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GENRES: Adventure, Documentary
THE VOYAGE OF THE SPURN BEACH.
BARGING INTO TROUBLED WATERS.
It was madness just to think about taking a Humber Barge from Hull to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.
Nothing like it had ever been done or even attempted before and even if we rushed the preparations we could never manage to leave before mid september which was much too late for such a mission.
After getting in touch with Fench connections I was assurred we could get to the Med through the French canal system.
The shipping agents were putting pressure on us for a quick sailing and so too were the new Saudi owners.
I agreed to the deal which, after all, would put me back in the black and pay off all the debts in one go and we could finish the conversion of our other barge the Adamant and get a good price. So we worked quickly and up to 18 hours a day fitting the vessel for such a long sea voyage and we even painted her name boldly so it could be clearly visible, Spurn Beach, from Hull, within a week we got the vessel ready to sail.
The Spurn Beach was a 135 foot single hold Humber barge, she was powered by a marine converted Leyland truck engine. She still had her original mahogany ships wheel which felt good in my hands and was steered through chains from an aft wheelhouse. Our crew accomondation was forward in the bows, with four bunks and a stove for warmth and cooking. The crew were three in all. Myself, Colin Wilson my finest Engineer and Mike Golding a strong ex army man who like Colin was from Hull.
In retrospect and even considering the urgings of the agents to sail as soon as possible, we could have done a much better job in making the vessel ready but then again we had no idea what was to become of the Spurn Beach or indeed us.
Perhaps it was our state of mind that allowed us some leeway in considering the mission to be a just another pirate job.
Our state of mind can be easily described by our silent automatic actions as we sailed down a slightly misty and calm Humber, passing Spurn Point and entering the North sea, it was the 9th of September 1976, we played a cassette very loud, it was 'Sailing' by Rod Stewart, the music drifted out easily over a silent flat sea into the mist, we looked north after passing the point and although we could see almost nothing we knew behind the mist was the real Spurn beach, before turning to a southerly course I turned North for a moment and bowed our vessel to the beach our ship was named after. Then as we listened to Rod Stewart's voice entering the mist we turned south and I imagined Rod would have loved this moment with us.
It doesn’t take a Pirate delivery crew long to settle down and create a shipboard living rythm, tea, snacks, food, pumps, oil, ballast and the entire running of the ship just happens by itself, there are no orders as everthing is natural.
By the time we passed Lowestoft this natural order of the ship was already functional, the weather too was windless and we had caught the perfect tide. Both the ship and engineroom were vibrating perfectly, so perfectly in fact that we were able to “cut a few corners” and made the port of Le Havre in France a few hours earlier than we imagined.
This first part of the voyage couldn’t have been easier.
We waited in Le Havre for bunkers to be supplied by the Agents which was taking longer than anticipated.
In fact in the few hours since leaving Hull the Indian shipping agents Chanzone Ltd of a Mr Ernest Channer had gone bankrupt overnight!
I felt plagued by companies going bankrupt overnight and couldn't get my head round the fact the Indian had gone bancrupt during the night we sailed. However, the deal we were involved in was now to be taken over directly by the Saudi buyer's London agent, Biancardi & Son.
I had to leave the Barge and the guys in Le Havre and went to London where I met Mr Biancardi who informed me the contract was confirmed and I was asked to continue.
With a new back up agent and contract plus supplies, I returned to a bunkered Spurn Beach and ready to go although angered that we had lost a week for nothing but happy now we were moving again, we sailed up the river Seine, passing Paris and we got as far as Epernay lock.
France that year had suffered a major draught, many rivers were dry and canals low or even closed, so we had to use the Epernay canal. I inspected the lock and had serious doubts whether or not we would fit in, my doubts were confirmed, we were 3cm to wide, we couldn’t enter the lock and of course that canal was the only canal available to us.
We got drunk in a local bar and decided we had no choice but to go back to Le Havre and contact the agents. On the way down the Seine we happened upon a small speed boat with a 25 horse power Elvinrude outboard, we managed to haul it onboard as in our opinion it was a danger to shipping, we had no idea to which authorities we should hand over the speedboat so it got èut in the hold and kinda forgotten about.
Back in Le Havre I phoned the agents and explained the situation, “So what’s the alternative?” asked Mr Biancardi. “There is none” I replied.
“None? Nothing at all? remember we are working for a special customer.” insisted Biancardi.
We can get the barge to Antwerp and she can be shipped on deck from there.” I offered.
