On Friday 3rd October 1997 Waverley left Tilbury (9.40am) for Southend (11am) and Chatham (12.30pm) where I berthed her alongside the quay wall just to the north of Thunderbolt Pier. I took her away from the Historic Dockyard Chatham (2pm) for Southend (3.30pm), Tilbury, (4.50pm), and Tower Pier (7.30pm) from where we ran an evening charter to the London Branch of the PSPS with return to Tower Pier (11pm).
This was the first day I sailed as Waverley’s master. Of course I had been aboard her many times before over the years and this summer had my first goes at handling her on the South Coast at Bournemouth and particularly at Portsmouth where I had climbed through the examination hoop of sitting and passing the Portsmouth Pilotage for Waverley and Balmoral. I had also obtained the pilotage certificate for both ships for the whole of the Thames from Tower Pier to off the NE Spit off Margate in the south and to the Sunk off Clacton in the north.
Waverley is a big lump of a boat to turn within Portsmouth Harbour and in those days we kept the costs down by doing the turn ourselves without the use of a tug. For this we berthed starboard side to at the Harbour station and when leaving canted off and set off full ahead with the helm hard to port. However there is not room to bring her round in one here so we had to do a three point turn which worked fine although when the wind was fresh from the SW she wanted to back into the wind against the rudder which could make things tricky.
Back on the Thames these couple of weeks were a bit of a juggling act for me as I was still running the business at Kingswear Castle as well as sometimes sailing as her master at times when I couldn’t source a replacement although this was made easier as at this time of the season KC was out only infrequently. There was even one occasion when having berthed KC at Chatham after an afternoon cruise I hurried up to London to take Waverley out on her evening sortie from Tower Pier down to just beyond the Barrier thereby managing to command two different paddle steamers in one day.
On Saturday 4th we ran Waverley to Whitstable and back where we met up with KC, that day under the command of my friend and Medway pilot Captain Chris Bordas.
On Sunday 5th Commander Terry Lilley RNR (Rtd) with Chris Smith took KC out on an afternoon charter whilst I sailed Waverley down from Tower Pier Tilbury, Southend and a cruise up the Medway where we met KC.
And so it went on. By then I had had more than a decade of paddle steamer handling experience but Waverley has her differences. For a start the captain is standing in a different position on Waverley with the bridge near the bow where on KC it is abaft the paddle boxes.
Waverley has a tendency to wander when steaming astern whereas you can be pretty sure that KC will follow the rudder up to about force 6 after which the stern seeks the wind.
KC’s hull is well protected with a rubbing band extending almost the whole length of the ship where on Waverley only the paddle box and around the stern have rubbing bands so you have to try to avoid letting the bow fall in onto a pier. Sometimes that is easier said than done particularly if the aft rope is slow to go ashore.
I found turning Waverley in the Upper Pool easier than KC as there she always had a tug which KC didn’t. We always berthed starboard side to at Tower Pier stemming the tide nicely on the ebb and stern fetching on the flood. Waverley is quite good at that but it is a balance getting the stern just across the tide to back in and not too much across the tide so the stern doesn’t comes in too fast. Another issue at Tower Pier is all the other smaller boats using it which don’t usually care about the difficulties a paddle steamer may have in handling but carry on regardless.
For leaving Tower Pier the technique on the ebb tide is to to steam up close to London Bridge on the port hand and then get the tug to swing her round to starboard so that she is head out. And if the bridge is slow to open then the tug can give the bow a slight pull one way or the other to keep you lined up. Actually Tower Bridge not opening when you are being set down onto it by the tide is ever a worry. In its heyday there always was a tug on station for just such emergencies but not any more. One day coming up with the tide under me on KC a man jumped off the the bridge and as a result the bridge refused to open. That was a heart stopping moment for me.
For leaving Tower pier on the flood we came off astern, backed up towards Tower Bridge and at the right moment let the tug pull round the bow so she swung nicely hanging off the tide.
Southend is an easy pier in one sense but a difficult one in another. In a fresh SW wind and on the ebb there is a very strong set onto the pier and it can be hard to avoid landing heavily. For this the technique is to come up to the pier and when approaching the berth to put the helm onto the pier which has a tendency to lift the ship off the pier countering the strong set onto it. And on the flood there is a strong set off the pier at its eastern end and a bit of a set onto the pier half way down so that doesn’t help if you don’t get the ropes ashore fast enough.
Clacton can be difficult as well with the tide setting across the landing stage and where Southend Pier is solid as a rock with no give in it, Clacton always looks to me on the flimsy side and therefore is a pier you always want to try to avoid landing heavily on. But landing heavily is sometimes inevitable in paddle steamer handling which is why those masters of this art the Swiss deliberately design their piers to be bouncy and accommodate that with the pier piles generally set just out from, and not directly attached to, the pier so they have a bit of give in them.
The hardest port of call I found on the Thames was Whitstable. The harbour entrance is narrow for a vessel of Waverley’s size and except around high water the tide sluices across the entrance pretty fast so as you go in the bow gets into still water inside the harbour whilst the stern is still out in the tide which tends to slew the ship round. Indeed in my view taking Waverley in or out of Whitstable Harbour is not advisable after the ebb has started up as the tidal set is just too strong.
All in all it was an enjoyable couple of weeks in which I learnt a lot. The then PSPS chairman Nick James was aboard and on the bridge quite often and I was touched to receive a note from him at the end of the season complimenting me on my handling of Waverley on and off the piers and saying how calmly I had done it all. I didn’t like to tell him that whilst I always like to appear calm sometimes the wheels within my mind were whirring round at a fair old rate coming in and out of the piers.
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 3rd October 2020.