A collection of interesting and evocative quotes compiled by David Salter


A crew of 64 was required for racing

Various sources – The beautiful freak Reliance (1903-13)

“Reliance, the 1903 America’s Cup defender designed by Nat Herreshoff, was funded by a nine-member syndicate of the New York Yacht Club headed by Cornelius Vanderbilt III. The design took advantage of a loophole in the Seawanhaka ‘90-foot LWL’ rating rule to produce a yacht with long overhangs so that when heeled over, her waterline length (and therefore her speed) increased dramatically. Reliance was the first racing boat to be fitted with winches below decks, in an era when her competitors relied on sheer manpower. Despite this, a crew of 64 was required for racing due to the large sail plan. From the tip of her bowsprit to the end of her 108-foot boom, Reliance measured 201 feet. Her spinnaker pole was 84 feet long, and her total sail area of 16,160 sq ft was the equivalent of eight 12 meter class yachts.”

(Vanderbilt said “Call the boat a freak, anything you like, but we cannot handicap ourselves even if our boat is only fit for the junk heap the day after the race.” Herreshoff’s extreme design defeated Shamrock III in three straight races but her career was cut short by the introduction of the Universal Rating Rule. Reliance was sold for scrap in 1913.)


Once your friend, always your friend

Stephen Fry – Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold (2017)

“Poseidon could be as truculent, stormy, vain, capricious, inconsistent, restless, cruel and unfathomable as the oceans he commanded. But he could be loyal and grateful too. Like all the gods, he was greedy for admiration, sacrifice, obedience and adoration. Once your friend, always your friend. Once your enemy, always your enemy. The Cyclopes created a great weapon for Poseidon – a trident. The massive three-pronged fishing spear could be used to stir up tidal waves and whirlpools – even to make the earth tremble with earthquakes. As a wedding gift, Poseidon presented Amphitrite with the very first dolphin. She bore him a son, Triton, a kind of merman usually depicted sitting on the dolphin’s tail blowing into a large conch shell. Poseidon spent almost all his time pursuing an exhausting quantity of beautiful girls and boys.”

(Poseidon’s equally daunting Roman equivalent was Neptune, whose giant planet is surrounded by moons including Thalassa, Triton, Proteus and Naiad. The shape-shifting Proteus – who gives us the word ‘protean’ – was another sea god. But the odd god out is Naiad, who can hardly be a sea deity as naiads are fresh-water nymphs.) 


David and Goliath

Amorita in the Robert Tiedemann Memorial Regatta Newport RI.

The causes of this 2007 collision at Newport between Sumurun, the 94’ William Fife 1915 ketch, and Amorita, a Nat Herreshoff 44’ gaffer launched in 1905 were complex. A third classic yacht, Alera, had spun Amorita into Sumurun’s path although the big ketch was found to be at fault for not keeping clear. Amoirta sank, but after a two-year legal battle was restored and re-launched in 2011.


Lower away and unbend the gantlines

Commander G. S. Nares R.N.  – Seamanship (1868)

“How is the half top sent aloft?

The half tops are placed flat on the deck on their respective sides abaft the mast. The gantline is sent down abaft the after cross-tree, and bent through the two most convenient futtock holes, in order that the half top may hang square whilst going aloft. An after gantline is bent to the after part, stopping it to the side. Lash two stout planks with spurs in them across the horns of the trestle-trees before and abaft the mast. “Sway away.” Guy clear of the trestle-tress with the after gantline. When high enough, bear the half top round into its place, letting the midship part take against the spurs placed between the trestle-trees. Lower away and place, unbend the gantlines, send the sleepers aloft, and bolt all down. To remove the plank and spurs, the midship part must be wedged up.”

(This is just one of hundreds of detailed instructions in Commander Nares’ extraordinary handbook on Royal Navy procedures in a square-rigged ship. The tome, now very rare, also covers everything from provisioning to the stowage of anchors and cables. The breadth of practical knowledge required of ordinary sailors 150 years ago is astonishing.)


Many and fierce were the jealousies and quarrels

Dauntless and Sappho rounding a mark – James Edward Buttersworth, 1871

John Scott Hughes – Famous Yachts (1928)

“The Royal Yacht Squadron, as the club became in 1833 by favour of King William IV, found it necessary from time to time to devise certain rules for the proper conduct of yacht races; and the sport is still indebted to the Squadron for some wise and far-sighted legislation. The first sailing matches were robust affairs. Ship-proud owners challenged each other with insulting arrogance and provocation, offering purses that make present day regatta prizes sound paltry. There were no slide-rule experts to work out time-allowances and handicaps in these truculent matches. Many and fierce were the jealousies and quarrels, so that we hear of such outraged mariners as he who tore the club buttons from his coat, vowing with tears he would race no more.”

(Formal racing between sailing boats is thought to have begun in the Netherlands in the 17th Century. Before long, wealthy yachtsmen in Britain were racing custom-built yachts for hefty wagers and odds of up to 100-1. One-design racing was invented in 1886 by an Irishman, Ben Middleton, who believed winning a yacht race should depend on the skill of the sailors, not the design or size of the yacht.)


