The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers

13. The Meaning of our Work

NOTHING happened during the next ten days to disturb us at our work. During every hour of daylight and many of darkness, sailing or anchored, aground or afloat, in rain and shine, wind and calm, we studied the bed of the estuaries, and practised ourselves in threading the network of channels; holding no communication with the land and rarely approaching it. It was a life of toil, exposure, and peril; a struggle against odds, too; for wild autumnal weather was the rule, with the wind backing and veering between the south-west and north-west, and only for two placid days blowing gently from the east, the safe quarter for this region. Its force and direction determined each fresh choice of ground. If it was high and northerly we explored the inner fastnesses; in moderate intervals the exterior fringe, darting when surprised into whatever lair was most convenient.

Sometimes we were tramping vast solitudes of sand, sometimes scudding across ephemeral tracts of shallow sea. Again, we were creeping gingerly round the deeper arteries that surround the Great Knecht, examining their convolutions as it were the veins of a living tissue, and the circulation of the tide throbbing through them like blood. Again, we would be staggering through the tide-rips and overfalls that infest the open fairway of the Weser on our passage between the Fork and the Pike. On one of our fine days I saw the scene of Davies’s original adventure by daylight with the banks dry and the channels manifest. The reader has seen it on the chart, and can, up to a point, form his opinion; I can only add that I realized by ocular proof that no more fatal trap could have been devised for an innocent stranger; for approaching it from the north-west under the easiest conditions it was hard enough to verify our true course. In a period so full of new excitements it is not easy for me to say when we were hardest put to it, especially as it was a rule with Davies never to admit that we were in any danger at all. But I think that our ugliest experience was on the 10th. when, owing to some minute miscalculation, we stranded in a dangerous spot. Mere stranding, of course, was all in the day’s work; the constantly recurring question being when and where to court or risk it. This time we were so situated that when the rising tide came again we were on a lee shore, broadside on to a gale of wind which was sending a nasty sea — with a three-mile drift to give it force — down Robin’s Balje, which is one of the deeper arteries I spoke of above, and now lay dead to windward of us. The climax came about ten o’clock at night. ‘We can do nothing till she floats,’ said Davies; and I can see him now quietly smoking and splicing a chafed warp while he explained that her double skin of teak fitted her to stand anything in reason. She certainly had a terrific test that night, for the bottom was hard, unyielding sand, on which she rose and fell with convulsive vehemence. The last half-hour was for me one of almost intolerable tension. I spent it on deck unable to bear the suspense below. Sheets of driven sea flew bodily over the hull, and a score of times I thought she must succumb as she shivered to the blows of her keel on the sand. But those stout skins knit by honest labour stood the trial. One final thud and she wrenched herself bodily free, found her anchor, and rode clear.

On the whole I think we made few mistakes. Davies had a supreme aptitude for the work. Every hour, sometimes every minute, brought its problem, and his resource never failed. The stiffer it was the cooler he became. He had, too, that intuition which is independent of acquired skill, and is at the root of all genius; which, to take cases analogous to his own, is the last quality of the perfect guide or scout. I believe he could smell sand where he could not see or touch it.

As for me, the sea has never been my element, and never will be; nevertheless, I hardened to the life, grew salt, tough, and tolerably alert. As a soldier learns more in a week of war than in years of parades and pipeclay, so, cut off from all distractions, moving from bivouac to precarious bivouac, and depending, to some extent, for my life on my muscles and wits, I rapidly learnt my work and gained a certain dexterity. I knew my ropes in the dark, could beat economically to windward through squalls, take bearings, and estimate the interaction of wind and tide.

We were generally in solitude, but occasionally we met galliots like the Johannes tacking through the sands, and once or twice we found a fleet of such boats anchored in a gut, waiting for water. Their draught, loaded, was from six to seven feet, our own only four, without our centre-plate, but we took their mean draught as the standard of all our observations. That is, we set ourselves to ascertain when and how a vessel drawing six and a half feet could navigate the sands.

A word more as to our motive. It was Davies’s conviction, as I have said, that the whole region would in war be an ideal hunting-ground for small free-lance marauders, and I began to know he was right; for look at the three sea-roads through the sands to Hamburg, Bremen, Wilhelmshaven, and the heart of commercial Germany. They are like highways piercing a mountainous district by defiles, where a handful of desperate men can arrest an army.

