A Policeman’s Lot 26….Playing Games

With my two weeks on the Basic Boat Handling course now behind me I paraded for my first tour of duty at Wapping Police Station as a PC on ‘B’ Relief….I was introduced to my new colleagues and after a very relaxed parade everyone left the front office and made their way down to the pontoon to check over their allotted boats….All of my basic training had been in the single engined launches but now I would have to get used to the larger and more powerful twin engined launches that were used almost exclusively at Wapping because their patrol area was entirely tidal and shallow water was not a problem that Wapping officers really had to trouble themselves with.

Having checked the oil, and water in the engines and turned the engines over to make sure they were working properly and then checked all of the items of equipment that each boat carried I was able to make my way up to the canteen for a cup of tea before we left for our allotted patrols….It was in the canteen that I was first approached by Garry who was to be my relief instructor or “Sea Daddy” as they were called. Garry was a big man but he had a cheerful smile which served to relax me as he sat me down at a table.

”So, Rob, how experienced are you around boats?”

“I think it’s best if you treat.me as a complete novice Garry and start right from the beginning.”

“Yes, we will begin there but I’m just trying to gauge how much you might already know about boats and about the Thames?”

“Erm….Yes Garry… like I said, It’s all pretty new to me….I think we need to start right at the beginning.”

“OK….But you know a bit about tides….. Yes?”

“Well, I know that they come in and then go out again….But that’s about it!” And at this point I was detecting a little bit of concern and doubt in Garry’s face.

“OK. Fair enough. We start RIGHT from the beginning then…..He handed me the ‘Ladybird’ book of tides and weather” Or it looked very much like it….”Take this home tonight and give it a good read through….Especially the bits about the tides and you and I will start training tomorrow….OK?”

On my first patrol I was posted to the Duty Officer’s launch and my first day afloat was with the relief inspector, Dick……Dick had joined Thames Division from a Merchant Navy background and been promoted through the ranks to become an inspector…..I was a little surprised when he told me to take the wheel as soon as we got on the boat. “I’ve not actually driven any of the twin screws yet, Dick,” I said.

“Well it’s about time you did, then…..Tell the crew what you want….To let go aft”.

I shouted out “Let go aft” and the stern ropes were released.

“Now drive gently ahead on your port engine and tell the crew to Let go for’ard.”

I did as instructed and yelled “Let go for’ard”

“Now the boat is just held just by the for’ard spring….Come off the port throttle and tell him to let go For’ard Spring.”

I brought the port throttle back to neutral and yelled “Let go For’ard spring”.

“Right…. now you are free but you don’t want the tide to make you collide with the boats behind so fully Port the wheel….Gently engage Starboard engine ahead….Just a touch of astern on the port engine to get the bow into the ebbing tide…..That’s nice….Now gently ahead both and straighten the wheel and head up river….always keeping to the Starboard channeL….Easy In’nit?

As we punched the ebbing tide to proceed up river Tower Bridge came into view….”I’m hoping you know the name of that Bridge then?”

“Yes, I know Tower Bridge, London Bridge and Westminster Bridge but I will have to work on all the others.”

“Too right you will….You have a year to learn all you need to know to pass your Boatmaster’s Exam….And you will be expected to know ALL the bridges as well as ALL the reaches right up to Barnes and beyond….Did I hear you say that you don’t even drive a car?”

“That’s right….It just never happened and living in London, I never really HAD to learn.”

“Well you’re in for an interesting few months of hard graft then and you will be doing a lot of boat handling….But Garry is the ideal bloke to train you….Follow his advice and you won’t go far wrong.”

The next day I was posted with Garry and he took me through the tides….There are two high tides in each 24 hour period…..And the tidal range in Central London is a little over 7 metres at Spring High Tides…..What that means is that between any high tide and the following low tide (on average about six and a half hours later) there is an AWFUL lot of water flowing up and down the Thames in Central London at an average speed of between 4 to 5 knots (and one knot equals 1.1 MPH.)

Garry was a good instructor and an excellent boat handler and he had an interesting way of teaching…..He turned boat handling practice sessions into games….He would tell me to take the boats into places that I would never dream of going into without his guidence….His reasoning was always sound….”Not everything happens in open water….There will be occasions when you will have to work in restricted areas and you will have to decide whether it’s safe to take your boat and crew into any given situation….You will have to assess, depth of water and the state of tide….Maybe windage as well….Because if you are in charge….and one day you will be….If it all goes bent….YOU will have to explain why!”

