Voyages of the Nora Dane
The characters in this story would never have spoilt a good yarn by sticking to the entire truth, so some liberties have been taken in this retelling. References that might offend are thus fictional and unintended.
In the corner of a backyard is a rusting lantern. Its burner, wick and mantle have long since disappeared. Soon all but its glass lens will decompose. Children ask “what’s that?” They are told, “It’s an old ship’s anchor light. Look its brass plate reads Anker.” This is the story of the lantern’s final journey under sail. It is a story of arrival and departure; coming and goings sometimes as brief ships that pass or sometimes as final as that which is forever lost to the past.
First Voyage – Salvage or Tax
Chapter One – A Mission to the Baltic
In the northern most Baltic Sea port of Töre the Arctic winter of 1966 had come early. Most of the boats of the cove had been pulled ashore as those left afloat had started to ice in. Captain Nils Larsen’s galeas, the Nora av Sven rode to her anchor some metres off the rickety town jetty. Not that the anchor was doing much, surrounded as she was by the thick pack ice. The Captain’s miserable reward for the late delivery of a pitiful part cargo of broken bricks was this trap from any departure.
At the end of a bitingly cold day, his son and sole crewman Piers was now attending the lamps. Wearing fingerless woollen gloves he could barely feel, but like the 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. He gathered the sum of his earthly possessions in a rucksack, climbed to the deck and slid down onto the harbour’s sheet of snow dusted ice to tramp off towards the township’s lights without looking back.
The galeas 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 the Arctic
Seas. In the last century islanders’ harvest surpluses of potatoes, grain
and timber were traded for coal, farm machinery, some luxuries and always
news from afar. They 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 a swan.
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 then 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 sailing ships, the Baltic Traders, 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 he and his delivery crew squeezed into a compartment of the London 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 over clad 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. Above it the on the maple panelled bulkhead was an ornately etched mirror, and a shelf below held four glass tumblers and a pitcher of drinking water, the later being 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, but 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 each passerby.
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 life ticket to my shows." From boyhood he had sought any prank to enliven paddling the bays in Port Jackson. He yearned to stow away on one of the ships that daily steamed clear of the rules and mediocrity of suburban 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 Mosman for Suez on the S.S. Orford in convoy with twelve other troopships, incredibly shipping with them horse drawn artillery from the earlier desert war. She was a flaming wreck four months later.
As a signal man in the Egyptian Campaign, he 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 friendly fire demise, 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”, detoured from Singapore days before its invasion by Japanese forces. To avoid torpedos, as her sister ship “Stratheden” had demonstrated early in the war, she zigzagged homeward through the freezing Southern Ocean; “via the South Pole,” Jeff would later quip.
In Canberra awaiting court martial, the fall of Singapore hardened the military to a back-to-the-wall mind-set. Choosing the offers of firing squad or manning the 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 suffers from paranoid psychosis). Like many young men whose youth was robbed, Jeff's war experience was boredom laced with pure 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 bright, so that despite Jeff's ebullient personality her radiance was never entirely obscured. She was born to Brisbane gentry but despite her looks and love of books 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.
She was sent for re-education to the dry country west of Cunnamulla to her uncle’s Wittenburra Station but 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 Southern Cross by night. As well as the 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 from the solitary ridges. 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 gave up university to do her bit in the navy cipher office and Stuart enlisted for blue skies and breezy life in the navy reserve, but as fate would have it he was posted to a Royal Navy’s mother submarine in the Levant. The last letter she received described how the crew been rest and recuperating in the hills above Beirut. “Stuey” and his friend had crashed their motorbike as they sped down the hill to the awaiting HMS Trooper. Due to his injuries the friend was hospitalised and missed the boat. What happened to Stuart was unknown. It departed on secret mini-sub raiding in the Aegean Sea and the sixty four crewmen were never heard from again. It was several years before it was officially declared lost.
Even more trapped back in Brisbane society it was at the unlikely venue of a classical musical evening to cheer returned soldiers that Jean first met Jeff. To say first met 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 stations faded to static at supper time to clear after breakfast next day. The mystery was never resolved even after an investigation that 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 married the fun lover, embraced his itchy-footed gallivanting and bore his black dog. Those black dog episodes began from good humour and conviviality. Jeff would inexplicably take offence at an innocent occurrence and his laughing eyes would glaze over. With a snakes tongue he would probe for a hurtful dart to project malice until he found tears. The assault would culminate in ranting justifying the beating or the smash of a cherished possession flung as a missile. 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 Joni Mitchell on the radio singing “Both sides, now” and sweeping up the shattered glass on the kitchen floor. “Why do you 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 he would creep back with wringing hands, tears and promises 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.
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 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 along the Hamble River in those quieter days before they built the marina. 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 introduced Constable Bill Short and Corporal Jeff Hope, so unlikely that cynics may claim evidence that life is entirely random. Jeff had bought a 5 tonner folkboat “Wombat” to sail out from Hamble. Incredibly, being neither British nor an officer, Jeff had been 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. The 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 machine at the far end. It was called the fruit machine referring to the icons sent spinning by pulling its handle. The common belief was that it never gave back anything that was put in. Few remembered ever seeing more than two of the three pineapples required to release a jangle of winning coins. The reason for this was that the barmen had studied carefully the machines behaviour and when it was due to pay out they hovered around to milk its reward.
It was at one of those times after the day’s sail races when competitors gathered in the bar to talk of tacks, gybes, luffs and the like that two barmen were on duty consecutively. They must have recognised some pattern of imminent payout as both were over the bar in a jiffy scuffling with each other for sole access to the machine. This fracas along with calls for bar service amidst side betting and cheering a winner caused a hullabaloo that gained the attention of the passing Constable Short. 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 and in his enthusiasm to quell the riot had slipped so thrusting the weapon straight at Bill’s head. Naturally Bill ducked but in the process 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. Bill became captivated by Jeff, Jean and their adventuring, then became ensnared as they reeled him in to help out with the anticipated hard yakka of a winter delivery from Copenhagen to the Hamble.
