The inspiration for this story may have come from an incident that happened in October 1913. A Mirror sailing vessel carrying eleven London Sea Scouts and two Assistant Scoutmasters from the Mirror Troop of Sea Scouts was run down by the steamer Hogarth in fog in the Thames Estuary at Gravesend, Kent. Three Sea Scouts and one Assistant Scout Master drowned. The inquest recorded that the Mirror was navigated with proper and seamanlike care.
This Sea Scout yarn contains a reference to ‘Turktown’ A nickname for Gosport, near Portsmouth in Hampshire. There are two possible suggestions as to where this name came from. The first is that there once was a strong Turkish community living in Gosport and the second refers to a Turkish ship whose crew became ill with disease that proved fatal for many of them. They were accorded British burial rights and buried at Haslar in Gosport.
His son, John. F. C. Westerman moved back to Portsmouth with his wife Murial for a short time in the 1930’s. In 1933, he founded the 38th St Mark’s, Portsmouth Sea Scout Troop. The troop was temporarily disbanded when the Blitz came, as he and others left to join the forces, but the Rover Scouts reinstated the troop again in 1942.
Percy wrote several books with the theme of Scouting, and all of these stories were based near or on water.
The Scouts of Seal Island (1913)
The Scouts of the “Petrel” (1914)
Sea Scouts All (1920)
Sea Scouts Abroad (1921)
Sea Scouts Up-Channel (1922)
The Boys of the “Puffin” (1925)
The Sea Scouts of the “Kestrel” (1925)
The Mystery of the Broads (1930)
Haunted Harbour (1937)
Sea Scouts at Dunkirk (1941)
“Sea Scouts, Alert!” (1955)
My eye! This is thick," remarked Patrol leader George Byng of the Beavers to his opposite number," Patrol Leader Dick Ford of the Seals!
Ford nodded, but said nothing. He had his work cut out in keeping his eyes fixed upon a small spirit compass placed on the grating of the boat's stern-sheets.
The 1st Saltport Troop of Sea Scouts had recently been presented with an ex-navy twenty-four-foot gig - a great improvement on the sixteen-foot cumbersome boat that had served the Sea Scouts during the earlier stages of their career. The gig had (been thoroughly overhauled by a boat-builder at Turktown; the donor, believing that half a gift is no gift, had generously added a complete equipment, and the two patrols had jonrneyed to Turktown to take over the delivery of their new craft.
Sixteen miles of sea separated Turktown from Saltport - sixteen miles of open water with hardly a haven capable of affording shelter should it come on to blow. Con-sequently with commendable caution the Scouts waited till a steady glass gave every promise of fine weather.
Upon arriving at Turktown they found the gig afloat, with all her gear on board. The weather, somewhat unfortunately, was too fine; not a catspaw disturbed the placid surface of the water. Sailing was out of the question. It was to be a case of steady pulling.
Cheerfully the lads tackled their task, the Beavers taking the first half hour, the Seals relieving them at the end of that time. But
before half the distance was covered, a thick sea-fog sweeping down with remarkable rapidity enveloped the boat till it was a. hard
matter to see one end of the gig from the other.
Patrol Leader Ford had just managed to take a compass bearing of Bull Point - a prominent headland not far from the entrance to Saltport Harbour - and allowing for the “indraght” of the tide, he was carefully holding on to the course, indicating with a slight motion of his hand any movement of the gig from her right direction.
“We ought to be picking up the land by now Dick?" said his chum after a while. "I should have thought so, too," agreed Dick. "Here, White, you give Clemson a spell in the bows. Keep your eyes skinned and your ears open and let me know if you see or hear any signs of the surf breaking over the reef.
"Jimmy White, who by the fact of his wear¬ing a naval crown on his left arm showed that he was a King's Sea Scout, made his way for'ard to take up the seemingly useless task of peering into a bank of white fog, while Clemson was glad to take his place on one of the thwarts and warm himself up by a steady pull at one of the heavy ash oars.
"Sure you're not out by this?” asked Byng in a low tone, indicating the compass.
"I hope not” replied Ford. "At any rate, we'll carry on another quarter of an hour before turning in shore. That ought to take us clear of the Point.”
