This past weekend I finished three Arthur Ransome books, Winter Holiday, Pigeon Post and We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea. These three books are some of my favourites in the series, closely followed by Secret Water, (but we’re not there yet). This is the third of three posts, it was way too long for one blog, about We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea.
It is one of the last books in the series I was able to buy, as even in the UK the more obscure books weren’t easy to find. It is also the only book that scared me, the usual mild peril ramped up to a stormy sea crossing.
It’s the book with the shortest time frame of just six days, and focuses entirely on the Walker children. Commander Walker after years of being away overseas, has been stationed at Shotley and is travelling home. Mother and the five children have all arrived to greet him, they’re not sure when he’s going to arrive, as it depends on his overland connections across Europe. All they know is, he’s arriving by steamer for the last leg.
They’re all staying at Alma Cottage at Pin Mill with Miss Powell while they wait for Daddy to arrive. The book opens with the oldest four who have borrowed a rowing dinghy before supper, pootling about in and amongst other boats and buoys. They’re watching a Gaff Cutter called Goblin coming into moor, but due to the ebbing tide, Jim Brading misses his buoy with his boathook. Jim throws a rope to John who ties it with a bowline knot and makes fast.
Jim’s impressed with John, who has also offered to come aboard to help him stow the sails and make the Goblin neat and tidy. Before long the other three have also come aboard and have helped tidy up. Mother comes over in another rowing boat to call them in for supper. They all invite him to join them for the meal when they discover he’s sailed from Dover that morning, on his own, and hasn’t even eaten breakfast.
Miss Powell sees their new friend and laughs, as she’d made omelette and soup for their supper, which is what Jim and his uncle would order from her when they would come into Goblin’s home port. Exhausted, Jim falls asleep at the table, after which they all agree he’s become a friend. When they’re eating, he offers to take the four oldest out on the Goblin from the next morning for a couple of days, while they wait for their father to come home. He says there is a lot of sailing they can do in and around the Harwich estuary.
Mother tells them she’ll think about it overnight. The next day, after sounding out people who have known Jim Brading for years, she agrees to let them go on the conditions that they do not go past Beach End Buoy and out to sea; that they phone her each night so if she gets a telegram from Daddy, she can call them home straight away, and that they have to be home by Saturday.
Bridget is upset that again she’s missing out on adventures as she’s “..been trying to grow up as fast as I can”. Mother tells her she’s missing out too, and she needs someone to look after her.
The next morning, children are aboard the Goblin, Mother and Bridget arrive in a rowing boat with stores and to see them off. In the interim, they’ve been practicing raising and lowering the sails. They’ve swept decks, coiled ropes and Susan has stowed away all their clothes, blankets etc. She now puts all the food that Mother has brought away too.
Jim shows Mother the chart of where they’ll be sailing. Showing them Beach End Buoy and promising again they’re not going to sail past it. Mother compliments him on a nice tidy ship, Susan is happy and proud of the hard work she’s done.
Off they sail, they phone to say goodnight when they’ve moored up. The next morning they set sail, but are just floating with the tide as the weather is changing, there’s no wind and they can hear fog out at sea. Only when do they nearly reach Beach End Buoy, they realise how far they’ve drifted. Jim starts the engine, but realises he used more fuel than he thought when it chugs to a stop. He drops his anchor just off Felixstowe, jumps into the Goblins’ dinghy, Imp, and rows away to get some petrol.
The fog comes down around them, sounds are muffled and they don’t notice that the tide has come back in again. Only when the anchor makes a funny noise do they realise the tide is twice as deep now it’s fully in. Not only is the Goblin is being pulled along, they don’t know where they are. John tries to let more chain out, but the little ship is now moving so quickly, the chain pours out and both anchor and chain are lost.
They try to get another anchor out, but it doesn’t hold either. Still in the fog, they can’t see anything, but the water right beside the boat. Only when they hear a clang close to them, they realise they’ve been moving with the tide again and they drift out past Beach End Buoy.
They’re drifting in and around shipping lanes, around shoals (sand banks under the water), completely on their own and in a thick fog. Another buoy appears close to the Goblin, and this little picture gave me nightmares about buoys for ages:
I don’t know why buoys give me the heebie-jeebies quite so much, but hey, I had nightmares over Miss Marple too.
John makes a decision to hoist the sails, he knows the only way to keep them safe is to keep Goblin safe. He checks the chart and chooses a course, about South East, that will take them safely out away from the shoals. He heads out, trying to keep in as straight a line as possible so when they turn around, they’ve got a fairly straight course to get back to Felixstowe.
