Marabu's Navy days

Lt. Cdr W.M.E. Dewe tells the story behind Marabu’s retirement from the 1962
Tall Ships Race. Dogged by appalling weather and equipment failure – the young crew from
HMS Ganges take part in a sailing trip where almost everything that could go wrong did. 










Painting of 1962 Tall Ships Race by Leslie Arthur Wilcox RI, RSMA 


Marabu was lying alongside HMS Rampart at Cowes on Wednesday, August 8th when she was joined by eight Juniors from HMS Ganges.


At 08:00 on Thursday, 9th August, Marabu slipped and drifted slowly down the Medina into the Solent and course was set for the Needles. Once clear of land the wind freshened to Force 4 and, on the port tack, Marabu just weathered both St. Alban’s Head and Portland Bill. By the time the Bill bore north, it had freshened considerably and veered so much that the main was handed and Marabu crossed Lyme Bay under fore and mizzen only. To say the least the boys were finding the motion uncomfortable. By dawn the wind had eased and Marabu, having been headed during the night, hoisted the main again and tacked South down the coast, dropping anchor off the mouth of Torquay harbour at 08:00 Friday, 10th August.


The race was due to start at 12:00 on Saturday, August 11th for Classes I and II. That is to say for square-rigged vessels over 50 tons and fore-and aft-rigged vessels over 50 tons. Class III, vessels under 50 tons should have started at 12:30. However, the state of the weather, which was Force 8 WSW, delayed the starts to 15:00 and 15:30. Marabu cruised round Torbay, eventually anchoring off Brixham about 13:00 to have a last peaceful lunch.


At 1450 Marabu weighed, set a storm jib and a reefed mainsail and began manoeuvring for the start. It was still blowing Force 6–7 SW and the number of small motorboats with spectators milling round the stern of HMY Britannia, the windward end of the starting line, made it quite exciting. Marabu was slightly late on the line, some 25 seconds, but well up to windward and going very fast. As the crew were hauling in the main sheet under the stern of the Royal Yacht, the double block on the mainsheet horse parted, and the main flew out, flapping madly. With commendable rapidity a jury sheet was rigged and Marabu forged ahead on a course of 175°.


At about 17:00 the wind had eased and the working foresail was hoisted in place of the storm jib. By 2000 we were clear ahead of the fleet and to windward and we tacked on a course of 275°. This did not last long and by 22:00 the wind had veered to NW and Marabu set course 230°on the starboard tack. One of the boys had been very ill and in view of one or two symptoms, the Dutch minesweeper Onverdoten was called up and, after examination by their SBA it was reluctantly decided to transfer him to a steadier platform. Later, in Rotterdam, the Commanding Officer came over and said the lad had soon recovered and had behaved splendidly on board. 


Throughout the night and forenoon the wind gradually dropped away – but not the swell and by noon it was dead calm. During the afternoon the wind piped up from the East and the spinnaker was set and Marabu began heading for the mark boat 20 miles NW of Ushant. Running nearly by the lee at night in Force 4 spinnaker, main and mizzen staysail set could, I suppose, be called exciting to say the least.

The mark boat was rounded at about five past four on Monday 13th, Marabu passing close ahead of her, not noticing she was already going full astern. Very shortly afterwards the mainsail outhaul parted and, on the clew working forward the mainsail started tearing the track out of the boom. Emergency repairs were attempted in situ to no avail and the main had to be handed, and the mizzen set. By 09:00 a jury rig had been concocted and the main was rehoisted and Marabu continued her beat back towards Start Point.

Good progress was made during the day and by 03:00 Tuesday 14th, Marabu was some 15 miles SW of Start Point close hauled on the starboard tack on course 045°. The wind was East Force 5. On going about, the port (weather) runner was seen to be horribly slack and our immediate thought was a shroud or spreader parting. Marabu was thrown over to the starboard tack at once, and the same slackness in all backstays was seen. On grabbing the wheel, the skipper headed down wind to ease the relative force and find out what was wrong. The mate, who had rushed forward to find the trouble, returned, ashen faced, and reported the forestay was no longer with us and the mainmast was bending back 30° from the lower shrouds. 


It is doubtful whether a mainsail and genoa have ever come down faster. The inner forestay was set up as soon as possible and the old cotton spinnaker staysail set on it. This old sail, already condemned, should not really he used in any wind greater than a Force 3 and that from astern, and by this time it was already Force 6. Marabu lurched into Plymouth Sound and just before dropping anchor in Jennycliff Bay at 0530 the old sail gave up the ghost and some three feet of the clew parted company with the rest. The problem now arose as how to re-rig the forestay, which on inspection was perfect all right and it had clearly been the masthead shackle which was missing. The following facts made us ask for dockyard assistance: it was unnecessarily dangerous to send someone to the masthead with the yacht rolling in the swell, the wind blowing by now to Force 7–8 and a suspect mast. Secondly the lockers and boarding in the forward cabin round the bottom of the mast were all opened out, presumably from the whip of the mast.


By 0715 the tug Alsatian took Marabu in tow and we were berthed on HMS Dundas at 08:00, shifting to alongside HMS Tyne at 10:30. As we were already disqualified for having outside assistance, we decided to go the whole hog. The support given by Captain Pengelly and HMS Tyne was stupendous and we sailed at 04:30 on Wednesday 15th with dry bedding, dry clothes, fresh provisions and batteries recharged.


