CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to EADT Suffolk today CLICK HERE

Meeting Felixstowe Ferry’s legendary 79-year-old harbour master

PUBLISHED: 16:42 05 October 2018

Felixstowe Ferry harbour master John White

Felixstowe Ferry harbour master John White

Archant

John White has lived and worked at the tiny hamlet of Felixstowe Ferry for almost all of his 79 years | Words & Photos: Mike Trippitt

At his shed door – a very old shed door – John White, Felixstowe Ferry’s veteran harbour master, looks through the boatyard and out onto the River Deben.

The waters that ebb and flow here, and the tiny fishing hamlet, are his life. He says: “People say to me, ‘Have you lived at the Ferry all your life?’, and I say, ‘Well no, not yet.’” Typical dry, Suffolk wit. In fact, John did live for a brief period of his early life all of three miles up the road.

“When my father went into the Merchant Navy during the war my mother moved to Felixstowe. I was born just before the war, so my first memories are actually of living in Felixstowe. We moved back to the Ferry as soon as my father came out of the service.” John’s father acquired a boat and began fishing for a living. He built the shed from which the harbour master, who will be 80 next year, still works.

“I remember him building it,” says John. “It was secondhand when he bought it from one of the aerodromes. So, this shed has been here since 1945. And is still here . . . just.” John has been harbour master for 20 years. The job started in the 1950s, when the Felixstowe Ferry Fairway Committee was set up to regulate boat moorings on the Deben.

“Before that, anybody could come down here and dump a sinker and chain,” says John. There was a good deal of confusion, he says, and problems when vessels dragged their moorings, so some locals formed a fairway committee and obtained a lease of the riverbed from the Crown.

Felixstowe Ferry harbour master John WhiteFelixstowe Ferry harbour master John White

“After that happened, all moorings started to be regulated. My father-in-law, Charlie Brinkley, was elected harbour master. I was his assistant for a few years and when he retired they appointed me.”

John’s introduction to the river at the Ferry was much earlier, however. “My dad would bring me down on the crossbar of his bike when they were building the shed. I used to mess around in his little pram dinghy on the end of a rope. I would have been six years old.”

He went on to sail dinghies with his brother, David, before committing to a working life in and around Felixstowe Ferry boatyard, starting with as an apprentice shipwright in 1956 with C H Fox and Sons. John recalls that first year well, including his weekly wage of two pounds, 18 shillings and sixpence.

The four men who worked at the yard carried out any work to do with boats, including building three foot-ferries – Late Times, Our Times and Odd Times, for Charlie Brinkley’s service across the river to Bawdsey.

John spent 42 years at Felixstowe Ferry boatyard, by which time he had become a director of Felixstowe Ferry Boatyard Ltd, the company set up to run the yard when C H Fox and Sons pulled out in the mid-sixties. “When I was 60 I wanted to retire from the boatyard and run the ferry,” he says.

Felixstowe Ferry harbour master John WhiteFelixstowe Ferry harbour master John White

A foot ferry across the river between Felixstowe Ferry and Bawdsey has operated since 1932, after vehicular chain ferries became uneconomic. Several ferryman plied the ferry trade over the decades, but for many years the boatyard held the right to operate it.

At his request, John’s fellow directors granted him a ferry licence for five years. “I was self-employed for the first time in my life, and ran the ferry until I was 65 in 2004.”

Most days, John can be seen in his harbour master’s cap, walking the shores of the river, pootling about the harbour, or taking visitors on 25-minute trips in his boat.“The one thing about semi-retirement is that you don’t have to rush about anymore,” he says.

But to visiting and local sailors alike, John is best known for his knowledge of the river, his willingness to share it and his help in keeping them safe.

To the unwary, the shifting banks and bar at the mouth of the river can be treacherous. The way these changes occur, how the banks and channels are formed and how the bar moves every year has been almost a lifelong study for John. Shingle from the beaches north of the River Deben moves south along the coast due to the action of the tides. It’s called Longshore Drift.

Felixstowe Ferry harbour master John WhiteFelixstowe Ferry harbour master John White

When it gets to the river entrance, the tide rushing out and in every day moves the shingle off and forms the banks. “Over the years the channel into the river moves south until the shingle bar over-extends itself and a new channel is formed among the banks, and the cycle starts again.”

Carrying out an annual springtime survey of the banks and estuary is not part of John’s official duties, but for 25 years he has done one, producing a chart to assist boat owners navigating in and out of the river. “I used to produce a sketched chart and send it out to local sailing clubs and yachtsmen. I still go out and do my own survey and sketch a chart, but my son converts that to go on my website.”

At the harbour, where he has spent almost every day for six decades, talking to people, running them about, and passing on his knowledge, John White thrives. “My perfect day is when the sun is shining, with not too much easterly wind. I’ll come down, and if there’s visitors on the visitors’ moorings I’ll collect the fee.

“I’ll get my motorboat out and just hang around to see if anyone wants a trip. I’ll mess around here all day – it’s just nice chatting to people. It’s beautiful here and I appreciate it. I wake up every morning and think, ‘Thank God I live where I do.’”

As for the harbour master’s retirement? “Everybody’s got to pack up in the end,” he says, smiling. “I’m 79 now, but I think I can go on for a few more years yet.

Felixstowe Ferry harbour master John WhiteFelixstowe Ferry harbour master John White

“But you never know, do you? You never know what’s round the corner.”

John White is at debenestuarypilot.co.uk

________________

Follow Suffolk Mag on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

0 comments

Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files
Comments

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other EADT Suffolk Magazine visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by EADT Suffolk Magazine staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique EADT Suffolk Magazine account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from People

Yesterday, 13:24

Why former EADT editor Terry Hunt believes the threatened extinction of the Suffolk accent is a catastrophe for our local heritage

Read more
Wednesday, November 28, 2018

What makes the perfect Christmas? For most of us it’s good food, good drink and good company, wherever we call home. And in Suffolk we’re lucky to have some great people in the food and drink industry who ensure we always have a great time | Words: Jayne Lindill

Read more
Friday, November 23, 2018

From her great uncle’s First World War diary Vicky Gunnell pieced together the career of a pioneer in aerial photography at Orford Ness and Martlesham Heath

Read more
Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Spirit Yachts is a Suffolk success story. After 25 years of designing and building luxury vessels sailed all over the world, it has plenty to celebrate | Words: Ross Bentley

Read more
Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Private, intimate and unforgettable: here’s why you should consider a bespoke package wedding at a stately home

Read more
Friday, October 26, 2018

An exclusive charity sale at Bishop & Miller gives Ed Sheeran fans the chance to own some of the singer’s personal items

Read more
Tuesday, October 23, 2018

October . . . the month for the unusual and the unexplained. Pip Wright delves into Suffolk’s strange, bewildering history of witchcraft | Words: Pip Wright

Read more
Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Tessa Allingham sits down to dinner prepared by some of the county’s most talented chefs and their most promising protegés

Read more
Friday, October 5, 2018

John White has lived and worked at the tiny hamlet of Felixstowe Ferry for almost all of his 79 years | Words & Photos: Mike Trippitt

Read more
Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Thinking of boarding school for your child but have concerns? There might be a flexible boarding option to suit you at Royal Hospital School, Ipswich

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

EADT Suffolk Magazine weekly newsletter
Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy


Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory

Local Business Directory

Search For a Car In Your Area

Property Search