Tom Cunliffe introduces a famous extract from Ocean Crossing Wayfarer – the story of Frank Dye's open-water voyages in his Wayfarer dinghy, Wanderer.
When I was a student in Liverpool in the mid-1960s, sailing the university’s Firefly dinghies when I ought to have been studying, the local hero was a young man called Bill Brockbank, writes Tom Cunliffe. His sister attended the same lectures as me.
Bill had sailed to Norway from Scotland with the great Frank Dye in his 16ft unballasted, open Wayfarer dinghy, Wanderer. I only learned the details of this remarkable voyage when I discovered Ocean Crossing Wayfarer, a second edition of which is published by Adlard Coles.
This extract soars beyond a story of indomitable spirit and survival against the odds: it represents the summit of great seamanship. The skill with which Dye and Brockbank coax their cockleshell craft through a northerly storm is officially logged as Force 9, but clearly a lot worse than that at its height.
Their tale is an object lesson in preparation, clear thinking under shocking pressure, understanding the options and, of course, dogged refusal to quit.
The storm hits them on passage from the Faeroes to Ålesund. In subsequent chapters they arrive in good health by their own unfailing efforts. The book, written by Frank and his wife Margaret, is not to be missed.
A full blooded Force 8 was blowing by 1630, and I suggested to Bill that he might like to have a look. His answer was a decided ‘No’.
My view was very impressive — seas long, high and steep, with wave crests cascading down their fronts, and foam everywhere. I sat on the stern locker feeling awed but, surprisingly enough, enjoying such a thrilling sight.
At 1730, under the comfort of the boat cover, I began to write up the log. By now a full Force 9 was shrieking outside.
It was bitterly cold and the wind cut into one’s face like a knife. Bill dozed while I carried on with my log.
Outside, the drogue warp was creaking badly. What a great pity that the Norwich chandlers had been unable to supply us with that 1-ton nylon I had wanted. I was not sure that the half-ton Terylene was adequate for the job.
Almost immediately Wanderer drove back against the sea-anchor. It must have parted, for I felt her swing.
Suddenly, I was choking in a torrent of foaming water; there seemed to be tons of it, all dark green and frothing, pushing me down. It seemed like hours before I surfaced.
I had swallowed a great deal of water and immediately the thought filled my waterlogged brain: ‘If this is drowning, I don’t like it.’
Bill and I were both still in the boat, now both on the port side, and still under the cover, so Wanderer must have rolled completely over, possibly several times. The mast crutch had gone, but that seemed all.
I was still clutching the log. We bailed like hell, but there was not so much water as I had expected; probably the cockpit cover had kept a lot out.
We pulled in remains of the sea-anchor warp and I went forward to tie on a small running drogue – an unpleasant task, but a skipper’s job in such conditions.
Admiring a wild scene
The seas were enormous, rearing 30ft above us, with heavy water collapsing from each crest. I got out a haversack to make a temporary drogue; Bill emptied the other rucksack and, by cutting holes in it, threaded them onto the shaft of the grapnel.
We were only just in time, as the running drogue had now gone. Bill surged the new one, trying to keep us head on to the seas. I paused for a few seconds to admire the wild scene, and then we decided that we must have a larger drogue, and quickly.
Fortunately the mainsail was still rolled round the boom – that could be used as a drogue if I put a lashing on one end so that the sail opened into a cone when pulled through the water. Bill suggested that we doubled the warps. What a good idea! We should have done that before.
Working under the cover, I felt fear – if we capsized, I drowned! By uncleating the end of the warp, doubling it and attaching it by a bowline to the mainsheet, which I had already tied securely along the boom, we made ready.
It was a risky operation to go forward to lead the ropes through the fairlead.
Our mainsail drogue worked well. Bill surged it, while I scrambled forward again to bring in the haversack. Not a hope in hell if I get swept off the bows!
The weight of the grapnel anchor was causing our bags to sink too deep, pulling our bows down into the breaking crests; so I pulled it in, removed the grapnel, shackled a short chain through the holes in the haversack with an empty tin of Shell oil on a 6ft line as a float, and once overboard it performed beautifully.
We started a 15-minute watch system to pull Wanderer into any crest that looked like becoming dangerous. It was very wet, very hard, work.
Bill emptied the water with a bucket as far as the floorboards during his watch and I crawled under the cockpit cover to pump out the rest.
By 2015 it was Bill’s watch and the seas were over 30ft and very heavy. Suddenly a real bad one roared down on us from the port side.
It crashed in and rolled us over. I had a fleeting memory of being thrown clean out of the stern, seeing Bill going under me, then the boat coming down on me.
