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Saturday, 26 November 2011

Good Morning Irene, are you stil here? Part 3

The wind kept up a steady force 2-3 for the remainder of the day and dropped slowly but surely throughout the night. I awoke to take charge of my windless watch with Jon and Mike. The same haze from the previous day melted the horizon and sky together, only broken by the race fleet around us and an occasional sea bird dipping into the glass like ocean.
The monotony of being in irons and going nowhere was getting to us. It's hard to keep up morale with nothing going on. At least we're on a boat and that means that there's always something to do.
We moved about some rope, tidied some other bits of rope and hauled on the big bits of rope. Maybe we were hoping to find some wind hidden within all of this manilla and hemp.

It seemed that hours had passed, the reality was that it wasn't even one hour. Mike helpfully pointed out that there was nothing to see or do. Just then, a whale's spout burst out of the sea not 20 meters from our port side. The fine mist dropped straight back to the water's surface. Like a pathetic geezer, straight back down with barely a ripple and no breeze to carry it. The cetacean's lethargic sigh, however, got our attention. Within seconds this gracious animal swam right underneath the boat, barely beneath the surface of the water. This majestic black and white mammal, travelling lazily alone to a place I'm not even sure he knew he was heading. We watched the sea in the direction he'd headed hoping to catch another glance. Hoping to bury another five minutes with something less boring than steering a boat that's going nowhere. Then the spout of mist broke the horizon once more, only this time there was a wind to carry it. The morning sun had begun to rise higher, bringing with it an offshore breeze as it heated the green hills of Southern Ireland.

Frustratingly we could see the ripples of the wind on the water, yet it was still half a mile ahead of us. We were still at the mercy of the tide and that was still half an hour from being favourable.
I took a bearing from the point on the land in which the wind was coming from then went to the chart
to see how long it would take until we got there. This is when I saw that during the previous watch and the start of ours, we had been pushed backwards just over two miles by the tide. This was massively frustrating. It looked as though we were about forty minutes away from the breeze, we were only half way through our watch and all bored out of our minds, oblivious to just how lucky we actually were to be there in the first place. Ahead of us, the larger ships in the fleet began to fill their sails, albeit pitifully, and make lazy progress towards the checkpoint.

The checkpoint. We were to find out very soon about these. It was every boat's obligation to call in daily with the boat's position, heading and with any useful information. After talking to 'Race Command, or Race HQ or Race Whateveritwas, we were then asked, 'We assume you have successfully managed to reach waypoint one?'

Following this was a pause, this consisted of me looking at Jon, Jon at me, his face as blankly bemused as I felt.

'Er. Affirmative sir, on course for waypoint two.' ???!!?!??

My response was not a lie, I was affirming their assumption, not the fact that we had crossed a waypoint. As for being on course for number two, well we still had time to find it.

'So. It seems that there is a course to follow.' Said Jon.

'Yes Jon, it seems that you are right. Where are we going?'

One might think that we'd have known about these waypoints before setting off. One should be right however this was one of those things that Leslie placed in the 'Nonsense' section of his elaborate, ageing and eccentric mind. The plan to get over not knowing exactly where we were going was to follow the fleet. When the masses change course, so do we. Simple. Winning this race was never a realistic option for Irene, but we had the will and whim to do the best we could, a steady twentieth would be admirable for the old girl. So this is what we would do.

The breeze tickled the rigging and sat softly in the sails that we had centred so that the booms wouldn't sway on the swell of the sea without the wind to hold them rigid. Before getting the chance to sheet out a little Leslie emerged from his cabin.

'Why the fuck aren't we moving? Sheet out! How long have you been sailing like this for? We should be miles further!'

'Good Morning Leslie.'

So unaware he was that he had arrived with this feint breeze. He stayed for a while and set the sails, grunted something in oldy worldy talk and went back down below. Oh well, we're steadily moving ahead and catching up with some more boats.

A steady course of East was adhered to as this seemed to be where the fleet was going. As they funnelled closer ahead of us we would know that we were close to the waypoint.

Leslie reappears, dressed and ready for the day, crumbs in his beard and the froth of a good morning coffee adorning his moustache.

'Why the fuck are we heading East?'

'Good morning Leslie...'

', because apparently in that pack that you once had with the race rules in, there were a list of waypoints. We don't have that pack so we're following the fleet for the second marker.'

'Bollocks! It's a race, we want Greenock, that's North, so head North!'



The rest of the crew either began to arrive to take on their watch or simply enjoy the morning's sailing. The wind was rising to a force 4 and from the beam. Perfect for Irene. No one would believe  us that there had been no wind and that we'd actually gone backwards in the night.

Sacha arrived and asked why we were heading North when we agreed to follow the fleet, I nodded to Leslie.

'For fuck sake.'

'I know Sacha, but we're going North now, waypoint two is a write off, let's find if and where number three is and actually hit it.'

So I hand over the watch to a tired eyed and grumpy Sacha. The sun warms up the deck and we sit and soak up the joy of fair weather sailing.

'Och aye! Morrrrnin, BOP! Squaaark! Squaaaaaark! Scottish Maid!!!...'

'Morning Eric!'

You crazy bastard.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Good Morning Irene, are you still here? Part 2

If you are a touch deaf and generally uninterested in anything other than your own affairs, then from time to time you may get a few things wrong.  For Dr. Leslie Morrish this was when the Tall Ships Race people asked for their money.
It is only after the ha'penny clunked into place that Leslie realised it was in fact Irene that paid to enter the race, not the race paying Irene.

