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Mischief in a Storm

So we headed back to England.

The first two days were hellish. Once away from the ice, we sat becalmed, rolling  and cursing on a lumpy unforgiving windless sea. Mischief rolls deeply, and it was exhausting with the effort of even sitting in one place. So there was joy when early on Sunday. morning at last a wind had sprung up, and we were all very pleased to be running with the wind on our port beam, South East  and heading for England.  Hardly had we got going but the staysail tore right across its centre section, so after breakfast  (porridge and bread and jam, tea) we changed the jib for the genoa, bent the hanks from one staysail and hammered them onto the other, which was then hoisted.

Why after breakfast, you might well ask. Mischief was surely an anachronism, a relic of the past trying hard just to stay alive inthe present. The saving grace for this slow  lumbering old boat, was that most operations could really be done without great haste. The mainsail might take 5 minutes to raise, the anchor 15 minutes.  It took three husky young males considerable physical effort to raise sails, haul anchor and reef, without much in the way of modern aids, certainly without any sheet winches, and only a very rudimentary anchor winch. So breakfast first, if possible, then to work.

But no matter how much we were enjoying this trip, every watch was now just so very good, for we were heading  towards home. Ah, the delight of contemplative thought. Good food, soft arms and a steady pillow, such are blessed rosy dreams of homeward bound men of the sea. This was so much in my mind, so many plans, so many things to be done, that I was really anxious to se England again and blessed every mile that crept onto the pages of the log. Then in the afternoon the wind died of despair again, and the day and night were spent with more wind-less rolling. The sky was overcast and cold (49 degrees F) and we all stayed below between watches. Then on the last day of August, things took a definite turn. Then a sudden squall out of nowhere during the night got us up to put a reef in the mainsail, that had been just slatting back and forth for hours.

The wind went light again and the reef had to come out and the sail pulled up again- a job which took the three strongest of us quite a few minutes of hard physical effort to achieve, but it freshened by lunch, by dinner the reef had to go back in and the wind increased so we were fighting the tiller all night.

The 1st September  (1965) was the day my brother Neil left New Zealand for England, and I calculated that at the time his ship was pulling away, down the Waitemata Harbour, I was hanging for my life on a tiller in a violent rain squall, in a gale force wind  in the North Atlantic- this was not a lot of fun. Mischief was on her ear, water was engulfing the bulwarks and often seas would climb into the cockpit, only to disappear down the drain holes away again. The wind incessantly howled and moaned in the rigging. Long trails of spume, foam like sea froth, snaked across the water surface, while the seas were driven to a frenzy, agitated and cursing as they scrambled over one another. Spray was whipped from breaking crests and travelled hundreds of yards down wind, till being lost from sight, in the mist of its fellows.

This continued, with a pattern of drenching rain squalls every 10 - 15 minutes, all day, all night and the next day as well. That day we did 115 miles, our second best mileage for the whole trip. Then, as the wind was still freshening, we reefed the main right down to the size of a bed-sheet, with only a small jib at the bow.

The deck watches above were exhilarating while below was misery for those with wet bunks - mine was upper amidships on port side and thankfully remained dry, though water squirted through seams in many places around the boat. But we were heading for home and each foaming crest, each ponderous swell carried us still closer. At the end of a week we were 500 miles from Greenland (which included three days doing less than 50 miles a day - 2 miles per hour - in very light conditions).

Then the inevitable happened - the wind  again dropped right away. The barograph soared to 1028m/bars- 18 above normal. Neil would be succumbing to the charms of the native dancers of the Cook Islands while we were rolling around, helplessly becalmed. We are now fuming with frustration and despair at every light spell, but buoyed with hope and joy whenever another patch of wind came dancing across the water. We continued with fickle winds and squalls on the 12th day sighting the loom of Blasket Lighthouse in  Ireland.

And on 16th September, 80 days from when we last were here, we sighted Lands End, England. With 180 miles to go, we expected the trip to be virtually over. How far from the truth can you get!

At 2.00am,the shipping forecast quote " Force 8 - 10 winds Whole Gale  to Storm Warning to all shipping." We saw at dawn a pleasant sky of alto cumulus clouds (sunny to fair, generally good conditions) that belied a rapidly dropping barometer.  The mainsail came down and up went the storm trysail, a storm mainsail. We left the staysail standing, and hanked on a ladies handkerchief of a storm jib. This must have all looked somewhat comical, as the wind speed was around 3 knots, our own boat speed about 1 knot.  Subsequent events fully justified the prudent precautions though.

At 06.00 the next morning, there was a marked increase in the wind, both in sound and pressure. The barometer, following a very rapid fall, steadied at 4 below the  seasonal average.  By 10.00 am it was blowing lustily and before midday it was upon us. A solid hard punching Force 8, it pummelled and punished us with short steep angry seas. The rain eased, but its place was taken by solid walls of water, angrily climbing on board, like so many green pirates - armed with firehoses!