The passage up the channel was fast and uneventful. In view of the fact that Marabu loathes a dead run, courses were set on broad reaches. At 02:30 Thursday 16th, Marabu tacked 10 miles north of Cape D’Antifer and at 13:20 again off Folkestone. Marabu tacked twice more before crossing the finishing line off the Maas buoy at 05:25 Friday 17th, having covered 250 miles over the ground in 47 hours. The passage up the Maas from the Hook to Rotterdam was wet through rain and the wind dropped away some five miles up river. After a tow up to the Oude Maas Marabu went on under sail and a freshening breeze up to Rotterdam where she secured alongside the Taifun, off the Royal Maas Yacht Club at 11:50.

The parties started at once. A dance was held that evening for the boys in Rotterdam’s Rivierahal and, I gather, was much enjoyed. The next day, Saturday, a coach tour took them round the Hague, Utrecht, Delft and most of that area of Holland. On Monday the boys were taken by waterbus round the canals to Dordrecht, and the prize-giving, followed by a reception for all, was held in the evening. It had been decided to accept Rona’s offer of a tow through the canals to Flushing and we accordingly slipped at 10:00 on Wednesday, 22nd August.


We went first down the Mass and then turned SE down the Oude Maas under three lifting bridges. This was slightly nerve racking as they only lifted the bridge just high enough and at the last moment. Just before reaching Dordrecht we branched off south down to Willernsdorp, thence went along the Hollandsch Diep to Willemstad where we altered to port having Overflakke to the north of us. Shortly after this Rona took the ground and owing to the shortness of the tow, despite the fact that Marabu was hard-a-starboard, a collision occurred and Marabu did considerable damage to Rona’s stern. Having sorted this out and passed a fresh tow we set off again and turned south off Stoofpolder into the Eeten Mastgat and finally locking into the canal at Zandkreek at 22:00 where we secured for the night.


We set off again at 0630 on Thursday and entered the Walcheren canal at Vere at 09:30 passing the Middelburg at 1045 and locking out at Flushing at 1215. On sailing from Flushing, four tacks took us clear of the Frenohe Pass and we set course for the Noord Hinder light vessel, intending to tack back to the West Hinder, thence the Straits of Dover. However, by 16:00 the wind was Force 6–7 and we handed the main and went on under fore and mizzen. By 19:00 it was Force 8 and it was decided to take shelter in Ostend or Zeebrugge. After being soaked with rain and flying spray, Ostend was reached at 00:30 in SW Force 9. Having sailed up and down once or twice, we barged our way into the tidal basin and secured alongside the North Sea Yacht Club.


The storm had abated by Saturday noon and Marabu slipped and sailed out of Ostend at 17:00 on Saturday, 25th August. By 09:00 Sunday, Marabu was some 10 miles east of the North Foreland in Force 4 SW. To avoid heavy seas and to rest the crew as much as possible, it was decided to tack inside the Goodwins down the Gull stream. By noon it was Force 6–7 and by 15:00 Force 8 SW. At 1930 Marabu struggled into Dover and anchored in the lee of Prince of Wales Pier. This was not as good a lee as hoped for and Marabu soon started dragging, making a dirty pass at the Dartmouth yacht Gryffin on the way.


The Dover boatmen were either too tired or too busy or both to help us into the inner harbour. One boat came out but it only had a 9 horsepower engine, which could not have coped with the wind, now Force 8–9. Apart from it being impracticable to sail into Dover inner harbour the young crew were too exhausted to hoist sail. As Marabu was still dragging, we were compelled to fire two red cartridges and in a very short time, the lifeboat came out and towed us through the locks into safety, having buoyed and slipped our anchor in the outer harbour. 


On Monday forenoon the anchor and chain were recovered and having rested, Marabu was towed out by Theodora as soon as the locks opened into the outer harbour. The outer breakwater was cleared at 23:00 Monday, 27th and Marabu began tacking down channel. At 08:45 Tuesday we were about halfway between Dungeness and the Royal Sovereign close hauled on the port tack, course 300°. Along came a huge (20,000 ton) tanker World Banner, belonging to the Niarchos Line.
It (I refuse to call it ‘she’) stood straight on, not altering a degree for anyone. 


Finally in desperation, we rounded up into wind as this bestial hulk, captained by some spawn of Satan, roared past us a boat’s length away. At the last moment someone looked out of a scuttle on the Bridge as they were actually passing us – and that was the only person on their upper deck throughout. After this incident Marabu proceeded doggedly up wind until the Nab Tower when the wind freed and we could lay Horse Sand Fort in one, even so we had to tack up the channel past Clarence Pier. All was now over, we thought – Whale Island half a mile ahead. Just about everything had happened to us that could, and the wind died down to a very gentle breeze as we approached the pontoon of the Sailing Centre. As we dropped all sails and rounded up to go alongside, we stopped – five feet short – aground!


Ganges Juniors on Marabu were:

Kent, S.G., Ldg. Jun. Sea., from Rendle St., Plymouth

Squibb, R., J.S.I, from Sutton Common, Surrey

Caridia, D.L.A., J.S.2, from Sevenoaks, Kent

Colborne, R.S., J.S.2, from West Bridford, Nottingham

Walker, I.F., J.S.I, from Harold Wood, Essex

Roberts, D.C., J.S.I, from Shotton, Chester

Wheatley, G.P., J.N.A.M.I, from Sheenen, Kent

Grundwell, A.L., J.M.(E).I. from Tunbridge Wells, Kent


First published in the Shotley magazine 1962