Home Page Sundowners
by, Peter "The Poet" Utber
The Ketch, Aloha rose to the steep swells as she sailed along under full mainsail and number two yankee jib. It was a dark night, just a fingernail moon standing watch through dark clouds. The wind was blowing a fresh twenty to twenty five knots from the direction that we were attempting to sail. We were making slow headway, and my leg was hurting a fair bit.
Graham Leevers, Aloha's skipper and owner peered at Erky, sitting alongside me on the starboard
We're being headed badly, I think we'll give her a hand with the engine.
He disappeared below and we felt
the vessel shudder slightly as it fired.
I distinctly heard a groan follow Graham up the companionway steps, and I wondered if he had stood on Blue in the gloom below.
Erky allowed the yacht to come into the wind more as the additional drive of the propeller increased our speed to six knots or so. Spray flew up high from the now plunging and rearing bow and hammered against the three of us in the cockpit.
Erky looked the part in the glow of the steering compass light. He was wearing an old sou-wester fisherman's hat that belonged to an era long past.
Spray dripped off his nose and chin
as he held the wheel by a spoke. His eyes gleamed with every wave that washed over the deck and hit him in the face. Erky was enjoying himself.
Erskine Beverage Kelly, alias Erky, or Ned to others, was eighty four years old. He had twinkling eyes and a strong chin. As a youngster Erky had learned to sail racing dinghies with a good degree of success. When the war broke out he joined the Royal Australian Navy, his posting resulting in a position on an Australian frigate.
Whilst crossing the Gulf of Carpentaria, the big engine in the warship broke down, and the frigate drifted helplessly for two days. The weather was bad and the engineers
were unable to effect repairs.
The ship was rolling drunkenly, the cylinder head could not be removed and they were a sitting duck for any flight of Japanese bombers that might stumble upon them. The threat was very real, Darwin was being bombed constantly. For this same reason they had to maintain a strict radio silence as well.
Junior grade lieutenant Erky Kelly had endured this long enough. He plucked up his courage and approached the skipper.
If I may be so bold, sir. I might have an idea how to overcome our problem.
And how's that, lieutenant? the great man asked.
Erky explained to the captain about his sailing knowledge gained before the war. I believe that if we break
out the large white canvas we use as
a sun awning whilst on dock, we may be able to rig it up as a sail.
With the captain's consent, Erky and his team of able seamen rigged the canvas to the funnel and stretched it back to the radio tower. The frigate responded and slowly picked up way, pushed along by the stiff south east trade wind. At times the strangely silent vessel saw her speed rise to a lofty four knots. They sailed her into the quiet lee behind Groote Eyland and carried out the necessary repairs.
Upon finally reaching Darwin, the Navy showed their appreciation to Erky by promoting him to Captain, and placed him in charge of the submarine cables and boom nets that protected that busy port for the rest of the war. He even had his own command, and would regularly steam to Townsville for supplies.
The wind howled in steadily from the south east. Not a light was evident anywhere on this paddock of water squeezed between North Abrolhous Islands and the Western Australian coast. The spray rattled heavily against the hard old mainsail, ran down along the boom and poured down Graham's neck. He seemed oblivious to the fact, however. This was our fifth day on board and the skipper probably thought it an opportune time to have a wash. Never mind that he was nearly as old as Erky. Graham had lived on board his beloved ketch for years, sailing the Coral Sea and the Indian Ocean. And many times he had battled down the west coast, as indeed we were doing right now.
The engine faltered, then picked up again. We all looked at each other and said nothing. The engine lost revolutions once more then abruptly stopped altogether. Aloha fell away by the bow and leaned far over, the port side deck pressed far under the rushing seas. Green water climbed the coaming and sloshed the cockpit, partially filling it.
Bloody fuel filter must be blocked.
Graham clambered down the heavily canted companionway steps, made a couple attempts to restart the engine, then gave up. Our skipper eased back into his same spot in the cockpit and fiddled with the jib sheet to see if the old girl would point any higher. We were now heading for Port Gregory which was a long way off our intended track. The crashing and bashing had eased slightly as our speed had dropped with no assistance coming from the engine anymore. I groaned inwardly for I knew too well that we would reach Geraldton before dark the next day. My right leg had been broken for three days now, and the pain throbbed and knifed mercilessly. It was swollen to at least twice its normal size and looked grotesque.
None of us had really been surprised when the engine, a stout four cylinder Perkins diesel, had failed. The fuel tanks of most yachts have contamination laying on the bottom which often clogs the filters when stirred up in rough weather. The Aloha was forty years old or more, and her tanks probably were a host to all sorts of weird and wonderful foreign bodies. Changing the fuel filter and bleeding the air from the system in a small pitch black engine room whilst under hard sailing conditions is almost an impossible task.
