Sea-Change:  Wivenhoe Remembered   

Riverside: Boats withtories

Our BoysNick Baker

I’m absolutely fascinated by the fact that the principles are, of course, the same, but the actual engineering is so different. This is so heavy work. I have to say sometimes inefficient in the sense of muscle power where, on a modern yacht, you’ve got lightweight blocks and artificial fibres and so on, it’s all set to get a lot of power out of very few – not labour intensive – this is more hard work, but absolutely wonderful too.

The dark blue one, the Mischief, she’s 35 years old, she’s no youngster! But this, Our Boys, is 1911, and, of course, comes from a previous era, where that one was looking forward to new developments in yacht design. She was built at Paglesham just, I think, for general fishing duties, so she would have gone stowboating with the big nets and maybe oyster dredging, but also spent much of her life as a police guard boat. So these were vessels that people would stay on board, and just watch over the fisheries.

I’ve sailed since I was pretty young, about 13, 14, I’ve sailed, really, most of my life. I’m actually quite a cautious sailor, whereas I think, some people, they go aboard big modern yachts, and they think it’s very easy, and then suddenly, when they are at the sharp end, they suddenly realise it’s not so easy. And we’re getting a lot of that nowadays because people have more disposable cash, and they buy big boats, and so that’s why I’m involved with the Nottage, with teaching, and I feel quite seriously, that there is a need to teach people. And one of our projects at Rowhedge is called the ‘Heritage Project,’ is to build a museum, but it isn’t just a sort of museum of artefacts, it will be a museum where, hopefully, this boat, and possibly another, will be able to show people traditional sailing skills, so it’ll be a very sort of active museum.

I learnt the skills from an old gentleman who is a brother of quite a famous yacht designer and sail-maker, Norman Farrer – his brother is Austin Farrer. He was an interesting character, but he’d come from the Victorian era, almost, of sailing, when you had a man on board! And those days are long since! But he taught me very well, and then after that, it was just in my own boats, and I built a boat. I built a 23-foot wooden boat, which we used as a family boat for about 15 years.

Being a physicist, to me, I love thinking about how the boat is sailing, how it’s working, but, of course, those are things that some people can do instinctively, and I sometimes have people on board, people who haven’t sailed before, some people can sail to windward, just instantly seem to get the message. Other people, it doesn’t matter how many times you explain, they just don’t get the message. And that may be not just so much conscious science, but just that sort of unconscious skill, so I think that’s very important. And also, being safe at sea – understanding the weather and things like that. And tides, yes, of course! Yes, it’s amazing how many times I’ll see people struggling rowing down the river, in the middle of the river, against the tide, and it hasn’t dawned on them it might be a good idea to row nearer the shore, and dodge the tide!

It’s amazing, we live in South-East England, 50 miles from London, I can get on my boat, go round that corner there, and I can hardly see another soul, just birds, the odd seal, fields and saltings, that’s amazing! So I think one of the joys is that boats get you into places that you just don’t get to by car or by bus or transport. I really like that. That’s very special. But also just the actual process of sailing I find enjoyable. It must be like, say, gymnastics is to somebody, or dancing, it’s got that same sort of lovely physical beauty about it.

Rowboats and smacks –Crispin Yarker

The boat I’ve held for the longest is the boat I first sailed on, which is a little 12-foot plywood racing dinghy, built in about 1959, which I sailed on in North Wales, at the age of nine. I’ve still got that, and it’s followed me all round the country, in various garages and gardens, in its complete state of disrepair and rot. It was given to me 15 years ago, as a wreck, and it’s remained a wreck ever since, but I’ve still got it. But since that, I’ve got a few small rowboats, locally built clinker rowboats, and, of course, the smack I bought.

I’m tending just to hoard the rowboats, because they’re too fragile to be used commercially, but they’re too valuable to allow to rot away completely or to be destroyed. They’re valuable because they’re not being built any more. No one’s built commercial wooden rowboats for about 50 years. You can build them at the Nottage, and spend two years and £1,000 building one, but that’s not a commercial one, that’s someone’s pride and joy. There are very very few left, and I think we have a duty, I very strongly believe this, we have a duty, living in the 21st century, to maintain a record of what has gone before. They were tenders to get to and from the smacks, and the smack to the shore, from smack to smack, and to carry fish, to be able to scallop the creeks, and do a bit of fishing with a small net from the boat – general purpose work boats, equivalent of a pick-up truck, I suppose, on the road. But they’re all hand-built, usually by a boat-builder and a boy – an apprentice. They just look right. I like the look of them, the feel of them. It’s easy, looking at James Dodds’ prints, to see the attraction in small curvy rowboats.