Down I went into the green depths with tremendous weight driving me downwards. More panic — down, down! Needing to breathe, I choked and began to drown.
We both surfaced clear of the boat and ropes, although Bill had the drogue warps over his head and shoulders. He climbed over the stern; I hooked an arm and leg over one side and rolled in as Wanderer rolled towards me.
The boat was completely full. Bill took the warps forward through the fairleads and began to surge away. He had to keep his head up at all costs.
If he was seasick now, he would lose his strength and determination, and those were the only two things that would keep him alive in these conditions. So I bailed with the bucket and felt dreadful.
The mast had gone, the centre section shattered for about 5ft of its length and its top banging into the side of the boat, only held by the halyards and splintered wood. I was about to cut it adrift by severing the shrouds, when Bill suggested that we ought to keep it. ‘We may want it tomorrow,’ he suggested dryly.
Just then I was more concerned about riding out the gale. However, I undid the shrouds and pushed the mess beneath the cover.
It was now quite impossible to look into the wind. It was screaming, and the tops of the waves were blown completely away.
Within our limited vision the whole sea seemed to be smoking. Entire waves were breaking in a wall of solid water with tremendous roars.
About 2100 hours we caught the inevitable. I just had time to shout to Bill.
We both hauled in on the warps frantically, attempting to pull Wanderer through the crest. She rose gallantly, but was in an impossible position: she seemed to be rising at 60° and there was still a 15ft crest curling above us.
Down it came and we were driven bodily under. With ears roaring under tremendous pressure, and swallowing water, I fought back to the surface, only to discover that Wanderer was lying bottom up.
I had visualised this happening. Now we must find the answer quickly if we were to survive.
I found myself at the stern, and pulled myself round to the same side as Bill, and we climbed aboard. It was a bit difficult with waterlogged clothes and boots full of water, but the bilge runner just gave us a toe hold, and we were able to jam our fingers in the centreboard slot.
With the help of the next wave we were able to roll Wanderer over. We climbed in and found her full of water, right to the very top of the rear buoyancy, and began to bail as waves continued to wash in.
Three times they washed straight over us and refilled the boat, then just as we had become almost buoyant, another wave filled us. I heard myself scream out: ‘Oh God! Give us a chance; we haven’t cleared the last lot yet!’
He gave us that chance, and we took it. Bill hauled in on the warps, to swing Wanderer head on to the seas, and held the cover over us, and I bailed flat out.
At 2345 I shouted: ‘Bill, the boat is completely dry, I shall be damned annoyed if you fill it again.’ That was the wrong thing to have said because immediately a sea roared in from port and Wanderer was rolled over.
Once again I remember being thrown clear, Bill going under me, and the hull coming over on top. Again came the ghastly descent into dark green water, feeling the horrible weight over me and choking back to the surface.
Wanderer lay on her side this time. We climbed aboard to find only 3in of water in her. Most extraordinary! She must have rolled very quickly.
We were very tired, especially mentally, and there was a constant roar, the sting of spray and the strain of judging each wave. The clouds began to clear slightly to the north, but the wind was as strong as ever.
If the wind did not die down before darkness fell we should be in real trouble, for we should no longer be able to see the dangerous crests in time to pull the dinghy round to meet them bows on!
It was pitch black at 0030 hours on Wednesday. We were hungry, but could find no food.
It started to rain, but it would need a torrent to kill the sea. By 0130 it was just light enough to see, and there seemed to be a slight reduction in the wind – now about Force 8, and only occasionally gusting to 9.
We were so cold that it took conscious thought to realise the difference in wind strength, but I started to believe that we might survive. I was amazed at Bill’s stamina. He had shown no signs of failing and was in better spirits than a few days ago.
The clouds were breaking up in the northern half of the horizon, but that did not necessarily mean the end of the gale. By dawn the wind was Force 8 and definitely moderating.
A few hours more of this and the seas would have subsided. It was still much too dangerous to leave Wanderer to her own devices, and we continued working the warps, swinging her to meet each breaking sea.
It was bitterly cold, and we were both shivering violently. I felt sick with the amount of salt water I had swallowed and when Bill passed me a water container, I drank deeply.
At 0430 hours it was full daylight. The seas were as high as ever, but the wind was no more than Force 7.
Mostly the seas were now breaking on the back face. Occasionally we shipped a green one, but fortunately they did not capsize us.
I still could not relax and was desperately tired. An hour later the seas were still as bad, but the wind was dropping to Force 6.
Bill was still working like a trooper, his strength never failing. Suddenly I realised that the worst was over, and felt bemused, numb with the reaction. We badly needed food.