Here comes the Spring 2013 issue – Perils of the Sea, but music, boatbuilding and the odd corners of the world where humans meet seals
Julian van Hasselt sails in the 1974 Round Britain Race
In June 1974 I boarded the train to Inverness. I had shoulder-length hair and wore purple flared needlecord trousers. My foul-weather gear consisted of a pair of bright orange fisherman’s trousers with a horribly overtight elastic waistband, and a pair of dubious plimsolls which I also used for the occasional game of squash.
We got to work loading provisions on board. Our seagoing preparations went well until Jock hoisted me in the bosun’s chair to the main masthead to check whatever it was that needed checking up there. At the top, everything seemed to be in order, and I shouted down to tell him so. He began to lower away. As he did so the wind lifted my billowing locks, and they became jammed in the halyard sheave. ‘UP!’ I yelled frantically. The hair wound inexorably round the sheave, drawing my scalp remorselessly into the masthead. Soon I could neither go up nor down, my head anchored to the mast. When Jock had stopped laughing he hoisted a pair of scissors up on the burgee halyard and I managed to cut myself loose.
Tom Cunliffe tells the story of Brixham and its trawlers:
Of all the fishing craft from the days of ‘wooden ships and iron men’, the trawler was probably the most charismatic. The other big boats were the lug-rigged drifters, silent ghosts sliding over the night-black seas to cheat the silver herring into mile long nets; but these were light-footed gypsies compared with the macho powerhouse that was a sailing trawler.
Large British sailing trawlers reached the peak of their development in two main areas: the east coast stations of Hull, Grimsby and Lowestoft, and the Devon ports of Brixham and Plymouth. Few would argue with the proposition that the Devon boats were sweeter-lined, and the Brixham boats became a legend for their grace and seakeeping ability.
Webb Chiles has a spot of bother while attempting a transPacific voyage in a Drascombe Lugger:
I left the Royal Suva Yacht Club dock at 1100 on Wednesday 7 May 1980. The packing and plastic bagging and stowing had taken longer than usual; but by 1030 everything was in place.
I still had a dollar of Fijian small change, so I walked to the yacht club bar and ordered a pitcher of Chapman’s, a soft-drink mix of ginger ale and bitters. But I was eager to be off, and left the half-full pitcher on the table. Within a week I would be dreaming of it: bubbles rising through amber liquid, ice cubes tinkling, beads of condensation forming along the rim.
For three days we sailed west before twenty-five to thirty-knot winds and ten to fifteen-foot waves. On Saturday, the wind and waves eased to eighteen knots and four to six feet. That night I fell asleep at 0830 in the belief that I would have my first real rest since leaving Suva. Just before 1030 Chidiock slid down a wave and pitchpoled.
Captain Richard Woodman sails on a weather ship:
I joined the ows Weather Monitor in early December. She lay alongside the James Watt Dock in Greenock – an ungainly object, with a dull grey hull and hideous orange upperworks designed for conspicuity at sea. She had been built as hms Pevensey Castle in January 1944 and still had her Squid mortar and Bofors aa armament, all of it now cocooned. Her four-inch gun had been replaced by a deckhouse containing deep-sea sounding equipment. Her after deck was dominated by a hangar for the balloons we flew at regular six-hour intervals, and the accumulators that produced the hydrogen to provide their lift. Each balloon carried a radiosonde for transmitting air pressure and temperature. Above the bridge loomed an elderly but powerful air search radar, which tracked the balloons, giving us upper wind speed and direction until they burst.
Richard Sadler makes a worrying analysis of British sea trade in the twenty-first century:
I have always been fascinated by an assertion that merchant shipping is the biggest poker game in the world. I increasingly believe that it resembles not so much poker as roulette.
Roulette allows players to bet on a single number, a range of numbers, red or black, odd or even, or zero. In their casino, shipowners regularly bet on deploying a single dry fleet, a mixed wet and dry fleet, big ships, small ships, new efficient ships or cheaper secondhand ships. The choices are similar to those in roulette, not least in the uncertainty of their outcomes; and the potential return is as varied.
E B White meditates on owning sailing boats:
I have noticed that most men, when they enter a barber shop and must wait their turn, drop into a chair and pick up a magazine. I simply sit down and pick up the thread of my sea wandering, which began more than fifty years ago and is not quite ended. There is hardly a waiting room in the East that has not served as my cockpit, whether I was waiting to board a train or to see a dentist. And I am usually still trimming sheets when the train starts or the drill begins to whine.
Adrian Morgan builds a clinker boat:
First, you will need a tree. Well, one and a half trees: Scottish larch for the planking, and a bit of English oak for the steam-bent frames known as timbers. Catching the right larch is not as easy as it sounds. In former times estate woodsmen would brash off branches as they grew. This meant that when the tree was felled eighty or more years later, the heartwood would be largely free of what the Vikings called drowning knots – the loose ones that pop out like little bungs in the middle of the North Sea. Nowadays woodsmen are less active, and much of the larch will be too knotty to be useful.
A good tree will have been bred in open country. It will probably be an Edwardian or Victorian tree, planted and tended expressly for building clinker boats: a tree straight of limb and narrow of growth rings; slow grown, resinous, but without too many resin pockets; and of a fine shade of light reddish-brown that will darken with age.
Martin Thomas tells the story of curvy and its treatment:
A midshipman, Frederick Hoffman, wrote in 1794: ‘Twenty men who looked like bloated monsters were removed on shore and we buried them up to their chins. Some boys were sent with the sufferers to keep flies from their faces. After two hours they were dug out and four days later had recovered.’ Oddly enough, the burial method was the only one that stood any chance of working – for the simple reason that if sailors were to be buried up to their chins, they had to be on land, where they would be likely to be fed the fresh fruit and vegetables that were the disease’s cure.
Steffan Meyric Hughes winds his way among the eels of London:
Under the city-light reflections on the river’s inky surface, solitary creatures slide out of the wrecks and the mud. They are probably the only things in London that have been around longer than the river itself. They can survive in almost any sort of water: fresh, salt, still or flowing. When there is no water they will travel over land, absorbing oxygen through their skin and eating worms and, according to legend, mice and baby rabbits.
They have come all the way across the Atlantic, via Mucking and Dagenham, from their birthplace in the Sargasso Sea. A community of these ancient monsters will live for decades in the fashionable waters off Chelsea. One night a few autumns on, they will catch another tide, an ebb this time, back into the North Sea
David Thomson travels in the strange regions where humans and seals overlap:
I remember her arms. They only came down a little below where the elbows should be and they were supposed to be flattish, but you never really saw them because she wore big sleeves, and I think they were sewn up at the ends. But they looked flattish, like flippers, and she held them against her sides or across her chest and she moved them rather awkwardly. But you could never see her legs. We always wanted to. We wanted to see her in her bath and of course we couldn’t, and it was terrible, I remember, never being able to know, and we couldn’t get proper answers from anyone. And, you see, she was always in the same kind of dress – a long, long grey shiny dress, silk I think, that fastened at the neck with a close collar and came right down to the ground and hid everything.
Anthony Powers explores the seagoing compositions of a landbound composer:
Ralph Vaughan Williams was not a seafarer. Indeed, as a youngish man he nearly drowned swimming alone off the Yorkshire coast. He was a native of Gloucestershire and a resident of Surrey and his beloved London. Until extreme old age and the encouragement of a much younger second wife, he was not even a particularly enthusiastic traveller beyond Britain’s shores. Yet two of his works – the famous choral and orchestral A Sea Symphony, and the almost unknown but remarkable opera Riders to the Sea – are vividly briny. His music is further proof, if any were needed, that in any recipe for art imagination is the defining ingredient and experience merely a useful addition to the mix.
Here comes the Winter 2012 issue – writing to freeze your blood, warming reports from the Tropics, shipjacking, old boats and the Coastguard.
Trevor Robertson gives full (but hardly consoling) instructions on how to sail round Cape Horn:
The weather in the westerlies is boisterous but predictable. Nothing except the tip of South America interrupts the eastward sweep of the low-pressure systems that are the dominant feature of the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties. The wind and barometer follow a near-textbook pattern. A week or ten days separates the passage of one low from the next, and there is barely a gap between depressions. Any ocean can be windy; what distinguishes the Southern Ocean from all others is the size of the waves. Those great breaking seas, the greybeards of sailing legend, are not just a sailor’s tale to impress the girls ashore. They have a majesty and weight that I have not seen anywhere else, including, from my limited experience, the North Atlantic in winter.
