‘Looks like we are going to see a bit of excitement, John. The Captain tried to get an agreement from the Prince that if there is surf running across the channel to Arcachon we will turn back to Bordeaux, but the Prince would hear none of it.’
John Stanley-26th April 1355
The next day dawned fair, with light winds and a calm sea. John tried his hand at fishing and watched as the smack transferred the Lords and the captains to the Sally.
Over an hour had passed, the wind was picking up and the sea had roughened before the smack made the return trip.
Lord James strode towards John, a scowl on his face. ‘Nothing in this life is without risk,’ he muttered as he passed John, but gave no further explanation.
The Captain of the Clevedon called Simon into his cabin.
It was nearly half an hour before Simon returned and he did not look happy.
‘Looks like we are going to see a bit of excitement, John. The Captain tried to get an agreement from the Prince that if there is surf running across the channel to Arcachon we will turn back to Bordeaux, but the Prince would hear none of it. Instead, he has offered to provide insurance for all three ships. If they are damaged or sunk, the owners will be compensated and every sailor who makes the passage will be given a bounty payment. What none of this seems to take into account is that if we sink in rough, fast-flowing waters we might all drown.’
John raised his eyebrows. ‘But that is what we are going to do?’
‘Yes, despite the fact that surf running accross the entrance is not uncommon and the deep water channel moves continually. In the end, the Prince attacked their captains on their weakest point, their professional pride! He threw down the gauntlet. He offered to take the Sally first through the channel, and to take control during the passage.’ He raised his brow. ‘We are going into the Bay of Arcachon, come what may! ‘
By the time they reached the mouth of the Gironde, the estuary that gave access to Bordeaux, everyone lined the rail. As the ships continued south, John noticed that Simon deliberately set a course which carried them well out to sea.
Once again, Simon kept John informed. ‘Make no mistake, the entrance to Bordeaux is not easy. There is a reef, or at low tide a small island, called Corduan, which has brought many a ship to grief. But compared to Arcachon this is easy. The channel into Bordeaux is deep and constant and once you know the geography, it is easy to find, at least during daylight.’
Cautiously, they moved closer to the shore. Great dunes formed the horizon.
‘Can you hear that?’ Simon asked John.
‘You mean the pounding of the surf?’
Others joined them on the rail, commenting on the size of the breakers. The wind picked up. Simon pointed to a particularly large dune. ‘The entrance to Arcachon is over there but there are other dunes closer to us. The channel runs between the two sets of dunes so it cannot be seen from here.’
Simon left and visited every single member of his crew, encouraging, instructing and occasionally barking orders.
John approached the bow to get a clear view of what was happening. They sailed on south for a considerable distance before lowering the square-rigged mainsail and turning north. The three boats positioned themselves line astern, the Sally, then the Clevedon and finally John’s ship the Mendip, with a distance of twenty boats between them. Sailors rushed past John, climbing to precarious positions on the bowsprit so that they could gaze down into the clear water hoping to identify a deep-water passage.
‘There’s moderate surf running,’ a crew member shouted.
John watched on as other members reduced the fore-aft sail to give the minimum power needed for control.
Because of the Mendip’s rear-most position, John found it impossible to tell the degree of difficulty of entering the bay. The wind and surf rose and the Sally rocked violently, but it held a steady course. John’s heart pumped hard as he watched her move in.
John counted the frequency of the waves, which he could determine by watching the Sally. Usually, there was a count of fifteen between each wave but there was a variation. He suddenly realised that the longer the count between waves, the bigger the wave. He wished he hadn’t made the count, for now at the end of a count of twenty one his heart was in his mouth as he waited to see the effect on the Sally.
And then it was over. After the tenth count, the waves no longer pounded the Sally. She sailed into the bay and made a sudden right-hand turn, listing to an alarming degree. She recovered and vanished behind the headland, looking stable and secure. Standing side by side along the rail, the crew cheered.
John then turned to watch the progress of the Clevedon as the captain endeavoured to follow the exact path of the Sally. Increasingly violent surf battered the entrance. John had recommenced counting the time between the waves only to discover there was now a consistent count of twenty, indicating a huge swell.
