Roger's Reminiscences - Fred all at sea

Story List

Next >>>

Very few know that Fred was once a yachty - not really a yachty in the true sense, but he did once do a bit of serious sailing on the famous ocean going yacht, the Francis Drake.

In the 70s and 80s, I was involved with a sail-training organisation. We operated a fleet of 10, 72ft sailing vessels around the coast of Britain taking about 5000 young people to sea every year. One of the vessels, the Francis Drake, developed steering problems when we sailed her back from Iceland. The trouble was caused by a faulty steering arm in the stern which had a habit of going past the stop when pounding in heavy seas. We needed a new one made to a different design, so I enlisted Fred’s help. As I wanted Fred to see what happened to the steering gear when we were actually at sea, and remembering that he was always saying he wanted to come sailing, I invited him along for one of our extended mates’ training weekends. Our first and second mates were volunteers and we generally used to put them through their paces during these gruelling training weekends at sea out of season.

On the designated Friday evening the Francis Drake was tied up alongside the quay at Glasson Dock, near Lancaster. We were on neap tides so the water in the dock was low. Most of the crew had arrived and we were sitting down below with mugs of tea, going over the charts with the skipper, when there was dull thud on the deck above, immediately followed by a second, enormous, thud which rattled the pots in the galley. In awed silence, we all looked up at the deckhead. The skipper, Jack Sharples with an expression of disbelief on his bearded face, shouted: "Who the ****’s that?"

Fred had arrived.

It is not the done thing to jump from great heights on to a yacht's deck, especially in boots! And certainly not to throw your bag of tools on as well, especially as decks on a sail-training ship are hallowed. But the momentary annoyance at this crashing arrival soon dissolved into smiles as Fred came clambering down the companionway steps dressedjust as usual, complete with flat cap, waistcoat and watch chain, and, unbelievably, steeltoe-capped industrial boots! There was not the slightest whiff of any seagoing thoughts to his attire. He just didn’t seem real in this strictly maritime environment. In fact he looked more like a pretend cut-out of himself. We all stared down in amazement at his boots.
”You just can't go running round the decks with those bloody boots on!" Jack, the skipper, exploded. ”Haven't you got any proper deck shoes?"
Fred nonchalantly lifted one of his boots up to reveal strips of what looked like thick rubber tyre secured with big screws driven into the sole, obviously a bit of his own ingenious handiwork. ”Don’t worry Cap’n. I’ve fitted 'em with special rubber non-slip soles,” he announced blithely, this being his well-considered concession to becoming a yachty.

He was duly fitted out with a set of yellow oilies, a life jacket and a safety harness and then shown his bunk where he could stow all his gear, including his bag of tools.

The crew was divided into two working groups, the starboard and port watches. When the vessel was at sea, one of the watches had to be on duty at alltimes, to navigate, handle the sails, cook, wash up and so on. Each watch worked a rota of fours hours on, four hours off, to enable the vessel to operate at sea, day and night, without a break. Fred was put with me, on the port watch. We were to be the first watch on duty and would have to be up an hour before high water, which was at about 3am. At Glasson, a boat can only lock-out of the dock at high water. After a hearty shipboard meal of bangers, mash and thick gravy, we all retired to the quayside pub, the Dalton, for a quick pint and some Fred stories. Then it was back on board to get our heads down to grab what bit of sleep we could before the dreaded wake-up call in the cold, early hours.

The Francis Drake's main mess decks were open plan and lined with two tiers of bunks. After Fred was finally bedded down in his bunk - complete with cap - he decided that one of the screws in his boots had been protruding through the sole. Leaning out ofthe bunk, he rooted through his tool bag for a hammer and we were all privy to a big hammering job. He then had to get up and put the repaired boot on, to see if he could still feel the screw with his toe.

