Again, this is for Pendantry.
I left yesterday’s post with the statement: “However, getting to Gibraltar was not without its challenge for we suffered a knockdown and this scared us both to the core.”
This is the account of that knockdown.
So this was it, the end of life. This is what that end felt like. A lifetime of experiences reduced to this stilled moment; all my hopes, dreams, pleasures, memories, everything shrunk to this tiny moment of now.
I knew, in some trance-like way, that if just one of those foaming, giant waves swept across us, so utterly over-whelmed as we were on our side, it would flood the cabin, and down Dave and I and the yacht would go.
Other sensations came to me. Feelings of quiet, of calm, even of peace. My world now reduced to close, intimate dimensions. To the yacht’s wheel, to which I so grimly hung. To the front edge of the port cockpit seat, now underneath me, against which I braced my feet. To the starboard guardrail, bizarrely above my head, and to those raging seas so very close that seemed to beckon, ‘Give up, give up now and slip away.’
Me and Dave, alone in this Mediterranean storm 10 days West of Cyprus, are going to drown, founder without trace in these vast waves and probably end up not being missed for many days. Our dream of sailing across the Atlantic snuffed out as easily as Songbird of Kent would sink the 5,000 feet down to the seabed. The futility of it all.
It was a strange, detached perspective that hardly registered the gusts coming at us like great padded hammers. This unimaginable gale that had Songbird of Kent, my floating home for the last 5 years, totally pressed down on her port side, even though the yacht offered nothing more to the winds than her bare mast and rigging.
From within the cabin, Dave could do no more than simply watch. Hunkered down outside, I could do no more than simply hang-on. Both of us transfixed in this stillness of life’s imminent ending. Dave would later say no words would ever properly describe what his eyes had seen.
My past life, rather ominously, started running before me. How one year, in the early 1950s, when I was 7 or 8 years old, my parents had rented a holiday villa in the French Atlantic coastal town of Arcachon. What a glorious summer holiday that had been.
Arcachon’s beautifully sheltered bay had enabled me to learn to swim. The buoyant sea-water helping me increase the number of strokes each day, until one afternoon I had swum out to a yacht anchored well off the beach. As I hung on to the anchor chain, panting hard, the owner looked over the guardrail. Next, me being rowed back to the beach in a dinghy and then everyone getting to know Englishman John Calvert, a solo sailor living aboard his yacht, Garrawog.
Next year we had holidayed again in Arcachon and found Garrawog moored in the small yacht harbour. I recalled fond memories of sitting in the cabin with my father and John Calvert, drinking lemonade, eating cream crackers and loving the cosiness of it all.
Then the amazing coincidence when the following year we had holidayed at the French Mediterranean town of Menton and Garrawog had sailed into the harbour. That had led to John taking us sailing along the coast, memories so vivid, all these years later, of helping to haul sails, steer Garrawog, even remembering the gentle nudge of the yacht into the waves.
I was clear how those memories had fuelled my romantic obsession with sailing. How as a young teenager growing up in London I had joined the Welsh Harp sailing club, based at a large lake, well a reservoir, just three miles from home, and learnt to sail a dinghy. All fuelling this fascination with the sea. Yet that romantic obsession didn’t revolve around idyllic meanderings along the Mediterranean coastline. No, my dreams involved ocean sailing. Not even as part of a crew, but sailing, single-handed, across the oceans.
I had devoured every book written by those sailors who, totally alone, had journeyed the vast oceans in a small yacht. Joshua Slocum, who wrote of his solo trip around the world in his yacht, Spray, way back in 1895. Master English navigator, Francis Chichester, who conceived the idea of a single-handed yacht race across the Atlantic ocean, later completing a round-the-world solo circumnavigation in his yacht, Gipsy Moth IV. Eric Tabarly, Chay Blyth, Robin Knox-Johnston and many more.
I reflected how that dream had remained with me for years. All through nearly 20 years as a salesman and entrepreneur to the point when, quite suddenly, on a Monday in the Spring of 1986, uncharacteristically I had nothing in my diary for that day, or for many days ahead. I had just sold my thriving company in Colchester and there was no longer a job to go to!
Then not so long after I had taken a holiday in Larnaca and in wandering around the marina I had seen Songbird of Kent for sale, and had bought it! I had previously read about Tradewind yachts and knew how many had made world circumnavigations. Thus by the end of 1986, my new address had become: Yacht ‘Songbird of Kent’, Larnaca Marina, Cyprus.
A shout from Dave jerked me back to the real world.
“Hey, is it my imagination or is that wind easing?”
I lifted my head and turned my face into the weather coming full at us. The seas were just as terrible but, yes, something was different, some subtle lowering of the tone of the wind.
“Dave, you’re right, it has eased back a bit. We’re not so pressed down, are we?”
“Don’t think so. What do you reckon?”
“Not sure what to do, frankly these conditions scare the shit out of me!”
In the subtlest way imaginable, Songbird provided the answer. The yacht now showed some response to the waves rather than previously being so overwhelmed. A tiny thought entered my mind, something I hardly dared acknowledge: Songbird is not going to founder.
Those 3 tons of lead at the bottom of Songbird’s keel were, at last, overcoming the wind pressure on her topsides and with seawater cascading down from the mast and rigging, the yacht slowly righted and bestowed on me and Dave the continuation of our lives. A miracle of miracles!
