering above the wheelhouse the stern lights of a receding ship illuminated her stern wake’s broken overfalls, the cause of Nation’s bucks and rears.  To their starboard another ship was almost on them, its red, green and white steaming lights telling that they were directly in her path.

In one leap Rae disengaged the autopilot and spun the wheel hard over to roll narrowly clear of this crossing vessel’s bow wave.  Even this roll on her beam ends failed to wake the sleepers.  It took the ringing of the fire bell and a further shake to bring them back from what Doug called only a “cat nap.”  After this Rae stayed on watch throughout the night to enter Cherbourg Harbour on the Sunday morning’s twilight, ten days after the Nora.  No-one challenged the anonymous entry of this vessel flying a tattered tricolour and by sunrise they were snugly berthed behind the Nora enjoying croissants and coffee for breakfast.

 

 

Their stay in Cherbourg was pleasant.  The hold was stowed with wine and cigarettes from the duty free store.  The practised crew could now haul the sails and work the ropes with a will.  Alfie was always under their feet, his desire to stay close born from being abandoned early in life.  The repeated instructions to “Fuck off Alfie” were in such regular use, that it had stuck as his regular nickname.

While Rae was piloting over the Nation, Ed arrived on the ferry to replace James so the crew was complete.  They were now shaped up to go. In fact, their adventurers’ reputation obliged them.  So on a misty morning the Nora and the Nation dropped their mooring lines.  Jeff backed off for the inner harbour then wheeled her around towards the sea.  The Nation obediently followed in her wake as twin sailing dinghies tracked back and forth across their paths.  Each would approach dangerously close until the last moment when with much sail flapping tamed by a purr of sheets hauled taut they would fly off in another direction.  Under the red sails they could make out the Pinson boys, Guy junior and Pierre.  They followed the Nora to the outer harbour entrance and then luffed up and waved wildly shouting “Bon voyage, au revoir,” and, ominously, Jean thought, “Bon chance.”

When clear of the port they turned westward.  The low lying town quickly hazed over under a light sea mist. Soon only the citadel mountain and little Nation could be seen behind.  Jeff backed off the Nora's throttle to allow the Nation to catch up, but it seemed to make no difference.  Nation was not responding to the radio so off the coastal village of Omonville the Nora stopped and waited.  For an hour she wallowed in a low Atlantic swell.  Only last season Jeff and Jean had anchored overnight in that very spot on their yacht the Wombat.  They could make out the beach cafe with its coloured umbrellas like a painting by Pissarro, where they had shared drinks with Guy Pinson.  Jeff yearned to be there, or if not, to be moving somewhere until finally the Nation brought up alongside.

“How goes it,” Jeff bellowed across the dividing water.

 

“Very good,” Doug replied, “just taking it easy so Dora can cook breakfast.”

 

“It will be dark before we reach the Casquets at this rate, let's meet up at Alderney and stay overnight,” Jeff bellowed back, muttering under his breath an impatient oath.

 

“Very good,” said Doug.  “See you there.”

 

This shortest passage of only twenty miles took most of the day due to husbanding the reluctant Nation.  They passed the first tall warning lighthouse, the Cap de la Hague, leaving the sand swept beaches of the channel for the rock strewn islets of the western seaboard.  The passage from the Cape to Alderney crosses the mouth of the Alderney tidal race (Raz Blanchard), where currents can reach up to seven knots, so they did not dally but pressed on for the shelter of the island.  When they came to anchor in the only harbour on its northern side, the Nation was again lost to sight in a gathering fog bank astern.

 

 

Alderney was a windswept place of stones and low gorse where hardly a tree raised its crown.  It was abandoned to the Nazis in the war during which the few islanders who remained suffered great privations from the brutal regime.  Slaves were brought to the concentration camps to construct fortifications, the broken remains still peeking out above the foreshore.

The crew dropped the longboat from its stern davits and some of them rowed to the head of the harbour to a cluster of stone cottages, fishermen’s huts, rusted lobster pots and a shop.  At this village of Port Braye they bought milk, there being nothing else that appeared appetising.  The locals being less than welcoming they rowed across the bay to attempt exploring the derelict Fort Albert whose deserted battlements brooded on a crest above the eastern headland.  The light was fading as they rowed back to find the Nation chugging into the harbour to drop its pick next to the Nora.

The outer harbour wall was demolished in the assault of the liberation, removing shelter from the low northerly swell that rolled the vessels all night.  The running rigging creaked unceasingly and the anchor lanterns replied with a clatter against the masts.  A fog stinking of rot from the depths, or perhaps from lobster pots ashore, closed in to hide all but a halo around the Nation’s riding light.  Sounds of the ripples breaking on the pebbled beach echoed across the water.  In that regular crunch Jean imagined the march of German soldiers’ boots prodding their Jewish captives along the sea wall.

As had become their custom, dinner that evening was prepared in the galley below by the women, then served as a picnic on deck.  When done the boys would clear away to wash and rinse the crockery with buckets of sea water.  Later they would enjoy a cup of tea, hang a fishing line over the side or have a smoke and chat about the day’s events.  Lisa felt a shiver prompting her to declare,

“This place is so creepy.”

“Who has ever seen a ghost?”  Ed asked of no one in particular.

“Not me, but every morning I see an old ghoul next to me when Lisa wakes up?” Bryn butted in, sparking mock punches and giggles between the sweethearts.

“You must have seen dead bodies, Cate?” Ed persisted.

“Lots of bodies, no ghosts?” she replied matter of factly.  “But there are places in the hospitals that made my hair stand on end.  Some nurses told me of seeing lights leaving the bodies of those just died. I saw shapes in the shadows sometimes, and once I thought I saw a halo over a lady on life support, though I was very tired at the time.”

“Like the Flying Dutchman that appears with billowing sails in a halo of light forewarning disaster.  The King of England once saw it off the coast of South Africa when he was a cadet in the navy.  That’s a credible witness, eh?”  Paul added.

Lisa suggested, “Maybe people in trauma transmit energy that the fabric around them absorbs, like a tape-recording in the walls of a house that is jolted into replay when a receptive mind tunes to the frequency?”

“Perhaps it is more like time travel.  The earth imprints an image of every moment and some people can glimpse part of that moment again, to see or feel what happened.”  Paul said.

“They say that to see is to believe, they don’t say hearing, tasting or feeling is believing do they?”  Ed replied.

“I went cave exploring once, under the mountains, where there was no light at all, I mean completely dark. I waved my hand in front of my face and I could see my hand with a halo around it.  But I couldn’t have seen it, could I?  I must have visualised it because I had so much faith that it was actually there.  The retina must see more than just light.”  Bryn contributed.  He turned to Jeff and Jean and asked, “Have you ever seen a ghostly spectre?”

“Only Charles De Ghoul.”  Jeff laughed raucously, “but his tanks were retreating so fast I only caught the briefest glimpse of him.”

Jean hesitated before stating simply that she had not.  In truth, she had often felt Stuart’s presence.  Sometimes she half saw his face just under the surface of the water.  He speaks to her but she can’t make out what he is saying.  She pondered if it was the survivor’s burden when a loved one’s fate is unknown, that the spirit still wanders.  She did experience foreboding. Perhaps this came from the other side or perhaps it was just imagined, and there it was.

“Mumbo jumbo.” Jeff mumbled as he twitched his fishing line in the stern sheets.  There were plenty of dead bodies that tramped through his mind and none of them had a halo that he ever saw.  He had experienced the horrors of that pointless conflict only to see fat cat bankers get fatter and inherit the earth.  Where was the just reward in that?  What of poor Neddy Bligh, his fellow Merauke soldier, only fourteen years old, who had lied about his age to join up and then blown himself away tipping a forty four gallon petrol drum on smouldering embers to burn off the latrine’s turds?  Jeff’s religion was simple.  Predators and prey abound. Bite first and devour everything life offers or sit around until another eats you.

As he twitched the fishing line a whiskered doggy face popped up in the water below.  It eyed him quizzically.  Jeff’s heart quickened at the likeness to Winston before he realised it was only an inquisitive seal pup.  He called the crew over to see the pretty splashing creature, laughing one of his great kookaburra hoots that echoed off the harbour walls.  The seal hooted back and drew the crew out of their dark mood to join in the mirth.

“What sort is it Lisa?”  They asked.

“A little grey one.”  The biologist replied, prompting another burst of laughter.

“In the future everyone will have their own little robot to give them the answer to a question like that.”  Ed said.

They all laughed even more heartily at this suggestion, and still chuckling made their way to their bunks.  

The ship still rolled and creaked so it was a restless sleep.  Later that night Jean rolled over in her bunk pulling her pillow around her ears to drown the crunch of spectral guards marching along the harbour wall.  She wasn’t the only one not sleeping well.  Jeff was fretting and whimpering warnings to lost colleagues.  As the land breeze of the early hours dispersed the fog, the moon cast a shard of light down the forecastle scuttle and across the floor where Alfie lay on guard.  As it reached his paw he let out the howl of a wolf that surprised even him.  A chorus of voices shouted back, “Fuck off Alfie.”

 

 

Dawn came as a relief to all when both vessels weighed anchor to escape that melancholy place.  Nora’s crew monitored the Nation closely as both galeases cleared the harbour in company.  Rather than turning west to round the outermost dangers of the Casquets, they headed east towards the Alderney Race.  The ebb current should be in their favour to give a much needed boost to Nation’s speed.  In fact she would not be able to slow the Nora’s progress even if she wanted.

The crew fell naturally into their routine of watches as the sun poked through the cloud to steam off the remaining mist.  On rounding Race Rocks the rippling surface of the water indicated that they were being sucked inward.  They were whisked through the race at a great pace and spat out at the other end between Sark and Jersey.  By Desormes Bank they altered course to south west to steer clear for distant Ushant.  A gentle rolling swell now headed the convoy.  The sea turned to deep Atlantic blue and their progress dropped back to the slow beat of the Nation, her engine panting to keep up with the Nora.  By late afternoon the jagged teeth of the Roches Douvres came abeam.  Rae remembered Victor Hugo’s novel “The Toilers of the Sea.”  His hero Gilliat had fought the fishy monster within the Roches caverns to salvage the steam engine of the wrecked devil boat, all for the sake of his darling Miss Deruchette.  As night closed the memories were left way astern of the Nation following obediently behind.  The Roches Douvres stark lighthouse woke up for its night shift with a single flash before dipping below the horizon.

By dawn a bracing wind was blowing in from the Americas.  The sun was bright and the seascape glittered prettily.  Doug signalled that the Nation had to stop and rest before the Biscay crossing, so they agreed to make for Brest.  The intended course was to steer safely outside the Isles of Ushant, but now the more treacherous route through the Raz du Four was a shorter alternative.  This tidal race between the Brittany mainland and Ushant is strewn with rocky overfalls and dotted with warning lighthouses perched on the bones of bleached wrecks.  But the sun was shining, the wind was fair and the tide was with them.

On their approach, the swirling current dragged the two little ships inward.  There was no turning back now.  Nation pulled abreast of Nora as they both bashed their way through the race.  The Nation’s bow rose high on each overfall showing half her bottom, its red paint gleaming.  As she ploughed into the next the tossed sea spray shimmered in rainbows.  She drove through these spectral arches, to rise again, shrugging off her flooded decks in cascades draining from the scuppers.  Dolphins surged along with them, scurrying away from each plunge foamed slice, before returning on the rise to surf another buffeted wave.  By mid morning they were spun out at the southern end of the race and were clear to haul east around Pointe de St Matthew Light for the long approach channel funnelling towards the bastion town itself.

 

 

The entry to Brest, through the Goulet and into the Rade, is a narrow boisterous gulf with a spine of shoals down its centre.  This has made assault by sea on the citadel near impossible.  It would force any enemy to approach within range of the many gun emplacements on either shore.  Consequently, at liberation, the allies chose to flatten the city by air bombardment.  A sparkling new city was reconstructed over the old with wide boulevards of stately white terraces.

Their new course put the weather on their stern; a long of ten metres high swell driven into shoaling water with all the force of its Atlantic crossing.  The Nora’s stern was overtaken by each mountain of water, her helm quivering as if unsure of where to go, before she gathered momentum to surf down the mountain’s face.  The helm needed constant attention to save her headlong dash from broach until the next crest inevitably overtook, tossing her over its back like a child bored with its toy.  In the trough behind, the wave’s mighty back rose up obscuring all but its monstrous palm, leaving her with all sails shaking until another sent them flying downhill once more.  The Nora was now travelling so much faster than Nation that soon she disappeared behind.

On reaching Brest the harbour master directed the Nora to berth at the shipping quay next to a forlorn and rusting coaster, the Ajax.  Here they waited and waited for the Nation.  At last a speck in the distance drew closer and finally rounded the harbour wall.  But it was not the little Nation, but a much larger galeas, the Sri of Alders, the last of the three vessels from Christian’s fire sale in Copenhagen.  She pulled into the berth just ahead as the crew gathered in sail.  From her three masts an acre of canvas fluttered down as yards were swung athwartships.  Sailors in yellow oilskins swarmed down the rigging onto her decks. Jean remembered Doug’s stories about the Sri.

“He caused a bit of a stir after you left Copenhagen.”  Doug had told her. “He persuaded a distillery to sponsor him to deliver a premium cargo of whiskey from Leith.  Clipper Ship malt brought by sailing ship as in the old days was the promotion.  They filled his holds and supplied the crew with oilskins.  They even paid for a set of sails with their logo on it.  Then after having the rigging renewed he sailed off in the middle of the night for Leith before the bill or customs was cleared.  My, there was a real to do.  We thought the harbour master was going to put a padlock on Nation until we assured him we were all paid up”

Jean was unsure whether to believe such gossip, but the look of the crew gathered in the Sri’s stern sheets, was fearsome.  Such a wild bunch of pirates you never saw; a dozen swarthy men sharing a bottle of spirits and ho hos who smiled down at the three pretty ladies on the Nora’s deck below.  Jack, the young American captain, doffed his cap at Jean, revealing a gleaming gold ear ring that seemed much larger than the one he had sported at their last meeting.  He cried out,

“We meet again!  Have you a spare boom?  We broke ours in some wild weather mid Atlantic and have been forced back for repairs.”

“I’m sorry, we’ve nothing spare on board,” she shouted back.  Then as much to indicate that they were not alone, “Have you seen our companion, the Nation, she’s overdue?”

“We saw a little galeas turn away from Brest as we entered.  She was heading south across the Bay.  Could that be her?”

The next evening a yacht arrived from L’Aulne River on the far side of the Bay of Brest and said they had spoke with the Nation anchored off Terenez.  It was clear that she had forsaken the open sea for the tranquillity of the canal systems, taking with them Nora’s rubber dinghy.  They tried to contact her on the radio without success.  They never saw her or their dinghy again.

 

 

The visiting sailing ships were reported by the papers causing great interest locally.  Families came down to the wharf, pointing upward at the lofty masts and stays for their cooing children.  Ed immediately saw the potential for turning a dollar and placed a sign in the chains, “Sailing ship tours - five francs for the whole family.”  The crew would walk the punters around the ship telling them increasingly tall stories in what became a roaring trade.

Soon the crew of the Sri cottoned on and put a sign out also.  But the boys on the Sri, being ignorant of the maxim that more traders increase trade and discounting kills it, set their price at three francs.  As a consequence, trade remained brisk but the income was reduced.

However, a new venture presented itself with the coaster the Ajax.  Her owner being bankrupt, the receivers had laid her up awaiting resolution.  Helen and Lisa sidled over to say hello and investigate the opportunity of using its showers, the alternative being the Les Amis des Marins seaman’s mission, some way distant and male dominated.  They found Henri on board, the sole member of the skeleton crew, whose boredom in the role as port caretaker had driven him to personal neglect.  These months in limbo had left him unkempt and unshaven with the dirty dishes in his galley piled high.  They washed his dishes, cut his hair and generally fussed over his comforts in exchange for a daily shower.

It was soon clear that Henri had an eye for pretty girls, including the tall blonde bobbed Cate and the dark eyed Lisa with ringlets.  He was very appreciative of this caring company and his vessel was well equipped with unused ropes, cable and provisions.  Before long he was giving them bags of potatoes, tins of fruit and coils of rope to bring back to the Nora.

Unfortunately Henri also had a weakness for whiskey.  The deck gear he gifted was as much valued by the Sri, enabling the ladies to exchange it for whiskey from the Sri’s holds.  This in turn enabled more substantial trade with the Henri in return for the traded whiskey.  It didn’t take long before the Sri’s crew worked out what was going on, and made direct contact.  Poor Henri was as a lamb to the slaughter in this wild ride of whisky and women upsetting his monastic existence.  Pretty soon his cupboards were bare and the decks were cleared of anything not bolted down.

Their stay in the sparkling new city quickly forged the close bonds experienced by the crew of a sailing ship who work and play together.  Jeff discarded his rubber sea boots and took to wearing a red spotted neckerchief.  His winter beanie was exchanged for a braided cap; a classier turnout, he thought, than the common earring worn by the pirate rival for Jean’s attention.  He was in the greatest of form as their jolly Captain, Engineer and lord of the poop deck.  

Jean, the navigator and cook, with good temper and a beguiling smile smoothed oil over the few ripples, having no call to serve the dead man’s soup for Jeff’s breakfast.  Rae was unchallenged before the mast with the rest of the Breton stripe shirted crew.  Their provinces were defined and harmony reigned.

Together these happy tourists inspected the Recouvrance Bridge, the Castle and the ancient Tanguy Tower.  With much laughter and high jinks the scallywags ate crepes with cider in the Rue de Siam, and slept off the afternoon under the palms in the Botanical Gardens.  Their ten days stay was only marred by the unseasonably wet and windy weather.

Successive rain storms blew in from the Atlantic, dampening their enthusiasm for the port.  The driving weather opened the leaks in the forecastle, becoming so persistent that the deck crew had to move into the dry of the main hold.  This was accessed by a permanent ladder, almost a staircase that rested on the keelson.  This mighty footing was half a metre higher than the ceiling planks lining the ships bottom.  At the after end bilge water gathered but was sufficiently below the floors to allow the hold to remain dry.  The materials filched and traded from the Ajax included boards and timbers that Rae and Paul used for a sleeping platform built over the ballast.

Bryn and Lisa had particularly suffered from a lack of privacy.  His dismissive manner toward her was only countered by adoration shown in intimacy; an opportunity stifled by the deck crew all sleeping in cramped company.  So the hold’s cargo of tea chests and crates were rearranged to screen off a section for them.  This arrangement sowed a seed of discontent between Bryn and Jeff.  The ski setter had expected better accommodation for his fare and the Captain feared his cargo hold was being invaded by squatters.  Jeff instructed Rae not to compromise his authority by taking sides with the crew.

Apart from these minor irritations, moral was good and the crew were indispensable for the progress across the Bay of Biscay.  Besides, Jeff’s greater concern was to escape what he perceived as amorous attentions from the dashing American captain towards his cook and navigator.  Of this jealousy, Jeff should have had no concern, as hitching up with a third unreliable mariner would be the very last thing on Jean’s mind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Chapter Three – Across the Biscay

 

On the rare morning of a fair easterly with a run out tide the Captain unexpectedly commanded the mooring lines to be dropped for passage across the Bay of Biscay.  They backed out past the Ajax where poor Henri was flaked out on a hatch top next to a crate of whiskey bottles.  Some pirates were sliding the hatch tarpaulin out from under the caretaker’s snoring carcass while others were busy dismantling the cargo derricks to pass the booms over to the Sri.  

Once out into the roadstead the motion of the long swell once more invigorated the Nora.  They all felt that elation known to seaman when leaving the past behind for the excitement of new horizons ahead.

Then through the Rade into the Goulet, they lined the twin towered Petit Minou and Portzic lighthouses in transit behind, so ensuring that they would stand well clear of the northerly dangers of Isles d’Quessant (Ushant) and the southerly rock strewn Raz de Sein.  These outlying dangers are marked with lonely sea dashed sentinels: Ar Men light, Tevennec and the square towered La Vielle.

Finally clear of the last Western Rocks they made their departure on the three day voyage across the Bay of Biscay.  Their last sight of Brittany was Pointe du Raz and a halo of light reflecting from the billowing sails of the Sri rounding it outbound.  She had also taken advantage of the break in the weather to head west for the New World.  They could only surmise the fate of poor Henri abandoned back in Brest, having succumbed to the sailor’s perils on a captainless ship, a port bound casualty, wrecked from idleness, passion and finally spirits.

The sea now changed to that deep water blue signifying great depth under warm water.  Dolphins played on the bow, leaping up at the cut water only to dive away in synchronous rolls.  Moments later they would reappear, scurrying along on the wash with their dorsal fins slicing the surface.  Their purpose would appear to be spontaneous joy, but some say the activity allows them to best attack the fish ahead that the ship disturbs, giving them great speed to surf off and catch their prey by the tail.

There was sufficient crew to stand three watches, allowing the luxury that each watch had eight hours on and sixteen hours off; a most comfortable roster.  The Volvo engine chugged reliably onwards, splashing out a foaming wake.  In the idle breeze the Nora rolled rhythmically from the ocean swell.  As each wave approached she would bury her nose in the blue then rise to dip her stern with much creaking of halyards and fluttering of the sails’ luffs.  The deck became hot to bare feet and the pitch between the seams softened under the warm southern sky.

The first night they ran into an endless pink lake of luminescent plankton. Their wake sparkled as if on fire.  The dolphins now cut the surface as a streamer of sparks.  As one would leap over the port bow its shiny body gleamed ruby red under the navigation light, shedding a comet’s tail like pearls, another would leap at the starboard bow in emerald with jewelled tiara.  The lookouts standing in the bows were transfixed watching the dazzling show all night.

The second dawn found them well offshore abandoned by the dolphins.  The wind died to the gentlest of whispers as they motored on and on to the south.  Suddenly a flying fish buzzed ahead of them.  Then a couple more and shortly the lee of the vessel was alive with a swarm of them.  Gliding in ahead and astern, some bashed against the black sides with a great thud.  Then another hit the limp sails and slid down to hit the deck.  Within minutes a dozen of more were flapping in the lee scuppers with the crew frantically scooping them up before they slithered overboard.  The reason for their abandon was soon apparent as a pack of ravenous sharks surrounded the ship.  They weaved and snapped around the waterline for concussed prey then took off to windward to continue their chase.

During the day gentler creatures of the deep visited them.  First a great turtle lifted his head to look at them as they passed, then slowly sank leaving only a stream of bubbles.  Later they came upon a basking shark going their way, its great spotted bulk of half of the Nora's length lazily ambling along next to them for some while until it was also left behind.

The hot sun continued to open the deck seams, and subsequently the water line bow planks.  The before-the-mast-crew’s accommodation grew increasingly primitive.  The forecastle became too damp and was completely abandoned for sleeping on deck or in the hold, even during passage.  Polar bear cottage’s dunny and its salt water flush bucket doubled for a strip wash on deck.  So the off watch crew took advantage of the calmer weather to improve the makeshift sleeping platform in the hold.  Timbers scrounged from the Ajax were fastened as the stud partitions for two tarpaulin walled compartments.  The gap between these two cabins created a bathroom that when screened with a canvas provided Lisa with some privacy for washing, and for Bryn’s amorous attentions.

On the second night the wind dropped altogether and the sea all around became that glassy calm described by the Ancient Mariner.  Not long after Jean and Paul began their watch a great fire arched across the sky.  Much brighter than a comet, it appeared as a flaming meteor, hitting the sea some miles to the west.  Jean was so disturbed she noted the phenomenon in the log with the intention of lodging an Admiralty hydrographic report at the next port.

“What if nuclear war had been declared?  She would be none the wiser, neither would her kin.  Could she warn them?”  No, there was nothing to be done but venture on.  It wasn’t until much later that her report was confirmed as space junk burning up as it returned to earth from the first manned mission to the moon.

