Onboard rows, a gun-toting skipper and a ferocious storm are recalled from Michael Chapman Pincher’s Long Lost Log. Tom Cunliffe introduces this extract
Michael Chapman Pincher, son of the great investigative journalist, left school at 17 to become a stagehand in London’s West End. At 23 in 1974 he quit and went to sea with John Farrell and his sailing companion Carola, both Irish and both on the run from dysfunctional marriages.
Together with the cat, Stryder, this unlikely trio sailed to the Caribbean on the 37ft Gander – not a large vessel for three and a cat on a protracted voyage. Michael’s personal log of the trip went missing, but it turned up in Florida in 2020. It was somehow returned to him and is now published, complete with sketches, as Long Lost Log.
The genes of a great writer have clearly passed from father to son. What could be a mundane passage comes to vibrant life. No punches are pulled on tensions among the crew, the poetry that is astro navigation is revealed and the action leaps out at us. We join them becalmed a few hundred miles east of Antigua.
Extract from Long Lost Log
Fri 13 Dec: Momentary meaning
The wind, says the skipper, like death, can come like a thief in the night, and so be upon us at any time. Right now, the thief is stealing my dreams as I watch for zephyrs floating in the spooky stillness of a silent ocean. The new moon is up but too dark to see, so the stars are at their brightest. With the deck stable, it is a rare opportunity to take observations of seven navigational stars.
Standing up, sextant ready, I find my targets. Fomalhaut lies to our west. Capella is in the north-east, Pollux, Sirius and Betelgeuse high in the eastern sky, while Rigel and Canopus glimmer to the south; although I need only three to get a fix, I use the opportunity for practice and grab them all. Measuring stars by sextant is not easy but mine seems built for this moment. Its weight and ease of adjustment allows me to line up the faint horizon with the star on the mercury amalgam mirror.
Each star is mesmerising in its own way. Fomalhaut is solitary and haughty. Capella twinkles brightly in the constellation Auriga. Sirius is easy to find as it lies directly in line with Orion’s Belt – the vast constellation in which Betelgeuse, a red supergiant, defines a shoulder. Rigel, Orion’s brightest star at the hunter’s knee, has a blue-white brilliance. Pollux shines a golden light in Gemini next to its Zodiac twin Castor. Last is Canopus, the second-brightest star. Low on the southern horizon and never seen at home, it shines bright white.
Having noted their altitude, I slip below to perch at the chart table and set to work on the spherical trigonometry while John and Carola snuffle in their bunks and Stryder the cat purrs in cool-night contentment.
Under the dim red light, I find a sense of peace in resolving the calculations needed to fix our position. In working out the navigational triangle between our assumed latitude, the horizon, and my measurement of a star millions of light-years away, any uncertainty disappears as I see the purity in the maths. A cold quiver of satisfaction comes over me as I resolve the angles and complete the intersection of lines on the plotting sheet.
I feel in control, and Gander is now in the right place, having put her there like a footballer dribbling past the opposition and scoring a goal. We may be going nowhere, but I know exactly where our boat is parked on the planet. A place that no one may have ever stopped before. For a man always searching for something, I find in this moment of discovery catharsis and thank my lucky stars.
I wake up to find the air still hanging and heavy with not the slightest breeze. We drift, hot, sweaty and bored, with only candy-floss clouds for entertainment. At lunchtime, we take turns to swim in a sea with endless horizons. At a quarter past four in the afternoon we observe the partial eclipse of the sun. Using my trusty sextant sun filters, I watch the action. It is just a sliver of the sun that is obscured by the moon, but for the moments of transit, the sky looks sickly and oddly muted; like before a storm.
Too hot to do anything else, I finish drafting a piece for Carola. I’m thankful to get it done. But, with the sound of John and Carola having a set-to in the cockpit, this isn’t the time to read it to them – tensions are running high.
Sat 14 Dec: The plot thickens
Being becalmed reminds me of Waiting for Godot, a play in which nothing happens, twice. Waiting for the weather to break is equally absurd. It’s what the row was about last night. John has no intention of turning on the engine.
‘You can’t chase the wind,’ he says, in that infuriating old-man-of the-sea way of his. ‘Patience, Mick. It’s all about patience. Something you need to learn.’
I don’t know how or why it happens, but the Devil gets hold of my tongue and wiggles it like a fool.
‘Patience,’ I blurt, ‘ … as your compatriot Spike Milligan wrote, is a word made up by dull buggers who can’t think fast enough.’
The remark provokes a flush of anger from the skipper. He brushes my comment away with a sweep of his right hand. Dismissing me as if I were a fly, he reaches into the flag locker, pulls out the ship’s gun, and brandishes the revolver at me with real menace.
‘Young Man! You do realise that out here I am Master under God. This boat is my kingdom. I have the authority to do anything necessary to ensure a safe voyage. I could shoot you now and throw you over the side; make up any cockamamie story and walk away with impunity.’
He raises the pistol at point-blank range, and as if in slow motion, I watch as his thumb draws back the hammer and he squeezes the trigger. The shot is more felt than heard as the bullet whistles past my head.
‘Take that as a shot across the bow,’ he declares, the vein on his temple ticking like a pulse. His eyes stare me down, not with hate or anger but with the dispassionate exercise of power.
John ejects the empty shell. It drops onto the cockpit floor with a brassy ring. A cocktail smell of cordite, fear and adrenaline hangs in the air.
‘I’ve made some lemonade,’ calls Carola from the galley. ‘It’s too hot to be playing cowboys.’
