Friday 10 May 2013

Buccaneers on Bay of Biscay - 9

We were somewhere off the coast of Cherbourg, France, facing a bitingly cold January storm raging in from the Atlantic Ocean.
     My seventeenth birthday was two days ago and life could not have been more exciting; I was on a 60-foot ex-Cornish motor trawler, it had one main mast with a gaff rigged main sail, used more to steady the boat rather than propel it.
Similar boat to the m.v.Floranda
      I was in the company of three strangers; Alan the 28-year-old mate, Peter a 20-year-old adventurer from Australia, and a drunken, foul-tempered skipper who suffered intense migraines from a shrapnel wound to the head. He was a dubious character who became more dubious the more we came to know him. Our task was to deliver the boat to Spain, upon which Peter and I would be given our return fares as payment.
       From London we had fought our way along the south coast of England and had called briefly into the harbour of Newhaven, on the pretext of having our Decca navigation repaired, but in fact it was a ruse to collect a prearranged consignment of marine equipment, which the skipper later admitted had been stolen from a local naval yard.
      It was my first experience of leaving England and I found the voyage along the English Channel exhilarating; the wind howled relentlessly in our face from the southwest, the boat seemed very small as it pitched and yawed and tried to throw its four occupants endlessly from bulkhead to bulkhead. On one violent occasion Peter and I were thrown across the galley and landed amidst a clutter of books, pots, pans, legs and broken plates, Peter was left with a look of bewilderment and just the handle of the cup of coffee he had been drinking.
     Sleeping between watch duties was almost impossible due to constant bouts of levitating above the bunk and then being slammed down again by involuntary gravitational forces. However, in the naivety of youth I assumed all this to be a normal part of a seaman’s life.
The dreaded tin
Food for thought
     Between sharing watches with Alan and helping to pump the leaking bilges, I was also tasked with cooking meals for everyone - a simple chore in normal circumstances, but on the high seas in a storm was a challenge too far, I was thrown around the galley whilst balancing boiling pots so many times that I resorted to tying myself to the stove.
Yummy! Corned beef again.
      The menu for every meal was simple; it was whatever I could concoct from our meagre supply of food - a mountain of tinned corned-beef and a sack of potatoes; I served it cold, fried, sautéed, hashed, stewed, curried, in pancakes, on French toast and in cottage pies.  I have neither open nor eaten tinned corned-beef since.
The Cruel sea
Similar to the 'Floranda' conditions
   My most enjoyable and memorable experiences of the voyage was being on watch-duty whilst crossing the notorious Bay of Biscay; I was bundled up in every item of clothing available to keep warm and covered with thick oilskins in a vain effort to stay dry.
     When the steerage became too difficult for me to handle, Alan would lash the wheel in position, then lash me securely outside to the front of the wheelhouse to keep watch. There I had a grandstand view of the ferocity of nature; one moment I would be poised on a crest peering into a deep dark trough, before sliding down to the bottom into a huge eye-stinging spray of salt water, our motor would then gallantly struggle to pull us up to the next towering crest, only to repeat the process again and again. 
No time to be frightened
     It was a stimulating, life-enhancing experience. I enjoyed it far too much to worry about my chances of survival in a capsize – being tied to the wheelhouse in bundles of clothing gave me no chance.
     We finally limped into the port of La Coruña in northern Spain, where it took two days for my sea legs to stabilize and the land to stop swaying.
Josefina Vigo
     At the first opportunity I went ashore to experience what it was to be a foreigner. I entered a local family café to order an omelet, but I had so much difficulty being understood that in desperation I walked through to the rather Dickensian kitchen with its wood burning stove and made it myself. My initiative was the cause of much amusement and endeared me with the family and their customers. I later met their 20 year old daughter, Josefina Vigo, with whom I later became pen pals.
     Within a few days we moved around to the small fishing port of El Ferrol and berthed next to the early morning quayside fish market run by noisy fishwives. During berthing, a rope became entangled in the propeller, Peter and I were tasked to strip to our underpants and took turns diving in to the murky water with a knife clenched between our teeth to cut the rope free, the bitterly cold water proved too much for my fatless body and it was left to Peter and his extra layer of lard to persevere and save the day.
