THE NEW BOAT LEAKS
IT was high water the next morning at seven o'clock; so we turned out of our snug berths, rather unwillingly I remember, to get under weigh. The strong north-east wind was still blowing and it was uncomfortably cold; the sky was heavy with snow-clouds, and a few flakes did fall in the afternoon. It was a strange day for mid-May, but we were destined to meet with plenty more or less foul weather in the course of this cruise. A friend wrote to me when I was in the Baltic and described it as being a real Jubilee summer at home. I tremble while I quote his words, for I know that dreadful penalties are inflicted by a Jubilee-satiated people on any who now utter that name; but be it remembered that I was away during the jollifications and did not do my share of the infinite Jubilee talk, so surely I may be pardoned for now writing the tabooed word.
But whatever the summer may have been, the spring in England was a boisterous one, and it blew hard during the latter half of May. In June, while I was in the North Sea, gales and strong winds from the north followed each other in rapid succession; and lastly, when I reached the Baltic in midsummer, and the weather at home was the finest possible, the north-west wind still relentlessly pursued us; in Denmark, a proverbially windy country, the season was exceptionally stormy. In consequence of all this we were frequently weather-bound, as a rule in the least interesting harbours, for several days at a time; and, indeed, had it not been for our ill-luck in this respect the voyage would have been completed by a much earlier date.
It was the very day to test the yacht and reveal her faults. The wind was fresh, the lee-scuppers were generally under water, and there was a choppy sea in the lower reaches of the river. The boat behaved splendidly; she evidently turned to windward in a much smarter manner than she had done the previous year, and we felt that we had the right sort of craft under us.
We had reached the Lower Hope and were talking in rather a sanguine spirit, and congratulating ourselves on the improvement that had been effected in the vessel, when Wright happened to go below and light his pipe. As soon as he was in the cabin I heard him utter what may be politely called an exclamation of surprise, and one of anything but pleased surprise.
Leaving the tiller for a moment, I looked into the cabin, and, to my dismay, beheld the water high above the floor, washing backwards and forwards over our beds, while the blankets and mattresses were floating to leeward. We were evidently leaking at a very great rate. Now the boat was quite tight when we left Hammersmith, so we could come to but one conclusion.
"She must be straining badly, Wright."
"I am afraid so, sir."
"And after all these timbers have been put into her, too; what can it mean?"
We did not say much, but across both our minds flashed the horrible suspicion that the boat in which we had placed such confidence might be too rickety to stand much tumbling about in a sea-way and be quite unfit to cross the North Sea. It was strange, however, that she had shown no signs of this weakness before.
Then we set to work to pump her out. After some half-dozen strokes the pump choked. We pulled up the small hatch in the cabin floor that covers the pump-well and made a curious discovery. It would have been strange, indeed, had the pump worked properly, for the well was full of deal-shavings! That lazy scoundrel the Hammersmith self-called ship carpenter had evidently, after completing some work in the cabin, stowed away his shavings here to save himself the trouble of throwing them overboard.
If we had had that carpenter on board I think we should have first compelled him to eat his shavings and then have cast him into the sea to find his way to the nearest shore as he best could. Surely such a punishment would not have been too severe for a man who, out of sheer indolence, risks the lives of others in this fashion. I think Mr. Plimsoll would agree with me.
At last we succeeded in clearing the pump, and, as it was luckily a far more powerful one than is generally put into yachts of our size, we soon had the water out of her.
We were now in Sea Reach, and as the ebb was nearly done we ran into the little creek of Holy Haven in Canvey Island for the night, not feeling by any means so sanguine about the sea-worthiness of our boat as we had done on starting.
We let go our anchor opposite the coast-guard station, and proceeded to wring some of the water out of our mattresses and blankets and to hang them out to dry; but our beds, to put it mildly, were somewhat damp that night, as they were very often afterwards during this cruise.
We found that it was necessary to pump the boat out every four hours or so in order to keep the water from rising above the cabin floor; but it must be remembered that ours was a very shallow vessel and that our floorcloth would be wet (and the lee-bunk under water if we were sailing) when there were but a few gallons on board. Very uncomfortable is a leaky vessel, and, above all others, a shallow boat should be perfectly water-tight.
