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Beautiful Lady, Gray Day Page 2

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I had signed on as crew for the passage back from the boat show. Royal Denship distributor Peters Superyachts is based at Chichester, on the south coast, and the trip would take us eastwards down the Estuary and around North Foreland, south towards Dover, and then west along the north shore of the English Channel. In good weather, with an early start, this is a one-day affair in a fast boat like the Denship. But it was January. And besides, we needed to fuel up first.

In the chill, floodlit, grimly early morning, my fellow crewmen surfaced—skipper Dirk, engineer Barry, and Ben. Breakfast was smoked salmon sandwiches, Mars bars, and thick, strong coffee from the galley's Italian espresso machine. "Put some coal on!" chided the dockmaster over the VHF. Even though the last coal-fired steamer probably left these waters before he was born, his chirpy East End chivvying had the desired effect, and a disparate fleet of departing show boats—large, small, sail, and power—grouped up through the open road bridge and ghosted in darkness into a vast sea lock, there to be lowered gently 20 feet or so into the tidal Thames.

The 82 felt far from home amid the mudflats and slimy dock walls. In spite of her slick Italian looks, she's actually a pan-European project: designed in England by Bill Dixon, molded in Estonia, and fitted out in Denmark at the Tuco Yachts shipyard on the Baltic coast—which might be better known internationally as the builder of the 252-foot Princess Mariana.

A superyacht standard of workmanship seems to have filtered down the food chain, for not only are the walnut floors and cherry bulkheads flawlessly finished, but the 82 also packs in more technology than most. While each of the four guest cabins naturally has its own LCD TV, thanks to Royal Denship's Lantic yacht-management system, every guest can choose his/her own entertainment from the vessel's central PC and also keep an eye on the closed-circuit cameras in the engine room, check on the captain's navigation, access e-mails, adjust the air-conditioning, and draw the window blinds—all from a remote handset that looks like a small aluminum puck.

We took on fuel at Tower Bridge as the wintry dawn seeped in through the gaps in the city skyline. Four tons of diesel came to $4,500—no bulk discounts—and we were free to go. The outer districts of London's eastern riverscape read like a Shakespearean gazeteer. His old borough of Southwark lies just upstream. Bermondsey, Wapping, and Limehouse pass by on either side, their old warehouses either derelict, converted into luxury apartments, or just plain gone—victims of German bombs or post-war developers. King Henry VIII docked his fledgling Royal Navy at Deptford, and his daughter Queen Elizabeth I knighted Sir Francis Drake on the quarterdeck of the Golden Hind. Here, too, Capt. Cook's Resolution and Discovery were victualled before his last voyage to the Pacific.

But while Deptford from the water looks like a dreary mudhole, Greenwich never fails to amaze. The peerless architecture of Wren's naval hospital graces an immaculate rise of parkland, at the top of which sits the 17th-century Royal Observatory. Here a ritual waits to be observed by all suitably equipped navigators who pass this way: watching the GPS switch from the western to the eastern hemisphere.

From this point the river widens and starts to become more industrial, and whatever the weather is doing, the water always seems to be a sludgy grey-brown. With just the flat landscape of the Kent and Essex coasts on each side, we could feel the forecast winds properly for the first time: half a gale from the southwest, which, against the incoming tide, raised a steep, white-capped chop. The 82's full bow sections pounded into it as we attempted to establish a comfortable cruising speed entering the broad, straight Sea Reach. With fixed Q-SPD surface drives hooked up to 2,000-hp MTUs, this was harder than it sounds, but after a little trial and error we found the right combination of engine revs and trim tabs to maintain a steady and fairly smooth 20 knots.

Here, too, we started to share our bleak seascape with sizeable ships checking in and out of the big container terminal at Tilbury and the oil refinery at Canvey Island. It seems that London's commercial shipping still uses the river—it's just moved to deeper water.

Some of the strangest sights in the estuary are to be found in these lower reaches. After leaving Sea Reach No. 1 buoy behind us and altering southwards into Oaze Deep, the weird, four-legged structures of the Red Sand Towers ghosted into view to starboard, followed by the Shivering Sand Towers to port, like petrified battle robots from the War of the Worlds. Dating from World War II, these spectral forms were erected on the sands by the Army and fitted with antiaircraft guns. Long since abandoned, they stand now as bleak memorials to a turbulent past and even in bright sunshine have a haunted look.

A long, straggling line of ships sheltering in Margate Roads provided a surreal drag strip for our speed and acceleration trials. After our long, low-speed slog in the Estuary, on flat water the Denship raced joyfully to her maximum speed of well more than 40 knots.

Then, numbers crunched and boxes ticked, we left our somber spectator fleet to their chilly anchorage and headed around the steep headland of North Foreland into Ramsgate's snug haven, our bolthole for the night. As the southwesterly howled around the mastheads and sea spray lashed the harbor wall, the smoky clamor of Harvey's pub has never seemed so welcoming.

Everyone likes a little light-hearted mischief.

This article originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.