Received wisdom and jokes misunderstood on Dart riverboats for the past 60 years.
If you have ever got onto a river boat for a leisurely cruise down the river Dart, chances are you have heard the skipper, or his deckhand, give a commentary.
These commentaries are the stock in trade of those who work on the river – they started as a way to attract people onto the boats and earn a few more tips and have become an institution. As an account of the historical, geographical and social history of the river Dart it is hard to match anywhere.
But often you will also hear little snippets that just can’t be true, but will definitely make you smile. Some of them have been passed down from skipper to skipper and are now as much a part of the cruise as the safety announcements.
Brian Ridalls is a man who has spent most of his life on or around the river Dart -following on from his father who was river pilot for many years – and ran the ‘Red’ Pleasure Boats with his father and brother John from the late 1940s.
The family moved into the pleasure boat industry because they saw that the Dart would become a paradise for pleasure boating and day trippers – and how right they were.
‘“It was clear what the river would become,” he said. “We started with small boats but moved up over the years to some very large vessels. The commentary started because you wanted to tell the stories you knew as you went down the river, and it added something for the passengers too. I used to have to give it without a public address system, right amongst the crowd.
“We always had fun and entertained people. Everyone who does a commentary has to find their own way of doing it. Most start with the safety announcement – I used to say they’d know the boat was sinking when they saw the crew swimming to the bank!”
Andy Coombe, now landlord of the Windjammer Pub, spent time as a skipper for Ridalls Boats in the early 1990s. He used his geographical knowledge, gained during his degree at Royal Holloway, to impress the punters, but he quickly picked up a patter from other skippers which occasionally included a less than truthful moment.
“I spent six weeks learning to handle the boat and learning the spiel,” he said. “There were two types of fact given in the commentaries; those that are received wisdom about the river which are all learnt by rote because skippers don’t spend their time researching things in libraries and the jokey ones you have to hope people don’t take seriously.”
One that both Brian and Andy remember is the ‘high tide’ tale. Used to fill the time in a commentary when there is little to look at but fields, trees and a bank of mud at low tide, it goes something like this:
“It’s difficult, ladies and gentlemen, to find employment on the river in winter, but one job my deckhand Andy will be taking on this winter is to get in the launch, take the spirit level, step ladder and shears and make sure that line of foliage along the high tide line is nice and straight. He’ll start in Dartmouth at six in the morning, get to Totnes by about lunchtime and come back on the other side and be in Dartmouth by teatime.”
Hopefully the ‘launch, spirit level, step ladder and shears’ will ensure people don’t take it seriously, but there are some people who will believe anything.
Another that Brian remembers will never be used on the river again, thanks to the new laws of rubbish disposal:
“One of our skippers used to point people up to where the Kingswear Dump was,” he tells me, “where, every Thursday morning, they would burn the rubbish. He’d tell the passengers ‘ladies and gentlemen, if you look up above Kingswear now you will see smoke rising from England’s only active volcano, which erupts, regular as clockwork, at 11am every Thursday.’ It would make us laugh!”
Current skipper of the Dart Explorer, Steve Sherwin, said the commentary is something all skippers on the Dartmouth Steam Railway and Riverboat Company boats have to do, and that once you get over your nerves it can be really fun.
“I was terrified before I did my first one, but now it’s second nature,” he said. “We make jokes to keep things fun and if we catch people out that increases the enjoyment of many of our other passengers!
We regularly ask people to switch off their mobile phones because it interferes with the steering, or that the fibreglass owl bird scarers on boats are real! One bloke took a load of pictures before I told him it was just fibreglass. He was a bit annoyed actually.”
Steve’s tales of ‘Fibreous Glasseous Owless’ notwithstanding, he has fun in other ways:
“We tell people that the Anchorstone used to have nagging wives tied to it in the olden days, but they stopped it because it got too crowded,” he said. “I also regularly tell people that the Totnes sheep couldn’t live on a field on the opposite bank because they have a set of legs on one side longer than the other so if they try and turn around they fall over!”
Brian said: “We all had little stories we used to make people laugh – of the dear old lady asking at Paignton station if the train stops at Kingswear, and the railway attendant says ‘I hope so, or there’ll be a bloomin big splash!’
“The skipper I learnt from used to tell people they were on the fastest ship in the world,” Andy said. ‘Because in the Onedin Line TV programme filmed here in Dartmouth, Bayard’s Cove was Liverpool, Kingswear was Hong Kong and the Longwood at Noss was the Amazon, so the Dartmouth ferry could go from Liverpool to Hong Kong and back to the Amazon in five minutes! I came up with one which I was particularly proud of: there are meadows which flood upstream and they have cows in them. I used to tell people the cows ate seaweed and the farmers sold South Devon Salt beef around the world!”
“Commentaries are part of the job,’ said Steve. ‘You’ve got to make sure people enjoy their trip out –and if you do that most of the time you enjoy it too!”
First Published July 2011 By The Dart