The Journey to Las Palmas


Getting ready to depart Hull was fairly traumatic. None of us had any idea what it was going to be like. I had crossed the Irish Sea and sailed to Isle of Man in some rough crossings, but nothing like what we were preparing for. We were putting on some brave faces and whistling a lot. 

I was assigned as an aft line handler with a tall laconic New Yorker (who wishes to remain anonymous). Our steel cable had broken, so we created a sort of “granny” knot and called it a Schultz knot. 

Much to our horror the hired captain decided that would use our line to “spring” the bow out. We had seen what happens when a steel cable parts. The end flays open and can be very dangerous. Joan Robertson was on the fo’castle when a line split. It flew past her face, missing by inches. Had it hit her, it would have slashed her face into ribbons. 

Anyway, our cable starts to tighten and vibrate under the strain. The two of us quickly ducked around the corner in case the line parted. Our knot had held. As the boat began to ease out, the line went slack, the loop was thrown from the dock and we hauled the line aboard. 

Victoria Dock, where we were moored, had a lock gate in order to keep the water levels high inside. Ships move in and out of the dock all day with comparative ease. Not us! We managed to give the wooden side struts a good clout at we tried to ease our way into the lock combination. The Harbour Pilot on board was making some rather pointed remarks at the captain. Once out of the lock, we were in the river Humber. The pilot departed and we were on our way and on our own. We had been told our destination once the gangway had been brought on board, so no leak could be made. (Secrecy was paramount). 

We made our way toward the river mouth at Sperm Head and the seas were becoming much more choppy. The tide was against us and we were rocking along. Most ships left WITH the tide, not us!  

I remember as we sat down for our first meal, Hank Laarhuis standing by the porthole and saying in his monotone Dutch voice “Look at the waves, they are going up and down, up and down”. Pheobie, who was only just holding on to her stomach screamed at him to shut up and sit down. 

Our mess table was supposed to be fitted with fiddles to stop things moving about too much. Not us! We had forgotten. There we were, plates in one hand and the other trying to fend off two large jars of pickled onions and chutney that kept shooting all over the place. The captain (a born-again sadist) came in and loudly asked “Did anyone fancy a nice greasy pork chop, or maybe a couple of cold fried eggs”? There was a sudden rush out to the ship’s side. (Golden rule; NEVER puke out over the windward side!)

We sailed down the East coast through the night and pulled into Harwich harbour as the weather was cutting up really rough. We anchored in the bay and had to scramble up in the early hours as we were dragging our anchor. Some moored barges had broken loose and were threatening to collide with us.  

Steering was rather difficult to get used to. The compass was positioned above your head, so you ended up with your neck bent looking up at it, rather than where you are going. In order to make up for lost time, our captain took us across the infamous Goodwin Sands, graveyard to hundreds of ships. I remember the captain telling me to steer “No error to Starboard course” as we passed by the masts and funnels of sunken vessels sticking out of the water.   

We came around into the channel, the busiest shipping lane in the world. There were plenty of naval vessels around and the protocol was that, as a British registered vessel, you dipped your ensign in respect. The Naval vessel would reciprocate. The trick was to do it at the last moment, which meant that a navy seaman had to scurry aft on his ship to reply before we were too far away. That used to really piss them off.  

Our Supercargo, Frank McCall, used to try and pretend that he did not get seasick. When we were on the bridge he would come out of the chartroom say he was taking a sighting and disappear around the side. Then there would be the most hideous retching sounds. The bridge crew just looked at each other and shrugged. The guy was as batty as a fruitcake anyway, so why worry. McCall would return to the chartroom and a few minutes later come out “Oh, damn, what was that reading again?” and disappear outside again to the same loud retching.  

We pulled into Falmouth Harbour in Cornwall. A pretty place, steeped in Naval history and smuggling. We were welcomed, but quickly blotted our copybooks. There had been a serious tanker oil spill a few months previously, hundreds of miles of coastline polluted. Falmouth had escaped, mainly due to vigilant work keeping any oil at bay. However, in refuelling, we managed to dump oil some right in the middle of the harbour. The clean-up boats were out very quickly and we were told to clear off. In the haste to depart we failed to secure the anchor home tight, so as we sailed along, it regularly banged against the fo’castle bulkhead. This went on all day and night  

Our engineer was a slob. He used to turn the flywheel that directed the propeller direction by slapping his belly up against the wheel and turning it by an obscene gyration. He had dozens of cans of beer stashed in the bilges keeping cool. He was forever trying to hit on some of the female crew; fat chance of that happening. 

Our course was set for us to proceed west until we came to the longitude that lead due south to Las Palmas. This was fairly easy sailing, calm seas and lots of sunshine. That was, of course until we hit the Bay of Biscay. 

Our strategy had been that when we went to sea, you rigged for the worst possible conditions, even if it was hot and sunny. Lifelines were rigged between the fo’castle and the bridge structure. They ended up saving lives, literally.

That night a force 13 storm hit us like an express train. A couple of us, making our way to the bridge to stand watch were hit by huge seas breaking over the vessel as we made our way aft. If it had not been for the lifelines we would have been lost. We had ropes tied around our waists, a length of line went over the lifeline to make a loop and you held your loop in both hands. Put it this way, we were almost horizontal in the wall of water, the force of it ripped a Wellington boot off one of us as we made our way along.   

On the bridge we were soaking wet. I was on the helm and it was not a case of simply steering, it was a matter of holding on to the wheel. The force of the sea on the rudder was transmitted beck through the hydraulic system and spun the wheel, with me clinging on. I crashed into Tok who himself had been thrown against the bridge casing. It was all we could do to hold on. Fortunately, the vessel was designed to withstand all the Atlantic fury and was virtually unsinkable. 

We had waves breaking over the TOP OF THE FUNNEL. If you read the definition of overwhelm in the dictionary, you will know what I mean. We had 10ft of water rushing across the deck. The boat was pitching around like a cork in a bath. After about 4 hours the storm started to subside and it took several hours before any hot food could be prepared.

After that, the rest of the journey was a doddle. 

I remember having to give a session to one of the crew. He had been “rollercoasting” a bit, (No! I hear you say). We sat in the aft heads (toilet and shower room), a tiny space located right above the propeller. We had a short plank across the toilet seat. That is where he sat. I sat on a stack of crates of oranges with another plank across two other stacks of fruit boxes. That was the table. The air was humid, it was very hot, there were miniscule fruit flies buzzing around and I had to do a Remedy A, Remedy B and 3 S & D’s, all of them listing actions with the meter. Being at the very back of the boat, the pitching up and down was exaggerated as compared to being at the middle. The poor chap was being bounced up and down on his seat, I had to try and hold on to the meter and he had to try and answer the listing questions. We muddled through and got a result.  

It is funny, you get used to the sea swell after a while (sea legs). We learned to put fiddles on the table, keep the number of jars to a minimum, how to eat with a spoon, our food was usually hot, wet and runny, and to keep hold of our plates when the ship gave a sudden pitch.
We made landfall at Grand Canaries one evening. It was a gorgeous sunset, the stark landmass being silhouetted by the setting sun behind it. The next morning we slowly steamed into the harbour under a local pilot. Hubbard came on board, all dressed up in his denim jeans and jacket, peaked cap, trying to look every inch the sailor. He was strutting about the place expounding all his wealth of naval knowledge (none of us had any, so it was all rather interesting – that is until you read his real history, much later).

After getting a briefing from Frank about the trip down, Hubbard went into a real tantrum at the captain for not following his precise navigation instructions (keep well away from the Bay of Biscay) and promptly threw him and our slob of an engineer off the ship.  

We had arrived at Las Palmas.

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