Monday, October 22, 2007

Running into Danger

At the age of 16 I often crewed aboard a converted St Ives lugger. She was owned by a man nearing retirement and he had fitted her out as a gaff cutter with a small cabin. There was kneeling headroom and enough floor space for two people to lay out their bunks. Cooking was done on a single gimballed Primus stove. I learnt a great deal about handling this boat under sail from her owner who had sailed all his life. I discovered ‘Petrel’ could easily be balanced on a steady course by lashing her helm, and slightly backing her staysail. I learnt how to reduce the power of the wind in the mainsail by dropping the peak, tricing the tack, or topping-up the boom, and how to reef by tying reefing tails - not around the boom, but under the bundled foot of the sail, as it was loose-footed.

During the school holidays we would spend two to three weeks cruising along the south coast of the South West Peninsular from Dartmouth to Falmouth and back. My memory is of long sunny days when the sparkling turquoise water blended with a clear azure sky, while over the distant land there hovered white cumulus clouds, but there were times when storm clouds rushed above us while we raced up Channel with crested waves pressing us onwards, and there was a time when we ran to the south west with a south easterly bowling us along in thick fog. Our hope was that the sun would break through, enabling us to establish our position, as our dead-reckoning had placed us to the south east of Salcombe. We desperately needed a bearing of Prawle Point before heading for Bolt Head, which marked the entrance to Salcombe. Obligingly, the fog lifted and we took a sight with the hand-bearing compass. We had sailed far enough westwards to have a view of the craggy cliffs above the Mewstone south of Salcombe and we set our course towards it, but within minutes we were again engulfed in thick fog. Another half-an-hour and we should see the Mewstone loom out of the fog, from which point we could sail due north while keeping the steep cliffs to our port and periodically casting the lead to monitor the shoaling bottom.

Half-an-hour passed and we were relieved to see craggy rocks loom out of the fog to port, but there was no Mew Stone; maybe it was hidden to the south. So we turned northwards, triced up the main and took in the staysail; meanwhile our punt streamed astern with a bucket tied behind her to stop her rearing up and smashing into the transom because of the oncoming waves. All of a sudden there was a shout of alarm from the skipper, “Breakers ahead!” followed by, “Bring her round to starboard!” I yanked the tiller to port, but our boat would not come round. The beach ahead drew closer. My companion rapidly hauled in the punt until her bow touched our transom, and with all his strength he used a boat hook to hoist the bucket out of the water. “Take her round,” he commanded, and this time she slowly responded. “Up staysail!” and after much noise, snaking of sheets, flapping of canvas, the sail was hoisted, and ‘Petrel’ gradually clawed to windward, up and over the advancing waves.

It had been a near miss. We both realized we had not allowed for the east-going tide, and no doubt our course steering had not been too clever, consequently we had run up the eastern side of Prawle Point, mistaking it for the eastern side of Bolt Head.

As we sailed seaward the fog lifted, and for a second time we made for the entrance of Salcombe where the flooding tide took us to a peaceful anchorage in The Bag. Back in 1950 that stretch of water was an idyllic spot where there were only a few moorings and a houseboat nestled close to Snapes Point. The most delicious fresh prawns were there for the taking among the seaweed.

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