On Saturday 5th June 1965 PSPS chartered Embassy for a trip from Weymouth to Yarmouth with, for any who wanted, an extension round the Isle of Wight. By that stage in her career sailing around the Isle of Wight on Embassy was a great rarity. To start such a long day trip from Weymouth was a real and quite exceptional treat. There were those in the enthusiast community who thought that this would be a sell out. However, as it turned out only a tiny handful of intending passengers boarded Embassy at Weymouth that morning.
The day dawned with Weymouth engulfed in thick fog. Dad and I went down to join Embassy around 7.45am at the Pleasure Pier where she was berthed astern of Princess Elizabeth which had arrived back, also in fog, the previous evening around 7pm from her annual slipping in Southampton.
Dad and I both wondered if Embassy would go in this sort of fog as she didn’t have radar fitted and with the example of the Channel Island mailboat Caesarea, which was equipped with the latest navigational kit, being anchored off having decided to wait to come into the harbour until the visibility improved.
The 8am departure time came and went. Was that the sun trying to break through the fog? Or maybe not. We lay alongside for half an hour until 8.30am when Capt Iliffe decided that we would go almost certainly thinking that the fog would clear as the morning wore on as it so often does on the South Coast. “Stand By” was rung on the telegraph. We canted off, backed out with only a tiny handful of passengers aboard and turned onto a heading for St Albans Head.
Without radar Capt Iliffe and his mate Eric Plater used blind pilotage based on their dead reckoning of where they calculated that they should be at any one time during the voyage. How that works is like this. A course is laid on the chart between two points A and B making due allowance for wind and tide. The distance between the two points is measured. The ship’s speed through the water is guesstimated and from this and the distance the captain can work out how long it will take to get between the two points. So the captain always knows where he thinks that he should be which may or may not be exactly where he actually is. It is a fairly accurate technique but is only as good as the information fed into it. And if in doubt the only safe thing to do is to go to anchor.
So, on this day course was set on 100 degrees from Weymouth to St Albans Head. The distance between the two is 15 nautical miles. Embassy’s speed through the water was about 11 knots. That morning she was punching the tide which was going at around 2 knots against her so she was making 11 – 2 = 9 knots over the ground or bottom. The time at this speed taken to get to St Albans Head is therefore calculated to be one 1 hour and twenty minutes. With a departure time from Weymouth of 8.40am, allowing for the time to back out and turn, Embassy should have been of off St Albans Head at around 10am.
Having cleared St Albans Head without seeing it, course was then altered onto 075 degrees to take Embassy clear of Anvil Point and Durlston Head. The distance here is 4.5 nautical miles which would have taken 30 minutes so by 10.30am we should have been clear to come round northwards to pass to the east of Peverill Ledge. There was added confirmation of our position here as in those days Anvil Point blasted out a sound signal (now discontinued) in fog. We heard it loud and clear so knew that we were roughly where we thought we should be.
Then it was round onto 020 degrees to clear east of Peverill Point. The distance here is 1.5 nautical miles which took 10 minutes. Then, clear of the Peverill Ledge, course was set westwards at 10.40am onto 270 degrees towards Swanage Pier.
Embassy slowed down and we all listened out for the bell being rung on the Pier. This was clearly heard. Capt Iliffe took aim for the ringing and by 11am we had made fast alongside Swanage Pier. It had been a text book and masterly example of blind pilotage.
All these courses and distances in their areas were generally memorised by paddle steamer captains in those days. They had to commit such things to their minds to pass the examinations for their Trinity House Pilotage Certificates. As an aide memoire, and to save having to pull out charts and work things out on the day, they also generally carried Course and Distance books with all this worked out in advance including every conceivable course, distance and timing between any and all points throughout the tidal cycle anywhere in their areas. I made one up for KC when I first started thirty six years ago and very reassuring it was to have with me particularly in restricted visibility and in the dark.
Another handful of passengers came aboard at Swanage and we left at 11.05am backing out and turning northwards for Bournemouth. The course between the two is not a straight line but involves a short dog’s leg to clear Ballard Point and the cliffs north of it towards the old Harry Rocks. Course was set on 035 degrees with the distance to the slight turn being 1.5 nautical miles which would have taken 10 minutes and should have been reached by 11.20am.
