V ST. KATHARINE'S TO QUEENBOROUGH
And it did. Light drizzle to start with, every time I tried to go on deck to eat my croissant for breakfast or turn the pages of the newspaper. The morning passed making ready for the afternoon's stint to come and reflecting upon the decision whether to go or not; a time of preparation and then of waiting; knowing the wind was south-westerly and getting up, and that the glass was falling rather faster than I liked; and of wondering if the outboard motor would get me out of the lock again. I went for a walk when all was done that could be done, not towards the City - still a hundred years away - but eastwards down the old cobbles of Wapping High Street to the entrance to London Docks, plane trees either side of an old lock with cannon for bollards and quiet Georgian houses overlooking it, so much closer in time and scale to the river than the gleaming glass towers behind me.
The lock gates would open at two o'clock for the first time (they are operated for an hour and a half either side of high water) and I had booked in for them then so that I would have as many hours of daylight as I could to get downstream again. I decided that even if it did blow stronger than it might the force of the wind would be filtered by the land and the buildings of the river, so that I had a safe enough prospect of getting down it to a secure mooring where I could tie for longer should the need arise, provided I took enough reefs to keep the main under control.
The shipping forecast came as I was already under way to the lock. A low that morning lay to the west of Bailey, expected to move east to north Fisher by 0700 the next day. A blanket gale warning was given for all sea areas except Bailey, Fair Isle and Faeroes, though the forecast for Thames to Plymouth was south-west becoming west, 6, occasionally 8, rain then showers, moderate to good, becoming poor for a time. I made the decision not to turn back and proceeded to join the other yachts in the lock. I was the only Englishman among a company composed of a forty-foot Danish "Grand Banks" motor yacht, two Swedes and a German of about thirty feet each, a Fisher 25 flying a Canadian ensign and a second Dane, an old thirty square metre, about thirty-five feet long but with a freeboard slightly lower than Merlin's and a lot of washing and bedding on her cabin roof. The skipper of this second Dane was nursing an outboard motor on her stern (admittedly more modern than Merlin's) but spent the length of our stay in the lock pumping out his bilges at the same time. I felt easier about my decision then, as I faced the future with my well-reefed main.
Travelling single-handed one has less time than would otherwise be the case to change fenders and warps from port to starboard when under way, and since the south-westerly wind was blowing almost directly into the lock from the river I decided to leave them as they had been at my berth, on the port side, only re-arranging them so that I could manage both stern and bow warps together over the bollards from the after deck as I cut the engine to coast into the lock. The operation was performed successfully and the large Danish motor-vessel moved behind me, her crew of husband and wife expertly bringing her alongside before gazing down at me from the height of her bow. We passed the time of day and I warned them that although my outboard had started three times successfully in a row one never could tell with a 1 horse-power Seagull that was celebrating its silver jubilee that year... They said they would rescue me if I needed it, and the lock-gates began to open. The Swedes and the little Canadian filed out first followed slowly by the long low Dane, and finally it was my turn. I had to let go of the bow warp before starting the engine because of the end of a bridge sticking out ahead of me which I needed to clear, and there was no room to steer Merlin around it once she had any headway. I took the; plunge, let go forward, pulled the starting-line, the engine fired, fired again, then spluttered, and finally died. There was a deathly hush all round us as I pulled at the starter once again. By the second pull though the bow was swinging out further, and when that failed, and the third failed, Merlin was at right-angles across the lock and it was too late to convert my stern-warp into a bow one to pull her back again. The Dane, of course, had already let go himself, perhaps a little too soon, and was hovering under power in the middle of the lock, so it wasn't long before I was broadside on across his bow with Mrs Dane waving a short boat hook down to try and help me round it. The crowd, of course, was fascinated but the two dolly birds who operated the lock were at a total loss what to do next.
A similar situation many years earlier in an enormous lock near Willemstad in Holland flashed across my mind - a flotilla of Dutch barges all getting under way at once and my father's yacht Beachcomber across them with my sisters and I on deck waving mops to little avail - but the present returned very soon, with the immediate problem to solve of the rubber dinghy being one side of the Dane's bow and Merlin the other, the painter securing the two round it on Mrs Dane's boat-hook.