He could be very difficult

Alexis Albert – Obituary for Sir Frank Packer, K.B.E. (1974)

“He was a skilful helmsman. In spite of his gruff manner and sometimes colourful language across the water, I cannot remember him ever entering a protest or being protested against. The vigorous nature of Sir Frank’s campaigns for the America’s Cup and his near triumphs stirred yachting circles throughout the world. As is known, both challenges failed, but the efforts did much to put Australia on the world yachting map. The efforts of the America’s Cup committee in its dealings with Sir Frank were not always plain sailing. He could be very difficult, but he was a big man and always admitted afterwards when his judgement turned out to be wrong. Yachting in Australia is the better for a man like Sir Frank. The Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron made him a life member in 1970. It is doubtful we shall ever again see such a colourful personality among our members.”

(Sir Douglas Frank Hewson Packer was a bullying bear of a man who built a powerful multi-media empire from the newspaper shares he’d inherited in 1934. By the 1960s he controlled the Sydney Daily Telegraph, Channel 9 and the immensely profitable Australian Women’s Weekly. He boxed as a heavyweight, played rugby, golf and polo and was a keen if somewhat headstrong yachtsman. When asked what had prompted him to challenge for the America’s Cup he replied, “Alcohol, and delusions of grandeur.”)


In the glow of the binnacle lights

Taking of the Gry - In the glow of the binnacle lightsJohn Masefield – The Taking of the Gry (1934)

“You may imagine what it feels like to be on the bridge drawing near to your port, all keyed up to bring her in in style, watching for the marks on the coast, and listening for the surf on the outlier. I loved it best before dawn, when coming into a land as dark as indigo, with the faintest of colour pale in the sky above. There would be the forward well and the fo’c’s’le lit by the masthead light, the back of the look-out man craned over the dodger, and the gleam of the water spreading from the bows. I loved that picture of the bows and all that tenseness of those near me, the leadsmen, so trusted and sure, in the dickeys at the bridge-ends, ready for quick casts, and the quartermaster’s face above the wheel, in the glow of the binnacle lights, with his eyes steady on his mark or on his card. To myself, the joy is the handling of a big ship in a difficult passage, all beset with reefs, and the knowledge that my clear head will carry her clear and set her down at her marks.”

(Masefield’s novel of high seas adventure was set in 1911 in a fictional South American state. We can assume his narrator was describing the arrival of the type of tramp steamer on which Masefield himself had served as a young man. He died in 1967.) 


I understand, Lady Marlborough

Webb Chiles at seaWebb Chiles – Storm Passage – Alone Around Cape Horn (1997)

“The sea is an asexual environment. There are no constant stimuli of advertising, television, movies, pretty women passing on the street; and often one is cold and wet and tired. Hardly erotic. But today my thoughts went ashore, and I was reminded of the Duchess of Marlborough’s entry in her diary on the day after the Duke returned from the continental wars, to the effect, ‘His Lordship pleasured me three times before removing his boots.’ I understand, Lady Marlborough. Perfectly.”

(One of offshore sailing’s true eccentrics, Webb Chiles was determined to “live an epic life”, and succeeded. He has completed six circumnavigations – the last in a Moore 24 ultra-light at age 77 – and has been married an equal six times.) 


Did anyone feel a slight bump?

Cowes prangInternet video of this collision on the Solent in 2011 has been viewed more than a million times. Miraculously, there were no serious injuries on the 33’ Atlanta of Chester after her collision with the 869’ tanker Hanne Knutsen. The yacht’s skipper, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy reserves, was found guilty of not keeping a proper lookout and “impeding the passage of a vessel”.


A westerly gale compelled us to up anchor

Stormy PetrelS.J. Dempster – The Northern Cruise – Sydney Morning Herald (1919)

“Throughout and practically the entire trip from Port Jackson to Thursday Island the yacht encountered heavy weather. She was forced to shelter for eight days in Salamander Bay, Port Stephens. Off Smoky Cape she was hove to under storm canvas for 15 hours with the engine going full, just holding her own against a northerly wind in thick rainy conditions. At Cape Moreton, a westerly gale compelled us to up anchor and put to sea without our provisions. The gale drove us 60 miles offshore. After being close hauled under reduced canvas for 249 miles, the yacht reached East Rocks. For four days and five nights she drove before the gale before gaining the entrance inside the Great Barrier Reef, where it was found possible to set a square sail. Under this she ran before the wind for nearly 800 miles.”

(Dempster, a seaman who became a prosperous real-estate agent, made the round trip from Sydney to Thursday Island in his 25-ton yacht Stormy Petrel with a crew of four. They covered 5,100 nautical miles in five months. Also a keen racing sailor, he was a pioneer of the Sydney 18-footer class and skippered Bona against Sayonara in their famous contests.)


A small light sailing vessel

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary – Definitions (Fifth Edition – 1993)

IMOCAboat: n. a small open vessel propelled by oars, engine or sail. Also (colloq., especially among submariners) a submarine. OE. Any small or distinctive kind of vessel, esp. a fishing-vessel, mail packet, ferry or small steamer. Boatie n. (colloq., chiefly Austral. & NZ) a person who goes boating, an owner of small boats.

yacht: n. & v. Orig. a light fast sailing ship, esp. for conveying royal or other important people. Later, any of various (usu. light and comparatively small) vessels propelled by sail or engine; spec. a small light sailing vessel. yachtie n. (colloq., chiefly Austral. & NZ) a yachtsman, a yachtswoman.

vessel: n. a ship or boat, now usu. one of larger size; a craft.

