Saturday, March 26, 2005


Shipwreck is the dread of all sailors. From the earliest of times since men have sailed the seas, literally millions of people have lost their lives because of shipwreck. Probably the most frequent cause was adverse weather, including strong winds, tempestuous seas, poor visibility because of fog, rain, snow or hailstones, and the second most likely factor was uncertainty of the ship’s geographical position due to poor navigation, imprecise charts, unforeseen currents, magnetic variation or compass deviation.

Today, many of these causes leading to shipwreck can be eliminated. Firstly, due to excellent worldwide weather forecasting, masters of ships can be forewarned of hurricanes and less threatening storms; pleasure yachtsmen and dinghy sailors need not put to sea unless the weather looks promising. Modern technology in the form of GPS equipment can provide navigators of all types of vessels with accurate information regarding their whereabouts.

Unexpected and unplanned hazards arise, for example, storms, shoals, reefs, even tiredness, exposure, seasickness, illness, physical weakness of the crew and psychological factors can also play their part in shipwrecks.

One of the most fascinating accounts of a shipwreck can be found in chapter 27 of the Acts of the Apostles, where the writer gives a firsthand account of a shipwreck on Malta, and events leading to the dramatic event. Paul the Apostle, a veteran sailor, played a large part in the survival of every person aboard. It’s well worth a read.

In my own adventures sailing around the shores of England and Ireland, I’ve had a few narrow escapes from shipwreck. Perhaps the most dramatic and frightening was when the rudder fell off my Hunter 19 as I tried to enter the western entrance to Dover Harbour. After leaving Newhaven early that same morning the southwest wind gradually increased throughout the day until it developed into a force eight gale by the time of my arrival at Dover.

Fortunately for me a yacht endeavouring to make port at the same time saw my signal of distress as my little boat was drifting towards the harbour wall. There seemed no way of escape. The only option was to pray my tiny boat would not be smashed like an eggshell against the granite wall. At the third attempt the yacht’s crew managed to throw a rope which I quickly passed around the pulpit before attaching it to a winch. Then slow progress was made to windward, albeit backwards, but this was only possible because one of the cross-channel ferries purposely acted as a windbreak. Unknown to me a strand of the three-stranded towrope parted and the skipper of the rescue yacht radioed a mayday for the lifeboat, which he subsequently cancelled, once he realised the rope was holding.

Thanks to the captain of the ferry and the skipper of the rescuing yacht, both my Hunter 19 and were saved from shipwreck to live another day.

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