Caught by the River

Many Rivers To Cross: The Isle of Wight Ferry

Melissa Mouchemore | 16th March 2018

Melissa Mouchemore makes the crossing from Southampton to East Cowes.

What’s brown, steams and comes out of cows backwards?

The Isle of Wight Ferry.

Even though he referred to the Red Funnel ferry company as ‘Red Funereal’ and was the first to tell me that joke, my dad was really very fond of the Isle of Wight ferry. We all were.  Once the M3 was built by the mid-seventies, carving its way unfortunately in some respects but rather conveniently in others right through the middle of my home town, the charms of the Isle of Wight were easily attainable for day trips as well as holidays.  In later years, at the end of a high summer day, Dad – relaxing as he neared retirement – would occasionally come home from work early and suggest we leap into the car for an evening jaunt on the ferry.  Why not make the most of the long evenings? My older brothers were grown, my mum had much less mothering to do and I was languishing at home between one form of study and another. Why not?  We would pack an extravagant bottle of Frascati and smoked salmon sandwiches, hurtle down the motorway and catch the 6 o’clock sailing.  Just to be able to sit on the sun-deck, watch all the business of the port and feel the space of water and sky.

I had almost forgotten those Frascati ferryings until for the first time in decades I decided on a whim to escape London one last time before the end of the summer and catch an early train from Waterloo to Southampton and the Isle of Wight ferry terminal.  September was delivering a final ‘scorcher’ and it needed some sort of grand gesture, I felt.

In the usual polite but determined shuffle as we all moved towards the gangway, a mother embraced her daughter.

“Text me when you get there!” she called as the young woman headed off.

I thought about this on deck as the ferry was released from its moorings and the town quietly let us go.  We were of course only going to be travelling 11 and a bit miles down Southampton Water with a short hop across the Solent to Cowes; the sort of mileage you wouldn’t think twice about if you were in a car and your destination was IKEA.  I remembered a Midlander my dad got chatting to once on the island who kept referring to the mainland as the ‘homeland’.  We had thought it funny then and jokily started to use the term ourselves – “oh, when will we get back to the homeland?”  But now I felt more sympathetic to his malapropism. For journeying to islands by boat, even those that are only 11 and a bit miles away, gives you a very real sense of leaving.  You can watch the band of water widen as your starting point disappears, just as those on the quay can watch the band of water widen as the boat slips away.  “Text me when you get there!”  Her daughter was leaving by boat.  Going across the water, away from the homeland.

She was not the only one.  There was a throng of foot passengers, who like me and my dad before m, had rejected zooming along inside the sealed hi-speed hydrofoil and opted instead to spend an hour chugging along on the slow car ferry with an open deck.

A sandy-haired, beefy South African guy returned from the bar with celebratory Red Bull and vodkas for himself and his girlfriend;

“Told you we’d go on a cruise one day!”

She raised her eyebrows in my direction.

There was no doubt about it.  Everyone was out to say farewell to the summer.  The whole of Southampton Water was a joyous latticework of wakes, criss-crossing in ski-thin to tanker-wide bands of surf; ocean-going yachts built for the Roaring Forties, jet skis absurdly spraying plumes behind them as if marking their territory, dinghies dithering, catamarans taking flight. Even the container ships, relentlessly loading and unloading, glowed in the sunshine. Judging by the country of registration stamped on their stained hulls they could do with some warming up; Oslo, Sandefjord, Kaliningrad.  Only we on the ferry were high enough up to be able to peer at the preparations, watching staff whisk in and out of cabins with piles of linen.  Everyone else had to gaze up from water level at the world’s most elegant ocean liner.

By the time we reached Calshot Point, where Southampton Water widens into the Solent, the island facing us was looking positively Mediterranean – the sky and sea an unusually intense blue.  Perhaps this really was a cruise.  All the usual damp patches of a typical British seafront had been heat-blasted away.  A final push over livelier waters and we would be there.

One of the pleasures of arriving in Cowes is sailing the length of the harbour front before docking – a good chance to eye up the town before setting foot on land.  I scanned the buildings as we sailed past, looking for an old haunt from childhood visits.  In between the exclusive Island Sailing Club and the even more exclusive Royal Yacht Squadron, the pub known in my time as the Harbour Lights shares their prime location and view.  Quite how it has been allowed to rub shoulders with these two establishments is a wonder – the riff-raff allowed the best seats?  It didn’t surprise me to see that it had been tarted up.  I wondered if you could still get away with a packet of crisps and a ginger beer lasting all afternoon.  I would investigate later when I intended to raise a glass to the summer, family outings, the homeland, the island and the ferry that brings them all together.

But first we had to dock at East Cowes.  The Isle of Wight ferry may no longer be brown and may no longer be steaming but it still arrives and leaves from the rear end of town.