Yachting Monthly May 1994
CHARLES STOCK catches a thief red-handed aboard Shoal Waters in Portsmouth Harbour
There is always a copy of Riddle of the sands in the packed bookshelf of my tiny gaff cutter Shoal Waters. Just before midnight on 28 July, 1977, I sat crouched against the starboard bulkhead at the after end of the cabin. My thoughts flitted from the book, with its tense account of Carruthers's encounter with a nocturnal intruder, to the bearded figure paddling slowly towards me in an inflatable dinghy.
It was hardly believable, almost a dream or even a nightmare, but in a few moments I would know if I was going to have an intruder of my own.
Sure enough, I felt the slight thud as he came alongside, port side forward, and grasped the gunwale. It was the side away from the shore and the inquisitive searchlight of Porchester Sailing Club, on whose moorings I was lying. My heart jumped for a second and then settled down. After all, this was no worse than many of the adventures that Shoal Waters and I had encountered over the previous 14 years and 21,000 miles of cruising together.
I lost count long ago of the sailing tips that I have picked up from Erskine Childers's grand novel. Now I recalled how Carruthers had knocked over the cabin lamp accidentally, and startled the visitor so that he never got to grips with him.
I wanted this chap wormed, parcelled and served, ready to hand over to the Police. I sat as quiet as a mouse with a Sestrel hand-bearing compass ready, but hidden under my right knee to conceal the luminous glow from the betalight cell.
My tiny vessel (she is only 16ft long) curtsied to port as 'Herr Grimm' (his name is unpronounceable) clambered on board. He seemed to fiddle for a long time near the mast. I realised that he was securing the dinghy to the shrouds so that it was not visible from the shore as it would have been if tied astern in the normal fashion. Every sound echoed through the boat in the silence of the warm summer night. The boom tent covers the cockpit and is fastened to the toe rail each side. This restricts movement for anyone outside the tent to careful toeholds and a firm grip on the boom under tent's peak. Slowly he squeezed into the after end of the cockpit without untying the tent at all, a thing I have never attempted. Suddenly; he was actually in the cockpit less than 6ft from me.
Only the previous week at the office we had discussed the question of meeting intruders in our homes and whether we would have the nerve and determination to tackle them, if and when the time came. I can honestly say that no hesitation crossed my mind at any time. Herr Grimm might be a tough customer and I might come off worse, but I had the advantage of surprise and hoped that the compass would make up for my typical flabby 50-year-old, office worker, physique. Furthermore, a barge horn near at hand would alert Peter to 'phone the police right way. The local Auxiliary Coastguard he lived in a houseboat on the foreshore.
Herr Grimm seemed satisfied that all was as he had left it the previous night. The top washboard was out and the hatch moved forward just a little. I guessed that on the previous occasion he had left in a hurry to get away before the tide left him high and dry, because Shoal Waters only floated for three or four hours and the tides were only just moving into darkness.
Suddenly his bearded face came into view. I could see him clearly, as my eyes were used to the faint light inside the cabin. The red glow from Portsmouth Harbour gave him a fearsome appearance as he blinked his way into the deep gloom of the tiny cabin.
Our faces couldn't have been more than 12-15in apart. He moved so slowly. It was a mystery to me that he didn't lift out the bottom washboard. He must see or sense me at any moment. I dare not leave it any longer. I swung the compass as best I could in the cramped cabin and added a flick wrist action as I brought it down hard on his head, just above the hairline. He gave a short startled scream, rather like the 'eeeeeeeek!' balloons of strip cartoons, and reeled back. As I leapt to follow; I called out, 'Grab him Bill!' to give the impression that I was not alone.
Getting out over the bottom hatch board delayed me a second or two and, although I grabbed him before he got to the stern, he had recovered from his surprise and during the struggle he had lost his glasses and pressed a hand into my face. One finger touched my eye and stalled me for a moment. In a flash his head and shoulders were under the boom crutch and over the transom, leaving me just a waving mass of legs to tackle. Then he was gone. I untied the cover, blew as hard as I could on the barge horn and waved the compass over his head as he hung on to the stern. He got the message, let go and trod water for some moments seemingly bewildered by the sudden rush of events.
