This is a story of the most remarkable boat launching in which I have ever been privileged to take part. It took place in the heart of London, in the small hours of the morning, some time in the late sixties.
In those days we lived in a large house in Crouch End, a district fairly central to London. It was in this house that my oldest son was born. Among the most amiable inhabitants of the place was Raffles, an unattached boy in his teens. Raf lived as best he could -- a layabout as he would have been called by in those days. He shared his room with a succession of other layabouts. I liked him. He was fond of children.
He had a friend Jack, who lived in a rented room in Muswell Hill, a mile or two from Crouch End. Jack had conceived a bold plan: escape the grey English weather and sail - literally - to the South Seas with his little family and Raf as a kind of mate or bo"sun. I never did get to met Jack"s wife. I imagine a certain scepticism.
To get to teh South Seas required a boat. They had no boat. But the blood of seafaring englishmen flowed in Jack"s veins, if not in Raf"s. They would buy an old Thames Barge. This is not a barge as we know it here on the west coast (neither was the barge on which Cleopatra sat, for that matter) but a majestic sprit-rigged cargo-boat, quite famous among lovers of wooden boats.
The plan was that they would slip down the Thames, cut across the Channel on a calm day, then lock through the French canals to the Mediterranean, thence through Suez to the Red Sea and so on.
What to do for money? Jack and Raffles arranged somehow to run a saveloy barrow somewhere in the city. Saveloy is a traditional London sausage that stevedores and Covent Garden porters and the like buy early in the morning on their way to work - or they used to.
The dictionary says saveloy is a cockney corruption of the french word cervelas - brain. But i am sure I read somewhere that it came from servel d"oie - goose-brain. Does anybody know? Whatever the origin and whatever the ingredients today, I think it is fair to say that a steaming saveloy, with taut, glossy skin, is the best sausage in the world. Be that as it may (I expect there will be some ill-informed argument), jack and Raf were out in all weathers to save up for a down-payment on a boat.
After some time Raf had to admit they were not making as much money as they had planned. Also the going price of used Thames barges was out of sight, even in those days. So they lowered their sights to a more modest yacht. Raf moved elsewhere about this time, months went by, but the partnership continued. More time elapsed, then the word came through the network of friends that Raf and Jack had reduced still further their specifications for a boat.
Finally we heard that Raf and jack had got a boat. Used, VERY used, but a boat.
Now that the boat was actually being restored we were able to track the progress. When we went to look at it was propped up in the yard of their house in Muswell Hill. The boat was an eleven-foot, clinker-built rowing dingy. This may sound somewhat frail for putting out into the Indian Ocean. But Jack had extended the hull to stick out a foot behind the rudder. He had built up a diminutive cuddy (cabin) with a proper sliding hatch like a sea going yacht, mount a mast with running lights, though without batteries and he was casting a concrete keel onto this boat with an iron foot. It was totally astounding: an eleven-foot rowboat had become a twelve-foot rowboat had become a twelve-foot, sloop-rigged cabin cruiser.
Noah had to endure the mocking laughter of land-locked unbelievers. A man who lived in the same house as Jack claimed that he had taken measurements and calculated the displacement, taking into account length, beam, deadrise and other arcane factors of volume, and produced figures that conclusively demonstrated negative freeboard. In plain english, the boat would sink. He refused to attend the launching on the grounds that it was a forgone conclusions.
Jack said stoutly that boat would NOT sink.
They were arguing passionately when we left.
The whole project nearly through lack of cash. At one point Jack and Raf broke into a yacht chandlers. I was never able to make out what they were looking for. For some reason they took fifty copies of a yachting magazine and enough spools of waxed sailmaker"s twine to supply the Admiralty. They gave me some; it was very good, I used it for years.
We moved to Catford, a district some distance away, and lost contact with the boat, but about eleven o"clock one night a friend from an old house in Crouch End called to say that I must hurry, they were launching at the foot of Brewhouse Street! Even as we talked, she said, the craft was being towed through the darker parts of London because the car didn"t have a road-tax license. I believe it was the same decrepit Austin Seven that had carried the famous bale if twine.