Waves broke over the deck of the Clevedon and it struggled to hold its line.
Lord James shouted to everyone around him, ‘Either go below or tie yourself to the mast or rails. You will be swept away if you attempt to stand on deck as we make the passage.’
John immediately thought of the helmsman. How would he cope with the breaking waves? The helmsman, only too aware of the danger, busied himself tying his body to the rear mast, immediately behind him. John searched the deck for rope; finding only what they’d used in the throwing game earlier in the voyage, a rope fitted with a ball of rope and a grappling hook. He pulled the hook against the coils rail, spun around a couple of times and then tied off the other end of the rope to the nearest vertical support to the main bulkhead rail.
John had only just finished lashing himself to the bulkhead rails when a huge wave enveloped the Mendip. At that moment he wished he had chosen differently. The force of the water threatened to tear him from the rails or tear him in half or both. Worse followed. The first wave had washed over the boat, but the second wave struck before John could regain his breath, driving the ship sideways. The Mendip trembled and shook as it grounded on the side of the channel, but recovered and regained the desired line.
John glanced up and saw that the Clevedon had made the right turn successfully and was gliding in calm water. It was no longer relevant to his own situation. The Mendip was in great danger.
John could no longer see the progress of individual waves, but he could count to twenty and brace himself for the impact of each wave. A brief respite followed as the Mendip battered its way through a succession of smaller waves. John tried to remember how many waves had hit the Sally before it had reached the safety of the bay but realised he had not started counting early enough to really know.
The count between waves dropped to fifteen and the waves seemed smaller, but then there was a delay. John counted: sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty … He knew what it meant, the longer the delay the bigger the wave. Even that assessment was an unduly optimistic thought. He heard the shouts of alarm from the others still on the deck.
A monster wave descended on them. This was completely different. The wave got underneath the rear of the boat and lifted it. All control was now gone. In fact, the wave carried the boat through the entrance but well clear of the channel. It threw the boat onto the beach where it landed with a jarring impact. A momentary stillness took over. Soldiers on deck surveyed their immediate area or tested limbs for injury. The Mendip had landed a little outside the protected area of the bay. Waves continued to pound the boat and every so often one of the monster waves broke over the top of them.
‘Every man for himself,’ yelled Simon.
John saw some soldiers throwing themselves into the water. One of them got his timing wrong and hit the side of the boat on the way down. He was unconscious before he hit the water. The next wave picked him up and flung him towards the shore, but the undertow immediately pulled him out again. John watched on as the current pulled the unconscious soldier away from the beach and he realised that they were in an ebb tide with a strong underlying current of water from the bay to the ocean. He struggled to untie himself from the rails. The knot had tightened beyond belief, due to the soaking with sea water and the forces placed on it by the pounding waves. Simon saw John’s predicament and used a marlin spike to loosen the knot. John checked over his shoulder and noticed that the waves were less ferocious. He searched for the unconscious soldier, but he was nowhere in sight.
‘We must leave him,’ Simon said. ‘God bless his soul. It’d be a fool’s errand to try to save him in that.’
John knew in his heart that Simon was right, plus he couldn’t swim well enough to save his own life. He placed his hands on the bulkhead, ready to vault overboard, but turned back to see what Simon was doing.
‘Are you coming?’
‘No. My job’s not finished; there is still an opportunity to save the ship and your supplies.’
John waited for the next wave and threw himself into the trough in front of it. The wave thrust him towards the beach, but the rope was still around his waist. To his horror, he was pulled back into the heart of the wave. The grappling hook had buried itself in the sand and was holding him back. The length of the rope was too short to allow him to reach the surface. He opened his eyes to survey his situation. He was in a turquoise and silver maelstrom punctuated by the roar of waves as they passed him by and the crunch as they hit the beach. He pulled on the rope but the grappling hook simply bit deeper into the sand. He pulled again, but with no improvement. It seemed that his adventure… and his life… was at an end.