“There are no cranes in Jeddah big enough to unload it which is the reason they urgently need barges.” Said Biancardi.
“Sir it’s almost October! it’s too late to go by sea, the Bay of Biscay would be suicide.” I tendered.
“What if we pay you more?” was the last gesture from Biancardi.
Back onboard I told the guys what Biancardi had said.
“Can we do it?” asked Colin.
“We can do it if we have an engine.” I replied.
“Oh no worries about my engine, we're ready.” said Colin.
Our Hand, Mike golding who was a usually a very silent person asked how dangerous was the Bay of Biscay, I told him, if it was too dangerous we would not attempt to cross it.
We sailed the next morning, destination, Cherbourg and I used this short voyage facing the Atlantic as a test run. Everything went well so I extended the test in worsening seas as far as Alderney, there we layed up the night in Alderney harbour where I had a brethren contact
We had a really good night in St Annes with friends who thought that we were completely mad but wanted to come with us.
The next morning we sailed to Guernsey, it was a sunday, 27th Sept, we arrived in the roads off the entrance to Guernsey port, I hailed the port on the radio several times but got no reply, there was no traffic at all coming in or out of the harbour so I entered the port, moved to the south wharf area and tied up. As we were doing so I was called on the radio and asked bluntly, “What the fuck do you think you are doing?” you will move your vessel out of the port now! You came in without a Pilot.”
“Why do I have to move out? I am already berthed.” I said over the radio.
“You will move out to the roads and wait the Pilot, you cannot enter without a pilot! said the voice.
“But I’m here now!” I unbelievingly rendered.
“OUT!” said the tin god.
We untied and I turned the ship and moved her back out of the port to the roads, a small white pilot boat followed us out, I stopped and the white boat came alongside and a Pilot came aboard, “Good afternoon Captain, steady as you go.” he said.
The Pilot took us to the exact same wharf as before only this time he hit and damaged the wharf! In the meantime the Wharf had filled up with a lot of gentlemen in uniforms which were mostly HM Customs and excise, who were soon clambering onboard as we were still tieing up. They had never seen a Humber barge before and searched everywhere, they even searched in the outboard of the French speedboat which we had fogotten about.
Of course they found nothing as there was nothing to find, so they came to me, “OK, so where’s the stuff?” heavied the customs boss.
“Find something or get off my ship!” I said, my words were backed up by my two crew.
They soon left. I had come to understand why my friends were on Alderney and not Guernsey. We bunkered and stored the ship for a long voyage and slept.
We woke very early and sailed quickly, mainly because of the police car parked at the end of the dock and because the forcast was good and good it was, it stayed good and we made very fast headway out of the harbour and without a pilot.
We made for Brest and there I would make my last decision which was now going to be so very difficult, I needed a little more time to study the weather, after all, it was now the first of October.
We pulled into Camaret-sur-mer near Brest and I waited with the others my own decision.
For two days the weather remained undecided so I decided to take the long way round the bay of Biscay and sail to Sables-d'olonne.
Quite honestly at the time I didn't think too much about the imense honour it was for me to sail on the sea of La Rochelle where my very own flag was born but these wonderfull thoughts I surpressed, my thoughts remained firmly with my ship and studying the still uncertain weather.
However I slept and dreamed very differently when we were safely berthed in Sable-d'olonne.
It was an October Friday, it was the 9th and not the 13th but it was so close that to me it felt a very special day and the seas were calming into managable rollers, I decided it was now or never, let's sail this bay of frigging Biscay I said.
The infamous Bay of Biscay calmed herself enough to allow us to almost make it across, I could even see the Northern Spanish coast. We were all feeling so relieved.
Then in the space of a few minutes the sea of the bay of biscay just burst up for no apparent reason, waves came out of nowhere even though the wind was still slight, then the full fury of the Bay hit us as if up til now it had been playing with us. Our sneaky cruise across the bay had come to an end, it was all hands on deck and batten down. We had to find shelter, the only place near enough to aim for was a small fishing harbour called Tapia. Having no local chart for the Tapia harbour and approach I had to feel my way in and tied up in the small harbour which was safe but still affected by the heavy swell.
A few hours later a Bay of Biscay storm was swirling out at sea so much it was if the sea, wind and clouds were all one single entity and angrily looking to destroy anything it found in it's way out there.
We stayed there for a week, day after day we climbed up the ridge to study the sea, I had never seen a sea like that before. It was so frightening that it got to our cook deck hand Mike, the bay had got him, he left us and went home to Hull.