Just before dawn the horizon resolved as a sprinkling of lights.  Their dead reckoning position put them north of the Spanish coastline but the radar was no help at all, it was displaying nothing.  As the sun peeked over the horizon the mystery lights resolved as a fishing fleet.  Up ahead as far as the eye could see rusty old hulks under plumes of dirty smoke were wallowing on the swell.  There were too many to skirt around, so they passed through the middle, steering to the port or starboard to avoid the nets between pair trawlers or gear trailing for much greater distances behind the longliners.  The radar obstinately refused to assist and the radio direction finder was equally silent.

The western sky was streaked with the cirrus ice clouds that are a predictor of gales.  If they pressed on for the intended landfall of Cape Finisterre, the north easternmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula, a rising easterly would put them on the greatest of dangers to any sailing ship, a lee shore.  So they determined to steer for La Corunna, the nearest deep water port to the Cape. But in what direction was that? After the multiple changes in course their position, and consequently the course to steer, were doubtful.  They hauled up signal flags requesting position from the fleet with no response.

The matter was resolved in a most unseamanlike manner with Rae and Paul painting an old tarpaulin with “La Corunna?” in huge print.  As they approached the nearest fishing vessel they articulated with hand signals that they sought this place.  The fishermen pointed dead ahead in the direction of their current course.  Not long after a fluffy rise of cumulus cloud was sighted and below it the faint blue mountains of Galicia, the Celtic bastion in North East Spain.  Eventually the gaunt stone Tower of Hercules was sighted, this being the most ancient of lighthouses that has lit the mariner’s path into La Corunna since Roman times.

 

 

The beautiful palm fringed harbour that they entered did not give them the welcoming reception that they might have expected.  During the previous night one of the trawler’s crew had gone berserk following an argument.  He had slit his captain’s throat and slashed several of his crewmates before being finally subdued.  A revengeful crowd lined the quay to see the assassin brought back to justice.  The boys on the Nora were now a wild looking crew, with shaggy locks and beards of bum fluff, the oldest being twenty, so at first the crowd mistook them for the young culprit.  They jeered as the Nora approached the quay before the Garda Police in their Nazi guise dispersed them.  Moments later, the rusty hulk pulled in behind and the crowd’s attention was diverted towards the wild young man being dragged off in manacles.

The pride of the Polish communist Navy, the tall ship Das Pomeranian was also in harbour.  Manned by a hundred cadets, her great white hull on the other side of the quay, towered over the Nora’s berth.  Spain was under the iron fist of the fascist dictator Generalissimo Franco.  In 1936 he led an Army coup of Nationalists against the Republican Government in order to rid Spain of the scourge of Communists and Anarchists.  This fracture of the state resulted in the mechanised bloodbath that was the Spanish Civil War.

The northern navy base at El Ferole and nearby La Corunna, the stronghold of the independent minded Basques of Galicia, was first on his list to subjugate.  Those mountain men were contained but they never finally surrendered to the brutality of the murdering.  It was from this region that the ageing steamer SS Habana evacuated 4000 Basque children to the safety of Britain after Franco used his borrowed Luftwaffe bombers to obliterate the innocents at Guernica.  To their lasting shame, the British Government’s perfidious policy of appeasing Hitler saw no government assistance for this rescue of “Los Niño’s”, it being organised entirely through the good hearts of the British people.

Franco was currently due to visit La Corunna, so in preparation all separatist graffiti and all else suspect was whitewashed by the council.  The Das Pomeranian could not be made any whiter than it already was, so to protect the population against political infection it was secured behind barriers of machine gun toting Garda.  

The Polish officers recognised a galeas of the same style as their Baltic home and being cooped up in the same guarded cage made constant calls on the Nora, sharing schnapps and practising their English on the Australian Capitano.  This fraternisation deepened the authority’s suspicion of Nora.  Not surprisingly they were keen to have these malign vessels out of their harbour before the great Generalissimo arrived.  The crew were confined to the quay where running the gauntlet of the guard patrols was ever confronting.  They waited patiently for Manyana when the radar technician was due to attend to its repair.

The Captain from Das Pomeranian called over one day for a social tipple and to tour the Nora.  The discussions between the fellow captains were prolonged with much laughing.  Jeff recounted his favourite sports joke.

“Are you a pole-vaulter?” a spectator asks an athlete.  He replies “No, I'm German actually; but how did you know my name was Walter?”  

He went too far by the further jest. “How did the Germans conquer Poland so fast?”  “By marching in backwards so the Polish thought they were leaving.”

The offended Captain marched off the boat.  Immediately after, Jeff blew his gasket about the stud partitions in the hold.  It all became very nasty.

“I’m not having it.  No dirty damned didicoy travellers in my ship!” he shouted.  Red faced and blustering he grabbed the fire axe, and descended as a daemon into the hold.  He struck out at the tarpaulins, the posts and the crates demolishing all the crew’s hard work.

Lisa tried to remonstrate with him, explaining that she couldn’t strip wash on deck in front of the male guards.  But El Capitano would have none of it, in reply his abusive tirade was so manic that timid Alfie barked at him and so crude that Bryn raised his fists and shouted back.

“I’m not having a dirty old man make my fiancée undress in front of him!”

The unfair accusation did nothing to resolve the mutiny.  Jeff tossed the sweethearts’ bed rolls up at them on the deck, narrowly missing the radar technician who had chosen this moment to arrive.

“Get off my ship, if you don’t like my rules… and you can fuck off too Alfie!”

Lisa held her trembling champion back from jumping down into the hold to land a punch on Jeff, but she had read far more into his emotional defence of her.

“Your fiancée…you mean that you want to marry me?  Yes, yes I do…I mean I will…I mean…at last,” she vowed, holding him tight in a passionate embrace.

The technician, having no English, looked on in confusion.  After repairing the radar’s blown fuse he described to the Garda how the axe wielding Capitano had chopped up the young lovers’ bed with the passionate rage of one scorned.  He had even turned on the ship’s dog!  With their swags on their backs and hound at their side, the couple were last seen at the Garda checkpoint receiving asylum into Spain from the promiscuous communist tyrant.  

Jean was furious when she found out what had occurred.  She reminded Jeff that the crew were paying their way to work the ship and assist with the domestic chores.  This short temper left the rations basket emptier and the ship short-handed.

“Captain Cook sailed around the world and hardly lost a crewman.  You’ve only got across the Bay and we’ve lost James, Bryn, Lisa, your escort ship and a dog!”

Jeff thinking himself lucky that she had not said “two dogs,” meekly slipped away to the wheelhouse, where he berated Rae for causing this debacle.

 

 

Losing their buddies and crewmates unsettled the crew.  Relationships became as strained as if they were walking on egg shells.  The Captain sought greater authority in his remoteness.  No longer were councils of war held to discuss plans.  He informed the crew that the next port of call was Lisbon, to meet his daughter’s ship on its passage back to England.  After, the Nora would coast down the Iberian Peninsula to rest-over at Gibraltar and await the end of the hurricane season in the West Indies, before crossing the Atlantic.

They departed La Corunna leaving the Tower of Hercules in their wake.  It is said to be built over the buried bones Medusa’s grandson Geryon, a three headed monster slain by the heroic adventurer during the tenth of his labours, cattle rustling.  Hercules walked the cattle backwards over their previous tracks to safety, thus delaying Geryon’s six eyed detection.

They rounded Cabo Finisterre, the end of the ancient world, just as the lighthouse flickered into the growing twilight.  This was an easy passage with fine weather and a low long swell from the Atlantic.  The radar was on form again, picking out the deeply indented coastline of deep long rias that they passed.  The Volvo engine beat its even pace as mile after uneventful mile faded behind, dulling memories of lost comrades.  Uneventful that is until the early hours when smoke issued from the deck generator and all the lights went out.  Not for the first time Jeff displayed great presence of mind in extinguishing the flames.  Rae and Paul dived down to the hold and primed the old kerosene lanterns enabling them to carry navigation lights until dawn.

A squall blew in from the west in the afternoon, so rather than continuing for Lisbon they detoured for Vigo in order to repair the generator.  They negotiated the barrier Islas Cies passing between the Mount Aguda Island and the northern shore.  Ships of several nations lay anchored beyond in the long Ria of Vigo, awaiting orders.  They found a comfortable berth on the commercial quay next to some trawlers.

The port turned out to be as hospitable as La Corunna had been unwelcoming.  The newspaper ran stories about the many ships that cared to take advantage of this beautiful waterway to rest and bunker after their Atlantic passages.  The Australians in the old craft from the north were great copy.  

Galician was spoken here, a Celtic dialect of Spanish, causing Jean some difficulty translating between broken French and Spanish.  Jeff was on top form without a word being understood, communicating with the common language of laughter.  In jest he wore an old mop head, claiming that managing his useless crew was so fretful for El Capitano that all his real hair had fallen out.  So attired he danced a sailors gig to the comic opera from the record player that daily reverberated across the bay  They were to wait here many days for manyana to come and the generator to be repaired; the crew having gained the keys of the city by virtue of Jeff’s hilarious antics.

 

 

There is always much to do around a sailing ship’s decks when the vessel is in port.  The deck crew attended to the running rigging, replacing frayed with new and using the old to make baggywrinkles; yarns woven into padding around positions on stays and wires where the sails would otherwise chafe and wear.  Any yarn left over was teased out for oakum so once more the rhythmic sound of caulking tools clinking under the mallet told their toil of tightening up the deck seams.

One morning a dusting of rain had prevented them pouring the boiling pitch into the seams.  The swell was rolling up the bay from the south west and the boys spied a ribbon of white water along the far side.  Cate would not be left behind when they rowed the longboat over to the surf line on Rodeira Beach.  They took turns at the tiller to surf the boat in on the combers.  They would wait just beyond the break until a larger wave than all the others would heave up from the shallows, its rippling top teetering on the break.  Then they would row towards the beach with all their might until the swell was breaking behind them.  The stern would be picked up in the foaming fury, accelerating the craft to storm down the emerald wave’s front.  With wind whipped spray sliced from her bows she finally glided over the seagrass beds to crunch up onto the sands.  Then out again, forcing through the white water to find a position behind the break to try again.  It was such sport that they lost track of time until sunset reminded them of their duty to return.

On the way back they passed under the stern of a prim ship anchored midstream.  The M.V. Bluentrane (Blue tears) was spotlessly white with a green boot top and a banana yellow funnel emblazoned with the letter H in blue; the insignia of a Hamburg Indies Freight Liner.  A dashing officer in tropical uniform saluted as they passed.  The boys could not help thinking that the fair Cate sitting in the prow was where his attention was directed.

The very next morning the fast launch of the Bluen manned by an immaculately presented crew deftly heaved their mooring lines to come alongside the Nora.  The Tobagoan Coxswain delivered an invitation from his Captain to come over to dine.  Jeff, Jean and Cate never hesitated in accepting a free lunch so moments later in their best togs they were skimming out across the bay in the launch.  They came up under the white steel wall of her sides where a boarding ladder led way upwards to her deck.  Here the Captain in whites welcomed them aboard.  He was in his late thirties, young for command, softly spoken and devilishly handsome.

“Captain Hans Fischer,” the Master introduced himself in impeccable English.

“You will remember my brother, Wolfgang, who was your pilot through the Kiel Canal.  He told me all about your adventure.”  The swarthy sailor turned his piercingly blue eyes towards Cate and added, “Though he failed to tell me how beautiful was your crew.”  She blushed in response.

He explained that he had invited them to lunch so he could tell his brother about their progress.  His invitation was with strings, as he intended to oblige them to return the favour so he may look over the Nora and taste some of Jean’s famous beetroot kødboller.  The visitors were pleased to agree and to follow their charming host on a tour of inspection of his command.

The Bluen was a cargo/passenger ship of six thousand tons; a three island type, with an accommodation/wheelhouse block centrally placed between weather decks.  A raised poop and forecastle were positioned at either end.  Twelve passengers could share the accommodation with the all German officers, while the West Indian crew berthed in the forecastle.  Four of her six holds were refrigerated, allowing her to load perishable foodstuffs outbound to South America and the Windward Islands, and to return with 60,000 banana stems.  The cargo was worked using four double derricked masts, union purchase rigged, but she was also set up for heavy lifts of machinery or vehicles for the hatches next to the accommodation.

The company owned plantations along the Surinam River whose managers, relatives or children returning from boarding school were regular passengers.  On this return voyage they offloaded the stems in Lisbon and with only a handful of passengers aboard awaited sailing orders for the next outward bound cargo.  To ease the stay the crew had lined the forward number one and after number four hatch combings with tarpaulins, filling them with salt water as splash pools; the aft hatch served the officers, and the forward served the crew.

Jeff was especially keen to see the engine room, so Hans gave him into the care of the Chief Engineer while the First Officer took the ladies up to the wheelhouse.  Compact as she was, this was a vessel where the master never entered the crew’s domain of the forecastle or the engineer’s motor room, except on formal company inspections.

Hans excused himself temporarily due to pressing matters.  This was actually to hurry along the elderly group of passengers finishing lunch and ensure that all was shipshape in the dining room.  When his guests arrived to take their seats it all looked splendid.  On a starched white linen tablecloth, gleaming china and polished silver marked with the company insignia H, were set around a bowl brimming with tropical fruits.  The back doors opened out onto a deck, allowing a gentle breeze to cool his diners.

After a delightful fill of conversation and confections Hans parked his cutlery to the side of his plate, stating profoundly

“Is it not a small world?”  

They all had to agree.  What a small and a strange world it was.  To Jean it was most strange that Kiel seemed such an age ago but the conflict only yesterday.  Now they amicably dined in a fascist kingdom with a German officer.

As they savoured their coffee a tarantula’s hairy limb poked out from under the bananas on the fruit bowl.  Such occurrences are always a hazard on a banana boat.  Hans had lost count of the number of times he had dealt with hysterical passengers.  Some even upturned the table, or the ladies inexplicably shrieked or fainted.  He feared the worst when the limb dragged out behind it the body the size of a small rodent, rearing its fangs in threat.  Cate merely picked it up and wrapped it in her serviette, asking the steward to find a more suitable home for the poor scared thing.  From that moment Hans was irretrievably smitten.

In the balmy weather their days in Vigo passed pleasantly.  Jeff and Jean got to know the town well, visiting a different area each day.  They bought fresh vegetables and fish from the market and explored the narrow streets of the old quarter.  They inspected the Castro, the Roman hill fort that had been the embryo of the town, and walked in its palm-shaded gardens.  They hired a taxi and took a ride out into the hills.

The deck crew fell into an easy routine of mending the rigging and attending to the caulking.  With the rope scavenged from the Ajax they were able to replace most the running rigging.  The heat of midday was so fierce that they had to splash buckets of salt water over it to stop the pitch melting.  After the day’s work they would row the longboat over to the beach to surf.  At dusk they would carouse on the hatch-tops yawing and drinking away the short evening twilight as the stars rose over the distant mountains.  Out across the bay the anchored ships’ lights painted dappled paths across the water.

Hans came to inspect the Nora, keeping his distance from the caulkers’ boiling black pitch so as not to stain his whites.  He spirited Cate off with him as soon as was polite.  Every morning afterwards, his launch would collect her and not return her until late.

Daily the couple lazed by the makeshift pool under shade awnings until the sea breeze came up.  They swam and splashed, told each other their life stories, flirted and kissed.  They took picnics on the launch, over the bay’s sea horses to a cove where pretty corals encrusted the rocks and seashells littered the strand.  They gave each other rings of worn seashell.  In the sunset they returned to his ship for a farewell promenade on the decks.  They watched the fiery orb momentarily settle on the western horizon before dipping with a green flash.

The evening before the Bluen was due to depart, Hans and Cate stayed on deck drinking and caressing.  She did not want to leave.  In abandon they smashed wine glasses on the rail and with laughter threw the crystals over the side for the sea gods.  With no glasses left they sipped champagne from Cate’s shoe and made love under the stars.  When the launch failed to return that night, the crew worried for her safety, but Jean reassured them.  Lodging together in the intimate company of the cabin Cate and Jean had become close, sharing everything.  Jean knew exactly what she was up to.

In the morning the launch arrived back at the Nora to deliver a tearful Cate.  Out on the bay the Bluen’s “pilot aboard” flag fluttered on the breeze, the funnel was making smoke and they could hear the clink of her anchor chain.

 “Whatever is the matter, my dear?”  Jean consoled her.

“Hans wants me to go to Hamburg to marry him,” sobbed Cate, “but I told him that I can’t, and now he’s sailing away forever.”

“Why ever not?”  You love him don’t you?  asked Jean.

“Yes, with all my heart.  But I just can’t, Dad would never forgive me if I ran off with a German,” she blurted out between sobs, “and I would be leaving you on your own.”

A splash of wash was thrown from the Bluen’s stern as the propeller started to revolve.  A long doleful blast from her horn resounded across the bay all the way to the coral cove with its seashells.

“If you love him, then don’t lose him.  He’s not marrying your Dad, and I can look after myself,” advised Jean.

The crew manned the longboat.  It would be a battle but they might just catch up if the Bluen slowed to drop off the pilot

“Do you want to go Cate?” they shouted up to her.

Cate hugged Jeff and Jean and with smiles and more tears, threw her gear into the longboat and climbed in.

“Look after yourself,” she mouthed back up to Jean and waved.

Cate perched in the prow as the boys pulled away with all their might.  The Bluen’s stern was still in sight but she was getting away from them.  They took a gamble that in the rising breeze she would take the wider Canal del Sur.  If the sea gods favoured them a short cut over the Brazilian Shoals that hugged the channel’s first headland might put them ahead.

A mile into the first dash the choppy water from the shoals broke over the bow, buffeting the boat dreadfully.  Larger swells followed, threatening to throw her on her beam ends, but on each one they squared her away just in time to cream down the wave’s face, rowing frantically at a great rate of knots.  Once over the shoals they had gained some distance on her, but not enough for the Bluen to spot them.

They laboured on for the next headland, threading the rock strewn eye of the needle between Toralla Island and the Bondana Reef.  As they squeezed back into the channel the Bluen’s “pilot aboard” flag fluttered back down onto her deck.  They were some distance off, but just ahead of her bridge’s sightline.  They waved their blistered hands frantically, and were in luck.

Aboard the Bluen, Hans was sorrowfully scanning the coastline with his field glasses.  Suddenly he saw them.  There was his Cate, sitting in the prow just as he had first sighted her ten days earlier.  More tears, smiles and hugs followed as the rowers delivered her into Han’s joyous arms at the boarding ladder.  They said their goodbyes then watched and waved as the ship gathered way outbound.  Just as it rounded the barrier of San Martino Island a rain storm blew in.  It painted a rainbow that the white ship sailed through before disappearing, leaving only sea horses where she had been.

 

 

Later that morning the Nora followed the path of the Bluen to the Canal del Porta buoy, but here turned south bound for Lisbon, for their appointment with Jancy’s ship.  Jeff had been busting to make this rendezvous with the S.S. Fairstar since they were in Brest.  It could be no more than a meeting of passing ships, one at the start of its outbound passage with another at the end of its return.  Now that it was only days away, his impatience to arrive was feverish.  The 210 miles from Vigo’s Cabo Silleiro to the Cabo Raso waypoint cut across a sweeping indentation of the Portuguese coastline, clear of all outlying dangers.  Only the passage between Cabo Carvoeiro and the offshore Islas Berlenga, some 50 miles short of Cabo Raso presented any danger.

With fine weather filling their sails and deep blue water under the keel they coasted past Rio Mino and Viano do Costelo.  During the first dog watch the lights of Lexios twinkled abeam.  By the eight bells of the evening watch, they passed fifteen miles off Oporto.  Cabo Mondego Light showed itself on the port bow in the early hours.  They were eating breakfast as dolphins guided them through the green waters of the passage between Cabo Carvoeiro Light and Islas Berlenga.  By noon Cabo Raso was in sight.  They rounded Sintra and stood clear of the Cascais Light, turning west for the Tagus River off the resort town of Estoril.

The hillside tower of Mama Sul’s Lighthouse gave a lead past the guard fort of Bugio Islet and on through a buoyed deepwater channel.  Though the entry to the Tagus was not difficult, a pilot was signalled for and taken aboard at Belem Tower, a castellated wedding cake of a structure at the first of the narrows.  

Lisbon occupies the northern hillside along the estuary’s two mile wide throat before it swells into the landlocked bay of Mar del Palha.  Past the ancient seaport of Belem a magnificent new suspension bridge, named after Prime Minister Salazar, arched across the narrows, requiring all ships passing to bend in homage.  This patriot or despot, depending on your point of view, had ruled over Portugal for most of his people’s lives.  He had skilfully navigated a course of neutrality from the Axis powers that surrounded Portugal.  His little country was a historically tolerant society where Christians, Moslems and Jews prospered together.  Just as the war made Lisbon a nest of spies it became an escape route for Jews seeking passage to the Americas.  

The year before the Nora’s arrival the Prime Minister had slipped after a bath, hitting his head and losing his senses.  The ruling ministers hid the knowledge from him that he was no longer in charge.  It was not until his recovery some years later that he became aware of his lost grip of office.  It was then too late for him, as the “Carnation” popular uprising ousted his regime.  His namesake, the iconic landmark, was renamed the “Bridge of 25th April”.

Upstream of it the riverside was lined with wharves.  The city had once earned its prosperity trading spices from the East, silver from the Americas and slaves from Africa.  It still had influence from its once great empire of Brazil, Angola, Goa, Macao and Timor.  Now, many of the opulent riverside buildings were in decay, but its commercial docks, the Alicante, remained bustling with all manner of local and foreign shipping.  The Nora chugged into the mayhem of the inner basin where craft were rafted up across its width.  At some points you could clamber from one side to the other over the decks of brightly painted sailing barges with eyes on their prows and patched lateen sails, steam tugs with billowing funnels and fishing boats draped with nets.  As each quayside vessel was unloaded it would wriggle free to the outside of the raft so another could take its turn.  A bargee and his wife courteously loosened their lines allowing the Nora to squeeze between them and a trawler.  By signs they warned them to keep good watch against being cast adrift when the early morning’s flood tide allowed the barges fair passage back up river.  A watch was also detailed against pilferers and any other vermin.  The night’s gentle land breeze wafted away the worst of the day’s heat carrying on it the smells of hay and cooking. The splash of oars, foreign voices and distant laughter echoed over the black water.

Just before dawn the sailing barges flooded out of the basin into the tide.  They drifted towards the eastern sunrise in a limp-sailed flock, crowding the S.S. Fairstar’s progress along the Tagus narrows.  The passenger liner was instantly recognisable, her white hull topped by the blue V of the Sitmar Line on a yellow funnel.  The 26,000 tonner shook the morning air with a prolonged blast to announce her punctual arrival at Alicante’s riverside quay.  She was at that time servicing the last scheduled Australia runs; immigrants out and cheap, cheerful young adventurers back for the grand tour of Europe; with a double helping of spaghetti either way.  Even so, what a comparison in luxury this budget travel would be to the cattle trucks of air that would imminently oust the great liners?

 

 

As soon as it was down Jeff and Jean bundled up the gang plank looking for Jancy.  At six in the morning only the crew and a few keen souls were about.  The lowest deck’s foyer enveloped them in that hushed cool of ocean liners; a floral fragrance of starched linen and breakfast rolls carried on a crisp zephyr of air conditioning.  The smell conjured memories of their past ocean travels; it was the smell of luxury so different from the pitch and hemp reeking bowels of the Nora.

They didn't have to look long for Jancy as she was upon them immediately, having been on watch ever since the ship passed the Bugio Islet Light.  She had a novel to tell them about her travels and travails.  However, even the welcome news of her long-standing partner’s divorce from his first wife, so enabling them to finally marry, was eclipsed by Jean’s overwhelming interest in her shower and toilet amenities.

