Crossing the Bar

Jul 10, 2010, 7:23 AM |

Just a few days back I went to Brixham to collect a small yacht, a Westerley GK24, a 5 berth quarter-tonner with a good race pedigree, intending to sail her home in one day. As it turned out, the weather deteriorated from beautiful into a near gale force head-wind and heavy seas. Having not made good time, a decision had to be taken on whether we sailed on into the night or put in to the river estuary harbour of Salcombe for a night out on the town & spending the night on board. And this is what we did.

Salcombe is a very pretty river-side village about halfway between Brixham and Plymouth, the estuary lying in the lea of a 5 mile stretch of  inhospitably steep & craggy cliffs between Bolt Head & Bolt Tail. There are places at sea which, even on the sunniest of days, appear grey and eerie due to their history and the ever present dangers that is synonymous with their history and the number of souls lost to them  – the Salcombe estuary, with it’s infamous bar, and these cliffs are no exception! One vessel alone (among many), went down under these cliffs, & of a crew of 760, all but TWENTY SIX drowned!!!

Which brings me to the reason for posting!

In the latter half of the 19th century, the village of Salcombe was one of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s favourite haunts. He often visited Salcombe, occasionally staying at a house on the hillside which overlooked the estuary and the bar called Overbecks, and if not there he could sometimes be found at anchor on his friend’s yacht. The sand bar which extends across 80% of the river mouth is a mix of sand and rocks, leaving just a small navigable channel. On an outgoing tide it can become very shallow and on the ebb flow with wind over tide the seas become confused and present a very serious danger. In a Sou’westerley gale, any attempt to cross the bar & seek refuge here is an act of shear lunacy! No self-respecting sailor would attempt it, preferring instead, with wisdom, to ride the storm out at sea.

The dangers were well known, even in the days of Tennyson and it was this bar which led him to write, the poem ~ Crossing the Bar.

He actually wrote it on a short passage across the Solent to the Isle of Wight just 3 years before his death and it is widely regarded as his finest work. He was coming to the end of his own life and used his experience of the bar and crossing the bar to metaphorically represent his own final crossing from Life to Death.

The poem’s meter is a rather complicated iambic mix (seeking to emulate the rolling seas) of trimeter and pentameter over four stanzas so I figure the best lay appreciation will begot if I ask the old man himself to recite it below. He has obliged!!! Smile

Crossing the Bar

SUNSET and evening star,
    And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
    When I put out to sea,


But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
    Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
    Turns again home.


Twilight and evening bell,
    And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness or farewell,
    When I embark;


For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
    The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
    When I have crost the bar.


Alfred Lord Tennyson




Shortly before his death in 1892 Tennyson told his son Hallam to “put ‘Crossing the Bar’at the end of all editions of my poems”.


There have been many lives lost and vessels foundered on Salcombe Bar, the best known & most tragic being that of the loss of the Salcombe lifeboat the William & Emma on October 27th 1916.


She had been called out about six o'clock in the morning to render assistance to the schooner Western Lass, which was reported to be wrecked on Meg Rock, near Prawle Point.


In spite of the furious gale that was raging and the tempestuous breakers on Salcombe Bar, the gallant crew of fifteen succeeded in getting out to sea, and in reaching the vessel that was in distress; then, finding that the schooner's crew had been rescued by the rocket apparatus of Prawle, and that no further help was needed, they started on their return voyage, but in crossing the bar their little craft capsized, and all but two of their number were drowned.

Thankfully, although the seas were heavy when we crossed ~ and not without it's customery trial and tribulation ~ it was not so bad that we couldn't continue and make safe anchorage Smile