The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers

12. My Initiation

THE yacht lay with a very slight heel (thanks to a pair of small bilge-keels on her bottom) in a sort of trough she had dug for herself, so that she was still ringed with a few inches of water, as it were with a moat.

For miles in every direction lay a desert of sand. To the north it touched the horizon, and was only broken by the blue dot of Neuerk Island and its lighthouse. To the east it seemed also to stretch to infinity, but the smoke of a steamer showed where it was pierced by the stream of the Elbe. To the south it ran up to the pencil-line of the Hanover shore. Only to the west was its outline broken by any vestiges of the sea it had risen from. There it was astir with crawling white filaments, knotted confusedly at one spot in the north-west, whence came a sibilant murmur like the hissing of many snakes. Desert as I call it, it was not entirely featureless. Its colour varied from light fawn, where the highest levels had dried in the wind, to brown or deep violet, where it was still wet, and slate-grey where patches of mud soiled its clean bosom. Here and there were pools of water, smitten into ripples by the impotent wind; here and there it was speckled by shells and seaweed. And close to us, beginning to bend away towards that hissing knot in the north-west, wound our poor little channel, mercilessly exposed as a stagnant, muddy ditch with scarcely a foot of water, not deep enough to hide our small kedge-anchor, which perked up one fluke in impudent mockery. The dull, hard sky, the wind moaning in the rigging as though crying in despair for a prey that had escaped it, made the scene inexpressibly forlorn.

Davies scanned it with gusto for a moment, climbed to a point of vantage on the boom, and swept his glasses to and fro along the course of the channel.

‘Fairly well boomed,’ he said, meditatively, ‘but one or two are very much out. By Jove! that’s a tricky bend there.’ He took a bearing with the compass, made a note or two, and sprang with a vigorous leap down on to the sand.

This, I may say, was the only way of ‘going ashore’ that he really liked. We raced off as fast as our clumsy sea-boots would let us, and followed up the course of our channel to the west, reconnoitring the road we should have to follow when the tide rose.

‘The only way to learn a place like this,’ he shouted, ‘is to see it at low water. The banks are dry then, and the channels are plain. Look at that boom’— he stopped and pointed contemptuously —‘it’s all out of place. I suppose the channel’s shifted there. It’s just at an important bend too. If you took it as a guide when the water was up you’d run aground.’

‘Which would be very useful,’ I observed.

‘Oh, hang it!’ he laughed, ‘we’re exploring. I want to be able to run through this channel without a mistake. We will, next time.’ He stopped, and plied compass and notebook. Then we raced on till the next halt was called.

‘Look,’ he said, the channel’s getting deeper, it was nearly dry a moment ago; see the current in it now? That’s the flood tide coming up — from the west, mind you; that is, from the Weser side. That shows we’re past the watershed.’

‘Watershed?’ I repeated, blankly.

‘Yes, that’s what I call it. You see, a big sand such as this is like a range of hills dividing two plains, it’s never dead flat though it looks it; there’s always one point, one ridge, rather, where it’s highest. Now a channel cutting right through the sand is, of course, always at its shallowest when it’s crossing this ridge; at low water it’s generally dry there, and it gradually deepens as it gets nearer to the sea on either side. Now at high tide, when the whole sand is covered, the water can travel where it likes; but directly the ebb sets in the water falls away on either side the ridge and the channel becomes two rivers flowing in opposite directions from the centre, or watershed, as I call it. So, also, when the ebb has run out and the flood begins, the channel is fed by two currents flowing to the centre and meeting in the middle. Here the Elbe and the Weser are our two feeders. Now this current here is going eastwards; we know by the time of day that the tide’s rising, therefore the watershed is between us and the yacht.’

‘Why is it so important to know that?’

‘Because these currents are strong, and you want to know when you’ll lose a fair one and strike a foul one. Besides, the ridge is the critical point when you’re crossing on a falling tide, and you want to know when you’re past it.’

We pushed on till our path was barred by a big lagoon. It looked far more imposing than the channel; but Davies, after a rapid scrutiny, treated it to a grunt of contempt.

‘It’s a cul de sac,’ he said. ‘ See that hump of sand it’s making for, beyond?’

‘It’s boomed,’ I remonstrated, pointing to a decrepit stem drooping over the bank, and shaking a palsied finger at the imposture.

‘Yes, that’s just where one goes wrong, it’s an old cut that’s silted up. That boom’s a fraud; there’s no time to go farther, the flood’s making fast. I’ll just take bearings of what we can see.’

