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Punters queuing up for boat trips to see masts of Sheppey 'bomb ship' the Richard Montgomery before they are cut down


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Time is running out to see the masts of Sheppey's famous bomb ship the SS Richard Montgomery before they are cut off this summer. John Nurden climbed aboard the X-Pilot for one of Britain's strangest boat excursions...

It has to be up there with visiting Cornwall's Museum of Witchcraft, taking a ghost bus tour of Edinburgh or exploring Mother Shipton's Cave in Yorkshire.

Now Sheppey has joined the list of Britain's strange-cations with probably the weirdest boat trip of them all.

For a tad over £30 you can spend the best part of 90 minutes circling the wreck of a Second World War munitions ship which still has 1,400 tonnes of unexploded bombs in its hold just below the waves.

The American liberty ship SS Richard Montgomery has lain there since August 1944 after running aground and breaking its back on a sandbank during a storm.

Every summer during the "silly season" the national press gets excited about fears that it will explode, taking out the best part of Sheerness, smashing windows in Southend and obliterating the volatile liquid gas terminal on the nearby Isle of Grain.

Now even the Ministry of Defence is getting twitchy and has ordered that the three rusting masts, which have been an uninvited tourist attraction for the past 77 years, must be hacked down. A £5 million contract has been issued and work is expected to begin on the delicate task of dismantling them in June.

Islanders are now waking up to the fact that the blot on the landscape may soon be a thing of the past so are rushing to snap up tickets to see the masts, up close and personal, one last time.

First Mate Mark Thorne, left, and skipper Capt Alan Harmer aboard the X-Pilot at Queenborough
First Mate Mark Thorne, left, and skipper Capt Alan Harmer aboard the X-Pilot at Queenborough

Canny Capt Alan Harmer, 74, who skippers the classic X-Pilot boat which he jointly owns with his husband Martin, is now doing a roaring trade taking curious sightseers to see the wreck.

Of course, trips like this are nothing new. In the good old days of the 1960s, when Sheppey was popular with day-trippers, visitors could scramble aboard pleasure boats like the Silver Star and Sheppey Queen from Sheerness beach for two bob (10p).

In those daredevil days before health and safety you could get much closer to the wreck than you can now.

Spoilsports have since erected an exclusion zone marked by four big yellow buoys and a row of smaller red ones which have the word Danger painted on them. It's every schoolboy's dream, which is why many of the people buying tickets are grandparents treating their young charges to a few hours of dicing with death on the water.

Parents must be pulling their hair out.

Last chance to see the masts of the Sheppey bomb ship the SS Richard Montgomery sunk during the Second World War before they are cut down on the orders of the Ministry of Defence. There are trips to the wreck by the X-Pilot. Picture: John Nurden
Last chance to see the masts of the Sheppey bomb ship the SS Richard Montgomery sunk during the Second World War before they are cut down on the orders of the Ministry of Defence. There are trips to the wreck by the X-Pilot. Picture: John Nurden
Last chance to see the ghostly masts and cormorants of Sheppey's 'bomb ship' the SS Richard Montgomery. Note the danger notice
Last chance to see the ghostly masts and cormorants of Sheppey's 'bomb ship' the SS Richard Montgomery. Note the danger notice
The ghostly masts and yellow marker buoy of Sheppey bomb ship SS Richard Montgomery as seen from the X-Pilot
The ghostly masts and yellow marker buoy of Sheppey bomb ship SS Richard Montgomery as seen from the X-Pilot

Despite the buoys, Capt Alan can get up pretty close and will circle the wreck and its cormorants two or three times to allow all those armed with cameras to snap their souvenir shot of the century before the masts become nothing more than a distant memory.

I joined the X-Pilot crew on a foggy Sunday morning. It was pretty weird seeing the superstructure slowly appear out of the mist as we edged closer, the old diesel engine sending out a comforting throb. After being battered by the elements and everything the North Sea could throw at them, the three masts still look strangely regal, standing there defiantly.

Capt Alan said: "The Richard Montgomery sank in 1944 when the Queen's Harbour Master based at Southend Pier sent it to the wrong anchorage. Half the cargo was unloaded but they gave up on the rest of it, hoping to sort it our after the war, but they never did."

He added: "We get a lot of photographers and film crews from all over the world. We've had German TV, National Geographic from the USA and the History Channel. We've had Paul O'Grady, Harry Hill, Jools Holland and the historian Dan Snow on board. And we've also worked with pop groups. We took the Prodigy to the forts so they could record their DVD."

He bought the 54-year-old X-Pilot, a former pilot boat based at Gravesend, at an auction from the Port of London Authority 22 years ago.

