Saturday, 5 April 2014

Lost in the Pacific (IV)

This is just one of a series of around fifty old newspaper articles that I have been reading. I have been researching from old newspapers and magazines. Covering the last 200 years or so of life on the inland waterways. With particular interest in the major issues of the day that were effecting the canals. The most active periods for evaluation and change, has always been just prior, during and shortly after the two world wars. It should be remembered that between the wars the ownership of some of the canals changed hands as the railway companies bought up the waterways to get reduce competition. What is not clear is the effect this early form of asset stripping had on the viability of the inland waterways. Its good to take a look back at what people were saying and doing in the past. Most surprising of all are some of the problems that beset the canals back then - are still prevalent today. Reading old newspapers can throw up some rather interesting stories. Here is what we would call today a public interest story.

Caveat: Some of the articles are difficult to read and even using modern electronic  scanning and text conversion methods. The odd punctuation, word or character may have been transcribed in error. 



The first puff threw my boat off its course the second, which followed closely behind, caused my tiny craft to turn almost completely around. I corrected my course and headed for the island again, but by this time the first preliminary puffs of wind had developed into the preparations of a steady gale. In a few minutes the sea was whipped into violent waves that began to break over the bow of my little cockleshell by the bucketful. I baled the water out of the boat with one hand while holding the tiller handle with the other, and then noticed to my consternation that, in despite of the fact that the motor was churning full throttle in the direction of the island, the island was getting no nearer. A few strands of floating seaweed showed that I was not making an inch of progress,  the force of the wind being as great as  to completely neutralise the power of the motor. Meanwhile the waves become miniature mountains and I caught glimpses of the palm fringed shores of Chepillo only during the brief intervals when the boat hung poised on a crest. Once over the top of a wave, she would go coasting down the next watery slope and as the following on-coming wave  loomed into view it seemed inconceivable that the little craft could ever climb it. 

Wave after wave broke over the bow and in spite of my frantic bailing it seemed that in a few minutes my cockleshell would be swamped. "It is now or never," I told myself, as I glimpsed the distant shores of the island over the top of a great roller. "If, I can't get to that land now, its the deep blue sea and Davy Jones' locker for me!" With that I got oat the oars and began to row, after tying the tiller to keep the boat on a course dead ahead. I realised that relaxing my efforts with the baling scoop put me in grave danger of swamping, but rowing to help the little motor seemed to be my only possible hope. It was all in vain, however, for before I had taken ten strokes the wind increased in violence until I could no longer lift the oars against it. As I pulled them out of the water it felt as if the blade-ends had fetched up against a brick wall, and presently one oar twisted in my band flatly, so that the blade clawed against the wind. Almost instantly it was whisked out of the row lock, and all but wrestled out of my grasp. Simultaneously the boat sinking and rolling broadside to the wind. Slithering over the top of a blue mountain of water just as the crest of the wave blew of into space. A great mass of foam broke over my back, washing me bodily into the stern sheets, where I all but knocked my front teeth by crashing into the tiller handle. But for this check I think I should have gone clean overboard! 

I dared not attempt to stand erect, but I managed to get to my knees in about six inches of water, with the boat almost half swamped. One more wave such as the one I had just taken broadside I realised, would send my little ship to the bottom. By this time the boat had swung clean around and was going with the storm, and my chief concern was to get the water bailed out of her. The motor had been drenched, but continued to sputtered a bit it seemed to shake the water out of its system somehow in the fashion of a dog  emerging from a swim and continued its faithful "put putting.'' By this time I had came, to the conclusion that any attempt to reach the Island, or any other point of dry land all of which lay in the- teeth of the gale was utterly out of the question.

In deed, it was a matter of grave concern if I could even keep the boat afloat running before the storm. I succeeded in getting most of the water baled out and then I discovered that, going with the gale, I could get over the tops of the waves bow on literally blowing off the crests as they broke without taking much water over the side.  

Chepillo Island soon vanished from view, and from the speed with which it disappeared it was evident that  I was heading straight out into the gulf of Panama at a prodigious rate. What would the end of this mix up be? Would I ever see land again? And, if so, what land? These were the questions that turned over in my mind as I ran before the wind, climbing the mountains of seething water, and delving into the boat with the baling-scoop. My chart was sealed up in a watertight tin tube, and I dare not take it out to look at it because knew that to do so would drench the chart and ruin it. Yet, from my memory of it, I knew that two possible method of salvation were open to me. If could run before the storm, to weather it out, and keep the boat heading west, I might be able to cross the Gulf of Panama a distance of approximate three hundred miles and get ashore in the vicinity of Cape Male, the southern most point in the Republic of Panama. If I missed Cape Male, the next land would become the islands in the middle Pacific or even the coast of China, eight thousand miles away. A voyage that knew full well neither my boat nor myself could ever live to make. If could hold a course only a degree or two north of west, my chance of reaching Cape Male would be fairly good. 

Providing I could keep the boat afloat. The plan also offered additional attraction in that the run to Cape Male would take me directly across the tracks of all its vessels passing in and out of the Pacific coast of the Panama Canal. Knowing that the shipping through the Canal now numbers about twenty-five vessels per day it seemed almost incredible that I could pass through such an armada of vessels without being sighted and picked up. With these thoughts, however, came the realisation that my supply of petrol was entirely inadequate to operate the boat cross the Gulf of Panama under power. I should do better, I reflected, to save what gasoline I had for getting into the path of a ship once one was sighted, meanwhile relying upon the sail for locomotion in the desired direction. I immediately crawled astern, shut down the motor and in spite of numerous drenching and being thrown the full length of the boat several times. I managed to loosen the clamps and detach the little engine from the stern. Then I dragged the motor amidships, and lashed it to the floor gratings with a handy trunk strap This task was completed with the boat about a quarter full of water

This started a frantic renewal of my effort with the baling-scoop. About five o'clock in the afternoon the force of the wind abated a little, but it was still blowing a gale, with a sea that ran in mountains of blue-green water with crests of hissing foam. Running before the wind without motor, sail or  rudder and unable relax my efforts with the baling-scoop. I had great difficulty in keeping, the boat bow-on with the sea and storm. Every time the tiny craft swung round broadside to the waves she would wallow over the next crest to take water aboard that required a full ten minutes work with the scoop to get it out again finally, I decided to try the sail. I got the mast in place and securely lashed after half an hour of alternate shifts between the mast and the baling-scoop. Another twenty-minute struggle, and I succeeded in getting the removable pole fixed and pinned down. 

Then I unfurled the sail, which almost instantly stretched out as tight as a drum-head, threatening to pick the boat out of the water with the speed she immediate gained down wind. Finally I sat down on the lee boards where I could watch the sail and the surrounding mountains of water, handle the tiller with one hand and man the baling scoop with the other. In a few minutes I was scudding before the wind literally sliding off into space as the sail pulled the boat up the top the billows. To my unbounded delight I found that the sail was driving me ahead so fast that the waves didn't seem to be able to catch up and diminishing the quantity of water that came aboard and allowing me to reduce my efforts at the baling-scoop from almost incessant labour to a spell about every half hour. 

Running before the wind in this fashion my spirits began to revive. The cold fear of death which had been upon me from the beginning of the storm almost forsook me. The possibility of reaching Cape Male or sighting a ship seemed likely that I became aware of the fact that I was hungry. There was no telling how long I should have to subsist upon the contents of that precious case  but I managed to relax my hold on the tiller long enough to break into it. Then I got back into the stem again, and found there the enjoyment of sitting munching a ship's biscuit and nibbling at a careful ration of cheese.

(Continued in part V) 

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