Grif­fiths goes aground

Yachting Monthly - - A BOOK AT BUNKTIME -

In ‘A Chilly In­tro­duc­tion’, chapter one of The Magic of the Swatch­ways, Mau­rice Grif­fiths and a friend, Derek, set out in Jan­uary to sail his newly bought 2-ton cabin-sloop Dabchick from Wood­bridge, on the River Deben, to Ip­swich on the neigh­bour­ing River Or­well. Af­ter a wildly er­ratic sail they reach the river mouth... It was about high wa­ter now, and by the time we were pass­ing the col­lec­tion of for­lorn-look­ing mo­tor-boats and fish­ing craft moored above Felixs­towe Ferry the ebb had be­gun to race out through the nar­rows be­tween the shin­gle banks.

The sight that met our in­ex­pe­ri­enced eyes as we turned the last cor­ner and opened up the bar made our hearts miss a beat. The en­trance ap­peared to be an un­bro­ken mass of white foam with leap­ing crests, whose tops tum­bled over and were car­ried along like steam by the wind. For one mo­ment it was on the tip of my tongue to sug­gest run­ning back, but there was a six-knot ebb car­ry­ing us ruth­lessly to­wards that bar­rier of shoals and bro­ken wa­ter, and Dabchick would not have been able to forge against it.

There was no turn­ing back now. As he had pro­fessed a slight knowl­edge of the lie of the chan­nel over this bar, Derek took the helm while I held onto the weather coam­ing and watched the banks of shin­gle on ei­ther side rac­ing past. A coast­guards­man came run­ning down the point from the Martello tower, and as we drew abreast, he asked our name and where we were bound. ‘Dabchick, bound for Ip­swich!’ I yelled with pride. ‘You’ll soon be back,’ was all he shouted as we swept past.

A minute later we buried our bowsprit in the first of the break­ers, a sea leapt up, filled our jib and the sail burst with a noise like a gun­shot. At the same in­stant our keel hit the shin­gle with a jar­ring crash that pitched us both to the lee side of the well.

Dabchick lifted her fore­deck clear of the wel­ter of wa­ter, rose on a comber, stag­gered on and crashed once more on the hard shin­gle. A third time she lifted and fell, while a sea broke onto her weather deck and poured into the well, and then she lay on her beam ends while the fu­ri­ous tide swirled around her, press­ing her harder on to the dreaded bank and bring­ing the pram dinghy along­side to lee­ward.

‘My God!’ cried Derek, as he scram­bled up to the wind­ward side. ‘I’ve piled you on.’

The rem­nants of the jib were flog­ging away to lee­ward, the vi­o­lence of their an­tics shak­ing the mast­head. All around us was a seething wel­ter of foam and wa­ter, while the roar­ing of the seas on the bar filled our ears with a ter­ri­fy­ing tu­mult of sound.

My at­ten­tion was ar­rested by my com­pan­ion, who was hur­riedly slip­ping off var­i­ous gar­ments with­out a thought to the per­ish­ing cold. The hor­ri­ble thought oc­curred to me that the strain had been too much for him – Derek, I had al­ways thought, pos­sessed a bal­anced mind, and now, in this emer­gency – ‘I’ve put you on, old man,’ he ex­plained, look­ing rather like a bal­let girl as he flut­tered in the wind, ‘and I’m jolly well go­ing to get you off. Here g-goes!’

And be­fore I could protest he had slipped over­board up to his waist. The boat moved as soon as he jumped from her, and when he put his shoul­der un­der her quar­ter she gave one more scrunch and sailed off.

‘I’m al­right!’ he cried, as I tried to haul him aboard, ‘keep her go­ing till we’re over the bar.’

The next few min­utes were a night­mare, for the lit­tle boat was un­able to cope with the steep, curl­ing seas and sim­ply dived into the heart of them, bury­ing her fore­deck to the mast and wal­low­ing un­der the weight of wa­ter. Ev­ery mo­ment I ex­pected to feel her hit the ground, but mer­ci­fully she was swept clear into deeper wa­ter, where the seas were more reg­u­lar, and I was able to round her up.

‘Near thing. All my fault; I hugged the shore too close,’ was all he said as he dis­ap­peared to dry him­self. When he came out fully dressed and took the helm, I clam­bered for­ward to take in what re­mained of our jib. It looked too much like a sig­nal of dis­tress to be left up.

The joy of own­er­ship that I felt then glossed over all its tri­als and hard­ships

Sit­ting astride the mast taber­na­cle, I hauled in the flog­ging strips of can­vas while the lean-headed lit­tle boat dived into a half dozen suc­ces­sive seas, drench­ing me and send­ing a lot of wa­ter be­low, squirt­ing through a dozen places in the fore­hatch and cabin-top.

For four hours we tried to beat against the strong ebb that was pour­ing north against us, while the squalls laid us al­most flat and the salt spray and the sleet blinded us. The boat, reefed as it was, proved al­most un­man­age­able, car­ry­ing prodi­gious weather helm and get­ting into irons ev­ery time we went about. Had I known then how to coun­ter­act this, I should have hove-to and moved half the bal­last fur­ther aft. As it was we thrashed on, fight­ing ev­ery inch of the way and anx­iously watch­ing our progress each time we stood on the port tack to­wards Felixs­towe.

This was the cold­est and most mis­er­able pas­sage I have ever made. We were able to stand only short spells at the helm, and I well re­mem­ber the agony of aching hands as one sat in the buck­ing cabin, try­ing to get back one’s cir­cu­la­tion in the brief spell be­low, while the in­creas­ing bilge wa­ter surged up on to the lee berth.

By the time we had brought Land­guard Point in sight, the ebb-tide had eased, and an­other board al­lowed us to fetch through the shal­low swatch­way that used to lie be­tween the end of the jetty and the deadly Plat­ter Sands.

Here, an un­ex­pected cross sea sud­denly rose above us, tum­bled over and fell with a thun­der­ous crash on our deck, seething over the cabin-top and surg­ing into the well. For one sick­en­ing mo­ment it seemed that the boat was go­ing down un­der us; but she slowly shook her­self free of the wa­ter, lurched on and rounded the point into the har­bour.

While we raced up the smooth wa­ter of the har­bour I bailed with a bucket un­til the bilge wa­ter was be­low the floor­boards once more; then I lit the Primus and handed out a mug of steam­ing Bovril to the mate who had so un­selfishly risked his life for the sake of my boat.

An hour later, when we lay snugly on my moor­ings at Ip­swich, we sat in the cramped lit­tle cabin, dry­ing our­selves, and de­clared, now it was over, it had been a ‘great’ pas­sage and the boat her­self a ‘won­der­ful sea-boat’ to have stood it. And the joy of own­er­ship that I felt then, the mount­ing en­thu­si­asm that swept over me like a flood, glossed over all its tri­als and hard­ships, its dan­gers and mis­eries, and I wanted to do it again – for she was mine. My boat! The joy of that mo­ment lingers still.

Mau­rice Wal­ter Grif­fiths (1902 –1997) was ed­i­tor of Yacht­ing Monthly from 1927-1967 – with a break dur­ing WW2 when he was awarded the Ge­orge Medal for his mineclear­ance ac­tiv­i­ties. He was also a yacht de­signer and a writer who did much to make sail­ing ac­ces­si­ble to all..

Mau­rice Grif­fiths First pub­lished 1932, Ad­lard Coles, £12.99

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