THE FALCON ON THE BALTICA Coasting Voyage from
Hammersmith to Copenhagen
In a Three-ton Yacht
I GET A NEW BOAT
IN the summer of '86 I was without my favourite toy, a yacht, and had no intention of purchasing a vessel. I had just returned from a winter cruise about the Spanish Main and through the West Indies, and any voyage more extensive than a boating expedition on the upper Thames was quite out of my mind, when I by chance came across a boat lying at Hammersmith — of all unlikely places — which appeared to me to be singularly adapted for the realization of one of my earliest yachting dreams.
For many years I had talked of visiting the Baltic in a small yacht, and I had often taken up the charts and pilot-books of that tideless sea and planned pleasant cruises among the deep, winding fiords and narrow sounds of the Danish islands; and now I saw before me the very boat for the purpose.
"The smaller the yacht the better the sport," is a maxim which, in my opinion, holds good in most waters, but especially so when a cruise on the Baltic is in question. For on all the shores of that sea, even where the map indicates long, straight stretches of ironbound coast, there are innumerable small artificial havens which have been constructed by the herring fishermen for the accommodation of their shallow craft; and again, on many of the islands, the only harbours are those affording shelter to the ferry-boats which ply to the mainland — harbours, as a rule, having no more than three feet of water. Therefore small yachts only can visit these out-of-the-way spots. A cruise among the islands affords some of the fascination of a voyage of discovery; at many of them sea-going vessels never call; and as all the English yachts that enter the Baltic are of considerable tonnage, the English yachtsman knows but little of the charms of the best cruising-ground in Europe.
The Baltic is a treacherous sea; settled weather can never be depended on, gales spring up very unexpectedly, and a nasty sea rises quickly on its shallow waters. But a little yacht following the coast has nearly always some snug harbour to run for should bad weather come on; whereas a larger craft with deeper draught must needs stand out to sea and make the best of it she can.
The small yacht is certainly the one for the Baltic, but to get her there is a somewhat difficult task. To arrive at the mouth of the river Eider, whence the Baltic can be reached by canal, involves a voyage across the North Sea and a lengthy cruise along the coast of Holland and Germany. Unless the yachtsman has exceptional luck with his weather this journey is likely to cause him a considerable amount of anxiety; for the east coast of the North Sea, with its dangerous shoals, tumbling seas, and lack of harbours to run for, is certainly the last the skipper of a small yacht would select for a pleasure cruise. But once let him reach the mouth of the Eider and he will be more than compensated for his preliminary difficulties and hardships.
The yacht at Hammersmith possessed two qualities not usually found together. She was of very light draught and yet she was an excellent sea-boat. She drew something under three feet, and so could enter the shallowest Danish boat-harbour. With her if I saw a port before me I could run in boldly, not needing a pilot, and without troubling my head about the depth of water; for, where any other boat had gone before mine was able to follow. She also looked like a craft that would put up with a good deal of heavy weather, and could be trusted to carry one safely across the North Sea. I saw that she was, in short, the very vessel I required; so I came to terms with her owner, and soon found that I had no reason to be disappointed with my bargain.
The Falcon — for so I named her after my former vessel — was an old P. and O. life-boat, and had doubtless made many a voyage to India and back on a steamer's deck. As is the way with life-boats, her bow and stern were alike, and she had far more sheer than is ever given to a yacht. She had been built in the strongest manner by the well-known life-boat builder White, of Cowes. She was double-skinned, both skins being of the best teak, the outer of horizontal, the inner of diagonal, planking.
The gentleman from whom I bought her had converted her into a yawl, or, to be more correct, a ketch, for her mizen-mast was well in-board, so that her mainsail was smaller and her mizen larger than is the case with yawls (an advantage as far as handiness is concerned). The water-tight compartments had been taken out of her, a false keel had been fastened on, and she had been decked all over with the exception of a small well. There was no appliance for covering over this well in bad weather, but I have never seen a pint of water tumble into it, so buoyant and admirable a sea-boat did the little vessel prove to be.
The Falcon is jury-rigged; too much so indeed, her spars and sails being rather too small. Her mainmast lowers on a tabernacle, a system which I do not like for sea-work, but which proved useful on the Norfolk Broads. She is twenty-nine feet long and of three tons register.
When I bought her, the season was so far advanced that I had to postpone my Baltic expedition until the following summer; but I made a pleasant trial cruise in her down our east coast and on the broads and rivers of Norfolk.
I succeeded in exploring all the portions of those inland waters which are practicable to a yacht of three-feet draught; but, as might be expected from so long and shallow a boat, she was slow in stays and ill-adapted for the narrow streams beloved of the East Anglian yachtsman.
