Garrison Fields

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Chapter 3 - Waiting off

They rowed down the river to the open sea as usual. Several ships were already preparing to leave, the shouts of the crews all around them, beginning their morning toil. Steam engines in the yards; thump, thump, thumping as they started spewing out their white and black clouds to power the steam hammers which were already pounding away. The sound of horses and morning deliveries being made, ships docked and the noise of the morning routines was everywhere. They sailed through and past it all, occasionally exchanging words with another river user, usually one of their own kind. A nod if close, or a raised hand if further away.

‘Whar y’off’, and as always, the reply from Derek.

’Our ‘olidays, whar’ y’off’ and of course the same reply returned, at which point all concerned would laugh and continue on their way. They could pick up a fair bit of trade in most parts of the river, from sculling crews backwards and forwards to the shore. That was fine, a shilling here and there, if you wanted the big money though, best get yourself down to the river-mouth and get a ship coming in. You had to moor her and then ferry her crew backwards and forwards, you could count on roughly a shilling a trip. One day they had made over thirty shillings, more than a roustabout would get paid in a week. Yes, there was money to be made, if you stayed at it.

They would row down the river, they had the fittings for a sail, but it was not often that they used it. On the way down the river the tide would take them to the river mouth and then they would row out to sea. In any weather, they would work. There were other boatmen that had bigger craft, if you went to Tyneside or Hartlepool or down Middlesbrough you would be able to see similar craft, some larger, some smaller, some with a sharper bow line.

Their boat the Lady Jane, no prizes for guessing who she was named after, was a Saltburn boat. She had been built in Saltburn just a few miles north, so had the classic lines of a Wearside Scull. She was the best part of twenty years old, her previous owner built her and ran her, until his hands, arthritic with the cold and damp, could barely hold the mooring lines.

The Lady Jane gleamed, she was not a collier’s boat, covered in coal dust from hauling coal from ship to shore. No, when she was not earning her keep, Albert and Derek would haul her out of the water. More often than not, you would find them with a bucket of black tar waterproofing and preserving her. Derek’s favourite words to anyone looking on was.

‘She’s as sound as the day old man Mally made her.’ He would then take his lock knife from his pocket and offer it to one and all.

‘You find me a piece of rot on the Lady Jane, and you’ll not buy a pint in the General this night?’ He was right the challenge never was won. Mind, it would have been a brave man who stepped forward to take up the challenge.

There was talk going around, some of the men were trying to set up a list at Roker. You would clock on and off the list, so the work might be shared out better. While Albert thought this was a good idea to benefit all, the other side of the partnership was dead set against it. This may have been partly as a result of all the time and effort Derek, went to knowing the comings and goings of the river. His contacts gave him a great advantage over most, his reputation due to his happy-go-lucky attitude was that he could smell a ship three miles off. Nothing could be further from the truth, his instinct, was in sniffing out the right men, in the right pub, especially those from the Marconi office and getting them half-cut.

Out they rowed, past the jetty with its beacon light, into the open sea. They followed the usual channel and went past the half mile buoy, as they approached the one mile buoy they noticed that one of the other boatmen was following on, it would be obvious if they continued further out, that they were expecting a major cargo ship and knew, where and when to expect it. They tied up at the buoy and waited off. This indicated that they were hedging their bets between coastal and major traffic coming in, the idea was to give the others no indication of the arrival of the Caledonia Castle.

‘Hallo Albert...Derek,’ came the call from the other boatmen as they passed.

‘You’ve steered a fast course this morning. We were going to lay off here. No mind, we’ll pass down the coast and lay off for the colliers coming up... Good luck.’ These were the coal barges that travelled the coastal waters, not much money in this kind of work and it was bloody hard. Neither of them were interested in each other’s trade, therefore, there was no animosity between them.

They watched as the boat glided past and moved into the distance, they watched it go and wished them good luck, they truly did, it was always a grievous injury to all of their kind when they heard of any seafarer in calamity.

They would wait here. There would be several ships due in, there would be other Foy boatmen coming out, but they were the first, so they would claim the first ship that came by. The list idea to a degree would work when you were out waiting. In the river you could get called, much like a passing hackney cab, out past the breakwater though, you would tie to the buoy and as the ships came in you would cast off and call to them.

‘Foy boatman for hire?’ If they required mooring by a Foy boatman, you would see one of the deck officers instructing the throwing of a weighted line, he would bellow through his megaphone.