Jean had named her son Ranger after the next door neighbour. His Danish mother learnt English by reading comics. She mistook the “Lone Ranger and Tonto” for common names that would ensure her son’s 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 prophetically seeded by his parent’s wanderings.
Before aeroplanes superseded them it was the stately ocean liners that ploughed ocean’s furrows between continents. The circumnavigations 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.
But 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.
Always in trouble for pranks and misdemeanours the wild colonial boy was frequently 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 he had asked Rae “What do you want to do in life?” The innocent answer, “I want to be a psychiatrist” precipitated the most furious of abuses. The missionary paced out the words “You-must-know-your-self-first” each 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 escaped the tedium of bookwork or woodwork, never achieving the required perfection of preparing a timber board with planed square face side and face edge, to the alternative of the school boat house on Brading Harbour. The 11 foot Cadet and 12 foot Enterprise racing skiffs were quick and especially wet when a gust flattened the sail so irretrievably that the capsize pitched him into the freezing water. Gasping from shock and gurgling for breath, he must 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.
Consequently Rae preferred the old fashioned “Pelican”, a beamy old slipper in the whitewall boat tradition. Its eighteen feet of close timbered (ribbed) elm hardly heeled when the loose footed main bit the wind. Past old St Helens Fort whose rusty ironwork creaked back at the gulls, past Nab Tower and beyond Selsey, Rae in the “Pelican” explored the Solent’s creeks and swash ways.
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 for not responding to Mr Babbitt’s cane, he was similarly kicked out of home after a nasty incident with a hatchet shortly after returning from school. He found work as a truck driver collecting soaps and essences from the London’s East India Docks and delivering them to a cosmetic manufacturer in West London. These were the days of broken cargo, so the wharfside 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 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,” added Bill, 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 zee beeg box?” asked a Danish passenger, who had perched himself 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”,
“That’s my Pandora’s box. It’s full of my current woes”, announced Bill. “What is in it, Jeff, it weights 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 streaming in from the west, not that the jovial passengers had noticed. In such pleasant company it hardly seemed long 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 “MV Winston” 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 a winking Shotley Spit beacon. A ship though the ferry was, 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 gave two more 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 on the ships intercom was interpreted as a comforting reminder of the availability of lifejackets and to warn of a rough overnight passage to Esbjerg, our 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 so while 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 couple, Des and Reenie. “My friends always call me Reenie”, Doreen insisted. Between chasing their cups and tea filled saucers sliding around the table the couple told how Des had sold his trucking business to look for a houseboat in Copenhagen.
Just clear of the protective headlands the ship encountered it first beam sea, lurching 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. Those not familiar with the effect may liken it to a rollercoaster flung to a summit while the airborne stomach hangs independent of the body plunging downward on the other side. Reenie visibly paled; excused herself and supported by Des they joined a group now staggering towards the cabins’ stairwell.
As the cafeteria emptied the more 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 stairwell, and 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, my ticket is 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 ventured 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 funnels stays slackened and slapped crazily then strained bar taut again, to whistle 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.
“Oh Stuey, is this where you are?” Jean thought to herself, then dismissing such idle thoughts she turned to Rae, “So good to have you back again.”
“It’s good to be back”, he replied, just as a fresh deluge of spray caught them unawares, and with salt water streaming down their faces they laughed and clambered back towards the accommodation doorway. With a motherly kiss Jean retired, reminding Rae that he could bunk down on the 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. Fittful 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 unlike himself. He got up to take another turn around the deck to get the feeling back in his toes. “Ah, but wasn’t this an adventure again,” he grinned.
A showery 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 suited who spoke English well.
“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 custom 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 av short winter daylight now, not far but Danmark is many islands. We av 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 sumptuous 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 the ferry so they must be quick to ensure that they don’t miss the one they want. The coffee barely touched the sides before they were back in the car, Bill squeezed in the middle.
“Middlefart,” Bill announced, “Just how I feel.”
“Don’t you dare”, replied Jean.
“No, no,” laughed Christian, “In Dansk fart means to go quickly, to speed, you see, like we are going now.”
Jeff was quizzing Christian on ship chandlers while Jean was completing 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, 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”, quipped 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 ships wheel sat on an exposed quarter deck, 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 av to be quick with this one as it is already under offer but settlement problems, 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 signal they found later to indicate that the vessel was for sale. With main hold and forward dry store she could carry 200 tons. Her quarter deck was graced with a wheelhouse on which the timber letters “NORA av SVEN” spelt out 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 this stout 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 practiced ritual he released its lids retaining clips to gain access to the brass burner within. This he lit, replaced the thin glass mantle over the smoking flame and adjusted the wick height for the brightest white flame. He then replaced the burner inside the lantern so beams of bright light from its prismatic lens pooled around 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 pool of light. Christian assisted as translator, though none was needed when 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 sufficient 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 taleteller 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 forming a curb over the vessel’s sides and deck edge, creating a gutter to direct water to the scuppers (drains).
Two masts, so thick that fingers only just touched if arms were wrapped around them, pointed skyward held by multiple two inch wire shrouds. The main steel boom was over a foot in diameter, stencilled as five tonnes 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’s discoveries were little better in the tiny deckhouse in front of the engine room hatch that served as a galley. There was just sufficient 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 the glowing grate prompted the nickname she gave this demanding master, the “One Eyed Beast.”
In contrast, 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 that actually contained the plaster that he was in need of. Disappearing into the dark recess of deadwood, the six inch stainless steel tail shaft looked plenty 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 on the attack on the Nora was called 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 that at first became common practice, and after everyone had put in their piece he determined to go ashore to 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 stoves flue, and the crew enjoying a warming cup of tea with biscuits. Under the pile of old tarps by the mizzen they had found the water tank and a store of coal, and cadged the biscuits from friendly natives 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 awaiting loading. Christian instructed Bill and Rae on starting the donkey engine.
