On Sunday 27th June 1965 Princess Elizabeth ran a cruise from Weymouth to Torquay on charter to the PSPS reviving a sailing which had not be undertaken since 1949.
It was a glorious and sunny day with only a light breeze.
We set off from Weymouth on time at 9.30am, backing out from the Pleasure Pier.
We then came round onto a heading of 145 degrees for 2 nautical miles to pass to the east of Portland Harbour’s East Ship Channel and the fort known locally as “the Pepper Pot”. Then it was round onto 175 degrees for the 2 nautical mile run on to Grove Point, the eastern extremity of the land mass of Portland, before altering onto 210 degrees for the next 3 nautical miles to Portland Bill.
At its worst, at spring tides and in bad weather, the race off Portland Bill is the nastiest of its kind anywhere on the South Coast and one of the most unpleasant anywhere in the UK. Overfalls of tall, sharp, turbulent seas with curly tops extend well over a mile out to sea. At certain times in the tidal cycle the tide can race along in excess of 7 knots inside it. That’s faster than most yachts under power can make. It is to be avoided by all small craft always. Even larger ships treat it with caution.
There are two ways to round Portland Bill. Either you can stand well out to sea and pass south of the whole thing. Or there is an inshore passage about 1 cable wide close in to the Bill itself which is often comparatively smooth however ghastly the race beyond.
On this day there was little wind and the race was pretty docile.
We took the inner passage, rounded Portland Bill at 10.15am and altered course onto 265 degrees for the 40 nautical miles straight run across Lyme Bay to Torquay. It was not long before the low lying Bill had dropped over the horizon and disappeared astern.
The Ore Stone off Hope’s Nose near Torquay would not make an appearance over the horizon ahead for more than two hours. The Dorset and Devon shoreline some fifteen miles northwards also disappeared with only the higher ground like Golden Cap sticking up beyond it. The Lizzie was truly at sea and at the outer limit from the coastline of her Class III Board of Trade Passenger Certificate.
At last land appeared ahead. The Ore Stone was passed and a mile further on we turned to starboard to enter Torquay Harbour and berth alongside Haldon Pier just astern of the local passenger vessel Bateau Mortgaux at 1.45pm. Captain Woods announced that the departure time would be 4.45pm and everyone, including Captain Woods, went ashore for a look round.
With everyone back aboard we set off on time backing out from the harbour and turning eastwards to return to Weymouth. Portland Bill itself is so low lying that it always seems to me to take an impossibly long time to appear over the horizon to help confirm where you are. Two hours out of Torquay there was still no sign of it but eventually it came into view and we rounded it once again taking the inshore passage at 8.10pm.
Then it was back along the east coast of Portland in the cool of the evening past Pennsylvania Cove and Castle, Grove Point, the Portland Harbour Breakwaters, which had been built in the nineteenth century to enclose the naval dockyard, and finally on to Weymouth where we made fast shortly before the advertised return time of 9pm. As usual Captain Woods was one of the first up the gangway to hot foot it up the Promenade to catch the last train back to his home in Southampton. He was never that keen on sleeping aboard the Lizzie if he could possibly avoid it and claimed that after sleeping in the captain’s cabin he often awoke with a headache..
It had been a really nice day out with the kindest of weather we could have hoped for. Had the wind been fresher and from the prevailing south west direction then it would have been a different story. The run across Lyme Bay is very exposed. A SW wind would have been 25 degrees on the port bow outward bound and 25 degrees on the starboard quarter homeward bound making the ship cork screw and thereby creating ample employment for the deck boys, their buckets and mops for the business of keeping the decks clear of seasick.
And for any who like a good view of passing scenery on their paddle steamer rides then this was not what this trip offered. For nearly seven hours out of the voyage’s overall journey time of eight and a half hours, land was either out of sight or nearly out of sight. It was sixteen years since this excursion had last been run from Weymouth in 1949 and then it was only rostered a couple of times during the season. Having done it on this day I rather started to see why.
This trip was not a commercial success. The report in issue number 22 of Paddle Wheels for August 1965 written by someone describing themselves as “Gull” says “The great pity of this occasion was that there were not enough passengers aboard to make the charter a financial success for the Society or to encourage the owners of the ship to repeat the excursion. Where were the enthusiasts?”.
Well there were some enthusiasts aboard that day including Dad and me. There was also another enthusiast there called Don Rose. He ran a wholesale grocery business in London and loved paddle steamers. He also had money and was prepared to use some of it to further the cause of paddle steamers. He had chartered Medway Queen a couple of times and brought her up to London for sailings from Tower Pier. He had chartered Consul for a week’s “frolic” on the Thames in September 1963. Now he was about to buy the Clyde paddle steamer Jeanie Deans through the Weymouth based shipbroking agency of another professional enthusiast Tony McGinnity.
Don came up onto the bridge for part of the return trip, bent Captain Woods’ ear about his plans and sought his advice. In due course Don would recruit him to bring the Clyde paddler round to the Medway in November and take command on the Thames for the 1966 season. I recall numerous occasions as the 1965 season wore on when Captain Woods said “Don’s been in touch again. He keeps asking me when I can start”.
I was back to school the next day but was aboard the Lizzie once again the following Sunday 4th July for the 3pm departure along the Dorset Coast to Lulworth Cove. That was the first day that Capt Woods decided to put the Lizzie’s bow into the Cove. She couldn’t land there but doing that gave the passengers a better view than just steaming by.
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 27th June 2021.