Dick Durham: The sight of a shipwreck rouses strong emotions and strange impulses. Was I acting as rescuer or wrecker?


Each wave hit the boat broadside with a loud slap and bashed her hull against the rocky sea wall. Her starboard bilge keel was smashed off, just a row of ragged teeth protruded where it once had been. Her mast shook to the beat of the breakers, its halyards rattling as the autumnal gale relentlessly battered the shore with pulverising force.

Her leeward portholes had been punched in. As the sea rushed into the cabin, she rolled onto the rocks with a crunchingsoundandasit retreated, sucking out the contents, she rolled back into the element that was destroying her. Away went a half-filled jerrycan, propelled by tide and wind.
She swivelled onto the rocks once more and again she swivelled back.

This time the disembowelling seas dragged out a headsail from a cockpit locker and left it trailing in a stream of warps fouled around the pushpit. Next a plastic box of flares joined the flotsam, followed by a locker lid, then a maroon-coloured vinyl bunk cushion floated off, undulating over the swell. A child’s toy boat, a plastic bilge pump, a fender all bobbed away in turn. I looked on like a rubbernecking motorist who slows – stops, if he can – at the scene of a motorway accident.
But it was close to High Water. Soon the tide turned and the receding seas became frothy fingers grasping harmlessly at the beach. The crippled sloop had dug her port bilge keel in the soft sand of the beach, the other lay shattered on the sea wall. She lay over at an angle, half- on and half-off the land, part-way through the metamorphosis from yacht to wreck.


“As the sea rushed into the cabin, she rolled onto the rocks with a crunching sound”

I disentangled the profusion of warps and sheets, which were lying in knotted streamers across the sand, coiled them and placed them back aboard. I retrieved two headsails from the weed-strewn shore, flaked them as best I could and stuffed them through the smashed windows.
The wind had not eased and the sea would be back that night to continue its ham-fisted surgery. So I climbed into the boat and retrieved two anchors: one a small CQR, the other a
Danforth, lay them out to windward, dug them in and attached them to warps. All they would do would be to prevent the boat driving further up the rocks, little else. Bilge water was leaking through some rents in her hull beneath the bilge keels. It was unlikely she’d even float.

I took a closer look. She was badly fouled: an inch- thick crust of barnacles covered her bottom. The propeller was disfigured with growth. I looked through the cabin window again. The engine, a Stuart Turner, was waterloggedbutcakedin rust. It clearly hadn’t worked in years. This deduction was backed up by the fact that she also sported an outboard bracket on her transom. Everything was covered in mildew. Nobody, it seemed, had been aboard in months.

I checked the fathom or so of mooring chain dangling from her Samson post. The links were silver with wear and so thin they wouldn’t have served as a child’s bracelet for a week.
Perhaps she’d been abandoned, forgotten on a swinging mooring until an unseasonal gale found the weakest link. Perhaps I should be ‘salvaging’ rather than acting as a Coastguard. The thin line between rescuer and wrecker has a long, undistinguished history on all coasts…

‘Hello, thanks very much for putting out the anchors!’ A voice from atop the sea wall broke my covetous reverie. ‘But I’ve got the yard organised,’ he continued. ‘They’re going to haul her out.’ A silver-haired gent in sea-boots and a club-badged yachting cap had turned up with a wheelbarrow and a grandchild to help gather the scattered belongings of the stricken craft.

‘Can’t understand it,’ he muttered, convincing neither me nor himself. ‘I’d only just put a new shackle on the mooring.’

I was glad to leave the scene as rescuer.


Dick Durham