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The Channel Islands Ferry Tale

By Keith Hayler

(In the 1990's, during Christmas parties at BBC Transmission headquarters in Warwick, Keith entertained all the staff with various comedy acts.  On one occasion he delivered the story below in the style of comedian Bob Newhart, famous for The Driving Instructor.  After a good meal and a few glasses of wine the atmosphere was just right and Keith's performance was a great hit.  The story was rather long to include in On Air and really Keith needs to deliver it to make it come alive, but it still makes a good tale.  ME.) 

The Channel Isles have always struggled to receive reliable off-air programme feeds from the mainland due to the length of the propagation path (around 80 miles).  Sophisticated ‘diversity’ systems had to be developed for acceptable reception of both Radio and TV signals.  These were located on Alderney, the nearest of the Channel Isles, and the resultant programmes fed on to Jersey via conventional microwave link.

In 1984 a decision of the ITU Regional Administrative Radio Conference exacerbated the problem with respect to the Radio feeds.  The French delegate won agreement for the ERP of the VHF/FM services at Rowridge to be reduced by at least 8dB in the direction of France.  Alderney relied upon Rowridge as one of it’s ‘diverse’ Radio feeds and a reduction of this magnitude would render the current diversity feed arrangement unacceptable in terms of overall ‘availability’.  The proposed solution was ingenious; to interleave two digital carriers into the TV services radiated from Stockland Hill, the ‘parent’ TV station for the Channel Isles, and receive them via the existing  sensitive TV reception system on Alderney (see picture) .  After a year-long trial the results were deemed satisfactory and a project to install a permanent PCM link operating on this principle was approved.

The receiving end of the link consisted of two bays of equipment, about enough to fill a Transit van, which we needed to get to Alderney.  Being one of the smaller islands Alderney didn’t enjoy the transport services of the larger islands and we were obliged to use the one-and-only ferry available, operated by Torbay Seaways out of Torquay.  This ran once a fortnight, and then only in the Summer months.  The other endearing quality of this service was that the one vessel used on the route was of shallow draught, and visibly pitched and tossed, even on the calmest of seas.

By this point in my career I had achieved promotion to Project Engineer, and enjoyed the services of two Engineers to deal with nasty details like driving Transit vans.  One such Engineer was Liam McLaughlin, and it was he who pulled the short straw and was duly despatched one Sunday evening to catch the very early sailing the following Monday morning.

I was expecting to hear from Liam once he’d got to Alderney, hopefully by about midday, but no phone call came.  By about 2 o’clock curiosity had got the better of me and I decided to ring Torbay Seaways.

“Oh, hello. I was ringing to enquire about my colleague Liam McLaughlin, on your Alderney sailing”

“Ah . . .there’s a problem, Sir” came the reply in a voice so nautical that you could almost picture a parrot on the guy’s shoulder.  ”They’re currently anchored off Alderney.  You see, they can’t get in because of the gale.  Force 8 it is, North Easterly”.

“Oh . . .” I was taken aback to think that nature had the temerity to interfere in my well-laid plans ”and when do you think they’ll be able to dock?”

“Well, tricky one Alderney, with a with a wind like that running straight along that breakwater and….“

“Will it be OK to phone later?” I politely cut him short in anticipation of a lengthy nautical explanation. “Oh right, I’ll call later, thanks very much”

A couple of hours later I called back.

“Ah, Mr Hayler, they’re now on their way to Guernsey to try their luck there” came the reply, as if this was the obvious thing to do.  Actually, in fairness, the scheduled crossing was due to call at Guernsey anyway and I presumed that they’d just reversed the schedule in the hope of finding more favourable docking conditions at St Peter Port.  By 5 o’clock I’d still heard nothing and made one last call before I went home.

“Oh, still anchored off Guernsey? . . I see . . doubtless I’ll hear from Liam later.  Thanks for all your help. Goodbye”

It had struck me that, on account of the circumstances, perhaps Liam had arranged to call his mother that evening so, before I went home I took the precaution of noting the number from the Section records.  By 8 o’clock I’d still heard nothing and decided to phone Mrs McLaughlin.

“Mrs McLaughlin?” I enquired.  “Yes” came the answer in a soft Scots voice.

I went on to explain who I was and the reason for phoning.

“You see, the ferry is anchored in a Force 8 gale.  Liam has been on it since about 6 o’clock this morning and he won’t be able to phone until they dock”

“Oooh dear” came the pensive reply, “I don’t think that Liam will make a very good sailor...”

After I put the phone down my heart sunk.  Had I unwittingly sentenced someone to a day of untold misery and gut-wrenching discomfort? There was only one thing to do; wait and see.

I’d still heard nothing by the next morning so I phoned Torquay as soon as I got to the office.

“Still there, sir. We are trying our best” The poor man sounded as if he’d been there all night.

My thoughts reached out to Liam.  Twenty four hours on a flat-bottomed ferry in a Force 8 gale. What must he be feeling like?  The morning dragged on.  At around 11 the phone rang.

It was Liam.  “Liam! How are you? You must be feeling dreadful!”

“Actually, I feel fine” he said, “just about everyone else was ill though.  Listen, we’ve just docked but I can’t find out what’s going on”.  “Leave it with me” I replied, “I’ll give them a bell, I’m almost on first name terms now, you know.  Call me back in about 15 minutes”

A familiar voice answered the phone in Torquay.  “Ah, Mr Braye” I started “Good news at last, eh? Can you tell me when they’ll be setting off for Alderney?”  I wasn’t quite expecting the reply that I got.  “What do you mean, they’ll be coming back to Torquay?”

