Extracts Autumn 2018

Autumn 2018 - Iceland, Darwin, lobsters and whales.....

Emma Beynon heads north:

I sail on Dolphin, a Bristol Channel pilot cutter. She weighs 20 tonnes, is 38.6 ft long on deck and was built in Porthleven in 1909. With her gaff rig she cuts a fine romantic figure on the horizon. The skipper and owner, Roger Capps, developed a taste for taking Dolphin north. I fell in love with him when she sailed in more temperate climes: Brittany, the Baltic, Northern Norway. When Capps suggested Svalbard I did not think to check the map, I just bought the air ticket, and was surprised to find the airport in Longyearbyen was no more than a corrugated-iron barn at the foot of a snowy mountain, and that it was recommended that everyone carry a rifle when walking through the snowy landscape to deal with polar bears. There was no chance of a return flight.

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Billy 'Scratch' Hitchen finds triumph and near-tragedy in his pots:

In late March 1979 we sailed from Salcombe bound for Rockall, loaded with 550 pots, 2000 gallons of fuel and enough bait, provisions and booze to last about twenty-one days. It was my first visit back to these northern waters since we last fished up there in '75, so I was quite excited by the prospect of around two weeks fishing before we would have to land.     

     An 85-hour steam saw us about 800 miles north of Salcombe, just southwest of the Flannan Isles. I decided to start fishing here and move south as we fished. This was far enough north at this time of year. Fishing was good but patchy.

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Vito Dumas sets off to sail around the world on the 40º south line of latitude:

It was midwinter, and there was a war on. There were German and British warships and submarines in the south Atlantic. It was hardly a safe place for a yacht on a private venture. But Dumas felt time was running out, and that the war might go on for ever.On 27 June 1942, after an emotional farewell from his mother and brother, Dumas set off.

     By the standards of today he was woefully underequipped. He had no radio, no liferaft, no lifejacket, safety harness or flares, precious few tools (he claims in his book that he had only one screwdriver on board) and not even a bilge pump, on the basis that his boat made no water. He had no engine, instruments, winches or other mechanical aids. He did, however, have bulletproof sails, and he lashed a heavy tarpaulin over the cabin top to stop leaks and damage from large seas. The tarpaulin remained for the whole voyage, and as a result the cabin below was in perpetual darkness.

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Harry Ricciardi puts in at St George's, Bermuda:

The first night in Bermuda I got to leave Tösen, my dear twenty-five foot carvel Folkboat, tied up along the quay. Guys working in the kitchen and bussing tables at the restaurant there saw me come in.

    ‘You alone?’ a guy asked, he and a buddy having a cigarette next to the kitchen’s open door.  They must have been closing up.


    ‘You by yourself?’

     My legs were really wobbly. I was altogether kind of fuzzy and lightheaded. I had probably been on the water for thirteen days, and I probably hadn’t eaten that well.  ‘Yeah,’ I told him.

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'Taffrail' to the rescue!

The night came down very dark, with a young moon all but obscured by the wisps of wind-flung cloud streaming across the sky. When full darkness came, the fury of the gale seemed to have increased. It boomed and screeched and howled, until we had to shout to make ourselves heard. We continued on our weary patrol, up and down, to and fro, rolling and pitching, longing only for the time when we could return to harbour.

 It was soon after nine o'clock, when we had nearly reached the southern end of our beat, that we sighted a flickering glare reflected on the undersides of the low clouds far away to the southward. Sometimes it shone redly like a blazing bonfire, sometimes ebbed away to an orange glow. It was a ship on fire; it could be nothing else.

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Richard Crockatt on the Beagle's boats:

The voyage of the Beagle (1831-36) is remembered primarily for its connection with Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution. The association between Darwin and the Beagle had, however, been assured long before the appearance of The Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin’s own account of the voyage, published in 1839 and later given the title The Voyage of the Beagle, was a bestseller, considerably outshining in style and verve the record published simultaneously by the Beagle’s captain, Robert Fitzroy. It is no surprise, therefore, that Darwin’s story has overshadowed the main purpose of the voyage, which was to complete the survey of the South American coast with the aim of producing accurate charts of the region with a view to ensuring Britain’s continuing naval pre-eminence.

     Maritime historians have laboured with good effect to give the Beagle’s survey work its due, but even they have missed an important dimension of the voyage: namely, the role of the ship’s boats in carrying out the Beagle’s mission.

