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