Search

Being at helm not always plain sailing

PUBLISHED: 15:46 18 June 2009 | UPDATED: 14:12 03 July 2010

The tug Fastnet hauls a Bessey and Palmer sailing collier upriver

The tug Fastnet hauls a Bessey and Palmer sailing collier upriver

IN my childish innocence, I had probably assumed that being in charge of a ship entailed little more than steering her in the right direction, avoiding rocks and giant octopi, repelling boarders, coping with gales and rough seas, and ensuring the crew did not mutiny - some of the foregoing regularly experienced by master mariners in the boys' adventure novels I read avidly.

The master of the old Haven Bridge 100 years ago had strict orders not to raise it when trains were due to leave Southtown or Vauxhall stations, ensuring that passengers caught them.

IN my childish innocence, I had probably assumed that being in charge of a ship entailed little more than steering her in the right direction, avoiding rocks and giant octopi, repelling boarders, coping with gales and rough seas, and ensuring the crew did not mutiny - some of the foregoing regularly experienced by master mariners in the boys' adventure novels I read avidly.

But when I helped Father Peggotty with his studies for his skipper's ticket, taken during the war when he was a chief petty officer in the Royal Naval Reserve, I began to realise that it was far more weighty and detailed. His course was at Grimsby, my mother and I moving into lodgings there to be with him during a welcome break from his minesweeping duties.

My role? When he recited from memory the so-called Rules of the Road for shipping - long and detailed “do's and don'ts” for safe passage at sea - I prompted him from the book when he faltered. Nearly seven decades on, all I can remember is that the longest was Article Nine about fishing vessels, plus a pair of simplifications: steam always gives way to sail, and “Green to green and red to red, perfect safety, go ahead”, a reference to the port and starboard coloured lights.

Successfully obtaining his skipper's certificate qualified him for command. However, a publication I have just read laid down such detailed regulations for simply entering the port of Great Yarmouth and berthing here, accomplishments that were almost second nature to Father Peggotty and his experienced driftermen colleagues, that a Cambridge first-class honours degree in advanced calculus appeared almost simpler!

The Great Yarmouth Port and Haven Acts 1866-1907, Harbour Master's Directions and Regulations for the navigation and use of the haven of Great Yarmouth, including “charges for ballast, metage and cranage, and schedule of haven and river tolls payable to the Port and Haven Commissioners”, is not recommended bed-time reading for insomniacs.

Metage? “The official weighing of loads of coal, grain etc”, according to my dictionary.

If they were as complicated as that more than a century ago, when Father Peggotty was a baby, I can but imagine how complex they are today when health and safety requirements are paramount and the commissioning of the outer harbour is imminent.

The paperback size essential book was lent to me by “Dilly” Appleton, long retired dock worker and lifeboatman, of Clydesdale Rise, Bradwell.

It includes two pull-out maps on greaseproof-like paper, one unfolding to 18in by 18in showing the rivers system (Yare, Bure, Waveney, Thurne and Ant) controlled by Yarmouth Port and Haven Commissioners from Stalham in the north to Beccles in the south, and Yarmouth/Lowestoft in the east to Norwich in the west. The second map covers the port from the twin piers at the harbour's mouth to Breydon Water.

I was puzzled to notice that the final page is 96 because the book does not look that thick. So I was even more perplexed to discovered that only pages 54-96 are within the stiff covers!

No vessel was allowed to anchor in the port without the consent of the harbour master (at that time, J G Bammant), and whoever did drop anchor for any reason “shall cause it to be immediately hove up upon being ordered” to do so by anyone with authority. Of course, the vessel would have blocked the channel.

Also, the master of every steam vessel longer than 200ft entering or leaving the port shall, when opposite the south pier, “have a proper point rope made fast to one or other of the bollards placed upon the skeleton work of the north pier for the safe conduct and navigation of his vessel and so that his vessel does not chafe against the south pier or otherwise damage the same.”

All vessels except fishing boats had to moor “with their heads to the south (down-river), their lower yards topped up on the side furthest from the quay, their running bowsprits run close in, jib-booms and flying jib-booms when attached, rigged in close to the cap, their studding sail booms and irons removed from the yards, their topsail yards braced fore and aft, and their anchors taken in clear of the gunwhale, or hung perpendicularly beneath the hawse, with the ring awash as may be ordered by the harbour master.

“Save and except and as occasion may require, the harbour master may specially direct such vessels to moor and lie with their heads to the north, their lower yards topped up on the side furthest from the quay and otherwise in manner aforesaid, and all fishing vessels shall have their trawl heads and davits inside the rails.”

Perhaps it was all second nature to skippers and masters, but documented as a precaution.

Woe betide the masters of any vessels “with putrid fish, bones or other offensive matter” for they were forbidden “to moor, lie, take in or discharge their cargoes northward of an imaginary line drawn directly across the haven from the north boundary of the north Fishwharf and the south side of the Haven Bridge, or between the north side of the Haven Bridge and an imaginary line drawn directly across the haven from the north end of Fisher's Quay.”

Got all that? OK, otherwise a penalty not exceeding £20 was liable to be levied.

The other rules are in similar vein, covering safe management (for example, when the Haven Bridge was opened for vessels to pass through, its master had to “keep a chain across the roadways contiguous to the respective leaves of the said bridge in order to prevent persons, horses, animals and carriages going or being upon the said leaves.”

But although it has always been claimed that shipping has priority over road traffic when it comes to bridge opening, even in the early 20th century, the regulations forbade it going up “within ten minutes next before the time fixed for the departure of any passenger train from either stations of the Great Eastern Railway Company” (Southtown and Vauxhall).

I found the most interesting part to be the exhaustive list of tolls levied on imports or exports handled in the port, an indication of the range of cargoes involved: acids, ales and vinegar, alkali, arsenic, asphalt, bagging,bricks and tiles, carriages, cattle, clay, cloth, coal, coconut kernels, cotton and wool, eggs, fish, glass (including broken) and earthenware, grains and seeds, groceries/greengroceries, hardware, hay/straw, hemp, furniture, ice, leather, lime, machinery, manures, metals, mineral waters, moss litter, musical instruments (pianos, organs, harpsichords, harps, bass viols), oils, oil cake, paper, rags, salt, stone, vitriol, wines and spirits, wood.

And cargoes going upriver, or coming downstream, were also subject to tolls.

Perhaps when our outer harbour is in full swing, our current range of cargoes will return to that comprehensive level.


If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the Great Yarmouth Mercury. Click the link in the orange box below for details.

Become a supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years, through good times and bad, serving as your advocate and trusted source of local information. Our industry is facing testing times, which is why I’m asking for your support. Every single contribution will help us continue to produce award-winning local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Thank you.

Most Read

Most Read

Latest from the Great Yarmouth Mercury