Garry was an expert boat handler and he wanted me follow in his wake….His instructions were always very precise and his boat handling very smooth and assured….But it’s fair to say that I struggled with my boat handling….One day would go well and I would believe that I was finally getting the hang of it…..But then the next day would be awful again and I would just think I wasn’t making any progress at all…..There was a point when I was tempted to give it up and go back to ordinary policing work….I just could not see me ever REALLY fitting in at Wapping….After all, I was an outsider…..Most of the other officers had marine experience or a maritime background of some description….But I think Garry could see that I was struggling and he would spend time doing things to build my confidence.

There was one day when we went out in the station dinghy….Garry said “I want you to take me across to the other side of the river….How are you going to do that?”

“Use the oars and row you across.”

He took one of the oars and threw it overboard and I watched it float down river with a VERY confused look on my face…..”Now how are you going to get me across there?”

“Really? I haven’t got a clue Garry.”

“What else have we got in the boat?”

“One oar and a boat hook”

“What are you wearing?”

“My anorak….What’s that got to do with it?”

“It would make a splendid sail!”


Watch this…..Garry took off his anorak and knotted the sleeves….Then he slipped the top of the oar through one sleeve and the boat hook through the other…..”Now let the dinghy loose from the pontoon.”

The tide began to take us down river…..As we cleared the pontoon Garry held the anorak/sail aloft and changed the angle of the sail…..Slowly the wind caught the makeshift sail and began to blow us across the river….As Garry straightened our course I was amazed to see that our dinghy was actually making way against the tide and I could see that Garry was having the time of his life.

After a few minutes we were completely across the river and in slack water.

“Right…. your turn Admiral….You have the hard job….You are going to take us back….And moor us up on the inside of the pontoon again….Just take the anorak and offer it to the wind….The same as I did….Just play with it and see what happens….It’s knowhow and confidence….Not magic!”

Nervously I offered the sail up and found us being blown in the wrong direction….I turned the anorak in the other direction and we began making way against the tide again….NOW I was having fun!

“OK….Now you’ve got the idea….let the tide take us back to level with the pontoon and then hold the sail close to that angle and let the breeze take us across…..But watch out for other river traffic….What the other river users thought of a couple of coppers standing in a rowing dinghy and using an anorak as a makeshift sail I have absolutely no idea!

Slowly we sailed across the river….As we neared the police pontoon Garry said “Take the sail down….and as we clear the end of the pontoon raise it again….NOW!” and suddenly we were through the gap….Now moor us up….JOB DONE!

I was thrilled and I could see that he was impressed too.

“Just one thing more to do now”

“What’s that Garry?….Run to the twin screw….Man overboard drill to recover that oar….MAN OVERBOARD…..GO!

Garry was a great sailor but not a great runner and I was first onboard….I fired up the engines as Garry released the ropes…..I came slowly away and turned the helm to head down river to recover our oar…..Garry reached across and put the throttles full ahead….”COME ON ROB….This is a man overboard drill”…..We thundered down river at 30 knots….Garry pointed towards the North shore “MAN OVERBOARD OVER THERE….PORT SIDE!….I swung the wheel to Port once we were past the oar.

“Now kill your speed…..You need to do your final approach at dead slow speed…..You don’t want to kill your casualty before you recover them….Too much writing!….That’s nice….very easy….Pick up on your port side…..VERY SLOW…..Touch of Starboard astern….I have the casualty…..Switch off engine!….Great Job Rob….Take us back to Wapping…. It’s Tea Time!.

As we approached Wapping Garry said “Stern to tide fetch, bottom berth”

I drove past the berth and swung it round just as Garry had tried to teach me dozens of times….This time it seemed to click without even thinking and we glided into the berth and tied up….As I switched off the engines Garry came into the wheelhouse and said “So what was wrong with that last fetch?”

“Erm….I thought it went OK Garry”

“Exactly…..It was perfect….Precisely what we’ve been working on all this time….You CAN do it….All you need to do is believe in your own ability….So let’s have no more self doubt….You really do belong here!

“One thing Garry….How many times have you done that trick where you use the anorak as a sail for the dinghy?”

“Oohhh, let me think….Never…Today was the first time!…. I only thought of it when we were checking the boat over this morning. I was thinking today would be a great day to do some sailing…..And it worked, didn’t it?”

“Yes Garry….It worked very well indeed……But what if it hadn’t worked?”

“I would have looked a bit silly, wouldn’t I?”…..And we both had a good laugh as we went for our well earned cup of tea.

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    1. Glad you are still along for the ride, Bob….I will probably be wrapping it up soon as I will not be renewing my SC subs for the next quarter…..As has been stated by other members, this site is not what it was…..I joined for something to do during lockdown and that is now easing in the UK….Time to resume other things and to move on…..Probably at least a couple more posts to come yet though.

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