Are you a tall ship? 

Ron Watts

 'Gwenili' is and old-fashioned gaff yawl, some 38'OA excluding the bowsprit, built in France in 1910. The owner, Brian, and myself will, by the time you are reading this, between us have celebrated 144 birthdays. In short, boat and crew are a geriatric combination! 

On passage from Pin Mill to the West Coast of Scotland, we sailed into Blyth during the late afternoon of Monday 7th July 1997. It was not a port we had planned to visit but light airs meant that we had been motoring rather more than we would have liked and in consequence we deemed it prudent to top up with more diesel. To our amazement and dismay, enquiry once we had moored resulted in the news that marine diesel is no longer available for yachts at Blyth: it would be necessary to go to the marina at Amble some 15 miles further north and with tide constraints on entry. We decided to stay where we were for the night. 

This proved a wise move as that evening we visited the Royal Northumberland Y.C. for a drink and one of the members, on hearing that we had cans available for all the fuel we wanted, offered to take Brian plus cans into North Shields by car the following morning to get the fuel we needed from a supplier there. This Good Samaritan not only turned up the following morning as arranged but also insisted on giving us two 5 gallon containers for us to fill and lash on deck, pointing out that unless a diversion was made into the Forth, there was nowhere between Amble and Peterhead where supply of marine diesel to a yacht could be guaranteed. The excursion into North Shields for fuel plus tasks such as topping up the water tank meant that we were later leaving Blyth than we might have hoped. Even so, when we left the harbour in the late morning we were in high spirits. Not only did we have everything we needed in way of fuel, water and provisions, the sky was blue, the sun was shining, visibility was excellent and we had a fair wind. What more could we ask for? 

Sadly, the good conditions were not to last. By the time Coquet Island was astern visibility was noticeably deteriorating and once past the Farne Islands and the Longstone, the mainland coast was at best no more than an indistinct blur, more usually totally invisible to us. However, about dusk the visibility improved, and we had the reassurance of the St Abbs Head light. Unfortunately, the wind also chose to drop and about 11.00pm we started the engine. We did not know it at the rime but it was to run non-stop for more than 20 hours. 

Despite the noise of the engine, the night was not too tiring as there was a drain of breeze sufficient to keep the mainsail asleep and the boat reasonably comfortable despite a slight sea. However, with the dawn the wind went completely and the mainsail started to slat. Allied with the noise of the engine, the constant noise of the reef-points slapping against the sail plus the jerk from the boom at the end of each roll, it quickly became very tiring but there was nothing we could do but grin and bear it. 

About 8.00ain came the first hint of trouble. The sun became very watery then disappeared. The visibility steadily shut down and soon we were motoring into a solid wall of fog. Very occasionally and just to tantalise us with the belief the fog was lifting the shape of the sun would become evident, the fog would brighten and visibility would go up to a few hundred yards but after a while even this stopped happening and visibility stabilised at no more than about 50 yards. 

The 1355 forecast brought no hint of probable improvement and it seemed the fog was widespread as Fifeness, the nearest weather report station although by now some 40 miles distant, was also reporting dense fog. We held a Council of War to decide what we should do. There were three possibilities. First, we could keep at sea but we could tell from the amount of radio traffic that there was considerable oil industry and fishing industry traffic in the area. Rattray Head and Kinnaird Head at the corner of the Moray Firth would inevitably see traffic at its most concentrated and if we pushed on we would be off those headlands in the dark. Even the thought of the fog plus dark was an d we would, by then, be very very tired. Second, we could try and get into Peterhead but the same objections applied. We would not be there until after dark and it would take us into a heavy traffic zone. Finally, we could try for Aberdeen which we could reach before dark and would not involve tangling with the heaviest traffic route. Rightly or wrongly, we set a course for Aberdeen. 

The decision was, at best, debatable. The R.N.Y.C. pilotage notes were unequivocal 'Yachtsmen are advised to avoid Aberdeen when possible'. The pilot itself did give the leading mark/lights bearing and referred to an offing buoy but perhaps through tiredness if not stupidity, we could find no any reference to the coordinates of that offmg buoy. Our chart covering that section of coast was relatively small scale and the offing buoy was not shown. Meanwhile, the OPS was playing up, refusing to accept way-points and losing the program completely if shut down. Fortunately, we had it powered off the ships supply so could get round this latter problem by leaving it running continuously. Nevertheless, in light of the problems we wondered if the position shown, although apparently correct, was in fact accurate. We consoled ourselves with the thought that anything must be preferable to boxing around amongst shipping in dark and fog and that if all else failed we could work into soundings and anchor although the sea still running would make it extremely uncomfortable. 

