Short extracts from articles in the Spring 2011 edition of The Marine Quarterly
Roger Taylor on passage to the Azores in his 21ft Corribee Mingming
By Wednesday the fourth of June, our fifth day at sea, we were bucking along close-hauled under one panel in a half-gale. With this first proper blow came a mess of cross-seas and a good dose of chilliness, but this after all was Biscay, whose two syllables evoke a library-load of heavy weather legend. In truth it was a half-hearted affair that fell far short of what might reasonably be expected hereabouts. For a day or so it kept us pinned down as we fore-reached grumpily south in a colourless world relieved only by the passing of a bright red tanker, the BW Fjord, that heaved by close on the starboard beam. For another night we bashed on. Then suddenly, out of the frigid pallor of an Atlantic dawn, there it was. A northerly! And not just any old northerly, but a wonderful, fresh, Force 5 northerly that scattered all cloud to the far horizons and left the scene clear for a flood of unadulterated sunshine. With two panels set we raced downwind, skirts up in a field of blue, skipping and gambolling, pushed on by the gentle hills rolling underfoot, delirious at this sudden change of fortune.
A Victorian childhood on Scilly, as lived by Charlotte ‘Babs’ Dorrien Smith and her four sisters
We children had then a toy fleet, the Royal Illiswillgig Navy. The scale was nine inches to a hundred feet. We made everything in the workshop, turning brass guns and making torpedo nets of brass wire. Guns in the turrets could fire. There were two cruisers, a gunboat, two destroyers and a battleship launched by the Duchess of Wellington with hock in a shearwater’s egg. When Edward VII came just before the Coronation we had the fleet afloat on the pond with three batteries. We filled the guns with black powder and with the help of bamboo sticks and fuses managed a Royal Salute. The King was much amused. In earlier years his brother Henry came while our father was away and had lunch with us five. He enjoyed sailing and fishing in his schooner so much he forgot time till a telegram arrived from Queen Victoria ordering him to return at once. The Prince looked at us and said, ‘Is there any wind, children?’ ‘No!’ we chorused. And he stayed.
Alex Ramsay decides to sail to Greenland
Smell, it is said, is the strongest stimulant to memory of all the senses. For some it may be the smell of perfume, for others the scent of a flower. My own most significant smell will always be the cloying odour of meths, evoking not the memory of a seriously misspent youth, but the recollection of many hours spent urging an old primus stove into life in the galley of Bill Tilman’s pilot cutter Baroque. In 1974 I was working as a photographic printer in a sleazy lab in an even sleazier part of South London. I was hard at work enlarging the usual batch of unpleasantly personal snaps of the customers’ partners in their more intimate moments when the telephone rang. It was a friend, John Shipton, and there was urgency in his voice. He said, ‘Can you come and cook on a three months’ voyage to the Arctic? We sail in two days’ time.’ The destination was to be Ellesmere Island, 76º north, in Baffin Bay between Greenland and Canada. I had never set foot on a small boat in my life, which seemed as good a reason as any to accept.
Tristan Gooley explains the compassless navigational systems of Micronesian islanders
All celestial objects – the sun, moon, stars and planets – will rise and set at an angle relative to your horizon. This angle is known as your ‘colatitude’, which is 90 degrees minus your latitude. This angle does not change if your latitude does not change. The closer you are to the equator the steeper this angle will be. At the equator itself all celestial objects will rise and set vertically. (This is the reason why the sun and stars at the North and South Poles do not appear to rise or set at all, but wheel around parallel to the horizon – 90º minus 90º equals zero). This steep rising and setting angle gave the Pacific navigators a huge advantage when using the stars to find their way. Once they had identified a rising star in the east, they could steer by this same star for hours, and its bearing would remain almost constant. The same exercise further from the equator does not work nearly as well; at the latitude of the UK, if a star is on the right bearing at a given time it will have moved off that bearing twenty minutes later. This dependability led to a system that we have come to think of as a ‘star compass’.
Tom Cunliffe writes a brief history of tugboats
In the days before radio communications, striking a bargain was left to ships’ captains and tug masters. Little quarter was asked or given. Tug skippers would often make unreasonable demands, expecting them to be turned down while knowing full well that the tables might shortly turn in their favour. A typical example took place when a sailing-ship master refused a £50 offer to tow thirty miles or so into harbour. The tug went on her way. That evening, now in a stiff onshore wind, she found the same ship hanging off the rocks by two anchors and fervent prayer. ‘£150, Captain!’ demanded the tug skipper with a straight face ‘Robber!’ bawled the captain. ‘I’m further in than I was before.’ ‘In more ways than one,’ responded the tugman, perched up on the paddle box above his pitching deck and looking pointedly into the rapidly rising wind. ‘I’ll hang on here for a while till it blows up a bit. When you start dragging, the price goes up to three hundred.’ He got the job.
Excerpts from an Alphabet compiled by Nick Walker, Captain of the last steam Puffer on the West Coast of Scotland
C is for COAL. ‘Why don’t you convert to diesel?’ is the question most commonly asked of a coal-fired steamboat mariner. I was taught the answer years ago by Bob Adam: ‘Because it doesn’t stay on the shovel, mate’. We used to buy our coal from a blind coal broker. His speciality was Coventry coal from Daw Mill. It would arrive in a 23-ton lorry. The driver would say, ‘Sign here, mate’, and would then tip the whole load onto the quay. Just before a French adventure in 1977 I had ordered just such a load, as I had heard that French coal was expensive and awful. It was dumped on the path beside some very posh offices in St. Katharine’s Dock, and the janitor was getting overexcited. We had previously manoeuvred the boat across the dock from our normal berth and had been preparing for the great journey across the Channel. I suddenly remembered that we had not received a survey report from Frank Bandy. We had been expecting this to show to our insurance company, and without it we would not be going to France. I rang Frank up, and he apologised profusely, saying he had forgotten to post it. As there was now no time to receive the report by post, he volunteered to leave it in his garage, and I could help myself to it any time that day, as he was going out. I duly set off by car, (Citroen DS 19), leaving Rachel to load the 23 tons of coal into the boat.
James Long on Truant
Amongst my favourite books is one that has three heroes. Two of them, George and Isabel Millar, are dead now, and I wish I had known them. The third is ninety-one years old, and to my complete delight I met her this year. She is the Millars’ auxiliary ketch Truant, currently lying alongside Redcliffe Wharf in the centre of Bristol. As I write these words I am sitting in her wheelhouse, staring at the wheel with which the newly-married couple steered her across the Channel in 1946, through the canals and rivers of France, to Mediterranean ports torn apart by explosives and littered with wrecks. They groped their way past Italy and on to Greece through waters where the minefields were still being cleared, stopping in harbours where thieves abounded and supplies commanded black-market prices. They were maritime novices, learning as they went. Isabel Millar was petite with a cloud of frizzy hair. George Millar described himself as ‘a weedy young man of slightly effeminate aspect.’ That effeminate aspect fooled many people, and some of them had died as a result. Millar was already a war hero as a Desert Rat before he was captured in North Africa, escaped from a train near Munich and made it home to England.
Lewis Page asks, ‘Who needs a Navy?’
Britain is an island nation, sitting next to one of the world’s great sea lanes, with extensive offshore resources, its economy dependent on foreign trade, and its financial centres still dominant in worldwide shipping. Britain is also the world’s third or fourth highest-spending military power, and possesses the only true form of nuclear deterrent – assured second strike by unstoppable ballistic missiles fired from constantly patrolling submarines impossible to locate. Evidently Britain needs control of the sea. Surely, then, it needs a navy? The answer to this question is not as obvious as it looks.