Cold spray cut across her face and she wiped it away for the twentieth time with the back of a wet hand. Another sheet of spray flew up, briefly green and red from the nav lights, this time catching the dark figure at the mast. Jon, the delivery skipper, heaved on a halyard, struggling to raise the thrashing mainsail snagged on its dangling lazyjacks. The heavy Moody 47 butted again into a steep sea, and she spun the wheel to keep the boat's head into the wind, wondering again why he'd not done this inside the harbour mouth they'd just left.
Glancing back over her shoulder at St Peter Port, she confirmed from the leading lights that they were still in the clear channel up the middle of the Little Russell. Out to her right was the squat black bulk of Brehon with its isophase light. Ahead, on the port bow, was a flashing white light, and further left was another. Confused, she repeated to herself what the delivery skipper had told her – “Keep that one on your port bow – we're heading there. Steer about 060º, and the tide will carry us up to it.” She glanced down at the compass, wiping spray off the dome with her sleeve….
Just then, the sail whipped free of the snagging lines and Jon swiftly surged it up past the spreaders. “There's one reef tied in already! That'll do us for now!” shouted the skipper back to her. “Just pull in the slack on that halyard tail, and I'll sort out the rest of it.” He scrambled back and busied himself with the lines. Finally, hauling in the mainsheet, he settled himself, satisfied, in the lee corner. She noted he'd left the topping lift on, but made no comment.
A dozen, no, twenty different navigation beacons flashed and twinkled around them in the dark. She fought her uncertainty to concentrate on the biggest light, Platte Fougere, flashing ahead of them every 10 seconds. With a cold shock, she realised its colour had changed from white to red. “Don't worry, Jennie,” smiled the skipper Jon, spotting her concern. “Turn port now and we'll head in towards Beaucette Marina – that glare of lights over there. We go nearly to the entrance, then turn right through their waiting moorings – then we're clear away through the Doyle Passage. We're doing fine!” Re-assured, she swung the boat round and headed in towards the floodlights in the old quarry, trying to ignore the black, rocky masses on both sides.
She'd had the phone call two days before, from another delivery skipper she'd sailed with a couple of times. One of his mates was a bit short-handed on a delivery. Would she care to go over to Guernsey and help crew the boat back to Dartmouth? Keen to build miles following her Dayskipper Course, she'd readily agreed, and she'd taken the fast catamaran ferry from Poole the previous evening. Jon, a burly man in his 40s, had met her at the Terminal and carried her bag round to the boat in the nearby marina.
Once aboard, he'd introduced her to the third crew member, Simon – an unkempt, grey-pallored old man who looked quite out of place. “Simon's a commercial yachtmaster,” offered Jon. “He's been with us since Cadiz, up past Portugal and across Biscay. We had another lad, Joseph, who came on at Gibraltar, but he needed to get off so we put him ashore at Ile Molene. He'll be back home, now…. Anyway, we've kept some supper. Chicken, bread, salad…. And some soup, if you want it, from the Marks and Spencer Food Hall just across the road. Then I suggest we turn in early, for I want to be away as soon as there's enough water over the sill. That'll be around 5:30, I think,” he added, “but perhaps you'd check my calculations later while I wash the dishes?”
During the brief meal, the skipper outlined his plan of heading off in the early morning for Dartmouth. “The wind's likely to be NE'ly and quite light, so we'll probably be motor-sailing. We'll head out to the NW, towards Start Point, around the end of the Separation Scheme. Depending on the tide's effect, we'll go into either Dartmouth or Salcombe….”
She'd been kept busy. After threading the narrow rocky Doyle Passage the pair of them set the genoa and worked for an hour or two to keep the sails filled and drawing. Finally, they gave up on the fickle breeze, rolled the headsail away, hoisted a motoring cone, and set the autopilot. Eventually, the old man Simon made his first appearance from the forecabin, set himself with his back to the breeze, and lit up his first cigarette. Jennie grimaced, recalling he'd chain-smoked his roll-ups throughout the previous evening's meal. Now his cigarette ash was blowing her way. “I need a break,” she announced, recalling she hadn't been below since they'd cast off, “and I'll have look at the chart while I'm below.”
