"Four men in a Boat" story continued…. by " Shipmate"

16 CHAPTER SIXTEEN (That sinking feeling).     


Christmas of the year 1981 in England resembled the picturesque scenes as depicted on Christmas cards, complete with an abundance of snow.  On the whole, many City dwellers were secretly thankful of their extended holiday, due to the inability of public transport to function, with very few exceptions of which the West Country was one.  However they had not entirely missed the bad weather and were battered by enormous waves and gale force winds.

In the days before the marina was built in Torquay, many sea-going vessels would be moored with one end onto a buoy attached to the seabed and the other end tied to a cleat, welded onto the pier housing the Theatre and leisure center and known locally as the Princess Pier.

The events that occurred just before Christmas were unlikely to be forgotten by any of those involved.

The late September weather that year was glorious with hot sunshine and calm seas.  John, the navigator had taken his young family for a late boating holiday.  They joined the boat in the river Hamble and sailed to Devon stopping at Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight and spending the night at anchor in Studland Bay between Swanage and Poole in Dorset.

John was ex Merchant Navy and had spent several years at sea and took it for granted that everyone should share his love of the water.  Consequently he hardly gave a thought to his young pretty wife who was coping with a five year old daughter and a barely year old toddler.

The weather was so good that they decided to avoid mooring fees and anchor in Torbay that was alive with all sorts activity.

Speedboats towing inflatable bananas kept the tourists happy and a floating platform had been provided to advertise a well-known brand of cigarettes and offer paragliding by towing behind a fast launch.

Pottering about in the rock pools was a favourite entertainment for the five-year-old gregarious girl whose mental age and communication skills were very advanced.  She had made friends with a young boy who turned out to be the son of the couple operating the paragliding.  Being pre-occupied by their work his parents unwittingly neglected the boy and as a result of the new friendship it was suggested that he join the yacht for a sail.  He excitedly rowed back to the floating pontoon and seeing that John not only had a sea going yacht but a young daughter, his busy parents readily agreed to the proposal.

A very pleasant morning was spent fishing and Tom, as the lad was known, was very keen to learn.  They motor sailed at just the right speed to ensure the spinner was at a depth of about three meters and would attract the fish.  They were using an expensive fiberglass rod and had just the right weight of line.

Margaret, as well as being pretty was accomplished, caring and compassionate.  She gave Juliet, the toddler, a sufficient amount of freedom that enabled her to run around without falling overboard.  As a precaution a soft light rope also tethered her but allowed her adequate movement.

After a couple of blissful hours in the sun they reached the point near Berry Head where, having been unsuccessful, they decided to reel in, stop the engine and drift a while.

In between beers, John stowed away the rod and opened the stern locker seeking amongst the gas bottles and an assortment of other gear.  He finally came across an old bucket containing two crabbing lines.  The outriggers and hooks were rusty but the hollow doughnut shaped lead weights were in tact as were the wooden ‘H’ frames for winding in the nylon line.

He took out his pairing knife and cut off the rusty hooks and attached a length of feather hooks to each line.  At this stage he showed Tom how to tie a double bowline, a knot familiar to his older daughter for some years.

Peering into the depths of the crystal clear water he was able to discern silvery flashes through his Polaroid lenses.  The mackerel were running.

Each young person had a line, which they enthusiastically cast into the sea.  Almost immediately the mackerel struck.

They eagerly pulled in their lines and in total they had five fine fish wriggling and glinting in the Sunshine

Into a bucket of seawater they went, to be dispatched later, when the children weren’t in sight.

The shoal seemed to have moved on as no more fish were caught but it wasn’t for the want of trying by the pair of youngsters whose interest had been forever captured.

Margaret soon had the mackerel topped and tailed and the boneless fillets were cooked in a pan of meted butter and served with freshly baked bread, accompanied by a green salad of rocket with a hint of garlic and a light dressing of homemade mayonnaise.  They agreed it was only way to eat the delicious sea bounty and it was deemed to become an occasional favourite.

John started the engine to bring the vessel about and the sails were set so that they ‘goose-winged’ all the way back to the anchorage courtesy of the moderate southwesterly wind.

After anchoring, Tom was eager to tell his parents of his adventures and actually eating the fish he had caught although of course it may have been one of the others.

His father had finished for the day and came over to collect his son.  On the spur of the moment he asked John if he would like to take his daughter for a ride.  John readily agreed but when the launch stopped at the floating platform, John realised what Tom’s father meant.

