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Six Hours In The Water

SIX HOURS IN THE WATERSunday October 2nd 1988, a day that will be forever branded into my memory. It all really started the day before. I'd just come in from a  short fishing trip on a 20 metre wooden trawler of which I was the captain. We'd done extremely well so all of us were keen to go again as soon as possible and we'd agreed to muster at midnight the same day.

That night I strolled down to the fishing harbour at Newlyn in Cornwall. It was a beautiful evening, not a breath of wind and good visibility. On reaching the boat I was surprised to find that Greg, the mate, was the only crew member to turn up.

"That's it then, knock it on the head till tomorrow," I told him.

"What for? We can handle it." Greg replied.

Greg was extremely experienced in the job, it would be hard going, but we could cope.

We steamed off with just the navigation lights glowing in the dark while we took turns to steer the boat and as we neared the fishing grounds I went below to get changed. I was just going to pull on my sea boots when Greg came through the cabin hatch and clattered down the ladder.

"There's something wrong," he said, "She won't answer to the helm properly."

I was just about to reply when we heard a mighty bang followed by the sound of splintering timbers. Tons of water came pouring into the cabin, the engine stopped dead, the lights went out and the boat pitched violently to starboard.

Panic struck we tried to find our way out, but our once familiar cabin had now become an alien place. Through sheer luck my foot struck what I realised was the ladder and I climbed towards the galley with the ladder leaning backwards at a crazy angle. My footing was not good and my right foot slipped off and struck Greg. I heard a cry of pain, but the blow probably saved his life as it served as a marker which pointed to the ladder. We made it out to the after deck and I could see that the fore end of the boat was under water with only the whaleback showing. I climbed the side of the galley casing to get the liferaft, but in the dark and confusion I couldn't free it from it's cradle.

By now the whaleback had gone under and the stern was rising higher out of the water.

"Leave it," shouted Greg, "She's going to take you down."

"I'm not leaving without this," I screamed.

But it was no use and I was forced to dive over the rail into the sea. We swam away from the boat and turned to watch as the boat sank beneath the surface.

Then there was a silence, I felt that if I spoke the very air around me would fracture. I looked across at Greg, he was wearing a life ring and there was another alongside him. His face bore a blank expression and then I saw his eyes focus as a thought stirred inside his head.

"We can't leave them ashore like this," he said and that prompted me into action. I swam towards him, donned the other life ring and tied their paynters together.

"What's the crack then skipper? asked Greg.

I started to laugh.

"Now what?" he asked.

"I must be the only captain afloat without a boat," I answered.

There are many boats that pass the south west corner of England, but they were well inside our position. If we could swim to the shipping lanes there was a chance we might be spotted. We set off with me swimming breast stroke while Greg was forced to swim on his back because the following seas kept washing his smock up over his body. Greg had a watch on and after an hour we were able to see the odd coaster passing a mile or so ahead, but my God I was cold!

"How you feeling old buddy?" I asked.

I very nearly drowned when he answered,

"I wouldn't wish this on my ex-wife!"

It was now 3 a.m and two hours later found us in the outer shipping lane as daylight crept into the sky. Suddenly I heard Greg thrashing around in the water behind me. I turned around to see Greg warding off a black backed gull that seemed intent on having his eyes for breakfast. We attempted to swim into the paths of passing ships, but out here they were few and far apart. Both of us had problems with the sea birds from time to time which was annoying to say the least. Some of the boats were as close as 200 metres, but we were not seen.

Inshore all the vessels hug the coast to shorten the route and more or less steer the same course, if we could get there I felt confident of rescue. We abandoned the outer lane and set off across the separation zone that kept the passing ships apart. Just after 7 a.m I saw a large white ferry boat heading towards us from the east. I knew this vessel having seen it many times and it ran a regular service between France and Ireland. It was heading our way so we swam as hard as we could to try to intercept it. Soon it was obvious that it would pass within 80 metres of us and surely one of the passengers must see us. On the after end of the boat three men stood smoking as they watched the sun come up. We shouted till we were hoarse, but to no avail and we watched her stern grow smaller as she disappeared over the horizon.

"Oh well, I don't like Guinness much anyway," said Greg.

By now the seas had risen with the wind and there was a quite a swell running with us. It seemed pointless trying to be spotted in these conditions so we set off for the distant shoreline. I could just make out a buoy in the distance which I knew was situated a mile out from a headland and we seemed to be heading straight for it. If we could climb on that then we must be seen. I looked to my right and saw another coaster coming our way, but judging by the angle of it's hull I figured it would pass a mile behind us.

"She's seen us," shouted Greg.

I looked again and sure enough her bows had swung towards us.

"No she hasn't," I explained, "She's just altered course to go round Lands End. Jesus, 6 hours swimming and now we're going to be run down."

We tried to swim out of it's path, but by now our strength had all but left us. It's bows towered over our heads and our bodies vibrated with the beat of the engine. The most worrying thing was the ever present whoosh whoosh whoosh of the propeller. Fortunately the vessel had a bulbous bow and the bow wave from this pushed us out to the starboard side of the boat. We sat there watching this cliff of steel sliding by 10 metres away. I looked up and there was the captain relieving himself over the bridge wing. We shouted up to him and there was a pregnant pause as his brain came to terms with what he was looking at. He held up 2 fingers indicating 2 minutes, then dashed into the wheelhouse. A cloud of smoke belched from her funnel as he threw the gearbox into reverse and she slewed to port coming to a stop about quarter of a mile away in a maelstrom of foaming water.

A metal chute swung out from the side of the boat and a toboggan shaped lifeboat leapt from it's end. It came towards us and we were dragged aboard by Asian looking gentlemen. In less than 10 minutes there was a chopper hovering over the lifeboat and we were winched aboard. The helicopter crew flew us to Treliske hospital where we were placed in intensive care suffering from hypothermia.

Our doctors wanted to keep us in overnight in case of complications, but after what we'd been through Greg and I could not see that life could ever be complicated again. We discharged ourselves and believe me we shifted some beer that night.

My thanks to Greg for his support throughout this ordeal and to the captain of the container ship "Frans Becker" who is the best looking bloke I've ever seen in my entire life!

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