Holy Haven is the snuggest little harbour in all the Thames estuary for small craft. There are two houses opposite the anchorage, the coast-guard station and an old-fashioned inn whose eggs and bacon have comforted many a yachtsman. All around extends a flat country of marsh and pasture intersected by broad ditches, looking very much like a Dutch landscape; and the likeness is increased by the presence of quite a fleet of schuyts, for the creek is much frequented by the Dutch eel-boats, the reason being, so a Dutch skipper, whose statement may or may not be true, told me, that the Hollander eels will not live in any British waters save those of the muddy channel that surrounds Canvey Island.
I have heard that the dykes which protect Canvey Island from inundation were long since constructed by a Dutchman, very much after the fashion of those in his own country. Is it possible that the eels on this account imagine they are still in Holland, and so not suffering from home-sickness, keep up their spirits and flourish here? The learned people who recently carried on a long correspondence in one of our leading reviews on the intelligence of brutes would do well to investigate this interesting subject.
We remained in Holy Haven for the night, and on the following morning I decided to take the Falcon to Rochester, where I could run her ashore and discover what was amiss with her.
So after breakfast we again put to sea in our sieve and sailed across the broad estuary of the Thames to the Medway. It was still cold, but constant exercise at the pump kept us warm.
In the Medway we overtook several barges bound for Rochester. Wright, who has sailed these seas before, recognized some of his old friends, and he saluted them in proper bargee fashion. Carried away by his pride at seeing our vessel leave one rather smart barge astern, he held up a rope's end to her skipper — a delicate way of bragging of one's own speed, understood by all mariners.
"So you've come down to shipping on board of a Dutch galli-hot at last, eh, Jack?" sang out the skipper by way of repartee, between two whiffs of his pipe.
There was, indeed, something Dutch in the Falcon's appearance, and a remark of this nature was often passed on us by facetious strangers.
There was a twinkle in Wright's eye as he gave his quid a twist and called out in reply: "You ain't forgotten your fog-horn this time, have you, Jim?"
The crew of the barge roared with laughter at this sally, but I could not see the point of the joke till Wright explained.
"That chap, Jim, you see, sir, was a terrible greenhorn when he first went to sea a few years back. Someone or other was always playing a trick on him. One evening the barge he was on was sailing by Sheerness, and the skipper, happening to look at the clock, saw it wanted a minute or so to nine. He remembered that a gun was always fired at Sheerness at nine; so, being a mischievous sort of chap, he sings out to the green hand, 'Hi! here Jim, come on deck at once and bring the fog-horn with you.' Jim tumbles up. Now blow that there fog-horn for your life,' cries the skipper. 'What for?' asks Jim, looking round. 'Don't ask what for, but blow, you lubber. It's the rule here. If a vessel don't salute Sheerness with her fog-horn as she passes they fire at her.' Jim, believing it all, takes the horn and blows like mad. 'Harder, harder!' cries the skipper, 'they can't hear that; they'll shoot us all if you ain't louder.' So Jim was blowing away with all the wind he had, when suddenly off goes the nine o'clock gun, and he gives a yell, chucks the fog-horn on deck, and rushes below to hide from the cannon-balls. Oh, he was a green chap then! He's a bit smarter now, but that story of the fog-horn will always follow him."
We reached Rochester early in the afternoon and anchored among some other yachts not far below the bridge.
On the following morning we brought the Falcon alongside a boatbuilder's yard at high tide, and at low water, when she was high and dry, we proceeded to examine her minutely. The usual crowd of yacht-sailors, carpenters, and nondescript nautical loafers that hangs about a shipbuilder's yard was soon around us, ready to proffer gratuitous advice of more or less value — much of it of no value — advice, however, in all cases driven into the poor land-lubber of an amateur sailor by these learned professionals with language deliberate and dogmatic.
Each had a different infallible opinion of his own as to the cause of our vessel's leaking, but all agreed that she was not strained; she showed no signs of that serious fault. My own idea was that the tar, which had kept the water out of her during her last year's cruise, having been burnt off, and the varnish which had been put on in its place being insufficient to keep her tight, she was leaking all over her skin. It was easy to account for her not having taken in water at Hammersmith; for, while lying there, the mud had got into her seams and given her what sailors call a Blackwall caulking — very efficacious as long as a vessel remains stationary, but apt to wash out after half an hour's sailing.
