A Passenger's Story

This article is reproduced from 'Outdoor Focus' magazine by kind permission of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild.

Slow Boat To Clacton

by Colin Saunders

As a lad, I dreamed of joining the Merchant Navy; of barking orders such as "Starboard 10" and "Hard a’ port", responding "Where away?" to the lookout's cry of "Land ahoy!", and cranking the engine room telegraph to "full speed ahead". Alas, for various reasons this was not to be, and I have ever since been a frustrated sailor. So at every opportunity I take to the water: narrow boat or pleasure boat, canoe or cabin cruiser, ferry or wherry. What I have never fancied, though, is being stuck on a large cruise ship – party games and fancy dress dances are just not me.

Then I heard about the Trinity House vessel Patricia, and thought, "Now that is for me!" Together with Galatea (featured in “Three Men in More Than One Boat” on TV), Patricia works the coasts of England, Wales and the Channel Islands, maintaining and repairing offshore lighthouses, lightships and navigation buoys. She is quite small  (2,541 tons gross) but carries up to 12 passengers paying upwards of £1,500 for a week, all in.

So, flush with the proceeds of an endowment, I booked up for a departure last October. Having been told earlier that Patricia would be working the scenic west coast, it was slightly disappointing to learn that embarkation would be at Harwich. But then came a pleasant surprise: I had been upgraded to Cabin No.1, one of the two  staterooms, due to there being only three passengers on this trip. It is occupied by HRH the D of E when he comes on board, while HM has Cabin No.2. It seems that Patricia now doubles as the Royal Yacht, and is requisitioned e.g. for Cowes Week or fleet reviews.

We passengers were invited to drinks with the officers and informed, with some embarrassment, that the week's programme was, for the most part, likely to be maintaining buoys in the Thames Estuary. The crew did their best to make up for it. Patricia has an "open bridge" policy, so passengers can wander up any time and have things explained by the captain and officers. It seems we were younger and fitter than most passengers, who are generally over 70, so we were invited to undertake activities that are normally beyond their capabilities, due to the steep ladders involved. These included a complete tour of Patricia's engines and holds with the Chief Engineer, and being taken on board the refurbished Sandettie lightship, anchored in Harwich Harbour prior to being towed by Patricia back to its station in the English Channel.

The lightship was a revelation to me. These vessels, painted red, are used where something larger than a buoy is necessary to give the light extra height. They don't look that big when seen at sea, but when you go on board they're enormous - I counted 55 paces from bow to stern. We climbed a long ladder, dog-legged where the light tower bulges out, to the very top – the open platform on top of the light. Lightships have no motive power and are now automatic. They used to be crewed – what a miserable life this must have been, sharing your home with a huge, thundering generator and a foghorn shattering your eardrums once a minute.

So, although the itinerary was rather disappointing (we anchored overnight off Walton-on-the-Naze, Clacton-on-Sea, Sheerness and Deal), it was fascinating to see how our safety at sea is quietly and efficiently maintained by Trinity House. With our own steward and chef, it was like being on a private yacht. Oh yes, and I came away with the contents of my Molton Brown hospitality tray consisting of a variety of “invigorating”, “energising” and “ultra smooth” shower accessories. If the wind is right as you traverse the Seven Sisters, and you catch a whiff of coco de mer body lotion, watch out – it could be me.

Colin’s website is www.colinsaunders.org.uk.