Tom Cunliffe February podcast: A halyard frozen stiff on a winter morning evokes memories of icy hawsers and the fastest way to lose a week’s pay

“That is how I ended up losing my week’s pay in a Dutch bar more quickly than if I’d backed a lame horse at Goodwood”

Last night I slept aboard on the mooring. I awoke to a heavy frost, stirred up the embers in my bogey stove, tossed in a few softwood starters and clapped the kettle on top. While it boiled, I took a turn around the deck in my slippers and dressing gown. The halyard coils were looking a bit unkempt, so I picked one up to sort it out. Rather than a nice floppy length of line, it came off the pin as a solid lump. I dumped it back in the hope that noon might bring in a thaw, then nipped below to warm my fingers at the fire.

As I brewed up, I reflected on a mid-winter day years earlier when I was mate of a British-flagged coasting vessel. As we steamed into the waterway heading up to Rotterdam it was blowing a gale and so cold that the buoys had workers on them chopping off the ice. My station for berthing was on the foredeck with a Portuguese African seaman called João, King of the heaving line.

The headspring was generally the first rope ashore. The skipper would steer the stern into the dock and steam slow ahead against this while we ran out the rest of the lines.

That afternoon, the light was dying fast by the time we reached the city. Our discharging berth was occupied so the pilot found us a plum spot by a scruffy park bordered with bars and further enticements. A deep-frozen dockyard matey dressed in what looked like ten layers of jumble sale hand-me-downs materialised to handle the lines and João got busy with his party piece. It didn’t take an expert to see that this was not going to go well. As he started to split the light line to heave it, it stuck together like fencing wire. He tried a throw, but the coil brought up short on its own icy turns and flopped back against the port bow. I glanced up at the bridge, where the skipper was making unambiguously rude ‘hurry up’ gestures. The ship was about ten feet off the wall, the matey was standing by the bollard losing interest and the head was starting to blow off. The 75mm mooring line was far too heavy for throwing, and all seemed lost when I had a brainwave. Grabbing the chunky rope, the two of us smashed it into a straight line and poked it over the side like a piece of piping. It never buckled until the line handler had dropped the solid loop over the welcoming bollard. Somehow, João and I pounded a few turns onto the posts and the skipper did the rest.

Later, that wizard of the prop-walk and I were hoovering up our fourth genever in a frowsy bar when some chance remark lit me up so brightly that I grabbed the bell hanging above the beer
pumps and rang out an energetic ‘ding-dong’. ‘That means you’re going to buy drinks for everyone here,’ advised my boss, laconically and without visible sympathy. Which is how I ended up losing my week’s pay in a Dutch bar more quickly than if I’d backed a lame horse at Goodwood. The problem now was to come up with a plausible story for my wife. The skipper, a philosopher as well as a dab hand with the direct throttle linkage, gave me some advice, quoting, against all precedent, from the Book of Proverbs: ‘Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise.’

I said nothing when I came home and was never found out until I confessed thirty years later. By then there seemed little point in her stopping my rum ration.

Tom Cunliffe