If you are a touch indignant and generally uninterested in anything other than your own affairs... the same applies.
It was only when we were trying to find the race rules and various other important documents, that we realised Leslie had filed these articles into the 'nonsense' section of his brain. Consequently we hadn't got a clue just what we needed to partake in the race other than a few basics. The vast bulk of what we needed had probably found it's way overboard.
However by asking around the other boats and attending the last minute meetings we pulled it all together.

It may have been down to this apparent lackadaisical approach of Leslie's to such red tape that there was a strong feeling that at every stage, the organisers seemed doggedly determined to not allow Irene to sail.

With each request that we adhered to they would make up more irrational and unreasonable ones. As equally determined we would adhere to their inane rules applied only to us out of the sixty something boats taking part.
We blagged the 'correct' HF Radio Set; we brought the up to date to the hour charts; we added more flares; we bought ugly canvas name boards for the boat; we individually numbered and named our jackstays; we flew their flags; we attended their review meetings; we managed to get the right crew over 21 to those under 21 ratio just right, we walked their walk and talked their talk. Yet it still wasn't enough.

By the end of a week in Waterford and boat check after boat check they reluctantly allowed 'Irene' to sail, calling us master blaggers and bluffers. 
Not without one parting shot. His name was Anderson. He'd never sailed before and had signed on to the race for some experience. 
The Tall Ships people decided that on the morning of departure that we were the boat for him. This put our crew ratio off kilter. The rules state that there must be no more than 50% of the crew over 21. Andreas was 26. We were pleased to have him along.
An hour to leave for the start line, we were taking part any way. We had a crew on board that wanted to get to Greenock, so Greenock it was to be.
So off we went, our tired liaison officer (who had done everything in her power to help Irene) waving farewell to the crew which were:

Leslie: Owner/ AARGH!!!
Eric: Captain/ Character
Sacha: 1st Mate/ Sailing Master
Thom: Bosun/ Comic Relief
Jonathon: Crew
Paul: Crew
Mike: Passenger/ Crew
Shannon: Passenger/ Crew
Anderson: Passenger/ Crew
Tammy: Passenger/ Crew

We made our way down river to join the fleet at the start line. Though it was as we were setting the sails we realised that there was nothing rigged up for the Main Topsail. It is essential to have all of a sailboats sails ready to set once you are in a race. The rules specified that engines were not allowed.
We hove the boat to and got on with the work. This was in fact a great way for the 'green' hands to start learning the ropes. I include myself in this as I had never sailed a gaff rigged boat before. Other than the seamanship side of things I was new to this too.

Leslie growled orders and we worked to get the job done. Paul shouting down periodically from the top of the mast what needed to be done as Leslie made sure he did the exact opposite. Eric was asking the girls for cups of tea, singing at the sea birds and shouting randomly in true stereotypical Scottish, things like 'Bop!' and 'Och aye'. Every now and again he would bark things at the air such as, 'LIVERPOOL MAID', or 'Where's my tea!?'
Eventually we had the Main Topsail flying high above the other sails. The sun was out and Tammy was busy taking her amazing photos and mingling with Shannon.

Because of this faffing around we crossed the start line over an hour after the race had begun. Not only were we last in our class, we were last overall with the wind decreasing by the minute.
A good start...

The fleet miles ahead, taken from behind the start line. 

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Good Morning Irene, are you still here? Part 1

The Irene has a reputation that precedes it. A highly charismatic boat with an even more charismatic owner. In his book 'Good-night Irene' Dr. Leslie Morrish takes less than five pages before he tells us he put the bowsprit through a bridge in London disrupting gas and electricity to many thousands of homes. Not much later and you can read about the cat that shat in his pillow case and consequently was last seen sinking in the Thames Estuary.
Ask anybody that has sailed on Irene and you'll hear many tales. Skippers have been forced to stamp on their Pith helmets in despair. The boat has collided with yachts, yachts have collided with the boat. It has grounded multiple times and has even burned down once.
With a brief charter career in the Caribbean Mick Jagger played upon her grand piano.
She has led a colourful life indeed. In her wake is a succesion of great voyages, mentally disturbed skippers, irritated crew and confused harbour officials. Yet for each folly is a feel good story, this is the start of mine. Of my time on the boat that refuses to follow the path of other, similar boats and shout EFF YOU to convention and sometimes even reason.
'Irene' Grounded off Cleavedon in 2009

'It's looser than a Dutch woman in a window.'

With these words I had given to myself the first job aboard the 'Irene'. Tightening the rigging.

Setting to it with some good old fashioned swaging (or sweating, or heaving, or grunting), one person pulls on the halyard like a bastard, the other is 'tailing' the rope to pull in the slack. We used the halyard usually kept for lifting the heavy gaff that pulls up the main sail. Burly enough for the job so as we don't have to be. Perfect.

Once we'd pulled through enough line to tension the rigging we lashed it to itself in four places with marlin to stop it from slipping. Once done we move to the opposing shroud, slowly heading aft down the boat towards the stern until all eight shrouds are nearly bar tight.
This job took all day, firstly because like anything else on a boat, it is worth doing properly. Secondly, by the end of the day we had had quite a bit of wine.

