The Sailors: Amateur British & Irish Yachtsmen Before World War One
In Company to Holland
Edwin S. Turner
Illustrations by N. S. Carr
IT was the "Long Un" who first put the idea of a trip to Holland into our heads. It was his description of the magnificent sailing-ground which the Dutch rivers and creeks afford that brought forth the suggestion of a cruise in company during the summer holidays; and the scheme materialised, through many pleasurable chin-waggings round the cabin-stove during the winter and spring, from mere discussion into a definite plan, until one Friday evening towards the end of June saw all hands mustered for a start next day.
Rani IV was manned by the "Long Un," our artist (two yards and a bittock of him), and "Deep Sea" Giles, his mate. She is a bulb fin canoe-yacht of 4 tons, a fast and pretty boat. Bab is a square-sterned cutter of 7½ tons, very heavily built and correspondingly slow, but a homely sea-boat, with ample accommodation for Bobson, the present scribe, and lastly, but by no means least, our lady of the Bab, otherwise called "The Owner."
Now from Burnham, our home station, to Flushing, the nearest Dutch port, there are two routes available. The first is a direct line down Swin and across the North Sea by way of the Galloper and Noord Hinder Lightships - about 120 miles. If, however, the wind should be contrary, the alternative is one long reach to the North Foreland, and another on the opposite tack to Dunkirk or Ostend, thence up the Belgan coast to Dutch waters, nearly double the distance.
But as the trip to Holland and back in a bare two weeks is a long way in a short time for two small boats, it was decided to try the first route if at all possible, and thus at least make sure of reaching our destination. Circumstances would decide the best way home, and "sufficient unto the day" would be enough for the start.
Nothing could well have been more unpromising than seven o'clock on that Saturday morning; heavy fog and south-easterly wind - a "dead nose-ender" for the direct passage - while a slant to the Foreland, fifty miles edgeways across half a dozen sandbanks in weather that shut down everything a hundred yards away, was a proposition better contemplated than performed.
Nevertheless, to waste precious hours on moorings was out of the question, and clearly the best thing to do would be to try for Harwich, which is not very far out of the course, and makes an excellent port from which to start for the Land of the Wooden Shoe. There is open water directly after leaving the land, and a straight line from the harbour mouth to Flushing hits off four lightships - the Cork, Sunk, Galloper, and Noord Hinder. At any rate, to go down and have a look at the outside would be better than doing nothing. Under every condition, blow high or low, fair weather or foul, to "go down and have a look at it" is a safe move. In nine cases out of ten the gazer keeps on having a look; minutes slip into hours, the knots reel off steadily astern, and somehow the ship fetches up at the end of the day in a port that sober reason at anchor would have voted impossible.
So it proved in this case. The moorings splashed overboard, to be swallowed up almost immediately in the all-encircling white blanket as we groped our way down river towards Harwich, 30 knots to the eastward.
The two boats kept station for a time, but when cross-tacking set in lost touch, for sounds are deceptive in thick weather, and Rani's fog-horn seemed to come from all quarters of the compass.
We in Bab plodded along blind all the afternoon, by luck and lead steering a given number of minutes on each tack, until a barge at anchor loomed up ahead, and on running alongside we found we were off Walton-on-the-Naze, about 7 miles from Harwich. The tide had set strong against us, and as the course into Harwich round the Naze at night and in thick fog affords ample room for error, we thanked the gods we knew our position, hove a line to bargee and settled astern, arguing that the fog might lift at turn of tide, as it so often does; while if it failed to do so we might as well have a fair tide as a foul one. We dined in severe discomfort, for we were broadside on to a choppy sea, and then turned in for a few hours' sleep. At midnight the welcome lights showed up clear, so we cast off from our friend the barge and headed up for port. There in the early morning grey lay Rani, neatly stowed and swaying demurely at anchor, having evidently arrived hours before.
The honours were clearly with the "Long Un" and his mate, for they had made their port while we had waited outside, but they bore themselves with the modest, unassuming pride due their achievement in navigation, until one of them inadvertently confessed that until they almost ran into one of the buoys in the harbour they had imagined themselves somewhere off the Cliff-foot Buoy outside.
That afternoon at two o'clock, true to our principles of "having a look at it," we cleared from Harwich with the first of the ebb and a light beam wind for the long run across the North Sea.
Once clear of the land the log was put overboard and watches were set. The Owner stood the first trick from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., as, being of the gentler sex, she was to have "all night in."
When making a passage in Bab we stand three-hour watches, having found that four hours is too long for the man on deck, while two is too short for the one below. It is also very necessary to keep strictly to time and not to allow a mistaken sense of companionship or admiration for the view to keep the man off duty out of his bunk. Sailing short-handed on a long passage it is essential that all hands should get as much rest as possible, for though nothing may happen, yet if any contingency does arise a worn-out crew will not be in fit condition to tackle it.