“It runs on anything”, he explained, “petrol, diesel, fish oil...You just av 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 this until every side glowed a fiery red, at which point Rae and Christian pushed and pushed its shoulder height fly wheel until it was revolving at a great pace. This accomplished, 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. The winch drum could be engaged with the fly wheel cogs by its simple push stick, the dog clutch handle, and when activated the cable called the cargo runner would wind in. The cargo runner ran from the winch drum to the head of the raised boom and then back down to a cargo swivel 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 iron brake handle pulled back simultaneously as the flywheel cogs were disengaged. This was the trickiest part of the operation. If not timed just right, the load could slip or the engine struggle. The boom with its captive load was then swung out over the wharf and the brake handle eased so the drum unwound and the load settled 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 and others that Jeff had purchased; sacks of coal and Jeans provisions from the ships providores. In fact there were rather a lot of Jeans 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.”
Though the day’s work was done, Christian had failed to instruct on how to stop the donkey engine. Like trying to strangle a chook it seemed to be gaining fresh breath despite closing the 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.
Sitting around the table in the aft day cabin the crew supped on the first of the kødboller stews miraculously created by Jean with the help of her One Eyed Beast. The consensus was that the olive sized lumps in gravy were balls of corned meat, perhaps Spam, that would not look more appetising in a brighter light than the dim illumination of their cabin’s oil lamp. They were the kind of rations that Amundsen may have taken for the huskies in the hope that it would sustain them long enough so that when he finally craved a decent meal he could eat the dogs. This threw down a gauntlet to Jean’s ingenuity 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 that 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 what you bought when you were supposed to be getting our morning tea, and what’s so hush, hush about my Pandora’s box” said Bill.
While Bill’s crate was edged out from under the table, Jean summarised the Greek Tale. “Promethyus had tricked Zeus to select man’s sacrifice of old bones wrapped in roasted skin, rather than prime steak wrapped in entrails in return for the gift of fire...”
“So he had a problem with kødbollers too?” Bill butted in.
Jean ignored him and carries on, “...in revenge Zeus created the most beautiful first woman, Pandora, and gave her a mysterious container. Her curiosity was such that she opened the box and all the evil, pain and pestilence that afflict man escaped before she was able to snap shut its lid retaining Elpis - hope and expectation.”
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. His dropped jaw letting out, “What?” Jeff continued rummaging the crate to ease out a Sailor Radio Transceiver and Radio Direction Finder (RDF), the Rolls Royce of marine radios of the day.
“We have the radar for dark and fog, the RDF to point to safe havens and the radio to talk to the other side of the world”, Jeff enthused. Jean joined in, withdrawing the rolls of paper charts also from the crate. “We will refit in England then coast down to the Mediterranean; wait for the hurricane free season, then sail to Panama before island hopping across the South Seas”. Anticipating any objection, Jean continued “and we will pay our way by passenger sail charters, or filling the holds with cargos to trade between islands.”
“And if that income runs dry” Jeff continued as he retrieved a linen tool roll from the crate, “then I can earn a bob with these,” opening it out he revealed an assortment of pliers and sharp dental implements. Jean pulled out some navigational books and sailing directions. She looked inside and then felt anxiously within the crate’s straw packing before her fingers touched the velvet purse. Teasing open the purse’s draw string she sighted the shimmering opals from Wittenburra within, glowing with the iridescent colours of a coral reef. As she turned it towards the light scarlet and viridian flares shone out as if from a new 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 feature was the pot belly stove that kept a brass kettle gently simmering. The cabin was lined with dark oak panelling, appearing narrower than the Nora’s eight metre width due to the built in double berths on either side. The top bunks were built close to the deck head with its protruding oak deck knees so reducing headroom. They had high enclosing sides while the wider lower bunks had a removable lee boards to restrain sleepers from rolling out in a seaway. When the curtains of each were pulled across the sleeper had his own private compartment. To the left of the stove was a narrow bureau with slots for pens and paper that were exposed when the lid was opened as a writing desk. A pretty brass oil lamp illuminated both the cabin and the Chinese patterned writing surface below. To the right of the stove was a basket of fire wood and old hemp rope for kindling. This was below a porcelain sink with a brass tap drawing from the water tank on deck. Above the sink was a vanity cupboard with a mirrored door, so pock marked as to be useless for its purpose. Its bottom shelf under was pierced to hold two glasses, one of which still held the Captains well used toothbrush.
The cabin’s after bulkhead was dotted by storage hatches with holes that sufficed for finger 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 farmhouse’s floral gate ornamented what was to be Jeff and Jean’s home for the next three years.
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 off to sleep with phantoms of their day flittering across their minds dimming screens. 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 assured him that it was actually Jean who provoked the arguments, but he did feel bad about hitting her that last time, it hadn’t made things any better. He had done the right thing and 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 fetid 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.” As he swooned, the vision morphed with him trapped in a flag draped casket topped with bloodied and glinting instruments of dental pain.
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 only to reconcile the nightmare with the slapping of water and creaking of mooring lines as the Nora rolled to the wake of a passing ship. So amid a gentle chorus of snores, a slapping halyard and a lapping wave muffled by wooden walls he rolled over to join the others dreaming of the day’s revelations; darkness penetrated by electromagnetic forces, evil and pain trapped in boxes and pestilence in the holds awaiting tomorrows attention.
It was still dark on Wednesday as Jeff plied the crew with brimming mugs of hot sweet tea and a, “Much to do today sleepy heads.”
The fire had burnt out. The chill of the morning had glazed an icy crust over the water tank’s surface, and the sink tap was dry. The crew had started to describe the days 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, drop their multiple layers of trousers on the dunny seat and fling the remainder of the bucket down the pipe. In short, when you were up on the “Nora Dane”, you were up, there was no slipping back to bed. Only Jeans winning smile had befriended her sufficiently with the trawlers crew further down the wharf that she was welcomed to use their washroom. 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 was hoisted from the hold and piled into the skips. One’s own junk looking more valuable than another’s, the old crates with the Pandora box from the aft day cabin 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 that could be unpicked for oakum, the fibrous strands used to wedge between planks for watertightness.
