IOW: Hovercraft, Intrigue in Cowes and miles of shipwreck coastline

Ratty, the rat from Wind in the Willow’s: “There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham

alternate endings
Not my pink-nail-polished finger.

Do you remember the ‘Choose your own adventure’ books? The protagonist is “you”, and you are given choices that lead to alternate outcomes. You’d get to a certain page which said something like, “If you want to investigate the noise in the attic turn to pg85. If you decide to put earplugs in your ears and hide your head under the covers, turn to pg76.”

Not great literature, but as a recovering control-freak, I understand the temptation to try and be the mistress of my own destination/life/story.

However, as is often the case, life takes us down an ally we could never have conceived of or imagined … If you’d asked me ten or twenty years ago about my dreams and plans for the future, I would never have come up with this life.  Of course I’ve given God many suggestions over the years, but in His great wisdom, He always smiles and says, “Actually, I have something else in mind.”

Little did I know when I married my Englishman … that I’d be transformed into somewhat of a marine enthusiast.

I’ve now worked at our small family shipbrokers for over two years. Hubby is convinced that talk about our niche industry is a certain conversation killer, but I’m sure I could wow you at a cocktail party with a few facts and figures provided you have already started on your glass of vin rouge.

For instance, you all know the meaning of the radio call ‘Mayday’, but do you know that ‘pan-pan’ is also a distress call of a slightly less urgent nature? (Fact 1) If the deranged fisherman, Quint, in Jaws had not smashed up the VHF radio, the following call could have spared three terrified man a rather large problem.

Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan
235 762000, 235 762000, 235 762000
This is the fishing boat Orca, Orca, Orca
My position is 54 25 North 016 33 West
“This is Police Chief Brody … I’m going to need a bigger boat!”

Last weekend Hubby and I went to the Isle of Wight which is situated just off the south coast of England at Portsmouth.

Isle of Wight cliffsWe went there to say goodbye to our friend and salty sea dog ex-colleague who is leaving soon on a sailing adventure. The day was all about water thingies: yachts, dinghies, shipwrecks, harbour taxis, WW II sea forts, hovercraft, chain ferries and lighthouses. I’m going to insist on the term ‘thingies’ here as there really isn’t a collective term for them all. They are not all vessels, or boats, nor are they all self-propelled, or mobile and they do not all belong on/in water.

The adventure began on the Hoverferry from Portsmouth to Ryde. Did you know that a hovercraft is operated by a pilot, not a captain and is classed as an aircraft and not a vessel? (Fact 2) Once safely on board, you’ll enjoy an ‘air’ safety demonstration including an indication of where to find your nearest exit in the unlikely event of a accident.

Isle of WightFrom Ryde, we crossed the River Medina on a chain ferry and drove on through Cowes. On the outskirts of Cowes we passed an intriguing site somewhat hidden by trees and surrounded by a rather high electrified fence. This, we were told by our Salty-tour-guide, is a secret centre for Radar research and testing, believed to be involved in some really top secret marine radar and navigation operations. One source suggests that this Cowes facility has developed a radar which can “track more than 900 targets at one time and has the ability to spot objects as small as a tennis ball travelling up to three times the speed of sound”. (Cocktail party fact or fiction 3)

IOWFrom Cowes we drove along the beautiful western coastline of IOW to Yarmouth (apparently the lesser Yarmouth, not to be confused with Great Yarmouth in Norfolk). In Yarmouth harbour, our Salty’s Yacht Fathom was moored alongside a smaller yacht called Barbie. Why??? Boat names are funny things. Other vessel names I noted were Lady Sadie, Y Knot, Ferrari, Gemini Twin and Brainwash.

But the pièce de résistance … Salty informed us that he’d recently seen Passing Wind(Fact 4) Hubby and I enjoyed a cup of tea and a tour of Yacht Fathom (including a demonstration of Salty’s sophisticated communications, radar and sound system to accompany him on his 18month trip).

IOW Shipwrecks
Map of IOW shipwrecks.

Real, born-and-raised Isle-of-Wighters are known as Caulkheads. (Fact 5) Caulkheads claim that the IOW is diamond-shaped. Personally, I think it looks more like a sting-ray. You be the judge.