(The rapid development of extreme designs is testing the assumption in these definitions that sailing boats and yachts travel through the water. Perhaps the venerable OED will soon have to add “foiler” as a new word.)


Of all who since have us’d the open sea

John DrydenJohn Dryden – Annus Mirabilis, 1667

“Rude as their ships was navigation then;

No useful compass or meridian known;

Coasting, they kept the land within their ken,

And knew no North but what the Polestar shone.

Of all who since have us’d the open sea,

Than the bold English none more fame have won;

Beyond the year, and out of heav’n’s high way,

They make discoveries where they see no sun.

But what so long in vain, and yet unknown,

By poor mankind’s benighted wit is sought,

Shall in this age to Britain first be shown,

And hence be to admiring nations taught.”

(Dryden was one of England’s earliest poet laureates. Born the son of a country gentleman in 1631 he became the dominant dramatist, literary critic, satirist and poet of his age. Not above flattery and playing to shameless patriotism, Annus Mirabilis was written to celebrate two naval victories over the Dutch.)


Why not use a sail with a changeable arch?

aeroDr Manfred Curry – Yacht Racing: The Aerodynamic of Sails (1948)

“The Advantages of Transverse Battens. Practice has proved that in light airs a strongly arched sail is superior while in heavy winds a somewhat flatter sail is preferred. This is confirmed by nature in that the wings of slow flying birds show greater arching than those of fast flyers. For this reason most of the international metre boats have several sets of sails, either cut flat or strongly bellied. Just before the race a decision is made as to which sail is to be used in the prevailing wind. The question arises: Why not use a sail with a changeable arch? Must we go as far as China or Egypt to learn what a sail should look like? Must we be reminded that the kite with a rigid surface flies one-third higher than the one which is bellied by the pressure of the wind?”

(Born in Munich in 1899 to an American father and Russian mother, Curry was a skilled sailor and represented the USA in the 1928 Olympics. His various inventions and pioneering books on yacht aerodynamics and design are among the most significant contributions to the science of sailing. Curry’s pre-war experimental dinghy Aero – above – looks remarkably like the latest AC75s.)


Wrong way up

Yacht RamblerWhen the keel snapped off Rambler 100 just after she’d rounded Fastnet Rock during the 2011 race the supermaxi immediately capsized. All 21 crew were eventually rescued but it can’t have been long before phones were ringing off the hook at the offices of the designers, builders, and insurers


This integration of man and boat

Bernard MoitessierBernard Moitessier – Un vagabond des mers du sud (1960)

“It was our eighty-fifth day since leaving Singapore. I say ‘our’, because there were two of us: Marie-Thérèse and myself. We were in fact only one person, just as the body and the spirit which dwells in it are one. This integration of man and boat had been effected in progressive stages: at our first meeting I had quite simply fallen in love with this beautiful junk from the gulf of Siam, with her bold and sturdy lines, fragrant with natural oil, the stem of her bows thrusting forward in a graceful continuation of her pronounced sheers – a finger pointing both to the sky and the horizon, and the lands that lie far beyond the horizon. But this total fusion of boat and man would never have come about without the monsoon in the Indian Ocean, into which we had wandered, frankly, at random – taking it as a game. But there was nothing playful about the monsoon.”

(Although a French national, Moitessier was born and raised in Vietnam. The Marie-Thérèse was an old junk he’d bought in Indonesia in 1952 and attempted to sail single-handed to France. He ran aground at Diego Garcia. In 1969 he was leading the first solo around-the-world race when he chose not to finish and sail on to Tahiti instead, “to save my soul”. Moitessier died in 1994, aged 69.)


The horizons of our hopes

Drake's Prayer“Drake’s Prayer” – origin unknown

“Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,

To venture on wider seas

Where storms will show your mastery;

Where losing sight of land,

We shall find the stars.

We ask You to push back

The horizons of our hopes;

And to push into the future

In strength, courage, hope, and love. AMEN”

(The origins of this famous prayer are a matter of controversy. What we do know is that it was not written by, or for, Sir Francis Drake. Drake’s most celebrated genuine quote came from a letter he wrote in May 1587 to Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State: “There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory.”)


You bet-a I’m a fine sailor

Marx BrosThe Marx Brothers – Monkey Business (1931)

Groucho: How dare you invade the sanctity of the Captain’s quarters? State your business! I’ve got to shiver my timbers.

Chico: I got-a no business. I come up to see the Captain’s bridge.

Groucho: The Captain’s bridge? I’m sorry. He always keeps it in a glass of water while he’s eating. A fine sailor you are!

Chico: You bet-a I’m a fine sailor. My whole family was sailors. My father was partners with Columbus.

Groucho: Columbus has been dead four hundred years.

Chico: Well, they told me it was my father.

Groucho: Do you suppose I could buy back my invitation to you? Now, one night Columbus’ sailors started a mutiny –

Chico: Naw, no mutinies at night. They’re in the afternoon. Wednesday mutinies, and Saturdays.

Groucho: There’s my argument. Restrict immigration.