So we were now down to only me and a Colin my Engineer, we talked the situation over for about a full minute and decided to stay with the ship in the hope we would be able to continue.
Stuck as we were in the small Tapia harbour we were running out of food so I started fishing after seeing a large mullet fish near the entrance of the harbour. The locals came to watch laughing, they were laughing because I was using bread as bait, spanish fish don't eat bread they said but they stopped laughing when I pulled out a 5lb Mullet, then another and then another until I had a dozen or so which the locals were happy to buy and with the cash we went to the local shop then the bar.
Everyday the locals bought the fish I continued to catch and one particular wonderfull lady would bring us a home made milk rice pudding everyday in exchange for our fish. Tapia and the people there will always be in my mind and heart and I thank them for the protection they gave us in a real moment of need.
Three years later I returned to Tapia by car on a kind of pilgrimage to thank the people and especially the rice pudding lady for their kindness.)
I took 8 days before the seas were calm enough to forge forward and we managed with great difficulty to get to the port of Carino where we could get real weather and sea information from the local fishermen. Unfortunately the small port was full of vessels hiding from the bad weather so we had to go to Ortiguiera. There conversations with the fishermen confirmed that at that time of the year, when the sea blows the way it had during that last week, it is usually followed by a steady strong northerly for another week accompanied by high southbound waves that lengthen each day. My thoughts were that all we had to do was get past La Coruna and once heading south we could use the bad weather and ride the northerly rollers and kind of Bargesurf our way south along the Portugese coast but first we had to battle our way passed la Coruna which we did managing to get as far as the port of Corme.
Now we were within striking distance of finistere and once we get past cape fisterra we would be heading due south with, according to the fishermen, a constant northerly wind for the next few days.
We waited in Corme and I studied the weather hour by hour, then two days later we took advantage of a short break in the weather and struggled around the cape and finally putting the waves behind us.
Northern bound ships who were battling against constant breaking waves and finding heavy going watched in amazement as we Bargesurfed southbound and at a speed no Humber barge had ever before achieved.
At this point perhaps I should make it clear that there is an Art in handling a barge at sea and in such bad conditions. The vessel itself must be ballasted like no other and in real terms relates to the sea much as a motorized surfboard, although ballasted like that gives the ship a large windage problem, but if the ship is postioned like a windsurf the windage and wind resistance can be a usable element and the ship itself acts like a sail.
To a non Mariner our bargesurfing must have looked quite extreme but to be honest, hour after after of having a 20-25 foot wave holding up your stern just a few feet away and lookinbg down on you becomes normal, smoke a ciggarette, turn and look at the wave, talk to it, watch the white water on top of the wave constantly tumble towards you like the hand of the sea endlessly reaching out for you yet never getting any nearer.
The ride was so fast it was difficult believe my navigation and with each hour that passed our smiles grew, for the first time we were finally making up lost time. We were bargesurfing in the Atlantic and we felt happy that we had made the right decision, we would soon be in the Med and from ther on it would be easy going.
We passed Cape Sao Vincent and into more sheltered waters, what we had done, bargesurfing the entire Portuguese Atlantic coast had been very tireing, so we headed for Lagos to recharge ourselves and our ship.
We entered Lagos but to a pretty bad reception, the authorities were a bit too heavy for our likeing and were asking too many questions and had hands full of forms so we quickly left and made for our secondary port of Portimao.
Even in Portimao we were not welcome, the authorities were again a real hassle as we had no contacts there, perhaps they don't have any Portugese pirates, so after filling our food store and a short sleep we were quickly off for Gibraltar where we had a ship stores agent and 10 tons of Shell fuel oil, which had been paid for in advance, waiting for us.
The sun was shining, the sea was easy, we had egg sandwiches as we crossed the bay of Cadiz then later watched as the rock of Gibraltar grew larger in front of us and as it did so our smiles grew too, we were entering the Med so now the voyage would be simply a cruise.
We entered Gibralter, it was 6pm on the 3rd of November, we were directed to berth near to the HM Royal Navy stores establishment which we did and then I reported to the office of the Captain of the Port who informed us, on behalf of HM Board of Trade, that we were arrested!
“Arrested for what?!” I exclaimed.
“A barge cannot sail in the Atlantic.”
“We are in the Med now!” I said.
“You came here via the Atlantic! You are arrested!”
The captain of the port insisted that until he had an answer from The Board of Trade in London telling him what to do, we in the meantime were to remain onboard our arrested ship.
