Lost in shoal waters
In the early summer of 1925,
Adlard Coles saw Arthur Ransome’s Racundra advertised for sale in Yachting Monthly. He bought her, collected her from Riga and spent August and much of September sailing her home to England with his young wife, Mamie. It had been a condition of purchase that Racundra’s name be changed so here she is disguised as Annette II. It was 30 years before anyone made the connection. Sejrö, as shown by the chart, is but a few miles long and very narrow, but inhabited, as is the case of every little islet in Denmark. There is a harbour on the west side but it is of such small importance that few ships visit it and it is probable that before our arrival, it had never been the object of a visit by a British yacht. Viewed from Annette’s deck, the island appeared most romantic.
It seemed hard to have to do any work on such a hot, jolly day but we were already far behind time, so at 1500, the ‘smelly monster’ was induced to raise its roar and break the silence. There was no wind, but a port lay only 16 miles east.
Hour after hour slipped by as the ship slowly made her way across the sea between the two islands. The weather seemed to be changing and a grey mass of cloud blocked out the sky in the west. Presently, a light southerly wind helped
Annette on her course and the ‘smelly monster’ was packed away. In the evening, the light of Hatter Barn came abeam, marking a shoal to the north, and a low line of hills that indicated the island of Samsö lay but 8 miles ahead.
The helm was lashed and the ship left to sail herself whilst we, her crew, repaired below for dinner. We did not hurry, as an occasional glance at the compass showed
Annette was holding her course, and we relied on being able to pick out the village of Ballen through the glasses before dark.
Toward the end of the meal, the ketch heeled to a fresher breeze and a patter of rain fell on the deck. I hastened out but quickly returned for my oilskins as there was a thick rain squall. Annette dashed forward under its weight but every mark, every sign of land, was completely obliterated and in all directions, little hillocks of forlorn grey water heaved and tumbled.
The island of Samsö, however, was not far off and I calculated that within an hour, we should have the light of Ballen in sight. Off Sejrö, a strong current was running south. I allowed for this and laid a course more to the north. Night came on and with it, heavier rain. Minutes slipped by and the time when land should be close came nearer, until it arrived.
Skipper and crew strained their eyes into the murk but ahead, no light showed a guiding beam. Away on our port quarter, the powerful flash of Reef Ness marked the end of the main island and the Hatter Barn flashed astern, and Sejrö in the distance. Annette forged steadily forward and I began to take soundings. It was intensely dark. Presently, the crew shouted she saw something and sure enough, a fixed light appeared ahead. Then some others, and the occasional flash in the sky of a very distant and powerful light. The lead showed two fathoms but there was no sight of Ballen; the fixed lights were houses certainly, but they might have belonged to any little homestead on the coast.
We hove-to on the starboard tack, which would have kept us in deep water but shortly after midnight, the wind shifted to the west and for a time, we sailed southwest. Then we came to the conclusion that we must have underestimated the southerly current as we came about and sailed north-west. It was pitch black in every direction with not a hint of light to differentiate between sky and land and sea. We knew the coast must be close, so we kept the lead going constantly. After some time without anything coming in sight, we again came about on the other tack, working in under the land. Very soon, we heard a sound of breakers and the lead recorded only four fathoms.
We fell off once more to the north and were soon in deeper water. On we sailed, but no harbour lights came into view and suddenly we became aware that most of the lights had vanished, although a flash, that presumably was Hatter Barn, seemed quite near. I took a sounding. It read one and a half fathoms.
Not a hint of light could differentiate sky from sea
Kaines Adlard Coles (19011985) was a writer, publisher and outstanding sailor. He won the first Royal Cruising Club Medal for Services to Cruising in 1969 and his pilot guides won him a gold medal from the Royal Institute of Navigation. He was named Yachtsman of the Year after winning the 1957 Fastnet race.
We at once bore to the east but the sea got no deeper. We did not know on which side danger lay; we did not know where to sail for safety, but 9ft of water lay below us. Down went the foresail and in two minutes, Annette lay to her anchor by 10 fathoms of rope.
We were lost, utterly lost, and every attempt at plotting the position on the chart proved the inaccuracy of our calculations. Even allowing for an error of considerable amount, there seemed to be no patch of shallow water near the Hatter Barn, or between it and the mainland. We gave up the problem and rested whilst Annette, between the forces of a strong current and the wind, rolled and pitched in the darkness. The wind was by this time off the island of Samsö, but the waves were large enough to prove no land could be within a couple of miles to windward, so we were anchored on some sea-bound sandy shoal.
The night passed slowly but sleep was impossible owing to the motion of the ship. At last, the indefinite light of dawn in dirty weather tinged the waves grey and patches of land gradually took shape.
With day came wonder. Instead of the scene we’d imagined, there arose an utterly different picture of sea and land. Quite close to the south-west, the gaunt pile of some small rocky island rose sheer from the sea. Nearer lay some low ground, which appeared to be connected with the mainland that swept round in a curve from the west to the north, leaving the bay in which Annette had rolled so miserably all the previous night.
It was a most unreal awakening, and a look at the chart in no way lessened the problem. The sail of some fishing or trading boat presently came into sight, so I quickly raised anchor and Annette followed the strange craft. I kept the lead going and the sea presently deepened, and as the sky grew lighter and the configuration of coast clearer, an idea crossed my mind. I looked once more at the chart, but at a position some 15 miles north of our calculation. The coastline agreed with that in front of us. To make matters certain, the vessel ahead altered course and we saw two beacons which we found marked on the chart.
It may be difficult for the landsman to appreciate the wonder of our position. The yacht during the night had steered herself through a narrow channel between two islands; she had chosen the one right path through a maze of shallows, rocks and islands. Having ascertained our position, it was no great difficulty to sail back to Ballen.