Sea-Change:  Wivenhoe Remembered   

Riverside: Sailing

An ancient skill –Tim Denham

I think it’s an ancient craft, an ancient skill. I love little clinker boats, because, when I listen to the sound of the water chuckling under the bows, I think that our ancestors, the Vikings, would have heard that very same sound. And the thrill of going from A to B, just using the tides and the wind: it’s a prehistoric skill that we can still practice.

Yachtsmen and yachtswomen –Joyce Blackwood

My father was a yachtsman. In the 1930s, when I was small, he was away most of the summer every year. Then in the winter, when he was at home, it was just touch and go whether he got a job or not, he went as a road worker. In the early days, he was on the King’s yacht, Britannia, as one of the crew. The Rosabelle was the last one he was on, he stayed there until just before the War. When they went away for the summer season, the owner very often used to hand out little presents of cash for the boys and girls – sixpence for the boys, and the girls probably got threepence. I didn’t really take up anything to do with the river myself, until I was over 20. But I think it was always there, in the blood. Because the rest of my father’s brothers were all yachtsmen.

[In the 1950s my friend] Margaret bought a GP [general purpose dinghy], and we sailed that, we sailed all over the place. We took it to Wales, we took it to Cornwall, and we were known, in those days, because there weren’t many women who sailed as a pair, we were known as ‘The Girls,’ wherever we went! And we always had a lot of help from all the men, putting the thing on a trailer and goodness knows what else. Then Margaret went off, and then I started to sail with Pat [Ellis], and he’d got a GP.

 [The water is] never the same twice. And you don’t ever know what’s going to happen, because things can change so very quickly, can’t they. And if there’s no wind at all, you’re fighting to get somewhere, and if there’s a lot of wind, you’re fighting the wind! But it’s always different. You can start off from here with a nice little breeze that’ll take you down as far as Alresford, and then nothing, and you can sit there and wait for the tide!

Working on the waterPat Ellis

I spent all my time, working time, on the water as well. I’d hate to be where there’s no water. I’d served my time in the Shipyard, and that was during the War, and then I went in the Merchant Navy – not during the War, just after. I was deep sea for a while, I was on the Australian run for about two or three years, and China, Japan, India, and all the places through to Australia. I did about seven years, and then I thought, ‘Well, this was enough,’ and then had about 30 years at Parkeston Quay, as Chief Engineer. That was a wonderful job, it was the ships from Parkeston Quay to the Hook of Holland. of course. And, no, it was a nice little job, but, you know, I just didn’t want to stick it out.  

I had my first sail just before the War. I was about 14 or 15, and Jack Green, who was lost in the War – he was a Spitfire pilot – he, for some reason, picked me up on the Quay, and said, ‘Will you come and crew for me on the boat?’ Which I did. And then the War came, you weren’t allowed to have boats on the river then. And buying boats and selling boats, you couldn’t do it here.

Rough work –Pat Ellis, Joyce Blackwood, Don Smith

Nowadays, we have these safety boats, they never did have safety boats. They never had no life-jackets, no buoyancy. Never had the rubber gear, no pansy gloves, no cleats. You hung on to the jib! Oh, that was all rough work!

Skills of sailing –Stan Fenton

 [I started sailing in 1970] when I was 13. At Wivenhoe Sailing Club, we built a kit Mirror Dinghy, and we then took ownership of it, and started like that, as cadets, when I was 13 years of age. It would be to learn in Mirror dinghies, and crew for other people in Brightlingsea One-Designs, and Wivenhoe One-Designs, and then I dinghy-sailed Lasers, dinghies for, perhaps 20 years, and Wivenhoe One-Designs.

[To learn sailing] you basically start off by crewing for someone, which is to learn to tack and handle the gib, while they helm and steer the boat, and they control the mainsail, so you learn the skills first as a crew, then you eventually move up, start off in a small boat like a Mirror Dinghy, on your own, and take it from there. It’s seamanship really. It’s the whole thing, to learn the safety as well – to wear your lifejackets, and to know the sea and the conditions. And you can do courses at the Nottage, and then develop whatever way you want to go. I’ve done my Day Skipper and I’ve done my Yacht Master, and we now do offshore sailing on a 40-foot yacht now, so we’ve gone from the dinghies to bigger yachts, and we do that as well.

