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A Walk by the Dockside
by Gavin Atkin gmatkin@clara.net

The Isle of Dogs is a man-made island in the East of London. Originally a large teardrop-shaped oxbow in what sailors call the London River, and which you may know as the Thames, it is cut off from the mainland by a large dock. Large areas of the island are given over to docks, most of them built in the later part of the 19th century.

The local landmarks have names derived from far-off places, such as Canary Wharf, West India Quay and Dollar Bay. One, Blood Alley, is so named because the stevedores were so badly lacerated by the sugar cane they carried to a warehouse nearby that the paving was stained red.

The docks declined with the coming of the down-river container ports in the 1950s and 60s, but came back to life when a new business ghetto, Docklands, was established here in the 1980s - and, as you might have guessed, this is where I spend my working hours.

Most of the water remains, and the old docks are now used by ships carrying cargoes of building materials into the Island (and taking large amounts of the Island away as spoil, I should add), by rowers and dinghy sailors from the sailing centre and the small sailing club, and by the usual river police and harbour authorities.

This is also home to a number of historic vessels and a Sea Scout centre, and there is still space for visiting warships, sail training ships and the odd yachting rally. In many ways, it's not a bad place to take a lunchtime walk from the office if you're a boat nut!

Here's a link to local map:


The following pictures represent a tour I take several times a week, usually along with my agreeable colleague Wilf.

Turning right out of the office smoker's exit, the first boats we see are dragon boats. I don't know if the rest of the world has them, but over here they're mainly used as a very wet way of raising sponsorship money for charity. Large teams of young people sit in these things and paddle to the rythmn of a drum; nominally they are racing but, in fact, they're really trying to stay out of the water as long as possible - when enough of them get out of rythmn, they all fall in. I gather it helps if you're a little drunk.

Kids! We didn't do anything like that when I was young...

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Dragon boats

Security is a big issue round here; this has been a very poor area for longer than anyone can remember, and crime is rife. However behind the chicken wire you can just about see a canoe for the disabled, fitted with a small stabilising ama.

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Canoes with small amas

2.4m yachts are a fascinating oddity. Essentially, they are a one-design formula racer that looks like a tiny metre-class yacht. The single-handed helm has to lie inside the hull like the sausage in a hot dog. As always with any strange kind of sailing vessel, I want to have a go!

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2.4m behind the wire

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2.4m from inside the compound

These are Bosun class dinghies, which were developed as a training sailing dinghy for the Royal Navy but are now used quite widely by civilian training schools. They're heavy and solid, and made to stand a huge level of abuse. A nice feature is a pair of very substantial hand rails along the bilges for when you fall in.

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Bosun class dinghies

I don't know where these beautiful skiffs come from - they could derive from any of a dozen traditional types from around the UK. They get a lot of use, but not on this day.

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Long rowing skiffs

This is what I call a waste. Each of the houses around this disused graving dock has its own jetty, and hardly anyone has a boat. Why? I don't know, but don'g believe any of that guff you hear about the British being a nation with the sea in their blood.

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Empty jetties

Here are a couple of barges nestling among the offices. I'm told pornographic magazine are produced in the white building on the right, and judging by some of the people who use the station nearby, I can believe it. The nearest craft is a Dutch sailing barge sadly now in declining condition; behind it is a traditional Thames barge, Scone, which is currently up for sale.

For more about Thames Barges:

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Barge pic 1

If you check the link, you'll see that the mizzen is attached to the rudder - this puzzles many people, but it's there to make the boat lighter to steer.Here's a different view of Scone.

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Barge pic 2

And here are some details of another barge, now used as a pub. Two 'wangs' (not vangs) help to keep the sprit under control, while the mainsheet and staysail sheet horses allowed these burdensome, flat-bottomed 90-foot boats to be crewed by just two people. I can't think of many other British traditional boats that have used leeboards, and those that have are mainly barges.

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Barge pic 3

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Barge pic 4

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Barge pic 5

The Scouts here have an impressive collection of traditional and modern whaleboats, though the white-sterned boat you can see here actually belongs to the Cutty Sark.

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Scout's whaleboats and one of the Cutty Sark's tender

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More Scout's whaleboats

Here is the figurehead of the well known sail training ship, the Sir Winston Churchill, tied up in Dollar Bay. I hear it's also for sale, if anyone wants a schooner this size.

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Sir Winston Churchill 1

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Sir Winston Churchill 2

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Sir Winston Churchill 3

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Stavros Niarchos

This is another sail trainer, the very new Stavros Niarchos.

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Stavros Niarchos 1

Many strange and exotic craft tie up in Dollar Bay, and their crews usually take good advantage of two watering holes, The Gun, where Admiral Lord Nelson at one time trysted with his mistress Lady Hamilton, and this one, the Queen of the Island, which was once a famous bordello. This painting on the wall seems to suggest it might still be so...

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Click here for "A Trip to Greenwich"


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