A typical English summer evening deepened into night as we dropped the land astern. Yesterday's fog had cleared away, and the Naze with its tall tower stood out sharp and distinct right in the eye of the sunset, clearly visible even from our low position, away beyond the "Sunk." Our luck held, for the breeze did not die away at nightfall, as it so often does in fine weather, but continued to blow us steadily along until after dark the red eye of the Galloper began to wink ahead. In this light weather Rani had drawn away from fat and homely Bab to a distance of some three miles. We had, however, arranged to keep each other in sight during the passage, and to rendezvous at each lightship, the first one sighting a light to burn a flare as a signal to the other. Both boats must have picked up the Galloper almost simultaneously, for just as we were preparing to touch our signal off we saw a blaze of light from Rani which showed up as though she were on fire.
A small boat should never go to sea without some sort of a flare. Her sidelights are so near water-level that they cannot be seen at a safe distance, while a good blaze will catch the eye of the sleepiest of look-outs and will show brightly a distance of at least 2 miles. A simple and very effective contrivance is a length of old wire-rope frayed out at one end, with a piece of paraffin-soaked waste jammed into the midst of the tangled strands.
From the Galloper to the Noord Hinder is a long stretch - 26 knots - but on such a passage as we were having it was a pleasurable experience. Indeed, for sheer enjoyment of sailing there are few things better than a run in the open sea on a quiet night. There are no niggling shoals to worry about and no sheets to shift every few minutes. With a steady breeze, a good binnacle, and the knowledge of a light under the horizon somewhere ahead, the miles go swinging past, the log-line marks the wake in a line of liquid light, and every wave-tip shows a curl of phosphorescent fire against the surrounding velvet blackness. Out of the dark come all sorts of pleasant noises - the intermittent squeak of an unoiled sheave, perhaps, too, the slapping of a topsail sheet against the mainsail, and the crunch of the bows as they shoulder through the swells - while over all is the steady hiss of the water slipping past. The masthead saws to and fro, black against the sky, and one bright star or a wisp of cloud against the weather-rigging makes a welcome relief for eyes strained by a too continuous focus on the compass card. By-and-by the first streaks of coming dawn begin to brighten in the north-east, and with them a chill drowsiness steals over the helmsman, increasing as the light grows. The cabin clock's pallid face is just visible in the dusky cabin, and the man on deck is almost convinced during the last half-hour of his watch that its hands must have stuck, so slowly do they move. But his relief comes at last, all the more welcome for being so needed, and two minutes after he tumbles into his bunk he has forgotten fatigue in well-earned sleep.
The Noord Hinder was alongside at 5.30 am., and there in the early morning sunlight we found Rani faithfully "rendezvousing," hove to, riding the swells like a seagull. As soon as we had drawn abreast she swung round, and before the Hinder had sunk out of sight astern we began to see signs of life on the hitherto deserted horizon - fishing boats and an occasional wisp of smoke all showing that we were approaching more frequented waters.
The brave westerly breeze that was serving us so well freshened up considerably before we picked up the land, and on the shallow coast we were approaching it does not require much wind, especially against a weather-going tide, to knock up a considerable sea. Both boats raced along neck and neck, with tacks triced up, keeping station 50yds. apart. So far out at sea there was nothing to taint the purity of the water, and our consort made a perfect picture leaping from crest to crest, one minute hidden to her gaff-jaws in the trough and the next flung up on the bosom of a wave so transparently bottle-green that the whole profile of her underbody, even to fin and balance-rudder, could be clearly seen.
By 9.30 sand-dunes were visible ahead, and an hour later the Wandelaar lightship, marking the southern entrance inside the banks to the River Scheldt, was sighted on the starboard bow - a very fair landfall. Then came the ever-welcome order, "Square away!" and with well-topped booms we bowled along towards Flushing, hidden somewhere in the haze to leeward.
The run along this coast was a practical illustration of a fact that we had not properly realised before, despite measurements taken and courses laid off, namely, that the large-scale chart of these waters is deceptive to eyes accustomed to the look of familiar English charts and that distances are much greater than they appear to be. Once past the Wandelaar it had somehow seemed as if we were almost in port, when in reality it was a good four hours away, even with an ever-freshening breeze behind us.
That four hours' rolling along with eased sheets and a following sea proved somewhat of a "gear-tester," and certainly found a weak spot on Rani, for suddenly her mainsail collapsed, and, on ranging alongside, we found that her peak-halyard bolt had carried away. They had plenty of sea-room and were in no need of assistance, so, leaving the "Long Un" and his crew calmly "picking up the bits," we bore away, and arrived off Flushing at 1 p.m. The old ensign fluttered to the peak, as with foresail aback we rounded to and waited for Rani, leaving the tiller to its own devices for the first time during a run of just twenty-three hours. Head to wind in this way we could realise what luck we had had on the passage, for the wind was piping up and driving along such a sea that if we had been punching into it we should have been more than wet, very uncomfortable, and doing about 2 knots an hour instead of seven.