I’ve got a Wivenhoe One-Design, which was built in the 1930s, and there’s still about 10, 11, 12 sailing at Wivenhoe, and racing regularly. They’re clinker-built, about 14 foot long, and they carry a spinnaker, gib and mainsail, and they’re two-man boats, which is two to crew, and they race quite competitively still today.

[To win dinghy races] you have to have a very good boat. You have to have a well tuned up boat with good sails, and you have to have a very good crew and work together as a team, because the helmsman would steer the boat, and use the mainsail, while the crewman would use the gib, and he’d fly the spinnaker. And you have to also work in tandem together to sit the boat out, get the weight right, know when to tack. So good teamwork really, is very important.

A lot of it is you have to know the wind, and look out for wind shifts, especially in the river, like the River Colne, up at Wivenhoe, the conditions can be quite fluky, so I have to judge where the wind shifts are, tack into the wind. One side of the river there could be no wind, the other side could be where the little breeze is. The local conditions, yes, you build up over the years. And also, keeping out the tide is very important. It’s a tidal river, so obviously the mainstream of the tide is in the middle, and it’s obviously a lot more advantage to keep to the edges of the river if you can, without going aground. It’s a balancing act of how you do it, yes.

About 15 years ago we stopped sailing dinghies for a little while and we got into a cruiser, and I’ve now got a Dufour 40, which is a bit of a cruiser racer, and we do a lot of offshore racing now, like Cowes Week we’re going to do this year, and so we’ve developed it, and we now have a crew of up to ten people, to come out crewing now. But also, then again, that’s all about teamwork, and pushing a boat hard with ten of you on board, and working together as a team.

They’re a lot more expense! There’s a big thing, it’s the money side of it. But it’s just a different form of sailing, from dinghy sailing in the river, where we could, perhaps, sail for a couple of hours, two-hour race, to offshore, we could go 98 miles, and we could sail for 10, 15 hours, even longer than that, and it’s all racing all the time. So it’s completely different. And you’ve got a lot more tides and crossing the ocean.

I still like messing about in the river with a Wivenhoe One-Design, on a nice evening pursuit race, or a nice evening when the wind is just slowly dying away in Wivenhoe, on the River Colne, is one of the nicest things you could ever do, I think.

We’ve just had a ‘RORCR’ – a Royal Offshore Race Council Race – for the Dufour, that started last Friday, it went from Burnham to Ostend, was a 98 mile race, and we done that with eight crew. Then we carried on up into Holland and raced every day, up in the canals, just in Holland, and then we raced, we sailed back 109 miles on Friday, and we’ve just completed [and won] the WOD [Wivenhoe One-Design] Race today. So we’ve had a very busy week sailing and racing.

The Whisper? Yes. Whisper’s a Dufour 40. There’s three of us own it, so it’s in partnership. She’s only a year old, she was built by Dufour Yachts in France, and basically, she’s 40-foot long, the width is about four metres. She draws 2 metres 10, on a thin keel, and she’s reasonably fast-rated, you could go and compete in things like the Sail East, or the East Anglian Offshore, or you could go down and do Cowes Week, or Cork Week, or Ramsgate Week. Or you could just cruise her. It’s a very comfortable cruiser, it’ll sleep up to eight people down below, has its own galley, and two separate showers and heads on board, so you can cruise it as well as just actually race it. It’s entirely what you choose to do. We do charter work, a little bit of charter work in her, yes. She’s linked to Britannia Sand School, and they do take her sometimes to Holland, and she’s chartered and we do sometimes have a crew that actually come and pay to come out for the experience of going on an offshore race.

A lot of Wivenhoe Sailing Club members do come out crewing, and a lot of Wivenhoe people still come out crewing on the boat, and we take all sorts from complete beginners to quite experienced yachtsmen, and we find a nice balance to make a good crew up, and that’s how we do it.  