Rae and Ed had also been up since before dawn, handling the lines as the barges broke their rafting and poled out of the basin.  They had dug in the main hold for Jancy’s tea chests.  Once loaded into the longboat they rowed out into the river and downstream to the Fairstar.  After Jancy’s partner tipped her cabin steward and he tipped the third mate, Ed and Rae were directed to the stern.  Here a line and hook was dropped and the chests hauled aboard.  They heaved them down to her cabin and shortly afterwards were sitting on the bunks to join in the queue for a shower.  What luxury this was after a month of strip washing with a bucket of cold salt water.

So refreshing was their bathing experience that the Captain and Navigator took their benefactors out for lunch.  After what turned out to be a long day of liquid celebration Jeff and Jean booked themselves into Belem’s best hotel for the night, leaving the crew to keep deck watch on Nora.

It was late evening when Jeff and Jean passed under the cracked portico to check in at the Hotel Empiro’s front desk.  In search of a nightcap, they were directed by the concierge into a panelled womb that was the faded palace’s old smoking room.  A grand piano sat in a grove of palms sprouting from chintz vases, its yellowed keyboard still invitingly open though long since silent from neglect.  In plush armchairs fellow patrons huddled in hushed conversations.  Brandy glasses clinked between furtive glances at the newcomers.  An icy spirit of intrigue remained from the days long since when spies and businessmen had conspired here.

Not for long however.  Jeff’s bonhomie soon had even the dourest looking fugitive from Nuremburg off his seat, prancing and cackling in charades to convey what nonsense their snippets of common tongue had been unable to share.  Jean soon excused herself leaving Jeff in fine form with his accomplices.  The tinkling of ivory to strains of “for the merriest fellows are we, tra la, that ply on the emerald sea, tra la,” followed her across the foyer to the grand marble staircase.  She recognised  the chorus from a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera. Was it from the Mikado or the Pirates of Penzance?  She couldn’t remember or even care, she was exhausted.  The mahogany banister of carved vines wound ever upwards.  After every dozen steps a pineapple posted landing provided a place to rest, each with a different print of the empire; natives in proas paddling past a volcano, elephant troupes dragging timber from a jungle, sampans anchored under painted snowy peaks.

“The Gondoliers,” she recollected with a smile of satisfaction, “the tangled tale of romance and power where love endures”.

She staggered into their magnificent room, walking out onto its balcony to gaze on the night river.  The Fairstar close by hummed in readiness to depart, a festoon of its lights mirroring that of the suspension bridge further downstream.  She tried to pick out the Nora in the darkness of the Alicante Docks but couldn’t distinguish her within the massed shadows of masts and hulls.  Had the crew eaten, she wondered?  Were her daughters safe?  When would she see them again?  Everything seemed to have changed.  She suddenly felt that she was going in the wrong direction.  But she consoled herself that once they reached Australia, she could return to be with them.  Despite this flurry of thoughts she flung herself onto the bed and fell asleep immediately.

She awoke suddenly to find that Jeff had entered the room.  All the lights were blazing as he rambled on about the fine crowd of fellows in the bar.  He accused her of rudely snubbing them in retiring early, then noisily flung open the French windows, breathed deeply and told her to get up to look at the magnificent view.  He scolded her for wasting this opportunity.

“That’s what your mother says too,” he added.

Before she could question how he knew what her mother thought, he announced that their pockets were now bare, due to the expenses of harbour dues, provisions and all the luxuries that she expected.  He instructed Jean to write to her mother in Brisbane to wire them more funds so they may continue their voyage.  He reminded her of their agreement to spend his earnings on adventures and use her inheritance in retirement.  This wasn’t Jean’s recollection.

“What’s happened with the money from selling our assets?” she asked.  She knew that this considerable sum included the dental practice sale, more than enough to fund the passage to Australia.

Jeff’s tone changed.  He poured himself a tumbler of spirits.  As he drank his ranting became vicious.  She, a useless, scheming and wicked wowser, was again the cause of his sufferings.  Had he not rescued her from her widow’s weeds and still she treated him as second fiddle to her first?  Jean reacted as she always did, by saying nothing and staring at the floor, hoping that the blast would blow itself out without violence.  Since her girlhood impudence of impersonating a boy to win the sailboat race she had determined never to be a weak little lady.  Her life on Wittenburra Station had only strengthened that determination.  She did not hang her hat on any inheritance anyway; of greater value was not letting this bastard overpower her.  But those days of riding the fence lines with opals thrown from her horse’s hooves were past, things were more complicated now.

“Where are my opals?”  She momentarily panicked, not recollecting having seen them since that first day of opening the crate in Copenhagen.  “Had they been cast out casualties of the furore at La Corunna?”

Suddenly it was all too much to bear, in this moment of weakness the smallest of tears gathered in her eye. If she had not worn mascara to please him it would not have been noticed, but a tiny black stain trickled down her cheek.  She turned her head away from Jeff so he would not see his victory over her.  But he had seen it.

Next time she looked up he had taken to the couch in sulking silence.  His anger subsided in triumph just as her resolve gave way to forgiveness.  She reproached herself, reminding herself that he was a veteran, like all the others who gave so all may inherit; deserving care from his injuries.  She remembered her once stocky cousin who had suffered so terribly in Changi Camp that his flesh dissolved and his bones were bared.  On repatriation he was driven to indulge himself without restraint.  He became so ill from his consequent obesity that though he survived the starvation, the acquired compulsion to hoard had killed him.  They can’t help what they do, she reassured herself.  As he drifted off on the couch she tossed and turned in her luxury bed, unable to sleep.

In the early hours she abandoned the attempt and got up.  She draped a blanket over Jeff and closed the window from the cold night breeze.  The light over the dressing table was still on, where a pen and some hotel writing paper were waiting.  She picked them up and wrote.

Nora Dane in Lisbon 13.6.1969, Mail to C/o Royal Gibraltar Yacht Club, Gibraltar

Dear Mother,

We left Cherbourg four weeks ago in company with Nation and had a rough and stormy passage to Brest.  We had a fine trip across the Bay to La Corunna where we made repairs to the radar.  Lisa and Alfie got their marching orders here and Bryn went with them.  We went on to Vigo where Cate fell in love with the captain of a German refrigerator ship, unfortunately bound for Hamburg.  From Vigo to Lisbon was another two days and a night, but we were near the coast most if the way, and could see the looms of the lights.  We got a pilot outside the river, and coasted happily to our berth by night.

Jancy’s ship came in at 5:30.  Jeff would have burned up all the oceans to keep that date.  We were there and she was there on deck looking like a breath of spring and smelling like a perfume shop, but all we wanted was to use her shower.  We were able to slip her tea chests of hardware and crockery aboard which will be some consolation as her other trunks have gone missing.  We had lunch with them and heard all their news.

We are off to Portimao tomorrow, then Cadiz, Gibraltar where we expect to stay until November, the beginning of the good season for crossing the South Atlantic.  But our plans both present and future are very fluid and inconsistent.”

She hesitated considering whether she should request that her mother wire them some money, but her pride would not surrender.  She looked back to the couch where Jeff was now snoring loudly between drunken mutterings.  How had he known what her mother had said?  Had he phoned her?  The storm was over, he may not even remember next day.  She put pen to paper once more and concluded,

“Lots of love, Jean”

 

 

It was also a sleepless night for the crew on harbour watch.  Now that the barges had departed the basin was pitch black and more threatening.  On a couple of occasions they heard muffled oars and whispers under the bows.  A well directed bucket of water scared away the first two ruffians’ attempt to carry away the starboard anchor.  Paul retrieved the Very pistol from the wheelhouse and Ed armed himself with a fire axe, but when the scraping sounds reoccurred around the bows they were unsure of the wisdom of firing and hacking into the darkness.  Another bucket of water dislodged the culprits that turned out to be rats attempting to claw their way up the bowline.

Jeff was up with the dawn to rush them away from the Hotel Empiro.  He wrote a cheque for the bill, with some remonstrations from the concierge.  “He has forgotten all about last night” she thought, and so he would claim.  But everyone knows of the selective memory of the badly behaved.  They seldom forget what is in their interests to remember.  Back at the Nora the crew was raised and in double quick time the ropes were cast off allowing her to nose out of the docks.  She departed Lisbon on the heels of the Fairstar.  No pilot was taken aboard this time.  Bugio Islet and the deepwater channel were left behind as they turned southwards for Cape St Vincent, one hundred miles distant.

Jean stood at the stern with mixed feelings watching the Fairstar with her daughter aboard fade from view.  This farewell had finality to it.  A chapter had closed.  Departure from the temperate zone for the balmy tropics left behind the only fixed schedule of their rendezvous.  The truly unknown lay ahead, especially the financial uncertainty.  Jeff, however, felt no such angst, his hazel eyes fixed forever forward and onward, with a determination to reach over the horizon.

The short-handed crew settled in for double watches, but with a fine breeze on her beam the Nora bent to the southerly course so doggedly that little muscle was asked for.  When Cabo St Vincent was rounded the weather set fair on their stern and flying fish came back to play at sundown.  On the Cape’s craggy precipice above them Henry the Navigator had paced, scanning for returning explorers from the New World.  He would signal them to make for the rocky haven below Sagres Point’s Fort, to interrogate them over the rutters and portolans that they had recorded during their voyaging.

The Captain had intended to pause at Lagos near this auspicious waypoint as the family still cherished a summer holiday of years earlier, but the fine night and fair passage encouraged him to press on for Portimao.  With the dawn at this next waypoint Mahi Mahi, sometimes called dolphin fish, struck at the lures they optimistically towed behind them.  At first one and then the other fishing rod arced near breaking point under the thrashing loads, before the shimmering creatures were reeled onto the deck.  By the time the lines were recast and the third and fourth reeled aboard, the iridescent rainbow of the first’s coat was already dulling with sunlight.  They would made a fine meal, but not in Portimao, for in the height of the excitement they passed the harbour entrance and with the wind still fair they continued for Faro; a port described by the pilot book as most accommodating.

Rae hauled in the log line in preparation for arrival at the river.  Its trailing spinner clicked up the miles on the stern hung Cherub Logs indicator.  As of standard practice the impeller line was hauled aboard while its attachment end was passed back out to sea to avoid the impeller’s eagerness to continue twisting the line in multiple tangles.  But on this occasion he need not have bothered.  The impeller was gone, probably snapped up by some shark chasing those dolphin fish.  The estimated distance travelled was duly recorded in the logbook and a spare impeller found.

 

 

The entrance to Faro, the Rio Formosa’s channel broke out across barrier sand islands that held back extensive wetlands from the sea.  From offshore the high Cabo de Santa Maria Lighthouse towered over coastal flats, conspicuous against the lofty mountains further inland.  As they closed with the shore its lead bearing pointed them through twin white beacons on each breakwall, over the shallows into the river.

Once inside, the estuary widened with marsh and low lying scrub teaming with wildfowl.  Another half a mile upstream the river swelled further, where the stream divided.  One arm led to Faro four miles upstream and the other to the fishing villages of Olhao and Tavira, similar distances up the eastern fork.  At this undisturbed junction the Nora dropped her anchor in ten metres of clear water.  The splash of the anchor hitting the water sent a flight of mallards flapping skyward.  Jean was struck by the similarity to Moreton Bay; its empty white beaches, sandy islets and reedy backwaters.  Jeff was even more delighted to find a haven where no mooring fees applied.  To complete this austerity drive he brought the record player up on deck, intent on proving that an evening of home spun entertainment was as enjoyable as any swanky Lisbon hotel.

The crew was happy just to jaw and banter, but Ed was spellbound by the wildfowl, pointing out with great excitement each stork, spoonbill, oystercatcher and wayward goose that glided over or strutted upon the shoal lagoons.

“Over there, look,” he shouted out, at every flamingo or duck that shook a wing.

These flocks presented an opportunity unparalleled since he had first filched the eggs from under his neighbours’ hens.  It was his butcher’s dream; if only he could catch them.  They had no firearms aboard apart from the Very flare pistol.  That would be too extreme, he argued, as its incandescent furnace would charcoal any quarry and alert the coastguard.  The stealth of the hunter was to find the prey’s weakness in its habits.  These were just dumb birds after all.  He watched and waited until sunset working out his cunning plan.  Just as the trawlers slipped by seaward bound for their night’s work he lowered the longboat, throwing aboard an assortment of articles: a boat hook, a caulking mallet, a spade, a length of spun yarn and a lantern.  With his rigging knife strapped to his belt he cried lustily up to the crew.

“Who is up for it then?”

“Are you going to chisel them to death?”  Jeff remarked.

“Watch out for mosquitoes!  The pilot book says that here they carry off small calves!”  Jean knew the exaggeration in her warning; she was remembering Moreton Bay.

But just in case they threw down a mosquito net to Ed; with no willing volunteers he rowed off shoreward, somewhat crestfallen.  The crew waved, tracking the swaying lantern until it disappeared into the swamps and silence of the night, broken only by the rippling of the ebb swirling past the anchor chain.

That evening Jeff was on top form while entertaining the crew with jokes and antics.

He teased Jean,  My cheque book was stolen - but I never reported it.  The thief was spending less than you!”

His peal of kookaburra laughter was answered by a squawking and fluttering alarm from the shore.  Jean hesitated momentarily with concern for Ed, but the commotion subsiding, she good humouredly parried back.

“Care to join the rest of your mates over there in the man swamp?”

“There’s nothing more dear than one’s family or crew – let’s hope I can keep affording them.”  Jeff countered.

At that the crew feigned a jeer, while Jeff donned the mop head from Vigo, and taunted gleefully that even the newspapers were reporting that they caused his hair loss.

The record player’s rumpety tump belted out the Mikado across the anchorage’s star flickered waters.  Jeff pranced in impersonation of Yum-Yum, insisting that Rae and Paul take the roles of Peep-Bo and Pitti-Sing.

“Three little maids from school are we, pert as a school-girl well can be, filled to the brim with girlish glee, three little maids from school.”  They sung as one.

The crew were in tears of laughter as the last of the trawlers made good the falling tide.  Jeff had just put another record on the turntable, to conduct the chorus with his finger.

“On a tree by a river a little tom-tit, sang willow, titwillow....

Suddenly a hullaballoo broke out from shoreward; bloodcurdling cries, then thwacking and sloshing followed by even more desperate shouts.  The crew were most alarmed for Ed’s safety, but shortly after the light of the swaying lantern reappeared from the swamp.  As he pulled up alongside the Nora they could hardly recognise the figure daubed in mud, blood and feathers shrouded under a mosquito net.  Ed had returned holding high his trophies of three very small ducks.

Jean tended to poor Ed’s bites and scratches as new potatoes, fresh Mahi Mahi and roasted duck were griddled on the old one eyed beast’s hot plate.  At no point were the crew so united than at this feast under the stars.  Over their beds that night the Swan to the Peacock constellations sailed across the Milky Way.  The Eagle circled overhead and Antares, the Scorpion’s bright heart, first rose over the southern horizon.

 

 

After two nights rest they rattled up the anchor.  Making best use of the dawn’s ebb tide they glided out past inbound trawlers, mobbed by gulls diving on the scraps jettisoned from the night’s hauls.  One confused gull swooped down entangling itself in the Nora’s rigging.  Having damaged its wing, it fell to the deck where it squawked menacingly at any Samaritan’s approach.  When clear of the shoals off Barra Nova they turned east for Cadiz some eighty miles distant, an easy day’s run.  Jean made use of this time to befriend the casualty; coaxing it into a basket and feeding it some of the evening meal’s fish scraps.

By nightfall a dead calm provided enough security to anchor outside the busy Cadiz Port at Canal del Sur; a rocky gullet with ten metres to a sandy bottom and the flashing sentinel of Castillo de San Sebastian watching over them.  The ancient port would have provided an interesting diversion, but everyone was keen to reach their destination, so they were back at sea again before first light.  Half way through the forenoon watch they passed Cape Trafalgar.  An age ago it seemed to Jeff since the salvage at Dover, and the tavern with Admiral Nelson’s battle bloodied beams, the sprig of mistletoe and Christmas note to “Kiss me, Hardy.”  By lunch time they rounded their penultimate waypoint, Europe’s southernmost tip of Punta Marroqui by Tarifa.

In the late afternoon Jebel Moussa and the cloud-capped peak of the Rock of Gibraltar lay ahead, and not long after they sighted Mount Anyera on the African coast at Ceuta.  These were the Pillars of Hercules, the gates to the unknown beyond which ancient ships sailed off the edge of the ancient world.  From these shores Barbary Corsairs would plunder and enslave.  Their reputation was already fearsome but their unnatural abilities were terrifying.  Due to the Mediterranean’s evaporation a surface current often flows contrary to that in the depths.  This enabled them to mystifyingly spirit prey into their grasp.  The Corsairs rigged sails under their bows to catch the unseen current, moving like devils into the winds faster than their prey could flee.  Even in the last war submarines had used these deep currents to drift out though the Straits undetected.

Algeciras Bay separates the Spanish mainland from the Eastern Isthmus of British Gibraltar.  General Franco had continued a claim to the Rock, most recently closing the borders to frustrate the British.  It was a great inconvenience to Gibraltarians and migrant workers who were now forced to enter and exit by air or via Morocco.  The Royal and the Spanish Navies continually tilted swords with their gun boats in the Bay.  The elderly Spanish steamer was known as Smokey Joe; renowned for its dogged determination to give chase with little hope of success.

The British gunboat, the swift Protector, caught up with Nora as she entered the Bay, graciously shepherding her past Smokey Joe and through the harbour to a berth on the North Mole below the town.  They had sailed through three seas and an ocean to arrive at this milestone.  There had been sad goodbyes to companions along the way but in all it had gone well, yes, very well.  There was no great celebration.  It was a time to gather strength and prepare for the passing of the Atlantic’s hurricane season; the next great leap into unknown seas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Chapter Four – The Rock of Gibraltar

 

Almost forgotten since their departure from Hamble, at Nora's mast hounds the RAFYC burgee still fluttered.  Admittedly it was a little ragged but still recognisable as the insignia of Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force.  The Nora’s Australian ensign, British courtesy flag and Force’s insignia, had presented confusion in flag etiquette to the gunboat Protector drawing the attention of the Port Officer.  On their second morning in port a Royal Navy launch with dapper crew in tropical white uniforms pulled up beside them to investigate.

“Ahoy, Nora Dane,” its lieutenant called out.  “The Commander of the Gibraltar station asks me to send his compliments.  If you will be so kind as to accept his invitation to lunch at the Officers’ Mess, I will be pleased to collect you at noon.”

Jean was flustered about what to wear to the surprising invitation.  She had grown used to wearing baggy trews and sea boots.  That would never do for such an august occasion.  But after a rummage through the cabin she managed to find a summer skirt with a floral print that disguised the worst of the crumples, and even a clean shirt for Jeff.  She should not have worried, for the invitation was actually for a briefing, though veiled with a naval diplomacy honed though its centuries of subduing colonies.

They were ready well before the launch returned.  As it ferried them across the harbour the seagull from Faro forsook its basket and flew after them.  At first it fluttered over the launch, squawking in despair.  But before they reached the Navy Base at Queensway Quay it sensed its kin and wheeled off towards the gulls’ nests that pocked the cliff faces of the Rock.

On a veranda overlooking Rosia Bay and distant Spanish Algeciras they sat down with Commander Adrian and his wife Christina.  A steward served iced lemon tea.  Adrian admitted that the Nora’s flags had been noted, but their tutor at Hamble, Peter Clissold, had already sent him word to expect the Australians.

“No problems with your amplitudes and azimuths crossing the Bay?  I would think not, he was my most excellent teacher too, many moons ago now.”

By degrees they were charmingly pumped for their story and their intentions.  In return their obligations while in blockaded Gibraltar were succinctly outlined.

“Be wary, as all is not as it first appears.”  Adrian explained.  “Gibraltar is the gateway to the Mediterranean; all that goes in and out passes us, whether fascists, communists or pirates.  This is our front line.”

He further explained the diverse factions of the territory.

“There are us; the British Forces and Navy.  There are them; the Gibraltarian mix of Spanish, Maltese, Genoese, Moors, Jews and expat. adventurers.  For centuries they made fortunes from duplicity and smuggling cigarettes.  They carried the contraband on boats with false flags, or under their grandmothers’ skirts and even with homing dogs trained to slither on their stomachs under the border fences.

During the war all but a trusted few were deported as aliens.  After they returned disputes about previous ownership began and some still continue. The Navy avoids taking sides.  Some Spaniards only partly returned, entering for day work over the La Linea border; now closed by the shake of the dictator’s fist.  Even those are no friends of Franco.  The population’s vote to stay with Britain was more about avoiding Spanish taxes than patriotism.

Recently a wave of hippies followed John Lennon and Yoko for their wedding at Catalan Bay, and they stayed.  They sleep on the beach, trapped in paradise and on the dole.  Finally there are the soldiers and visiting ship’s crews, often up to high jinks on shore leave.  The only permanent locals are the Barbary Apes, who will pick a pocket or bite the careless, much like the Gibraltarians themselves,” Adrian stressed.  “But if they leave, legend has it that so will the British.”

“My dear, you’re talking these good people to death,” interrupted Christina.  “Give them a chance to tell us more of their adventures.”  Adrian apologised for his monologue, but refreshed by a sip of iced tea he carried on anyway.

“The loyalties of the locals are not easily determined.  The magnate will have gone to school with the dustman, and his daughter will be married to the mayor.  You have to be discreet because everyone knows everyone else’s business.  The Bland family used to run a ferry service over to Algeciras providing transport and provisions from the mainland, but now the border is closed they’re doing it tough by having to route through Tangier.  Other operators have muscled in by chartering boats; they don’t care about who, what or where they ferry.  Watch out for Señor Rotzecca and worse, the Secario brothers.  Those cut-throats play for keeps.  Your cargo carrying vessel is a valuable possession in Gibraltar.  It can run the blockade, so be careful who asks to use it.”

“Look over there,” Adrian pointed to the haze in the North.  “Franco has just built an oil refinery at San Roque to steal Gibraltar’s bunkering trade.  It billows fumes and smoke across our airport, and even poisons his people at La Linea.  We are at war where we must play with the same cunning as the Generalissimo.  But Her Majesty’s Navy treads carefully.  When it suits we turn a blind eye to his enemies, and, when we can, we fire the hundred ton gun over there.”  Adrian pointed to the gun emplacement overlooking the Bay.

“There is us and there is them.  If you fly our flag for protection, be on our side; but we may ask a favour of you in return.  Enjoy your stay in Gibraltar.”

This instruction having apparently completed the briefing, Adrian led them back to the Quay and waiting launch.  As she shook hands, Christina whispered in Jean’s ear.

“These navy men, it’s all black or white, but you would know that having been married to a submariner.  Come to tea with the ladies without the men.  Do you play tennis?”

As they were ferried back to the Nora, Jean pondered, how could she ever have known about Stuey?  Had they been checking up on them, were they under surveillance?  Could she still play tennis?  She thought of her mother’s war time tennis parties at the house in Brisbane.  The navy wives in whites and sand shoes on the summer lawn had gossiped over iced tea, while a world away their husbands duelled to the death at sea.  She must write to her mother, she concluded.

 

 

Gibraltar has always been a strategic port of refuge.  Even the famed Mary Celeste that was mysteriously abandoned off the Azores had been brought here for salvage.  After the war, Gib became a free port, attracting more passing trade than local traffic.  Passenger liners now occasionally visited.  Tramp steamers anchored out beyond the mole in the bay’s roadstead awaiting orders.  Tankers were directed from here to the destinations with the best spot oil price. Small craft inbound from the Atlantic for the Med would call here to refuel, and those bound for the Americas to await favourable conditions for the long crossing.

A handful of smaller craft made up the Nora’s immediate neighbours on Wharf 3, North Mole Road.  A conspicuous companion was ex-motor torpedo boat Albion moored behind them and ever ready facing seaward.  The Vosper 70 footer was powered by triple Chevy V8’s petrol motors whose start up reverberated like an explosion.  They gave her an escape speed of over forty knots.  She retained the grey livery of her naval origin, the machine gun mounting ring embedded on the fore deck as well as the rump of her navy crew.  You couldn’t help noticing the scored scratches on its mounting’s brass traveller plate, the evidence of recent use.  Her crew of three were dressed in navy blue caps, sea boots and roll-neck Aran jumpers whatever the weather or time of day.

