This is part of a longer piece of writing set in the 1970s when keepers still lived and serviced Blackrock lighthouse in Blacksod Bay, Co. Mayo, and the storyline is based on some real events. I dedicate it to the crew of R116, who gave their lives to ensure the safety of others at sea, and to the fishermen who ‘go to the sea in ships’ and encounter dangers few will understand.
“Sorry about this, lads, I’m turning her round. I know how much you wanted to get out to the 100 fathom line, and so did I, but not this time. I need to get us all back safely now.”
Dad had put on his ‘captain’s face’: stern, set and determined. I think he knew that Ian and especially John might push him to continue.
“This is the one thing we hadn’t bargained for. Those kind of equinoctial storms brew up out of nowhere, especially here in the open,” he continued.
With that he eased the throttle and turned the big wheel of the 36ft fishing boat 180 degrees. The setting sun was now behind us.
“Make sure everything is secured and you all have your life jackets on. We’re in for a rough ride,” Dad shouted.
The engine now had a more hurried sound to it. Different, I thought, to the steady, ‘I’m going somewhere’ sound it was making coming out here. I remembered what Dad had said earlier, about listening to the boat and the sea, and wondered if you could only really know something when you look back at it.
The continuous thump of the waves against the bow of the boat and the steady throbbing of the engine created an eerie sense of foreboding within the confined space of the cabin. It felt as if something was trying to force its way in.
I won’t say that I wasn’t afraid. My legs were still shaky from the incident in the wheelhouse. I was glad that Ian had taken the disabled compass from me or I might have dropped it again and we’d never have found our way home. I felt fear churning deep down in my belly. I wanted to go to the jakes and not just to pee.
The only thing to do is not to think about it, I thought. I wish Dad would give me a job or something.
Ian had asked John, his fellow journalist, to help him hold the compass steady so that Dad could unscrew the brass ring surrounding the cracked glass that held it in place. I watched as the three of them worked silently.
“Steady now, we don’t want to lose any more of the liquid in the compass,” Ian, in his broad Essex accent, said. Unscrewing the cap from the bottle of gin he, asked, “Is the gin the same as the alcohol in the compass?”
John’s eyes were nearly pushing out beyond his glasses with curiosity bordering on fear.
Dad, noticing the tension, intervened, “I hope that they are compatible,” he said, followed by ‘We’ll see,” as he steadily began to drip the gin into the compass.
The circular card with the cardinal points of N. S. E. W. on it began to float and oscillate, the three men holding their breath. The card would need to steady and find its equilibrium so that it would fix on due North. Their eyes shifted from the compass to one to another and back to the compass again.
“Hold it steady.” Ian said while he and John tried to hold their balance as the boat slapped hard into a wave that gave way, and we fell into its trough.
“Go up and see if The Gannet is all right.” Dad shouted at me without taking his eyes off the compass.
In the wheelhouse The Gannet was trying his best to keep the boat steady. He slowed her down.
The waves, empowered by the seething energy of the wind, caused confusion on the surface waters. In addition, the surge from the approaching storm created deep troughs in the sea, as if sucking the bottom out of a wave. The Gannet was wrestling with the wheel against this outside force.
“Not too good out there,” he said. “How are they getting on below with the compass?”
I shrugged my shoulders in reply. I didn’t know what to say. “Do you know where we are?” I asked.
“Without a compass and not a star in sight, we are like blind men at a crossroad, not knowing which way to go,” he retorted.
If we didn’t know where we were, and we didn’t have a compass, and if there were no stars, how were we going to figure out what direction to go in? My mind too was swirling in all directions. The keen-eyed Gannet, hands on the wheel, looked steadily ahead, straining to see. Lightening lit up the darkness momentarily, mocking our blindness.
“If only we had a landmark,” he said aloud.
“What landmark were you thinking of?” I asked him. Just then Dad appeared in the wheelhouse door.
“Any luck with the compass?” The Gannet asked. Dad shook his head.
“No, the damn thing began to spin as if it were drunk.”
“A little bit like us out here,” The Gannet said somberly. “Going round in circles and not knowing where we’re going.”
“What if we had a landmark?” I spluttered. “The Gannet said…” I left the sentence open, hoping that Dad would come up with an idea.
“Hmmm! Seeing a landmark in those conditions is nearly impossible. We’re probably somewhere between Achill Head and Blackrock lighthouse. Visibility being what it is though, we’d be on top of either before we knew it.”
The three of us knew that was a possibility. We had fished the Head many times and even out round the base of the tall rock sticking up from the ocean bed, on which the lighthouse stood with its flashing light warning boats of the danger. The lighthouse keepers would kletter down the rock using special hand and footholds, and sometimes you would see them fishing with a hand line for their dinner. But tonight, they could no more see us than we could them.
“What are you thinking of, son?” Dad asked.
“Do you remember the time we had the Germans out at the Rock and the lighthouse keepers came down and we gave them some of our food and the Germans gave them a bottle of wine…”
“I remember that,” The Gannet’s voice echoed, as if the memory was dragged up from the depths.
“That was a calm day,” Dad replied.
“I went up onto the bow and was the one to reach the stuff into the men on the rock,” I said.
“Yes”, The Gannet now a bit more animated said, “but I had to tie a rope round you in case you
slipped and fell in, so we could pull you back out.”
“You know”, Dad said, “I think we’re not far from the Rock, but we’ve no way of knowing. I’d
rather we gave it a wide berth than go too close on a night like this. If we could just see its light,
but between the spray, the wind and the rain…”
“Maybe we could do the rope thing again and I keep an eye out for the light…” The words were
running out of my mouth without knowing what I was saying. They both looked at me.
