A gripping tale of Outrunning a Sirocco storm off Italy’s southern shore in an 18ft Drascombe Lugger, this extract from The Lugworm Chronicles introduced by Tom Cunliffe
For anyone interested in small-boat voyaging – or indeed, any sailor wanting to get seriously close to the sea itself, The Lugworm Chronicles by Ken Duxbury is a ‘must-read’. I, for one, couldn’t put it down. Ken Duxbury was born in 1923, volunteered for the Navy in World War II, then took up a commission which he held until the mid-1950s.
After a four-year cruise in his 14-tonner, he founded and ran a Cornish sailing school. His book about sailing the 18ft open Drascombe Lugger Lugworm home from Greece with his wife ‘B’ 50 or more years ago takes us so close to the salt of the sea that it’s often far from comfortable. The style of writing is from a different era to our own and bursts with charm. I suspect that it smacks of a Naval ward-room in 1940. We join Ken and B on passage along the south-facing shore of the heel of Italy’s boot. Stand by for a wet ride and some brutal decisions…
Extract from The Lugworm Chronicles
I think I like being lost. One spends one’s lifetime being continuously ‘found’, so getting lost makes a change. Now you might wonder how this is possible along a dead straight piece of coast when the port you’ve just left is behind you, and the port you’re heading for is within 30 miles ahead. But, like most things in life, being lost is a purely relative state.
The trouble is, all those damned ‘Torres’ look the same. Oh, their names are wonderfully different: there’s Torre Chianca and Torre Lapilio, Torre Colimena, San Pietro, Boraco and Molini all standing guard along that low Apulian coast and which, I ask you, is which? Just miss one, or see a hillock which might – or might not – tell its own sad story of ravage and rape, and where are you? You’re frantically stabbing around with dividers and a clock. And anyway you can’t keep checking when you’ve one ear clamped to the well nigh incomprehensible weather forecast.
I realise now that everything was wrong for us that day: we just ought to have stayed snugged up where we were, but B had been so terribly bitten by gnats that it was a relief for both of us to get sails on Lugworm and feel a breath of fresh salt wind.
The forecast had been good: variable Force 3 with possibility of thunderstorms and that was nothing new. If we’d taken any notice of thunderstorms we would still have been back in Otranto. Even so, I soon felt in my more arthritic joints that something might be brewing weatherwise. Inland, over the distant hills, there were the usual grumbles of thunder, but the wind was just too good to throw away; steady south-easterly; even a soldier might have put to sea. We bowled along under genoa, main and mizzen and life would have been blissful had it not been for the changing colour of the sky.
Gradually, outlined in what had steadily become the pyrotechnic display of sheet lightning, we saw the hard black outline of thunder clouds seeming to grow without moving perceptibly. The odd thing was that they appeared to infuse into the air against the direction of the wind – calculated to give any sailor the jim-jams.
By 1000 there was an oppressive heat uncommonly like the Sirocco, but I prayed there was too much easterly in it for that. By 1030 the sky was puce coloured, like an over-ripe Victoria plum, and the wind – still steady south-easterly – was freshening, but what appalled me was the sudden appearance of a swell, rolling up from our quarter. Now if anything will make my hair stand on end, it is swell, for that spells finis to any thought of landing on an exposed beach, be it a lee or weather shore.
“Here B,” I said, “take the helm: I’m going to take a good look at the chart.” Being lost is all very well, but to Hell with it when you need to know where you are. Rapidly I worked back from the last known position. At just under 4 knots we were about nine miles along the coast; Torre Colimena should be abeam. It wasn’t. Mount della Marina, 374ft, should be on the starboard bow, two miles inland. To my horror I realised that we could no longer see two miles inland for there was a thick wall of grey rain sweeping like an express train along the coast obliterating everything.
Batten the hatches
I grabbed the glasses and threw B her oilskin. The beach, half a mile northward, was growing dim in the pall, but already I could see massive breakers pounding up the shingle and sand. Perhaps we could get in there, if we had to, but it would more than likely mean losing Lugworm for she would be swamped and rolled within seconds.
Hastily we stowed the chart and all perishable gear, battening down the locker hatches. The wind was still freshening as the first portentous splash of rain overtook us. Minutes later we were deluged in the roaring hissing storm, fighting to change the genoa for the small jib. I furled the mizzen sail and unshipped its mast, laying the spar along the side deck. Then, with B still manfully at the helm, and Lugworm fairly creaming down the now foaming seas, I started to reef the main.
By the time all the reef-points were fast, and the sheet-block snapped into the leech reef-cringle, it was obvious that Lugworm, even reefed, would be over-canvassed. The wind was shrieking now, a wild dirge, and a glance astern was enough to set one praying; oceans of charging white crests, streaked and flattened by the screaming wind.