The false lagoon was the first of several that began to be visible in the west, swelling and joining hands over the ribs of sand that divided them. All the time the distant hissing grew nearer and louder, and a deep, thunderous note began to sound beneath it. We turned our backs to the wind and hastened back towards the Dulcibella, the stream in our channel hurrying and rising alongside of us.

‘There’s just time to do the other side,’ said Davies, when we reached her, and I was congratulating myself on having regained our base without finding our communications cut. And away we scurried in the direction we had come that morning, splashing through pools and jumping the infant runnels that were stealing out through rifts from the mother-channel as the tide rose. Our observations completed, back we travelled, making a wide circuit over higher ground to avoid the encroaching flood, and wading shin-deep in the final approach to the yacht.

As I scrambled thankfully aboard, I seemed to hear a far-off voice saying, in languid depreciation of yachting, that it did not give one enough exercise. It was mine, centuries ago, in another life. From east and west two sheets of water had overspread the desert, each pushing out tongues of surf that met and fused.

I waited on deck and watched the death-throes of the suffocating sands under the relentless onset of the sea. The last strongholds were battered, stormed, and overwhelmed; the tumult of sounds sank and steadied, and the sea swept victoriously over the whole expanse. The Dulcibella, hitherto contemptuously inert, began to wake and tremble under the buffetings she received. Then, with an effort, she jerked herself on to an even keel and bumped and strained fretfully, impatient to vanquish this insolent invader and make him a slave for her own ends. Soon her warp tightened and her nose swung slowly round; only her stern bumped now, and that with decreasing force. Suddenly she was free and drifting broadside to the wind till the anchor checked her and she brought up to leeward of it, rocking easily and triumphantly. Good-humoured little person! At heart she was friends alike with sand and sea. It was only when the old love and the new love were in mortal combat for her favours, and she was mauled in the fracas, that her temper rose in revolt.

We swallowed a hasty cup of tea, ran up the sails, and started off west again. Once across the ‘watershed’ we met a strong current, but the trend of the passage was now more to the north-west, so that we could hold our course without tacking, and consequently could stem the tide. ‘Give her just a foot of the centre-plate,’ said Davies. ‘We know the way here, and she’ll make less leeway; but we shall generally have to do without it always on a falling tide. If you run aground with the plate down you deserve to be drowned.’ I now saw how valuable our walk had been. The booms were on our right; but they were broken reeds, giving no hint as to the breadth of the channel. A few had lost their tops, and were being engulfed altogether by the rising water. When we came to the point where they ceased, and the false lagoon had lain, I should have felt utterly lost. We had crossed the high and relatively level sands which form the base of the Fork, and were entering the labyrinth of detached banks which obstruct the funnel-shaped cavity between the upper and middle prongs. This I knew from the chart. My unaided eye saw nothing but the open sea, growing dark green as the depths increased; a dour, threatening sea, showing its white fangs. The waves grew longer and steeper, for the channels, though still tortuous, now begin to be broad and deep.

Davies had his bearings, and struck on his course confidently. ‘Now for the lead,’ he said; ‘the compass’ll be little use soon. We must feel the edge of the sands till we pick up more booms.’

‘Where are we going to anchor for the night?’ I asked.

‘Under the Hohenhörn,’ said Davies, ‘for auld lang syne!’

Partly by sight and mostly by touch we crept round the outermost alley of the hidden maze till a new clump of booms appeared, meaningless to me, but analysed by him into two groups. One we followed for some distance, and then struck finally away and began another beat to windward.

Dusk was falling. The Hanover coast-line, never very distinct, had utterly vanished; an ominous heave of swell was under-running the short sea. I ceased to attend to Davies imparting instruction on his beloved hobby, and sought to stifle in hard manual labour the dread that had been latent in me all day at the prospect of our first anchorage at sea.

‘Sound, like blazes now!’ he said at last. I came to a fathom and a half. ‘That’s the bank,’ he said; ‘we’ll give it a bit of a berth and then let go.’

‘Let go now!’ was the order after a minute, and the chain ran out with a long-drawn moan. The Dulcibella snubbed up to it and jauntily faced the North Sea and the growing night.

‘There we are!’ said Davies, as we finished stowing the mainsail, ‘safe and snug in four fathoms in a magnificent sand-harbour, with no one to bother us and the whole of it to ourselves. No dues, no stinks, no traffic, no worries of any sort. It’s better than a Baltic cove even, less beastly civilization about. We’re seven miles from the nearest coast, and five even from Neuerk — look, they’re lighting up.’ There was a tiny spark in the east.

‘I suppose it’s all right,’ I said, ‘but I’d rather see a solid breakwater somewhere; it’s a dirty-looking night, and I don’t like this swell.’

