Tuesday, 5th July, 1983, is a day which will be long remembered at the Harwich Lifeboat Station. The Lifeboat Committee had chartered the local passenger ferry for an evening cruise to raise funds for the station. The evening ended in the ferry running aground and the Harwich Inshore lifeboat was launched to transfer the passengers to the shore.
The Lifeboat Committee had chartered the local passenger ferry the "Brightlinsea" for a evening cruise to raise funds. Ninty nine men, women and children set off on a pleasant summer's evening up the River Stour to Mistley. The evening was planned so that the "Brightlinsea" would arrive at Mistley on the high water and return down river on the ebb tide. The cruise started on time, with the Ladies Guild having provided the buffet in convenient carrier bags. Out of the 99 passengers, 7 held Master Mariner Foreign Going Certificates. 2 of these were local pilots and another was the Commodore Captain of a well known ferry company that sails out of Parkeston Quay.
The navigation channel that leads to Mistley takes a 60° turn to port just before Mistley Quay. The river is well marked by navigation buoys. It is true that one of the pilots on board held a river license for Mistley and was in the wheelhouse at the time of the grounding. His action, or inaction, has never been satisfactory explained. The other seasoned mariners on board noted over another glass of dry white wine that no attempt was made to alter course when abeam of turning buoy. It was concluded that this was the primary error of judgment leading to the grounding some minutes later.
Following a impromptu Committee Meeting, it was agreed that the passengers should not be alarmed.
As the vessel was believed to be aground aft, the passengers were invited by tannoy announcement to view the picturesque delights of Mistley from for'd. The Master Mariners had judged that if sufficient passengers moved for'd it would not be necessary to shift the cases of white wine and the ferry would be on a even keel.
As many yachtsmen have experienced, when the ebb tide is away the water level drops rapidly. The "Brightlingsea"'s passengers became aware that something was amiss as the surrounding water was by now belching brown mud as the engines thrashed astern in a last endeavour to back out the way she had come in. The sun setting on the Western banks of the River Stour is still memorable.
A further Committee Meeting was convened. Concern was now being expressed for the young ladies in light summer dressers and with no hot drinks or blankets they were feeling the evening chill. The Committee decided that the Inshore Lifeboat should be called to take off women and children in true nautical tradition. Not wanting to alarm every ship, boat and yacht in Harwich Harbour, including those ashore who maintain a radio watch on VHF scanners, it was decided a Mayday call was not appropriate. Using the VHF radio in the wheelhouse, a Committee member who was also a Deputy Launching Authority for the Harwich Lifeboats called Harwich Harbour Radio and requested the Lifeboat Coxswain be called and talk person to person on a private channel. Peter Burwood, when being told of the escapade, retained his usual composure and agreed that the Inshore Lifeboat should launch and he would do this without delay.
The Committee, who by now were in continuous session, were discussing the practicalities of how the elderly lady who had recently had a hip replacement could be negotiated down the 6' vertical ladder into the inshore lifeboat. She was not unduly concerned and appeared to be enjoying the attention. One of the passengers voluntarily came forward and gave the Committee a telephone number, saying that it should be called and two coaches to Mistley Quay be requested. A Committee Member passed this through Harwich Harbour Radio, whose staff should be credited for their prompt actions that night.
The arrival of the Inshore Lifeboat was like a scene from an adventure movie. Arriving at speed, blue light flashing, the 3 crew were met with gesticulations, the raising of wine glasses, and cheers of appreciation and recognition for family and friends.
Somewhat surprisingly to the Committee, but not the Master Mariners, the tide had fallen considerably in the time that they had been aground. The Inshore Lifeboat crew showed great presence of mind and obtained a nearby dinghy for use as a platform across the mud. The elderly lady with the plastic hip remarked, as she shinned down the ladder, that it was a wonderful experience. Another lady refused to leave without her doggy bag which contained the remains of her buffet. The bag was passed down to her in order to keep the peace. The request by Master Mariners for a docking bottle was refused. It is a true fact that the card school operating in the lower cabin pleaded to stay aboard overnight. This request too was denied.
As in all good adventure stories with a happy ending, the Committee saw with disbelief that, as the last passengers were being landed ashore in relays by the Inshore Lifeboat, 2 luxury coaches descended the hill onto Mistley Quay. The passenger who had previously passed the telephone number disclosed himself as being the owner of the local coach hire company. 4 passengers who, in nautical terms, did a pier head jump by joining the cruise on the off chance as it left Harwich, still believe that the whole evening was planned.
Whilst returning to Harwich on the coaches, some 2 hours later than the published itinerary, the Committee Members checked all passengers, and it was noted that the old lady with the plastic hip was feeling no pain. The other lady still clutched her doggy bag and one passenger had the audacity to ask the Committee to organise it again next year.