Loss of a crew

Every time we lose a good shipmate the sea gets bigger. That’s the only thing about the solo sailor I covet: that he’s never diminished by the loss of others, quite the contrary, he can only grow in strength, for life’s certainty: its end, must one day be faced by us all…alone.

So, as Christmas approaches, news comes to me this week that my friend and crewman Nick Finegan is dead. It hardly seems possible that a sailor so vibrant, so intelligent, so loud can have gone. I pinched myself and to make sure that he did once exist I dug out my old log books.

There was the time we took Powder Monkey, my mahogany Alan Buchanan Yeoman Junior 30 from Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex to Scheveningen, Holland. We had a schoolboy as third hand and let him sleep all night sharing the watches between the two of us. The following morning we were in the middle of the North Sea scorching along with a south-west Force 6 over the quarter. The youngster came up and paled at the sight of the following seas, but Nick reassured him. Nick had to leave us in Amsterdam and we were both sorry to see him go. The two of us continued to the Frisian Islands and I had good reason to recall Nick’s description of my out-of-date charts as ‘Jurassic’ when we ran out of water in the Waddensee.

On another cruise Nick complained one night about the clutter of lights along the south Essex shore almost blotting out the swinging riding light of an anchored yacht with which we had a near miss. ‘Hard to pick it out against the glare of all the wife-swapping parties in Thorpe Bay,’ was his characteristic comment.

Another time he was trying to pick up the leading marks entering Orford Haven in Suffolk: ‘You’ve got to stay in mid-channel when the church tower is half-way along the bungalow. I can see the church tower but where’s the bungalow? Oh it must be that one – no windows upstairs!’

But I will never forget the entry we made into the River Canche, France in Almita my old engineless 26ft bermudian cutter built in 1906. The flood tide was so strong we lost all steerage way and were swept in, mostly on the wrong side of the navigation buoys, until the Etaples harbourmaster came out in a high powered dory. ‘Do you have a problem with your engine?’ he shouted. Nick, who spoke some French, replied: ‘No problem at all, we don’t have one!’ The harbourmaster looked horrified as we rounded up, dropped the anchor and dragged towards the fixed road bridge which the tide was tearing us nearer and nearer to. The old fishermen’s held though, and when the tide eventually eased we warped across to the pontoons of the marina.

Later, that same trip, we had to run back from the Bay of the Somme to Boulogne as the wind freshened to gale force: too much for an attempt at entry for St Valery. Almita surged along with three deep reefs and the jib hauled down on the bowsprit end. The dinghy snapped at her painters as we surfed down the following sea and threw several bucketfuls of Channel water over her gunnels every time she snubbed. I thought we’d lose the tender as the wind kept building and I recall Nick’s comment as we pulled the giant groyne of Boulogne abeam and prepared to gybe: ‘I’m going to pull that mainsail across before the wind knows it’s changed sides.’

Goodbye Nick, you came in like a lion and went out like one too. Life made no lamb of you.

The photograph shows Nick Finegan at the helm of Powder Monkey in the middle of the North Sea