It’s a bit of a national sport, weather-forecaster-bashing. Poor Michael Fish – remember the hurricane that wasn’t? We seem to forget that technology has now given us forecasts that are really fairly accurate, although not infallible! And so, to my experience. Let me set the scene.
I’m not a nervous sailor. When I was fourteen I went on a school cruise and the force 9-10 storm was nothing but an exciting adventure for me. I felt sorry (with the empathy of a selfish teen) for the other kids who couldn’t help the unending stream of upchuck, but I remained unaffected. I’ve been on a yacht, once, and the force 8 didn’t trouble me either.
Hubby is from Ireland, where most of his family remains, and so we regularly bob across the Irish Sea on which ever ferry is offering the most appropriate sailing time or cost effective deal. We leave with neatly packed cases, a few bottles of supplies and a sense of anticipation; we return with bags haphazardly stuffed and the boot half filled with several kilos of Flahavans porridge and a couple of bottles of Yorkshire Relish (not available in England. Go figure).
On this occasion our departure to Ireland was swift and unplanned following a family bereavement. The Irish really have the whole funeral thing sorted, with the funeral just three days later, and through our sadness we were able to celebrate a wonderful man and a life well lived. Two days after the funeral we drove to Rosslare for a 9am departure (complete with Flahavans and Yorkshire Relish). The weather was bitter, with snow flurries the previous day, and very strong northerlies. I Googled the maritime forecast; for 7-8, rising to force 9, occasional force 10. Flip. Neither hubby Patrick nor I dared mention what we would do if the ferry was cancelled – by this time I think we were both tired after an emotional week and just wanted to get home.
At Rosslare the Irish Ferry was announced as cancelled and all the lorries were driving off, negotiating a chicane of cones and driving onto our ferry, the Stena Europe. Why one ferry was cancelled and the other should sail was beyond me, but then I’m not a mariner and I was too tired to question the expertise of a Proper Captain.
We boarded and as per our little tradition, went up on deck to wave farewell to the Emerald Isle in the bone-numbing chill. White horses galloped merrily across the water – and that was inside the safe harbour walls. Patrick was glad he’d only had a small breakfast at 5am.
A little later than scheduled, we departed. The Captain assured us that he’d be using the stabilisers (prompting thoughts of toddlers squealing and wibbling about on pink bicycles) and that he’d do his best to make our journey ‘comfortable’. He did his best. P and I found a seat in the middle of the fairly empty boat – the fulcrum, less movement – and while P laid flat I had a wander. I chatted with the nice lady in the shop. I giggled as I meandered from side to side in lazy circles until I was sleepy enough to doze and I joined P on the couch. We read and chatted and I took numerous photos of the sea which really was quite spectacular. Waves were smashing against our window on deck 7 – and I don’t just mean the spray!
The Captain, with a gentle Irish lilt and a voice like velvet, explained that it might be a ‘little rocky’ when he pulls in the stabilisers to enter Fishguard harbour, and asked us to remain seated. Fair enough. We sat. The boat began to turn. And that’s when it all went horribly wrong.
We began to roll to the left, further over and over, until I instinctively leaned to the right and gripped the table – as if that was going to help! A four letter word which normally never escapes my lips erupted in force, as a massive crash of smashing glass came from the bar and every hefty seagoing, spring-loaded door slammed in unison. The boat heaved back upright and swung over the other way – cue more smashing of glass and banging of doors. And a bit of swearing. The laws of physics tossed us back over the other way again but – thank God – the boat settled as we slowed and pootled into the harbour. The moment was captured by Lisa Roberts, who posted the photo onto Facebook for the rest of the world to see (usually commenting that they were jolly glad they weren’t on board).
I cannot describe how relieved I felt once we were actually tied up at the mooring. As I popped to the ladies I saw a crew member discussing how to deal with the vast quantity of glass that had strewn itself all over the floor. Having negotiated the loo, strewn with mops, bins and other unexpected items, P and I sat waiting to be told to go to our car. However the Captain announced that there was a problem.
