Just in time 1979 by Hannah Waldram


By Hannah Waldram (aged 11) 1979

It was nearly the end of our three weeks holiday on Priscilla. We had been to all sorts of places, but on the day I am writing about we were in Treguier, meaning to set off for St. Peter Port, Guernsey.

Priscilla is a rather elderly, 29 feet, Bermudan Sloop. She has a pine hull and looks very beautiful, apart from the fact that she leaks a bit!

There is a family crew of five, Daddy, Mummy, Louise, Josephine and myself.

We three children are just beginners who don’t know much, but are willing to learn to put up flags, deal with covers and other small jobs like that. We had just come back from our last minute shopping on the shore, and were listening to the weather forecast; SW 3 to 4, possibly 5, locally 6. “That’s fine”, said Daddy. “We can cope with that. I’ve a feeling tomorrow brings something nasty”. So at about 12:00 that day we set off, down the Treguier River. There was a light breeze that gently pushed Priscilla down towards the sea. It was blissfully hot, so hot that Josephine even took off her vest and mummy got out the sun cream. As we neared the sea it got quite a lot colder and a long swell made us realise it was time to switch on the engine. With the swell came a mist that settled over the sea. The swell and the mist combined together made it very spooky and so, to pass the time, we sang songs that helped to cheer us up. Gradually people began to get hungry so Daddy went below to find some rolls and ham for lunch. Although there was not much wind the swell became worse so we changed course slightly so we were more comfortable.

Then the barometer read 1017. Things went on like this for quite a long time until, five hours later, we switched off the engine. The waves by then had got bigger, but were not uncomfortable as they were coming from behind us. As the wind got stronger, the mist cleared. Daddy listened to the 17:50 forecast, it was not good news; SW 4 to 5, locally 6, increasing 7 to 8 later!

Then the barometer read 1013. It had gone down four milibars! All around were white crested waves that pushed us on to Guernsey. We were all quite happy and were not worried by the weather forecast, as Daddy had reassured us that “later” meant in twelve hours time. But how wrong he was. Darkness came and we were all hoping that we would be able to stay up to see the arrival. We were very surprised when Daddy said, “No”. That was what we were expecting, but his tone of voice was unusually tense. What could be the matter?

He had told us himself that nothing was wrong. But afterwards Daddy told us that he was secretly worried about the barometer’s steady drop. We undressed quickly as it was cold, and got into our sleeping bags. From down below I could see Daddy’s face by the light of compass. He looked worried, and by that time I could see why. I could see he was having difficulty steering against the strong winds. At the top of a wave I could feel Priscilla accelerate as she swooped down it. “7½ knots”, called Mummy. I could hear the wind, rushing past the boat and increasing the size of the waves as it got stronger. “I’m going to take a reef”, shouted Daddy. Up he went to the fore deck. I could hear his feet above me and then the sails being let down. Then, in a sudden gust of wind, the sails were swept out of his hands and flapped madly in the furious winds. After quite a long time Daddy managed to put in the reef. There was quite a big difference. The wind rushed past the boat in less of a rage, and the waves had not as much command over Priscilla as before.

Then, without a warning, the wind changed, from SE to SW. For a short while it was more difficult to sail, and then St. Martin’s Point was abeam. We were under the lee of Guernsey and the wind could not get at us as easily. Even so, it was strong enough for Daddy to decide to take down the mainsail. So we went in under jib. St. Peter Port was like a magnet, drawing all boats from all around Guernsey to its safety.

At approximately 23:30 we rounded the harbour walls and were in. Safe and away from the strong winds. But there was still more to do. In the harbour were several hundred boats, and we had to find a place to moor Priscilla amongst them all. After what seemed an age of hunting, with help from the port authorities, we found a small place to moor. The wind increased its raging and I could hear all those halyards slapping against their metal masts. And then I slept.

In the morning we went shopping in St. Peter Port and bought several things, including a newspaper. Across the front of it were the words, in large print; FASTNET TRAGEDY–WINDS UP TO HURRICANE FORCE–MANY ARE DROWNED!

We were stunned and we struck to find that we had been out on the same night that those men lost their lives and yet that we were safe, in St. Peter Port.