Voyage to the brink of death
Anthony’s article appears in today’s Sunday telegraph LINK
In October 1940, two men, skeletal and in rags, were found slumped under a tree on a remote beach on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas.
They had a horrific tale to tell. They were the sole survivors from the Anglo-Saxon, a British merchant ship en route from Wales to Argentina, which had been sunk off the west coast of Africa two months earlier by the Widder, a German surface raider disguised as a neutral ship.
On that night in August, seven men from the crew of 41, some wounded, had scrambled into an 18ft boat, the only one to have survived the shelling. The youngest man died from gangrene; four others threw themselves into the sea, their pain from hunger and thirst quite unbearable. At one point, the last two men on board, Roy Widdicombe, 24, and Robert Tapscott, 19, tried to drown themselves, too, but climbed back into the boat, tenaciously hanging on to life.
For 70 days, they drifted 2,800 miles across the Atlantic, losing half their body weight, before finally reaching land.
They were discovered by a Bahamian, fortuitously bullied by his wife into searching the lee shore that day because she had dreamed the previous night of discovering flotsam that might be of value.
They were taken by seaplane to a hospital in Nassau and for a week their lives hung in the balance, but eventually they were well enough to be visited by the governor of this British colony – none other than the Duke of Windsor, accompanied by Mrs Simpson, who had forced his abdication from the throne four years earlier.
As the men recovered, messages came from Britain that the Ministry of Shipping wanted every sailor it could find. Widdicombe, who was in better shape than Tapscott, travelled to New York and, in February 1941 headed for England in the Siamese Prince. They were only one day from Liverpool when the vessel was torpedoed by a German U-boat, killing all on board. Widdicombe’s widow was bluntly informed not to bother travelling to Liverpool.
Tapscott recovered in due course and enlisted in the Canadian army, but after frequently absconding he was cashiered. He later re-joined the Merchant Navy, married and fathered a daughter, but, tragically, took his own life after the war, perhaps haunted by “survivor’s guilt”.
When I was 16, I read the story of Widdicombe and Tapscott’s 70 days at sea and how their fellow crew members had preferred death to agony. The story moved me deeply and stayed with me.
Around 20 years ago, I told the tale on British radio and soon learned of families and friends for whom the Anglo-Saxon’s end had been a very personal tragedy. Some suggested that the boat, in which the survivors had drifted across the ocean, should be found and brought back home to be placed on exhibition. After more than 50 years it seemed impossible; the boat had been 11 years old at the time of the sinking and then suffered 10 weeks in tropical waters. Its whereabouts were unknown.
But miracles do occur. The boat was found in Mystic, Connecticut. Its unscrewed nameplate surfaced in Texas and all those involved agreed it should be brought to Britain, where it can now been seen at the Imperial War Museum, a memory of the amazing wartime courage of the Allied Merchant Fleet.
In the meantime, as I grew longer in the tooth, I began to think that some kind of re-enactment might be interesting. “Old men ought to be explorers,” wrote T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets and I took the hint.
He did not elaborate, save to say that the waves’ cry and the birds’ cry should be involved, but the idea grew in my mind that, using a raft, I would cross the very waters where Tapscott and Widdicombe had suffered so horrendously. With luck, I might even land on the beach where they had struggled up the shore.
Why a raft? My aim was to show that rafts could be navigated, even to the point of travelling – slightly – into the wind, and to draw attention to the plight of seamen in wartime, their chance of death higher than in any of the armed services. And it’s always good to have a destination in mind, even on a country walk.
Sunday Telegraph readers may remember the story of last year’s epic voyage across the Atlantic, which I made at the age of 85 with three companions, and told in the paper over 10 memorable weeks.
We left Valle Gran Rey in the Canary Islands in January 2011 with Eleuthera, the landing place of 1940, in our sights. The raft’s two rudders broke on the third day and on three occasions it was blown back towards the east; fresh food ran out after three weeks.
In 66 days we completed 2,763 miles at an average speed of 2.1 knots, but my fellow crew members decided they could not spare the extra month it would take to reach the Bahamas, a journey of another 700 miles, so we ended our voyage in the Caribbean island of St Maarten.
There, the raft Antiki was buoyed, lifted onto land and cleaned of the ecological mayhem collected underneath. A little over a year later I was ready to make voyage number two, covering the stretch between St Maarten and Eleuthera, my final destination.
A new crew soon surfaced. Bruno Sellmer, an old friend from Brazil with whom I once steam-boated down the Araguaia, offered himself as photographer.
Nigel Gallaher, my 62-year-old godson, and his wife Leigh, brought valuable sailing knowledge, and Alison Porteous, the partner of a ballooning colleague whom I had known for many years, came along to film.
And so, on April 6th, we set sail. This second trip was very different from the first. With two women and three men – rather than four men alone on a raft – the cabin was tidier and the culinary choice better. There were no card games, more casual chat and earlier bed-times.
There were no whales this time, no shimmering blue fishes swimming alongside. Instead, we saw roseate terns with their glorious sharp-ended tails, and plenty of cruise liners.
At one point, a 45-metre yacht, the Lady B, came alongside and sent us packages across the water filled with food, wine, New York papers and amazing stuff called ice.
That was a high point, but this second navigation was more complex than being buffeted from east to west by vigorous trade winds. Instead of being shoved from behind, we now had wind more frequently from our sides and had to be a great deal cannier with our single sail, re-positioning it constantly.
Rafts can be navigated but it is hard work proving this point, day after day and night after night, with fickle wind altering its direction as it chooses and all sorts of lee shores longing to destroy us. And so it proved. The new venture had us on our toes before the first week was over. The second week was an even greater nightmare. As for the third week, we started talking about survival.
I still had a hankering to reach the place where those two sailors had arrived 72 years earlier, but a far greater hankering just to stay alive.
Last Monday, after sailing some 850 nautical miles and spending more than three weeks at sea, we knew we would be passing agonisingly close to our goal, but the conditions were so bad we chose to sail past and ask for a tow.
The wind was now terrific. Our sail flapped wildly. It was almost night. We moved erratically with land either dead ahead or on either side. The anemometer showed gusts of over 30 knots. Things were becoming uncontrollable. Out went the sea anchor to steady our progress. It snagged on something and we stopped. Waves were everywhere and so were we.
For some three hours, we were pinned to something down below. It was a foul night with an invisible half moon and thick cloud. There was heavy rain and very poor visibility. All control had gone. A reef proved to be straight ahead. The tide was rising and we were bouncing. Of course we would hit the reef – and so we did. A terrible sound came from down below, a grating, scratching, and sudden stops. Soon we stopped completely and cut away the sea anchor.
Movement once more, thank goodness, and for a couple of hundred yards. Then, freedom with only waves and wind to worry us. At last, we came to a beach. We turned sideways on. We leaped off and carried rope.
Poor Antiki but happy us. It was midnight and we stood on land. And there we sought to spend the night. We had missed the actual beach, but who cared?
Bahamians then arrived, including the police. We hugged everyone in sight. We were overjoyed. We tied ropes to such vegetation as there was. We took photographs. And then, to crown it all, we learned that it was the sailors’ beach on which we had arrived. What total joy! We were all safe and our raft looked good. Miracles do occur.
Can life ever be better than on that day and at that hour? I do not think so.