James Hamilton-Paterson goes fishing in the Philippines:
Danding and Bokbok cut the engines and in silence we abruptly lose way. We have arrived at the place where the seabed is strewn with huge boulders which over the millennia have been shed from the invisible cliff above. It is a good place to start, for the boulders are usually a dormitory for lapu-lapu. Then the current can carry us back towards the strait over some of the richer corals. If we are still in the water when it changes we can even work our way partially across the strait to the deepest point of the channel. In this manner we will not have to waste energy swimming against the current, for although it is not as strong far underwater as it is at the surface it still counts, particularly when towing a full catch-line. The polythene hoses are checked by torchlight and roughly straightened into two coils fore and aft. I will take one and Arman the other.
James Long writes from the Cook Islands about the reintroduction of sail power to cargo ships in the Pacific:
The crowd on the quay next to the ferry Lady Naomi was seething with discontent. I was watching idly when a hand clapped me on the shoulder and my friend from Rakahanga said, ‘Come and meet someone.’ He led me to a man in a brightly-patterned shirt sprawled in a low chair under a makeshift awning. ‘This is the Prime Minister,’ he said.
The PM looked up at me from under the brim of his sun hat. ‘England,’ he said meditatively. ‘You come from England. So did Captain Cook. He came here, you know. He gave us our name.’
We were on the island of Rarotonga, capital of the Cook Islands, nineteen hundred miles northeast of New Zealand and four thousand seven hundred miles southwest of Los Angeles. It seemed impolite to remind the PM that Cook never came near the place.
Douglas Lindsay tells the sorry tale of the recovery of the ‘Dubai Valour’ from far up a steamy river in Nigeria:
After about a year, a deal was done to release the ship. She sailed, much to the relief of her crew, all of whom were still on board. But at Koko, only twenty miles downstream, she was boarded by the Nigerian military and ordered to return to Sapele. Her master, Captain Shulgin, gave a graphic description of drugged-up soldiers running amok on the ship, firing machine guns in the air and threatening everyone in sight. What caused this change of heart is unclear. The result, however, was that the ship was returned to her buoys at Sapele, her crew in the depths of despair.
Arthur Travers spends a morning with Dover Coastguard:
A building sunk into the cliff top behind Dover castle. In the building a big eight-sided room, four of the windows glazed, looking south over the hazy glitter of the Straits, where the pencil-shaded shapes of ships hang on the sea. Down to the right a ferry is making a three-point turn inside the breakwater of Dover harbour. The light from the windows flickers to the rotation of the radar antenna. There are desks arranged round three parts of a square, each with screens showing the little ais triangles of ships. A huge pair of binoculars hangs from the ceiling. Nobody is using them; all eyes are on the screens.
Keith Dovkants describes a ferocious but little-known campaign of the First World War at sea:
Two ships of war are locked in a duel to the death. One swiftly tacks. Her guns come to bear. Her broadside hurls hot metal into her adversary’s hull…
A scene from the era of fighting sail? Indeed, but not as long ago as you might think. This action took place on the cusp of living memory, in 1917. The sailing ship was Fresh Hope, a wooden three-masted schooner commanded by Lieutenant J Martin, an officer in the Royal Navy’s Special Service. Fresh Hope was a Q-ship, a merchant marine vessel secretly armed with guns and sent out to lure the Kaiser’s marauding U-boats into a trap.
A friend of Basil Lubbock’s makes an astonishing discovery:
‘Strolling leisurely one day along the waterfront at New Orleans, I noticed standing prominently out behind an old shed the tall tapering spars of a sailing ship. This class of cargo carrier being more the exception than the rule at the wharves of the Crescent City, and taking as I do a keen interest in the doings of old clippers, my curiosity tempted me to investigate, so retracing my steps I made the best of my way through a timber yard and eventually emerged upon the old and dilapidated wharf at which she lay. The day of clipper ships was past and gone long ere I commenced my apprenticeship in a modern Clyde four-poster, but I needed no telling that this was one of the old timers.’
Maldwin Drummond describes the difficulties of conserving the ’Cutty Sark’:
The challenge faced by the Cutty Sark Trust is experienced in the case of almost every conserved vessel sitting on its keel – that is, that with the passing of time the vessel tends to slump, and the lines become obscured. This was the principal problem faced by the architects, who with the Trust devised the scheme. The ship had been there for over fifty years, sitting on a concrete block. A detailed examination showed that she would not last another fifty years if the same solution was adopted.
Annie Hill celebrates pilotage:
I am one of the world’s laziest sailors, but finding my way using electronic devices dramatically reduces my pleasure in the whole business. I do not deny that when approaching a rock-bound and relatively featureless coast in thick visibility, the boat shoved here and there by erratic currents and without having had a reliable fix for several hours, a gps is an unmitigated blessing. Before gps, one might well have stood off and on until the fog lifted. If the coast in question happened to be that of Maine or one of the Maritime provinces of Canada, this could well have meant dallying around for several days. Using the gps, echo sounder, eyes and ears, then dropping the hook in a safe haven and relaxing with a hot grog, certainly beats lying offshore and worrying. Most of the time, though, sailing in fair weather with good visibility, I practise the art of pilotage in the knowledge that I will be as certain of my position as if I had been using the gps.
Adrian Morgan explains the use of taste buds to determine the condition of an old wooden boat:
Old boat owners… need stronger stomachs than those who buy new Bavarias. I myself have tried bilge water many times, and have even developed a taste for it. ‘Ah, Castrol 10W20, with a touch of spilled baked bean and a note of, hmm, Old Holborn? A hint of salt, but mostly rainwater. Not bad, not bad at all.’
Para Handy and the crew of the Vital Spark discuss the inexplicable habits of the herring:
‘If ye ask me, I think whit spoiled the herrin’ fishin in Loch Fyne was the way they gaed on writin’ aboot it in the papers,’ said Macphail. ‘It was enough to scunner ony self‑respectin’ fish. Wan day a chap would write that it was the trawlers that were daein’ a’ the damage; next day anither chap would say he was a liar, and that trawlin’was a thing the herrin’ thrived on. Then a chap would write that there should be a close time so as to gie the herrin’ time to draw their breaths for anither breenge into the nets; and anither chap would write from Campbeltown and say a close time would be takin’the bread oot o’ the mooths o’ his wife and weans. A scientific man said herrin’ came on cycles ‑’
‘ He’s a liar, anyway,’said the Captain, with conviction. ‘They were in Loch Fyne afore the cycle was invented.’
Here comes the Autumn issue, with gales, North Sea Oil, literature, vandalism and the northeast monsoon.
Adrian Morgan, wooden boatbuilder, tells the story of an epoch-making yacht race.
In September 1893, two great yachts came smoking out of the gathering blackness of an autumn night. They caught the weary observers on the Royal Yacht Squadron steamer, moored in the lee of the Needles, completely by surprise. They were the King’s Britannia, topmast housed, under spitfire jib, staysail and a single reefed mainsail; and the American boat Navahoe. They were heading for the finish line after perhaps the most ferocious Channel crossing in the history of yacht racing.
Luke Powell, builder of Scilly pilot cutters, tells the story of an Atlantic crossing
In late August 2005 I gathered a crew together. There was Big Nick, the ever faithful rope puller, young Jim Bob our enthusiastic sailing carpenter, and my son Dylan, who at fourteen was strong and in need of adventure. As we flew over the North Atlantic I pressed my face to the porthole and peered down at the vast empty sea. It looked cold and uninviting.
Trevor Robertson explains the making of sketch charts, with examples drawn from life
A voyage from New Zealand to Chile and a winter exploring Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, Chile promised to combine all I like most – a challenging 5000 miles, through the Roaring Forties of the Southern Ocean to a wild coast with a multitude of channels and bays to explore. I cleared from New Zealand for Chile in November 2009, and arrived in Puerto Montt, Chile, after a rough passage of fifty-four days. Annie Hill, my frequent sailing companion, joined me in Puerto Montt and we pottered around the Gulfs of Reloncaví and Ancud and as far south as Ventisquero San Rafael, the lowest-latitude tidewater glacier in the world, pushing down to the sea through heavily-forested hills alive with kingfishers, woodpeckers and hummingbirds.
After Annie left to fly back to New Zealand in early May I set off for the canales, the wild glaciated channels that stretch 1800 miles south and east to Cape Horn.
Tristan Jones, teller of tall tales, tells one of his tallest
As Barbara sailed away from the coast the fetch of the sea increased, and with it our movement, so that by midnight we were wallowing violently. The sky was clear, with no moon, but Venus was setting in the west, twice the size she appears in normal ocean skies. Millions of bright stars gleamed overhead. It was all very beautiful, but we would have preferred overcast and even rain, for we were most anxious to avoid being seen by Arab craft, whether military or civilian. The Israelis had warned us in no uncertain terms what would happen to us if we were to encounter an Egyptian naval vessel.
