The 2011 Purser's Tale - Part 1

Tony Gamblin's Notes from on board

After an extended and delayed dry-docking period (chiefly connected with the complete refurbishment of the Britannia lounge bar following a £50,000 award by the National Lottery), Balmoral eventually left Sharpness dry dock on the afternoon of Saturday 8th July. From here she proceeded to Avonmouth docks for an overnight berth prior to entering service at Penarth the next day. This first cruise (to the Rivers Avon, Wye and Severn) was extremely well supported and completed in bright and sunny conditions. This favourable weather continued for her trips to Minehead and Porlock Bay on the Monday and Padstow on the Tuesday. Indeed, the ship arrived into a very busy "Padstein" early- though the numbers carried was somewhat of a disappointment compared to the previous year, with a distinct absence of regulars and enthusiasts. This begs the question as to whether such 'Specials' will be repeated. On Wednesday 13th July Balmoral made her only visits to Watchet scheduled for this season and then the next day sailed down to Ilfracombe from the usual Up-Channel piers at Clevedon and Penarth - both trips carrying respectable loads in pleasant summer weather conditions. The good weather continued on the Friday (for series of cruises based on these two piers and also featuring Weston) but by evening torrential rain had set in along with increasing wind.          

By the next morning the weather conditions had deteriorated even further and with a dire forecast (which was affecting most of the country) the vessel proceeded to the shelter of Avonmouth docks where she remained for the next three days- with the loss of the remainder of her 'early' Bristol Channel season. This included the only sailing this year from Bridgwater (Dunball Wharf) - particularly upsetting for your scribe, being a local lad and expecting to meet up with many family and friends on board. The ship eventually locked out around 10.00 p.m. on Monday 18th July and after anchoring overnight off Penarth departed early the next morning for her visits to the South Coast and Thames. A call at Ilfracombe was made to take on fresh water, before sheltering in Lundy Roads until 8.00 pm awaiting an improvement in sea conditions. Lands End was rounded around 2.00 a.m. and the vessel eventually anchored off Ramsgate before entering the Kent port early on the morning of Thursday 21st July. She thus missed her South Coast cruise from Bridport on the Wednesday and due to a series of operational problems Thursday's sailing was also cancelled at the last minute- with Newhaven passengers heading for Ramsgate by coach being turned back en-route!           

Balmoral was eventually able to take up her Thames schedule on Saturday 23rd July at Clacton, with passengers from Ipswich and Harwich being conveyed there by coach. By this time the weather had settled down to a pattern of bright and sunny conditions with calm seas and reasonable passenger numbers were carried over three days of trips on the London River. After an overnight light run to Great Yarmouth the ship carried almost 400 passengers from here and Southwold to London in somewhat overcast conditions- the weather remaining much the same the next day for a run from London to Rye. On Thursday 28th July- after overnighting alongside at Rye-the motor ship returned to London in bright, warm and sunny conditions with nearly 500 souls aboard. An added bonus was a rendezvous with the P.S. Kingswear Castle at Southend.

There then followed another weekend of excursions on the London River- with the cloudy and dull conditions of Friday (to London from Southend, Tilbury and Woolwich) giving way to warm sunshine on the Saturday (to London from Margate, Whitstable and Southend) and Sunday (from London, Woolwich and Tilbury to Southend and Whitstable) with the ship averaging nearly 500 passengers carried on each of the three days. On the first day of August Balmoral sailed light to Great Yarmouth to take up her sailing from here and Southwold the next day: unusually sea conditions were particularly calm at the Suffolk pier but the numbers carried were a bit of a disappointment given the good weather. Much more encouraging numbers turned out over the next two days (from Tilbury, Southend and Clacton to Ipswich on the Wednesday and returning via the same piers to London the next day- though in persistent heavy rain. The ship then sailed light to Tilbury for an overnight berth before setting off early the next morning for the Isle of Wight to take up her short series of cruises on the South Coast of England. Thus once again the Thames has proved to be a successful cruising area for the ship: only one day of inclement weather over the 13 days of scheduled sailings (of which one was lost and one amended). This compares well with the 16 days of uninterrupted sailings of the previous memorable year- with average daily passenger numbers down less than 3%. It will be interesting to see what happens next year with the Olympic Games being held in the Capital!

