Winter 2016 – Aegean cruising, boatbuilding in Lamu, tales from the radio room, the long, long history of coral and childcare on Clyde puffers
Jon Tucker takes his children on a little nature trip:
The Chatham Islands are a seldom-visited archipelago in the roaring forties about 450 nautical miles downwind of New Zealand’s South Island. Vessels bound for Cape Horn seldom bother to drop in. The islands are generally shrouded in cloud, and offer only one dubious all-weather anchorage. Scattered near Pitt Island (the smaller of the populated pair) are a number of small rocky islets, barely accessible by boat. Two of them, the Fort and the Castle, derive their names from their topography. The nearby Mangere Islet became famous overnight during the late 1980s with the discovery of three specimens of the Chatham Island black robin, a species assumed to have become extinct several decades earlier. One was an elderly female, which was named Old Blue. The other two birds were both males, one of which later turned out to be infertile.
From this tiny and precarious gene-pool, a remarkably successful breeding exercise developed… Soon after the inauguration of the breeding programme, a small group of Kiwi yacht-racing enthusiasts came up with the hitherto unheard-of idea of an ocean race from Napier to the Chatham Islands.
Robert Atkinson and friends go poaching in the Small Isles:
We cut off the creature’s head with Hugh’s penknife. This was not as difficult as it sounds, but took several minutes. We whispered still and continually glanced to the skyline; the horror of somebody appearing over it was not to be thought of – but we must have half-expected it since we looked up so frequently. We then cut off other parts which it is correct to take from a stag. The tide was low but flowing again. We had a long way to move the boat. We struck the tent, cleared the site and loaded everything into the boat.
Di Beach and her husband go boatbuilding in Lamu:
The woodcutters roughly squared off the chosen branches with their adzes to reduce the weight, then dragged them to the shoreline with coconut-fibre ropes. When the boat was loaded higher than seemed prudent, they sailed back to Lamu. Upon arrival at the boatbuilding site they dumped the timber in the shallows, where it remained submerged until needed – Lamu boats were always built of green timber. Many such trips were needed, and the process took several weeks.
Philip Temple spends Christmas at sea with Bill Tilman:
We had a book called ‘The Magic Pudding’ and Antony, Ed or Warwick tookto reading a verse from it before each heavy mound was cut up andserved. At the presentation of an early duff the Skipper told thistraditional tale: ‘The new cabin boy is always asked if he likes themiddle or ends of treacle duff. Middle! says the boy. Me and themate likes ends, says the Skipper, promptly cutting it in half.’ Andthen as Antony replied with some rude retort: ‘What I want from youMr Mate is silence — and not too much of that.’
Tales of hilarity and tragedy from the now vanished Radio Rooms of the Merchant Navy:
‘The Wireless Operator, a plain man equipped to do one thing extremely well, bears himself in extreme emergency with cool courage. He stands by his job, though at any moment the ship may sink under his feet. From the very nature of his job he is almost the last man to leave a sinking vessel – allowing precedence in devotion to the captain alone, and he continues to send distress calls and to direct rescuing vessels until some officer seizes the slack of his trousers and pitches him into the boat. Sometimes, and not infrequently, he goes down with his ship.’
Keith Read tells the story of a rather fraught tow:
It had been a good couple of days. It was the early seventies and the boat, the Royal Navy’s newest hunter-killer nuclear submarine, was heading back to the Clyde after a final set of post-build sea trials. Full-power steaming and a deep dive had all gone well. The boat had proved highly manoeuvrable and watertight at the deepest diving depth. True, the principal naval architect for the design had been seen to turn a little ashen on surfacing. This turned out to be because the seal in the main accommodation hatch had been found to be missing. But well-machined faces and sea pressure had rendered a seal redundant, so all was well that ended well, and the crew and assorted contractors, overseers and trials personnel were beginning to relax after a strenuous, cramped and tiring few days.
As the boat headed through the North Channel ten miles North West of Rathlin Island and the Irish coast, a North Atlantic gale blew in….
Anthony Bailey reflects on the joys and sorrows of winter boating in New England:
In my very small fleet of small boats, I found that my favourite craft, at least for lone winter use, had no sail. This was a Gloucester Gull Light Dory, designed by Phil Bolger of that town. The traditional New England dory was a simply built boat, carried to sea stacked one inside the other on the decks of Grand Banks schooners, and dropped overboard for their crews to use on the fishing grounds. Bolger’s variant was not only less burdensome but with lower freeboard, its lines refined for easy rowing. There was no need to carry masses of fishing gear or, on the way home, several quintals of cod. Initially tippy, it became more stable the further it heeled. Our dory had been painted with the usual-for-dories high-visibility orange paint but given no name, so we baptized it Lark, the slightly-out- of-birth-order acronym of our four daughters.
