Extracts from the The Marine Quarterly - Winter 2011

The Winter 2011-12 issue is home to some winter reading about lighthouses, some summer thoughts about tortoises, and just about everything in between.

Ewen Southby-Tailyour celebrates his sixtieth birthday with a cruise:
As soon as we had transited a narrow passage through which there is no return in an onshore gale, the wind backed and rose to Force 9, blowing dead onshore. We were forced to tow warps. Our precious sea room was swallowed up. We were preparing for the worst when a last-minute veer saved the day, allowing us to crash south-eastwards with horrible discomfort in a franticattempt to clear the coast. Then, blast it, a southerly Force 10/11 took charge.

‘Sea anchor?’ muttered the climber, face down in Adlard Coles’s Heavy Weather Sailing.

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘but we haven’t got one.’

Dave let me understand that he considered this to be like climbing without ropes.

‘We’ll make one out of the trysail,’ I said.

He remained unimpressed, but once we had heaved the contraption over the bow, he conceded that it was good enough for the bush.

The cone of danger northwards subtended an angle of fifty degrees either side of the track down which we were now drifting. We could only deviate by a few of those degrees, for the odds on our being rolled were shortening by the minute. The next few hours would not be funny, and I thought it proper to say so, ending with the observation that there are no atheists in a Force 10 or on a battlefield. Dave then pointed out, with Australian embellishments, that if nature doesn’t kill you it toughens you.

What I did not add, not wishing to strike a gloomy note, was that if a depression passing north through the Denmark Strait butts into an equally resolute Arctic high, a southerly gale hereabouts can last ten days.

Roger Taylor muses on drowning:
I was twelve when it happened next. Every Sunday I crossed the sands of Dee from West Kirby to Hilbre Island, for the birds and the wildness and the delicious distance from the mainland. On this day I set off a little late, in thick fog. I did not have a compass, but I had the fresh tracks of three other birdwatchers to follow. Just beyond the Little Eye I came to the first gulley. This is a slight depression in the sand which fills first on the rising tide. I followed the tracks into the gulley, expecting, at this stage of the tide, a stretch of water just a few inches deep and twenty yards or so wide. I knew that once through this shallow water I would come to the rocks that led safely to Hilbre. I waded on. Suddenly the water got deeper, filling my Wellington boots.  Suddenly it was up to my thighs. I stopped and looked around me. There was nothing to see. A silver sea merged into a silver fog. The water was rising quickly. I lost all sense of which way I was supposed to go. This time I did have a life to lose, and some awareness of it. I knew what was going to happen. People drowned out here almost every year, and this year I would be one of them. When the fog cleared I would be found face-down at the tide edge, blue and bloated. There was just one chance. I yelled as loud as I could.

Captain Richard Woodman discusses the lighthouse builders of the southwest:
The builders found a lodgement of some dozen square metres capable of being dressed to accept the first course of interlocking stones. Work began all over again, overseen as before by Nicholas Douglass, now accompanied by his son James, who lived with the workforce on Rosevear, sharing their diet of limpets and puffins’ eggs and joining in their evening concerts, to which he contributed flute solos. James later superseded his father as the overseeing engineer. By 1858 the new tower was completed at a cost of £34,560. The light was first exhibited – ‘put-in’ in lighthouse parlance – on 1 September, and successfully withstood the winter gales.

An extract from ‘Lighthouse’, by Tony Parker:
Right, well we start here then, outside on what we call the set‑off. Can you hear me with this racket going on, the sea battering away round the foot of the tower just below us? I’m not staying outside long, not in a Force 8 and all this bloody water shooting up at us all the time. My God, you are going to be difficult aren’t you? Why is it called the set‑off? I haven’t the faintest idea why it’s called the set‑off. Because it’s a bleeding great circle of concrete base, going down into the sea with the tower set off in the middle of it I suppose. Anyway here we’ve got this kind of circular concrete catwalk, about three feet wide and thirty feet up above the water. This is what you landed on when you came up out of the boat. A rope goes from the top of the tower down to the boat, and it has another rope attached to it from a winch on here. The winch lifts you up and pulls you in towards the set‑off. The winch hasn’t got any brakes on, you have to rely on the strength in the arms of the two men turning the handles. If they were to slip or let you fall, you’d have had it. All right, can we go up now? Thank you, after you.

Sally Kettle, who has done it twice, gives full instructions on how to row an ocean:
Ocean rowing is one of those rare sports where it is possible to compete at an international level without any prior experience, or even proof of the basic skills required to succeed. The only prerequisite for entry in an ocean rowing race seems to be a tinge of madness perched on an excess of bottle. This may explain why Britain, my own motherland, ranks among the great ocean rowing countries. If there is a bloody stupid adventure in prospect, Brits tend to be the first to embark on it. Ocean rowing started with John Ridgeway and Chay Blyth’s famous Atlantic crossing in 1966. The current biennial races, from La Gomera in the Canary Isles to Antigua in the Caribbean, have become an institution. There are of course more comfortable ways of getting to the West Indies. Yet there always seem to be a few crazy Englishmen and women willing to leap aboard a rowboat and set off into the great unknown – many with absolutely no seagoing experience at all. In case you are one of them, this is how it is done.