I hunkered down deeper into my
wet weather coat which was wet on the inside as out. The knuckles on Erky's left hand which held the steering wheel shone faintly as the moon broke cover for an instant. The seas stood up high all around, white crests tumbling down into the troughs like waterfalls. I thought about the steering wheel, an old wooden job,
to take my mind off my leg.
Some years before, Graham had been sailing back from the island of Mauritius to Australia, a trip that took
a few weeks. Along the way, several hundreds of miles from any land, one of the spokes of the wheel had worked loose. Because Aloha did not sport such a luxury as an autopilot, it was necessary to have someone on the helm all the time. Araldite glue was used to repair the loose spoke, but the helmsman kept grabbing the spoke
and pulling it out of its socket before the glue had a chance to harden. Ingeniously, Graham painted the spoke with honey and the helmsman
or helmswoman soon learnt not to grab it. The glue finally set and the wheel was as good as new.
We slogged on for a few more long hours. I was tired, but pride would never allow me to go below while these two old salts showed no outward signs of discomfort, sitting bolt upright and chatting away to each other about nothing in particular. For them a trip
at sea took as long as it took, and that was all there was to it. The years had brought to them the true patience that a sailor must learn. So what if we did not arrive tomorrow. There was always the next day.
A head appeared in the companionway. A crown of red hair hung down raggedly over a very pale face. Terrible eyes, deeply sunken into hollow cheeks stared at each one of
us in turn. His mouth was a white slash that one would have normally associated with a corpse. His lips actually moved, but no intelligible words were heard.
This was Blue, our young crew who had been so excited about this trip until it had actually started. He had very quickly succumbed to seasickness, and had spewed continuously for a few hours until nothing was left inside.
Still he had wretched and heaved, his arms grasping the sheet winch and his head hanging over the coaming. Finally he had retired below and curled up in a foetal ball on the floor of the main saloon. The bilge water had risen somewhat, and the contents that smelled of fish and oil flowed around him. Every time the skipper stepped below he would either stand on or fall over poor Blue. He was not having a good trip.
Blue disappeared below again. A gust of wind, stronger than usual, screamed through the rig and laid the ketch well over to port. The foot of the mainsail tore away from the boom with a loud rip. Immediately a thunderous flogging above our heads galvanized us into action.
Erky gripped the wheel tightly and held our course. I crawled out of the cockpit and made it to the base of the main mast. I knew we must reef the sail, and quickly before it was reduced to tatters. I then noticed that the line through the outer reef point had not been fitted for some reason.
To pull a reef into a sail is not a difficult task under normal circumstances. Usually a permanently fitted reefing line is threaded through
a cringle some distance up the rear edge, or leech of the sail. To reef, or reduce sail one simply hauls in this reefing line from the mast while lowering the halyard. This effectively removes a large portion of the sail being presented to the wind, de-powering the rig.
Graham produced a line from somewhere and climbed up onto the cabin top. By leaning far out against the boom he could just reach the cringle in the sail. Standing up on tip toes, his stubby old fingers tried valiantly to push the tassel end of the rope through the cringle. The sail flogged and cracked madly and defied every attempt he made. I sat at the base of the mast and watched proceedings with interest. There was nothing else I could do until Graham had reefed that line and passed it to me.
Just then, to make matters more interesting, the mainsheet came out
of its jammer in the cockpit, and allowed the main boom to swing away to port. Our skipper fell over board into the black, cold, mad sea.
Despite his age Graham was a strong man. Fear played its part too. He had managed to keep hold of the reefing line and hung on grimly. I could see him being towed through the waves, not far from the rail of the boat with
his arms over his head. I knew he would not last very long for he was under the water more often than not.
I crawled back along the cabin top while Erky pulled the boom back inboard with the mainsheet. I reached back and grabbed the reefing line.
With adrenalin fed strength I pulled with all my might. Graham probably weighed about twelve stone, plus the drag of his wet weather coat and other apparel he had on at the time. My shoulders popped and my leg shot pain through my body. Slowly I pulled until Erky could reach over the rail and grab the wet weather coat by its hood. There was no point in grabbing Graham by the hair. He didn't have any! The gunwhale rolled under the water as a big swell passed beneath the yacht, and our skipper hauled himself onto the side deck.
Graham shook himself like a wet dog but did not say anything. I was still hanging on to the end of the main boom, so finished off the reef line job while I was there. After crawling forward to the base of the mast again, I tensioned up the reefing line and halyard, Erky tended the helm and looked for the wind angle that suited Aloha best. The main sail stopped its flogging and a relative silence and calm overcame us all. The fine old jarrah planked, Bunbury built, ex Cray fishing, nearly fifty years old Bermudan ketch fell into her groove and made steady headway towards Australia, forty miles to our east.
