Irish Fire-starter Michael Fitzalan

eenMy latests Book – Reflections on Waterwitch

Stories of Ghosts is the story of Waterwitch, a sailing boat and a missed opportunity that will haunt me forever, a chance to see a whale.

Our destination was not a tangible place. It was in fact a certain bearing until four o’clock in the morning, eight bells. I was told not to worry and to get some rest. My brother would let us know if he had a problem.

There was no reason why he should, we had let the coast and our heading would take us further out to sea. To get to my bunk took twenty minutes. This included five to change and a few to swill my mouth with brandy.

I was going to spit it over the side, but I swallowed it instead, not wishing to waste any, at the same time saving the fish from getting drunk.

Finally, with tired limbs and mentally exhausted, I slipped the towel from around my waist, unzipped my sleeping bag and curled into a foetal ball in order to get warm, a difficult manoeuvre on my bunk, with its curved sides, but I had bolted myself in.

I was snuggled up well within seconds and the oblivion of sleep could not have taken more than a few minutes more to wash over me. Tiredness had taken its toll.

It was in the morning, Patrick relieved Norman, that the black whales were sighted. These were more of a danger than tankers, as they tended to rub their backs on the keel of sailing boats. Our keel may have sheared off with such boisterous contact, or the whale might flip up one side of the keel as it grazed by; either way was a shortcut to a potentially fatal capsizing.

There were countless stories of yachts that had sunk after an encounter with these beautiful elephants of the sea. It was not a malicious act; the whale was merely playing and wanted to scratch an itch.

Norman and Patrick were terribly excited by the sighting of these marine mammals. They shouted down to my bunk, but I was too tired to respond. Apparently they could see one whale spouting water and diving under the sea, shadowing us. 

Could this overgrown fish merely want to frolic in our wake or was it itchy? This worry caused much debate on deck. I was too exhausted to partake. It was as if they had never seen Jacques Cousteau, The Natural World or David Attenborough.

Either way I was not interested, there would be more rare whales on our trip as far as I was concerned and therefore I need not worry about these two. Needless to say, until this day I have never seen a whale and these two brothers of mine had no camera.

The only image I could have had was my own sight and the only concrete and lasting impression that I could have had of this creature was in my mind’s eye and that could only be supplied by my initial sighting.

To this very day I curse the morning that I was too lazy to rise and missed perhaps the last chance to see the whale in three dimensions, not on a screen but in the ocean.

How I wish I had.

I could have taken a look and returned to bed, but by the time I stirred, the whale had lost interest in our pathetic wake and moved off looking for tanker wakes and perhaps for their hulls which could, depending on their speed, graze as much as scratch their back, vertebrates that they were.

My laxity, lassitude and lack of action had made me miss the opportunity of seeing a whale. 

I have always benefited when I have stuck to that tenet and often suffered by ignoring it or being too tired to follow it, or too busy, or too lazy or just too willing to make an excuse not to do something. I was tired, but my appearance on deck would have taken a minute, my effort would have been rewarded.

Regret at having missed this magnificent whale may well haunt my twilight years. All is not lost. I have to find an opportunity to reclaim that which I have missed. There is always a second chance.

Even Shakespeare had said,

There is a tide in the events of men,
Which, taken at the flow, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life

It was these miseries that we would avoid by degrees.

 If you are hungry you should eat; if you are thirsty you should drink. I learnt that to put something off is a heinous crime and it was something to be avoided at all costs. At the time all I wanted to do was rest and this I did well into the morning. Pangs of hunger woke me from my sleep, and I looked about me soporifically like a somnambulist. It was dark in the belly of the boat.

I could hear the rush of water against the hull, a soothing swish. We were travelling fast, pushed on by the prevailing west winds.

I knew it was daytime before I opened my eyes because of the stifling heat and the smell of the bilges.

At night the smell of oil and stagnant water seemed less oppressive. How oil had seeped into the bilges I did not know.
Our engine bolted on, and it was now lying flat in storage, clearly the two-stroke motor leaked engine oil whilst managing to trap the marine fuel. Perhaps it was the wood oil, but such a strong smell prevented long siestas.

Even exhaustion could not overcome the heat and stench of the cabin, which was overwhelming. The forward hatch was open, and the cabin doors were bolted back; there should have been a through-draft, but this boat was designed for the northern hemisphere and for keeping draughts out, not for letting fresh breezes in.

Your senses were more attuned at sea.

Ears pricked for the sound of another boat or of rain that signified a storm. It was a sense akin to a nursing mother’s. All I received was stale bilge reek, but I knew I needed nicotine. The cabin was in its usual shadow, almost like night.

By craning my head, I could see the shaft of light; it was like the light at the end of a long tunnel, a letterbox of searing sunshine that slipped though the gap in the cabin doorway. The cabin hood was almost completely drawn back, but the sunlight only penetrated as far as the bottom of the steps, thanks both to the design of the hatch and to the shadow of the boom and sail. My mouth felt dry, I was thirstier than anything else and voices drifted down from above, scattered with occasional laughter.

I waited until my eyes had become accustomed to the light below, knowing the sunshine above would make me squint all the more so if I did not. By dressing quickly, my clothes cold and damp, I managed not to mind the sudden chill.

This enabled me to prioritise my needs.

My slumber had brought my body temperature down and it was therefore important that I get up on deck to warm my bones. My nostrils told me as much. I had already decided that coffee was on the agenda and food could follow. I would therefore greet the day and my brothers by bringing the primus stove out into the sunlight and brewing coffee at their feet, just like the good galley slave.

A cigarette with the coffee would help reduce my hunger pangs and then I could eat the dry, hard bread and mouldy cheese that was everyone’s breakfast. From there I could dream of Columbus.

I was pleased we had no rotten meat on board, no scurvy amongst the crew; there were no rotten apples in a barrel and no rats on board. The absence of rats failed to console me; after all, I knew that rats always desert a sinking ship. The fact that we never had any in the first place convinced me that we were barely afloat and therefore had no right to be in the ocean at all.

