A night in the Wash


    Our cargo was some sort of fertiliser destined for a port in Germany, and presumably further destined to be spread across gently rolling farmlands beyond. It’d been loaded aboard whilst docked in the port of Wisbeach, thirty miles inland on the river Nene. Downstream, and out to sea, spread the strange and dangerous waters of the Wash.

There’d been a few postponements due to worryingly bad weather. But then, on the evening of 2nd January 1976, our captain decided to set sail, catching high tide around five o’clock in the afternoon. It was already dark and 30 mph winds were whipping violently across the decks. As junior deckhand I had to help with covering the hatches, struggling with 15x30 ft sections of canvas which billowed into aerodynamic curves, determined to fly away.

I was nineteen and just a year younger than our rusting, creaking, 500 tonne coaster: the Judert II. She was Dutch-built and had changed hands a few times, but was currently flying the British flag and mostly hauling the worst of cargoes from port to port around the coastal waters of Britain and northern Europe. Her owner was Captain Joseph Allan Renton, known to his friends and colleagues as, simply, Allan. He’d had years of experience at sea and often still captained his own ships.

But - not this particular vessel on this particular assignment, although it may’ve been his orders which put us to sea that night. Who knows?

Anyway, after getting both hatches as secure as we could, we set about tidying up and putting everything away, and then began securing every item on the decks (things like a 50-gallon drum of lubricating oil on the aft deck which needed roping down) and then all the gear and odds-and-ends inside. And then, thirty miles later, the ship began to heave and roll. The river pilot transferred back to his own vessel and I watched with envy as he and his colleagues headed back upstream, which was obviously the safer direction to be going.

But the sea hadn’t threatened my life before, and I’d no experience of thinking it would, and . . . well, what the hell.

By eight o’clock in the evening there was a large swell building up. Our captain, John Jackson, decided that maybe we should drop anchor in the relatively protected waters of the river’s mouth until the storm subsided. So I went with Claus, the senior deckhand, up to the forecastle where we could set about the task.

After the ship had been turned in the opposite direction to where it would drift, the speed was reduced and the drive cut. Claus and I dropped enough length of chain to lie across the bottom, and hopefully the anchor would drag along and dig itself into the seabed. Except that it didn’t, because the swell kept lifting it. And all the time the winds were getting heavier, together with a strong tidal flow which was making things even worse. So we got to work on the second anchor, driving the ship forwards at just the right angle to drop it at the best place. And, since that seemed to do the trick, we headed inside with thoughts of coffee and cigarettes.

But no such luck . . .

The swell was causing us to pitch and roll so badly that the anchor chains were banging and crashing, and we were drifting. The danger of losing one, or even both, anchors meant there was no choice but to pull them up and to head out into the night - and into the storm.

And that was no easy task either: winching the chains on a very basic clutch mechanism to engage the cogs and drag in the heavy links. They were fed through the deck into their housings inside the forecastle, and someone had to go down through the small hatch and make sure the chains didn’t pile up in one place and block the hole. And, of course, guess who? Fumbling about down there I managed to turn on the solitary, gloomy light and was trying to overcome claustrophobia when . . . BANG!

The hatch cover had slammed shut. And that was maybe when I first got frightened. Because, when open, the cover leant gapingly at a fairly wide angle, so for it to have dropped was an alarming indication of the degrees to which the ship was pitching.

It took a long time to get the first anchor up, after which we swapped jobs for the second. With Mike Harrison (engineer and first mate) I helped to work the winches, but the gusts were still increasing and it was almost impossible to move around the deck and get a firm grip. The clutch lever wasn’t close enough to anything else we could hold onto, so we tied a rope to it and, with Mike one side and me the other, we hung on to the mast stays and managed to co-ordinate the mechanism. The wind was far, far more furious than I’d ever experienced before and, for one horrific moment, I was lifted off my feet and hanging onto a stay with one hand, flapping around like a flag.

But, like I’ve said, I was nineteen. I was strong and immortal.

Eventually, with both anchors retracted, we were underway. So we headed aft to the accommodation. But the sea was crashing over the gunwales and swirling about the decks in a frenzy, so we were all drenched as we fought the water and the wind to get back to the superstructure.

On the bridge the radar was humming, the Decca navigation system beeping and the radio crackling. The engine was straining at every pitch of our heaving rust-bucket and John Jackson was clinging to the chart table, trying to plot some sort of sensible course through the treacherous waters of the Wash.

Ahead of us lay a complexity of sedimentary sandbanks with just a few navigable channels leading out to the depths of the North Sea. We knew that if we strayed from the deeper drafts we could drive ourselves into the seabed and, almost surely, find ourselves on a ship that was breaking up. Negotiating the Wash also carried the dangers of serious turbulence caused by the swell bouncing back off the coastline. But, then again, heading further out offered the risk of arriving at even more severe conditions.

So John decided to steer for the Sunk navigation buoy, from where we could aim for the next main navigational marker - the worryingly named Roaring Middle light-buoy. At which point we could turn back on ourselves and then simply shuttle back-and-forth between both markers until the waters calmed enough for us to venture out into the North Sea.

As if that was all . . .

The night was black and howling. The sea was a foam of wild white horses and we were being tossed and turned more viciously than I’d ever known before. I stood on the bridge, on the port side, trying to stay upright and straining to hang on at every pitch and roll. It was like riding a totally unpredictable fairground attraction, except there was nothing attractive and there was no end in sight. Mike hung on to the wheel, while John and Claus kept watch for our buoys. I took some time out, wedging myself into a tight little space between the chart drawers and the companionway. And I just hunched there for a while, at one with the motion of the ship.