James Wharram and Hanneke Boon describe their reintroduction of catamarans to the South Seas: In 1840 the London Missionary society, concerned over the ‘nakedness and sex habits’ of the people of the Pacific, went there to ‘convert the natives to Godly ways’. They found the canoe culture of the Polynesians was at the centre of the ‘ungodly ways’. To destroy the root of the immoral society, they had to talk down and destroy their boats. This attitude to the seaworthiness of the Pacific canoe-form craft was still being maintained a hundred years later by Andrew Sharp, a retired New Zealand civil servant, who in the mid 1950s wrote the book Ancient voyages in the Pacific. In this book he wrote that Pacific canoe craft was not capable of sailing to windward. Waves would wash over the decks, he claimed, and the craft would break up in storm conditions. He also denied that there was any evidence they could navigate over long distances.

But his narrative style was as provocative as his theories were misguided. In 1979 Ben Finney in his book Hokule’a, the Way to Tahiti describes how in the late 1950s Andrew Sharp’s theories spurred him to try and prove Sharp wrong. What Finney either did not realise or failed to mention is that Sharp’s theories in relation to sea-going canoe craft had been refuted before Sharp had even written them down.

Oscar Branson exposes the private life of the plankton:
Dawn. Waves catch the first of the morning light and scatter it down through the dark, clear water. Overnight the phytoplankton have been lying dormant, using up the energy reserves they accumulated the previous day. This new light is like a breath of fresh air, and the basic process behind almost all life sputters into action: photosynthesis, turning sunlight and carbon dioxide into sugars and oxygen.

Diatoms with glassy opal shells hang in the water, glittering in the sun – a variety of diamonds, cylinders, and chains. Minute ciliates zip around in the water, propelled by ranks of frantically pulsating hairs. Coccolithophores, round cells covered with intricate calcium carbonate plates, rise slowly to the surface. Peculiarly shaped dinoflagellates progress sedately, powered by two long, thin tail-like flagella. Cyanobacteria rise serenely to the surface, inflating their buoyancy-control gas bubbles… And all this is taking place in a single millilitre.

Ella Westland discusses the sea’s influence on a novelist:
When Charles Dickens published The Tuggses at Ramsgate in a monthly periodical in April 1836, he was an ambitious and unknown writer of twenty-four, unaware that a new character named Mr Pickwick was about to propel him into a dizzying leap forward. Even at this early stage, it was predictable that Dickens would twist a thick nautical strand into the rope of his promising career, since his personal background as well as his publishing apprenticeship pointed from the very start in the direction of the sea.

Graham Faiella gives the facts about an ordinary mutiny:
The sequence of events leading up to news about the mutiny and murders on board the full-rigged ship Lennie was documented in a series of reports from the ‘Casualties’ columns of the daily shipping newspaper, Lloyd’s List. These started from its edition of 12November 1875 and concerned the discovery of a message in a bottle:

Bottle Picked Up Nantes, 11th Nov.- A bottle was picked up, 8th Nov., on the coast of France, containing a paper on which was written in English – ‘Send assistance and police, the crew having killed the master, mate, and boatswain. We left Antwerp for New York on the 23rd Oct., and the mutiny occurred on the 31st. Name of vessel LENNIE, of Yarmouth, Captain Hatfield.’

For steam hands, Nick Walker tells the story of his Puffer:
In around 1880, someone put a steam engine and a boiler in a sailing gabbart, found it difficult to see over the boiler whilst steering from a tiller at the stern, and created a structure on top of the boiler to steer from. Later they put a canvas dodger around the helmsman, and finally built a proper wheel house. It was at this point that the true Puffer was born. VIC 32 was built by Dunston’s of Thorne, Yorkshire, launched on 3 July and delivered to the Admiralty in November 1943.

Neil Munro reports on a confrontation between another great Puffer captain and a lucky beast:
Para Handywith his arms plunged elbow‑deep inside the waistband of his trousers, and his back against a stanchion, conveniently for scratching, touched the animal misgivingly with the toe of his boot, and expressed an opinion that any kind of pet was unnecessary on the Vital Spark so long as they had Macphail. ‘Forbye,’ said he, ‘you would have to pay a licence for the beast, and the thing’s no’ worth it.’

‘Your aunty!’ retorted Sunny Jim, lifting the hedgehog in his cap; ‘it’s no’ a dug. Ye divna need a licence for a hedgehog ony mair nor for a mangle. There’s no’ a better thing for killin’ clocks; a’ the foreign‑goin’ boats hae hedgehogs. Forbye, they’re lucky.’

But the Captain still looked with disapproval on the animal which Sunny Jim had picked up in a ditch along the shore that morning and brought aboard in a handkerchief.