Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Wendy Ann Undertow

July2005. We stood tensed on deck out in the stream waiting. This time we knew that tug Kingston was out at Plymouth harbour and we still didn’t know what on earth we were in for. Hardly anything moved at all in the still summer heat and we heard him long before we saw him. The needle whine of a small outboard motor and slap of water slapping hull followed by the growing blossom of lurid Hawaiian shirt proclaimed the arrival of John Evelegh, riding in a small fast inflatable; coming to inspect our state of readiness.
Whether ready or not it was time to go, I certainly didn’t feel it and hopped around in agitation- but after a cursory look around John nodded and went to fetch Kingston.
She came steaming upriver toward us and with a mighty blast on the horn which felt like being punched in the chest, flipped around to present her stern and portside to our starboard. This boat was magnificently huge, and we suddenly looked small and shabby by comparison. We hurried our introductions to the crew of four and next thing I knew we’re fast alongside and it was finally time to let go the mooring hawsers and bloody hell we’re moving! I nearly failed to notice at first, so gentle was the pick up, but sure enough the entrance to Pomphletts creek was behind us and I was agog at the speed and ease by which this dynamic transfer had occurred. We marvelled at the bow wave thrown out by our own little ship. While the tea brewed John gave us a tour of the orchestrated mechanical hellchamber that housed Kingston’s collection of engines, he bellowed over the noise all the names and specs of the furiously working parts and I tried politely not to trap my fingers anywhere.
Safely past Plymouth harbour breakwater they attached the towing line to our rusty old bow, closing the loop with the biggest shackle I’d ever seen. After returning the mugs we received temporary lighting to denote our ‘vessel under tow’ status, the life rings and, yep, distress flares; Kingston’s crew let us free and with huge grins and waves bye-bye allowed us to drift into line behind.
Right. I knew the drill and it was- ‘Watch for leaks. If you start to ship water, plug the hole with anything at all, sit on it if necessary, then phone me and remember this. There’s no better bilge pump than a desperate man with a bucket!’ OK then, seems easy enough- and as Plymouth receded over the horizon I set about doing just that, I quickly developed a routine which involved moving from forepeak through the compartments, banging my head on that damn frame again, all the way along to bosun’s store peering into bilges and checking areas that I considered suspect i.e. The whole boat. When I was done I’d retire onto deck to marvel at the brilliant view. We’d waited over a fortnight for the weather to turn our way and it repaid the patience by deciding to be almost better than perfect, westerly force 4 dropping to 2. This meant the surface of the sea was like rolling black glass. And then in a big mess of red, the sun started to set behind us.
I suddenly realized how wound up we’d become over the last few months, because the feeling was ebbing away, washed overboard by joy of the huge adventure in which we found ourselves. This was turning into fun.
We knew it’d be a long night so we assessed our provisions, ham and cheese sandwiches, crisps, chocolate biscuits, flasks of hot coffee, half bottle of rum. Yummy. I opened the rum first and we toasted being all at sea.
With the dark all around and the cabin lights lit we adjusted to the unfamiliar rhythms of our new world, The gentle rise and fall of Wendy Ann as she pitched her way forward was surprisingly soothing and later this would knock Becky comprehensively for six hours straight sleep. Or maybe that was the rum. The bangs and scrapings took a little more getting used to and it was a while before I realised that these were for the most part caused by the old tyre fenders that dragged around our rubbing strakes. I heaved the buggers inboard and then it was the insistent sigh of the waters stroking Wendy’s hull that captured the imagination. Sounded like faraway song or half heard voices, although this felt friendly and reassuring I gained small insight into the kind of thing that made sailors superstitious. Except for the loud bang at three in the morning which caused consternation, bother and both of us leaping into action for a moment of near outright panic. We flew down the ladder and took only a few agonizing minutes to discover that our (loose) gearbox had shifted down in its position.
Between my torchlit forays into the hull to check for leaks that didn’t spring, I spent most of the night sat at the wheelhouse steps and losing myself in the inky seascape. It was like infinity made acceptable to the human head. The little sparks of phosphorescence in our wake mirrored the stars above and everything was perfect. Drifting over the water came the muffled insistent tugtugtugtug of Kingston’s engine that had deafened me up close only hours before. I was thought myself too watchful to sleep but I must’ve dozed off at some point, not for long though. I watched gangs of seagulls trailing lazily behind us before one by one wheeling overhead and away. Something for them to do I guess, or maybe they wanted my sandwiches. I went below to look for leaks and banged my head again.
B woke up long after the brilliant sunrise, disappointed to have missed it; truth was I couldn’t bear to wake her, as she seemed cradled so deeply asleep. The silhouette of the Needles was slipping into view, and we realized our joyride would end, soon. Once around the marker buoy into the Solent and surrounded by hundreds of sailing vessels, boats and ships of every description, Kingston again brought us alongside. This time the wash from speeding powerboats was forcing the two tugs to crash and scrape together, chucking up great sheets of sea between the two bows. Becky got a brief dousing, but was more bothered about her inundated cuppa. Kingston cut engines to a crawl each time and we slowly forged a way through. We drank a lot more tea, ate the last biscuits and the mouth of the river Itchen beckoned us in on a glorious Seb’s birthday morning. I never did tell John either, figuring the experience was celebration enough. Tug Kingston brought Wendy Ann past the car transporters and massive cruise liners to the work berth at Saxon Wharf. With the rolling hoist towering over us and a very expensive looking plastic boat close behind we moored up as best we could manage and departed on our new found sea-legs for the nearest pub to buy the crew a round.
I was exhausted, filthy, hot and elated. I couldn’t believe that overnight our situation had changed so utterly. I clutched the sensation close feeling that somehow I should bottle it in preparation for the next awesome challenge. Little did I know then how much I’d need to remember that enlightened moment. Sometime the following week Wendy Ann would be in that hoist and clear of the water, but we didn’t realise how soon that hour would be..


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