No self-respecting rat would be seen dead on our boat. I knew from my history lessons that Mendez and Columbus had seen sharks circling around the three ships and saw it as a bad omen, a sign of a storm and a bad one. What could the sighting of a whale signify?

As I rose off my bunk, having put on my deck shoes, I was perturbed by imagining the size of a storm that needed a whale as an omen.

Would it be a hurricane or a tornado? Being a fatalist and a smoker, I decided not to share these doubts with the crew, content to have my last cigarette like all the best men who are condemned. 

‘Hey, Mike, how are you?’ they chorused.

‘Fine, fine, how are you?’

‘Magic,’ my brother, the Captain.

‘Great,’ my brother, the bosun parroted.

‘Good, how long have I been asleep for?’

‘Oh, about five hours,’ Patrick volunteered, ‘that whale was amazing, and we saw a shark too.’

‘Oh really, was it circling?’ I replied archly, I did not believe him.

‘Yes, and later we saw some porpoises,’ he assured me.

‘Interesting,’ I replied, not wanting to give too much away.

They were obviously oblivious to fifteenth century maritime folk lore. It seemed that, not only had the whale come to warn of us of the impending doom, but also he was accompanied by the dolphins and the ultimate herald of the doom, the shark.

Within hours, I could end up a latter-day Robinson Crusoe without a Man Friday and without my brothers.

I wondered which part of the boat I would end up drifting to shore on, a bit of mast, the bow, a plank from the stern, a chunk of the port hull?

Being shipwrecked in the twentieth century was a little passé, on a par with being guillotined. It was just not done, even for effect and least of all to get attention. I, of all people, did not need that sort of attention. It seemed rather pathetic under the circumstances to worry about eating, but if I was going to be afloat for days, perhaps carried by the dolphins or eaten by the shark, then I should get my strength up. I surprised myself by what I said next.

‘I’m really thirsty, would anyone like a coffee?’

‘Rather,’ replied my brother, the bosun.

He had been reading PG Wodehouse and it had totally gone to his head. Thankfully, he had left the tweed jacket, corduroys, blazer and whites at home.

‘Why not?’ said the Captain of our souls.

I felt like saying, ‘Because neither of you said ‘please’.’

I held my tongue, however, as I knew we would be so much flotsam and jetsam from now on. It surprised even my cynical self that I should be so superstitious.

By the time I had finished boiling the kettle, I was convinced I was overreacting. This was notwithstanding, my previous doubts, especially those recent doubts about sailing with Geoffrey. At that time, I think I was unaware of or just ignored my doubts.

On reflection I know that my anxiety was not just straightforward apprehension about a new ship and trusting my life to a new skipper. It went deeper than that and I could smell the danger, but my inner voice became fainter and fainter as my brother gave me reasons why I should go on Geoffrey’s boat and, eventually, I was so determined to go that wild horses or even foaming white horses would not have prevented me from boarding the boat. I had once known Geoffrey’s boat’s name. I am sure it was a pretty girl’s name, but my mind has blocked out any recollection.

Obviously the name had once conjured up such positive feelings in me that I could not cope with a negative connotation being associated with it, so I have forgotten it completely.

Whatever, I had my own reasons for not going on Geoffrey’s cruise into the seas of Hades, but I had allowed someone else to sway my judgement.

I knew, then, that it was not so much a case of learning from our mistakes, but that our mistakes, which we call experiences, should never be made. There are many experiences an individual should be pleased to avoid having and mistakes one would have been happier not to have ever made.

The day went on.

Patrick went for a rest after we all had lunch. It was breakfast or brunch to me. I called it brunch because that allowed me to partake of some of the warm red wine that was being passed around. We also had some cool lemonade stored in the bilges and this was added to the second glass to make a refreshing drink.

After losing two bottles of lemonade whilst cooling them in the sea, we had concocted an elaborate tethering and knot system that prevented the wake from pulling the bottle from its rope. This was so complicated that we only did this when we deserved a real treat.

We drank, toasting each other and secretly wishing for ice or a chilled beer.

If you look at a conventional atlas, Spain consists of three major ports: Huelva, an industrial centre at the end of a convoluted channel, which we avoided; Cadiz, a bulge on the coast; and Tarifa, northeast of the African coast and of Tangiers. If you took at a Michelin map of the same coast, it is dotted with a marvellous array of small fishing ports, with boats that ply the Atlantic from the Gulf of Cadiz down to Cape Trafalgar and the Strait of Gibraltar.

These were the best of times. We had already had the worst of times, running aground in Faro, seeming to take forever to get to Tavira and the Spanish border, demarcated by the River Guadiana. I had got used to the boat and it had got used to me.

Equally my brothers and I had all got used to each other.

I even joked about my storm experience, saying that we could have gone on from Portimao to Lagos, particularly as I had never seen it before. In fact, our heading would have taken us past the Cape of St Vincent and out along latitude thirty-six straight to Boston.

That situation seemed so far removed; the past time was a different country and we had done things differently there.

No matter how I tried to bury the trauma, the event still weighed heavily on my mind. In a small space, with little to do and not much to think about except the course you are taking and the trim of the sails, even minor incidents weigh heavily on your mind.

You have all the time in the world to think about past experiences and to review recent events. There is little else to do, apart from sleep and eat. Our trip was not all about work at the tiller, rest in our bunks and food on our plate.

Sometimes it was, on other occasions it was not.

Nothing can replace the exhilaration of sailing at speed through fair weather or foul. Sailing is all about the best of times and the worst of times, but occasionally it can be bliss.

On this leg of the journey, we were having the best of fun. Our eventual target was Gibraltar, but in the meantime we cruised speedily along the coast. Day sailing, the most pleasant of any sort, took us down the coast from fishing village to fishing village. The tides were kind and allowed us to come into harbour in the evening, just as the Spanish were coming out to dine. We could be tied up, showered and at the restaurant table for the quieter second sitting. A late night followed by an early start to catch the right tide became second nature.

