From Shoreham to France is approximately 60 miles. For me, it was fascinating to see the low cliffs of Sussex slowly sink below the horizon in our wake. For the first time in my life, I was — aside from the constant stream of huge freighters and other shipping — surrounded only by water.
I quickly discovered I had a natural affinity for steering the boat from its compass course. And apart from John’s obvious intense and uneasy concentration on making sure we weren’t run down by one of the behemoths of the deep, the trip across the water was pleasant and uneventful and, to me, enormously exciting. The waves were in a good mood for the often-robust English Channel. Nevertheless, they were still large enough to give a 38-foot boat the standard rhythm of a pitching motion. When given a few hours off watch by John, I lay in my bunk forward, fascinated by the unfamiliar gurgling and swishing noises of the bow cutting the waves only a few inches from my head.
There was a light south wind, and before long we picked up the coast of Europe. As the English coast had sunk some hours behind us, so now the cliffs of France slowly rose ahead of us. At last the little boat passed the outer breakwaters of Cherbourg Harbor and nosed into the inner basin to anchor. We were now surrounded by the World of the French. Assailed by the gentle aroma of garlic, urine, stale wine and Gauloises cigarettes, I experienced my first impressions of a foreign country.
After several days of exploring this vibrant, intact medieval town with its great maritime history, we dreamed of newer and other exotic and exciting places. So, with the forecast promising relatively tranquil weather in the typically stormy seas off that peninsula, it was John’s desire to sail westward, leaving at dawn the following day.
The plan was to sail for the Channel Isles, to St. Peter Port on the island of Guernsey. In spite of a favorable forecast, the weather was not as benign as predicted. The seas became choppy as the French coast dropped behind us and the wind increased. I became an instant hero by being able to eat greasy, cold pork chops while steering the boat. The captain and his girlfriend succumbed to the ancient plague of “mal de mer.” I was gratified to discover I appeared to be immune to the debilitating effects of this most miserable of afflictions.
This was real sailing. Well, we were motorsailing, with the sails up and the 1926 engine coughing and helping us along in its small way to a new adventure on a distant island.
The hourly teatime arrived, and Joyce bravely went below to prepare a brew in the now-plunging boat, only to emerge immediately with the news that seawater was washing over the cabin floor.
The only bilge pump was an antiquated semirotary in the cockpit, to which John and I diligently applied ourselves, only to be informed by Joyce that the water appeared to be gaining. I didn’t fully comprehend it at the time, but the nautical term for this is “sinking.” I had no premonition or understanding of potential death in this now truly terrifying situation, as John informed me the boat had no radio, no rockets, but two World War II life jackets he doubted would float and, indeed, no known lifesaving equipment of any form on board.
Now this gets a man’s attention. I was cheered he at least had two buckets. There is an old, now well-known nautical expression that “there is no equal to keeping a boat afloat than two frightened men with buckets.” So we applied ourselves to this task. We bucketed and we bucketed and we bucketed and we bucketed. And by bucketing, I mean basically one person is below, and the other is in the cockpit. You’re moving about three gallons every four seconds in an attempt to remove this unwelcome water to its correct side of the boat. But you know, even when you are young, you get sort of tired after four or five hours of bucketing. And so we took a break. The water now rose to the level of the saloon table.
The scene below was nightmare-esque. As the boat rolled and the water roared, the motion opened every cupboard. The waist-deep water was contaminated by engine oil, grimy socks, saucepans, foods — indeed, everything that boats have in their lockers.
Joyce became hysterical. And we, after a break, resumed bailing. Then we got tired again and rested in the cockpit. The engine that had been loathe to turn in its normal dry and cozy compartment had long since succumbed to the invasion of water into its nest. Even I knew the boat felt very unusual as it sat low in the water. And, for the first time, I felt my vacation might be coming to an abrupt end, especially when John explained the true state of the boat’s lifesaving equipment.
The hell below
I was saved from fear by total ignorance and youth — two great ingredients. What a pity when we lose those vital components to life as we grow older.
John apologized profusely because he realized more than I just how grave our situation was. And me being a cheery sort told him, as English people do, not to apologize but that I’d had a wonderful time and enjoyed every minute of the cruise. We shook hands — again as the English do before they are going to die. In some countries, I’ve heard, they hug or they cry, but the English shake hands. And then the conversation wore sort of thin, as it is very difficult to know what topic to discuss when you are all going to be dead in about 15 minutes.
John said we would have to abandon ship soon because she was going down. He suggested that if there was anything I needed to take with me in the life jacket I should go to the fo’c’sle to my berth, which was still one of the only dry places on the boat, as Nomad was going down in the stern. The same insanity overtook me as when I was diving for the ropes. I waded through the awful, watery mess below and retrieved my pipe and tobacco and a box of matches, as I thought that if I was to be in a life jacket floating around in the middle of the ocean for an indefinite period of time, at least it would be nice to have a smoke.
On re-emerging from the hell below, John and Joyce were excitedly staring at the horizon where the gray trail of smoke from a ship appeared.
“A ship, a ship, a ship!”
“Smoke! Smoke is the answer!” cried John. “We must make smoke!”
So even with the risk of setting the entire boat on fire, he found some kerosene and rags. But it is very difficult to set fire to a sinking wooden boat, and try as he did, he could not light a fire.
It appeared that the small liner was moving very fast and would pass us about a mile away. It was then that John saved our lives by wading below and tearing a mirror from the forward bulkhead in the saloon. And with the slanting of a retreating day in early summer he attempted to flash SOS in Morse code from the cockpit, directed to the bridge of the liner.
Our spirits rose. We were saved. We became optimistic. Then our spirits sank, because the liner just continued on its course and vanished over the horizon. I began to perceive that the day was becoming somewhat stressful. It’s not very nice to be dying, then to be saved, and then to be dying all in the same day. An air of despondency settled over the great crew of the yacht Nomad.
But wait! The liner seemed to have turned around and was coming directly at us with great speed. We were saved! Now this was getting stressful. She rounded up to windward with lifeboats swung out and netting over the side, and a godlike figure in white with glistening gold epaulettes shouted down from the bridge high above us through a bullhorn:
“Are you all right?”
To which we replied, “No, we’re sinking!”
His seamanship was magnificent. He kept the ship just to windward of us and asked if we wanted to be taken off, and that he had already radioed the St. Peter Port Lifeboat of our problem and that they were on their way and should be here in three hours.
With enough adrenaline, there is always some energy at the bottom when the tank seems empty. The boat was John and Joyce’s home, so summoning our last desperate spurt of energy, we recommenced the exhausting task of bailing, and thus she was kept afloat.
The St. Peter Port Lifeboat arrived, putting men and pumps aboard Nomad, and the Great Captain who had stood by and saved us — our hero — with a last friendly wave steamed off with his 600 passengers, who had missed their connections back to the United States or wherever they were going in the world.