My leg was thumping away with spasms of pain after all this activity. Three days earlier we had anchored
at the North Abrolhous Islands. The Cray fishermen that live and work there between March and August every year had made us welcome to their lonely cluster of islands where the waters are crystal clear and the corals superb.
The morning after we arrived I had helped Jeff, a resident Cray fisherman carry a defunct kerosene refrigerator out of his shack. It was heavy and the muscles in my arms protested under the strain. Somehow I ended up holding the top of the refrigerator as
I backed down the steps leading from Jeff's shack. Suddenly, and with no warning, the top of the refrigerator separated from its body and fell down onto my right leg, just above the ankle.
I heard (and certainly felt) the bone crack and laid pinned until other hands lifted the monster off me. It hurt like hell, and I could do little but sit in the sea for the rest of the day. Next morning we had sailed from the island, but only the Wallaby Group, where the famous shipwreck, Batavia had been discovered some years before. One reason for our sailing trip had been to catch a feed of fish. The skipper knew of some lumps that assured us would deliver up a good feed of jew fish and snapper.
That night and next day we drifted over these lumps and slowly filled the icebox with fillets. The fishing was quite good I must say, and helped take my mind off my leg. It was only this morning that we had finally stowed the fishing lines and set sail back to Geraldton, seventy miles to the south east.
Graham and Erky yarned away, swapping stories as we ever so slowly closed the mainland. After a while I decided to have a spell on my bunk, located up in the fore peak on the starboard side. I carefully climbed down the companionway steps that led to the main saloon. I made out the prostrate form of our junior crew member wedged in the corner by the compression post, oblivious to all that had just transpired on the deck directly above his head. I ducked my head under a beam and stepped into the forward cabin, my mind on the snug comfort that I knew awaited me in the deep bunk with the strong wooden rail.
The forward cabin in Aloha was a rather tight affair to negotiate. A toilet was mounted on a floor beam with the lid at the perfect height to bang my injured leg on. This I managed to do successfully, and spent the next ten minutes sitting on the blasted thing going through what athletes refer to as their pain barrier. All the while the great wooden bow reared and plunged with grim regularity. Stacked around me were bags of sails, spare lines, and a fine collection of flotsam that Graham had fallen in love with over the years, as sailors do. Every twenty seconds or so I found myself totally weightless, flying through the limited space of the forward cabin. Flying in formation with me were the sail bags and every thing else that resided there. Then we would all hit the floor together as the bow rose to the next wave and met us on our own way down. And all this in the dark.
Above my head on the starboard side awaited my trusty bunk. Painfully, and between episodes of weightlessness and pulverization I stood. My eyes (that had not known proper sleep for days) watered and my head swam. As
I grabbed the rail to my bunk I became aware of a peculiar green glow radiating from my blankets. My befuddled brain pondered on this most unusual phenomenon for a while, then realizing the glow was from minute phosphorescence creatures that live in the seawater in these parts. My bunk was so wet that it glowed in the dark!
I hung on as Aloha plunged again
and watched a solid gush of sea squirt in from the leaking porthole directly above and form a miniature green puddle on my bed. So much for sleeping. I returned to the cockpit once again and told the two Old Salts about the glowing bunk. They both laughed delightedly and started telling wet bunk stories that led to other stories, that kept us going until dawn.
The wind eased somewhat as dawn ushered a new day. The skipper had another go at the engine, with success. As the day wore on the seas settled down and conditions became relatively mild. Aloha chugged along with still a little breeze helping the motor push us over the long ocean swells that rose to greet the Australian coastline ahead. The Geralton wheat silos stood out sharply, illuminated by the afternoon sun and allowed us to shape a course that would safely miss the extensive reefs in front of the town. Blue stirred back to life, his face changing colour from green to its normal red hue. Only his eyes spoke of the rigours of seasickness, and remained steadily fixed on the fast approaching mainland.
Finally Graham manoeuvred the Aloha alongside her pen in the small boat marina in front of the port authority building, and we retired to the Yacht Club for a shower and a stiff drink. It had been a grand five days, even with the crook leg (the tibia had broken in three places it was later confirmed by a doctor). I had considered myself fortunate indeed when Graham had invited me along the week before.
The opportunity to sail the old Aloha and in company with two of the old salts of the sea that are fast disappearing from our shores and our lives was a chance too good to pass up.
Peter informs me that this adventure took place in 1990. Last year, Peter visited Graham, and he is still living on Aloha in W.A. Erky died some years ago, about age 92.
Peter and Di's home, the ketch "Leah"