I had a smaller smack before the Saxonia. I had a smack called the Mary, which is a Brightlingsea built smack, built in 1900, and I bought her, really, because she was relatively cheap, and I could sail her single-handed – that was a great attraction – after having for seven years run a 38-ton sailing trawler, which I kept for the last five years in Brightlingsea. I looked forward to be able to sail something without having to ask other people to come along with me, or pull ropes, or dangle fenders.

She was built in Brightlingsea, she was a very authentic local oyster smack, for oyster dredging in the local creeks – in the Pyefleet and the Colne. In fact, I’ve dug a little a bit into her history, and from 1914 through till the early 1960s, she was owned by one family, and they used her in West Mersea on their oyster layings, a fishing family, an oyster family – the French’s. But by 1960, she’d become an unstable wreck, and was sold away to become a torn-out yacht for a while, and was eventually rebuilt in the 1980s. So when I bought her, she was in very sound condition, having been rebuilt locally.  

Saxonia – Crispin Yarker

I then sold the Mary, after two years, and bought the Saxonia. That was three years ago. The owner approached me and said, ‘I would like you to buy Saxonia, I don’t want to sell her to anyone else,’ which is flattering. I had sailed with him quite a bit, both on barges and on the Saxonia. She has a long story but I’ll try and make it short. She was built in 1930, for William Young and Son, to augment their fleet of existing bawleys based in Leigh-on-Sea. She was built by Aldous in Brightlingsea, who are a well-known yard, a very very large yard on the East Coast, specialised in building smacks and bawleys, and also yachts, although their main income earlier was probably maintenance of the large gentlemen’s racing yachts, the Victorian/Edwardian era. So she was picked up by William Young, one of his skippers, taken straight to Leigh-on-Sea, and put to work, after having an engine fitted, which is interesting, being probably the last bawley to be built with a full sailing rig, but also the first bawley to be built with an engine. So she straddles that world of the pure wooden sailing boats and the modern motorised motor smacks. She’s built of pitch pine, with an engine and a full sailing rig. She fished out of Leigh-on-Sea, for whitebait. And she was also the last of the stowboaters. She worked for Young’s under various skippers, principally a skipper called Ken Boundy, who had her for at least 15-20 years, as a paid employee of Young’s, until 1964, when she was then sold to the Colchester Oyster Fishery Company, based in East Mersea.

I’ve been told that she was fitted out with a slightly more comfortable cabin, fore-cabin, and also with lockers and a bunk, aft, for a skipper, to enable William Young and his wife to take themselves and their daughter for a week’s holiday every August, over to Holland, or wherever they should want to go. The Company, today, is worth some £350m. a year, as a multi-national fishing conglomerate. It’s now based in Grimsby, not Leigh-on-Sea, it moved to Grimsby in the 1960s.

However, the Saxonia worked, was sold away from Young’s in 1964, when stowboating had become obsolete with the introduction of a new method of fishing known as pair trawling, where you need powerful motor fishing boats, with the nets strung between them. However, the Saxonia carried on working for the Colchester Oyster Fishery as an oyster dredger, and she dredged in the Pyefleet, not more than a mile from where she was built some 30 years earlier, and worked as an oyster dredger through till about 1978/79, when she was converted back to her original sailing rig, and used as a private yacht.

I’ve been chartering her, since I bought her three years ago. Her previous owner, Jim Lawrence, had chartered her all the time he’d owned her, which was about 15 years, but not on a commercial level, he did maybe a half a dozen to a dozen charters a year, really to promote his own business, and to promote the ship, and to keep the ship working, so he could say that she’s never been taken out of trade. I’ve built up that business quite considerably, and now I’ve made it my full-time living – taking charter parties out on Saxonia. Last year, I did 40 trips, in the period from early April to sort of mid-October, which is an average of about 2-3 trips a week.