To save face he decided to have a go.  He had watched other people and it seemed fairly easy apart from the landing again, which required both strength and good timing, qualities which John felt he possessed.

Tom’s father ensured the leather straps were properly secured to both of them and ran through the finer points before returning to the launch.  To take off they had to lean back and resist the pull of the towrope but eventually it became irresistible and towed them into the air.  As their speed increased so did their height and as more line was paid out they gained altitude.

Toms father was determined to repay John’s kindness and the ten-minute trip was considerably extended.

Sound became distorted and familiar items seemed like mere toys below.  The white wake of the launch seemed to move at a snails pace and the towline dipped and disappeared as it got nearer the speeding launch.  Looking up at the colourful chute made John feel sick so not wanting to alarm his daughter he kept his eyes low.  He suddenly realised what the expression ‘free as a bird’ meant.  The only concern about the fantastic experience was about the landing and sometime later, the driver of the launch expertly slowed, causing the chute to lose height as they approached the tiny floating landing stage.  The more they descended the closer they became and John suddenly found himself running along the deck to keep his balance.  He slowed and then stopped.  Both father and daughter were exhilarated.

John was ready for another go with the toddler but Margaret sensibly chose otherwise.

They followed the setting Sun to the west and dropped anchor about a quarter of a mile off shore to the west side of Berry Head in a tiny sheltered bay.  The dingy was baled and pumped up, ready to take John ashore to check with his sales manager regarding any problems in his absence.  As dusk was descending, Margaret waived to her husband as he headed for the inlet in the inflatable.  He failed to see the sharp rocks just beneath the surface that had become concealed by the high tide.  The dinghy suddenly lurched as the rocks tore into the bottom, causing several punctures. 

John was concerned about the safety of his outboard and dingy, so he dragged them behind some rocks higher up the beach for collection later.  Next he scaled the cliffs and was able to shout to his wife that he would go into Brixham and get a lift back with the harbour authorities.  Though he was a little concerned about a sea mist that had begun to gather, the sea was calm and his wife was very capable.

His first thought was to find telephone and at the top of the cliffs the land flattened out, allowing a rather run down holiday camp to be built.  The proprietors were approaching hostility when John asked for change for the phone and his call from the public call box soon gobbled up all of his money.  With no cash for a taxi, he set about to walk into Brixham some three miles away. 

At last the road went downhill towards the harbour.  John sighted the Harbour Office opposite the Yacht Club and decided to enter to acquaint the Harbour Master with his plight.  The reception was empty but John thought he heard a noise coming from the back room.  He set off to investigate and hearing sounds similar to someone in distress, he expected to find someone having some sort of seizure.  He was a trained First Aider and also inclined to expect anything.  He burst into the room from where the noise was coming and all sounds and movement stopped.

He retreated as fast as he could followed by the red faced Harbour Master adjusting his trousers. 

As though nothing had happened, John blurted out his plight and the Harbour Master suggested that he wait for the assistant Harbour Master to return from seeing the fishermen in and he would get him to take John back to his yacht in the tender.

“How long is he likely to be?” asked John.

“One, two hours possibly in this weather.  The fog seems to be getting worse.  Why don’t you have a couple of pints in the ‘Spratt and Mackerel’ while your waiting?” 

“I’ve no money,” replied John.

The Harbour Master fished in his wallet and took out a note, giving it to John.

“This should see us both right,” he said and disappeared down the corridor.

With a twenty-pound note in his pocket, John entered the bar and ordered a pint of lager.  He calculated that he had enough for two more pints and still had enough over for a ten-pound tip for the assistant Harbour Master.  The irony and price of passion.

An hour later saw them slowly searching through the fog for the anchored yacht.  The searchlight’s powerful beam pierced the gloom and just as they were losing hope the yacht appeared with Margaret displaying a mixture of anger and relief at their arrival.

John thanked his rescuer and insisted he keep the note he had passed over and before the Official could protest further the fog swallowed his tender.  It’s not every day, John chuckled to himself, that ones boss provides you with a tenner for doing your job. 

          —                   —                            —                        —                               

At five thirty the following morning John donned his wet suit.  He had decided to salvage the dingy.  He placed a hand pump and repair kit a into a black rubbish bag and added a couple of dry towels and a paper kitchen roll.  He sealed the bag with waterproof repair tape.