This cruise over, the Falcon was brought back to Hammersmith, and during the winter all was got ready for her Baltic voyage. So strong are life-boats when built on this diagonal system that it is considered unnecessary to timber them; but when one of them is converted into a yacht and it is intended to subject her to the great strain of rigging, it becomes advisable to place some timbers into her, especially under the channel plates. So I had seven stout timbers put in on either side, and, among other improvements, a strong oak rubbing-piece was carried round her, a new and larger rudder fitted on, and a stout rail placed on her bulwarks. After all this, built as she was of imperishable wood and copper-fastened, she seemed as safe a little vessel as a sailor's heart could desire.
Her cabin was a spacious one for a boat of her tonnage. There was not much head-room in it, but I do not hold, as some do, that to be able to stand up in one's cabin is an essential on a small yacht. If one wishes to assume an erect position one can always go on deck.
The shingle ballast which she contained when I purchased her was taken out and somewhat more than a ton of iron substituted. Many told me that this was far from sufficient. But a shallow boat should always be kept light. With more ballast she will certainly turn to windward better in smooth water, but it is of far greater importance to keep her lively and safe in a heavy sea.
It is rare indeed that a yacht is fitted out at Hammersmith for a foreign cruise, and it is certainly not one of the best places in England for this purpose. But somehow or other—not without much wrath on the part of all concerned, and not without much of the work having to be pulled to pieces as utterly bad and done over again — everything was satisfactorily completed at last; and as the Falcon lay off the "Doves Inn" she looked far more smart and ready for business than she had ever done in her previous existence. When I bought her, her sides were tarred, an act of atrocious vandalism, for her skin was of the cleanest and most beautifully-grained teak; so now all the tar was burnt off, she was scraped and her natural loveliness revealed. When she had been sand-papered and varnished she looked a very different sort of craft from of old. No picture-dealer who discovers some rare old master under a smoky daub ever effected so marvellous a transformation as did we with this once black, heavy-looking old tub.
In the second week in May the finishing touches were given to the yacht and the stores were brought on board. A goodly supply of tinned meats and pickles was stowed in the lockers. For the benefit of inexperienced yachtsmen, I may state that the above, together with tea, sugar, and coffee, are the only provisions of which it is advisable to carry a large quantity from England. Everything else is much cheaper abroad.
We did all our cooking with a large spirit-stove, which answered admirably. Mr. George Wilson, of Glasshouse Street, supplies similar stoves in several sizes. I have used petroleum on small yachts, but I shall never do so again, the spirit-stove is far cleaner and better in every respect. We did a good deal of cooking each day with this kitchener, and yet we consumed only a shilling's worth of spirit per week. I took a large supply of methylated spirit with me from England. As an old traveller I should have known better, for burning spirit is nearly twice as dear in England as in the countries I visited, and it is easy to procure it even in small foreign towns.
I did not forget to lay up a stock of old rum. True it is that spirits for internal application are also cheaper abroad; but then one does not at once acquire the taste for Scandinavian aqua vitŠ and the fire-water of Holland and Germany.
Of tobacco I took but sufficient to last me across the German Ocean, not being one of those who cannot smoke Dutch tobacco because it costs little more a pound than the English does an ounce.
A considerable number of charts were necessary for my projected cruise; these I procured in London—a great mistake on my part. Danish and Swedish charts for the Baltic are better than those of our English Admiralty, which last do not indicate the snug little fishing-harbours I have mentioned above. One of the best-known map and chart sellers in London sold me, for twenty-five shillings, what he called the only reliable maps of the Dutch canals. They proved to be quite useless; but while walking through The Hague later on I saw some really admirable maps of the Low Countries in a shop window, which I purchased for three shillings.
The vessel was, of course, provided with riding-lights, side-lights, an aneroid, and all the manifold articles necessary for a small yacht bound "foreign." I brought with me my quant, a relic of the Norfolk Broads, and very useful too it often proved to be. A rifle and shotgun were not forgotten, but they were never put to use. My sextant was also on board, with which I took the latitude twice only during the cruise, and on those occasions more for amusement than from necessity.
Our dinghy was eleven feet long; we had no room for it on deck, so we always towed it astern. It followed us thus all the way to Copenhagen, and no accident befell it. This dinghy had a six-inch false keel, and sailed extremely well under her balance-lug. She was found very useful for ascending fiords and shallow rivers inaccessible to the yacht. A dinghy will tow in a far less erratic manner before a following sea if she is provided with a false keel. We were in the habit of putting a half-hundredweight of iron into her stern, to steady her when the weather was rough, with the result that she followed us as quietly as possible, not sheering wildly about and rushing furiously down upon us as is the wont of dinghies under such circumstances.
So much for the yacht, and now for the crew. Until almost the last moment I had no idea as to who was to be my companion. My wish had been to take friends with me and dispense with professional sailors; but though I found no lack of friends who would have liked to join me, none could spare the time for so long a voyage, especially at this early period of the summer.