In effect, in such cases it's the ship that is arrested, we being on the ship are also technically arrested. The ship is not allowed stores and the 10 tons of fuel we had paid for in advance to Shell and waiting to be delivered were not allowed near us, even our simple bags of shopping were inspected each time we entered the port.
Welders came onboard with orders from the Port Captain and the ship was chain welded to the harbour bollards one heavy chain forward and another at our stern.
Arrested and welded to the dock, that was not an easy state to be in when the weather was now so good at sea.
The first thing we did was to get to work with repairing our ship from the blows she had taken so far, we even repainted the wheelhouse.
Although we were under constant observation as we worked, we managed a few hours each day to cut through the chains, using hacksaw blades wrapped with rags as handles we hacksawed through the chains leaving just the tiniest piece of chain uncut so each chain looked intact but we knew it would only need a hard knock with a hammer and the chains would be broken and fall away.
Once we had completed he first pirate rule, 'always be ready to escape',
we started to study our sirroundings.
On the other side of the dock and across about 30 meters of dirty water was the Naval Oil stores with large storage tanks and big pipes all chained up as were the valves. On the other side of the tanks was a path to a guardhouse where the Navy guards patrolled up and down just like guards do, to protect the tanks I suppose. We studied their movements and times,what they did and what was happening.
The days went by and by, we became more and more frustrated at losing so much time, we had been arrested for 11 days and still no word from London and still our fuel oil was refused us.
It was time to react, we had made a plan and we decided to act.
That night we swam across the dock through filthy oily shit water to the Royal Naval side on the north Mole. There a steel ladder in the dock wall allowed us to climb up to the oil depot perimeter fence, we cut through it and crept in on all fours until we got under one of the giant fuel tanks and there we saw what we were looking for. At the bottom of all such tanks is a small drainage valve that is regularly opened to let out the water that gathers at the bottom of the tank.
Slowly we opened the valve and let the water out, the guards passed by just a few feet away, we closed the tap, then when they were gone we opened it again, this opening and closing went on for about half an hour until the water was all out and fuel oil started to flow out. We closed the tap and made our way back through the fence, down the ladder and swam back to our ship, we were very filthy but so happy.
The next night, that would be the 14th of November, we swam across the filthy dock waters once again, this time with a very long hose pipe. We pulled it up the ladder and through the fence but we had to stop there some minutes as two gaurds were standing just a few feet from us talking. Then with the guards gone off doing their guarding we pushed the hose pipe into the valve at the bottom of the tank, that done Colin left me there holding the pipe in place and returned to our ship and a few moments later he gave me the signal to open and I did.
The fuel oil flowed and flowed, the guards marched up and down then they changed and new guards came and marched up and down.
In the four hours it took to fill every tank and drum and everything we had onboard capable of containing fuel oil. I wondered why non of the guards could see me but I forgot I was filthy black and covered in oil and it was night. In all we took 11 tons, a ton or so more than we had ordered from Shell.
It was five O’clock monday the 15th November and the thirteenth day of our arrest and the moment to escape.
Knowing I was being constantly watched, I walked lazily whilst rolling a cigarette to the office of the Captain of the port. “Afternoon Cap.” I said as pissed off as I could sound and look, “Our batteries are low, I want permission to start and run my engines for a couple of hours or so. Is that Ok?”
The answer was no.
I pleaded like a clown with tears in my eyes, we need light, we need a wash and shower and to run the pumps, we need, we need...
He looked at how filthy I was and finally gave in and allowed us to run the engine for no more than an hour, I thanked him so much and shook his hand in gratitude making sure he felt like he was our god.
I lazily walked back the few minutes to the ship giving Colin the thumbs up and as I stepped onboard the engine started. Our engine needed 20 minutes to warm up enough to do the work we needed it to do. So for 20 minutes we made ourselves as visible as we could nonchalantly we swept and cleaned and smoked.
At 5.35 the engine was warmed up just right, still seemingly fully chained to the dock I put my ship into reverse until she was pulling on the chains, Colin hit the chain on the bow with a big hammer and I hit the aft chain, both chains immediately fell away and our ship was free and started moving backwards. Less than a minute later and we were clear of the dock and I started a turning manouvre, as I did so Colin ran down to the engine room and gave me every ounce of power he had.
By the time I had the ship headed for the port entrance all hell broke loose all around me.
