Something woke him. After a moment's 'wool-gathering' in the darkened saloon, he swung his feet off the pilot berth onto the floor, and listened. The heavy old cutter was slipping along steadily, all was dark below, and stars were visible up through the companion-hatch. Still, something…..
Pausing at the galley to pour some water into a mug, the mate clambered on deck and, standing by the young helmsman silhouetted against the night sky, he glanced at the old compass, the tan sails and the slant of the breeze. “Wind still more or less NW'ly, and course still about NE'ly”, he mused. Nothing much had changed. Except…..
They'd been sailing on flat water gently northwards, up inside the Arklow Bank, with the whole of Ireland as a weather shore a handful of miles to the west. Before his change of watch at midnight, he'd taken her NE across the bank into deeper water, giving more sea room, and to avoid the busy entrance to Dublin and Dun Laoghaire. And he'd mentioned that when handing-over his Watch.
“What time is it now?” he asked, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, then used the grunted “0250” to update his mental DR map by a dozen miles or so. Something still didn't quite fit….. “You're not supposed to be on watch now?” he queried, recalling the young crewman's lack of sailing experience and the decision to use him, supervised, in daylight only. “Isn't it John The Owner who's on?”
“Yes, that's right, Wil. He got me up. He's up in the bows now, doing something.” There was a dark shape up forward, hunched over the inboard end of the bowsprit. Puzzled at what could possibly need attention there, for all on deck had been checked secure at dusk, he reached for his lifeline to clip on, then realised what was odd. The sea state had changed; he could feel it - and the 'Kish Bank' light tower was to the north of them, Flashing 2, about a couple of miles off. So also was the North Kish NCM beacon, flashing away continuously. They should both have been astern, or at least abeam – certainly well out to the west somewhere. And the shore lights looked far closer than they should. The DR picture of position shifted in his mind. They were right on top of the Kish Bank….
“Have you changed course at all?” he queried the youngster beside him. “Oh, yes. We tacked west just after John got me up, maybe two hours back, then tacked back again north-east about half-an-hour ago….”
The old boat had no functioning depth-sounder. With this easy offshore breeze, there would be no visible warning of shoal waters ahead. Well awake now, he swung below and threw a GPS fix on the chart, the first for nearly three hours, right where the printed soundings showed the shallowest point - 1.6 metres. No direction was better than any other. It was close to local Low Water, so there was only the LW Height of Tide to help. That wasn't much....
He felt it then. Just the mere suggestion of a scrape, felt, not heard. Then again, then gone.
Back on deck, relieved they were still sailing free and clear, he clipped on and clumped his way up forward. John The Owner was bent double, hanging over the pulpit rail, feet clear of the deck and fiddling with something around the bowsprit outside the stemhead. John wasn't clipped on. Nor did he have a harness, a lifejacket, or even a light.
“Hi, John! What's up?” he queried the figure hanging over the bow. “Nothing much, Wil”, came the muffled reply. “Just re-securing this guide-block. I've been meaning to do it for a couple of days….” He swung both feet back onto the deck and straightened up, uncovering the bicolour light he'd been draped over for the past half-hour. The old mate thought to mention the Kish Bank near-grounding, then swallowed his anger. That was behind them.
Right in front of them, they watched the red navigation light and forward steaming light of a darkened fast merchantman cross close ahead, not 100 metres away….
The old mate spat over the side. “We'll need to have a word, John, if we're to go much further tonight.”Go to Different Ships 1Different Ships 2
Bilbo, © 2008