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Harwich Ha’Penny Quay, 04.30, Sunday 25th September 2011. The atmosphere is one of intrigue – clearly a lot goes on here, stacks of hustle & bustle; but not at this hour. It’s deathly quiet, save the gentle steely north-easterly breeze and the occasional gentle lapping of the water against the harbour walls.
The very occasional stranger passes by surreptitiously on foot, as I await the inevitable hour-long rush of energy that would form the next Sealand security crew change. The cafés and fresh-fish outlets wait for dawn and another day of trade. A stroll down the floating walkway to the small quay itself reveals a handful of impressive yachts, with their skippers still in deep slumber (or post-Saturday night coma).
Looking back, a hotel boasts just one bedroom light on it’s seaward-facing top floor through half-opened curtains, presumably for another early riser.
Soon, the peace was shattered by the speed and roar of a motor vehicle racing along the quay road; it needed no introduction: within seconds, Sealand’s Michael Barrington was skilfully reversing his truck onto the pier with millimetres to spare either side. I stayed well clear; he’d done this a million times before and certainly didn’t need any help or hindrance from me!
The briefest of exchange greetings was quickly followed by some well planned yet febrile activity that was the unloading of the truck with all manner of contents on to the deck of the small pier area. Another stranger passed by and – without any hint of surprise as to what we were doing – bid us a good morning. The unloading of the truck was carried out in a manner more akin to the incessant feverish shovelling of coal on the footplate of a busy main line express steam engine of the industrial age.
So, goods were soon unloaded and Michael worried about the tender boat having not arrived. He then radioed Sealand from his vehicle and with crystal clear immediacy the reply came back from one of the nine or so crew already out there called Joe, confirming the sea and weather conditions around the Fortress, some six and a half nautical miles away, and the fact that all was ready there to receive us. If only we had a boat.
While Michael went off to park his truck, I minded his stash of food, electronics, software, clothes and other groceries.
With a hasty gait, the eager Sealander was soon heading back towards me along the sea wall to organise and shift his belongings on to the lower level that formed the floating pier, which bobbed almost as much as the boats tied up there in the slight swell. A cursory glance of the harbour was quickly followed by Michael’s brief whinge about the positioning of a couple of the boats that were moored inconsiderately for our loading purposes.
Some of the take-away gear was heavy. But soon, it was all in position and a cellular phone call to the boatman brought news that he was already nearby, on his way to the regular embarkation spot.
Even in 2011, I couldn’t help looking over my shoulder to see if anyone from “officialdom” was spying on us; old pirate radio habits die hard and I had to keep reminding myself this was not one of those risky tender operations for Radio Caroline, with which I had become so accustomed while on similar missions to their MV Ross Revenge from places like Whitstable. No, this was all above board and legal in any Government’s eyes!
The chugging of the small fishing boat was soon heard splashing it’s way hurriedly into the harbour with the boatman and his mate Chris on board, the latter guy being on Sealand when some generators caught fire in the summer of 2006.
A bleary-eyed yachtsman staggered onto the deck of his pride and joy in the quay to say hello; our very focused activity must have woken him.
Some fervent loading of the boat then ensued with all hands. Half way through, Chris scrambled to an upper level near the cafes and ran a long hose down from a large encased pump to fuel the boat.
We were soon unleashed from the wall; then the boatman opened the throttle for the slow exit through the harbour limits and he soon applied more power as we crept out into the open waters and the grey dawn that was, by then, breaking.
Some more sorting of the supplies and personal effects was then carried out, it all needing to be strategically packed into three huge and exceptionally strong reinforced bags, that were originally used for transporting rocks for sea defence work. These bags had chunky eye-hooks on them that would be coupled to one of the Sealand winches upon arrival at The Principality. Delicate stuff on top was the name of the game. A make-shift breakfast of cold Cornish Pasties was devoured as our skipper boiled the water on a gas stove for a fresh cup of tea, while he captained his trusty fishing boat towards the increasingly visible metal hulk that was Sealand.
With the sea being Slight to Moderate and with a favourable wind the voyage was to last just an hour and twenty minutes.
As we drew close to Sealand’s south side, one of the residents was ready to receive us and the steel rope and hook was already semi-lowered to catch the first bag which, in turn was made ready for its ascent.