The Port Captain was going completely bannanas, by radio he ordered us to stop. I didn't reply, I simply connected the radio to our small cassette tape player and boosted out Rod Stewarts Maggie Maggie May, we had planned to play Sailing but I'd put the cassette in the wrong way round.
Each time the Port Captain changed channels so did I and Rod Stewart's Maggie May blocked all channels.
With all the mess I was causing on the radio channels the Port Captain and in fact all those concerned, were forced to use megaphones and the last time I saw the really stupid Port Captain he was jumping up and down at the end of the dock with a big white megaphone screaming absurd orders in the name of Her Majesty's Board of Trade and other authorities, I smiled a big smile at him hoping he would see it.
From the sea and like out of nowhere a large white pilot boat came to position herself across the port entrance to blovk my escape, they were hailing me. I paused Rod and Maggi May and radioed to the pilot boat and reminded the Captain onboard that his ship was built of wood and could never stand a broadside, I tell you this, I said because I am not gonna stop, then I went back to Rod and Maggie May.
Behind me a small Naval vessel was scrambled, it looked to me like a minesweeper but it had been berthed the wrong way round and needed time to turn.
I was all the time picking up speed, the pilot boat kept hailing and waiving at me but I simply ignored it, then right at the last minute the pilot boat's Captain gave in and moved out of the way.
Behind me the small Royal Naval vessel in it's haste to scramble hit the dock as it tried to turn too quickly and suffered damage to it's bow and was stopped wallowing in it's own chaos of crew running in all directions and not knowing what to do.
I made the entrace just missing the pilot boat and we were out at sea.
The only problem we could have now was the Pilot boat, I was sure that the Captain would chase me and come back for more after losing out at the stand off, so I was very surprised to see him enter the port, infact it was ordered to do so to pick up the Port Captain who was now jumping up and down on the dock and behaving like a lunatic wanting to chase us but it was too late.
I then knew nothing was going to be chasing us, so now the only possible problem would be the Gibraltar Straits patrol ship.
For 24 hours a day a Royal Naval presence is kept in the straits, that day it was a large vessel, I assumed it was a Frigate with hundreds of Royal Navy guys onborad, billions spent on sonar and radar equipment all up and working and looking good.
However unfortunately for them they were at that moment going West towards the Atlantic,the wrong way and to turn around would take them more precious minutes because to turn a big ship in such a busy shipping lane takes time. My speed was never more than 9knots so I was quite easy prey for Her Majestys Navy. I calculated where they would be after their turn and positioned myself very close to a slow moving tanker on the Eastbound shipping lane.
After the Navy ship had turned I also turned and tucked myself alongside a slow westbound ship, then again I turned eastbound, I did this move twice more until the Navy were now infront of me and confused because I was now following them. The Frigate slowed but then I turned south into Spanish Moroccan waters, after four hours of cat and mouse, at 10 o'clock that evening the Spurn Beach slipped into the port of Mellila.
News of our escapade had arrived in Mellila and we were given a heroes welcome and a dozen export cases of oranges, we were looked after by the locals and the guys on the P&O line ship Wild Cormorant, all of whom thought that how we had outrun the Royal Navy was outstanding.
We stayed hidden in Mellila a couple of days then sailed in the night when Her Majesty’s Navy patrol were at their farthest position from us in the Atlantic, I kept in Moroccan waters just in case and hugged the Moroccan coast eastbound all the time looking back west just in case of nasty suprises but none came.
Once again the weather became northerly,after all, it was mid november, the Atlantic northerlies were now cutting across Spain and the Med was getting up, the seas were becoming heavy and onshore, we could no longer hug the coast, I choose to get us in to a forgotten little Algerian harbour called Cherchell ,or as on some charts Cesarea.
The harbour for some reason had no radio and could not be contacted, the sea was now running fast onshore, to get into this little harbour took every skill I had because it was only about 20 feet wider than the Spurn Beach and about the same length but the true reason we were lucky was the fact that until a few days before a broken down dredger was moored for repairs in the harbour and had been there for months, if that vessel had still been in the harbour we could never had entered.
After mooring at the quay we took the opportunity to get some fresh stores so we walked up to the small town passing interesting Roman remains and an amphitheatre. There was very little to buy apart from some fresh bread and eggs. We returned to the tiny harbour to find the our ship had been ransacked! During the hour we had been in the town they had taken everything that was not nailed down, of course none of the harbour guards had seen anything.
Luckily the next day the weather was a little better, although still northerly the wind had eased and we couldn’t get out of this bad place faster enough.