Every third day she would depart at dusk and return next dawn.  The navy gun boat, the Protector would escort her out then escort her back in again.  Occasionally she returned peppered with bullet holes.  It was hard to think other than that she was engaged in smuggling.  The skipper and deckhand remained aloof but the engineer, describing himself as a fellow Canadian colonial, became most friendly with Jeff.  He would come aboard the Nora to “shoot the breeze”, in a drawl more reminiscent of a Texan.

Ahead of them the Esmeralda, an American millionaire’s white hulled and yellow funnelled motor yacht, awaited the absent owner’s pleasure to sail for the Riviera or the Windies.  Her comfortable design was noteworthy for a long entertaining saloon, opening out onto a shaded deck with wicker furniture.  Her sole crew was engaged in daily watering the potted ferns along the aft teak decks.

Their other companions on this quiet quayside were a rusting dive boat, an abandoned tug, a ski boat with its weekend beautiful people and the occasional visit of a trawler or yacht.  Twice daily the Bland’s Tangier ferry passed them on its way from and to its terminal on North Mole Wharf 1.

Their first weeks in Gibraltar were as relaxed as any well earned holiday in the sun after much strenuous work.  Jeff bought himself a bicycle to get around the pubs and cafes of the old town, looking for new chums.  The steep slopes and cobbled alleyways soon had him beaten so he bought a motor scooter to explore every goat track of the rock.

The crew were detailed to tend the deck.  The unremitting sun opened up the planking most severely.  They had to hose it down with salt water at dawn and later at dusk.  In the midday heat they plugged the worst of the opening gaps with oakum caulking, followed with boiled tar.  With Jeff otherwise occupied they sometimes sneaked off to roam and explore.  It was a bustling town marshalled by military police who separated the brawling squaddies that tumbling out of bars and brothels on Main Street.  They made friends with the water-skiers to try their luck at the sport, but fell over time and again.  They eventually found Catalan Bay on the western side of the Rock.  Hippies camped on its sands who were accused by the locals as living a continuous party of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Jean had a hammock rigged up under an awning over the ship’s bell, just where Fred had met his untimely end.  In the respite between feeding the always hungry crew and accompanying Jeff as pillion on his scooter rides, she would read or study the clouds, swinging with wistful thoughts through the siesta hours.  She even brought her writing case up on deck and penned in the happenings of the days.  She wrote:

 

Nora Dane in Gibraltar, 21.6.1969, Mail to C/o Royal Gibraltar Yacht Club, Gib.

Dear Mother,

Letters with news from the children and yourself (cheque enclosed) were awaiting us in Gibraltar.  Did Jeff ask you for it?  I would prefer that you used the money to visit us in Gibraltar.  I keep my funds in Australia in reserve, but thank you.

We saw Jancy off on the Fairstar from Lisbon and sailed for Portimao, but finding it unsuitable sailed on.  After so many days of grey skies, heavy seas and winds in the wrong direction we had gorgeous blue weather at last, being able to coast along with all sails up and the washing drying in the sun.  Faro was a delightful port in a climate that reminded me of Southport, but the town is Moorish.  We sailed on to Spain’s oldest living city of the West, Cadiz, first colonised by the Phoenicians in 1100 BC, and looking as if they are still there.  It was a short day sail on to Gibraltar where we intend to stay for a few weeks.  Old Nora coped with the heavy seas of the voyage very well.  She waddles up and over like a game old duck, the action feeling like a gigantic swing.  Apart from the refrigerator that was torn off the wall we had no damage to the boat itself, although some of the new navigational equipment went wonky.

It is increasingly obvious that we rely on Rae as the only one who understands the sails and deck equipment.  Unlike Dave on the Nation he won’t want to be tied to Mum and Dad forever, especially as our living accommodation is pretty disorganised and there is so much work to do; but Gibraltar is the cheapest place to do it.  Whatever happened to the Nation we don’t know.  Dora always got seasick, so perhaps they gave up and went home.

Lots of love, Jean”

 

 

This was Jean’s first opportunity to receive bank statements with their mail.  She noted the extravagances in expenses, especially hotels and bars, and that their contingency fund had been depleted by a large transfer to another account.  She questioned Jeff about this, and about asking her mother for money.  He accused her of being a mean spirited wowser, insisting that he was as entitled to her money as she was happy to spend his.  After an initial row, a sullen silence prevailed.  This disagreement became an unresolved bone of contention between them.  The only meeting of minds was to agree to be prudent and look for work on their way, even if it meant putting up the brass plate and digging out the hated dental forceps.

Jeff grew ever more confident in weaving through the lanes and alleyways on his motor scooter until an unfortunate incident occurred.  While tearing through the narrowest section of cobbled streets a crowd of pedestrians momentarily choked the road, so he skidded to a halt next to a large black Mercedes awaiting a clear path.  Cheekily, he leaned his elbow on the driver’s open window forcing conversation on him.  Tinted back windows prevented a clear view of the rear passenger, but the smell of a Havana cigar should have alerted him to this passenger being of some notoriety.  Jeff waxed lyrically over the vehicle’s style, its quality and the ingenuity of its German manufacturer. How surprising it was, he observed, that the war was won against such an accomplished foe.  If he had stopped there all would have been fine, but he continued to add,

“All Hitler’s fault though; one of his many sloppy jobs.”

The cigar puffer wasn’t known for his appreciation of any joke he had not told, let alone racist slurs from a blow in on a moped.  On instructions from the back seat, the driver wound up his window, trapping Jeff’s arm.  The car accelerated away, dragging him off the scooter and bumping down the cobbled roadway.  At the next corner the car stopped, the window opened and a battered Jeff fell free.  Lying on the road he heard a warning voice.

“Señor Rotzecca says to wash your mouth with soap and never touch his things again.”

A partisan policeman returned the meek Jeff with his motor scooter back to the Nora, threatening to charge him with dangerous driving if he pursued any complaint.  He remained guarded about the incident, insisting that his finger had been caught in a passing car’s trim, causing him to fall.  With a limp and aided by a walking stick he soldiered on until the scars healed, but ever after the stick was kept close for defence.  The motor scooter fared worse.  Despite hammering out the dents and respraying it never drove quite as smoothly as before.  First gear would engage with a vicious clunk, rearing the machine like a bucking bronco and threatening to throw the pillion from the saddle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Chapter Five – The pirate kings

 

Now that Jean had acquired Jeff’s old bike, it became her habit to ride to collect provisions at a shop just past the dock entrance.  The shop keeper, Jose, was always ready to pass the time of day in idle chatter.  One day he noticed Jean’s lack of enthusiasm for his stock of wilting fruit and vegetables.

“I so sorry for these dead things,” he apologised, “my family owns farm with much freshness near Estapona, but since border close I have to buy from the Secario brothers, it all shipped in from Tangier now; very expensive and no good.  If only I had boat then I could ship myself and all will be better.”

After wheeling the bike back with its basket crammed with the sorry leaves Jean related the conversation to Jeff.  He became very excited at the prospect of filling his holds with a paying cargo, just as the Nora was built for.  So over the next few days a plan was conceived with Jose’s assistance.  To compete with the Bland Ferry Tangier route or the mobsters’ unofficial alternatives could have been folly, so it was proposed to sail for Ceuta in Spanish Morocco, not more than fourteen miles across the straits.  Carlos, Jose’s cousin, would come with them to broker the deal with his contacts for farm fresh produce, and he would distribute the cargo quietly amongst his fellow shopkeepers on delivery back to the Rock.  With the premium on fruit and vegetables he could move it on so that they all would make “much profit”.  What could go wrong?

When the Canadian engineer dropped over for his regular tipple, Jeff let slip the whole plan.  The engineer reciprocated by giving Jeff valuable insights into the pilotage, logistics, drinking holes and where they should berth to load at Ceuta.

The day of the enterprise was cloudless and blue, apart from streamers of vapour torn away by the humid Levant’s upwelling over the Rock’s peaks.  Once outside the Mole the Nora turned south towards Jebel Moussa’s jagged mountain range, rising monumentally on the Moroccan side of the Straits.  To its left, and less significant was the other Pillar of Hercules, Mount Anyera, where the massif falls down to the free port of Ceuta at its base.  The port is situated in a bay between Anyera and the Almina Peninsula, conspicuous by the hilltop stone ramparts of Fort Hacho.  It was from this garrison that Franco had first mobilised his Army of Africa to overthrow the Republic.

The Nora bit into the chop of the Straits, shaking off the spray as she rose.  The crew set to with a will, hauling the sails taut for a fine passage with the wind free on the port beam.  But in reeving in the main sheet, its shaking fall clipped Rae around the face, flipping his only glasses into the foaming wake.  They passed under the watchful eye of Fort Hacho into Port Ceuta without further drama to the visible relief of Carlos, who was a landsman unused to the motion of ships.  They berthed against the dock with the stone tower recommended by the engineer.  Here Jeff, Jean and Carlos disembarked to meet with his vegetable contact in the colonial ambience of the Hotel des Legionnaires.  Rae, Ed and Paul were given strict orders not to leave the ship but to maintain a careful deck watch.  A throng of dockside onlookers showed great interest in the new arrival.  Some wore turbans and djellabas, some sported colonial whites, some had veiled hijabs and others wore summer dresses.  It was a riotous display of colour and commotion.

Soon an old truck trundled down the dock and pulled up at the Nora. By signals the driver indicated that his crates and vegetable baskets, about a ton in all, were to be loaded aboard.  The crew swung out the main boom and lowered the baskets on hand tackles down into the hold.  This did not take long.

After they had loaded Carlos reappeared in a battered taxi.  He explained that the rest of the cargo was yet to be collected and that to get it the crew must follow the truck in the taxi.  They were to make sure that they were not cheated as he had other business to attend to.  This was contrary to their instruction to maintain a secure watch, so it was with some trepidation that Rae and Ed followed while leaving Paul remaining on guard.  To be honest, the crew were miffed at so rarely enjoying the same shore leave as the captain and his navigator.  Anyway, as Rae had lost his glasses his lookout would not be missed.  They got in with the Bedouin taxi driver and were whisked off as it chased the truck into the sun baked town.

Meanwhile Paul settled himself into Jean’s hammock.  The heat of the day grew stifling as he rocked back and forward, waving away the occasional fly.  It was not long before he had drifted off into a delightful doze under the awning’s hypnotic reflections of the glassy harbour.

 

 

The taxi sped out of the docks into the old town; past waterfront cafes, stuccoed church bell towers and the mosque.  In the laneways crowded with carts and donkeys they soon lost sight of the truck.  The driver assured them that he knew a short cut through alleyways too narrow for the truck.  Soon they left these behind, winding ever upwards through orange trees and olive groves of Mount Anyera’s foothills.  They became concerned when all sign of habitation eventually petered out.  Nearing the top of the mountain they passed the stone tower of a frontier fort.  Higher still the driver pointed out their destination, a rickety wooden structure surrounded by a veranda next to a single palm tree.  The taxi skidded to a dusty stop at the old frontier taverna.  Far below Mount Anyera’s peak the port of Ceuta languished.  There Fort Hacho’s final hump of Morocco fell into the sea and beyond Spain’s distant mountains on the Strait’s far side shimmered in heat haze.  The driver bundled them through swinging saloon doors and gabbled an unintelligible order at the patron behind the bar.

“You will have refreshments”, they were told, “and wait for the truck to arrive.”

Before they could protest the driver leapt back into the taxi and screeched off down the hill.

The bar was not a welcoming place.  Two robed Bedouin shared a hookah in guttural conversation with the patron, occasionally eyeing them meanly.  The bearded one withdrew a hunting knife from under his tunic and placed in on the bar as if in readiness.  Next to the Bedouin sat an ample lady clad in an immodestly flowing chiffon gown which failed to contain her bulging breasts and midriff.  She smiled at Ed.  The barmaid, a larger but similarly gowned lady slapped down two glasses of evil looking fluid and urged them to drink.  The sugary warm brew had the aftertaste of horse shit.  With his dirty finger nails the patron, a sweaty and scarred scoundrel, pushed the glasses towards them insisting that they drink all.  Rae asked if he could use the telephone to call for another taxi.  The patron mimicked his words and the ruffians in the bar laughed heartily.

“You refuse our hospitality?”

The knife bearer fingered the blade, until the glasses were downed.  Another set was placed before them.

“You wait for Carlos, eh, he says that we entertain you see.”  With that the two voluminous ladies sidled up to the boys, swinging their hips to the Moorish drone coming from a radio.  Their stomachs wobbled to its beat.  All the time they giggled to each other, stroking the young foreign boys’ blond hair.

The boys grew dizzy from the heat, anxiety or the brew.  An expectation was clear, so streetwise Ed took the hand of the lesser of the two heaving breasted beauties, allowing himself to be ushered up the stairs to her boudoir, leaving Rae in the clutches of the larger dame.  She now also ushered him uncomplaining up the stairs.  Momentarily perched at her dressing table, she sprayed herself liberally with eau de cologne.  Then the wrappings of veils all came off as she lay on the bed, resplendent with legs wide apart.  She pulled him into her mountain in an encounter only as erotic as sinking into a water bed.

These seamen had long since been denied the favours of women, and were desperate for it!  It lasted no more than a few grunts then was all over.  She doused herself with a sponge from a basin of water, offering the same to Rae, before another spray of cologne.  Then she led him downstairs to make an announcement that caused the company in the bar much merriment.

Ed was down shortly after.  He joined Rae on the veranda, where the palm’s shade and a slightest breeze gave some respite from the bar’s oppressive heat.  At first they both sat in stunned silence, but when both the sailors’ eyes met they burst out laughing.  What else could they do?  The shrill music from the radio and laughter from the ladies drifted out from the bar.  They laughed again until tears came to their eyes; it seemed so funny that they couldn’t remember what they were laughing about and that made it all the funnier; and so they awaited the return of the taxi.  Ed lyrically described his view for the benefit of Rae's short sight.  Far below them lay the Port, beyond that the azure Straits and the Rock, a cloud pendant still streaming from its peak.  Further still was the faintest outline of Los Reales, the massif above Estapona.  To their west the seaway, streaked with current lines, separated the rugged coast of Spain’s Cote de Luz until it disappeared behind the shadowy Jebel Moussa’s basalt peaks.

“Wrecked on the road to Anyera.”  Ed mused.

Rae savoured each seemingly profound word floating past; wreck, road, era, but he couldn’t connect them to make sense.  He gazed myopically down the mountainside, past Ceuta’s forts that guarded the path to Africa.  Five million years ago the Atlantic cascaded over this land bridge in the greatest waterfall ever, filling the Mediterranean and separating the continents.  Unchanged over eras this timeless scene had inspired awe in cavemen, saints and moon walkers alike.  The ships’ wakes in the Straits were as Phoenician galleys threading the Pillars of Hercules.  Silvered serpentine current lines coiled, dragging them into murderous Corsairs’ clutches.  He closed his eyes to waft a cooling breeze over his face, and his fluttering fingers painted a soaring eagle.  With the strangest tingling of his skin his arms unnaturally stretched outwards, bearing him aloft in a wave of elation.  He opened his eyes and was gliding high above, looking down on himself sitting amongst the precipitous mountain paths; a maze of twists, turns and crossroads.

“From so many paths, which should be chosen?” The bird-brain questioned.  “Should the intellect or emotion decide?  The path of the heart can’t just be from desire, it must be for love.”

Nervous exhilaration coursed his veins from this revelation.  The heat shimmered over the mountainside and throbbed with cicadas’ roaring.  From a lofty height the addled brain’s hawk eye detected the slightest movement.  A squirrel’s twitch as she shepherded her fold to the safety of a hollow under the palm tree.  Hunters watched for such habits that reveal the prey’s weaknesses.

Thirsting for blood the hawk swooped on Ed’s floating words, clutching them in his talons then plunging onwards through the ears of the body on the veranda and out through its eye balls.  A deafening collision exploded in his mind, atomising any recognisable world.  The twists and turns of the swaying palm fronds were mandalas exquisitely dripping jewels of sunlight.  Its roots writhed outward, bursting out of the undulating ground.  It was an earthquake of swooning adoration, of pulsing iridescence, pattern and sound beyond anything he had ever experienced before.

The shimmering visions subsided, easing him back into the body on the veranda, but his mind was left churning.  Thoughts of joyous hellos and sad goodbyes left in the Nora’s wake flooded in.  He toyed with Mia’s gifted medallion, thinking of a cosy cottage with roses on its gate, and longed for someone special.  That was the sailor’s predicament - adventure at the price of rootlessness.

He did not know if this reverie had lasted seconds or hours, but it was suddenly interrupted as the taxi again slithered to a dusty halt by the veranda.  They bundled in, the ladies blowing them kisses as they departed on an even wilder ride down the precipitous track.

“Hey slow down,” shouted Ed. “Have you got a licence for this thing.”

The driver screeched to a sudden halt that threw them off their seats and flung the back doors open.  A glitter of stones kicked up by the wheels clattered over the road edge into the abyss below.

“You need two things to drive here,” he stated, “good brakes, and good luck.  I show you that I have the first and Allah has decided your fate already. Find another taxi if you don’t like.”

Rae noticed a shiny disc on the path.  It was a worn seashell in the shape of an ear.  How could a shell get all the way up here?  Didn’t life throw up the most unexpected things?  He picked it up and slid the pearly piece into his pocket.  They slammed the doors to continue their frantic pace down the mountain, past the olive groves and back to the Nora waiting at the wharf.

 

 

The heat of the afternoon had dissipated the throngs from the now deserted wharf. Crystal harbour waters lapped the Nora’s sides.  Without thinking they dived in under her bowsprit.  The water soothed their bodies and cooled their blood.  But in this relief Rae felt a bump on his back, and turned to see a flash of grey, a fin perhaps.  In panic he thought “shark” and beat to the surface gulping fresh air.  As he did so he saw a trail of bubbles surfacing along the waterline towards the rudder post.  He dipped back under and thought he saw the flippers of a diver, perhaps, before they disappeared into the blue.  Ed had not hesitated and swam with all his strength to the ladder by the wharf.

“Did you see that?”  He called out.  “Was it a shark?”

“I don't know, it could have been a diver.”  Rae replied.

They pulled themselves clear of the water and on boarding the Nora found Paul snoring blissfully in the hammock, just as Jeff and Jean returned to ready the boat for departure.  Carlos had apparently decided to stay in Ceuta and they knew nothing of any more cargo.

Manoeuvring out of the harbour was a near disaster. Nora failed to respond to her helm.  The wheel was partially jammed and wouldn’t turn away from the wharf.  They bumped along it with much shouting as the crew tried to hang the car tyre fenders between her and the unforgiving stone wall.  Once clear they had difficulty in getting her to steer in a straight line, having to drag a fender off the starboard quarter to pull her bow around until they passed out into the Straits.  In the breeze it was possible to haul taut the jib to kept her tracking off the land, while Jeff wound the variable pitch propeller back and forth to loosen what he suspected was a rope fouled around the rudder.  Eventually by degrees the steering loosened and by the time they were half way back she was once more under control.

As the light dwindled the red and white striped tower of Point Europa lighthouse lit up, throwing a piercing beam to lead them on to Gibraltar’s Harbour.  A distant puff of black smoke stained the western sunset.  It was the Smokey Joe readying for a chase.  However the ever watchful Protector pulled out from behind the Harbour Mole to escort them inbound, and she quickly gave up.

After berthing, Ed and Rae were nursing such headaches that they could hardly think straight.  Perhaps it was from the excitement of the day or perhaps from the evil brew from the mountain tavern.  They both uncharacteristically excused themselves from the evening meal despite the temptation of fresh vegetable soup, and retired to their bunks.

 

 

The Albion’s engineer came aboard and was happy to partake of the fresh rations.  It was while those remaining on deck were enjoying a beer that Jean noticed bubbles in the water along the Nora’s side.

“I think we have a leak!”  She announced.

The engineer was keen to get her away from the rail, and insisted they go down into the hold to look for the source of the leak.  They shone torches every which way for as long as he could persuade them.  Jean wondered why he spent so much time looking over the stern, but no leak was found and when they returned to the deck the mysterious bubbles had disappeared.

“Just a trick of the light,” he suggested before saying goodnight.

“Mysteries of the dark continent.”  Jeff light heartedly replied.  It had been a successful day he concluded, they had at last brought home their bacon.

In the morning three swarthy sailors paid the Nora a visit.  Although he covered his face they recognised one of them as a dive boat crewman, but this morning he was not the affable soul who had previously waved across the wharf.  The leader demanded to know where Jeff had hidden their consignment.  Despite his professed ignorance they pushed past him to inspect the cargo.  One ruffian barred the stairs as the other two riffled through the baskets of cabbages, lettuces and potatoes.  In desperation they upturned the crates, rolling the fruit and vegetables down into the dank water of the bilge.  All the while they continued to accuse Jeff of stealing their goods, while he truthfully retorted that he had no idea what they were talking about.  He heard one of them blame Carlos, for not tying the parcels of drugs onto the keel properly.  They finally left the boat, but they left Jeff in no doubt that he was in their debt, owing them big time.

Rae and Ed gathered up the broken produce and packed it back into the fruit boxes.  While clawing at the bottom of the hold Rae was surprised to find Jean’s little green purse, wet but with the opals still inside.  It must have fallen out of the crate during Jeff’s tirade with Bryn, Lyn and Alfie in Corunna.

“What have you got there?”  Asked Paul.

Rae explained the opals’ significance, and asked the jeweller’s son what they might be worth.  Paul studied them closely with much cooing before delivering his appraisal.

“Nothing,” he said.  “They could be worth something if they were cut, but stones in the rough only have potential value.”

Rae felt in his pocket to retrieve the shell found on the mountain.  He slipped it into the purse with the opals and hid it behind one of the oaken knees of the hatch combing. He meant to tell Jean, but forgot all about it.

The general commotion had drawn a crowd of onlookers who watched the remnants of the vegetables being unloaded.  A black Mercedes purred to a stop at the wharf’s head, a wisp of cigar smoke drifting from its open rear window.  The vegetable importation was no secret now.  Spies were everywhere and trouble threatened for anyone touching their things.  Jeff felt for his walking stick.  

They delivered the vegetable remnants to Jose, who was most displeased.  Apart from a few potatoes, the bundles of oily leaves were only fit for the rubbish bin.

“What is this?” he remonstrated.  “This cannot be sold; it is unfit for stew, is it not?  Where is my money that I laid out for the produce, and where is Carlos that no-good cousin of mine?  You must pay me back, or go and get some more.”

But it was all gone, paid to Carlos and the farmers in Ceuta.

“You owe me big time now.”  Jose concluded.

Jeff stood by silently, then slowly but repeatedly banged his head against the wheelhouse door until the pain overcame his disappointment.  A single night had conspired to alienate the Nora from the merchants, magnates and smugglers of Gibraltar, without him even being sure of what he’d done or who he’d done it to.  He now owed them all big time.

 

 

The Albion’s engineer was the first to suggest how the Nora could settle her unexpectedly acquired debts. His proposal was that Nora could carry cigarettes to the Aegean Sea under her flag of protection.  The Albion would then use Nora as a store ship to collect and dash consignments through the dead of night to lonely Turkish beachheads.

“You’ll make a lot of money,” the engineer drawled.

“How much, exactly?”  Jeff enquired with mounting interest.  The engineer whistled before specifying his reply.

“Enough in a month to buy yourself a new boat, and you’re doing your bit for world democracy, frustrating those Islamic closet communists.”

When Jean heard of this wild scheme she voiced strong protest.

“You’ll get us all killed!”  Nora would be a sitting duck under a patrol boat’s machine gun fire; remember those bullet holes on the Albion’s hull.”  Thoughts of Stuey’s Aegean war flooded back.  Her ghost resurfaced.

