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Nearly Shipwrecked

In 1968 helped my uncle take a boat called Truant from Plymouth to Gibraltar.

The crew consisted of my uncle who was a retired Navy Cmdr, a retired RAF group Capt, a medical student and me a 22-year-old merchant seaman with a second mate’s certificate.

For the first couple of days were uneventful and the weather fine and when out of sight of land I was got a couple of running fixes on sun and stars, however on passing Ushant the weather turned into a north-westerly Gale. Fortunately the wind was mainly astern so it wasn’t too uncomfortable, but as the sky was overcast (with occasional heavy rain showers) I couldn’t get any more fixes and reverted to DR.  I kept two plots, based on the best and worst speeds that we might be making and to be on the safe side made both parameters excessive.


Two days after the last proper fix when I thought that at best speed (8 knots)we might be coming in range of Cape Villano light, I suggested (despite protests from my elders and betters) that we mount a lookout at the bow equipped with binoculars. Fortunately this only lasted for about four hours. I was on the lookout when Cape Villano and Light  came in view and based on the bearing and dipping distance put a position on the chart although its accuracy was dependent on the accuracy of the distance. At this point myself and uncle went off watch relieved by the Group Capt and medical student. When we came on watch again it was to a sunny morning with a shallow sea fog surrounding us. You could see the sky quite clearly but horizontal visibility was probably less than 100 yards. The group Captain hadn’t put any positions on the chart during the night and I asked him at what time and distance did he think that Villano Light had passed abeam, he reckoned we’d passed about 10 miles off.

As there was now no wind we took down the main sail and and I inadvertently let go the main halyard which promptly whizzed up to the masthead  sheave, fortunately (as George Miller records in his book) Truant had ratlines and it wasn’t hard to climb within reach of the halyard end.

Climbing the ratlines I emerged on top of the fog and hearing seagulls looked towards the noise and saw a rocky cliff top around which the birds were wheeling,only 100 yards or so away, we were heading straight for it.

I descended the mast and into the wheelhouse in an amazingly short  time kicked startled group Capt off the wheel wound it hard to starboard and pulled the starboard gear lever straight through to astern fortunately we had been keeping the revs to about 1200rpm (to save fuel) otherwise I might have wrecked the clutch and gearbox.

We kept a reciprocal course for an hour then steamed West for another two. I reckoned we had nearly run ashore on a bit that sticks out just north of Finisterre.

We the set a course to Vigo. The visibility didn’t improve much although it went from sea fog to rain and drizzle with visibility up to just a couple of hundred yards. We got into Vigo on line of soundings and the first thing we saw was the fairway buoy.

All in all it was a very long day .

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Categories: General
  1. Sipu
    February 12, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    Jazz, you have a good memory. I did a sailing trip once, from Cape Town to Dartmouth in 1986. 10 weeks at sea. Very exciting it was too. I blogged on it on the other site. You were lucky to escape that rock. I counted myself very lucky not to be run down by a ship in the middle of the Atlantic. It just seemed to head directly towards us. We were becalmed and were forced to motor. But even so, no matter what direction I headed for, I think it was port, but I am not a sailor and cannot remember, the ship just kept on coming. It was dark, there was no sat-nav and the only other chap on the boat was the skipper, who was fast asleep. In the end it missed us by a good distance, but it was pretty scary at the time.

    I am having dinner tonight with an old Naval Commander who used to sail a lot. He was on the famous Fastnet Race when all those people drowned, back in 1979, I think it was. He was also on the bridge of the King George V when it help sink the Bismarck.

  2. jazz606
    February 12, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    Sipu

    A lot of those people drowned on the Fastnet because they didn’t know how to rig a sea anchor and lie to it. Others abandoned perfectly seaworthy vessels for life rafts their boats were subsequently found still afloat. Unfortunately Edward Heath survived.

  3. Sipu
    February 12, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Jazz, unfortunate indeed. Dreadful little turd. Though by then, the damage had been done. Speaking of sea anchors, we ran into a little problem of the West coast of Africa. Actually we were in the middle of the ocean, but due west of Senegal. There were 4 of us on board. I woke up one morning to a rough seas and went on deck to find a hell of a rumpus going on. The skipper, whose name was Jim, was trying to calm down the other two, a husband and wife team who were protesting that the boat was going to sink. I asked what the story was. They claimed that in the rough seas, we had sprung a leak and that water was coming through the hull through a crack which was visible in the heads. Jim suggested I go and have a look. I did and concluded that the water there was no more than had been there throughout the trip to date. The other two were not having it. The insisted we go over the side and have a look. So we pulled down the sails and tied a couple of buckets to ropes and flung them over the side. In my innocence I was about to dive overboard to have a look at the hull. Fortunately Jim stopped me and told me to tie a rope around my waist. He did the same and jumped over port and I went over starboard. To be honest, I could not see a damn thing. The boat was bobbing up and down, and despite the rope, I could not begin to keep up with it as the wind blew it through the ocean. Thank God, and Jim that I was tied on. In any event, eventually I clambered back on board and announced that all was well. Jim made the same report. The other two were not having it and so we had to turn right and sail for a few days to the Cape Verde Islands where we dropped them off, to fly back to SA. I never heard from them again. jim asked if I wanted to go with them, but I reasoned that if he thought it was safe enough to risk his life, it would be safe enough to risk mine and so I carried on. What a great adventure it was too. Anyway, that was when I learned what a sea anchor was.

  4. sheona
    February 12, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    Thanks for a very interesting post, Jazz606, leading to Sipu’s equally interesting comments.

  5. Janus
    February 12, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    Was Edward Heath just a bad sailor or did he offend some other sensitvities too?

  6. tocino
    February 12, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    An interesting read Jazz. I remember reading your Sipu on the other site. Equally good reading.

    Thank you both.

  7. christinaosborne
    February 12, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    Thank you for the stories.
    I’m afraid they confirm my opinion of bodies of water bigger than a bath tub!
    Give me a mountain any day!

  8. February 12, 2010 at 6:40 pm

    Hello Jazz and Sipu: Good stories both, I am an avid sailor and have been for many years, here’s a piccy of me hard at it in the caribbean, luckily it’s not all drama or we would not do it.

  9. jazz606
    February 12, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    Sipu

    All ships lifeboats (well British ones anyway) carried proper sea anchors. They were a canvas cone about 2ft in diameter at the wide end and about 4ins diameter at the narrow end acting as a drogue when streamed on about 10 fathoms of 2½ ins manila. The narrow end had a tripping line of probably 1 ins rope for recovering the drogue. Also there was a small canvas bag which could be filled with colza oil (1 gallon can of this carried). The oil formed a skin (or slick) on the surface of the sea as the boat drifted to leeward which prevented waves breaking over the boat.

  10. Sipu
    February 12, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    Jazz, I did not know that. My trip was the first and last sailing adventure of my life. But I would dearly love to cross another ocean. The boat I went on was only 30 feet. It was a bit small, even when there were only two of us. Next time at least 45′. There is nothing to beat being strapped in with the boat heeled over, waves crashing over the deck and not a speck of land for a 1,000 miles. Scary as hell, but damned exciting.

  11. boadicea
    February 12, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    Thanks for taking the time to write this Jazz, and thanks to Sipu for your contribution.

    I love boats. I once owned an old thirty foot boat that had been used in the Dunkirk rescue operation. It was safely moored on the Thames by the time I had it. I have nothing but admiration for those who faced the Channel is such a tiny vessel.

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