Tom Cunliffe introduces an extraordinary extract from the life and times of Clare and Edward Allcard aboard their ex-Baltic Trader Johanne.

Keeping the boat afloat

At the moment of impact Edward threw the G.M. engine into the fray, its powerful bilge pump working to save Johanne’ s life – for a few seconds, until its centrifugal pump seized up.

In the blink of an eye, John was into the engine room tearing the new electric pump from its packaging, connecting it up, and setting it to work.

With the starboard shrouds shattered and Johanne rolling in a sloppy sea, Edward devoted all his skills to prevent us from being dismasted. John took command of the leak: open hold, grab old sail, grab hammer and copper tacks, over the side and into the gaping hole.

Standing on Johanne’s internal ceiling with December waves lapping at his waist, John tacked the canvas over the hole and then dashed to the fo’c’sle, dragged out a large mattress, and stuffed it between the ceiling and the temporary canvas hull.

As Bellatrix hit, my first thought had been for Katy. Diving below I snatched her, seasick and half asleep, from our bunk.

Bundling her into her life jacket, I shoved Womble, her favourite cuddly toy, into her arms and dumped her unceremoniously beside her father on deck. There was no time for child psychology.

Johanne was sinking and we with her. Abandoning a frightened and tearful Kate, I rushed forward to help operate the powerful hand pumps.

And, released from that appalling sense of impotence, Lana and I pumped like things possessed. Water was gushing out on all sides as electric motors and hand pumps sucked from the inundated bilges.

Around us, Guilvinec’s fishing fleet hovered, sympathetic, waiting to rescue us when Johanne sank. But Johanne was not going to sink, not if we could help it.

Abruptly both pumps failed. No water was coming out. “John! Quick! Something’s wrong with the pumps. They won’t suck anymore.”

“Take a look in the bilge. I think you’ll find it’s empty.” He was right. Thanks mainly to his lightning-quick wits, Johanne was saved.

Monsieur Pochard is made to pay

As Johanne limped into Guilvinec Harbour, Monsieur Pochard, owner and skipper of Bellatrix, had clearly decided that aggression was his only form of defense.

Hurling words as swift as Exocets across Johanne’s bulwarks, he shouted that the whole fleet would back him up, swearing in a court of law that we had tacked right under his bow. Thank God for a good grasp of French.

Edward, in reply, commented fluently on the man’s seamanship, his morals, and his ancestry. Battle lines drawn, Pochard’s parting shot was that he would meet us at nine the next morning at the office of the maritime police.

Sharp at nine, we marched into the police station. Pochard wasn’t there. We waited half an hour and then elected to get our side of the story safely recorded before M. Pochard arrived to spin his fine yarn.

A few days later a conference was convened aboard Johanne. Crowding around the chart table, first M. Pochard and then Edward put their cases to a clutch of insurance representatives, including our own.

M. Pochard certainly tried to claim that we had tacked under his bow but, using his careful plotting on the chart, Edward was able to prove that we had tacked some 20 minutes before being rammed.

No one aboard Bellatrix could have looked out for at least half an hour. The facts were indisputable.

Pochard’s insurers took full responsibility for the ramming and agreed to pay the full costs of our repairs.

Close-knit, Guilvinec was a community embalmed in times past. Many of the older people wore wooden clogs, and some women still favoured the time-honoured Breton costume of wide skirts and delicate lace caps or coiffes.

For centuries they had taken care of one another, and now they took our interests to heart. Every evening M. Pochard brought us choice samples of his catch.

Following an age-old custom, he was making sure that the victims of his action did not starve while their ship was laid up. If Johanne had to be rammed she could not have chosen a better place.

The repair was extensive, heavy and complex, yet by the New Year the job was complete. Nobody had taken even half a day off, Johanne was declared sound and M. Pochard’s daily offerings of free fish ceased.

The only thing that wasn’t perfect was the weather, but then, that was no more than one would expect from the Bay of Biscay in mid-winter.

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Keeping the boat afloat
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