The answer would be in two parts; the first being that they all are, or have been ferries on the great River Humber, and secondly their Captains as a result will all have developed more than a nodding acquaintance with the skill of sailing sideways. In my time spent working in and around the various docks around the Humber I developed a great respect for the power of this mighty estuary and a considerable admiration for the skills of the men who handled ships and floating craft on it.
A glance at a chart of the Humber estuary confirms that the Port of Hull developed largely because of its position on the outside of one of the main bends in the estuary where the river flow, coupled with large tidal flow rates, meant good natural scouring and therefore natural deep water. Unfortunately, these characteristics also mean that, coupled with other occasional natural occurrences like North Sea ‘Breezes’ and the frequent grey, misty ‘haars’, handling ships in this area at times can be quite challenging and demanding.
I had many experiences of being on the Wingfield Castle and being whirled off the pontoons as soon as the mooring ropes were let go and then ‘crabbing’ our way across the river as the relatively low powered steam engines struggled to cope with the run of the tide. One memorable night I was on the last ferry from Hull to New Holland when we whirled off the pontoon in the middle of a dense Humber fog. The skipper had an elderly radar which wasn’t working, and I witnessed a rather unique form of anti-collision technique being developed.
A few Humber pilots were aboard on their way over to Grimsby or Immingham and they had their large ‘brick’ walkie-talkies with them. Around us various hooters were hooting as other river traffic made its way cautiously up or down river, and so the pilots called up these craft, found out their whereabouts and heading, and then shouted up to the skipper on the open bridge wing eg “Bolton Abbey coming down river about a mile off your starboard bow” and we crabbed a bit more to port and went even slower – interesting.
One of my slight regrets at this time was that I missed the chance of crossing the river on the ‘Scootin’ Cushions’ which were operated briefly between Grimsby and Hull by Humber Hovercraft Services Ltd in 1969. I was working at Grimsby for a short time and went to catch the hovercraft back to Hull. It was Minerva one of the pair which were involved, the other being Mercury. However it wasn’t running which was a common feature of the service as the flotsam in the Humber took a high toll on the relatively fragile propulsion machinery they had. So it was back to sliding away sideways from New Holland again.
Word around the river had it that the ‘Skippers’ or Captains of these craft were extremely special people, because at that time the Board of Trade couldn’t decide if the hovercrafts were ships or aircraft, so their ‘Skippers’ had to be qualified masters, with pilots’ licenses and Humber Pilot qualifications. I don’t know how true this was, but they obviously needed quite special qualities as, whenever they lost speed, steering these craft became quite a challenge and they tended to do a fair amount of sailing sideways just like the old steam ferries.
The technology may change over the years but the basic problems don’t when you have to handle a ship, particularly a big one on this muddy, unforgiving river. I visited Hull Docks recently and at the site of the ‘Run Ashore’ story (see Sea Breezes April 2012) there is now a riverside Ro/Ro berth for traffic to Holland. Even with 37,800 kw main engine power and 4,000 kw thruster power available, I was still tipping my hat to the skill and experience of the officers who handled the 215 metre long Pride of Rotterdam onto and off the link span berth.
She’s a big powerful ship but she’s on a big powerful river and there’s still a considerable element of ‘sailing sideways’ involved in her manoeuvring. Berthing is especially challenging as the linkspan is situated immediately upstream of the main entrance lock for King George and Queen Elizabeth docks, so a berthing vessel must first turn in the close vicinity of the dock entrance and then travel astern (and sideways) onto the link span; Tricky stuff on a foggy day with a spring tide running!
I am remarkably ignorant of the details of how ship masters are certificated these days, but I like to think that there are a select few of them with an endorsement to their ‘tickets’ which refers to the experience and ability of “Sailing ships sideways on the river Humber”.