Review by Fiona Duncan, published 30th August 2006.
As we chugged towards THV Patricia, anchored outside Ramsgate harbour, I knew for the first time in my life, and I hope the last, what it was like to be in the public eye. From the decks of the ship ahead, 2,500 tons, 283ft long and, for a working vessel with a large crane at the bow, extremely pretty, we felt the burning gaze of inquisitive eyes as the eight passengers already on board trained their binoculars on our little launch and kept us unswervingly - and, for us, unnervingly - in their sights.
We soon discovered why. The group had arrived two days previously for a week's cruise. They hadn't known each other (they were three retired couples and two widowers) but they had quickly bonded, and had been told that the extra passengers joining them were a travel journalist and her husband. A journalist? We were under deep suspicion. Inquiries had been made, and phone calls to offspring in the media world who might be able to cast light on our (to them, dubious) suitability to join their party.
Patricia, the flagship of Trinity House, which maintains with admirable efficiency lighthouses, buoys and light vessels round England, Wales and the Channel Islands, as well as dealing with wrecks and emergencies, has a singular alter ego: she takes just 12 paying passengers, in some style, on her voyages. With their own deck, their own cook (nothing too fancy, but excellent food) and two stewards, they are very much in each other's company, taking meals at the same polished wood table in the light-filled dining room and occupying the same country house-style sitting room and sunny aft deck between times.
Everyone hopes for congenial company, but it's a gamble: one unsympathetic character can wreck the chemistry. Last year, a bossy female jangled nerves by trying to dominate proceedings, I was told by one of the guests, who was, nonetheless, back for more. "There was a high court judge among us," he confided respectfully. "The woman's domineering behaviour appalled the judge so much that he clammed up: just said 'yes' and 'no' for a week until she got off. After that he was perfectly chatty."
For us it was a sticky start, not helped by my husband forgetting to pack a tie (it's jackets and ties for dinner, "smart casual" for the ladies) and having to borrow one from another guest. Before long, though, we managed to convince our companions that we were in fact keen sailors and I wasn't one of those muck-raking journalists, and we soon found ourselves agreeably caught up in their socialising. They were a delightful bunch, each with an interesting life behind them, each with a particular gift or hobby, some with a passion for all things nautical, others simply believers in connoisseur cruising as a peaceful style of holiday.
All of them were interested in taking part in the life of a working vessel, and more important, in a slice of British tradition that hasn't been swept away by nationalisation. Founded by Henry VIII in 1514, Trinity House still remains in charge of its own affairs and of shipping safety and the well-being of seafarers. Taxpayers don't contribute: it's self-funded through the "light dues" it charges vessels entering our waters.
Anyone with a little curiosity, imagination and modest social skills can enjoy a cruise on Patricia as she carries out her duties, especially if you enjoy the novelty of not being sure where you will start or finish, or the very real possibility of being diverted in an emergency, even for several extra days. Her officers and crew are not just any old merchant seamen: they are Trinity House as one of them put it, and he was the third generation of his family in the service. The Duke of Edinburgh is Master of the Elder Brethren, as the board of governors is called, and, now that there is no royal yacht, he often stays on board Patricia, occasionally joined by the Queen, during Cowes Week and other official events. Apparently he loves it, and the crew evidently reveres him. Ashamedly I have to tell you that I, a mere hack, slept in his stateroom, nothing flash, but smartly decorated in navy blue.
So, what did we do all day? Not a lot, is the answer, but that was part of the charm. We calmed down. Life slowed to a snail's pace, where a turn round the deck (17 circuits equal a mile; I walked quite a few miles) or a call from the steward to assemble for lunch became a positive highlight. Mealtimes were the punctuation marks: breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, drinks and dinner. Imagine, then, our sense of excitement when, hard hats in place, we stood on the foredeck as Patricia manoeuvred alongside F1, a light buoy in mid-Channel, almost as nimbly as a dinghy.
Suddenly there was action, even a sense of impending danger. Agile men climbed down rope ladders, jumped aboard the tossing, slippery 20ft-tall buoy, attached hooks and, still clinging to the buoy, were hoisted aboard by the ship's giant crane. The crew then inspected the speeding "live" chain as it payed out across the deck, replaced the light and scraped and cleaned the buoy with a pressure washer, making its bright yellow paint conspicuous once more. They worked swiftly and in unison, masters of their art.
There were other diversions. Patricia has, for a cruise ship, a unique "open-bridge" policy. We could go there at any time to watch Captain Trevor (it was first names all round) and his four-man navigation team plot their way from point to point through some of the most crowded shipping lanes in the world. And we descended to the bowels of the ship and the vast diesel-electric engine room (or rooms), the private pride and joy of the chief engineer and his men. Even I, ignorant of all things mechanical, was fascinated by the tour and how the mass of complex machinery and computers were there simply to ensure the turning of two slim propellers.
The world of Patricia is a private, parallel one, refreshingly, movingly, removed from standardised, modern, over-regulated Britain. If you enjoy cruising, in fair weather or foul, and meeting new people (you won't find many under 60) and you want to be part of a working ship, rather than on board a cruise liner, then she is for you. But hurry: these are her last few years of active service and her replacement is unlikely to take paying guests. Coast guard THV Patricia, below, pulls alongside a buoy in the English Channel. The Trinity House ship is charged with keeping the lighthouses, light vessels and buoys round England, Wales and the Channel Islands in good working order
Strand Travel (020 7766 8220; www.strandtravel.co.uk) offers seven nights aboard THV Patricia, inclusive of all meals, but exclusive of alcoholic beverages, from £2,450 for two people sharing an executive cabin, £2,625 for a luxury cabin and £2,800 for a stateroom. Single occupancy costs from £1,400 to £2,100. For further information you can directly contact Trinity House (01255 245000; www.trinityhouse.co.uk).