Jeff and the installation technician were fitting 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 had laid out some charts in the aft cabin and with ruler and protractors pencilled lines and footnotes regarding distance and waypoints, the later being staging points along the passage highlighting turning points along the route. 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 uncovered the yard wide top of the keelson in the hold. This massive structure ran the full length stem from stern to post. Bolted to the keel below, it formed the longitudinal spine of the vessel, from which a forest of closely spaced transverse oak frames of a foot square formed the belly of the hull, similar to a rib cage. Like vertebra, transverse wooden baulks called floors were sandwiched between keel and keelson providing a foundation for adjacent frame bottoms to be through bolted together. 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, the passageways that prevented water traps by allowing seepage into the bottom bilge where the pump pickups could remove it. Over most of its 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 was additionally covered with one inch steel plating for the purpose of pushing through winter ice flows.
Clearing the hold below the level of the keelson became more and more odorous. Methane and rotten egg gas emanated from a grit and dead rat soup. This decaying debris would not cling to a cargo hook so the 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 excused himself to examine the forecastle with an eye to greater privacy.
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 emptied the forecastle to regain some of its former glory. Lighting the stove was not the brightest of ideas, fire being the mortal enemy of a wooden ship; as the kindling caught in warming flames, 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 the years of neglect that 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 surprised that he was still 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. He remembered the berating and beatings that followed a midnight feast of corn flakes. Even when the children posted a lookout, Jeff still knew. How remained a mystery until years later, when Rae had his own children, and recognised the dawn’s tell tale crunch of sugar beneath leather soles on the kitchen floor.
But everything had changed on a Sunday afternoon eighteen months ago. Jeff had been sleeping off a surfeit of liquid lunch, but aroused by noise he grabbed the fire grate’s hatchet to confront Rae. He harangued him with a poisonous tirade, pushing him into a corner demanding subservience. He threatened with the hatchet while poking him in the chest to emphasise each rule of Jeff’s house. This was the last straw for grown young man who finally fought back. Rae disarmed him, slammed him against the wall and held his throat. To his amazement, the bully blubbered for mercy, before Rae released him and walked out the door, not to return. In rage, Jeff burnt all Rae’s possessions. They did not speak again until the uneasy reunion on the “Scandinavian” a few days earlier, but so far Jeff had been as good as gold.
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”, Jean illustrating her instruction with pictures from her book “Instant Forecasting”.
“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,” she continued. “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 summarised.
“So what’s the weather going to be like at the end of the week”, asked Jeff.
“Well that depends,” she replied. “It could be that the warm front will pass tonight and the low fill and dissipate, or it could be that it is rapidly followed by the passage of the cold front and northerly storms, or the system could be become stationary but intensify days later when a following low pressure systems catches up with it.”
“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.
However, this time Jeff relented with the hot morning tea, called a lay day and proposed sightseeing and shopping in the city. Rae was not feeling the best so 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 rivulet’s 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 with kerosene 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 corner of thin plywood was fashioned into a D for the wheelhouse name board, and the remainder used for some artful daubing. Experimentation with the remains of rust, grey and yellow tins of paint resolved as a painting of a lone red headed Mia standing on a windswept beach at sunset. This ornament nailed over the anchor locker completed the now 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 and of 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 Royal Copenhagen ceramic figurine of a sailor with his arms around a biscuit basket, an abstract decorated pot from the same pottery, and a stuffed dog, a small collie, complete with shaggy forelock and glass eyes. Lying in an attitude 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 rabbit’s bottoms.
Next morning Christian was banging on the forecastle doors, “what av you done with them all, no one is ‘ere. 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. The rest of the crew were snoring in harmonies in the cabin, otherwise dead to the world. Jeff was sleeping on a new mat hugging a stuffed dog and an empty whiskey bottle. Bill sat up so swiftly that he banged his head on the overhead deck beam, letting out a torrent of oaths creditable for any fisherman, and sufficient to awake 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 such tools for threading a needle’s eye in 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 four 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 the alternate possibility of 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 pain 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 rest of the animated description was pretty unintelligible, but the crew were familiar with a feathering propeller that he was describing. With this propulsion system engine’s drive shaft always turned in the same direction, but its propeller blades could be progressively swivelled from a course to a fine pitch, and beyond to no pitch (effectively neutral). Further swivelling beyond neutral actually reversed the pitch (astern propulsion).
Rudders that steer a ship are only effective when wash is flowing over the rudder’s surface. To turn a ship from rest, directional thrusting of propeller wash must be applied. This can achieved by the two different means of axial or transverse thrusting.
Axial thrusting is achieved by turning the 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.
Transverse thrust or the paddle wheel effect relies on the greater density of water, and therefore grip, experienced by large propellers at the deepest point of their blade’s revolutions, hence creating a turning effect on the ship. A standard right hand turning propeller thrusts the ship’s bow to port when in ahead propulsion and the stern to port when in astern propulsion, and vice versa with left hand turning propellers. Once the ship is moving, sufficient water flows over the surface of the rudder that a slight bias can counteract the transverse thrust enabling a straight course to be steered.
Unlike standard a reversing shaft and propeller, a feathering prop’s shaft always turn in the same direction, likewise the transverse thrust always nudges in the same direction whether in ahead or astern. However the degree of the transverse trust can be altered by adjusting between fine and coarse feathering. For a ship berthed starboard side to reverse out, as Nora was, she must feather the prop for medium pitch ahead propulsion, hard over starboard the ships wheel then thrust water flow against the rudder so pushing the stern out to port, before backing out clear. Just a bit more complicated than manoeuvring a tinny!
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 nine turns clockwise and the Nora obediently chugged forward bound for the ballast wharf. At the dock entrance they passed the “Nation” where Des, Reenie and Christian waved smiling from its decks.