Anthony Dalton, Jones’s biographer, goes looking for the man, and finds mostly myths
The late Tristan Jones, a self-professed lifelong bachelor and sailor, wrote sixteen nautical books between 1975 and 1995. Two were admitted fiction, Aka – a poignant story of a singlehanded sailor and a tribe of dolphins; and Dutch Treat – a well-crafted novel of World War II. One was a treatise on sailing skills, much of it cribbed from other books. The other thirteen, Tristan claimed, were autobiographical.
The Tristan of the autobiographical works was a Welshman descended from a long line of seafarers, born on his father’s tramp steamer in the South Atlantic in May 1924. At the tender age of thirteen he joined the crew of Second Apprentice, a boomie ketch barge working the south and east coasts of England with occasional voyages across the Channel. In May 1940, with the war in Europe one year old, he joined the Royal Navy, serving his apprenticeship at hms Ganges, the notorious shore-based training facility at Shotley in Suffolk, before being assigned to sea duty early in 1941. In Heart of Oak (1984) he recorded his harrowing years of extreme danger on the high seas, having three ships sunk under him before he reached the age of eighteen.
Somewhere in between he found time to convert an old lifeboat to sail and romped off to a litany of adventures from the Arctic to the Mediterranean, none of them, oddly, authenticated then or since.
Ian Tew, tugmaster and descendant of pirates, describes a monsoon tow
My tug Salvaliant was alongside the Foochow off Triton Shoal, Singapore, preparing to tow the Foochow to Hong Kong. We were having a quiet beer on the bridge when I was called on our internal radio and told that my departure was delayed. I was to tow another ship to Hong Kong as well. This was not exactly good news, because the Salvaliant only had a single-drum tow winch, the northeast monsoon was blowing hard in the South China Sea, and I had not towed tandem before.
Anton Bowring gives an object lesson in expedition ship acquisition
In 1979, our small, ice-strengthened ship mv Benjamin Bowring cast off her shore lines and boldly set off down the Thames from Greenwich. It was the start of a three-year voyage. Our Patron, Prince Charles, was on board. So was Sir Ranulph Fiennes, our leader, and fourteen volunteer crew members, including me. A fleet of small craft followed us. Whistles blasted and fire tugs sprayed water jets into the air. I and my mates waved and cheered at every opportunity.
And we had plenty to cheer about. The Benjamin Bowring was bound for Antarctica, not so much following in the wake of the great explorers Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton and Mawson, as planning to outdo them. Only Sir Vivian Fuchs with Edmund Hillary had properly crossed Antarctica before. They had made the journey in 1956, using big tracked vehicles towing cabooses – accommodation modules – on sledges. Our expedition was lightweight. We planned to use small snow scooters to cover the 2000 miles from coast to coast.
Antarctica was just the start of it. Two years later Ran and his colleague Charlie Burton would also cross the Arctic Ocean, becoming the first people ever to complete a longitudinal circumnavigation of the world via both North and South Poles.
The Benjamin Bowring had the vital job of carrying the expedition team, with all its stores and equipment, across the seas and oceans along the route. The first such waterway was the English Channel. It was our intention to deliver the expedition team to Dieppe, where they would set off in Land Rovers through France and Spain, heading towards Africa. But there was a problem.
As the ship passed through the Woolwich Barrier on the ebb, only the crew and expedition members knew that once we had disembarked our dignitaries and journalists at Tilbury, we would have to unload the Land Rovers promptly. Then we would have to head back upriver to our berth in Milwall Dock, while Fiennes and his team caught the six o’clock ferry from Dover to Calais.
Alastair Robertson explains the history of North Sea oil
Ever since 1848, when James ‘Paraffin’ Young produced oil from shale mined in central Scotland, it had been known that there was oil to be had on the fringes of the North Sea. In Germany, oil was found near Hanover in 1859. Gas was found by mistake in a water well near Hamburg in 1910. bp discovered gas in reservoirs in the Lake District at Eskdale in 1938, and in 1939 struck commercial oil at Eakring in Nottinghamshire. But for many years the North Sea itself was considered an unlikely source of oil – until in 1959 a huge gas field was discovered at Groningen in the Netherlands, and exploration moved offshore.
Some time after 1965 harbour offices up and down the east coast of Britain were recording the arrival and departure of a breed of vessel never before seen in the North Sea. The lines of the newcomers were brutish, blunt and utilitarian. The bridge was stacked over the crew quarters and the whole superstructure was squashed forward over the bows. The rest of the vessel consisted entirely of a long, low-freeboard deck.
This ungainly fleet presaged a major change in Britain’s economic fortunes.
Julian Harrap explains where the ‘Cutty Sark ‘project went wrong
The Cutty Sark is a truly remarkable survival. Having been built for a working life of some twenty-five years, she in fact sailed through a period on the tea trade, the wool trade, and later, under the Portuguese flag, as a general cargo vessel working the traditional routes of the north and south Atlantic. Whether or not she was the fastest clipper ever built is immaterial. Her importance lies in the fact that she represents the ultimate development of a type of sailing vessel built at Aberdeen and Glasgow, derived from American prototypes. Her encasement in a concrete dry-dock in Greenwich in 1956, however imaginative, secured a further term of survival. And then came the present restoration.
The hull sits above the black glass skirt concealing her underbody, so any visitor approaching by water, or closer at hand on the foreshore at Greenwich, could be forgiven for thinking he was looking at the biggest wind-driven hovercraft ever seen.
Jonathon Green leads us through the lingo of the ship’s larder
Rations come down to two words: biscuits and beef, which encompassed any meat that could be salted, e.g. pork, or in extreme cases penguins. The first were of tooth-snapping solidity, and the second was not to be confused with what modern America terms ‘corned’ (after the particles of salt found in its pink deliciousness) beef. The pair were known as hard tack and salt junk. The hard was self-evident; tack comes either from another piece of self description, standard English tack, a quality of binding or solidity; or from the pleasingly nautical tackle, which in this context is generic for food. Bread, which would be brown, was sometimes soft tack, sometimes tommy or soft tommy (soft, that is, in comparison to the biscuits), which was a poor pun on Tommy Brown.
Richard Woodman lays bare the mysteries of tonnage
Let us start at the beginning; which, in terms of a vessel’s tonnage, was somewhere around 1300ad, when the kings of England were also feudal lords of vast swathes of France, particularly the wine-producing regions of the southwest. The import of wine from Bordeaux became a thriving business, capable of supplying some handy duties to the Royal treasury. Naturally such a levy had to be based upon the quantity of wine brought into the country. Since this was generally carried in large barrels known as tuns, the tun became the basic unit.
A tun was the equivalent of two pipes, or four hogsheads. It contained two hundred and fifty-two ‘old gallons’ and came to be the way of measuring the capacity of a vessel, then known as her ‘burthen.’
Mike Bender proposes a Marine Quarterly Library
Soon after Rupert Hart-Davis left Jonathan Cape to set up his own publishing house, he asked Arthur Ransome, a Cape author, to create a library of sailing texts. Between 1948 and 1963, sixty-three titles were published as the Mariner’s Library. When the list was bought by Adlard Coles, they added a sixty-fourth, Eric Newby’s The Last Grain Race. Well, 1963 is nearly fifty years ago, and a lot of books have been written since then. So what additions should be made to an updated version of the ml, which I propose to call, for the sake of convenience and for no other reason, the Marine Quarterly Library?
Here comes the Summer 2012 issue, with gales, the Jubilee fleet on the Thames, and the Olympics.
Alastair Robertson casts an eye on the North Sea fishery
Humberside now makes a living processing imported Icelandic cod, while the Icelanders reap the benefits of climate change in the shape of huge shoals of mackerel turning up in their waters when once there were none – to the chagrin of the Scottish pelagic fleet, which has had its quotas cut. Is it going to happen all over again?
Janie Hampton, Olympic historian, takes us back to a kinder world
Sailing was first included in the Athens Olympic programme in 1896, though as it turned out the weather was so bad that the event was cancelled. In 1900, the regatta was omitted from Olympic results because the winners were given cash prizes. Motor boats appeared on the Olympic scene for the first (and last) time in the Solent in 1908. The Under Sixty Foot class had only two entries, one of which, Mr and Mrs Gorham, nearly sank, leaving the other, Thomas Thorneycroft, to win gold because his crew of two bailed so assiduously.
Dag Pike navigated the ‘Atlantic Challenger’ on her Blue Riband voyage
There were six of us at the press conference before we set off for the record attempt. There were Chay Blyth and Steve Ridgway, legendary tough guys with a penchant for crossing oceans. There was Eckie Rastig, the engineer, who would be nursing the pair of 2000hp MTU diesels that would power Virgin Atlantic Challenger II across the ocean. There was Peter McCann, who would film the event for posterity. Of course there was Richard Branson, grinning and gung-ho, telling the reporters what they wanted to hear, which was that we were all keen and ready to get out there and make another attempt on the Atlantic record. And there was me, contracted to act as navigator and weatherman. We all looked pretty confident.
