Thank you to Sue Reed for sharing with us her dad’s story.
Rough Passage by Brian Bridges written 22nd March 1996
Walking down ship Pier at 05.30 on a cold winter morning with a fresh to strong north-easter blowing had something of an adverse affect on the resolve of a 16-year-olds just starting his career as mate of the barge Mousm’e . However 30 years later as I write, resolve won out and the river was to prove one of the greatest love of my life only rivalled by that of the woman I was to share my life with .
But to return to that morning, as I sculled the boat out to the mooring , with the skipper standing with the assurance of one used to the movements of small boat in the choppy waters of the inshore, I marvelled at his calm exterior as he studied the morning sky, with the clouds chasing past the moon . To my inexperienced mind I wondered that if it were this rough close to shore what would it be like down in the Thames estuary, a notorious stretch of water given any wind with a touch of the Eastern it . As we neared the mooring my fears were dispelled by my duties for getting underway. The first of which involved the lighting and trimming of the navigation lights (parrafin) , no electric lights in those days just after the war, the luxury of electricity was a long way off. However, having got the lights going to the Skippers satisfaction , my next job was to scull the boat round and climb up on the buoy, a huge steel drum, and unshackle the mooring wire. This feat called for a certain amount of agility and balance as the barges pulled and snatched at their moorings. Being light on my feet and fairly fit this job was quickly completed. Once back on board the next job was to get the engine started, which was a Kelvin motor paraffin brute and very unpredictable. It involved swinging the engine with an enormous starting handle and if by chance one forgot to retard ignition the brute would backfire and throw you clear across the engine room. Many a forgetful mate had learned this painful lesson.
But this morning she started like a lamb. The skipper indicated we were ready to get underway and we backed out from the middle of the tier and pulled up on the outside Barge and remoored the remaining barge . One of the unwritten laws of the river was that you always left a tier properly moored. Once underway I had to neatly coil the ropes and wire down, get the boat aboard and securely lash any movable object, for the signs indicated we were in for a rough passage . Still there would be time to get a fire going, put the kettle on and take the skipper a cup of tea in the wheelhouse while I got the eggs and bacon going, having a good hot breakfast was a must, for once battened down who knew when our next meal would be . Having served the skipper’s breakfast in the cabin it was my turn to take the wheel. “Keep her in the fairway between between the bouys”, he said as he went forrard for a much enjoyed meal . Now I was alone in charge of the ship, what an unforgettable feeling that was, even though I knew the skipper would keep popping this head up out of forecastle every few minutes I didn’t care for a short while I was in my element . “Keep between the red and green flashing lights”, he said . Presently I saw the lights of a ship coming towards us. I knew it was a ship because of the two white masthead lights positioned above and between the green and red sidelights. I eased the throttle as a signal for the skipper to come on deck and he came aft , looking at the approaching vessel, ordered a change of course to starboard which would take us well clear and then resumed our original course . Having seen the other vessel safely passed the skipper went back to his breakfast and me to my task at the wheel. By this time it was beginning to get light in the East, enough in fact to see white horses on the waves in Longreach which lay east and west and on the ebb tide beginning to get a bit rough.
As you may have guessed Longreach is about 3 miles in length, practically dead straight, ideal for getting the business of breakfast out of the way and the more serious job of getting the hatches battened down and making sure everything was watertight. This meant putting canvas covers on skylights and ventilators, and dodging the odd wave as it sloshed over the bow. You may wonder why such precautions were necessary for a relatively short distance. Mousm’e was an ex-sailing barge loaded with 150 tons of silver sand bound for Ford motors at Dagenham . She only had about 3 inches of freeboard, even small waves would come inboard. Once in the estuary, she looked more like a submarine . In spite of this, Thames sailing barges were some of the safest vessels afloat. Although called a Thames Sailing barge, Mousm’e, was built at Maidstone by Albert Hutson of Maidstone, carrying general cargo between the Thames, Medway and East Coast ports. However on this trip we were bound for the Thames, via Sea Reach. 08 30 and we were approaching Garrison Point, sheerness. We were already beginning to ship water inboard a taste of what we could expect outside. As soon as we cleared garrison point , you could see and feel the difference in the seas motion, the old girl would lift herself up and over one wave and crash straight through the next. The estuary was notorious for its short vicious waves caused by the seas rolling right down from the north sea, and piling up into the shallower waters of the Thames estuary.