“Something ahead!" sang out White, "A cliff, I think."
“Avast pulling,” ordered Patrol Leader Byng in his best nautical manner, for the lad was the son of a seafaring man and took to the water almost as naturally as a duck. "Back water, all."
Through the fog a dark object loomed up, seeming to overtop the comparatively small gig. It was a steamship, enlarged out of all proportion by the magnifying effect of the moisiure-ladien atmosphere.
"Ship ahoy!" shouted Ford at the top of his voice."Ship ahoy - ahoy!" came an echo.
“Give them another hail, Dick," suggested Byng, who by pulling the starboard yoke line had brought the boat almost parallel with the steamship.
But no response, save the mocking echo, came from the big craft. Except for the gentle lap of the water against her rusty iron sides an uncanny stillness pervaded the ship.
"Strange," remarked Byng. "I don't think she's anchored. I can see her anchor hove right up to her hawse-pipe, and there's enough tide running to show her starboard cable if that anchor is down. And she's not making way either. Give way, there, and let's see what she's like. Easy ahead, together now."
Keeping barely a boat's length off, the gig was rowed slowly past the port side of the ship, which at close quarters appeared to be a coasting tramp of about three hundred tons displacement.
"She's fairly light," observed Patrol Leader Ford, pointing to the Plimsoll mark that showed five feet above the water.
"It's the list she has," replied his chum, "She's heeling over to starboard. Cargo shifted, maybe."
"Her crew have taken to the boats," announced White. "Look at the falls of her davits."
The King's Scout was right. From the four davits on the port quarter a tangle of ropes showed that the crew had made a hasty departure, and that no one had been left on board to haul up the lowering tackle. On her stumpy counter was the name Ragtime of Blackport.
"Look!" exclaimed Ford. ''My word, what a hole !"
The gig had passed under the stern of the derelict and was now heading towards the bows. Almost amidships a jagged rent extending from far below the waterline to the rail betokened that the vessel had been in collision and had all but received her death blow, for on that side barely eight feet of freeboard were showing, whereas on this port side there was nearly twice that height.
"She's sinking. We ought to give her a wide berth," suggested Hythe, who possessing coastwarden's rank saw possibilities of his prowess as a lifesaver being brought into action.
"If she were sinking with that hole in her, side she would have gone down long ago, replied Patrol Leader Byng. "She has water¬ tight bulkheads, and they are keeping the water back. It's a salvage job, you fellows, so Be Prepared. Cox and Jones, you remain in this boat. Grey, take the painter and make her fast astern. Stand by and cast off, if necessary."
"What do you propose to do?" asked the Patrol Leader of the Seals, who in point of seniority had to yield to his chum.
"Do? Why, get her into Saltport Harbour if it can be done – and I think we ought to manage it now there's a breeze springing up. Thompson, you'll be bound to find a lead-line handy; see what depth we're in. Dick, old man, I want you to rummage in the fore-peak and see if there is any canvas. If we are where I think we are, with this light breeze we ought to bring her straight into the harbour. Gilson and Rawlins, you cut below and see what water there is in the holds. Keep your ears open, and if you hear me give a succession of short whistles get back on deck as fast as you know how."
Patrol Leader Byng realised that an opportunity had arrived for the Sea Scouts to show that they were prepared. His responsibility was great, but with an inborn con¬fidence he gave his orders calmly and de¬liberately.
Soon Thompson reported that the lead-line gave eighteen fathoms. Allowing five feet rise for the second hour of the flood, that reduced the soundings to a little more than seventeen fathoms, and Byng knew that the only soundings giving that depth anywhere within thirty miles of Saltport were three miles S.S.E. of Bull Point.
"We were a bit out of our coarse," he remarked. "But perhaps it will be a lucky stroke for us. I wish the fog would lift though."
Presently four of the Scouts came trooping aft, dragging two heavy sails behind them, which upon examination proved to be a stay¬sail and a trysail - just-the canvas Byng hoped to find on board. Both holds were reported dry, and only a few inches of water were found in the lee bilge. Except for the flooded compartment, the Ragtime was as tight as a bottle.
