They are still finding World War II mines in the English Channel. The tides come and go, each day at a different coefficient. The currents combine with the weather in an infinite number of permutations of forces working together or against each other. Most of the German mines (to defend occupied France against the Allies) were found and destroyed after the war. Now and again, a mine gets uncovered and reported to the coastal authorities who call in the Navy.
I was sailing this afternoon, and got a lesson in the usefulness of a VHF radio on board. It isn’t just for calling for help if something catastrophic happens to me. You leave Channel 16 open, and you get bulletins or calls for help from other boats. There’s not much I can do in a ten-foot dinghy with no engine, but I have helped de-masted boats or very small motor boats with broken-down engines. Within my kind of range of sailing, I see the other boats and can tell if they’re in trouble. Channel 16 is used by the seafaring community to call for help, to answer distress calls and give safety information like bad weather warnings and hazardous events in general. Using Channel 16 requires a strict protocol, and if there is any other kind of communication, the two vessels agree to go onto another channel to free up Channel 16.
Today, the VHF crackled into life and we learned that in half an hour, at an exact given position, the French Navy was going to explode a mine, and all ships should stay at least 1,500 metres away. The only thing was that I don’t have a GPS, as I never go more than about a nautical mile from the shore, so all my navigation is by eye and the occasional use of a sighting compass. I thought the event would take place far away, or there was another possibility. I saw a ship far away on the horizon which seemed to have the profile of a small Naval vessel. A minesweeper, similar to this one?
Between my dinghy and the ship on the horizon was a yacht, itself seemingly not very concerned, so I seemed to have nothing to worry about as my safety distance was many times more than what was stipulated. Another announcement on the VHF, ten minutes to explosion. Then another one – five minutes to explosion. Then the last ten seconds like the countdown for the old moon rockets in America. I looked towards the ship, and sure enough, the sea near it exploded. It looked something like this, except that I saw it from about a couple of miles away:
I heard the muffled bang a few seconds later. That was it. It seemed disappointing. I wondered if there would be a shock wave, but I never felt one, unless it was indistinguishable from the normal swell of the sea.
Seventy years later, they still find unexploded shells on the beaches, mines at sea, bombs in the cities. Just imagine what gets left behind by more recent wars in the world! As we often sing in England to that lovely tune by Parry on Remembrance Sunday:
Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
forgive our foolish ways;
reclothe us in our rightful mind,
in purer lives thy service find,
in deeper reverence, praise.
Drop thy still dews of quietness,
till all our strivings cease;
take from our souls the strain and stress,
and let our ordered lives confess
the beauty of thy peace.
Remember in your prayers the brave Naval men whose job it is to find these murderous weapons built seventy-five years ago and whose detonators are still frequently in amazingly good working condition. This is dangerous work done by divers who are experts in defusing mines, and then the thing is set off by remote control from the ship.
Had I not had my VHF, I would have seen the explosion and not understood what it was. They don’t blow up mines at sea often these days, and very rarely in the English Channel, the sea with the highest volume of maritime traffic in the world.