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Thurs 19 Dec: Getting closer
Gander has an urgency about her as we gallop over 152 miles, our longest run to date. We sweep our way west along the 18th parallel with the full force of a constant companion on our back. I imagine a square-rigger full of men seeking their fortune doing the same, then consider the slaves below ignorant of their fate – the heroic and the obscene bound together in the murky history of trade.
But my adventure is underway, the wind gods are with me, and the night-watch passes quickly, as though time is stolen by speed. The exhilaration of sailing exemplified.
Until now the sky has been empty of all but cloud, but at dawn an enormous bird starts to follow us. Not the albatross of fable, ill-fated omen to hang around my neck, but a frigate bird with long, pointed wings – a joy to behold.
It’s not here because of us but to hunt flying fish. When those aerial torpedoes take to the air to avoid underwater predators an attack starts from above. As soon as they break cover the frigate bird swoops down, its forked tail pitching like a rudder. One flies over the cockpit and hits me on the neck;·the closest you could get to a slap in the face with a wet fish.
Fri 20 Dec: Cooking up a storm
Like land’s harbinger on the wing, wild birds now start to show up in abundance. A sure sign the end of the voyage is nigh. At noon there’s a colourful sky with the mare’s tails of cirrus clouds high above us. Visibility is near perfect, the horizon’s as sharp as a knife.
It looks a perfect day to me but the skipper’s concerned a violent storm is coming. When the birds disappear mid-afternoon a layer of aquamarine altostratus obscures the sun. There is a sense of extreme weather lurking close by.
With one eye on the barometer, John sets me about the heavy weather checklist. In short, to fit the storm shutters which I made way back in England, take off the cowl vents, hank on the storm jib and put three reefs in the main. By now, the routine’s down pat.
“Take the other sails below and stow ‘em tight,” he orders. As the weatherglass is falling fast and a towering, dark cumulonimbus cloud with anvil-shaped top builds up ahead, we are summoned to the cockpit.
“We can see the sea building ahead of us. There is no way to avoid it. We have a choice,” the skipper explains. “To turn left or turn right.
“One takes us away from the storm, the other straight into the eye: a 50-50 gamble. It’s all about reading the wind.”
The three of us stand in the cockpit facing the inevitable.
Carola takes both our hands. Wishing us luck, she disappears below. “I’ll be saying my prayers to Saint Swithin,” she says, closing the hatch behind her.
“Fine woman that,” John utters, before snapping back into sea captain mode.
“Mick, go and check everything again. Then come back here and clip yourself on. We’ll have the engine running in case.“
“Blimey, skip,” I quip. “That’s a bit extravagant.” He doesn’t laugh.
We turn and make hard passage across a mounting sea, hoping to avoid the dangerous arc on the side of the storm. He hands me the helm. “Sail the sea, not the compass,” is his only instruction.
The storm builds with relentless momentum, ratcheting up through the Beaufort Scale to a force to be reckoned with. Like a banshee screaming through the shrouds, invisible forces start to tear at me. Wisps of flying air find gaps in my clothes. They whistle around the body like hobgoblins making mischief while the sting of salt slaps my face. Gander begins to tremble, her mast silhouetted against the flashes of sheet-lightning high above us.
Wave after pounding wave breaks over the deck. Foam fills the cockpit like curdled milk. There’s not a flicker of fear on the skipper’s face as he relishes the contest. The lean and hungry man’s time has come and I’m by his side, in awe of the action and oblivious to the consequences.
Trying to grasp one of his commands that’s lost to the wind he points to starboard at a rogue wave roaring towards us on our beam. It closes with the slow-motion certainty of an accident about to happen. We are in danger of broaching, being pushed sideways and heeling too far, so the waves swamp the sails, and we capsize.
With Gander’s engine gunned to the max, we heave the helm to turn her bow straight on to face the wave like a knife. The peak towers over us and we rise up the leading edge like an elevator. Gripping the helm, knuckles white, we gasp for air as the weight of the ocean bears down on us. Slicing through nose-first, we break out of the crest, John throttles back as we are dumped in the trough like a dead carcass on a meat wagon.
Drenched to the bone we exchange a look – man to man. Behind salt-smeared glasses his eyes flash gunmetal blue.
Minutes later, we are out of the worst of it. The skipper made the right decision. The whirlwind spins away, off to cause chaos elsewhere. I pat Gander like a horse. She deserves the plaudit. Our filly didn’t fall at the fence. She took Becher’s Brook and The Chair in one.
Carola’s pale face appears from the cabin. “Consummatum est,” she says all tremulous, as if she can’t quite believe we’re still here.
“Be an angel and put the kettle on,” John suggests, despite the swell. “And Mick, at your leisure, sort out the sails. We’d best be on our way.”
Luck is not to be discounted in our escape. Carola however is convinced her prayers saved the day. In John’s view, the outcome was never in doubt, while for me, ‘we were in flow’, or my way of saying, Phew! That was close. Whichever way, the ocean is a far more unpredictable and dangerous place than I ever imagined.
The storm has passed. We put it behind us – good weather forgives its bad brother every time. Stryder comes out and looks for his shit box.
It is not there. His accusing eyes have a wild look as if I’ve let him down. But like a rabbit out of a hat, I pull the litter tray out of a locker.
“There you are. No harm done.”
He chatters something back and scratches about.
“One thing’s for sure, my little prince,” I say, shaking the water out of my sea boots. “We all lost a life tonight.”
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