I had no intention of shipping a yacht-sailor, for it is difficult to find among that somewhat spoilt class the right man for a foreign cruise in a small yacht. I knew of one John Wright, a young fellow who had been with me before, and who was the very man for my purpose; but the last I had heard of him was that he had sailed out of London before the mast on a vessel bound for India, Australia, or some other distant portion of the globe, and it was impossible to say when he might return.
So the Falcon lay off the "Doves Inn," her sails bent, ready for sea in all respects save that she had a captain only and no crew, when one afternoon in mid-May, when I was arranging things in the cabin, a messenger arrived to say that a young man wished to speak with me.
The young man proved to be none other than John Wright himself. He had landed in the docks that morning, having arrived from Alexandria in the very nick of time to sail with me.
John Wright has luckily had nothing to do with Cowes and yachts. His life is passed before the mast in foreign-going steamers and sailing-vessels, and for his fore-and-aft training he is indebted to Mistley barges and small coasting steamers on the North Sea — an excellent school. A yachting cruise of this sort was a novelty to him, and I believe he enjoyed it as much as I did myself, which is saying a good deal.
Provided with the best boat and best crew for my purpose, I anticipated a successful and pleasant holiday; and I was not disappointed.
As is usually the case when one wishes to get away, I found that business was likely to detain me in England until the end of the month; but I contrived to take the Falcon to the mouth of the Thames for a trial trip, so that if anything was wrong with the vessel we might discover and repair it at once.
On May the 13th Wright and myself were on board shortly after daybreak, getting all ready for the journey through London. We unstepped the mizen, lowered the mainmast on deck, took the bowsprit in, and, anchoring in the stream, waited for the beginning of the ebb, when the tugs with their strings of barges astern might be expected to pass us on their way from Brentford to Woolwich.
At about seven o'clock we recognized the "puffing-billy" Sunbeam coming round the corner opposite Chiswick, with three barges in tow. I hailed the skipper, came to terms with him, and he turned round to pick me up. We quickly got our anchor up, hove the tug the end of our grass-rope, and were soon towing at a rattling pace down stream under London's twenty bridges. Then breakfast was got under way, and we were quite ready for our hot coffee, for a strong and keen north-east wind was blowing. It felt and looked like December, and the weather was certainly as unsuitable as possible for small yacht sailing.
The day was still young when we reached Woolwich. Here the tug slipped us, and we let go our anchor off North Woolwich Gardens, close to the steam-boat pier, in the company of several schooners and barges; for this is a favourite anchorage for small coasters. We now raised our masts, set up the rigging, and made the Falcon look once more like a yacht. As we did not anticipate having to lower the masts again during the cruise, we took the precaution of frapping our forestay fall and also putting on a preventer fall — a very necessary precaution with a tabernacle-mast, the omission of which has caused many accidents.
When we had completed our work we found that there remained but an hour of ebb, then both tide and wind would be against us; so as it was clearly not worth our while to sail that day, it was decided to remain where we were until the morrow.
North Woolwich is a dismal and unlovely spot. A ferry steamer runs every few minutes to South Woolwich, but as this is an even still less inviting place I did not venture to cross the river.
A travelling-circus proprietor had pitched his tent near the shore at North Woolwich, so in the evening I took a twopenny stall and sat through the performance. It blew very hard from the north-east, the rickety tent swayed in an alarming manner, as if about to fall and bury us at any moment. The wind, too, found its way within, and the climate became Siberian. Some of the performers were really clever, but it was not a very cheerful spectacle; the fair artistes, with blue noses, shivered in their thin tights, and the clown's teeth chattered so with cold that he could scarcely bring out his time-honoured jests. It would have been still more cheerless were it not for one comfortable rule of the establishment—the audience, and members of the company also when not performing, were permitted to smoke. We all availed ourselves of the permission, and, of course, under the enchantment of tobacco things seemed better at once.
To my surprise, I recognized among the troupe a clever acrobat whom I had last seen in Covent Garden Circus. This man, it seems, is so incurable a Bohemian in his tastes, that, though he can always command a salary which many a distinguished lawyer would envy, he loves to pass a large portion of the year in vagabondizing about the country with impecunious and ragged travelling companies of this description, living from hand to mouth, and often retiring supperless to bed after a hard night's work. And though he thus voluntarily endures so many privations, he informed me that he could not understand any sane person undertaking such a voyage as the one I meditated, in a small boat. This critic could see no eccentricity in his own uncomfortable way of taking his pleasure. This story has a moral which I submit to certain of my friends who are devoted to as arduous and not so healthy hobbies as my own, and who yet point contemptuously at the mote in my eye, quite heedless of their own beam — but this sounds confused and as if I was trying to pun.