When Rani came up we made our entry together into Flushing Harbour, which is the largest and most easterly of the three entrances shown on the chart. Had we been merely stopping the night we should have tied up to one of the big mooring buoys on the east side of the harbour with a stern warp ashore, well out of all traffic; but as we intended taking a short cut across the island of Walcheren by way of the Middelburg Canal, we were obliged to make the lock and tie up on the other side.
We now had our first taste of the greatest draw-back to cruising in these waters - to wit, inability to swing to one's own anchor, and everlasting making fast alongside something with bow-warps, stern-warps, and fenders, which is ruinous to paint and very much harder work than it looks.
Close to the canal lock dwells one Meuldijk, at the Café Queenboro'. I give his name and address because he is a useful man to know. Stores, bread - delicious bread that will keep soft and good for days together; fresh milk, sterilised in lever-topped bottles at twopence a time, bottle included; really smokable cigars - all these and more may be procured good and cheap through the worthy Meuldijk.
The excellence of his English may be due to the fact that the hospitality of the British Government was twice extended to him over a little matter of "copering," i.e., smuggling liquor to smacksmen. On the second occasion -
"The judge he looks down and wags his finger at me. 'Ah, Meuldijk, you rascal! You here again? Before it was six weeks; now you will have three months; next time it will be Queen's pleasure! Look out for yourself.'
So Meuldijk took the hint and turned to less risky pursuits.
Flushing is a quaint, sleepy old place, but there will always be a fly in my mind's eye when recalling it. As we wandered through the streets and along the tree-shaded canal banks the cool of the evening began to draw over the scene. With it came an unmistakable reminder that we had all been living light the last two days. The doors of an unassuming hostelry stood invitingly open. It looked homely, and cheap too.
"What a beastly nuisance to have to go back and cook on board! And wash up too! Hang it all, it isn't every day we emulate Columbus and land on a foreign shore! Living's awfully cheap on the Continent. Let's celebrate our safe arrival by breaking through a strict rule and have a quiet little feed ashore!"
"Dinner? Oh,yes - immediately, heeren! Soup? Yes. And soles? Very good, madame. A leetle chicken to follow? Certainly. And to drink? Yes. Four large Pilsener and one limonade!
Ah, that dinner - on a steady table after two days' rolling and pitching - lightsome using of two plates at once without any haunting thought of washing-up afterwards! Our better natures expanded after each mouthful like flowers after rain. And then the fish - and then the chicken! And the Pilsener - liquid amber - clouded, for they had iced it.
Full of that pleasant sense of "rest after toil and peace after stormy seas," we lay back and congratulated each other on our luck in hitting on this little place, lit some of friend Meuldijk's cigars, and called for the bill. The soup turned sour and the chicken squirmed within us as that bit of paper passed from hand to hand in heavy silence. It was a sharp but effective lesson, and we shook the dust of Flushing from our feet at an early hour next morning.
The Middelburg Canal is a very fine one, wide enough to beat up in if necessary, and not crowded. Two bridges cross it between Flushing and Middelburg, and on the middle of each a white diamond on a staff is shown when the bridge will be swung in answer to a toot on the fog-horn. If, however, a red diamond is shown instead of the white one, it is a sign that a train is due and the bridge will be closed until the white diamond appears again.
Middelburg is a fine old place, intersected by canals, trees everywhere, thoroughly Dutch, and well worth more time than we were able to spend there. We drifted along the streets, meeting all sorts of acquaintances at every turn, and finally brought up inside the Stadt Huis, whose tower is a landmark not only all over the island but far out at sea as well. Dutch cleanliness is proverbial, but this place looked as though every corner was swept with a toothbrush twice a day. Not a speck of dust sullied the clean slate floors, not a stain marred the spotless purity of the magnificent moulded plaster-work on ceilings and walls.
This Stadt Huis contains a museum which is well worth seeing, particularly a collection of portraits on the main staircase walls. They are evidently faithful likenesses of the originals - burgomasters and other notabilities of the town, and a hard-bitten lot of "toughs" they must have been. Looking at their bulldog faces one can understand why Holland was a great sea Power, and why all the might of Spain could not crush those old fellows when their blood was up.
Leaving Middelburg with more regret than Flushing we made Veere, the northern terminus of the canal, by evening. Four of us at any rate badly wanted to get to Veere, for we had read of an enchanting vision - a pen in petticoats - which the author of a recently-published book had beheld there. All hands dined aboard Bab that evening; it was the safest way of making sure that the Ranis did not steal a march on us. The invitation was pressing, and no refusal accepted.
