Paul Fisher has the sea in his blood. At the age of 9 he attempted to run away to sea, showing better judgement in packing sandwiches and “pop” (his term), than in his choice of vessel – which failed to depart before food and drink was exhausted. He slunk home.
But before long, as a teenager, he and a friend acquired a starter boat and with a library copy of “Teach Yourself Sailing” they taught themselves to sail on the Thames, progressing through numerous boats including a rotten Norfolk Wherry bought for £50 quid, at which price it was clearly no bargain. Paul designed his first boat at the age of 15, read Naval Architecture and Shipbuilding at Newcastle University and after graduating joined the Royal Institute of Naval Architects.
He cut his designer teeth with McGruers and Silvers Marine (later to become DM Russell Ltd.). This family company, with its enormous loft for full-size layout, foundry, and construction shed was one of the UK’s premier yards. Here Paul learnt about the reality of design – of things that could be built as well as drawn. He learnt about mast-making, about (extremely) dirty racing on the Clyde, and about handling clients….
In 1982 Paul moved to Devon to start Selway Fisher Design, going on to produce some 400 designs covering an amazingly wide range of craft – canoes, dinghies, day boats, yachts, junks, slipper launches, steam vessels… building up a well-deserved reputation for producing good boats for modest budgets. He was a pioneer of and champions modern wood/composite construction (e.g. clinker ply, stitch and tape, “egg-box”, strip planking).
In addition to his real-world designs Paul runs a line in replicas and models for the film industry, which needs a steady flow of historic craft from galleons to U-boats. Not in any way to downplay the long hard work that Paul has put into his craft (in both meanings of the word) but one has to admire and envy a man who turned a lifelong hobby into a career – one in which he has excelled.
I suspect some of us in the audience were a little apprehensive. Chay is one of the biggest names in the UK for adventures and feats on the high seas. Knighted for it.
We were wrong to worry. Chay was charming, self-effacing and entertaining. And he really did have a story to tell.
Chay joined the Paras from the factory-floor and was soon rowing the Atlantic in an open 20 footer with John Ridgeway, having never rowed before (!). Was there any strain in this relationship? Did, someone once ask Chay, John row too? In a rare contemporary public speech Chay dispelled the doubts. John, he told his audience then, certainly did row – when Chay was cooking…
Chay entered the first single handed round-the-world race, having never sailed before (!), in a 30 foot bilge-keeled family cruiser. He got as far as the Cape of Good Hope, and broached so often he thought this was just normal behaviour for a small yacht. This was the race from which Donald Crowhurst was not to return. In fact only one competitor finished – Robin Knox-Johnson.
Chay was the first person to sail non-stop around the world “the wrong way” i.e. against the prevailing winds and currents, in the Clarke designed “British Steel”. Signalled mid-ocean from a passing vessel, as to where he was bound, he signalled back “Southampton”. To the next question “Whence from?” he signalled “Southampton”. To the last question “via where?” he signalled “Southampton!”. Chay is not a man to waste words. This historic voyage lasted 292 days and a grand welcome was organised with The Ark Royal, massed ratings, a band, and crowds of thousands. The last few days of the voyage had been faster than expected and Chay was at risk of arriving before his welcome party. He was told to “get lost for 2 days”.
After numerous excitements aboard ever bigger boats including a trimaran that capsized during a record attempt off Cape Horn, Chay turned his hand to power boating, co-skippering with Richard Branson.
At some point Chay organised a trans-Atlantic rowing race, expecting a handful of boats; perhaps 5. In the event there were 28 competitors - half of them pretty clueless. (One of the competitors was an ex-mayor of Chipping Norton – ed.)
The talk ended with a short movie, showing the battering of the boats and crew in the Global Challenge – the organisation founded by Chay that allowed ordinary men and women to experience the extremes of round-the-world yacht racing. Most memorable was a “blink and you’ve missed it” clip in which a cockpit full of crew is suddenly completely empty, apart from some green water and foam. Wow!
Impressed, were we? Well, you could say that!
POSTSCRIPT: I heard the other day a quotation from Ulysses by Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron (1809–92) and I hope Chay will take no offence from my quoting it. It seemed apt. (Ed.)
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That lov’d me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vex’d the dim sea. I am become a name..
The January AGM was well attended. With sandwiches and a glass of something “on the house” we plane sailed through official business, heard Commodore and Treasurer reports, were given an outline of 2015 plans, and discussed the Club’s future direction. Topics included training, crewing service, Members’ directory, gatherings on the water, the balance of internal/external speakers, and the Cotswold Club as our continuing principal venue.