We were on manana time already.

The bedding always needed drying out and, once dry, provided an ideal day bed for an hour-long siesta. If the wind was high, a blanket and hat would keep you warm. After so long on the boat we were accustomed to sleeping at a slant and many of our tacks took four or five hours to complete, quite long enough for everyone to have a snooze.

We enjoyed our breakfast with the local fishermen.

They could not work out where we were from and we could not understand the jokes they were telling about us, so every­ one was happy there. We rubbed shoulders and ate tapas with brandy, on occasion surprising the locals with our alcohol consumption. Patrick, less hardened, had his brandy with thick syrupy coffee. We had ours neat. If you have never had anchovies, sardines and brandy first thing in the morning, it is a rare treat, better than kippers and Kenyan coffee.

Our experience of the local coffee was not so successful. It was too strong, too bitter for my tastes, needing lots of milk, but there only seemed to be yoghurt available on the dairy side.

We even tried yoghurt mixed with anchovy, which is quite tasty too if you are hungry enough. It was chilly, too, before the sun came up and they had a habit of drinking their brews warm, rather than hot, so the brandy was merely central heating, and the fish was all we could order. There never seemed to be any bread, but we could smell it baking when we walked in the streets afterwards.

We were adapting to the local ways, the chameleons that we were.

It was always a worrying time though when we left the harbour. Would we tip the dinghy up on the way out to our mooring? But we never did. Unsteadily, we managed to hoist the anchor, unfurl the sails and sail majestically from port.

Tying up was a dream.

We just found a metal buoy to tie ourselves up, dropped the anchor for added security and slipped the dinghy over the side, easy with three people. The tender, as we had been commanded to call the dinghy, was a cumbersome wooden hulk of a boat and it took two people to up-end it and put it into the water.

Dragging it out and flipping it over was tiresome and tricky, particularly as this was done on the tapering stem. The whole operation was made much simpler with an extra pair of hands.

This part of the adventure was so like a holiday, so close to how I imagined that it would be, that it was almost unbelievable.

Day after day of sunshine, strong winds taking us at racing speeds through the gently undulating surf- it was wonderful. That is until we reached Gibraltar, or rather tried to reach Gibraltar. The Strait is famous for its becalmed water, but not many people are aware of this. There are great pockets of sea without a wind.

Our sailing days seemed to be over. We had made good speed from Tarifa, but with neither the Spanish coast nor the African coast in sight we became becalmed. We strapped the outboard motor to the side, but it kept conking out. It spluttered and revved and then when it was put into gear it choked itself out.

Again and again, we tried, until the air was full of the smell of burnt and unburned fuel, more like a garage forecourt than the entrance to the Mediterranean.

From there we drifted slowly, a progress of almost imperceptible proportion. The jokes ran out about the time the last bit of cheese did and conversation dried up with the downing of the last beer.

We took it in turns to take watch and slept on our bunks waiting for even the slightest breeze or the smallest clink of one of the metal sail hooks. But no sound came.

We were in the doldrums and down in the dumps. Our bubble had been burst. Resigned to our fate, we tried to keep each other’s spirits up, but when so little progress was being made it was difficult.

Our problem was knowing our exact location.

This was a busy shipping lane and at one point only eight miles, or thirteen kilometres, separated Europe from Africa. Through this narrow lane passed an awful lot of shipping, going in two directions. They were visible to each other, through radar and sight, but we were too small to be clearly seen, even on a screen.

If a boat hit us, the crew would most probably feel nothing, not even a jar. Steel tends to slip through wood quite easily. The next problem was the currents that could sweep us on to the shore, which we could not see, and break us on the beach or against the rocks; either would do the job well enough.

Because the Mediterranean is virtually a land-locked lake in most parts, the water is saltier due to evaporation. The lighter, less salty, colder Atlantic water flows in over the warm water and this sets up the currents that could dash us on the shore or send us into a sea lane.

The next day, I awoke to see, revealed in the mist, the coast of Spain to our port bow, and the coast of North Africa to our starboard bow.

I remarked on the mist and was told that a fog was rolling in. I realised we would be powerless, blind and invisible.

The fog made the boat damp, but it was the chill at night that I most vividly remember. As every schoolboy of a certain age will tell you, cloud cover on a warm day will keep the heat of the day for longer; a clear sky and the heat rises. Water condenses at a low temperature and that is how clouds form. On the second night of our becalmed state, we had not seen the sun; there was no warmth to be kept in.
We were in the condensed water, and we could see nothing. Worse we could hear nothing. There was an eerie stillness. Apart from the lapping of waves against our hull and the occasional metallic clank of the steel rigging, there was silence.

I almost prayed to hear the lapping of water against a beach to give us some indication of where we were.

It was impossible to tell whether we were in the shipping lanes. We were drifting almost imperceptibly, but without being able to see our meters, or gather a bearing from stars or the sun.

We could only tell from the compass that we were pointed in a south-easterly direction. The luxury of radar enabled this busy mouth to be navigated by the containers and tankers that poured out from Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Russia and Turkey on their journeys to Northern Europe, Africa, South America, the USA and Australia.

It was a miracle none of these ships had hit us.

Being crushed by a container ship carrying olives to expatriate Greeks in Australia was as likely as being turned over by a tanker. NATO ships would still be patrolling the waters despite Britain’s commitments in the Falklands, and deep-sea fishing boats would still be aiming for harbour within their specified number of days.

We alone were vulnerable.

Satellite navigation would only have been available on the largest of the super-tankers. It was difficult to accept that other shipping would see us. We prayed that the radar operators were well-trained and alert. Several ships had beached or sunk off various coasts through shoddy navigation.