The IOW boasts 67miles (108km) of stunning coastline in the rather precarious position just off England’s south coast in the shipping lanes towards Europe. Shipwrecks were so commonplace in centuries gone by, that the early Caulkheads developed somewhat of a taste for smuggling, marauding and treasure hunting – this was extremely lucrative (Fact 6). In a redemptive twist, IOW-ters now boast one of the most active marine search and rescue agencies in the UK.

According to the ‘Wreck and Rescue’ Lifeboat Museum at Arreton Old Village, “Perhaps the largest loss of life was sustained by the Mendi that went down in 1917, claiming the lives of 656 native men from South Africa who were on their way to dig trenches on the front line. The men had never been to sea before and couldn’t swim. It is now a war grave.” #sadface (South African fact 7)

St Catherines lighthouseFrom shipwrecks to lighthouses… There is a small building up on the southern hill slope of St Catherine’s Point. IOW-ters call it the Pepperpot. The Pepperpot was the first lighthouse on the IOW built in 1323 and managed by monks who kept a wood fire burning in the tower. The Pepperpot still stands, though Cromwell destroyed the oratory attached to it. (Fact 8)

There is now a ‘new’ (1838) lighthouse much closer to the shore. To the absolute delight of the elderly museum volunteer, who I don’t think had had any visitors all day, we took a tour and climbed right to the top – not at all afraid of the steps or the ghost.

The huge lens in St Catherine’s Lighthouse is chipped in several places due to a German bomb which landed directly on the engine house on 1st June 1943, killing the three lighthouse keepers on duty. Their last log and a sixty year old Union Jack flag is still on display in the lighthouse today. The chips on the lens do not affect it’s light so they’ve never been replaced. (fact 9)

Finally, on arriving and leaving the IOW at Ryde, there are four very large, strangely-shaped land masses in the middle of the Solent Straight. These are the Palmerston Forts, interestingly named – Spitbank Fort, Horse Sand Fort, St Helen’s Fort and No Mans Land Fort. They were built in the late 1880’s as coastal defences to protect Britain from Napoleon. I’m told they were also used during WW II. They are now privately owned. They can only be reached by boat except for 10 minutes on the lowest point of the spring tide at equinox. On this one occassion per year, Britons pack their marmite sarnies and walk in their droves across the exposed sand to St Helen’s Fort for a 10 minute picnic.

That annual event is now on my ‘to do list’!

May your life, dear reader, take you down many interesting and unplanned alleyways!

P.s. Like mayday (from m’aidez, “help me”), the emergency call pan-pan derives from French. In French, a panne (“pan”) is a breakdown, such as a mechanical failure. A three-letter backronym, “possible assistance needed” or “pay attention now” is derived from “pan”.
P.p.s. A backronym is a combination of ‘backward’ and ‘acronym’, and has been defined as a “reverse acronym”, except that the words were chosen to fit the letters rather than the other way around.
P.p.p.s. I borrowed the MMSI number (235 762000) from a real vessel, the luxury liner, Queen Mary II.
P.p.p.p.s. On the IOW shipwreck map I tried to count and ultimately estimated over 700 shipwrecks noted along the IOW coastline.

5 thoughts on “IOW: Hovercraft, Intrigue in Cowes and miles of shipwreck coastline

  1. What a wonderful excursion you have had! Really sounds like an exert from those Enid Blyton’s – what with pirate’s coves and shipwrecks et al…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There are more or less 5,ooo islands in these parts of which the two largest are Great Britain and Ireland. Even though I was a Geography teacher, I have only set foot on a few of the smaller ones, namely Inch Island in Donegal, Clear island in County Kerry and Achill Island in Country Mayo;and of course the two aforementioned larger Islands. I therefore enjoyed this guided tour of an island I had always wished to visit, the IOW. I loved the Hover Craft film clip because I loved this mode of transport and actually had a conversation with a friend just the other day. I quite like BARBIE as a boat name as feminine names underscore the nautical tradition mostly and provide a possible muse for the salty male crews in the absence of their wives. I notice there is no mention in your blog of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s holiday masterpiece – Osborne House. Is this because you have republican leanings? Otherwise, as far as the map shape of the island goes, I think it resembles a china tea-pot. Thank you for putting this blog together so carefully. JOHN

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks John, thanks for your great long comment! I love it when I get feedback. I haven’t actually heard of Osborne House, but I’ll look it up – I’m more of a Royalist actually 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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