Jonathan Smith gave an enthusiastic and colourful presentation on tall ships and the lives of their sailors, including one local man whom he quoted: “Witney is a very quiet place, what a great difference one sees out here in San Francisco, where all is life, pleasure and excitement, to the quiet ways of our country town”. To us modern sailors the rigs and cordage of these topsail schooners, ships, brigantines, barquentines, etc. are awesome. Apparently one, the “Stavros S Niarchos”, is on the market but our Treasurer was unsupportive.
Roger Backhaus then talked with equal enthusiasm about his kind of sailing – on a small wooden boat, which he keeps and sails in the Netherlands. The simple classic unstayed lug yawl rig is better than anything else (he assured us) and the Zeeland waters he sails in perfect for him and for this long-keeled shoal-draft boat. These waters are a largely protected playground, established under the mammoth “Delta Plan” by the Dutch, after the disastrous 1953 flood.
Chipping Norton Yacht Club Christmas get-together was held at The Cotswold Club, which looked very festive dressed overall (nice nautical expression, eh?) with bunting and flags. They greeted us with a glass of Prosecco, and laid on a special celebratory buffet. We ran a continuous slide/video show of members’ recent photos and videos, provoking, as had been hoped, questions and comments; and re-awakening memories of a season on, around, or thinking about, the water. The bespoke crackers contained nautically-themed gifts of which the miniatures of rum were particularly popular with us tars, although one has to confess that the hats suited us no better than is usual.There was a not-too-serious quiz questionnaire on each table, which got a few arguments going.The winning table won a box of chocolates; another prize, a bottle Prosecco went to team Spencer and Levermore for best photo, taken in the Corinth canal. It was a relaxed and most enjoyable evening.
Sam LLewellyn, sea novelist, celebrated storyteller, columnist for Classic Boat and PBO and editor of the Marine Quarterly, talked about Britain’s attitudes to, and relationship with, the sea.
Sam was the first CNYC speaker not to use visual aids. We did not miss them however, as Sam is an author by trade, and a wordsmith who can conjure up images with a well-turned phrase. His talk was humorous, personal, provocative, erudite and challenging- refreshing, in a word.
Sam’s theme was the sea in the context of our island nation and not, as he put it, as a “bathing platform for the bourgeoisie”. He offered six perspectives: the sea as nuisance, moat, motorway, fishery, heritage and playground. He stressed the importance of understanding the sea, not from looking at it from the land, as though it were a backdrop to a watercolour, but by getting up close and dirty. (My inelegant phrasing, not his – ed.)
Sam dismissed the moat perspective as being a ”Daily Mail” view… (politics showing, Sam?), and told us that the Navy still run those “useless 35 knot sharp grey ships” – frigates and destroyers – because one can’t rise to the rank of Admiral without commanding one. Rationally they’d be better off with less sexy craft, in the style of container ships, carrying helicopters.
We tragically waste the opportunity of the sea as a motorway, given how many small ports can still accommodate coasters. There are 150 that can take a 3000-ton coaster, he told us. Think of the lorries that could be taken off the road.
We have made quite a hash of managing our fisheries, according to Sam. He harked back to the day, long gone, when the then novel technique of trawling was outlawed, on pain of death. Not, he hastened to point out, that he favoured capital punishment.
Heritage? Pity we’ve spent so much parking the Cutty Sark aground on a greenhouse, when for the money we could have built one (and a half, he claimed) replicas that could sail.
As playground, ‘tis a shame, Sam opined, that 33% fewer people get out on the water than did 10 years ago. Sam has a strategy to reverse that, and get us all out there, and not just for a few minutes between yachtmaster courses. Sam’s teenage experiences included character-forming time at Les Glénans sailing school (“boot camp?”) with a languid Gauloise-chewing instructor, and he recommended the Glénans Sailing Manual to us. It transpires that Sam’s characterful Aunts were sailors, and did at some point sail around the world but didn’t want anyone to know, as that would be “showing off”…
We had some culinary advice, centring on ships’ biscuits’ tendency to rot if only cooked once and the meaning of “bis-cuit” – which is, naturellement, French for twice-cooked. That stops the rot. In the context of safety at sea and changing attitudes he told of the captain who insisted his crew wear lead divers belts, so that he wouldn’t have to waste time going back for them if the went overboard…
Sam talked of boat show paranoia, and the way the salesmen size up their victims. He dislikes big plastic boats, TVs on boats, marine mortgages (“you can’t call that freedom”), and inboard engines (outboards have the great advantage that when troublesome they can be taken off and sent away). Sam asked if any of us have experience of a Yuloh. None did. But at least one of us knows what it is, which is unusual. That’s Chipping Norton Yacht Club for you.
Frances addressed our October meeting, following much hard work by her and Rear Commdore Hugh Woodsend in gathering and shaping material into an exemplary presentation.
James had planned a round-the world voyage for his retirement. He bought an Endurance 35 ferro-cement (i.e. concrete) bare hull and spent 5 years creating the ketch, “Tara”, out of it. Projects like this are incredibly time, money and effort consuming; and are not for the faint hearted, impractical or pessimistic. James was clearly none of these.