It was highly likely that our vessel could be overlooked. I imagined some radar operator flicking ash on to his console as he peered over it, and by the time he had wiped away the dust, spotted us too late, a small white dot on his green screen. His cry to the bridge watch coming too late; Waterwitch being sliced in half and at the bottom of the ocean in seconds, pulled down by the heavy metal keel and metal mast.

We made no contingency plans; we could not contemplate such.

In fact, we never wore a lifejacket, which on reflection was stupidity in the extreme, but we knew where they were. Being hit at twelve knots by several hundred tons of steel ship would most probably not make a difference to your chances of survival. The feeling of total powerlessness pervaded the boat.

Nature held our fate.

We talked little but used the time to rest. Fortunately, we were all so tired from late nights and early mornings that sleep came easily. Thoughts of being sunk lasted only for a few moments; if it happened there was nothing we could do about it.

At first we had used a small hand-held fog horn which we blasted every five minutes, then every ten, then every hour; but the noise made sleep impossible and the sheer boredom of waiting for the magical moment when we could squeeze the trigger soon put paid to that.

It was decided to leave the foghorn on the bench and at any unfamiliar sound out to sea; we would give three quick blasts followed by a long one.

What we were to do after that was left to whoever was on watch at the time. Boredom was our key worry, that and the cold. I remember that my damp jumpers stayed on for two days along with all my other clothing, underwear and socks. My chest and my arms were warm.

I wore a black woolly hat that I found on board, but my legs and feet were chilled. It was by no means as bad as trench foot, but the numbness and the inability to do anything about it annoyed me beyond belief.

My other socks were dirty or damp or both.

The only perilous part of our enforced stagnation on board the boat was walking along the deck to the main mast halyard. This was so you could urinate over the side. It was no good standing on the sloping aft or on the gently inclining sides of the cockpit. If you slipped as you undid your trousers you were finished. The halyard allowed you to lean against a metal cord while you completed the process and gave you immense stability.

The deck was dew ridden and even scrambling along was a chore, slipping at every second step.

To crawl would have involved getting your trousers and hands wet. After one attempt, when I almost got the seat of my pants damp too by slipping backwards, I decided to abandon such foolhardy exercise which in no way was proving beneficial, except for my adrenal glands and of course my bladder.

I hit upon the idea of using the bucket and then throwing the contents over the side and hoped that this would be the only excretion I would need to undergo. I missed a good old-fashioned flushing loo.

There were other things I missed too, like my Walkman, batteries for which I had promised myself I would buy in Gibraltar. I wished for some wind, some progress, sunshine or moonlight or indeed anything but this blank grey canvas.

My mind wandered back to all the meals we had, and I knew we were down to the last few tins and the bread was finished. Who would we eat first, which limb? I knew it was not that bad, the fog could not possibly last more than a few days, but then I realised we had all thought this was just a morning mist.

Then, I wondered whether there was enough gas in the foghorn canister now that we had blasted out a warning so often. Picturing myself standing up in the boat to blast a warning and no sound coming from the red funnel.

Our loudhailer would be useless.

We were a small fish in a big ocean, and I did not like it one bit.
Further, my flippers were freezing. You cannot stomp like anyone would do on a cold and frosty morning on terra firma. The noise of feet on wood would disturb the rest of the crew and put you right at the top of the menu.

Walking around is difficult in a four-foot square space with a big bench across it. The only option was to sit and wait until it was your turn to lie down, at which point the novelty of being horizontal would have you elated.
Watching the clock and compass was obligatory to ascertain any shifts in direction and when they occurred, so that when the fog lifted we could plot a course. But trying to see both, even in daylight, was a strain on the eyes and at night it was impossible.

Having only a compass and clock as entertainment made me miss even the television, something a teenager I had never had time to do.

There is no way I can describe the frustration and the mundane inactivity. The benefit of it all was that it has instilled in me an almost saint-like patience, compared to my adolescent impatience before the trip.

If ever you want to learn how to wait, forget the bus queue and sail away. The glamour had worn off completely; this was the downside of sailing and waiting for the upside was stupefying. When we swapped watches, the relief wanted to talk, but the one on watch was glad to get up and go below, change position, lie low. Sitting for four hours on a damp bench, ears pricked for any sound, is exhausting; sitting with nothing to see or do is worse.

Each time I went below to my bunk, I had certainly had enough of living in the clouds. Anyone who says someone has their head in the clouds cannot possibly have shared a similar situation to ours. On the other hand, if someone says that a person is foggy, then I can totally relate to that. I started my trip with thoughts of good weather and a vague understanding of climatic conditions. By now I was an expert on meteorological signs, symbols, occurrences and the whole chaos of weather.

You just cannot rely on it.

One thing we could rely on was that, until we got to Gibraltar, there would be no parts for our British Seagull engine. Until then we would have to sail everywhere and to achieve that we needed wind.
Believe it or not we had tried rowing once, using the paddles from the dinghy, but the design of the boat made their use cumbersome and ineffective.

None of us considered ourselves strong enough rowers to tow the boat behind the little tender.
Besides, not one of us was prepared to do that, knowing what great effort would be expended and what little progress would be achieved.

It was wind power or motorised power for us.

The Seagull is a wonderful piece of equipment, solid, reliable, light and fairly powerful, beloved of fishermen and day sailors alike. The only problem with ours was that it had been built thirty years ago and parts do wear out after such a long time. The British had been singularly inefficient at marketing the engine outside Crown Colonies and the United Kingdom.

Spanish sailors admired the design but could not recommend a designated stockist. Such specialised equipment needed proper parts. My brother, Norman, had stripped down practically every motorbike engine available in his bedroom from the age of fifteen. He was in his twenties now and had managed to put them all back together again, if not blindfold, then certainly without a manual.

We all admired him for this, and he had stripped down the Seagull, just for fun, most probably on a free afternoon in Vilamoura. Noticing the worn part, he had tried to order it in Portugal but to no avail.

