|The barque Birkdale|
THOSE OF YOU who know the difference between a ship’s being in irons and being in stays will know that it boils down to speed through the water. Without speed the rudder has no control. So when a sailing vessel is in stays, her headsails are shaking as she goes about from one tack to the other. But when she’s in irons she is pointing into the wind and has lost way. Usually this is the cause of great excitement, for there is often no telling which way her bow might fall off, or if sternway might be involved.
The bigger the ship, the greater the excitement when control is lost in this way, or in another way that I first read about in Frank Wightman’s wonderful book, The Wind is Free. Wightman sailed as a rookie on the large three-masted steel barque Birkdale before World War II. Down on the 45th parallel in the great Southern Ocean, the Birkdale blew out the fore lower topsail in a fierce gale. With the only sail left on her so far aft she took a sheer as her stern rose to a wall of water. She broached to, roared obliquely down the face of the sea and lay on her side.
She staggered up and fled, reeling along in the troughs with her rudder hard over but having no effect. In the hollows between the distant crests of the mountainous seas, her stern would start driving to windward in an attempt to bring the wind and sea aft, but every time one of the huge breakers would slam her on the weather quarter and fling her stern back into the trough.
The crew battled to get more sail area up forward. The struggled to raise the inner jib but as it started to climb the stay it was blown to pieces in a few convulsive shakes.
A few picked hands were sent aloft to loose the lee clew of the forecourse and inch by inch the group at the capstan dragged the clew down to the deck as the sail shook the whole ship like a terrier shakes a rat. This gave her the speed the rudder needed and her stern swung round to meet the next sea.
“As we all held our breaths, watching and willing her to do it, her counter started to rise steeply on the face of the sea,” Wightman said, “There was perhaps a hundred feet before the crest struck her—and her stern was still swinging. Suddenly her tail leaped skywards and the snarling crest broke in thunder square under her counter. From the staggering crowd a ragged yell went out and was snatched away by the wind.” At last she was able to run safely at speed and under control, driving east before the chasing seas and roaring wind.
Every time I read that book my mind boggles at the thought of how big the seas must have been to make a ship that big broach to, to throw her around as if she were a lightweight racing dinghy under too much spinnaker.
The Wind is Free is a beautifully written tale of how Wightman escaped from the rat race, built his own wooden yacht, and sailed her from South Africa to Trinidad after World War II, when small-boat voyages were still rare. It is a classic that deserves to be better known.
In fancy I used to see her running in the big seas. Under a lowering sky and through a welter of angry water she fled, rising and falling, outlined in the whiteness of her speed, magical and swift.
Sometimes she slept upon her own reflection off golden beaches which palm trees barred with shadow. And in fancy I was always with her. This was my refuge from the long littleness of life.
— Frank A. Wightman, The Wind Is Free
“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(4) “Shame, sir, it must have committed suicide.”
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