Shortly before that there was a shout from the bow. Ballard Point could be seen very fine on the port bow and also very close. Capt Iliffe rang “Full Astern”. Chief Engineer Alf Pover was quick on the controls. Doing an emergency stop we came to rest with Embassy’s bow just feet from the cliffs which fortunately are quite steep to at this point.
It was a heart stopping moment. If we had hit head on and if the collision bulkhead had not been breached, the bow would have been badly damaged but it is unlikely that we would have sunk. If we had struck the rocks a glancing blow and more than one bulkhead had been damaged then it is likely that Embassy would have sunk and probably quite fast.
Embassy was equipped with life jackets for all the passengers and crew. And she had sufficient buoyant apparatus for everyone but deploying that required the ship to sink first for the buoyant apparatus to float off and for passengers, already in the water, to try to hold on to the grab-lines around them. Embassy had two life boats each of which could accommodate around 16 but they were intended primarily for the crew to help to coordinate the rescue and round up passengers already in the water and tow them to buoyant apparatus for them to hold onto. Dry shod evacuation for domestic passenger vessels in an emergency still lay well in the future.
How soon could a major rescue have been mounted? That would have depended on what other craft there were in the vicinity which on this day, and given the fog, probably wasn’t many. Realistically it is likely to have been an hour before a full scale emergency rescue operation could have been on the scene. And a lot can happen in an hour at sea with passengers almost certainly suffering from shock in the cold water hanging onto buoyant apparatus. With the tide running at just 1 knot anything floating in the water can drift 1 nautical mile in an hour which would have taken passengers and debris and spread them over a very wide radius far distant from the point of impact.
Fortunately it didn’t come to that. The quick reactions of the lookout, Capt Iliffe and Alf Pover prevented a major incident. We backed off. Set course onto 020 degrees and made fast alongside Bournemouth pier at 11.50am. There we stayed whilst a decision as to whether or not to continue the cruise was awaited. By 12.30pm the fog was starting to lift so off we went again for Yarmouth with a few more passengers who had joined us where we arrived at 2pm. Quite a few went ashore here before we cast off again to sail anti-clockwise around the island.
The steamer notice produced by the PSPS promised a trip “Enabling passengers to view the whole island coast at close range.” However, in my view prudently in the circumstances, after rounding the Needles at 2.30pm, Capt Iliffe stood well out to sea around the southern part of the Island as the visibility was still poor and we saw no more land until we were well on into Sandown Bay at about 4.30pm having passed the Island’s southern most tip at St Catherine’s Point unseen around 3.45pm. We passed between Horse Sand Fort and No Mans Land Fort just after 5.30pm, were off Cowes at 6.10pm and back in alongside at Yarmouth at 7pm with departure 5 minutes later for Bournemouth where we arrived at 8.35pm just over one and a half hours late. Dad and I went ashore there to make our way home to Weymouth.
It had been an exciting and interesting day for my fourteen year old self. I then thought that being out in fog was rather fun. I don’t think that any more. I don’t think that at all now.
With the high hopes which had been set for this cruise the passenger numbers were disappointing and did not compare well with Embassy’s more usual summer roster on the one and a half hour run between Bournemouth and Yarmouth or Totland Bay. Even in 1965 these trips were often heavily loaded and sometimes sold out to Embassy’s capacity for more than 700 in the peak weeks. These trips were also more suited to what Embassy could offer rather than all day trips on which passengers couldn’t get ashore not least because Embassy’s catering facilities for any who wanted lunch or high tea were distinctly limited. There was a bar on the main deck aft which in later years offered Watney’s “Draught Red Barrell”. There was a small galley in the sponson aft of the port paddle wheel but the dining saloon on the lower deck aft could accommodate only 35 seated for a meal at any one time.
A lot of the Bournemouth punters in the peak weeks also opted for going round the Island on a motor coach tour rather than by sea. That way they got a better close up view of the Island’s scenery than ever they could from the decks of Embassy and they could get out of the coach to stretch their legs and so experience different parts of the Island at first hand. This worked well for Cosens too. They took a commission on the motor coach tour part of the “combined steamer and motor coach tour” fares which was free money for them with no corresponding outlay on expenditure.