Thursday, 1 August 2013

Sailing on the Thames 50 years ago

Bonita on the EYC scrubbing dock
As Bonita sets out on her passage across the Thames Estuary today on the 50th anniversary of the OGA it is a good time to recall how sailing on London's river has changed over the last half century. From 1937 to 1965 Bonita was based at Erith Yacht Club spending the winters in a mud berth dug into the saltings and summers on a swinging mooring. This 1937 photograph shows her up on the scrubbing dock with the EYC club ship Garson I (a converted Thames barge) behind. She has clearly just been painted - no doubt the reason for the photo.

The smart paint wouldn't have lasted very long, after a week or two on her mooring the topsides would have been smeared with oil. Even in the mid 1960s the Thames was a filthy river; as youngsters at the yacht club we were told that if you fell in and took just one mouthful of water you would need a trip to hospital to have your stomach pumped. The warning worked, despite Bonita's lack of guard rails we never did fall in! The only benefit to the pollution was that no antifouling paint was required since no weed or barnacles could grow in the water; the bottom was simply painted with a coat of bitumastic paint to keep it waterproof.

There was much more commercial traffic on the Thames then with a regular procession of ships passing up to the London docks and back. As well as the ships there were thousands of Thames lighters, a large number of which were moored in a barge road off Erith. When a tug or ship passed by the clanging of the moored lighters gave advance warning of the approaching wash and you knew you'd have to hang on a few seconds later. Occasionally one of the lighters would be poorly secured and would break adrift. A number of EYC yachts on their moorings were hit by lighters and a few were sunk by them. It was after a drifting lighter hit Bonita and became caught on her, breaking her bowsprit, springing the planks at the stem and dislodging her rail, that my father decided to move her down river to the safer waters of the Swale.

Allan Beckett
Yachting clothing has undergone dramatic changes. The first photo in this blog, which can be seen here, shows Dad's pre-war sailing outfit. By the time the war had finished he had smartened up a bit and was sailing in his demob suit as seen in the photo on the left; this photo was taken in the early '50s but not a lot had changed by 1960. The cine film below was taken on one of our weekend trips down to Holehaven; you can see that my 'yachting jacket' consisted of a normal raincoat. As I remember the only wet weather oilskins we had aboard were a very stiff and not very waterproof PVC ensemble complete with sou'wester.

In the film Bonita is sailing under her last suit of cotton sails, she got her first  terylene suit in 1964. If stowed away wet the cotton sails would go mouldy - a constant concern. As was blowing the sails out; we spent more than one Saturday evening at anchor hand stitching repairs so that we could sail home on Sunday.

Another notable advance was the invention of melamine crockery, in the days of china there were regular breakages, indeed on the occasion of one particularly vicious squall the crockery cupboard door came open and pretty well every plate aboard was shattered. How Captain Cook managed to keep the fine china dinner service that we saw in Orkney intact (23 June blog entry Fog and wind in the Orkneys) I cannot imagine.



There have been some distinct improvements aboard Bonita over the last 50 years but at the same time much remains unchanged. One constant is that, despite her distinctly cramped 19th century accommodation, she retains the ability to engender great affection in all who sail in her; so much so that many of her crew for the RBC have been insistent that they were not going to miss out on being a part of this, her greatest adventure.

More reminiscences about sailing on the Thames in the pre-terylene era can be found in the History section of the EYC's website here.