The northerlies continued and it was hard going, we had to stop again dso I decided to make for Bajaia which being larger port Cerchell we thought we would be better looked after, we were wrong, once again after a very brief scout for stores, again bread and eggs, which is all they here too, we were halted at the gates of the port and denied entry but it was only a delaying tactic by the port guard to allow his mates who were trying to ransack our vessel to get off. We had of course locked up well even though after Chercell there was little left to steal!
During the night the northerly wind finally blew itself out and at dawn we sailed for Malta happy to get away from Algeria.
The sea had strangely calmed and I was back to cutting corners along the coast, sometimes in the night I cut it so fine the Dolphins would come to me and warn me of the dangers ahead, I would call out and thank them then change course a little each time they warned me so the dolphins knew I had understood them.
The weather was strange but flat calm and we made good speed passing the Island of Pantelleria and soon after we sighted Gozo and Malta.
We didn’t know what to expect in Malta so we were ready for any eventuality even being arrested again, so once we were in the roads outside Valetta harbour I called the Pilot station who happily informed me I could enter Valetta harbour without a Pilot telling me where to berth and that everything was ok.
The news of our 'Gilbralar Incident' had reached Malta but lucky for us the Maltese at that time were forcing the British presence on the Island to leave and we were received as heroes!
Everything we had lost in Algeria was bought new for us and we were stored and bunkered and well looked after, they even gave us a guard for our ship, unfortunately this guard nicked some of our money!
Outside valetta the weather was mixed, not good but not bad because it was blowing in the direction we were going, so I called the Royal Air Force met office who told me the weather was good and would stay good for the next couple of days all the way to Alexandria our next stop.
I believed them, after all it was the RAF, if you can't believe them who can you believe? so we quickly made ready and sailed.
We left Valetta and were making good headway when exactly 8 hours later all hell let loose, the seas were unreadable and the wind would turn and change direction in an instant. The surface of the sea was white as was the air, visibility crashed to few hundred meters.
We both understood the situation was difficult so we battened down the ship as the best we could and Colin and I tied ourselves together and to the wheelhouse.
The Spurn Beach was being tossed about like a tin can.
I just didn't understand and kept hearing in my mind the RAF guy telling me we had good weather, so what is this incredible weather?
Suddenly we lost half the mast, it came crashing down and over the side it went so quickly it was only a glimse, then the top half of the wheelhouse blew apart with wood and glass flying away from us and as it did so it took most of the radio antenna with it.
I couldn’t hold the ship steady for long enough to do any emergancy repairs or batten down some more and even though I tried every trick I knew to get out of these confused seas I could do nothing, I was calling on all my experience just to hold the ship under control, visibilty was now down to just a few yards, everything was white and the sound of the wind was shrill and with the crashing waves the sound was deadly.
I calculated it must be a force 8 gale going to force nine and we were already losing bits of our ship and wondered how much more of the ship we would lose if it got to force 10.
It was a chilling thought as I watched another piece of tarpaulin rip away from the hold covers.
I had never sent out a May Day and was loathe to do it but I had no choice, with only about a meter and a half of antenna and a tiny voice, tiny because I couldn’t bring myself to scream out a May Day, I pressed the send button and said nothing, I just couldn't do it, so I called PAN PAN PAN which is a type of distress call but at a lower level. I looked at the wobbling lower half of the antenna, frowned, then called again, 'PAN PAN PAN - This is the British Barge Spurn Beach I gave our course and position and never expected an answer but an answer came immediately.
'Spurn Beach, this is the Italian Tanker Caspian Sea from Genova, we have you on our radar and I have to tell you that you're goin the wrong way mate, Grimsby is 2000 miles the other way! Anyway we are closing on your position now and will be with you in minutes, we will put you on our lee side for protection, said an almost recognizable Hull voice.
Colin and I looked at each other agast, how could this be we thought in unison, here indeed was another of destiny’s strange coincidences, the voice from the Caspian Sea was not Italian but an English radio officer, Peter Boast, from West park Hull and moreover he knew of the Spurn Beach. Just as he was telling us over the radio that we were crazy, a huge black wall came out of the white that surrounded us, the black wall was so huge you couldn’t see the top nor the ends of it, it was the side of the Caspian Sea an inballast supertanker on her way to Libya and as she drifted nearer I made for her lee and was in calm seas protected by the massive Caspian Sea.
The radio officer came on again laughing and told us that his Captain is preparing rockets for abandon ship lines and asks if we have explosives onboard or other means to scuttle the Spurn Beach and send her to the bottom rather than be a grave danger to shipping.