Follow the parallel of a war on land. People your mountains with a daring and resourceful race, who possess an intimate knowledge of every track and bridle-path, who operate in small bands, travel light, and move rapidly. See what an immense advantage such guerillas possess over an enemy which clings to beaten tracks, moves in large bodies, slowly, and does not ‘know the country’. See how they can not only inflict disasters on a foe who vastly overmatches them in strength, but can prolong a semi-passive resistance long after all decisive battles have been fought. See, too, how the strong invader can only conquer his elusive antagonists by learning their methods, studying the country, and matching them in mobility and cunning. The parallel must not be pressed too far; but that this sort of warfare will have its counterpart on the sea is a truth which cannot be questioned.

Davies in his enthusiasm set no limits to its importance. The small boat in shallow waters played a mighty rôle in his vision of a naval war, a part that would grow in importance as the war developed and reach its height in the final stages.

‘The heavy battle fleets are all very well,’ he used to say, ‘but if the sides are well matched there might be nothing left of them after a few months of war. They might destroy one another mutually, leaving as nominal conqueror an admiral with scarcely a battleship to bless himself with. It’s then that the true struggle will set in; and it’s then that anything that will float will be pressed into the service, and anybody who can steer a boat, knows his waters, and doesn’t care the toss of a coin for his life, will have magnificent opportunities. It cuts both ways. What small boats can do in these waters is plain enough; but take our own case. Say we’re beaten on the high seas by a coalition. There’s then a risk of starvation or invasion. It’s all rot what they talk about instant surrender. We can live on half rations, recuperate, and build; but we must have time. Meanwhile our coast and ports are in danger, for the millions we sink in forts and mines won’t carry us far. They’re fixed — pure passive defence. What you want is boats — mosquitoes with stings — swarms of them — patrol-boats, scout-boats, torpedo-boats; intelligent irregulars manned by local men, with a pretty free hand to play their own game. And what a splendid game to play! There are places very like this over there — nothing half so good, but similar — the Mersey estuary, the Dee, the Severn, the Wash, and, best of all, the Thames, with all the Kent, Essex, and Suffolk banks round it. But as for defending our coasts in the way I mean — we’ve nothing ready — nothing whatsoever! We don’t even build or use small torpedo-boats. These fast “destroyers” are no good for this work — too long and unmanageable, and most of them too deep. What you want is something strong and simple, of light draught, and with only a spar-torpedo, if it came to that. Tugs, launches, small yachts — anything would do at a pinch, for success would depend on intelligence, not on brute force or complicated mechanism. They’d get wiped out often, but what matter? There’d be no lack of the right sort of men for them if the thing was organized. But where are the men?

‘Or, suppose we have the best of it on the high seas, and have to attack or blockade a coast like this, which is sand from end to end. You can’t improvise people who are at home in such waters. The navy chaps don’t learn it, though, by Jove! they’re the most magnificent service in the world — in pluck, and nerve, and everything else. They’ll try anything, and often do the impossible. But their boats are deep, and they get little practice in this sort of thing.’

Davies never pushed home his argument here; but I know that it was the passionate wish of his heart, somehow and somewhere, to get a chance of turning his knowledge of this coast to practical account in the war that he felt was bound to come, to play that ‘splendid game’ in this, the most fascinating field for it.

I can do no more than sketch his views. Hearing them as I did, with the very splash of the surf and the bubble of the tides in my ears, they made a profound impression on me, and gave me the very zeal for our work he, by temperament, possessed.

But as the days passed and nothing occurred to disturb us, I felt more and more strongly that, as regards our quest, we were on the wrong tack. We found nothing suspicious, nothing that suggested a really adequate motive for Dollmann’s treachery. 1 became impatient, and was for pushing on more quickly westward. Davies still clung to his theory, but the same feeling influenced him.

‘It’s something to do with these channels in the sand,’ he persisted, ‘but I’m afraid, as you say, we haven’t got at the heart of the mystery. Nobody seems to care a rap what we do. We haven’t done the estuaries as well as I should like, but we’d better push on to the islands. It’s exactly the same sort of work, and just as important, I believe. We’re bound to get a clue soon.’

There was also the question of time, for me at least. I was due to be back in London, unless I obtained an extension, on the 28th, and our present rate of progress was slow. But I cannot conscientiously say that I made a serious point of this. If there was any value in our enterprise at all, official duty pales beside it. The machinery of State would not suffer from my absence; excuses would have to be made, and the results braved.

All the time our sturdy little craft grew shabbier and more weather-worn, the varnish thinner, the decks greyer, the sails dingier, and the cabin roof more murky where stove-fumes stained it. But the only beauty she ever possessed, that of perfect fitness for her functions, remained. With nothing to compare her to she became a home to me. My joints adapted themselves to her crabbed limits, my tastes and habits to her plain domestic economy.

But oil and water were running low, and the time had come for us to be forced to land and renew our stock.

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