During the afternoon our hopes were raised briefly by hearing on the VHF that at Aberdeen the fog had lifted slightly to allow two tankers which had earlier aborted attempts to enter, to get in. We soon learned that the respite had been only short-lived. 

In the early evening we reached our guesswork position for the offing buoy but despite a long time spent searching we found no trace. At last we gave up and asked Aberdeen Harbour Control if they could give us our position from their radar. Their response was perplexing 'Are you a tall ship?' Their further reply in response to our negative was merely 'We ~ you are about half mile south of the harbour entrance'. A quick reference to the chart showed that if this were indeed so we were ashore on Girdle Ness! We decided they must mean south of the offing buoy so crept cautiously due north then, just when we giving up hope, we sighted the buoy dimly on our starboard beam. We turned on to the harbour entry bearing quoted in the pilot, prayed there was no cross-entrance current and crept inshore' Fortunately we had done our homework and when a yellow light was seen dimly away on the port bow, we knew it was a fog signal exhibited from the north pierhead so were able to take immediate action to avoid going up the wrong side of the pierhead! 

Harbour Control now came back to tell us to proceed to the ro-ro berth in the Albert Dock, giving us instructions from their radar track when, despite being inside the harbour, the fog prevented us from seeing where we were supposed to be going. When we got there we joined four or five German and Scandinavian yachts tied up to the rear of the ro-ro berth floating bridge. A harbour official was already awaiting us there and instructed us to report to the Harbour Office the following morning. 

It was hardly the ideal yacht mooring. The Albert Dock from the ro-ro berth onwards turned out to be the fish dock and, so far as we could make out in the gloom, entirely surrounded by warehouses. The water was jet black with its surface covered by a thick layer of oil and rubbish including literally hundreds of plastic sacks, many floating just below the surface. Large bubbles regularly appeared on the surface. Overhead, until a ro-ro ferry for Orkney and Shetland had finished loading, tractors and trailers roared over the floating bridge every few minutes. We did not care! We had a meal and then turned in to sleep like logs. 

We turned out in the morning to find the fog had thinned to a heavy mist. More than twenty fishing boats were discharging m the dock and the mystery of the floating plastic sacks was solved; at the nearest berth a dockside worker was busily engaged with a hose, washing even more off the dockside into the dock! Meanwhile, our attention was claimed by a German on one the other yachts who was asking all and sundry if it was true yachts were only allowed to stay one night. 

When Brian returned from the harbour office he confirmed this was indeed the case. However, he had pointed out to them, I hope tongue in cheek, that we were elderly and needing rest and in any case had repairs to do the violent slatting of the mainsail on the previous day had resulted in the stitching of at least one seam failing - so they had grudging condescended to allow us to stay a second night. An hour or two later Brian realised that this agreement to our second night had come after he had paid the harbour dues so 1 went back to the harbour office to pay for the second night. The clerk 1 saw looked puzzled when 1 explained my errand. 'The dues you have already paid' he said 'cover you for five nights'! 

In the morning we recovered our mooring warps, coiling them down on deck to await the opportunity to scrub every bit which had dipped into the water with detergent and hot water to rid them of the coating of oil they had gathered. We moved out into the centre of dock then tried to radio harbour control for permission to pass down the harbour and out, only to find that for some unknown reason the set would not transmit. We hesitated for only a moment before acting on the assumption that the attitude towards yachts was such that the last thing they would do would be to try and hinder or stop our departure. We motored out without a squeak from harbour control . As we cleared the offing buoy and brought the bow round towards the north we heaved a sigh of relief and agreed that Aberdeen had been an 'interesting experience and one that really drove home the fact we were a long way from our usual East Coast haunts. 

So, why were we asked if we were a 'tall ship? The answer is that the 1997 Cutty Sark Tall Ships Race was to start from Aberdeen the following week and the smaller yacht entries were starting to arrive. One reached Aberdeen an hour or so after us. On an affirmative to the harbour control question as to whether they were a 'tall ship' they were immediately advised that a pilot boat was being despatched to locate them and guide them in. Once in the harbour they were conducted to the relatively clean waters of the Upper Basin in the Victoria Dock with berthing on proper pontoons whilst even before they had moored, harbour control was asking what they needed in way of fuel etc. How nice it must he to feel wanted!