This sudden reality made us more down, scuttle our ship? we didn't even want to think about it, it was too hard to accept, our ship, Colin and me had become one, how on earth could we bring ouself to scuttle the ship?
Then the Captain himself came on the radio and I asked him if in his opinion the weather would get worse, he replied laughing saying we were in a force 12 Hurricane, the first Med Hurricane in 22 years!
Well Captain, I said, if this is a Hurricane that means it can’t get any worse can it. Colins eyes and face lit up as I told the Captain of the Caspian Sea that I will not abandon my ship but if he could stand by for 45 minutes we could repair, batten down and make the vessel storm worthy. The Captain said he could give us more time than that but still insisted that we abandon ship.
I can't bring myself to do that I replied and asked him for all the up to the minute info he had on the hurricane. This was about miday friday the 3rd december and the incident was logged in the Caspian Sea's Ships Log.
We hammered 6 and 8 inch nails in everything and everywhere and every piece of spare wood was nailed to the hatches.
The Captain of the Caspian Sea and his always laughing radio officer wished us well with their hearts as we thanked them and said our goodbyes.
The wind was now even stronger but it had a direction and no longer so confused, the white air thinned and visibility had increased to half a mile, I could now see the line of the sea that I could take.
Tied together with Colin I once again turned to BargeSurfing position and we immediately started surfing a hurricane, which ever direction it was going thats where we would end up all I could do was to go with it.
Barge surfing a hurricane is different from the likes of the straight storm we surfed down the Portugese coast because the waves come from behind but from two different angles, so each wave must be calculated. Colin too had to keep a constant control on the engine revs making sure he gave me the best speed possible but cutting when the propellor came out of the water, which it often did.
Every now and then a big wave would crash passed the wheelhouse and along the deck and our ship looked as if it were a submarine.
Just before we said goodbye to the Caspian Sea we put a crate of oranges into what was left of the wheelhouse for food and drink.
The hurricane changed direction several times making navigation a bit tricky, it was a northern swinging sorocco so I knew making it to Crete was out of the question, the only safe thing to do was to push a little more north towards the Greek Island of Kithira.
After 33 hours of pure hell and sick of oranges we saw the Kithira lighthouse right where it should be, all my navigational skills sighed a sigh of relief together, I became so relaxed I almost fell down, it was a happy moment for us both and we managed to roll and smoke soggy roll ups. We rounded the Island point and entered the sheltered waters of Kithira and there we saw about 14 ships of all flags and types, a war ship, sea going tugs, a few tankers and cargo ships, all anchored and hiding from the Hurricane, it was 4am. 6th of december.
Apart from the loss of our main mast, radio mast and half the wheelhouse, we had also lost the anchor, so I radioed to all ships in Kithira bay to ask the for the depths towards the small Jetty, I said, 'All ships, all ships Kithira bay this is the British Barge Spurn Beach can anyone tell me the depth of water at the jetty?.
Well the 14 ships including warships and sea going tugs were all watching us chug by in front of them, they all put thier lights on us and the pier ahead, bedraggled, half destroyed, missing just about everything, we were applauded, ships horns sounded, it felt good. A Russian ship was the first on the radio and over the radio guided me to the small pier at PL AMMOS, we had beaten the hurricane and were safe.
What we had been through and done with a Humber barge was epic but our only thoughts were for our ship, she was a mess and it was sad to see her like this. We got to work on repairs straight away not knowing the ships in the bay were always watching us and were soon on the radio, we want to help, what do you need they asked.
One ship lowered a boat and went to several ships who collectively donated wood, tools, nails, paint,ropes,tarps and glass so we could repair and rebuild the wheelhouse which took us three days.
Three days later and in regular seas we sailed to Iraklion Crete where on arrival we were called into the Port office and chastized for not flying the Greek curtesy flag. I explained about the Hurricane and arriving by chance as we never intended to dock in Greece but it was not acceptable to the Greeks and it took some 45 minutes for them to make their point during which time our ship was once again ransacked and the new unused camera from Malta was gone. Thank you Iraklion.
Just as quick as we could we made ready and sailed due south for Port Said and the Suez Canal.
After the hurricane the voyage in good seas from Crete to Port Said was so easy and uneventfull I can't really remember it.
So we got to Port Said, a pilot boat came out and the pilot took us to a berth along the canal.