Peter appeared with his spotlight on the shore and said that the police were on their way. I cannot think how he did it so quickly. I got my one oar, which I use for occasional sculling, indicated the shore and used his dinghy to follow him as he did a steady breast stroke with my oar waving above his head. Then he was able to stand up and wade slowly through the deep mud. I watched warily in case he turned to capsize the dinghy; but there was little fight left in him.
'Good heavens!' cried Peter, as the intruder came within range of his spotlight, ' I recognise this young man.'
'What on earth did you want to go and do a thing like that for?' he asked him.
'I was hungry;' he replied. For a moment I felt a pang of sympathy for him.
Apparently he was a German who had arrived in the area about 10 days earlier in a smart white steel centreboard yacht, now moored about 300 yards above the club hard, close to the sea wall. He seemed subdued enough once on the foreshore, almost a pathetic figure, as the water dripped out of his clothes. We walked towards his boat where he wanted to go aboard and change. Peter was inclined to let him, but I said no, preferring to let the police be the first on board.
Two constables arrived together with a charming young policewoman with a Midlands accent. I explained the history of the incident briefly. l had arrived just before dusk a day earlier than expected, to find my boat apparently safe and sound on the mooring, ready for Cowes Week. Peter had lent me a dinghy to get out to her and I had got aboard to find the lock had been broken, the top board was out and inside the cabin, the starboard bunk cushion had been removed and the bunk board lifted to reveal the bilge. The tackle had been unhooked from the centreboard and the line from the board tied to the mast support. The significance of this was not apparent until later.
Most of my tinned food had gone, together with tea, coffee and biscuits. A rubber waterproof torch and a clasp knife were missing, but the radio and the compass were still there, although the latter had been unbolted. I had had a hunch that the intruder would be back.
It was no use leaving the dinghy astern, so I paddled back to the share to leave the dinghy and return to the mooring to wait. Peter suggested that I sounded the barge horn if anyone turned up. We had expected youngsters from seaward but, in fact, 'Herr Grimm' appeared from the landward side at 2315, just after the majority of the shore lights went out.
The police needed the rubber dinghy to get to his boat and when I came to paddle it round with his gear I realised that he was using standard dinghy oars instead of paddles, a sure sign that it had been stolen.
While he changed into dry clothing, they searched the boat and found most of my gear but, of course, it had to be kept for evidence. Then they took him off and a young lady came on board Peter's houseboat to take my statement over a cup of tea.
By 2000 I was back on board, well pleased with the night's sport and changing into my pyjamas, but still mystified at the tampering with the centreboard. It never occurred to me that he was trying to steal the centreplate.
My foot touched the centreboard bolt, or at least where it should have been, and water started to spurt into the cabin. He had taken out the bolt and replaced it with a paper plug each side. The hull is a Fairey Marine Falcon and the bolt merely supports a large stainless steel washer which is jammed between the sides of the case. Thus, although the bolt had been removed, the plate didn't drop out. In a few moments I had her on the hard to dry out for the rest of the night.
My thoughts reeled at what might have happened. On my last visit with my wife and teenage son, we had clambered on board in the dark and gone straight off to Chichester Harbour to watch the last of the Ladies' World Dinghy Championships. What a disaster that could have been if the paper plugs had held till we got out to sea. I began to wish that I had hit my intruder a lot harder.
Peter told me later that 'Herr Grimm' had lost his centreplate and had been using two pieces of steel sheet held in place with G-cramps. At first he convinced the police that he owned the yacht, and produced his Bill of Sale, but it emerged later that he had stolen the yacht from Hamburg and changed her name. lnterpol came up with a string of robberies. He was sentenced at Fareham Court to six months, deportation and handed over to the German police.
Shoal Waters made a moonlight passage to Cowes, where she enjoyed the company of the Admiral's Cup racers for the week, and took part in a Dinghy Cruising Association rally. Then she found a light breeze from the northwest to take her home to her mooring at Maldon at the head of the lovely River Blackwater.