I quickly helmed the bow round to point us downwind, putting the full force of the gale directly aft. Within moments, a wave slowly started to overtake us but I couldn’t do anything other than keep my eyes on the mast-head wind-vane that, against all odds, had stayed intact during the knock-down. Watching the arrow head that absolutely had to keep pointing directly into the wind. We may be upright but one slip of steering, one moment’s loss of concentration and I knew we would slew broadsides to the seas and go over again.
I couldn’t believe the size of this wave that lifted us up and up, as if we were in giant, invisible hands. Up to the foaming crest from which was revealed, all around us, wild, angry, jagged waves, huge crests covered in white foam, an Alpine-like scene of raging hell as far as the eye can see. A vista of utter desolation.
Then the foaming crest moved ahead of us and Songbird slid down that vast lee of the wave, down towards the trough that lay behind us. Our bowsprit pointed directly into the dark green water ahead, water streaked with spume, as down and down we went until the inevitable arrival of the next wave started us up to another foaming crest.
We had survived what we could never have imagined. Hardly believing it, we intuitively knew that surviving that first wave increased the odds of us surviving the next few. Then the next few, and the next few until, against all expectations, we knew we stood a chance of living through it all.
I spotted something in the water and shouted, “Dave, look, look there in the water, just to our left. That bit of sail, surely not from our mainsail?”
As we ran before the weather, a scrap of white sail had surged past our side, a piece of sail bearing the number 33 and two palm trees, the symbol of a Tradewind 33 yacht.
Dave laughed, “I can’t believe that, Paul. It’s from the mainsail that blew out when the gale first struck. How amazing! It must be from us, can’t be too many other Tradewind 33s out here!“.
“Imagine that, Dave, after all that we have been through these past few hours, we’ve just sailed by a bit of our mainsail, close enough to have grabbed it.”
That triggered my mind as to when this terrible experience started. How long ago was that? I didn’t have a clue, though surely it couldn’t have been much more than an hour or so ago. Indeed, I struggled to think what day it was, then realised it was Thursday, October 8th, 1992. Just 24 hours since we had left the dirty, commercial port of Algiers for the last leg of our trip from Larnaca in Cyprus to Gibraltar.
“Dave, hand me the log, it’s at the back of the chart table.”
Thursday, 8th October, 1992.
08:20 Sea state terrible.
I recalled how the dawn had revealed banks of low angry clouds, skidding across the tops of a nasty swell, made even worse by a vicious cross-swell. The next entry after that read,
09:00 Sky extremely threatening. Wind NE F4. Just 16 miles east of Greenwich meridian.
Then we had approximately 3 hours of sailing to go before we crossed Greenwich. On to the last entry,
12:00 Sea extremely ugly, Wind NNE F5. Longitude 2 minutes East of Greenwich.
Just 15 minutes from crossing that historical navigational line. I recalled how we had chatted about sharing a glass of something to celebrate ‘crossing the line’! Then how my words had been torn away when, in a seeming instant of time, this huge squall had come out of the North, heralding this vast, cauldron of a storm. The mainsail, even tripled-reefed, was way too much sail. But it was far too dangerous to leave the cockpit to drop the sail, too much to do anything other than hang on.
The mainsail failed, ripped into shreds as it tore away from the mast-track and disappeared into the storm. The sounds of the event obliterated by the screaming noise of a wind that I had guessed was now more than 50 knots. The rain and spray had stung my face so hard that I needed to turn my head away just to breathe. Clearly something had to give; I expected the mast to fail.
But it didn’t! Instead, as the wind force grew and grew, it steadily pressed us further and further over until Songbird ended up fully horizontal to the sea. It seemed a lifetime ago.
I looked at my watch: 5.30pm. To hell and back in so few hours!
“Dave, what’s our position?”
Dave ducked out of sight to read the GPS, came back out with a slip of paper on which he had written our position: Eight minutes of longitude west of the Greenwich meridian. We were now in the Western hemisphere!
“Come on, Dave, you take the wheel. I’m going to fetch a couple of beers.”
“I reckon a double celebration, Paul, crossing the Meridian and living to tell the tale!”
We drank our beers, chit-chatted about nothing much, both aware that we had literally stared into the abyss of a dark watery grave, and sailed on.
Just before 13:00 on Saturday, October 10th, Songbird rounded Gibraltar’s breakwater, briefly rolled in the cross-swell, and slipped into the calm waters of the inner harbour.
Soon we were safe and secure in a marina berth, a few minutes walk from good food and friendly bars. Our experiences rapidly migrated into the private worlds of our minds, as if discussing it openly might replay it all with a different, more tragic, outcome.
I struggled through those first nights of sleep. Again and again I awoke, panic across my chest, clinging to the sides of my bunk, trying to lay all the nightmares to rest. Slowly, those October days resting up in Gibraltar shone a light on this sailing obsession. How, with the sudden death of my father in 1956, those memories of idyllic times in and around Garrawog had buried themselves deep into my hidden emotional world. How dreams of sailing had more to do with keeping the memory of my father alive than with anything else.
That gale expunged the obsession. I never sailed on Songbird again or, for that matter, on any other sailing vessel. Paid crew eventually returned Songbird to England, where she was subsequently sold.
I would never forget the stillness I had experienced in the midst of all that chaos, but one knock-down in a lifetime was more than enough.
This is absolutely a true account of what happened. Yes, an intimate, personal account of what happened but accurate down to the last detail.
I am so pleased I kept a written account of the knockdown all those years ago for if I was to recall it today then much of the detail would have been lost. Maybe lost as a result of old age or lost as a consequence of not wanting it in one’s mind. Who knows.
Finally, there are no photographs because we just had more important things to look after – keeping ourselves alive!