Features Profiles A baptism by fire ... and scotch
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A baptism by fire ... and scotch

The last of the tide came flowing up the muddy river, gently floating the Nomad from her winter cradle.

Griffiths became a skilled sailor with a theatrical nature.With the enthusiasm, ignorance and invincibility of youth, I was about to venture to sea for the first time. We were young, and the boat was old. I was to realize years later that this was an age-old recipe for disaster.

We retired to the cozy cabin of the converted 1911 sailing lifeboat to sip tea. The interior was romantically aglow by the kerosene lamps. No premonition or doubt entered my young head that we were about to sail not into adventure, but into a truly terrifying saga of the sea. After tea, the Nomad now fully afloat, John outlined the plan. We would take the boat out into the middle of the river and anchor for the night. And then tomorrow we would sail for France. It was romantic music for a young man’s ears, as I had never left England’s shores, and I was to become a real sailor.

John, looking like a man who hoped, rather than expected, the ancient engine would start, went through the primitive procedures, and with the fourth swing of the starting handle it stuttered to life with a belch of smoke. And I was to have my first taste of the responsibility of the sailorman.

For the uninitiated, a boat is held to land by dock ropes, better known as lines, which are divided into bow lines, stern lines and spring lines. Looking back, I now realized that John was not that much more nautically knowledgeable than I. And to make the maneuver of leaving the dock easier, he elected to leave all the dock lines behind and retrieve them later. And so my first task as a sailor was, when he shouted, “Let go,” to just throw them over the side into the water.

In my own mind, I immediately questioned this bizarre and reckless behavior. But as ordered, I threw what appeared to me expensive and valuable lines over the side. Then, with another belch of smoke, the old Nomad slid into reverse from her winter nest, and we backed gracefully out into the middle of the river.

The five-minute trip to the center of the river was truly thrilling. For the first time in my life — yet for what was to be many thousands of times — I heard the splash of an anchor and the roar of the chain through the hawse pipe. And when the boat had swung to the tide, the never-ending tea was consumed in the saloon.

Now came my first taste of the nightmare of responsibility, when John asked me to retrieve the ropes that I — or we — had so stupidly thrown over the side. It was futile for me to babble that I had never rowed a dinghy before, and he muttered something about “Learn and you’ll pick it up.”

And so, on my first mission at sea, I rowed on this great responsible task of retrieving the ropes, thinking as I struggled to learn the physics of rowing that this sailing business was more mysterious and had more responsibility involved than I had envisaged. But I was a determined young twit, and obviously I could not go back and report failure. Having a good memory I recalled exactly where in the water I had thrown the precious ropes.

Now, I have never been a swimmer, and to this day swimming eludes me. But it was only 6 feet deep where the ropes had been thrown, and so with total resolve I leapt out of the dinghy, into the water and, taking a deep breath, dove into the oozing mud in search of the ejected ropes.

Strollers on the dock were fascinated by the strange sight of a fully clothed young man throwing himself off a dinghy and into the still icy-cold waters of early English summer, periodically resurfacing to take large gulps of air, only to vanish again. More people gathered to witness the strange behavior. Each time I came up I looked at them with some contempt, thinking, You landlubbers just don’t understand!

At last in the murky water, where hands found the first of the lost lines, I emerged triumphantly from the deep with the rope and began to pull it into the dinghy. You can well imagine my astonishment to discover that the other end was tied to the dock, where 20 fascinated people parted as I climbed the ladder to retrieve the other end of the line. I was a fast learner and quickly understood there were two ends to a piece of rope and not one, and with my newfound knowledge I sheepishly undid the other three from the dock. Half an hour later, covered in mud, seaweed and other refuse from the harbor bottom, I returned to the anchored vessel to be greeted by an astonished John, who questioned why it had taken me so long and why I was all wet and covered in mud.

At this point I felt that lying was the name of the game. So rather than admit to my new learning experience, I said I had accidentally fallen out of the dinghy while climbing up to the dock.

Many years later, when I was a somewhat famous yacht captain, my crew sometimes commented on why I never became angry with them or upset when they made mistakes. And I would say, “You haven’t even got close to me in stupidity and errors on a boat.”

And so we sailed for France.




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