Four Men in a Dinghy

Prologue from A Storm in Any Port

West Coast of Scotland   – Fairly recently

The skipper, mate and two deck hands who made up the crew of the chartered yacht, were feeling the effects of their combined ages of more than 300 years, as they motored into Puilladrobhain on Seil, an island just off the west coast of Scotland. Although none of them would admit it, the day’s motor sail from Crinan had taken its toll on both bodies and minds.

The slightly corpulent, white haired skipper firmly believed he was a good sailor and had an inshore certificate to prove it. The smaller, wiry, pot-bellied mate was a first class sailor but had no certificate. The shorter of the two deckhands, the completely bald one with the little moustache and double chin, had always possessed enthusiasm way beyond his ability, but due to failing health was now virtually a passenger. The fourth sailor was a hulk of a man who, although age had trimmed a couple of inches off his height, was by far the biggest person aboard and incidentally, the laziest.

All four suffer from the misplaced belief that he had retained more of his youthful looks and vigour than any of his companions, however, creaky bones, lapses of memory, artificial joints, spectacles and pills, tell a different story.

The four old friends were on a nostalgia trip round a few of the places they visited almost thirty years ago. With the passage of time, their memories have glossed over the problems they encountered, in these younger carefree days, leaving them with only sketchy but self-flattering recollections of the good bits. Today their destination was the Tigh na Truish Pub (House of the Trousers) beside the ‘Bridge over the Atlantic’ at Clachan Bridge.

Their 38ft yacht was on hire for a week and because it was near the end of the charter season, they got it at a much-reduced rate. So far, they had been fortunate enough to find moorings alongside places where they could step ashore and step back on board again. Today would be a different matter. To get to their destination they had to contend with a dinghy-to-shore job followed by a half-mile walk over the side of a hill. Although they said nothing, no one was looking forward to that.

Motoring into the sheltered bay of Puilladrobhain, the only vessel they could see there was an old lobster boat, full of empty creels and bobbing up and down on its mooring. Drifting past it and going farther into the bay, they tied on to a mooring buoy at a spot where they could see the rough track leading over the hill to Clachan Bridge.

They put the dinghy over the side and rather than row ashore, opted to use the outboard motor clamped to the yacht’s stern. With a few grunts and groans and a couple of panic-stricken pleas to ‘keep her steady’, the four got into the dinghy and full of bright expectations, set out for the shore. Conscious that the return journey would have to be made in the dark, they remembered to take a couple of big torches with them.

It seemed no time at all before the helmsman cut the engine and allowed the dinghy to float in and scrape gently on the shore; but,

Phew, that little engine did not half smell of petrol.

The walk over the hill track did nothing to dampen the travellers’ enthusiasm and when they got to that the famous old pub, they were delighted to find that it was almost exactly as they remembered it. They were a little bit disappointed, though, when they discovered that all the people they used to know around here, had either moved on or passed on. However, that was not going to stop them from settling down to enjoy what the pub had to offer. So much so, that by the time they dragged themselves away, it was well past closing time and they were all a little bit unsteady on their feet.

On his way out, the skipper, who had consumed enough alcohol to loosen his purse strings, bought a few souvenirs from the bar’s display case and had them put into a plastic carrier bag with the words ‘Bridge over the Atlantic” printed on it.

With no moon to light their way, by the time the crew had walked fifty yards, inky darkness had engulfed them. However, overhead a blanket of bright, twinkling stars stretched across the heavens and, in the middle of them, the brighter, breathtaking spectacle of the Milky Way.

Though they were harbouring some misgivings about the half hour walk back along the rough path to the anchorage, they were all in fine fettle and firmly of the opinion that their shore trip had been well worth the effort.

About halfway back to the boat, a stiff breeze got up and a blanket of thick cloud closed in, shutting out the stars and depriving the group of what little light they had so far enjoyed.

With the batteries of one torch exhausted and the other fading, like four blind mice they kept to the track and were immensely relieved when they found the dinghy.

There’s still a strong smell of petrol in the air.

Out there across the dark waters, sitting on her mooring was the comforting shape of their yacht that they could just make out through the murk.

They launched the dinghy and pushed off.

Brrrrrrm, Putter, Putter, Put-Put, Put-Put, Put-Put, Put-Put …….the reassuring sound of the outboard that in a few minutes would get them back aboard for a wee nightcap and a good night’s sleep.

About fifteen metres from the shore the outboard motor went Phuttttttttt, and apart from the sound of the rippling waves lapping against the side of the dinghy, silence.

Try as they might they could not get the outboard started again. Meanwhile, pushed along by a freshening wind, they had lost sight of their yacht and become aware that were drifting northwards, out towards the mouth of the bay and the open sea beyond.

In the all-embracing darkness and with no real sense of how far they had drifted, or where their boat now lay, the skipper found the oars and began to pull desperately, in what he hoped was the direction of their yacht.

Within a few seconds, he was painfully aware that this rowing lark, that he used to find so easy, was now a lot harder than it used to be. The longer he rowed the more agitated his passengers became

“Are you sure you know where you’re going?”