Dinghy sailing – Pat Ellis, Joyce Blackwood and Don Smith

A lot of the youngsters who learned here, felt their feet here, then moved on to Brightlingsea Club, where the racing was more exciting, because you race out to sea. But they learned how to do it here, and the river here was a good place because you never got a clear wind for very long, because you’ve got all the alleyways coming down. Our local man, Malcolm Goodwin, was the one who really went to the top. He went down there, and [Don’s] my eldest son went, and Alan Meadows went. But they still retained their membership of the Club at Wivenhoe. But if you want traditional sailing with mud and the tide, then you stop at Wivenhoe. If you want instant sailing, which means you can sail any time of day, then you go to Brightlingsea. 

But there used to be a lot more action between Clubs, earlier on. You’d have a race day from Brightlingsea, race days from Wivenhoe, even up the Colne, up the Blackwater, Steeplestone and Clacton. We used to sail round to various Clubs for organised days. The Colne and Blackwater Championships, and then there was what they called the ‘Cock of the River.’ All the family used to, like, drive round to Steeplestone, or you’d go to Clacton in the boat on the Saturday night, and sleep aboard, you know, that sort of thing. Oh, they were very good days. But it’s a different type of racing now. It’s not family racing any more, is it. It’s a lot of it’s individuals, with your lasers, and your 470s and goodness knows what else.

I’ve always sailed –Ken Green

I’ve always sailed, of course. I started my sailing in Wivenhoe One-Designs, because my father had Elise – Elise crops up again, of course! He had a Wivenhoe One-Design built in the mid-Thirties, 1930s, number 17 it is, so I sailed as soon as – well, as soon as I was able to get aboard there! I sailed with him, and all my brothers have sailed and we’ve always been very interested in sailing. Grandfather was a very keen sailor, and yes, sailing has always been part and parcel of the fishing scene.

Sailing dinghies was competitive, oh yes, yes. Crikey, yes! The Wivenhoe One-Design is very competitive. You sail for the Sykes Trophy and we sailed against Peter Sainty, who was a very good sailor. I think Peter had the edge on us from the point of view of expertise, he was always very good at the job. But amongst Peter, Doug and myself, quite often we were in separate boats and competing with each other. Sometimes we were together, and sometimes we were in separate boats.

From dinghies to cruisers – Ray Hall

Then it was not unusual to see at least twelve One-Designs out, and at the time when new classes were coming in, and especially the GP, that took on a bit. That would have gone on much longer if it hadn’t have been for the Mirror. Once the Mirror came in, and the people found that they got a lighter-built boat, but a faster boat, and a very safe boat.

But we never had rescue boats in those days! It was quite often that one or two of the One-Design owners would actually leave the boat downriver and walk ashore and walk home, and then go back on the next tide and pick it up, because if there was no wind, you just couldn’t battle against the tide, you see. We never had anybody to tow us back! And, of course, there was all cloth cap and plimsolls, and no waterproofs! I don’t ever remember lifejackets. I think the first set of waterproofs I had was in 1959, these very heavy yellow plastics. 

The first cruisers started to appear in the Seventies. Pat Ellis bought a Pegasus, to start with, and Alan Meadows, who’d got a folk boat, and that just gradually built up from there. Mr Worsp had them made, he made a Wyvern, and he launched that in about 1947 I think, or about that time, but he actually was going to build that before the Second World War started, and he’d got most of the materials – the wood and everything – for her, which he stored during the War. And then where his greenhouse is now, is where he built her. One of the local shipwrights, who worked for Mr Worsp, built it. 

When I was in the RAF Air/Sea Rescue at Felixstowe, quite often, I used to come here at the weekend, and if there was racing, I used to race with Tony in number 12, Sapphire, and we could sort them out! I think Tony’s name was on most trophies for a few years. A damned good sailor was Tony. Of course, we always had the competition from people like Doug Green, and David Petter in Peewit, and his brother, Michael. We weren’t without competition, that’s true, and Peter and Arthur Sainty in Ranger, they did want some beating! There was no doubt. But Tony and I, obviously, at that time, we were the right weight. Never any arguments. He only ever said about three words to me, as, ‘Ready?’ ‘About.’ ‘Lee oh,’ and the boat was there. 

