Formanda’s log entry says it all: “1705 passing Royal Party, dipped ensign, doffed cap, received wave from HM Queen Elizabeth II.”
Our regal acknowledgement marked a magnificent culmination of nine months of preparation in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Thames Pageant. We’d attended rehearsals, fettled ship and absorbed many pages of pre-event information and briefings supplied by the organisers, the PLA and the Association of Thames Yacht Clubs’ Chairman, Michael Shefras, who was tasked with getting the Recreational Motorboat Squadron in order.
The weekend commenced for us on Friday 1 June at West India Dock, where elements of the Pageant powered fleet were assembling. We expected the day to be a long one. First came the lock in, a slow process given the eclectic mix of vessels that arrived. Then a wait for our overnight moorings in Millwall Dock and a friendly safety inspection visit from the MCA. After that it was off to crew security accreditation, before the evening briefing for 700 skippers and nominated navigators at the West India Hilton.
The briefing was laced with humorous touches but suggested an underlying tension. For the PLA it was clear that so much was at risk. For individual participants the possibility still of exclusion, through mechanical trauma or process glitch. And everyone was aware the weather was threatening.
Not that there was much time to dwell on it. The fleet packed the lock outward bound early on a gloomy Saturday morning to transit to its pre-Pageant moorings at Barn Elms Reach, just below Hammersmith. The 60 RMS boats made surprisingly short work of turning and securing bow and stern to temporary buoys in a lively flood. Suddenly, the day was ours.
On Formanda our mooring was short, an issue we solved by bringing the aft mooring buoy up alongside. And it was shallow too, with the keel settling a foot into the mud at low tide. We also had to clear some driftwood off the stern. But we weren’t worried and left the plethora of attending PLA boats and their helpful crews to tend to more pressing issues. Watertaxis buzzed about but we stayed aboard and enjoyed a welcome dose of afternoon sun.
Sunday was a slow but irrevocable build to the big moment.
At 0930 the Thames Barrier closed and gradually, Barn Elms Reach became a benign lake. Rain, heavy at first, eased to nothing. Over on the far shore we could see the bright lights of a BBC TV interview position. Day-tripping visitors turned up on watertaxis and added to the buzz of conversation across the water. As the morning moved on more and more manned and powered craft passed us to head downstream into Pageant formation. Our final inspection, to check we weren’t drunk in charge among other things, was passed and we were issued with the essential Pageant flag granting us right of passage, two hours before departure.
Just after 1410 we went on standby. The signal to slip at 1439 was a mental and physical release. The fleet, already pre-assembled in formation, quickly got into shape.
Compared to rehearsals it became apparent that this day would be much easier. The combination of the closed Thames Barrier, minimising current to a barely discernible flow and giving good headroom through the bridges, plus the provision of an excellent generic passage plan, took much of the pressure away.
The Pageant route proper started at Albert Bridge, but the crowds at Putney provided a grand overture with enthusiastic cheers and waves which we and others matched with long blasts of our horns, the PLA byelaw warning against unnecessary use of sound signals clearly suspended by proxy.
This was all the more enjoyable in the dry, but the rain then arrived, with matching gusto. On Formanda we were sheltered and could only admire the resilience of the crowds on bridges and banksides, the crews in small boats and ultimately, HM Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh as they still stood attentive and engaged when our elements arrived off the Royal Barge, two-and-a-half hours after getting underway.
As my Dad, a former Scots Guards bandsman, stood on the foredeck and swooped his cap with military style hip-hip hoorays and Piers du Pré at the stern dipped Formanda’s new ensign, we knew that more than 860 sea miles of travelling and all that preparation had been worth every effort.