After retirement from the Navy James joined a local authority and was, as it happened, recruited by Frances, who went on to became his companion – not only on this monumental voyage but for the rest of his life. Frances had sailed before - dinghies, she told us, as a teenager in the Tripoli Dolphin Services’ Yacht Club, in the days before Gaddafi.
The plan? To go! For how long? Well, it would evolve. Where to? Well, that depended on the weather, how the boat fared and which bits broke, where; what rebuilds they would do, what visas they could get…
The circumnavigation started conventionally enough with a transatlantic passage to the West Indies, but soon they decided to add Canada, the USA along the Intracoastal Waterway, and Bermuda to the itinerary before resuming the passage westwards through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific to New Zealand. Once in New Zealand, The Bay of Islands became a base from which to spend several years of cruising the Pacific Islands and Australia. I lost count as to how many times they shuttled between New Zealand and Australia…
The boat was rebuilt two and a half times during the voyage. One of the disadvantages of building ones own boat to a budget, as James had, is that compromises often have to be made (in James’ case, fitting a used Perkins 4108 diesel). One of great advantages, however, is the intimate knowledge you’ve gained, so you can nearly always fix things, or know how to work around problems….
Frances’ mother had grown up in Bermuda, and the couple seemed to have friends, or quickly make friends, almost wherever they went. So visiting places with family connections, picking up with friends, success in getting help, and long stays in port, were a core feature of this grand voyage. Fishing, on the other hand, wasn’t….they caught 10 fish in 15 years.
The return voyage took Tara round the top of Australia and on to South Africa, finally completing the circumnavigation in the Azores.
We have heard and read many times about the extent to which blue water cruising sailors value, and have to develop, self-reliance. But James and Frances seem to have taken this to another level. It seems they uniquely combined self-reliance, a strong partnership, and the ability to make friends and get help wherever they were. These are the enduring messages from this presentation. And it is good to be reminded that it is not only the young who have ambition, drive and ability. James was sailing well into his eighties, and even then did not “swallow the anchor”. Tara was sold and replaced with a Dutch motor boat, now in the South of France (and for sale – RB), in which they then cruised for several years, but that’s another story…
Commodore Duncan Wheatley paid tribute to James Jacques, who died this month after a long illness. James was one of the Club’s most distinguished members and will be greatly missed; Duncan extended condolences on behalf of the Club to partner Frances, who was with us in the audience. We look forward to hearing Frances tell us more about James, and their 15 year circumnavigation, at our October meeting.
Our speaker was Tom Cunliffe – a big man who has done some big and fairly intrepid things, many of them in big, heavy, traditional, boats. Tom’s theme was pilot cutters – boats that have a deserved reputation for seaworthiness, capability and elegance. He has owned several, pumped a lot of water through some of them, and was infectiously evangelical as to their virtues.
Many of us associate pilot cutters with Bristol, and although this is not wrong they are not limited to that part of the world, despite the Bristol heritage. The Bristol Channel has strong tides of large range, and few havens. Shipping needed the guidance of pilots, whose boats had to be capable of sailing (and heaving-to) in difficult waters, and being crewed by a man and a boy – sometimes just the boy. We heard about the privations and dangers of being a pilot and Tom recounted the example of a pilot’s wife, who had kept marrying pilots after she was widowed by them, one after t’other. Seven of them, apparently.
Bristol Pilot Cutters are solidly built, long-keeled, gaffers with counter sterns, low freeboard and a gentle sheer. The Norwegian variety tend to be double-ended, often Colin Archers. As to seaworthiness and sea kindliness Tom explained stability curves, which show how the righting moment of a vessel relates to its angle of heel. These curves, though factually correct in their own terms, are misleading as they only show what happens to a heeled boat statically, in flat water. The dynamic of a boat moving through lumpy water is something else. Typical pilot cutters have large moments of inertia deriving from their construction, ballast and heavy spars. This gives them a slow reaction to upsetting forces – so slow that the problem wave or gust will often have passed by before the boat reacts in a significant or dangerous manner, unlike many modern designs.
Modern boat designers tend to think in terms of accommodation and equipment – pilot cutters were built first and foremost as boats; then and only then did the builders work out what to put in them.
In attempting to defend against an accusation of working on the Sabbath on a boat, in Brazil, Tom had mentioned that Jesus was a carpenter. “Maybe so”, came the reply, “but he didn’t have a power plane!”
We were accused of having a bourgeois attitude to leaks. Tom sees no problem in having to keep pumping, as long as one can keep up, and the pump doesn’t fail. Admittedly he had to half-inch his young daughter’s plimsoll sole on one occasion to replace a leather flap-valve…
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