Sam Llewellyn

The howls, bells and bird­song that ev­ery sleep­less mariner should recog­nise

Practical Boat Owner - - Contents - Sam Llewellyn

There I was the other night, ly­ing awake in the boat­yard. The wind was howl­ing in the rig­ging like a pack of ban­shees, it was 4am and I could hardly hear my­self think over the shriek of the gale and the clang of un­frapped hal­yards. Shock­ing nui­sance, noise, I thought.

Not al­ways, though. Take light­houses. There they stand, proud mon­u­ments to a busier sea and nav­i­ga­tors who did their own work in­stead of re­ly­ing on sig­nals nicked from the US mil­i­tary. Pretty soon, if Trin­ity House has its way, they will dis­ap­pear as sur­plus to the re­quire­ments of mod­ern ship­ping. Al­ready their sound sig­nals are fall­ing silent – ei­ther com­pletely, as in Guernsey and Alder­ney, where the un­con­sulted Har­bour Masters are fum­ing at their loss; or they are los­ing au­thor­ity, as on Round Is­land, north of Scilly, where the bull-like bel­low of the Vic­to­rian horn some time ago gave way to an ir­ri­tat­ing but ap­par­ently more au­di­ble peep.

Handy in fog, too, noise. As re­spon­si­ble mariners we pro­ceed through the pea soup emit­ting hoots, bang­ing gongs, ring­ing bells and from time to time fir­ing guns. We are also able to use sound aids for po­si­tion fix­ing, though in a proper fog it is next to im­pos­si­ble to work out where the sound is com­ing from. Stokey Woodall, fount of off­shore wis­dom (in­ter­na­tion­alo­ceanser­vices.net) has an ex­cel­lent so­lu­tion. Lost among fog sig­nals, the nav­i­ga­tor rolls a pa­per chart into a cone, jams the nar­row end into the ear, ro­tates the head like an owl, and takes a bear­ing on the points from which the sounds come loud­est, pro­duc­ing, with luck, some­thing like a cocked hat.

Bird­song can also be used for a rough sort of nav­i­ga­tion. Kit­ti­wakes, for in­stance, will sug­gest you are still in deep wa­ter, though it should be re­mem­bered that they also fre­quent some re­mark­ably threat­en­ing cliffs. Curlews in­di­cate prox­im­ity to mud, and the de­sir­abil­ity of a swift 180° cor­rected for tide. If you get an ear­ful of thrush, it is prob­a­bly too late.

On the whole, though, sounds at sea are not help­ful. There is the aw­ful cho­rus pro­duced by the snores of a sleep­ing crew. There is the sound of three boats rafted up in an an­chor­age with me­tal mu­sic blast­ing across the calm and shrieks of laugh­ter pro­duced by jokes whose punch­line you failed to hear. And there is the weird fly­ing-saucer howl of tug screws that pen­e­trates the boat’s sides as you try to get forty winks in Mil­ford Haven af­ter a dis­agree­able hike from the south­east­ern cor­ner of Ire­land.

All the above, how­ever, are as sweet mu­sic com­pared with the sounds of true emer­gency. There is the breath­less si­lence that pre­cedes the loom of a crest at your shoul­der in the black night, fol­lowed by the sud­den tiger­ish roar as it ham­mers into the cock­pit. There is the steady crunch­ing thun­der of the Wild Geese Race off Skokholm. And there is the bassier note, as much felt as heard, over which comes the cry of the look­out: ‘Break­ers ahead!’ The blood runs cold. The look­out cries, ‘Break­ers to port!’ The blood runs colder. ‘Break­ers to star­board!’ The blood prac­ti­cally con­geals. Or would, prob­a­bly, but I have no in­for­ma­tion, be­cause hap­pily (and here I touch wood) I have never heard these cries ut­tered in anger.

There is, I was once told by an ocean voy­ager, a sound more sin­is­ter than all of these. It oc­curs in a calm. The boat is rid­ing a long, satiny swell. The sails are down, be­cause if they are left up they will only slat them­selves to bits. It is hot, and you have gone be­low, and you are ly­ing in your bunk. Then into your con­scious­ness there steals a very small sound.

Some­thing is rolling to and fro on the deck above your head. You crawl on deck. And there, ar­rived from nowhere, is a cle­vis pin. There is no split ring. There is just this lit­tle cylin­der of stain­less steel, de­scended, pre­sum­ably, from some­where aloft in the rig. The rig which must take you the next thou­sand miles. The rig which de­pends for its in­tegrity on pins ex­actly like this...

Per­haps the pin is vi­tal and the whole lot will come down. Per­haps it is not im­por­tant, and you will get where you want to go. One thing is for cer­tain, though. Your peace of mind is gone, and will not re­turn.

All of a sud­den the howl and clang of the 4am boat­yard was the com­fort­ing song of home. Rolling over, I went back to sleep.

‘Bird­song can also be used for a rough sort of nav­i­ga­tion’

Dawn can be a wel­come sight af­ter a night of strange noises

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