Indego’s Maiden Voyage
Background: Over the winter of 1974/75, members of Oxford branch of the British Sub-Aqua Club built a boat.
A 23ft long fibreglass hull and cuddy/cabin structure was purchased from Island Plastics on the Isle of Wight, and the club acquired the use of a couple of derelict railway arches on the land between Oxpens Road and the River Thames which was in the process of being developed. The arches were boarded up to make a vandal-proof workshop and four gangs of 10 people worked Monday-Thursday evening each week over several months to fit the boat out. In late June 1975 the job was completed and the boat, now named ‘Indego’, was lowered into the river by crane. A group of club members sailed her down the Thames to Richmond lock and, at the end of the week, a second gang went on board to sail her round the coast to Weymouth where the club did most of its diving. I was a member of the crew for this passage.
Indego launched into the River Thames, June 1975
It was a cool clear summer’s morning. None of the six of us had slept well – even the two who were lucky to have had the bunk beds in the cabin. The other four of us had had the hard deck to lie on with just a canvas sheet draped over a boom pole that ran the length of the deck to keep the weather out. Hot tea and a bowl of cereal cheered us up. There was no time to waste. The engine was started, mooring lines cast off and, while some were clearing away the bedding, the journey down the Thames to the open sea began.
The familiar London landmarks marked our route and it was somehow very satisfying to be one of the objects of attention of people strolling down the riverside walks. Mick, our skipper and inspirational club chairman who had instigated the project, had a grin on his face that told its own story, Colin Crook (Crooky) was our engineer and fussed about with an ear continually cocked for any engine misbeat. The rest of us were happy to take in the scenery and drink endless cups of tea that Les, our rawest crew member, kept making. He had been chosen by ballot from those who had worked on the boat. My choice as crew member had come as a surprise as I had not played a leading role in the construction of the boat. True I was Diving Officer of the club and had some knowledge of navigation (and cooking), but there were others with more boat handing experience than me who could have been more useful. I did get a hint of why I was picked later in the voyage.
We passed under Tower Bridge and gradually the river widened out; the shore receded until it was a grey line on the horizon. Ron was our navigator and now came into his own checking the chart and telling the helmsman what course to steer. Our confidence in his abilities took a dip when he set a course towards a buoy that was surrounded by seagulls. “Ron, either those birds have legs six foot long or we’re heading for a sandbank!”. We sheered off and Ron, somewhat crestfallen, went back to his chart. Mick frowned and gave me a look.
By late afternoon we were chugging along through a sea and sky that was so dramatic that for several weeks after the voyage was over I tried to capture it in watercolour. There was a chop that caused the tops of the waves to tumble into foam; there were heavy low broken clouds, dark where the cloud was thickest but bright where the edges caught the low sun. Islands of dark shadows fell over the sea but where the sun filtered through, the water was lit and shone with a golden brilliance. The sea still carried some of the silty water of the river and, churned by the breaking waves, shimmered like shot silk.
After a night moored up in Whitstable we set off for the next leg of our voyage. It would be a testing day for we would leave all the shelter of the estuary and turn the corner round North Foreland where the North Sea and the Channel meet. There are shoals off Margate that provide some shelter, but once past these we came into some quite big seas. Both the wind and tide were with us and these pushed up the sea into a twelve foot swell that rose behind us and swept us along. We knew very well that in such seas the forward edge of a wave can sometimes get so steep that it curls over and breaks. For us this would be disastrous as the sea would sweep over our open stern and swamp us. I could see everyone, myself included, taking the occasional backward look as each monster cast a shadow as it rose up behind us. Each time the boat rose happily to the wave as steady as a duck on a pond. We held on tight but were happy indeed to round South Foreland and enter more sheltered water again. An relieved voice said “I reckon Indego’s a bloody sight more seaworthy than any of us lot”. Too true – I had never experienced anything before quite so fearful or so exciting.
We got as far as Dover and moored up for the night, glad that that part of the journey was safely accomplished. Everyone called home to report progress. Dave, our sixth man and the other member of the crew chosen by ballot had some bad news. His father had had a heart attack and was in hospital. He decided he would have to leave us and Les, who had suffered badly with seasickness, also departed.
