Monday, October 20th, 2008
So there we were, motoring along in the English Channel, using up precious and expensive fuel in calm weather; excellent fair weather apart from the lack of a usable wind, and we found ourselves just south of the Isle of Wight. We had made good progress through the Channel, past Dover and Dungeness and we had days to get to Milford Haven. We had intentionally planned a good deal of extra time for the passage from Ipswich to Wales, ten days in fact, in order to allow enough time for dodging westerly gales as can occur hereabouts. But we were steaming along in perfect summery weather and getting quite ahead of ourselves. Portsmouth was close by and the pre-eminent Royal Navy port so we turned north and made our way in to see what we could see.
There was a bit of fair wind and a fair tide so the crew loosed and set all sail on the Picton Castle for a sail up the Solent which is the strait between the Isle of Wight and mainland England. The western entrance, near some dramatic formations called “The Needles,” is quite narrow but easily managed. Lots of yachts out sailing in the Solent. The main town on Wight is Cowes, a major yachting centre. One small sail boat about 20 feet in length was sailing along well away from the fleet then tacked and crossed close under our bow as we were making way under full sail along the Solent. Close enough but not so bad as long as this brave sailor kept going but, no, once just past us and clear this marine savant tacked again directly ahead of us and sailed back under our jib-boom requiring us to make evasive manoeuvres to avoid hitting him. It is this sort of actually insane behaviour which gives yachties a bad name among tugboat and other commercial mariners, not to mention tall ship captains. The vast majority of recreational boaters are sensible, but this bright lad and his kind, not so much. Anyway, we managed to avoid him and he gets to be a suicidal fool another day. On a cheery note we also saw a couple of restored steam boats including a beautiful side-wheel paddle steamer called the Waverly slicing up and down the Solent. So quiet, elegant and fast.
Although with strong tides, the approaches to Portsmouth are simple and clear with great massive installations in these waters that look like forts left over from the Napoleonic wars spotted here and there. Soon up the narrow harbour entrance with ancient looking ramparts (which we later learned were built by Henry VIII), we came alongside a friendly Dutch Barkentine and we were moored across a fine floating wharf from the lovely Swedish schoolship the Bark Gunilla (much like Picton Castle) with whom we would become acquainted over the next few days. This is all at an area called Gun Wharf, once a Royal Navy installation, now a festival waterfront recreational area similar to Pier 17 in Manhattan or the Victoria & Alfred Basin in Cape Town. Lots of glitzy shops and fancy restaurants. Bright lights, big city. A short walk away was the old and still working fish-boat basin. This was nice to visit with is proper smells of tide, fish and old boats.
Portsmouth, England, has serious English Naval heritage here. The 1860 HMS Warrior is quite amazing. This is a monstrous iron auxiliary sail and steam powered warship. When built, she made all other ships obsolete. It is said that she altered the course of European history by being such a powerful deterrent. This ship could get anywhere with a great deal of fire power very quickly. She was of such fine construction that she was used as a Naval oiling depot in Wales until quite recently when it was decided to restore her. This restoration is most likely the biggest such effort of marine preservation ever undertaken. It is difficult to exaggerate her size and overwhelming impression She has been more elaborately kitted out since I last saw her. Sail and steam, big engine, big rig. At almost 10,000 tons the ship is HUGE. A larger ship than the famously large Prussean or Moshulu and built 40 years earlier. We are told that the Warrior never fired a shot in anger.
If the Warrior is one of the last and certainly most mighty English sailing warships, we also got to see what remains of one of the first English sailing warships. Not much to see with Henry VIII’s ship Mary Rose herself (she is in a very dark wet room behind glass being sprayed with chemicals) but the ship and her times are very well interpreted in a large separate exhibit, also very impressive. Lots of explanation on things and artifacts. Longbows, armour, clothes, plates, weapons and tools and bits of tarred hemp perfectly preserved, goes to show how tar is so good. The Mary Rose capsized right off the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour in 1545. Preserved in mud, she was eventually located and hauled up in 1982 in a unique and Herculean effort. It turns out that the longbows found in chests on the Mary Rose are the only extant examples of the famous English longbow from medieval times. Seems that local fishermen still drag up any number of stone canon balls from this era quite routinely hereabouts in the English Channel and usually chuck ‘em back – I am hoping on getting a couple, with at least their latitude and longitude for provenance. There seem to be lots of them littering the seabed.
Lord Admiral (or maybe it’s Admiral Lord) Horatio Nelson’s flagship the famous HMS Victory is next – quite an amazing vessel she is; but as one who thinks he sails these types of ships, she makes me wonder how on earth they managed to get such ships around. A bow and entry that is only a few degrees out from square to the fore and aft centreline and thus virtually flat to the sea, a remarkably short stubby run underwater aft with topsides forever high. Her lines are not too far off from a box. Plenty sea room, good anchors (and plenty of them) and a lot of waiting for a fair wind methinks. But a none the less a remarkable window into a world I am just as glad as a mariner to have skipped, although the seamanship/rope-work would have been high quality. They have on display the fore topsail of the Victory from the battle of Trafalgar which makes for a fascinating artifact, sewn just the way we sew sails today onboard the Picton Castle, with some 90 odd shot holes in it. So here in Portsmouth we have not simply three random antique ships but quite the troika of extremely significant ships behind the rule Britannia.
In the old parts of town we still see winding alleyways and charming old pubs that have been doing business with sailors for centuries. Time to go. Under full sail with a ESE breeze taking us out of the Channel, making our way around the bottom of the Isle of Wight just now. Getting cold and autumnal hereabouts.