Cruising – Pat Ellis, Joyce Blackwood

I’ve still got a boat. I’ve got a cruising boat now. But I like the one I’ve got now. I’ve got a Sadler 26, and you can stand in that one. I doubt if you would, but you can cook by the door. It says it’s a six-berth, but we’ve had four on board and managed, but two is best! [When we were both retired] we went across the other side several times, didn’t we, for six weeks at a time, because we’d got the time to spare. And that was lovely, going all through the Dutch canals. We used to go round to Harwich and the Deben, didn’t we? Oh, we’ve done the Deben, yes, and the Crouch, and the Blackwater. Woodbridge, Ipswich, and London River, we sailed up to St Katherine’s Dock, which was quite an experience, because there are all sorts of things in London that Pat had never seen, and we could do it with the boat as the base, it was lovely.

Day sailing – Joyce Blackwood

But now, like Pat says, day sailing is quite enough for me. I don’t like sleeping on board, I can’t get up and wander about! I only had six nights on board last year. But we go a lot for a day sail. When we say a ‘day sail,’ it’s sometimes just four hours, but if we go with the tide going out at eight o’clock in the morning, then we needn’t come back again until eight o’clock at night, so you can be out all day.

Cruise in Company – Don Smith

In the Sixties, when the Club was still mostly dinghies, we used to have what they used to call ‘Cruise in Company,’ we used to go down to the ‘Second Beach,’ over the St Osyth side, and we’d probably take 40, 50 people down, and we’d gather driftwood and have a damned great fire, and the ladies would fry up. We’d play cricket. Down there, the water’s so clear. So clear. You know, you see the bottom there at six, eight feet. And when we were down there, we used to go cockling and bring buckets home, and cook.

Sailing the Baltic and Atlantic – Alan Tyne

Whilst we were [in Brittany in 1991], talking with friends, the plan was hatched that the next year, we would sail to Russia, since Russia was just beginning to be opening up, and the Berlin Wall was down, Glasnost had happened, and it was about as far away as you could get, and still be in Europe! And we wanted to try something big and exciting, so in ’93 – as early as we could get away in the season – four of us set off from Walton, to sail to Helsinki, and in Helsinki, our wives joined us, and we sailed on from there to St Petersburg. And we had little more than a week in St Petersburg, but that was great fun while we were there. They told us that there had only been 12 English boats there previously. But it was very difficult to be a couple of thousand miles away from home and the season drawing on, so we scurried out of there as fast as we could! Came back through Holland.

And then we began to plan another trip, part way across the Atlantic, but we didn’t do that. In the end we went to Ireland, the next year, for all sorts of reasons. And I think that must have been ’85, wasn’t it, when we went to Ireland. Spain, was it? Yes, we went there, to the North Coast of Spain, cruised all the way along the North Coast of Spain. We did circumnavigate the United Kingdom, but that was spread over two years. And we sailed down to Brittany one summer, and spent the summer there, and came back as far as Devon, and laid up in Salcombe, and then the following year, we took the boat from Salcombe up to Scotland, and via the Irish Sea and the East Coast of Ireland, and we spent the summer in Scotland, and had several very nice sailing holidays there.

Competitive with geriatric aids – Ken Green

But, yes, I have a very competitive attitude to life, you know. Even now, when I’m cruising, I’m competing with the boat that’s nearest to me, seeing how he’s doing against me. I need to be beating him, actually, I have a need to be beating him – but I don’t always achieve it! But I enjoy it immensely.

That’s the important thing. I enjoy sailing, and I’ve now got a cruiser. She’s French, she’s a deck saloon, so she’s got big windows at deck level. She’s very much a sailing boat, but she’s got a good engine – 56 horsepower, diesel – but she’s still predominantly a sailing boat. And every what I call ‘geriatric aid’ that you can possibly have aboard, so that I can carry on sailing into my dotage, so we’ve got electric anchor winch, and electric Genoa winches and self-tailing winches, and in-mast furling, so the sail rolls up in the mast, and furling on the Genoa as well, everything so that I can keep going. I find it very hard to fault the boat I’ve got, she’s been built from a consumer’s point of view, and she’s good. She’s good. And sails very well. When we’re sailing, we go as far as the Continent – to France, Holland. We’ve been as far as the Channel Islands. It’s very nice to go port hopping on the Continent.

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