Dials in the wheelhouse of the classic boat X-Pilot
Dials in the wheelhouse of the classic boat X-Pilot
Mark Thorne, First Mate aboard the X-Pilot which is based at Queenborough
Mark Thorne, First Mate aboard the X-Pilot which is based at Queenborough
Skipper of the X-Pilot Capt Alan Harmer, 74
Skipper of the X-Pilot Capt Alan Harmer, 74
X-Pilot owner Martin Harmer is running trips to see the masts of Sheppey's bomb ship the SS Richard Montgomery from Queenborough Harbour
X-Pilot owner Martin Harmer is running trips to see the masts of Sheppey's bomb ship the SS Richard Montgomery from Queenborough Harbour

He said: "She's old fashioned with no gadgets. She's basic but a powerful sea-going vessel which can cope with all conditions and weather."

Martin said: "We have all sorts of people booking, from groups of friends and individuals to couples and grandparents treating their grandchildren."

On Sunday's jaunt was ex-Sheppey United FC winger Steve 'Trigger' Hunn, 69, from Minster who was being given a treat by his daughter Zena Gooding, 46, from Halfway.

Trigger, so-named because in his heyday at Botany Road he was as fast on the field as a bullet from a gun, said: "I've lived on Sheppey all my life and I've known the Montgomery out there since I was born.

"When they take the masts down you won't see it at all. In a way, it's a shame. It's never blown up yet so why is it going to blow up in the future?"

Former Sheppey United FC winger Steve 'Trigger' Hunn, 69, and his daughter Zena Gooding, 46, about to board the X-Pilot at Queenborough to see the masts of Sheppey bomb ship the SS Richard Montgomery
Former Sheppey United FC winger Steve 'Trigger' Hunn, 69, and his daughter Zena Gooding, 46, about to board the X-Pilot at Queenborough to see the masts of Sheppey bomb ship the SS Richard Montgomery
Pleasure boats like the British Queen ran trips to the wreck of the Richard Montgomery from Sheerness beach in the 1960s
Pleasure boats like the British Queen ran trips to the wreck of the Richard Montgomery from Sheerness beach in the 1960s
Photographers aboard the X-Pilot which is running trips to see the masts of the Sheppey bomb ship SS Richard Montgomery
Photographers aboard the X-Pilot which is running trips to see the masts of the Sheppey bomb ship SS Richard Montgomery

He added: "I can remember years ago going out there on the Sheppey Queen. You could get right close to it in those days."

So, will it explode?

The Department for Transport insists the risk is negligible and has told Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP Gordon Henderson that a recent report in the Telegraph about a big bang creating a wall of water leading to a deadly tsunami has no foundation.

The latest inspection was carried out last year. Robert Courts, the minister for maritime, said a report was being "prepared for publication" and will be available "shortly" but admitted: "Given its antiquity and location, there has been some degradation in some areas of the wreck, as you would expect, notably over the years 2013 to 2017.

"To continue to ensure safety and protect the public by further lowering the potential risk, we announced work to reduce the height of the three masts in 2021.

MP Robert Courts, minister responsible for maritime at the Department for Transport
MP Robert Courts, minister responsible for maritime at the Department for Transport

"Action is being taken following detailed analysis and a recommendation by an Expert Advisory Group that this is the best risk mitigation option."

He said it would "eliminate potential for any future collapse of the masts into the wreck's cargo hold."

For those who say the explosives will be safe after 77 years under water, a report published last month (January) gave details of a fishing boat which was blown up after its crew accidentally touched a Second World War bomb off the Norfolk coast.

Five of the seven fishermen onboard were injured on December 15, 2020, when the 15-metre long Galwad-Y-Mor was hauling in crab pots and set off a 250kg bomb which triggered shock waves. The boat's hull and machinery were badly damaged, according to a Marine Accident Investigation Branch report.

Meanwhile, the X-Pilot isn't the only boat cashing in on the soon-to-be missing masts. Brownes Thames Estuary Boat and Fishing Trips are taking passengers from Leigh-on-Sea Marina near Southend on its Daisy Margaret fishing boat.

Photo from the 2015 inspection to show the Richard Montgomery on the sandbank with its back broken
Photo from the 2015 inspection to show the Richard Montgomery on the sandbank with its back broken
Early photograph of the wreck of the Richard Montgomery off Sheppey
Early photograph of the wreck of the Richard Montgomery off Sheppey

Jetstream Tours based at Chatham will be running 75-minute excursions from Queenborough during the school half-term holidays (February 14 to 18) for £12.50 (family tickets £39, children £8, pensioners £10).

Boss Richard Bain said: "We have more than 1,300 seats available. We're hoping to run up to four trips a day and can take up to 60 passengers at a time. We have a bar, toilets and seating inside should there be any showers or inclement weather."

The next X-Pilot sailing is this Sunday, February 6 (one space left at the time of writing) at 9.45am, then on February 13 and 26, March 13, April 2 and 3 and May 28. Tickets cost £34 to £39, depending on the dates.

Martin and Alan also offer longer five-and-a-half hour trips to see the wreck and the Redsand and Shivering Sands Maunsell sea forts starting at £64 and a seven-hour Grand Forts Tour which takes in the Grain Tower Battery and Kentish Flats wind farm as well. Tickets are £89.

For details visit www.x-pilot.co.uk, email xpilotkent@gmail.com or call 01795 487568 or 07960 574821.

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