We try to vary what we do. For me, really, it’s just going out for a sail, but I do put a different focus on what we do. For example, we do traditional oyster dredging, we take part in the Annual Oyster Dredging Match, in Saxonia – I’ve got a set of oyster dredgers for her. We also trawl with a beam trawl. I’ve got a set of herring nets, which are sometimes used. They’re all different methods of fishing which have been used, locally, for hundreds and hundreds of years, until the introduction of modern suction methods, using massive hydraulic machinery. It’s interesting to show people how fish were caught by hand, without mechanical aid. The people who come are ‘active retirees’ – people with money, people whose children have left home, the people who also have perhaps got a good pension, or don’t have financial worries – they’re not poor people. But they’re also interested. They haven’t settled back into doing nothing. You’ll quite often find a lot of people on board who were whaling in the Antarctic only a fortnight previously, or trekking in the Andes the previous year. They seem to be people in their fifties or sixties, seventies, who want to enjoy life while they still can, enjoy it to the full, and try all the things that they’ve never tried before, and can afford to try now. And that’s very exciting for me. I also have groups of children, I try and encourage the local schools. I’m speaking to the Wivenhoe schools, and I’d like to get the University involved as well.

My initial interest in sailing, is maintaining the traditional skills of sailing a gaff-rigged boat, a very heavy gaff-rigged boat – she weighs in at about 20 tons – still rigged out entirely, exactly as she would have been in 1930, as a working boat, and keeping alive the skills of the rope work that’s associated with keeping these boats in commission, and maintaining an awareness of how life used to be a hundred years ago. And for me, what makes her valuable is that she’s one of only six, where once there were several hundred. And there are now only six boats like that, and most have been converted to yachts – pulled apart, rebuilt, turned back into fishing boats, and there are some bits of original wood, but not very many. With Saxonia, we know exactly where every bit of wood came from. Most of it was built in 1930, except that she’s had a few knocks and bangs and had to have things replaced. So she really is a museum piece, but a very very sound and strong one.

There’d have been a skipper and a mate, and possibly they’d have taken a boy out, a 15-year old, because he’d be cheap. But she would have been worked by two strong men. Heavy work. The gear is very heavy. And they’d expect to catch anything from between a quarter of a ton, and a couple of tons of whitebait, in one haul, so they had to be very strong as well, because it was all pulled up by hand.

I’ve lived in Wivenhoe for the last four years now, but I’ve been sailing here for about the last 15 years, in Wivenhoe and Brightlingsea. I was attracted by the type of sailing that was carried on in the estuaries, namely the sailing barges, coasting barges, small river barges, the big smacks, the small smacks, and the bawleys that do exist here, and don’t exist at all, on the South Coast of England now. The Solent is just one sea of white plastic and speedboats. There is traditional sailing in other parts of the country, in Falmouth, and in the West Country generally, and also on the Lancashire Coast, the Isle of Man, but it’s fairly limited. We’re very lucky, in Essex, to have the rich and wide variety of different traditional sailing craft and there’s a lot of historically very valuable craft on this part of the coast.

There’s one smack here that was built in 1808 – that’s nearly 200 years old – and is still in full working commission, the Boadicea. She’s mostly in West Mersea, but she’s also got a berth in Brightlingsea. She’s in Brightlingsea this year.

Metacentric yachtAndrew Cocks

My boat was designed by an amateur designer in 1939, and it’s a man called Dr Thomas Harrison-Butler, and he was actually an ophthalmist, and designed boats. He was obsessed with something called the ‘metacentric’ theory of yacht design, which was pioneered by a man called Turner. The idea was to build a boat with perfect balance, so he wasn’t giving any consideration to how much room you had inside, he basically designed a boat that went, and then fitted everything out around it. And he went from a whole series of design, so this is the ‘Rose of Arden’ design. So this was built by Wistocks, round at Woodbridge, in 1939.

The one lady owner that owned it, I think between something like ’58 and ’63, and on the Blue Book – registration for the Admiralty – you always have people’s profession down, it was always, in the early days, company directors, because they were the people that had the money, but her profession was ‘gentlewoman,’ which I always rather like! And we’ve also had one author owned her, and, in fact, I’ve got one of his books on board, a man called Simon Nolan, and he owned her for a couple of years in the mid-Sixties, so it’s quite a common interest here, because I’m a publisher – so it’s gone from author to publisher! But you don’t really own boats like this, you just look after them for a period, and make sure they don’t go downhill on your watch, and then they get handed on to someone else.

We don’t do terribly well, by and large, when we’re racing, because she wasn’t designed as a racing boat, she was designed as a boat for cruising, and therefore I always call her a ‘gentleman’s yacht.’ But, of course, there’s an element of tongue in cheek in that really!

I’ve been sailing for an embarrassingly long time, I’m afraid! It’s sort of 40-odd years. I was just very very fortunate, the secondary school I went to, had a very enthusiastic Headmaster, who was a sailor, and a couple of Torch dinghies –one of which was built at the school – and I started sailing in dinghies, and  I haven’t been able to get out of the habit ever since, really. I’m a member of the Wivenhoe and Rowhedge Yacht Owners’ Association, and also the Colne Yacht Club.