Reenie shouted “See you on the Hamble.”
“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 the 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 worthy of any 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 wooden walls that enclose a deck and support its hand rail. 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 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 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 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 a clear passage south between the Main and flat Salthølm Island opened to sight, 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 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. Her fight to push the toilet paper down the pipe forewarned of the struggle to raise sail. When the crew on deck signalled that they were ready, the Captain swung the ship around until the compass card steadied on north; now driving directly into it the apparent breeze stiffened.
They rattled up the largest flying jib that flapped and whip cracked like gunfire. In order to haul tight the creased canvas Jeff took a turn of the halyard’s fall around the securing pin at the mast’s base, and held tension to check its movement. Bill stood on the mast’s pin rail and grabbing the halyard above Jeff’s head swung his full weight outward, bending it out from the mast. As he released it back towards the mast, Jeff hauled in the gained slack and again checked it around the pin. After several swings they had gained sufficiently to pull the sails luff tight. Jeff made fast the fall by figure-of-eight windings around the pin. The maniacally flapping canvas was silenced by tensioning its port control sheet, made fast at the pin rail by Polar Bear Cottage. Next the gaskets, sail ties restraining the main, were removed and the voluminous mainsail dropped out over the hatches. Anticipating this much greater challenge, Jean was sent to raise a bleary but recovering Rae. Prudently, Jeff determined to put in a number two reefing, that is, reducing the sail area by lashing much of the sail’s lower section around the boom. Jean and Rae heaved on the peak halyard that rattled up the outer end of the gaff, the spar that stretched out the trapezoid head of the sail. Simultaneously Bill and Jeff hauled the throat halyard that lifted the inner end of the gaff where its crutch clasped the mast. This pulled up the mainsail luff, the inner edge of the sail, held tight against the mast with a dozen sliding mast hoops. Jeff wound the main halyard’s fall around another of the pins at the masts base and using Bill as a human lever, they hauled the luff tight. Lastly Jean and Rae similarly hauled the gaff end skyward to tension the head and made all fast.
The whole operation having taken over twenty minutes of flapping and wallowing, 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 as the loose footed sails billowed out in the following wind. The Nora lurched forward on a crest of foam so the throttle was eased back to idle. Bill and Rae retired for some shut eye before their noon watch.
Bravely creaming down the channel, the ships 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 so that by noon 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. She slowed up immediately and steadied on the helm. Sleet came in flurries, briefly hiding 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 the vessels most marvellously.
On reaching the waypoint they brought her 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 intersecting radar bearings for position finding. At 13:00 the first of their watch’s hourly positions was duly recorded on the chart. The logbook was entered with distance run, barometric pressure, wind and sea status.
An hour later the faint outline of what they took for Stevns Cliffs appeared abeam to starboard. The lowering cloud base had brought a gloom across the seascape. Long swells were now rolling up from behind many of them breaking with a wide trail of streaked foam. The ship would occasionally drop into a hollow throwing spray across the foredeck. On deck the wind was biting cold, accompanied by snow flurries. The wheel house’s barometer was dropping. It was three trousers weather. By turns they paid polar bear cottage a visit. From the wheelhouse one watched the other’s zigzag march along the slippery pitching deck, the three layers, sea boots and woolly hat preventing serious injury as each staggered crashing 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, and 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 eighteen 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 this watch Jeff was tuning radio around the long wave frequency in order to pick up the BBC shipping forecast. Just before 18:00 the signature melody of “Sailing By” cracked over the wireless and the calm voiced announcer described each sea area by turns. While the Baltic was outside the forecast area, German Bight on the Denmark’s North Sea coast were 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, 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 port side light Rae watched the main sheet stretching alarmingly as the sail felt the full fury of the gale on each crest of wave. 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 the crew were on deck her head had been hauled into the weather, but still rolling heavily the demolition balls of 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 that slithered down his throat chasing it back with a tot of schnapps, and thus prepared he braced himself behind the wheel.
On the deck the crew were hesitant in subduing the boom and murderous blocks; to get in their way would have been instant death. Brave Bill saw his chance to flick the flailing sheet tail around a hatch combing, and 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. He miscalculated the weight on the gaff’s peak halyard and released it unchecked. It curled in his hand, snagging around his chunky signet ring and dragging him metres off the deck before it flew off. So released 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 chest severely was strained and his hand swollen sufficient to prescribe pain killers, but the ribs were not broken. His cuts and bruises were thankfully light due to the protecting layers of clothing.
The indications were for the gale deepening to storm, they were a man down, the starboard bulwark gaped open, and their position was obscured by blizzard. Their minds turned to 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 small 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 NE.” The “Pilot” 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. Everyone 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. He 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 before she was over and clear. The propeller gripped once more pulling her out from the suds into the channel, the Hestehved dyb.
Now bashing into those swells spray covered the Nora from end to end. Finally they passed around Skanse Pynt into the relative protection of Storstrømmen, though the storm was now 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 cats head to splash down into the water. Several whacks on the windlass gypsy pawl and the cable came free also, rattling out behind the plunging anchor to its bitter end.
However, she 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. Like an emblem of hope it resisted the storm by lighting a white halo of blizzard in the darkness, its moaning halyard blown taut to leeward from the arctic blast. 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 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 two long iron handles. They pushed reciprocating pawls that wound the gypsy drum’s gear teeth bringing 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 to consult the charts to see 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 was so relieved. 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 teeth, 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 buckets 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 dash, 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 of the Nord-Ostsee-Kanal. The yellow code flag Q was hoisted, to request German immigration clearance, and the Canal Authority hailed by VHF 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 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 had determined the choice. Rae was as happy as a pig in the proverbial; adventure, perhaps tinged with a little guilt reflecting on his girlfriend pining 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 Pilot Fischer, immaculately uniformed with a comically oversized cap, squeezed through the broken bulwarks.
“How thoughtful to have removed any obstruction to my boarding,” the straight faced blonde young officer observed with impeccable English. “Passports, ships registration certificate, now please?”
