Our boat Jeannie waiting for the tide – Dad is watching the football on his B&W portable TV!
Brief Encounter 1 ( the Good )
Jeannie was our first boat. She was traditionally built with a wooden heart. Just 22 feet long with a lifting keel that enabled her to sail on the morning dew. She had been built on Canvey Island and designed to sail up the many shallow creeks of the East Coast. It was an early start; the weather forecast very promising and just before the sun popped up we motored her out of Ramsgate Harbour. In those days crossing the channel, we rarely wore life jackets; Considering Dad had abandoned ship once and just prior to Dunkirk had crawled back again to save it from sinking; he thought it better to be warm aboard a sinking ship, than cold and wet in a Carley float, you would think he would know better! He never was a good example to me on safety. On those early crossings we did not carry a VHF radio! Navigation was by dead reckoning, something we were both pretty good at and rarely missed our mark. GPS was not yet available but Dads home-made radio direction finder made us feel safe; In the event of a sea fog we were confident of finding harbour. The boat was in good order and both of us having the experience of larger shipping, were mindful of the dangers posed crossing the shipping lanes. A radar reflector and good lookout was kept and as we passed the North Goodwin light ship, we stopped the engine and set our sails.
The day was very long and one of the best ever channel crossings. My relationship with my father that day began. I guess we had not been that close since he played with me as a toddler. We had grown apart but now, like the heat haze on the distant horizon, where the sea and sky became indistinct from one and other, we were one again. Sailing together in that little boat, taught me something about enjoying the simple things in life that are often free; like sitting on a beach, or by a fire outdoors, there was something so primitive, so elemental and real in that experience of sailing on the sea. Somewhere, between England and France, we could just be and share in the moment together. Neither of us were competitive sailors, we came out of the cruising mould and now Dads years of work were over, he could now do what he had always dreamed. I was young, but I too would remember this day like no other. The sea was azure and seemed clearer than any other sea I had sailed. I had already circumnavigated our world but now with Dad, on this sea, in this magical moment we sailed a certain course. Although he did not show any emotion, I knew he must have been savouring the moment like no other.
We barely made 4 knots which meant the tidal effect on our course was significant. Despite this, we sighted buoy after buoy with certainty. Jeannie was a very modest vessel by any standard but that day she sailed into our lives changing them forever. We took turns at steering, making the tea and watched the sea sparkle in our wash. The long day was punctuated by a pigeon landing on deck and laying an egg! At 1700, the tiller snapped clean off! A quick repair was made and by 1830 we passed the Ostend Buoy. We had beaten the night by about an hour when we arrived at Blankenburg in Belgium at 9PM. I remember going alongside a large modern and well equipped cruising yacht. She flew a French flag. The skipper remarked on the size of our vessel, that he thought it small for a channel crossing. He gestured, using his own life-jacket, that we were not wearing any! I remember thinking at the time, quite naively, what could go wrong during a day-time sail on such a fine weekend! The sun rose early on another glorious day and we both set off together out into the channel where we waved goodbye. I set a course north along the coast for Holland and the Frenchman, sailing alone, sailed south. We seemed to fly along the coast. With the wind on our quarter, the tide under us and with a shallow draft, it felt as if we were planning. In no time at all the Dutch port of Vlissingen appeared. Father and son had made it and I remember Dads face as we lined up to enter the lock. It was a proud look for he had realised his dream at last. We started the engine on our approach but it stalled after only minutes. A looked over the stern confirmed our prop was fouled by something. I was a young man so leapt over board with a knife. In only minutes I had removed the offending piece of jetsam. He helped me back onboard and with a smile he said, “Well done Son.”
Some years later, I remember a visit home where we were talking late into the night. He was in a reflective mood and said how one of the best things he had ever done was to sail with me on those channel crossings. I think I only went with him twice but then history is often distorted through rose tinted specs. It was only a couple of days in our lives but a memorable moment that made a complete chapter in both our lives.
Brief Encounter 2
A recent tale but touched by a ghost from the past – With a lesson, even wearing a life-jacket, danger is never far away.
