by Andrew Foote
Any thoughts of allowing emotions to get the better of us vanished as we made open water out past the headland. The sea was running against us sending waves crashing over the bow and as I looked astern, the Marion made for a good photograph.
I took to the radio.
"This is fun don't you think?"
Rob's reply was less than enthusiastic! "I've had more fun doing detention at school. I've already lost a mug of hot chocolate over the fucking compass!"
"Whoops! Any damage?"
"Nah. Only dented pride so I'll survive!"
"Oh well, only another three hours and you can get yourself a refill."
"To include a massive shot of Brandy!"
"Sounds like a plan. Everything okay otherwise?"
"Peachy. And you blokes?"
"Yeah. All good I think. At least there are no alarms to scare me to death!"
"Haha! Hold that thought pal!
Almost sufficient time for me to louse things up. Cath promised me a gourmet snack once I take over."
I heard Cathy laughing in the background then the words "You get a chicken-bloody sandwich, and only then if you ask me nicely."
"I could've done that myself girl!"
"Then why didn't you?"
"My recent track record with cocoa perhaps?"
…… and so it went on.
I took the helm for the next hour then Aruno took over to bring us into Penzance.
Rob called the Harbour asking for permission to enter.
"MV Marion S and MV Conqueror. Fuel points four and five please. We have a consignment for you and I'll get it to your boats once you've docked.
Welcome back both! This is Penzance Harbour. Out."
We docked, then once the fuel containers were brought to the quayside, we winched them aboard and fastened them to the decks.
Two seven hundred and fifty litre heavy duty polypropylene tanks each would give us somewhere in the region of an extra ten hours cruising over and above what we normally carried.
This was, hopefully, a needless expense but we had all decided it was one worth making, then with effluent tanks pumped dry and a fortune spent on diesel, we opted to eat off the boats and hit the Waverley Tavern.
The food was good, the beer even better – even Aruno who wasn't too keen on the stuff, found that he rather liked Timothy Taylor's Landlord.
By ten-thirty we were back on board and looking forward to a sound night's sleep.
Friday morning dawned cold and grey with a persistent drizzle but the wind had eased which we hoped might make the passage to Weymouth slightly more comfortable and by nine o'clock we were headed back to sea and a five or six hour run ahead of us.
Weymouth sort of came and went. The weather showed no signs of letting up so rather than going into town, Cathy invited us to supper on Marion, a couple of glasses of wine and bed.
The run to Cowes was great. The weather had improved to the degree you might've thought Spring had come early but on arrival, the place seemed deserted barring the Red Funnel ferries that plied between there and Southampton.
We were met quayside by the Harbour Master.
"We don't get that many working boats in these days. It's good to see you. Is there anything you need while you're here?"
"I think we're all set thanks, although you could point us in the direction of a decent pub?"
"Unless you're up for a goodly walk, there's nothing much except the Cross Keys by the ferry terminal but it's more of a summer pub and only gets by during the winter by holding bingo nights, Karaoke and the like so I hesitate to recommend it. Are you looking for somewhere to eat?"
"No, not really. We just need to get off the boats and stretch our legs – maybe have a couple of pints in the process."
"In that case, I know the Steward at the yacht club. I'm sure he'll give you temporary membership if I phone him. It's a bit pretentious, or rather the members are. You know the sort, blazers and cravats, talking over each other and boasting about how much their boats are worth. Most of them are clueless when push comes to shove, almost never take their boats out, or if they do, they just go around the island before coming back in again, but that said, the atmosphere is nice and the drinks are cheap!"
"All boxes ticked! We'd better get changed into something less Fisherman though if that's what it's like!"
"Give me ten minutes and I'll let you know. You can't miss the place, right out of the docks and down about five hundred yards and it's on your right overlooking the harbour."
It was nice actually, so nice in fact,, that I wondered just how much full membership set people back.
We were pretty much ignored except by the club Commodore who asked who we were and why we were there.
"Just on a stop-over. Tomorrow we set out for Folkestone, Monday Felixstowe, Tuesday Lowestoft where we'll hang around for a while before making the crossing to Rotterdam and onwards to Brazil."
"Brazil? In fishing trawlers?"
"No. We'll be deck cargo from Rotterdam to Brownsville Texas then we'll see about what options are available to us and take it from there."
He made no further comment and walked back to the bar.
I turned to Rob. "I think he thinks we're mad!"
"Ever considered the possibility that he might just be right?"
"Yeah, quite a lot actually!"
"You mentioned Brownsville and at that point, not only do we not have a Plan B, we don't even have a Plan A and that niggles me. What happens if we can't hitch a ride?"