While clomping round the mess deck halfshod, he got into conversation about industrial steel boots with a chap in the bunk opposite who had worked down the mines. Of all places, he was from Atherton, only a few miles from Fred's beloved Bolton. That did it! Between the two of them we were then entertained to a conducted tour of coal mines in Lancashire. It was so amusing to hear Fred describing things that it was the early hours before anybody got any sleep and I think we went down every pit within a 20-mile radius of Bolton! It was only the skipper, bawling from his cabin for everyone to shut up as he was trying to listen to the shipping forecast, that cast a silence. We were then lulled with the dulcet sounds, familiar to every sailor, of the age-old music 'Sailing By,’ which precedes the BBC Shipping forecast. It seemed to go on forever until it got to the Irish Sea, the forecast for which was not good.
We finally got our heads down and drifted off at about lam, only to be subjected to Fred's creative snoring - but unfortunately he wasn't the only one!

I lay for a while in the snugness of my bunk, listening to the rain pattering on the deck and the wind increasing as it hummed through the rigging, lurching the vessel every now and again against the quayside. They say it is an old sailor’s tale that the wind increases with the tide, but it always seems to happen. I reckoned we were in for a bit of a hairy sail later that morning.

A seagoing tradition is for the new watch to be given a mug of tea before going up on deck. Fred, who had said he was wide awake and probably wouldn't sleep very well, even though he was the first to snore, elected to be the tea-maker. Jack, the skipper, feeling uneasy about him being up on deckin the night wearing those boots, thoughtit a good idea. He also put him in charge of making breakfast in the galley.

At about 2.30am I was given a rough shake by Fred who thrust a hot mug of tea into my hand, with a gruff "There y’are, Rog”. He was all dressed up in his yellow oilies complete with flat cap and boots. He looked wonderful.

We locked the Francis Drake through the sea lock gates at high tide and headed out for the Irish Sea, along the River Lune estuary and across Morecambe Bay. It was a dark night and the wind was freshening from the west. As we cleared the northern most point of the bay, the lonely channel marker buoy Lightening Knoll was plunging up and down in the confused sea, its bell giving out a doleful dong. The companionway hatch suddenly slid back and Fred bobbed his head up. ”Where’s that bloody bell coming from?" he shouted. “I thought we were out at sea!” When we explained it was from the buoy we hadjust passed, he mumbled: “We wouldn't put up with a crappy bell like that in Bolton. The bloody thing’s cracked." We all had to listen for the telltale indicators of a cracked bell as the sound gradually receded in the heavy seas astern. He then stretched his head out of the hatchway a little further and scanned the horizon. "Hmmm, bloody miserable up here. I’m going back down below to make some bacon and egg butties.” With a chuckle he concluded that he had a betterjob than us poor buggers up on deck. With that his head disappeared below, and the hatch slid shut.

We were now in the open sea and white-topped waves were breaking over the bow. The wind backed further to the west and freshened. The boat was now beating into big head seas and was right over on her beam ends. We had to put in long tacks to try and make Ramsey in the Isle of Man. Fred's head still, of course, complete with cap, suddenly bobbed up again out of the hatch.”Who’s in charge of this bloody thing?" he demanded "The eggs are all over the ****** floor! If you lot want egg and bacon butties you’ll have to keep the bloody thing upright for a bit.”. And with that he was gone again, slamming the hatch shut behind him.

His brief appearance, although comical, was quite apt as it coincided with a decision to put a reefin and reduce sail. We then changed course for Anglesey, which would mean the Francis Drake could now go onto a broad reach and sail in an easier and more upright situation. The tricky operation of putting a couple of reefs in a massive, flogging mainsail in the pitch dark and on a heaving deck, meant the whole of the port watch was needed on deck to help claw the sail down to the long boom and secure it while the reefing points were tied in. That watch included Fred.

As the boat was brought into the wind, the halyard, slackened to enable the sail to be eased down, whipped, caught in one of the backstays and jammed. This is one of the worst things that can happen when a crew is trying to reduce sail in heavy seas, as it means the sail cannot be released. It meant someone would have to go up the mast to free it - not an envious job!