But it didn't last long. Suddenly the ship took a sharply violent roll to starboard, catapulting me from my refuge and throwing me against the chart table. As we rolled back to port I managed to cling on and escaped another bodily fling to the other side.

The motion of the ship got better and worse in turns. Violent moments were separated by lulls - periods of lesser mayhem when I could get my bearings and figure-out which way was up, and maybe judge the motion and get a fix on the next object to hang on to. During one of those respites I got myself back to the port side of the bridge and opted to stay there for a while, if possible, and take a look out.

The view was frighteningly magnificent. Huge sections of the ship were constantly vanishing under water and spray, and we were pitching and rolling at angles that defied belief. Sliding down the side of a 30 ft wave would put us at an angle which, if we’d bottomed badly, could’ve turned us fully over. There were times when we’d drop headfirst from the top of a wave only to hit the next with a massive, resonant jolt. The bow of the ship would disappear and the whole vessel would vibrate like a giant tuning fork. Everything was at serious risk: the integrity of the hull; the seal of the hatches; the superstructure’s ability to withstand it all and, of course, my bones and flesh and breath.

And then the cargo compounded our fears - as if we didn’t have enough. The white fertiliser we were carrying had been simply poured into the ship. It’s density had determined that the hold couldn’t be filled to the brim, so there was plenty of room for movement. Each and every roll could cause the chemical powder to shift to port or starboard and cause a list which would then introduce us to whatever entertainment value can found on a capsized vessel in a mid-winter storm at night.

Such as dying, for example.

Keeping sight of the two navigation buoys wasn’t easy either. Mostly they were squintingly obscured by the sea and spray, and steering around them offered even more hazards. During one of those manoeuvres the ship suddenly rolled 45 degrees to starboard and, realising that I could fall ‘horizontally’ and go smashing through the glass window, I stuck out all four limbs like a dropped cat and managed to land on the wooden frame.  As I fell I saw a solid wall of sea, parallel with the vertical axis of the ship and, for a moment, thought that was the end.

But our ship miraculously heaved its way up the massive wave and threw me back to where I’d come from . . . although things were getting worse.

Only three of the engine’s six cylinders were working, and we didn’t know that the cooling system had earlier ingested a load of hay. So, clogged with straw, our power plant was overheating. Given the conditions, there was nothing Mike could do to fix the problems - and he made it plain that he wasn’t going to risk his life down in the engine room to prove it. And we couldn’t really argue with that.

Our options were shrinking away. Thoughts had already turned to issuing a mayday call - the last thing sailors want to be doing. The prospect of attempting to abandon ship was becoming real, although we’d little chance of survival if we did. And we’d already heard enough mayday signals from other vessels coming across the radio to suggest that all rescue services which could operate were probably already engaged. In any case, any possibility of help would be thwarted by the storm itself.

The airwaves were alive with drama. We heard an ominous sequence of calls from a supertanker, north of Germany and on its maiden voyage. Their captain was trying to manoeuvre his vessel between the islands and the mainland, presumably in an attempt to reach better protected waters. He was warning smaller vessels to keep out of his way since he’d too much inertia to take evasive action himself. But, presumably, those smaller ships were also struggling to manoeuvre effectively themselves. Each call he made sounded more desperate than the last until finally his ship ran aground.

I decided to make a deal with God: if he saved me then . . . well, I’d agree to believe in him. But then I thought that if I survived this whole trauma I would probably wonder if I would have survived anyway - with or without his help. So it became an unconditional request. And I’m alive enough to be writing this, as you’ll note. Also, at that dire point in time, I began to ‘live’ the event. I reckon my brain was suffering overload and I simply stopped ‘thinking’ about the whole crisis.

Around 3 or 4 am the storm had eased just a little, with the fear amongst us slightly reduced. We all had injuries of some sort or another, and it was my turn to take the helm.

It wasn’t long before another frightening moment came, as the ship was heaving to port and I countered by spinning the wheel to starboard. She hesitated for a moment but then continued to lurch round. I spun the wheel full over, but with no effect. I was watching the compass and, when we’d turned almost back on ourselves, I figured the only thing I could do was swing the rudder the opposite way, steering us to port and completing the circle. We were a 500 tonne ship making headway - but could still be turned full-circle by the storm.

Yet another mayday signal came over the radio. It was from a ship called the Carnoustie, and the captain was calling for help and saying they were losing control of their vessel. Claus was especially concerned because he knew some of the crew and had recently been out boozing with them.

They’d left England some 12 hours before us I guess, and were somewhere north of the Dutch coast.  They made several more calls, giving their position and making it clear that they were in serious trouble. I don’t know the specifics, except that yet another mayday call came from them - just a voice saying that their ship was breaking up. And that was the last we heard from them.

There were eight crew on board the Carnoustie, and all of them died that night.

But we’d been busy, trying to survive ourselves. I felt a strange hollowness: being in a dreadful storm, fearing for my life and hearing of others who might be drowning. A rare profundity. And it matters that we heard them, because in some way it impacts their experience and prevents it being left in a meaningless void. It’s intangible, but it means a lot.

Night passed and morning arrived. The storm lessened and we headed for the last estimated position of the Carnoustie. Claus, in particular, was determined to search for survivors, or even just wreckage. But we’d no accurate coordinates and didn't really know where the ship had been. It was just a desperate and futile attempt to do something.

And then we limped numbly back to the English coast, but couldn’t put into port at Boston. The pilots wouldn’t take us into harbour because, apparently, the weather was too bad (!?!?!).

So we were back in the Wash . . . dropping anchor.

© Nik Allday 2004