Here comes the Spring 2013 issue – Perils of the Sea, but music, boatbuilding and the odd corners of the world where humans meet seals
Julian van Hasselt sails in the 1974 Round Britain Race
In June 1974 I boarded the train to Inverness. I had shoulder-length hair and wore purple flared needlecord trousers. My foul-weather gear consisted of a pair of bright orange fisherman’s trousers with a horribly overtight elastic waistband, and a pair of dubious plimsolls which I also used for the occasional game of squash.
We got to work loading provisions on board. Our seagoing preparations went well until Jock hoisted me in the bosun’s chair to the main masthead to check whatever it was that needed checking up there. At the top, everything seemed to be in order, and I shouted down to tell him so. He began to lower away. As he did so the wind lifted my billowing locks, and they became jammed in the halyard sheave. ‘UP!’ I yelled frantically. The hair wound inexorably round the sheave, drawing my scalp remorselessly into the masthead. Soon I could neither go up nor down, my head anchored to the mast. When Jock had stopped laughing he hoisted a pair of scissors up on the burgee halyard and I managed to cut myself loose.
Tom Cunliffe tells the story of Brixham and its trawlers:
Of all the fishing craft from the days of ‘wooden ships and iron men’, the trawler was probably the most charismatic. The other big boats were the lug-rigged drifters, silent ghosts sliding over the night-black seas to cheat the silver herring into mile long nets; but these were light-footed gypsies compared with the macho powerhouse that was a sailing trawler.
Large British sailing trawlers reached the peak of their development in two main areas: the east coast stations of Hull, Grimsby and Lowestoft, and the Devon ports of Brixham and Plymouth. Few would argue with the proposition that the Devon boats were sweeter-lined, and the Brixham boats became a legend for their grace and seakeeping ability.
Webb Chiles has a spot of bother while attempting a transPacific voyage in a Drascombe Lugger:
I left the Royal Suva Yacht Club dock at 1100 on Wednesday 7 May 1980. The packing and plastic bagging and stowing had taken longer than usual; but by 1030 everything was in place.
I still had a dollar of Fijian small change, so I walked to the yacht club bar and ordered a pitcher of Chapman’s, a soft-drink mix of ginger ale and bitters. But I was eager to be off, and left the half-full pitcher on the table. Within a week I would be dreaming of it: bubbles rising through amber liquid, ice cubes tinkling, beads of condensation forming along the rim.
For three days we sailed west before twenty-five to thirty-knot winds and ten to fifteen-foot waves. On Saturday, the wind and waves eased to eighteen knots and four to six feet. That night I fell asleep at 0830 in the belief that I would have my first real rest since leaving Suva. Just before 1030 Chidiock slid down a wave and pitchpoled.
Captain Richard Woodman sails on a weather ship:
I joined the owsWeather Monitor in early December. She lay alongside the James Watt Dock in Greenock – an ungainly object, with a dull grey hull and hideous orange upperworks designed for conspicuity at sea. She had been built as hms Pevensey Castle in January 1944 and still had her Squid mortar and Bofors aa armament, all of it now cocooned. Her four-inch gun had been replaced by a deckhouse containing deep-sea sounding equipment. Her after deck was dominated by a hangar for the balloons we flew at regular six-hour intervals, and the accumulators that produced the hydrogen to provide their lift. Each balloon carried a radiosonde for transmitting air pressure and temperature. Above the bridge loomed an elderly but powerful air search radar, which tracked the balloons, giving us upper wind speed and direction until they burst.
Richard Sadler makes a worrying analysis of British sea trade in the twenty-first century:
I have always been fascinated by an assertion that merchant shipping is the biggest poker game in the world. I increasingly believe that it resembles not so much poker as roulette.
Roulette allows players to bet on a single number, a range of numbers, red or black, odd or even, or zero. In their casino, shipowners regularly bet on deploying a single dry fleet, a mixed wet and dry fleet, big ships, small ships, new efficient ships or cheaper secondhand ships. The choices are similar to those in roulette, not least in the uncertainty of their outcomes; and the potential return is as varied.