‘Line away’ you, secured this and were pulled behind the ship. These modern propeller driven ships were a nightmare; they pulled you into their wake and threw you around like a cork in a bathtub. Most of the Foy boats had tarpaulins stretched over their front half’s. One of the reasons for this was that the wake of the ship could be so violent that it would break over the front of the Foy boat and could easily sink her. If you took on too much water, you would have to release the line, and lose your job. There would always be someone further up, able to moor them. The ship would not slow down or stop, for them, time was money.

They secured to the buoy and scoured the horizon for the first one to come. Derek as usual was not taking any chances and had a good idea of what was scheduled to come in that day, there was no point in pushing off for something that didn’t require their services.

They waited for less than half an hour, before a coastal cutter appeared. Her tall masts and sails looked as if they were trying to rip themselves out of the deck. She sliced through the water, appearing to glide, the spray rising off of her bows as she touched. Aye, that would be a nice warm up for the day ahead.

Derek leapt on to the walking bar that ran the circumference of the large red buoy they were moored to and pulled the knotted rope releasing it. Throwing the rope into their boat and as the tide turned the boat nearly touching the buoy, he stepped into it, casually as if out for a Sunday stroll. Albert had the oars in the gunnels and began to pull the short distance they needed to go, to intercept the vessel. When they got to the spot they pulled in the oars Derek stood waiting and as her bow came alongside, he shouted to them.

‘Foy boatman for hire?’ The megaphone response came.

‘Watch your head,’ as the weighted line was thrown over the front of their boat. Derek leapt on it and secured it to the gunnel at the front of their boat, the small amount of slack in the rope was now taken up by the forward motion of the Cutter. They felt it go tight and then braced themselves as they felt the lurch as it began to pull them. The bow of their boat was now under the control of the Cutter, where she went, they were going. Albert was at the rear of their boat, on the rudder steering through the wake as best he could. They watched in nostalgia, as the sails were trimmed, she made her way into the breakwater, they heard and knew all the commands which were being shouted on the deck of the cutter, she glided to a near stop by a buoy in the middle of the river.

The order came for them to secure her to the buoy, they cast off and ropes were thrown down to them. Derek leapt onto the buoy and tied her up, as the crew cranked the capstans to pull her on. They then returned to the side of the ship, where fresh instructions were given to ferry the captain and some of the crew to the shore. It was Albert as usual, the business head of the partnership who sorted out the financial arrangements with the Captain. Within moments they were all back in the boat and being ferried to the jetty and the harbour masters office. They waited for the captain and ferried him back to his ship. He would now use his longboat, if he needed to go ashore again, he was waiting for his dock space, with out engines he would have to have to have one of the steam tugs push him in.

They pointed the Lady Jane in the direction of the river mouth again, with Albert at the tiller. As they past downstream they looked for any ferrying work that might be required. But all was quiet, it was now late morning and as they reached the mouth of the river, near Barnum’s shipyard, they steered the Lady Jane into the quay and moored her up. There was a standpipe on the jetty where they washed the grime of the morning off of their hands and there they sat for the best part of half an hour, to have some of the tea and lunch that Jane had prepared for them in their bait boxes that morning.

They sat quite idly, as if on a Sunday morning excursion. Derek, his back supported by one of the large steel capstans, legs outstretched crossed one over the other, the heel of his left boot resting on the steel toe cap of his right. Picked up gravel from the side of him and flicked it into the water. Albert was sat on the edge of the quay with one leg hanging over; the other was pulled up nearly under his chin. His two arms were wrapped round it, to stop it slipping forward into the position of the others.

‘You heard about Barnum’s,’ he paused to ensure Albert was paying attention.

‘There’s talk in the General that they are planning to build the largest ship in the world there!’

Albert mulled it over for a second in his mind. This wasn’t really news, there was always some speculation or rumour, each time a ship owner was seen in a yard. Nine times out of ten they would go round several yards, until they obtained the most competitive price. The ship in everyone’s imagination was always to be the biggest or grandest. Derek was quite childish sometimes in his belief of others information. The best option was always to answer, with the facts. This was not that they would, but the fact that they could.

‘Aye you’re right there, Barnum’s is the only shipyard that can sea launch, their slip-way takes a ship straight into the North Sea. They can build a ship any size they want.’ A truer word was never spoken, Derek broke in.

‘Belfast, the Clyde the Tyne and the Tees, they can all only side launch...’ It was now time for Albert to break in, his chin now rested on his knee as he gazed down into the water as he spoke.

‘I’ve been up to the Clyde...It’s a big wide river... It’s a bit like a basin... The angles of the yards to it mean, they can bow launch most ships of any size, it would have to be a real big un’, for them not to be able to cope.′ Derek broke in again.

‘Aye, that might be, but Barnum’s can still build bigger!’ There was some North Eastern pride at stake now, best to just agree.

