Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant: Epilogue

I know, I know - more boats. I'll have to change the name of this blog to Victoria's Boatyard.
However, it seems to me that the coverage of the river pageant - particularly by the BBC - didn't really do justice to the event. From what I can see, or hear from friends, it was as if they'd decided it was going to be a boring procession of boats and they needed to spice this up, for those of a limited attention span, with footage of spurious stunts by random celebrities.
I'm not a particularly boat-y person, but I found the boats - especially the Historic Ships - fascinating. So I thought I'd do a final post, and try to give you some idea of why I think the BBC missed an opportunity.
I took these pictures on Monday, when I went back to West India Dock to see my mum on her boat. It was a great opportunity to wander round and have a closer look at some of the vessels and hear their stories.

Here's the Jolly Brit, one of six open launches used on the Royal Yacht Britannia. It was used as a jolly boat (the boat that takes people from ship to shore) for the Royal family’s trip ashore for picnics or walks while cruising round the Highlands and Islands. I don't know if anyone knows for sure why they are called jolly boats - one suggestion is that it comes from the old Dutch word jolle, meaning a small boat.

The Walton on the Naze lifeboat, said to be the world’s oldest surviving motor lifeboat. Stationed at Walton on the Naze, on the north coast of Essex, she was launched 126 times and saved 27 lives between 1900-1928. Sold out of service in 1928, she served variously as a harbour launch at Maldon, as a fireboat on the Thames during the Second World War, and finally became a houseboat. In 1998, she was bought and restored.

This is a 1960s power boat, lovingly restored both inside and out. I have to confess, I can't remember which one this is. I think it might be Broad Ambition, which is drop-dead gorgeous and looks like the sort of thing James Bond might have owned.

The Gainsborough Trader, one of the Dunkirk Little Ships. She was built in 1931, and after the Dunkirk evacuations, she was used as a lighter, the name given to a flat-bottom barge that unloads or loads cargo, until 1986. She's now privately owned.

The St George has had a longer working life than the Queen. Built in 1935, she was used as a Poole Harbour trip boat until 1939, when she was taken over by the Admiralty during the Second World War. After the war, she was re-named St George and moved to the Thames, where she ran river trips from Tower Bridge until the late 1960s. She was then used for public fishing trips in the lower Thames Estuary until she was bought by the current owner in 1977 and converted to a pleasure boat.

Janthea, another heroine of Dunkirk (see her plaque below). A motor yacht, she was built in 1938 and cost £1,885.15 shillings. Her original owner named her Reda, but he never had a chance to sail in her. In 1940, she was used in the evacuation of Dunkirk, and then served as an auxiliary patrol vessel during the war. Her name was changed to Columbine, and she served with the Harwich Patrol until June 1947. She was renamed Janthea in 1952, and her current owners have looked after her since 1984.

Sundowner has an extraordinary history. She was built in 1912 by the Admiralty, who sold her in the 1920s. In 1930 she was converted into a private motor yacht by her new owner, Commander Charles Herbert Lightoller - the senior surviving officer of the Titanic. It was Lightoller's wife Sylvia who named her Sundowner - an Australian term for wanderer.
During the 1930s, she was used for family trips both at home and abroad, even covering the 3,000 miles of a Baltic cruise without any mechanical difficulties. In 1939, as war threatened, Lightoller was asked by the Admiralty to conduct a secret survey of the German coast. He agreed and for two weeks, with his wife Sylvia acting as cover, he took Sundowner on a reconnaissance mission.
A year later, on 1 June 1940, with his son Roger and an 18-year-old sea-scout called Gerald Ashcroft, Lightoller - now aged 66 - set out from Ramsgate to assist in the evacuation of Dunkirk.
On the way they encountered the motor cruiser Westerley on fire. Having picked up her two crew and three naval ratings on board, they carried on towards the Dunkirk beaches where the British troops were stranded on the beach under enemy bombardment. They managed to pack 130 people on board (including the Westerley's and their own crew). Boots and equipment were thrown overboard to make room, and Sundowner headed back to Ramsgate where she arrived 12 hours after departing that morning.

Here's MTB 102 (above and below), a torpedo boat that served during the Second World War. Completed in 1937, she was stationed in the English Channel from 1939 to 1940, and during Operation Dynamo - the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 - she crossed the Channel eight times. She's what you might call a small boat with a big kick - with a top speed of 48 knots, she was fast and agile. She also served as the flagship for Admiral Sir Frederick Wake-Walker when his ship was disabled during Operation Dynamo - thus making her the smallest flagship ever (68ft) in the Royal Navy. In 1944 she carried Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower to review the fleet for Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy.

One of the RAF rescue boats taking part in the pageant, this is 441, built in 1941. She still carries shell and machine gun holes in her transom (one of the beams that runs across the boat at the stern). Below is HSL 102, built in 1936. These motor launches were used by the RAF to rescue airmen who had ditched in the sea. They operated from around the coast of Britain and saved more than 13,000 lives during the war.

This boat doesn't have a distinguished war record, but according to her crew, she has the best-maintained engine in the dock! She's the Wheldale, restored and owned by Yorkshire Waterways museum. She was originally a tug, used to pull what were called Tom Puddings (interlocking barges) full of coal from the Yorkshire coal mines - a bit like a steam locomotive pulling trucks. She'll be moored at West India Dock for the rest of the week, until the weather improves for the trip back up the North Sea coast.

The Pelican of London, a tall ship used for training and sailing holidays (adults as well as children, if you're interested). In the picture below you can see her figurehead, a pelican with a little red fish hanging from its beak

This is Tenacious, another training ship, mooring at West India Dock. There is something about these tall ships that is magical - everyone on the dock stopped to gaze at her.

The tall ships are so glamorous, and the historic ships have such wonderful stories to tell, that they completely outshine the humble narrowboats, quaint and colourful though they might be. But the narrowboats have a part to play in our history too. For decades, they conveyed goods up and down the country via the network of canals. They were homes as well as hauliers, hence the painted decoration.
And 30 years ago, when London's canal network was falling into disrepair thanks to lack of use and lack of investment, the St Pancras Cruising Club made a point of navigating the waterways, running campaign rallies to draw attention to this underused inner-city resource.
If you're jogging or cycling, or just walking the dog anywhere on a canal path from Hackney to Hillingdon, spare a thought for the people who gave up their time to prevent these waterways - havens for wildlife as well as walkers - becoming little more than glorified rubbish dumps.