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Hell and High Water
The storm struck out of the southwest on August 3. It developed rapidly, in a matter of hours: from a steady blow to a howling rage of shifting cloud, rain, and wind, and the four cardinal points of the horizon galloped at me like the horsemen of the Apocalypse. And me in the middle of them. Waiting, vulnerable, patient.
"Hold onto your hat, old lad, we've got some fun and games coming," I said to Nelson, my three-legged Labrador retriever, as I watched the sky turn first into somber gray, then menacing blackness, with sheets of lightning electrifying the whole heaving, gray-green watery curve of the world. Cresswell plunged on, away from the Arctic Circle, which she had passed over only the day before. By the time the gale freshened to a full storm, I was exhausted.
I had set out on July 10, 1961, from Svalbard for Iceland, 800 miles away to the southwest. With the prevailing wind against me, this distance was doubled.
I thought I had recovered my strength and wits during the days in Svalbard, and Cresswell was again sound. I first headed due south to latitude 71, so as to avoid any ice floes which might have broken loose from the main pack; then I headed due west for Jan Mayen, with the idea that if anything went amiss, I could shelter in those lonely islands. But the wind shifted to northwest and I was forced away to the south; so I missed Jan Mayen entirely.
By July 25 I was 180 miles due north of the northeast tip of Iceland. With the northwest wind I had a close reach, and the boat was making fast time. I aimed to reach Cape Farewell, the southern tip of Greenland, not later thanAugust 30. From there, with the Greenland Current helping me westward until it joined the southerly running Labrador Current, it was around 800 miles to St. John's, Newfoundland. If my luck held out, I should reach there by the end of September. I would have to push it, because my margin of safety, food-wise, was narrow indeed -- only three weeks.
On July 31 I was in the Denmark Strait, heading southwest on a broad reach over the heaving waters, sometimes sighting Icelandic and British fishing vessels over the white-silver-topped, flashing green seas. Now came August, and with it the end of the short Arctic summer.
In the Arctic for almost two years, my diet had consisted mainly of rice, seal blubber, fish, and corned beef, and I was down to a wiry 120 pounds. Besides, I was suffering from what I call Arcticitis, a kind of lassitude which slows you down. Everything is slow motion, though you are unaware of it until you encounter someone who hasn't got it. It's something like a man from the mountains plodding along at his pace for years, nice and easy and perfectly normal to him. Then he goes to New York and immediately there's a difference in time, almost a time warp. After two years alone in the Arctic, even the mountain man would seem like a big-city tycoon.
Anyway, it blew seven bells and the sea worked up into monsters. I had been hove to under reefed mizzen only, when suddenly this great mountain of water, out of nowhere, crashed down onto Cresswell. I had not much fear of the hull giving way, for she was double diagonal mahogany on grown Portuguese oak frames with oiled canvas between the mahogany planks, which were beautifully laid with copper fastenings. The deckhouse I had added myself, continuing the original hull specifications all around. The masts were stepped on deck, in galvanized iron tabernacles. This was mainly for ease in dropping the masts when they were in danger of icing up too thick.
The sea that came on board was heavy and strong enough to bend the tabernacle, which was made of 1/2-inch-thick galvanized iron. This put such a strain on the starboard chain plates that they ripped right out of the hull. Amazing, for they were fixed through the side with 3/4-inch-diameter phosphor-bronze bolts, six to each chain plate. Of course, as soon as the shrouds on the starboard side twanged away, over went the mast to port. At the same time the whole boat was lifted up and flung I don't know how far, then slammed onto the leeward seas with such a shock that it broke the engine loose from its bed. The engine started to dance around, and it was all I could do to lasso the thing and secure it with a Spanish windlass. If it tore the shaft out of the stern tube, I would have had a long, cold row in the dinghy to Iceland, about 300 miles to the southeast. But my luck was in and after a hard struggle I got the engine secured.
When I went aloft, the sight that met my eyes was enough to make a bloody bishop burn his Bible. The mainmast was splintered like a banana peel as far as the houndsbands (where the head of the mainsail luff reaches). It was dangling over the side and there was a forest of tangled shroud wires and wrecked, torn sails all over the topsides.