Sacha and I had arrived in Waterford the previous evening. Sacha as first mate and me as his second, in my usual thankless job as the feared and despised, common ground of hatred and irreverence, the Bosun.

Upon arriving in Ireland we had been struck with festival fever, the Tall Ships were in town. Illuminated masts reached high to tickle the cloudy skies of Southern Ireland. Boats buzzed with excitement as crews made up of professional sailors and youngsters 'living the dream' for the summer drank hard. Shining brass bells and trims danced light onto the drunken smiles of kids eager to slip their ships lines and compete in and win the Tall Ships Race 2011.

I met the owner Leslie. He was pleased to see us, for this boat was lacking any experienced crew. There were people on board more than capable of sailing, yet sailors they were not.

This situation had led to an odd discipline on board where a completely unexperienced crew member had appointed himself Bosun, Second Mate and First Mate.

There was a sense of ill feeling for this man that I had yet to meet. The crew spun stories of his incompetence and poor manners; of his sense of superiority that descended to childish humility when his orders were implemented to various ill fated ends.
Unfortunately, through his callow ideals of what it means to be a mate at sea he had assumed that he would be 'liked'. Decisions made for the greater good of a boat may not always sit well with others.

He thought too that he could be respected. Maybe, though this comes with the experience and reason that is applied to decisions to do no more or no less than is necessary for a safe and speedy passage. To simply guess at what to do and for it to be unsafe and to waste everyone's time will earn you no respect. The only good that will come of you is that you will bind the masses to a general opinion that you are a complete dick.

However, 'he's new to this', thinks I.
'He's showing gumption and filling the void', surely.
'He can't be as big an arse as they say', can he?

2am and I'm sound asleep. The day's travelling has taken it's toll and I had long ago slunk to bed to be fit for duty the next day.

I awoke to find a beard with a Canadian accent and a flatcap poking me and looking at me through glasses belonging to the 80's.

What a dick...


This fellow starts reeling off a jobs list for me to start in the morning. I thank him for this by grunting that he should bugger off before he gets lamped. I can see already that we are going to get along fine...

Monday, 29 August 2011

It's been a while. Sorry

Many a tide has fallen since my last entry to this here Blog-O-Gramme. The winds have blown me to France, where the Matthew partook in the Golf de Morbien festival. This involved showing many thousands of people around the boat in Vannes. Followed by a Parade of Sail around the Golf itself, it is quite the event to see when there are thousands of boats criss crossing around and about you in a narrow channel.
Where else was I? Ah Cornwall, of course. Here we stayed for many a month, again showing the wonderful public around the vessel and taking the even wonderfuller public on evening/ day/ night/ weekend sails.
Here I jumped ship and left the Matthew after a rather nice weekend at the Penzance Maisy Day Parade. I left one boat to dive onto the 'Irene'. From Waterford we sailed with a fleet of some sixty plus boats in the Tall Ships Race 2011 to Greenoch. Coming a respectable 10th overall. This particular trip is worthy of it's own story that I shall endeavour to share with you next and soon. There will be peril, confusion, danger, idiocy and much more.

For now however this is it. Just a quick yarn to say hello and let you know I am actually still here.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

I sense that a voyage is near. There has been a sudden surge of unprompted activity. Bunks are cleared of the debris collected whilst in port, to be made available for new crew. Stray items are finding there way back to a safe stowage so as not to fall out of place upon the rolling seas. From below as I write this I can hear wood saws and sanders, the clomping of heavy boots upon the deck, a bustle of noises that alude to our imminent departure to France.

We shall leave on Monday at 10am with a compliment of 8 crew in total; Salty Sacha shall rejoin us with Lou, our highly charismatic and fun filled filly. It has been nearly a year since I sailed with Lou and I am looking forward to it immensely. Also on board other than the three of us that baby sit the boat whilst in port are Royston, the ex Lord Mayor of Bristol and current head of the brand new Matthew of Bristol Trust; Jane, the infinitely over excited volunteer and Ben, our one and only Falmouth based volunteer
First stop; Brest. I shall use my time here to visit The Spirit of Antigua, maybe there will be a relic or two of mine that I left on board from leaving in such a hurry.

Then onto Belisle, Vannes, Douarnanez and in three weeks time back to Falmouth for the Sea Shanty Festival.
Busy busy indeed.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Death of Enza (and my part in her demise) The final part

The story we were told to tell was; 'We went sailing, we got wet, we went flying, we came home.' Fair enough, however this is not the story I have relayed so many times, to so many people. I felt therefore that this was not my story. What comes up, comes out. So out it came, from head to fist and onto paper over the past six months.

I have written this account purely as a cathartic exercise for myself. To help me rid the demons, daydreams and nightmares that have occurred since October.
I share it primarily for those on board that evening. Maybe as a way of letting them see similarity's to their own personal tale and feelings, or indeed and more importantly, the differences.
An event like this is certainly a large undertaking to break down mentally. I thought that I was 'over it' long ago yet here I am still reeling from that day and the days that followed.
The 'What if's' have long since faded from the forefront of my mind. The reality of it all though is still quite a task. So much thought is given to those that risked their lives to save ours; to those whom we left asleep in their beds to be given such an awful wake up call; to those that would find out about it later on and for the compassion shown to me by family and friends and even people I had never met, nor ever will.
The thanks that I have for all involved in saving my life, my friends lives and the sanity and happiness of those that surround me is beyond fathomable comprehension.

