Slow Progress - Greenwich to Southampton
As far as Plymouth we are in two boats: Ian's Ardent in which, together, we will sail most of the journey, and my Ahimsa - a Nantucket Clipper. Smaller and a therefore a little slower than Ardent, and with a tendency to bury her nose in steep seas, Ahimsa's failings are redeemed by seaworthiness, graceful lines and a wonderfully flexible yawl rig.
A dozens years ago, after returning to this country from a long period abroad, I drove around the south bank of the Thames from Bermondsey eastward in search of a boat club or modest marina where I could rent a mooring. In those days, Greenwich Yacht Club stood at the end of Riverway - a road on whose left stretched an expanse of toxic wasteland - now occupied by the Millennium Dome and on the right by an abandoned factory with shattered windows and piles of trash in the doorway. The road itself ended at the river, with the club on the right hand side behind a high wire fence. I parked the car, walked to the riverbank and leaned over the balustrade. A metal gate led, via a narrow slipway, down to the riverbed. The tide had ebbed so that the water - which clearly reached right up to the bank at high tide - looked distant and unconnected with the land through which it flowed. On my right, about twenty small boats squatted on the riverbed, their hulls variously discoloured by accumulations of grime, weed and bird droppings. They wore an air of autumnal sadness, as if summer had gone forever from their lives and what they now faced was long, a slow winter of decline and neglect.
Mud hardly qualifies as an adequate decription of the substance in which these boat rested. Its deep khaki colour, and the oozy texture of its surface reminded me - irreverently - of excrement. Flotsam - planks of wood, cans, Tetrapak cartons, odd lengths of rope, a couple of brooms, and jumbles of miscellaneous trash littered the shoreline; and just beyond the end of the slipway was a half-buried supermarket trolley sticking up at an odd angle as if it were the last remnant of an architectural experiment come to grief.
I had been reading Our Mutual Friend, Dickens' great novel of the Thames, which begins with a macabre description of Gaffer Hexam on a fishing expedition for dead bodies - which he recovers for the sole purpose of removing their cash and valuables. Dickens describes Hexam as a waterman - as were the founders of Greenwich Yacht Club - and his boat as "dirty and disreputable" - not so far from the forlorn aspect of the some of the vessels on the moorings; though I'd better add that, so far as I know, neither the club's founders, nor any of its members ever followed Hexam in the trade.
I turned my attention to the Club. It announced itself via a large notice mounted on on a board which read " Greenwich Yacht Club - 1908", but the board had fallen over and come to rest sideways against the fence. The gate was locked, but I spotted someone in the yard and called him over to ask whether the Club was till in existence.
- Oh yes.
He told me he had been a member for many years, although he rarely came to the club because he had retired and moved to the Kent coast.
I asked him what sailing out of Greenwich was like.
- Never less than fascinating, he replied, Every trip downriver is an experience. It's like reading a new book.
But it's an old book that I remember when sailing the Thames - Joseph Conrad's "Mirror of Sea". Published in 1905. It is a book of reminicences and reflections of a sailor turned novelist, and its 31st chapter - headed The Faithful River - describes the land and seacapes and the sensations of arriving and leaving the Thames: from the industry and bustle of the city through the "new" Tilbury docks, the tugs at Gravesend, the oil storage tanks on Canvey Island "low and round with slightly domed roofs....as if it were a village of Central African huts imitated in iron", the Nore sands, the Essex marshes, the "faint booming of the big guns being tested at Shoeburyness" and, unfailingly beautiful and romantic to any lover of ships and the sea, "... the famous Thames barges sitting in brown clusters upon the water with an effect of birds floating upon a pond."
Though London is no longer the industrial powerhouse of 1905, surprisingly little else has changed; and the river Conrad described is recognizably the one down which we sailed out on June 1st 2008
Our first night,we spent anchored at Harty Ferry - so named after the ferry that once carried passengers and goods across the Swale between the mainland and the Isle of Harty which forms the south-east corner of the Isle of Sheppey. On days when breezes are gentle and the skies clear, Harty Ferry is a place of magical tranquillity, where the sounds are of birdsong and the gentle lapping of tidal streams against the hull. Overlooking the anchorage is the Ferry House Inn - set back from the water's edge and accessible by sailors at anchor via a long, treacherous slipway full of potholes and a slithery combination of slime, , moss, and weed. The other is the tiny church of St Thomas the Apostle built in 1089 where, in addition to admiring this quaint and lovely structure, and the sublime panorama of the Swale from the churchyard, you can buy homemade pots of jam and chutney from a selection on display in the atrium and thereby contribute to its upkeep.
Like the ocean, Harty Ferry has a vicious side to its character. A fierce easterly against an adverse tide has been known to uproot anchors and drag boats into the muddy shallows; and more than once it has kept me awake all night listening to the anchor chain dragging back and forth over the ground while the vessel slewed around like an wild horse in tether, and the wind shrieked in the rigging.