In the roaring gray twilight, with the hounds of death screaming in my ears all the way from Cape Farewell, I slowly and patiently cleared away the mess. The shrouds I chopped off with an ax, which I kept razor sharp for this very purpose. Then I set to work on the mainmast. Finally I managed to heave the whole rig over the side, for it had been threatening, with violent motions, to stove in the side. It was a relief to get rid of it. At least Cresswell would now be one entity and not a dozen, all working against each other.
I crawled back down below to size up the situation. I was still under reefed mizzen, which was holding her head up against the seas. Even if she broached to, I wasn't too concerned, for she was built like a barrel and, mastless, would probably just roll right over.
I decided to wait until the storm subsided, then rig a forestay from the top of the mizzen to the bow and try to make for Reykjavik or Hunafloi in Iceland. Then, once I was safely at anchor, I could clear up the mess and plan repairs.
It proved impossible, under that rig, to make Iceland, and I was forced to head for Norway, 1,000 miles away on the other side of the Arctic Ocean. It took me from August 3 until October 18, 76 days, during which I endured gale-force winds and stronger for 49 days.
My galley stove was useless, since the pipe which fed the kerosene to the burners had snapped and there was no spare. It contained a needle mechanism to regulate the kerosene supply, and I could not manage a jury rig, so I ate cold food all the way -- dried fish and porridge mixed with a bit of water. I still had a good supply of nuts, which kept me going for a couple of weeks. Nelson went on short rations -- that is, half a day's food every other day. By the time I reached the Norwegian fishing fleet and had some potatoes, ready cooked, and bread passed to me, I was even considering eating Nelson.
I encountered Norwegian herring boats about 200 miles west of Narvik. When they saw my predicament, they dropped supplies in a barrel over the side, for the seas were too rough to chance coming alongside me. Then the Norwegian Air Force sent a plane out twice a day to check that I was all right and guide me into the Westfjord and Lofoten Island. By the time I got in I was ready for a good meal and a couple of beers.
So there I was, as the old saying goes, "fed up and far from home," with my boat in a shambles, the old fire-pump engine off its bed, no mainmast, two tins of corned beef in the galley locker, and five pounds of Lipton's tea carefully wrapped in a spare oilskin. Lofoten in September isn't exactly like the South of France or Miami Beach, what with a cold fit to freeze the balls off a brass monkey and the stink of fish permeating everything. But at least the vessel was safe and that was the main thing.
Cresswell was tied up alongside a fishing wharf, subsidiary and remote to the main one, which was agog day and night with noise and activity. Being Welsh and, to the Norwegians, obviously stark raving mad, I had been relegated to an unfrequented corner of the harbor, rife with derelict fishing boats and not much else. Topsides, the sleet pattered down with gentle threats of another hard winter ahead. Below, although I had done what I could do to make things shipshape, Cresswell looked like a Port Said bumboat -- ragged, tattered sails, ragged, tattered blankets smelling to high heaven, and a ragged, tattered skipper thanking his lucky stars he still had some tea left. My lame old dog sadly resigned himself forward, while all around us the snow-topped hills resigned themselves to winter.
I set to making tea, boiled spuds, and gravy. I'd save my corned beef for an emergency. Luckily I still had kerosene for the lamp and stove, so the cabin soon warmed up.
I was just dishing out the grub (which meant taking the lid off the pan - - no fancy stuff like plates on the old Cresswell) when there was a knock on the doghouse roof. I replaced the lid on the pan, sealing off the delicious aroma of British boiled potatoes, and called, "Right-o, old chum, be right up!"
Outside the companionway hatch, it was pitch black and wetly cold. All I could see was a shadowy figure.
"Evening, mate," I said, "what can I do for you?"
A bulky, thickset man, wearing a long raincoat and a fedora hat, stood on the dock. He was chubby and clean-shaven, a fair-haired man around 45 with a worried expression.
"Gut evenink," he said. "I vas valking past your boat und saw der British flag and vonder vot you are doing here."
