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.
Mobiles have had a bad press as navigational tools, but if I were forced to choose one single piece of electronics to take to sea it would be my phone. That’s not a popular view among professionals.
Instructors, coastguards and rescue services learn of many cases where boat owners, especially of powerful motor yachts and RIBs, set off for the open sea with nothing beyond a chart app on a mobile phone, and no knowledge of the underlying skills needed to navigate safely. For the Royal Yachting Association, mobiles are well down the list of recommended priorities, because of the risk that they will be used badly. Textbooks give stern warnings that you must not use them for navigation.
From the introduction to my book, Tide by Tide, much of which is based on stories in this blog. It was privately published. The photograph is of a fishing boat on Aldeburgh beach, Suffolk, in 2018
Why do we go down to the sea, again and again? It’s uncomfortable, risky, time consuming and expensive, and interpreting the language makes the offside rule in soccer seem as simple as the basics of a game of snap. That’s before you get on to the deeper question of motivation and emotional attachments to the sea and boats.
On our Biscay cruises, we visited the lovely little Ile de Groix , once home to great fleets of long distance tuna boats. It is only recently that I have come across an intriguing explanation of why the famous fishing boats of Ile de Groix are such attractive little ships. Continue reading “Why are (most) boats beautiful?”
On an Ionian holiday a few years ago, I walked straight off a modern cruising yacht into an argument about an ancient voyage that has been unresolved for well over 2,000 years. We had moored at Vathi, the main town on Ithaca, where in a first floor room down a side street I came across an exhibition of photographs of Homeric sites on the island. There I fell into conversation with a white-haired, distinguished looking man who described himself as director of the archaeological excavations on Ithaca.
Naturally, we got onto the Odysseus connection, for the exhibition was designed to connect present day sites on the island with the wanderings of Homer’s hero. I had just read in Rod Heikell’s Ionian pilot book that the island of Levkas, a few miles to the north, had been put forward by some as the true Ithaca. What did the director think of that?
It was as if I had insulted his family, his religion and his country all at once. He exploded.
The Guardian newspaper has a long tradition of involvement with sailing, but many of its staff had forgotten all that when David Fairhall and I came up with an idea for a season of ocean racing. The paper was split down the middle by the plan.
It all came to a head in a spectacular fashion one day in early 1989 when every department head refused point blank to run a story and photographs of the launch of our Guardian-sponsored racing yacht. The former Prime Minister, the late Ted Heath, a well known sailor, had agreed to our invitation to launch the boat at a reception in Southampton. Heath was baffled when none of the photographs and copy about the event appeared in the paper. For some of my then colleagues, the combination of a top Tory and yacht racing was too much to swallow. Mutiny was in the air.
For the 25th anniversary of the Guardian’s unusual ocean racing challenge, here is the full story – find itusing this link.
The Bank of England once owned a succession of yachts, which each went by the name of Ingotism, an insider’s reference to its old telex address and to the bullion stored deep in the sub-basements of the Threadneedle Street offices. This is the story of how Ingotism was sunk – in a manner of speaking – and of how I got a good share of the blame from the Bank’s sailing club.
“Better drowned than duffers if not duffers won’t drown” was the telegram from their naval officer father that gave the children permission to go off sailing in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. We were a good ten years older than the children, and didn’t have to ask our parents when we set off across the English Channel in 1971. I still wonder how we twenty somethings got to France and back, after almost hitting a rocky beach at full speed and near misses with a freighter and an aircraft carrier, all at night.
Offshore sail training was rudimentary, and none of us would have known where to find an instructor even if it had occurred to us to ask. Most of the six crew’s experience was in dinghies, and not everyone had done even that much. Maybe we exaggerated our skills a little. The charter boat owner was taken in. Read the rest by clicking this link
Boats, birds and the Spirit of ’45
It was Hughie Green, the comedian and game show host, who financed my first boat, during the penny pinching 1950s. I was helped on my way by a passion for birdwatching, a campaign to promote sailing run, perhaps surprisingly, by left wing newspapers, and a working men’s institute in Kentish Town, North London, which offered boatbuilding classes. Read the rest by clicking this link
Brandy to the rescue
… at Brandy Hole
Brandy Hole sounds like a made-up name for a pirate story, but it isn’t: Deep in the saltings and mud flats of the upper reaches of an Essex river, it was always said to be a good place for landing contraband; it still could be, for a modern drug, cigarette or illegal immigrant smuggler sneaking in from the Thames Estuary on a dark night. It was also a place for old boats to come to die, sagging their broken bellies into the mud of the creeklets that wander through the saltings. Some were used as weekend houseboats, until the rot and the constant rise and fall did for their ribs and planks, and they began to fill and empty with each flood and ebb tide. They would have made good hiding places.
Sailing a small dinghy from Brandy Hole was a challenge, because the river almost empties at low tide; in between it rushes in one direction or the other as the tide rises and falls, which provides a great lesson in how to manoeuvre with, against and across the currents. Read the rest by clicking this link
The left-leaning New Chronicle, controlled by the Cadbury family, launched Jack Holt’s plywood Enterprise in 1956. But the paper was failing, even with a circulation of over a million, and was absorbed four years later into Lord Rothermere’s right-wing Daily Mail.
It was not the end of newspaper sailing promotions, because two years later the Daily Mirror, with a largely working class readership, took up the theme with the Mirror Dinghy; it was also designed by Jack Holt, with the help of a then famous television DIY expert called Barry Bucknell, who devised a new and even cheaper method of boat construction in which the plywood hull shell was stitched together as if it was made of stiff fabric, with copper wire as the thread, and then glued along the joints with resin and glass fibre tape. Read the rest by clicking this link.
Smart and not-so-smart clubs
In dinghy racing in the ’50s and 60s, there were smart sailing clubs and there were the new clubs emerging on gravel pits, canals and reservoirs to sail Jack Holt’s budget boats. It was a very stratified world, which can still be seen on the shore at Cowes, where the clubs are in marshalled in order of rank, starting at the seaward end: the exclusive Royal Yacht Squadron, the Royal Corinthian and the Royal Thames, the Island Sailing Club and – originally for the local working boatmen of the town – the Cowes Corinthians.
My first boat and club were at the other end of the sailing spectrum from the smart clubs. Our neighbour, the former naval officer who helped me build my first boat, ran a boys’ sailing club based on the grimy Lee Navigation in North London, and he encouraged me to join. Read the rest by clicking this link
Figures of eight in Suffolk
Richard Jefferey’s Bevis learnt to sail a raft on a mysterious lake in Wiltshire; the Swallows and Amazons were taught to sail dinghies on glorious Lake Coniston, adventures which were the envy of a post-war generation of children; the real Eric Tabarley went to sea in his father’s yacht along the wild Breton coast. I boast of a reedy fen in Suffolk, across the road from Southwold pier .
In 1953, it was no more than an expanse of brown water, a mere wandering off into a reedy marsh, much of it drained since then, that spread inland at sea level along the north edge of Southwold town. The great East Coast floods, whose 60th anniversary was commemorated in 2013, had been six months earlier; the lake and the marsh had been inundated and were still draining. The water was brackish and the banks were of mud held together by seagrass and great fields of reeds. In the lake were several small islands, and on the lake, at a hire rate (I think it was) of 6 old pence (2.5p) an hour, were a dozen tiny flat-bottomed dinghies, 7 feet long. Read the rest by clicking this link