Why do I still put to sea? I do not know. Will I always put to sea? Yes, though under what guise I cannot possibly say. Maybe simply talking of 'rounding the horn' someday in my own boat will conjure up all of the imagery and colour that I need in my life. My life. There is a term I enjoy. For I am alive and I wake up happy some days purely at that simple little fact.
I am very pleased I have survived to be able to share with you my story...

...and go sailing.

Thank you,

The Death of Enza (and my part in her demise) Part 16

High above the boat now and I am face to face with another French accent, this one dressed in green. He has no smile for me, he must be tired. He's grabbing me by the shoulders and wrenching me deep into the belly of this metal bird. What now?
Ben is in a foil blanket, at the back with him was Slava and Sacha. I get pushed along to my place at the front of the helicopter, in amidst the thousands of buttons and lights that I will never comprehend. The nurse comes across to check me over. I feel her compassion through my skin as she takes my hand. I nearly cry but think better of it. Man up Thom! Instead I'll fix my gaze through soaking wet, salty dreadlocks and into her deep eyes as she begins to take my blood pressure.

Ben Wookey was placed on the floor of the helicopter next to me. I look out beyond the green tinted window at the scene below and beyond us. So many ships passing by. Why could you not find it in your hearts to come and find us? Though the one directly ahead of the ex catamaran is beautiful.
'WAGENBORG, WAGENBORG, WAGENBORG' I repeat it over and over and over so as to remember it forever. 
Captain Jack Wieten and the crew of the M/V Ijsselborg. I love you. For answering the SOS, for steaming 35 nautical miles to assist, for having a heart.

The crew are all aboard the Helicopter now. Some noise follows and we begin to move. The tired man is playing around with the microphone on his helmet, I think maybe it's broken. He sees me looking at him so I flash him a smile full of heartfelt thanks and humility. He looks down, takes out a huge military issue knife and plays with more extrusions from his helmet. Then he looks over again and approaches me in a crouch.


The noise of a helicopter is deafening. My ears have been through a lot this evening.

'QUOI?' I ask.

His eyes roll and his question is repeated, to which I shout back that there were six.




A grunt, followed by a crouched swivel and he's back on the helicopter floor playing with more wires.

The sea is so vast. From a height the waves look tiny, merely a surface swell. Did we capsized in that?! What the fuck? Why the fuck? How the fuck?
I'm tired so I slump forward to rest my elbows and head on my knees. My dreads itch, will they ever dry? I wonder.

The nurse nudges me.

Shouting through the fantastic noise of brute force machinery keeping us aloft she asks, 'OK?'

Am I? I really don't know. I'm certainly elated and literally elevated. My night is better than it was but OK might only be a relative state of affairs.


Relatively, of course.

I wonder where they are taking us. I'll ask...

'Où cet hélicoptère va ? '

'Britain'. She replies

'Merci' Says I. 'Je le veux dire!' And I really, truly did mean it.

Ben Wookey looks a bit astonished that some one of my ilk is able to talk a foreign language, albeit in a true pigeon form.

'What was that about?' He shouts.

I explain that they are taking us to Britain. Though I don't see why or even where exactly they would take us.

An hour or so of shivering passes. How long did we go sailing for? We seem to be driving on the right hand side these days.
Of course they didn't take us to Britain, but to Lanveoc near to Brest. In BRITANNY! My mistake.

The Hellijigger meets the asphalt, I'm marched out by 'smiler', our tired French friend, grabbing me by my shoulders and moving me quick and low. I see grass and make a break for it. It's not far away and I dive to one knee to tear up a clump, just to feel it. I never thought I would again. Smiler does not like this, makes chase, wrenches me upright and leaves me in the care of some new uniformed faces. These ones are dressed in blue...

Monday, 16 May 2011

The Death of Enza (and my part in her demise) Part 15.

Through to the outside, I dive. I struggle much more with this attempt than previously as another tear on my suit has now snagged on the broken framing of the hatch. I break free and clamber up to see Ben through safely.

He emerges feet first, still clutching the torch. Close enough, I think. I grab it and cast it, still illuminating, into the life-raft.

'Sorry Thom.'

'Ben, you never have to apologise to me ever again about anything. Ever!'

The noise of the helicopter is ferocious, the lights fixed upon us are dazzling. So much so that I am forced to look down. Another phenomenal sight. So amazing in fact that I fall backwards. Through the clear waters of Biscay I can see the sails of the catamaran set eerily beneath us. It seems as if the boat is still trying to get somewhere. Rigging and other lines are climbing up the mast in a ghostly motion. A hand on my shoulder startles me away from my transfixed gaze.

Hello? A red wet suit, a new face with a French accent. A very welcome guest to have on board. What's he doing? Trying to put me into the harness to go up into the helicopter is what. Me and Ben start frantically pointing to the skipper, he needs to be looked at first. The flying frenchman nods and straps Ben in. Up he goes complete with his waterproofs and his expensive boots. Lucky bugger.

Slava had went up first, Sacha second. It was going to be Sacha first but he'd wrapped his legs around the Frenchman. This is good to do if you are drifting alone out at sea, though whilst your fixed to a boat it is unnecessary. Our rescuer in this instance thought that it was inappropriate and turned his attentions to the seemingly less affectionate Slava.

