The Day It Blew

I was determined that, if at all possible, this particular trip should proceed with the precision of well-­‐oiled machinery. I was the new master of the original Grand Banks schooner, Robertson II, in the autumn of 1981. The teacher responsible for outdoor education at St. Michael’s University School in Victoria had assured me that the school was dedicated to the type of adventure training S.A.L.T.S. had in mind. He even added, with a conspiratorial wink, that if I lived up to expectation he would see to it that a second trip was added the following year.

Needless to say the crew were primed and ready. Jeff Mitchell, the bosun cum cruise director, had added a new skit to his repertoire and a couple of fresh tunes for the evening ‘mug ups’. We even had a new cook from Vancouver, a young lady with impeccable references, who assured me fervently that she would willingly stray from her predecessor’s “carte du jour” of burnt toast and peanut butter. The mate, David Roycroft, who had cut his nautical teeth aboard the British training ships Winston Churchill and Malcolm Miller went so far as to suggest that all orders from sail handling to docking should be given solely by whistle signals on the bosun’s pipe to create the right impression. We thought this was carrying matters a little too far, and after painting a grisly picture of what could happen if a 13-­‐year-­‐old helmsman failed to interpret correctly the bosun’s warbling, David reluctantly agreed to restrict the whistle signals for meal calls only . (If the truth can be told at this late date, I confess to some difficulty myself in knowing the difference between a pipe to clew up the topsails and the one to signal slack should be taken in on an after spring line!)

And so we sailed. The sun shone, the autumnal winds blew pleasantly, the watches were rotated and life aboard the schooner proceeded with – well, if I do say so myself – the precision of well-­‐oiled machinery.

Until the last day. And then the wind started to blow. We were headed back to Victoria and with every mile the wind increased until the rigging set up a wail-­‐like cry of a soul in torment. Now you need to know that the Robertson II was a three-­‐masted schooner in those days – three very tall thin masts made out of telephone poles – that throbbed and shook alarmingly in the freshening gale. On the after deck was a large, ungainly wheelhouse which I had often derided for its ugly proportions but which I now blessed for its protection from the elements.

You must also know that the grade nine boys of St. Mike’s had been growing a little contemptuous of the fine weather we had been enjoying. I was frequently greeted on deck in the morning with statements like “Is it going to blow today, Skipper? We need a gale” and,“Yeah, Skipper, give us a storm and let’s see what the old girl’ll do!”

Well, they got their gale and they didn’t like it a bit. At first, of course, there were shrieks of delight as the bow of the old schooner rose and fell with the advancing waves, but when she started burying her bowsprit in the seas and throwing tons of cold water over her shoulder their spirits were somewhat dampened. And when a particularly strong gust blew her head off and she wallowed in the troughs with a nauseating roll, even one of the teachers approached the wheelhouse with a request that we shelter somewhere as some of his students were being reminded dramatically of their overindulgence at breakfast. “Of course, I’m thoroughly enjoying it myself,” he assured me, “it’s just the kids I’m worrying about.”

We towed a dory in those days and when it sank below the waves, oars and thwarts washing away to leeward, I decided to seek refuge in Oak Bay. Unfortunately, our new course took us broadside to the swell. At our last board meeting, the directors had approved a plan to replace the three-­‐masted rig with the traditional two-­‐masted fishing schooner configuration, but as the Robbie rolled side to side, it appeared that her sticks may well come down a little earlier than planned!

As a precaution, the mate ushered everyone below deck, which was just as well, for the radar scanner, during a particularly nasty roll, left its somewhat tenuous grip on the wheelhouse roof and crashed to the deck below. Not long after this, there were shrieks of alarm from below decks and soon a string of sooty-­‐faced boys emerged from the companionway in some haste, crying that the ship was on fire.

The bosun went below to investigate and reported later that the large diesel cook stove had broken loose and was bouncing around the accommodation space still alight and belching black smoke. He managed to lasso the offending beast with a mooring line and secure it to a bulkhead where it gave a few more snorts of soot before expiring.

The approach to Oak Bay Marina is complicated by two arms of a breakwater, designed to thwart the effect of the swell upon the yachts moored within. They also appear to be designed to thwart the master of a very large schooner who has to come in at some speed to counteract the grip of the waves upon his vessel. So with the aging “Jimmy” diesel screaming in protest, the bulwarks lined with small boys savouring the sweet taste of imminent freedom, we headed in until the bowsprit was almost over one arm of the breakwater, identifiable only by a seething mass of breaking waves and spin-drift. Then it was hard to starboard and hard to port and we were safely within the quiet waters of the harbour.

We had notified the school by radio telephone of the change in plan and they had their buses waiting along with some fellow students and anxious parents. As our precious cargo disembarked it was remarkable how colour had returned so quickly to their boyish faces and tales of their battle with elements took on heroic proportions.

The following day I received the expected call from the head of outdoor education. Despite our best intentions, the trip had ended in disaster and I had my apologies prepared.

“What on earth happened out there?” was his opening question. Before I had time to make my excuses he went on:

“Because whatever you did, it worked like a charm. Real spirit of teamwork. Kids can’t stop talking about it. Everybody wants to go now. We’ll book two, maybe three, trips next year.” A pause, and then: “Even that gale at the end brought ‘em all together. Couldn’t have been better if you’d planned it.”

So much for the precision of well-­‐oiled machinery.