‘The swell’s nothing,’ said Davies; ‘it’s only a stray drain from outside. As for breakwaters, you’ve got them all round you, only they’re hidden. Ahead and to starboard is the West Hohenhörn, curling round to the sou’-west for all the world like a stone pier. You can hear the surf battering on its outside over to the north. That’s where I was nearly wrecked that day, and the little channel I stumbled into must be quite near us somewhere. Half a mile away — to port there — is the East Hohenhörn, where I brought up, after dashing across this lake we’re in. Another mile astern is the main body of the sands, the top prong of your fork. So you see we’re shut in-practically. Surely you remember the chart? Why, it’s —’

‘Oh, confound the chart!’ I broke out, finding this flow of plausible comfort too dismally suggestive for my nerves. ‘Look at it, man! Supposing anything happens — supposing it blows a gale! But it’s no good shivering here and staring at the view. I’m going below.’

There was a mauvais quart d’heure below, during which, I am ashamed to say, I forgot the quest.

‘Which soup do you feel inclined for?’ said Davies, timidly, after a black silence of some minutes.

That simple remark, more eloquent of security than a thousand technical arguments, saved the situation.

‘I say, Davies,’ I said, ‘I’m a white-livered cur at the best, and you mustn’t spare me. But you’re not like any yachtsman I ever met before, or any sailor of any sort. You’re so casual and quiet in the extraordinary things you do. I believe I should like you better if you let fly a volley of deep-sea oaths sometimes, or threatened to put me in irons.’

Davies opened wide eyes, and said it was all his fault for forgetting that I was not as used to such anchorages as he was. ‘And, by the way,’ he added, ‘as to its blowing a gale, I shouldn’t wonder if it did; the glass is falling hard; but it can’t hurt us. You see, even at high water the drift of the sea —’

‘Oh, for Heaven’s sake, don’t begin again. You’ll prove soon that we’re safer here than in an hotel. Let’s have dinner, and a thundering good one!’

Dinner ran a smooth course, but just as coffee was being brewed the hull, from pitching regularly, began to roll.

‘I knew she would,’ said Davies. ‘I was going to warn you, only — the ebb has set in against the wind. It’s quite safe —’

‘I thought you said it would get calmer when the tide fell?’

‘So it will, but it may seem rougher. Tides are queer things,’ he added, as though in defence of some not very respectable acquaintances.

He busied himself with his logbook, swaying easily to the motion of the boat; and I for my part tried to write up my diary, but I could not fix my attention. Every loose article in the boat became audibly restless. Cans clinked, cupboards rattled, lockers uttered hollow groans. Small things sidled out of dark hiding-places, and danced grotesque drunken figures on the floor, like goblins in a haunted glade. The mast whined dolorously at every heel, and the centre-board hiccoughed and choked. Overhead another horde of demons seemed to have been let loose. The deck and mast were conductors which magnified every sound and made the tap-tap of every rope’s end resemble the blows of a hammer, and the slapping of the halyards against the mast the rattle of a Maxim gun. The whole tumult beat time to a rhythmical chorus which became maddening.

‘We might turn in now,’ said Davies; ‘it’s half-past ten.’

‘What, sleep through this?’ I exclaimed. ‘I can’t stand this, I must do something. Can’t we go for another walk?’

I spoke in bitter, half-delirious jest.

‘Of course we can,’ said Davies, ‘if you don’t mind a bit of a tumble in the dinghy.’

I reconsidered my rash suggestion, but it was too late now to turn back, and some desperate expedient was necessary. I found myself on deck, gripping a backstay and looking giddily down and then up at the dinghy, as it bobbed like a cork in the trough of the sea alongside, while Davies settled the sculls and rowlocks.

‘Jump!’ he shouted, and before I could gather my wits and clutch the sides we were adrift in the night, reeling from hollow to hollow of the steep curling waves. Davies nursed our walnut-shell tenderly over their crests, edging her slantwise across their course. He used very little exertion, relying on the tide to carry us to our goal. Suddenly the motion ceased. A dark slope loomed up out of the night, and the dinghy rested softly in a shallow eddy.

‘The West Hohenhörn,’ said Davies. We jumped out and sank into soft mud, hauled up the dinghy a foot or two, then mounted the bank and were on hard, wet sand. The wind leapt on us, and choked our voices.

‘Let’s find my channel,’ bawled Davies. ‘This way. Keep Neuerk light right astern of you.’

We set off with a long, stooping stride in the teeth of the wind, and straight towards the roar of the breakers on the farther side of the sand. A line of Matthew Arnold’s, ‘The naked shingles of the world,’ was running in my head. ‘Seven miles from land,’ I thought, ‘scuttling like sea-birds on a transient islet of sand, encircled by rushing tides and hammered by ocean, at midnight in a rising gale — cut off even from our one dubious refuge.’ It was the time, if ever, to conquer weakness. A mad gaiety surged through me as I drank the wind and pressed forward. It seemed but a minute or two and Davies clutched me.