(Most of the anarchic action in Monkey Business is set on an ocean liner. It was the first of their features to be filmed in Hollywood and the script by S. J. Perelman contained so many sexual innuendos it was censored in some countries – and banned outright in Ireland.)


They were nice, smooth sails with a good round leech

Making mainsailThomas W. Ratsey ­ – Lecture at the Marine & Small Craft Exhibition (1924)

“In the early part of the last century there was a very fine old sailmaker, Eversfield, who lived at Gravesend, and who always made mainsails for the Pearl cutter, built for the Marquis of Anglesey in 1820, by Sainty of Wivenhoe, who also built the frigate Pique for His Majesty’s Navy, and I believe, ruined himself over it. But the Marquis of Anglesey was a kind old man, and gave Sainty a pension as long as he lived. Lord Anglesey retained the Pearl up to the day of his death, which was, I think, in 1854, and my father used to tell me that they were nice, smooth sails with a good round leech and foot and no one could find very much fault with them – in fact, they were held up as pattern sails in those days. Unfortunately, Everfield’s sons did not continue the business at Gravesend, and the art died with him, as he intended that it should.”

(Established in 1790, the Ratsey & Lapthorn sailmaking firm has been in continuous production for 230 years. Lord Nelson’s Victory set Ratsey sails during the battle of Trafalgar. With lofts in Cowes and New York, Ratseys were happy to make sails for both defenders and challengers in the America’s Cup.)


The prospect for next season will be bright indeed

The Yachting Monthly – The Racing World: The America’s Cup (1933) 

“The announcement that Mr. T.O.M. Sopwith is to challenge for the America’s Cup next year with the steel ‘J’ Class yacht which is to be built for him this winter deserves the hearty approval of yachtsmen all over the world. Such a stimulus will be a good thing for the sport which is already increasing rapidly in popularity and lay interest, and if Charles Nicholson puts into the design of Endeavour, as we are told the new yacht is to be called, all the successful features of Velsheda, ‘plus a little something’ that is needed by an America’s Cup challenger, then prospect for next season will be bright indeed. The lead keel was cast towards the end of November at Camper & Nicholsons’ yard, and she will be launched during the first half of April. As the first of the Cup races is to be sailed on September 15, off Newport, Rhode Island, she will have ample opportunity for getting into the best possible trim before starting on her voyage.”

(The requirement that all challengers for the Cup had to sail to America ‘on their own bottom’ was dropped after WWII. But many of the sentiments in this 87-year-old report are familiar: the eternal optimism of the challengers, and the confident assertion that Cup competition is ‘good for the sport’. Endeavour went very close to clinching the Cup in 1934. Sopwith liked to race with his second wife, Phyllis, counting him down to the start, stopwatch in hand.)   


It was a memorable race indeed

Ronald Reagan and Australian America's Cup Team at The White HouseRonald Reagan – Letter to Alan Bond (November 4, 1983)

The White House, Washington

Dear Mr. Bond:

I was delighted to greet the Australian and American teams together with officials of America’s Cup Competition at the White House on September 28. It was an honour to congratulate the crew of AUSTRALIA II on capturing first place in this 123rd yearly yachting event and to pay tribute to the men of the LIBERTY for competing so valiantly against our friends “down under”. In the spirit of our peace-loving nations, it was a memorable race indeed.”

Sincerely,
Ronald Reagan

(Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy knew yachting. Reagan clearly did not. “First place”? “This yearly yachting event”? “A memorable race”? Apparently there was nobody in the Reagan administration who considered it necessary to draft the President an accurate letter of congratulation.) 


Craftsmen swarmed like ants over vast supplies

Warren Armstrong – Square-Rigger Days (1964)

“Between 7 December 1848, and 20 January 1849, ninety-nine windships sailed from United States ports alone for California; and from October 1849 to October 1850, 70,000 gold-hungry emigrants reached San Francisco, mainly by sea. Sacramento which, in April 1849, had four houses, in little more than twelve months blossomed into a well-built town of 70,000 inhabitants. On New York’s waterfront, in Salem, Boston and elsewhere right along the Eastern seaboard craftsmen swarmed like ants over vast supplies of white pine and spruce, white oak and fir as it came out of sawmills; and in a hundred or more lofty sailmaker’s works men cut, gored and sewed huge banks of canvas. Ship designers, ship-chandlers, rope makers, merchants and brokers got together to talk things over and agree plans.”

(What a time to be a sailor or in the supporting maritime trades! Of the estimated 300,000 people who came to California in the gold rush between 1848 and 1855 around half arrived by sea. Most of those “Argonauts”, as they were called, made the long, perilous passage from the East Coast.)


An instinctive feeling of your inner life

Joseph Conrad – The Mirror of the Sea, 1906

“A ship is a creature which we have brought into the World, as it were, on purpose, to keep us up to the mark. In her handling, a ship will not put up with a mere pretender. A ship is not a slave. You must make her easy in a seaway, you must never forget that you owe her the fullest share of your thought, of your skill, of your self love. If you remember that obligation, naturally and without effort, as if it were an instinctive feeling of your inner life, she will sail, stay, run for you as long as she is able, or, like a sea-bird going to rest upon the angry waves, she will lay out the heaviest gale that ever made you doubt living long enough to see another sunrise.”

