“Is that a YAM380? I used to have one of those, my first boat that, going fishing today? I am. Caught a 35lb Bass last time. Can’t keep em. Bloody French coming here and they just take em though. Bloody EU. You going to the towers? Not fishing? You’re mad. You might make it on that. Oh, sorry, thats just my breakfast hehehe..cough…hehe”
The 5.30am wake-and-bake Kentish fisherman had been talking to, no at us for the entire duration of time it had taken to build, inflate and load our boat with the absurd amount of gear we had laid out by the launch ramp. 50L of petrol, a gas axe (in case the ‘welded shut rumour was true), 150m of rope, paracord, bolt set, a crossbow, 25 bouncy balls, a disposable grill and a packet of Richmond sausages from the back of the freezer that Gone left in my house after a barbecue in 2016, it looked like I’d just put everything I owned in the back of the car and driven it to Herne Bay.
I tested the water with our new friend with a suggestive comment.
“We thought we might be able to get on it…”
and his face changed a bit.
“You’ll not get on there. You’ll get in big trouble for trying that. Drug smugglers use the sea forts for big drug drops. Was two lads who were stranded there last year, one of them drowned. Lost their boat you see. Coast guard picked them up, told him they were just having a few beers. All got arrested. No, you can’t go up there. You’ll see anyway, its impossible. Theres no ladders. ”
Donny (formally known as the Boatman) slyly kicked the crossbow and a big bag of arrows under the car.
“Anyway lads, I’ll be on channel 18 all day if you get stuck and need a tow, hehe. Do 45 knots in that boat of mine. Beauty aint she..?”
It had been a 2 year soap opera of stalled plans, failed schemes and bad weather that had lead us here. With no publicly available pictures anywhere newer than about 50 years old, the potential of untouched WW2 and pirate radio era leftovers and its position 13 miles off the Kent coast, its a tantalising prospect for any self-respecting explorer. My first thoughts on how to reach it just involved going out on the kayaks. 13 miles ain’t too bad if you know what you’re doing, but I envisaged the problems would really start to unpack themselves when you got there and had to get up on the damn thing. In the likely scenario that you didn’t make it up, you’d then have a same-day 13 mile paddle back to dry land after 5 hours of messing about in the water with a load of rope. I wasn’t too into that. Combined with the fact that you’d have to cross the Thames heavy shipping lane, potentially having to out-paddle supertankers and container ships on their way into Tilbury, the only real option for this one was getting a decent boat. You’d have thought that living on an island, getting someone interested in the idea with access to a sea worthy vessel wouldn’t be too hard, but it proved almost impossible. The depth of the water by the tower (combined with the insane amount of metal trash that had been thrown over board) makes anchoring near it difficult. If you have a solid-hull boat rather than a RHIB, you’re not going to want to get too close to the tower or you’re going to suffer a nasty accident. The first few attempts to get out here with one particular willing boat owner, a Frenchman as it happens, came to nought after 3 stalled plans. Bad weather, a last minute trip of a visiting friend and finally, and the last one put on ice due to him doing a sense check ontaking his undoubtedly expensive boat into such a dodgy situation. Another number of dates were set with another crew, but the week before we were to set sail, one of the lads pulled out due to work, and then man with the boat wouldn’t commit without him. I didn’t begrudge them, but after hearing the news the 5th potential trip out there had been cancelled, I went and got a boat on eBay the same day.
There were a few other bits I had to get my head round, learning to pilot the thing for a start, learning the rules of the sea and sorting out my marine radio licence, trouble shooting shitty old 2-strokes, getting an idea on fuel consumption.. Thats not to mention working a process for getting up the damn thing. I had whole evenings sat round my kitchen table with a scale model made from toilet roll tubes and tupperware, pushing around tiny 3D printed boats and threading bits of paracord to get the most efficient way to ascend a 90ft 75 year old rusted, serrated death trap from an inflatable boat.
In the company of two of the Frenchmen, me and nick made a first attempted run out to Knock John in the Autumn of last year. That is a story in itself, but in short – the engine cut out due to a failed fuel-feed before we left harbour and had to be fixed with a clip down cross-bow arrow and when we finally made it out to sea, the overloaded boat nearly sank. Too many people, too much gear (we’d planned an overnight), too rough seas. To do it successfully in the craft i’d purchased, it was a two man job in summer, with no overnighter.
It was then just a waiting game. I had the Thames estuary marine forecast as my home page on every device I owned, and it took literally 6 months before weather calm enough to accommodate a 3.8m rhib presented itself.
The sea was still as a puddle, and with the comparatively light load of two blokes and the smallest amount of kit we could get away with we made the towers via the Kentish Flats Windfarm in about 45 minutes.
