A Policeman’s Lot 27….The End of the Beginning 

Gradually Garry’s training games and exercises began to pay dividends and slowly….very slowly, my boat handling began to improve.

Garry was particularly adept at taking everyday jobs and tasks and making them far more difficult than they needed to be….He did this in order to set me problems to solve…..One such problem was “How do we deal with large pieces of driftwood that might cause a hazard to navigation”…..I don’t believe that today’s officers in the Marine Policing Unit bother themselves with such matters….And I can understand why!….Today’s launches are simply not built like the old workhorses that were the mainstay of the fleet in my days…..Indeed, if you tried to play some of the games that we used to enjoy during our training sessions, you would almost certainly cause substantial damage to those new and very expensive launches.

The River Thames is a large industrial tidal river and large balks of timber floating in the river (often just below the water line) can cause a lot of damage to a vessel travelling at speed….Therefore Thames Division officers would often secure such hazards to one of the many ‘Driftwood barges and catchers’ that the PLA located along the river for exactly that purpose…..These catches are floating cages attached to a mooring buoy…..They ‘swing’ with the tides and every so often the PLA will tow them away to be emptied and replace them with an empty one…..For most officers it was sufficient to secure the balk of timber with a bit of old rope and either release it in front of the catcher so that the tide took the ‘hazard’ into the catcher….Or simple secure the offending hazard alongside a driftwood barge…..But Garry wanted to take the exercise a little further….”How can we get this large lump of timber actually out of the river and onto the barge?”

“Dunno Garry….What’s the plan?”

“Well, I reckon if we secure the timber with two hitches along it’s length and approach the barge head to tide…..You can drop me off onto stern end of the barge…..I can then take the rope and run the rope AROUND the large metal mooring post…..If I then get back onto the boat, I can take a couple of turns around our bow mooring post…..If we then drive gently astern….what do you think will happen?”

“The timber will be pulled up towards the barge Garry.”

“Yes, but as we’ve secured it with two hitches…..I think the timber will be lifted clear of the water and ONTO the barge.”

“Errr….Might this not be considered a little dangerous, Garry?”

“No!….We don’t do dangerous!….There will be nobody aboard the barge while we are lifting….So that’s safe…. And we are both clear of any danger….The only danger is to that old bit of old rope…..And we would be dumping that anyway…..Shall we give it a go?…..Put me onto the barge on our starboard side.”

Garry released the rope from the cleat and jumped up onto the barge and ran the rope around the mooring post…..Then he jumped back into the launch and took several turns around the head post….”OK, now go very gently astern”.

Backwards we went….and the timber was drawn towards the barge and then up and clear of the water…..Towards the barges mooring post…. Where it jammed and held fast.

“Is that it? Do we leave it there?”

“No….That is not at all tidy….Take me back to the barge”

I returned the launch back to the barge and dropped Garry off….He tried to roll the timber into the hold of the barge but it was just too heavy….So he tied the rope off and managed to place the timber in a secure position….Then he returned to the launch….”And THAT is how you remove a large lump of timber from the river!”

Looking back with hindsight I can see that every aspect of the exercise was designed to get me to think logically about using the forces of the boat’s engines in a safe seamanlike manner…..And also to hone and polish my slowly developing boat handling skills.

Not all of our training exercises were practiced just with the two of us on the boat…..Sometimes there would be another crewman roped into the fun…..Garry insisted that all mooring exercises should be executed with as much control and efficiency as possible…..There are two ways of mooring a twin engined boat on a tidal river….Bow to tide and stern to tide…..Bow to tide was the normal way to use as Garry would say “Boats like to go forwards….They are not really designed to go backwards…..But sometimes you will simple have to moor your launch stern to tide”….And as with most things, Garry wanted every ‘Stern Fetch’ to be carried out in a very precise manner which he would make me practice time and time again.

Basically, to perform a stern fetch in any given location he would require me to approach the mooring place as I would for a head to to tide fetch…..But I would (depending on the state of tide) go about half a boats length past the mooring space….I would then be required to engage one engine and put other engine into neutral…..This turns the bow away from the desired mooring spot…..I would then have to put the neutral engine astern…..This means the boat turns much faster and drives the stern of the vessel towards the mooring spot…..If you have judged everything correctly, you can control the whole mooring process just by altering the revs on the forward engine and NOT touching the astern engine at all…..When Garry did it….It all seemed so simple…..But when I did it….I would ALWAYS end up putting BOTH engines into neutral….and then finishing the manoeuvre with engines and wheel…..This was NOT what Garry wanted at all!

One memorable day we were returning to Wapping….Crewing the launch were Garry, myself and another experienced officer called Dick…..Garry instructed me to moor up alongside another launch which was moored stern to tide…..So I would have to perform the dreaded stern to tide fetch in front of Garry’s ultra critical gaze….I went past the other launch, left my starboard engine driving ahead and knocked the port engine into neutral…..as the bow turned I engaged the port engine astern and this increased the rate of turn…..When we neared the other launch I increased the forward revs…..And all was going well….But at the very last moment I lost my nerve and disengaged both engines….to finish off the manoeuvre…..Garry was not impressed.

Right! Come away and go around again…..If you touch that astern engine before the manoeuvre is completed this time, I swear I am going to chuck your cap out the window!!!

Away we came….Around we went and repeated the manoeuvre which went better…..But I still touched the astern engine before I should have…..

Right!….I warned you!….He grabbed the uniform cap that was on the dashboard in front of me and tossed it out of the window and shouted “Hat Overboard Port side and heading down river!!!…..What are you going to do about THAT?”

“Erm….Nothing Garry….You’ve just chucked Dicks hat into the river!”

“WHAT?” Said Garry….

“WHAT?” Said Dick.

And I produced my hat from my kit bag!

Garry grabbed the wheel and flew after the floating hat as it bobbed down stream….”I’m sorry Dick…I had no idea it was YOUR hat…..This is YOUR fault Rob!!!!”

I would love to have come out with a witty response….But I was just too busy laughing!

After nine months of training had passed all six trainees had to undergo what was known as the ‘Academy Course’…..During this course we spent a fortnight in a classroom getting to grips with more advanced aspects of navigation and passage planning….We would learn all about tidal calculations and learn how to solve various problems….This was so that we could all sit and pass the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) Coastal Skippers Theory course (which we all eventually did).

One positive aspect of this course was that it marked a distinct watershed in our training….AFTER that course we were all deemed to be sufficiently proficient boat handlers to be allowed to take any of the duty launches out single handed….Providing we did not go beyond a strictly defined local area!….This proved VERY important for me personally as Garry now did not have to accompany me everywhere….Indeed, during the long hours of night duty he would often say to me….”Come on….What are you doing here in the station?….Take one of those boats out and practice all the things YOU think you need to work on”…..And That’s exactly what I did….I spent hour after hour in the early hours of the morning just practising my fetches and my man overboard drills…..And gradually….My confidence improved and so did my boat handling…..Until a year after arriving at Wapping I passed my Final Boat Test and qualified as a fully trained Thames Division Officer!

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  1. Your talents never cease to amaze me. Your magic even works on the water by producing your own hat when some other hat goes bobbing down the river. I’m still laughing. Nice writing as always Rob, take care.

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