The Ship

I’d been enjoying the trip so far – much of the Island is gorgeously rustic and atmospheric at any time of year, and at no time moreso than in the autumn – and with one day to go, I felt that I should complete the experience by taking in some of the local lore specific to the so-called ‘back of the Wight’: the southern and southwestern coast, where the accumulated legendry of smugglers, shipwrecks and ghosts is at its densest. For this reason I had booked just a single night at the Black Rat Inn; a hostelry close to the southernmost point of this little landmass, dating from the 18th century, which is to say, the very Golden Age of smuggling.

Following dinner and a few pints, during which time I’d pumped the landlord for all the information he could give about the local history, traditions and superstitions, I decided to take a stroll down to the clifftop, overlooking the English Channel and a spot a few hundred meters out to sea where, it was said, the ribs of a wrecked Victorian schooner could still occasionally be seen at the very bottom of a spring tide.

The full moon already hung high in the clear sky that mid-October early evening and the waves had been receding all day, so I was hoping to be able to see some sign of the wreck and had even brought a small pair of sports binoculars with me for this very purpose. As I walked down from the grounds of the old inn and across a field in which a few sheep grazed, I saw that my hopes had not been in vain: clearly visible above the small waves were the stumps of three masts, and here and there the protruding part of a wooden rib that had once formed the hull of a large sailing vessel.

I was about to take the binoculars out of my coat pocket for a better look when I became aware of a presence a few metres to my left. Looking round, I saw a gentleman in late middle age, with a full greying beard and attired in a costume oddly reminiscent of a mariner of a century ago or more: heavy cable-knit jumper, oiled breeches, substantial leather boots and a trawlerman’s cap that appeared to be made of the same oil-impregnated canvas as his breeches. He looked over briefly at me, removed from his mouth an old-fashioned pipe that gave off a scent not quite like that of any tobacco I had ever smelled, and said “Ay, there she lies. The Schooner Amanda. Lost with all hands back in eighty-four”. A pause while he dragged on his pipe, then very quietly: “Eighteen eighty-four, that is”, almost as an afterthought.

I’d expected him to sound local but his accent placed him rather in Whitby or Scarborough than anywhere on the south coast. He turned back towards the sea, brows beetling as he emitted great puffs of smoke and surveyed the old wreck. After a few more seconds I politely prompted him to continue, having already got the impression he knew a fair bit about the story and enjoyed impressing tourists with his knowledge.

“It were about this time of year, as it happens – or so ’tis said. The Amanda were carrying sugar from the West Indies and ‘ad stopped in Morocco for spices and fine fabrics. At least, that were what ‘er manifest said. The real money were bein’ made on the Barbadian rum she’d picked up wi’out paying so much as a penny o’ duty, if yer please, and on the hashish she’d taken on along wi’ the fabrics. One o’ the last great sailing ships runnin’ that route, bit of an oddity even in them days with it all goin’ to steam so fast, and ‘er skipper, Jim Attrill, were one o’ the last great smugglers.”

“But why did it sink? Surely the skipper must have known the waters around here like the back of his hand?”

“Oh aye, you can bet that ‘e did. ‘E’d been runnin’ that route thirty year and more. It were pure bad luck that a Monitor of ‘Er Majesty’s Navy ‘appened to be cruisin’ around, and the skipper and crew all knew they’d been carryin’ out spot checks on merchant vessels all through the Channel especially vigilant like in’t preceding few months. The only thing for it were to get close enough to shore to put the contraband in a couple o’ dinghies with a dozen o’ the ship’s stoutest rowers, and ‘ave the stuff well out ‘o sight by the time pryin’ eyes got aboard the Amanda. But it were a cloudy night and even Attrill’s knowledge o’ these waters failed ‘im. She ran aground and the men tried to take their chances in the dinghies or even by swimmin’ for shore, rather than risk a long spell in’t clink for smugglin’. And as the ‘ull broke open and the briney rushed in, the crew cursed Captain Attrill for ‘is impious ways, sayin’ it were a judgement from the Lord. Yet each man knew in ‘is ‘eart that if a judgement it were, it were a judgement on each an’ all of ’em.”

The man had turned back to the sea once again, and was silent but for the gentle put-put-put of his pipe. I had enjoyed his tale and had found it incredibly evocative, almost as if he’d been there himself – but one thing didn’t quite ring true for me. Without wishing to sound unfriendly or cynical, I asked:

“But if the ship went down with all hands, how do you know what they said?”

The man turned back towards me slowly, removed the pipe from his mouth and gave me a queer, appraising look. I thought he was about to tell me some terrible secret about himself when at that precise moment, our joint attention was dragged back to the wreck itself, for over the whole structure had crept a hideous yellow-green glow, the same leprous tinge sometimes said to emanate from corpses. And before our very eyes, the spectral figures of mariners, dressed in much the same fashion as the man stood beside me and glowing with the same eldritch light as the wreck, could be seen clambering over the rotting timbers.

I exchanged a single look of wide-eyed horror with this old weirdo who obviously loved pretending to be a Victorian ghost, and with that we both ran screaming as fast we could towards the welcoming and wholly earthly lights of the Black Rat.

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