‘Well you can’t be wrong if you’re right’. It was now time to move the conversation on. What would be of interest? Henry Campbell Bannerman had just won the general election at the beginning of that month and was now the Liberal Prime Minister, no many things might have happened in February, but this would hold no interest to Derek.

‘Have you heard about Doxfords, they’re launching a new ship every two weeks? They say they are the busiest shipbuilder in the world.’ This would be music to Derek’s ears and would appeal to his local pride.

‘Aye, I’ve heard that, well, it proves we build the best!’ There could be no argument to that, he mulled on being the best. He packed his pipe with his thumb and lit it.

‘I suppose we should push off and find some more work, or we’ll be in the poor house by teatime.’ They climbed down into the Lady Jane and cast off, setting the bow on their previous course.

They had calculated with the Caledonia Castles reduced engine speed it would be late afternoon before she would reach them. It was early afternoon now and there were several others of their ilk already tied up; they greeted each other and prepared to wait their turn.

They settled themselves down in the boat, the only company being the clanging of the bell on the top of the buoy, beating out a tune, to the beat of the tide and the waves as it moved from side to side and up and down. They were so used to this noise that they paid it no heed, continuing to talk about anything and everything that took their fancy.

They smeared lard, which they kept in the boat box onto their hands to replenish where the saltwater had leached it off. It was that time of year where the cold and saltwater would split the skin on your hands down to the bone if you didn’t look after yourself.

After they had completed their preparations Derek, drew his matches from their waterproof wrapper and lit his pipe. He had let it go out when they had started rowing from the quay after lunch. He cradled the bowl of the pipe, it was a wooden briar pipe which he had owned for several years, it was dark and blackened with years of use and had an average size bowl and was an ‘S’ type of shape, one of those, that sort of hang down by the chin rather than stick out. He held the bowl of the pipe between his thumb and index finger as he drew on it, he could hear the tobacco crackle inside. He would take it out of his mouth and breathe out the thick smoke, looking into the top of the pipe he could see the white and black ash on top and the red embers like a small furnace underneath. He gazed into the bowl lost in his thoughts, once his pipe had expired, it would be time to move on to the next buoy.

The afternoon seemed slow, another Foy boatman had joined them. He mentioned that most of the old boys had earned enough for their drink for the day and were off home. The buoy seemed crowded, it was a quiet day for work, this signalled the exodus of two more boats who made their way back in, to try and pick up some sculling work. It was a good excuse for Derek and Albert to slip their mooring and move further out, to one of the deep-water channels. Knowing full well, this would be the way the Caledonia Castle would come. They bid the others goodbye, none of them were worried, they believed that Derek and Albert were reducing their chances by going further out.

They slipped the mooring and continued, taking turns to pull at the oars, the wind was feint and it reminded them of the old sailors stories, of being caught in the doldrums for days on end in the china seas, with no wind to ruffle a sail and waiting for the tide to carry them back to the trade winds. But those stories usually had one additional item; the lethargy that the heat gave to those sailors. The north east coat of England did not lend itself readily to lethargy, the cold prevented it. You needed to work to keep warm, it made more for pulling steadily and strongly on those oars and so with only the occasional sea gull for company they rowed to the next buoy, swinging the boat round, so that the bow pointed towards the direction of their expected quarry.

They hoped, that they would not have long to wait. But you could never be certain. They listened and observed for the tell-tale sign of smoke on the horizon, amusing themselves as best they could. Drinking their now cold beverages and eating what was left of the food prepared for them this morning. The perfunctory pipe was lit by Derek, he then proceeded to bait a couple of lines he had in an old baccy box with a few crumbs saved from his bait and let them out.

Sometimes, they might be lucky and for the scant resource supplied, retrieve one or two cod or haddock, which would of course be prepared fresh by Jane on their return. For the loss of two crumbs, it was worth the effort, after all there was nothing else to do, whether they were here for five minutes or five hours.

His other occupation after his housekeeping was performed, was to read. Derek’s preferred reading matter would be called popular literature. This included any of the penny dreadfuls which were to be found in copious supplies. Albert on the other hand, once conversation had been exhausted, would usually just relax and listen to Derek reading aloud. They both in turn would comment enthusiastically on the plot and any other area which took their fancy. On some occasions referencing the plot or writing style to one or more of the great authors and so the hours and for their partnership the days and years had rolled by.

At what they believed to be the appointed time for the Caledonia Castle to arrive, they began to make ready. They would have several minutes, when they sighted her, but it was their way. Neither carried a pocket watch, as this would have been wasted in the saltwater. They gauged the hour, by the knowledge they had acquired over the years; monitoring the sea and its tides and the rising and falling of the seasons and so they began to make ready.

