OK. I admit, I`m barking! As an old sea dog` on the beach` these days, I fantasise about life before the mast in those halcyon days of sail. If it was not for my wife, I would surround myself with the stuff that fills maritime themed pubs, join a Nelsons Navy re-enactment group if there was one in East Anglia ( anyone want to start one?) So it was a big surprise when a couple of Christmases ago, I unwrapped the replica naval cannon that she had bought for me! Unfortunately, the eight year old boy in me wanted to get it to fire but that is another story that involved the building and subsequent burning of a replica galleon! Yes I probably did have too much time on my hands. The cannon took pride of place in our garden for a while and out in all weathers, until I realised that this was sacrilege an abomination of a symbol from our nation’s maritime heritage, it would be better accommodated afloat!
That year I was determined to be involved in the Great Yarmouth Maritime festival. I would sail to Yarmouth, moor-up just outside the festival and as a musician, play with our band some of our more nautical themed material. I have never been one for shanty singing but recognise when old seadogs do finally come ashore, step onto the beach and belay there forever, there is this need to embrace a nation’s heritage, sing out their hearts, frighten young children and usually drink lots of beer! I just wanted to play some hornpipes and polkas, dress up like a pirate and look at some of the ships! When I realised that the music for the festival had already been selected and local bands like us were not suitable, I thought I would try a new tack. So I wrote to the Captains of two Warships planning to visit. I asked if we could play aboard them as a photo opportunity for the CD we were going to release. The best Navy in the world did not disappoint and I received two positive replies; we were all set. I even heard a rumour that a submarine would visit!
At low water, I motored my Cornish Crabber into the harbour with my wife and her friend onboard. The fact they had a long, vertical and rusty ladder to climb up if they had any hope of getting ashore, was not greeted very well but I`m pleased to report my marriage survived. Great Yarmouth is not known for accommodating leisure boaters. Some may have stronger words to say about that, but it is after all very much a commercial port. So when the Harbour Master approached my vessel, moored just outside the Festival, I was expecting some sort of official damnation. “Are you staying there?” he said, in a very polite manner. I informed him of my intention to stay and he then said to both my delight and disappointment, I could moor inside the festival! Close to the Grand Turk; a replica ship from Nelsons Navy with sails, cannons and everything! “Haven’t you got enough ships?” I asked him. It turned out the best navy in the world had let us down…broke down to be exact (Wasn’t like that in my day!). The band could still play onboard the smaller Naval vessel, but even I outgunned that one. I consoled myself, I had now become one of the exhibits, unofficially you understand.
An essential feature of any maritime celebration is every vessel dresses overall; a term used to describe the decorating of a ship, hoisting every brightly coloured flag, and my boat was no exception. I polished the brasses,` cheesed` down every line onboard and tucked away the` Irish pendants`, scrubbed the decks before checking the cannon. Now I`m no war-monger you understand, but when those big guns opened up on our ship, those very guns that bombarded Port Stanley with hundreds of shells, I would not be around; I hated loud explosions but as I mentioned earlier, certain `tinkering` with my Christmas present in a quest to make it go bang had been successful, much to my young sons delight. The festival saw many people enjoying the sun, the ships and many other attractions. Many stopped and stared with disbelief at my tiny vessel; hiding behind the harbour wall; its presence only revealed because of all those flags around the mast! Those that stopped, and there were thousands, read the information board displaying the boats history, it had been hastily drawn up and placed in a conspicuous place on a quayside ladder. I intended it only as a joke, but it is amazing just how many people actually believed the content, It read something like this. ANNEKIE. Launched 1755. Battle Honours: Nile, Copenhagen, Dunkirk, Cod War, Cold War, Sole Bay, Acle Straight.
Thanks to the Captain and Crew of HMS Explorer, we played our music to a very appreciative audience on the quay and I was amazed that they just left us to it, they being the crew! It was like they handed us the keys and said “Look after the place, were going for a spot of shore leave!” Not like that in my… For those not so familiar with a maritime festival it is full of colour and interest. You do not have to be an old shell-back to enjoy the atmosphere. My wife returned with the children, they promptly sat around the Punch and Judy show scoffing ice-cream and later joined in the various workshops.
Eventually, the two day event drew to a close, and I thought I would take the opportunity with a slackening tide, to have a sail in the harbour. There was just enough wind to get about as I made my way past the Grand Turk during the closing ceremony. I sailed fairly close by looking up at her open gun ports trying to imagine what it was like…The romantic head was now on my shoulders, the air was filled with battle hymns from the closing ceremony; Hearts Of Oak, Rule Britannia and as a Brit it awakened something in me, I was taken by the moment. The Grand Turk was a light- weight compared to Nelson’s flagship, the Victory. I went aboard her many times while shirking in Her Majesties Dockyard, but everything is relative and now it was me seriously out gunned. Before I tacked, I noticed a line of marines dressed in period uniform on deck, my imagination now in full flow as the range increased. I backed both headsails to get around quicker and when she steadied herself, I left the steering and walked forward. I looked at the wires and battery sticking out of the touch hole of my cannon, looked up as my gun came to bear. Suddenly, all health and safety flew out of my portholes as I was showered with…with spent gunpowder and scorched wadding! An almighty roar crashed into my reverie, took me to the Falklands and back as the smoke was then pierced by yet another sharp boom that echoed all around the streets of Yarmouth. The Grand Turks ceremonial broadside left the distinctive smell of gun powder smoke hanging in the air; not as unpleasant as cordite, but through this fog quickly composed myself and took aim with my cannon. Although the marines were lined up and facing inboard, a small number broke ranks and turned to see me increase the elevation of the weapon. I must add at this point, compared to what had just happened to me they had it coming to them…
The smoke cleared and so did my head. Those days of indoctrination had worked on me; The best navy in the worlds training had a lot to answer for. I had been to another place I sail so rarely. Had I experienced anything remotely like that of a seaman at Trafalgar? Of course not. But had I returned fire, it would no doubt have made a greater tale more befitting a barking old seadog . The following day I sailed across Breydon Water and hoisted the Jolly Roger, waited till I was well clear of humanity then touched those wires together. As a blue cloud rose up from the barrel a dark apocalyptic one answered, rose over the mudflats; a zillion wading birds stopped their wading and took to that Norfolk sky.