“Put the kettle on while you're down there, dear!” called the old man, sliding behind the wheel. “Maybe you'd like to make some coffee for us…..” Jennie suppressed a retort, for he'd contributed nothing to the morning so far, then reminded herself that she was 'low man on the totem pole' and started rummaging in the lockers for the makings. It didn't take long, for there was almost no food in the boat. While waiting for the kettle, she pored over the chart. There was nothing plotted, and only a cursory “0605 – left Peter Port - 3 up” in the log. Puzzled, for she'd been taught to be rather more detailed, she put a fix and approximate time by the exit to the Doyle Passage, then a course vector arrow..… then the kettle boiled.
Jennie struggled up into the cockpit with 3 mugs of coffee in a plastic basin, and a half-packet of biscuits she'd found. The men took a couple each, then there was one left – a bit crumbled – for her. “Don't worry,” grinned Jon the skipper, seeing her expression. “We'll do a proper meal for you this evening.” She remembered the pack of dried fruit slices in her holdall and the sailing instructor who'd first suggested the tip to her….. “Any fool can be uncomfortable on a boat – and hungry. Always have some hidden 'munchies', dry socks and some spare dry 'kecks' in a plassy-bag, in your holdall. Oh, and your sleeping bag lives in its own drybag…..” He'd been full of quirky little tips, some of them ridiculous. “And some of them damn useful!” she smiled to herself.
A couple of ships passed, heading up-channel, and the sun came out. The conversation in the cockpit seemed focussed on sailing trips and ports in the Med. Jennie hadn't sailed there and felt excluded - then, remembering the blank chart, she decided to make herself useful down there. “I'll go and put a fix on the chart,” she called. They nodded. She dumped the coffee mugs into the galley sink, wedged herself into the nav seat, and opened the almanac at the Channel Tides pages. Plotting a fix, she noted it put them passing just west of the Off Casquets TSS. “That's probably OK,” she thought, as Jon clattered down the companionway and peered at her chartwork. “Good stuff,” he grinned. “When d'you think we'll get to Start Point….?” As Jennie reached for the dividers, he stretched out on the settee berth, closed his eyes, and was asleep.
Working the unfamiliar calculations took a while, but finally she headed for the cockpit to have Simon adjust their course. With a shock, she realised he, too, was fast asleep behind the wheel. His roll-up was smouldering on the cockpit floor and as she picked it up to toss it over the side, she caught the unmistakable sweet smell of cannabis. “The old toad's been smoking tokes all morning,” she realised, as a surge of anger washed over her. She was the only one awake!
The anger turned to sudden cold concern as she looked around. There were ships around them on all sides, crossing ahead and astern. And the nearest – about 60º to starboard – was huge, and under a mile away. She could see the whole port side, the individual containers, the bow wave and the name on the bow – 'Maersk Dartford'. It was obviously on a collision course, and to make matters worse, there was another big one beyond, almost obscured by the bulk of the first. From the alignment of its masts, this one was nearly bows-on to them and they'd be head-to-head..... She shook the old helmsman awake and pointed. “It's all right,” he mumbled, bleary-eyed, and poking the autopilot for a 10º alteration. “We'll just duck under her stern….”
“You haven't seen the other one, you old scrote!” cried Jennie, pushing him out of the way. She punched the autopilot into 'Standby', shoved the engine revs up to maximum, and spun the boat 90º to starboard. The black-hulled container ship surged past, port to port, and as her blue funnel drew abeam, they could see two ship's officers on the wing-bridge gesturing at her stern. The VHF down below crackled unintelligibly about ”small yacht, small yacht….”, and five blasts ripped the air. Jennie swore - “I know, I know”, then they were past.
The yacht bucked and tumbled in the ship's bow-wake; jars, charts, books and pots clattered onto the cabin floor down below, and the still-dozy Simon slid with a bump off the bench-seat onto the cockpit sole. Jennie, heart in mouth, stared helpless at the white-striped company emblem painted on the bows of the second huge ship bearing down on them. Slowly, slowly, the aspect opened and her name-lettering appeared round the turn of the port bow – 'MSC…. Maria…. Elena..…' One thousand feet long, almost 150 feet wide, and over 100,000 tons rushing at them at over 20 knots.
Jon the skipper clambered up from the cabin and over Simon, still struggling to rise, to see the huge bulk of the second container ship slide past above them scarcely 100 metres away. Jennie waited until she could read the stern-lettering, then brought the yacht back round onto its proper course and re-engaged the 'pilot.
“I think we could do with a hand up here, Jon,” she said quietly and distinctly. “And I could use another coffee now. Perhaps someone else could make it……”Go to Different Ships 1Different Ships 3
Bilbo, © 2008