Appearances can be deceptive.
B. Heckstall-Smith recalls a toughish Cowes Week in Kaiser Wilhelm’s ‘Meteor’
As the squall struck the Meteor she heeled over on her beam ends. The huge lug foresail full of wind pressed her head down and her rudder came half out of the water. The vessel being a yacht of great tonnage had four skylights amidships arranged at the corners of a square. Two of the leemost skylights were completely under water and the sea was pouring into the cabins. The hefty Germans on the wheel put the helm hard down, but this was of no avail. The Meteor, rolling on her side, with tons of water in her bulwarks and her main boom trailing in the sea, would not answer her helm and bore away, staggering and shaking like a great galleon before the force of the gale, a wallowing mass of sail and spindrift, with forty German sailors clinging to her weather rail.
Amanda Martin tells the story of the Scilly pilot gig…
Boats everywhere have been refined through centuries of use as man adapts them to the specific requirements of particular tasks and places. Pilot gigs represent a fusion of experience and necessity based on the criteria of seaworthiness, strength, cost, and above all, speed.
while Alasdair Moore gives an insight into the view from the rowing thwart
You are three hundred metres from the finish line, your hands can no longer feel the oar, your arms have tightened into a constant ache, your lungs are trying to burst out of your chest in a desperate search for more oxygen, your tongue has been transformed into a leather flip-flop, a burning mix of sea and sweat is running into your eyes. If there was a second to stop, everything would be all right; you might even have time to be sick or jump overboard. But there is no time. There is nothing, except the relentless stroke of the oars…
Ewen Southby-Tailyour warns of possible futures in the Falklands
Mrs Kirchner knows that Argentina is an economic disaster area in which inflation is running at twenty-five per cent. Nothing can unite her subjects better than xenophobic comments centred around Las Malvinas. She has no doubt studied the way in which, before the last invasion, General Leopoldo Galtieri decided that he needed to appease his naval chief of staff, and incidentally shift Argentine thoughts away from the ‘dirty war’ he was waging on his people, with a swift amphibious operation.
Kirchner may not have a ‘dirty war’ to mask, but she does have her problems. Both Britain and Argentina have ‘agreed’ that only peaceful solutions are the way ahead. Indeed, neither country has the means to do otherwise.
Except, of course, through unconventional warfare.
Christopher Lee remembers his rise from deckie to mate
It started forty and more years ago. I’d been expelled from school, something about setting light to the cricket pavilion. Ducking the oily thumb that would have tugged me by the ear to my grandfather’s factory, I ran away to sea and signed on as a deck apprentice aboard the Saint Gregory. She was a tramp built for the duration, an old coal burner converted in Hamburg to oil, with a mostly Chinese crew on deck. That January midnight she was lightship alongside in Rotterdam, bound for Port Sudan and a cargo of salt for Kunsan. MacCobb was the Mate.
We swung the compass off Ushant in an unforgiving swell, and by a force eight in Biscay MacCobb had me crouched in oilies leeward of Number Three hatch winch, lashed tight with a bucket of cold stew between my knees and a shaky grip on an empty galvanized pail. My orders were to eat from one and fill the other with what I couldn’t hold down.
Roger Taylor finds a bit of breeze near the Arctic Circle
By eleven I was forced to lower a panel of the mainsail to keep Mingming balanced, in a breeze that already hinted at what was to come – not so much by its strength but by its steady, lugubrious moaning. I had met moaners before, off the Dogger Bank and Iceland and the Faroes – winds that by dint of their absolute regularity of air flow set up a low, grief-stricken vibration. The moaning rings in the rigging and in the hull and in your head, and it presages nothing good.
Jonathon Green introduces John Taylor, sponsorship pioneer
The self-styled Water Poet epitomised himself in the illustration to Taylors Motto (1621). The author is standing on a rock in the middle of a stormy sea; he has an oar in one hand, an empty purse in the other, and stands astride a book. But if the purse was empty on that occasion, it was by no means always so.
Geoff Holder relates the unnatural history of sea serpents
In Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (1900), for example, John Gregorson Campbell describes the sea serpent known as the Cirein Crôin, the largest of all creatures in the sea:
Seven herrings are a Salmon’s fill,
Seven Salmon are a Seal’s fill,
Seven Seals are a Whale’s fill,
Seven Whales are the fill of a Cirein Crôin
And seven Cirein Crôin are the fill of the
Big Devil himself.
Guy Venables meditates on the psyche of the lobster
Find a gorse or holly bush about the size of a Labrador retriever. Weave it thickly with wool, both around and through, until it resembles the type of sculpture often seen at an art school end-of-year show. Bait the middle with a holed box or plastic container full of old mackerel heads or other offal. Weight it with anything heavy, bend on a line and buoy, and drop it near where you think there may be lobsters.
and many others meditate on books, life, fisheries, storms, calm, and the things that happen above and below the waves on this and the other side of the horizon.
The Spring 2012 issue is here, with battle, square rig, skulduggery and oysters.
Jonathon Green and a new kind of alphabet
There is an ancient tradition of sailor’s alphabets – songs learned by new hands as mnemonics for the unfamiliar vocabulary of sailing ships. There is to date no equivalent for the sailor attempting to find his way round the treacherous labyrinths of the shore. We are therefore pleased to bring you extracts from the first Lubber’s Alphabet, designed to keep honest seafarers out of the hands of crimps and shanghai artists, or at least free from embarrassment in complex shoreside social situations.
Roger Taylor sails west
We struggled slowly towards the Lizard through a mix of light airs and calms, within plain sight of idle ships spread loosely at anchor off the Helford River. A stubby on-edge carpenter’s pencil of a ship passed close by, heading east. Two guillemots dived and chattered almost alongside, their pied markings turned orange by a fiery sunset. I set the light-weather jib. Towards midnight on our second day, in the faintest of breaths from the north, helped by the ebb tide and my own efforts at the steering lines, we finally left the Lizard’s sweeping light astern.
Tony Ditcham hunts the ‘Scharnhorst’ in the Arctic night
About noon, when we had our brief twilight, I was standing facing aft and steadying my back against the compass binnacle, ready to give the helmsman a note of caution if a big wave looked likely to cause him a problem. Suddenly, a bigger than normal wave reared up astern. I turned and bent down to the wheelhouse voicepipe,
‘Big one coming up astern, Quartermaster.’
‘Aye, aye, Sir.’
As the wave overtook us our stern started to lift until I swear it was higher than the bridge. At this point the screws and the rudder were in the crest of the wave which was like boiling water, giving nothing for screws and rudder to act against. I saw the stern start to swing to port, with the bows, obviously, going to starboard. I spoke again.
‘Watch your helm, Quartermaster.’ As I spoke I saw the helm indicator was already hard-a-port.
Captain Richard Woodman summarises the lives and duties of tea clipper masters:
It was customary for a clipper to load a general cargo on her outward passage: manufactures, woven cotton goods, luxuries, even on occasion a bulk cargo of coal – for ‘freight was the mother of wages’, and without a cargo even a sailing ship, with her free motive power, ran at a loss. This was anathema not only to her owners but also to her master. Even if he did not have a financial stake in his ship, his future depended upon the good opinion of his employers.
The outward cargo might be consigned to a destination far from the tea-loading ports of Foochow, Amoy or Shanghai. Depending on the time of year a clipper arrived on the coast, and the likely delivery time of the freshly-picked crop of tea, a shrewd commander might put in several coasting voyages, often with rice from Hong Kong to Singapore, Bangkok or Yokohama. Such cargoes were arranged either through his owner’s agents or on his own initiative, and were often of considerable personal benefit to the master himself.
It begins to emerge that in addition to his expertise in seamanship, navigation and business, a tea clipper master needed considerable energy, self-discipline and single-mindedness, as well as qualities of leadership that could encourage a similar devotion to the common task among his officers and ship’s company.
Ernest Gann tries not to wrap up in San Francisco Bay:
To gain experience in a square rig of any size you must either be a foreign cadet (Japanese, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Spanish, Chilean, Portuguese, or German), or serve in the US Coast Guard’s Eagle. So I had to depend heavily on Holcomb, who caressed his dolphin‑striker jaw and allowed as how there were enough menaces to navigation in the bay without turning me loose in a rig which at least looked complicated. To serve as crew I had assembled a heterogeneous group of people who believed that as I had managed to captain the Albatross all the way from Rotterdam without calamity, certainly an afternoon in the Bay should be a lark. I did not bother telling them how little I knew during a sort of rehearsal just before leaving the dock. It was easier demonstrating what I did know. I lectured slowly and with many repetitions, since I was aware that as soon as my supply of book learning was exhausted we would be obliged to sail.
