Extracts Winter 2017

Winter 2017 - Racing schooners, crossing oceans, and the light and dark side of submarines.


Racing schooners with Sterling Hayden

High water. A schooner lies to a wharf. Her sheer is proud as it runs up to her bows from a low point amidships. Old men lounge in late September sunshine, fiddling with pipes and knives, admiring the look of the vessel, spitting and scanning the sky.

            Against this sky is a man at work on the mainmast head. He wears a checked wool shirt, one sleeve ragged. Ninety feet from the deck he works, wearing a rigger's knife - homemade from the blade of a file - with a bucket of tar dangling near his hands.

            Gloucester somnolent and warm. He basks in the glow of the scene - in the crowding of masts, the wheeling of gulls, the lift of a sail in the distance. His world begins and ends with just such things as these. The ship is the Gertrude L Thebaud, fitting out now for a challenge match against the Canadian Bluenose (best three out of five races, no handicap, no shifting of ballast, plenty of good hard feelings). His job is that of mastheadsman - he on the main, Jack Hackett aloft on the fore. What more could a sailorman ask?

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Bill and Laurel Cooper make an alarming passage:

‘June - too soon’ says the rhyme about hurricanes in the Caribbean and Western Atlantic. We should have paid attention on 2 June 1982 as we rocked in harbour in Bermuda while Hurricane Alberto got ready to lay waste to Cuba and cause tribulation in Florida. A couple of weeks later, however, things had calmed down. On 16 June we set sail for Rhode Island in good weather and light winds, hoping for an enjoyable run in our stoutly-built 58ft steel ketch Fare Well.

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Donald Patience catches more than he bargained for:

We decided to go fishing on the West Coast for ground fish and the more lucrative hake. Hake always congregated in the deepest holes in the Minch and were a much sought-after fish, fetching about six times the price of cod, skate and other white fish. Before calling at Stornoway for ice and fuel we anchored our nets in Loch Shell on a herring mark and a few hours later hauled them for five cran of herring which we iced down.

            We then made our first attempt at line fishing. I decided to shoot the lines in the deep water around the Shiant Bank and hauled them for less than a ton of mixed fish, as well as the odd large skate which were breaking our snoods. It was obvious to all the crew that the great-lines had seen better days, but rather than admit defeat I decided to go further afield, and set sail for the Horseshoe Light forty-five miles west of the Butt of Lewis, in search if halibut. As we were approaching the Butt the weather deteriorated to a westerly gale.

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Neil Munro admires efficient policing:

It wass the time when Tarbert herrin'-trawlers wass at their best and money goin'. It wass then, my laads, there wass Life in Tarbert! The whole o' Scotland Yaird and a regiment o' arteelery couldna have kept the Tarbert fishermen in order, but Wully Crawford held them in the hollow o' his hand...

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Janet Verasanso remembers the Med in the 50s:

In 1951 we stowed many tins of spam and snoek aboard our 10-ton cutter and set off across the Channel, inspired by tales of the legendary wonders of French cuisine and a strong desire to say goodbye to the horrors of food rationing. The severe currency restrictions prevailing at the time required careful forethought, as our proposed journey through the French canal system would involve substantial expenditure in fuel costs. On reaching France, however, we found to our delight that fruit and vegetables (and wine) were so cheap that the grim tins stayed where they had been stowed until we forgot they were there.

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Roger Crowley explains the Venetian Empire:

Probably no state in history has enjoyed a closer relationship with the sea than Venice. The city was literally in the water, threatened by continuous destruction from the waves and without any natural resources. It depended totally on maritime trade. Everything that people bought, sold, built, ate or made came on ships that relied in turn on seafaring skills of the very highest order and control of trade routes. Over five hundred years, the Venetians constructed a maritime empire that was the marvel of the world and a prototype for later European sea powers.

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Erling Tambs sets out on his honeymoon:

We sailed only in the daytime and hove-to at night. Backing the staysail and hoisting a trysail abaft the mast, our little ship practically stayed on the same spot until we resumed our course.

            When crossing the ocean, we did not carry sidelights. Confident in the knowledge that steamers hardly ever come to those parts of the Atlantic which we were traversing, we went to sleep, as good people should do at night, quite undisturbed by any anxiety about being run down.