On leaving the Medway, one had to battle literally out to Grain Spit buoy, before being able to make a 90° turn into this swatch end and the estuary proper. It was this short, rough stretch that caused many a prudent skipper to turn back and run for the shelter of the Swale, a good safe protected anchorage. However, on this trip, the Skipper decided we would carry on , a decision that threatened to have a drastic impact on the breakfast I have so enjoyed earlier . Now we were outside the Garrison things began to get really lively. She would climb up one wave and then drop down with a sickening crash into the next, which would come washing down over the bows, roll aft, and smash against the wheelhouse, as if trying to carry it away and us with it. The wind had now increased in strength, and must have been gusting to almost a full Gale, spray being blown from the crests of the waves, through the wheelhouse windows , stinging the face and making ones eyes water. No clear view screens on barges then, she only had an open wheelhouse, and a canvas dodger , you literally had to duck behind the canvas as the spray flew aft.
The wind had now backed round almost due east which wasn’t good news for us for we had to steer into the wind and sea taking us diagonally away from our objective, the Spit buoy. We must now run down past the buoy, so that we could eventually make our turn, we would then run up the swatch with the sea on our quarter rather than a beam, otherwise she would roll most uncomfortably, probably causing a shambles down below.
It would be bad enough when we came about, the Skipper would judge his moment ,sometime after a big wave you could get a couple of slightly smaller ones, this is what he was looking for. Then it was all hands to the wheel and get her round as quickly as possible. To me however they all looked the same, huge and frightening. The Skipper on the other hand looked calm and unruffled and I wondered if I would ever acquire this. Looking back over the years I like to think I had.
We had now reached the point where the skipper reckoned we could , given a lull in the sea, turn and run for the Thames. It was now about low water and with the slackening of the ebb, the sea did seem to have lessened slightly. “Right”, the Skipper said, “stand by to about”, watching for the right moment, he ordered “hard a port” and we both heaved on the wheel which was trying to tear the spokes out of our hands, but we got it hard over and she started to come round, slowly at first, and then as a big wave hit her bow, she came round with a rush, and came beam onto the waves which rolled clean across the pathways, trying to carry any moveable object with them. But my lashings held firm and we were round and running for the swatch. Already, in the space of a few minutes, things began to feel better, with the sea now on the quarter, she tended to corkscrew. She felt more bouyant, lifting easily, not so much water coming aboard. Once into the swatch we began to feel the protection of the Nore Sands on the starboard beam and for the first time I began to relax. After about half an hour we had the swatch buoy a beam, and things had calmed down enough to venture forrad, open up the forecastle, light the primer and get the kettle on. Soon I was making my way, if a trifle unsteadily , back to the wheelhouse with two steaming mugs of team, laced with just a spot of brandy to revive flagging spirits (no pun intended).
We were well up Sea Reach with Chapman Head light a beam and approaching the East Bligh buoy, now the river traffic was getting pretty thick and we had to cross the busy shipping lanes. Reaching the Lower Hope, we dodged across in a gap in the ships converging on the Port of London. We then had a welcome if uneventful run up the Thames to Dagenham. On reaching Ford’s Jetty we found a ship alongside loading tractors for the continent, so we went back to Erith where there was safe anchorage.
Next day, with the ship gone, we discharged our cargo of sand and proceeded to Woolwich buoys to wait for fresh orders. After laying empty for a couple of days the Skipper came aboard to say that we had to go up to the Royal Victoria docks to load 140 tons of wheat bound for Colchester. I suppressed a groan for this meant we wouldn’t get home again for a couple of weeks. Still, it couldn’t be helped so I went below to start the engine, there was a bang and I found myself flat on my back. I had forgotten to retard that damned ignition!