I suspect I shall always remember the year of 1999 as being
a turning of the tide in the life of me and 'er indoors, my wife Pauline, whose
own memories appear elsewhere on this site. This 'tide-turning' occurred when
my considerable talents were recognised by the Caroline organisation and I was
invited to become part of a working party one weekend during May. I shall always
be grateful to Pauline's friend, Jenni, for setting us up.
We duly arrived at Queenborough and took the tender, otherwise known as Andre's boat, out to the Ross. Having visited the Ross a couple of years ago during the summer '97 RSL, I had a reasonable idea of what to expect, but wasn't quite prepared for those living conditions (see Jenni's contribution) which truly added to the seafaring atmosphere; however, we were all in the same boat. Having met other foolhardy volunteers, we all settled down to work. Whilst Pauline was painting the legend "LA CAROLINE" on the back (nautical term Ed) deck and cursing anyone who dared to walk on her wet artistry, I tackled the red-and-white bits on the lower deck - well, some of them, anyway. We were a very jolly crowd, discovered we all had a fair bit in common and there was quite a party atmosphere on board. In fact, we actually did have a party, as it was our friend Linda's birthday. Jenni had baked a cake and we raised a glass or several to the event. Linda enjoyed celebrating her birthday by painting all the railings white, and now can't walk past anything with railings without having an urge to paint them.
Having passed the initiation ceremony with flying colours, as in red-and-white, our next appointment with the Ross was on her first weekend at Southend. As the gangplank wasn't yet in place we had to board by precarious horizontal ladder between pier and ship - try it! - but managed to get safely aboard without damaging the Ross or the new paintwork. As we couldn't have visitors, we amused ourselves with much more painting and talking to misty and goggle-eyed parties at the end of the pier.
As the weekends passed through the summer, I discovered my endless talents were coming in very handy. Mostly the days were spent tour guiding, more on that later, but there was the occasional maintenance job to do, such as fixing taps, and removing a door to make more space for the human traffic flow. Feeling flushed with success on completing these jobs I then became bogged down in fixing the loos, one of which needed a new valve. Having tracked down the required item, I spent a while fixing it and was rewarded with a properly flushing loo - water under the ridge, you might say. There wasn't much I could do about the rusty smell, though.
(Picture: DJ Sarah Miles, in her new 'roll' as loo-paper dispenser)
The tour guiding turned out to be much more interesting than I
imagined it would be and I had no trouble at all in getting to grips with it,
not to mention the visitors. When you've done several tours in a day you feel
you might be getting stale but think I managed to convince most touring parties
it was all fresh and new to me. I have to confess to feeling quite proud as
I was showing people round The Lady, especially during the RSL, when the broadcast
really brought the whole thing alive.
I encountered some very interesting individuals during the guided tours, some of whom deserve a mention. There was Bill, the 83-year-old Chelsea pensioner, who had travelled down to Southend on his own just to give us a look. As he was wearing his full regalia, complete with long, red coat, he tended to blend into the paintwork at times so I had to keep an eye on him and make sure I didn't lose him. It appeared the most exciting moment for him was actually sitting in the Captain's chair on the bridge. There was the lady whose husband was fishing and she decided to give us a look just to pass the time. Unfortunately, it appeared she had been passing time in a hostelry first and had trouble coping with the flat deck, let alone the ladders and stairways, and that's when we weren't rockin' and rollin' around; I think she may have found her resulting photographs of the floor of the bridge and the companionways very interesting!
I also met people from far-flung places such as the chap on a day-trip from Holland and the American couple doing a television project; I met people from various radio stations wanting to learn about the history of radio and improve their knowledge; I met DJs; I met Peter the Plank who spent every single day of our stay looking after the gangplank; I met lots of new crew members; and I met up again with many fellow enthusiasts and friends I had made in the world of radio during the last year or so. I also ate Jenni's cooking.
All in all, it was one hell of an experience, although quite exhausting at times, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world and would love to do it again. I wonder if I'll get the chance? I wonder if they'll have me? I wonder if the need for red-and-white paint will ever decrease? I wonder if the painting will ever stop? I wonder if we'll ever get everything fixed? I wonder where the Ross will be next year? I wonder when the next RSL broadcast will be? This is Caroline, one of the wonders of the world.