Then after we had motioned for Ben to go up it was my turn. As I was lifted higher and higher the scene became more and more surreal. The water was spiralling up into the air with me up to the blades of the helicopter. There were people on the Ijselbourg looking over and taking photos. There was our boat, looking so tiny and insignificant from so high up. Her sails still set, still trying to carve forwards though the water. I feel my laughter behind the noise. I feel! This is enough.

The Death of Enza (and my part in her demise) Part 14.

Pete lashes himself to the life line and heads through the hatch to the outside. Maybe for the want of simply something to do, he closes in on the life raft for a look. He's a braver man than I. I didn't even want to look at it this hopeless craft. Upon seeing the foot pump he asks whether it is worth trying to fill up the raft with air.  I can see his point. 

'No, I don't think it is.' 

I don't believe that the energy involved to get it to the 288 pounds per square foot of pressure needed would be worth expending. We can gather in the morning and try pumping it up then if it's needed. There will be more people to help and it will give us a job to do. Besides, I don't want to fully accept that we may well have to abandon our vessel for this floating tent.
Ben, Ben and Luke agree that maybe it should be left for now, Pete also.

'Quick! Pass me an EFIRB!'

It couldn't have been more than fifteen minutes of Pete being outside that we here him cry out.

Luke replies, 'What's an EFIRB?'

My humble guess would be that it's an EPIRB he's after. So we pass him one out. He sounds excited.
I stick my head through the gap. What a sight! What a beautiful, beautiful sight! What a din! What a beautiful, beautiful din! Floating above us is the brightest light I've ever seen, it's lighting up not only us but the vessel in front of us. The Letters WAGONBORG Must be twenty feet tall painted against the grey hull of a rather large merchant ship not twenty meters from us. The letters adorning the side of the boat are more like six feet tall. It is truly amazing how one remembers such things.
This vessel was the Dutch Merchant Ship M/V Ijsselborg. It had steamed 35 nautical miles out of it's way to aid in our rescue. It too had a bright light shining on us.

'Set off a flare.' I said.

I of course meant a smoke flare, it's not considered the done thing to be firing rockets at helicopters.


Enter Ben Bones. Standing up and looking good. Me and Ben Wookey insist that he leaves first. Reluctant to this idea he says that it's his responsibility to see we are all off of the boat safely. Ben Wookey replies with,

'Ben, we can argue about this all night when we're on the helicopter but you need to get up there before we do.'

This was indeed true, though looking at our skipper now you would never have guessed that he was lying silently on the brink of sleep up until thirty seconds ago. His argument was too a strong one.

'Look guys, there's no fucking way I'm not getting on that helicopter.'


OK Ben. We throw him through the hatch behind Luke. It's just me and Ben Wookey left here now, both laughing at each other. A serious disposition suddenly washes over me.

'Ben, I'm not sorry for what I am about to do.'

Grabbing his head I plant a massive, and I mean huge kiss right on his lips. The most surprising bit of it all was when he started kissing me back! Quite the moment indeed. Have you ever kissed your hero? Try it.

The elation of our now present situation is overwhelming. We've just lived a hundred years in six hours, and we are now being given the chance to live a hundred more.

'After you Ben.' I motion towards the hatch.

'No, please after you.' 

So polite.

'No no, I'd like to see that you get out okay.'

Ben says that he'll find it easier to leave the boat knowing that I'm outside. Fair enough. I tell him to leave anything behind that doesn't need to go up with him. This includes the torch he's been holding on to for a while now.

Once again I find myself looking around at a confused world, ready to plunge myself outside and escape from that upside down toilet that's been mocking me all night. Not so clever now are you? Stupid feckless porcelain bastard shitter!

Sunday, 15 May 2011

The Death of Enza (and my part in her demise) Part 13.

It is my turn outside now. The stars have all but gone, covered behind the clouds that I watched rolling in earlier as the sun set. These oppressing dark hulks of cloud have given a much more desolate feel to this whole affair. True pathetic fallacy that not even Shakespeare could match.
The hull of the boat facing me seems so far away and so tall, silhouetted against the ink blue skyline. The rudder breaks the smooth line of the hull as if it is a lone tombstone, the propeller to it's left looking like the dark, dead flowers, laid in mourning.
As I hold my ground on the netting my legs are getting battered, courtesy of the broken hatch cover, wrapping at my calves with every surge. They would be bruised for days afterwards.

It's so dark here, we may as well be invisible. There must be something that we can do to increase our visibility. Increase our odds. The light on top of the life-raft had never worked. No one was too surprised at this. There are six EPIRB's flashing away inside, I pop my head through the hatch, between swallowing water and breathing I ask for one to secure to the boat. The lanyard that comes with the beacon is very thin. I give it a sharp pull at the end and just as I would guess, it snaps. I make sure that I lash it to the dinghy as tightly as possible using the entire length of chord and with about twenty half hitches to make sure it stays put. The flash reflecting from the white of the hull is not the brightest light. Though at least it is okay, and that is the highest standard we seem to be reaching tonight.


Who's that?

'What are you doing?, Thom?! Are you okay?'

Sacha! It's so nice to hear him. I start a little dance from sheer happiness that I can now safely say he is safe.
I tell him that we have found some flares and are keeping watch for boats that may be passing.
He gurgles a reply through his hatch, he must have got a lung full of sea water. On his second attempt between coughs, he splutters out that him and Slava are okay and that they've found the rum. Lucky fuckers. A spot of rum now would be lovely. Of course this is no time to get drunk, though I do feel that I could just do with getting right royally mothered. To forget where I am, wake up with a bad headache that wasn't caused by a slap from a fire extinguisher. Wake up in bed and as far in land as is possible.