Then came the pessimistic declaration,

“We’ll never find her in this.”

That terrible thought had hardly had a chance to register when, more by luck than by his navigational skills, the skipper saw over his shoulder, a few metres away the bulky, black outline of the lobster boat. Now he knew roughly, where they were. All he had to do was turn around, row in a straight line and he would find their yacht.

But as soon as he swung the dinghy round he found himself battling against a south westerly, a good deal stronger than it had been a moment or two ago. Now with his sore, tired muscles trembling with fatigue and screaming at him to take a rest, he pulled up alongside the lobster boat, grabbed hold of a fender and gratefully hung on to it.

“I’m knackered;” he gasped, “somebody else will have to take over.”

It was the mate who volunteered, and after being told which way to go, propelled the dinghy with regular, powerful strokes, in what they all prayed was the way back to their boat.

After what seemed like an eternity, the welcome shape of their yacht materialised through the murky gloom. Progress however had not come without a cost and the mate’s strokes had become irregular and less powerful, until it was clear that they were not getting any closer to their goal.

“Here, let me have a go!” the big deckhand offered and after gingerly changing places with the mate, took his place at the oars. Although his rowing technique was poor, a few strokes brought them home with a bump, against the back of their boat. The shore party, breathing a communal sigh of relief, called upon their last dregs of energy to help each other struggle, to back on board.

Almost at once, the skipper enquired,

“Anyone seen the key for the cabin padlock?”

“You had it”, came an accusative voice out of the darkness.

“I can’t find it. Somebody try the forward hatch,” the skipper suggested hopefully.

A body scrambled forward but a few seconds later a disappointed voice confirmed their worst fears.

“No key. All battened down, skipper,” and after a meaningful pause, “And before you have any more bright ideas, remember that that key also fits the locker padlocks, and they’re all secured as well.”

A second ago, the crew that had believed their ordeal to be over now thought,

No key, no nightcap and worst of all, no cosy bunk.

Without torches, all they could do was grope around, on the deck and in the dinghy, in the hope of finding the key but as it turned out, without success.

That was when the sleety rain came on.

A sickening feeling of depression struck the little group clustered on the afterdeck, initiating a babble of mutterings. One anxious voice, louder than the others, spoke for all of them,

“What are we going to do now?”

In reply, the skipper summed up their predicament.

“The hotel will be shut, the outboard’s not working, the wind’s still blowing, we’re too knackered to row to the shore and back, and even if we could, without torches we wouldn’t be able to see anything, let alone find the bloody key. Any other bright ideas?”

An uncomfortable silence followed.

What they were left with was the unthinkable; a miserable night on deck, exposed to the elements, hunkered down in whatever meagre bits of shelter they could find and with no ‘sippers’ to sustain them. Tonight would be a cold, blue fingered, red-nosed one.

This is not how it’s supposed to be!

That unfortunately, was how it was.

By first light, the rain had gone off and the cloud cover had broken up. The grumpy crew of the little yacht eased themselves out from the minimal shelter of the cabin bulkhead, where they had spent a sleepless night, curled up against each other.

Hungry, stiff, and cold, with muscles aching, each man joined in a final despairing search for that infernal key, knowing that if they did not find it, they would have to struggle ashore to pick their way over the heather-covered hillside track to look for it. Moreover, if they did not find the key, how could they go anywhere?

They found no key.

While the others were searching, the little one – without a certificate – had climbed into the dinghy to check over the outboard. He came back aboard and said,

“It’s no wonder it stopped – all the petrol has drained away. The plastic pipe between the tank and the stopcock is so old; it’s become hard and worked itself loose.” Then as an afterthought muttered,

“By the way skipper, here’s your bag of stuff.”

Still embarrassed by last night’s blunder, the skipper had forgotten all about his bag of souvenirs, what he did remember was there was something in it that would help fend off his crew’s hunger pangs and, hopefully, take the edge off their misery.

“I’ve got a big tin of shortbread in here,” he said, groping around in the bag.

As everyone’s eyes turned towards him, his smug expression changed to one of blank dismay, leading his companions to think, Do not say he’s lost that as well. Then his hand reappeared, holding not a tin of shortbread but a cork ball – and dangling from it at the end of a piece of frayed string, was the missing key!

The instant his fingers touched the key he remembered that as they left the bar, last night, he had dropped it into his bag of souvenirs for safety. During last night’s mayhem, his memory had just not worked.

“Sorry, boys!” was his pathetic and totally inadequate attempt at an apology

Three pairs of eyes bored into him from faces registering abject disgust. Due to his crass stupidity, when access to comfort and sustenance was only a hatch cover away, they had endured an uncomfortable night of unspeakable misery.

*

The foregoing shows that even in their declining years, skipper Zander and his crew Murdo, Gilbert and Grunt were just as irresponsible and accident-prone as they had been all these years ago when they sailed together on a regular basis.

To find out how they have come to this; let’s go back to the beginning……

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