Trevor Robertson gives useful advice on spending the winter in Antarctica:
On arrival in Antarctica, finding a winter site is urgent. The ideal cove has an entrance only a little deeper than the vessel’s draft (to keep out the bigger bits of drift ice), is small enough to run lines to shore in all directions, and is surrounded by rocks to hold the winter ice in place. It must be deep enough not to freeze to the bottom, and big enough to moor clear of the tide crack close to the shore, which becomes a powerful shear zone as the ice thickens. If possible the cove should also have interesting wildlife and scenery and a northern outlook.
Alastair Robertson tells a tale of Cold War skulduggery:
Focussing his binoculars on the strange vessel pitching fitfully on the grey swell of Newfoundland’s Grand Banks, Captain Jim Cheater of the FV Fairtry got the surprise of his long seafaring career. Caught in his 7×50 lenses that July morning was a replica of his own vessel: ‘She was the Fairtry exactly. Only the name was different. She was called the Pushkin.’ The Pushkin was the first indication that the Soviet Union had somehow ‘acquired’ the plans for the revolutionary Fairtry, the world’s first purpose-built factory stern trawler.
James Long investigates an attempt at regicide by shipwreck:
On 3 May 1682, at the mouth of the Thames, [the Duke of York, the future James II] went aboard the Gloucester, commanded by the vastly experienced Sir John Berry and accompanied by five other frigates and three of the royal yachts. In James’s entourage of more than eighty courtiers was another man for whom this was the first step in a possible rehabilitation. A loyal servant of James’s from the time when the Duke had run the Admiralty, this man had been imprisoned in the Tower on a trumped-up charge of treason, accused of selling naval secrets to France, and had only escaped execution thanks to his brilliant defence. He had been targeted by the Duke of Buckingham because of a close relationship with James. Both the King and his brother knew his value as a skilful administrator, and this was their first gesture of thanks after his ordeal. He was Samuel Pepys.
Andrew Cockburn explains how Vineyard Haven remains a working harbour:
Only a day before, Hurricane Irene had threatened Martha’s Vineyard. The waterfront had battened down, with nothing moving but the blue surge thundering on the beach. Now, crisis past, the entire lagoon, framed and sheltered by the low green headlands of the Chops, was bursting with life. A big schooner with raking masts and a sleek clipper bow crept back to her inshore moorings; another, the dazzling white of her wooden hull matching her sails, was tying up at the jetty in front of us. The water behind the protective breakwater was a moving forest of masts as day-sailors ventured out into a gentle breeze. Hulking mainland ferries hooted their way to and from the terminal, a tanker laden with overpriced gasoline headed for the tank farm a few hundred yards away, and a tugboat with a gravel barge in tow rumbled shorewards.
Michael Bender raises an eyebrow at yacht club histories:
They are an odd bunch, these histories. No two are alike. Some show signs that the Commodore took pity on a widowed ancient moping around the clubhouse and gave him access to the committee minutes, which he then flatly summarised. Others, like that of the Royal Burnham, have chapters written by different members, including, for no apparent reason, two by an anonymous ‘Special Correspondent’. There is no blueprint. Some, like Aldeburgh YC have been using photographs since the Club’s founding in 1897. Some relay committee minutes. Others are like West Mersea YC, which rather oddly maintains that ‘it would be invidious to comment, and recount the action of members still alive’ – a scruple that rather truncates the narrative.
Emily Painter prises open the private life of the Oyster:
Away they go, those eggs, dancing motes in the summer plankton. The next half moon but one they are larvae, baby oysters but shell-less, still drifting. Then a sort of solemnity comes upon them, and they sink, settle, and anchor themselves thick as thieves on the gritty culch. Now they have become spat, and they will grow.
Keith Jacobsen explores the relationship between Benjamin Britten and the sea:
In March 1942 Benjamin Britten, with his partner in life and music, Peter Pears, sailed from America in a small Swedish cargo ship after a self-imposed exile of nearly three years. It must have been a dreadful voyage. Crossing the Atlantic at that stage of the war was particularly hazardous. A passage which would normally have taken only twelve days took five weeks. Britten passed the voyage in a tiny cabin next to the refrigerating plant. It was enough to put anyone off the sea for life.
The Winter 2011-12 issue is home to some winter reading about lighthouses, some summer thoughts about tortoises, and just about everything in between
Ewen Southby-Tailyour celebrates his sixtieth birthday with a cruise:
As soon as we had transited a narrow passage through which there is no return in an onshore gale, the wind backed and rose to Force 9, blowing dead onshore. We were forced to tow warps. Our precious sea room was swallowed up. We were preparing for the worst when a last-minute veer saved the day, allowing us to crash south-eastwards with horrible discomfort in a frantic attempt to clear the coast. Then, blast it, a southerly Force 10/11 took charge.
‘Sea anchor?’ muttered the climber, face down in Adlard Coles’s Heavy Weather Sailing.
‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘but we haven’t got one.’
Dave let me understand that he considered this to be like climbing without ropes.
‘We’ll make one out of the trysail,’ I said.
He remained unimpressed, but once we had heaved the contraption over the bow, he conceded that it was good enough for the bush.
The cone of danger northwards subtended an angle of fifty degrees either side of the track down which we were now drifting. We could only deviate by a few of those degrees, for the odds on our being rolled were shortening by the minute. The next few hours would not be funny, and I thought it proper to say so, ending with the observation that there are no atheists in a Force 10 or on a battlefield. Dave then pointed out, with Australian embellishments, that if nature doesn’t kill you it toughens you.
What I did not add, not wishing to strike a gloomy note, was that if a depression passing north through the Denmark Strait butts into an equally resolute Arctic high, a southerly gale hereabouts can last ten days.
Roger Taylor muses on drowning:
I was twelve when it happened next. Every Sunday I crossed the sands of Dee from West Kirby to Hilbre Island, for the birds and the wildness and the delicious distance from the mainland. On this day I set off a little late, in thick fog. I did not have a compass, but I had the fresh tracks of three other birdwatchers to follow. Just beyond the Little Eye I came to the first gulley. This is a slight depression in the sand which fills first on the rising tide. I followed the tracks into the gulley, expecting, at this stage of the tide, a stretch of water just a few inches deep and twenty yards or so wide. I knew that once through this shallow water I would come to the rocks that led safely to Hilbre. I waded on. Suddenly the water got deeper, filling my Wellington boots. Suddenly it was up to my thighs. I stopped and looked around me. There was nothing to see. A silver sea merged into a silver fog. The water was rising quickly. I lost all sense of which way I was supposed to go. This time I did have a life to lose, and some awareness of it. I knew what was going to happen. People drowned out here almost every year, and this year I would be one of them. When the fog cleared I would be found face-down at the tide edge, blue and bloated. There was just one chance. I yelled as loud as I could.
Captain Richard Woodman discusses the lighthouse builders of the southwest:
The builders found a lodgement of some dozen square metres capable of being dressed to accept the first course of interlocking stones. Work began all over again, overseen as before by Nicholas Douglass, now accompanied by his son James, who lived with the workforce on Rosevear, sharing their diet of limpets and puffins’ eggs and joining in their evening concerts, to which he contributed flute solos. James later superseded his father as the overseeing engineer. By 1858 the new tower was completed at a cost of £34,560. The light was first exhibited – ‘put-in’ in lighthouse parlance – on 1 September, and successfully withstood the winter gales.
An extract from ‘Lighthouse’, by Tony Parker:
Right, well we start here then, outside on what we call the set‑off. Can you hear me with this racket going on, the sea battering away round the foot of the tower just below us? I’m not staying outside long, not in a Force 8 and all this bloody water shooting up at us all the time. My God, you are going to be difficult aren’t you? Why is it called the set‑off? I haven’t the faintest idea why it’s called the set‑off. Because it’s a bleeding great circle of concrete base, going down into the sea with the tower set off in the middle of it I suppose. Anyway here we’ve got this kind of circular concrete catwalk, about three feet wide and thirty feet up above the water. This is what you landed on when you came up out of the boat. A rope goes from the top of the tower down to the boat, and it has another rope attached to it from a winch on here. The winch lifts you up and pulls you in towards the set‑off. The winch hasn’t got any brakes on, you have to rely on the strength in the arms of the two men turning the handles. If they were to slip or let you fall, you’d have had it. All right, can we go up now? Thank you, after you.
Sally Kettle, who has done it twice, gives full instructions on how to row an ocean:
Ocean rowing is one of those rare sports where it is possible to compete at an international level without any prior experience, or even proof of the basic skills required to succeed. The only prerequisite for entry in an ocean rowing race seems to be a tinge of madness perched on an excess of bottle. This may explain why Britain, my own motherland, ranks among the great ocean rowing countries. If there is a bloody stupid adventure in prospect, Brits tend to be the first to embark on it. Ocean rowing started with John Ridgeway and Chay Blyth’s famous Atlantic crossing in 1966. The current biennial races, from La Gomera in the Canary Isles to Antigua in the Caribbean, have become an institution. There are of course more comfortable ways of getting to the West Indies. Yet there always seem to be a few crazy Englishmen and women willing to leap aboard a rowboat and set off into the great unknown – many with absolutely no seagoing experience at all. In case you are one of them, this is how it is done.