An entire lorry had toppled over on the car deck. As the waves were so strong we had moored the wrong way round, so all the lorries would have to negotiate a way around the toppled lorry and reverse off – with a two metre swell at the harbour side. It just wasn’t possible and with the boat lurching violently the mooring ropes were strained to breaking point. The Captain announced that we had no choice but to head to sea and ride out the storm, which wasn’t due to ease until lunchtime the following day. And to please sit down as we left harbour without stabilisers again.
My thoughts – looking back – were random and assorted. In no particular order, this is what crossed my fearful, tired mind.
- The boat could fall apart.
- We might need the lifeboats – I’d just seen the crew carrying out sudden maintenance of the lowering mechanisms.
- We could sink.
- We could hit the shore.
- We could hit another boat.
- Why are they sounding the horn every couple of minutes?
- Who the hell would be out in a boat in this weather?
- We won’t hit another boat.
- I’m too tired to deal with this.
- The Captain knows what he’s doing.
- The Captain hasn’t a clue what he’s doing.
- I have too much to do in my life for it to end off the Welsh coast.
Patrick’s stomach finally gave up and as the boat heaved, so did he. The crew swept the bar and offered free tea. We were given a cabin and within a few minutes everyone had taken refuge in their own pod of safety. However while Patrick found this horizontal cocoon the best place to be, I found it terrifying; being closer to the hull, I cringed at every bang and slap of the waves and the lurching as I clung to my bunk was exhausting. As the sun went down and darkness seeped into every nook and cranny of my soul, I felt incredibly isolated.
You will, hopefully, see a video here…!
P hugged me close and reassured me and I loved him for his attempts, but at this point I decided to head up to the communal area – the cabin was just too claustrophobic. To my surprise and relief, the pounding of waves was less alarming up there (and it doesn’t look so bad in that video either – darn!!)
Now this is the surreal bit. As I stood leaning against the bar awaiting tea (I’m British, what else would I do in a crisis?) I struck up a conversation with a tall distinguished looking gentleman. I had nothing to do, nowhere to go and he was intellectually superior, so I let the conversation evolve. We soon turned to questions of faith; he is a staunch Roman Catholic and I am a reasonably liberal Anglican. Bearing in mind my lovely Irish Catholic family, I had an opportunity to ask him about his approach to worshipping the same God as me with a view to better understanding my in laws. Let’s just say that, for the following hour or so, I was intrigued, fascinated and appalled that someone could profess to be Christian, share so much truth, and yet fall so utterly short of Christ’s teachings. He may be able to read the Bible in Greek. He may have some teachings factually correct. He may understand rules, but he is astonishingly lacking in love. A modern day Pharisee at sea… whose parting shot as I finally made my escape was to tell me that my parents in law (one of whom had been laid to rest) had gone to hell.
He did me a favour because for the rest of the night my mind was focused on exactly why my faith is alive and thriving, and I wasn’t listening to the heaving and lurching of the boat or my husband.
By 9pm the boat had reached waters that were calmer – although had we walked onto the boat on a normal crossing we would have described it as ‘rough’! P came upstairs and we managed a small portion of scampi and chips before heading to bed. Again I found it too claustrophobic so wandered the decks like a lost sailor until I was too tired, but with the noise of waves in the cabin I slept badly. The horn blared as if int he distance, over and over again. Minutes stretched into hours and – eventually – dawn broke, agonisingly slowly, and I returned to wandering the decks. We ate breakfast, we drank tea, and eventually we docked and we cheered and drove off into oblivion. And, just as quickly, the crew cleared up and prepared to do the return trip. Just like that.
One thing that really, really helped me was being able to get online – thank God P managed to grab our chargers from the car before the lower decks were closed. Little did they know it, but my friends and the lovely people who follow my Facebook page became my terra firma. They send me photos, good wishes, updates and copious prayers from around the world, around the clock, and I love and thank them for it.
It’s just as well the same lovely people couldn’t see me or smell me.
So there we have it. 35 hours to complete a 12 hour journey, including 27 hours at sea. If you’ve read this far, congratulations; if not… *blows raspberry*.