In truth, I haven't got a clue. I suppose if all else fails, we go solo and stop off when we need fuel."
"Stopping off in a Brazilian port is one thing, we have visas but we've got to get passed Mexico first, where we don't."
"I'm hoping it won't come to that but Brownsville is on the Mexican Border so there's bound to be a Consulate office where we might get more information. Something's bound to crop up – it generally does."
"Ever the optimist, but it isn't just Mexico, it's Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana to name but quite a lot, and now you're going to tell me that they all have Legations or Consulates in Brownsville are you?"
"Probably not, but it's either that or turn around and head back but I'm all for taking the gamble.
What's that windscreen sticker you see on some four-by-fours? "One life, so live it" and that's what I'm going to do.
Up until now, my life has been very slobby. A three or four-day week at the Nelson, messing about on boats, stargazing and generally being a bit of a layabout, but I'm determined to change all that. I'm going to prove to myself that I'm willing to take risks, suffer a bit of hardship and probably get the shit scared out of me along the way, but when I die, I want to be able to have carved on my tombstone, Here lies a guy who never amounted to much, but man, did he ever live life to the max!"
Rob thought about this then burst out laughing! "With you all the way! My round I think!"
Our good intentions of just a couple of pints apiece turned into six, the end result meaning we were slightly pissed by the time we got back on board.
Tomorrow's run was the short hop to Folkestone and with Cowes being a deep water harbour, tides didn't matter and a sleep-in could be had which might rid us from foggy heads.
Nothing special although it's worth mentioning that the cost of fuel was frightening!
I've got used to somewhere in the order of 45 to 48 pence per litre but 53?? Given the quantities we needed, this was an expensive stop-over and I was happy when Monday rolled around and time to set out for Felixstowe.
It was passing the South and North Forelands of Kent when we picked up some heavy seas. The action of the cold waters that came down from Scandinavia meeting with those from the relative warmth of Bay of Biscay and the English Channel together with confusing tides and currents, made for a very uncomfortable ride, so it was good to see the lights of the Port of Felixstowe and the calmer waters of the harbour.
We spent what remained of the evening going throughout the boats checking for damage, opened lockers and so on, but then, once we were satisfied that all was well, I catered for us on Conqueror.
The next morning, I asked the harbour office about the conditions and got a flippant response. "Much the same as it was yesterday and the day before and the day before that. Frightened of heavy seas are you?"
"I just get fed up with the need to strap myself in, but we'll be fine."
The run from Felixstowe to Lowestoft was even worse than the day before. Sometimes I'd lose sight of the Marion as she disappeared into a trough only to reappear riding the swell making her look twice as big as she actually was.
I really wasn't enjoying this but not so Aruno who was lapping it up. The little rat-bag was in his element as he moved around the boat with all the poise and grace of a dancer.
I wish to God I'd never taught him to whistle as it was driving me nuts!
"You're really enjoying this aren't you?"
"Oh yes! It's like a MacDonald's except much better. I'm not just Loving It, I'm really Loving It!"
"In that case, you take over while I get myself some fresh air."
"You're never going out on deck are you?"
"No, I'm just going to crack open a window and break my own rules by having a smoke on board."
"That's bad Mimi-cu."
"What is? Smoking or smoking on board."
"Both. As I'm now the skipper on watch, what if I told you not to smoke?"
"I would never again share a bunk with you. No more kisses, no more cuddles and definitely no more making love together!"
"Have you got enough cigarettes with you or would you like me to go below and get you some more?"
I love him to bits – the little bastard!
I love being at sea, but there are times like today, when the winds are working against the tide, you suddenly realise just how insignificant you are and when super tankers and bulk carriers can get blown off course, it's very hard not to find yourself praying.
Radio traffic was busy which meant we weren't alone out there, but I was mightily relieved to tie off at Lowestoft.
Dry land was comforting but we'd made it safely, our boats had done a sterling job with no hint of problems the entire journey, but that's how they were built – designed to handle conditions much more testing than the ones we'd come across.
We decided to stay put until the weather eased which allowed time for essential maintenance and general housekeeping, laundry and a stock-take followed by an online shop.
Perishables were the biggest headache. Bread we froze down as we did milk. (I'm not keen on that Long-Life stuff. Okay in tea or cocoa but sod putting on your cornflakes!)
Vegetables we kept in a dry store and away from daylight but salad stuff is impossible, even if you chill them and the issue here is, I'm a salad nut!
We did make the walk to the dockyard entrance but it took over thirty minutes and when we got there, the docks looked as if they were annexed from the town, there was nothing to see except dual carriageways and the lights of Lowestoft town away in the distance.
