Wednesday, October 15th, 2008
The Picton Castle raced into Harwich/Felixstowe harbour, coming in making ten knots with a following gale and a strong fair tide. This harbour, just to the north of the approaches to the mighty Thames River and complex of waterways, is at the mouth of a couple of rivers that join at this point. The whole area is an industrial complex serving the massive shipping requirements of an island nation of some 60 million people. Slab sided bulkheads with cranes and gantries everywhere. Containers ships and ocean-going ferries from all over northern Europe are sailing in and out all the time. Tugboats and rescue craft standing by. Three bright red painted light-ships were laying at anchor, perhaps awaiting their turn at service in the approaches to the Thames, a complicated estuary and region of shifting sand banks and fog. But as soon as we steamed past all this industrialism and left the last container ship wharf astern on starboard entering the River Orwell, the land and seascapes all changed dramatically and enchantingly so.
Years ago from Ipswich and the River Orwell a young couple sailed their just purchased Dutch wooden pilot schooner, newly renamed the Yankee bound for Germany for a refit. Then they sailed off for New England to begin a career of world voyages and voyaging, only ending forty years and seven world voyages later. From Ipswich also sailed the diminutive full-rigger Joseph Conrad in the 1930’s, bound round the world as the soon to be famous young skipper’s first command. In the autumn of 1993 the motor vessel and former steam trawler and Norwegian coaster Picton Castle ducked into Ipswich for no other reason but to dodge oncoming equinoctial gales in the English Channel. Here we found a safe respite and we would end up wintering over.
Now, 15 years and 200,000 sea miles as a barque later, we would return to this port of refuge. Still with a fair tide our little ship sailed up the River Orwell passing soft and green rolling hills of patches of woods and fields. Cow paddocks and old farm houses dotted the hills spread far apart and seemingly ages apart from the bustling industrial ports astern. We passed the small ancient village of Pin Mill on port where a few Thames sailing barges were laid up “on the hard” getting work done in an image from the bygone days. By the way, “on the hard” means laying your vessel in and on the mud at low tide. We passed under a high bridge and the deepwater wharves of Ipswich, hosting coasters and small tankers, and sailed through the lock into the Ipswich wet-dock at high tide and at what is called ‘free-flow’. This means that both inner and outer lock doors are open and a vessel can just sail straight through. This we did, got turned around inside the basin with little room to spare due to the new marina floats and yachts filling the place now in its effort to revitalize the port, and tied up.
The good and Worshipful Mayor and Mayoress Councillor, David Hale and Mrs. Betty Baskett of Ipswich greeted the crew upon arrival. We had the Ipswich sea cadets aboard and open decks for several days. Des Pawson and the Ipswich Maritime Trust looked after the Picton Castle crew very well. Friends and acquaintances from fifteen years ago called upon the ship to catch up. Des Pawson of Foot Rope Knots and his wife Liz are two of the foremost rope-workers, knot tyers, fancy work makers and general all around ropey folks in the world today and they took us to and showed us their private knot work and rope Museum. The pub ‘Lord Nelson’ built before 1666 and having put up the Beatles in their early days made the crew welcome as well. Back in the winter of 1993-94 we could not figure out how to get the furnace in our ship to work, so like many locals without central heating we spent many an evening at this cosy public house.
It looked as is if the weather was going to be doing us no favours so we ended up staying a few extra days at Ipswich. Such days were built into the schedule to allow for just such eventualities so this was no problem. That is unless we used all our extra days up and still had poor weather. With this time some crew explored the countryside, getting as far as London. A small contingent took the skiff, locked out of the wet-dock just like a big ship and followed the river down to Pin Mill to look at all the old vessels laying there and see what there was to see. Among other things was discovered the ancient public house called the Butt & Oyster. Established over 450 years ago, Exy Johnson of the above noted schooner Yankee mentioned this tavern in their book on their first world voyage “Westward Bound in the Schooner Yankee” as a convivial spot to row into after a days work in their vessel as they had spent some time here looking after their new ship in the early 1930’s. It remains so today, although I suspect the food is better now.
Eventually the wind laid down, gales abated and we found ourselves steaming down river with a view to making our way down the English Channel bound for Milford Haven in Wales about 500 miles away. Milford Haven was our Picton Castle‘s first homeport and nearby to the actual castle called Picton Castle built in 1300. This was to be a form of pilgrimage for this ship and her crew of today.