Could you help me please?
by Ted Sutton
We probably all feel it’s embarrassing to ask for assistance, especially from complete strangers. It gives the impression that we have bitten off more than we can chew and need others to help sort out our problem. But amazingly, complete strangers are usually very helpful providing you don’t catch them in the middle of doing something important. Many seem to positively enjoy helping others and we usually get a sense of fulfilment knowing that we have been useful.
This is particularly true of situations involving boats. We are all aware that watery environments are not the natural habitat for us humans and quite suddenly we can find ourselves out of our depth, sometimes quite literally. Which is why training, experience and rescue services are so important to us. And occasionally, as I have discovered, the odd bystander.
All this was brought home to me a few years ago when returning Helen, our Sadler 29 to its Hardway Sailing Club swinging mooring at the start of the season. The boat had over-wintered in Port Solent Marina and the day’s task involved taking it under power across Portsmouth Harbour, while my wife Avril took the car round to meet me on the club pontoon. There, I would pick up my dinghy and tow it out to the mooring which was beyond a row of old warships. After securing the yacht we would row back to the club. We had done this many times before and it was almost routine. However, this time it wasn’t. It was blowing hard from the East and we first began to realise how difficult this made things when considering how best to extricate the boat from its berth in the crowded marina. We would need additional hands to keep clear of the yacht under our lee as we backed out and fortunately a couple of chaps on a nearby boat provided this assistance when asked. The fact I interrupted an important negotiation between the boat’s owner and a potential buyer didn’t seem to bother them. So with lots of heaving on ropes and pushing with boat hooks we got the boat clear without scraping anything and the helpers were duly thanked. I dropped my wife off in the marina lock to take the car round the harbour to meet me.
It was only when exiting the lock that I realised the wind was much stronger than had been forecast and I got the full force of it further down the Portchester Channel. It was mostly from astern but waves broke over the bow and I was soon soaked with spray while making about four knots under bare poles with the engine just ticking over
After crossing the harbour fairway to Hardway, I could see that waves were breaking over the end of the pontoon, and with limited depth further inshore, going alongside to pick up my wife and the dinghy was most inadvisable.
So, running out of options, I indicated to my wife that I would take the boat to the mooring by myself, thinking I might be able to contact someone on VHF or attract the attention of a passing patrol boat to get a lift back. However, as I neared my mooring, a better solution presented itself. Sheltering in the lee of one of the line of old warships were three motor whalers with crews of Sea Cadets looking cold wet and miserable. I took my boat close to the one closest to my mooring and asked the skipper, who looked seasoned and sensible, if he could keep an eye on me as I tried to pick up my mooring. And then, when I had the boat secured, could he bring his boat over to pick me up then give me a lift back to the club? He consented and his crew brightened at the prospect of a bit of action, so I motored across to my mooring buoy which unfortunately was clear of the stern of the sheltering warship and receiving the full force of the wind.
Three times I motored up to the buoy, leaping up to the foredeck with a boat hook and managed to hook the pick-up buoy attached to the mooring pendant. But three times, I was forced to let it go since the boat was blown back before I could pull the mooring eye on deck. There was a risk of losing the boat hook or being pulled in over the pulpit.
As I motored round for another go, I noticed a yacht close but staying in the shelter of the warship. Its large crew was obviously under instruction, practising repeated approaches to a vacant mooring buoy and securing to it.
Seeing an answer to my problem, I motored over and enquired if one of the crew would like a bit more practice. After a brief discussion, a young lady hopped on board to help me and told me she was the instructor and had left her trainees under strict orders to all stay put in the cockpit, and not touch anything!
When going through my plan of action, which was to keep motoring against the force of the wind until she had the strop on deck and secured, I was dismayed to be told that she “didn’t do boat hooks”. Her idea of mooring to a buoy was to throw a rope round it. However, she permitted herself to become initiated into the art of hooking the pick-up buoy and we were soon secured with the nylon eye safely round a foredeck cleat. All loose gear was hurriedly stowed below, the hatch locked and a wave to the launch soon brought them alongside.
The helpful lady instructor was returned to her trainees and we headed back down the harbour, buffeted by blasts of wind between the warships. Hardway Sailing Club pontoon was still too exposed to attempt a landing there so I was dropped off on a jetty further down the harbour and was delighted to offer a contribution to the Sea Cadets’ fund.
As I walked back to find my wife, I contemplated how very helpful people had been and how I would not have been able to accomplish much that day without them. The moral of this story is, help others willingly when they need it. You never know when the favour might be returned.