A violent storm, broken tiller and leaking petrol put David Pyle and crew in great peril on a passage to Australia in an 18ft Drascombe Lugger
Our Great Seamanship series tells stories of supremely difficult epic voyages, interspersed with tales of the humdrum that excel by virtue of being beautifully written. Australia The Hard Way by David Pyle (republished from the original 1972 version by Lodestar Books) falls well and truly into the epic category.
David Pyle was a young sailing instructor who’d crossed the English Channel in a Wayfarer; then he designed and built a 27ft yacht to compete in the 1968 OSTAR. All this turned out merely to be a prelude to the great adventure that was to come when he and Dave Derrick sailed an 18ft open Drascombe Lugger called Hermes to Australia.
In his foreword to this new edition, Pyle notes that the two young men made the trip for no better reason than to prove it could be done. Rather than going by conventional yacht, the Drascombe would allow them to use rivers and harbours impossible for other craft. An example is that, rather than entering the Indian Ocean by way of Suez and the Red Sea, they cruised instead through Iraq down the Tigris and into the Persian Gulf.
This is a book not to be missed in its entirety, but for now we’ll share with them the passage across a stormy Aegean at the height of the Meltemi…
From Australia The Hard Way by David Pyle
The local fishermen of Amorgos confirmed our suspicions. The etesian winds had begun and we had still 60 miles to go before Kos, an island off the south-western corner of Turkey. It was also the worst stretch if a northerly was blowing, with no protection from any islands except one, Levitha, which was very small and uninhabited except for the lighthouse keeper.
For 300 miles north there was nothing, a long enough fetch for a northerly gale to produce a considerable sea. We had to take a chance and attempt the crossing now, before the seas really built up.
The wind stayed light until sunrise the following morning, when once more a stormy north-westerly began. Levitha was only half a mile off the bow; within half an hour we were sailing into a cove on her southern shore, the most perfect natural harbour in the Greek islands. We dropped anchor and both turned in for a fitful slumber on our now leaking air beds.
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Later that morning we awoke to the noise of the wind howling through the rigging; Hermes was perfectly sheltered, but we still had another 40 miles of open seas to cross before we were out of danger.
For three days and three nights it blew a full gale. On the fourth day I decided that we had been on the island long enough. For a few hours the previous night the wind had moderated, and might do so again tonight. The seas, with the long open fetch northward, would be quite large, but 40 miles to the east lay Kos.
Its harbour was a farther 15 miles on its eastern extremity, but to its north lay Kalimnos, and a few other smaller islands, giving some kind of shelter. All movable objects were lashed down; our external buoyancy tanks were fixed around the gunwales but left deflated; by nightfall we were ready and, with only the genoa up, we crept out of our little cove.
For a while all seemed well; the wind was from the north-west and Levitha offered some protection from the seas. But as we came out from under her protecting shores, it soon became evident that we had a rough passage in store.
The seas were running in onto our quarter, and I kept glancing over my shoulder with a wary eye, estimating their size and potential danger. They were hitting Hermes 10-15° off the stern, which was preferable to a direct run, where she’d career off on either tack while surfing down the front of the waves.
But it meant a continuous strain in one direction on the helm, trying to prevent her rounding up into the seas and being hit beam on. It took all my strength to keep her on course and the thin laminated tiller often bent at an alarming angle.
Within half an hour of leaving Levitha, the wind suddenly increased and the seas began to break and foam past us. “Get the genoa down and change it for the working jib,” I yelled, trying to make myself heard over the roar of the seas and the screaming wind. Dave was now highly proficient at changing headsails, and the working jib made helming that little bit easier. Meantime my brain was working full-time, trying to work out the most practical solution to our problem.
I thought of lying to the sea anchor; but this would be completely impracticable, as the rocky shores of Kos were to leeward of us, and in time we would have been driven upon them. The only solution was to run before the wind and seek shelter farther on.
After an hour the wind subsided from a full gale to 25 knots. I was extremely tired, with pains in my arms making it almost impossible to grasp the tiller. I handed over to Dave. Ten minutes later another squall hit us.
I could sense that Dave was having difficulty in handling Hermes. Suddenly a monstrous wave came up astern like a car on a big dipper, Hermes was picked up in a welter of foam and surfed down the face of the wave, skidded sharply to port and was then hit beam-on by a breaking crest.