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Sam Jefferson goes commerce raiding under sail:

In the early January of 1917 the collier Gladys Royle was in the latitude of the Azores. The mood on board was light, for the ship had slipped through the net of u-boats and mines at that time menacing British shipping in the Western Approaches. Few on board gave any thought to the windjammer which had gradually been closing on them throughout the day. As she drew near, she revealed herself as a Norwegian merchantman, and respectfully asked for a time check to ensure that her chronometer was functioning correctly. Captain Shewan of the Gladys Royle was a conscientious sailor, and promptly hove-to in order to lend a hand to the oldtimer.

            It was at this point that things stopped making sense. The Norwegian flag came tumbling down, to be replaced by a German ensign.

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Tom Cunliffe discusses trends in navigation:

On a 60-mile passage across the central English Channel on a breezy springtide day, a landfall could easily be five miles adrift. A sensible small-boat navigator accepted this unpalatable truth, and laid a course up-tide of the hoped-for destination. Unsure of his DR, he compensated for the worst-case scenario and dealt at a stroke with the two simple questions on which all navigation still turns: Question 1: 'Where am I?' and Question 2: 'How do I get from here to where I plan to go?'

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Victoria Drummond qualifies as a marine engineer:

One morning I found a 2-inch cube of steel and a new file on my bench. This was the works test and I had to file each face of the cube to exactly 2 inches with the sides dead level. I might only use file, rule and square.

            As can be imagined, I tried to make a perfect job and put my very best into the work. When complete both my bench mate and the foreman looked at it, after which it was handed to the shop manager.

            He sent for me the next morning and told me I had passed top. It was under two thousandths out with micrometer on all sides. I was delighted.

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Nelson Troubridge meets a man in a pub:

Used to be in a submarine. Hunter-killer. Nuclear. Bloody marvellous Christmas tree. About a foot high. Under the ice, we were. About six hundred feet down. Black as your hat outside, humming along, what, twenty knots and the loudest thing you could hear was the ticking of the clock. We had been hanging around off Murmansk, horrible place, been to Murmansk? Thought not, cold, dark. We had picked up one of theirs, a big one, off on patrol six hundred feet under the ice.

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Keith Read explores the Custom of the Service:

It was the mid-Sixties. The new co had joined the boat, an Oberon class conventional diesel-electric submarine, some weeks before. He was young, goodlooking, self-assured, and determined to stamp his own personality and style on the boat, which was his first command.

            Two weeks out from hms Dolphin, her home base at Gosport, the boat was visiting Gibraltar before continuing to Malta and the Eastern Mediterranean.

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Stranger than fiction from Caroline Rochford:

As he was donning some fresh underwear the ship suddenly capsized, and the captain found himself standing on the ceiling of his cabin. Though the sea had flooded the vessel and the rest of the crew had perished, the captain's cabin had become hermetically sealed, providing him with enough air to survive and the ship with enough buoyancy to stay afloat.

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Emily Painter on the Arctic Tern:

Beat, beat, go the wings. Below, the green marshes and the serpent creeks slide by. Away, over the wide estuary plumed with mud from the banks and the red buoys flashing in the night. Now the coasts are steeper-to, white walls reflecting the moon as the wings push along, beat, beat, a powerful, high-geared beat. It needs to be powerful. There is a long way to go.

            Beat, beat, go the wings.

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Charles Warlow reviews circumnavigations of Britain:

The ambition of cruising around Britain in one’s own yacht emerged during the last half of the 19th century. The Channel was safe, as we were no longer at war with France. Scotland, at least the west coast, was not the terra incognita it had been before Boswell and Johnson’s celebrated 1773 tour; English was replacing Gaelic; and in the wake of Queen Victoria and her Balmoral Castle the Highlands were fast becoming a fashionable tourist destination. Furthermore, Murdoch Mackenzie and his successors had properly charted the entire British coastline.

            By the 1870s, cruising yachts were being built for a professional class which now had enough money and time go to sea, but without the expensive appurtenances of a skipper and an immaculately turned-out crew. This trend produced the so-called Corinthian sailors - people who could manage a small yacht singlehanded or with the help of a few other amateurs.


And of course there are North Sea News, Flotsam and Jetsam, book reviews, seamanship, eccentricity, extracts from the classics, and the thoughts of tugmaster and tobacco smuggler Ray Doggett – all decorated with the fine drawings of Claudia Myatt. Welcome aboard once more.