The Storm, 29.10.2013

The storm of St Jude hit the South-West and South-East coast of England last night. So-called after the saint of bad news and strange events, whose feast day falls on Monday, the tempest was indeed a strange and unexpected event that brought more than its fair share of adventure and hardship (what an appropriate noun this is!).

The best and most moving account of a shipwreck at sea during a long voyage that I have ever read is in the third Canto of Don Juan. The persuasive rhythmic lilts of Byron’s verse line, reach heights of beauty and excellence in this passage that you would be hard-pressed to match elsewhere in this work. For a cosmopolitan man like Byron, who travelled far and freely and was often at sea, it was clearly a subject in which he took enormous interest. I am sure that he had heard many accounts of deaths and calamities at sea, and may even have experienced something similar himself.

Strange to say, but last night, as the gusts of gale-force wind tore against Hawisia’s flanks, ripping our mooring pins clean out of the ground and setting us perilously close to being cast off into the turbulent current of the River Lee, I thought, not that much has changed across the centuries. At least on water. If you live in a boat and depend on it for your welfare, events like storms can be very serious. So can losing control at critical moments of navigation, or when going through locks. Then, bad seamanship can be, well, fatal.

I first heard about the approaching storm the previous night, on Saturday. I went to my parent’s house in Camden and my father quickly ushered me into his office away from mother’s hearing.

“I hope you have made preparations for the storm. It’s forecast to arrive on Sunday evening. I’m worried for you on the boat.”

By that point I had not heard a thing about it the storm, and told him so. But I assured him with a confidence that I did not entirely feel, that we would be absolutely fine.

We were already moored in the River Lee by that point, and had no chance to move as we were both working on Sunday. I felt instinctively that the current-less, shallow waters of London’s Grand Union Canal would be much safer that the wide, deep banks of the Lee River near Bow, exposed, bare and prey to tunnels of wind ripping around the sides of the Olympic Stadium. But, as I said, we had no opportunity to move. The best recourse open to us was to tie ourselves down as firmly as possible, grin and bear it.

I made a resolution with Gideon: the night of storm was to be a romantic night in, a ‘super date’. I imagined us like hibernating wolves in a cave, holing in against the battering, desperate wind.

When Sunday evening arrived we were both exhausted from our respective days of work. My feet were sore and swollen from serving customers all day and doing the dance between tables, Gideon was tired from fixing bikes. After making the fire and making dinner we had little energy left to do anything else. I fell asleep by the fire prematurely, lulled to unconsciousness by a hearth stoked hot with dense-cylindrical logs of wood. These were the last of the batch left to us by the previous boat owner. They had served us well.

I woke up at eleven o’ clock. Weather conditions seemed rather average outside, though it was a little gustier than usual.  So we went to bed, nesting like small mammals under the slightly damp sheets and duvet of our bed, moistened from the beads of condensation unfortunately inherent  to our boat.

My sleep was restive and disquieted. I kept waking up to hear the murmuring of the wind and the rustling of branches on the young trees outside. The cat was meowing insistently from the other room. By three o’ clock I was wide awake. The force of the wind was now unmistakeable and strong, shaking the boat to and fro like a rattle. We were very lucky that we could lash our ropes onto strips of protective metal sheeting plugged into the bank-side, there, I imagine, to help prevent erosion.

Even as it was, the rear mooring- pin of the boat near our sleeping berth, which had no sturdy metal sheeting to attach it too, kept on coming loose. The long steel pin, ripped out of the muddy, slippery ground, pulled up clods of earth and grass. Three or four times, Gideon or I braved the howling winds outside, often in our underwear to mallet-knock the pin back into the ground. At one point, before Gideon found good purchase for the pin in the ground, the boat thrust back with a sudden upsurge of wind and Gideon was almost pulled in.

We did not sleep again till 8am. I remember regularly checking live coverage on the internet. The Daily Mirror, of all the newspapers, reported that the worst of the storm would leave London by 9am. We had one hour left. After we lassoed two spare anchor ropes between our boat and the metal sides of the bank, we returned to our beds and palpably distressed boat cat. But then, amazingly, we feel asleep and didn’t wake till 10.30.

We awoke to a different world. The boat was no longer shaking, and the sky outside, cerulean blue, looked just as if it had been polished by the departing storm and all the errant clouds brushed away. Ochre-yellow leaves agitated against a serene sky. I knew we were safe and managed to survive the storm.

It was impossible to repress a huge sigh of relief. Exhausted, elated, HGideon and I cycled to Roman Road to the laundry and treated ourselves to two enormous, recuperative English Breakfasts.