He had not even been able to get hold of the part when he came back to England, but he had been informed that their Gibraltar agents had one and would reserve it for him.

All well and good, but the part had not lasted, and Gibraltar was some way off in the distance somewhere in the fog.

It would have been unwise to have tried to use the engine in our position. We could have quite merrily chugged along into the path of a ship or into a rock formation, perhaps the coast even. We were bobbing and navigating blindfold.

The Michelin map proved equal to a chart for plotting courses on long tacks, but charts are maps of the ocean and therefore pick out the odd rock outcrop, a small island or peninsula.

These can be avoided to some extent, but they have to be seen.

There were other dangers beside land formations, tides and other shipping and this we discovered late one night. Norman was looking at his biro-marked map, the long lines bearing southeast and then northeast, giving the time for which, each tack was followed as we shadowed the shore.

Then, he cursed the chandler in the City of London for not having charts in stock of the mouth of the Med.

However, in conversation, Patrick noted that it was strange that the previous owner had none of these charts. We all knew the story of how Waterwitch, after an illustrious racing career, had wound up sunk in Gibraltar bay.

The fact that she had sunk already had not passed us by, and we were not sure whether she would make a habit of it or not. Salvaging her had not proved much of a problem, though the whereabouts of her logbook and the reason she sank remained a mystery.

After all, her racing prowess had been proven in Scandinavia and America.

It was then Norman remembered that, when he had bought the boat, the owner had shown him a chart of Gibraltar harbour to indicate where the boat had floundered. A brief rustle of paper preceded the spreading of the curled paper across the chart table.

We had little paperwork: the log, the Michelin map, our passports, plus a pad for shopping lists and notes. We were ahead of our time in having a paperless office.

By the light of the hurricane lamp, which flickered spookily, as if it was about to fail, we noticed that there were in fact three charts, which had been rolled up all this time.

I hoped that the last owner had not given away the Gibraltar chart to someone heading that way, since his days at sea were over. I moved over to get the other hurricane light, which burned brightly, hanging from the cabin roof just by the steps to the hatch.

Patrick saw me coming back with it, so he lifted the spluttering lamp off the chart table and hung it from the cabin roof.

We huddled next to each other, hunched, as if we were auditioning to play Quasimodo. Meanwhile Norman spread the relevant map on top of the pile. Patrick placed the fresh lamp on the far corner and held another, while Norman held the bottom, and a heavy brass ashtray held the fourth corner.

I lit another lantern. We had three inside and four outside. We often kept one or two of them burning some nights; they were superfluous in this ‘pea-souper’ of a fog, but we had refilled them and put them back on deck before this briefing took place.

It seemed a good opportunity to fill this lamp as the paraffin was still at my feet. I was pouring the paraffin out of the five-litre plastic Jerry can into a smaller plastic bottle using our green funnel. The clear funnel was for foodstuffs and water. I closed the top of the larger container and fitted the funnel on to the hurricane lamp and was just about to pour from the litre bottle when it happened.

Norman swore, for the first time in many days, and the shock unsettled all of us. It appeared that we were on a course over an exclusion zone.

‘I don’t believe it,’ Norman exclaimed.

‘What’s up?’ Patrick asked.

I remained silent, letting them continue their exchange.

‘We could well have entered an exclusion zone.’

‘What’s the problem, is it a military area?’

‘Sort of’

‘They’ll realise we’re lost in the fog; they wouldn’t exercise in this weather.’

‘I doubt that the weather would stop them, but their radar would be sophisticated enough to pick us up; they have very advanced equipment.’

‘So why do you still look so worried?’ asked Patrick.

‘I don’t know how to tell you both,’ replied Norman quietly.

‘Come on,’ urged Patrick.

Even I joined in then. ‘Tell us what it is.’

‘It appears we are sailing over an ammunition dump.’

‘What?’ I managed to stammer.

I thought I’ve almost been drowned; now he wants to blow me up. Where will this crazed individual stop? Paranoia was setting in again. I had not had this type of excitement on my last trip abroad.
‘That’s not so bad; it will only be a few naval shells. If they haven’t exploded yet they won’t go off now.’ Patrick assured him.

‘It’s a bit more complicated than that,’ said Norman.

‘How so?’

‘This dump has mines dotted all around it.’

‘You mean we’re playing the game Battleships, but for real?’


Sitting over an unexploded bomb, drifting towards possible collision with a mine suddenly made our peril in the sea-lanes pale into insignificance.

We were moving and so might the mines; there were tides here, but the currents were stronger. Where oceans and seas meet there is normally a maelstrom of activity. We had witnessed this swirling, noticed the flat calm turning to choppy water where there was no wind.

That had been before the fog descended.
It was uncomfortable and you were not sure when a tidal surge or change of current would change a mirror-like surface into one of intense activity. The waves were not large, but small and frequent, agitated wavelets. Ideal conditions, we all secretly felt, for a mine to start swinging or to break free from its rusty moorings.

The calmness on board was reflected by the calmness outside for the moment; but we could not tell when this would change. We waited even more patiently and quietly for a breeze or a stronger current. It was almost as if we were on a lake, drifting out to an island, but with the added bonus of being blown to smithereens at any moment.

This was not the fun I had envisaged, but it enabled me to take stock. Perhaps my brother was not a pathological assassin after all, I reasoned.

He had invited me because he liked me and enjoyed my company, and it was cruel and unfair of me to think otherwise. I blushed at the thought; even though I had never verbalised it, recalling how I had uncharitably suggested that it was because he could find no one else who would go with him.

Many of his friends would have jumped at the chance, had they not be involved with girlfriends who would not let them go, or new jobs or flats they could not give up for three months, or no common sense, or if they lacked any wish to live. I had started to criticise again and I told myself off for being so unkind. Even so, I tried to focus on the positive; then I tried again.

Finally, on the third attempt, positive thoughts managed to penetrate my consciousness. All that I had been conscious of was my pain and suffering.

