By John Simpson
Once, I lived on my small 22 ft. yacht ’Miss Content’ for a while in Portsmouth harbour, to save money, between making long voyages. Moving the boat there from Southampton, in late summer, and lucky enough to be ‘found’ a free alongside berth owned by the Ministry of Defence (MOD), who I worked for at the time. It was just north of the Royal Clarence Victualling Yard, up a shallow, narrow channel (not unsurprisingly named ‘Weevil Creek‘!), at the entrance of Forton Lake. A dozen Mexyfloats (linking sections carried by Army Landing Craft) formed into a U shaped pontoon made the little harbour, making it an ideal spot to spend the winter. Well sheltered except when the wind was strong in the NE and the tide had covered the mud banks. Very secure being close to Priddy’s Hard, a Royal Naval Ammunition Depot, guarded by the mod plod (MOD Police). It had been quite busy when I arrived with Army yachts, some private but mainly service owned, which were generally used at the weekend. During the week after work in the evenings my only company, were the occasional fisherman on the footbridge access across Forton Lake to the boats, and a pair of swans that used to come round. They knocked me up, by tapping on my varnished teak rubbing strake, asking for food.
Summer gave way to autumn and the army yachts were laid up, some left alongside others mostly taken away to be lifted out. The weekend’s sailing activities slowly ceased for all including myself, I hadn’t been using my own boat much anyway, teaching mostly on other yachts at the weekend. Which earned extra money, and stopped me hammering the little boat to much, before I set off across the Atlantic again. I stripped and stored most of my sailing gear to make more room during the winter months, although I hoped to spend the majority of my weekends staying with a lovely Irish girl, of the time.
Unfortunately our relationship hit the rocks just before Christmas, so I spent the coldest months of the winter living aboard, my only company now one sad swan, who’d lost his mate. She probably died of lead poisoning which some people use for weighs when rod fishing, although banned (an RSPCA man I met had mentioned this to me, when he came down to look at the swans, earlier in the year). Since swans mate for life it certainly hit him much harder than my own broken intimacy, and at the time I thought he might pine himself to death. We were certainly two ‘sad old bastards‘! He visited every evening, looking in rag order, without grooming himself properly and weight loss. At first refusing to eat, the broken up bread, that I chucked in the water for him. The crisis point reached perhaps, when Forton Lake froze early in February and he half swam half slithered on the broken ice round to the boat, and tapped for food. He’d made the decision to live then, and I found myself having to buy extra loaves of bread to feed him (brown not white he preferred!). His spirits seemed to rise further after the cold snap and he started grooming properly again.
By spring he looked a different bird as the evenings lightened off, not always gracing me with his company. Perhaps he’d found better food available elsewhere. Sometimes flying in, which was always a buzz when he skidded to a halt, close to ‘Miss C’. Sometime later that summer he came to see me after quite a considerable gap in time with a new mate. If a swan can look pleased with himself, I’d say that’s what he looked like then. Funnily enough it must have been, around the same time, I met my present wife! So it turned out to be a better year than we both imagined back in that bleak February.