Balmoral departed Tilbury early on the morning of Friday 5th August and anchored that night off Yarmouth ready to take up her short series of cruises on the South Coast of England. She departed the Isle of Wight pier the next morning for  Portsmouth, Worthing and a cruise towards Beachy Head , under the command of Captain Lars Vlaskamp (with the Dutch flag  flying proudly in the the now traditional jack staff position) and with Senior Master Andy O'Brian acting as Pilot. The weather was not favourable, with light rain and increasing wind and sea conditions causing the ship to run almost an hour late due to the number of passengers (good) and the difficult berthing conditions (not so good) at Worthing.  The vessel then spent the night alongside Yarmouth pier (another 'first'), running light to Portsmouth the next day ready to take up Sunday's cruise. After carefully negotiating a passage through hundreds of yachts (it was Cowes Week!!) the sailing was terminated at Yarmouth due to wind and sea conditions- with the planned calls at Bournemouth and Swanage and cruise to Lulworth Cove cancelled. After a night alongside at Portsmouth the ship sailed light to Swanage ready for Monday's sailing to Weymouth, Bridport and Lyme Bay but was forced to turn back off Chesil Beach- once again due to sea conditions- and instead cruised eastwards to Lulworth Cove in more sheltered conditions.

After taking on fresh water at Weymouth Balmoral set off for Garlieston and after a rather 'bumpy' night (particularly off Start Point) she called into Falmouth for bunkers and then rounded Lands End the next morning- arriving at her anchorage off the Galloway port early on Wednesday 9th August.  Sea conditions led to a cancellation of her sailing that day, however, so the next day's sailing from Garlieston to Douglas (achieved in dull and cool conditions but with a calmer sea) once again proved to be the season's only sailing in Scottish waters. Similar conditions with the addition of some heavy rain prevailed the next day for her excursion from Whitehaven to Douglas and the Calf of Man but there was a marked improvement on the Saturday for another trip from the Cumbrian port to the Isle of Man- though sea conditions prevented a circumnavigation of the island. Instead she cruised the sheltered east side of the island and it was encouraging to note that almost 1000 passengers were carried over that day.                                 

Balmoral then sailed overnight to North Wales-anchoring in Red Wharf Bay to await her Menai Straits pilot who guided the ship to Menai Bridge and Caernarfon piers. Some 620 passengers enjoyed a Sunday cruise around the island of Anglesey in bright and sunny conditions before the vessel once again set off on an overnight passage back to her 'home waters' of the Bristol Channel. She locked into Avonmouth the following morning and made preparations for her main summer season on the Channel. Her first trip was from Lydney and Sharpness, with a good turnout of folk on what was a rather unpleasant day weather-wise. Conditions improved markedly on the Wednesday for a well-supported sailing from Briton Ferry and Porthcawl over to North Devon and though there was some heavy rain the next morning it soon cleared for an excursion from Minehead to Ilfracombe and Lundy. Sea conditions ruled out a landing but a circumnavigation of the island was offered along with a coastal cruise with exceptionally close views of Clovelly, Woolacombe and Combe Martin! Over the weekend a series of trips were offered from Up-Channel ports, all of which were very well supported : on the Friday from Newport, on the Saturday from Bristol and Clevedon and on the Sunday from Clevedon- all calling at Penarth en-route to Ilfracombe. In addition an afternoon cruise was operated out of Ilfracombe on the Friday (again with close-up views of Combe Martin) and that evening there was also a "Showboat" from Penarth and Clevedon. On the Sunday the motor vessel made her first call of the season at Lundy Island and landed almost 400 visitors in idyllic conditions.                                             

On Monday 22nd August Balmoral sailed from Porthcawl in warm and sunny weather, but with very few passengers. The following day, however, she carried almost a full complement from Swansea to Ilfracombe and with a very respectable loading out to Lundy- again in idyllic conditions. On the next two days the ship operated out of Penarth and Clevedon to Bristol and with cruises to the City Docks and Rivers Severn and Wye respectively- again with good numbers of passengers (and torrential rain on the Wednesday afternoon!). Friday 26th August was a very wet day and it became progressively colder- putting a dampener on the annual 'pirates and princesses day’. Sea conditions were also deteriorating and the ship was forced to turn back when on light passage to Swansea the next morning, with the cancellation of the whole day's programme. An improvement had set in by Sunday morning but worsening conditions during the afternoon led to calls at Weston being ruled out: passengers were coached to and from Clevedon, with the ship waiting at anchor for  their arrival (and a knock-on effect being the cancellation of her evening trips).                                                         

Bank Holiday Monday dawned fair and passengers turned out in good numbers for an excursion from Newport, Penarth and Clevedon to Ilfracombe; particularly popular was the add-on of a steam train trip to Minehead. The weather remained settled over the following days with the ship sailing from Porthcawl to Ilfracombe and along Devon's Exmoor coast on the Tuesday and from Lydney and Sharpness to Ilfracombe on the last day of the month. With almost 600 passengers on board upon leaving Sharpness and a remarkably close-in cruise along the Glamorgan Heritage Coast on the return leg August finished on a ‘high’.

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