As I sit here at my computer, I am listening to Storm Eunice raging outside, alternately screaming and wailing, and gusting up to Severe Storm Force Eleven, even in my relatively sheltered garden. Local schools have been closed, trees are coming down, and even the National Coastwatch Lookout at Portland, where I work as a volunteer coast-watcher, has been closed for the day.
The barometer has dropped rapidly to 979 millibars and my thoughts wander back to a similar storm 23 years ago; in the summer this time, but of greater concern because we, my wife and I, as well as our sea-going Golden Retriever ‘Bracken’, were sailing across Lyme Bay in our 32 foot Bermudan sloop.
We were twelve miles West of Portland Bill, heading for Torbay, when we were engulfed by a line of thunderstorms, advancing from a purple sky and blanking out the June sunshine. What had been a pleasant morning, with a brisk wind on the port quarter, changed within five minutes to a black maelstrom, where day turned to night and huge waves hurtled towards us, from directions changing as fast as we could turn the boat to meet them. An easy sail had turned to a survival situation, while at the same time, from the radio we could hear a Navy helicopter responding to a Mayday call from somewhere ahead of us. Sailing was out of the question so I started the engine and dropped the big mainsail while, between us, we struggled to roll away the Genoa, and try to hold the boat head to sea. With difficulty we were able to hold the boat into the changing direction of the steep waves, barely making headway, and listening to the surge of the engine when the propeller came clear of the sea surface, as we pivoted on top of each sharp sea-mountain before plunging down the back of the wave, burying the bows into the trough, then starting the whole switch-back ride again. I watched each time, concerned as to how deep the bows would go and when they would emerge once more, but that was a good seaboat and the boat always managed to rise before being engulfed. The excitement seemed to last for days, but it was only a few hours. Nevertheless, when the storm began to ease, we felt like survivors. ‘Bracken’, the sea-dog, took the whole situation with much more aplomb than her human shipmates!
There was another, more demanding situation that also peered out from my memory. This had taken place several years before the storm in Lyme Bay. I was First Lieutenant of a frigate crossing the Atlantic, when, to the south-west of Bermuda, we ran into a full scale hurricane. Winds exceeded 150 knots, waves were mountainous, and the well-found ship was tossed around at the whim of the storm for nearly three days. The ship sustained light damage, but other vessels, a few miles behind, were not so lucky. No ships were lost in this storm, but the scale of wreckage was severe, and the experience was memorable.
On the frigate’s Bridge at midnight, with a brilliant moon appearing through the gaps in the torn clouds, the almost vertical sides of the massive lines of waves were illuminated and could be seen quite clearly. A steady stream of people came up to see for themselves the power of the wind and sea. They watched as the bows of the warship pointed skyward, and then hurtled down the reverse side of the wave, to bury the bows deep into thrashing white foam, often covering the ship as far back as the Bridge. Despite the numbers present, it was silent inside the Bridge, and the usual buzz of quiet conversation was absent. Fear was in the air!
It was the experience of this hurricane which enabled me to describe the great storm in 1812 which beset Master and Commander John Lawson in my recent book ‘HMS Archer‘.