We reached Dover on the following day, motoring all the way against contrary winds. In the old days of sailing, we would simply have waited for the wind direction to alter in our favour; but we are modern creatures with timetables to meet and felt a need to press on (though as it happens we have so far done rather more waiting than pressing for reasons that will become clear.)
Dover is generally more impressive by reputation than in the flesh. Vera Lynn's heartrending delivery made the white cliffs famous and turned them into a symbol of home and of England. The cliffs haven't moved, but the town seems to have been developed without much evidence of civic pride. A tiny square with a pretty fountain in the middle is horribly disfigured by a couple of grim four or five-storey buildings that might have been designed by member of the Soviet politbureau. The usual collection of drab chain stores and fast food joints line the high street, but empty stores abound - with the inevitable tawdry posters plastered over their windows. A local machinist of whom we requested - unsuccessfully - a minor repair, described Dover as "the asshole of the world"; over the top, perhaps, but no doubt expressive of his disappointment at finding himself living there.
What keeps Dover humming, is not the town, of course, but the harbour. It is a place of transit, of arrival and departure, with long queues of lorries and cars waiting to board the next ferry to the continent, and similar queues streaming out of the harbour and making for the motorway. Does anyone willingly stay in Dover?
Surprisingly, for the yachtsman or woman there is pleasure to be had in this awkward little place. To call up the harbour authority for permission to enter and be received as the equal of one of the towering passenger ferries - and to be given no less priority - I found strangely moving. And the efficiency with which the harbour traffic is managed exactly parallels this egalitarian attitude: the officials are doubtless too busy to bother with distinctions of rank, but they are unfailingly courteous and welcoming to sailors no matter how small and insignificant their craft.
The Royal Cinq Ports Yacht Club at Dover is situated in a line of elegant but slightly down-at-heel regency buildings on the sea front. A solitary member of advanced years sat on a stool at the far end of the counter nursing a small beer. Behind the bar stood a luxuriant brown beard and moustache, carefully tended but in the way one imagines Capability Brown tended a landscape - so as to make it seem more naturally vigorous than nature could have managed alone. Its owner, broad featured, stout and self-possessed, appeared to haved stepped directly out of a packet of Players Navy Cut. One could picture him in officer's livery - a dark blue jacket with a gold stripe or two on the sleeves - pacing the deck of a frigate in the age of steam. He fitted perfectly with the old-world, maritime atmosphere of the premises, the polished wood and leather chairs, and the plaque in the hallway announcing that the club was founded in 1872 with the Duke of Connaught as first commodore.
Despite it's long history, he told us, the club had fallen on hard times. They were down to three hundred members, the landlord had increased the rent by an unconscionable amount a few years previously, and the restaurant had closed for lack of custom.
Presently, another member appeared - which seemed greatly to cheer the solitary figure in the corner - and by the time we were ready to leave, a third. All were unreservedly friendly and curious about our voyage - though I thought their questions gently laced with wistfulness as if they felt their own sailing days were over and what remained to them of adventure now came from listening to the tales of others, from the view of the open sea through the windows and the sight of boats disappearing over the horizon.
Between Dover and Eastbourne the distance on the chart looks no more than a stone's throw - but it took us all of 12 hours of struggle. The wind, gusting five round the point of Dungeness whipped up short steep waves, so close to each other that cresting one meant falling into a trough before the next which would crash over the bowsprit sending a fierce shower of salt pray älong the decks and into the cockpit. A nosedive into one of the largest bent Ahimsa's stainless steel anchor cradle as if it were putty.
Just as we finally rounded Dungeness, Ahimsa's engine warning light came on to the accompaniment of a high-pitched whistle. A false alarm as it turned out, but we didn't know it at the time and were grateful for Ardent's towing line into port.
Arriving, finally at Sovereign Harbour at something past midnight, we were greeted by a surly harbourmaster who allotted Ahimsa a berth with the words " don't make a bloody mess of it" and then muttered under his breath loud enough for me to hear: "effing yachties".
Ian, on Ardent. received a more thorough wigging. Apparently, he had entered the lock several seconds too early (despite having followed instructions to the letter), a transgression that earned him a five-minute lecture on the need to observe light signals, and on the various real and imaginary dangers of jumping the gun. Rocking on his heels like an irate schoolmaster and fixing Ian with an expression of deep irritation, he then repeated the lecture in case his listener hadn't understood. We reflected on the irony of being greeted like a travelling pestilence in a marina devoted to serving sailors like ourselves, and the contrast with Dover's professional courtesies.
In partial mitigation, the marina's daytime staff offered smiles and weather reports while gaily adding up our charges and running our credit cards through their pin-code machine.