The good points were buried deep in my psyche. It was as if only through deep meditation could I free these good points from my subconscious.

Having done this, the next spiritual step was transcendental meditation; but I was too weak to attempt this after the first struggle. Truthfully there were many good points.
I was provided with a roof over my head; I did not have to sleep in the cockpit; there was a bunk, so there was no need to use the floor. I was fed, too, and watered, just like a horse, although wine and beer were a necessary and welcome bonus.

However; I was a workhorse, not a show horse, and my master used the whip a tad too often, I felt. I couldn’t understand why I was complaining. Norman’s short temper was due to the responsibility he felt for me and the ship in that order.

I had really lost the plot if I felt otherwise. He had brought me thus far safely and anyone could have bad luck and stumble over an ammunition dump in the fog. If I felt otherwise, it was down to my own low self-esteem and that was my fault. Aconfident and willing crewmember, but I was now suffering from a persecution complex.

I had to pull myself together and show how much I appreciated Norman and his skills at navigation and sailing.

I already admired him as a younger brother admires an older sibling; and yet, his sailing skills were phenomenal. His pinpoint accuracy in navigation was a marvel and I had an awful lot to be grateful for.

He had asked me because with my sailing experience and love of travel he felt I would enjoy it; yet I pilloried him in my head and my attitude had often been that of a spoilt child. I wondered how he had coped with my truculent behaviour.

My lack of maturity or sensitivity was no excuse.

It was not entirely his fault that I had ended up sailing with a lunatic like Geoffrey; nor could he have known about the storm, it was just bad luck. It was reasonable to suppose that if someone had been sailing for thirteen years that they would look after their brother and if the voyage had been a smooth one; I would have been grateful for the experience.

As it was. I was alive for the time being and Norman had kept me so by his helmsmanship and his resolve.

He took a drink or two when things got rough, but at our age we were quite heavy drinkers. Three or four glasses of wine, or six bottles of beer; were not uncommon to contemporaries back home, but in the small confines of a boat, one notices things more.

In fact, we drank half as much as we would back home in England.
It was the close proximity and magnification of events, which made my brother’s small slugs of spirit seem unreasonable.

My fear of what might occur and my need to keep a clear head prevented me from drinking; it was not for me to say that a tot made my brother more or less clear-headed or effective.

Alcohol affects people differently. I was two glasses of wine and off to sleep; Norman was more hardened and more practised.

Latterly, I have been to supper or drinks parties and the amount Norman consumed seems paltry in comparison. It was simply my expectations of him; the associated connotations of alcohol: if you needed alcohol to cope then you had serious problems.

Norman was not like this at all. He just wanted to have a tot, relax and review the situation. He was always the best person at stepping back from a situation and taking a broad view. Others would be so close to the problem; they would not see the answer even if it were right under their noses.

The irony of life is that sometimes the truth dawns too late and it was typically perverse that now our fate was sealed; and we were going to blow up, I had finally had the scales taken from my eyes; undergone my own conversion on the road to Damascus.

It took adversity for me to realise how foolish I had been.

I resolved to somehow show him this realisation. I had to do something to let him know that I faced my fate with no fear and that I would die rather with him and Patrick than any other comrade-in-arms.
My mind made up, I offered everyone a cup of coffee. It was the least and most that I could do. Norman’s gratitude showed me that I had somehow got through; my subliminal message had reached its mark.
I was heartily sick of being coffee boy and powder monkey; but as it would most probably be the last coffee that I would make, I was pleased to make it.

We all sat up on deck, in the small cockpit, smoking and looking out into the cloud of fog. The water was almost still; we could hear that much, as we could hear the ripple of the wake we made. Our vessel was like a log gliding along a lake. It was as if we were a toy yacht in a boating pond.

We could be picked out by the hand of fate at any time.

Such a hope, such a dream was what I clung to. If it had not been so cold and damp, it all could have been a dream. The atmosphere was dream-like, the feeling of suspended animation as if time had stood still.

We smoked and chatted;  then I told them of the time when I had wanted to join the army and had gone on an officer training course, only to lead my troop directly into a minefield. All of us were taking cover behind a bush; then one of my cadets noticed that the sergeant-major from the base was standing up.

He enquired why this was when we were meant to be avoiding being spotted. The Sergeant replied that we had been blown up. We all chortled at this.

We would have laughed at anything; but our merriment was short-lived when we all realised almost simultaneously; we were not in a mock minefield and there was a real danger of hitting one of the spiked, submerged bombs.

‘I didn’t even know they dumped live rounds at sea, or left mines hanging around.’

I wanted to show Norman he bore no responsibility for the European governments’ inability to clear up the mess after a war. I should have mentioned that the mines were in fact suspended on a wire; but whether they were hanging around or suspended, it made little difference to our fate.

‘I suppose it was easier to haul everything to one spot and keep it there; rather than go to the expense of exploding the mines and damaging fish stocks into the bargain.’

‘So, these mines are just round mace-shaped bombs on the end of a line, held down by a weight?’ Patrick asked.

None of us were munitions experts, unfortunately.

‘As far as I know, yes, they are; you can get a hook under them and drag them by the wire along to a place like this and then keep boats out of here.’

‘What if a tanker strays into the area?’ I asked.

‘It’s unlikely, and if it does, it is just one of those things the insurance people have to deal with. I think the shipping lanes are kept to and are well marked. Ships pass port to port; so any ship coming in will be off the African coast and any ship heading out would take a wide berth around this area in any storm. It’s too crowded and the fish stocks are fairly low around here. This is no man’s land. You would get more fish in the Atlantic or the Mediterranean. This area is notorious for currents, so the fishing fleet avoids the area. We must be one of the only half-dozen or so boats that have strayed into this area since the war ended in 1945.’

‘That’s comforting,’ I said sarcastically. ‘All these bombs have been waiting for us.’