We both clambered frantically to windward, to try to keep her on an even keel. My mind was reeling. Certain that we were going over, I gasped for breath and swallowed a lungful of water. Coughing and spluttering, I instinctively grabbed the helm to try and bring her back on an even course. But when I caught hold of the frail wooden stick, it fell to the bottom of the boat, broken off at the rudder stock.
We were crippled and helpless. Something had to be done quickly, for we were wallowing low in the water, filling up with every wave. Six successive walls of water smashed against her sides and gallons of sea water flowed into the bilge. Suddenly I remembered that the outboard was still connected. Reaching for the starting cord, I pulled, and it started first time.
Slowly I brought her back on course; Dave began to bail frantically, while I sat right aft on the petrol tank trying desperately to prevent her broaching again. But I soon found that at the top of each wave the propeller would not bite into the turbulent crests, and that she would begin to career wildly off course.
I could do nothing to prevent her. In the troughs the propeller would bite deep into the water, and I had to bring her quickly back on course before the next towering wave, the height of a two-storey house, came crashing upon us.
After ten nerve-racking minutes, I noticed a strong smell of petrol. With my left hand I felt around under the engine cowling. Petrol was leaking profusely from somewhere, but this was no time to stop to find out where. Minutes later the outboard began to splutter and cough and then died.
Once more without steerage way, Hermes swung up to port and was filled by the following wave. So much for all Dave’s hard work. I squeezed the hand pump, a little rubber valve on the fuel line, and tried again; at the first pull it burst into life, only to die away again ten seconds later. Squeeze, pull and away again; all I could do was to keep on pumping the fuel through slowly by hand.
Obviously the main petrol pump must have broken; all that was getting through to the carburettor was the trickle that I pumped by hand. The rest of our precious petrol was just flowing away. We did not have a vast supply of fuel and were only functional while the outboard ran.
My hands were fully occupied, so Dave brought out the dripping, saturated chart, which was beginning to fall into little pieces, and shone the torch on it. I noticed that the small harbour of Kalimnos lay 20 miles from us, a good 15 miles closer than Kos, but to the north-east.
From our present position Kos was a lee shore and we were slowly being pushed upon it. Somehow we had to fight our way to seaward, towards Kalimnos, which would mean bringing Hermes round farther to port, to receive the seas on her beam. Which was exactly what we had been desperately trying to avoid.
I tried to steer as best I could with the motor, squeezing the fuel pump every five seconds and judging each wave as it came – whether to stay on course or run. Dave was continually bailing. As soon as he had partially cleared the bilge another wave would break onboard and he’d start all over again.
Some of the waves could safely be negotiated beam on, but many others necessitated our turning tail and running before them. I kept peering ahead into the dark void of the night, searching for a small light that would indicate the harbour of Kalimnos.
For three hours I held to our course, numb with exhaustion, my mind whirling with the fear of capsizing. We were well equipped for survival if Hermes foundered and sank, but my fear was for the loss of the boat and all her equipment. My entire life savings and more had gone into this voyage, my hopes, dreams and years of planning. To end the voyage with Hermes a wreck was a prospect worse than death itself.
A glimmer of hope
At last I caught a glimpse of a small flashing white light, which disappeared behind a wave. A line of rocks extend two miles off the southern shore of Kalimnos, and this light was on the southernmost one. For what seemed like hours there was no apparent change in our position. That little flashing jewel kept beckoning us to safety, yet seemed to get no closer until suddenly we caught sight of spumes of white spray and foam and heard a loud thundering roar.
Slowly our eyes began to pick out dark jagged shapes of rocks; the light became clearer, gradually rising above us, and then moving fast along our port side. We felt a sudden exhilarating sense of speed as a large wave picked us up and swept us around behind this rocky chain. Immediately the seas decreased in size, having expended their tremendous force on the rocks to windward.
Dawn was breaking as we motored into the still waters of the harbour. The physical exhaustion after the last eight hours hit us hard. Dave tried his best to produce a hot, sweet mug of tea, but I wasn’t interested.
My clothes and sleeping bag were soaked, but when I lay down I felt as if I was in the most comfortable of dream beds with silken sheets. Although I was exhilarated at having brought Hermes through, I just wanted to forget the last few hours.
First published in the July 2020 edition of Yachting World.