Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Seas can be treacherous no matter where you are.

Harbour in GirvanImage via Wikipedia

Sometimes I wonder what I will write about in my next post,and if can I come up with another story that will interest my readers, then sure enough I will recall an adventure relative to the last posting."And so I continue."

Seas can be treacherous no matter how near or far off the land you are, no matter how deep or shallow a water you are in, if the wind is coming from the wrong direction, or both wind and tide combine to create perilous conditions, boats, and lives can be lost, that's where the skills, knowledge and common sense of the experienced skippers and crews come in.

It was 3am on a Tuesday morning in late spring when the crews of the Faithful (the old boat)and the Olive Tree were preparing to set off on another fishing trip, and as always we tuned into shipping forecast before setting off. It was already blowing quite hard by this time, although not enough to prevent us from sailing, but as we listened to each area of the forecast it seemed that conditions were going to get worse, and sure enough when it came to our patch, south westerly 8-9 was predicted, but to strengthen to gale force ten, later in the day.
We had never intended to go far that day anyway, as the Faithful was booked to go on Girvan slip the next day, also we knew there was good fishing to be had only a couple of hours steam from Ayr, our home port.

Thinking we could manage a few hauls before the wind became too strong, we let go and sailed into the stormy Firth of Clyde, punching our way through heavy seas until we reached the fishing ground, and sure enough after three substantial hauls, working in very difficult conditions, the wind and seas began to increase, making fishing almost impossible, so about midday the decision was taken to settle for what we had, and hightail it back to Ayr, where we would then land the reasonable catch we both had on board, the day not being a complete failure.

Safe in the shelter of the harbour we unloaded our catches, and when finished, with the tide on the make, the skipper of the Faithful decided he would take the boat to Girvan, rather than steam down the next day when it might be just as rough.
Although Girvan has water in the harbour all the time it is a tidal harbour with a shallow bar to cross near its mouth, which can only be crossed at half tide at the very least. (by boats like ours with a fairly deep draft)

With nothing to do for the rest of the day I decided I would sail with them, and even though it was too rough to fish, it just meant we would have an uncomfortable passage down, dodging all the way down shoulder on to the heavy sea that had by now increased quite substantially.
It was still within reason though as we were only steaming, with no gear trailing astern to worry about, surging off the bottom with every rise and lurch the boat took,scaring the fish rather than catch them, which was the only reason we stopped fishing.

We punched our way down past the Heads of Ayr, water slooshing about the deck with every sea that washed over us, hanging on when a larger lump loomed, and crashed its way across the deck, and over the wheelhouse, sending water gushing down through the chimney of the coal stove in the galley,and the engine exhaust, sizzling and evaporating as it hit the red hot metal, leaving a nauseating smell hanging in the air.
Some of the crew were down below in the cabin, but Robbie and I stayed in the wheelhouse with Frank (the skipper) enjoying every lump of sea that smashed into us, as it was part of the thrill and adventure that inspired us to go to sea in the first place, but as we crossed, a mile off Turnberry Light, the wind and sea had kicked up into a frenzy, putting doubt in Frank's mind as to whether we should turn back or not, wondering if we could cross the shallow bar at Girvan with such a sea running.
Just at that, a giant lump of sea hit us, crashing down on top of us, blanking everything from view with water surging deep over the deck, covering the windows, and throwing the boat on its port side by the sheer force of it, sending plates, dishes, tins of food flying out of the lockers, and the cover of the coal stove flying across the galley floor, red hot coals following it, sizzling in the sea water that had entered the galley.

Once the freak wave had passed over us the boat slowly rose back on to a more even keel, dipping back to starboard into the next trough, that signaled another lump of sea, but the windows had cleared enough to let us see that the net had been washed over the side, lifted up in one go by the sheer volume of water that had cascaded down on us.

