Confession: Why motorboats and moored submarines don’t mix

In this month’s Confession, we hear how one misheard instruction spelled trouble for this sailor in a motoboat

For 2012, the Olympic sailing events will be held in Portland Harbour and Weymouth Bay, but once upon a time this area was vitally important to the Navy.

The base here had many functions, and was mainly used as a training area for Admiral Sea Training and helicopter flying.

My story goes back to 1955, when the submarine depot ship HMS Maidstone had a semi-permanent mooring half-a-mile from the landing quay.

Alongside her, 2nd submarine squadron were a wonderful mixture of wartime subs, ‘U class’ Upstart, Untiring; ‘S class’ Sidon, Springer etc, and the larger ‘T class’ Thermopylae.

There were also three midget submarines, I remember one called Stickleback. A wide variety
of warships were stationed here and two US battleships were also in for a while, the New Jersey and Wisconsin.

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In June that year, the submarine Sidon had an explosion on board and sank, killing 12. It was the end of a gallant submarine and the dead were honoured with full honours and buried in the Naval Cemetery overlooking Weymouth Harbour.

I was a 19-year-old Midshipman back then, one of 24, in what was known as the ‘Gunroom’. We carried out various training tasks, day running on submarines, crewing a variety of liberty boats as well as a number of other details.

At any one time there could be up to 10 submarines alongside the quay, all boats facing the same way as the depot ship. A gangway was fitted to the depot ship, astern of the submarines, for embarking and disembarking crew and visitors.

The stern ropes of the inboard submarines were made fast on the depot ship. A boom also stretched out from the gangway area with one or two boats tied to it, ready for use.

With the scene set, my story really begins with the Officer of the Watch announcing, “Away liberty boats crew”. We rushed to drop down a ladder into the Captain’s motorboat, ready to rapidly
proceed under whatever orders we were given.

The Captain’s fast boat was his pride and joy, twin engines and a chine hull giving up to 20 knots, with the helmsman standing forward behind a windscreen.

Behind the helm, a cabin and cockpit gave the boat some 28ft of streamlined and beautifully cared-for hull. Two further crew were carried. Smartly dressed sailors, one was stationed at the stern and one in the bow when coming alongside, each with a boat hook vertically held.

I carefully drove to the shore and successfully disembarked my passengers. As we approached the gangway on our return I was startled to hear a rather impatient Captain shouting, “Come on,
I haven’t got all day”.

I throttled up immediately, the bowman ducking under the submarine’s stern rope, when the Officer of the Watch shouted, “Too near the submarines!” I put the engines hard astern, the stern rope caught the bowman across the shoulders and he shot into the water.

Another voice shouted “Ahead”. I did, but too fast, and the boat’s beautifully designed bow went between the sloping sterns of two submarines, perfectly parked!

The sternman was now in the water swimming quickly to the gangway. The Captain’s boat was high and dry, lying snugly between the two submarines. With her engines roaring, a calm voice called down: “I think you should stop your engines now Snotty, you appear to be aground”.

The Captain quietly admonished me, explaining that I had spoilt his day as he and a few of his guests had planned to go for a spot of fishing later.

The deck watch were not so easy on me however. I lost two weeks of shore leave until the paint damage on the boat was repaired. The submarines were thankfully unmarked, but their crew were slightly shaken; apparently they thought they were being ‘depth charged’.

The author of every confession we print wins the original Stephen Shaw cartoon artwork (above) and an Icom IC-M23 Buoyant VHF Marine Transceiver handheld VHF radio worth £165.

For your chance to win, spill the beans on your funniest boating moments in 650 words. Email your story to:


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