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.
The club had been set up to introduce urban boys to the pleasures and rigours of boats and the water. The thinking behind the sponsorship of such clubs was not a million miles away from the intentions of those who financed the sail training ships of the Ocean Youth Club, the London Sailing Project and the Ocean Youth Club in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and indeed the famous Outward Bound courses on land in the same postwar years; all were designed quite explicitly to keep young men fit and off the streets. I’m not sure my parents saw me quite in that context, as a wild kid needing to be kept off the streets, but I joined anyway.
The Lee ran between a sewage works (now gone, and reclaimed as a sports field) and a reservoir, the King George V. We had a tiny clubhouse with bunk beds for overnight stays and a room to make tea and sandwiches. We certainly learnt to tack our boats efficiently, because it was rare that the wind was in the right direction to sail a straight line up and down our narrow 1 mile stretch of water between two locks.
The wind was a bit of an issue, or rather the smell of it. We could just about acclimatise after a while to the foul air from the summer sewage, but it could never be ignored. The great incentive for staying in these surroundings was that the club was trying, by its presence on the site, to persuade the Metropolitan Water Board to allow it to move to the enormous King George V reservoir a few hundred yards away. In the longer term, the water board was persuaded, and sailing was allowed on the reservoir, which is the best stretch of water in London (now the sewage works has gone). Sadly, the new King George club was not set up until more than a decade after I had taken my boat to the tidal waters of the River Crouch in Essex, helped by some friends who sailed there, and enticed by the pleasanter tang of the sea and the saltings.
I was tall for my age, and quickly outgrew the little Heron, which I sold at a small profit, using the money to buy a News Chronicle Enterprise.
I bought a second-hand one, identical to the boat now in the entrance to the maritime museum in Greenwich, which I sailed on the Crouch. We also took it on holiday with a road trailer. After I sold the Enterprise, I was sad to hear that it had been wrecked on rocks while being sailed by its new owner in the West Country.
Many years later, when our children were old enough to sail, we bought and restored an old Mirror dinghy, so altogether we have owned three of the Jack Holt budget boats of the early postwar sailing revival.
I have a favourite, the Mirror. It could be sailed, rowed, motored with an outboard, worked as a yacht tender, taken on the top of the car to holidays in Cornwall and Britanny, used for gentle river picnics for up to six adults and children, and in one memorable weekend rowed the whole navigable length of the River Stour in Suffolk, from Sudbury to Cattawade. That involved dragging it round 15 portages at weirs and broken-down locks, which gave the hull a battering that truly tested what must now rank as a great classic of design of any kind.