Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Lost at Sea 1

After we left Ilfracombe and headed south towards the Canary Islands, I discovered that my dad hadn’t actually ever had any practice in celestial navigation. In those days we didn’t have GPS, you had to work out where you were at sea using Dead Reckoning and Celestial Navigation.

Dad had used dead reckoning for many years and knew the theory of celestial navigation, but had no experience. Consequently after a few days at sea, dad’s sights and workings were putting us in the middle of the Atlantic, somewhere we knew we couldn’t be, as we were definitely in the Bay of Biscay. We didn’t know if there was something wrong with the sextant or his calculations. We had a few arguments about this and finally decided that we’d have to head south east in a direction that would take us to the northernmost coast of Spain, then we could heat west, round Cape Finesterre and go into the port of Vigo where we could, hopefully, find out what was wrong.

As we came up to Cape Finesterre, a gale started to blow and we decided after reading the Admiralty Pilot book that we would head for the tiny port of Corcubion just south of the cape.

We couldn’t get our engine to start (something I could never do, you had to crank it with a starter handle, and dad couldn't always get it to go either) and so we spent hours tacking into the wind with a reefed mainsail, trying to get to shelter at Corcubion. When we finally got there, my dad took one look at all the moored boats and said “We can’t go in there, with no engine we’ll smash into all those boats, we’ll have to head out to sea”

That was one of the most disappointing moments of my life. I was sent below, out of the gale, while dad ran us out to sea, narrowly missing some dangerous rocks. As soon as dad felt that we’d reached a safe distance from the coast, we took down the sail and put out a sea anchor to keep our stern onto the waves and, exhausted, we took it in turns to rest.

By morning, the gale had blown itself out and we headed east, back to land. As we still hadn’t figured out what was wrong with our navigation, we had to rely on the description and drawings in the Admiralty Pilot to try to work out where we were. This was very difficult, the Pilot book had drawings, not photographs, and we would look at the coastline and argue about whether it looked like this bit or that bit. We decided we were north of Vigo and started following the coast southwards. However, by 4 o’clock in the afternoon, we finally were able to match the Pilot book to what we could see and realized that Vigo was roughly where we had first sighted land and we had to turn around and sail back up the coast.

When we eventually arrived outside Vigo it was dark, luckily our engine was running again. OK, now we had to follow the Pilot book instructions for how to get into port. The book describes lots of dangers, so we knew we had to be careful, but told us that there’s a channel that would safely take us in, if, we lined up this light with that light. Trouble was, where the hell was the flashing light we had to line up, there seemed to be a myriad of flashing lights. Vigo is built on a hillside and cars coming round corners would give the appearance of a flashing light, there were flashing neon signs and street lamps, we were trying to count flashes all over the place and eventually decided it was no good. What could we do? We knew that we had to follow the channel to get safely in. We were tired and desperately wanted to anchor or tie up somewhere to rest and we couldn’t safely stay where we were, at the entrance to the channel as there was quite a bit of shipping traffic around us. There were fishing boats coming and going, then we had an idea, why didn’t we follow a fishing boat into the harbour - they obviously knew where there were going.

So that’s what we did. If we had realized how much faster the fishing boats were, (our top speed was only about 4 knots) we might not have risked it, but once started, we had to go on. Luckily for us, as one fishing boat passed us and went out of sight, another would come up and lead us on. Eventually we followed a boat into the fishing harbour and looking round it we realized we couldn’t tie up here, the wharves were way above our heads and it was tightly packed with fishing boats. Motoring round in circles in the middle, we shouted to someone on the wharf “Club de Yachte?” (our Spanish was non existent). He indicated back to us by waving his hands that we should go out and around the back of the fishing boat harbour, so we did, but couldn’t see anywhere that looked like a place we could tie up or anchor. It didn’t help that it was pitch black in this area.

So what now? The pilot book and chart mentioned submarine telegraph cables and prohibited anchorage in this area, we knew we couldn’t let down the anchor, so we just motored on. We were passing between a very large round buoy (about 6 feet in diameter) and a large cargo ship anchored against a wharf in the distance, when we heard a clunk, clunk, scraping sound under our hull and then we were pulled up. There was an underwater cable running from the ship to the buoy and we had just gone over it, which would have been OK except that there was a gap between the bottom of the boat and where the rudder was attached and the chain had lodged between the two, effectively preventing us from moving any further.

We tried all sorts of things; we pushed down on the cable either side of the boat with our oars; we yelled at the sole person walking around the cargo ship “Do you speak English?” “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” “Parlez Vous Francais?” “Parle Italiano?”; (the sum total of our schoolgirl and wartime language knowledge); we tried shining a torch from the buoy, to us, then to the cargo ship and yelling “Cadena” which the pilot book said meant chain -actually "chain (of mountains, etc). No wonder the poor guy kept shaking his head, (we couldn’t clearly see his face in the distance) he must have been totally confused. This went on for an hour or two. We gave up at times and made a cup of tea (very British!).

Finally, at about 2.30 in the morning, another man appeared, took a look, cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted out in stilted English “We let go chain” and they did.

To be continued……

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