You’re still here then!

John Ward
John Ward

WARD’S WORLD: By John Ward

I had a message of sorts the other day and to be honest I don’t get a lot in this sort of vein, so read on.

Any email that starts off with: “Good grief! – you are still here then!” just about catches your eye so to speak. It was from a television researcher who, would you believe, was sort of inquiring as to if I was still alive and while it was tempting to reply: “Not sure – will get second opinion” I held back as I opened it up and read the ongoing message within.

He is researching a programme of daft stunts and ideas (?!) ‘on the bigger scale’ as he tactfully puts it and to his credit he had done his research at the national newspaper archives as opposed to the easy way of looking on the internet, which as he points out, does not cover a lot of things and certainly not the following hence he doing his ground work and tracking me down.

It was in 1974, in the last century, or to be precise July 28 as five fully fledged idiots set out from the White Cliffs of Dover to pedal (that’s pedal and not to be confused with anything else...) to France on cycles welded to a raft of our own design that turned a paddle wheel as we were into ‘big boy’s stuff’ here as it was 15 foot long by eight foot wide.

The first thing that crosses your mind I suppose on seeing the above year and doing a quick calculation, is what is a mere child of eleven doing on such things but we will skip past that for now.

It started off as a mere ‘throw-away line’ during a break where I worked as one of our chums was thinking of swimming across the Channel and I was silly enough to say “Why don’t we all go together? – we can go on bikes on a raft connected to a paddle wheel..” not realising that a show of hands would mean the next few months would be spent in assorted workshops, both at work and home, in order to get this project up and running.

Friend Robb is a brilliant welder/metal fabricator and did the bulk of the work and he was not connected to the company but I just politely asked him if he would help and he said ‘yes’ before I had finished.

Our ‘activities’ had been spotted by our company chairman Frank’s wife who was the chairperson of the (then) local branch of Action Research for the Crippled Child but over the years this name has been changed to something else now.

We worked for a plastics company that sold all over the world due to our technological processes and I was invited to ‘tea and biccys’ by said chairman’s wife to ‘discuss the merits’ of our project as we were doing it for fun really, so she ‘wondered, just wondered’ if we would do it by sponsorship for her charity, and quick phone calls to the others and all agreed or as they say nowadays: ‘You’re got five big yes’s’

She asked our sooper dooper engineering dept or rather the head bod to write a thesis on how it would go and any tips to help us (?).

Fair enough we thought.

Back came three large pages of hand written thinking from our ‘top engineering man’, with bottom line, quote: “Such a craft as outlined by these individuals would not leave these shores.”

On reading it, she looked at me and said: “Well, sod him! – we go with our crew!”

I quite liked her maverick outlook.

He was proven wrong and I cherish those pages as I still have them.

There were many adventures along the way, too many to mention here, but a few highlights were:

Hearing we were looking for old cycles, she did a bit of ‘calling in favours’ and five brand new cycles appeared in our reception at work, direct from the makers.

We did our ‘sea trials’ at Heacham beach, much to the amusement of various Easter Bank holiday makers and ended up with queues to ‘have a go’ on it.

The training was over; then down to Dover or rather St Margaret’s Bay just up the coast on the Saturday.

On the Sunday, we would set sail or start pedaling to be factual.

Saturday evening a deluded soul from BBC Radio came along for an interview.

She wanted the craft ‘on the sea’ to record the interview on! – bearing in mind it was still on a lorry, locked away from prying eyes until the launch, we settled for sitting by a brook, splashing water over an old tin gallon can for ‘effect’

All five, and those ‘behind the scenes’, of us crew did our best – no “I haven’t had the time” or “They are getting back to me” or “Not confirmed yet” rubbish as we all worked our socks off as we were all 100 per cent enthusiastic as there were no room for hangers-on or those taking tasks on they were incapable of doing.

As we left the shore with our twin escort boats from the Sandwich Bay Yachting Club we encountered rather large, over 30 foot, waves that we actually saw the propellers swinging round in mid air on the escort boats as they flipped across the crest of the waves and we thought that we didn’t want to be ‘rescued’ by them as they looked very dangerous and oddly we found out later, they thought we were in greater danger.

We were about 100 yards from the Goodwin Lightship and we thought the crew on deck were cheering us on, but as we found out later they were warning us to turn back as it was getting too dangerous!

So we were advised to postpone it and we were eventually towed back to shore once the tide was back in.

We were going to attempt it again but after the first attempt, Modom was unable to get us insurance cover so we abandoned it sadly.

Among many newspapers, we were on page three of the Daily Mirror on July 29 – and we were fully clothed as well.

Years on, sadly Modom chairman died well before her time as they say and I was away at the time of the funeral.

I attended Frank’s funeral by family request in 2003 and I was quite touched that the remaining family members had not forgotten our efforts in 1974 that despite all the odds and being told we would ‘never leave these shores’ by an assumed genius and ever since its been a case of ‘Carry on, never mind” attitude when it all seems stacked against you as we only live the once.

Oddly for a ‘failure’, even today articles of our venture still turn up as I was sent one a few years ago by a friend on holiday in Quebec.

As I started off above, I am ‘still here’ and looking back we tried because we had the enthusiasm plus the desire to make the best of anything as with other ‘bits and bobs’ along the way, it’s never been boring – believe me.