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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.

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.

Griffiths became a skilled sailor with a theatrical nature.

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!

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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.

Real sailing

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.

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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.

Scotch for the Great Captain

Now, for those who don’t know about the lifeboats in England, they are manned by volunteers who risk their lives to save mariners from some of the most dangerous waters in the world. The leak was conquered, and the lifeboat took us in tow. We were administered hot soup and tea until the boat was safely brought to St. Peter Port, where a crane lifted our wounded vessel onto the dock.

The island population extended invitations to stay in their homes, and the exhausted trio was taken under the wing of these most hospitable islanders for a long, long sleep. Three days later, we were fully recovered when the passenger liner St. Julien, commuting between St. Peter Port and Southampton, returned. Our first thought was to thank the Great Captain for standing by and saving us. And so, depleting his meager finances, John bought a bottle of fine Scotch whisky to present to the Great Captain, and he and I repaired to the ship at the dock.

A guardian seaman at the gangway, when asked if we could see the captain, refused and said that boarding was not until 3 p.m. But on explaining we were the people from the boat they had rescued three days before, the seaman scurried up many stairs to the bridge and returned with the information that the captain would be delighted for us to join him.

We were ushered into one of the most beautiful captain’s staterooms I had ever seen, not that I had seen any before. The room was sumptuously appointed in rich mahogany paneling and Persian carpets. Three men in immaculate white with glistening gold braid on their shoulders sat in rosewood armchairs at the table. A man in his early 50s with graying hair stood and, smiling, extended his hand as we were ushered in. With the greatest profusion of gratitude — after all, it is not everybody who goes through life owing their existence to another — John stuttered his thanks and offered the bottle of scotch as a token of appreciation for our lives.

The captain replied, “You owe me no thanks. I was delighted to be able to save you and that beautiful little boat of yours.”

And with a gracious acceptance of the scotch, he opened a cupboard and put it away among many other bottles. Then, without asking, he poured two large scotches for John and me, repeating how pleased he was to have been able to help us, and the fact that his 600 passengers missed their connections was of no importance compared to saving people at sea.

And pulling back two of the lovely rosewood chairs, the captain motioned us to join him and his fellow officers at the table. I was 21 and had never drank scotch or sat in such beautiful surroundings or met a great captain. And after the second scotch, I became quite what in England is called “tiddly as a newt.” It is somewhat interesting to look back over 50 years and recall that in those days it was almost a required prerequisite to continue a centuries-old tradition of consuming an assigned quota of spirits daily, both in the Royal Navy and the Merchant Marine.

A gentle tap at the door, and one of the crew came to remind the captain that they sail in half an hour. At this the captain, who appeared to be enjoying our company, suggested that as he had some first class staterooms vacant, John and I should do the run back to England with him so we could enjoy each other’s convivial company over more scotch and we would be back in three days.

This was a tempting offer, indeed, but having left Joyce with her island hosts, we regretfully declined. We parted with a warm handshake and rather unsteadily descended down through the decks to the dock, still glowing from the friendship and scotch.

See related article: "A captain's irresistable tales"

This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.