Sovereign Harbour is a modern development of finger pontoons, surrounded by modern, low-rise appartment buildings and, skirting the water's edge, a wide footpath. On one corner, a couple of restaurants and a bar offer conventional fare of unobjectional - but decidely unmemorable quality. Behind the complex, a cinema, a supermarket, a line of high-street chain stores and a large car park. The architecture is modern, the shops are modern and mildly overpriced. the cinema offers modern Hollywood pap: the nth episode of Indiana Jones, The Incredible Hulk, the Chronicles of Narnia; and, interestingly, three films of pap from Bollywood - Hollywood's Mumbai equivalent.
For boatowners and enthusiasts, there is also a chandlery - but it is comically badly stocked and probably carries fewer useful supplies than can be found by rummaging through Ardent's bulging lockers, cubby-holes and crannies.
Nothing in Sovereign Harbour - our reception aside - qualifies as disagreeable, but nor is there much to admire. It bears the planners stamp: everything clean, ordered, organized - and characterless. For the two nights we stayed there, I felt as if we were lodged in someone else's mindset, a place impervious to individual humanity, where one might live for years without leaving a mark on the landscape or evidence that one had ever passed through its precincts.
Newhaven could scarcely offer a greater contrast. My recollection of this unassuming little harbour goes back to the 1960s, when it was my nearest port of embarkation for France. In those days, the cross-Channel ferry to Dieppe was the "Villandry"' - aging, stained with rust and with a horn that sounded like a whale belching. Lacking modern stabilisers, it had a tendency to roll in anything other than smooth seas; and its facilities were rudimentary by contemporary standards. But step aboard the Villandry and you were already in la Belle France: fresh baguettes and aromatic coffee available at the bar, and in the air about the restaurant, an unmistakeably gallic conmingling of onion garlic and herbs.
Now the Villandry has gone, replaced by massive yellow passenger vessels - also French - that come and go regularly, though with none of the queues and bustle of Dover. We heard locally that the ferry service is subsidised by the French government and that many crossings take place with hardly any passengers.Newhaven marina is tacked onto one side of the harbour with a tiny visitors' pontoon positioned just outside the Ferries' turning circle. It resembles the town: small, simple,and a little ramshackled. Inevitably there are a few plastic palaces moored there; but small boats outnumber them, little power boats with eccentric cabins, sailing dinghies and twenty-foot clinker-built cruisers - one of which had a fine potted geranium in the bows.
A curiosity of Newhaven marina is the sound of birdsong - which comes in loud, periodic bursts - and with a strange regularity as if it were a guiding signal, the sonic equivalent of an occulting light. Ian spotted the source: a series of loudspeakers on poles positioned throughout the marina. Their purpose: to discourage seagulls and other fowl from defecating on the boats. Comical but effective.
The ablutive arrangements reminded me of the breeze-block bathrooms of 1960s caravan parks, except that Newhaven's are, if anything, more obviously neglected. Of the two shower-rooms, the larger contains a plastic garden chair on which to place accoutrements, but the tiles are cracked and etched with grime, and the walls outside the cubicle - originally painted institutional green - are crumbling into powder. The second shower-room - better preserved - is in reality a cubicle without a room, and about the size of a modest wardrobe. From the marina - an agglomeration of floating pontoons - to these rudimentary facilities, a path leads along a rickety walkway, through a code-protected gate, across a patch of waste land, and along the outside of a wire fence. Grass and weeds grow in profusion and the whole area conveys an impression of benign abandon, of temporary structures and temporary solutions that, left to themselves, have acquired an unintended permananence.
In consequence, Newhaven, with its close juxtaposition of yachts and commercial vessels (in addition to the ferries, a small fishing fleet operates out of the harbour), its quaint, old-fashioned shabbiness, its air of being a working port, endow it with an attractive purposefulness wholly lacking in most marinas.
On the day after our arrival Ian found - as he has at every stop - that urgent repairs or modifications were needed on Ardent. Occasionally, a second pair of hands comes in useful and in such cases I stay with him. In Newhaven, however, he buried himself in the engine compartment, liberally coated his hands, face and clothes with a repellent-looking grease, and refused my repeated offers of help (no doubt wisely). I took a walk into town.
Opposite the marina is large cricket field. It was Saturday, and a game was in progress. I watched a fast bowler pound in from a long run, leap as he reached the crease, and hurl the ball at the opposing batsman. With a crack, the latter sent the ball back over the bowler's head to the boundary. The sun shone, reflecting brightly from the velvet green of the park, glinting red on the rooftops of the hillside houses on the inland side of the town. Above where I stood, one path led steeply upwards to Newhaven's old fort, and another westward through the woods of the Castle Hill Conservation Reserve. In the opposite direction, eastward, stretched a sandy beach along which I could just make out a couple walking towards the town. A gentle breeze blew in from the sea, cool and refreshing. Here, unexpectedly, I seemed to have stumbled on a patch of old England, slightly down-at-heel, even a bit unkempt, but all the more contented and true to itself. During the many years I spent living in other countries, sights such these - seen in an English film or a photograph in a magazine, would bring tears to my eyes. They were the images of home.