The Captain explained in Danish that having fulfilled his pilotage he was disembarking to find another galleass home, adding that he was glad to see the back of his life of toil and struggle. “Any goods to declare? have you illness or dangerous goods 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 gone without looking back.
”He wouldn’t take even his toothbrush,” said Jean.
”Or the photo in the cabin,” replied 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. Can your ship maintain the eight knots minimum that will be required through the canal?”
Jeff relied in the affirmative.
”I see you have also most conveniently removed starboard anchor from cats head for ease of berthing no doubt. You do have you another plan to stop if needed?”
Jeff meekly nodde, pointing to the port anchor.
”Very well, bring your vessel into midstream,” the Pilot instructed stiffly.
As if similarly intimided, 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 galeass, but before jumping aboard he turned around for one last look at the heart-shaped stern of his Nora av Sven, chugging out towards the ocean going ships. ”Good fortune to Nora and all her new companions” he sighed with moistening eye.
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 surge.
Another freighter pulled in behind so that in this sandwich they were dwafed, having to throttle up to keep pace with the big boys. The reason that the pilot had chosen this position 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, whereas many ships’ radio stations so closely packed would have interfered with each other.
Despite the hatred and dread still lingering twenty years after the war years, it wasn’t long before Jeff was admitting how impressed he was at the engineering and efficiency of every aspect of this German canal operation.
Passing under the Levensau High Bridge the sun broke through, glinting through its towering arch, high above the Noras sticks. Having found that Jeff was a dentist, Wolfgang Fischer removed his pilots 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 kødbolls 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. At naval school their training ship had been a galeas and these old craft were dear to him. Though he was only ten years old at wars end it grieved him that his navy had sunk so many of these beautiful craft. He began enthusing over the details 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, the steps that enabled climbing into the rigging. As the day progressed the flat landscape of Kiel merged into lush meadows, woods and distant hills in what had become a pleasant cruise. 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, where having expired it awaited repair or a tow to carry on. The Nora’s engine faltered a couple of times; those failings were immediately pounced upon by the sheepdog, snapping at her heels with orders to “park up or keep up.” This was sufficient to discourage her succumbing to that ignominious fate and each time she quickly lifted her game to chug on.
In the 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 heart felt 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.
“Woff, woff,” 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 labour 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 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 that still remained.
This waterway is always very busy, as it was in the late afternoon as the Nora chugged out of Brunsbüttel bound for Cuxhaven, their destination sixteen miles downriver.
Jean gazed over the rail into the muddy outgoing tide and inexplicably memories of her first husband Stuart the submariner flooded back.
“This is old business,” she scolded herself out aloud, “finished and locked away for years, why is it bubbling to the surface again, why now?”
But the thoughts swelled and would not be subdued. What madness she thought, twenty years ago all those fine young men killing one another. And now here in this stream from which Stuey’s enemy may have departed, I am sad to wave goodbye to a boy who might be his murderer’s son. Was some guilt ridden wraith still seeping pestilence from the Elbe II’s ruins upstream. Perhaps it soughtforgiveness? How could she forgive such monstrosity? Or was Stuey alive? Had he missed the boat after the motorbike crash and found another life? She struggled as anger betwixt forgiving thoughts churned around in her head, but like this muddy swirling river she couldn’t make sense of any of it.
In this turmoil a persistent voice to was shouting “Where’s Stuey been 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, our approach marker? There’s ships and buoys everywhere, it’s like Piccadilly Circus.”
Jeff would never master the art of calm authority, and Jean would struggle to lay her spirit to rest. 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.” Jeff questioned.
“Plenty of water, 10 meters swept depth by the chart.”
The tanker passed so close that they exchanged waves with the watch officer on the bridge wing. Passing 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 to the Mission for Seamen for a shower, only minutes before its departure, he learnt of a ferry from Cuxhavn to Harwich. He rushed back, clambered over the Topaz, onto the Nora, collected his gear, 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. But the Nazi machine caught up with them when it too was invaded. The sympathetic Topaz’s skipper was one from the host of galeas that bravely hid escapees under sacks in the hold to ferry them to safety across the Kattegat to Sweden. They 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, so 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 being available 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, the tops of the frames, 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.
Very carefully Otto marked out scarfs to cut at each end of the splintered cap rail over the undamaged stanchion heads. The scarf is a diagonal lapping joint undercut towards the bow so that driving spray will not force down along the meeting surface. 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, 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 luted, 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 under coating in the morning. They stood back to admire their work
“As good as new,” said Otto.
“Better, “replied Rae.
It was as Rae was under coating the repairs early next morning that Jeff and Jean returned, all in a rush, as the forty five gallon (two hundred litres) 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. Needless to say, 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 is 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; so now there were only three remaining.
Simultaneously, the crew logistics immediately improved as two professional yacht deliverers slid over the rail announcing that 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 – Passage to Dungeness
Ian’s seamanship skills were stronger than those of diesel engine servicing, the task with which Jeff immediately engaged him to change the contaminated fuel and clean the fuel filters. However, the Nora’s 270hp engine was soon purring as it should. Never one to waste a 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. Consequently it required a dedicated radar observer, but once again it proved invaluable. Not so much for identifying the low sand islands that only intermittently registered on the display, but for the hundreds of traces of ships, 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. Glowing testimonials from satisfied owners had apparently created such a demand for him, and he had been paid so handsomely, that he had recently registered as a business, handing a card to Rae with a clipper ship logo and the print, “Yachtmaster Ian McKinsey delivers anywhere anytime.” Jean had later run her fingers over the face of it and commented, “Mmm, grandfather would have noted that it is not embossed.”
Tim, whose reticence for self promotion was as pronounced as Ian’s forwardness, opened up with little of his story; at university studying languages, no girl friend, played cricket, happy with rules and moderation in all, excepting yacht races which he described as quite exciting, at least those RAFYC races that Ian he had enlisted him for.