Both sides of the Thames of course are built up of warehouses with loading docks along their sides, well above high water. But here and there you can find segments of the original strand, stretches of slippery black stones, exhausted condoms and oily water between the piles. When I arrived the boat was already in the water, floating at the end of a piece of twine, one can hardly call it a painter.
The doubters had been confounded: there WAS freeboard, though only several inches. A number of people had come to see them off, some standing on the stones, some sitting aliong the edges of the docks looking down. Raf was one of the onlookers; after one look at the boat in the water he had decided to stay ashore. The new plan was, Jack and Hakim, a friend of ours who claimed to have sailed in Bermuda, were to sail the boat down to Gravesend that night and tie up, his wife and child would meet them there and, weather permitting, they would cross the channel.
The harbour police had been and told them the exact time of the turn of the tide and had advised them to be on it. As awe all know, There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Jack had not read his Shakespear; he had missed this one; the tide was already slackening. But there he was on the foredeck, cheerfully running up in the mainsail, although the air was dead calm. Hakim was in the stern. He was to steer. In the cabin, for some reason, were two querulous Irish boys, one of whose name was Jimmy. I never saw them; they must have been very small. One was from northern Ireland and the other from Ireland proper. There seemed to be some animosity. There was also an alarm clock in the cabin, and periodically it would start to ring and everyone, crew and spectators, would hysterically scream TURN THAT FUCKING THING OUT! The Irish lads claimed it was under the floorboard and couldn"t be got at, there would then be a struggle and a mechanical strangling sound and the clock would stop, and then later would break out again. There was nothing illegal about noise, and no-one to hear anyway, but you have to understand that nervousness about the law was a conditioned reflex of people who were always on the wrong side of it.
Ultimately Jack got the sails hung. There was no wind, they had no oars, but Jack had faith. "look it. I found a stick, didn"t I?" He had found a length on one-by-three. They were eager to be gone. I have the honour of leading the boat the length of the dock and then castling off. They drifted slowly away in the dark, revolving in slow circles, reminding one of Eeyore going under the bridge in the childrens" book "The House at Pooh Corner". For some minutes we could see the black patch among the jiggling reflections from the Embankment, then they were gone. In a few minutes their voices vanished in the night noises of the river.
We piled into the car and drove down to Wandsworth Bridge and waited. And waited. They never came. I drove home.
Over next month or two I pieced together the broad outlines of the story from several sources. This is what happened. The four of them drifted down on the tide, without a breath of wind, and helpless to change course, until they hung several inches lower that the height of their mast. And here the current turned and swept them sideways along the cross-member of this bridge. The mast caught on each joist to clear the joists, the boat recovered a smack the next joist - doing-g-g. This happened over a considerable distance. Of course, with the freeboard so low each time the boat went over more water slopped into the cockpit and into the cabin. When the two irish boys felt this water they bolted out of the cabin, only they bolted at the same time and jammed in the hatchway.
However, the extra water lowered the boat sufficiently to get clear of this bridge. They continued drifting until they were ultimately somewhere in the pool of London where they tied up to a piling between ocean-going freighters and went home. The story ends, like the world, with a whimper.
Do you wonder, as I do, who were the irish boys? Why were they there? There was much mystery about this operation which I was never able to clear up, as there was a marked reluctance to talk about it afterwards. Nothing sinister; mind you, just the normal human capacity to be totally obsessed and utterly feckless at the same time.
The Port of London Authority somehow found Jack"s address and for some time wrote long letters asking what he proposed to do with his boat. Jack must have totally lost heart. In the end, on some dark night, with no man there to witness, the boat gurgled and sank.
This is a very funny story, and people laugh when I tell them. But to my mind it"s unsatisfactory, like a poem that stops short of the last line. It"s true they could never had got across the Channel, but they could have done better. If Jack had had the sense to seal a pair of oars, they could have slipped downriver during the night, through Limehouse Reach over longitude zero at the North Sea. That would have been something. That would have been satisfactory. That would have an actual act. As it is, the ending is like sand between the teeth. I know that to end with a bang is too much to expect of this life. But a whimper isn"t enough, is it?