As quickly as possible the staysail was hanked on to the forestay and hoisted. Slowly the tramp’s head paid off, and as the trysail was sent aloft the old hooker gathered way. To Byng's delight she answered her helm in a satisfactory manner, and although the maximum speed was a bare three knots through the water, it was sufficient to keep her fairly under control.
"Take the helm, Dick," he said. "Here's the course; nor'east by north; Gibson, come for'ard with me."
Gibson was the tenderfoot of the Beavers, but a fairly intelligent youth who could be trusted to obey orders.
"Look here," continued the Patrol Leader. "See that lever? That works the compresser. Throw it over and the anchor will be dropped. I want you to stand by, and when I give the word 'let go,” do it, see? I may not .have to give the order for some hours yet, or I may have to very soon, but in any case, Be Prepared."
Byng hastened back to the bridge. The fog was still very thick, but at intervals, owing to the rising wind, it lifted in patches, so that occasionally he could see as far as the bows. Beyond that all was a blur of white vapour.
Presently a fog syren blared out at less than a mile away. Some lumbering tramp, thinking it sufficient to give a warning every five minutes, was ploughing her way as fast as her antiquated' engines could take her.
"She's coming straight for us," announced Ford after an interval. "The sound is much' louder."
Byng knew that as there was no steam raised on board, the syrens of the Ragtime were useless. The only way of giving an alarm was the ship's bell, which by the Board of Trade Regulations is in thick weather only to be used by a vessel at anchor. There was no help for it. The bell had to be used, so adopting a method as different as possible from the recognised anchored signal, Byng sent one of the lads to ring it every ten seconds.
This expedient proved successful, for the oncoming tramp slowed down and altered helm, yet so close, did she shave the Ragtime that the Scouts could distinguish her outlines in the fog.
The lead now showed nine fathoms. Byng began to get anxious, for the coast could not be very far off. Concealing his anxiety, he kept keenly on the alert for the sound of the reed foghorn on the lighthouse at the entrance to Saltport Harbour.
Eight fathoms; seven fathoms. The bottom was shoaling rapidly.
Byng was just on the point of ordering the anchor to be let go to prevent the vessel from going ashore, when with remarkable sudden¬ness the fog lifted. Right ahead, less than half-a-mile away, lay not Saltport Harbour, but Mudbury Haven, a tidal inlet three miles to the east of Saltport. Owing to the set of the tide the tramp had been swept well to the east'ard in spite of Byng's allowance for the rate of the flood.
The longshoremen at the little haven looked greatly surprised to see a fairly large steamer coming in under sail, and scenting a chance of .salvage half-a-dozen boats put off.
Still more surprised were the old shellbacks to find a crew of Sea Scouts aboard, who firmly yet politely declined the eager request to be allowed to give them a hand. Byng knew their little game.
Once the longshoremen gained a footing on the deck of the Ragtime, they had a right to demand a share of the salvage, even if their assistance were practically worthless; so with a chorus of maledictions upon their youthful rivals, the boatmen stood off and waited to see what sort of a mess the Scouts wouldi make of bringing the disabled tramp up in a small and fairly crowded haven.
But Byng knew his business. At a word of command the staysail came flapping down on deck. With a rattle, of chain the anchor plunged to the bottom, and the tramp, with little way on her, swung round head to wind and tide.
It was not long before the coastguards put off, and their amazement was great when they learnt that the new arrival was the Ragtime, for early that morning the officers and crew of that vessel had been landed at Saltport by s.s.Dumbshow. They reported that at midnight their ship had been run down in a fog.
Thinking from the nature of her injuries that she was doomed, the men hurriedly took to the boats, and after rowing aimlessly about for several hours were picked up by the Dumbshow.
For more than twelve hours the badly-injured Ragtime drifted, until the Sea Scouts fell in with her.
ln due course the Admiralty Court awarded a substantial sum to the Sea Scouts for salvage, and with the money the Saltport Troop purchased a floating guard-ship to take the place of the stranded hulk that had hitherto served as their headquarters; while to show that they possessed the true spirit of aiding others, they made a grant towards the funds of the poorer troop at Mudbary - the haven to which Patrol Leader Byng had brought his prize in safety after a nerve - racking ordeal in the fog-enshrouded sea.