(Conrad made his first sea voyage in 1874 aged 17 on a small barque that sailed from Marseilles to Martinique. By 1877 he had transferred to the English merchant marine, probably to avoid compulsory military service in Russia. The following year he sailed on a clipper ship from London to Australia. He ended his service at sea in 1894.) 


“Get that soot off my foredeck!”

In her drab livery as a WWII troop ship, the Cunard liner Queen Mary is nudged into position on Sydney Harbour by a coal-burning tug. High on the bridge wing you can just see the silhouette of an officer clutching his brow in dismay as he contemplates the messy clean-up job that now awaits the crew… 


Behind every rich man stands a devil

Jerome W. FitzGerald – Sailing with Purpose (2002)

“It is wise to look the part of a yachtsman to a certain degree, and not a boat bum. You might not have two nickels to rub together but if you look like you do, people just hassle you less. I’m serious about this. People are weird. Truthfully, they’ve got not a little bit of justification. I know the world is full of thieves, and they come in all forms. I doubt I’ve ever met anyone in an expensive yacht who hasn’t stolen the majority of what he owns – truth be known. Yet I know that while behind every rich man stands a devil, behind a poor man there stands two. And the poor boat bum has probably got a lot more interest in my solar panel and my inflatable than the rich bastard might.”

(FitzGerald is an accomplished American sailor, rigger, and sailmaker who enjoys undertaking long solo passages without an engine. His books are crammed with quirky yet valuable practical advice. The title of his last tome sums up FitzGerald’s philosophy: Sea-Steading: A Life of Hope and Freedom on the Last Viable Frontier.)


The glorious break and forward swing of the racing seas

Conor O’Brien – Across Three Oceans (1926)

“Now we float lazily among long round-backed hills, once in a while rising to a higher summit from which we can look down on a level horizon deep blue beneath a tropic sun; now we fight our way through ranges of snow-capped peaks, flanked by sharp-crested spurs that rise and burst with volcanic energy before the mild Trade wind. Only in a tiny craft can one feel the glorious break and forward swing of the racing seas. The transparency of the thin wall which is just about to break in a sparkle of sunlit foam, the minute tracing on the front of an advancing swell, are only enjoyed by an eye that is below their own level. And the myriad reflected lights from the sunset clouds, which keep their distance from the more exalted observer, crowd close along our side that rises but two feet out of the water.”

(O’Brien was a minor Irish aristocrat and architect with a flair for flamboyant language who designed the remarkable 42-foot ketch Saoirse – above. He sailed her around the world between 1923 and 1925 by way of the three Great Capes – the first yacht to do so. Earlier, he’d run guns for the Irish Volunteers with Erskine Childers.)


The conjectures I have formed acquire a new force

Lieutenant Louis de Freycinet – Letter to the Ministre de Marine, (1811)

“I have the honour to remind your excellency that Captain Flinders was sent on discovery to Terra Australis a short while after the French Government had despatched an expedition having the same object. The rival expeditions carried out their work in the same field, but the French had the good fortune to be the first to return to Europe. Now that Flinders is again in England, and is occupied with the publication of the numerous results of his voyage, the English Government, jealous on account of the rivalry between the two expeditions, will do all it can for its own. The conjectures I have formed acquire a new force by the recent announcement that Captain Flinders’ voyages in the South Seas are to be published by command of the Lords of the Admiralty.”

(Freycinet, a skilled seaman and cartographer, published an atlas of the Baudin expedition in which the whole coast West of Wilson’s Promontory was designated as Terre Napoléon and all principal features given French names. But common sense eventually prevailed and those names have only survived for places the French were the first to survey.)


Always mention the sponsor by name

Perimeter advertising at cricket, tennis and football events can be a sound promotional investment. But naming rights exposure in sailing risks your brand being associated with less-than-edifying moments. Just ask Mr Hilfiger …


 

On every occasion of going off to a wreck

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution – General Rules of Management (1854)

“Each life-boat to have a coxswain superintendent with a fixed salary of £8 a year. The life-boat to be regularly taken afloat for exercise once every quarter, fully manned and equipped, so that the crew may be familiar with her properties and proper management. On every occasion of exercise the men are paid 5 shillings each in stormy weather, and 3 shillings each in fine weather; and on every occasion of going off to a wreck to save lives, each man of the crew receives 10 shillings by day and £1 by night; but extra or double awards for any special act of gallantry or exertion. The crew are provided with life belts.”

(Founded in 1824 as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, the RNLI now has more than 400 lifeboats operating from 238 stations around the coasts of the UK, the Channel Islands, the Republic of Ireland and the Isle of Man. The Institution has saved an estimated 140,000 lives since its inception, but at the cost of 600 lifeboatmen’s lives.)


To the last man, they are all great people

George O’Day – quoted in Good Old Boat magazine (1986)

“Sailing and boats have been a great way of life. Not easy and not very remunerative, but very rewarding. I have friends from Israel to Alaska, and Norway to Australia. I have sailed with kings and princes, communists and industrialists, tycoons and sailing bums, and down to the last man, they are all great people. The sea is the great equalizer. The challenge of the wind, water, and the elements seems to bring men closer and more equal than at any other time in their lives. Ashore they are different, but at sea they have to depend on each other.”