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 had been 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 and shoal 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’ trick of doubling the angle of a charted feature on the bow, a note was made half an hour later that an additional four miles on the log occurred when the light bore abeam (90º) to port. The navigational right angled triangle plotted showed that their current distance off must be the same as the distance on the log (four miles), a fact confirmed by radar range. Their planned course and distance steered (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 would necessitate a renewed visual scan for approach lights of ships. Taking their inshore course had so far avoided the busy offshore traffic lanes of ships as confirmed by the radar, but it did not lessen the risk of fishing boats or even larger vessels that may be entering into one of the channels between the islands. Most critically, if a ship ahead’s aspect showed its 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, the little Dutch boy with a finger in the dyke and the club’s Squadron Leader that when shot down from the sky had rafted home to Blighty with a finger up to Mr. Hitler. Just after two o’clock in the morning with 154 miles since departure showing on the log, they reached their Texel Island waypoint and course change 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 towards the main shipping lanes. The ship’s motion became more frisky and the spray more frequent after which Tim soon 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 were in skittle alley with 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 identification and the rule was simple for approaching vessels ahead that both must turn to starboard, thus passing with red to red sidelights, and in theory for vessels behind that in overtaking must give way to the overtaken until finally past and clear.
Crossing vessels were less easy to determine from the radar as the display mode was of relative motion, being the combined movement of both your “own vessel” and “another vessel”. To separate relative motion to its constituent vectors of the “own vessel” and “another vessel” required drawing a geometrical radar plot, a process taking several minutes, and not possible for all the dozens of crossing traces displayed. 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 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, the effect of which was to roll her almost to her beam ends where the lee deck scooped up a lather of seawater, her bow then thrown inwards 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 starboard side to push against her bow. Now the wave pushed away Nora’s bow and sucked her stern into the slipstream of vortexes under towering steel walls of the tankers midsections where 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 followed by the extreme opposite yaw and finally terminating in the rough chop of vortices that was the tanker’s stern wake.
This experience of helplessness is called hydrodynamic interaction and its only cure is to pass further away. Not surprisingly the off watch crew were up on deck without delay, only to watch the 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!”
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 forewarned the approach of a warm front, confirmed after the dulcet tones of “Sailing by” during the BBC’s morning shipping forecast. Afterwards Jeff twiddled with the tuning until he found a station broadcasting the rumpty dumpty 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 last spring to recover their debts. The crew were adamant that he re-tune in tribute to a station that boomed pop at a volume with clarity previously unheard on the tinny “trannies” of earlier listeners. So the rhythm of watches pleasantly rocked and rolled through the day with Rae Cliff’s “Wonderful world, beautiful people”, Elvis being “All shook up”, Roy Orbison “Crying”, the Beatles “Talking about revolution” and Bob asking “Honey just allow me one more chance”.
“Gilbert and Sullivan would have given that number more punch”, Jeff bemoaned.
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. They weaved through the shipping, making regular small course corrections when 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.
However, radio direction finding (RDF now DF) by long wave radio shore beacons was convenient though limited in accuracy. The principle was to rotate your radio aerial until the lowest reception of a beacons Morse code identity was received, thus indicating that the beacon’s direction was perpendicular to the aerial’s axis. The method enabled homing in towards a conveniently placed beacon, or crossing the bearings from two or more beacons to find your position. The twin radio wave errors of refraction (due obliquely crossed coastlines) and great circle propagation required correction when plotting onto a Mercator chart, reducing the reliability for position finding by friskier 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 anyway. They principally engaged in coastal navigation, by 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 high possibility of a culmination of small errors. But the radar again showed its miraculous capabilities for pilotage. On the longer range the England’s Kent coastline showed up like a detailed map, inching towards them in a comforting confirmation of what the chart’s deck 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, the 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 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 at first chew. To everyone’s great relief it slowly it cleared its throat and powered up again to continue its methodical beat down channel.
Not long afterwards Rae and Tim relieved to start the evening watch as they passed Dover Harbour’s sparkling 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 (near gale). With the increasing headwind the Nora stared 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 she would rise and the motor would labour, then she would crash down the back of the wave and it would wind itself up to recover again.
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. It required replacement of a part that was not carried aboard as a spare 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 functionless steering wheel absently fumbling with the plungers and sealing rings of the broken fuel pump. His mind was stabbed by disabling questioning. How had they got so close but so far? Whose fault was this shit? Was this payback? His will was drowning under a black wave of disappointment.
On deck it was a different scene. The wind was howling, lightning flashing and rain sheeting down. Ian sprang to the challenge of clawing off the land with a flush of ocean racer’s blood. So far their windward passage had provided no advantage for the sails, but now driven by storm and high water he marshalled the crew to raise the forestaysail, mizzen and runt of a main in double quick time. The last had been salvaged from the hold, festering, mildewed and baggy to replace that 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 into the retreat of Jeff’s mind. “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 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. A Germanic accent instructed, “Nora Dane this is Tug Schnitzler Hercules, please confirm Lloyds Open Salvage Form agreement, provide position and agent’s details.”
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 their powerful and close radio station. All the good that the Kiel Canal pilot “Wolfie” had brought to post war reconciliation came tumbling down as Jeff now identified this voice as that of a wowser of the worst sort whose duplicity had been justly rewarded in losing the war; and Jeff’s heart hardened.
Jeff’s 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 to explode as if a white star, drifting down on its parachute and illuminating the 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, that 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 Meraukie 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 log sees you at 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 of 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 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 her skipper’s mettle, demonstrated when Hercules first powered back towards Nora, ostensibly to pass the towline, but more likely to “accidently” ram her and cause distress by damage. This moment of collision found 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 of 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.