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Nick Walker, Puffer skipper, shares the accumulated wisdom of years:

Burns: learn how to read the Address to the Haggis from the book in the bookshelf and perform it, with appropriate actions.

     On a more serious note, learn how to use the cold-water hose on the starboard side of the engine room adjacent to the door. If anybody, most likely an engineer, is severely burnt, hose the affected area copiously and continue for at least ten minutes. Make sure, if it is a facial burn, you hose all the crevices, under the nose, behind the ears, etc. We have had two burn injuries, both caused by the same act. If an engineer has an oil spillage in the engine room it is very tempting to open the furnace door and throw the oily rag he has mopped up with on to the hot coals. He will not have assumed that the resulting mini-explosion will come straight back at him.

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Martin Woolls, excursion steamer deckhand, reveals the underbelly of a day trip:

The MV Balmoral was berthed on the Swansea ferry wharf. At around 0630 I was slumbering in my bunk when our peace was rudely disturbed by the manic screaming of our South African Bosun Barry: ALL HANDS ON DECK! ALL HANDS ON DECK! Barry had a veritable obsession with hosing and scrubbing Balmoral's decks, and this, allied to a general creepiness around the officers, had made hims somewhat unpopular with the majority of the ship's company.

     It is important to keep ships' decks properly maintained, but you can overdo it.

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Jo Stanley accompanies two women on a famous voyage:

Two footloose white women are the focus. Their voyages began separately, in Barbados, in late April three years after the end of the Second World War. On an island nicknamed ‘Bimshire’ and ‘Little England’ Freya Stark, the famous travel writer, had exhausted her capacity to play the diplomat’s wife, and wanted to escape to her home in Asolo. Her cabinmate, the scandalous writer-publisher and black rights activist Nancy Cunard, was similarly bored with the bridge-playing world at her cousin Edward’s  beachside house in Glitter Bay.

     Around Easter 1948, Caribbean newspapers offered a batch of cheap one-way passages to Britain, the shipping company wanting to avoid loss by filling up berths. The women each booked a ticket.

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Julia Jones sympathises with Jane Austen, faced with two brothers who became admirals:

Fanny Price, heroine of Jane Austen’s third published novel, Mansfield Park (1814), has returned to her parents’ home in Portsmouth with her older brother William, recently commissioned second lieutenant of the Thrush, after an absence of nine years. All that interests her long-lost family is HM sloop Thrush:

'Ha welcome back my boy. Glad to see you. Have you heard the news? The Thrush went out of harbour this morning. […] I should not wonder if you had your orders tomorrow; but you cannot sail with this wind if you are to cruise to the westward; and Captain Walsh thinks you will certainly have a cruise to the westward with the Elephant. By G—-- I wish you may....'

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David Levy and Stephen Eades examine the true state of British fisheries:

The decline in the health and diversity of life in British seas is a subject much reported.  But is this decline real, or is it simply another example of the human tendency to lament change and believe things were better in the past?

     In The Unnatural History of the Sea, (Island Books, 2007) Professor Callum Roberts presents not only documentary evidence of this decline, but also a key concept in our assessment and appreciation of it: the changing baseline. This rests on the idea that each generation evaluates change on the basis of what it encounters when first coming into contact with a subject. If something is common or abundant when first encountered, then this is perceived as the norm.  If the reverse is true, then that is the norm. So if you were born into a world where computers are used by everyone, that seems normal.  Whereas if you were born into a world where they had not yet been used, then the change they have created is profound.

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Emily Painter shares the private life of the minke whale:

The sea by Coll is like grey glass. Ardnamurchan hangs jagged across the northeastern horizon. There are porpoises out here, rolling, and flocks of Manx shearwaters waiting for the breeze that will bring them the updraughts they use for their low-level aerobatics. Beyond the raft of birds a long black back comes up, and rolls, and keeps on rolling, as long as Old Man River. Then there is a little hooked fin, and the back plunges down and away with scarcely a swirl, and the sea is grey glass again....

And of course there are North Sea News, Flotsam and Jetsam, book reviews, seamanship, eccentricity, extracts from the classics, and the thoughts of tugmaster and tobacco smuggler Ray Doggett – all decorated with the fine drawings of Claudia Myatt. Welcome aboard once more.