Veere was explored pretty thoroughly next day, but, though we did not see the damsel, we found we had blown into a very pretty little place - quite the best, in fact, during the whole trip.
The Groote Kerke is, alas, out of commission, but is magnificent none the less. It never recovered from the time when the Low Countries were the battleground of three nations and churches made the best barracks.
It is still possible to reach the summit of the tower, and the view over all Walcheren well repays the exertion.
We spent a lazy morning and afternoon at Veere - all sunshine and strawberries - and it was with genuine reluctance that we squared away through the Zandkreeke for Zierikzee, our next port, on the far side of the East Scheldt.
The Zandkreeke is a narrow, sand-encumbered channel between the islands of North and South Beveland. It is buoyed on the splendid uniform system that holds good all over these waters - black cans to port, red conicals to starboard, black and red sphericals on tails of banks every mile or so, and it is significant of the care the Dutch give to the buoyage of their ever-shifting banks that in every little harbour we went into there were spare buoys on the quay and a boat ready to lay them.
Night overtook us when we were half-way through the Zandkreeke, and it was pure joy in itself to swing free round an anchor once more instead of being fettered stem and stern to sonic accursed post or other.
Zierikzee, an easy sail next day, lies at the end of a tidal canal, about a mile and a half inland, and is a town of some importance, though the fresh water leaves much to be desired. There are too: many red worms in it for a God-fearing man. Verb. sap.
The "Long Un" had literally a striking experience here, for as we walked together along the quay we heard a crisp smack above our heads, and on looking aloft found his starboard optic had been unaccountably obstructed by a meteoric lump of some indescribable fishy matter. A burst of yells solved the mystery. The man of inches had inadvertently drifted into the line of fire of some fishermen, who with heads bent down over their barrow were busy cleaning fish and pitching the offal into the canal; and, paradoxically although he was looking the other way, it caught his eye. Our "Long Un" upheld nobly the best traditions of British stoicism. With unmoved countenance he only remarked "Whew!" and returned to the ship to clean himself, while we mused on the chain of circumstances which should have led that fish-head, with all Zierikzee to wander in, straight into the eye of a casual Englishman from the other side of the North Sea.
Zierikzee did not appeal to us as anything out of the common - just an ordinary country town. The fine old water-gate is worth seeing certainly, but not worth while making a special journey for. Altogether we felt that this was a place that might very well be omitted from a future cruise.
Friday, June 29, 1906, will be memorable to most of those who were afloat 'round the coasts of Holland and the East of England that day. The glass had been falling for some time previously, but when we towed out of Zierikzee that morning astern of two horses it was with one reef turned down and the tackle hooked on to the second ear-ring; for the needle had jumped away down into the twenty-nines during the night, and the wind was coming out from the SS.W. with heavy thunder-squalls.
This it was which decided us at the usual morning council to make for the Antwerp River via canal instead of west-about outside the islands. Lucky it was for us we did so, for, once into the broad East Scheldt estuary, each successive squall came down heavier and continued longer until by the time we were half-way to Wemeldinge (the northern entrance to the South Beveland Canal) the wind had settled into a hard blow.
It was splendid sailing, under a weather shore, with ragged black clouds and patches of watery sunshine overhead, but cruel to the boats, for pinning them down to the ever-increasing wind was like over-driving willing horses.
We could hear poor Bab's tiller saying, "Ease me! Ease me! Ease me!" all the time, for ships talk very plainly to those whom they know and who love them; but with only six miles more, in comparatively smooth water, and Rani astern for the first time, it was not worth while stopping to shorten sail. We could only cry, "Stick to it, old girl! What you can't carry you must drag!" and lift her as much as possible with her main-tack triced up under the gaff-jaws. Rani, too, was obviously over-canvassed, so all were glad when we luffed round into Wemeldinge Lock and hitched up astern of one of the big 250ft. barges, ready to tow through the canal. As the weather was steadily settling down worse every minute, we took advantage of a few minutes' delay in the lock to house the topmast.
On deck, 3 fathoms between stone walls, was comparative peace, but perched on the cross-trees settling things into place as the mast came down it was quite another matter, for the force of wind could be properly gauged up there, and the immediate result was a second reef tied down as soon as we were safely towing along the canal in company with Rani and two or three fishing-boats. Then the wind fell, and in the midst of a sudden ominous calm down came the rain - steady, straight, roaring sheets of it until every scupper ran a spouting stream, and naked hands dripping below oilskinned sleeves turned grey and pulpy. And then, blap! out of the dead calm came the wind again, but astern this time - north instead of sou'-sou'-west - sheering us up to the big barge, and each other, until we cast off our tow ropes, hoisted foresail, and drew alongside and ahead.
