This log entry proved to be the beginning of an epic voyage,
the first that Challenge had made under her own steam (literally) for thirty
This was the third attempt at making the trip. The first, in July, had been thwarted by some debris in the main valve, which could not be rectified safely whilst in steam. The second, at the end of August, was brought abruptly to an end, whilst raising steam, by Southampton Port Health Authority, who shut us down under the Clean Air Act, 1993.
Our final attempt was made after a great deal of adjustment,
alteration and prayer. Apart from the
occasional 'indiscretion' of dark emissions, which were inevitable whilst
experimenting, there was a vast improvement. This is not to say that our hearts were not in our mouths on occasions, and vehicle movements on the quayside were viewed with extreme suspicion in case the occupant was an official.
Alarming loss of fresh water
As one might expect there were many other concerns; the major worry being that during trials the day before, fresh water for the boiler was being lost at an alarming rate. Overnight the forward and aft ballast tanks had been filled (holding 14 & 12 tons of water respectively) together with the top-up tanks port and starboard. At the previous days' rate of loss however there would still be a need to put in to port in order to replenish the tanks.
Off Hamble Point the engine was stopped for various checks,
only to start up in astern, to much consternation in the wheelhouse. "What the (salty language)" will give you an idea of what was said. An
onlooker would have been surprised to see Challenge making a tight turn at
about four knots - astern. This minor
problem was soon rectified and, surprisingly perhaps, an enquiry was not made as to the cause, nor was an answer given, until much later in the trip. We thought it better not to ask!
Good progress was made out through Spithead and the forts and then through the Looe Channel off Selsea Bill. There were three calls from Solent Coastguard; the first off Bognor Regis.
"Challenge - can you give us your position please?" ...."Oh yes we thought it was
The second was similar. The final contact from Solent Coastguard informed us that they, the coastguard, had received twenty-one SOS calls from the public about a vessel in distress at sea. On receiving our
apology for causing them trouble, their reaction was 'not to worry at all - it
keeps us awake but, once past Beachy Head, please would we call Dover to warn them of our
The night before setting off we drank to a successful and
uneventful trip, and to the crew's relief there were no major problems. One difficulty for the deck crew, was steam from the steering engine filling the deckhouse on occasions. A towel to clear the windows was essential. My phone decided that it disliked the
conditions and ceased to function.
The engineers, in two watches, were kept busy; the cause of
the water loss was discovered and rectified, and little by little the knocks and bangs were reduced. As the fine-tuning took place the engine ran ever more smoothly and sweetly as the
hours went by. Eighty rpm gave the old
girl approximately 9 knots, thanks to her 10'6" propeller. Challenge had a bone in her teeth! She was going home and she knew it!
There were no further enquiries regarding our position, and darkness covered our progress through the Goodwins, past North Foreland, and
into the Thames estuary. At 0800 we picked up one of the Tug buoys at Gravesend. Challenge received a fitting welcome as darkness gave way to light. We were kept busy blowing the whistle (a
little breathless by this time) in response, as working tugs came by to inspect
the 'Old Lady of the River'.
Greetings from other tugs
At 1140 hours we slipped our mooring.
Mick Wemban, a tug skipper, took the helm. As a youngster he had served aboard Challenge, first as cook in her coal-burning days and then as junior and senior deckhand until shortly before she was retired. It was noticed below that a different hand was on the controls, and they had to be on their toes. Slow ahead or astern were used sparingly as we swung away from her mooring with pace, and up river to the dock entrance, where we locked in, as arranged, at 1200 hours.
The approach to our berth proved problematic, the berth had
silted up and there was insufficient water. Tenacity (and 1100hp) failed and she sat ignominiously in the mud bow in
and stern out, in an undignified pose.
Eventually, after what seemed an age, we obtained permission to move elsewhere in the dock, where Challenge now lies gracing Tilbury with a piece of
Notes: Alongside Tilbury, finished with engines.
At 1430 we had 'finished with engines'. The trip was finally over. We were tired, but buoyed up by a feeling of achievement.
I would like to record thanks to all the crew, but in particular to John Everett our chief engineer who for the two weeks prior to the trip worked tirelessly on making improvements and alterations to the burners and the boiler doors. Had it not been for his efforts on our behalf, Challenge would, without doubt, still be at Southampton.
Richard Jarvis acted as second engineer. Together with John he is part of the Shieldhall (another steam vessel) team and had introduced us to John. He brought his not inconsiderable knowledge of steam to bear upon our needs. Len Lochrie, Ian Colquhoun, Bill Digalis (apologies for any spelling error) and Dennis Stanfield, who have all put in a considerable amount of work on Challenge over a long period, made up the rest of the team. Their skill and expertise was emphasised by both John and Richard.
Thanks also to the deck crew headed up by our skipper - Robert (the gait) Allen, whose company, attention to detail and seamanship was a pleasure. David (the rope) Carr - second
mate, Ron (the beard) Toby - third mate, and myself.
Wonderful crew of ten
It is not an easy, nor a straightforward task to gather
together a good crew of ten; work, holidays and other commitments tend to foil ones best efforts. This was an excellent crew who worked well together. The engineers gained invaluable experience, only possible on a run, regarding the eccentricities of the old girl. The manoeuvring characteristics however have still to be mastered; like all old ladies she is somewhat unpredictable going astern.
Only way to find snags
Once the basic fitting out is completed, taking a vessel to
sea is the only way to discover many snags. Now that this has been done it
leaves us with a long list of jobs to complete over the winter. These, when completed, will enable a crew to
take her to sea with confidence.
Many may well have had doubts that Challenge would ever go to sea again. It is a tribute to Jerry Lewis as Chairman of the Trust, the Trustees, Chris Jones, who was project manager for the restoration, and of course the Heritage Lottery Fund for their financial input. Most of all though, it
is thanks to the many and dedicated volunteers who, over the last ten years,
have given their time to the project.
The next 'Challenge' is for 'The Lady' to earn her keep.
(CharlesCave is a Trustee of the Dunkirk Little Ships Restoration Trust)