Hammond Innes sets out from Malta, bound for Byzantium:
For those who sail in the Mediterranean the problem of Turkey has to be faced sooner or later. I knew the difficulties – but having seen the Turkish coast from the Dodecanese two years before, I had to go, I had to see Troy and the ruins of the Ionian cities; above all, I wanted to sail my own boat through the Dardanelles and across the Sea of Marmara to Istanbul, to see the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus.
Nigel Sharp tells the long, convoluted story of yacht handicapping:
It was probably the Royal Yacht Squadron (at that time the Royal Yacht Club) which introduced the first system of handicapping, at its 1827 regatta. Two of the three cups were awarded to the fastest boats below 75 tons and 45 tons respectively, while all vessels were eligible for the third. Two years later this was taken a stage further. The competing boats – still racing as a single fleet – were split into six groups according to their tonnage, all the boats in the bigger group giving the same time allowance to all the boats in the next smaller group, and so on.
Individual handicaps were issued for the first time in 1841, when eleven yachts between 31 and 393 tons raced each other, with an allowance of one second per mile for every ton of difference between the competing boats. The 6th boat home was declared the winner on corrected time, and the system was considered (at least by the Committee) to be a success.
More jinks high and low on the Vital Spark:
The last passenger steamer to sail that day from Ardrishaig was a trip from Rothesay. It was Glasgow Fair Saturday, and Ardrishaig Quay was black with people. There was a marvellously stimulating odour of dulse, herring, and shell-fish, for everybody carried away in a handkerchief a few samples of these marine products that are now the only seaside souvenirs not made in Germany. The Vital Spark, in ballast, Clydeward bound, lay inside the passenger steamer, ready to start when the latter had got under weigh, and Para Handy and his mate meanwhile sat on the fo’c’sle-head of “the smertest boat in the tred” watching the frantic efforts of lady excursionists to get their husbands on the steamer before it was too late, and the deliberate efforts of the said husbands to slink away up the village again just for one more drink.
Charles Payton introduces us to a whaling captain who lost his wits:
The life of a London south sea whaleman of the early 1800s was not easy. Crews of 30 to 35 men were confined in vessels seldom more than 90ft on deck, and sailed with the certainty that even if they survived they would not return within two years, and that they could be away for three to four. In four years they might touch land for stops totalling three months overall, and these only to take on water, vegetables and wood. Everything else they carried with them or made for themselves.
Given these conditions, it is surprising that there is not much evidence of mental illness on whale ships – and where it exists, it seldom presents in the common sailor. Masters and Mates, coopers and carpenters, were more susceptible.
Oscar Branson laments the decline of coral reefs, but points out that it has happened before and will happen again:
The demise of corals is a catastrophe at ecological, environmental, economic, cultural, philosophical and personal levels. It is a visible and appalling sign of the direct impact we can have on the planet. Surely this cataclysmic destruction of an entire, complex ecosystem must be unparalleled and unique?
Well, no. Coral reefs have been comprehensively wiped out on at least 6 separate occasions since the origin of life on Earth 3.8 billion years ago.
The Editor goes gardening:
The last northern gasp of the Gulf Stream carries the seafarer through a ferocious landscape. The Cuillins look as if they want to saw chunks out of the sky. The hills behind Torridon glow red-hot in the sunset. As the boat turns into the mouth of Loch Ewe, the only thing between her and Labrador is the grey pencil line of the Isle of Lewis, forty miles to the west. At the southern end of the loch is Poolewe, a scatter of houses trapped between the sea and the jumbled mountains inland. The peninsula on the left of the white hotel bears an Art Nouveau grove of pines. Traditionally, there are so few trees in these parts that even coffin boards are hard to get. What is going on?
The dinghy crunches on the shore. Drifts of seaweed cling to the boots. There is a steep, grassy bank. Then, suddenly, a walk with neat laurel hedges, brightened with bloody splashes of the climbing nasturtium tropaeolum speciosum, lined on one side by a neat two-acre terrace of flowers and vegetables, and on the other by a sub-tropical jungle.
And of course there are North Sea News, Flotsam and Jetsam, book reviews, seamanship, eccentricity and 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.