Tag Archives: boats

Dark Voyage, by Alan Furst

Holiday reading? Yes: I’ve long enjoyed the writing of Alan Furst. He writes exquisite English, with nuanced characters, all having complex, ambiguous motives. He has deep sympathy for the fallen, human condition.

But for all that, Dark Voyage is different. It has the same male protagonist making his way through a world distorted by Nazi Germany, someone who is at root, a modern European in a world dominated by war splitting Europe asunder. It has the same cast of characters – the shadowy, morally bankrupt SIS agents, the Russian emigres, the fixers and shakers in smart suits. The women. He even manages to get in a dinner at Table 14 at Heinigers in Paris, though only in flashback.

Unusually for an Alan Furst hero, the main character speaks English. Also, most of the action takes place at sea, and here is the rub. I was, as a former seafarer myself, drawn to the book on that basis. At the same time – and I’m not entirely sure how the author would take this – Dark Voyage reads like a Douglas Reeman novel. Reeman’s naval stories are – like Furst’s books – quintessentially readable tales about the frailty of the human condition in time of war or impending war. Both writers suffuse their stories with the gentle light of compassion and understanding for their characters. Both -as the jacket of Dark Voyage attests – fundamentally humane writers. Wonderful, relaxing stuff. Reading does not have to be hard work.

Dark Brandelhow

Two nights ago, he and the others had escaped from Force Crag Mine. They’d made their way across the grain of the country, through trackless valleys and overgrown fields, through the dark and the storm, travelling at night, hiding up in the daytime.  They’d got here late on the second night, drenched, cold and shivering, and had holed up in the ruins of an old outdoor centre.  They’d no means to light a fire, and nothing to cook even if they could. The ever-present risk of being caught, weighed heavy upon them like their cold, wet clothes.

Their pickup was to be by boat, on the lake that had been called Derwent Water. There was a jetty in these overgrown woods, near a place they’d heard was called Brandlehow.  An old jetty from better times, when there had still been such a thing as tourism. But now, these once busy woods, these unkempt fields, all the land about, were drear from decades of neglect.

Only the trees moved, roaring and bending, creaking in the wind. The rain dripped from the leaves of Autumn, and where there was no shelter, it came down endlessly, an unstoppable grey noise.

Hope ebbed away as the grey daylight grew stronger. Sheets of rain obscuring the mountainside became visible. Dark clouds were down on the high tops. Wind was whipping the water into a frenzy. Even on this lake, there were substantial white-horsed waves thrashing the stones of the shore. The wind was like a solid noise in the tree tops; the rain, relentless, dispiriting. Despair and defeat was an actual taste in the mouth. It seemed to be over. They would be stuck here, and stuck here, they would be caught.

As the daylight thickened, the weather, if it were possible, grew worse. Nothing animal or man was out and about or moving in this weather. Small furry creatures were hidden away in their burrows and holes, hiding from the storm. Such people as were left in this remote part of the country would likewise be in their homes. It was all wet leaves, mud, sodden clothes, wet hair, wet and cold feet. Hunger gnawed at them, weak as they already were from working in the mine. They were paralyzed with defeat and exhaustion, hunkered down in the woods, sheltering in long collapsed ruins, buildings that had been derelict for decades.

The crunching sound of footsteps…what was that? His heart hammered. A man appeared from around the corner of the ruined building, wearing a rain-soaked outdoor jacket made in the previous century, and a leather hat. Rainwater dripped from the rim. He had a straggly beard, and missing front teeth. He looked silently at the fugitives for a few moments, saying nothing, and yawned hugely. The three of them struggled tiredly to their feet. The stranger did not speak. He just indicated with a jerk of his head, in a voiceless movement, that they should follow him, and almost as quickly as he appeared, he was gone.  One after the other, the three fugitives limped back out into the rain and wind, their feet squelching, wet socks, wet shoes, blisters. Their footwear was light prison issue work shoes, not really appropriate for walking in wild country in heavy weather.