They didn’t know who had set them up at Ceuta.  Had they been an unknowing drug mule?  Were the Albion’s smugglers, Señor Rotzecca, Jose and Carlos behind the scam?  Worse still, was it the dive boat crew and the Secario cut throats?  Adrian at the Gibraltar Navy Base had warned them that knowing who were “us” or “them” was always unclear.

Carlos and the affable dive boat crewman had acted suspiciously.  How could they trust that shifty engineer either?  The smuggler crew appeared to be a navy dirty-tricks operation, but why would they dupe the Nora when they had their own capable vessel?  Perhaps Carlos was working for Franco, by smuggling drugs to promote civil disorder in Gibraltar.  Perhaps the Albion’s engineer was really an American working for the CIA, doing their bit to screw the British too.  Then again, perhaps the three chief suspects were running their own side business.  There was menace all around, so they avoided directly declining the engineer’s offer by stalling; insisting that the Nora needed slipping and a refit before undertaking any further sea passage.

This ugly stand-off was smoothed by Adrian on the Protector’s flybridge, conning her alongside the wharf to moor next to the Nora.

“I hear you’ve had a spot of bother with the natives,” he shouted out so all the harbour could hear.  “I just dropped over to show them that you’re one of us.”

Later he had a more private request.  He reminded them that British protection was conditional, in this case on a favour in return.  He asked them to ferry his friends back to their family farm in the foothills of Spanish Los Reales near Estapona.  Their mother was on her death bed.  They had been of great service to the Crown.  As a result they were suspected as traitors by Franco and were likely to be detained if they entered his realm through a ferry port.

Adrian’s gun boat would escort Nora around Europa Point, clear of Smokey Joe’s attention.  Steaming thirty miles up the Mediterranean coast by cover of nightfall wouldn’t be unduly hazardous.  This was beyond the Bay of Algeciras and Smokey Joe’s hunting ground. However, avoiding the coastguard and entering Estapona Harbour undetected would be too risky.  Adrian suggested that they be dropped on the sandspit at the entrance to the Guardiaro River, fifteen miles north of the border.  Here their friends could pick them up in a car.  They could signal them from the shore to show where to land.

“Why not take them in the Protector?”  Jean enquired.

“Oh no, that would never do,” replied Adrian.  “Her Majesty doesn’t smuggle people.  Anyway, such open assistance would prove them traitors.  It would be their death sentence!”

Jean was also reluctant to engage in people smuggling, but it was preferable to being machine-gunned on the Aegean and ensured protection from them in Gibraltar.  Jeff argued that these were Spaniards returning to Spain on a mission of mercy.  If press of weather forced a landing where the Spanish failed to provide immigration, how was that their fault?  So they agreed to the favour.

 

 

Just after sunset on departure day a navy truck drew up on the wharf. From under the tarpaulin stretched over the truck’s bed, a group of people emerged.  To their surprise it was Carlos, his wife, the children and Jose. Carlos looked pleadingly at Rae and Ed.

“So sorry I trick you away from boat up mountain.” he said.  “We smuggle just cigarettes but the gangsters make us stash drugs under your keel or…”  He made a motion as if to slit his throat. “But I tie no good so they fall off.  Now we must get away until debt paid back.”

They waited until Smokey Joe was steaming back towards Algerciras after her day’s patrol.  The Protector blanketed them from Smokey Joe on departing the Mole, and cruised beside them until they rounded Great Europa Point. They initially steamed eastward, to deceive any observer into concluding that they were Malta bound.  The Levant wind having blown strongly all day made for a wet ride on that course.

Once offshore they turned off their navigation lights and radar. Jeff throttled back to run quiet to the north, hoping to avoid detection.  This brought a chop onto their beam that rolled them mercilessly, even more so after they detected a ship’s lights up ahead.  Jeff had to cut the engine altogether so they wallowed nervously for what seemed like hours, the children wailing mournfully all the while.  By midnight the wind eased and a moon came out.  They came close enough to identify the vessel as a drifter, fishing off the river outfalls.  How it didn’t see them they couldn’t say.  Imperceptibly the night breeze blew in a gentle fog that eventually obscured it.

They could not see the shore so they used the lead line.  Paul stood in the chains, throwing the lead weight out ahead, calling the depths; twenty metres, fifteen metres, ten metres.  They still could not see through the misty night, though they could plainly hear the beat of surf on a gritty shore.

Suddenly there were breakers ahead.  The Nora was picked up by a breaking wave and thrown on her side in a broach.  Simultaneously car headlights shone out across the water from the north.  The Nora touched the bottom once, then twice. Jeff spun the wheel and throttled the old dame seawards, avoiding the white water swelling over sunken rocks.  When they regained deeper water Jeff was all for giving this up, but at hearing this a great wail came from Carlos and his companions.  In desperation, not knowing which way safety lay, Jeff took the risk of detection and turned on the radar.  In the longest 120 seconds that can be imagined the radar ticked down its warm up period until finally they could turn on the scanner.  The green image resolved as a long beach behind them, and half a mile further north an empty darkness that must be the Guardiaro River.  The longboat was lowered and brought alongside, allowing their consignment to board.  The Nora towed it the half a mile north until they were in shallow water.  From here Rae and Ed, with muffled oars, rowed towards the sound of the surf on the river bar, while the Nora waited in the dark and mist for their return.

The seas rolling into a river mouth build up as they hit the shallow water.  From seaward the destructive white water on the wave fronts is obscured by the green water of their backs.  In an outgoing current the waves build even higher, making such river bars particularly treacherous.  But the rowers were well practised at surfing with the longboat.  Without warning they were picked up by a wave and thrown shoreward.  The longboat shot across the bar and into the shelter of the river, grounding with a crunch on the sand spit at its entrance.

There was much crying and relieved laughter as their passengers clambered out onto Spanish soil and into the arms of their waiting friends.  The parting was brief however as Rae and Ed quickly pushed the boat back out for the bar into the misty night.  They battered their way seaward but once clear of the bar they couldn’t find the Nora in the impenetrable dark of the night.  They rowed in circles and listened, but couldn’t hear anything.  They became quite disorientated but feared calling out in case they were spotted.

Meanwhile, the Nora’s crew were peering back into the night with similar trepidation.  Eventually it was the sound of the automatic bilge pump splashing water over the Nora’s side that directed the rowers in her direction.  There she was, only a few good oar sweeps further out to sea.  In a trice the longboat was pulled up on the davits and they were steaming home.  At dawn they rounded Great Europa Point and made their way back in through the harbour’s mole.  As they berthed up, it was not the Navy but the Gibraltar Customs launch and rummaging crew that came alongside to board.

“It has been reported that you are carrying contraband.  Where have you been and what have you on board?”  The Revenue Officer demanded.

“Who would make up such a tale?”  Jeff innocently replied, while privately suspecting the Secario brothers of stirring up this trouble.  “We’ve been out fishing, but we had no luck.”  This unlikely claim was not believed.

“Fishing without nets?”  The officer retorted.  He threatened to have the ship taken apart, plank by plank, unless the contraband was handed over.

Jeff welcomed them to do so, as they would have to put it all back together again, so saving the expense of having to slip the ship himself.  He pointed to the red ensign at their stern with its Union Jack and the stars of the Southern Cross on its fly.  With no more than a cursory peek into the hold and at the fishing line which always hung from the stern, they relented.  Jeff waved them adieu, humming quietly, “Oh what a wonderful thing to be a pirate king, de dum, de dum.”

 

 

Many young hitchhikers had made their way down through France and Spain to Gibraltar before the border was closed in July.  Those with enough money had continued on to Tangier by the Bland’s ferry.  But some had become stuck eking out a subsistence sleeping rough on the beach at Catalan Bay.  Ed, Paul and Rae missed youthful company.  They began visiting the girls and boys on the beach after work. They had a great time swimming, playing and singing along with the buskers around the campfires.

One day they invited some of their new friends back to the Nora.  Jeff was in a drinking session with the engineer.  When he heard the laughter down in the hold he was enraged.  He bundled off the bemused hippies and didicoys, as he called them. He addressed his crew from the quarter deck.  No more bad company would be allowed on board.  Visitors would require his authorisation in advance and a boarding pass.  No protestation was considered, and if they did not like the Captain’s rules then they could “sling their hooks!”

Rae packed his knapsack to live on the beach with the party people.  Jean was furious and announced that if the crew were to be so ill treated she was leaving too.  The mutiny was only resolved by Jeff offering Rae a ticket to Southampton on the SS Arcadia, currently in port.  This sudden change in circumstances left the Nora critically shorthanded.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Third Voyage – End of an era

 

Chapter One – Turning a dollar

 

At first Rae was disappointed by leaving the Nora.  The adventure was over too soon.  But freedom, a bed and a shower on the Arcadia were luxuries.  The ship had been under-booked, so spare cabins were made available for Gibraltarians escaping the blockade.  He tussled with the cabin steward eager to relieve him of his swag; a tactic to claim the customary service tip at the voyage’s end.  This four bunk lowest deck cabin shared with those who couldn’t afford a plane ticket would be slim pickings for the hopeful steward.  Rae’s sole means for the uncertain future being the carefully guarded ten pound note that Jean had slipped into his palm on the gang plank.

At the dining table, his fellow travellers’ previous weeks of polite conversation had now flagged, so the shaggy haired new arrival was welcomed with curious interest.  An overbearing pearl throttled wife of an Irish businessman sat adjacent him.  Their pretty but pale daughter and noisy son accompanied them.  Father Donnelly, a catholic priest who delivered their grace at mealtimes, sat on their right.  He was described by the daughter as much loved by his Belfast parishioners, for which reason they paid for his world trip to escape the loyalists’ intent on getting even.

Rae pressed him to join in with the adventurers of the cause and was much indebted by his wise counsel that foreigners had no business meddling in Irish affairs.  Instead he joined the daughter’s escapes from her parents, flinging back the champagne left after they had retired, ritually tossing the glasses over the rail into Neptune’s dark and disappearing wake.  He took her phone number thinking they might keep in contact.

Three days later Rae found himself in a cold and misty Southampton Waters.  He telephoned Mia to say he was back, but Daddy answered and said that she didn’t want to see him.  He phoned the Irish daughter but her Mother answered and told him not to call again.  So he wandered the docks of the River Itchen looking for work, and got lucky.

A wooden mine sweeper, the ex HMS Brocklebank, was taking on crew to refit her for delivery to Adelaide.  He flung his knapsack aboard, to endure a hell of spreading thick and stinking tar into every crevice of her bilges.  He survived a week in her confined spaces reeking of noxious fumes and moved on with a full wallet.  The sailors’ grapevine alerted him to a job at Hambleside Fairy Marine, the ship and seaplane builder. With their pay advance he was soon not only employed but had rented a comfortable little apartment overlooking Rope Walk.  The landlord below even had a phone he could use!

Having honed his skills on the Nora, Rae was employed as rigger.  He was left undisturbed in the mezzanine of his rigger’s loft, splicing halyards and swaging wire shrouds for the company’s stock boats.  They built small sailing dinghies, fast launches and sailing yachts, the Uffer Fox designed Atlanta being their most unusual but thoroughbred mare.  They still built seaplanes, so making up the wire stays that braced the wings was part of the rigger’s duties.  Additionally, orders for yachtsmen’s specialty items provided new challenges.  The work was unpressured and conveniently situated with the early warning of the supervisor’s tread on the metal stairway.  There was plenty of time to sit warming his boots on the pot belly stove and share tea and yarns with the shipwrights and mechanics.  However, it was a job with a limited future as the company was retrenching.

 

 

Back on the Rock the short-handed crew were pressed to keep up with the daily regime of hosing down the parched decks.  To stall the Canadian engineer’s continuing insistence that they smuggle cigarettes they had arranged for the Nora to be slipped at Shepherd’s Marina.  She needed scraping, re-caulking and anti-foul, but it was also the best of excuses to be unavailable for passage.  Jean had relented to Jeff’s continuing pressure to borrow from her mother, on condition that it only went towards re-fitting the accommodation for charter.  She insisted that any other expenses would have to be funded by his taking up the hated dental forceps.

It was with some nervousness that Jeff watched the hull’s slow progress being winched up the slipway, and a great relief that the pitch pine planks were not in need of expensive repair.  Above the waterline the relentless summer sun had opened some planks sufficiently that daylight could be seen.  But below the waterline she was in prime condition; not a check, no weeping seams nor sign of the dreaded teredo worm.  In fact, with a coat of paint she would be back in prime condition and ready for another ocean passage.  Pulled up on the slips like a beached whale the sheer extent of the hull was daunting.  The underwater area to scrape, fair and surface coat would be like painting a football pitch.  However the rump of the crew set to with the slipway workers.  Jean mixed up the drums of primer and thick red anti-foul paint while Jeff, Ed and Paul worked like devils under a fierce sun to spread it over the hull using wide rollers on long sticks; spreading most of it that is, for by the time the Nora was off the slips the drips and splashes of red paint covered them from head to toe.

After work, from the shade of her hammock Jean watched the clouds billowing from the Levant’s uplift over the Rock, as each balmy day rolled into another.  She carried her grandmother’s old writing case up on deck and wrote:

Nora Dane on the slips, 11.7.1969, Mail to C/o Royal Gibraltar Yacht Club, Gib.

Dear Mother,

Thank you for offer of $400 in your letter.  I feel guilty accepting it when you might use it to come and visit us, but if you must send it to Barclays Bank, Main St., Gibraltar.  Don’t put Spain as they are touchy about possession here.

Rae went back to England.  He was wasting his time waiting for us to refit and has found a job and a flat by the river in Hamble.  We put the Nora up on the slips. Her bottom was in perfect condition.  We are living on board but it is incredibly slummy being forty feet up with no drainage.  I was allotted a dockyard lavatory, a dinky shed with no roof overhung by gum trees being a most desirable riverside residence suitable for ablutions and contemplation.  But it was a mile away by bicycle so you may picture me waiting to the last moment then pedalling madly through the dockyard followed by Gibraltarian cheers and whistles.  We are having our cabin fitted with a dreamy ensuite bathroom so I won’t have to use Polar Bear Cottage, the deck sanitation that is draughty and horrid.  When the boat is fitted out we will take out charter parties, but I don’t think that will pay enough and he will make more through dentistry.  I prefer the professional status to that of the sea trader.

Yes I often thought about writing a book, and will do it one day, but my biggest worry is that I can never bring myself to spoil a good yarn by sticking to the truth.  So a book would be either dull or libellous.  However, if I ever do I’ll dedicate it to you as you are the only person who ever encouraged me to try.

Lots of love, Jean”

When returning to their old mooring on North Mole the Nora’s crew found a new neighbour just arrived from the Baltic.  She was the galeas Lana, to the casual observer the spitting image of the Nora.  However, a studied inspection would note that where the Nora sufficed with galvanised fittings the Lana was graced with bronze.  She was owned by a young American Baroness, whose fashion and style as the only other lady cyclist in Gibraltar raised the game for a paint-spotted Jean.  Lana too had scheduled to cross the pond to the Windies in this hurricane-free season, so her stay and their competition were to be brief.

 

 

Jean had not forgotten Christina’s invitation to tennis with the Gibraltar wives of the Navy, nor her parting slip that she knew about the past marriage to a submariner.  After Stuart was posted missing his mother was inconsolable, making herself quite ill from anguish and self neglect.  To avoid further upset, his name was never again mentioned; in fact, so toxic was his mother’s denial, that anniversaries and remembrances became taboo.  The angst caused by not knowing how he had disappeared had been a burden to Jean for years.  Without being able to talk it through she suffered a lack of closure.  Even now she remained torn between wanting to question Christina further and reluctance to scare off her ghostly familiar.  The invitation to play tennis with the ladies was really not her scene.  She told herself that she had nothing to wear.

It would have ended there if Christina had not bumped into her as she studied a bikini in the sports section of Marks and Spencer, every bit as jazzy as one the Baroness might have chosen.  Here chance provided the opportunity to dig into the past.

“Adrian told me.”  Christina had replied when Jean asked her how she knew about Stuart.  “You’ll have to talk to him.  Come and join us for tea, I’m meeting him at the café.”

When Adrian joined them he explained that his patron, Commander Peter from Hamble, had told him all about his star navigation student on the Nora.  While trainee officers, Adrian and Stuart also studied with Peter then became friends when posted to the same submarine, HMS Torment.  Peter asked him to look out for the Nora, so when the port clearance papers came across his desk, he knew who was aboard.  That’s why he felt duty bound, for the sake of his late friend, to warn Jean about the waterfront issues of the blockaded port.

Jean pressed him further about the submarine’s disappearance.  She told him all that she knew; that Stuart and the crew had rest and recuperated in the hills above Beirut.  He and a friend had crashed their motorbike on returning to board the sub on its last departure.  The injured friend was too injured to sail, so was repatriated.

“Perhaps Stuart had missed the boat too?  Perhaps he had found a new life in the Levant?”  She suggested.

Adrian took a deep breath while taking in the refined surroundings of the tearoom.  Gilded prints of horse-drawn carriages looked down from the walls at starched table cloths and plates of cherry-topped cup cakes.  It was so different, so tame compared to that other existence of war below the surface.  In a matter of fact monologue, punctuated by clinking tea cups, he recounted the last days the HMS Torment.

“Those T class submarines were big boats, easily spotted from the air under clear Aegean waters.  They were fitted with deck mounted mini subs, chariots they called them, three-ton diver-driven torpedoes designed to penetrate enemy lines in stealth operations.  I was one of the chariot divers.  Jose was another and Stuey was our launch officer.  

On her penultimate mission we were detailed to deliver a radio and its operator onto a beach under enemy bombing, but everything went wrong.  The Torment surfaced for the launch into a stormy night; swells were breaking right across her deck.  The chariots were supposed to safely slip off on either side clear of the launch officer’s position on the deck’s centreline.  Without warning a wave hit and tore off all the chariots at once, all on the same side.  Mine almost crushed Stuey against the rails.  The same wave washed away our spare oxygen.  Then a plane attacked so we were all forced to emergency dive.  When the first chariot reached the shore the enemy strafed the beach with machine gun fire.  It blew up in a ball of fire taking the divers with it.  They didn’t have a chance.  I didn’t have enough oxygen to dive again, but Jose distracted them into following his chariot to the far end of the beach.  He was captured and fared terribly as a prisoner of war.”

Adrian momentarily faltered.  His eyes glazed as the horrors of the night rekindled; fire and flaming bodies, severed limbs, faces torn off in screaming death throes. He composed himself and continued.

“That enabled me to escape and, it’s a long story, but I got back to Beirut.  I was sent to hospital for a check up and discharged at the same time as Stuart, after the motorcycle accident.  I gave him a lift from the hospital back to the sub.  He had only suffered minor bruising and was able to sail.  I wanted to board but the skipper ordered me stay ashore for debriefing.  As the Torment dropped her lines to depart I shouted out to Stuey, “one hand for the ship!”  He knew what I meant.  He saluted me back from the conning tower as I watched them make out to sea.

He looked Jean in the eye and assured her.

“Stuart was on the boat that last mission, I saw him leave.”

“That last mission of the Torment in ’43 was a critical time.”  Adrian expanded. “She was on a secret mission for the Battle of Leros.  The Italians were beaten at home but still held Aegean Islands.  Some of their forces wanted to pitch in with the British, but the Germans tried to stop them by executing every turncoat Italian commander.  The British were landing their forces on the islands, but the Americans, believing the main game was pushing into France, would not divert their air power.  So the Luftwaffe had command of the skies.  It was an allied disaster.  “Churchill’s Folly”, a second Gallipoli some call it now.  That’s why the full story never came out.  No one knows what happened on the Torment’s last mission, except that she was last sighted off Leros Island in 80 metres heading where everyone was firing on everyone, in the thick of overhead bombing raids.”

While the fate of the submarine was uncertain, this was irrefutable proof of Stuart’s.

“You saw him.”  Jean whispered as tears swelled in her eyes, in an acceptance she had denied herself after years of uncertainty.

Adrian eyes glazed again, as he sat in silent remembrance.  Not one of the sixty four crewmen survived.  Perhaps an enemy plane had a lucky strike.  If they were carrying ammunition to resupply Leros, and they almost certainly were, then a torpedo hit broadside they would have sunk and mercifully drowned them quickly.  If they had stumbled into the minefields East of Leros then perhaps the bow was blown away but the main section settled to the sea floor, still watertight at less than crush depth.  They could have lasted for days before they fell asleep to suffocate.

 “I’m so sorry,” Adrian responded, “The crew were heroes too young.  The skipper was only thirty, and Stuart twenty two.”

At this Jean broke down in a torrent of tears.  Christina chided Adrian for his lack of sensitivity.  Passersby respectfully allowed them space by pretence of invisibility.  Christina hugged Jean tightly.

“He shouldn’t have upset you so.  How can these men be normal again after all that they went through?”

Jean’s tears eased, then ceased.  In their wake she felt her heart lifted, soaring like the seagull from Faro that had wheeled off to start again with new cousins on the Rock’s ledges.  She was ready to move on.

“Forgive me for not telling you about Jose before,” Adrian continued as she composed herself, “but I owed him for saving me from capture on that mission.  I had to get his family home somehow, even if it meant deceiving you.  Tell Jeff I’ll make it up to him.  I have a proposition.  I will pick him up tomorrow morning at the wharf.”

 

 

Jeff was up and ready the next morning as Adrian pulled up at the Nora in his Landrover.  Carlos was sitting in the back seat.

“Jump in, I’ve got something to show you,” he invited.

Jeff was not sure of Adrian’s intentions, let alone Carlos’s.  Warily he slid into the front passenger seat beside Adrian for what was a breakneck journey up through the town’s narrow streets.  Once clear of the last few outhouses the bitumen ended at a high wire fence, still shaded from the morning sun by the mighty overshadowing Rock’s face.  Carlos jumped out to unlock the gates barring their further progress.  Ministry of Defence, Live Firing, Keep out, a smattering of signboards warned.  After much clattering of chains the gate swung open admitting them to a dusty gravel track leading upward.  As they climbed they passed many boarded up tunnels quarried into the Rock’s side.  Some looked newly constructed, others were in varying states of disrepair or blocked by rubble falls.

The siege tunnels were a well known feature of Gibraltar.  For over two hundred years the British had progressively excavated the Rock, creating a thirty mile network of caverns and tunnels to secrete their army within its bowels.  Some caverns as huge as a cathedral were used for storage or bunker command stations, the interconnecting tunnels providing road traffic access.  The soft but stable limestone had facilitated early hand hewn tunnelling, but later the careless use of explosives had resulted in areas of uncontrolled fracturing.  The consequence in affected galleries had been rock falls, sudden collapse and in the worst cases, the need to seal off and decommission.

Near the track’s summit a morning sun steamed off the dew-glistened scrub, telling of a warm day coming.  They stopped at a boarded-up tunnel, indistinguishable from those earlier but for the palms budding from damp cracks in its masonry’s arched entrance.  The battered door was plastered with warning signs announcing the dangers of rock falls within.  Undeterred, Carlos busied himself unlocking the chains to drag open a reluctant door.  A Barbary ape which had been dozing on the parapet above let out a screech of complaint before bounding off.

“Come, come.” Carlos was beckoning.  “Look here.”

After peering through cobwebs into the black interior, Jeff’s lack of enthusiasm was a disappointment to the excited Carlos.

“Look, look.  Your eyes get used to dark soon.  See how big she is.”

Jeff peered again.  It was true, the cavern inside was huge.  Beyond the entrance it expanded to ten metres high and at least twice as wide.  Its extent could not be seen, except for a little water course along its floor that could be made out for thirty metres until lost in the darkness.  However, Jeff showed no enthusiasm for what he was being shown. Carlos couldn’t contain himself longer.

“Mushrooms,” he shouted, “we grow mushrooms to sell. I go with you to Ceuta looking for vegetables, remember.  No vegetables worth nothing in Ceuta, but plenty of donkey shit there.  That’s what we need for mushrooms; manure, water and dark.  We got all this here.  Just need you bring free shit from Ceuta once a month.