 Although it remained calm the mist had slightly lifted.  There was no wind.  His wife and elder daughter appeared, he thought, to see him off.  It turned out the five year old was insisting on accompanying her daddy and however much he tried to deter her, he failed.

She wouldn’t wear a life jacket but accepted the inflatable armbands used to keep her afloat during swimming lessons.

John felt the cold creep up as he entered the water in spite of the protection afforded by the wet suit.  His daughter beside him seemed oblivious and was just excited to be making the swim.  From the side of the yacht it didn’t seem very far but once in the water they could hardly see the shore.  After about half an hour they suddenly saw a strange sight materialise out of the mist and then it vanished almost as quickly as it came.  John was wearing divers shoes for protection against the rocky seabed and felt down with his feet but was still unable to touch the bottom.

“Look Daddy ‘ his daughter cried and the round knobbly apparition turned out not to be a stray mine but was in fact a rubber swimming hat worn by a geriatric lady.  The knobbly spikes turned out to be rubber flowers.

“Good morning,” she said as though it was the most natural thing in the world to be swimming in the cold sea before six in the morning and being confronted by a bearded man and talkative young girl appearing from nowhere out of the mist and bound for the shore.

The eccentric lady was still there when, a half an hour later they returned with the partially repaired dingy in tow.

As they disappeared into the mist she was heard to say.  “Good morning.”

She was obviously addressing another early riser.

It was definitely not a good morning when just before Christmas the telephone rang in a small village in the heart of the countryside in Bedford.  Shillington had been cut off to the outside world for two days.  The snow was the culprit or to be more accurate it was places where the farmers had grubbed up the hedges permitting snow drifts to be formed by the wind. 

The Dock master in Torquay had advised the owners of the yacht  that they should make their way down to assess the possible damages from the storm that battered the West Country.  No further details were available.  The Skipper Neville’s telephone rang and rang and as John knew that the other joint owners were away for the holiday.  He decided to act.

He persuaded a farmer friend to take him by tractor to the nearest town.  Fortunately the trains, though affected, were still running and he was soon on his way to London.

From Paddington he was able to catch a fast to Exeter and caught a local train to Torquay.

It was only a short walk to the pier and the mooring.  There was nothing to be seen apart from masses of flotsam caused by the inclement weather.  High water had just passed and it looked like the authorities had moved the boats moored to the pier.  No one seemed to know anything and the offices were closed.  An hour later John was delighted when Neville turned up and together they went in search of their yacht.  A couple of local seamen told them that a couple of fishing boats had foundered causing all the mess.

They searched in vain and were unable to find any of the yachts that had been moored to the pier.  The tide had slowly retreated revealing substantial wreckage.  They were just able to make out a mast sticking out amongst the garbage.

Spellbound and silent they continued to watch the tide recede revealing several holed hulls including the ‘Salar Buccaneer,’ Meretone.  A great hole exposed the empty place where the engine had once been.  The spars were twisted and bent.  A proud yacht had died.

They later learnt what happened.  All the boats were moored with their bowlines to a buoy and their stern lines were secured to the Princess Pier.  During the raging storm, thirty-foot waves caused the lines of the outer boat to part.  The huge seas swung her round and propelled her like some giant battering ram, parallel to the pier and between the moored boats.  Her bows sliced through the moorings and the boats, unrestrained, crashed in to one and other, eventually sinking in a tangled mass of rigging and lines.

Neville and John surveyed the wreckage in disbelief all the more dismayed to see the deep hipbath belonging to their boat some thirty feet away.  John recalled that only a mere three months earlier that their youngest daughter, who had only just learnt to walk, had used the bath as a bed.  Apart from being detached it was still in one piece.

The next day offered little comfort as neighbouring divers in true Cornish tradition, salvaged the wrecks but not surprisingly most of the valuables had disappeared.  Torquay would never have the same feeling for John and Neville as they sadly returned to London.

Several of the local hostelries that had flagpoles flew their flags at half-mast for the rest of the year.

The ‘Lutine’ bell at Lloyds of London, tolled three times at the opening of business in the New Year, in memory of the vessels that they had insured in the Torquay tragedy, amongst which there were two fishing boats and several sea-going yachts.

They reluctantly paid out the Insurance and ‘Meretone’ was replaced with a 16 meter Camper Nicholson Ketch called St Jacut whose dignified history was about to take a turn for the worst.

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