Wow! fantastic!
We were in El Ferro to have extra bunks fitted by local carpenters. We named their supervisor Señor Screw-Nail because of the way his ‘craftsmen’ fitted everything together with screws that were hammered home rather than screwed in.
     The skipper, who was seldom sober and always bad- tempered, was of an average height, with a slight body in need of a decent meal, and a face that if the scowl could have been pried off, may have had an Errol-Flynn-like quality.
     He fancied himself as a ladies man and would swagger to the bars in town dressed in a pinstripe suit and swinging a rolled umbrella for protection and effect. Peter and I feared and disliked him intensely and whenever he was not around we would whistle or hum a refrain from the sea shanty ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor?’ We thought of all manner of heinous things we would like to do to him.
What to do with the drunken sailor
     The skipper returned one evening in his usual inebriated state, only to find the boat was three meters below the dockside because of the low tide. The spring lines were very slack so he called out for someone to take up the slack, we were below decks and pretended not to hear.
     We watched through the porthole at his drunken attempt to board by climbing down a builder’s ladder, as he did so the boat slowly pushed away from the dock until the ladder reached horizontally and he fell into the harbour. It was beyond funny, and it was as much as we could do to decide whether to fish him out or push him under. Sometimes Life is just perfect. 
     Peter and I had been expecting at any time to be given our passports and return-fares, but then one evening we moored offshore and inexplicably sailed at dusk back into the open sea without navigation lights. We were told we were heading for Portugal and would be put ashore at Lisbon. This pleased us as it meant another foreign country to visit and more ocean sailing, but we were far from pleased when Alan revealed that we had left Spain without paying the carpenters' bill.
      The skipper kept us in Lisbon for 8-10 days on the pretext of cleaning and preparing the boat in readiness for an inspection by the charter agent.
The big Pay-off
     One morning, without warning, he told us to pack our bags, returned our passports, gave us a wad of bank notes, then left us on the wharf side as he and Alan motored away.
     We quickly discovered that the handsome pay-off had been made in almost worthless Italian Lira; barely enough for even one of us to get back the UK. We pooled our meagre personal funds and found we had just sufficient for two 3rd class train fares to Paris.
 Vasco de Gama monument Lisbon
     At the Portuguese mountain border town of Vilar Formosa, we were hauled off the train by immigration officers for failing to have our arrival in Lisbon stamped into our passports. We spent a long cold night in the hut of the Portuguese custom’s guard who allowed us to huddle around his blanket covered mesa-camilla brassero which is very similar to a Japanese kotatsu/hibachi stove. Next morning he arranged a lift for us back to Lisbon. 
     With difficulty we had our passports duly stamped and obtained another lift back to Vilar Formosa. We continued our train journey to Paris, during which we met a Pakistani gentleman who read my palm and informed me I would marry a foreigner. Oddly enough Peter and I both married girls from other countries.
My Aussie ship mate Peter Anderson
     We arrived in Paris penniless, hungry, and politely informed by our respective embassies to effectively ‘go away’. Fortunately, a Danish engineer and his wife spotted our dilemma and loaned us sufficient funds to return to the UK.
      We had been away from England just over six weeks, during which I had matured from a youth into a man and a future life of travel was well and truly established.
     Some years later, I read in a national newspaper that the m.v. Floranda had been impounded in the Port of London with an admiralty writ nailed to the mast for non-payment of debts. I felt a sense of sorrow for the boat, but no sense of grief for the man.
     Peter and I remain friends and I thank him for helping me recall many of the details.
Written by Roy Romsey

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  1. As always and very like your newsletters, vivid and very interesting. Love the way you write Uncle.

  2. Thanks Ian, so pleased that you enjoyed it.
    There will be more to follow.

  3. I would love to explore more interesting travel posts like this one, Sea travel is indeed a very different type of experience.
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