This was not the reconciliatory talk I wanted, so I waited a while for the conversation to change tack, not too obviously. Patrick and he chatted on, fascinated by the location, its existence and the relative dangers of traversing this stretch. It was all too much for me and so I retired to my bunk; and waited for the contact and obliteration, which never came.

The fog lifted on the morning of the third day. I was awoken by sounds of great excitement. Slipping on some shoes and bounding up into the cockpit revealed an incredible sight before my eyes. It was as though some giant god was sucking in his condensed breath as the fog rolled back.

Every moment more and more cloud receded; like an avalanche in reverse, revealing more of the sea and more of the sky.

It was, in fact, a sunny day, but for the fog. We must have watched for a whole hour, still becalmed as we noticed we could turn and see clearly behind us, then clearly beside us, but there was no sight of shore, certainly not in the haze that replaced the fog.

We were now visible to shipping and our demise would make a spectacular spark on the horizon; sending crews scurrying, watches wondering and binoculars searching. There might even be a dramatic black plume of smoke for a moment before our charred vessel sank to be exhumed centuries later by marine archaeologists excavating an ancient site, or divers preparing the foundations for an underwater city.

Suffice to say we made it through on this occasion, and it was not until past midnight that we approached the outer walls of Gibraltar harbour. It had taken us a whole day to gull wing a fifteen-mile distance.

We had been in no hurry.

The sugar had run out; but Patrick was the only one who took it, so he could suffer a few hours more. Visible to the customs, they hailed us in English. Perhaps, a Gibraltarian patrol boat had spotted the British Ensign, earlier in the day. More likely they tried English first to check we were not Spanish, perhaps a party of Spanish liberation forces. Norman dusted down his loudhailer and informed them that we had no power but for the sails.

There was the slightest of breezes that evening and after half an hour of waiting for us to sail to the pontoon; they sent out a motorised whaler to fetch us. It was all highly embarrassing; inching our way towards our goal, the harbour wall, and only managing a millimetre a minute.

The customs men checked our boat and took pity on us, towing us all the way to the marina.

Gibraltar’s modern marina is like any other, full of expensive white speedboats and white-hulled catamarans and yachts.

Frankly; our boat with its mottled blue undercoat and a speckling of grey filler was not conducive to the atmosphere and so we were tucked away in a quiet corner by the harbour master. He might have refused us but for our military escort; a naval leading seaman and a pilot, who, up until then had naively thought that, after five years’ service to the crown, they had seen everything.

There was a Lipton’s supermarket a hundred yards from our berth, but we would have to visit the following day. We headed for Main Street, but all the bars were closing. Fortunately, a friend from school had been expecting us and they showed us customary Mediterranean hospitality.

The next night we ate on the boat, tomato stew and tea. We had sussed out the port. Having stocked up with provisions and spent the day in Gibraltar, we decided to leave the next day.

There was a party to go to and unless we wanted to crawl up the Rock to visit the Barbary Apes; we had seen all there was to see.

Main Street is fabulous for shopping if you have money. The naval area is a concrete jungle of high-rise buildings as depressing as those back at home in England. It would have been possible to spend several days in the bars around Main Street; but we were travellers not tourists. We even gave the museum a miss.

Two boats stood out in the harbour, black as night contrasting with the white. They belonged to smugglers; and I wandered along the pier one day and noticed that there was a painter filling holes in the boat. I was sure that they were bullet holes. Legend had it; these boats went out at night to collect contraband from Morocco and drop it off at various buoys along the Spanish coast.

They were by far the largest and most powerful in the dock; and it was alleged that the alleged bullet holes came from naval helicopters. Wasp gunships, operating from a British frigate that had tried to make them heave to. And they never did stop.

They could outrun even the helicopters, but they could not always outrun the bullets, warning shots across the bow that sometimes perforated the hull.

It seemed an exciting world, compared to the tranquillity and calm of the island and it really was a restful place. It was good to see that it had its dark underbelly of corruption like anywhere else, it made it less dream-like.

We were walking on sunshine.

We had survived again, and the sun was shining which always helps. Being desperately behind schedule did not bother us. Norman would come out with some statistics, which did not seem to add up, saying that provided we maintained nine knots we would be back on time and keep to our schedule.

We had only ever been at nine knots three times in as many weeks and that was for two or four hours, but with my need for reconciliation and my desire to trust my brother again, I said nothing.

Unfortunately, the border between Spain and Gibraltar was closed in another dispute about sovereignty. It was ironic. I took a walk past the airport to view Spain. We had heard gossip and read whatever papers we could about the Falklands War.

Occasionally, batteries allowing, we had listened for a while to the World Service from the BBC on a transistor radio we had on board. The reception was poor, and the hissing drove one to distraction.

To me it seemed as likely that the Gibraltarians wanted to be part of Spain as the Falkland Islanders wanted to be part of Argentina.

The islanders in both cases were happy to get on with their lives without politicians interfering. It seemed rather unfair on the Gibraltarians that they should be hemmed in, prisoners to a closed border. It would have been wiser, I felt, to open the border and show the islanders what benefits they could enjoy by being a part of Spain. The wealthy of course could sail out on their yachts or book one of the prohibitively expensive flights out of the airport.

Patrick was prepared to pay double for his flight, as he was asked. It had cost us sixty-nine pounds return to Faro, and he was being asked one hundred and thirty single.

It was no surprise that Gibraltar was not a tourist magnet.
Unfortunately, all the flights were booked solid, not a seat to be had until the following week. It was decided to sail to Puerta de la Duquesa, a purpose-built marina and apartment complex not far up the Spanish coast. He had to get back and the wind alone could make him miss his flight back from Faro.

Norman fixed the Seagull engine but with a speed of four knots, there was no guarantee that we would be able to get him back to Spain, on a train and at the airport on time.

Gennine, a friend from London, invited us to a party the night before we left.

It was fun and we talked to everyone we could.