In this manner we entered Hansweert Lock, at the south end of the canal, in front of the barge and her attendant tug, and we "Babylonians" at least were punished for our haste. For the tug came surging in behind us with the wind under his stern, swung athwart the lock, and nipped us between his quarter and the wall. All Bobson and I heard on deck was a loud crunch, but The Owner shot wild-eyed out of the companion as if she had been fired from a gun, for the interior of a cabin magnifies noises like a drum, and it had sounded down there as if the ship was being squashed flat. We got her to go below again, shut the doors, pulled the hatch over, and then called upon all the fiends of the nethermost pit to fly away with that tug-boat skipper. But, being some sort of a German Dago, good English did not bite on him, and we were reduced to waggling clenched fists impotently heavenwards.
The big lock-gates opened, and Rani slipped out safely, but the cup of our misfortunes was not yet full. A wandering "Willi-waw" came shrieking round the basin, and blew us stem-on into one of the walls. Now, although Bab measures only 7½ tons, yet so heavily is she built that there is something like 8½ tons of solid wood, iron, and lead in her, and when this dead weight gets moving it is a physical impossibility for two pairs of hands to control it. All we could do was to make the inevitable into a glancing blow, and so save the bitts from being ripped out of her. But there came another crash, and we were spewed forth out of the lock with a splintered bowsprit hanging drunkenly over our bows.
The rest of that day's story is set to the tune of driving, blinding rain and howling gale.
In cold blood next morning we found that Hansweert Haven is formed by two parallel sea-walls jutting out over some 300yds. of muddy foreshore, with a deep-dredged harbour between, about 100yds. across. Further, we were told that this is one of the most crowded waterways in the whole of Holland, and we could well believe it. All we could see in our first view of the place as we drove out under a dripping foresail was a hair-raising medley of tugs, barges, galliots, and boats jammed and shouting with the sudden shift of wind. A line of "dolphins" stretched down each side of the Haven, and inside one of these we intended to let go while we cleared away the wreck of the bow-sprit before proceeding; for our chief anxiety was to get away out of this clutter of grinding traffic, and everything was happening so quickly that we hardly realised what the weather was like outside. But the wind laid hold of us again, and before the anchor held we were half-way across the harbour.
Rani came up while we were punching our unwilling mainsail into gaskets, and anchored close inshore, where a similar fate to ours befell her. The anchor would not hold, and she began to drag down on to a dolphin. They tried to let go more chain, and then, at the critical moment, it kinked and jammed in the hawse-pipe! They do not know even now how they managed to hoist sail and get clear, but they did it, and out of the tail of my eye I saw Rani turning up the harbour on her beam-ends two tacks a minute, with cabin-top awash, and sheets of driven spray flying clean over her.
Fully occupied with our own affairs, however, we were just going below to wipe the wet out of our necks when, peering to windward through the lashing rain, I saw our companion of the canal, the big barge, adrift and driving down on top of us.
There we were - trapped, anchor down and sails furled, with a dolphin to leeward and the bows of the barge 50yds. to windward. If we hauled up to our anchor it was an even chance that the barge would hit us first; while if we managed to get it clear in time the dolphin was waiting for us astern. There was just one ray of hope. The wind had got hold of the barge's quarter and was swinging her in towards a dolphin to windward of us. If her stern touched it before her bow, caught us, her people could make fast and she would go clear; but if she could not reach it, then it seemed as if she would simply mop us up like, grass before the scythe.
Bobson jumped to the winch and I to the halyards in a despairing effort to get clear, but it was too late, and the barge's stern missed the dolphin by a yard. But just before she touched us we noticed that she did not seem to be moving so fast as she ought to have been before that fierce wind, and then I remembered. All these great unwieldy craft carry a grapnel kedge through a hawse-pipe in their counters, by means of which they sheer against the stream; this one was no exception to the rule, and while I had been sweating she had been gently surging down with her kedge dragging astern to check her. Instead of a splintering crash there came no more than a gentle bump as she swept us shoreward. Luckily we had hove so short on our own anchor that it dragged comfortably along with us; and there we were between the barge and the sea-wall in 7ft. of water, as snug as a bug in a blanket. We were not nearly through the day's work, however, for there was the Irish nosegay on our bows to be cleared away, and arrangements to be made somewhere ashore for a new bowsprit. And then fate dealt us a parting backhander.
I suppose I must have been clumsy in oiled clothes, or perhaps the saw turned in slippery wet hands; however it was, in cutting the cranze-iron clear of the wrecked bowsprit, I gave one stroke too many, and away went the whole fitting to the bottom, carrying with it half the rigging-screw with which our bobstay was set up.
The situation was past profanity, and in silence we launched the Berthon to go and find a shipwright.
From the top of the sea-wall the outer river could be seen - a driving smother of frothing dirty white - and one look was enough to convince us that losing the bowsprit had been left-handed luck after all, and that the little cherubs were still nestling somewhere in the topmost rigging, for had we been undamaged we should have gone on, and would have been at that moment having a very bad time somewhere outside in the estuary.
