First published in the NWT Journal, Spring 1989
by “Leveret” (David Bray)
The wherry lay on the White Swan quay in the North River. Young Albert had been left aboard alone to keep ship while his dad was in the infirmary. He had come down with a cold during the big freeze-up of a fortnight before, and he hadn’t got over it. Eventually ma had taken him off to the hospital – pneumonia, they said, it had been a hard winter. The weather had been bitter and the rivers laid with ice for over five weeks. Freights were hard to get. The railways were taking most of the coal and timber and there was very little work around. Mind you, there were plenty of jobs begging during the period when the rivers were iced over, but what use was that? Money had all but run out and now father in hospital ..
“Blust bor if they don’t smell suffin’ funny good.”
“Oh, hello, Teapot, come down.”
Albert was frying some herring he had scrounged off the drifters. Teapot was his uncle, who got his nickname mainly from his shape. Once a wherryman, he had long before given up, and earned a living making cork floats for the fishing boats. Teapot had heard about the plight of Albert and his family and thought he’d better do something about it.
“There’s a Norsky timber boat due at Jewsons wharf today, and there’s a load to take to Norwich. If we’re quick about it there may be two or three trips out of it.”
“But I can’t sail this on my own”, said Albert, “I can’t move until dad’s better.”
“I reckon I’m not too old yet to get a wherry along. If we can do a freight or two together that’ll be a nice present for your da when he comes out of the infirmary.”
Using the last of the ebb they dropped down through the bridges on the chain. Once clear of Southtown bridge, Albert got the mast up and started stacking the hatches with Teapot’s assistance. Once alongside the ship, the “Oslofjord”, loading started. Great baulks of softwood soon filled the hold and more had to be stacked on deck. The loading was a bitter cold job; a biting NE wind brought snow and by nightfall a full blizzard was blowing. The next morning the world was a miserable grey white. A good foot of snow lay everywhere and the decks were treacherous. Albert boiled the kettle ready for Teapot (?) coming aboard at about six. The tide would serve at about half past. The wind was still Nor’East and the sky threatened more snow.
Getting underway on the tide, the wherry dropped easily upriver through the bridges with dropping chain down over the bow and the mast lowered. Albert stood on the bows while Teapot was at the helm. Once through the bridges the mast was raised. The chain brought inboard and the sail was set. The breeze was still fresh so the sail was deep reefed. After all the work of getting underway, Albert was ready for a cuppa tea, but just as he was hoisting sail the snow came down thick and fast. Visibility reduced to almost nothing as the wherry gathered way on a dead run across Breydon. Teapot yelled forrard to Albert to stay on the bow, and keep a sharp lookout for the channel marker posts. The last thing they wanted was to run on the mud on Breydon.
The wherry pressed on at speed, a big bone in her teeth. Albert strained his eyes to spot the posts, and got colder and colder. The snow got worse and the wind increased, while Breydon seemed to go on forever. Albert desperately wanted to go aft for a warm, but he couldn’t leave Teapot without a lookout. Teapot’s eyes had seen better days, after all, they wouldn’t see eighty again.
After what seemed an age a riverbank appeared through the gloom and the bottom dickey works showed out of the water. They soon disappeared in the snow, however, and the wherry entered the river Yare. By the time they passed Berney Arms the weather was as bad as ever. Occasional glimpses of the riverbanks were all he got, but Teapot seemed to be able to keep her in the middle of the river. By now Albert was completely numb with cold, but he stuck to his post. Just as well for on the Reedham approach they met a steamer coming down, appearing out of the gloom, huge and black, sliding past a few yards away to windward and disappearing into the murk astern. Reedham swing bridge appeared in a rare patch of clear visibility, it was fortunately open, and they swept through. Every bend brought a gybe, but they were making very good time.
Passing Reedham Ferry house the blizzard renewed itself with a vengeance, although, in a break, Albert could see two men on the quay, waving. They seemed quite agitated about something, but all Albert could do was to wave back.
By now a full gale was blowing, and they were glad of the partial shelter they were getting from the trees in the reaches above Buckenham. They had to put one tack in at Coldham Hall and Albert helped the bow round with a quant. This was the only time that trip he had to touch a quant. At last the bridge at Thorpe hove into sight, and Albert lowered the gear, looking forward to getting tied up and warm. He readied mooring lines and fender tyres.
“Yew wholly look a sight, Albert bor.”
“Oh, hello, Dan”
Dan hove alongside in his old motor workboat.
“Here, I’ll give you a pluck the last half-mile. You look like floating iceberg, yew musta had a rough ‘ole trip”.
“Yer not kidding”, Albert made a towline fast.
A matter of a few minutes and they were sliding into the berth. Albert cast off Dan’s towboat and waved goodbye. He threw a mooring rope onto the quay and jumped ashore to secure it. Running aft he yelled to Teapot to throw him a stern- line, but Teapot was nowhere to be seen. Guessing he was in the cabin getting warm, Albert leapt aboard and grabbed the sternline himself. A few minutes later all was fast. A large figure was seen running towards them through the woodyard. It was Mr Smedley, the timber yard manager.
“Albert, we’ve been trying to get hold of you all day.”
“Why, what’s the matter?”
“I’ve some very bad news for you, I’m afraid. When you set off from the timber ship this morning, one of her deck hands saw Uncle – Teapot they call him, don’t they? – anyway he slipped on the ice on the plankway and fell overboard. It was too late to call you back, you’d disappeared in the snow. By the time the ship’s crew got to him and pulled him out he’d died of the cold.”