Some of the wiseacres on the yard suggested that we should have her caulked throughout, but we knew better than that, for a diagonally-built boat — tightest of all boats when she is tight — is the most difficult to deal with when she is leaky. It is impossible to caulk her even in the most delicate manner without damaging her and forcing the two skins apart. Again, so beautifully constructed was our vessel, that it would have been impossible to insert even the smallest penknife between her close planking, far less a clumsy caulking tool.
At last the master shipwright of the yard, who had spoken little and listened less during the consultation over the invalid, but who had been employed in scientifically sounding with a mallet and closely examining every portion of the Falcon's bottom, as he crawled under her in the mud, gave his opinion.
"It's the old story," he said. "The boat isn't strained at all. She's as strong as when she was built. It's only along the garboard strake she leaks. She hasn't been caulked there for years. See here" — and he pulled out a bit of oakum that was decidedly rotten — "when they scraped the tow off this boat's bottom they scraped the caulking out too. It's just a little bit of stuff along her keel she wants, and I'll guarantee that she'll then be as dry as a drum's inside."
On hearing this the crew of the Falcon felt happy and sanguine again, his explanation seemed so probable a one. The garboard strake, I must explain for the benefit of some readers, is the range of planks along a vessel's keel. In a diagonally-built boat this seam only is caulked.
So, having confidence in this wise man, I delivered the Falcon over to his care and took train to London, in perfect faith that I should return to find my vessel as tight as the tightest drum that was ever beat upon. But I am afraid that some of my readers will get very weary of reading about that leak. It was the great feature of the cruise, and one we would willingly have dispensed with. I have much to write yet concerning the many and fruitless attempts to cure it, until that happy day when, being hundreds of miles from home, with no professional by to doctor the poor vessel, we two amateurs took her in hand ourselves, with the result that we succeeded gloriously in effecting a complete and permanent cure of what seemed a hopelessly chronic complaint.
To stop a leak is easy enough when you have found your leak, but to find it is not always so easy as some would imagine. It is the diagnosis that distinguishes the great doctor. I think Wright and myself could now do a good business as quack leak-finders.
Business detained me in town until the 18th, when I bade London a final farewell and returned to Rochester. I found that our shipwright had completed his work and was confident that the leak was stopped. Wright, who had been living on board all the while, was not so confident.
"You see, sir," he said, "we can't tell how she is yet. Lying here she's only afloat an hour each tide, so she hasn't time to leak much. I have had to pump her out, though, each day; but that may have been the rain-water that gets into her through the well, and it has been raining ever since you've been away."
Oh, this Jubilee spring! A heavy gale of wind that commenced at south-west and shifted right round the compass now detained us at Rochester for four days. Not only did it blow, but it rained and hailed and snowed in turns, and for twenty-four hours the wind attained hurricane force. The papers were full of accounts of disasters at sea and on land.
Being thus weather-bound, and having nothing else to do, we anxiously observed the yacht's behaviour each day when the water was round her, and soon convinced ourselves that she leaked as much as ever.
Our shipwright, puzzled but energetic, determined not to be beaten, set to work again. Coming to the conclusion that some of the planking along the bilges had worked loose he screwed them up, and once more informed us that it was "impossible for the yacht to leak now."
On the 24th the weather improved somewhat and the wind shifted to the north. We sailed from Rochester in the afternoon and anchored off Port Victoria for the night.
Even as a man who receives a letter which he knows contains news of vital importance fears to open it and hesitates awhile, so were we for a long time afraid to break our suspense by looking into the cabin and learning the progress of our leak. We dared not hope that the shipwright had indeed been successful this time.
But after we had let go the anchor and stowed the sails I summoned sufficient courage, not indeed to look myself, but to ask Wright to do so.
He went below, and then I heard his voice declare the fatal news. "The water is above the floor, sir. She leaks as much as ever."
Upon this we became desperate and decided that as it was beyond the power of man to remedy this mysterious evil, we must make the best of it.
Though so serious a leak was likely to bring us a good deal of discomfort, there was one thing certain, we could not abandon or even postpone our cruise on account of it. How that leak haunted us! We both suffered for weeks from a sort of leak-mania. By day we were ever watching to see if the water was coming in faster. By night we dreamt of giant leaks and choking pumps. We felt a morbid shame for this skeleton in our cupboard, and were terrified lest anyone should suspect its existence. In harbour we used to choose the dead of night, when no people were about, to work the pumps, and we would immediately stop the operation if anyone walked by, even as if we had been committing some heinous crime.
