Tuesday, 30 April 2013

A runaway at sea - 8


The concept of luxury comes in many forms. For some, it might be a night in a five-star hotel, or a diamond necklace; for others it could be a good harvest or having a regular job. It often depends on the circumstances of the person being asked.
     I have several notions of what is luxury, one of which could be considered rather odd and perhaps banal. It is, quite simply, to take a daily fifteen-minute break from life and sit somewhere quietly with a cup of coffee, whilst enjoying the flavour of a bar of milk chocolate. The taste of warm coffee blending with the melting sensation of chocolate on the tongue triggers a journey of silent but relaxed reflection on all manner of things.
     Substituting the coffee with a cup of tea doesn’t work and the bar of chocolate is essential. It is one of my daily ‘fifteen-minute moments’ that I crave for.
     Another one of these ‘fifteen-minute moments’ is the unexpected ‘highlight of the day’: a happy, sad, exhilarating, frustrating, and sometimes surprising learning experience that springs from nowhere and makes the day memorable. Such daily moments should be universally mandatory.  
     Just before my seventeenth birthday, I received a letter to say that my application for a passport had been granted and was ready for collection.
Aged 16, going on 60.
     I hitch-hiked to London from the south coast with excited expectations. As soon as the passport was in my hands, I went in search of the nearest café where I could sit and view this incredible document. I bought a cup of coffee and a bar of milk chocolate and settled into what was a double ‘fifteen-minute moment,’ I reflected upon when I might get to use this magical paper carpet and to which foreign shores it might take me.
     I tried to hold on to the last square of chocolate as long as possible, but it blissfully melted away on my tongue and I was left to face reality once more. I leaned across to a nearby table and took a London Evening Standard that someone had forgotten, and casually flicked through it.
     Deep within the pages I spotted an advert in the classifieds: ‘Wanted immediately. Deckhand to help deliver yacht to Spain. Return fare paid. Call Capt. G.., Tel No …
     Was this some incredible lucky happenstance? I wondered. I quickly flipped through to the horoscope page and looked up Aquarius, expecting it to say, ‘You are going on a long journey …’ but all it said was, ‘You must be watchful of spending more than you can afford.’
     Undeterred, I telephoned the number. I was not a sailor but I had occasionally experienced helping to haul in lobster pots off the Sussex coast during cold winter days at Eastbourne; I therefore knew I could handle rough weather so what was there to lose?
     The telephone number was of a bar called ‘The Down-Under Club’ in Earls Court – a hang-out for expat' Australians. I heard the barman call out over the hubbub of bar chatter for a Captain G...
     ‘Hello! Who’s this?’ slurred the voice.
     I explained the reason for calling and he said: ‘Can you cook?’
     ‘Yes,’ I answered. ‘I am in the hotel industry.’
     ‘We are sailing at nine o’clock tonight from the Tower Bridge pontoon, can you be there by five o’clock to help load the stores?’
     ‘Yes,’ I replied.
     ‘In that case, be there, ready to sail and don’t be late. Report to Alan onboard the m.v. Floranda.’
     With that, he rang off. I stood there in bewildered amazement. I couldn’t believe it had been so easy. I had less than six hours to return to the south coast, gather my few belongings together and get back to London.
     It was dark and a thickening fog shrouded the jetty when I arrived at London’s Tower Bridge. I was half an hour late and my rucksack of worldly goods felt light upon my back. With a heightened sense of anticipated excitement, I boarded the relatively small motor vessel called Floranda and called out: ‘Is anyone around?’
     A young man, not much older than me, stepped out and introduced himself as Peter. He was an Australian who had also answered the advert. Then, a chap aged about thirty appeared in oily overalls and said he was the captain’s mate, but whether he meant his friend or Ship’s Mate, we had no idea. He too had only just been recruited and was busy trying to get to grips with the engine.
     He took us below through a noisy, smelly engine room full of blue haze and into a space where Peter and I were to leave our bags and would later bunk down. He then set us to work loading stores piled up on the jetty.
Sand banks at estuary of River Thames
     At eight o’clock, I prepared some food and Alan told us that the boat, an ex-Cornish fishing vessel, belonged to the captain’s mistress in Mayfair and was to be delivered to Spain, where it would then travel on to the west coast of Africa for research work under charter to the National Geographic Magazine.
     Our departure time of nine o’clock came and went without any sign of Captain Graham G....
     ‘Not to worry,’ said Mate Alan. ‘There is too much fog to sail tonight.’
     At eleven o’clock, a very inebriated and bad-tempered captain staggered aboard and ordered Alan to, ‘start the engines, it’s late, we are leaving.’ Peter was well versed in nautical terms from his sailing days in Australia so I followed his lead as we cast off.
     It was a real pea-souper of a fog. Peter and I were posted forward on lookout duty. All around us foghorns blasted their eerie presence; occasionally we came within almost touching distance of large ships towering above us as we made our way painstakingly down the River Thames. Despite the captain’s foul mood and over indulgence of alcohol, he seemed to know what he was doing.
Rough seas in Newhaven harbour
     The fog thinned a little as we passed Greenwich and I was sent below to get some sleep. I roused at 7 a.m. and all seemed strangely quiet and calm. I went topside to the galley to prepare breakfast and saw that there was a distinct lack of water around us; at some time during the night our esteemed captain had run us aground on a sandbank at the mouth of the Thames – he was in a foul mood.
     We floated free on the next high tide and made our way out into the English Channel where gale force weather closed in around us.
     We battled against fiercely cold winds and choppy seas all day until about 2 p.m. when the captain declared that the ‘Decca’ navigation system was malfunctioning and we would have to pull into shore at Newhaven on the south coast of England to have it repaired.
     It was 22 January, my seventeenth birthday, but I kept silent about it. I had not told my parents, or anyone else, where and what I was doing. I was, to all intents and purposes, a sixteen-year-old lad running away to sea on a Cornish fishing vessel. I wondered what adventures lay ahead…

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