I have no idea if Maunsell wanted these things to look totally badass or not, but if so he smashed it out the park. Knock John Tower looks absurdly imposing, especially when its coming at you out of the haze on a glass-flat sea.
“Its totally fucked”
We did a lap of the thing and did infect ascertain that the thing was absolutely knackered. I’d doubt that there is any steel left on there that isn’t entirely rust.
It took a while to get a line up we were happy with, not least due to the fact that the string on the budget 4 year old Chinese crossbow flew off into the sea after one shot. I thought it was all over after that, but we managed to save the day by replacing it with length of 550 paracord.
Donny was on the rope first for this one. He was convinced his ‘gentle jumaring’ technique honed by hours of big wall climbing on some of the sketchiest cliff faces on the planet would get him up there with minimal fuss and I was happy for him to step up and take the reins (and if anyones asking, I needed to stay below and control the boat).
“You might want to move that boat, mate”
As soon as he put weight on the rope, a dozen rusted metal chunks as big as snooker balls flew downwards, narrowly missing my noggin and the sponsons either side of the boat.
The only problem was I was acting as his counter weight, so the best I could do was shuffle a bit to one side. It wasn’t too much good.
Every time he made a bit of upward progress, more crap fell down and splooshed into the sea. It was terrifying enough to watch, not knowing that the rope protector we had threaded over the decrepit cross-beam was even in place, but being below this constant rain of weapons grade boat-poppers with no helmet was absolutely horrid. After a bit of top-class aid climbing underneath the main platform, he managed to get himself on-deck.
And in no time we’d hauled the bags up, tied the boat off and I was getting on to the rope to join him upstairs.
You really got a sense of how bad the rust was when you got up close to it. The fact that this thing is still standing is an absolute miracle.
(for your own amusement)
I was really look forward to getting stuck in and exploring it. Not a lot of people know this, but those two enormous cylindrical legs that support the fort down to the sea bed are actually hollow, and contain 6 floors of decks. The soldiers bunks, generator rooms and shell storage. We had big hopes here.
“Err, have you seen this..?”
The first sign we saw revealing to us that we weren’t the first people up there in 30 years, were two large water containers with the words
stencilled on their side.
Further inspection revealed a fully stocked galley full of 4 year old vegan organic olive paste and other assorted premium earth-saving tinned scran, mostly expiring in 2013.
The lower decks were even more revealing. Greenpeace boiler suits, a ’Save the Arctic’ banner, crates of rope access gear in various stages of pidgin poop rot and a few maps bearing the marks:
“Greenpeace Knock John Tower Training Team. 2012.”
It seemed like they’d had a jolly old time here 6 years since, presumably practising for the Arctic oil rig fun-times in 2013 where they got rinsed by Russian Special forces and thrown in jail for fannying about on one of Gazproms oil rigs.
The decks below were more in keeping with the WW2 original form, with the old bunks still plastered with the pin-ups of the 40s.
The bottom decks were a bit weird. 15m below the sea and full of the bodies of scores of dead birds than had managed to find their way down here and never escaped.
With the Shell Storage deck on floor 2.
The second leg was much the same, a few bunks containing 40s pinups, and a large ‘Radio Caroline’ written in 6 inch high letters from its time as a pirate radio platform the 60s.
We didn’t even need to gas axe the thing open in the end, but it was a good job we’d brought it, as the Tesco disposable grill I’d brought along has been in the shed for the best part of 2 years and had a bit of a hard time starting. 30 seconds of acetylene saw to that.
We’d had a cracking afternoon in the sunshine up there, nyoming cheap BBQ’d Richmonds, sinking Whitstable IPA and watching the container ships fly by in the Knock John Channel.
I was sad to leave Knock John, but not before claiming her as a crown dependency of Yorkshire (note flag). You never know when you might need a micro nation to bolt to when it all goes wrong (SNCLand will be issuing passports in 2019).
The get out was a bit more complicated as well. I abseiled into the boat to find that the wind had turned a little, turning that perfect flat ocean we had come in on to a slightly choppier affair. When combined with the rapid ebb of the leaving tide around the pillars of the fort and a 15 knot wind, keeping the boat stable for the derig and bag drop was an absolute nightmare.
Click. Reverse gear. Hold steady. Bag in. Unclip. Click. Neutral. “LINE FREE!”. Wait. Click. Forward gear. Click. Neutral. Hold steady. “BAG COMING”. Get bag. Click. Reverse gear. Unclip. “LINE FREE”….
Donny finished up, pulled a perfect ab into the boat and pulled the line in, and we shot off into the sunset for Herne Bays finest fish and chips via the Shivering Sands Forts.
Solid day out.