“Joe, just stay here while I get your life-jacket!” I had parked just yards away from the river at Cantley on the River Yare and twenty yards from the pub where we were moored. Joe was nearly five years old and we were going to sleep aboard our boat for the night, something we were both looking forward to. Usually I would have the life jackets in the truck but on this occasion had slipped up, leaving them onboard our boat. I needed to get aboard first and remove the boat cover to get at them. No sooner was I onboard and underneath the cover I heard the horn sounding repeatedly from the truck; Joe had the devil in him! As there were people sitting outside the Reedcutter pub nearby, I thought they would be none too pleased, so I fetched him over, telling him to sit on the bank opposite while I got his life-jacket. As soon as I was back under the cover and unlacing it, I could not see but sensed he had moved position. I shouted at him to return to his place as I would only be a few more seconds…SPLASH!
Within a second I had leapt onto the river-bank. Joe was gone! The tide was flooding about two knots and there was not a ripple to indicate where he had entered the river. I reckoned it was just astern of the boat. A voice in my head came before any sickening panic, “WAIT!…..WAIT!” In those few seconds, time stretched as indeed it still does to this day in remembering the horror. He had disappeared but something in me knew he would show himself again if only for a second, giving me a chance. On the quay and looking down, I was in a better position to see him…DO NOT GO IN YET…WAIT!…In that second, I flashed to the day I first encountered death. It had been two weeks after returning from that channel crossing with my Dad….
I was in the Royal Navy and had returned from leave to find our ship would lead the search for the missing yacht `Morning Cloud` and her crew. I found myself in the seaboat, a 27 foot whaler, hanging beneath the davits and swinging violently in a raging storm. We were anticipating the launch; hoping to greet the crest of a wave and not drop a second later into a deep trough. On a megaphone the order came from above, just audible in the gale, “SLIP!” The Coxswain pulled the lever on the disengaging gear and we thankfully slid down the sea as I let go the boat-rope. The first of many seas broke over us as we cleared the ship; the whaler labouring through huge waves blasting my face with salt spray. I was an able seaman, barely 18 years old and had never seen a dead person before. The smell hit me as we approached down wind. As we closed, I recognised the life jacket immediately, it had the Frenchman’s name on it; the black marker pen partially obscured by the seaweed caught-up… I was fortunate that I was now up wind, not so for my crew mates. Up until then, the man’s face had been covered with his life jacket, but now, at my feet and lying in the bottom of the whaler…….
That face appeared in the water right in front of me. But it wasn’t the Frenchman, it was my Joe, just visible in the murk, his eyes looked up at me still submerged and about to break surface but never did. It was then I reached for him but couldn’t. He was too far down and away from me. I went in grabbing the scruff of his collar, my other hand held the slimy rope that ran along the quay. He clambered almost on top of me. He was safe! We hung on till I began to realise no one knew we were there and began to shout. I cried out with the knowledge there was no hope of hauling ourselves clear of the water, Joe was shivering. We were there for about five minutes before someone upriver heard our plight. I was well aware that a significant number of people had lost their lives in that very spot.
For the greater part of my life I have chosen not to wear a life-jacket. Never having enough cash spare was always my excuse; to replace my very bulky life jackets with easy to wear self- inflatable ones was not a high priority, not with anti- fouling paint to buy, insurance, and the endless list of little things required to stay afloat! Last year though, I confess, I saw the light. Most tragedies occur between ship and shore. I could see that in assessing the risk, as skipper I was neglecting the most important factor in safety-ME! Even though I insisted my crew wore life jackets, if I became the man overboard, it would not matter. I was putting them at risk. Simple really. So my Christmas present to myself arrived through the post and this year I will be wearing it!
Joe and I were rescued by the Landlord and Landlady of the Reedcutter and a man off a cruiser moored some distance up river.
I discovered 18 people lost their lives in that storm surge. We recovered the man and flew him off in the ships helicopter and later found out his full name. We were told he went missing more than a week before the storm in perfect weather but I already knew that, my father and I were probably the last to see him alive.
PHILLIPE JEAN MICHEL
Winter gales were blowing, The seas were heaped and running,
and we found another victim floating dead among the spume.
A person about my fathers age, his life was lost in that oceans rage,
a brief encounter miles from land, the wind cried out, I held his hand.
They took him back to England shores, then back to his home in France,
and there he stays, remembered today, PHILLIP JEAN MICHEL.