Jack, the skipper, shouted for someone to take the wheel as he would go up, but Fred intervened, saying he'd like to do it as he quite fancied climbing the 80ft mast. I think Jack, in his wisdom, felt Fred would be safer up the mast than on deck with those boots, but made him promise to clip himself on, as mill chimneys don’t sway 20ft from side to side as you climb them.

So it was on that dark and stormy night out in the Irish Sea, Fred, in his steel-capped boots, flat cap and yellow oilies, climbed up the stirrups of the mast, right to the very top. We could just see a little yellow blob way up above us illuminated by the masthead light as Fred, clinging to the mast, arced back and forth like a massive metronome across the black night sky. He managed to free the halyard and we put the reefin, the Francis,Drake resuming her course for Anglesey.

But Fred didn’t come down.

With the howling of the wind it was impossible to shout to him or to know if he was OK, so Jack decided to go up and check. Jack was up there for quite some time and when he did eventually come down, without Fred, we got rather concerned.”It’s 0K," he said, ”Fred loves it up there and wants to stay up for a bit."

It seems they had had a long conversation on the top of that swaying mast about how mill chimneys, too, can actually sway in the wind. Fred had worked out how to stop the halyards fouling on the backstays and said he could fix itin the morning. He also reckoned the forestay was putting too much pressure on the top section of the mast, as he could see it whipping with the pressure of the sails during wind gusts, possibly because the top spreaders were not set properly or the shrouds were not taut enough. It was Fred’s geometric eye at work. Said Jack: ”You’d better bring him along again. Do you think he would like to train to be a second mate?"

Fred turned out to be the most popular member of the crew with his never-ending banter, good nature and willingness to help out, whatever the task. When he got back home, he sorted out the rigging by designing and making a new stainless steel collar for the mast which housed the fittings for the backstays. He also redesigned and made a better steering arm system in the stern.

This gave an insight into Fred’s amazing eye for detail and engineering knowledge. Even though he was at the top of a swaying mast at night in the middle of the Irish Sea, when most of us would have been clinging on for dear life, he was working out, from a purely engineering point ofview, the practicalities of the way the mast was supported. Even though the vessel and its rigging had been designed by one of the best marine architects of the day and was perfectly safe, he improved it.

Fred also spent a lot of time at the chart table working out the courses. Lighthouses and buoyage system, with their coded flashes, fascinated him. He seemed to know a lot about the construction of the lighthouses and the formidable problems the builders had encountered when trying to erect them on remote rocks and places. And being able to take a visual compass bearing and transfer it to a line drawn by a pencil on the chart to show the ship’s course was, according to Fred, real Captain Cook stuff.

He proudly pointed out, the true Brit that he was, that they didn’t have accurate charts in those days. It was the British Navy which produced the first real charts of the world in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Harrison timepiece giving Cook the ability to work out longitude, which enabled him to pinpoint accurately where Australia was. The timepiece also opened the way for proper surveys to be made, leading to the development of accurate charts - all good, British, maritime stuff, Fred proudly proclaimed, sticking his chest out.

Our new, flat-capped British sailor would have happily navigated us all the way to China, with the red ensign proudly flying at our stern, if we had had the time! The sight of his determined figure behind the wheel of the magnificent sailing vessel as she ploughed through the waves was priceless - especially as the steel toe-caps had now turned red with rust... Dressed in his yellow oilies with the hood pulled tight over his greasy old cap, his short legs firmly planted apart on the deck to take the motion of the boat as he firmly grasped the wheel, this was maritime Fred as he had never been seen before.

There are some transparencies of him hidden away in someone's drawer somewhere. We have tried very hard to locate one for this publication but, sadly, to no avail. At the end of the voyage Fred was a true sailor, and real British salt of the sea.


Roger's Reminiscences - Fred all at sea

Story List

Next >>>


Copyright © 2011 Roger Murray

+44(0)7736 949474