His accent was strange, much more guttural than a Norwegian speaking English.
"Well, come down below. It's far too cold to stand around up here. Have a cup of tea."
We passed down the companionway -- me first, him following. He was unaccustomed to small craft, and it was with some clumsiness that he eventually settled onto the port berth, which is what I called the rough wooden plank which ran the length of the cabin. During the long bitter months Cresswell had been locked in the ice and the days when she had been disturbingly becalmed in the Denmark Strait, I used it to sit on when I played myself chess.
"I am Karl Boehm," he said, "from Hamburg."
"Tristan Jones -- Liverpool, Yokohama, New York and all points west," I replied jocularly. If a fellow ever needed cheering up, this one did. He looked like a wet Sunday night in Aberdeen.
"Weather getting you down?" I went on, as we halved the potatoes and sipped the bitter tea, for I was out of sugar weeks back.
"Ach, no, it is not the veather, it is business."
"What do you mean? What business?"
"Vell, you see, I represent a firm in Germany which constructs very up-to-date fish-canning machinery, but in Norway I can do nothing. Ever since the var they hate the Germans. Their canning plants are old and out of date, but they vill not make deals with us. I have been here for a month. Always they are very nice, always a glass or two of schnapps, but never an order." His tale of woe continued for a good half hour.
"Look, cheer up, Karl. I'll tell you what: if you like, tomorrow I'll put on my best bib and tucker and come with you."
"Good idea, Tristan, and if ve make a sale I will make sure you get some commission."
"There's only one snag."
He looked at me quizzically. "Vot's that?"
"I don't know a thing about fish-canning machinery. It takes me all my time to keep that damned diesel fire-brigade engine of mine working, and even now, after three years of tinkering around with it, all I know it does is suck-squeeze-bang-blow. How the hell am I going to sell anything as complicated as your gear?"
"Sit down and I vill tell you about it. Maybe this vill help you understand better."
He pulled a bottle out of his pocket. Schnapps! And I hadn't had a wee drappie for almost three months! Holy smoke, for a half bottle of schnapps I'd have sat down with Hitler!
So we sat, into the small hours of the morning, with the wind and sleet increasing in the Arctic night outside, cozy, warm and schnapps cheered, while Karl instructed me on the finer points of German technology and I eyed the slow, sad, outgoing tide of the schnapps bottle. Finally after effusive handshaking, he left to return to his hotel and I turned into my tatty bed to dream of green fields, church clocks, cricket, and English pubs flowing with ale and hospitality.
The following morning, though very cold and foggy, was at least dry. I tumbled out of bed, as usual fully clothed except for my seaboots. In the Arctic, although often tempted to fall into the slack ways of foreigners and "lesser breeds without the law," I made it a rule never to sleep in my seaboots except when the rigging was frosting up. Then it was a case of getting up every two hours or so, climbing topsides, and clambering up to the cross trees to knock the black ice off the masts and rigging wires.
Breakfast was tea and one of the cigarettes that Karl had kindly contributed to my commissary the night before. I dripped two drops of water into the empty schnapps bottle, swirled it around as carefully as the head barman in the Waldorf-Astoria preparing cognac flambé, and poured it down my throat. Then I was set for the day.
Karl appeared at 9 o'clock sharp, as arranged, and together we set off for the town and the fish-canning factories, with Nelson. Despite his size, Karl walked as spritely as a boxer.
"Have you had breakfast, Tristan?"
"Cup of tea and a cigarette -- mariner's breakfast."
He smiled, then patted my shoulder, his 200 pounds almost dislodging the shoulder of my 120-pound frame.
"Then ve shall go for coffee and a good breakfast. You English ... "
"Ja, I beg your pardon. You Velsh like kippers, I believe?"
"Scrumptious. Let me at them!"
We entered a small restaurant and were soon replete with kippers and coffee, with crispy Norwegian bread and cheese, served by very pretty but stern-faced waitresses, who obviously knew Karl's origin. They even looked at me as if I'd blown in under the door; but I was accustomed to that, even at home. No bottom-pinching here, I thought, as I finished the first good meal I'd had in three months.
