Excitement in the Estuary



“Hurry, Louis, or we’ll miss the boat,” Robin urged me.

We raced along Margate jetty to board the New Golden Spray tied up to the wooden uprights secured to the stanchions some way below us and jumped down the metal stairway steps two at a time. Old tyres dangled at the ends of rope as buffers for visiting ships and under the pier, the colander-like surface of the walkways allowed rising tidal water to flood over exposed parts of the structure. The trip to see the Tongue Fort and visit the North Goodwin lightship was an exciting prospect and both could be seen several miles away on the horizon.

“Only a couple or so years ago, the sea all around here actually froze. Do you remember?” I asked Robin.

“Yes, I do,” he replied. “Ice floes as far out to sea as you could see. And I can still feel how cold it was that winter. It was 1963.”

A plume of dark smoke coughed from the single funnel as we gently moved off. Further out into the Thames Estuary salty spray, caught by the wind, occasionally rained over us and in the surprisingly shallow waters, tangled seaweed waved from the rocks as we passed over them. The Royal Daffodil with its twin yellow funnels came into view on the horizon to the north-west, navigating around the North Goodwin sandbank and in no time at all seemed to be upon us. The New Golden Spray had respectfully slowed as the white vessel majestically steamed past nearing the completion of its journey from Southend to Margate. The passenger ship seemed enormous compared to our small 70ft-long blue boat.

Unexpectedly, we saw a glaringly bright flare followed by the distant boom of a maroon that signalled an emergency somewhere, then a second maroon was launched as though the first was not enough. Our boat just quietly chugged along closing on the Tongue fort. The structure stood proudly on its two huge barrel-like legs and was a relic from long-gone war days. Its anti-aircraft guns had been removed leaving empty spaces on each side of the platform next to the central control room with its cracked glass. The entire structure was covered in the grey and white debris deposited by seagulls using the fort for their own target practice.

After a circuit around the historic entity, we approached the NORTH GOODWIN lightship, silently announcing its name in large bold white letters on the bright red hull. We moored alongside ready to board the vessel with its lamp housed at the top of a tall cylindrical tower. Climbing up the red-painted iron ladder on the side of the lightship hull was more thrilling than swinging on the snaking rope to my tree house on a blustery day. The swell set both boats moving around almost separately and quite uncontrollably, though everyone managed it with help from some of the crew. A guided tour around this floating light gave a fascinating insight to life on-board a lightship that had no engine power, just the hugely powerful lamp. A six-week tour of duty on the lightship in these busy sea approaches to the Port of London must have been fantastic.

Departing for our return to Margate, we left the lightship behind us and coasted across towards the sandbank, by now almost disappeared in the tidal waters, for one last look at the old fort. A lifeboat suddenly became visible from behind one of the legs of the decrepit fort and yellow jackets were scurrying all over it like ants.

“Can we be of assistance?” shouted our skipper using a loud hailer.

After a moment we were waved away, though two canoes were still being lashed on board the lifeboat and one of them looked quite badly damaged. The water was alive with porpoises and the spume on the sea frothed madly.

“What do you think is happening?” Robin asked me anxiously.

“This must be the reason for those maroons, though I don’t know why two canoeists should be so far out into the Thames Estuary near the open sea. These waters can be really treacherous and all the ships make it even more dangerous.”

The New Golden Spray turned towards Margate and, when we’d reached about halfway to the coast, the lifeboat raced by us. “Wow, don’t they go fast,” I exclaimed.

Now high tide, the jetty stood much lower in the water. Our boat moved slowly along beside it towards the deep water in the harbour and through the iron stilts, I could see the lifeboat as it was hauled up the launching ramp on its way back up into its house.

The New Golden Spray sidled to the stone wall and we climbed the steps to stand on firm ground.

“I overheard the captain talking on his radio a little while ago,” I explained to Robin. “Even though the lightship is some way from the sandbank, the alarm was raised about a collision between one of the canoes and those porpoises we saw. The canoeists took refuge on the sandbank, but with nowhere to tie up their canoes they had drifted off. When the sandbank became completely submerged they would have been left treading water and in real trouble. I’ve seen porpoises many times off this coast, but they usually perform their diving antics into the bow waves of moving ships. Not into canoes!”


© Louis Brothnias (2010)


Creative Acre