Following the stranger down through the dripping woods, they came to what looked like a derelict landing stage.  A rather odd-looking boat was alongside.  The boat was somehow, difficult to see. It was certainly grey. It sat very low in the wave-strewn water. Or was it grey? Was it bigger than it appeared to be? The three of them climbed onto the landing stage, each casting dubious and fearful glance at the violence and malevolent passion of the waters beneath, and thence, following the man in the hat, down onto the strange grey boat. Close-up, it looked like a launch of some kind. As soon as the men were aboard, the boat jerked violently astern, and, rocking violently, turned away from the shore. 

A toolbox talk

As part of my last job I was a coxswain of small boats. Not an instinctive driver of such boats, nor even a particularly brilliant one, but nevertheless a perfectly competent one. Small boat driving was the one area of my job that has given me the most satisfaction, though it wear me out from a purely physical viewpoint. This story is not really about driving small boats as such, but is the tale of an incident in a small boat that involved me. It has stuck in my mind for a number of reasons, not the least the gorgeous weather at the time.

On a time four of us were out in our Norpower 25’, a sturdy dory or work boat with a big diesel engine and huge propeller; it was a calm and sunny day in Tropical waters, in late afternoon. Our task was nearly done – I shall not attempt to describe that task in detail, save to say it involved the boat being physically attached front and back to a long cable towed through the sea. Our task was to replace a section of that cable, a piece some 100m long. We brought with us a new section, wound on a reel, and we would take home the damaged one we would be removing.

The time came to free ourselves from the cable, which being many kilometres long and towed from a large ship – our primary work place and home away from home – was under perhaps a ton of tension. Hydraulic pumps and winches were to be used for this task. We went to do this task, and nothing happened when we moved the control levers. This was a worrying moment, but we gathered our wits about us, as we had been trained to do, and soon enough after a brief search, we found a leak in the hydraulic control equipment. This meant that it was no longer possible to free ourselves from the long cable using machinery. The time was around 4.45p.m, and we found ourselves in a potentially quite hazardous situation. We were in a small boat on the open sea, attached to a cable without the obvious means to free ourselves, unable to navigate or control our boat, and to make matters worse, about an hour’s journey from the mother vessel, with perhaps ninety minutes of daylight remaining.

It so happened that on that occasion I was a workman – I was not the Coxswain. It also happened that I was far and away the most experienced and senior person in the boat. What did we do? It is instructive. We paused to discuss the problem. This is a technique we use regularly in our industry, a technique proven to reduce accidents and injuries in the work place – the concept of the “toolbox meeting”. Then, the coxswain, a young woman, call her K, yielded the helm to me as the more experienced person. We had to get the cable free of the back of the boat. Since we were towed from a rope attached much further forwards, we contrived to let out that rope manually, by letting the brake on the winch slip. This enabled us to free ourselves from the cable at the back of the boat, though not without some difficulty, and the task took fifteen minutes. As the sun sank to the horizon we were conscious of impending darkness, ever aware that the run back to our mother ship, would take most of an hour.

Nextly, as Coxswain I caused the boat to move forward, such that the rope on which we were towing became slack, and the boat was under way independently. This was a delicate task involving some concentration. Slowly then I ran the boat forwards up this winch rope, and my colleagues looped the slack into the bows of the work boat, since the winch, being hydraulic, would not work. It was a 200m long rope and by the time the task was done, there was a blazing sunset, a picture of glory, the sky painted red and gold and pink and orange. The final task was to remove the clamp that held the rope to the cable. This, though a delicate manouvre, is one we were all well familiar with, and in moments we were free of the cable and clear to go home. A potentially disastrous situation had been averted, through teamwork, clear communications, strong leadership, and familiarity with emergency procedures.

It remained only for us to motor the 4 miles back to our home away from home, this task taking getting on for a full hour since the ship herself was making 4 knots away from us, and the work boat could only make 10 knots. It was nearly dark when we arrived back, and we were well ready for our dinner after such an exciting adventure and – truth be known – such a narrow escape.