Port Victoria has a high-sounding name, but consists of a railway station, a usually deserted railway hotel, and nothing more. On either side of it is a desolate shore, and behind it extend the swamps of the Isle of Grain — a dismal place enough in all conscience; but luckily a ferry-steamer runs at frequent intervals to cheerful Sheerness on the opposite coast.
We were anchored close under the shore in the company of quite a fleet of weather-bound barges. I pulled off in the dinghy and landed on the railway pier. It was blowing and raining hard at the time, and only one human being was to be seen braving the elements; this was a coast-guard with a ruddy nose and a suspicious eye, carrying a telescope under his arm.
He scanned me curiously as I stepped on shore.
"What is the name of your vessel?" he asked.
"The Falcon, of London."
"Not from foreign?"
He seemed disappointed on hearing this.
"I thought you was a Dutch yacht by your build," he said. Then he walked by my side to the hotel, and in the course of conversation his suspicions seemed to vanish; he thawed and became communicative, as is the way of a mariner who anticipates beer.
"We are looking out," he explained, "for a cutter called the Mary. She passes herself off as a Dutch yacht, and has been suspected of smuggling. We have received information about her and think we'll catch her this time. I thought your vessel was the Mary."
It was interesting to be thus mistaken for a bold smuggler.
"And if my boat had been the Mary what would you have done?"
"Telegraphed to Sheerness, and they'd have come over and seized you."
After partaking of a pint of beer at my expense the guardian of the customs was quite reassured as to the Falcon's respectability. At the hotel bar were gathered together all the skippers of the fleet of weather-bound barges, sipping their respective drinks, and grumbling sorely at the villainous weather. Some of these were bound for Harwich and the North, and had been lying here for a fortnight waiting for a change. I joined this disconsolate conclave and did my share of reviling the elements until I found this amusement wax monotonous, when I returned on board and pumped the vessel out. This was a never-failing means of employing one's spare moments on the Falcon.
My intention was to sail for Harwich on the following morning.
Once or twice I awoke in the night and felt that the yacht was jumping about a good deal, while the wind was howling furiously.
At 2 a.m. I turned out on deck and looked around. It was a wild dawn. The wind had shifted to the north-east, and it was blowing half a gale at least. The rain was falling in torrents, and the broad estuary of the Medway was white with breaking waves. It was too chilly to stay long on deck, so I went below again and got under my warm blankets.
"How does it look, sir?" asked Wright sleepily from his own berth.
"Worse than ever," I replied. "No starting for us to-day, so I'm turning into bed again."
And now, pursued by our usual ill-luck, we lay weather-bound off this dismal spot for four whole days more, tumbling about on the short seas in the peculiarly lively fashion that distinguishes this boat of mine.
The fleet of weather-bound barges was augmented by daily arrivals till the hotel bar was almost inaccessible for the crowd of grumbling master-mariners who were mitigating their annoyance with strong waters. 'Twas an ill-wind, but it blew the "Victoria Hotel" good.
On the afternoon of Friday the 27th the weather improved and the glass began to rise with promising steadiness. I looked out at three o'clock on Saturdav morning and found that it had become even too fine. Not a breath of air stirred the water, the sky was cloudless, but over the sea hung a light haze indicative of a sultry day.
It was high water and time to start, so I turned Wright out. We hoisted the useless sails, weighed anchor, and allowed the yacht to drift slowly out to sea with the ebb, while we gave her steerage-way occasionally with the sweeps, so as to avoid fouling buoys and anchored vessels. We were not alone, for the weather-bound barges also got under weigh, so too did a great number of fishing-boats, and we all floated lazily out of the estuary together. We saw a large fleet of yachts at anchor off Southend pier; for the first important race of the year was to be sailed — or drifted—this day. The course was to be from Southend to Harwich; so we were likely to see some of the sport up to perhaps the finish, for we had seven hours' start of the competing vessels.
The sun rose higher and the heat became tropical: then a very feeble north-east wind sprang up and enabled us to tack slowly past the Nore. Near here we saw rising from the water the masts of a large vessel that had been run into and sunk a few days before. Around her hovered a crowd of fishing-boats and other small craft, whose crews were busy stripping the vessel's rigging. The scene reminded one of a pack of jackals gathering round a dead lion — not that I have ever seen this, by the way. Then the wind dropped altogether, and as often happens in a calm, all our fleet collected into a knot, drawn together by mutual attraction, like a flock of magnetic ducks in a washhand basin — this I have seen, so the simile is legitimate. We all lay idly smoking on the decks of our respective vessels and conversed as we drifted across each other's bows, or came so close that we had to shove off with boat-hooks and take to the sweeps to prevent collision.
