by davidbatho

On the far side of the river Colne, to the east of the floodgates at Wivenhoe, there is a quay where barges moor as they are filled with sand recovered from the surrounding land. Once the rusting hulls have sunk to their Plimsoll lines, the barges take leave on the departing tide, carrying their cargo out to the coast then south as far as the Thames or northwards to the Medway. Since the Colne has been left to silt up over the years, the barges are only free to navigate the channel at high tide, whenever that should be. For this reason, the work of the crew often takes them down the Colne in the dead of night, borne along by the surge while the world around them sleeps, oblivious to the phases of the water by which the industry measures its days.

One restless night I found myself wandering down the trail by the river on the occasion of a spring tide. As the cold bit into my neck, I felt my mind calmed by the water and the silver reeds, lit as they were by the full moon. The light wind coming in from the coast met with the trees a little further up the trail, giving voice to the leaves about to fall with autumn and of which I felt sure that I was sole witness. It was then that I first heard the puttering engine of a barge as it sailed up the river. I took a seat on a bench and watched it progress slowly round the crook of the Colne through the course marked out by the flickering lights of buoys. Though the ship seemed as present to me as anything in the world, it struck me that I could not approach it.

My mind turned to a photo I had seen the previous summer in the Nottage Maritime Institute in Wivenhoe. In the first few years of the 20th Century, one of the now defunct shipwrights of the town had built a small submarine named the Volta. The monochrome image I saw showed her suspended from a crane, hovering over dark water pressed into ripples by a breeze.

02086.17.4-Volta-Cropped

The vessel was to be manned by a crew of three—a commander, driver, and torpedo man—and was designed for the single purpose of scuppering ships moored in harbours or other deceptively safe waters. As I read later on in one of the few sources of information regarding the Volta that survive, by the time of the craft’s launch in June 1905 the British Government had attempted to intervene in the sale and block the ship’s departure. It was under pressure of this embargo that the submarine disappeared. In all likelihood, the craft slipped away one night at high tide, smuggled out to its buyer. Some presume she was destined for the Japanese navy, embroiled at that time in war with Russia, though the truth of the matter remains obscure to this day. How far did she carry her crew under cover of night below the surface of the water? Who were the men who sat inside her, sweating at the heat of the engine, so loud as to drown out the groaning sea that pressed on them from all sides? What thoughts passed through their minds as they were slowly asphyxiated by the engine’s exhaust as it filled the little space inside?

These questions idled as I sat mutely on the bench, pinned by the cold and the strange distance of the barge, and watched a crewman walk along the deck. He was silhouetted by the light of a lamp behind him. I watched him walk from aft to fore, but none of his movements made enough of a sound to carry across the water. He cannot see me, I thought, fortressed in my coat, missing the scarlet scarf with which I should have wrapped my neck. At that I stood up and turned to leave, catching sight of a plaque screwed into the back of the bench. Though the image of the plaque stayed with me for some time, I cannot recall the name engraved in dedication, since under that light the writing was illegible.

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