Liz Ayers and I had been across the Tyne ferry one Saturday evening in November, and noticed a large ship in the gloom and shadows. The next morning saw us down on the quay at South Shields to get a good butcher's at it.
I never expected to find myself fighting my way through the heaving masses though. Well blow me if it wasn't HMS Illustrious - pride of the fleet and all that! No wonder that everyone was here. there.
We had no idea that the Tyne was about to become a scene of frenzied activity, despite the madding crowds who were thronging round about here. What gave the game away was the rather sudden and spectacular arrival of three Tyne river tugs.
This one is the "Rowangarth", registered in Liverpool. She was built in 1981 and has an engine of 3200bhp.
So, the Rowangarth set to and started to worry Illustrious round about the midriff, or at last that's what it seemed to me.
It was now the turn of the Svitzer Maltby, registered in Middlesbrough, to make an appearance, and with the Rowangarth backing off, the Svitzer Maltby attached itself to the stern of "Lusty". She's a fairly powerful tug - her engine is rated at 5700bhp
The Switzer company owns quite a few tugs that operate up and down the coast of the UK, including the two here as well as the "Yarm Cross", which was shortly to make its appearance. One of the company's tugs, the "Flying Phantom" was run down in the Clyde in December 2007 while towing a grain ship.
Into the fray enters the "Yarm Cross", and she attached itself to the stem of the "Illustrious". And with an almighty tug - "three almighty tugs, actually" ... ed, "Illustrious" swung out into the river ......
... and instead of doing a glorious U-turn in midstream, everyone cleared off upstream in the general direction of Newcastle upon Tyne ....
... and disappeared from view around a bend in the river.
All of this was very confusing as I didn't have a clue what was going on.
So Liz (who was still here) and I wandered downstream a short way to see what else we could find.
So while we were wandering back down-river, a gasp from the crowd indicated that "Illustrious" was making a re-appearance. She'd been upriver to find a place to turn round.
Here she is being tugged by a tug and shadowed by a helicopter
Dunno about you bit I think it's worrying when an air-sea rescue helicopter hovers over a Royal Navy ship.
Three reasons spring to mind ...
i).... it's there to rescue the sailors who fall overboard into the briny
ii)... it's there to recapture the sailors who were pressganged into service the previous evening down some dark alley on the banks of the Tyne and are likely to make their escape overboard into the river at the first available opportunity.
iii).. it's there to rescue the crew of the yachts that the "Illustrious" is going to run down on her way out to sea
This picture of the "Illustrious", the "King of Scandinavia" and the oil rig came out rather well. I'm quite proud of this one.
This is also a good view of "Lusty" being pulled by "Yarm Cross", pushed by "Svitzer Maltby" and being overtaken by the Tyne pilot boat. The "Yarm Cross" is actually described by her owners as a tractor tug, so evidently she makes a living pulling ships up and down river. She was built in 1979 and is the smallest of the three - her engine is rated at 2640bhp.
Now this seems strange to me. I would have thought that it would have been the more powerful one at the front pulling, and the less powerful one at the back keeping the stern in line.
Tyne river pilot boat
Illustrious, Tyne River off North Shields
Now, I'll tell you what is a sign of the times. And that is that she underwent a refit during which her "Sea Dart" missile defences were removed in order to make room for more aircraft. This would seem to imply that the Royal Navy no longer considers that there is any enemy capable of launching an air attack on "Lusty", and that she can launch a more offensive role.
I don't know about you, but I find the idea that anyone can use a large number of hi-tech aircraft to launch an attack on people who are no longer able to defend themselves to be about as offensive as you can get. At least when the Royal Air Farce was murdering thousands of innocent German civilians in the terror-bombing raids of 1943-45, the Germans were theoretically (even if not in practice) capable of fighting back.
In my mind, it shows the depths of depravity to which the western world has sunk.
Illustrious being pulled down the Tyne by the tug "Yarm Cross"
Illustrious being pushed down the Tyne by the tug "Svitzer Maltby"
This is a shot of Illustrious, with the "Yarm Cross" pulling, and the "Svitzer Maltby" pushing.
Now I dunno about you, but here we have the pride of the Royal Navy with probably a crew of the highest-trained personnel that the service can muster and which would rank head and shoulders above anything that any other Navy from anywhere else in the world can put up. So there must be something totally humiliating in having to be towed out to sea by a couple of small tugs, while the captains of some of the most derelict and incredible hulks I have ever seen are expected to steam their own ship into port, with the help of a pilot if they are lucky. If the captain of a Royal Navy vessel doesn't consider himself competent to bring his ship in and out of port, just why are they being paid all this money and what is the point of all this expensive training?
When Keyes sailed valiantly into Zeebrugge harbour in World War I and with the St Nazaire operations in 1942, I'm sure that the ships weren't pulled into harbour by a couple of tugs - they went in full tilt on their own, and were proud to do it. I wonder how the current lot would get on in wartime when they might have a real enemy to fight?
And before anyone says anything, "Illustrious" has indeed been here before so everyone knows that she fits. After all, she was built at Swan Hunter just upriver a bit at Wallsend.
The "Rowangarth" follows along behind, presumably to pick up any survivors or escapees that the helicopter misses.
A shot of all four pieces in the jigsaw. From left to right the "Rowangarth", the "Svitzer Maltby", the "HMS Ilustrious" and, leading the way, the "Yarm Cross"
Illustrious, pulled by "Yarm Cross" and pushed by "Svitzer Maltby", passes the Tyne River ferry moored at its terminal at North Shields
Illustrious passes the yachts moored at the marina.
Illustrious disappears around the bend in the Tyne and makes for the open sea.
If you look at this image, you can see the "City of Nordic" making the turn in the river from the opposite direction.
It seemed that it was the wrong time of day for Illustrious to leave port, for the penny soon dropped as to why she had come here. It would have been much more appropriate for her to have steamed off into the sunset because it was announced a short while later that she had been put up for sale - for scrap. Yes, her visit here was probably to say goodbye.
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