(O’Day is one of the forgotten figures of American sailing. He won gold in the 5.5 metres at the Rome Olympics and was world champion twelve times in various classes. In the 1962 America’s Cup he was reserve helmsman on Weatherly. O’Day wrote a number of books on sailing and his O’Day Boats Company pioneered the design and production of a huge range of innovative day-sailers and small yachts in fibreglass.)


The work of destruction spread rapidly

William Russell – Report for The Times from Sebastapol during the Crimean War (1854)

“In the middle of the night the Russians set fire to nine of their warships that were still in the harbour. The fire spread with rapidity along the vessels, and soon lighted up the whole of the northern heavens. The masts were speedily licked and warmed into a fiery glow and the rigging burst out into fitful wavering lines of light, struggling with the wind for life: the yards shed lambent showers of sparks and burning splinters upon the water. The faces of the Russian soldiers and sailors who were scattered about on the face of the cliff shone out now and then. The work of destruction spread rapidly. The vessels were soon nothing but huge arks of blinding light, which hissed and crackled fiercely and threw up clouds of sparks and embers; and the guns, as they became hot, exploded, and shook the crazy hulls to atoms. One after another they went down in the settling waters.”

(In a period when words were still more powerful than pictures, the graphic reporting of William Russell exerted a huge influence on public and political opinion in Britain. He is acknowledged as the father of modern war reporting and covered the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny, the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War and the Zulu War. Russell died in 1907.)


Suddenly a hush fell over the crowd

David Binks – recalls the final race of the 1965 Australian Lightweight Sharpie Championship

“The wind was gusting at 35 knots. By the time the two leaders, Fred Neill and John Cuneo, came to the last leg – a run in front of the Glenelg clubhouse – many of the other boats had either retired or capsized. Fred was in front with Cuneo not far behind. Whoever crossed first would win the whole series. None of the boats flew spinnakers. But the large spectator fleet, all cheering for Fred, then saw Cuneo’s kite go up. A second later Fred hoisted his. The Sharpies were flying in big seas doing close to 20 knots. Fred was still comfortably in front closing in on the finishing line. Suddenly a hush fell over the crowd. Fred’s mast slowly bent and collapsed under the extreme pressure. Fred’s for’d hand held up a section of the mainsail to catch some wind, but it wasn’t enough. Cuneo sailed past. It was a bitter disappointment.”

(Binks, the South Australian who had built Neill’s ill-fated Sharpie – but not its De Havilland mast – has been one of Australia’s most versatile and innovative production boat builders. He built everything from Cadet dinghies and world champion 505s to Black Soos and 80 of the legendary glass-fibre Farr fractionals. In 1987 Fred Neill went on to helm the 12 metre South Australia.)


We only looked away for a moment

Somehow, with 64 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean as sea room, the US Navy managed this embarrassing collision. The destroyer escort USS Silverstein collided with the submarine USS Stickleback in May 1958. All 82 crew were saved, however the submarine sank within hours. The paperwork afterwards must have been horrendous. 


Men so regardless of sportsmanlike feeling

Tyrrel E. Biddle – The Corinthian Yachtsman (1886)

“The growth of yacht racing in popular favour is no doubt due, in part, to the fact that it has been carried out in that fair and manly spirit which ought to govern the conduct of every true sportsman. One meets occasionally with persons whose ill-nature compels them to find fault with everything, no matter how good or meritorious it may be. But it is seldom that the charge of unfair dealing or cheating is ever brought against the pleasure navy. It is true that in the old days of shifting ballast there were men so regardless of sportsmanlike feeling as to endeavor to evade the rule which said ‘No ballast shall be shifted during a match’. The practice was rigidly put down, and delinquents found themselves in the unenviable position of outsiders, being cut by their brother yachtsman, and black-balled at the Clubs.”

(It would be fascinating to know what Biddle might have made of today’s water ballast, canting keels and powered winches. He wrote books on knots & splices, yacht construction and rigging, and an illustrated instructional on how to sail “open and half-decked” boats.)


The males seemed to have an understanding amongst themselves

Arnold Bennett – The Yacht (1924)

“The floating home, then, had already begun to function very perfectly for the day. It was precisely the perfect functioning of the organism that upset her. Every contrivance in it was a man’s contrivance. Woman had naught to do with its excellence. It would function with the same perfection whether she happened to be there or not. It was orderly, it was comfortable; and men had accomplished it and were maintaining it all by themselves. And the males seemed to have an understanding amongst themselves, as if they belonged to a secret monastic or masonic order. She was outside the understanding. She was a woman, ornamental no doubt, but unnecessary. Well, she resented this great happiness. So that the next afternoon Alice had a headache.”

(Bennett, a keen boatman, was an incredibly prolific author. In a career spanning three decades he published 34 novels, seven volumes of short stories and 13 plays, plus scores of essays and a mountain of journalism. He died of typhoid fever after unwisely drinking tap water in Paris.) 


