After having been returned to operational condition with full passenger certificates in May 1985, Kingswear Castle ran a trip from Strood and the Historic Dockyard Chatham on 21st September through the Swale to Whitstable to meet Waverley.
A few passengers travelled both ways on KC. Most transferred to Waverley for the run up to Gravesend with coach return to Strood and Chatham to have the opportunity to sail on two UK paddle steamers in one day. It was the first time that KC had visited Whitstable and it was my first time taking KC as master through the Swale and in and out of Whitstable Harbour.
Logistically the day provided four main challenges for me. Whitstable is a tidal harbour drying out at low water so a day had to be found with high water in the afternoon. This meant that for such visits, by definition, KC was punching the flood tide on the way out and the ebb tide on the way home. And as high water full and high is around the middle of the afternoon on the Medway and Thames then these were always big tides and KC is not a fast boat.
Secondly at Whitstable itself the tide runs quite fast across the harbour entrance which means that when you are going in the bow enters still water in the harbour with the rest of the ship left for a time out in the tideway until you are all in which tends to slew her round. Ditto going out with the ebb tide racing across the harbour entrance in a particularly ferocious fashion trying to set you down onto Whitstable Street, a ledge running out from the shore.
Thirdly you need to try to get your arrival time at the Kingsferry Bridge in the Swale pretty accurate. It is a railway bridge, controlled by railway staff, so will only open at given times. If you arrive a few minutes late they won’t open for you and that is not good news for a coal-fired paddle steamer with a large fire in her boiler trying to make good quantities of steam to keep the speed up. If you have to stop, even with the dampers on, this will lead to the safety valves lifting with consequent noise and loss of water.
Fourthly there is the weather. Although the whole voyage from the Medway to Whitstable through the Swale is defined as Category C Waters by the MCA (and its predecessor bodies) and therefore there is no weather restriction on it, nonetheless it can get pretty rough in Whitstable Bay for a paddle steamer with a low freeboard in the bow and stern and one designed for the very sheltered waters of the River Dart. And on this day the omens were not good with winds SW 4/5 gusting force 6 forecast.
All these things were in my mind as the day dawned so I am very pleased to be able to report that as it turned out all went well. We got in and out of Whitstable just fine. Whilst it was choppy and borderline in Whitstable Bay it was just about OK. And we arrived inward and outward bound at the Kingsferry Bridge at the right times.
I can tell you that having transited the Kingsferry Bridge for the second time that day homeward bound I felt a big sense of relief that the difficult bits were over, that I could relax a bit and order a nice cup of tea from the galley.
These Whitstable trips, which we subsequently ran for many years after that, were always pleasurable days. They created a level of goodwill amongst enthusiasts and brought two paddle steamers together. However they were never a commercial success even though the numbers carried were generally good. It was a long day of steaming with a lot of coal burnt and a lot of crew hours clocked up. As you will see from the log above on this first trip we were away from Thunderbolt Pier at the Historic Dockyard (TP) at 09.05 and not back again until 22.25. Then we had to pay Waverley half our fares to take our passengers back to Gravesend and then out of what was left we had to pay for the hire of three coaches to take 150 or so passengers back to Strood and Chatham.
There was a financial cost to Waverley too. She had to turn away potentially 150 passengers round trip passengers at Tower Pier to make sure that there was room for our passengers for the return from Whitstable to Gravesend so it never made much economic sense for either boat however much fun it was to do.
In the end the balance was finally tipped away from these super long day cruises when the MCA introduced stricter Crew Hours of Work Regulations which meant that captains of Domestic Passenger Vessels were restricted to a maximum 16 hour working day of which they could spend only 10 hours conning the ship. After that the Whitstable trips were shortened to a cruise around the Isle of Sheppey starting only from the Historic Dockyard Chatham. This offered almost the same route but without the run across Whitstable Bay. It kept us within the Hours of Work Regulations. And it meant that we kept all the revenue for KC.
The following day, Sunday 22nd September, we met Waverley again. This time she steamed up the Medway to Rochester Bridge and we joined up with her to sail along past the then somewhat derelict paddle steamer Medway Queen and the paddle tug John H Amos with much tooting of whistles and general merriment in the air.
Kingswear Castle returned to service in 2023 after the first part of a major rebuild which is designed to set her up for the next 25 years running on the River Dart. The Paddle Steamer Kingswear Castle Trust is now fund raising for the second phase of the rebuild. You can read more about the rebuilds and how you can help if you can here.
This article was first published on 21st September 2020.