Not the nicest way to say Good-bye to England.
Three long and tedious days later, we got the nod. It was time to go.
No fanfares, no waiting crowds to wave us off this time, only people going about their everyday business, completely oblivious to our departure but there is always compensation – the North Sea was like a millpond and with the forecast indicating a ridge of high pressure dominating for the rest of the week, and this bit, the part of our journey I had been dreading, looked to be just a straight forward run.
This weather in early March is unprecedented. Warmish to the point where tee shirts were the dress of the day, at least on the bridge. We opened all the windows, doors and hatches were bolted open and the opportunity to walk the decks and enjoy the sea-scape was almost intoxicating.
The downside was that the nights were bitterly cold under the clear skies and as we had to steam for at least thirty-six hours working two hours on, two hours off, we had to run the heating overnight, but that was a small price to pay come daylight and yet another glorious day.
We made Rotterdam without incident but forget Lowestoft, this place was – massive!
Basically one major river with many spurs and arms branching off it with ships and boats everywhere. Cranes, and the biggest forklift trucks imaginable together with Stevedores overseeing everything. Containers and assorted cargos getting moved and dumped in a haphazard fashion, but together with a sense of order and organisation. These people were true professionals and ones to be admired.
We opted to take advantage of a Pilot at a charge of €700 but it was worth it as I'm positive we'd have got lost getting to where we should be…… which was directly aside a massive container ship which was docked in an area known as Keppel Verolme.
Our Pilot had a hand-held radio and called the ship and after a couple of minutes, a hatch opened some twenty feet above us and a figure emerged wearing an officers uniform.
"Hello and welcome. My name is Second Officer Carl Schaffer. I can tell which of you is Miss Penfold but which of you is Mr Woolacott please?"
I raised my hand. "I am he, Mr Schaffer."
"Thank you. One of our crew will pass mooring lines to you shortly. They're rather heavy so please can you winch them aboard and secure them to your inboard bollards. We will secure them here and leave it to you to take up however much slack as you see fit but keeping as close to us as possible so fenders might be wise.
This is a rather busy channel, so during the time you're along-side, please keep all deck lighting and aspect lights on for the duration, light your boats like Christmas trees!
How are you for fuel?"
"We're fine for the moment. We filled in Lowestoft."
Once we have you lifted, we can hook both boats up to either a 110v or 240v power feed which will give you all the backup required. Should you need fuel, we are happy to provide as much as you require but we are unable to do this, – safety regulations you understand – until such time as you're secured on our decks and that might be three, maybe four days away.
All of us are looking forward to meeting you, in fact, you have been the dominant topic of conversation since learning about you joining us when we were on our way back from Murmansk.
If time permits, I'll see if our Captain is free to welcome you on board personally sometime tomorrow, but for now, monitor channel one on your radio and if there's anything you need to know, we will keep you updated."
We tied off, rested for a few hours then went for a walk.
What we wanted to see, and hopefully photograph, were our boats moored up against this huge ship in an attempt to draw some sort of comparison but crossing this tributary was a problem.
Help came from a passing vehicle. It wasn't a truck, but more like an open-top people carrier. The driver spoke to us in English laden with a thick Dutch accent.
"Where do you try to go?"
We explained our circumstances, where we were moored and why we wanted to go over to photograph the scene.
"I will take you, also wait and take you back if you like. This is like a free taxi service as the port is large and visiting crew get lost very easily, so if you need to go somewhere, please wait until you see a cart like mine, wave and it will stop for you."
Now this is service!
He took us across the river and arriving opposite our boats, only then did perspective take a hold.
This ship wasn't huge, it was massive and Marion and Conqueror looked like Matchbox Toys. We had been asked to leave all deck and aspect lights on, and so they were clearly visible but as we looked up, our Mother Ship, the one that would take us over the Atlantic Ocean was also lit by powerful Sodium Vapour lamps, but so high above our boats that made it seem as if we were still separated from it.
Cathy spoke all our thoughts.
"So that's the reason he asked us to light up! Christ Almighty, if one of those ships decided to leave after dark, without lights we'd get crushed! No one would see us despite radar and lookouts."
"Yeah. Like minnows in an ocean full of starving sharks."
"Thanks for making me feel better Rob? You can be a right dickhead sometimes!"
Our Taxi-Driver took us back to where we'd parked the inflatable and we made our way back to our boats, but it was stepping onto the deck we really got to grips with how vulnerable we were.
That night, and having reached Rotterdam in one piece, we toasted our good fortune...... and got shit-faced drunk!
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