The next day was stormy so we stayed put despite protestations by Ron who wanted to carry on. It was here that I began to understand why Mick wanted me on board. Both he and Ron were strong personalities and Ron could sometimes show poor judgement and overconfidence not a good combination when at sea. Knowing that I was averse to risk taking Mick wanted my backup in any arguments.
By Tuesday the weather had cleared and we set off once more. This was easy. The sea was flat calm and we tootled along nicely passing Beach Head and Dungeness and by early evening came into Newhaven. The weather was so good that it seemed wise to continue our journey rather than risk further heavy seas so, after a solid meal, we set off. I was at the helm and as we left the harbour the darkness closed in. It is a strange experience to suddenly be plunged into total blackness with only a compass course to steer by but as my eyes acclimatised to the dark, the faint line of the horizon could just be made out. Pinpricks of light from shore gave some sense of distance from the coast and slowly, very slowly it seemed, we journeyed west. Our course was to the Owers lightship 30 miles away. Behind us stretched a long line of phosphorescence. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing to begin with and turned out the navigation lights in case it was just these reflecting in the water but no – it was still there – a long line of blue fire in our wake.
After passing the Owers, our next way point was St Catherines point on the Isle of Wight.
Dawn came up behind us and made the view ahead seem even darker. I got my head down in the cabin and the next thing I remember was the sound of the anchor cable rattling down just above my head. I looked up and saw Crooky, who had also had a little sleep raise his head. There was some muttering going on outside which apparently concerned the fact that while we were bedded down no one could use the heads (lavatory) and there was a debate about whether to wake us or take the tender ashore. We took the hint and got up.
The next stage of the voyage would take us past St Albans Head. This was a nasty stretch of water with a reef that extended some miles offshore and renowned for its strong currents. The visibility had closed in to about 2 or 3 miles which made plotting our position very difficult. This was in the days before GPS and all our fixes were compass bearings from landmarks. Ron had been up most of the night so it was left to me to navigate. I set a course to take us outside of the race but by doing so we got out of sight of land. By now we were all feeling very tired – we had been on the move for over 24 hours and even grabbing the occasional hour or two sleep it was not that restful. As we chugged on the sea began to get rather lumpy and with the tide building up in strength it began to look a bit bleak. Only Ron objected to the suggestion that we turn back to Swanage and take on more fuel and take stock. However, he was too knackered to put up much of a protest.
The choice was to go on or go further back into the Solent to find a more secure berth as Swanage itself is quite open and has no sheltered mooring. We managed to buy ten gallons of diesel from a fisherman and quizzed him about getting round the headland. These was an inner passage which would avoid the long sweep seawards and no problem hugging the coastline as there were no hidden dangers. Relieved by this knowledge and with our destination seemingly achievable within a few hours, we decided to press on.
All was going very well. We passed round Durleston Head and by 6.30pm had got as far as Anvil Point thinking that we now had an easy journey ahead of us when a grey sleek launch came heading towards us. It was an army patrol boat and we were told that we could proceed no further for two hours as the army was using the firing ranges at Lullworth. We pleaded tiredness and strain but it fell on deaf ears. Cursing, we dropped anchor and I cooked up our remaining food – at least we wouldn’t starve although it was thin rations.
They let us through at 8.00pm. Those last 20 miles seemed interminable. The sun set and we entered our second night and 36 hours without proper sleep. Ron and Crooky were dead on their feet and hunkered down in the cabin. Mick and I took turns at the wheel, trying desperately to keep our heavy-lidded eyes open and the boat heading in the right direction. Our joints ached and waves of nausea swept over us. It had been an incredibly testing journey; despite the occasional differences of opinion, we felt a deep bond had developed between us, we had experienced a few fearful moments, some good laughs, some incredible sights and a lot of tiredness and exhaustion; we had huge confidence in the boat and for me, well I felt six inches taller.
Eventually, and ever so slowly, we saw a glimmer ahead. The glimmer became a band of light and at last the lights resolved into the Weymouth waterfront. According to the chart, the harbour entrance is marked by a single red light – what a joke – there must have been a 1000 red lights, and green and yellow and blue along the front. In fact the harbour entrance was mostly marked by darkness and the lack of lights!
It was 11.15pm as we entered the harbour. A tannoyed voice boomed out from the gloom “HM Customs, what boat and where from?”. “Motor vessel Indego, from Oxford” was our proud reply.
About 7pm on 1st July 1975 off Beachy Head