The Mahogany Tiller

"MAN’S inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn.” So said Burns. And so say I.

Sudden and swift, unexpected values can leap out on us. not as an ordinary hazard in the fabric of our everyday life, but like a wildcat from the heather on an unwary approach to its litter.

Just such an incident was that of the Mahogany Tiller. Out of the blue, a thunderbolt, out of sea, a kraken.

In September. as usual, our happy band of sailor fishermen had assembled in the far north west of Scotland. Water in the river was sadly lacking so salmon and sea-trout were off the menu, and besides that, there was no wind for our Mirror and Albacore. Thus, driven to sea by the deadly fish-protein deficiency we call in the outboards to our assistance.

Amongst our assorted fishing gear we have a fifty fathom, fifty hook. bottom line. By professional standards a laughable instrument, hut one which we found to he deadly. at least against dogfish.

Thus with buoy ropes, stray lines and baited hooks carefully laid out in the container so that the fishing line could be shot without hitch or snarl, we set off. On arrival at the centre of the bay we prepared to shoot the line and found the first required item missing No signs of our two marker buoys. (‘lose by. when appealed to, the Albacore gave us a dusty answer. No. No buoys.

Incautiously, and insultingly, the Albacore came close alongside to see for themselves. As though we might overlook the presence of two petrol cans in a Mirror! Must have been left on the beach.

Now “Doe”, whose Albacore it was. had recently acquired a new tiller. It was lying in the stern sheets. There it was with rich mahogany glowing behind three coats of best varnish, too long and too stout in my estimation for an Albacore, but a very fine marker buoy in a flat calm. Very grudgingly Doe handed it across and sped off. probably in case I asked for more of his fittings.

The buoyrope and first stray line were attached to the sinker, a very heavy piece of steel we had found in the barn next to our cottage. Then the sinker was lowered into the depths by the buoyrope. The latter was made of codline so that lowering the weight was a matter of some difficulty due to the heaviness of the sinker and the thinness of the line. As the sinker went down the strayline was payed out. At fifteen fathoms the sinker came to rest with only a fathom or so of the buoyrope to spare and not much more on the strayline. Then we bent on the fishing line to the strayline and going ahead at a highly efficient speed, shot our fifty hooks without a hitch. On went the second stray line, on went the sinker, a touch ahead to stretch the bottom line well taut and over with the second sinker. And that was that.

We joined the Albacore in a search for mackerel but they proved quite uncooperative We towed our flies in wide sweeps across the bay but made no contact and could see no shoals breaking surface. Perhaps the seagulls had a laugh. certainly they never left the water except to get out of our way.

After a couple of hours with our productivity rating marked at zero we returned to our tiller buoy to discover what our bottom hooks had provided. A small impediment interrupted the programme at this point. Where was the tiller, where was the buoy?

Sitting right over the spot where the sinker went down we could see no trace of the marker. It had been laid at high water, so the level had dropped four or five feet and there was no appreciable tidal stream in the centre of the bay. 1he field of knots, bends and hitches had been included in our professional stamping ground. so an inadvertent “cow hitch” could not explain the missing tiller. Where had it gone’? Here indeed was a pretty kettle of no fish.

Doe is a person who appears to view errant behaviour with a benign calm and whose unruffled acceptance of the joke of inauspicious starts is that of the true stoic. Perhaps it was a planet in the shape of Mars which came into ascendency. As a retired naval Surgeon Captain he appeared to forget the inflexible injunction of Queens Regulations and Admiralty Instructions that “provocative language is forbidden” (blasphemous language is only “to be discouraged”).

The presumptive loss of his brand new tiller blew his normal code to the four winds. Here indeed was an unexpected value. “Provocative” would be a flattery of the language that foll owed, and my faltering apologies were drowned and the bones picked clean.

However, there is more to life at sea than recrimination and the next item on the agenda was to try to recover the gear. The grapnel is the traditional implement for recovering lines from the sea bed and luckily I use a grapnel as an anchor for the Mirror.

In twenty minutes we had a bight of the fishing line on the surface and in half an hour the complete gear in the boat including the offending tiller. But no fish. No mackerel, nor haddock nor flattie blessed our supper table. where Doc still appeared to view me as Public Enemy No. 1.

A week passed before we were on reasonable terms and then Doe said that the reason for his behaviour was my lack of adequate apology. Apology? Further apology after that verbal onslaught! But I know better. It was the shock of the apparent loss of his beautiful new mahogany tiller that ailed him. That tiller was the apple of his eye and he valued it more than he cared to admit - publicly or privately.

And the reason for the disappearing tiller? In retrospect, the answer seems clear enough and one we should have foreseen. The undue weight of the first sinker would have caused the cod-line to stretch almost to its limit and so, as the lay of the rope straightened out, the sinker would revolve twining the strayline around the codline all the way up from the depth below. As we have very little slack when bending on the tiller it is probable our first hook was suspended at mid depth and when we hauled the whole fishing line taut we pulled the tiller well under water and there it remained until the recovery operation.

Next time we shot the line we made no mistakes. We streamed the buoy (a decent one) away to leeward to its full scope, dropped sufficient coils of stray line clear for running into the water and then dropped our sinker over the side. Perfect. Except perhaps for the catch: one flounder, twenty three dogfish. (Rock salmon to you Sassenachs.)

Doc is now Commodore of a Club in South Wales. Some of you may recogn ise him hut if you approach him on this subject do so with care.

from  Ginger Moore, M25001, Dalgety Bay.

This article is from Reflections No. 11 Autumn 1973, pages 2 and 6 and has been captured by OCR, so typos & errors are possible.

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