The big day finally came, after thirteen years on the boat and something like four or five years working through the coxswain plan, today was the day of my final Coxswain Pass-Out assessment. We were scheduled for a 3pm launch and with staff in place so I could get away from work everything seemed to be going to plan. Even the weather was on my side. A strong nor-westerly had blown through overnight but today was sunny and the wind had dropped to around 12 knots.
I arrived at work around 9.30 that morning and took my usual glace across the bay and harbour. Something was out of place. “Who has tied my boat up there?” I wondered. Our Wayfarer sailing dinghy had been left tied up on its running mooring last night. Now it was alongside the harbour wall, high and dry, berthed just behind a fishing boat and a dory. I headed straight for the harbour and upon closer investigation realised that no-one has tied my boat up there. My boat has parked itself there. The mooring line hard parted company in the strong blow overnight, but she still had her stern line on. The wind and waves had pushed the bow around the corner and by some miracle she had settled as if berthed deliberately, two feet from the wall, two feet from the fishing boat and two feet from the propellor of the dory…. Not a scratch on anything! I feel I may have already used up all of today’s luck in one go.
At this point the tide is still ebbing. I quickly realise that this boat is going to float, conveniently, at 3pm. Like all big days, there is always a hitch. In many ways this was a blessing, instead of spending the morning fretting about the impending assessment, I am now rigging new mooring lines and fretting about whether I’ll actually get there on time.
At 2pm I’m still watching the tide inching closer and closer with every tiny wave, we are now two hours before high water, with only a couple of feet of sand between the sea and the boat. At around ten past we make our move, grabbing the three lads from the shop to help, we were about to go paddling. The water is round the hull now and we only need a couple of inches to float her in, with the help of inherent buoyancy and us breaking the boat free of the sand’s suction we are away, the boat is back on its proper mooring and I am heading for the lifeboat station.
It is 2.45 when I arrive there and already there are plenty of crew assembled in the crew room. There is a written paper waiting for me, so I make a start. Realising I won’t finish it before 3pm and not wanting to hold the crew up I decide to finish later and get on the with exercise. The plan is to drop the dead Fred man-overboard dummy off, drive away and go through anchoring and some drills then go back and find Fred on the way home, exercise duration an hour and half.
Dropping Fred off was the easy bit, wind and tide calculations for his likely drift were fairly straightforward and we had a good idea of where we expected to find him. Into a nearby bay, I’m just about to brief the deck crew on anchoring, when all of a sudden we’ve got alarms going off, the mechanic having a minor flap and asking if we stop engines. Ah! We are having a fire drill… first job is to clear the nav desk and following the emergency instructions card. “Can we stop engines?” asks the mechanic again, “Ask Coxswain’s permission to stop engines” is the next step on the card too. “Dammit, I’m the Coxswain, make a decision” I’m thinking, I feel the pressure of the whole crew staring at me. The wind is blowing offshore so we are going to drift out. In my mind as a sailor that is a good thing. “Stop engines and drop anchor” was my quick, and probably not so well thought through choice. Wind offshore, yes… but tide, tide is taking us toward rocks. The likelihood is that it will sweep us past them, but it is a close call and the super slick work of the deck team pretty much saved the day at that point. We are anchored and holding at a safe enough distance from the rocks. Note to self…. Next time the boat is burning, run it up the nearest beach, then stop engines and get off onto land and run away.
Drill complete and we are waiting for our glacial speed capstan winch to creep the anchor chain back on board. I’m on the flybridge when I hear the Coastguard calling us, “We have a tasking for you”. Our mechanic is talking to them in the wheelhouse, so I am only hearing the Coastguard side of the conversation. There is an 18ft powerboat broken down at our harbour, it is drifting out. The vessel has no VHF “but we have a phone number for him”. Unfortunately, now I am not privy to any direct communication with the casualty, making it difficult for me to ask questions, work out exactly where they are and what is going on.
My first thought is that the ILB will be there quicker than we will be, we ask the Coastguard to task our ILB. Then someone looks around at the crew we have on board. It appears that we have all the likely available ILB helms here, we are going to have to respond. Clink clink clink the anchor chain is still crawling onto the deck. Fred will be left until later.
With the anchor finally stowed we are on our way to the last reported position of the casualty. Now that we are on a shout, I’m not sure that I’m Coxswain any more. One of our actual Coxswains was on the flybridge with me “Is this your boat now?” I ask him. “Yes, but I’m just going to stand here” he replied. I’m still a little confused, but I think it is my boat. I’d only done a towing assessment with the same Assessor a couple of days ago, so here we go again.
A local dive boat calls us on the VHF. He has the casualty in tow and wants to hand it over to us. We find them a fair old way out of the harbour, three people on board. The dive boat drops the tow and we pick it up. Next up there is a yacht race just started, I suspect they will be heading our way. I elect to tow our charge around the outside of the race marks, just to be sure.
Back in the harbour and we pick up our mooring. A couple of crew hop into the boarding boat and tow the 18ft boat and put it alongside the wall in the harbour. Job done and all back aboard our boat. Now we are back to find Fred who had now been at sea for getting on three hours.
The small search area is gone, the simple search patterns are out of the window and now we are settling in to a long parallel track search with a big down tide element to it. I look at the tidal streams and Fred drift start point again. He’s gone that way for one hour, then this way for two hours and he’s going this way more quickly now, this gives me a rough idea of the westing. I look at the estimated position our navigator has come up with. I’m pretty sure the wind factor has been underestimated. We arrive at our drift start position but I think we need to be further south.
It was really fortunate that exactly at this point a crew member spotted something around half a mile south of us. Upon closer investigation our “something” was a gannet. But is was a handy gannet, I’m now in the spot where I want to start my search pattern from. After some discussion with the navigator about the merits of using the human brain over the computer brain, we have a search plan and we are making way, heading west at 20 knots. We have a pretty large area to cover, even at this speed it is going to take a while. We shave some time off the search shortening the first leg by half and making yet more south on the next leg before heading back east again.
We keep running our track, we have the perfect search conditions, bright sunshine, flat water and able to see a gannet at half a mile! But there is no sign of Fred. I am pretty sure that we are too far north still, but I’m confident he is in the box we are searching. We just have to sit it out and keep going. We will catch up with him eventually.
Much to the relief of everyone on board, we run a few more legs and the Assessor decides we can switch the DF on, go get Fred and go home. To avoid the risk and embarrassment of losing Fred we attach a direction finding beacon to him before chucking him over the side. Now all we have to do is tune our direction finding equipment to his channel and follow the light….
We tune in and start moving, the DF is taking us south west…. It feels like a very long way south west! Now I’m wondering if my search area has gone far enough. Ages pass but finally there is a shout, he’s there on the bow. I look at the chartplotter, we are in my search area, we would have found him had we continued. Man overboard recovery completed and we are heading for home, four hours later! Phew.
I look at where we are, it’s a familiar view from hours spent in the wheelhouse on a scalloper. I hear that skipper in my head “Christ gal! Aim her over there out here in this tide”. So I did and brought us straight line to the harbour wall, no need for satnav. We finally get back to our mooring.
Now for the debrief of the afternoon’s events. We were all standing on the aft deck of the lifeboat. Three of us were being assessed that day and now the announcements were made. Our Assessor was satisfied that our boat now has a new mechanic, navigator and coxswain. I stood on the flybridge putting the cover on. For years I helped my Dad, the boat’s full-time Coxswain, to put this cover on at the end of a trip. He retired from the boat a couple of years ago. I smiled to myself alone in my thoughts of “I am Dad now”. Except of course that I am his daughter and now the first female coxswain on our island and only the fourth in the whole Institution.