Jeff looked to Adrian, who nodded knowingly and added further confirmation.

“The Navy wants me to get this one off its books; too far up the track and too unstable for public use.  I can rent it for a pound and get the Navy boys to shore it up for you.  Food supply is critical with the border closed and no one has tried mushrooms before.  It could go very well.  It could be a real money spinner.”

Jeff was brimming with excitement by the time he returned to the Nora.  He dug around in the cabin table’s drawer.  Amongst the medicine bottles and dental tools he found enough coins to total one pound and forced them into Adrian’s palm, instructing him to have the rental agreement written up immediately.  With excitement he detailed the new venture to Jean and the remnant crew.

Jean was persuaded.  The rest of the crew were not.  Having had their fill of working like galley slaves and paying for their keep to sleep rough in the hold, the remaining crew didn’t glimpse treasures at the end of this road.

“Hauling shit!”  Ed spat.  He found another berth the next morning, replacing the caretaker on the gin place along the mole; a most comfortable position with the limited duties of watering the boat’s ferns for its absentee millionaire.  It was better than the billet in an old scow with a mad master.  This left loyal Paul the only remaining deck crew.

 

 

That evening, over a carafe of sour wine, Jeff planned how to make his fortune from the tunnel’s blooms of decay.  The harbour was as quiet as a mouse by the late hour that he checked the mooring lines and stumbled towards his berth.  Almost immediately a rat-a-tat on the wheelhouse door summoned him. He tried to ignore it, but it was persistent.  When he climbed back up the ladder he saw Señor Rotzecca’s driver pounding at the glass of the door, and on the wharf behind him the Mercedes with cigar smoke drifting from the back window.  Jeff ducked down below the window to hide.  His heart beat so fast that he was sure the driver could hear.

“Don’t make me break this door in!”  The driver threatened.

This was enough to persuade Jeff that further subterfuge was unwise.  He was still limping from his last altercation with the Señor, so he grabbed his walking stick for a makeshift cudgel before inching open the door.

“The Señor has much pain in the back teeth, you will help.”  Jeff was instructed.

Once seated on a makeshift dental chair under a dim cabin light, the shadowy figure’s face was revealed; an olive complexion, a chiselled jaw, straight nose and both cheeks scarred from a violent life.  The scary hombre sat with his mouth ajar. His foetid breath reeked of stinking abscesses as foul as his evil deeds, but in Jeff's capable hands a zylo-cocaine injection instantly dulled the pain.  But it was another matter to pull clear the rotten molars.  Jeff pulled, twisted and sweated.  He stood on the table and pushed against the cabin’s sides, taking short breaks to share swigs with the Señor from a rum bottle.

By dawn the rum bottle was all but empty and three bloody stumps sat in the spittoon dish on the table.  His relief and intoxication was such that the Señor praised Jeff for the painless extraction, adding no other Gibraltar dentists would treat him, claiming mainland treatment was essential.  He insisted that he was now in Jeff’s debt.

“So it is me who now washes out my mouth,” the Señor spat one last time into the bloody spittoon.  “Just, no more Hitler jokes, heh. I alone of my family survived his camps, so I not find such funny.  There I learn how to turn off trouble makers; but only those who deserve, and never the ladies.”  Jeff hurried the Señor off towards the wharf hoping that the pain killers wouldn’t wear off, as he continued.

“I have good reason to curse the world, but why are you so full of hate?”

Jeff was fearful of this dangerous conversation, but being trapped he replied.

“I fought for their lives, arse up in a ditch with sand in my eyes, shells exploding all around and mates being blown to smithereens, while bloody arms dealers, profiteers and bankers screwed us wherever they could. Now they profit in the peace.”

“So we both hate the same people, but I see that you don’t understand money at all.  It burns a hole in your pocket so you waste it to impress strangers with pretence of carefree generosity.  Why you blame others who value what you piss away in foolishness?  Joseph Rotzecca is famous for not being foolish.  He learns from once having nothing.  Business is never personal, it’s just how you juggle with coins, I tell you story.  Pushy Hymie wants to impress new client with a slap-up lunch and wealthy partners, so he asks favour of me to endorse him. I say, fine, I always happy to help kosher young businessman, then next day in posh restaurant I greet him with Hi Hymie, so thankful to see you.  He says back, fuck off Joe, can’t you see I’m busy.  That’s a funny joke, see, now we laugh, eh.”

The driver forced an unconvincing “ha, ha, ha”, while signalling to Jeff to follow suit.

“Then I had his balls cut off; he a lady now, he safe from harming himself further.  All ends well eh?”

As he finally got them off the boat Jeff closed the wheelhouse door behind him, His heart was thumping from the trepidation and exertion.  He rummaged through the cabin table’s drawer looking for his bottle of Equanol tablets, the sedatives prescribed for his manic depression, but it was empty.  Instead he withdrew the Very pistol and carefully loaded a flare cartridge into its breech.  After swigging back the last dregs from the rum bottle, he slumped down at the table, facing the door with the pistol in his palm.  If there was one thing worse than crossing a gangster’s path, it was being welcomed into his family.  To calm himself he breathed slowly to recite the alphabet; zulu, yankee, x-ray, whiskey and before he had got back to bravo, for balls, he had fallen asleep.

Jeff was shaken by the bad scare.  He felt a noose was tightening around his neck; it was only a matter of time before he would upset one of the bullies again.

In contrast Jean was buoyant with how well things were going.  Her daemons were expelled, they were off one gangster’s hit list and new ventures were unfolding.  The conversion of the hold would soon enable proper guest accommodation.  Jean was keen to start outward bound chartering using Gibraltar as a base.

Rae was sorely missed and Jeff was easily persuaded that they must get him back.  He even agreed to provide a contract of employment.  They composed a newspaper advertisement for recruits and in high spirits Jean wrote to her mother.

Nora Dane, 25.7.1969, Mail to C/o Royal Gibraltar Yacht Club, Gib.

Dear Mother,

Many thanks for the £220 in your letter.  I couldn’t resist going out and buying, don’t laugh, a bikini, not for glamour, but for working around the boat and increasing my tannable area; like we used to do in Brisbane, we sun bake all day.

We are back off the slip and at our old moorings next to a flash old galeas called the Lana.  I am engaged in getting one over the Joneses with the lady owner.  She is younger than me and can throw a rope further so I have to compete by dressing for dinner.  As you know these old wooden boats have no mod cons so she beat me last night by cooking a four course meal on her single primus burner and on top of that served it on deck with a tablecloth.  How do you beat that? This morning I hung out a furniture polishing duster.  I don’t know what she will try next, but I think that I smell nail varnish coming from the Lana.

 My new lavatory is the sweetest little green and lilac cubby hole with vanity, cupboards and running water, no room for a bath unfortunately, but what a difference it makes.  Jeff is too timid to use it, preferring Polar Bear Cottage, so I have it all to myself.

The conversion work is going slowly.  We are having a proper roof put over the main hatch to replace the heavy hatch boards and tarpaulin.  We will fit skylights that open and shut with a dormitory cabin below for paying crew.  We plan to take young people on adventure cruises for £15 a week.  They will have to sleep and eat rough and work hard, but it is amazing how this appeals to English youngsters who are otherwise cooped up in a damp climate.  We proved this on the way down to Gib when the crew paid us and worked like galley slaves, sleeping on the floor of the hold often wet through in cold and rough weather.  The gimmick is that they will learn seamanship from Rae, navigation from me and wheelhouse electronics with Jeff.  We will do this along the African coast sailing out of Gibraltar for the next six months.

Jeff has put up his brass dental plate on the wheelhouse door, under a sign that no one can read, it says “Obehoriga del tiltrada,” which means in Swedish, “Trespassers not permitted.”  He has done one extraction already, and answered hundreds of enquiries about back teeth from anxious mums.

All the children, now in England, are well,

Lots of love, Jean”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Chapter Two – Escape to Cascais

 

Word had got around the shipyard in Hamble that redundancies were in the air.  First the machine shop boys, and then the sparkies trooped up to the rigger’s loft with their woes and wants to demand action.  As many had no union membership, a less than coordinated response resulted.  The company’s varied operations since the War had accumulated odds and ends of equipment and materials, the value of which only the shop floor truly appreciated.  Each afternoon as the day’s end hooter sounded, a fleet of worker’s vans loaded to their back springs, liberated any unaccounted copper, zinc or stainless steel.  The security barrier had to be negotiated, but the guard was as blind as a bat.  So as the unofficial dismantling of the shipyard progressed daily, Rae’s confidence in the long term viability of the job diminished.  One evening the landlord called up the stairs.

“Rae, your mother is on the phone.”

Jean said that his father wanted him to come back to the Nora.  They planned to go chartering.  It was promised that a regular wage and working conditions would be honoured.

“We need you and a plane ticket is waiting,” she concluded.

After the next payday Rae waited in the prefabricated shed that was the modest departure lounge of Southampton airport.  Beyond the short tarmac walk he bent his head on entering the Viscount airliner and found a window seat.  The propellers reluctantly dragged it skyward into banked storm clouds.  After hours of droning and buffeting through continuous cloud the pilot announced that the alarmingly close mountain ahead was the Rock of Gibraltar.  On white capped waters below, Rae caught sight of a storm-tossed galeas making for the Atlantic.

Gibraltar Airport is the shortest of tarmac strips jutting out into the Bay of Algeciras.  The narrow flat sand spit is squeezed between the lofty Rock and high Spanish mainland.  Fraught with Spanish over flight restrictions and wind sheer from the Rock, the plane weaved and fluttered just under the craggy Rock’s face, before dropping like a stone to a slewed halt, metres short of the Bay’s swell.  As the propellers wound down the regular passengers crossed themselves and stepped out onto a humid windswept tarmac.

 

 

During the few days since phoning Rae in Hamble the situation in Gibraltar had dramatically changed.  Every evening Jeff had dulled his paranoia with a dose of rum.  Every morning his liverishness was a rod that beat poor Paul’s back.  This and that were never good enough.  After a long spell of even temper, the black dog of extremes had taken hold of Jeff and he could not help but snarl at the world.  Even the last can of kønboller served up as the dead man’s soup was not enough to bring him back into line.  

Finally Paul had snapped back and Jeff had ordered him to sling his hook.  In tears Paul sought Jean’s forgiveness to ship with Lana on her departure for the Bahamas.  He was fearful to leave her without protection, but Jean was magnanimous, saying that he must take advantage of the opportunity offered.  She would be alright.  They both cried and held each other while saying their goodbyes.  Then they laughed and reminisced of all the past crew that had come and gone; Bryn and Lisa, Alfie, Cate and Hans, Rae, Ed and now faithful Paul walked off the Nora without a look back.

If Jeff had been able to articulate the fears and blackness that seeped into his heart, perhaps he could have calmed himself back to equilibrium.  He despaired at the hated dentistry sucking him back, especially where provincial tyrants, like bullies in a school yard, had him by the coat tails.  The Nora was turning from escape to responsibility, and now Jean wanted him to grow toadstools!  An empty wallet no longer buoyed him to play the big swell about town, and what a tiny town this was, hardly worth impressing.  He ached for the snug of the Hamble Yacht Club, or perhaps a Normandy bar, with a gentile audience so easily enamoured by a colonial’s audacity and high jinks.  More than anything he needed the healing power of escaping to sea.

Finding no other on which to vent his spleen, Jeff’s vitriol now fell onto Jean.  When she side stepped every trap for confrontation and argument, he did the unthinkable. He forced it to a head by secretly chartering the Nora to young people from Catalan Bay for passage to Southampton. Jean was mortified when her high hopes were snatched from her.  Her patience was exhausted.

“What, those same Catalan Bay hippies that you wouldn’t have on board and tossed off our crew to stop,” she complained.

He replied with a tirade of projection, accusing her of being the cause of the crew’s dissatisfaction, of constantly undermining his authority.  Why wasn’t she more like the slim and pretty Hannah, the American owner on the Lana?  It was she that drove Paul into Hanna’s arms and now he had no option but to abandon the whole endeavour.  It was all her fault!

“You always do this,” she exclaimed.  “Whenever all our hard work is about to be rewarded, you just run away from it.”

“Where’s the challenge in doing something you know you can complete,” he shouted back.

He picked up the good luck figurine of the boy sailor with the biscuit basket from Copenhagen.

“This is you, fat cow, eating biscuits all day while I deal with all the problems!”

A wave of indignation and fury overwhelmed him.  He flung the figurine at Jean with all his might.  She lifted her hand defensively, but too late.  It caught her under the eye, and then glanced off to smash into a hundred fragments against the wall.  She reeled backwards against the mirror, her face stinging in pain, only to see his reflection escaping up the companionway ladder.

“You cowardly bastard!”  She screamed.  As she wiped away a blood-streaked scrape she could already see the bruised cheek blackening.

 

 

Jean met Rae on the tarmac of the airport the next afternoon.  After a big hug and a kiss, he asked her:

“What’s happened to you eye?  Did you walk into a door?”  

“Something like that,” she guardedly replied.  “I’ve just waved Paul off on the galeas Lana, for the Bahamas; very sad, he was the last one to go.  You’ve only just missed him. He couldn’t keep hanging around waiting for us to get our act together.”

“I think I saw them from the plane, over Tarifa.”

“It’s all been a bit fraught just lately.  We have decided to take the boat back to Hamble.  It’s only just happened so it was too late to warn you before the flight.  Ed is having a party tonight on the gin palace he’s looking after, and then we sail in the morning.  The party was supposed to be for your arrival and Paul’s departure, but the Lana decided to get away ahead of a storm.  I’m sorry things are not as I told you, but it’s so good to have you back.”

This news was unexpected, but that was the nature of adventures, so Rae merely answered,

“Ca sera, what will be. They walked back along North Mole in good spirits arm in arm.

By sunset the day’s torrid gale had yielded to a breezy tropical night.  The party on Ed’s gin palace was in full swing as Rae approached.  The boat’s name, Esmeralda, in blue lights shone out under its spot-lit funnel.  A festoon of rainbow lights splashed colour on the dark waters around.  The potted ferns had been relocated from the aft deck to the lounge, and in their place tanned bodies gyrated to a disco’s beat, their party whites and grinning teeth flickering under the pulsing bright lights.  Rea recognised the beautiful people from the ski boat.

“Rae!” Ed shouted from the bows as he neared at the gang plank. “Come on, everyone’s here, man!”

It was true, the Albion’s crew was on the foredeck, still rugged up and ready for action in their roll-neck Aran sweaters and sea boots.  They gave him a beer can salute.  Carlos and Jose broke off conspiring with the Canadian to wave.  They must also have wriggled free of the gangster’s hit list.  Congregated around the lounge doors a dazzle of Catalan Bay hippies sparkled in sequined kaftans, like moths around the ferns.  The Lana’s crew were choking the gang plank, having arrived at the same time as Rae.  He recognised Paul among them.

“What do you know?  I thought you were off to America!”  Rae slapped his back in a greeting of the long lost.

“We got pushed back by bad weather.  We only got to Tarifa before we blew out the mainsail. Good not to miss you though.  Jean said you’d be here.  She wouldn’t come.  She said she doesn’t like crowds.” he replied.

Jeff had brought along his new crew.  Ed introduced Helen and Mike, who stood hand in hand at the top of the gang plank.  Like chalk and cheese she was a blonde Devonshire lass and he dark and plummy voiced.  Ed pointed out the others. Sean was obscured amongst the throng of dancers, but head and shoulder above all others the boisterous Peter was easily identified.  Beer cans fizzed, corks popped and shouted conversations competed with the top new hits, Honky Tonk Women and Get Back, blasting out over bubbling laughter.  The little ship took on every appearance of a raucous penguin colony in the breeding season.  Ed could certainly throw a lively party.

After some hours of socialising, Rae sought out the comparative quiet of the Esmeralda’s wheelhouse.  It had been a long day after the flight from Southampton.  Ed joined him, and under the subdued lights from the instrument panel they reminisced.

“That new crew of yours ain’t the real deal, Helen and Mike couldn’t find the bow from the stern,” remarked Ed disparagingly.

“I’ll have to train them up.  Let’s hope they aren’t as useless as you were at first,” Rae chuckled, “and where did that American accent suddenly come from?”

“Hey that’s rude.”  Ed feigned hurt.  “Here, take a toke on this and chill out, man.”  He offered an impossibly long hand-rolled cigarette, its glowing tip spitting sparks.

 “I’ve got my own.”  Rae declined.  “I bought a carton from the airport duty free.”

“No man, this is no cigarette, this is the real deal.”  Ed continued to press him with the flaring and popping bush.  “You look at those potted ferns closely.  You ever seen ones with sticky seed heads and fingered leaves?  No man, I’m on my way to that first million.  The best is I’m working for her Majesty, or perhaps the CIA - who knows - but I’m seeding peace, love and apathy in Franco’s flank.  Why do you think the Albion boys are here?”

“It tastes like horseshit,” Rae exclaimed as he sucked heavily on the white flame spitting torpedo.

“Ain’t that the truth,” Ed continued, “and there’s money in shit.”

In a wave of dazzling intoxication Rae remembered the London party and the Moroccan mountain. It suddenly all made sense.  They both burst into laughter so prolonged that their sides felt like bursting.

 

 

In the grey hour of the next dull dawn the Nora slipped her moorings to depart Gibraltar.  Jeff stood with his legs spread wide and gaze fixed on the horizon where the healing powers of the sea could cleanse him.  The brisk chop threw flying spray across the decks, occasionally lashing the wheelhouse windows with salt spray.  Jean perched in the stern sheets watching the fading Rock, contemplating with sadness what might have been.  In that citadel of patriots or pirates they never did work out who was working for whom.  However, she had discovered Stuart’s fate and now understood what for so long the watery apparition had been trying to tell her.  It was “goodbye”.  The spirit was released.  By full daylight both it and the Rock were distant white clouds uplifted over the wide sea.

Once clear of Tarifa the Nora raised sail and made course for Cape St Vincent.  The Captain established the watches for the slog back to Blighty.  By then the lack of experience of the crew was manifest.  Rae discovered that coasting with the wind on your back was inevitably followed by a long trudge back uphill, in this case into a thousand and a half miles of banked storm clouds through which he had so recently flown.

The disorder of seasickness cannot be overstated to the uninitiated.  At first an unsettled balance disquiets the stomach and alarms the brain to fight or flight; violent biliousness overwhelms either capability.  The later onset of dry retching confirms that the condition is untreatable unless dry land is reached.  Finally those afflicted wallow in delirium and incapacity, helplessly tossed between a ship’s beam ends.

At the Gibraltar slipping they had lightened the ship by off-loading fifteen tons of gravel ballast; and had not replaced it before sailing.  The result was the extra-lively movement in this sea way.  Mike’s claims of yachting experience proved fanciful.  He succumbed to retching on departing the harbour mole. Helen tried to console him, receiving an ill tempered rebuff in thanks, until she too succumbed.  Jean watched the sufferings of the new crew with foreboding.  The adventure was going backwards, with a poor crew in the poor conditions anticipated for this wrong time of year.  Their crazy skipper would get them all killed, or at best get them where they did not want to go.

The Nora battled for two days into the teeth of a rising gale.  The sails flogged, spray showered the deck and for the first time in many months a chill wind numbed their rope-burnt fingers.  Helen and Mike hunched in the lee of the engine room hatch, close enough to retch over the rail until total incapacity overtook them.  Jeff determined to duck the weather under the lee of Henry the Navigator’s Sagres Point.  The harbour, Lagos, was too small for the Nora to enter, so they looked for shelter out in its Bay.  A fleet of trawlers had the same mind, leaving only the tightest of anchoring spots that necessitated a risky cross wind deployment.

When the bower anchor was let go, its cable surged out with sound and fury, but jammed half deployed from a twist of the cable’s links, slewing the ship towards the closest trawler.  Big Peter and Rae deployed the stern kedge anchor for an emergency brake, while Jeff wound the variable pitch propeller control wheel through its six tiresome revolutions in order to achieve astern propulsion.  But already the kedge had found the bottom and jerked tight, abruptly bringing the ship to a halt before collision, but also loosening the cable jam.  The bower then surged on and out.  In turn the propeller reached its reverse alignment so winding the rope line of the kedge into an unholy tangle.  This unedifying demonstration of poor seamanship under the critical eye of the host of Portuguese fishermen took most of the day to correct, Rae having to dive down and hack away the fouled kedge line from around the propeller shaft.

The recovery from mal de mare on reaching calm water is so immediate as to be hardly credited.  Within moments of anchoring Mike had forgotten all about his ordeal, was famished and complaining about the lack of facilities on board.  Helen was visibly embarrassed by her partner’s rudeness, but like a dog on a leash he dragged her along behind him.  They were first to ship off with Jeff in the longboat to explore the medieval harbour of Lagos, with its fish and fruit markets, narrow alleyways and rustic charm.

The Nora anchored off Lagos for two days waiting patiently for the better weather that a sunny morning eventually promised.  Jeff gave orders to sail south east to round Cape St. Vincent and then north for Vigo and the Bay of Biscay.  Operating the hand windlass to weigh anchor was the first test of the deck crew’s metal.  Pete set his broad shoulders to the task, chiding Sean about his lily white palms and girly long hair, until the two were good humouredly competing to whirl the anchor chain up with a will.  The diminutive Helen was not letting the boys outshine her.  She stood in the bows energetically signalling to the wheelhouse the direction of lay of the anchor cable.  Only Mike stood back to watch.  With the anchor secured at the cat’s head, all sail was raised in the strong following breeze so speeding the Nora toward the Cape with a “bone in her mouth” and dolphins playing on the bow.

 

 

The strength of the wind a running ship feels is lessened by its movement in the wind’s direction.  When she turns into the weather the apparent wind force increases dramatically.  As they rounded Cape St. Vincent the blast of the weather suddenly increased from a strong breeze to a near gale.  The ship bent over sideways into the first wave of green water.  This cascaded down the decks before spouting out of the freeing ports in a torrent of milky suds.  In a crack as the mainsail boom flew over to the new tack its halyard snapped at the pin rail, the tail whipping out to leeward to tangle in the shrouds.  The sail was tamed before it flapped itself to shreds but to retrieve the lashing rope required scampering up the ratlines.  Without the sail’s steadying influence the ship now rolled and pitched wildly from beam ends to beam ends.  Rae had grown strong as an ox but these conditions were challenging.  He easily walked up the near horizontal ratlines on each leeward roll, and then clung on for dear life, almost upside down, as the ship rolled back into the weather.  The sight from the mast head was magnificent.  Far below green water burst over the bucking deck’s bow, flinging foam and spray over the ship’s length.  Abeam, the cliffs of the Cape glittered in sunlight and the ragged coastline ran on ahead until obscured by distant swell and gloom.

At the ratlines’ top, the halyard’s peak block was still just beyond reach, and try as he might Rae couldn’t reach the halyard end.  One moment it writhed temptingly near to hand, then a gust streamed it far out to leeward.  Above the tumult of the wind he called to Pete to loosen the gaff halyard.  Rae used this to tie a “bowline on a bight” for a makeshift harness.  Dangling on the long thread of this safety line he waited in the ratlines for the next leeward roll.  When the bow rose to the next crest of a wave he flung himself leeward, sweeping in an arc out twenty feet and more from the ship’s centreline, close over the foaming wave tops to grasp at the flogging main halyard’s tail.  Spinning wildly he missed.  The ship reached its extreme lee roll to begin its return back to weather, bringing with it the human pendulum.  The bow was now in a trough, swinging Rae in towards the solid mast’s bulk.  He foresaw an inevitable collision, but the passing lee ratlines clipped and spun him screaming clear, far out to weather on the other side, gyrating over the sheets of spray.  On the subsequent roll back he crash-tackled the weather ratlines, clinging there bruised and battered.