We went to the market and bought loads of vegetables and potatoes because we were like walking vitimin C's after eating nothing but oranges for so long.
Of course our agents had paid for our transit through the Suez canal and our fuel bunkers but we were to learn about the Arab word, “Bakshish” It's the word that is much than a tip, it oils the works and without Bakshish most things would come to a standstill.
As we waited for our Pilot and papers to take us through the canal we were visited by a very fat senior port and canal official. After the usual niceties we came to the question of Bakshish, look I said we have nothing but a few tins of baked beans and a couple of cases of oranges, if you want a case of oranges I’ll give you one.
“Oranges? What do I need with oranges?, close the door and we can make fuck you and me, Bakshish yes?” said the official all smiles.
Big as he was I grabbed the official on deck and told him if he wants fuck then get the fuck off my ship! As he left I shouted after him, “You wait till I get to Jeddah, big problems coming to you sunshine!”
A couple of hours later he returned, this time he was all meek and mild, “Please no speak to anybody about what we talk about ok” he asked.
I looked at the papers he was carrying, are they our sailing papers? I asked. He said they were, I took the papers and told him we had never spoken before.
As it turned out months later, the Fat man would prove usefull in future dealings allowing me through the canal with ships who’s papers were not always “perfectly” in order.
It took us two days to get through the canal because we had to wait the night in the Great Bitter lakes, where to our great surprise the nights are bitterly cold.
We got the last few stores and cigarettes with our last pennies in Suez when we dropped off our Pilot. We celebrated being the only Humber barge to pass through the Suez Canal with a beer at the bow of our ship, then we pushed on in calm weather through the Gulf of Suez and the maze of oil pipes and rigs to the Red Sea.
We entered the Red sea, we were on our last leg and there was no more bad weather only nice calm seas.
Then a fuel line broke and before we knew it was leaking badly and we had lost a lot of fuel, it would have been difficult to arrive in Jeddah with the remaining fuel so I decided to put into the lone port of Yanbo in Saudi Arabia to get just enough fuel to get us to Jeddah some 20 hours or so farther south.
It was Christmas day, Yembo I found to be an extremely difficult port to enter, from the roads a ship must zig zag around coral reefs and rocks like an S with and extra long leg. We entered gingerly, phone calls were made and we were bunkered with the small amount of fuel we needed to get to Jeddah after we were given painfull cholera injections and ploughed through heaps of paperwork. This made us late so we decided to stay in port the night. We were invited to join a quiet Christmas party onboard a German cargo ship and had a nice shower followed by nice german christmas food.
We sailed out of Yambo at 2pm boxingday after a morning of paperwork, I gingerly retraced my course through the unmarked Yambo reefs back out to sea. This unexpected detour to Yambo and the experience gained there was later to prove a very valuable asset.
Dolphins were playing all around us as we picked up speed, the weather was strangely perfect, the sea like oil, it was a couple of hours before dawn and we made the Jeddah roads or we though we had, we had lost our anchor so seeing four ships at anchor I moved towards them. At a distance of about half a mile I knew something was wrong, the sea was black like oil as was the sky, there was no horizon and no vibrations from the sea, I ordered full astern, Colin didn’t ask questions and gave me maximum reverse power, we slowed down slowly as the Spurn Beach churned agonizingly back on her wake whilst still going forward, then when we were hardly moving forward anymore the nose of the ship lifted just a half a foot and so very gently it kissed the coral reef just for a second and then she was going astern and backing away from the dangerous reef, there was no damage.
“How did you know that reef was there?” asked Colin.
“How do you speak with your engine?” I replied.
We held off in the roads for a few hours until it was good light and then we felt our way in and berthed at Jeddah.
We had nothng left, no food, no soap and we had been re rolling our own dog ends to get a smoke for two days. We had however saved one bottle of beer and the first thing we did as soon as we were berthed was to walk up to the Spurn Beach’s bows and drank a mouthfull of beer each then smashed the bottle on the ships bow so the beer ran down her bows, we didn't know that alcohol was forbidden in Saudi Arabia and we got some strange look but who cares, it was the last beer and the best way we could think of to thank our ship for getting us there and completing an impossible voyage.
We had completed our mission, no barge has ever gone so far.
That night sitting and relaxing in the hotel, dressed in new clothes with full stomaches we already missed our ship, our Spurn Beach, tied up alone at a dirty and dusty cement quay in Jeddah Port waiting to start her new life.
Our sadness at leaving her over ran any thoughts of celebrating what the three of us had achieved.