The whole time 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. So Ian leaned out over the starboard bows rail to push a loop of messenger rope up through the hawse, an activity in plain view to the Hercules 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 bow sprit 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 like they deserved. Like all their messages it was broadcast as public correspondence. While this reaction may seem intemperately prejudiced it must be remembered that that the deck crew had been nearly killed twice in the last quarter of an hour. Whether the unlucky censure from an angry she-wolf or the Hercules’ drift into the surf line prompted the change of behaviour, within minutes the Hercules had passed a line with no more nonsense, it was secured and she was finally 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 saw them arrive 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 to the ballsy mate as they passed. 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 Majesties realm, that it was of horse hair so consequently not. As soon as their passports were stamped Rae was dispatched to take the broken fuel pump for dealer repairs in London.
He trudged head down along the wharf, overladen with the heavy pump and slung over his shoulder a duffle bag 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 burley 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. The Harbour Master telephoned Jeff’s insurer and to his amazement they told him to sign the form. The calculation of odds by the City of London gentlemen was that paying out a 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
By this time Rae was once more on a train, this time bound for London. After a month’s absence he was joyful at the prospect of a hot bath and 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.
He had 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 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 she was looking for a flatmate in London. He moved in and found her truly generous heart and cuddly body. The flat was the lower story of a row of brick terraced houses in Kew, at that time still a working class area. The flat 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. It 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 laddy, 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 was back on the tube for home, but first a stop at the florist for 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 dourly stated,
“Thank you for the flowers, you shouldn’t have. I’m sorry to inform you but the lady has found another,” he drolly reported, and returned to his bedroom.
This riddle became clear as Tony, one of the college gang, stepped out from Mia’s room wearing Rae’s dressing gown. Tony’s apologetic look said it all; “it just happened, it was the music, candles, laughter and wine.” Rae followed Marty. Shattered, his head spinning he collapsed on his sofa. Not long after Mia entered the room and announced as a matter of fact,
“So, you decided to come back then. You could have written! Tony is giving me a lift home to spend Christmas with mummy and pa, Merry Christmas, goodbye”, then they left.
At the same moment the 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 broody 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 and in the cold morning air. He scolded his crew about their obligations to assist until the contracted destination of Hamble. Like the salvager’s thugs he ordered them to accompany him to the wharf head tavern to further his demands. 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 some mariners had already sought its refuge. Inside it was 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. In a concession to Christmas, the landlord had placed a sprig of mistletoe over a stain said to be the hero of Trafalgar’s blood, shed as he famously asked, “Kiss me, Hardy.”
The Nora’s crew were immediately recognised as the minor celebrities of the nights salvage. Already the talk of the town, they were fraternised and pumped to hear more. Jeff obliged with colourful tales of daring do and for a while quite forgot his rage, but for this privilege of being centre stage he ended up both shouting drinks for all and demonstrating further largess by announcing that he would pay his valiant crew Tim’s discharge and fare home. He whispered to the crew that it would be deducted from Ian’s fee. This tightfistedness towards those he knew and largess 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 mate 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 nasty, vicious gossip, you’ve been spreading it all over town that I am an idiot and you are the smartie pants.”
A 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 two decades of claimed hurts. She 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.”
And she was right. In the morning she found him 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 a despondent Rae to get off his sofa.
“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 hum dinger of sparkling lights, loud music and excess. The shared terrace house was chock full with wild revellers; costumed animals, historical characters and 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 like your brain is swirling down a drain. He ultimately slid down the wall under an Beardsley print, its peacock dress merging into a gold toothed smile that mouthed “Nice maan” while a strawberry in tights hassled Marty to “Show your shooter”. Orange robed holy men were clashing bells as he passed out on the third floor landing. For the second time in twenty four hours Rae was jolted awake, this time by Marty shaking him,
“Wake up mate, its morning. We’ve got to go.”
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 with the inevitable consequence that Marty smashed through its back window as Rae flew skyward, landing with a crash on its roof, his feather and war painted face blearily staring through the windscreen at the occupants below. Their trauma from this Wild West attack was probably more lasting than the physical injuries to the twosome. Good helmets and the flexibility of the partially drunk numbed their strains and grazes. 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 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, “I’m OK,” he 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 as they departed for Martys parent’s home a letter arrived for Rae, he recognised Jean’s handwriting and put it in his duffle bag. 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 hosts had gone to bed, Rae opened the Jean’s letter that described their passage from Dover 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 Jeff and Jean’s young friend and fellow patron of the Leather Bottle pub in Mattingley. He was a delightful soul of Irish heritage whose accents were as fluid as the funny stories he told. The country aristocrat’s dress was always understated; bespoke tweed clothes made to never wear out and consequently always tatty with age. The 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 he was soon transported as if aboard, watching their progress. They 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 and they sat in the sunshine around the wheelhouse door chattering.
“What day do eggs fear the most, Jean?” Terry said, “Friday of course”.
“Oh you’re so silly Terry,” she laughed.
“Oh, don’t say that Jean, I am really getting on top of beefing
up my self-esteem, but I don't deserve it you know.” With hardly a breath
the straight faced Terry continued, “You know I went to the doctor. He said
I was too fat. I said that’s a bit strong, I’ll want to get a second opinion,
and the doctor says straight back, well you’re very ugly too.” Rattling
out quips and shaggy dog stories Terry kept a lively commentary throughout
In delightful company on a 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 appeared ahead and behind it the chalk outline of Culver Cliff on the Isle of Wight. Terry wittily pointed out how the Downs rose up abeam. As they passed Portsmouth they customarily dipped their ensign to an anchored Warship, and to their glee Her Majesty’s Navy dipped their’s back. They entered the white sails studded Solent filled with 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 entry post topped with a red cage 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 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 needed thirst they entertained the bar with yarns of fun and adventure. 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.
Not to be outdone, 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 snarled back at him, “It’s Wales, dumbo!”
“OK, so are you two whales from Ireland?” He replied. 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 mean time, 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 the crate, Pandora’s box. 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. 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 staring 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 decks.
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 when abandoned and 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 Jeff.”
A great weariness softened Jeff as he agreed to the lesser of the terms. They shared a slug of rum from Terry’s flask of reconciliation, before Ian blew out the lantern.