Looking back at the title of this prompt, I realise that all my really scary moments have been whilst sailing. It was the fascination of the abomination for me.
At the age of 50 I was asked whether I would like to crew a catamaran from Plymouth, Devon to Santander, Spain. Oh yes please – greenhorn me was about to go green water. I now know how fortunate I was – the Bay of Biscay was like a lake a lot of the time – in fact we were becalmed and, much to the owner`s disgust, had to hoist the iron mainsail (start the engine). It took the whole of my two weeks summer holiday and I caught the ferry back to Plymouth having spent just one night in Spain and back to work the next day
From then on all my holidays were spent sailing. Many trips across the English Channel (one of the busiest seaways in the world) to the Channel Islands and then cruising down the coast of Brittany, France. Initially this was all done in a Folkboat – small – no headroom – no cockpit cover – wet as a submarine but sailed magnificently. I would lie in my bunk and hear the waves lapping on the hull. I would sit in the cockpit and watch the dolphins playing `chicken` by racing first alongside the boat and then dashing in front of the bow and coming up the other side. I would trail mackerel feathers to catch our breakfast or supper. Lovely – straight off the line and into the pan.
We then upgraded to, for us, a more luxurious vessel – the Sabre 27 shown above. Full headroom and cosy cabin. And a cockpit cover! Somewhere we could huddle out of the cold and wet whilst on watch.
The normal procedure would be to leave Plymouth on the evening outgoing tide and make a night crossing to the Channel Islands. Sailing at night is great – you literally steer by the stars – line up your star with the rigging and keep on course. With periodical checks on the compass too though. Watching the lights of the other vessels – French fishing boats were a law unto themselves.
One time we had had a lovely few days in St Peter Port, Guernsey and left in the early afternoon for France. Just outside the Channel Islands the engine spluttered and shuddered and kept going, albeit slowly. We thought we had picked up some weed and the skipper tried various manoeuvres to free it. No use. There was very little wind so we had to use the engine. Hours passed with our slow progress. The Channel was rough off the rocky coast of Brittany. I had to steer by hand as the sea was too rough for the self-steering. We tried several times to make the entrance – surrounded by rocks – into the river we were heading for. In the end we had to give up. We didn`t have enough power to steer properly against the sluicing tide. It was getting dark and all the lights on the rocks and from the shore were winking and twinkling – mostly warnings. We went further down the coast and began an entry to another river where we knew there was a marina. It took quite a few attempts to line the boat up with the light – I knew it had to be kept in the white sector and it took a lot of effort to keep on track. We eventually made it into the river entrance. I sighed with relief and then remembered that the lighthouse had a back transit too – one had to keep steering with the light in the white sector! Too late. There was a nasty crunch. `What was that?` I asked the skipper. `You have hit a rock` he replied. Stop engines, put out anchor and listen to the dreadful graunching sound as the hull rubbed up and down the rock. I went below to look in the bilge – fully expecting to see the rock looking back at me through the hull. Fortunately not – but the sound was much worse down there. I hastily packed a panic bag and the skipper sent out a MayDay on the radio. No answer. We went on deck and got the inflatable dinghy out of the locker and began to inflate it using the footpump. We were dog-tired – we had been on the go for nearly 12 hours by now. We waited – and realised that we were not too far from the shore. We were in fact stuck in the middle of a French river in the pitch dark but not sinking. What for it? We looked at each other and went down to the cabin and downed a couple of stiff gin and tonics and lay on our bunks – fully clothed – grab bag at hand and had a sleep.
I woke first and went on deck – strange – someone had moved the lighthouse in the night – it was no longer on our stern – then I realised the tide had come in whilst we were sleeping and lifted us off the rock! We started the engine and limped down the river to the marina where we enlisted the help of a frogman (that exercised our French not a little – plongeur he was called). He came back triumphantly clutching a massive length of blue polyprop rope (from a fishing boat I expect) that had wound its way round our propeller – how the engine had kept going all that time goodness only knows. A quick inspection by him – until the boat could be lifted out for a thorough look – showed we had not holed the hull – only bent the prop shaft so it was leaking.
The journey back home across the English Channel was laborious – the automatic bilge pump packed up so it meant baling by hand all the way. Never mind – we made it.
But I honestly think those few hours in the dark in that French river – on that rock – were probably the most terrifying I have known.