Later, Ian having finally emerged from the oily bowels of his boat, we strolled along the riverfront and bought fresh crab from a fishmonger on the wharf.
A frantic race to reach the lock before the falling tide rendered the lock gates inoperable. The small boat lock had broken down, so we were instructed to use the one for commercial vessels. Old, weed-covered, and with sinister overhangs capable of snapping the stanchions of small boats, the walls of the commercial lock are forbidding and nasty.
Once inside, we were confronted with two tiny, cramped marinas, choked with vessels squeezed together fender to fender. In the half-light, Ian spotted a vacancy invisible to me, and we were quickly berthed and rafted up. At once, a young man rushed up excitedly and announced that he too owned an Endurance 35 just like Ardent. He couldn't wait to show it to us. Would we come at once?
Of course we would.
Her name was Fleur du Vent (Flower of the Wind). He was living aboard - the only accommodation he could afford that he could call his own. She was, he warned, a bit unfinished, there were things to fix... but she was beautiful. Awaiting us as we reached the vessel was a white boxer with sad eyes who greeted us without malice, but without enthusiasm either, as if the expression of feeling was altogether too troublesome and unprofitable. Fleur du Vent proved every bit as unfinished as the young man had suggested; but he was inordinately happy with her and we gave him what encouragement we could.
He promised to remain in touch and offered to make a contribution to one of the charities we are sponsoring on the voyage. And a few days later, we learned that he had kept his promise.
We dined at an unprepossing redbrick pub opposite the marinas where, despite the late hour, our new friend had assured us food would be available. Inside, the pub was almost empty. A girl behind the bar, dressed as a nineteen twenties doll in black polka dot dress, black wig and thick red lipstick served us draft beer while chatting animately over the counter to a friend. At the near end of the room an area had been set aside as a restaurant. One man sat at a table, sipping beer and working on a Sudoku problem in his newspaper. He seemed immersed in solitude and paid no attention to us. Two oriental women emerged from what we took to be the kitchen. They were wearing coats and were apparently on their way home; but as soon as we asked them if the restaurant was open, they showed us a menu and took our orders. I anticipated a mediocre meal, hurriedly prepared. Instead we were treated to a remarkable Thai dinner, served with grace and dignity. They sent us away smiling and pensive, wondering how it was that these two female immigrants - doubtless mother and daughter - who barely spoke English, came to be running a restaurant in a pub that looked from the outside unlikely to be offering in the way of food anything more enticing than hamburgers and chips. What struggles had brought them there? What hopes had they invested in this venture? What were their chances of success?
The pub is called The Pilot. It''s over the road from the marinas. The cooking is wonderful.
Southampton Way - Shamrock Marina and Saxon Wharf.
We are holed up on the Itchen River. Ardent is ashore at Saxon Wharf, her shaft and fittings all removed. Ahimsa sits quietly next door in Shamrock Marina.
Responding to worrying grumbles and shakings in the stern, Ian had Ardent hauled out to find what he half expected - serious problems with the shaft and stern tube. The causes require analysis, but we are in good hands. Shamrock and Saxon Wharf together constitute a major centre of expertise. On site is a small firm specializing in shaft and propeller assemblies - a partnership between a technician/engineer, and a marketer. Both are characters, the first a gentle, quiet-spoken lancastrian with a wry sense of humour, the other a chain-smoking, garrulous packet of nervous energy. As soon as Ian had described Ardent's problem, the latter launched into a stream-of-consciousness monologue during which he alternately paced up and down, broke off to answer the telephone, puffed at his cigarette, and seized various bronze fittings, clapping them together to demonstrate something on which, before he had completed the accompanying explanation, he had changed his mind. In the middle of this engaging and - if one listened attentively - highly instructive lecture, he was delivered of a "new" second-hand Saab
...only three years old and twenty thousand miles on the clock. What do we think?
- Not half bad.
Could we look her over with him to check out the marks and scratches?
- The dealer has to deal with the dinks. They promised.
We scrutinize the car and he notes our observations.
- Two hundred and ten brake horspower. Two hundred and ten. I'll have to take the family out this weekend. Look guys. Don't worry. I'll have the shaft and the prop checked to make sure they're true. Then we'll come up with a solution for the bearing. Maybe half a cutlass bearing. Leave it to me. We'll talk on Monday. There's a solution to everything. That's what we do.