We were on a port tack, leaving the English Channel, we were headed towards the West Indies via Madeira. It was my intended strategy to stand on this port tack for a day or two, before coming about, to leave the coast of Northern Europe at least two hundred miles to leeward. Further South and the prevailing winds, became more Westerly, making Biscay and Northwest Spain a very dangerous lee-shore: I wanted no part of it.
Often, the first sign that the weather isn’t behaving as forecast, is indicated by the barometer and now the expected drop in pressure was much steeper than expected. Twenty-four hours later and the Westerly winds had reached severe storm force, the ocean rollers had become monstrous, the tops being ripped off and driven as horizontal spume. Another day on and most of the crew had given up and there were just two of us left to run the yacht. Being a modern performance yacht it didn’t heave-to very well and we were using the diesel to help point it into the humungous seas, if we let the vessel lie beam on a knockdown would have been the result. It was freezing cold and ice was forming on the rigging, every now and again, the wind would blow fragments off and it would hit us like shrapnel.
After some days, the storm although it had moderated at times, would return with a vengeance, we were exhausted, reaching the limits of our endurance and worse still, being driven towards The Bay of Biscay. One night, as I dozed in the main cabin, the vessel was tipped onto its beam ends, I was thrown across the cabin to break my ribs on the chart table. Despite my agony, I had no choice but to dress myself in cold, wet clothing and stand my watch, I had to relieve the helmsman who would be counting the seconds and be in misery. We were running low on diesel and we needed some in reserve, we couldn’t go on for much longer and had lost this battle, it was time for a plan B.
I had taken some haphazard sun sights on the rare occasions that it appeared and was confident that we were somewhere to the West of Estaca de Bares on the Southern edge of The Bay of Biscay. I looked for some radio beacons, jotting down their Morse identifications, I needed a better position fix as we got closer to land. We chose the right moment, turned the yacht around and sent it surfing down the back of a huge ocean roller. For better or worse, we were headed towards A Coruna, North West Spain. I knew the navigation was going to be very difficult, particularly in the poor visibility I was expecting.
Navigation had always been a passion of mine. Captain Cook’s first voyage of discovery, was primarily to observe the transit of Venus from Tahiti. An early attempt to solve the problem of longitude.
The amount of work required to understand, the hour angle and declination of the Sun, moon and planets, the Point of Aries and the sidereal hour angle and fixed declination of the sixty four navigational stars was colossal. To find longitude it was necessary to know the exact time, there were two schools of thought, the lunar distance method and the development of an accurate chronometer. After a lifetimes work, John Harrison, invented the first marine chronometer.
Thanks to the genius of our mathematicians, scientists, astronomers and sailors, Great Britain was the first country in the world to be able to discover the secret of longitude. This ability gave our navy great tactical advantage, both militarily and commercially. New trade routes wereopened up and the British Empire was born, Britannia really did rule the waves.
A Coruna is tucked away on the Western side of a small bay, in the lea of the storm. I needed to bring the yacht in as close as possible to this Western shore, so that as we brought the boat beam on to the sea, we’d be entering the shelter of the headland. After a night clutching my Radio Direction Finder, constantly plotting position and clearing lines, trying to visualise the approach, luckily the visibility cleared for a while and I could pilot our way into port. We were lucky, the consequences of missing our approach in those conditions, didn’t bear thinking about.
It was Sunday and there was nobody around at the Customs house, so we tied up the yacht and as the crew members that we hadn’t seen for days appeared, we headed for the nearest bar. The locals were incredulous when they heard we’d been at sea for days in the storm.
The sun came out for a while, but looking at the clouds scud overhead, we knew the storm was still raging, although starting to ease. As we sat in the sunshine drinking beer and brandy, I contemplated the fact, that the reason we survived was because of the inherited knowledge, wisdom and genius of our ancestors, that’s heritage indeed.
Whatever your thought about the British Empire, it was born in an age of empire building, our colonies, if not colonised by us, would have been colonised by the French, Spanish or Portuguese. The Spanish and Portuguese ransacked their colonies, they didn’t fare so well and don’t to this day. All around the British Empire we left infrastructure and fantastic feats of engineering, many of these countries have since built on this and have become very successful in their own right. We weren’t perfect, there are things that we did, aspects of our rule that we shouldn’t be so proud of, but overall, we were the least worst option I think.
The point is I will always be proud of our nation, its achievements, ingenuity and sheer genius, I love being British. When I look at the people and politicians from all over Europe and the world, that try and denigrate our nation, I think back to the storm and I’m very sure they would have been amongst those that gave up and stayed in their bunks.
The Prime-Meridian of this world, does and always will, run through Greenwich.