Hansweert is no more than a village, so we soon found the only shipwright in the place, who promised to deliver a new bowsprit early next morning. Rani we found also so snugly berthed under the lee of the lock-wall in a backwater of the traffic that we decided we would come up there next day to refit. It was 8 p.m. before Bobson and I finally got back aboard, hungry, soaked, and dog-tired; and let anyone who has been in the same case figure to himself our joy on finding that The Owner had made ready a sumptuous stew. There it was, waiting for us, all piping hot and steaming, full of unexpected lucky-dips, and lots of it. Let poets sing the beauties of their ladies' eyebrow, let artists gloat over the glory of a sunset, they do not satisfy the soul or bring out man's better nature like a pot of stew after long fasting. And it is a subject for the moralist to contemplate that one's noblest aspirations, one's most generous impulses, one's deepest feelings, and sometimes one's worst passions are in many cases directly traceable to the effects of one's last meal.
Lack of time, however, prevented this particular meal from exercising any of these wonderful effects on us, for our friend the barge was to move at daybreak, and, if we were to be up bright and early, it behoved us to get to bed betimes.
Three o'clock of a grey, windy morning found us again on deck, making preparations against the barge's departure. Such a length was she that we, busy casting off gaskets, did not notice that a tug a hundred yards away had taken her in tow until we found ourselves being yanked stern first to sea without a word of warning, still fast alongside.
We let go our bow-rope just as the stern-warp parted with a twang, and beat up the harbour to a berth alongside Rani. Her crew's slumbers must have been disturbed by our bump as we tied up to her, for they both emerged to see what was the matter. One of them was handed the end of a rope to make fast, but he was evidently dazed with sleep, for he politely wished us "Good morning" and stood gazing blankly at the rope between his hands as if he had never seen such a thing before. The other carefully turned up the ends of his pyjama trousers, refused hastily an offer of hot cocoa, scratched his head vigorously and disappeared below.
Then we turned in to sleep for a few hours until the bowsprit should be ready. It had been promised for 9 a.m., but, after the usual manner of shipwrights, it did not make its appearance till midday.
Here Rani's mate justified his nickname of "Deep Sea," for with his able help the short, thick spar was soon bowsed down taut and strong, with a wire lanyard in place of the lost rigging screw. Towards afternoon we were ready for sea, again, but after the storm had come the calm - too much of it, in fact, for even when outside the harbour we could not get away from Hansweert, and kept making fruitless legs to windward until nightfall, when we brought up, and once more had the pleasure, never duly appreciated before, of swinging free in the open to a single anchor.
Both boats were away betimes next day. It had been the intention to go to Terneuzen, at the mouth of the West Scheldt, and thence by canal to Bruges but the delay in Hansweert had wasted a precious day, so a long sail down the coast to Zeebrugge had to be substituted.
We had noticed on the chart a big ship canal from this place to Bruges, and a towering crane on the enormous half-finished breakwater guarding its seaward end had attracted our attention on our way from the Wandelaar Ship to Flushing.
Towards Zeebrugge then we shaped our course down the broad estuary, miles wide, even outside Hansweert, though three parts choked with sand-banks that dry out in every direction at low tide like big yellow islands.
What little breeze there had been in the morning died away completely at noon, but with a sluicing ebb under us we still made a good 4 knots over the ground.
Drifting down together, we passed the time in chaffing each other through the International Code, and so busy were all hands turning up scathing remarks or reading threatening replies that nobody noticed we had come abreast of a swatchway off the main channel, and that we were being set on to a sand spit between the two. The great brown bank seemed to simply leap towards us. There was only one thing to do, and that quickly. Over went our anchors, and round came the bows with a wrench and a grind - just in time. But it would not do to stay in 6ft. of water at half-ebb. Rani, being light, easily managed to tow clear, but in Bab there was five minutes' frenzied sculling - Liverpool fashion - with an oar over the stern, before she was clear into deep water. It is a good dodge, that old Mersey trick; with all one's weight on a long, springy ash-blade biting into the water continuously, there is no need for a rudder, and even a heavy boat can be sheered across a tide in a way that seems marvellous to those only accustomed to working a sweep on the quarter.
A fine breeze sprang up later on, bowling us along close-hauled, past Terneuzen, until we could ease sheets and roll away down the coast to Zeebrugge.
It is an interesting river, this West Scheldt, with its constant flow of traffic. The old Red Duster is well to the fore, and one of the pleasures of cruising in these waters is that the men on English vessels always have a cheery wave of the arm for their countrymen in small craft.
