THE HQS WELLINGTON
I always think I know London quite well and central London especially so, but I am often caught out. So when I received an invitation from The Apostleship of the Sea to come and have drinks on board this vessel, moored on Victoria embankment, in exchange for listening to their report, I thought why not? I have a free evening, the weather is balmy, the evenings are long, and the organisation is one I support. I am full of admiration for anyone who can cope with life at sea, in a small crowded claustrophobic and the opposite of luxurious cabin, with the smell of fish or other cargo, and possibly other human beings, on a day to day or even month to month basis.
And then I realised: it’s a boat. floating on water. I am very afraid of water. That is an understatement. I can have a bath or even a shower, but the sight of a swimming pool makes me shudder and the sea has me trembling uncontrollably; rivers and lakes can be ok, unless there’s a wave – no matter how small, and then I become a juddering wreck.
But – I had accepted the invitation a few days ago, I was on my own, I would know no-one there, so it wouldn’t matter if I collapsed in a miserable heap, as no-one would recognise me.
I had left work very angry about something, and decided to walk it off as far as possible. It was warm and I really needed an icecream, but the one I like seems to be no longer available. So I trudged on and noticed a delightful hatshop in Earls Court Road. I walked in, had a little giggle to myself – some of the hats were very witty, and thentook the bus to south Kensington station.
A nightmare. It was five o’clock. Thousands of school children and tourist groups all trying to get on the same train. I waited. A couple of trains later I got off at Embankment – and there what should I see but this large boat, perched on the river just opposite Temple Gardens. I had literally never noticed it before, even though I have been here many times. I was a bit early so I had time to take in my surroundings. Mainly I needed to ascertain how I was going to board this vessel. First there were stone steps to get to the gangplank. I managed. Up and down, ever so carefully. Then I was greeted by a very jolly man, who told me where to go. Metal steps. Al moving. The tide was coming in and the ship was rolling. Not heavily. Not a force 9 gale. But rolling. I must have looked very green about the gills because a very nice elderly lady took one look at me and put out a helping hand. I said I was all right through gritted teeth, but held on to her for dear life. We boarded and received our badges. Then I had to find my way to the deck. The ship was heaving – or at least I imagined it was. More kind faces helped me on my way. Finally I reached the deck which was helpfully bedecked with chairs. I accepted a glass of wine, kept my feet apart sailor fashion and then thankfully sat down.
I managed to look behind me and take a photo of the view. The official photographer then took a photo of me, on my own. That felt very strange. Soon, however I was joined by a glamorous elderly couple who chatted away to me until one of their friends appeared. She was accompanied by her granddaughter and we all had to stand up to be introduced. I wasn’t at all sure about my sea-legs – everything was swaying – and no, I had not had too much to drink – and suddenly I realised I was ok!
I then managed to go down the beautiful carved and curved staircase to the lower deck for the presentation, where I discovered an old school friend and some people I knew from church. what a small world. However my desire for anonymity was not fulfilled and now I just had to be brave. Watching the presentation helped. we saw the dire conditions in which the seafarers lived and work and what they had to contend with. We listened to the people who helped and how devoted they were. it was a truly uplifting experience and one in which my real or imagined fears had no place. I left before I could be tempted to more drinks and canapés, feeling very humbled. Yet I still must have looked very wobbly as one of the hosts insisted on helping me off board.
I can’t say my phobia has gone, but I felt very pleased that I had come this far.