A violent storm, broken tiller and leaking petrol put David Pyle and crew in great peril on a passage to Australia in an 18ft Drascombe Lugger
Crippled and helpless
We were crippled and helpless. Something had to be done quickly, for we were wallowing low in the water, filling up with every wave. Six successive walls of water smashed against her sides and gallons of sea water flowed into the bilge. Suddenly I remembered that the outboard was still connected. Reaching for the starting cord, I pulled, and it started first time.
Slowly I brought her back on course; Dave began to bail frantically, while I sat right aft on the petrol tank trying desperately to prevent her broaching again. But I soon found that at the top of each wave the propeller would not bite into the turbulent crests, and that she would begin to career wildly off course.
I could do nothing to prevent her. In the troughs the propeller would bite deep into the water, and I had to bring her quickly back on course before the next towering wave, the height of a two-storey house, came crashing upon us.
After ten nerve-racking minutes, I noticed a strong smell of petrol. With my left hand I felt around under the engine cowling. Petrol was leaking profusely from somewhere, but this was no time to stop to find out where. Minutes later the outboard began to splutter and cough and then died.
Once more without steerage way, Hermes swung up to port and was filled by the following wave. So much for all Dave’s hard work. I squeezed the hand pump, a little rubber valve on the fuel line, and tried again; at the first pull it burst into life, only to die away again ten seconds later. Squeeze, pull and away again; all I could do was to keep on pumping the fuel through slowly by hand.
Obviously the main petrol pump must have broken; all that was getting through to the carburettor was the trickle that I pumped by hand. The rest of our precious petrol was just flowing away. We did not have a vast supply of fuel and were only functional while the outboard ran.
My hands were fully occupied, so Dave brought out the dripping, saturated chart, which was beginning to fall into little pieces, and shone the torch on it. I noticed that the small harbour of Kalimnos lay 20 miles from us, a good 15 miles closer than Kos, but to the north-east.
From our present position Kos was a lee shore and we were slowly being pushed upon it. Somehow we had to fight our way to seaward, towards Kalimnos, which would mean bringing Hermes round farther to port, to receive the seas on her beam. Which was exactly what we had been desperately trying to avoid.
I tried to steer as best I could with the motor, squeezing the fuel pump every five seconds and judging each wave as it came – whether to stay on course or run. Dave was continually bailing. As soon as he had partially cleared the bilge another wave would break onboard and he’d start all over again.
Some of the waves could safely be negotiated beam on, but many others necessitated our turning tail and running before them. I kept peering ahead into the dark void of the night, searching for a small light that would indicate the harbour of Kalimnos.
For three hours I held to our course, numb with exhaustion, my mind whirling with the fear of capsizing. We were well equipped for survival if Hermes foundered and sank, but my fear was for the loss of the boat and all her equipment. My entire life savings and more had gone into this voyage, my hopes, dreams and years of planning. To end the voyage with Hermes a wreck was a prospect worse than death itself.
A glimmer of hope
At last I caught a glimpse of a small flashing white light, which disappeared behind a wave. A line of rocks extend two miles off the southern shore of Kalimnos, and this light was on the southernmost one. For what seemed like hours there was no apparent change in our position. That little flashing jewel kept beckoning us to safety, yet seemed to get no closer until suddenly we caught sight of spumes of white spray and foam and heard a loud thundering roar.
Slowly our eyes began to pick out dark jagged shapes of rocks; the light became clearer, gradually rising above us, and then moving fast along our port side. We felt a sudden exhilarating sense of speed as a large wave picked us up and swept us around behind this rocky chain. Immediately the seas decreased in size, having expended their tremendous force on the rocks to windward.
Dawn was breaking as we motored into the still waters of the harbour. The physical exhaustion after the last eight hours hit us hard. Dave tried his best to produce a hot, sweet mug of tea, but I wasn’t interested.
My clothes and sleeping bag were soaked, but when I lay down I felt as if I was in the most comfortable of dream beds with silken sheets. Although I was exhilarated at having brought Hermes through, I just wanted to forget the last few hours.
First published in the July 2020 edition of Yachting World.