‘Look out!’ he shouted. ‘It’s my channel.’

The ground sloped down, and a rushing river glimmered before us. We struck off at a tangent and followed its course to the north, stumbling in muddy rifts, slipping on seaweed, beginning to be blinded by a fine salt spray, and deafened by the thunder of the ocean surf. The river broadened, whitened, roughened. gathered itself for the shock, was shattered, and dissolved in milky gloom. We wheeled away to the right, and splashed into yeasty froth. I turned my back to the wind, scooped the brine out of my eyes, faced back and saw that our path was barred by a welter of surf. Davies’s voice was in my ear and his arm was pointing seaward.

‘This — is — about where — I— bumped first — worse then nor’-west wind — this — is — nothing. Let’s — go — right — round.’

We galloped away with the wind behind us, skirting the line of surf. I lost all account of time and direction. Another sea barred our road, became another river as we slanted along its shore. Again we were in the teeth of that intoxicating wind. Then a point of light was swaying and flickering away to the left, and now we were checking and circling. I stumbled against something sharp — the dinghy’s gunwale. So we had completed the circuit of our fugitive domain, that dream-island — nightmare island as I always remember it.

‘You must scull, too,’ said Davies. ‘It’s blowing hard now. Keep her nose up a little — all you know!’

We lurched along, my scull sometimes buried to the thwart, sometimes striking at the bubbles of a wave top. Davies, in the bows, said ‘Pull!’ or ‘Steady!’ at intervals. I heard the scud smacking against his oilskin back. Then a wan, yellow light glanced over the waves. ‘Easy! Let her come!’ and the bowsprit of the Dulcibella, swollen to spectral proportions, was stabbing the darkness above me. ‘Back a bit! Two good strokes. Ship your scull! Now jump!’ I clawed at the tossing hull and landed in a heap. Davies followed with the painter, and the dinghy swept astern.

‘She’s riding beautifully now,’ said he, when he had secured the painter. ‘There’ll be no rolling on the flood, and it’s nearly low water.’

I don’t think I should have cared, however much she had rolled. I was finally cured of funk.

It was well that I was, for to be pitched out of your bunk on to wet oil-cloth is a disheartening beginning to a day. This happened about eight o’clock. The yacht was pitching violently, and I crawled on all fours into the cabin, where Davies was setting out breakfast on the floor.

‘I let you sleep on,’ he said; ‘we can’t do anything till the water falls. We should never get the anchor up in this sea. Come and have a look round. It’s clearing now,’ he went on, when we were crouching low on deck, gripping cleats for safety. ‘Wind’s veered to nor’-west. It’s been blowing a full gale, and the sea is at its worst now — near high water. You’ll never see worse than this.’

I was prepared for what I saw — the stormy sea for leagues around, and a chaos of breakers where our dream-island had stood — and took it quietly, even with a sort of elation. The Dulcibella faced the storm as doggedly as ever, plunging her bowsprit into the sea and flinging green water over her bows. A wave of confidence and affection for her welled through me. I had been used to resent the weight and bulk of her unwieldy anchor and cable, but I saw their use now; varnish, paint, spotless decks, and snowy sails were foppish absurdities of a hateful past.

‘What can we do today?’ I asked.

‘We must keep well inside the banks and be precious careful wherever there’s a swell. It’s rampant in here, you see, in spite of the barrier of sand. But there’s plenty we can do farther back.’

We breakfasted in horrible discomfort; then smoked and talked till the roar of the breakers dwindled. At the first sign of bare sand we got under way, under mizzen and head-sails only, and I learned how to sail a reluctant anchor out of the ground. Pivoting round, we scudded east before the wind, over the ground we had traversed the evening before, while an archipelago of new banks slowly shouldered up above the fast weakening waves. We trod delicately among and around them, sounding and observing; heaving to where space permitted, and sometimes using the dinghy. I began to see where the risks lay in this sort of navigation. Wherever the ocean swell penetrated, or the wind blew straight down a long deep channel, we had to be very cautious and leave good margins. ‘That’s the sort of place you mustn’t ground on,’ Davies used to say.

In the end we traversed the Steil Sand again, but by a different swatchway, and anchored, after an arduous day, in a notch on its eastern limit, just clear of the swell that rolled in from the turbulent estuary of the Elbe. The night was fair, and when the tide receded we lay perfectly still, the fresh wind only sending a lip-lip of ripples against our sides.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30