From the cafe we made our way to the main fish-canning plant. I had made an appointment by telephone with the chief engineer's secretary and, having been received by suspicious-looking underlings, finally arrived at his office. Karl waited outside.
I walked in to find a thin, ascetic-looking man wearing rimless spectacles and almost completely bald except for a fringe of ginger hair over his ears.
"Good morning, sir, I've come to chat about the fish-canning plant for which you are receiving tenders."
"Steady on," he replied in a broad Scottish accent, eyeing me closely. "Steady on ... don't I know you from somewhere?"
"I suppose it could be. I've knocked around quite a bit."
"Wait a minute. By jumping Jehosaphat ... yes, Tristan ... Tristan Jones! I know you; we were on the old destroyer Chieftain together, for Crissake, in 1942. Convoys from Seydisfjord to Russia. Don't you remember me?" He jumped up from his chair and grabbed my hand.
For a few seconds I was puzzled, then it dawned on me that this was an old shipmate. "Yes ... wait a minute. Yes, I've got it. Ewan McTavish, mechanician first class! Yes, by Crikey, Jock. I remember you now. How are you, old mate?" I grabbed his shoulder and laughed.
"Sit down old chap. Sit down and tell me what I can do for you."
I told him the truth -- that my boat was a shambles, that I was broke, that the German salesman was the last straw to a drowning man, that I didn't know a damned thing about fish canning, that the German had offered me a commission on the sale, which if it came off would look after me for a whole winter and refit Cresswell, and would he please put an order in? Ewan by this time was laughing like blazes.
"I'll fix it, Tristan. We've a board meeting tomorrow. I know the plant is good. It's just that the Norwegians are very wary of Germans since the rough time they had during the fracas, but I'll put my weight on it. Dinna fash y'sel', laddie, we'll have that commission for you yet."
"Ewan, you know what this means to me?"
"Of course I do. Don't worry. And come round to my place for dinner tonight, and bring your friend with you. Seems like a decent sort to me."
"Yes, he's a good bloke. I don't give a tinker's damn if he's German, Eskimo, or a bloomin' Scotsman even, as long as he's all right." (Nothing like hard voyaging for bringing out the democrat in a man.)
Outside, Karl was glumly shuffling papers.
"Karl, mein freund, we've done it! We've done it!" He looked at me in disbelief.
"Vot? How? It's not possible. You have been in there only 15 minutes. How is this so?"
I explained to him what had happened and his face brightened. "Ve must go and drink to your great success on your first attempt at salesmanship, Tristan."
"Yes, and my last, too!" I replied.
By the time we had seen off a good deal of schnapps, Karl was becoming sentimental in the German way. Finally I asked him straight out what was bugging him.
"Tristan, I did not tell you. During the war I was in the Deutscher Kriegsmarine, the German Navy."
I grabbed his arm. "Come on, Karl, let's have another bloody schnapps!"
Two months later, after the fish-canning plant was installed, I was on my way south to winter over in the comfortable Norwegian port of Stavanger before heading into the Baltic. On board I had a new mast and six months' supply of food.
Oh as I was a-walking down Lime Street one day ... Hey! Weigh! Blow the man down!
A pretty young maiden she happened my way ... Give me some time to blow the man down!
I said to my folly "Oh how d'ye do?" ...
Hey! Weigh! Blow the man down!
Said she "None the better for seeing of you" ...
Give me some time to blow the man down!
"For sailors is tinkers and tailors is men" ...
Hey! Weigh! Blow the man down!
"And I hope that I never will see you again" ...
Give me some time to blow the man down!
So we'll blow the man up and we'll blow the man down ...
Hey! Weigh! Blow the man down!
We'll blow the man up unto Liverpool Town ...
Give me some time to blow the man down!
Capstan shanty, mid-nineteenth century (To "blow the man down" meant to hoist the mainsails)
Copyright © 1979 by Tristan Jones
Posted November 20, 2010
No text was provided for this review.