The wind picks up, with waves of water coming into the cockpit as they’re being buffeted about. Titty and Susan are seasick, Roger frantically pumps the water out the boat, Susan is worried the further they go away, that no-one knows where they are and wants John to turn around. John gets angry, he knows he can’t navigate back in as he doesn’t know where they are in the fog, if they try to turn around, they could get swept onto a sandbank and Goblin would break up.
The fog lifts, but then it starts to get dark. Susan is now frantic with worry, particularly when they’re nearly mown down by a steamer. Her seasickness has calmed down, but when they try to turn around; instead of the wind coming from behind them and blowing them along easily, they have to tack into the wind. Turning around to sail into the wind, Susan gets even sicker, she knows she won’t cope if they try to turn around. Miserably Susan agrees for them to carry on, but John also now needs to reef the sails (make them smaller, so they’re easier to manage). Jim showed them how it was done, but he’s not done it before. Susan starts to steer, John puts a lifeline around his waist and nearly gets swept overboard.
When John gets back to the cockpit, the Goblin is much easier to handle. Titty and Roger who were below decks and being buffeted when they’d turned around wonder what is going on. Susan beginning to feel better, and heads down into the cockpit to make them cocoa. As if this isn’t enough to be going on with, they also rescue a half-drowned kitten they call Sinbad.
Susan is the only reason any of the children’s adventures go ahead, she’s the one the parents and other natives trust to ensure bed on time, fed on time and to keep them all safe. This book is the complete counterpoint to this, by showing her vulnerable; being scared and seasick is an awful combination. Arthur Ransome put Susan through the wringer in this story, she has to accept what is happening and make the best of it. She has no control over what is happening at all.
All night they sail, realising that when it gets light, they can work out where they are and ask for help. John falls asleep, Susan steers, Titty and Roger come up on deck when they’ve had breakfast. Sailing ships are heading towards them, they recognise the flags as Dutch and in amazement, realise they’ve sailed right across the North Sea to Holland.
Needing to call for help, they signal for a Pilot to take them into the closest port. John plays the part of ships boy, the other three hide in the cabin and try to make grown-up noises by singing shanties and stamping their feet.
As they head into Flushing, Pilot steering while John is standing on the cabin roof. A steamer is getting ready to set sail, John sees Daddy leaning over the barrier looking into the port. As the Pilot is navigating them into a berth, he bangs on the cabin roof to call the ‘Capten’ up on deck. He realises that the four children sailed themselves over in the gale and fog and is praising them. John tells the others that he saw Daddy, that they’ve missed him. Another boat comes chugging along, Daddy did a a pier-head jump and got a boat to take him out to the Goblin. Susan sees him and bursts into tears.
He and the Pilot piece together the bare bones of the story, the Pilot refuses to take any money for guiding them into the port. He also will give them a chart of the North Sea from Holland for their return journey, agreeing that they could pretty much turn around and sail back out again as the weather is good.
Daddy takes them all for something to eat, John falls asleep at the table. He gets the whole story about everything that has happened. He writes out a telegram to tell Mother what is happening, including that they’ve found a kitten, but he sends it via a colleague in the UK so she doesn’t worry to hear that they’re all in Flushing. He also tells John that “We’ll make a seaman out of you yet my son.” John chokes up with pride and relief.
They buy supplies for the return trip, filling up the petrol tank and paraffin for the lights. The Pilot arrives at the Goblin to give them the chart, telling everyone that these are the children came over the North Sea by themselves.
Daddy sails them all home, he’s been travelling overland and has been sleeping for two weeks, he doesn’t mind sailing overnight to get them home as soon as possible. He sits in the cockpit with his cigar glinting red in the darkness, singing shanties quietly, then louder. Waking up, the children listen to him and realise he can’t be angry as he wouldn’t be singing. They head back off to sleep again.
The next morning, they’re heading in towards Pin Mill, when they see a man rowing towards them with what looks like a turban on. It’s Jim who’s discharged himself from hospital, also frantic with worry. He nearly falls overboard climbing up from the Imp into the Goblin. When customs arrive to clear them to enter port, they tell Commander Walker they’d been expecting him to arrive. They also explain that everyone heard about Jim in his haste to catch the bus, was actually run over by it and has a concussion.
Daddy confirms with Jim that Mother doesn’t know they’ve been missing. When they’re pulling up at the Goblin’s buoy, Mother rows out to meet them with Bridget. She is angry that they broke a promise to her to get back in time, Roger tries to explain they’ve been in Holland, Mother thinks it’s one of his jokes. Bridget points out the kitten, a hand comes out the hatch to catch Sinbad. Mother’s jaw drops in surprise, just like Titty’s when she realises it’s her husband Ted.
The crew of the Goblin tidying up after their voyage watch Daddy row Mother to shore to call Jim’s relatives, on the way back he tells her what happened.