For the first time we could have a conversation with someone we did not know. It was stimulating and fascinating, learning about life on the Rock, their aspirations; what they knew of the Falklands War and the border closure. Why Spain felt it could hang on to one of its colonies in North Africa that had been petitioning for independence.

And yet was insistent that the Rock be returned to them. If the people favoured independence, then, that was fine, but they did not. Many of the wealthy families relied on the various military establishments for their income.

All three services were represented, and they provided a lucrative market, particularly for those involved in food and liquor. There was another excellent reason for staying British and that was that most of the inhabitants had government jobs, clerks or lawyers for the Crown. If the Spanish had removed the government and transferred it to Madrid then Gibraltar would witness mass unemployment at a stroke.

We decided to leave earlier than planned to get Patrick back on to the mainland.

It was morning when we set sail in buoyant mood, with the ballast of beer bottles and wine flagons snug in the bilges. Norman had kept a net with six dumpy San Miguel bottles hung from the side of the boat overnight.

The seawater had chilled them to perfection, and he hauled them up before we metaphorically hauled anchor. Casting off after we had started the Seagull engine seemed only sensible.

The two-stroke motor spluttered and belched a cloud of grey smoke on the first three attempts, but then it chugged into action with a big puff.

It vibrated the whole boat and I had forgotten what an old boneshaker she was. The sound of it popping merrily in the water, leaving a trail of oil from the abortive starts, reassured us. 

The exhaust smoked slightly on the water’s surface. I took the bow rope and together Patrick and I pushed the boat backwards out of its berth. He jumped on first and offered me an outstretched hand, but I leapt on to the bow and grabbed the handrail. I did not want to risk him losing his grip.

Once we were on board and drifting backwards, Norman engaged reverse and with a clank the propeller spun. He eased the throttle some more as we prepared to fend off other boats at the front.
We cleared our parking space, sorry, our berth and Norman brought the boat around in an arc. The engine clanked again as he found neutral and not a moment too soon clanked again as he found forward.

Both Patrick and I had feared he would reverse into the boats on the other jetty, but as always, Norman pulled things off just in time. To crash at this stage would have been the final straw.

Somehow both Patrick and I would have found the extra money for a ticket home. Waterwitch would have returned to her spiritual home at the bottom of Gibraltar harbour, although this time in the new marina.

We motored sedately past the lines of boats, faintly ridiculous with our noisy spluttering engine. I took the tiller, or rather Norman gave it to me. An honour, I felt. Perhaps it was because he trusted Patrick’s helmsmanship less than mine. Within minutes he had untied, clipped on and hoisted the mainsail.

With a bound, he was back at the tiller with a demanding look. Smiling sweetly, I handed over control. As ordered, I opened three bottles of beer and handed them around. I had made cheese sandwiches earlier that morning and we all wore clean clothes, laundered for us by the local dry cleaners. We had also benefited from the luxury of showering every day. We clinked bottles and drank to a superb holiday.

Actors one and all, we would forget the bad times and remember only the good, with luck.

So, that except from Waterwitch, which we sailed on our perilous peregrinations, reveals a regret at not seeing the whale and not enjoying the moment. An object lesson in not being so lazy and worrying too much about everything. Obviously, the events were true, my reactions exaggerated one-hundred-fold for dramatic effect to either elicit sympathy or eye-rolling or frustration.

However, not seeing that whale has haunted me all my life so that story deserves its own storey. You can see how the building gets higher and higher storey upon storey. It never stops.

Ghost Storey by Michael Fitzalan

Michael Fitzalan’s first novel gained cult status and here are some others: Waterwitch was a hit with those who have ever sailed; two brothers battle storms and Spanish support for the Malvinas in an attempt to meet up with their girlfriends in Ibiza. They have to get from The Algarve to Ibiza, all very straightforward until engine failure and storms threaten to sink all their plans. The Taint Gallery tells the story of a modern Romeo and Juliet; the story is set in Cheslea and Fulham, not Verona, nevertheless, it is a doomed relationship. The book was shunned by big publishers for its highly charged and graphic sexual content and the small publisher who produced the book folded, copies are rare. A reprint is planned for its twentieth anniversary next year; it is still as pertinent and shocking today as it was back in 1996. Switch is an amazing mixture of Franz Kafka realism yet it reads like a Raymond Chandler thriller. Joe Ederer falls for a French girl but he is recovering from being dumped by his English girlfriend. A fish out of water in London, he chases her home only to be rejected. He hooks up with a suffocating drug addict and that is when his nightmares begin. Major Bruton’s Safari is the story of innocents abroad; a family invited to celebrate the coronation of the Kabaka of Buganda become indoctrinated into the ways of Africa. With an acerbic observer on hand, the family experience the warmth and ways of Uganda that help them to understand themselves a little better. IPG – Innocent Proven Guilty is about a teacher, Philip Hayward whose brother sold their shared flat and ran off to America with the proceeds. Philip bumps into his brother’s ex-girlfriend and she tells him his brother is back. Racing to the address she gave him, he arrives to find his brother with a knife in his back. As he leaves, his shoes leave bloody footprints and the police come looking for him. Carom – Finn McHugh and his team take on a swindler and smuggler, Didier, who is depraved in so many ways. They know he is smuggling art and drugs; he must be stopped before others take him out. The Cubans, want him dead, Finn wants to break the smuggling ring. Who will win? Remember the Fifth November – Guy Fawkes was innocent, Catesby was a broken man who brought his children up in the Anglican faith, yet Robert Cecil arranged for them to be portrayed as terrible villains. With a spy service second to none and with moles everywhere how could someone hatch a plot like this and fail to be discovered? The answer, they could not. Read the truth! One – Bullying does not go on anymore in schools. I would not bet on it. Weep as you read the terrible story of a school bully and the misery he dispenses to all the boys. Then, cheer as one of his victims takes revenge. Take a trip to a prep school in a time when kids built tree houses, danced and swung on Tarzan ropes!

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