The bargee skippers grumbled at the calm with even more bitterness than they had reviled the gales which had detained them so long off Port Victoria. A bargee skipper is supposed to be the most inveterate grumbler of all seafaring men, but there was, indeed, some provocation on this occasion. Even on Charon's bark was never heard a chorus of more despairing and profane lamentation than that which rose all round us from these becalmed Billy-boys.
But at last a very light breeze sprang up from the south-west, giving us steerage-way and dispersing our fleet again. We set all the canvas possible on the Falcon to drive her along; for we wished to be in Harwich for Sunday. I think Wright was the more anxious of the two, for his home is at Mistley (near Harwich), and he looked forward to a holiday with his friends. We had a large tanned lug-sail on board, which we bent to a long boat-hook and set as a square sail on the opposite side to the mainsail. We even converted our jibs into water-sails; but do all we could, though we left the barges astern, we did not travel fast, for the wind was only sufficient to swear by.
At one o'clock we were met by a strong flood, and, as it was impossible to stem it, we let go our anchor on the shallows inside the Sheers lighthouse. Here we remained for nearly three hours, by which time the tide had covered the Maplin Sands. We got our anchor up again and sailed across the flat, thus cheating the strength of the current — an old bargee trick on this coast.
At high water the weather changed very suddenly The wind shifted to the north-east and freshened quickly. It began to rain and look dirty, while instead of the oppressive sultriness of the morning there was a chilliness as of November on the sea.
Our east coast is not a popular yachting-ground, in consequence of the paucity of good harbours; but on this day there was an unusually good show of pleasure vessels around us. These had evidently come out to see the race; but we could see nothing that looked like one of the competing vessels until late in the afternoon when we were near the Swin Middle lightship. We perceived a smart-looking yacht to windward overhauling us very rapidly.
"That's one of them at last, sir," cried Wright.
There was no doubt about it. I looked at her through the glass.
"Yes, she's one of the fast ones too. What a pace she's going at!"
She was soon up to us and rushed by, as if we had been standing still. I have said that turning to windward is not the Falcon's strong point — and the yacht was sailing, I am afraid and ashamed to say how much, nearer the wind than ourselves.
"I never saw a vessel go like that before!" exclaimed my man, agape with wonder.
"Nor I. What can she be? and look at her mainsail! I have never seen so big a one in a yacht."
She was the only one of the racers in sight at the time, and we saw none of the others afterwards, for the darkness fell before they came up. What could this mysterious clipper be so far ahead of them all?
Had I read the papers regularly while we lay off Port Victoria I should have guessed her identity. Not till I reached Harwich did I discover that this was no less than the renowned Thistle, the anticipated redeemer of the Queen's Cup, sailing her maiden race. If I remember rightly, she arrived at Harwich four hours before the second yacht.
As we had not the Thistle under us we knew that we could not reach Harwich that night. The tide would soon turn, and then the current as well as the wind would be against us, so it became necessary to find as snug a berth as is possible on this unprotected coast until morning.
At dusk we made out the Whittaker Spit buoy, so we tacked in towards the coast with the intention of bringing up in the Wallet, several of our old companions, the barges, following our example. It was a dirty evening, the north-east wind howled, and the drizzling rain fell steadily. The Wallet is an exposed anchorage, and a vessel brought up here is forced to get under weigh should it come on to blow hard, but we had no choice of stopping-places this night.
It was nearly dark as we passed the Spitway buoy, and the scene around was dismal in the extreme. The barges looked ghostly in the indistinct light. Above was a grey rainy sky; below was a grey tumbling sea of muddy water. The sense of cheerlessness was heightened by the bell-buoy, which tolled out its warning in tones doleful as a funeral bell.
At last we let go our anchors in about four fathoms of water and rolled about uncomfortably all night. The yacht seemed to leak harder than ever, and we had to turn out twice and pump to prevent the water from drenching us as we lay in our bunks.
We got under weigh early the next morning and tacked down to Harwich against a fresh north-east wind. We let go our anchor in the harbour at midday, having been thirty-one hours from Sheerness, so this could not be called a smart voyage.