“No, we can’t risk it.” Dad snapped.
The Gannet looked away and said, “What other options do we have? We cannot see anything from in here… I’ll make sure he’s well tied down.”
I could see Dad thinking again. Then looking at me, he said, “Tell the Englishmen to put on their oilskins and come up here. See if there are any sandwiches left. The Gannet here is starving.”
We were all hungry. I went down into the cabin; the two boyos were tucked into the sandwiches.
“Are there any left?” I asked.
“Plenty,” Ian said. “Nora made sure we wouldn’t starve.”
“Dad wants us all in the wheelhouse when you’re ready,” I said. “Put on your oilskins and don’t forget your lifejackets.”
After grabbing a package of sandwiches I made my way up to the wheelhouse, making sure not to drop them or get them wet from the spray. I put them on the ledge in front of The Gannet, where the compass had been. They did taste good. No tea though. And what you can’t have tastes so good in your mind.
“What time is it?” I asked. It seemed such a long time since we’d left home. In the darkness of the storm, time had a longer shadow.
Dad looked at me then at his watch; “It’s just after midnight,” he said.
Ian and John appeared in the doorway, barely able to stand.
“Squeeze in here,” Dad said, mouth half-full with the bite of a sandwich. He outlined his plan.
I thought John’s eyes were going to pop out as he pushed his spray-splattered glasses higher up onto his nose.
‘I’ll go up with the young fella”, Ian said. “I know how to secure him.”
“OK then,” Dad said. “You can go up and make sure he is secure, but come back down, you will be needed here.”
The Gannet nudged me and winked. We both knew Dad trusted Ian and needed him to make sure that John wouldn’t lose his nerve.
The thought of drowning made me swallow hard… adrenaline hit me like a side-on wave. I reached out to steady myself. Dad’s commanding voice helped steady me.
“OK, young fella, go down and get the rope that is hanging up near the prow, and bring the sharp knife with you too, and the new pair of gloves that are under the seat.”
As I went into the semi-darkness of the cabin, I looked round at the confined, sheltered space and wondered if I would come back in here again. Part of me wanted to crawl into a corner and pretend none of this was happening.
Standing there, I sensed Dad behind me: “Are you all right son?” he asked.
I was afraid to answer in case I cried. I wanted him to put his arms round me and say it was going to be OK.
“I don’t want you to do it.” Hesitating, he then said, “I believe you have a better sense of the danger that may be lurking in the darkness than anyone.”
With his hands on my shoulders, he looked at me. I couldn’t hold it in anymore. “Dad, I’m afraid.”
“I am too, son,” he said, as he pulled me towards him and held me close.
In that moment, I felt the weight of his responsibility on my shoulders. I pushed away from him saying,
“Ok, let’s do it.” I took a deep breath. “Mammy will kill us if we don’t get home in one piece.”
With that I grabbed the rope. Dad had already picked up the knife and gloves. Ian, who was tasked with tying me to the mast, set up a communications code: one tug for, ‘I think I see something’; two tugs for, ‘I hear something; three or more tugs, ‘Get to hell out of here, we’re fucked’. We were going to give it our life, one way or the other.
Then Dad eye-balled me and gave the thumbs up. I, followed by Ian, was helped up onto the bow of the boat. Holding onto the guard rail, we crouched for a moment to steady ourselves. The rope was already tied in a kind of harness round me, to which the remainder trailed onto the deck below. We crawled to the mast, Ian motioned me to sit down with my back towards it and facing forward while he deftly wound the strap ropes from the harness around the post and tied them.
Hunkered down in front, he motioned me to lean forward and sideways to see if I was secure and in no danger of getting loose. He gave me two thumbs up, ruffled my hair and crawled back down to the deck. I was alone with thoughts I didn’t want to entertain.
Just then I was slapped in the puss by the tail of a wave that knocked all thoughts out of me. It felt like the slap from the Master that day he caught me looking out the window daydreaming; he lifted me out of the seat with it.
But I needed the slap from the wave; I had a job to do. The mast against my back was like an energy rod. I had to brace myself as the waves pounded against the boat. I tried to remember what Dad had said about listening to the boat, how it would tell you about the sea.
Without thinking, I was becoming one with the boat, rising and falling according to the dictates of the waves. My ears were beginning to hear the difference between the cresting and the falling waves and between the waves and wind. My eyes, too, were adjusting to the darkness: I could make out the white of the cresting wave and the dark, foreboding trough. I thought I saw a dark shadow to starboard. Rubbing the salty spray from my eyes, I tried to focus. I gave one pull on the rope.
I felt the undertow of a powerful wave pulling us down before I heard the echoing of its remnants cascading off the Rock. Giving three almighty pulls on the rope and hoping that Ian got the message, I felt the roar already leaving my throat and being carried: “Reverse! Reverse! The Rock, The Rock,” I screamed.
“Oh fuck! Dad, I hope you felt that undertow too,” I prayed, as tears mingled with the salty spray. I felt the boat shudder. I shut my eyes and was afraid to breathe. Had we hit? I could feel the boat rising again and opening my eyes I looked up and thought I saw a pinprick of light above us.
“The lighthouse… Above us,” I roared through convulsing sobs.
I thought The Gannet – or was it Dad – had the boat in reverse. The darkness and the noise of the storm fed by my own fear were confusing. The waves off the Rock seemed to be coming at us from all directions. Trying to keep the salt water out of my eyes, I tried to find and focus on the light again. Then I saw it: two flashes and a pause before it flashed again. We had put a little distance between ourselves and the Rock.
Sheila is an Achill islander by birth and bearing. The island’s land and seascape, history and people have influenced her and her writing.