Somewhere in the Baltic. I am second mate on a big steel ketch delivering it to the Tall Ships Races. We’re barely three months into the commission and already the skipper and first mate loathe each other.
Still, it’s light winds so we’ve got the asymmetrics up: cruising chute, full main and mizzen staysail. My mate Mike is on the helm. At the time, he doesn’t have much sailing experience, but has hangliding, windsurfing and dinghy time. He’s wind aware, knows his collision regulations, is calm and, well, he’s a good helm.
We’re on starboard tack, the downwind boat and we’ve got hard to tack sails up. The black-hulled schooner is on a converging course and a steady bearing. We’re stand on, by every rule of the road the German schooner has to give way. Then there’s another ketch motorsailing into the mix. I know the skipper of this one: knows his onions but she’s an unhandy boat
The German stands on, and on. I know what to do, but the first mate and skipper start an argument and issue competing orders. We’re now at risk of collision with the schooner so I ease the main and we bear away under the schooner’s stern, Mike at the helm. Then the second ketch hurls itself in our path, again, we’re stand on but unless we harden up there’s going to be coming together. Hands to sheets: the bosses sort themselves out and rap out orders we’re already halfway through doing. Mike helms us through it when the ketch yet again crosses our bows – all the signs of an uncontrolled gybe, raised voices – and Mike again, calmly steers us clear. The skipper gets on the radio and asks the German schooner just what the hell he thought he was doing. ‘Sorry,’ said the German, ‘ve ditn’t see you.’
70 foot orange hull, massive, stripy bright sails? Your decks are alive with alert looking young scouts. My arse you didn’t.
Cockpit recriminations, an atmosphere spreads through the boat.
The skipper and mate take their snit below decks.
‘You know what this boat needs?’ Mike asks.
‘Go on.’ I’m thinking: chartplotter, new anchor winch, lazarette shotblasting and painting, new generator…
‘A .50 calibre machinegun mounted on the stern. For dealing with,’ he nodded at the departing schooner, ‘idiots like that.’
‘Oh, you’d only shoot across the bows first. And we need a flip the bird sail.’ A mizzen with a large graphic of a raised finger, to be hoisted when Germans are in proximity. ‘I’d like to give that order. Hoist the flip the bird sail!’
A few days later, we’re alongside at the start of the tall ships race, a four day boozefest which must account for half the teenage pregnancies and STDs in Europe. Big square riggers, ketches and schooners, gawping tourists everywhere. Skipper and first mate have declared a truce and gone to get lashed at some reception, the kids – teenage crew - have gone home so I decide to throw a bit of a meal for the long-suffering sea staff. Chicken escalopes avec parmesan breadcrumb crust and a punchy salsa verde, saute potatoes, a salad and a few bottles of reasonable plonk, not the gutrot pish that the skipper occasionally dished out by the thimbleful. Dinner was held in the sunlit saloon, with people walking past on the pontoon admiring the boats. And ours did look good: a bit tatty, yes, but she’s been round the world and she’d had a few encounters with lock gates, pontoons, piers, dredgers, rocks, seabeds, but fer chrissake: she’s a sail training boat. She was made to bounce off stuff at the hands of enthusiastic teenagers. But she’s got a lovely sheer, and a damn great big, solid ketch rig. You just know that boat will look after you, come what may.
We are about to get into pudding, when my third mate glances up through the saloon window to seaward and reports. ‘Er, Pete, there’s a bloody great big schooner coming straight at us.’
Being the most senior there, I went on deck to oversee the subsequent Cat in the Hat manouvres.
Another bloody black-hulled German schooner, heading for our starboard side at a pace that boded ill. I stood ready to take lines, Mike (for whom some award should be struck) was getting a balloon fender to try to mitigate the worst of what was to follow. I don’t think he had it over the side when Herr Kapitan put the helm hard over, gave it ein handful of astern and skidded 80 foot of wooden schooner broadside into us on the sunny side of half a knot. It takes a lot to shove 45 tonnes of steel (with a keel heavier than your average 36 footer) violently sideways, rocking and ringing like the great bells of Moscow.
But they managed it. No fenders out. What followed next…can it get worse? Germans one and two hurl us ropes. I remember a bow and stern line, no springs, no shore lines. I remember a large pile of spaghetti hurled towards me, the expectation being that I should make off (OK, so far so polite) and keep the garbage aboard my boat. November Foxtrot Whisky mate. I snapped off an OXO and hurled the remains back aboard the German. Mike is shoving about a hundred tonnes of boat off us in an attempt to get a fender between it and us, and straining like his girlfriend won’t thank me for. ‘E was alright till he went sailin with you!’
By now the Germans have put out one (1) scabby tyre as a fender and it is making a mess of our recently painted hull. I have a throbbing in my temple and am starting to stutter slightly, something I have never done before. I have to remind myself that I am related to Germans by marriage, love them dearly and have a lot of affection and respect for a much traduced country and nation. Until the bastards get afloat, that is.
Meanwhile, the rest of the crew are not helping sort out the rolling mongolian unfolding on their decks, they have set up a table and are eating a rather civilized looking late supper, tops coming gaily off biers and chatter flowing as though they had not just done the worst parking manouvre since Noah went aground on Ararat.
‘Our Shem, start the engine.’
‘Haven’t been invented yet our Dad.’
‘Oh bugger it!’
Anyway. We are more or less sorted out when someone appears on deck and hands me a bottle of sherry, a drink fit only for cleaning bilges. God knows what they’d have done for us to get something useful, like a decent single malt whisky: torn our shrouds away with their bowsprit, maybe. Weary I turn away with my third mate and Mike to resume pudding.
‘Er, Pete.’ Mike nods to the German gentleman who is untying the fender lanyard from our stanchions and tying it artlessly onto one of his shrouds. As barefaced a theft as I ever seen in my life.
I cracked. I stormed over and wrenched the fender lanyard from his pudgy grasp, retied it to our guardrail with a German proof knot adding a couple of the fruitiest south German oaths I could muster. He fell back astonished to abused in his own tongue. No one likes to be called a ‘half-dachshund’, nor indeed a ‘fringed testicle’, which is the Schwabisch idea of giving someone a mouthful. He was left in no doubt that a bottle of sherry didn’t do it for me, and I expected springs and shorelines right bloody now and that he was a half dachshund AND a fringed testicle. I threw a few more in: I’m not sure what they meant but if they’re as absurd as all the rest of Germany’s attempts at swearing I’m sure he was crushed.
We headed for the companionway. As I got into the cockpit Mike cocked his imaginary .50 calibre. He wasn’t aiming across the bows this time. And just in case anything like the above ever happens to you, a half dachshund is ‘halb daggl’.