Not an option, instead I look around and nothing's changed. The sea continues to roll on towards me, the stars still choose to hide from me, the navigation lights I can see are of boats heading away from me. I am not frightened, I don't think I've been fully fearful throughout this entire catastrophe, there doesn't seem to be any time for that. I am stressed. I feel like I am so close to something that's so good, yet the more I endeavour to reach for it the more it eludes me. What it is I feel I'm so close to I have no idea, stands to reason then that it would be so out of reach.

I itch, all I can taste is salt, I am soaked through, I am on a boat the wrong way up, my ears hurt, my eyes hurt, my legs hurt, my head hurts. Why the fuck am I here? What the fuck happened on deck that made the boat flip? Who the fuck was on the helm or standing by on the sheet? Where the fuck exactly am I? When the fuck will I be somewhere else?

I can feel myself getting riled up with unanswered questions. Questions that don't need answering or even asking, certainly not now, not here. I must have been gritting my teeth for some time. My jaw aches, I can taste blood and I'm spitting out bits of tooth. I need something to do. I head back in and let Pete have a turn at looking for some hope. I can't find any, not out here, not on my own, not like this.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

The Death of Enza (and my part in her demise) Part 12

I don't know how long has passed, I've been fighting the urge to look at my watch. Who knows how long we'll be here? Three friends sit or lean inside our hull all looking as dejected as I feel . Ben Bones is trying his best to fall asleep, to succumb to the cold temptation of hypothermia. At least I can fix my mind onto him, ask him questions every few minutes. We can all help him, as well as ourselves. Little jobs like these will help to pass the time.

Whilst I had remained outside with Sacha and Slava previously; Ben Wookey, Luke and Pete got Ben Bones out of the water and wrapped up in any spare cloth, sleeping bag and layer they could find. They had rigged up the bunk to hang from the floor, so that Ben could lie on its underside (now the topside) and to be out of the water. An idea that was used by Tony Bullimore when he had spent five days in a capsized yacht deep into the Southern Ocean. He had been telling us of this story on my previous sail on 'Spirit' a year before.

I had warned skipper Ben that I would be asking him questions every few minutes or so. If he didn't have an answer for me then I'd have a slap just for him.

'Ben, when's your birthday?' No answer.
'Ben, where's your home port? No answer.
'Ben, what's your fiancee's name?' No answer.
So with childish annoyance I begin... 'Ben, Ben, Ben, Ben...'

'Fuck off! I'm tired!'

That's all I need, an answer, a confirmation that he's still here, yet in a bad way. 'I'm tired'! As if then I'd leave him to kip. Such a lack of reason from a distressingly rational man. We have to keep him awake. The last thing we need in here is a corpse. Especially not his. I could not bare to lose Ben for he's been a rock to me on land and at sea. I have learned from him, confided in him and grown to love this being. The most useful man to have with me, right now, is falling asleep.

More time passes, we've all been trapped inside our own heads for a little too long. Ben Wookey is biting at his finger nails and staring at the floor boards that we have placed over the companionway to minimise the effects of the pressure change and of the water being forced through. I'm sitting next to him, his feet holding one board down and mine the other. He had delegated this task to me and I was happy to oblige my lovely and alive friend! Pete has since moved from standing by that taunting, upside down toilet to be with Ben Bones and to keep a closer eye on him.

What do they put in this diesel and battery acid that is so itchy?! The rips in my survival suit have grown. Still, at least I have one. Ben Bones had been so busy finding his crew, getting to life-rafts, setting off EPIRBS and making the best of a bad situation that he had no survival suit. I'd watched that float away earlier asking myself who it was. It was Ben drifting away, although we didn't know it just then. I feel huge pangs of guilt and shame. I should have gotten me and Sacha into the suits whilst we were in the hull, as I should have activated our EPIRB. All I could think to do however was turn off the bloody gas!
He's shivering so much now. I don't know how long he has. What will I tell his fiancee if the worst was to happen? I don't have to think about such things just yet, not whilst we are all still breathing. Not whilst I'm not even sure I'll be alive to explain anything.

Luke decides to raid the poor excuse of a life-raft. Genius. The swell has been steadily picking up since we took to cover. We need to make a lanyard for luke to venture out onto the net. One that would be clipped to his survival suit, be long enough to reach the ten or so feet to the life-raft and for someone in the hull to keep a hold of. Alas we have no rope long or thick enough for the job. Pete was more than happy to sacrifice his rook sack. With his knife he takes off the straps and cuts the bag into strips. Strips that we could hitch together to be long enough and strong enough to suit the job. Another inspired idea from Pete that now allowed us to maintain an external watch. To look for ships, to breathe real air, gaze upon the now cloudy sky and to be alone.

Luke heads out lashed to me with his new lifeline. I'm a big believer that any one trusting their lives to the mercy of a knot should tie their own. This way the person tying the knot knows that it is done to a standard that will save their life should it be required. If I want him to come back in or communicate I would tug sharply twice on the line. The same applied at his end. It was hard to hear over the noise in the boat and from the beating our ears were taking from this constant changing in pressure.

Luke finds a bag attached to the raft. Every life raft has one, full of goodies for the worst case scenarios.
Through the hatch I collect a large rubber bag. Right then, Flares!