The first big sea, a breaking comber that exploded on the deck, came through the saloon skylight as if it wasn't there, and liberally soaked everyone and everything within reach. The second comber stove in part of the bulwalks on the lee side. This turned out to be a blessing, for all the water awash on the deck could now quickly and easily was away and overboard.

iceTwo more seas flooded the cockpit awash with water that couldn't drain away quickly enough, and by the third  big wave the oil drums lashed on the deck started to loosen under the strain. Being my watch, I had the unenviable task of securing them- and oil drums do not co-operate freely.

By 4.00pm, 16.00 hours, the time had well and truly come to heave to. The little trysail was eased, and allowed to belly loosely. The staysail was dropped and the tiny storm jib way out on the bowsprit was backed, in other words, the weather sheet was tensioned. This way the wind was pushing the sails in opposing directions, effectively nullifying each other, and we stayed more or less where we were. Though the wind continued to rise, and we were doing about 2 knots, we would have made much more if running before the wind under bare poles.

The moan in the rigging increased to a whine, and all around was unleashed fury, the like of which I had never seen before. The spray from the breaking wave tops, and from when dashed against the hull, was simply torn away, at unbelievable speed. When it rained, the water was like driving needles and I found it impossible to look into the wind. On the lee side of the boat, for she was lying part way on to the waves (quartering to the seas), the wind eddied and swirled like fast moving Catherine Wheels, before whipping away to help tumble another crest.

Seas as high as our imagination would allow, and then some, towered over us. Not another ship was to be seen, not a bird, nor any other living thing was to be seen when the storm was at is worst. We were buffeted and bruised, but Mischief rode it out surprisingly well, and while we were hove to, very few waves came aboard. I confess to finding the experience of being in such primal conditions actually pretty exciting, I was enjoying being there. Besides, we had great faith in our skipper and his boat, but perhaps a little youthful naivety helped!

Winds of 85 mph were recorded. The Channel ferry services were completely disrupted and cancelled. A ferry went onto a sandbank, putting it out of action, and very severe damage was done around the coast. All coastal shipping was either in port or hove to. While re-lashing the staysail, something, probably the jib sheet block, gave me crack on the head and sent me flying. I went over the side, but just managed to grab the guard rail and scramble back on board. It gave me quite a turn, but apart from a bit of blood and a lump on the head, no harm was done.

A worse scare happened in the early hours of the next morning. It was the second night, and it was my watch. On the end of my watch I was chatting with Noddy, who was about to relieve me, as we watched the lights of a ship crossing our stern. We were hove to I was chatting with Noddy, who was about to relieve me, as we watched the lights of a ship crossing our stern. We were hove to without any navigation lights on, as they blew out whenever they were lit (they were traditional very old kerosene lamps). We felt safe  - besides we hadn't seen another ship in a month.

Then suddenly, it appeared that the red light on the bow of the other ship was joined by a green one. Then as we watched, we could see, every time we both were up on a wave top, that clearly visible were a green and a red light. In other words, the ship was coming straight for us.

We were immobilised, and had no motor running The storm jib just holding our head against the lashed timber tiller and other sails, and we were safely going nowhere. Bristol Pilot cutters are resoundingly good sea boats, but we were literally parked at sea.

Major Bill came running. He grabbed a spotlight and ran it over our boat. The ship kept coming beginning to loom higher and higherout of the gloom. He  faced the spot onto our tiny sail and onto the bridge of the ship, and the beam was rising higher as with each second the ship came closer. We were paralysed, I cant even remember if we thought about life jackets of not, though if we weren't chopped up by the propellers we would surely die of cold long before we could be rescued.

The ship now was only yards away. The bow was rearing above our heads, massive and black and ugly in the dark. He kept the spotlight on and we could see the whole bridge was lit up, but we could not see any faces. I believe that largely it was their bow wave, and perhaps a single passing wave, that may have just pushed us just sufficiently out of the way (with perhaps a wee hand from God and the ship's helmsperson -  who knows.)We didn't even actually touch, but I can still see the bridge steering station going over the top of our mast, and an unseen voice screaming abuse at us. He would have had as big a fright as we did. We escaped, shaken and unscathed.

By morning we emerged into increasing sunshine, unscathed (if a little shaken), reducing winds, lessening sky and the beginning of some cloudless days.

Two days later we were back up the gentle river of Lymington and Mischief had completed another voyage.  Briankh Being on Mischief was a great experience, and Major Bill Tilman has now passed into the annuals of maritime folklore. To sail with him was an honour and a pleasure.


© 2019 Mischief Expeditions
except some images © Dave Wheeler.

Mischief at Eastcumberland Bay. Photo Dave Wheeler.