As a BBC News and Current Affairs correspondent Larry Harris spent time reporting from all manner of seagoing craft, from gun boats during cod wars with Iceland, to aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines on assignments with the Royal Navy, to (in retirement) luxury cruise liners; but as he explains here, his more recent maritime adventure was the best so far.
And the Cry went up: "Wool overboard!"
Since politicians wrecked this nation’s mighty ship building industry, and torpedoed a once great and proud merchant fleet, (and are currently hacking away at what is left of the Royal Navy) the sight of British seamen at work is a rarity; but spend a week or two on board the Trinity House flag ship Patricia and that is exactly what you will see, an uplifting reminder of the very best of British.
Patricia’s role in life is to patrol the coastlines and estuaries of England, Wales and the Channel Islands servicing the buoys, light ships and lighthouses that mark out safe channels through often treacherous waters, and surveying wreck sites. It is a job Trinity House has been doing since it was granted a Royal Charter by Henry VIII in 1514.
Passengers who choose to put to sea in Patricia must be as flexible as the ship itself, because Trinity House can never be exactly sure in which coastal waters she will be operating at any one time. When I booked passage I was told she would probably be operating somewhere along the West Coast, and that I might expect to embark in Swansea. Or then again it might be Liverpool!
In the event for pressing operational reasons, the ship was diverted to the East Coast and, a few days before embarkation, I was instructed to join her at Harwich.
Passengers cannot be sure where they will disembark either. After several days working in the Thames Estuary, and then moving back to Harwich to take Light Ship No 6 in tow, and moving on to deliver it to dry dock on the Humber, I finally disembarked at Blyth.
Into each week is packed a busy programme of hoisting buoys onto the foredeck, pressure hosing away the amazingly thick growths of sea life, shells and star fish that cling to them, servicing them (and their solar power panels) and then deftly returning them to the waters they guard. Crewmen in hard hats multi-skill serving both as seamen and blacksmiths, inspecting and repairing heavy chain, cutting, welding, replacing and beating damaged links with heavy sledge hammers, hard, wet, dirty work.
It was on Shivvering Sands in the Thames Estuary, while taking photographs of just such an operation, that a mischievous gust of wind deprived me of a prized possession - a smartly emblazoned China Fleet Club Cap, which I had acquired during an assignment to Hong Kong with the Royal Navy in 1986. As I sadly watched my cap float away on the tide I was convinced I would never see it again.
I reckoned without the sharp eye and the skilful hand of the Bosun, Steve Hanney. Some time later, while another buoy was being hoisted, he spotted a UFO (an Unidentified Floating Object) close to it. Using a strong arm and a marlinspike on the end of a long pole he retrieved it. The cap, wet and dripping sea slime, was soon back on my head.
Patricia operates an `open to guests’ bridge policy and can accommodate up to twelve passengers in four comfortable double cabins and two staterooms. They enjoy the use of a cosy country house style lounge/sitting room and eat together (fixed meal times) at the long table in the elegant Elder Brethren dining room. The passengers’ cook and stewards are cheerful and attentive.
An example of this was demonstrated when a distraught lady passenger, busily knitting a coat, realised she had left home without 8 mm needles. The Steward, Michael, telephoned `a contact’ in Harwich with instructions to buy replacement needles and to be waiting with them on the quayside when Patricia put in to take the light ship in tow. This was accomplished.
However, the story came close to ending in disaster: the delighted recipient of the needles was knitting happily away on the helicopter deck one evening when the wind snatched her ball of wool and carried it over the side. "Wool overboard!" she cried despairingly (or was it wittily?)
Fortunately the fickle wind that had carried off the wool changed direction and blew it back on board, one deck down, so that another passenger was able to retrieve it.
As with any holiday, success may depend on the attitudes and manners of the other guests with whom it is shared. I enjoyed the company of a group of like minded people who were able to appreciate the importance (and the rigours) of the work they were privileged to observe, and who shared similar interests and humour.
Watching other men toil may be a curious way of spending a holiday. But then these are not ordinary men. These are British seamen. And there are in this new millennium all too few British seamen to be found practising hard earned seamanship skills perfected over centuries.
This story appeared in the
June 2009 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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