'Smoke flare, nope. Smoke, smoke, rocket!'
Each of the flares is wrapped in a watertight bubble wrap, I hand all of them to Ben to place them higher up and out of the water.
The bag passed through to me was still attached to the raft by means of a length of webbing. Long enough to get through the gap but just short to place any higher out of the water. I would have cut it but my knife I had left by the wheel at the end of my watch in case of emergencies.

Always, always, always carry a knife with you at sea. Never leave it anywhere but tethered to you or within reach of you. Keep it sharp too.
I hadn't told anyone else why I was going through the bag sitting down, Luke though eventually cut it from outside. Not before Pete's protests at having flares kept in the cabin.
Another blunder waiting to happen. And why wouldn't it? We're capsized 170 miles away from land, we've no radio, no life-raft. Why shouldn't the flares just go off!? The icing on the shitcake we've been eating for the last few hours.
I believe that this is where our democracy began, if anyone had a point to make, a suggestion or a grievance, we all listened. We said our pieces and calmly worked our way towards the best conclusion. Though upon recollection I don't recall any acrimonious bickering of any kind throughout the entire ordeal.

Agreed then! The flares stay. To be kept dry and to hand.
What else is in the bag? Survival food, God I hope we're not here for that long. I tried that stuff in training. It's awful! A solid grey mix of chemicals designed only to keep the body ticking over.
Ah, One wrap around survival bag for hypothermia sufferers.

'Give this to Ben.'

I really should have elaborated on what 'this' was. The item was passed to Ben, and he held on to it with all of his heart. He thought I'd given him a flare to hold, something to do to keep his brain active. This would have been a great idea. The whole time we were in our situation he didn't let go of the unopened survival blanket. The whole time we were there I thought he was in it.

Two tugs on the life line. I need to talk to Luke to ask what he's been trying to tell us above the din of confused water. With these sharp pulls I retrieve half of the rook sack lifeline inboard. The knot has slipped and there's no Luke where I was expecting one. I feel around on the netting outside , find the other half and re-tie it before Luke notices that it had ever parted.

Try again...

Luke has said there's a ship nearby. His hand comes through the hatch, in it I place a rocket flare.

WHOOOSH! The flare rises, and with it our spirits. We can't see it as the only 'window' is the hatch at sea level. But what a noise!

One thing not often considered when firing a flare is the end of the flare that's not the rocket. The equal, opposite reaction to this ingenious pyrotechnic is smoke. A shit-load of acrid smoke, now finding its way through a small hatch and filling up the cabin. The smell is not too dissimilar from a firework. November 5th will never be the same again for me.

Roughly three minutes have passed so it's time for another flare. The first flare is to attract attention, the second third fourth and so on for confirmation. If you leave it much longer than three minutes then anyone that may have glimpsed the first unidentified flash may have lost interest.

Through the hatch I pass a second flare, only 2 more rocket flares left after this one so let's make it count. The ship close by is moving slowly and erratically, as if it's looking for something. Looking for us? This may well soon be over!

Luke pushes the pin to launch the flare.

'How was that one?' I ask.


Our hearts sink.

'It didn't work.'

The boat disappears into the black horizon. We'll save our flare for the next one that passes. So what now?

'Ben, what day is it?'

'Fuck off!'


Friday, 13 May 2011

The Death of Enza (and my part in her demise) Part 11

I believe that it is not only a legal obligation to respond to an SOS, but also a moral obligation. To the vessels which altered course and stood by to assist in our rescue, I shall always be indebted. These were: the naval vessel HMS Ocean, on training operations nearby. HMS Ocean would take on the role as the On Scene Coordinator to; M/V Ijsselborg, a Dutch merchant ship carrying a cargo of wind generator blades and the passenger ferry Haemar. The Haemar had readied it's tenders to launch a rescue. It was told to stand by, however, as a French Navy rescue helicopter "Rescue Bravo Charlie" had already been scrambled from Lanveoc.

Unfortunately, as much thought, if not more, is given to those boats that passed by knowingly. Boats close by that would have known about our situation that chose to steam on to make good time for their ports. Boats which chose not to alter position or speed in order to save lives.

It was seeing these ships stern lights in the night that turns the mindset from what next? To what if?

What if no one is actually looking for us? What if one of the hundreds of boats using the route Ile d' Ouessant to Cabo Finisterre, just 5 Nm west of us that we've not yet seen sail by, were in fact to be heading a course straight for us?
A large ship travelling at its economical speed can take up to 8 nautical miles to simply stop. Even with the RADAR on, our RADAR image would be minimal. We are smaller than waves now. If a boat were to collide with our unlit and 'invisible' hull it would be beyond the horizon before it had stopped.
These are the thoughts that occupied my mind whilst waiting.

Waiting for what?
A boat to rescue us? A home to go to? A loved one to embrace? To die?
Waiting for anything. Anything to take your mind away from the consistently changing pressure within the cabin battering your ears, of the fine salt spray stinging your eyes as it is forced through the gaps in the boat. Anything to distract from the constant roaring of the above taking place, of the strobes of the EPIRBs flashing inharmoniously. Anything to ignore the itching of the diesel, oil and battery acid through the tears in your survival suit. Anything but this crap.

I had tried to go in to the hull earlier but preferred the ocean to the disorientating scene of strobes, of nothing where it should be and of no horizon that the inside offered. It made me feel sick. The most disconcerting thing however was the upside down toilet. It's just not how a toilet should be!