Zeebrugge will be a big place one of these days if the harbour can be kept dredged. Already there are docks, as well as the ship canal; but everything is new, and most of it still under construction; this, however, we did not know when we put in there. Entering a narrow harbour for the first time with a strong leading head wind is always unpleasant and sometimes risky. The ship must have way on her, though one never knows what may be waiting round the corner, or indeed if there is any corner at all, and the likeliest-looking berth generally turns out to be unsuitable for some reason or other. Zeebrugge proved no exception to this rule.
It was a queer place we were running into - just a long, straight trench dug out of the sand-dunes, faced with stone and protected by the huge half-moon breakwater I have spoken of before.
Across its inner end ran a great iron caisson, towering high above our mastheads, and forming, as we afterwards found, a dam for the water of the canal. Towards this we drove, catching a glimpse of an opening to the left, and checked our way as best we could by means of a flying leap with a rope on to a providential pontoon.
After making fast, two of us went ashore to see when the caisson would be swung, and found a desert full of unfinished works, a few huts, and one modern inn. Further explorations produced a well-informed young man who told us that permission to enter the canal could be obtained later in the day from the Chef de Marine, or harbour-master, and we accordingly returned on board to await the arrival of that official.
For some reason or other the mate of the Rani chose this time to rig himself in shore-going clothes, consequently it was obviously his duty to interview the Chef de Marine. He pushed off after tea, and the rest of us, awaiting the result of his negotiations in Rani's cockpit, watched a little pantomime enacted in dumb show 30ft. above our heads, the actors standing out sharply silhouetted against the sky.
To the Chef de Marine, clothed in gold lace like an admiral, portly and swelling with authority, entered Giles, with chest well out and jaunty step. Mutual bows and cap-lifting; a Meuldijk cigar proffered and graciously accepted, and a merging of the two figures in amicable talk as puffs of smoke floated heavenward; much explanatory arm-waving and pointing at the boats, while we, the audience in the stalls as it were, murmured, He's doing it fine!" Next a deferential curve in the outline of Giles's back, and then, to our amazement, a sudden widening gap between the two figures as the Chef de Marine, with a gesture of finality, thrust his fat hands into a tightly-buttoned jacket and strutted off, leaving our poor envoy alone on the skyline, punctured, his very attitude spelling defeat.
His report was a bad one. We might certainly go through to Bruges - in March, 1907. But before that date - " Ab-so-lu-ment im-poss-e-e-e-ble!"
The canal was still unfinished and closed to all navigation except one small steamer, which was due down that night. We were now in her way, and must clear out somewhere within the next two hours.
It was a facer, with wind and sea rising and night coming on; so a Berthon was launched and sent to explore the entrance to the left which we had seen coming in.
As it proved to open out into a snug, quiet little basin, with plenty of room when once past a number of fishing-boats blocking its mouth, we made sail and shifted at once.
This little place is at present far and away the best harbour along the coast. Ostend, Nieuwport, Gravelines, Calais, it is better than all these - clean, easily entered and left, and safe from every wind that blows. We thoroughly enjoyed our peaceful night there, but, as there was nothing to do or see ashore, we cleared away bright and early next morning for Ostend, still with a fine fair wind, making short miles down the flat, uninteresting coast, which looks exactly the same from the Scheldt to the Channel.
Ostend! The guide-books say nothing of the awful smells which dwell at the upper end of the harbour. Judge, then, of our dismay at finding that we had just missed our tide through a lock where we could leave the boat in safety and get away from that battleground where sewage and drying fish wage a never-ending war for supremacy.
The prospect of choking for six hours under a July sun at the mouth of an open drain, fending all the time off a wall slimy with nameless filth, was too much. A friendly harbour official suggested a way of escape. He knew a man - an excellent man, a qualified pilot - who for a consideration would stand by the boats, see them through the lock, and berth them on the other side. In due course that worthy made his appearance. Because Bobson has a tender heart it generally falls to my lot to strike bargains, so I shinned up a greasy ladder to interview the qualified pilot, and bargaining began at twenty francs.
My friend," I said, "had I had the felicity of meeting you two weeks ago, twenty francs would have been all too little for your services. But now, alas, nous sommes cassés. We are homeward bound and have spent all our money. Behold me - and him" - pointing down at Bobson, whose appearance in working kit fully bore out my next statement. "Our very vestments have been sold for bread. But, to view your beautiful city, three francs perhaps---"
"Ah, three francs! I am a qualified pilot. Three francs!"
"A thousand pardons, monsieur," I replied. "We are desolated, but - we must look after the vessel ourselves," and I turned to descend the ladder.
"Hold!" said he hastily. "Ten, and they shall be of the safest!"
"Three! Nous sommes pierreux cassés." My feet were over the edge.
"No. It is impossibIe. I am qualified."
"Well, five, and we starve to-night!" I cried, my head level with the quay. Five it was - one franc each - and, leaving him to reconcile our shore-going clothes with my previous statements, we went ashore.