By then I was alongside the Dane at least, though facing back towards the Dock. After an unsuccessful attempt at advancing together in this fashion we managed to get the dinghy sorted out and a tow warp from Merlin on to the Dane's stern so that Merlin swung round behind her. So in the end I was towed out, much to the relief of the dolly birds and the chagrin of the remaining onlookers, who had come to resemble the Romans in the Coliseum about to watch the last Christian martyr of the day being devoured by the lions. The Thames, with the last of the flood carrying me on to the piers of Tower Bridge as I came into the wind to hoist the main, was a piece of light relief by comparison. By the time I headed downstream at 1438, the outboard and fenders stowed away, the tangle of warps in the bottom of the boat once more coiled and forward and the rain just starting again, life seemed really quite a pleasure.
I had an hour and twenty minutes of flood to contend with until four o' clock, so held close to the southern shore of the Lower Pool to keep out of the most of the wind and tide, only to find myself becalmed and going backwards off the Mayflower Inn at Rotherhithe. I thought I was beginning to catch up the Swede ahead of me, who was now sailing (the Danish Grand Banks, after giving me a wave, put both her engines ahead and was out of sight in ten minutes) but she had more canvas than I and was a much heavier boat, so she got away at Limehouse. What had taken me ten minutes from Limehouse to St. Katharines on the flood on the way up took
all of fifty on the way down against only the last hour or so of it. The Thames has next to no slack water, so 1.6 knots of flood in the last hour before high water at springs is turned into 2.5 knots in the opposite direction by the end of the first hour of ebb. Just for a short space of fifteen minutes or so when the two tides meet at the turning point the waves have a dance, all this way and that, crashing into each other with no rhyme or reason until the ebb puts direction into them and marshals them back to heel.
Limehouse reach was into the wind again and it was still raining. When I took my making tack close along- the shore a man in a fork-lift truck twenty yards away, who was as wet as I, gave me a friendly wave as I clawed my way past. What he thought I was doing there I never learned, for suddenly the tide turned, the river bore away to leeward again and we were at Greenwich. It was four o'clock and Merlin leapt off with a bone in her teeth on a broad reach. In the next thirty-five minutes the sky began to clear and we covered five and a half miles to the Thames Barrier. In the following forty, Merlin did 6.7 over the ground to Half-Way Reach at Dagenham. Three-quarters of an hour later, at six o'clock, she was 6.3 miles further downstream, at Stone Ness, and by seven o'clock had reached the Lower Hope, ten miles in the last hour. It was exhilarating sailing; Merlin was well-balanced with her reefs and there was little swell as the wind and tide were running together on most of the Reaches, so we swept along with nothing to check us.
Twenty-two minutes later we were back at the entrance to Holehaven. The GLC barges were still there and it was now blowing force 6 from the south-west straight into the creek. The combination of a lee shore, a falling tide and the smell of the refuse blowing right into the berth made my decision to pass on to a safer mooring at Queenborough on the West Swale a simple one to make, so Merlin and I sped on. Two sails, the Swede and I think the Danish thirty square metre, could just be seen, tiny dots on the horizon, heading out towards the Foreland away from the sunset.
I took in a couple of extra reefs by the Nore Sand before I hardened up to windward to cross the corner of Grain Spit into the Medway. Another of the 'dirty British 'coasters' - how many were there in the fleet? - chugged past and showed me the way. Then it was a thrash to windward across the main channel, short boards in the lee of Garrison Point and round the corner at last into the Medway proper at Sheerness. Across the channel again, to the Grain shore, where the ebb was supposed to run weaker back and forth, short tacks up the side of the channel, spray in the jib, spray in the eyes and spray down the neck, a mile to go to the entrance to the West Swale. Then the shelter of the mudflats, the closing in of the river, riding lights, a mooring at the end to find and take.
'Now rather dark and crew rather wet' my log reads. Main down and jib, quick as a flash. Wet sheets to coil, full bilge to bale, damp sails to reeve over as the awning, and then a light to dry the deck and the crew before a kip, well-earned.
I had covered with the tide under me the 33.2 miles from Greenwich to the Nore in four hours at an average speed of 8.3 knots, though the whole way from Tower Bridge to Queenborough (43 miles) had been a little slower, an average of 6 knots, as I had been plugging the tide either end. So I slept, aching a little, with nothing to wake for except the next morning's shipping forecast and the decision whether to stay at Queenborough for the week or head back to Suffolk, for it was going to be Saturday and the ebb wouldn't start flowing up the coast until three o' clock in the afternoon.