All hands turned out on deck, throwing their oilskins and boots on as quickly as they could to try and retrieve the expensive net bobbing just under the surface on our port side, and me with no oilskins or boots followed them onto the deck, water still slooshing everywhere, crashing round my knees, soaking me to the skin, but helped as they threw a grapple to try and grab the slowly sinking net.
Frank tried to maneuver the Faithful closer but with heavy seas still crashing round about us, and trying to hang on each time the boat took a lunge, the net sunk deeper and deeper until it disappeared from sight before we could do anything about it.
Under these conditions we were lucky it was thrown clear of our propeller, or we would have come a cropper on the rocks in no time at all, but we HAD been lucky, so when Frank decided that was enough for one day and we would head back to Ayr, we all gave a sigh of relief.
The story did not end there though, because by the time we tumbled and rolled our way back, the tide at Ayr was fully in, and the harbour closed to shipping, owing to the fact that the breakwater was being breached by huge seas breaking over the lighthouse at the pier point, and running the length of the harbour defences, making the entrance almost impossible to negotiate.
Although the harbour was officially closed, it was more for the larger coasters who could ride out the storm by dodging into the seas until it abated enough to enter, but us being so small had two options, both of which would put our lives in danger once more.
We could either TRY to ride out the storm at sea, and hope we would survive the battering from the ever increasing seas that were, after all, forecast in the morning, or TRY to negotiate the violent maelstrom taking place at the harbour entrance.
We knew that if we could cross the harbour mouth, and withstand the surge of water between the two piers, safety lay minutes away, but if we tried to ride the storm anything could happen, so we tried the latter.

Engines slowed down to a crawl we rolled and tossed our way ever closer, being driven by the power of the sea running on our quarter, and as each lump of sea surged us nearer and nearer the task seem even more impossible, spindrift from the breaking crests now blinding our view, as sheer guts, determination, foolishness, and skill, took us over the harbour entrance, Frank fighting the wheel with every lurch and surge the boat took, and the crew on deck prepared to jump over the side if we were dashed against the very wall we sought shelter behind.
No one could stand on the pier to help us as the sea was covering it, and all the coastguard could do was watch and pray along with us, until finally after what seemed like an eternity, the boat steadied in the calmer waters of the channel leading to the safety of the quay, and it was then, only then we knew we had made it.
Salt crusted our faces and the steam rose from our saturated clothes as we scurried about preparing the mooring ropes that had been lashed down to prevent them being washed overboard, and only after we were securely tied against the quay did we have time to take stock of how dangerous our short trip to Girvan had turned out.

We did have forewarning of the coming storm, but we never realised just how ferocious it was to become, and it was only the skill of Frank, AND the grace of God that we survived to tell the tale, other boats and crew being lost in lesser storms.

Two weeks later having made Girvan slip, and with all jobs completed, the Faithful returned to the area where the net was washed overboard, and successfully crept for, and retrieved the expensive piece of equipment that was last seen disappearing beneath the waves.
Everything turned out fine, but it could have so easily been the boat and crew that was lost along with it, becoming another statistic among the many tragedies that occur in one of the most dangerous occupations in the world.

Lost nets are retrieved by a creeper, A long steel pole with spikes sticking out at all angles, trailed behind the boat at the end of a rope in the area where you think your net might be, not always successful.

Robbie was around the same age as me and sailed with his uncle(Frank)on the Faithful, him and I being close friends from school days.

The bigger picture is of Girvan with the boatyard on the right and the beginning of slipway to the fore, and on the left almost hidden is the harbour area.

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  1. I do hope that you are in the process of publishing these many wonderful stories.

    Best Regards,

  2. Another very interesting post. Great read!

  3. Another story that had me holding my breath. Great work Donald.

  4. You chose your profession for the thrill and adventure and in this tale you definately got it!
    A scary, but enthralling read! Keep them coming Donald

  5. I would have been so scared. Great story, keep them coming!

  6. Donald, a scary post...... looking forward for more posts .

  7. Have you ever watched an episode of Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch? I was reminded of it when I read your post. This is a breath-taking story. Your profession is so risky and it is pretty obvious that decision-making is critical at many instances.

    Your experience was really worth sharing (with your story worth-reading.. ^^) and you must indeed be proud since only a few people can experience that. What happened to you and your folks (and the boats) are really scary as it is dangerous but after surpassing it all, you'd be proud to say that you have beaten the wrath of the storm :)

  8. How difficult to stand by, giving control of your destiny to another. Without relying ultimately upon God's grace, I think that would have been almost impossible.

  9. Another amazing and fascinating story!

  10. What an exciting story Donald, and thanks a lot for sharing it here ;) You should definitely publish my friend, as writing - next to being a great sailor is your thing ;) {{{HUGS}}}

  11. Very nice always fascinate us with wonderful stories....gr8 going...