Are you in distress? an extract from the log of ‘Mignonette’, 1974

This remarkable extract of a rescue at sea on 31 July, 1974 is based on the log book entries of ‘Mignonette’, owned by David Grainger from 1969 until some time in the early ‘80s. David’s young son is alone on the helm and spots a red flare, David recounts the tale as it unfolds . . .

I heaved a sigh of relief as the land loomed out of the mist.

We had just, only just, managed to weather Little Hangman Point and sail into the calmer waters of Combe Martin Bay before the foul flood gathered strength. Main reefed right down and only a little staysail set, we had beaten down the Bristol Channel from Minehead for seven hours against a rising WSWly which reached Force 7. Now we were in a position to dodge the tide and work the eddies down the bays to our destination, Ilfracombe.

Our Club had organised a week’s cruise in company from Pembroke Dock over to Somerset and Devon. A motley flotilla of six boats set out originally. Besides my 28’ LOA gaff cutter ‘Mignonette’ (nominally an auxiliary, but in practice the engine was so unreliable as to be useless) it included a 40’ deep-draughted Hillyard, a Folkboat, a Van der Stadt 26 footer and a large Downey-McAlpine catamaran. We were now down to four; one had stayed at Dale; the skipper of the catamaran had doubted her ability to get to windward in this wind and sea so remained in Minehead’s snug harbour. Poor visibility with frequent rain squalls had quickly swallowed up the others a short way into this passage. The strain was so great that a little later we had carried away our port staysail sheet fairlead and we had to rig a jury lash-up to carry on.

As a bit more of the coast appeared, I took bearings and went down below to plot our position.

‘A RED FLARE!!’ shouted my 11 year-old son Rich, then alone at the helm.

As I made my way across the cabin, for a split second I wondered whether he could have been seeing things in the murk and the low cloud. But he had first ‘gone to sea’ at three months old, his carry-cot wedged between the bunks of a 20’ gaff sloop; at four I put him into a sailing dinghy and pushed him out from the bank on the end of a very long line; at six I had a small sailing dinghy built for him; at eight he took his first night watch alone at sea, telling me, ‘You go down and get some kip, Dad, I’ll be all right.’ My doubt evaporated, I had to trust him.

‘Where-away?’ I asked. He pointed to the NE. My heart sank. I had no alternative but to put up the helm, ease sheets out into the open Channel and surrender some of the hard-won ground we had struggled to make.

‘ALL HANDS ON DECK!’ I called below. My other two crew, Pete and Joe, tumbled out of their bunks and came up dragging on their oilskins. Another two parachute flares following in quick succession confirmed our heading and we schooned along down wind and sea, rousting out warps and fenders on the way in preparation for boarding if necessary.

We could now see our target through the brume. Lying a-hull tossed by the waves was ‘Maramy’ the Folkboat. Very quickly we were close aboard and hove-to while I hailed her. She had ripped her reefed mainsail from luff to leech and shipped a big sea down her open companionway which had swamped her engine. Owner Graham had his wife Louise and crew Pat aboard. Did they want to be taken off? ‘No, just towed to ‘Combe!’

‘Mignonette’ was now not likely to make that port herself in any case until a long time after the tide turned again, let alone towing a yacht almost as big as she was.

‘Set your jib and run back up to Minehead,’ I advised, but a noise in the sky above alerted us to an Air Sea Rescue helicopter, so we stood off and on to await developments. Shortly the Sea Cadet vessel ‘TS Bideford’ hove into sight, apparently radioed by the coastguard. We veered away and the helicopter disappeared.

‘ARE YOU IN DISTRESS?’ hailed the Bideford’s commanding officer through his loud-speaking trumpet. ‘No,’ replied Pat. ‘Yes,’ said Graham.

‘ARE YOU IN DISTRESS?’ repeated the ‘Bideford’. ‘YES!’ Graham shouted, and ‘Bideford’ manoeuvred close and passed a towing warp across. Pat reluctantly secured it to the Samson post, and ‘Maramy’ was towed slowly north towards Swansea, over 20 miles away. Alarmed by the precise words which had been exchanged, I was concerned that she would be the subject of a salvage claim so we tacked and closed her once more.

Out of the mist came the ‘Combe Lifeboat ‘Lloyds II’ and a long three-cornered altercation developed. ‘Bideford’ altered course to the SW and was making, I would estimate, about a knot over the ground when Pat went forward and cast off the tow. In short time the coxswain with great skill brought the Lifeboat within a foot and heaved over a warp, so once more ‘Maramy’ was under tow towards ‘Combe. The would-be salvors melted away into the murk.

Logbook extract, ‘Mignonette’, 1974

So ‘Mignonette’ was left alone in an empty sea to flog away to windward until the tide turned. It was now a good Force 8 and we had been set up-Channel for several miles. Later for a while the wind eased a little, Force 6 maybe, but it was a long, hard, wet beat to even hold our own. Eventually, five hours after sighting the flares, we once again weathered Little Hangman Point. The wind backed and piped up again carrying away our starboard staysail sheet fairlead, calling for a second jury lash-up. In another hour we were anchored in the Range at Ilfracombe to sort our gear out, then moved into the Outer Harbour to moor with three anchors.

Soaking wet, cold and tired we eventually got ashore to find ‘Maramy’ moored in the Inner Harbour. Graham and his crew were carousing in the Pier Tavern with the lifeboatmen. The coxswain told us that Bideford’s commanding officer would indeed have claimed salvage. He had a reputation for it and they wanted to prevent that happening again. Mind you, free beer all afternoon and evening for the whole lifeboat crew, including those ashore, cost ‘Maramy’ a pretty penny. Her name is now proudly emblazoned on the Lifeboat Service Board for 1974.

first published in Gaffers Log, July 2017
David Grainger, Bristol Channel Area