Calm before the tempest

It’s sad to read happy accounts of a peaceful sailing season just before the worst storm ever unleashed on Europe – by which I mean World War II, not the weather.

I’ve been leafing through the 1938-9 Yachtsman’s Annual, picked up for a few pounds the other day in an Oxfam bookshop. It’s not just the handsome young people in bright sunshine helming racing dinghies, who we know might soon be in mortal danger on the front line in a war. It’s also the international cruises and races, some of them to Germany, with skippers and crews displaying no public awareness (whatever they privately thought) of what was happening in the world around them.

The 32 foot Lapwing in a lock on the way from the Elbe to the Mecklenburg Lakes, 1938
Dust jacket of the annual

One British yacht moored in Hamburg is delighted that the harbour master offered a prestigious berth alongside the city hall: ‘It would not have occurred to us that anyone below patrician rank would have the effrontery to tie up there.We began to consider whether we should not revise our opinions on National Socialism!’

That’s the only even oblique reference I could find in the book to the precarious politics of the many Euoropean countries visited by British yachts that year.

I do not wish to patronise with hindsight, because if I had been adventurous enough to take a motor cruiser up the Elbe in the 1930s, I think I’d probably have focused on the river and the people, as the writer did. Politics and yachting are an uneasy mix (as the Cruising Association decided when it banned political discussion of Brexit on its forums, even though they were dominated by analyses of the practical impact).

So I’d probably have had that ‘genial discussion’ with a policeman about the respective merits of England or Germany as places to live. And I’d have have missed the possibly unintended irony in the newspaper headline they read of their visit to one of the Mecklenburg Lakes, translated as: ‘The Union Jack flies o’er the Schwerin See.’ Local people were competing to entertain them, it seems.

A Baltic race to Warnemunde including five British yachts and 12 German was won by the Luftwaffe’s yawl, the Silberkondor. The arrangements in harbour were ‘very smartly handled’ by the Luftwaffe’s motor launches ahead of the official dinner. Another Baltic race finished in Kiel, where there was a ‘very cheery international gathering’ after the finish.

Most striking of all about the book as a whole was how extraordinarily adventurous British sailors were in the years up to WWII, not just the international racing programmes but the cruising grounds covered as well. They went from Brest to the Elbe and up through the Baltic and also the Atlantic coasts of France and Spain and into the Mediterranean, and northwards to the Hebrides and Greenland.

The Greenland account includes the tragic loss of Captain Watkins, the leader of a weather research voyage, who learnt while there to fish using a local leather kayak and regularly went off solo. They found some of his clothes on an ice flow and the kayak was drifting nearby. The photo below has the original caption.

The Who’s Who section has some interesting people, and not just the mega-rich with huge yachts. There are owners of tiny one-tonners, dinghy racers, sailmakers, eminent nautical writers such as Alan Villiers and Arthur Ransome (listed as a member of the Cruising Association and as owner of the 12 ton cutter Selina King) – and a Walter Slocum, born 1907 in Connecticut (any relation?)

One particularly intriguing entry: John Frederick Drummond, merchant, of Kobe, Japan, winner of many races at the Kobe Yacht Club and of four interport matches against the Yokohama Yacht Club. He had cruised ‘All over the Inland Sea of Japan, with Japanese government permits’. It would be fascinating to know more about his time there.

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