by Martin Longhurst

Sitting at home in the warm and dry on Sunday 29 September watching the television coverage of the start of the BT Challenge Yacht Race, I feared that the rough seas depicted would ruin the following day's cruise from Portsmouth to Folkestone. It was therefore with some concern that Jenny and I set off by taxi and train to join Waverley at Portsmouth Harbour Station Pier at 9 a.m. Our relief was tangible when we spotted her twin funnels traversing Spithead on the positioning run from Southampton.

The previous evening Balmoral had completed her season's sailings when both ships were berthed alongside Town Quay, Southampton, with the Shieldhall keeping them company. Every scrap of catering and shop stock had to be transferred to Waverley, an exercise which took the crew five hours. Several crew members transferred as well. Arrival at Portsmouth brought further stores in the form of a complete luggage trolley full of frozen food. When I say luggage trolley, I don't mean the type on which you and I push our suitcases, but the type that is filled with bags and craned into the hold of a catamaran! Eventually all was loaded on board and stowed away and Waverley set sail for her first call, Worthing.

The sea conditions were totally changed from the previous day with little wind and few waves. The pier calls that would have been impossible twenty-four hours before were accomplished with ease. A good crowd boarded at Worthing for the single trip to Eastbourne or Folkestone with coach return. Approaching Newhaven we met Stena Line's new monohull fast craft the Pegasus. As she turned to enter the harbour astern, she seemed to pause to get a better view of our comparatively sedate passage. Things were getting murkier all the time but we still had excellent views of the Seven Sisters, the chalk cliffs between Seaford and Eastbourne. At this point a well known weatherman from Aberdeen declared "I must be dreaming - I never thought I'd sail past the White Cliffs of Dover on the decks of a paddle steamer!" Chorus from the paddlebox steps: "Well you still haven't!"

We rounded Beachey Head and reached Eastbourne Pier. Some passengers disembarked for time ashore while more joined for the last leg to Folkestone. Unfortunately steady rain now set in which produced more murk which is particularly unwelcome on this stretch of coast with its generally low coastline and shelving shore which forces an offshore course. Two exceptions are Hastings with its Pier and Castle and Dungeness with its forbidding nuclear power station. At Folkestone we berthed on the western (or outer) side of the Harbour Arm which left the ship at the mercy of the swell, which led to some damage to the belting.

Tuesday dawned bright and clear as we rejoined for the next stage of our coastwise progress. A large crowd climbed down the steep stone steps of the eastern side of the Harbour Arm on to Waverley's paddlebox. Then off past Dover where there was much cross-Channel activity in evidence, including Stena's latest acquisition Stena Empereur in bound. Later we encountered Stena Nautica riding at anchor off Deal and Prins Filip entering Ramsgate. We passed Deal Pier at close quarters at noon which provided an opportunity to see the Time Ball, about which we had heard so much on previous commentaries, actually descend.

Margate was our first call where Captain Neill deftly berthed the ship on the north side of the stone pier. On to Whitstable, passing the defiant head of Herne Bay Pier, to berth on the eastern side of the Harbour. The formerly busy timber yard was completely barren - presumably a sign of the effects of the Channel Tunnel on shipping. Now we set off up the Thames for a non-landing trip through Tower Pier, returning to Tilbury to meet up with the eight coaches for the return. Passing the Queen Elizabeth Bridge at Dartford we were spotted by the Capital Radio Flying Eye traffic spotting plane which circled round us a couple of times. At Woolwich we were lucky to see the unusual phenomenon of a 'mock sun.' Ice crystals in the thin clouds partially obscuring the sun had refracted some of its rays giving the impression of a second sun trying to shine through them.

Southend was setting for the start of Waverley's 50th Birthday for 2 October was the anniversary of her launch into the Clyde. Captain Neill welcomed the passengers to the ship on the tannoy, mentioned the display of cuttings and photographs prepared by Andrew Gladwell and promised a slice of birthday cake! Clear skies and bright sunshine marked the occasion as we sailed to Clacton. On shore Roddy McKee was watching our approach for an hour and a half. He told me that this was exceptional for a 14 knot ship but was due to the constant need to change course to thread her way through the sand banks.

From Clacton we sailed on the short distance to Walton for another pick up. Then on past Felixstowe and up the River Orwell to Ipswich. Here our Southend passengers left us but we picked up over two double-deckers full of afternoon cruise passengers. Normally it is necessary to use a long rope to turn Waverley around at Ipswich (as at Anderston Quay). Today the wind was suitable to carry out the manoeuvre without the use of a cant rope. After going back alongside to land a passenger who had been taken ill, we sailed downstream to Shotley where we turned east up the River Stour. There were no passenger ferries at Parkestone Quay, Harwich, but the freight ro-ro ship Dana Futura was at the linkspan. After dropping off her Walton and Clacton passengers, Waverley completed her day's sail back at Ipswich.

Thursday took our paddler back to the capital. As on several previous similar trips, a large party from the Royal Hospital School came along. There is a special significance for them as their school was formerly located at Greenwich before moving to Holbrook, near Ipswich. Ipswich Docks were noticeably less busy this year again due to the diversion of traffic to the Channel Tunnel. Calls at Walton and Clacton added to our compliment for the non-stop run to Tower Pier. An early finish gave the crew a welcome opportunity for a run ashore. Friday saw a round trip to the Thames Forts from London with a good number aboard followed by the London Branch Evening Charter with disco and jazz band. It also marked the loss of two more stewards leaving a much depleted catering crew to deal with the expected crowds over the only autumn weekend from London.

Saturday's itinerary was very long combining a day trip from Tower Pier to Clacton for 500 with an up-river evening cruise for 200 from Tilbury, enabling bunkers to be taken overnight at Tilbury. Chief Steward John Gilligan had foreseen the staff shortage and had persuaded both his wife and First Cook Craig Peacock's wife to come south for the weekend to help. In addition, volunteer stewards had been recruited to the vital roles of bar work, clearing tables and washing up. The weather was improving again following high winds on Thursday and Friday. Round trip passengers were picked up at Tilbury, Southend and at Clacton for single trips to Southend or London.

Sunday, with its rendez-vous with Kingswear Castle, was, as usual the day that revenue records were broken. As on Saturday an up-river evening cruise was also given. There was a virtually continuous queue out of the Dining Saloon door all day, so there are no prizes for guessing what I was doing! There were two encounters with the river paddler at Chatham, both marked by cheering and whistling, but no funnel tilting this year. The turn at Strood was accomplished solely with the aid of wind and tide which was a bit tricky as both were remarkable by their absence at the crucial moment and much patience was called for. Following disembarkation at Tower Pier, Waverley was turned by the tug Revenge as on the other occasions she visited the Pool this autumn. The ropes were let go for the last time by Alan McCann, the waterman who has been involved with all of Waverley's visits to London over the last 18 years, as he was retiring. We wish him a long and happy retirement in Fleetwood. The sailing finished at Tilbury, convenient for the following day's up-river trip from Southend and Tilbury to The Upper Pool (non-landing), which carried 750 passengers.

The final act of the Thames season started at 9.30 a.m. on Tuesday 8 October when Waverley left Tilbury Landing Stage for Southend, Folkestone and Eastbourne.

Unfortunately there was little wind and the mist lingered all day but the sea was calm. The grand finale was Waverley with her flood lit funnels alongside Eastbourne Pier with the outline of its pavilion picked out in lights. All in all it was a very satisfactory season from all aspects, albeit rather short - no calls were lost, time keeping was good and passenger numbers were excellent.

Copyright Martin Longhurst 1996

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