E B White meditates on owning sailing boats:
I have noticed that most men, when they enter a barber shop and must wait their turn, drop into a chair and pick up a magazine. I simply sit down and pick up the thread of my sea wandering, which began more than fifty years ago and is not quite ended. There is hardly a waiting room in the East that has not served as my cockpit, whether I was waiting to board a train or to see a dentist. And I am usually still trimming sheets when the train starts or the drill begins to whine.
Adrian Morgan builds a clinker boat:
First, you will need a tree. Well, one and a half trees: Scottish larch for the planking, and a bit of English oak for the steam-bent frames known as timbers. Catching the right larch is not as easy as it sounds. In former times estate woodsmen would brash off branches as they grew. This meant that when the tree was felled eighty or more years later, the heartwood would be largely free of what the Vikings called drowning knots – the loose ones that pop out like little bungs in the middle of the North Sea. Nowadays woodsmen are less active, and much of the larch will be too knotty to be useful.
A good tree will have been bred in open country. It will probably be an Edwardian or Victorian tree, planted and tended expressly for building clinker boats: a tree straight of limb and narrow of growth rings; slow grown, resinous, but without too many resin pockets; and of a fine shade of light reddish-brown that will darken with age.
Martin Thomas tells the story of curvy and its treatment:
A midshipman, Frederick Hoffman, wrote in 1794: ‘Twenty men who looked like bloated monsters were removed on shore and we buried them up to their chins. Some boys were sent with the sufferers to keep flies from their faces. After two hours they were dug out and four days later had recovered.’ Oddly enough, the burial method was the only one that stood any chance of working – for the simple reason that if sailors were to be buried up to their chins, they had to be on land, where they would be likely to be fed the fresh fruit and vegetables that were the disease’s cure.
Steffan Meyric Hughes winds his way among the eels of London:
Under the city-light reflections on the river’s inky surface, solitary creatures slide out of the wrecks and the mud. They are probably the only things in London that have been around longer than the river itself. They can survive in almost any sort of water: fresh, salt, still or flowing. When there is no water they will travel over land, absorbing oxygen through their skin and eating worms and, according to legend, mice and baby rabbits.
They have come all the way across the Atlantic, via Mucking and Dagenham, from their birthplace in the Sargasso Sea. A community of these ancient monsters will live for decades in the fashionable waters off Chelsea. One night a few autumns on, they will catch another tide, an ebb this time, back into the North Sea
David Thomson travels in the strange regions where humans and seals overlap:
I remember her arms. They only came down a little below where the elbows should be and they were supposed to be flattish, but you never really saw them because she wore big sleeves, and I think they were sewn up at the ends. But they looked flattish, like flippers, and she held them against her sides or across her chest and she moved them rather awkwardly. But you could never see her legs. We always wanted to. We wanted to see her in her bath and of course we couldn’t, and it was terrible, I remember, never being able to know, and we couldn’t get proper answers from anyone. And, you see, she was always in the same kind of dress – a long, long grey shiny dress, silk I think, that fastened at the neck with a close collar and came right down to the ground and hid everything.
Anthony Powers explores the seagoing compositions of a landbound composer:
Ralph Vaughan Williams was not a seafarer. Indeed, as a youngish man he nearly drowned swimming alone off the Yorkshire coast. He was a native of Gloucestershire and a resident of Surrey and his beloved London. Until extreme old age and the encouragement of a much younger second wife, he was not even a particularly enthusiastic traveller beyond Britain’s shores. Yet two of his works – the famous choral and orchestral A Sea Symphony, and the almost unknown but remarkable opera Riders to the Sea – are vividly briny. His music is further proof, if any were needed, that in any recipe for art imagination is the defining ingredient and experience merely a useful addition to the mix.