I suppose the joy of sailing, for me, is that, it’s like warfare, really. It’s a combination of total utter boredom, and extreme excitement, and you never know which is going to come your way next.

GPs and Mirror dinghies –Pat Ellis

I actually built my own GP [general purpose dinghy]. From a kit, yes. Jack Holt, manufacturer and designer, in London, used to produce these kits for GPs. Damn good kit, too. A hundred pounds! And you won’t get a mast for that now! And you got everything, the hull and booms, and the mast. They’re three-quarter deck, but they’re a lovely little boat to sail. Yes, she had a black hull, and bright red sails. That was something that we were told, afterwards, was a silly thing to have, because if you go in a race, and you’ve got red sails, and all the rest are white, they’ll pick you out and say that you’ve crossed the line at the wrong time!

But [the GPs] they’re not fast enough for the boys down at Brightlingsea! They want things where you’re standing out like this, on the end of a wire. We had quite a few in the Club, didn’t we in the Sixties? Quite a few. They could race as a class, actually. They provided young families, probably with their first experience of sailing. And then came the Mirror Dinghy, which you stitched that together with copper wire, that was ideal for youngsters and families to learn with.

Sailboats for holidays –Alan Tyne

I bought a little open day sail boat, and then after two years, about 1977, bought a little kestrel sloop, Kitty, and we began to do sailing holidays. Then in about ’80, we bought Taloah. She was 24 foot, built in Wivenhoe, built at Cooks’ shipyard, for the manager. In 1948, yes! The story was that they used up bits of timber that they put by during the War, when they were doing Admiralty contracts. The wood was good, the brass screws were lousy! She was designed by Maurice Griffiths, a famous East Coast yachtsman, who edited the Yachting Monthly for many many years, and lived locally. He wrote very evocative little essays about the pleasures of sailing round the salty muddy little creeks of the East Coast, rather than adventuring great distances abroad. He designed a number of very beautiful little boats.

She was a lovely old wooden boat, and I spent a lot of time working on her, did a lot of boat repair work with her, and kept her at Guy Harding’s yard on the front. And those were lovely years, because it was always gorgeously sunny at Guy Harding’s. It was the warmest place in Wivenhoe. The sun always shone, it faced due south, it was well sheltered from the wind, and those were lovely years, keeping a boat at Guy Harding’s, laying her up there every winter, working with Taffy Taverner in the shed there, who was a delightful man, and taught me all I know about carpentry. He was a very stern taskmaster. He was the last remaining man at Guy Harding’s. Guy had once employed 14 or 15 people there, but the business had died right down to he was just doing a little bit of light boat repair work.

I think it was about ’88 or ’89, we went across to Holland in her, and that was the first time we’d done that. Other people had been doing that for some years. There were lots of members of the Club who would all get together and go off to Holland every year.

So then, roundabout ’91 we bought Tumbler, down near Falmouth. She’s a Holman design – Kim Holman was a West Mersea naval architect, designed some very beautiful boats in the 1960s. She’s the spriggiest boat on the river! Everyone agrees! 35 foot long. Two masts, yes. Very elegant. The sort of boat that, everywhere you went, people would come across and ask you about her! We spent the next year doing quite a lot of work on her actually – putting a new engine in, and new accommodation inside – all at Guy Harding’s yard, in about ’92, I suppose that was, and then the winter of ’91, I went off and sailed all along the Brittany coast for as many months as I could. So that was great fun.

Jubilee Sailing Trust and theLord Nelson

[The Lord Nelson was the last great sailing ship built in Wivenhoe, by Cook’s just before they closed, for the Jubilee Sailing Trust].

Jane Nicholas

[The Trust has] two square-riggers, you know, tall ships, and both take about 50 people, and that includes the regular crew, which is nine or ten people, with the engineer and the Captain, etc., and then there has to be one able-bodied person for each disabled, and the disabled can come in wheelchairs. Last time I was on, out in Antigua, we had five wheelchairs on board, and it worked very well. The moment they’re on board, everybody seems much more relaxed, even handicapped people who have been slightly over-mothered. They’re on board, and they’re asked to do things, and they really enjoy that. There’s Tenacious, and the Lord Nelson. The Lord Nelson was built in Wivenhoe. And then Tenacious is a wooden boat, and it’s the largest wooden boat that’s been built for many years.

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