As we slowed and the boat’s engine revs dropped, we started to bob about more in the swell and this made even standing quite a challenge. But the combined pre-eminent skills of the boat skippers handling of his vessel, together with the split-second timing of (what turned out to be) Joe controlling the winch and Michael managing the freight bags, made the mission run as perfectly as any other.
So, after three goods hauls, it was time for the passengers: a brand new Bo’suns chair was lowered towards us with impeccable care and I hopped on it first, so that I could photograph Michael’s ascent after my arrival on the Fort. Although having done this many times before, my dangling at seventy-odd feet above the North Sea from a fairground swing still sent the adrenalin flowing; the diesel powering the winch got louder and the boats engine got fainter. What if the winch engine stops? What if the Bo’sun ropes snap? These and other paranoiac thoughts always flash through ones mind, in spite of the assurances of previous experiences with this!
Time flew. Michael came up. Was swung over on to the landing area and the boat burbled away towards Holland for some serious crab and lobster fishing. They would return in about five hours after anchoring some 15 miles off Sealand. That was enough time for Michael to unpack, for Joe to finish packing, for us to enjoy a hearty hot meal, and for a good degree of briefing and de-briefing to take place with the other residents and crew members before departure. An inspection of the register (where frequent activities, weather conditions and the like are logged), as well as key equipment and safety-critical areas, was also carried out by Michael in case any questions needed to be asked of the crew member being relieved, before he departed. This time, there were no non-Sealand nationals arriving or departing, so the Passport & Immigration activity was minimal, although – as a dual UK / Sealand Citizen – I did get my UK Passport stamped for posterity this time.
It soon became apparent that the place hadn’t changed much in the eight months since I was last there. In fact, Sealand’s Mission of Continuous Improvement had certainly been in action in the time that had elapsed, both cosmetically and in many other aspects. The clinically clean computer Server levels were still clinically clean. One room on the top level was brilliantly painted, apparently using red food-dye to create a subtle shade of warm pink.
Soon, it was 09.00hrs BST and the sun controlled a light hue over the horizon looking back towards the UK. From Sealand’s helipad, The Naze Tower at Walton and the eyesore block of flats on the seafront at Frinton could just be picked out. Looking in other directions, huge container ships from the Far East plied the deep-water channels into and out of Harwich & Felixstowe; fishing boats and yachts dotted the ocean as one looked towards The Netherlands and Denmark. Our boat had disappeared. Perhaps I’d be here for months?
Some of the others milled around the upper and lower levels, some clearly busy with a diverse range of materials, mostly in pursuit of the renovation and improvements to various quarters. Michael was keen to show off his completely refurbished CB radio-room, which also served as a bedroom.
Again, the time flew. A call to one of the other Sealanders from the boatman alerted us to the fact the he should be back at the Fort in around 30 minutes. This gave us sufficient time to carry out a few last minute checks on all the freight and personal effects that had to go back to Harwich.
A small (and I do mean small) dot of a boat on the horizon and a quick check through the binoculars confirmed it’s imminent presence. Donning our life-jackets again, Joe (who’d been in Sealand for three weeks by that time) and I readied ourselves for the descent into the pitching & rolling vessel, now weighed down with his usual respectable catch of shellfish. One of the winch diesels roared into life; I bid Michael farewell; then sat on the red chair and let the rest just “happen”. All I had to do is jump at the right time and the right place on to the rocking boat far below. With Joe and then the freight bags quickly following in a similar manner, we exchanged friendly hand-signals with Michael making the winch safe and we turned away on a heading for port, the engines burbling in a slightly more lively fashion.
The voyage out was one hived with Sealand activity. The return was just as busy, but with packing and preparing the lobster and crab catch for easy off-load and inspection by the authorities back at Ha’Penny Quay. With the sun shining brightly and the waters busy with all kinds of marine traffic, Sealand became a spot in the distance once more and the finer detail of Harwich and its surround could be picked out more and more easily.
Soon we were back inside harbour limits; the quay was packed with day-trippers and others. As we tied up, many – young and old – were eager to see what we were about; but the boxes of fish on ice said it all.
I’m sure not many would have realised where we had actually been!