James Wharram and Hanneke Boon describe their reintroduction of catamarans to the South Seas: In 1840 the London Missionary society, concerned over the ‘nakedness and sex habits’ of the people of the Pacific, went there to ‘convert the natives to Godly ways’. They found the canoe culture of the Polynesians was at the centre of the ‘ungodly ways’. To destroy the root of the immoral society, they had to talk down and destroy their boats. This attitude to the seaworthiness of the Pacific canoe-form craft was still being maintained a hundred years later by Andrew Sharp, a retired New Zealand civil servant, who in the mid 1950s wrote the book Ancient voyages in the Pacific. In this book he wrote that Pacific canoe craft was not capable of sailing to windward. Waves would wash over the decks, he claimed, and the craft would break up in storm conditions. He also denied that there was any evidence they could navigate over long distances.
But his narrative style was as provocative as his theories were misguided. In 1979 Ben Finney in his book Hokule’a, the Way to Tahiti describes how in the late 1950s Andrew Sharp’s theories spurred him to try and prove Sharp wrong. What Finney either did not realise or failed to mention is that Sharp’s theories in relation to sea-going canoe craft had been refuted before Sharp had even written them down.
Oscar Branson exposes the private life of the plankton:
Dawn. Waves catch the first of the morning light and scatter it down through the dark, clear water. Overnight the phytoplankton have been lying dormant, using up the energy reserves they accumulated the previous day. This new light is like a breath of fresh air, and the basic process behind almost all life sputters into action: photosynthesis, turning sunlight and carbon dioxide into sugars and oxygen.
Diatoms with glassy opal shells hang in the water, glittering in the sun – a variety of diamonds, cylinders, and chains. Minute ciliates zip around in the water, propelled by ranks of frantically pulsating hairs. Coccolithophores, round cells covered with intricate calcium carbonate plates, rise slowly to the surface. Peculiarly shaped dinoflagellates progress sedately, powered by two long, thin tail-like flagella. Cyanobacteria rise serenely to the surface, inflating their buoyancy-control gas bubbles… And all this is taking place in a single millilitre.
Ella Westland discusses the sea’s influence on a novelist:
When Charles Dickens published The Tuggses at Ramsgate in a monthly periodical in April 1836, he was an ambitious and unknown writer of twenty-four, unaware that a new character named Mr Pickwick was about to propel him into a dizzying leap forward. Even at this early stage, it was predictable that Dickens would twist a thick nautical strand into the rope of his promising career, since his personal background as well as his publishing apprenticeship pointed from the very start in the direction of the sea.
Graham Faiella gives the facts about an ordinary mutiny:
The sequence of events leading up to news about the mutiny and murders on board the full-rigged ship Lennie was documented in a series of reports from the ‘Casualties’ columns of the daily shipping newspaper, Lloyd’s List. These started from its edition of 12November 1875 and concerned the discovery of a message in a bottle:
Bottle Picked Up Nantes, 11th Nov.- A bottle was picked up, 8th Nov., on the coast of France, containing a paper on which was written in English – ‘Send assistance and police, the crew having killed the master, mate, and boatswain. We left Antwerp for New York on the 23rd Oct., and the mutiny occurred on the 31st. Name of vessel LENNIE, of Yarmouth, Captain Hatfield.’
For steam hands, Nick Walker tells the story of his Puffer:
In around 1880, someone put a steam engine and a boiler in a sailing gabbart, found it difficult to see over the boiler whilst steering from a tiller at the stern, and created a structure on top of the boiler to steer from. Later they put a canvas dodger around the helmsman, and finally built a proper wheel house. It was at this point that the true Puffer was born. VIC 32 was built by Dunston’s of Thorne, Yorkshire, launched on 3 July and delivered to the Admiralty in November 1943.
Neil Munro reports on a confrontation between another great Puffer captain and a lucky beast:
Para Handy, with his arms plunged elbow‑deep inside the waistband of his trousers, and his back against a stanchion, conveniently for scratching, touched the animal misgivingly with the toe of his boot, and expressed an opinion that any kind of pet was unnecessary on the Vital Spark so long as they had Macphail. ‘Forbye,’ said he, ‘you would have to pay a licence for the beast, and the thing’s no’ worth it.’
‘Your aunty!’ retorted Sunny Jim, lifting the hedgehog in his cap; ‘it’s no’ a dug. Ye divna need a licence for a hedgehog ony mair nor for a mangle. There’s no’ a better thing for killin’ clocks; a’ the foreign‑goin’ boats hae hedgehogs. Forbye, they’re lucky.’
But the Captain still looked with disapproval on the animal which Sunny Jim had picked up in a ditch along the shore that morning and brought aboard in a handkerchief.
Short extracts from the Autumn 2011 issue of the Marine Quarterly The nights are drawing in. The equinox is here, with huge tides, gales, rain and other seasonal accompaniments, and the herring are beginning to shoal. That is why this issue spends some time talking about inshore fisheries.
Jonathon Green writes about slang: Slush on land is melted snow and/or ice. It seems to come from sludge or slutch, both of which can be mud, liquid mire or indeed slush. Slush at sea is something else. It was used in the Royal Navy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for the waste fat from boiled meat (less euphemistically described in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1756 as ‘the rancid fat of pork’ and presumably the by-product of salt horse, the on-board staple of salted pork, beef, and in extremis, penguins). It sounds repellent and almost certainly was, but it gave the sea-cook his nickname: the slushy (otherwise known as the slush, slusher or slushyfists), and selling it on was one of his perks.
Jim Ring relishes the skulduggery of the recently-surfaced ‘Perseus’ mystery: This is a story that starts with a mystery and ends with a surmise. The only incontrovertible facts are that His Majesty’s Parthian class submarine Perseus was lost on patrol in the Ionian on or around 6December 1941, and that John Hawtrey Capes survived. The story surrounding the boat’s loss makes one of the most intriguing mysteries of the Royal Naval Submarine Flotilla’s record during the Second World War. HMS/M Perseus (Lieutenant Commander Edward Nicolay DSO, RN) was attached to the British Mediterranean Fleet based in Alexandria since the entry of Italy to the war in June 1940. As part of the 1st Submarine Flotilla, Perseus’s duties included ferrying supplies from Alexandria to besieged Malta and attacking the Axis supply convoys to Rommel’s forces in North Africa. On 26 November 1941, Perseus left Malta for a patrol in the Ioniany.At about 23:00 on 6 December, the boat was patrolling on the surface in the busy sea lanes between the Italian-occupied islands of Zakynthos and Cephalonia. It was a wet and windy night. There she hit a mine or, perhaps, was attacked by Royal Italian Navy surface vessels. She plunged one hundred and fifty feet to the sea bed, settling on the bottom upright with an eighteen-degree list to starboard…
Roger Taylor and his tiny boat ‘Mingming’ find themselves at the centre of an enormous crowd of whales: Squads of whales, each group close packed and synchronised in its undulating pattern of breathe and dive, were homing in on us from a wide arc across the north-eastern horizon. Their goal was unmistakable; they were heading straight for Mingming. The lines of bulbous, leaping heads spread across nearly a mile of sea were converging on a single point as accurately and as purposefully as if directed by some well organised mission control. Perhaps they were. I had never, ever, seen anything like it…
Tom Cunliffe gives the last word on East Coast smacks, workboats built with the sweet lines of yachts:
One early example of yacht building in oyster-dredging country took place at Wivenhoe, a village well up the Colne, in 1820. After taking stock on his return from the Battle of Waterloo, the Marquis of Anglesey decided he wanted a yacht of one hundred and thirty tons. The Marquis was a phlegmatic character, as can be deduced from the tale of his ‘dismasting’ in the great engagement. It appears he was astride his charger beside the Duke of Wellington when a French cannon ball took off his leg. Without flinching, he turned to his general and remarked, ‘By God, I’ve lost my leg!’ Wellington, no doubt with other matters on his mind, is said to have glanced his way and responded, ‘By God, Sir, so you have!’ Quite why this old warrior came to the Colne for his yacht rather than Cowes or the Clyde is not told, but he clearly had inside knowledge because on arrival he promptly demanded an interview with one Philip Sainty, the leading builder of the town. Despite his name, Sainty was well known locally for the stimulating criminal combination of smuggling and polygamy. When his patron arrived he was doing time in Springfield Jail. The Marquis secured his release in return for a considerable sum, but Sainty refused to be ‘sprung’ until his brother and brother-in-law, likewise detained at King George’s pleasure, were also set free. The result of this infamous manipulation was the Pearl, described by a reliable commentator as ‘one of the finest vessels of its kind in the kingdom.’
