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Lifelong friends Mark Springhall and Alec Argent from Gravesend have collected the new Woolwhich Ferries back to River Thames

By Lynn Cox

Two Woolwich Ferry skippers have collected new boats from Poland for service back on the Thames.

Mark Springhall and Alec Argent, who are both 49 and from Gravesend, have known each other since they were children and grew up together at the same school.

The pair work for the ferry service which has been taking passengers to and from Woolwich south to Woolwich north for hundreds of years.

Alec Argent and Mark Springhall are both skippers of the Woolwhich Ferry
Alec Argent and Mark Springhall are both skippers of the Woolwhich Ferry

They recently returned from the Polish port of Gdańsk where the vessels were built. They were at the helms of each as they sailed across the Baltic Sea.

The new boats, the Dame Vera Lynn and the Ben Woollacott, are not in service yet and have been kept at Tilbury while they and their skippers undergo trials and more training.

The men, who grew up in Chalk, flew out to Poland in mid-October to collect the vessels but their arrival back to the country was delayed as bad weather set in over the Baltic and the ferries would not have been able to cope with swells of more than two metres.

Alec Argent at the helm
Alec Argent at the helm

The old Woolwich ferries took their last trips across the river on Friday, October 5, after being in service for 55 years.

They have been replaced with the new vessels which will have more space and less-polluting hybrid engines.

A ferry service has run in Woolwich since 1308, before the construction of any tunnel or bridge to cross the river.

Skipper Mark Springhall
Skipper Mark Springhall

New berths are being built for the larger new boats, which will have space for cyclists and disability access.

Mr Springhall, who is married to Michelle and has one daughter, and Alec, who is married to Kerry and has two daughters, are bridge officers.

They have known each other since they were about four when they attended Westcourt Infants and Junior Schools and later Gordon Senior School in Gravesend.

The old ferry the Earnest Bevin being towed away to be scrapped @jasonphoto
The old ferry the Earnest Bevin being towed away to be scrapped @jasonphoto

Mr Springhall, of Rochester Road, Gravesend, and Mr Argent, of Riverview Park, had a keen interest in the river when they left school at 16 and got jobs on the water.

Both worked in various roles until they had learned their trade and got their licences to become captains.

Some 15 years ago, they took on the roles they still do today.

picture Mark Springhall
picture Mark Springhall

The old ferries would take passengers across the river five times an hour with Mr Springhall at the helm of one and Mr Argent at the helm of the other.

Over the years they have taken thousands of passengers, including a couple of famous faces.

Mr Springhall said: “We had Danny Dyer on board and Jennifer Saunders too, they both did some filming for the TV.”

The pair love their jobs and have even helped to rescue people from the river and have seen many characters on board.

Mr Springhall added: “It’s the faces you get to recognise and the characters, the pensioners, they all make the job what it is.

“A new lease of life was needed for the ferries and the new boats are hybrid, half-electric and half-diesel and are self-charging, they just have to be plugged in at night.

“We flew out to collect them on October 15.

The Ben Woollacott was named after a man who was sadly killed in an accident, picture Mark Springhall
The Ben Woollacott was named after a man who was sadly killed in an accident, picture Mark Springhall

“The Ben Woollacott vessel was named after a young man who was sadly killed in an accident on one of the old ferries.

“He was only 22 and died after he hit his head.

“His family are overwhelmed the boat has been named after him. The other one has been called the Dame Vera Lynn as she’s the nation’s sweetheart.”

The pair steered the boats back on Tuesday, November 6 to Tilbury Dock.

The Ben Woollacott, picture Mark Springhall
The Ben Woollacott, picture Mark Springhall

They and the crew have been doing trials and training ever since.

Last week they ran the Dame Vera Lynn out off Tilbury Dock and up to Woolwich.

The new ferries will have the capacity to take 150 passengers at a time and are expected to start carrying passengers early in the New Year as the service enters its 711th year.

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