The Chapman Lighthouse and the night I nearly died
Memories of Stan Pierce, Brisbane, Australia
I was looking in Geoff Barsby’s book on Canvey Island and kept staring at a photo of the Chapman Lighthouse. It shows people paddling out to look at it on the low tide. There is a spot about 50 yards to the left of it that was nearly the death of me.
My bedroom overlooked the lighthouse down at Marine Parade so I was more than familiar with it and the mournful sound of its bell when the fog rolled up the river. I used to look at it every day in the 40’s. And it brings back a haunting memory of a bitterly cold day in 1947. I was 13 then and was allowed to go out on the mud on my own to set a deadline for fish. It doesn’t sound dangerous until you see how the incoming tide can cut round you and cut you off from the shore. Some school-friends of mine died out there through being caught on the other side of the ray. The one ‘no-no’ was to go out there if fog were around. I was threatened with a heavy hand if I did. “Yes dad!”…you know how it is when you are thirteen.
This freezing cold day I was up on the wall in my wellies (rubber boots) with my tin of bait and sack and waiting for the tide to drop. A council worker was there mending holes in the wall, and we had a chat as I waited. He thought the fog was coming up and advised me not to go out there. With all the confidence and certitude of ignorance I said I’d be ok and walked out over the mud, through the ray, and on to the line. I had seventeen plaice (flounder) and a 10 lb. cod. The cod was half my height. I was rich. It took me twenty minutes to unhook them from the line with freezing fingers and get the plaice in the bag. I kept the cod out to give me balance on the other arm. I wasn’t going to bait-up again, I was too excited. Then I stood up and turned to go.
Nothing. I couldn’t see a thing. The fog had come round me. Dad will kill me. The lighthouse was gonging away, but it should have been to the right of me. The trouble was I was so close to the lighthouse that I felt I was ‘inside’ the sound…I couldn’t get a direction from it. So I guessed…went about fifty paces, and I paddled into water. I gingerly edged forward and pushed one foot out to touch bottom, and the water came over my wellies. This didn’t seem right. The tide was still going out, and I should have water only half way up if I were in the ray. It was one of those moments in life where you die, or you live. I had the presence of mind to back out and retrace my steps to the fishing line. I’d made such a mess around it though and couldn’t find the approach I’d made to it. So I guessed again. About one hundred paces. I reached water, paddled slowly in. The bag was soaked and was a dead weight now, but I wouldn’t let go. I was going to show this catch off to the whole world. But, the water came over my wellies again. My feet were squelching and sucking away in there. I was feeling a bit tired. Some primitive survival instinct welled up in me.
“Help! Help!” The council man heard me, and I could hear him squelching out over the mud and shouting “Over here! Over here “, but I couldn’t be sure which way he was calling from. Whether it was an act of faith or stupidity on my part, I don’t know, but I kept wading through the water not caring about the freezing water coming up my legs. Then the water got shallower, and I met the council man as he got to the water’s edge. The other way was a cold miserable lonely death if I’d tried to walk through the shipping lane to Kent.
“You silly little bugger. I told you didn’t I?” He took my bag and led me back to the wall. “Don’t tell my dad will you.” I emptied my boots. I was more frightened of a belting than realizing I’d nearly died. “Show me what you caught.” He asked. I emptied the bag out on top of the wall. He picked out three nice thick plaice. “Can I have these?” He said. “Yeah… shilling each” I said. He looked at me a little bit sideways and felt in his pocket. “I’ve got half-a-crown.” “That will do” I said and put it in my pocket. That was fifty-three years ago, and I cringe with shame when I think of it. I was so thoughtless. If that council man is still alive I’d just like to say “Thank you ” for coming out to get me and for not telling my dad, and ask that he forgives me.
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Great story. I can’t help feeling how similar it is to Peanuts’ story, except that he was out there with his father. Even the actual rescue has similarities. Today you could happily stay out there, your dad would not be allowed to touch you. Great writing, too. Just how many Canvey people are there in Australia?
Robert – When I read this I thought I had read it somewhere before but yes it must have been Peanuts story.
Must also agree with your comments on the writing – you feel as though you are there. Special thanks to Jan for taking the time to publish these wonderful illustrated stories.
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