Mike Smylie suggests a new age of zero-carbon fishing: Stephen Perham of Clovelly has been using a small punt to drift-net for herring for many years, following in the footsteps of his father before him, and other fishermen from the ancient North Devon harbour have been following his example. But it was not until the owners of the village, the Clovelly Estate Company, purchased the new picarooner Little Lilythat interest in zero-carbon fishing methods began to attract commercial attention outside this small, cliff-perched community.
Henry Rinker goes to sea with the lobstermen of Maine:The evening I arrived I walked to the pier and told the man in the office that I wanted to go and haul lobster traps. He looked at me from under the bill of his baseball cap as if he was wondering whether I was sane or not. Finally he said that if I was sure I should come at six the next morning and the guys would be here and maybe one of them would take me. So at six o’clock the next morning along I went. It was still dark, and somewhat foggy, and cold enough to fill me with an intense nostalgia for the Ace Motel. I pushed open the office door. A man was kicking a coffee machine, producing a steady, violent crashing. Four other men were sitting in burst armchairs drinking coffee out of paper cups. A sign on the wall said NO SMOKING. The man sitting under the sign said ‘Yeah?’ without taking his cigarette out of his mouth. I said, ‘I’d like to go out on a lobster boat.’ Ten eyes rested on me, not very interested. ‘He could try Rodney,’ said one of the men. They all laughed. ‘Who’s Rodney?’ I said. ‘He’s on his boat,’ said the smoker. I thought he was changing the subject. It was only later that I realised that this was the answer.
Fiction by Sam Llewellyn tells of a deadly rivalry among the shrinking shoals of the North Sea: Alexander Rourke was born in a place with no name close to Stiffkey in the county of Norfolk. The baby had a full set of teeth. Those who knew him later laid his nature at the door of his first meals having been of blood and milk mingled. It is remembered that Alexander Rourke when six would sit on the wooden shedding of the creek, fishing. David Jordan from the cottage next door would be there too, running around catching gilly crabs on bits of mussel so he could put them in a bucket to watch them fight. Alexander (he suffered no abbreviation, no dear little Sandys or good old Alexes, not even then) was different. Alexander had scrounged himself a hook and a line and some rabbit guts, and what he was catching were the fat eels that lived in the holes under the pilings. These he would put in a bucket of his own and sell to the man on the fish cart. As time went by, David made himself a rod and went after the sea trout that streaked into the river in the black of the night. Rod fishing was too slow and stupid for Alexander. Alexander got himself an old herring net, studied its construction, mended it carefully, and cut it down to six foot deep and fifty yards long. This net he used to seine up the sea trout, thirty and forty fish in a night. David complained that Alexander had caught all the fish, leaving none for him. Alexander broke his nose for him. He knew that this was a stupid explanation, depending on imagination, not logic. Alexander knew that there were infinite numbers of fish in the sea. It was just that by the time lazy David got to the river the shoals had moved on.
A reminder of the great Leo Walmsley, and an excerpt from ‘Three Fevers’:
Within a space of less than ten minutes the entire aspect of the seaward horizon had changed. From the extremity of Low Batts, as far as eye could reach to the south‑east, it was as though that inert mass of low-lying cloud was being rolled up from the line of the sea in dark, horizontal, moving folds, from which drooped folds of paler colour, trailing like an immense opaque curtain over a sea that was dark furrowed and flecked white by the advancing wind…
A true story of terror and affection from Craig Brown: On the night of 25 August that year, U-176 encountered convoy ON-122 midway across the north Atlantic. Dierksen’s crew fired two torpedoes at the 7,457-ton cargo steamer Empire Breeze, en route from Manchester to Baltimore, carrying ballast and a crew of forty-nine. Both torpedoes struck the vessel amidships, killing one man and pitching the ship into a severe list as the engine room, stokehold and number one hold filled with water. My father, Joseph Brown, was First Radio Officer on board. He immediately began sending Morse distress messages from the wireless room.
Claudia Myatt points out that women went to sea well before Ellen Macarthur: Lady Rozelle Raines, an ex Wren, was well known on the East Coast for many years in her folkboat Martha McGilda. She sailed singlehanded, or with her female friend Winkle, in that time after the war when ladies still didn’t do that kind of thing. In her book The Sea Bird she describes an early passage in her first boat, a motor cruiser called Imp. Running into difficulty with a broken rudder in the Dover Straits, she did what any normal girl would do and made a temporary lashing with her suspender belt.
We hope this will be enough to keep you happy by the stove while the rain clatters and the gales moan in the shrouds. If not, there is always the Clovelly Herring Festival on 20 November. Or, of course, the herring themselves, making the corks bob as you lie to your nets in a black northwesterly. Unpowered boats don’t need licences. See you out there.
Short extracts from articles in the Summer 2011 edition of The Marine Quarterly Ewen Southby-Tailyour charts the FalklandsFor reasons I have yet to understand my four unarmed and unescorted landing craft were launched southwest of Lively Island, a seven-and-a-half-hour open sea passage off what was still presumed to be an enemy-held coast. For similarly incomprehensible reasons I was not, despite repeated requests, given the task force recognition signals for that night. ‘If you see any other ships, they will be enemy,’ said someone consolingly. As a bonus I was not given the precise position of our start point; the landing craft were not fitted with echo sounders; my lead craft had a faulty radar; the compass had an unknown deviation, having earlier been swung for a cargo of light tanks; and we were entering an area of fast-deteriorating weather.
Tom Cunliffe explains the life, times, gear and manoeuvres of the Thames sailing bargeCargoes were usually loaded and offloaded at a staithe or wharf. But it was by no means unusual to lay the barge onto a smooth beach, let the tide leave her, and unload by wagons drawn down to her across the dried-out sand. The town of Margate was greatly expanded by bricks brought in using this method. It sounds perilous, but in fact there were few really serious accidents. So robust was a barge that she would sometimes be lying on a beach with spray breaking over her cross-trees on a lee shore, yet still work off as she floated. One old-timer noted that ‘they couldn’t sink, but they used to bounce.’
Sam Llewellyn tells the story of the modern successors of the sailing barge…Tim Lowry is the Chief Executive of Armac Marine,based on the Medway in Kent. Armac’s ten ships range in size between 1180 and 2300 tons. They are excellent carriers of project cargoes too big to go by road – wind farm bits, transformers, tidal generators, fibre-optic cable from the Rhine ports and Ireland to Britain – and high volume materials like gravel and bulk waste, grain and fertilisers. In the winter, the wise men and women of the local council ‘truck their road salt from Cheshire all the way down to Kent,’ said Lowry, round spectacles glistening with indignation and scorn at this ludicrous waste of truck miles. ‘96% of British trade involves a leg of water. Why we don’t recognize the fact that we’re an island nation is beyond me.’
… and Will Llewellyn explores a possible future Fuel prices will rocket, engines will stop, freight rates will soar and hub-and-spoke logistics chains will grind to a halt. Booze cruising and daily Dutch flowers will become a distant memory. Supermarket shelves will empty. ‘Bring back Gustav Erikson and his clippers!’ people will cry. ‘Wind is free, and the world spent a long time learning to use it!’ But Gustav Erikson is dead, and his ships are museums, and the deep skills of sail are something that have been forgotten by most of the world. But not all. Divider Roger Barnes cruises his dinghy to the Ile de SeinOn the northern side of the bay was a little cove bounded by high crags where a handful of local fishing boats lay to improvised buoys. I anchored clear of the moorings. All night long my boat swayed and tugged at her anchor as the Atlantic swell snored on the cliffs around me. I woke early, sodden with dew. It was a bright, clear morning with a light wind off the land. Hoisting sail, I set a hopeful course towards the distant island.
Kate Rew explains how to swim the ChannelThe first thing you need to swim the English Channel is less sensitivity to boredom than a whelk. Making your way across the English Channel is an exercise in extended repetition – the twenty-two-mile journey generally takes between ten and twenty hours of uninterrupted swimming – but this is nothing compared to the training involved before you actually start.
Hilaire Belloc gives advice to the simple sailorIf your boat is a home and a companion, and at the same time a genius that takes you from place to place and, what is much more, a comforter and an introducer to the Infinite Verities – and my boat is all these things – then you must put away from yourself altogether the idea of racing. The cruiser, the strong little, deep little boat, is all I have called it. It is a complete satisfaction for man; but if you let in racing you are letting in the serpent.