The next time he waited for the ship’s lee roll and pitch into a trough, pushing himself aft of the intervening mast, and far out again over the turmoil.  He caught hold of the halyard’s tail.  On the return roll it wound around him like spider drowsing up its prey, gyrating him inwards.  But the moment was judged well, as the bows had now risen to a swell so the trapeze returned him clear of the mast and back onto the weather ratlines.  He secured the halyard and passed it back down to Pete who all the while had been patiently waiting on deck.  In the exuberance of the moment Rae hadn’t noticed the blood streaked down his leg, and wouldn’t have cared anyway.  It was not so long ago that he was trapped as a shipping clerk, watching life pass through Burrow and Filtch’s grimy attic window panes.

“Ho Silver!”  His whoop for joy was heard over the winds roar before he flung himself for a third and totally unnecessary time out over the abyss.  Spinning in the Cape’s wild moment he was drenched by a boisterous wave before landing back into the ratlines, half drowned.  Glowing and grinning jubilantly he returned to the deck where his mother gave him a severe dressing down.

“Isn’t it enough that your father’s trying to kill us all?  She remonstrated, before hugging him closely.

 

 

The ship slogged up Portugal’s Atlantic coast heading the increasing swell.  The sails were furled and the ship battened down for a storm.  The trusted and true Volvo beat its way slowly onward to the north.  The planking had dried out in Gibraltar’s hot summer, and now half-inch gaps showed light all along the hold’s upper sides.  As Nora bit into the larger swells seawater gushed in, flowing over the crew’s bedding on its course down to the bilges.  Though not uncommon in an old timber ship, to the uninitiated water surging through the ship’s skin is a fearsome sight, but controllable with a good electric pump capable of ejecting the flow.

Helen and Mike could find no dry spot to retch and were alarmed by the thin walls that separated them from the encroaching seas.  They bunkered down with a bucket in the corner of the aft cabin wishing they were dead.  This was the worst position to choose being where the ship’s see-saw action was most extreme.

After two days Jeff took pity on them again and made for Lisbon, where they rafted up amongst the sailing barges in the smelly ditch that was Alicante Inner Dock.  But Mike blessed this solid ground and promptly abandoned the ship.  He turned around when he realised that Helen was not tagging along behind him.

“Come on woman, we’re going,” he called back to her.

“No, I’m staying with the boat.  Goodbye,” she shouted down to him.

 

 

Alicante was an uncomfortable berth due to the traffic coming and going.  The gaily coloured barges, with much shouting and argument, jostled for prime positions to unload nearest the quay.  The crew were kept busy until late that night tending lines and warding off feral animals that scavenged amongst the garbage along the quay.  Then with much thunder and lightning it rained and rained so hard that it even leaked down into the cabin.

Next morning Helen stood in the bow on a vigilant lookout for logs and heavy debris as Nora followed the flow of garbage down the ebbing river.  They arrived too late at the entrance bar, so they anchored for the night off the seaside resort of Cascais, in a small bay north of Lisbon.  Here lying exposed beyond the clamour of snooty yachts and varnished launches the bluff black Nora swung as an outcast catching the unremitting swell.  If the timber ship’s weeping walls were not enough for the hold’s crew to contend with, it was soon apparent that vermin had stowed away at Alicante; a rat had got aboard.  They put down traps and locked up the rations, but on every rolling, clattering, uncomfortable night the critter scratched and gnawed as if it was eating its way through the hull.

To add to their afflictions, Jean was unwell.  Being relieved of her watch she spent much time in her bunk, coughing and sneezing under a plastic sheet to shield her from the dripping deck-head.  The next morning they headed for sea, but after a few hours of beating into a persistent chop they returned to the Cascais anchorage to wait for a better forecast.

Sean’s roguish looks and command of Portuguese came into its own at Cascais.  Every day he rowed the longboat over to the beach to quiz the fishwives and waitresses about the weather.  After three days their optimistic forecast encouraged their escape into what were continuing head seas.  After beating up the coast at a snail’s pace for a further three days they only got as far as Lexios, Oporto’s major shipping port just north of the Douro River.  Jean was very sick by then, so Jeff decided to make for port.  They entered the harbour with a full moon sailing across the night sky, tossed by ragged racing storm clouds.  Under the wavering light they found a berth amongst the coastal craft in the inner harbour.  Jean was removed to a hotel in Oporto, where she spent the night in the bath to break her fever.

On board, the stowaway rat from Lisbon became bolder daily.  It was causing havoc in the hold by ransacking the crew’s knapsacks while they were on deck watch and nibbling their toes as they slept.  One night it had jumped onto Pete’s guitar, a battered soul mate that he had used to busk his keep on the beach at Catalan.  Woken in the dead of night by this pandemonium of discordant jangles Helen had shrieked, throwing herself onto Sean for protection.  She remained in his arms for longer than was strictly necessary.  Pete was horrified and scrubbed his treasure to rid it of rat infection.

Now that they were securely moored at Lexios, the crew determined to rid themselves of this intruder.  Arming themselves with belaying pins, shovel and a fire axe they hid under the companion ladder where a shaft of moonlight shone down through the hatch.  However, during the evening a British yacht, all varnished teak and bronze, similarly escaping the foul weather, recognised their ensign amongst the foreign craft and approached.  The dapper skipper gesticulated with his gold braided cap, issuing orders to the Nora’s crew who looked down from their deck above.

“Put out your fenders for me to make fast alongside.  You there, take my stern line well aft.”

The crew were quick to throw out the old car tyres that were the standard equipment of commercial vessels of the day, and brightly provide for his line handling.  The posh skipper, with neither a please or thank you, looked snootily at this offering, and busied himself positioning old sail bags between his varnish and the Nora’s black walls.  The crew returned to their vigil that this rude intrusion had interrupted.  They had to wait for some time and were falling asleep before scratching and thumping on the deck above alerted them to the presence of their quarry.  Suddenly a black monster, the size of a fat hound, appeared at the hatch opening, blocking out the moonlight.  Its beady eye glittered as it coiffured his whiskers.  In a concerted attack the crew bolted up the companion ladder.  The alarmed creature whacked a snake like tail against the combing, narrowly avoiding the first fall of the fire axe.  They chased the rat around the deck, all the while shouting and wildly thrashing with their weapons.  The hullabaloo raised the posh skipper from his bunk, though he could only glimpse up at the wild antics of axe-wielding antipodeans in underwear.  They chased, chopped, thwacked, swiped and swore the circuit of the decks until finally the creature jumped over the rail.  The pursuers were just in time to see its long tail disappear into the after hatch of the yacht below.  The yachtsman, being preoccupied with hosing down every cranny on his foredeck turned around to see the four faces of the wild bunch staring down at him.

“What?”  He gestured, being none the wiser of the new crewman’s boarding.

“Goodnight, all’s good.”  The crew chorused by way of reply.

 

 

Jean’s recuperation at the hotel and their forced stay at Lexios was rare opportunity for the deck crew to go exploring.  The unanimous vote was for a wine tasting tour to Oporto.  This intention brought them to the Sandeman’s Port signboard; its caped black don with Spanish hat lording high over the River Douro’s banks.  The group bundled out of the cab onto grand entrance steps, to be escorted into a palatial winery and distillery by a friendly black caped guide.

Their guide walked them through galleries of old rabelos photos, the traditional barges that had ferried the grapes down from the valley to the cold storage caves along these city wharves.  They admired the display of bottles with medals for prized vintages, the ribbons and bold advertising posters.  They passed by regimented formations of crushing vats, fermenting tubs and bubbling stills.  The caped guide explained every experience of the black grape from foot crushed slow ferment, the yeast’s arrest at the sweetest moment by added brandy, then an aging in fire-branded oak barrels before ultimate rest in cool webbed cellars, perhaps for decades.

The crew were more interested in the tasting not the telling.  The guide ladled out samples from decades-aged brandy barrels.  He swirled each in a belled glass, pointing out the oily syrup that clung to the sides and asking them to taste.  The ten year aged was smooth and strong, the twenty year aged was like velvet and the fifty year aged was liquid fire in the belly.  Next were bottles of stock ports; small glasses of tawny, then rose, ruby, white and garrafeira.  

By this time the intoxication of all but Helen, whose Devonshire heritage had immured her to hard liquor, was such that the guide need not have bothered to bring out the good stuff; but he did.  Carefully blowing dust off the vintage bottles he explained that any rough cork pulling would disturb the sediments.  The solution, he demonstrated, was tongs with jaws that wrapped around the bottle neck.  Heating the tongs in flames to cherry red he applied them to a bottle.  Deftly he twisted the neck right off; just a clink and a clean break, no shards.  The decanted nectar was strong enough to stun an ox.  They remembered nothing after the warming glow until waking late next morning in the hold of the Nora.  No doubt Helen had facilitated their magical transportation home.

 

 

The raggle taggle crew had shaped up well.  Jean had sweated out her fever.  Jeff was buoyant.  With the highest morale they departed for Vigo.  Once again a northerly gale blew up before the day’s end, barring all hope of reasonable progress.  In the skirts of the fishing fleet they ran back to the cover of Lexios for another night.  When the wind eased next day they pushed out again into a remnant swell and reached Vigo harbour after two days of bashing and crashing.  Here, in this magical harbour where Cate had earlier found love, the romance between Sean and Helen also blossomed.  It was not however the balmy palm-fringed bay of that earlier summer.  Several yachts were storm bound and like the Nora waiting for a break in the weather to cross the feared Bay of Biscay.


Chapter Three – Return across Biscay

 

The Nora ran out from the Northern Channel of Vigo, in company with the sleek racing yacht Jacaranda, in high hopes of an easy passage due to the clear forecast.  For the first time since leaving Lagos the sun burst through the clouds.  It was warm in the wheelhouse’s shelter, but a heavy sea remained from the weeks of storms.  Jacaranda took off like a hare, sending a radio message that they would see Nora once she had caught up in Brest, on the other side of the Bay of Biscay.  Brilliant sunshine gleamed on white sails all standing and rainbows painted the bow’s spray as the Nora made her departure from Cape Finisterre.  But before the Cape had dipped on the horizon behind, banked dark storm clouds were gathering ahead.  Jacaranda sent a second message.  She relayed a gale warning, advising that she was making heavy weather of it so was running back to La Corunna for shelter.  She recommended the same course of action for Nora.

The crew of the galeas were tired of turning back.  Lusty Pete and Sean were ready for anything.  Helen had overcome her seasickness.  Jean wanted to get it over with, and Jeff could almost smell the Cherbourg cafe and the snug of the Hamble Yacht Club.  They pressed on into the building seas.  

As they did so, each pounding blow of waves washed in through the open seams of the forward planking.  The electric pump dutifully gathered the flow from where it pooled in the bilge, throwing a constant cascade into their wake.  By dawn’s dull light they had reefed down to storm sails and were taking a bashing.  The swell was of magnificent height and length.  Each monster rolled up like thunder, and on top of each, waves curled, danced and foamed over the rails.  The wind whistled through the rigging and tore at the crew’s oilskins when they braved the deck.  Then the electric bilge pump faltered and stopped.  Soon the bilge water was up over the keelson and the high water bilge alarm was sounding continuously.  Nora rolled heavily with the weight of water swashing in its belly.  The crew manned the ancient stirrup deck pumps, working each man high handle up and down with a fury only seen when a ship is sinking.  This was more than a setback, it was impending disaster.

In a letter Jean later wrote to her mother, she described how they were saved.

“…The electric bilge pump broke down and the boys had to man the incredibly primitive old hand pumps which bring gallons of water to spill it, not out to sea, but straight onto the deck where it has to be swept into the scuppers to stop it running into the fuel tanks.  Jeff in the meantime was banging around in the engine room trying to mend the pump, arse up and far from happy.  Suddenly behind us appeared a jumbo tanker.  It turned slightly to port and looked at Nora with a green eye over its starboard hawse.  Then it veered to starboard and looked at us with its other red eye.  By then, most terrifying, it was only 100 yards behind looking with both eyes!  What hope had a poor frightened little galeas got when it is about to be trodden on by a jumbo tanker.  But the ship swerved around us, took in the frantic situation going on aboard; boys pumping, girl sweeping, Captain repairing and swearing.  With great good will the great ship steamed off ahead of us letting go a stream of oil behind, along which smooth path the old Nora danced and capered snorting with joy.  The tanker soon disappeared, but its highway of oil over troubled waters ran on ahead of us for miles and hours.  The boys got the bilges dry and Jeff mended the pump in calm and peace.  The weather cleared through that day and during the night the wind abated...”

 

 

On the second night watch across the Bay the remnant swell’s incessant, percussive blows were taking their toll on both the gear and the crew.  Then the engine alarm sounded to announce black smoke billowing out from the ventilator cowl.  The watch sounded the seven blasts and one long emergency signal, alerting Jeff who bleary-eyed staggered into the wheelhouse still dragging his pants over his pyjamas.  On appraising the drama he cut the engine and the Nora quickly paid off course, wallowing in the valleys of mountainous swells.  Moments later all power failed and even the emergency lights flickered and went out.  The creaks of the ship’s timbers took on an ominous significance now that the engine’s heartbeat had fallen silent.  They were driftwood, powerless and far from land, suffering the greatest fear of all seamen; fire at sea.  Without prompt action to extinguish the fire there would be no escape but to that greater peril of survival in the life raft.

In such dire circumstances training kicks in to limit the spiral to disaster.  Jeff armed himself with the wheelhouse fire extinguisher and felt his well-trodden way along the deck into the pall of acrid smoke.  Jean took over the wheel to do what could be done to prevent a broach.  Rae went for the old oil lantern and soon had its flickering light swinging in the after rigging.

By the time Jeff had reached the engine room hatch the flames from the furnace in Nora's belly were licking up through the ventilator cowl.  He burnt his hand operating its shut-off cap.  He tugged at the hatch side fixed fire-fighting cable in order to flood the space from the carbon dioxide cylinder situated below.  But seized from melted hoses it would not activate.  In desperation he gingerly eased back the hatch cover and by blasting with the hand held extinguisher forced back the flames sufficiently to climb into the inferno.  Gasping in the smoke and flame he only had seconds before being overwhelmed, but he grabbed the fire axe's scalding handle and welted the carbon dioxide cylinder's master valve to break it free.  In this brave and reckless act he was successful, clambering back up on deck narrowly avoiding being consumed by fire, smoke and the poisonous fumes.  Once clear of the toxic space he pulled the hatch back tight hoping to smother the blaze.  Blackened with burnt palms and holding his singed head he helplessly rolled back and forth on the ship’s bucking deck, coughing his guts up.

“Now I’m completely bald,” he laughed, and coughed, and laughed again.

The deck crew had by this time raised a double reefed mainsail enabling Jean the steerage-way to head Nora back into the seas.  Peter was hard at the hand pump blasting sea water down through the ventilator cap.  Sean was pumping out the rising bilge water with the hand pumps.  It was a harrowing hour before the cool of the engine room hatch and no more smoke told that the fire was finally beaten.

The culprit was the alternator pulley bearing.  Flooded with salt water during the bilge pump drama it had seized, causing its engine driven rubber belt to melt and catch fire.  The flaming shreds had been flung into the bilge where oily water washed from every crevice had ignited, sloshing fire around the fuel tank to which, most fortunately, the fire had not spread.  Jeff tirelessly cleared the damage and repaired the alternator, melted hoses and tripped generator, but it was not until daylight that the engine was restarted, and its heartbeat once again pushed the Nora towards her goal, the Brittany Coast.

Dawn came with the wind having dropped to a whisper.  They chugged over a long low swell indicating an ocean floor far below.  All day, with no other life in sight, the propeller churned its foaming wake across a blue sea.  A mackerel sunset was followed by a star-strewn night, until the midnight watch felt the rising breeze of the next warm front.  By mid morning they sighted, fine on the bow, the square tower of La Vieille lighthouse, the old lady, and the landward mark of the Raz du Sein’s rock-strewn channel.  Soon after, her twin sentinel was picked up on the port bow; the remote Tevennec lighthouse.  Perched on the wave-thrashed outcrop where the Celts buried their dead, its haunted solitude drove all its lighthouse keepers insane.  It was automated in 1910 as no-one would man its light for fear of the curse.

Leaving in its wake the lunatic’s tower glaring across the ragged channel at the old lady, the Nora bobbed through the boiling waters into the Avent Goulet de Brest.  They were safely across the Bay.  That afternoon they were in Brest inner harbour, and a stone’s throw from the Seaman’s Mission.  Once they had tied up and were all secure, Sean held out his blistered palms to show Pete.

 “Lily white palms; now a thing of the past, eh,” he laughed.

The crew had bonded in that short time and wore the scars to prove it.  Even so, Helen and Sean had had enough.  They swung their hooks of their own accord and left the boat with a sad goodbye.


Chapter Four – Hamble and homeless

 

Two days after her arrival in Brest, the Nora departed to press on for the Hamble.  They were again short-crewed but those remaining were proof tested. This was familiar territory and the weather was set fine.  They passed the sleek racing yacht Jacaranda only just entering the Goulet.  Nora brimmed back with the smug satisfaction of the tortoise overtaking the hare.

They motored on and into Cherbourg after two days of easy passage.  Jeff was bursting to catch up with his mates, the Pinson family, but in this he was disappointed.  There had been illness in the family since their last meeting, so they had packed up and gone to their holiday cottage in the South.  Finding the windy city otherwise uninviting, Jeff stocked the ship stores with Muscadet and set them on course for the Hamble.

The Isle of Wight’s white chalk buttresses of Sandown and Culver Cliff greeted them dead ahead on a crisp sunny dawn.  They had arrived in the northern winter.  Rae had sewn together strips of green and tan tarpaulin to make a celebratory pennant some twenty metres long. This was hoisted to the mainmast head where it fluttered most colourfully.  It was the ship’s paying off pennant.  The virgin cliffs and the solitary Nab Tower were not all that greeted them. In his police patrol boat stocky Bill who had sailed with them from Copenhagen recognised the old black hull.  He motored up to hail them and continued ahead as an escort into the Hamble River.  Up past the Basket beacon sand spit, where last he had so fondly patted her grounded timbers, Bill turned around and waved them onward to the jetty upstream.

 

 

Jean and Rae had been sitting around the main hatch, singing shanties accompanied by Pete on his Catalan Beach battered guitar.  A racket it may have been, but poignant to the choristers who knew that a final farewell was imminent.  Each person’s mind was fixed on their uncertain future; another arrival, another farewell, another path and destination.

“What are your plans?” Jean asked Rae.

“No idea, just look for work I guess, and yourself?”

“I’m just so tired of it all.  Every time we’re near to achieving something Jeff throws it all away to chase another mad scheme.  I want to finish something, but I don’t know what else I could do.”  She turned away to hide a tear.

The sails were taken in.  All was furled and shipshape by the time they docked at the jetty. Eager to escape a most harrowing of passages, Pete had thrown his knapsack and guitar against the rail to disembark immediately the Customs had cleared them.

“Dry land at last”, were his parting words.

While Rae was collecting his gear from the hold he rediscovered the hidden little green purse that contained Jean’s Cunnamulla opals.  He threw them up with his knapsack to find Jean sitting pensively on the main hatch, her hair blown by a wintery breeze, hands tucked between her knees and looking into the distance.

“Remember these?  You might want them.”  He said as he handed the purse to her.  She undid the string so the radiant gems fell out onto the hatch cover.

“You clever thing,” she exclaimed.  I thought they were lost in Corunna…but what’s this?  I don't remember this.”  Amongst the fiery opals she had noticed the little shell that Rae had picked up on the mountain track at Ceuta.

“It’s some good luck from Morocco, to remind me to watch my step.”  Rae replied.

She considered for a moment then continued. “He doesn't need me, Rae, and I certainly don’t need him.”

“It’s not my business to tell you what to do, but think on this.  An optimist heads for a beacon thinking its light marks a safe haven, a pessimist steers away from land mistaking it for a warning, but the lighthouse keeper sees a ship that doesn’t know where it’s going.”

“Take that old lantern.  Who needs old junk like that?  Sell it if you want,” was Jeff’s only farewell.

Nothing more forthcoming, Rae hugged Jean goodbye and walked away with his knapsack in one hand and the lantern in the other; the lantern that Piers had lit over the ice bound Töre; the same one that had protected them on so many occasions since.  He looked back only once before continuing to the nearest highway.  With the shell clutched in his palm he raised a thumb to hitch a lift.  An hour passed without success, so he crossed the road and hitched in the other direction where the first car stopped; fate determined his path.

 

 

Jeff sought out the snug of the Yacht Club to seek out the happy days from before they had sailed south, but Jean was reluctant to go with him.  She was cold, dispirited and utterly exhausted from the passage.

“Come on wowser!”  Jeff first baited then bullied her into accompanying him.

“I hear you got past the beacon at the river mouth this time,” the Barman smirked on their arrival.  He continued with endless twaddle and petty gossip from the village, the most notable fact being that the old Squadron Leader’s absence was due to his recent death.  Jeff was mortified.

The other young patrons of the club quickly bored him with their incessant anecdotes of river sailboat races; all huff and puff about terrifying gibes and narrow disasters.  It was all so tame.  Though he boasted about their travels their blank faces told that they couldn’t understand half of his drama.  Everything had changed.  He announced that they were just back to see their daughter married then were departing to sail for the Baltic.  Jean was mortified.

When back on board later that evening she remonstrated bitterly with Jeff about the surprise plan.  They had only just arrived.  It was cold enough for heaven’s sake, let alone going north.  They had family here.

“What are you always running away from?”  She asked.

“Mediocrity,” he replied.

When she refused to be part of the plan and threatened to jump ship he became abusive.  He accused her of always thinking of others instead of supporting him. Why did she marry him in the first place if she loved another?  He picked up her grandmother’s writing case, shook it at her and insisted that she write to ask for funds for their new venture.  She took fright.

“Don’t you hit me with that, you bully!” she shouted back.

“Why would I bother,” he replied.  “What could you do without me - sell your knitting?  If you don’t like it then you can sling your hook like all the others.”  With that he clambered up the cabin steps to seek solace with a bottle in the aft cabin.

That night she lay in her bunk unable to sleep.  Her tears had dried and she had resigned herself to follow him into the next chaotic venture.  What else could she do but her duty?  Even so, his Muscadet fuelled snoring coupled with persistent dripping from the wintery rain was driving her to distraction.  Feeling for the velvet purse she let the contents slip into her palm and held them up from the shadows.  In their fiery light the memory of her girlhood freedom riding the fence lines glowed.  A smouldering indignation was kindled in those flames.  She had wasted her life worrying for her two casualties of war.  She had finally buried the first, releasing her from the guilt that had excused the decades of abuse from the second.  She didn’t need either of them anymore.

While she tossed and turned in angst Jeff let out several great snorts, then rolled over with a contented sigh.  In that instant the hurt from every poison dart that had brought her to tears surfaced.  This was the last straw of selfishness that was enough to break the camel’s back.  It was her time to shine.  In the morning she gathered her knapsack and opals to walk down the gang plank for the last time.  Her heart lifted, just as it had when the seagull flew to the Rock to find its family.

“You’ll come crawling back!”  Jeff shouted after her.  “You won’t survive without me, and you’ll never get a penny from me.  You’ll have to crawl on your knees when you’re forced to come back!”  She walked towards the brighter lights beckoning and never looked back.

 

 

Jeff expected Jean to come to her senses and return to him.  After all, what else could a middle-aged woman do?  His confidence waned however, as the days passed and she still didn’t return.  Then he stewed with anger, first that she loved Stuart more than him, and then that she had found someone else.  He was sure that she was having a much better time of it than him.

Bored in his isolation he clattered around in the hold, seeking some distraction.  There he found Rae’s roll of brushes and oil paint.  He brought it up on deck and painted himself in yellow oil skins looking over the rail of his lonely command.  In this solitary state the master of the Nora Dane descended into self pity, accompanied only by his companions, “The Gondoliers” and Muscadet.  One night with far too many under his belt he blearily staggered around the decks singing loudly.

