The Mate aboard ‘Curlew’ recalls a challenging passage from Bideford to Milford Haven two years before the outbreak of war, with stark preview of what is to come in the final paragraph. Setting out in fair winds, a storm blew up, damaging a shroud. Taking turns at the helm the crew struggled through the night, swept westwards into the Irish Sea. As the winds drop, the engine fails, leaving the ‘Curlew’ to drift in the tidal currents until making safe landfall at Milford four days later.
It was early summer in 1937 when ‘Curlew’, an old Loch Fyne cutter and a fine sea boat, set out from Bideford for a cruise to the faraway Shetland Islands and back. The owner, known as O.R. was a retired military surgeon and the mate an experienced officer in the Horse Artillery. The hand, who became known as ‘Jeremiah’ on account of his incurable lament and a slowness that nothing on earth could accelerate, otherwise had a good many qualities. He was reliable, eager to please, a good splicer and his cooking performance subsequently surpassed his promise.
We started at 7.30am on June 10, the wind being nil, we crossed the bar north of Westward Ho! under power, course being set NW to clear the north end of Lundy. As we neared Lundy, a breeze sprang up and quickly freshened, and not long afterwards, during a short, after-lunch snooze, I was roused by sounds that gave warning of what was to come. Although it was the last meal we were to have until the evening of the 12th, Jeremiah was jettisoning it all, and not long afterwards the owner followed suit, handing over the tiller to me.
We had hoped to reach Milford Haven by nightfall and have our first night in, but this was not to be. The wind rose steadily and suddenly a shroud parted, a temporary repair being carried out by the suffering Jeremiah and me. But the accident left us feeling anxious about the soundness of the other shrouds and determined to refit at Milford as soon as possible.
Dinner was passed by tacit consent and being the only non-sufferer, I kept the helm till late in the evening, not having the heart to accept the gallant offers of relief made at intervals by the suffering owner, who was far from well and much tied to a small pudding basin. Rain came with darkness and as I sat through a storm of tropical intensity. I realised with dismay that my new ‘oily’ was unsound in a vital spot and left me with a wet seat. What with that and a broken shroud and a weakened mast, life seemed anything but sweet at the moment. Cold wet feet did not mend matters, for I had no time to get into gumboots, and eventually I was forced to ask the owner to relieve me.
Just before doing so, I had sighted a distant light which, with the course set, should have been St. Ann’s at the entrance to Milford Sound. But visibility was so bad we could not time the flashes with certainty, and the owner could only give the opinion that we had probably been swept eastward by the tide and that the light was that of Tenby. Anyway, we decided to bear away to the westward, and it was as well that we did so.
On being relieved I turned in full standing under every blanket I could find to try to get warm. Three hours later at 1.30am on the 11th, I was roused by the owner and got up reluctantly to take the helm again. ‘Curlew’ was now really ramping along in a really rough sea, in inky darkness relieved only by the white crests of the waves. When day broke, no land was in sight but only a waste of grey waters under a heavy sky, and on handing over to the still suffering owner, I congratulated him on missing Wales. In acknowledging the compliment he agreed that we were well out in the Irish Sea and there seemed little doubt that the supposed Tenby light had really been ‘The Smalls’ and that we had been wise to alter course to the westward.
It was important to reach Milford Haven as soon as possible, for the loss of the second shroud would probably entail the loss of the mast with possibly unpleasant circumstances. But no sooner had we gone about than the wind dropped, and then the engine struck and refused to function again before we reached Milford Haven 48 hours later.
For much of the time ‘Curlew’ drifted at the mercy of the tides between ‘The Bishop and his Clerks’ off the Pembrokeshire coast and Grasholm, and to me at any rate the force of the tides were a revelation. We ate next to nothing, for the owner and Jeremiah were persistent sufferers, and even I had little desire for food and consumed no more than four apples and a few biscuits. But certainly no-one was any the worse.
It was Friday morning when we went about to make for Milford Haven, and on Saturday at 4.30 am, Jeremiah, then on watch, called us to say that we were drifting onto Grasholm, caught in a nasty tide ripe. The island was a wonderful sight in the early light, but we succeeded in avoiding shipwreck and the game of drift and miss went on to the accompaniment of lamentations from Jeremiah and plaints from the owner that he would have to give up the sea; certainly by this time he had little else to give up!
Occasionally, a very light breeze sprang up and filled us with hope, but it soon died away and we were swept back by the tide. At 7 am on Saturday, the third day out, when we were within two miles of the entrance to the Sound, being by then really hungry, I suggested food. The owner, O.R., thought we should wait until we drop anchor in Dale Roads, but I pressed my point and luckily I won, and we had our first real meal since passing Lundy on the first day. It was just as well, for at 1.30 am next morning (Sunday) O.R. said as he again handed over to me, “We are out by the Bishop again and you will have a job to keep off the Smalls.
It was a near thing but it came off, and at 9am that morning we dropped anchor off the dock gates at Milford Haven. Of the kindness we received there from the manager of the trawling fleet and his riggers to the fish dealer in the market it would be impossible to say too much. One was made to feel by all that the comradeship of the sea was a very real thing. Rather rashly perhaps we called on the manager when he was clearly enjoying a Sunday afternoon nap, but out need was great, and he could not do enough for us. Just 48 hours later, ‘Curlew’ went out on the evening tide, her crew rested, well fed and clean, her shrouds and bobstay renewed and new points in the magneto.
As we lay that night in Dale Roads, searchlight practice against aeroplanes was being carried out, and the effects produced by 17 searchlights occasionally finding and fixing on an aeroplane were beautiful to watch. We little thought then how soon all this practice would become grim earnest.
The next day we passed the ‘Bishop and his Clerks’ at last, and after a bad bumping in the overfalls off the Irish coast, which again proved too much for the owner and Jeremiah, and a long beat of 24 hours, we went into Holyhead before half a gale of wind. The last night, when we had to get through the heavy race off South Stack light, was a rough one.
Note: ‘Curlew’ went on to cruise the Western Isles, Orkneys and Shetland before returning via the Caledonian Canal and Ireland to her mud berth in Bideford Bay.