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An engine is a sailor’s best friend

Richard Griffiths, profiled in the March 2009 issue of Soundings, is a fixture at Oxford Boatyard in Oxford, Md. The English-born 70-year-old has lived a true cruiser’s life of adventure, most often aboard his converted 1903 lugger Rosalind. Griffiths wrote about his adventures off Land’s End, England, in the May issue.

Griffiths and his family - wife, Hazel, and sons Christopher, right, and Julian - left Calais, France, in high spritis.

A year after my terrifying experience of being blown out to sea off Land’s End, the circumstances had changed for my converted 1903 lugger, Rosalind. I had installed a very cheap, very old Allis-Chalmers gasoline/kerosene engine that had been first used in the 1930s to power a combine harvester on the great Canadian prairies. Unfortunately, it would overheat after only 20 minutes of running in the confines of Rosalind’s engine room.

Nevertheless, being able to enter and leave harbors under engine power was an enormous benefit. And, more importantly, I was now happily settled with a wife and two little boys ages 1 and 2.

Instead of doing something mad and crazy like going around Land’s End as in my previous cruise, we were going to have a family journey in much more benign waters across the 21 miles of the Straits of Dover to visit Calais on the French coast.

All went well and we spent more than a week enjoying the culture of a fascinating foreign country.

But homesick for a good plate of English sausage, egg and chips nicely swimming in thick warm grease, we made sail. With my summer holiday now coming to an end, I was due home to once again take up my place at the front of my art class. We set our course almost exactly due west, allowing ample time to cover the 200 miles home against the prevailing winds. Easily and delightfully, we sailed back to Dover.

After a brief stay, we left Dover with the help of our new engine and set sail homeward to Kingsbridge, South Devon, bound on a tranquil, sunlight-dappled sea.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, our troubles were soon to begin — and prove nearly fatal.

This first leg was to be the longest between safe harbors on the entire southern English coast. To be precise, it was 100 miles to Newhaven.

To his shock, Griffiths realized he was seeing the beacon from Beachy Head lighthouse.

The wind proved very light and, as expected, from the west. And Rosalind, being a very indifferent performer against the wind, made little headway on that first glorious day. We picnicked on deck and the little boys, ensconced in their tiny life jackets and tethered to the mainmast, could still enjoy playing with their toys — including an assortment of plastic animals — on the almost horizontal deck.

Of course, I had to do most of the steering and when the first night of the cruise enveloped us it was clear that I would be on watch all night.

This particular part of the English Channel was narrow and thus heavily infested with freighters. Since our kerosene navigation lights were weak and dim, I made the decision to short-tack close to the coast to stay well clear of these behemoths.

By dawn I was rather tired, but hot tea and the return of the sun heralded another idyllic summer day. We continued our pleasant but laborious trek ever westward until 70 miles had been covered from Dover, leaving only another 30 against the wind to the safety of Newhaven.

The bad news was picked up from the BBC on our little radio late that afternoon. Our halcyon spell of weather was very soon to be curtailed by the approach of a very intense gale.

This was a predicament.

There were two choices: continue our slow progress to Newhaven hoping to beat the coming storm, or turn with the still-light wind behind us and attempt to go back to Dover. This would not guarantee we could beat the impending weather and safely return to Dover, but it would surely make me late for the coming school term. Tardiness for sickness was forgiven, but not for a yachting holiday.

I made the decision for good or bad, for right or wrong, to attempt the safety of Newhaven. Rechecking the chart to plot our position before darkness fell, I lit our big kerosene running lights and hunkered down at the wheel for another night.

Rosalind was dangerously near the 400-foot cliffs.

Rosalind is 40 feet on deck — 62 feet sparred — and 22 tons. In fair weather, I knew I could handle Rosalind’s unwieldy rig alone. But I was sure that in heavy weather she would overpower me. We were in a bad position on the longest stretch of coast with no safe harbors.

As darkness fell, my wife, Hazel, retired below with the children.

As forecast, the wind, still dead ahead, slowly began to rise and Rosalind began to pitch into the rising sea. Her bowsprit rose upward to plunge down again, bringing a burst of spray across the bow. It was necessary for Hazel, apart from very brief sorties to the deck, to remain below to comfort and read to the children.

The angled deck was now slippery with spray and the steady stream of water rushed down her lee side, finding its way below through her aged stanchions. I lashed the wheel, checked the bilge and discovered she already had considerable water sloshing throughout her 8 tons of internal ballast.

Rosalind, like almost all sailing vessels of that era, carried the ubiquitous and hellish semi-rotary hand pump. I proceeded to pump her dry and returned to the flickering glow of the compass light and the wheel. My exhaustion had grown to new levels and I would momentarily doze only to reawaken seconds later with a horrified jolt. I longed for the comfort of my bunk.

A steady rain began to fall from the scudding clouds above us, the certain precursor of a westerly gale. After an hour, I relashed the helm and reapplied myself to the pump only to find to my considerable consternation the valves had clogged, rendering the pump inoperable.

With flashlight in my teeth and adjustable wrench in hand, I knelt on the now steeply sloping deck and, with difficulty, removed the eight nuts securing the pump faceplate only to discover the cause of the clog: a small white plastic monkey. It appeared to grin at me as I pried it from the valves.

The rain worsened and I crawled forward to find that our running lights had been blown out. Relighting them in the rain and wind would be impossible. The ship, now in darkness, was a sitting duck for fast-moving freighters. I took the vessel farther in than was prudent and commenced making only four-mile tacks outside the limits of the shipping channel. Each time Rosalind’s bow was hit by a wave, she would stall and bear away again on the same tack. Of course the only other way to change course on a sailing vessel is to spin her off, away from the wind, and jibe — a dangerous maneuver for one now close to delirium under the strain.

As I turned the wheel to tack again a blinding flash of light appeared almost directly above me. It was with horror I realized it had to be Beachy Head lighthouse, perched inland from the 400-foot cliff tops.

Just as Rosalind had nearly come head to wind to claw us safely back out to sea, a breaker hit the windward bow and, like a horse rearing at a jump, she refused the turn. Rosalind fell broadside to the breakers and then, completing her turn, appeared to pounce at the now-visible cliff face.

An uncontrolled jibe is always a dangerous maneuver and one that often can do serious damage to a vessel’s rig.

Usually in a strong wind on any sailing vessel you shouldn’t jibe all-standing; the mainsheet is taken in to take the huge shock out of the maneuver. But without the time to take in the mainsheet, I got the wheel right over and the terrible crash of the main boom on its loose sheet swept the deck and rammed into the running backstays. The headsails were flogging with great cracks of tortured canvas. Luckily, nothing broke.

Slowly, and ponderously, this elderly piece of Cornish carpentry strained and creaked her way back to the safety of deeper water.

Hazel’s white face appeared in the companionway and I could just see her staring in paralyzed shock at the now receding cliffs with the great light high above us. Being a direct descendant of Sir Henry Morgan, the famous pirate, she remained unflustered. Hazel had a most unjustified belief in my abilities.

I went another five or six miles further offshore, feeling I would rather be run down by a freighter than whacked into a cliff face.

Rechecking the bilge, I pumped her again. But after only a few strokes, the valves jammed yet again. With a wrench and flashlight, I reapplied myself to dismantling the device, only to find a white plastic elephant. At least there was no grin this time. It appeared that plastic animals had become endemic and frustratingly dangerous. I abandoned the pump, leaving it inoperable, and crawled back to the wheel.

The one benefit of nearly slamming into a cliff face is at least one knows one’s position. Returning to the chart table below deck, I perceived that we might — but probably wouldn’t — make the 10 miles to Newhaven.

It was here that I used the only secret weapon we had and, grabbing the flashlight and again leaving the wheel with the boat now rapidly approaching the steamer lanes, I struggled below into the engine room to commence the ritual of starting that Ancient Denizen of the Great Plains.

With no batteries on board, the Allis-Chalmers had to be hand-cranked. Skidding around on all the bilge oil, I engaged the gear and, wagging my finger at her in the darkness, admonished her to do her best. Damn it if she didn’t fire up on the third swing.

Now motorsailing, Rosalind’s speed increased to 6 knots and improved her windward ability. The gallant machine outdid my expectations and ran for 30 minutes before overheating and abruptly seizing up.

At 3 or 4 in the morning, there — nicely on the leeward bow — the leading lights of the safety of Newhaven appeared out of the rain.

Rosalind, now upright, careered inland. Hazel’s figure appeared on deck and she took the wheel while I dragged the sails down and put a quick and rough stow. With Rosalind’s momentum slowed almost to a halt, we skidded alongside the high pilings of a commercial ship’s dock. Safe and secure, we repaired below to ankle-deep water across the cabin floor. Refusing Hazel’s offer of hot tea, I fell onto one of the soaking saloon settees, still enveloped in my drenched clothes and oilskins, and literally slept before my head hit the soggy pillow.

It was light when I emerged from this delicious and needed sleep. The recollection of the events of the previous night returned when I watched one of my shoes float past the bunk. I waded into the galley to brew a now desperately needed cup of tea.

The calm voice of the BBC weather announcer updated us on present conditions and the forecast. It was barely four hours back since we had made the harbor, but during that time the weather had gone from ugly to truly horrific. The winds had increased to severe storm force and the news informed us that at least three large freighters had been either lost or were in great trouble. Nearly every lifeboat on the south coast had been called out. It was the most severe gale to strike England in seven years.

Bloody hell! If we hadn’t got in when we did how would we have abandoned ship with two kids and no life raft? We would have been sunk dead.

That was the final nail in the coffin of youth. I was really waking up as a sailor. That day I swore and promised Hazel that we would never again take the boat to sea without a proper, reliable and powerful engine.

Richard Griffiths, 70, lives aboard his converted 1903 lugger, Rosalind, at Oxford Boatyard in Oxford, Md. He is currently scheduling speaking engagements, and can be reached at

This article originally appeared in the Mid-Atlantic Home Waters Section of the July 2009 issue.