… and Dermod MacCarthy goes sailing with the great manThe morning after our arrival at Poole we set sail for a passage westward, to Weymouth, but we were never to reach that port owing to an incident at Anvil Point near St Alban’s Head off the Dorset coast. That evening, in fact, a rueful Mr Belloc and his crew would be back in Poole Harbour. It was an exciting incident in which disaster to the ship, danger to Mr Belloc and ourselves, even drowning, stared us in the face for a few minutes.
Chris Stewart becomes an amateur professional fishermanI climbed onto the boat and offered the skipper my credentials. These consisted of some fanciful adolescent claptrap that ran something like this: I was the harvester of the land on account of working as under assistant pigman on the Major’s farm, and he was the harvester of the sea. We harvesters should stick together; ours was a noble calling in a world otherwise peopled by bent accountants, hucksters and time-servers. By sharing a day, we would all be the richer for the experience. I must have been bonkers.
Nick Walker, Captain of the last puffer on the west coast of Scotland, continues his marine alphabetC is for CAUL. This is the skinny membrane that covers the head of some babies and other animals when they are born. Unless it is removed quickly, the baby will not be able to breathe and will suffer accordingly. There is an ancient tradition that if you are born with a caul, you will not drown. I was born with a caul. The midwife took mine away to London’s Docklands, to sell to a seaman who had not been fortunate enough to be born with one of his own. My mother says this is nonsense.
Short extracts from articles in the Spring 2011 edition of The Marine Quarterly
Roger Taylor on passage to the Azores in his 21ft Corribee Mingming
By Wednesday the fourth of June, our fifth day at sea, we were bucking along close-hauled under one panel in a half-gale. With this first proper blow came a mess of cross-seas and a good dose of chilliness, but this after all was Biscay, whose two syllables evoke a library-load of heavy weather legend. In truth it was a half-hearted affair that fell far short of what might reasonably be expected hereabouts. For a day or so it kept us pinned down as we fore-reached grumpily south in a colourless world relieved only by the passing of a bright red tanker, the BW Fjord, that heaved by close on the starboard beam. For another night we bashed on. Then suddenly, out of the frigid pallor of an Atlantic dawn, there it was. A northerly! And not just any old northerly, but a wonderful, fresh, Force 5 northerly that scattered all cloud to the far horizons and left the scene clear for a flood of unadulterated sunshine. With two panels set we raced downwind, skirts up in a field of blue, skipping and gambolling, pushed on by the gentle hills rolling underfoot, delirious at this sudden change of fortune.
A Victorian childhood on Scilly, as lived by Charlotte ‘Babs’ Dorrien Smith and her four sisters
We children had then a toy fleet, the Royal Illiswillgig Navy. The scale was nine inches to a hundred feet. We made everything in the workshop, turning brass guns and making torpedo nets of brass wire. Guns in the turrets could fire. There were two cruisers, a gunboat, two destroyers and a battleship launched by the Duchess of Wellington with hock in a shearwater’s egg. When Edward VII came just before the Coronation we had the fleet afloat on the pond with three batteries. We filled the guns with black powder and with the help of bamboo sticks and fuses managed a Royal Salute. The King was much amused. In earlier years his brother Henry came while our father was away and had lunch with us five. He enjoyed sailing and fishing in his schooner so much he forgot time till a telegram arrived from Queen Victoria ordering him to return at once. The Prince looked at us and said, ‘Is there any wind, children?’ ‘No!’ we chorused. And he stayed.
Alex Ramsay decides to sail to Greenland
Smell, it is said, is the strongest stimulant to memory of all the senses. For some it may be the smell of perfume, for others the scent of a flower. My own most significant smell will always be the cloying odour of meths, evoking not the memory of a seriously misspent youth, but the recollection of many hours spent urging an old primus stove into life in the galley of Bill Tilman’s pilot cutter Baroque. In 1974 I was working as a photographic printer in a sleazy lab in an even sleazier part of South London. I was hard at work enlarging the usual batch of unpleasantly personal snaps of the customers’ partners in their more intimate moments when the telephone rang. It was a friend, John Shipton, and there was urgency in his voice. He said, ‘Can you come and cook on a three months’ voyage to the Arctic? We sail in two days’ time.’ The destination was to be Ellesmere Island, 76º north, in Baffin Bay between Greenland and Canada. I had never set foot on a small boat in my life, which seemed as good a reason as any to accept.
Tristan Gooley explains the compassless navigational systems of Micronesian islanders
All celestial objects – the sun, moon, stars and planets – will rise and set at an angle relative to your horizon. This angle is known as your ‘colatitude’, which is 90 degrees minus your latitude. This angle does not change if your latitude does not change. The closer you are to the equator the steeper this angle will be. At the equator itself all celestial objects will rise and set vertically. (This is the reason why the sun and stars at the North and South Poles do not appear to rise or set at all, but wheel around parallel to the horizon – 90º minus 90º equals zero). This steep rising and setting angle gave the Pacific navigators a huge advantage when using the stars to find their way. Once they had identified a rising star in the east, they could steer by this same star for hours, and its bearing would remain almost constant. The same exercise further from the equator does not work nearly as well; at the latitude of the UK, if a star is on the right bearing at a given time it will have moved off that bearing twenty minutes later. This dependability led to a system that we have come to think of as a ‘star compass’.
Tom Cunliffe writes a brief history of tugboats
In the days before radio communications, striking a bargain was left to ships’ captains and tug masters. Little quarter was asked or given. Tug skippers would often make unreasonable demands, expecting them to be turned down while knowing full well that the tables might shortly turn in their favour. A typical example took place when a sailing-ship master refused a £50 offer to tow thirty miles or so into harbour. The tug went on her way. That evening, now in a stiff onshore wind, she found the same ship hanging off the rocks by two anchors and fervent prayer. ‘£150, Captain!’ demanded the tug skipper with a straight face ‘Robber!’ bawled the captain. ‘I’m further in than I was before.’ ‘In more ways than one,’ responded the tugman, perched up on the paddle box above his pitching deck and looking pointedly into the rapidly rising wind. ‘I’ll hang on here for a while till it blows up a bit. When you start dragging, the price goes up to three hundred.’ He got the job.
Excerpts from an Alphabet compiled by Nick Walker, Captain of the last steam Puffer on the West Coast of Scotland
C is for COAL. ‘Why don’t you convert to diesel?’ is the question most commonly asked of a coal-fired steamboat mariner. I was taught the answer years ago by Bob Adam: ‘Because it doesn’t stay on the shovel, mate’. We used to buy our coal from a blind coal broker. His speciality was Coventry coal from Daw Mill. It would arrive in a 23-ton lorry. The driver would say, ‘Sign here, mate’, and would then tip the whole load onto the quay. Just before a French adventure in 1977 I had ordered just such a load, as I had heard that French coal was expensive and awful. It was dumped on the path beside some very posh offices in St. Katharine’s Dock, and the janitor was getting overexcited. We had previously manoeuvred the boat across the dock from our normal berth and had been preparing for the great journey across the Channel. I suddenly remembered that we had not received a survey report from Frank Bandy. We had been expecting this to show to our insurance company, and without it we would not be going to France. I rang Frank up, and he apologised profusely, saying he had forgotten to post it. As there was now no time to receive the report by post, he volunteered to leave it in his garage, and I could help myself to it any time that day, as he was going out. I duly set off by car, (Citroen DS 19), leaving Rachel to load the 23 tons of coal into the boat.
James Long on Truant
Amongst my favourite books is one that has three heroes. Two of them, George and Isabel Millar, are dead now, and I wish I had known them. The third is ninety-one years old, and to my complete delight I met her this year. She is the Millars’ auxiliary ketch Truant, currently lying alongside Redcliffe Wharf in the centre of Bristol. As I write these words I am sitting in her wheelhouse, staring at the wheel with which the newly-married couple steered her across the Channel in 1946, through the canals and rivers of France, to Mediterranean ports torn apart by explosives and littered with wrecks. They groped their way past Italy and on to Greece through waters where the minefields were still being cleared, stopping in harbours where thieves abounded and supplies commanded black-market prices. They were maritime novices, learning as they went. Isabel Millar was petite with a cloud of frizzy hair. George Millar described himself as ‘a weedy young man of slightly effeminate aspect.’ That effeminate aspect fooled many people, and some of them had died as a result. Millar was already a war hero as a Desert Rat before he was captured in North Africa, escaped from a train near Munich and made it home to England.
Lewis Page asks, ‘Who needs a Navy?’
Britain is an island nation, sitting next to one of the world’s great sea lanes, with extensive offshore resources, its economy dependent on foreign trade, and its financial centres still dominant in worldwide shipping. Britain is also the world’s third or fourth highest-spending military power, and possesses the only true form of nuclear deterrent – assured second strike by unstoppable ballistic missiles fired from constantly patrolling submarines impossible to locate. Evidently Britain needs control of the sea. Surely, then, it needs a navy? The answer to this question is not as obvious as it looks.