After less than half an hour, they saw the tell-tale sign of a coal burning leviathan on the horizon. Within minutes its stature grew, this was the ship that they had waited for and today they were the only boatmen within hailing distance. It was late afternoon now and the light was fading, the Lady Jane silhouette was low in the water. Derek went forward and out of the boat box produced the lanterns; they lit and fixed them in position.

The athletic Derek, once again undid the mooring ropes while Albert, using one of the oars pushed off from the buoy. They steered a course towards the Caledonia Castle. The bow lookout had already spotted them, as before they positioned themselves ready.

It was apparent to all, what type of boatman they were. Captain Trent instructed his First Officer to prepare for the Foy boat to be taken in tow. This was more dangerous than the previous sailing ship, if they were to close the rope bails fixed to the side of their small boat would bounce off the hull of the larger ship, the bow wave caused by the larger ship might cause the smaller boat to be bounced in its swell. It was essential for the safety of themselves, that they grabbed that rope and tied off as quickly as possible. Derek this time took the rudder and kept the Lady Jane’s bow running parallel to that of the Caledonia Castle. He had to ensure that once they were secured and she pulled them into her wake, that the Lady Jane was not side on. If she was, the wave that they rode into the wake would, in all probability be big enough to sink them.

As soon as she was in hailing distance, they called her with the usual writ, offering their services. Through the megaphone the deck officer acknowledged and as before the line was cast to them, in less than a minute they were secured, they slack was taken on the rope and they were hauled into the wake of the ship, they bounced over the stern wave. The deck officer thought they were far out, it was unusual for boatman to be this far out. But, if you needed the money you took your chance.

They indeed were quite far out, the pilot had not yet joined the Caledonia Castle. His steam launch was now in site and was large enough to come alongside the Caledonia Castle. A rope climbing ladder with wooden steps was cast over the side of the ship. The pilot in his dark blue uniform stepped neatly onto the ladder and began to climb. The pilot launch now veered off and made its way back to port.

Once on board the Harbour Pilot would be taken to the bridge, where he would present his credentials to the Captain. This was essential so that the captain could fill in the ships-log, to show the details of the time he had boarded and taken what was in essence control of the ship. It was quite usual for all parties with several years’ seafaring experience under their belts to have met several times previously.

As such all were convivial and with the matters arranged, the ship was negotiated into port. This was not as may seem, an easy or indeed a repetitive task; with the lunar cycle and tides there would always be shifting sand banks near the entrance to the port, jagged spires of old cliffs that had long since eroded and retreated now covered by the sea waiting for any unsuspecting sea-farer. At best the ship might simply run aground for several hours and at worst could be sunk within sight of the port. Such were the calamities that befell sailors, who did not take on a good local pilot.

There were pictures in the town museum and lending library of the great local heroine Grace Darling, in a boat not dissimilar to Albert and Derek’s. Rowing out to rescue poor seamen, whose ship had been wrecked on the rocks in a violent storm and none but her, the bravest would venture out of port to save those souls. There be the lesson, for the sailor and also for the ship-owner. Better to lose a few pounds than a ship.

The Caledonia Castle slowly made her way into port, the first officer directing with his megaphone from outside on the open bridge giving instruction to each. The captain observing and monitoring the dock side of the ship; gently the ship slipped up to its mooring position in the centre of the river to wait its turn. When the first officer reported to the Captain that they were in the correct position, he issued his confirmation.

‘Very good Mr Grindell, please carry on.’ With this the first officer went out to the docking platform which runs slightly out from the ships bridge on each side and allows a view along the length of the ship and raising his megaphone gave the first instruction.

‘Let go f’ward line.’

‘Let go aft.’

As the Caledonia Castle had gently halted Albert untethered the towing rope from the Lady Jane and had made their way to the bow of the ship to receive its bow line. It was Albert’s turn this time. Derek rowed the short distance to the buoy, where he heaved the sodden rope onto the mooring lugs. They repeated the same operation with the bow line, the ship was secured. They were alongside the ship now and could hear the telegraph bell clicking from the bridge to the engine room ‘Finished with Engines’, the signal was repeated back to the bridge and the bell on this glorious brass instrument signalled its reply.

Now was their chance, the deck officer hailed them through his megaphone once more, their work was about to begin. Firstly, engineers from one of the yards, were to be ferried backwards and forward from the dockside to investigate the repair required. Once, this had been assessed there might be time for the crew to go onshore. Albert and Derek would fetch and carry, until they were needed no more, there was going to be a pretty penny to be made with this ship.

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