Tilman gets battered by gales and dodges icebergs in an ageing wooden boat off Greenland


Book at BunktimeIn a bitter north-east wind accompanied by flurries of snow we watched the desolate coast recede. By now, even on this coast, all the ice had vanished, all but some bergs that had grounded on a reef three miles out. These, the last we were to see, managed to give me a final fright. Until we had drawn near I did not appreciate how fast we were being set down on them, what with leeway and current, and that if we ran the boat off we would pile up on the reef to leeward of them. We should have gone about but by dint of sailing hard on the wind we scraped by with little enough to spare. We were going fast and by evening had got clear of the East Greenland current, as we could tell when the sea temperature rose from 35°F. at mid-day to 47°F. at 6 p.m. As expected, the amount of pumping required increased suddenly from 40 strokes to 200 strokes a watch, and next day in a rising easterly wind to over 300 strokes. By evening the wind had backed north-east and risen to a gale, the glass having fallen from 1010 to 986. Once more I was reminded that a falling barometer with a northerly wind conveys a warning which cannot be disregarded.



Throughout the night vicious squalls of wind and rain drove at us without intermission. Not wanting to lose ground to the west by running, we were hove to with everything close reefed. The leak naturally increased, so much so that in one hour 500 strokes were needed to clear the well. This alarmed me considerably and we set double watches, one man on deck and the other pumping. By morning the wind began to take off but Andrew and Colin, unused to this rough treatment after so long in calm waters, were not at all themselves. We searched diligently for a leak that looked like worrying us for the rest of the voyage. Two days later, however, poking about under the floorboards near the ‘heads’, Colin discovered a small stream coming in where a plank had started away from a frame. By fitting a strongback, and shoving oakum and tallow between plank and frame before tightening up, he practically stopped it. Easy enough to describe but the job took two days of hard work.

Three days later we had another gale, happily from northwest so that with only the staysail set we ran before it at 5 knots; and hardly had that blow subsided before it piped up again from north, the squalls becoming increasingly violent as the barometer rose. We reefed down until only about 6 feet of the mainsail’s luff remained hoisted, but by afternoon we had to take the sail down altogether and run under bare poles, still doing 3 knots. We did well to hand the sail. As we got it in we saw that the gaff was badly sprung about a third of the way along from the peak. Nothing could be done at the moment, nor did we have any present use for the mainsail, the gale continuing to blow all the next day.

In all this rough weather, despite our having stopped the leak, she still made a lot of water, most of it by way of the deck where there was always water sloshing about. Certainly things were a bit damp below. The chart table, where the chronometer watch in its case was screwed down, and the sextant on a shelf above, suffered from constant drips. The horizon glass of the sextant began to mist over and became progressively worse so that before the end of the voyage the sun needed to be bright to be seen at all in the mirror. Star sights were out of the question. Worse still, the winding spring of the deck watch broke. I took the time by Colin’s wristwatch, which was pretty steady, backed up by frequent time signals. When the wind moderated we set the topsail as a trysail and with the winds remaining westerly we made good progress.

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Harold William ‘Bill’ Tilman

Tilman (1898-1977) fought in both World Wars and was twice awarded the Military Cross for bravery. Between the wars, his ascent of Nanga Devi was the highest summit climbed until 1950. On an Everest expedition in 1938 he reached 27,200ft without oxygen. After the Second World War, Tilman bought Mischief, the first of his three Bristol Channel pilot cutters.

Over more than 20 years, he sailed to the Arctic and Antarctic to conquer new and unclimbed mountains. His last voyage in 1977 was on an expedition to climb the mountains of Smith Island in the South Atlantic. The tug he was on sank near the Falklands with all hands lost.

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About the book

In Mischief’s Wake by HW Tilman was originally published by Hollis and Carter in 1972 but will be republished by Tilman Books, a joint imprint of Lodestar Books and Vertebrate Publishing, in December 2016.

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