It is the height of season and hard to find a skipper, however, a pilot is secured, the awesome Chris Hanley, with two days to spare and who, coincidentally, is coming into Limehouse on Tim’s boat the day before. Insurance is sorted with only a day to spare thanks to the understanding of Alan Peake and Winter Marine.
The pontoon is loaded with bin liners, the unmarked essays and detritus of over four years on Cabby. We raft alongside DB Black Star as agreed the previous day with the marina manager. BWML, however, decide to play awkward buggers and insist we have to move over to the guest wall and away from the convenience of shore power before they will let Maja, now circling in the Thames, through the lock gates. Realising an unwinnable situation when I see one, the engines were fired, all the ropes cast off and an hour later, we were secure on the quayside.
Maja’s in, neatly handled into the tricky entrance to the lock by Chris prior to Tim taking the helm to guide her from the lock to the mooring, via getting snagged in the buoys and lines marking out the impossible to navigate planned new finger pontoons. It is strange seeing her in our mooring, looking smart but quite diminutive in comparison.
Pilot Chris drops his bags off on the way to the Grapes for lunch with Tim while we nip round to NB Smoking Otter for lunch with Kat who, with this visit, becomes the co-parent (with the off-the-wall Cassandra French from two boats further along A pontoon) of our beloved cats, Stanley and Bear. The children are all smiling charm and politeness, relieved, I think, that their pets are both staying on a boat in the Marina and, no doubt, won over by being fed by a F-W of TV chef fame.
Lyulf, who, to date, had shown little or no remorse about re-housing the cats eventually released the bottled up emotion by getting very tearful on the way back round to Cabby. I did the big hug, father thing, reassured by the fact that he will never know that beneath the reassuring bulk I had had several ‘moments’ regarding the cats, to the extent that I find myself welling up thinking about them now… (I had to go from the fold down seat in the corridor where I am typing this up into the sleeping compartment, where Peta is unconscious, Justine is on the edge of sleep and Lyulf is perversely staying awake to the detriment of his tomorrow, to seek comfort in the warm fug therein.)
Chris, having checked charts and tides realises that we need more time than my estimated 10 hours to get to Maylandsea and in an effort to achieve this within a day we lock out and wait on the outer pontoon in the entrance to the marina from the Thames, with the mizzen mast just feet from the swing bridge that Narrow Street crosses and with the collective beer garden clientele of Gordon Ramsey’s pub, The Narrow, looking down on us as the tide recedes and we rest on the mud some 20 odd foot below them.
Pizza outdoors on the old pontoon with Paul and Marni, Chris fitting in naturally with none of the need to prove oneself that so many skippers seem to have. Then back to the boat to check her over as she starts to float on the incoming tide.
The riding lights, for some reason, do not work. A potential show stopper. The bulbs seem fine, the fuse is on and there is a search for a switch that I can not remember existing. ‘Question’ Mark from Ocean Lady comes round with a voltmeter and it turns out all the lights have power, dispelling the idea of the mysterious switch. The bulbs are double checked and look fine. Despite the fact it has gone midnight, Jonathan on Izula is still up, into what is now his 65th birthday, and has a spare set. These, however, do not work either. There must be some issue with the sprung connection, possibly corrosion built up over the past couple of years of them not being used. Plan F, or whatever it is by this stage, involves a trip around to DB Black Star to visit Paul and his magic engine room of, ‘I’ll keep that in case it comes in useful…’.
Some cobbled together riding lights are created along with the loan of a brand new battery. Then it is back around to the Cabby, remembering to block the magnetic security gate to prevent any silly late night climbing antics, to test the Heath-Robinson work around.
And there was light!
It is 01.24 and as Paul heads back to bed Jonathan arrives to spend his birthday on the barge in what will be, no doubt, a less luxurious experience than us being his guest on the French canals around Dijon and south thereof.
By 02.00 the boat is ready with the makeshift lighting gaffer-taped to the ratlings. Half an hour later we cast off and head down the London River. I am consumed by worry about oil, fuel, the engine, the leaking elbow and numerous other things as we slip past Greenwich and the Cutty Sark; round the Isle of Dogs and on to the Thames Flood Barrier as the first touches of dawn soften the sky and I go into the third day without sleep.
Thames Reach, Southend, Maunsell towers stalk tankers on the horizon as the wind farms look on and we progress up the channel with a gentle, rolling rhythm and the benefit of perfect weather.
A couple of hours shut eye, packing, tidying, feeding Jonathan and Chris (who is very appreciative of my mediocre cooking skills, made to look all the better due to the fact he was under nourished on Maja’s trip from Ostend) and it becomes clear we are not going to make the tide that will carry us into Maylandsea at high water.
We anchor at Osea Island for curry and conversation. Any idea of tackling the creek on the 02.20 tide is dispelled by Ian so we settle in for the night resigned to the fact we will be here until lunchtime the next day. Still, the chat covers many subjects and I learn a few things as the conversation meanders towards bedtime.
- Pirates eye patches were, in most cases, nothing to do with injuries, but a way to maintain their night vision so they could effectively move from the brightness of the deck to the murky world below (just lifting the patch below decks) and still see.
- Wogs, now hard to type without a flinch, originally stood for people, ‘ Working on Government service’, ie. anyone around the ‘empire’ who was not military. I had never questioned the ‘worthy oriental gentleman’ answer that, as it turns out, was an army joke before the term acquired its modern abusive connotations.
- Submarines from Osea Island – check historical details and cross reference with the footnote – add that they are the only ships legally allowed to fly the Jolly Roger – dig out reference for this from WWI
- I shared, ‘Nonce’ referring to prison segregation and, ‘not on normal courtyard exercise’.
- And in contrast Jonathan and I mentioned that the stars on the front of, mainly, continental barges is a sign that the boat is owned and not under mortgage.
A quick port and then instant sleep.
Climbing from the depths of unconsciousness it takes a moment to realise where I am and a further few seconds to realise that the chat that had wove itself in and out of my pre-waking dreams is that of Jonathan and Chris in the cockpit.
Up, genny on and breakfast of sardines, beans and toast served with a pot of almost chewable coffee.
Packing and tidying. Tidying and packing. Break for coffee and to admire the mirage that, while common to people who live and work on the water, was amazing to a city boy as it made Radio Caroline (the Ross Robert) and the land framing the estuary of the Blackwater float magically above the sea.
With a wonderful sense of timing the showers make the anchor drum wet, causing the chain to slip back one link for every two we winch up – 10 fathoms of pain for the three of us.
Ian buzzes down to meet us on the yard launch as I am taking down the ‘at anchor’ ball and shouts directions as Chris navigated the Mayland creek to the mooring, culminating in a narrow gap to slip into while negotiating the tide running up our stern, a cross eddy and a bastard wind making it apparent why it was a bad idea to attempt this in the early hours on the previous tide. Chris masterfully makes it look easy as Cabby glides through an impossible gap and is soon nosing the sea wall between a decaying SB Berwick and the Fountain, which acts as a footbridge to the steps to the jetty we left here four years previously and which still bear our name.
Waving to the departing Chris and Jonathan I find myself alone in the mizzle with the final packing and tidying of my ravaged home that I am about to leave indefinitely.
The yard hand has kindly trolleyed all my rubbish around, Ian is waiting in the bar to give me a lift to the station and, fighting back tears, I lock the saloon doors and say, aloud, a final goodbye to the beloved Cabby, our family home for four great years. I wonder when I will see her again as I lean into the rain and head for a pint.