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Leisure sailing on the River Thames: 1960s

East Coast Gaffer, Mike Beckett sails ‘Bonita’, built 1888 at Arnside by the Crossfield yard and owned by his family since 1936. In this post he reflects on sailing adventures as a young boy. The video is from the Erith Yacht Club archives.

In the mid 1960s the Thames was a filthy river; as youngsters at Erith Yacht Club we were told that if you fell in and took just one mouthful of water you would need a trip to hospital to have your stomach pumped. The warning worked, despite the lack of guard rails on ‘Bonita’ we never did fall in! The only benefit to the pollution was that no antifouling paint was required since no weed or barnacles could grow in the water; the bottom was simply painted with a coat of bitumastic paint to keep it waterproof.

There was much more commercial traffic on the Thames then with a regular procession of ships passing up to the London docks and back. As well as the ships there were thousands of Thames lighters, a large number of which were moored in a barge road off Erith. When a tug or ship passed by the clanging of the moored lighters gave advance warning of the approaching wash and you knew you’d have to hang on a few seconds later. Occasionally one of the lighters would be poorly secured and would break adrift. A number of EYC yachts on their moorings were hit by lighters and a few were sunk by them. It was after a drifting lighter hit ‘Bonita’ and became caught on her, breaking her bowsprit, springing the planks at the stem and dislodging her rail, that my father decided to move her down river to the safer waters of the Swale.

From the blog for ‘Bonita’