Griffiths goes aground
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