“For the merriest fellows are we that ply on the emerald sea, tra la, tra la.  But jealously yellow, unfortunate fellow, we drown in the shimmering blue, tra la.”

On reaching the stern davits biliousness welled up his stomach so suddenly that he chundered into the dark river water below.  As he studied those entrails swirling under the stern they morphed into a drowning face.  Phantom torments from the past were coming for him.  He recognised the signs as the panic from the trenches took hold of him.  The old woman was only gone a week and already cursed insanity was dragging him towards destruction.  He had to escape to somewhere with enough strangers to provide distraction from his inner thoughts.  So he bundled up his knapsack, turned the key in the wheelhouse door and gave it to the boat sales agent at the marina.

 

 

Some days later in his new flat he wrote a letter to Jean’s mother, Brenda.

 

Warwick Rd, London SW5

Dear Mum,

Many thanks for your telegram on my birthday.  I feel older every day.  In doesn’t seem long since my last letter in the Kiel Canal en-route from Copenhagen to Southampton with snow fog and gales.  As you know we are back ashore again.  It seems ages since the toilet stayed in one place and you could count on your bottom being dead centre on all occasions, and it is very nice to have a bath whenever you feel like it.  But I miss the sea and I am sure Jean and Ranger feel the same way.  Despite the hard times and worrying and frightening times there were many wonderful days when the dolphins danced in our wake and the sea around us was blue and tranquil and life seemed so pleasant and free from the cares of the world.  We could have made it to Australia but money was our worry.  It would have cost too much.  But we had almost twelve months at sea and returned sunburnt and strong and fit for another bout of routine stuff and nonsense. And nothing can take away our feeling of achievement.  We safely navigated some of the most dangerous waters in the world.  We entered difficult harbours and pressed through treacherous channels with boiling tide rips which many sailors will not enter; but I think our most satisfying experience was on the way home.  We left Vigo on the North West Coast of Spain late on one afternoon bound for Brest in France.  The weather report as far as Cape Finisterre was reasonable, but we had a passage of 520 miles to make including the dreaded Bay of Biscay.  About 5 miles off Finisterre we started to beat into it and we slammed into great waves for two days.  Half way across the bay the engine caught fire, but this was dealt with and the engine repaired.  We pushed on and slowly the sea subsided and we hoped we were on course.  To get to Brest we had to pass through a narrow channel called the Raz du Seine; this channel is a mile wide at its entrance and the entrance is marked by two lighthouses, one on each point.  We had to arrive between the lighthouses at 11:00 am to avoid tidal trouble.  As the fog lifted at 10:45 am, 520 miles from Vigo without sighting land all the way, on our starboard bow was one lighthouse (La Vieille) and on our port bow another (Tevennec), each half a mile away.  We were very pleased with ourselves as we roared full speed with the tide to Brest all sails filled with a fresh SW wind.  We all felt that we had now learnt a little about how it is all done.

All are well.  The wedding is over and everyone sends their love.

Jeff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Seafarer’s words – a maritime glossary

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

                                                                       A                                                ● ▬

A:

Code flag;       Diver below, keep well clear at slow speed.

A flag + three numerals:

Code flags;     Azimuth or bearing.

Aback:

When a wind hits the front of the sails forcing the vessel astern.

Abaft:

Toward the stern.

Abeam:

On the side of the vessel, amidships or at right angles.

About, go:

To manoeuvre to the opposite sailing tack.

Abreast:

Alongside.  Side by side

Accommodation ladder:

Portable steps providing access from the vessel’s entry deck to the waterline.

Admiralty anchor:

A traditional anchor. Its eye ring at the top provides a holding for the anchor chain, below which a cross member (the stock) is forged through its solid shank.  A heavy bow of cast iron tipped with pointed flukes is cast in opposition to the stock so the anchor will not lay flat on the ocean floor; always the stock will roll the flukes into the sea’s bottom.

Adze:

Shipwrights tool used to face timber (cut surface to shape).

Aft, after:

The stern end of a vessel.

A-hoy:

Used to attract the attention of another vessel.

A-hull:

When a vessel lies perpendicular to the wave fronts.  A method of heaving to.

Aloft:

Up the mast or In the rigging.

Alongside:

Berthed against a wharf or jetty.

Amidships:

The centre of the vessel, with reference to her length or breadth.

Anchor light:

A white light hoisted while anchored, also known as a riding light.

Anchor rode:

A length of anchor line.

Anchors aweigh:

Announced when the anchor just clears the bottom at retrieval.

Another vessel:

A radar plotting term for a target vessel. See own vessel.

Anti-fouling:

Paint coating on the bottom of a boat to prevent marine fouling.  Traditionally copper sheet was used.

Apparent wind:

The resultant of the actual wind and the wind caused by the boat’s motion.  As the boat moves faster, the more the apparent wind moves forwards.

Apron:

A timber fixed behind the stem that acts as a surface to which the forward ends of the planking can be nailed.

Aspect:

The angle between the centre of a radar plot and another vessel’s vector line, being the view that the own vessel has of another’s lights.

Athwart:

Across.

Avast:

Stop.

Awash:

Partially covered by water.

Aweigh:

To raise the anchor.

Axial thrusting:

Achieved by turning a rudder hard over and applying a burst of power to force wash against it with the effect that the ship is kicked away at its stern. Used for slow speed manoeuvring a ship.

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                                                                       B                                            

B:

Code flag; I am loading, carrying or discharging dangerous cargo.

Sound signal;   Last barge of a tow in restricted visibility.

Back:

To force a sail against the wind when manoeuvring (a jib is ‘backed’ when you want to force the bow to fall off); swing away from the wind.

Backsprings:

Hawsers laid out as forward springs or after springs to reduce surging when at a berth.

Backstays:

Rigging supports from the masthead to reduce forward bending when the force of the wind is from astern.

Backwash:

Waves reflected back to sea from the shoreline.

Baggywrinkle:

Padding of old rope, rubber or canvas wrapped round stays to prevent chafe on the sheeted out sails.

Ballast:

Heavy material (iron, lead, or stone) placed low in a vessel to improve stability.

Sea water pumped into and out of tanks placed low in a vessel to control stability.

Baltic Trader

See Galeas or Galeasse

Bareboat:

The hire of a vessel without supply of crew, fuel or stores.

Bare-poles:

When a vessel she has no sails set.

Batten down:

Secure hull openings due to imminent heavy weather.

Beam:

Width, generally the widest point on the hull.

Beam knees:

Braces that join the deck beams to the frames.

Beam shelf:

In timber vessel construction, a longitudinal stringer that supports the deck beams.

Beam wind:

A wind from over the side of a vessel.

Bear:

The direction of a point of interest.  To bear down on a vessel is to approach her from the windward.  To bear up is to approach from leeward.

Beating:

Going toward the direction of the wind, by alternate tacks.

Before the wind:

When a sailing vessel has the wind coming from over the stern.

Belay:

To tie off and secure a rope, typically around the wooden, steel or bronze pins that fit into holes in a mast or bulwark’s rail, called belaying pins.

Bells:

Struck every half hour after each change of watch of four hours. 8 bells at change of watch, followed by 1 bell at half hour after change, 2 bells at + one hour, 3 bells at + one and a half hours, 4 bells at + two hours, etc.

Be-neaped:

Ship aground above the next high tide level, awaiting the return of an increasing tidal cycle to enable re-floating.

Berth:

Where a vessel lies to anchor or mooring.

The place in a vessel where a person sleeps.

Bight:

Where a rope folds over itself.

An indentation in the coastline.

Bilge:

The lowest sections inside a vessel’s hull.

Bitter, or bitter-end:

The inboard end of an anchor cable secured to the bitt, or below decks, to some strong structural member.

Bitts:

Structures on which to secure mooring lines.

Bobstay:

Used to brace the bowsprit from its outboard end to the stem or cutwater near the waterline.

Bone in her mouth:

Traditional phrase for white water wash at a ship’s bow indicating she is travelling at full speed.

Bollard:

An upright round post with projecting arms, for belaying and snubbing dock or anchor lines.

Boom:

A spar used to extend the foot of a sail.

Floating barrier to limit passage of enemy vessels or pollution.

Bosun’s locker:

A store for repair materials for hull, sails and rigging.

Bower anchor:

The main anchor stowed in the hawse or at the bow.

Bowline:

A knot tied to form a temporary eye that will not slip.

Bow line:

A mooring line attached to the bow of a boat.

Bowline in a bight:

A knot tied in the middle of a line to form two loops that can be used as a temporary harness.

Bowsprit:

A spar forward of the stern.

Brightwork:

 

A term used to describe wood that is finished natural, using varnish or other clear coating.

Broach:

To slew round on a wave front.

Broach reach:

Any point of sailing between a beam reach and a quartering wind.

Bulkhead:

Partitions to reduce water or fire engulfing all parts of the vessel in the case of accident.

Bulwarks:

Walling around a vessel above deck, fastened to stanchions.

Burgee:

A small flag, either pointed or swallow-tailed.

Butt:

The end of a plank where it unites with the end of another.

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                                                           C                                                 

C:

Code flag;        Affirmative.

Sound signal;   Affirmative.

C flag + three numerals:

Code flags;   Course.

Cable:

 

A unit of measure being one tenth of a nautical mile.

A strong line or chain by which a vessel is secured to its anchor.

Call sign:

A ship’s unique identifying code.

Capstan:

A winch with a vertical rotating drum, used for handling mooring ropes and wires.

Capstan-bar:

A wooden bar used to manually turn the capstan.

Caravel:

Historic lateen rigged Mediterranean merchant ship capable of windward performance.

Cardinal points:

The four primary compass directions.

Careen:

To heave a vessel down on her side for repairs.

Carlins, carlings:

Support timbers running between the decks beams around hatch openings.

Carpenters trunk:

Access to side lights cabinet.

Carrick bend:

A decorative knot.

Carry away:

To break or loose a component due to stress of weather.

Carvel:

Edge to edge planking that creates a smooth surface, unlike clinker construction.

Case:

Centreboard case.

Cast off:

To let go the lines that secure a vessel to a berth.

Cat o’nine tails:

An instrument of punishment being a whip with nine strands as the terminal.

Cat’s head:

An overhanging beam with attached blocks and tackles at the vessel’s bows rail for lifting the admiralty anchor clear of the water.

Cat’s paw:

A hitch made in a rope.

A light current of air on the surface of the water.

Catwalk:

A raised fore and aft walkway affording safe passage over the pipelines, deck obstructions and wet decks.

Caulk:

Filling the seams of a vessels planking with oakum or cotton.

Cavitation:

Reduction in propeller efficiency caused by air pulled down around its blades.

Ceiling:

An inside plank sheathing of a vessel that covers the frames and enables easy cleaning of the hold spaces.

Chafe:

Wear on the surface.  Chafing-gear is wrapped on rigging and spars as prevention.

Chain locker:

Locker for stowing anchor chain.

Chain plates:

Metal plates bolted to the side of a vessel, by which the lower rigging is secured to the hull.

Chains:

Anchor chain.

The extremity of the channels on sailing ship.

Chandler:

A supplier of ships stores.

Channel:

A naturally deep or dredged route through a shoal area.

Channels:

Extension boarding at deck level to increase the width of the hull of a sailing ship for the lower stays land upon, thus providing a wider angle of mast support. The traditional position from which a seaman heaved a hand lead line (to establish depth).

Check:

To temporarily restrain a line, as to check to cable from paying out.

Check (in wood):

Longitudinal separation of the fibres in wood that do not go through the whole cross section. Checks result from tension stresses during the drying process.

Cheese:

A bundle of spun yarn.

To spread out a rope or twine.

Chine:

The join between the bilge and topsides of a hull.

Double chine - Having an additional planking junction between the chine and the sheer, giving the hull a more rounded look.

Hard chine- Having a distinct bottom/side planking junction as opposed to a rounded curve.

Multi-chine - Having one or more additional planking junctions between the chine and the sheer.

Cirrus clouds:

The highest, feathery, ice clouds.

Civil twilight:

The time between sunrise/sunset and when the suns position is at 6º below the horizon.

Classical winds of the ancient world:

The winds and their points (direction) of the ancient world are translated the Vatican’s 2nd century engraved stone table of winds, approximated as below:

 

  Point                  Roman                    Greek

 

N                        Septentrio               Apartias

NNE                   Aquilo                     Boreas

NE                     Vulturnus                Caecias

E                        Solanus                  Apheliotes

SE                      Eurus                      Eurus

SSE                    Euroauster              Euronotos

S                        Auster                      Notos

SSW                  Austroafricus            Libonotos

SW                     Africus                     Lips

W                       Favonius                  Zephyrus

NW                    Corus                       Argestes

NNW                  Circius                     Thrascias

Clawing off:

To sail off close-hauled from lee shore.

Clear away:

To remove restraints from gear in preparation to anchor.

Clearing marks:

Natural or constructed navigational marks in transit that when sighted open of each other mark a track clear of dangers.

Cleat:

A fitting for used to secure a line.

Clench:

To bend over the internal end of a copper nail after it has been driven through the plank, thus increasing its holding power.

Clew:

The corner of a sail between the leech and foot.

Lower after sail corner.

Clew lines:

The two brails that lead to the clews of a square sail.

Clewed up:

Anchor back at the ships side on retrieval.

Clinker:

 

Lapstrake planking, where planks overlap their edges, as opposed to carvel (smooth planking).

Clipper:

A fast, highly canvassed, fully rigged ship.

Close-hauled:

When a vessel is sailing into the wind.

Close-reefed:

When the sails are fully reefed.

Clove-hitch:

Two half-hitches around a spar or rope; suitable for objects not under strain.

Club foot:

The flat, broad after end of a vessel’s stern foot section.

Coaming:

Vertical structures to stop water entering, as around a cockpit.

Cockpit:

A deck area that is lower than the sheer line of the boat and exposed to the elements.

Coffer dam:

The void space between two bulkheads is called a cofferdam.

Collision bulkhead:

First watertight bulkhead abaft the bow.

Colours:

Identity of a vessel (as shown by flying the national flag).

Combing:

A raised edge around any opening that helps prevent water entering.

Coming about, coming around:

To put a sailing vessel into the wind and tack.

Conning:

The practise of a naval commander in directing his crew to control the vessel.

Counter:

The overhanging after section of the stern.

Course:

The intended direction of travel of a vessel.

The direction that a vessel is steered.

Cranky:

A vessel that is easily heeled or listed.

Crosstree:

Spreader fixed to the mast to anchor the shrouds.

Crown:

The bottom (terminal) part of an anchor on which the flukes are attached.

The camber of a deck.

Crow’s nest:

A viewing platform at the mast top.

Crutch:

Support for a boom.

Cuddy:

A small cabin.

Cut-water:

The foremost part of a vessel’s stem.

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                                                              D                                                      

D:

Code flag;         Keep clear of me, I am manoeuvring with difficulty.

Sound signal;    Vessel with manoeuvring limitations in restricted visibility.

D flag + six numerals:

Code flags;    Date

Danforth anchor:

A light duty stowable anchor with plate flukes that swivel.

Davits:

Structure supporting sheaves or blocks that projects over a vessel’s side or stern, to hoist up boats.

Davy Jones’s locker:

Mythical undersea domain of the devil, Davy Jones, in which drowned seamen are confined.

Day shape:

Black shapes shown in daylight to indicate the nature of a vessels condition.

Dead ahead:

Directly ahead.

Deadeye:

A block without sheaves.

Deadlights:

Metal plate coverings fitted over portholes for greater watertight integrity in heavy weather.

Dead reckoning:

A position plotted  taking into account the assumed course and distance run only.

Deadweight:

The cargo, stores, tankage and crew weights of a vessel.

Deadwood:

Blocks of timber, sandwiched and drift bolted together, usually reinforcing the timber construction of the backbone where the vessel narrows (forefoot and heel).

Deck head:

The underside of a deck (your roof when below deck).

Deep six:

To give it the ‘deep six’; to permanently dispose of something unwanted. (it probably will rest under six fathoms of water).

Departure:

The event of a vessel beginning its voyage.

The bearing of a coastal object from where a vessel commenced dead reckoning.

The easting or westing of a vessel’s progress measured in nautical miles.

Devils claw:

A securing device to hold the anchor and cable in its stowed condition.

Deviation:

The compass error caused by a local magnetic attraction; it is the angular difference, in degrees, between the magnetic course and the course indicated on the ships compass. It varies according to a boat’s heading.

Didicoy:

A term for a part or non Romany blooded traveller (gypsy).

Dip:

A position of a flag when lowered part way in salute.

The angle between an observer’s eye and the horizon, and a line at right angles to the observer’s zenith.

Ditty-bag:

A small bag used to stow personnel possessions.

Dog-watches:

Half watches of two hours each, from 4 to 6 and 6 to 8 pm.

Dolly:

A heavy tool held against and supporting a rivet head, while the rivet shank is shaped by repeated hammer blows.

Dolphin striker:

A spar pointing downward from the bowsprit to tension the jibboom stay.

Donkey engine:

A crude motor used to drive winches for cargo work.

Double sheetbend:

Used to securely join ropes of the dissimilar sizes. It can be held under strain while being tied.

Douglas fir:

American straight grained red softwood timber prized for making spars. See Oregon.

Douse, dowse:

To lower a sail (in haste).

To put out (a fire or light)

Downhaul:

A line for hauling down sails or flags by putting on a downward pull.

Draught:

The distance between the lowest part of a vessel and her waterline.

Fullness of sail created by sail maker, called camber or draught.  It can be altered by bending middle of mast forward and bending boom downwards.

Drawknife:

A two handed carpentry tool similar to a large spokeshave used to shape spindles, shafts and barrel staves.

Drogue or sea anchor:

A device made of canvas or nylon which acts like a parachute or bag underwater, thereby reducing the drift of a vessel.

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                                                          E                                                                   

E:

Code flag;         I am altering my course to starboard.

Sound signal;    I am altering my course to starboard.

End for end:

To reeve a rope in the opposite direction through a tackle in order to put an unworn section over the pulley.

End seizing:

A seizing at the end of a wire or rope.

Ensign:

The flag designating the nationality of a boat.

Enterprise:

Class of 12 foot sailing dinghy.

Eye splice:

A permanent loop formed in the end of a line by splicing.

Eyot:

Islet.

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                                                           F                                                        

F:

Code flag; I am disabled, communicate with me.

Fairing:

The process of bevelling the stem, chine, sheers, keel, and frames so that the planking will have flat surfaces to glue and fasten to. A “fair” hull is one with no dips or bumps in the longitudinal lines of the hull. Fairness is checked by sighting down the longitudinal lines.

Fairlead:

A smooth guide clear of obstructions for rope, wire or chain.

Feather:

To turn the oar blade of a rowing boat horizontally with the top forward as it comes out of the water, so to skim above the water for the return stroke.

To point a sail boat higher into the wind to reduce pressure from the sails in a gust.

Feathering propeller:

The engine’s driveshaft always turned in the same direction, but its propeller blades could be swivelled from a course to a fine pitch, further to no pitch (effectively neutral) and beyond to reverse pitch (astern propulsion).

See variable pitch propeller

 

Fender:

Packing material to protect the sides of a boat from rubbing against an object; made from canvas covered cork, flexible air filled plastic or plaited rope.

Fetch:

The area of sea to windward over which the wind is able to build up waves.

Fid:

A tapered tool for separating the strands of rope when splicing.

Fix:

A determination of position, found by the intersection of two or more lines/arcs of position.

Flake or fake:

A turn of rope on a coil.

To flake (or fake) out is to spread lengths of line along the deck so the rope will run out freely without fouling.

A stage for fish drying.

Flag:

A coloured piece of cloth (bunting) hoisted where best sighted, used as a symbol or signal. See code flags.

To highlight an item or occurrence for consideration.

Flags of convenience:

The flag representing the nation under whose jurisdiction a ship is registered. Sometimes referred to as flags of necessity; denotes registration of vessels in foreign nations that offer favourable tax structures and regulations.

Flukes:

The triangular plates at the ends of the crown of an anchor, terminating with a point, the bill.

Flying bridge:

A control station on top of a deckhouse that providing high visibility for the helmsman.

Flying jib:

Middle staysail - the outer most foresail set on a sailing ship. Sometimes called a yankee.

Following sea:

Seas travelling in the same direction as the vessel.

Foot:

The lower end of a sail or mast.

Footropes:

Slats lashed to shrouds that are used as a stepladder to climb the masts.

Fore-and-aft rig:

The sailing rig, with sails bent to masts, booms, and stays parallel to the centreline of a boat, allowing closer hauled courses to be achieved.

Forecastle:

The raised part of a ship’s hull forward.

The crews forward accommodation.

Forefoot:

The forward bottom of the keel.

Foresail:

A general term for fore and aft sails set ahead of the foremast.

The lowest square sail set on the foremast of a sailing ship.

Forestaysail:

The first foresail set on a sailing ship closest to the foremast, inside the fore-topmast staysail, the inner jib, outer jib and middle staysail.

Foul:

To be obstructed, tangled or covered. The opposite of clear.

Fox, Uffa:

Renowned British yachtsman and racing dinghy designer.

Frames:

Either in timber sawn, laminated, bent or in metal riveted or welded, they are the transverse construction members that create the base for the planking or plate to clothe.

Freeing ports:

Openings in the bulwark to allow any water on the deck to flow out quickly.

Full and bye:

Sailing close to the wind but with the sails full.

Furl:

To roll and secure sails on their yard or boom.

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                                                           G                                                       

G:

Code flag;         I require a pilot.

By fishing vessel - I am hauling my nets.

Sound signal;    I intend overtaking on your starboard side.

G flag + three numerals:

Code flags;   Longitude.

Gaff:

A spar, to which the head of a mutton head or quadrilateral fore-and-aft sail is bent.

A hook on the end of a pole.

Galeas or

Galeasse:

American or European spellings respectively, for a heavily timber built Baltic Trader sailing vessel, topsail schooner or ketch rigged, once used for bulk and broken cargoes of less than 300 tons within the Baltic and North Atlantic Ocean.

Galleas or

Galleasse:

A lug sail coastal trading vessel with a diminutive after mast.

An ancient many oared vessel from the Mediterranean.

Galleon:

Spanish or Portuguese 16th century large and highly decorated merchantman or warship. Used as treasure transport ships from the Spanish New World.

Galley:

A vessel’s kitchen.

Historically a many oared fighting vessel.

Galliot:

Barbary Corsair’s 16th century lateen rigged oared vessel.

Garboard-strake:

The first planks on each side of the keel.

Garvey:

A hard chine hull in which the chines do not join on the stem centreline.

Gaskets:

Lines or tapes used to secure a sail when it is furled.

Gather way:

To pick up speed.

Go about:

To luff into a wind and turn on the opposite tack.

Gooseneck:

A fitting for the lower part of a boom for attaching to the mast.

Goosewing:

To set the mainsail and the foresail on opposite sides of the mast.

Graving dock:

A dry dock.

Green sea or water:

Solid unbroken water that is shipped aboard.

Grown chock:

A triangular bracket or knee that is sawn from the bow of a tree so the grain follows the shape, thus providing the greatest strength.

Guard zone:

A user determined area of the radar screen, within which the presence of an echo causes an alarm to sound.

Gunwale:

A support and strong longitudinal along the outer deck edge of a vessel.

Guy:

A line leading aft from the outboard end of a spinnaker pole to control its fore-and-aft position.  A fore guy controls the up and down movement of the outer end of the pole.

Gybe:

To turn a sail boat so that the change from port to starboard tack occurs by presenting the vessel’s stern to the wind. The momentum of the booms travel from loose sheeted on one side to loose sheeted on the other side can cause damage if poorly executed.

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                                                                 H                                                  

H:

Code flag;        I have a pilot on board.

Sound signal;   I have a pilot on board, in restricted visibility.

Halyards:

Ropes used for hoisting or lowering gaffs and sails. They are attached to the head of sails.

Hand lead:

A hand lead line for determining depth.

Hand over: