Messing about in Boats

It wasn’t Kenneth Graham’s Ratty that inspired my love of messing about in boats, but Arthur Ransome’s delightful stories of the Walker and Becket children sailing their Swallow and Amazon in the Lake District of England.

As a result of which, my first command was two dining chairs pushed together with a tablecloth tied to a broom handle for a sail, in which I made many imaginary voyages over the Spanish Main. As we lived in the Bahamas at the time, with pirate forts, uninhabited atolls and coral beaches to explore, plus trading schooners plying between the islands with cargoes of bananas, coconuts and turtles, it was not much of a leap of imagination. I so much enjoyed those fantasy voyages that I determined to go to sea. Where there proved to be scope for a great deal of messing about in boats.

Before then, however, I learned to sail for real, firstly in a wooden clinker built lug-sail dinghy on the Norfolk Broads and then in a Mirror on the River Bann in Northern Island, with my boarding schoolmates as crew.

In September 1970, the boyhood dream seemed somewhat less inviting though, as I reported, in my brand new Cadet’s uniform, to pre-sea training in Warsash, Hampshire, and discovered, what today might be regarded as a lost world, a Merchant Navy training school attempting to turn out officers and gentlemen along the lines of the Royal Navy. We marched or doubled everywhere, saluted everything that moved, donned mess kit for dinner and were taught to march in threes by a former RN Master at Arms who had survived the sinking of HMS Barham. Strangely enough, for most of us, it worked.

Seamanship, and especially those aspects of it learned afloat – in other words when messing about in boats – was, however, the highlight of the three months I spent there.

Beginning with a cruise in the school’s sail training yacht Halcyon.

Halcyon: Courtesy of Sea Independent

A dozen or so of us reported aboard on a Monday afternoon for a short cruise down the English Channel to Weymouth and back. If I was expecting the instant thrill of the wind in my hair and the kick of the wheel in my hands I was sadly mistaken. Fellow cadet Peter and I were appointed duty cooks for the first 24 hours, an experience that led to a lifetime friendship. While we both had the pleasure of hauling on ropes while the yacht got underway, the rest of the afternoon we spent in the galley, under the watchful and profane supervision of the yacht’s engineer, peeling potatoes, preparing vegetables and baking an enormous beef pie in the yacht’s gas oven. While thus occupied the yacht motored down the Solent.

I had a glimpse of the Needles on a brief topside excursion to empty the gash bin. Out of the lee of the Isle of Wight, the chops of the Channel were making themselves felt. With her sails set, close-hauled on the starboard tack, the 29-metre yacht heeled steeply in a building westerly breeze, pitching, sometimes uncomfortably, as she butted into the short, steep seas.

When the hands were called to dinner there were few takers, it was a good pie so those of us with stronger stomachs enjoyed second helpings. By the time Peter and I had finished washing up and clearing away, the breeze had strengthened and we were struggling to stay on our feet in the heaving cavern of the forecastle. Donning my oilskin I decided it was time to enjoy the elements and climbed up the ladder to the foredeck. It was dark and it took a few moments while my eyes adjusted before I fully appreciated the strange creature inhabiting the deck. Lying Sou’wester clad head to sea booted toe along the lee rail, looking like a gigantic yellow and black striped sea-serpent, was a line of retching cadets. As the yacht dipped her rail in response to a stronger gust, a rush of water broke over the creature washing down the retching line, which paid it not the slightest notice.

Taking pity on them the master ordered those of us still unaffected by seasickness to assist the sufferers below and to put them to bed. The rest of us worked watch and watch until we arrived in Weymouth in the small hours of the following morning.

By the end of the week I knew the difference between a sheet and a halyard, had blistered palms, knew how to steer by star or compass, without chasing the needle, and had learned some interesting new swear words. All of which was a good introduction to a seafaring life. Other pleasures during the following three months included sailing in the school’s fleet of gigs, rowing its heavy flat-bottomed barge, Stubbington, the closest I have ever come to experiencing the life of a galley slave, and manning the duty boat.

The latter was a clinker built dinghy used to ferry cadets and officers between the school’s jetty and its fleet of craft moored to buoys in the River Hamble. It was a pleasant way to spend several hours out of the classroom, apart from one serious challenge – the tide. The Solent has a tidal rise and fall of up to 5 metres and the ebb tide, draining its extensive waters and rivers, including the Hamble, is ferocious.

One of my classmates found himself overwhelmed. Unable to row against it he raced out with the ebb, and was well on the way to Calshot Spit before being spotted by an inbound fishing boat and towed back to the Hamble.

Opportunities for messing about in boats did not end when we subsequently joined ships. Ferrying passengers ashore by lifeboat was, and still is, a usual occurrence in small ports where cruise ships anchor off. Constructed of fibreglass, underpowered, especially going astern, with a small rudder, high windage and a bluff hull, the motorised lifeboat may be an excellent lifesaver, but it makes a poor ferry. It does, however, behave with many of the characteristics of a single screw ship, and more than one captain of my acquaintance credits them with teaching him many of the skills he later put to good use manoeuvring his various commands. Some ship handling schools still use model ships with very similar handling characteristics to those old lifeboats.

Copyright: Southampton Solent University

Apart from gaining ship handling experience; for high-spirited, sometimes irresponsible young men, driving lifeboats was fun. What could be better than being out in the sunshine in command of a boat trying to impress whatever young women were embarked while motoring slowly across the aquamarine, palm-fringed waters of Acapulco Bay, or the Solomon Islands, or Tonga. Or through the grand, historic harbours of Malta or Stockholm or against the backdrop of the natural splendour of the Faroes.

Cadet (Now Captain) Ian Walters driving Oriana Lifeboat No. 13

In Malta, during the midday lull in service, several of us watched a Royal Navy midshipman con his launch alongside using only a bosun’s whistle to issue commands to coxswain and boathook flourishing crew. Very impressive! On his next trip across from the Admiralty pier we were prepared. As the boat approached the quay the midshipman raised the whistle to his lips and blew. The blast drowned by the shrill warble of several lifejacket whistles. It made not a jot of difference, the well-trained coxswain placed the boat neatly alongside and the boathooks raised, lowered and hooked on with exemplary precision. Very Impressive! We laughed to cover our embarrassment.

The author in command of a lifeboat. Photo courtesy of Evelyn Smith

Equally embarrassing, I once lowered a boat from a cruise ship anchored off Honiara, Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, and was on my around to pick up the first load of passengers when I felt a spurt of water hit the back of my knees. I glanced down to see water spraying up between gaps in the floorboards. I throttled back to neutral and pulled up one of the boards. To my horror, there was a foot of water in the bilge and a small blue circular hole in the hull, through which I could see deep into the crystal clear waters of Iron Bottom Sound.

Yes, I had forgotten to put the plug in.

Fortunately, I managed to force it in, getting soaked in the process, and pumped the water out. No harm done, except to my pride. Which took further blows each time my fellow cadets reminded me that I had narrowly avoided having Honiara harbour renamed Fibreglass Bottom Sound.

In Itea, in the beautiful mountain-fringed Gulf of Corinth, we ferried all the passengers ashore and then looked around for somewhere to rest and replenish. What joy to discover a taverna right next to the quayside. We took it in turns to enjoy a feast of calamari, Greek salad and tzatziki washed down with glasses of ouzo. The afternoon ferry runs were burnished in a postprandial glow.

In Acapulco harbour, once we had completed our passenger ferrying shift, three of us hired a speedboat and went water skiing. Not content with showing off our boat driving skills in the morning we decided to show off our water-skiing skills in the afternoon. Circling the cruise ship, carving across the speedboat’s wake, until the chief officer plugged in the loud hailer and roared at us to get the f@#k out of the way. We did.

Oriana anchored at Acapulco

Apart from ferrying passengers ashore, the lifeboats were also used for swimming excursions.

Loaded with cases of beer and chilled wine and with whatever food we had bought or could scrounge from the galley, we would lower a boat and set off for a deserted beach or even a small uninhabited island. Anchoring the boat as close to the beach as was safely possible we waded ashore and set up temporary camp, donned our swimming costumes and spent several pleasurable, relaxing hours.

There were hazards though. Once a boat broke down and had to be rescued and towed several miles back to the waiting ship in Lautoka. In Tonga we threaded our way between a maze of coral heads into the lagoon of what looked like an uninhabited island. Only to be confronted by a large sign warning us to, “Keep Off.” We ignored it. And I once got badly sunburned after a prolonged hatless afternoon on Paradise Beach at Nassau. 

Nassau Swimming Party. Courtesy of Ian Walters.

I once even tried to sail a sailing lifeboat, with mixed results. The second mate and I launched one in Luanda, Angola and took his wife and the cadets for a sail. It was a beautiful day on Luanda Bay with a good sailing breeze. We rigged the sails, sheeted them home and set off as close to the wind as we could. We quickly discovered the disadvantage in a lifeboat's sailing qualities. It would point no higher than 6 points off the wind, and made so much leeway that we lost ground on every tack. With the ship receding further and further to windward we shipped the oars, and discovered its other failing. With only four men rowing - the second's wife took the helm - we made so little progress against the wind that we would have been exhausted long before we made up the distance and would have been blown ashore in Sambizanga. Fortunately, the agent's boat offered us a tow back, which we crestfallenly accepted.

Sailing on Luanda Bay

Perhaps the most memorable escapade, though, occurred at Thorshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands. I was serving in Uganda, summer cruising to the Baltic and northern waters in 1973. We had been scheduled to visit Iceland with a shipload of passengers from the Scottish National Trust, instead of the usual complement of school students. The Cod War had broken out, however, and Thorshavn was substituted for Reykjavik. Halfway across the Norwegian Sea from Trondheim, the mid-summer sun, while providing plenty of daylight, was providing precious little warmth. Shivering in my blue uniform I was crossing the “sun” deck and came across a group of hardy Scots in bathers and bikinis, working on tanning their pale, goose-bumped flesh. The looked up at my pinched, blue, quizzical face and chuckled.

“Och, ye Sassenachs, yair soooorrrrrft.”

The following day we dropped anchor off Thorshavn and Peter (from Halcyon) and I lowered the first boat, embarked the shore party and motored off into the harbour. Captain John Young (known affectionately as JY) had chosen to lead the shore party and took command of the boat. Standing on the aft thwart, he was steering with one foot on the tiller. Very impressive!

After he had steered us through the anchored fishing vessels he laid course for the disembarkation quay at the far end of the harbour. Steering skilfully with his foot he manoeuvred the boat close alongside the quay.

Judging the distance to the end, he waited as the weed encrusted concrete face slid by inches away, then glanced down at me.

“Reduce revs, then full astern.”

I pulled back the throttle, reached for the gear lever, pulled it to neutral and then into reverse.

There were several ominous coughs and the engine spluttered – and died.

I reached for the starting handle, with a wary eye on the right-angled end of the quayside that was fast approaching.

Unfazed, JY held the boat close alongside and crisply ordered, “Jump ashore, take a turn round the next bollard.”

Peter reached for the stern line, nimbly leaped up onto the quay and trotted forward beside the boat.
As he reached the bollard he bent down and wound two quick turns around it, then stepped back with the tail in his hand ready to slow the boat to a stop. Which he would have done had not the sudden tightening of the rope caused the turns to cross and jam.

The rope snapped tight. The boat came to an abrupt stop. Launching JY into the air. He arced gracefully the length of the boat before landing in a profanity yelling heap in the bows.

It was foggy and raining that afternoon and the boats had difficulty finding their way in and out of the harbour. Peter and I were detailed to take an open boat and park it at the harbour entrance with the engine running as a beacon for the others. It didn’t dampen our spirits. I laughed then, and it still makes me smile today.

I still enjoy messing about in boats, my current command being a 23-foot day sailor in which I enjoy cruising, and sometimes racing, on the Swan River.


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