We lighted ship by throwing overboard our ballast

Sydney Parkinson – A Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas (1773)

“We continued our course to the north-west. Our water shoaled very soon, from 21 to 8 fathoms, which alarmed us very much. About eleven o’clock, the ship struck upon the rocks and remained immoveable. We were, at this period, many thousand leagues from our native land, (which we had left upwards of two years), and on a barbarous coast, where, if the ship had been wrecked, and we escaped the perils of the sea, we should have fallen into the rapacious hands of savages. The sails were immediately handed, the boats launched, the yards and topmasts struck, and an anchor carried out to the southward. Early in the morning we lighted ship by throwing overboard our ballast, fire wood, some of our stores, our water casks, and six of our great guns, and set the pumps to work, at which every man on board assisted, the Captain, Mr Banks and all the officers not excepted, relieving one another every quarter of an hour.” 

(This was Cook’s ‘Apollo 13’ moment. Parkinson was a botanical draftsman who joined the voyage of discovery in the retinue of botanist Joseph Banks. His deft sketches are a precious visual guide to much of what we know about the Endeavour and its boats. Still in his early 20s, he died a miserable death from dysentery in 1771 after the expedition had left Batavia on the voyage home.)


The Meteor’s racing record was not impressive

The New Yorker – Where Are They Now? (1946)

“In 1901, Kaiser Wilhelm ordered the schooner yacht to be built for him by the firm of Townsend & Downey Shipbuilding Co., on Shooter Island, New York City. The designers were H. G. Barbey & A. Carey Smith, the launching took place Feb. 25, 1902. The Meteor’s racing record was not impressive & in 1909 she was sold to a Dr. Carl Dietrich Harries, who rechristened her to Nordstern. In 1921, she was sold to Maurice Bunau-Varilla, owner of the Paris newspaper Le Matin. In 1924, she was bought by an Italian Baron, named Alberto Fassini. In 1932, Fassini sold the yacht to a man named Gillet, who shortly turned her over to Camper & Nicholsons, British yacht brokers. After a few months of idleness she was bought by an American named Francis Taylor. Taylor sailed her for several years and then sold her to Sterling Hayden who returned her to her former owner. In 1940, Taylor sold her to Gerald S. Foley who in turn sold her to a David Feinburg. Feinburg sold her to Nicholas Allen. That year the Navy requisitioned her. Today, the Meteor III, whose name was changed to Aldebaran, lies in the yard of a ship’s breaker by the name of John Witte, only a few miles from where she was built.”

(Meteor III was built in just four months for a cost of $150,000. The steel schooner displaced 314 tonnes, was 161ft LOA with a beam of 27 feet. When fully rigged she carried 11,612 square feet of sail. There were 2,000 at her launching, but not the Kaiser. He sent his younger brother to represent him. Witte paid $2,500 for the yacht and broke her up for scrap.)


She was trying to show me what she could do

John Wray – South Sea Vagabonds (1939)

“On the 22nd the wind increased to nearly gale force and the barometer fell to 29.75. All our extras were down now, and with the mainsail alone we were running before the growling seas at a giddy nine knots. As I stood with my feet braced in the cockpit, struggling with the tiller, I knew that my ship was alive. She was trying to show me what she could do and I was very proud of her. My mind travelled back to those old, grey kauri logs that had been hidden away on beaches round the New Zealand coast. If I hadn’t got the sack and towed those logs into Auckland, they would still be there, hidden and wasted. But I had built a real live yacht out of them – a vessel that was now joyfully speeding along, ploughing her way across the Tasman.”

(Wray built his self-designed 35-foot sloop Ngataki from salvaged materials during the Depression on his parents’ front lawn. Without any racing experience he entered the 1934 Trans-Tasman race from Auckland to Melbourne and finished in second place. He and his beloved Ngataki then spent most of their lives cruising the South Pacific.) 


The first European fantasy was being cast away

Miles Hordern – Sailing the Pacific (2002)

“The first known fictional account of marooning is an Egyptian papyrus fragment, Le Naufrage, the tale of a solitary castaway on a beautiful island learning to survive. Le Naufrage has been described as the earliest written story of any kind: the first European fantasy was being cast away on the ocean in a place beyond everything you have experienced before. Some of the first European ships in the Pacific simply disappeared, foundering in cyclones or on reefs and islands that weren’t on any chart. Sailing through these waters without a reliable chart was like playing Russian roulette. But it is now believed that some, perhaps many, of the sailors whose ships were wrecked in the Pacific did not drown, and that Alexander Selkirk’s marooning was not in itself unusual. What made Selkirk different as a castaway was that he was later picked up again.”

(Hordern’s book blends his own sailing adventures with an eclectic ramble through the romantic history and mythology of the Pacific. He has sailed his 28-foot sloop from New Zealand to South America, the largest uninterrupted stretch of water on the planet.)


An interest in the sea that was central to his vision of himself…

Michael Beschloss – The New York Times (2015)

“At age 9, in 1891, Franklin D. Roosevelt was taken by his father, James, aboard his 51-foot sailboat Half Moon down the Hudson and then up the New England coast to the family’s summer cottage in Canada. By 16, Franklin was commanding his own sloop, the New Moon, had absorbed himself in naval history (including that of his own family) and started amassing a large collection of naval prints. With an interest in the sea that was central to his vision of himself, he persuaded the newly elected President Woodrow Wilson, in 1913, to make him assistant secretary of the Navy. After Roosevelt was nominated for president in 1932, he set sail on a well-photographed New England cruise with his own sons [above, right] on the 37-foot yawl Myth II, calling himself ‘an ancient mariner’. Throughout his time in office, he often appeared aboard various vessels with his black naval cape flapping dramatically in the breeze.”

