John Muir feels his way in fog down the East Coast In the summer of 1913 and is saved from the shoals by a novice crew’s hearing
‘The fog was of that quality in which one is certain to see wraithly figures of one’s imagination’
John Muir describes the event:
My 18-ton gaff yawl, Chula, was lying in the yacht harbour at Lowestoft ‘in all respects ready for sea’. I was setting the jib in stops when I noticed a forlorn-looking group consisting of a youth and two girls standing on the pier, where my stern warps were fastened to a bollard.
‘You’re a lucky man to have a ship like that,’ said the youth.
‘Glad you think so. Come on board and have a look at her if you can spare the time.’
It was plain that none of them knew anything about yachts, and the listless uninterested attitude of the two elders made the work of entertaining very heavy going. Down below, things were
made a little easer by the younger girl who looked on the whole arrangement as a glorified doll’s house.
I slipped into the forecastle where Coxton was at work and told him I wanted to ask these people to stay to supper.
They were actors who had woken up one morning to the knowledge that the manager had levanted with all the cash after having failed to pay their wages for a fortnight and they were left penniless. That same morning their landlady had seized the girls’ – who were sisters – luggage and turned them into the street, and he was expecting the same fate.
‘Ah! If only we could get to Southend. There, in Southend, we would find salvation,’ said the youth. They had a friend in the Southend area who could help them find work.
‘I am sailing for Chatham at dawn tomorrow. It is very little out of my way to take you with me and drop you at Southend.’
By the end of the tide we had struggled past Orfordness and then our progress was very slow. The wind had a tendency to veer to the east and fall lighter. That meant fog for a certainty as night fell, and the prospect of being caught in the crowded Barrow Deep in a fog and very light breeze was so unattractive that I made up my mind to take the channel known as the Wallet, and pass into the East Swin by means of the Wallet Spitway. By taking this route I was not likely to meet with anything more formidable than one of the local fishing boats, and the damage sustained would be more moral than material. One of my most persistent nightmares is the sudden appearance of a 40ft steel prow aiming straight at my midships section.
The day passed slowly, the tide ebbed and flowed, meals appeared and were consumed at their appointed times, my guests idled and yawned, and finally at about 10pm, they decided to turn in.
Now with the darkness the sky was clear overhead, while the fog was of that quality in which one is certain to see wraithly figures of one’s imagination appearing every time you try to pierce the filmy veil. On the port hand could be heard the wailing protests of ships against the conditions under which they were compelled to navigate, while the regularly spaced groans from the light vessels gave warning of the danger of the narrow channels.
In the moonlight the younger of the girls appeared on deck and at that moment Coxton came aft from the forecastle where he had been straining his eyes and ears to the utmost.
‘I can’t hear a thing, sir. The bell buoy can’t be working.’
‘Not enough sea to swing the clappers,’ I said. ‘Better try another cast of the lead.’
‘What are you listening for?’ asked the girl.
‘A bell buoy, which ought to be somewhere near us.’
‘What does it sound like?’
‘Just like any other bell; more mournful than most, perhaps.’
The girl had apparently lost all interest in the proceedings and was seated on the deck, leaning her back against the companion. She yawned several times and the next time I noticed her she had stretched herself out and was lying with her head on the hard teak planking. I picked up a deck cushion and was approaching to offer it to her when she suddenly sat up, looked wildly around and called out:
‘I hear it! I hear it!’
‘Hear what?’ I questioned.
‘The bell buoy! It was just like a church bell tolling. I heard it again! It’s in the deck!’
My ear was glued to the deck in an instant. Sure enough there was the faint sound of a tolling bell, and it was irregular so it could not be a submarine signal from one of the lightships.
I almost collapsed with relief as the buoy loomed ghostly in the spectral light, which was a compound of dawn, fog, moonlight and night.
Messing About in Boats by John R. Muir was published in 1938 by Blackie. It was reprinted in 1939, 1942 and 1944
John R. Muir
In 1918, a year after the Great War had ended, John Muir was in London for a medical with the Admiralty. That night he took in a show in a West End theatre. There on the stage was a dancing girl he faintly recognised. She was the young girl who had found the Spitway buoy six years previously. Muir was taken for supper after the show by the girl’s fiancée – also a Royal Navy officer. ‘I liked him because he reminded me of you,’ the girl told an astonished Muir.
Muir was a Surgeon Rear-Admiral retired who was, at the age of 66, commissioned as a sub-lieutenant RNVR in September 1939 and appointed as navigator and watchkeeper to HMS Campeador V, a vessel of the Auxiliary Patrol Service, built in Dartmouth in 1938 and designed by Norman Hart. Muir’s rank was recommended by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. In June 1940 she was blown up by an enemy mine while on passage to Portsmouth and Muir was among those killed.
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