It was all happening far too quickly for my liking, this maelstrom. We had to get the jib off her, and quickly, but I did not like being off the helm any longer. One bad broach across these waves and we’d be on nodding terms with the squids. I grabbed the helm. B cast off the jib halyard, then lay along the bucking foredeck to gather in the thrashing sail. For one moment I thought she must have cast off the wrong halyard, for incredibly the mainsail, too, was down and flogging across her out over the side. Then I knew: the mast itself had gone overboard.
In an emergency you think of many things at once. Two thoughts were uppermost: is B all right, and how could the mast have gone?
There was a muffled cry from under the sail. I could see B struggling to extricate herself. Thank God, she came out, white faced but unhurt. “Back here,” I yelled, “Here, on the helm, quick!”
There was no choice now, I had to get that sail and the spar inboard before it filled under water and made the boat uncontrollable. In it came, a tangle of terylene, wire and rope, and I just had time to see the four securing bolts of the tabernacle grinning at me – wrenched up, nuts and all through the massive king plank – and then I was back on the helm and getting the outboard started to regain control.
Lugworm was riding the seas wonderfully. Astern the creamers towered over us ready to burst down on deck and ‘poop’ us. But like a cork she would cock her tail up high, level off, and then as the crest foamed past, sink down again ready for the next; it was superb to watch. But this was no time for admiration: the decision had to be made. To bring her round head to wind and seas and get the sea-anchor out, or to continue as long as we dared under power and running before the wind in the hope of finding some lee?
This is a horrible decision. All one’s instincts are to get the boat’s bow into that wind, but this meant staying at sea through whatever was still to come, and the look of the sky astern was enough to fill one with dread. The wind showed no signs of easing and the rain, driving horizontally, now blotted out the shore even close abeam, though we could still hear the thunder of breakers above the din. Believe me, when it comes to it, there is an overpowering desire to find a lee as fast as possible, and in our position that meant continuing to run under power.
Lugworm was still doing well. As long as we could prevent her broaching and prevent her surfing down the steep seas, we would survive if we could find the slightest indentation in the coast to give some shelter.
I knew from the chart that somewhere about eight miles ahead there was a kink in the coast at the Torre dell’Ovo: the Tower of Eggs. A small tongue of land curved out where the coast swung northward into a shallow bay and it looked as though that torre held all our eggs, for there was no other shelter between us and it. But eight miles! That meant two hours. If the conditions remained static, it was possible; if they deteriorated more there was a grim choice left – to run ashore and say ‘Goodbye’ to Lugworm or try to ride it out, which I knew in my heart was probably the most risky course of all.
By running ashore, one does at least remain moving fast until the final moments when the boat either hits the beach in the surf, or rolls over very close inshore. The alternative of being swamped half a mile off a lee shore would mean either desperately clinging to a foundered boat (I had confidence that she would remain awash), or making a bid for it to swim ashore which would have meant almost certain drowning.
We had already donned our lifejackets, but you cannot really swim far in breaking seas, and not at all through surf, with its ever-present undertow just when, completely exhausted, you think you’ve gained the beach.
No! We would continue under engine, fighting to keep her buoyant.
Now I was torn between two choices; to trail a rope and ease the engine revs so as to slow us down, allowing the seas to move quickly underneath, or to take the risk and speed on as fast as possible. We did the latter, but there was one final hurdle.
Just to weather of that Tower of Omelettes, where the coast swung north a bit, was a shallow spit of rocks. According to our chart it extended offshore for about three-quarters of a mile. I knew that the seas would be breaking even more steeply there, yet the last thing I wanted was to get farther offshore: we were as close to the coast as I dared go, so that in the event of necessity we could run in within seconds. But there was really no choice – to seaward we would have to go.
Little by little I eased her away from the shore, peering ahead desperately to try to make out some sign of the Tower and at last it appeared, a darker patch through the rain. “Nearly there,” I encouraged B who was doggedly bailing, for the deluge was filling the bilges. I knew that conditions close to leeward of that spit would be slightly better. It proved so, and luckily, since it was necessary to motor more across the seas while heading north into the lee of the point. But as we approached the sheltered basin, a grim picture presented itself. Quite unpredictably the swell was sweeping round the end of the spit to break with frightening strength right across the shallow entrance to the little bay. “Lord!” I gasped to B, “We just can’t get in through that!”
Desperately we searched the coast farther on. About three cables beyond the bay a short line of rocks probed out from the shore, and close to them on their far side the sea was quite calm. It was also obviously very shallow, for even from our position we could see the green and brown of weeds and rocks under the surface. It seemed our only hope, for the small natural mole gave a good protection from the swell.
With rudder unshipped and the plate right up, we gingerly nosed round the end of the rocks, watching the seabed shallowing up until finally Lugworm hit bottom hard once, twice, then surged in over a ridge into a small pool only a foot or two deep.
“Phew!” But I can tell you it’s a wonderful feeling, to be suddenly safe after an experience like that. We stood in the boat and looked back out to sea. Under the black sky great rollers were thundering along, their tops lifting in a white frenzy of spray. “Have we really escaped from that?” B croaked.
“We’re lucky,” I assured her, and in my heart sent out a silent message to Lugworm’s designer and builders.
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