Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Day...We Sailed Around The Lightship

Charlie Nichols was the least likely person I would ever have expected to take an interest in me.

He was the plumbing instructor at Eastbourne Technical School, one of eight institutions of higher learning I can remember attending. To this day, more than half-a-century later, I seemed an unlikely candidate for the benign attention of a school master.

Mostly it was of the ear-grabbing, ruler- whacking, bum-roasting, cane-wielding methods of retributions that Masters singled me out. Mister Nichols was a salt-and-pepper wrinkly-haired craggy red-faced character, with a permanent nose-drip, who slouch-lurched in a peculiar rolling gait. My first impression was of a local yokel, clad in a long grey workshop coat, complete with rural Sussex drawl.

His classroom/workshop was an echo-chamber barn-like space converted above the former indoor swimming pool of the prewar mansion housing the red-brick ivy-covered school. Below its reinforced wooden floor, via a trapdoor, supplies of copper and galvanized pipes were stacked in racks in the tiled pool area.

Charlie, as we referred to him amongst ourselves, would call on me to help lug supplies up into the classroom. It is possible the faculty had been warned not to let me out of their sight by “Basher” Blackwell, principal. I quickly learned the deceptive weight of a thin, pliable sheet of lead. It was like having my own personal weight-lifting trainer.

It helped build my 129-pounds frame without bulking up.(Many years later I mentioned it to Charles Atlas - billed as the “Strongest Man in the World” during what may have been his last interview, but he may have sensed his days were numbered and was more interested in religion at that time). Lifting lead prepared me for my evening job; collecting deckchairs from the beach. (Another "Day").

One perpetual trait about the building trade is that raw materials, lead and copper especially, are prime targets for thieves. Always expensive, it became almost impossible to obtain following the end of WWII. Consequently our “rations” to practice the craft of plumbing, were zealously guarded.

Mostly what I remember about the never-ending classes was the ability of a master-plumber to turn a square sheet of lead into a three-dimensional pipe by bossing it – using peculiarly-shaped wooden “mallets” above and below to bash the metal into submission and work(move) it into the required shape.

One of his showpiece exhibits Charlie would proudly show off was the work of a former apprentice who had created a replica of Eastbourne lighthouse and rocks, from a nondescript slab of lead. All I can recall of my efforts to produce a T-joint plumbing fixture was; I probably created a new letter in the alphabet!

So it was a complete surprise when one Friday workshop session he asked me if I would be available the next day to be his crew aboard a dingy to go sailing. I had no idea it would be the start of a lifelong love/hate relationship with pointy-ended rag-bags extending to the present.

The sea, ships, and an abstract yearning to join the navy if I ever completed the endless sentence of school, always lurked in the recesses of my mind. While other kids floundered about when asked by adults, parents and relative the inevitable questions: “What are you going to do when you leave school?” I responded with alacrity: “Join the navy.”

At that time, in my mind's eye, the Royal Navy ruled the waves and England ruled the world with its far-flung colonies and Empire being touched by sunrise and sunset around the globe.

The fact that we “rulers” were still surviving on ration cards and shortages and meat, butter and eggs still a luxury, didn't enter my mind. It had always been thus for me, growing up during the Blitz to D-Day and beyond.

Near the Redoubt, a fortress created on my south coast home town to thwart the ambitions of Napoleon a couple of centuries earlier, the sleek, colorful light-weight carvel and hard-chine boats of The Eastbourne Yacht Club nestled on the beach above the high-tide mark.

Charlie's heavy clinker-built center-board dinghy was a sturdy working boat appropriate to the tenets and tenants of The Artisans Boat Club. It was built beyond the public bathing beaches and esplanade. Beyond the Fishing Club, the bowling greens, the tennis courts. Even further away than the black-tarred fisherman's shacks, lifeboat station and fleet of heavy-duty fishing boats.

The Club sat on the edge of the Crumbles, miles and miles of stones and shingle, reinforced concrete piles of uprooted invasion barricade blocks and tank-traps. Within sight and smell of the tip where refuse and garbage was dumped, and we went rummaging and ratting on a Saturday morning, before cinema matinees replaced that activity.

Of all the four-letter words I picked up from the artisans, POSH was not one of them, when referring to themselves or the organization.

Charlie patiently explained the difference between lines and ropes and halliards, port and starboard, fore and aft, cleats and pulleys, life-jackets-proper-use-of and where they were stowed, the centerboard trunk, and most important, the bailing-pan-cum-pee-can.

Luckily the tide was high so the group of of club members, wives, kids and onlookers were not required to help us launch, and could comfortably watch as Charlie clambered aboard and I waded crotch-deep into the chilly English Channel keeping the dinghy's nose facing into the breaking waves.

Charlie's purple face and open mouth urged me in nautical terms; not used in his classroom, to clamber aboard as he tightened up on the jib and mainsail and kneed the tiller over to get the dink under way.

A teeth-chattering soggy whirlwind launch became a sauna bath of satisfaction following dozens of rapid-fire orders and instructions to prevent broaching, being headed by the brisk breeze fetching across the mud-gray water. A cacophony of slapping canvas sails, whipping sheets, creaking boom working its neck around leather-collar on the mast when we took our first tack, moved from hell to heaven as the little craft dug her keel into the waves and lifted her bow toward the open sea.

For one blissful moment it was akin to flying.

Then, the chorus of commands and task of unraveling a tangle of bristling hemp and cord, preparatory to our next tack to avoid stout oak groynes looming dead ahead.

There was so much going on, and Charlie's boat was so lively, I never had the faintest inclination to react to the dreaded mal de mer. That would come later, when I sailed with Charlie, his friend the master boat-builder aboard his 30-foot open-deck pride and joy, the builders son and former schoolmate, and one of my current school's architecture masters,

Nothing like a quality audience to applaud the anticipated performance of leaning over the side and “Calling for Ralph”.

Sadly for them, the day we rounded the red-painted “Royal Sovereign” lightship a few miles off-shore, in a stiff breeze which put white caps of foamy surf atop the pea-green seas, I quelled the reaction to a queasy stomach.

However, the motion, the high spray coming over the bow and occasional wallop as a rogue cross-sea struck the heeling vessel, triggered an urgent desire to pee.

No way could I could brace against the lee gunnel, winkle out my shriveled member and let loose downwind under the the gaze of that crew.

As I bailed ankle-deep water from the bilges, and the pee-can floated by, I realized everyone aboard was soaked to the skin. And nobody had taken a leak during the entire two-hour haul.

I don't know if they all had cast-iron bladders or what but I resolved to christen the new boat in a unique personal manner. Once the thought entered my mind, it was just a matter of timing – a shuddering smack and a quartering sea flung a sheet of water inboard to cascade in a stream across us.

Amongst all the yelping and joshing, with their minds and activities directed elsewhere, I experienced the nirvana wet-suit divers in frozen waters briefly enjoy. For a long moment I was warm, again. Before the next wave flushed the brief euphoria away.

I'll always remember the day we rounded the lightship – but probably not for the same reason the others did.


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