Tom Braye went on to explain about tides and commitments to get passengers to Torquay and other complications.  It transpired that the ferry was then to go straight back to Alderney, arriving the following morning. 

Throughout his explanation I was silently hatching a plan.  “Would it be ok if the van were to make the journey unaccompanied?” I asked.  “No problem, sir” came the reply, “as long as someone’s there at Alderney to meet it tomorrow”

Liam called back after another ten minutes.

“Liam, good news.  The ferry is actually going back to Alderney . . .via Torquay!  Don't panic though, you don't have to go with it”.  From the audible sigh there was obvious relief at the other end of the line.  “It should be back at Alderney tomorrow morning. I suggest that you go to the airport and book yourself a flight to Alderney so that you can meet it there”

Liam was in agreement with this plan and went off to find the airport.  About half an hour later he was back on the phone. 

“Keith, there's a slight problem with your plan” he said
“ . . they're not actually flying to Alderney at the moment”.
“What? Why not”
“Well . . . they've dug up the runway”
“But they can't have dug up the runway, surely they need it . .  we need it for heaven’s sake”
“Well, apparently they're repairing it. This wouldn't normally be a problem because they would land on the grass strip alongside.  But . . .” Liam paused for dramatic effect, “because it’s been raining for the best part of two days it's too wet to land on”

An awful conclusion was beginning to dawn on me.

“That means” I started slowly, so that the full implication of the following statement would not escape Liam, “that the only sure way of you being there when they unload the ferry . . .is to go with it”.

At this point I held the phone away from my ear in anticipation of a loud vocal response to the suggestion of spending almost another day on ‘the ferry from hell’.
“Oh, no problem” came the calm reply.

At this response I was secretly beginning to wonder what effect 36 hours of nautical torture had had on Liam's sanity.  But then I also suspected that this was tempered by the vision of an escalating T&DE claim.

In the meantime the other strand of my plan was under way.  Pete Gooderham, my other Engineer, was preparing to depart for Southampton to catch a flight to Alderney to meet Liam and help him unload the van.

The story continues the next day where, as luck would have it, the grass had dried out sufficiently for the Southampton flight to land.  If only Liam had known . . . still, all’s well that end’s well . . . .

By this time I think that Liam had just about had enough of talking to me and was happy to let Pete do the phoning.

“Hi, Pete, is the ferry in then?”
“Well yes . . .but there’s a slight problem”, this was a phrase that I was beginning to get used to.
“Go on then” I responded, a bit impatiently
“Well, having spent a day and a half in a Force 8 gale the deck of the ferry now looks like the aftermath of an explosion in a provisions warehouse, and our van is behind it all. We’ll be lucky to get it off”.
“Is there nothing they can do?” I enquired
“Well, they have offered to transfer the contents of the van into a dockside container for now”
“Great! That sounds like a good plan to me”
“Not so fast” continued Pete “I’ve seen the way these guys handle sacks of potatoes and there’s no way I’m letting them handle our kit”

That was all the justification I needed, having lovingly nurtured those precious bays through factory test only days earlier.  Pete promised to keep me up to date and rang off.

Shortly after, he was back on again.

“I’ll give you the good news first shall I?” he said
“Go on then” I replied.
“Well, they’ve managed to get the van off” Pete joyfully announced.
“And the bad news?” I prompted hesitantly.
“We’ve only got twenty minutes to get up to site, unload it, and get back down here.  We originally had a couple of hours because of the tides but most of that has been used up shifting potatoes and things.”

I was beginning to say stupid things by this point without realising quite what I meant.

“Is twenty minutes possible?”
“Put it this way” came the reply “I’ll leave it to you to tell Avis that they can’t have their van back for a fortnight”
“Thanks, Pete”

We had only booked a few days hire of the van and had ‘forgotten’ to tell them that we would be taking it to Alderney.  I chose only to ask if we could extend the hire.

As it turned out the van made a very handy temporary rubbish store, parked up at site for a fortnight. Despite my offer of getting Pete to do it, Liam felt duty-bound to go and collect the van from Torquay two weeks later.  It had been left at the dockside on Alderney and loaded onto the ferry by Torbay Seaways staff.  All Liam had to do was collect it from Torquay and drive it home.

The phone call came mid-afternoon.

“Keith, there’s a slight problem” came Liam’s impassive voice.  If the intervening fortnight hadn’t slightly dulled my memory of this crazy saga I might just have gone completely insane at this point. However, I stayed rational and calm.

“Go on Liam . . . I can’t wait”
“Well, to get vehicles on and off they have this elevator platform thing.  This rises to the level of the quayside so that you can drive on or off”
“Well, there’s this mobile crane you see.  It was all right loading it because it was only lowering it”
“Go on . . . “
“But they couldn’t get it off because it’s too heavy.  Now they’ve managed to burn out the lift motors trying to . . . .and our van is still on there”
“I don’t believe this Liam, please tell me you’re joking”
“No kidding.  They can get the cars off with a dockside crane but the van’s just too big”
“So how do they propose to get the wretched van off”
“With a mobile crane of course! But it will take a few hours to get here”
My patience was near breaking point.
“Liam” I said slowly and deliberately “Please, make sure that the next time you phone me it will be to tell me that the van is off and you’re coming back, please, you get my drift don’t you?”

Five minutes later the phone rang again.  It was Liam.

Whilst he had been safely out of the way phoning me they’d managed to get the van off the ferry. They didn’t say how . . .and we didn’t ask.

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