Finding our homes again in the wee sma' hours of a pitch dark night, after viewing his beautiful city, was a matter of no small difficulty, but eventually, after climbing over half a dozen other craft, the boats were discovered safely tied up, with fenders out both sides, in the inner dock, all neat and tidy. And when next day we worked till high noon before getting clear to sea on the way to Dunkirk I think all hands agreed that our friend the qualified pilot had not been overpaid.
Any delay was soon made up outside, however, for, with a spanking breeze still in our favour, even Bab averaged over 8 knots into Dunkirk - the best run during the trip.
Entering Dunkirk Road from the eastward at low springs is the worst bit of navigation on the coast; the fairway twists between banks barely awash, and a strong tide sweeps crossways over all. There is no second deal there either if a vessel gets on those exposed sands in a breeze.
Although a warning red flag was upon the pier-head, there was just enough water for us to follow Rani in - she having been there before - and to bring up in a quiet little bay on the port hand, well out of any traffic.
Of the town, on the strength of a few hours ashore in the dark, I am not qualified to speak. The harbour, however, is much better than Ostend, in that the aforesaid little bay is accessible at all states of the tide, and that one can lie to an anchor. The holding-ground is not of the best, but good enough for small fry.
Now, had we had the gift of second sight, all hands would have turned in early instead of going ashore. But how were we to know, when, pink-eyed, at four o'clock on that Thursday morning we huddled on our clothes, that we should not have them off again until the Saturday night?
It was blowing hard, still from the eastward, and big seas rolling in, when we cleared Dunkirk heads with a couple of reefs down and the topmast housed, swung our booms off, and rolled away nor'-west by west for England, promising ourselves a quick run, across the forty-odd miles between us and Ramsgate. But our luck, which had hitherto been so good, deserted us half-way across the Channel, and both reefs had to come out before the Dyck Lightship was astern. We had been able to maintain a lead of Rani while the strong breeze held, but when it died down she came up on us hand over fist. We did not like to check our sheets, so our last reef was shaken out flying - quite a bit of fancy-work in a heavy swell for the man on the boom end - for we had expected bad weather, and had securely seized each clew to the spar after hauling the earrings down. By mid-day there were but the fragments of a breeze, and a haze thickening every minute. We just sighted the East Goodwin before the fog closed in and the tide began to set us down towards Dover.
No land was seen all afternoon, but we slid on lazily side by side over the oily swells, knowing that we must hit England sometime and that the tide would set us off the Goodwins. At sunset the lead suddenly gave 4 fathoms; at the same moment the fog parted, and there right above us towered the cliffs of St. Margaret's Bay.
We brought up to wait the tide out, glad to be in soundings, for all the traffic in the world seems to draw round that South Foreland in thick weather.
After dining in horrible discomfort off beam-sea rolls and tinned soup, we made sail about 10 p.m. to a faint breeze and stood up close-hauled through the Downs. Just before daylight Ramsgate lights showed up ahead, but it had fallen so dead calm that we had to bring up once more instead of going in; and when in the early morning a little breeze did spring up we must needs push on, being under contract to deliver Bab's borrowed Berthon dinghy at Harwich on the morrow.
We watched Ramsgate slide by with regret, for we had counted much on getting in there, but fog and calm had stolen a day, and on we had to go in spite of an empty pantry and low tide in the water-tanks.
Down came the fog again off the North Foreland, and here we lost touch with Rani, our constant companion, who had been in sight - nay, almost within hailing distance - for the last sixteen days. We found afterwards that she lay in for Burnham, and arrived there the next day.
Had we been able to lie the course we would have taken the outside passage to Harwich, but being nearly high water we judged it best to stretch away over towards the Swin, and trust to the lead to keep us off the banks. Nothing was seen of the Tongue Lightship, though we heard him shouting "Yah! Burr Yah!" somewhere close alongside as we passed, but at noon we hit off the Duke of Edinburgh ship.
And now our troubles began. First the wind fell, until we were only making about 2 knots an hour. Then, all unknowing that the whole buoyage of the Thames estuary had just been undergoing alteration, we got completely lost in the fog amongst unknown buoys and banks, and after boxing about till evening, keeping the lead going constantly, we brought up on what afterwards proved to be the southern edge of the Barrow Sand. Had we but known it, Rani was also anchored within 2 miles of us, bewildered like ourselves.
At 10 p.m. the blessed stars showed up overhead, so that we were able to fix our position by cross-bearings of two lightships, and relieved both bodies and minds by turning in from 11 p.m. till 3 am., when we made sail to a little breeze which sprang up, bringing more fog with it. But knowing where we were it was all straightforward work, and at 9 am. the fog blew away for the last time, showing the Naze a mile ahead. In beautiful clear weather we stood in for Harwich, and swung round into the "Pound" with the ensign at the truck, three biscuits in the pantry, and a quart of water in the tanks, just fifty-five hours out from Dunkirk.