I much prefer the stars to gaze upon, the phosphorescence to ponder. With Sacha and Slava out here too, I felt safe. We three of us stand with our backs to the hull with our feet lifting from the netting with the waves. I turn my head to the East and look at the clouds; a heavy, dominating mass enveloping the dark sky that illuminates their very outline. I suck in a lung full of air. So fresh! I think of home. So far! I look away from the other two and uncontrollably cry for about 3 seconds. Where did that come from? Whoa, that I was not expecting! Unashamed I turn back to stare at the stars and I smile.

The Death of Enza (and my part in her demise) Part 10.

The swell has now picked up and is lifting us a little too far off of the netting than is safe. It was time to head back in for the long stay. Entering the hull required diving through a hatch at water level; so breathe, hold, clamber in. Ben, Ben, Pete and Luke had already made their way in. To 'set up camp' for the indeterminable future wait.

I had just finished telling the others in our small space that Sacha was claustrophobic.
It is now, just as everyone had acknowledged this and taken it on board, that Sacha and Slava decided they would go into the other hull. I stick my head out of the window at the water line to remind them of the tears in the netting from where we were salvaging anything that could float. I look across at the other hull, it seems like such a long way to go.
I say that I won't stop watching them until I saw them both safely inside. They head away and as they approach the centre of the boat a fender drifts in front of the hatch. I struggle to move it away as we had tied it to the other floating debris of our capsize, by the time I can regain my view they have gone. Did they make it? I don't know. I'm sure they would have done, though I'd promised to watch them for a reason. Shit. What if they didn't?

'Did they make it alright? Ben Wookey asks.

'...Yes. Yeah they're fine.'


Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The Death of Enza (and my part in her demise) Part 9.

I begin mulling over our present quandary. It hadn't all been fun and games, we did manage to go sailing for a little while.
Before heading off to find some October sunshine we had yet to get the boat ready. There was a lot to get ready and all within a week
In Bristol the tall ship 'Matthew' had leant us their mooring as it was the only place large enough to accommodate the boat whilst preparing her for our trip. The list was long and there were eventually eight of us to get on with it. We would;

Jet wash the boat after it had remained unmoved for over a year. This is in fact like washing two boats at 102feet each. A chore, and it was a chore, that took three days.

Jet wash the sail, all 334 square feet of it and both sides at that! There was also a tiny hole that we patched with sailmakers tape.

Disinfect the interior and give a general sort out of the items on board. Locate that funny smell that most boats seem to acquire when they've not been used in a while. This boat had many interesting smells. Pete quashed the majority of them with hard graft and disinfectant yet some still remained. Who knows what they were? To hazard a guess I'd say it was either bad meat or a good cheese with undertones of dank rubber and old diesel. An acquired pong, but a pong we would call home for the following few weeks.

The lights on top of the mast that towered above Bristol needed replacing. This was interesting, as when the halyard reached its highest, it was still just short of the very top of the mast. Any work done here would be with your hands above your head, seeing with touch and juggling tools with your fingers. Sacha, bless him, was up and down that mast more times than we'd have cared to lift him. Fat lovable bastard.

Rewire the boat. A Marine electrician spent many hours over several days scratching his head over what was going on with the wires on the boat. Though through perseverance and I'm sure a touch of witchcraft he had gotten everything just as it should be and ready to go.

Re-fuel the boat. 550 litres stretched into 12 jerry cans. When the wind wasn't helping us along we would have to carry these cans from the forward lockers to the very stern of the boat. Then via a transfer pump the engine would take the juice straight from the cans.

There was a lot that we needed to take with us that we didn't have. Shipshape & Bristol Fashion kindly said that we could take what we needed from the 'Matthew' for the duration of the trip. The first thing we pilfered was the brand new Rib Eye inflatable dinghy and a 25 Hp Engine. We then used that to travel the length of Bristol Harbour to the 'Matthew' and take more things that we'd need in order to sail; Survival suits, tools, extension leads, spare lifejackets, climbing equipment, torches... We also said that we'd take some of the food that was out of date such as rice, pasta and cereals.
A fine hoard, this took us at least three trips and we were borrowing items up to a few hours before we set off.

I even took a couple of items from my own little boat. A stern light, an extension lead and a selection of 12volt accessories.

Myself and Pete were charged with provisioning the boat. A simple galley to cook with, we set about clearing the shelves of the local supermarkets. Hundreds of litres of bottled water, tinned foods, rice, pasta and other such items that would last a while and be cooked on a hob were purchased in bulk. We also got lots of fruit and vegetables, some fresh meat, peanut butter, Ryvita and other necessities.

This was all quite an undertaking, though everything on this boat was! For this wasn't just any sailing boat that Ben Bones had decided to take on. This was Enza. One of the fastest sailboats on earth.

Enza was launched in Quebec, Canada in 1983 as Formule TAG and at 80ft was the longest racing catamaran in the world.
In 1994, as Enza, she was lengthened to 102ft and had a central 'pod' fitted as well as a larger rig. She was sailed by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and Sir Peter Blake on a circumnavigation of the world. A voyage that took a record 74 days 22 hours and 17 minutes to complete, a voyage that would claim the revered Jules Verne trophy. It has taken on many names since then. We would be sailing her as 'The Spirit of Antigua'.