When Eight Bells Toll

Written by Michael Badnarik

Avast, ye Mate! Drop anchor, pour yourself some grog, and I’ll spin you a yarn. Eight Bells signals the end of a nautical watch, which could mean, four, eight, or twelve o’clock, AM or PM. In this particular story, it was meant to refer to midnight.

Most of my sailing adventures lasted three days, and ventured from Newport Beach to Catalina Island and back. This time we sailed from Newport to Long Beach and back in twenty-four hours. The girls wanted to go shopping, and I would use any excuse to be on the water. This necessitated our departure late Friday evening, and sailing all night to arrive sometime mid-morning. After wine, apple slices, and cheese, my crew crawled into their bunks leaving me at the helm. While this might appear to be the short end of the stick to some, I considered myself fortunate to be under way, sheltered by millions of stars, without somebody whining about nausea, or requiring my attention to some unwanted distraction. Nothing but the sound of the waves as background for my moment of Zen.

As I sailed north, I noticed the streetlights in Huntington Beach blinking out, one by one. I wondered if this was a strange electrical problem. Then I realized… FOG! As the fog rolled in, the stars disappeared. Then the moon disappeared. Then the red and green bow light disappeared. I couldn’t see the front of my own boat! In fact, I had to squint just to see the mast just twelve feet forward of the wheel. The only way the humidity could have been any higher would have been to be underwater.

My number one rule in life? Don’t panic! I may have reminded myself of this a few times as I considered my options. Sail too far west and you enter the shipping lanes, putting yourself at risk of a head-on collision with an oil tanker. Sail too far east and you run your boat aground in shallow water. Of the two choices, running aground is the most embarrassing, and least seaman-like. What to do, what to do? Don’t panic. Think. That’s when I remembered reading an Alistair MacLean novel called When Eight Bells Toll. At one point in the story, a fisherman takes the hero to an island in the middle of the night, promising to return “when eight bells toll”. The hero wonders how the fisherman knows when he’s at the dock in such heavy fog. The fisherman explains that he simply monitors the depth sounder, and stops the boat at the proper depth. Brilliant! Looking at my chart, the beach curves from north to west as it approaches Long Beach Harbor. So does the depth of the water. I turn on the depth sounder and I follow the sixty foot contour. When the water is deeper than sixty feet, I turn to starboard. When the water is less than sixty feet, I turn to port. When I am sailing west, I know that I am directly south of Long Beach.

Anxiety turns to quiet confidence as my crew climbs into the cockpit. Each of them spins 360 degrees, observing nothing but white… the same color as their complexion as they experience total disorientation. I dismiss their fears, casually suggesting that “sailors do this kind of thing all the time”. When it’s time to turn north to enter the harbor, we are only a few hundred yards from the breakwall. I explain that we have to proceed slowly to avoid crashing into the rocks. I have several of the crew standing at the bow, looking into the fog to warn of an impending collision. We can hear the huge waves crashing on the breakwall. It sounds like the roar of water over Niagara Falls. When we finally spot the breakwall, we are sailing right through the middle of one of the entrances to the harbor. Naturally, I insist that this was an integral part of my strategy all the time. “Of course I know what I’m doing! Did you have any doubt?”

As we maneuver slowly through the harbor, we sail within a few hundred feet of the Queen Mary, now on display as a tourist attraction. You could not see the ship, but you could hear yourself echo off its bulkhead, and almost feel its gravity as we slipped past. A short while later I bring my boat gently to the dock outside the restaurant where we plan to have lunch. My crew is unwilling to accept that this too, is part of my plan. I am obviously one very lucky, son of a son of a sailor. And as a final insult, the sun came shining through as soon as the mooring lines were made fast around the deck cleats. Perfect!

As we devour our lunch, my crew wants me to confess how I was able to navigate safely to our destination. I explain the full plot of MacLean’s novel, admitting that I learned the technique while reading a spy novel. Except – I didn’t. Recently I told this entire story to a friend of mine who found it incredible that I had gained this bit of wisdom accidentally, as it were. It had been decades since I had read the book, and I decided that it would be a joy to experience the novel again. I purchased the book and eagerly flipped through the pages, waiting to document the sequence I had regaled everyone with. It didn’t exist. Yes, the fisherman put the hero ashore late at night, and he did return at midnight, but the strategy involving the depth sounder was not there. I rationalized that, perhaps I remembered this technique from the movie version, starring Anthony Hopkins as the hero. I rented the movie and again I was disappointed. No clever nautical tricks here, either.

Dementia is where you forget things that did happen. What do you call it when you remember things that didn’t happen? I’ve never taken drugs. I seriously doubt that I was hallucinating. Somewhere, I learned how to do this. Somehow, I convinced myself that I learned it from MacLean’s novel. I would have bet money on it. And I would have lost. Much like running my boat aground in the shallows, I find this very, very disturbing. I am only able to sleep at night because I’ve convinced myself that the sequence I remember existed in original versions of the book, but was edited out in subsequent reprints. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Finish your grog.

I WASN’T CRAZY! I did a search for the original revision of the book and I found this!
Skip the water! Break out the rum!

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  1. Dee Ann Leger

    To those that say one cannot learn from a fictional novel, I say “poo to you” here is the proof that a lifesaving technique can be learned from a good ole novel!!! Hooray to Readers!!!

  2. Mary

    Your stories are always very good, Michael! A touch of intrigue tops it off!

    If it wasn’t for my propensity to getting motion sickness, sailing sounds inviting!

  3. Tim

    Sea tales always remind me of getting my land legs back after a long cruise. But this was on a Navy vessel.
    Enjoyed the story.

    • Pam

      Great story. You are quite the raconteur. Glad you found the original passage, and were vindicated.

      [mjb: Thank you! Extra points for “raconteur”. In fact, “vindicated” is also much appreciated.]

  4. Mette

    This is also a sign of our books are being sanitized of useful information. Even history books are being rewritten.

  5. Georgine

    I love your eloquently written stories! They capture me. Reminds me of when we used to borrow my dad’s Sea Ray and cruise over to Catalina for the weekend out of Long Beach. We would stop along the way and pet the many dolphins escorting us on our trip! So many fun memories. Kudos to you for your night navigation sounds incredibly peaceful and beautiful. Of course your excellent navigational skills in the fog were FABULOUS! What great memories! Thanks!


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