(Despite his long battle with polio FDR kept sailing whenever possible. He could navigate and is thought to have logged more than 11,000 sea miles as President. Roosevelt told reporters that the fun of the sport was that “if you’re headed for somewhere and the wind changes, you just change your mind and go somewhere else.”)


Heaven laughs to see us languish thus

John Donne – Verse Letters (1598-1615)

The Storm

“Then like two mighty Kings, which dwelling far

Asunder, meet against a third to war,

The South and West winds join’d, and, as they blew

Waves like a rolling trench before them threw.

And what at first was call’d a gust, the same

Hath now a storm’s, anon a tempest’s name…”

The Calm

“Our storm is past, and that storm’s tyrannous rage,

A stupid calm, but nothing it doth ’suage.

The fable is inverted, and far more

A block afflicts, now, than a stork before.

Storms chafe, and soon wear out themselves, or us;

In calms, Heaven laughs to see us languish thus…”

(Donne – pronounced ‘Dun’ – was the greatest of the English metaphysical poets. A contemporary of Shakespeare he was attached in service to the Earl of Essex in 1596. In that role Donne was present at the Battle of Cadiz and in the following year took part in the campaign against Spanish plate-ships off the Azores. He was then a member of Parliament for 14 years, and later Dean of St Pauls.) 


It is sheer madness to take hold of a man who is struggling

Joseph R. Hodgson – Instructions for Saving Drowning Persons by Swimming to Their Relief (1858)

“1st. When you approach a person drowning in the water, assure him, with a loud and firm voice, that he is safe.

2nd. Before jumping in to save him, divest yourself as far and as quickly as possible of all clothes; tear them off if necessary, but if there is not time, loose, at all events, the foot of your drawers if they are tied, as, if you do not do so, they will fill with water and drag you.

3rd. On swimming to a person in the sea, do not seize him then, but keep off for a few seconds till he gets quiet, for it is sheer madness to take hold of a man who is struggling, and if you do, you run a great risk.

4th. Then get close to him and take fast hold of the hair of his head, turn him as quickly as possible onto his back, give him a sudden pull and this will cause him to float. Then throw yourself on your back also, and swim for the shore.”

(Approved techniques of recovery have moved on a little from Hodgson’s ‘pull him by the hair’ method, and these days those hoping to be rescued are unlikely to be exclusively male.)


A mechanical system furls up the sails

Jill Bobrow and Kenny Wooton – Outrageous Yachts (2009)

“The rig of the The Maltese Falcon consists of three free-standing masts, each with five sails in the shape of isosceles trapezoids. It bears a striking resemblance to the rig on the famous old clipper ship Cutty Sark, but modified and modernized – there are no hanging ropes, stays or shrouds. A mechanical system furls up the sails into the masts. Weighing 25 tons apiece and nearly 20 storeys high, the masts are made of carbon fibre. The material had to be strong enough not only to support the masts’ weight and height but also to withstand moving parts. The carbon was ordered in Japan, then shipped to Turkey where the spars were built in a leased shed. The masts, their sails and the control systems represented an estimated 200,000 man hours of work.”

(The hull of The Maltese Falcon is steel and was built ‘on spec’ in Turkey. The owner spotted a wooden model in the Perini office in Italy and commissioned Gerard Dijkstra & Partners to complete the design. The unique superyacht is 289 feet LOA with a 42-foot beam and 20-foot draft.)


This is done with an adze

Carl Halvorsen – Making a mast (explained in 1992)

“Father’s brother, in Norway, would send spruce logs cut from his forest. They would arrive by ship and be dumped over the side into Woolloomooloo Bay and we would go over and row them back to Neutral Bay. The first step is to shape the log into a square section. The centre-line is marked by chalk. All four faces are also marked by chalk-line to the desired dimensions, then hewn with a broad axe. My axe head was forged steel, about 2 feet long and weighing about 8lbs. The blade was about 8 inches wide with a curved cutting edge. You stand astride the log and swing the axe between your legs, working along the grain. The handle was off-set to the right to enable the chalk-line to be seen as the axe takes the cut. The second step is to form an octagonal section. This is done with an adze, then a drawknife. The mast is then planed with a long plane, and sand-papered. No power tools are used.”

(The contribution of the Halvorsen family to yachting in Australia is without parallel. Not only did they design and build a succession of outstanding post-war racing yachts, they sailed them to handicap wins in the Sydney-Hobart race no less than five times.)


The captain bawled at us to lay down from aloft

Commander Archibald Bruce Campbell – Yarns of the Seven Seas (1927)

“There was a heavy lurch to leeward, an ominous sound of rumbling in the hold, and we knew that the shingle ballast had shifted. The poor old barque lay over almost on her beams, held thus by the weight of the shifted ballast. The captain bawled to us to lay down from aloft and get to the poop. Those of us who were coming down the weather rigging managed to reach there, but the carpenter, an elderly Russian Finn, and like all his race, obstinate and perverse, chose to descend by the lee rigging. He tried to reach the main yard and so cross over, but was not active enough for this feat. He missed his hold and his footing, fell backwards into the sea, and as he floated aft the spanker boom carried away, hit him as he passed, and that was the last we saw of the carpenter.”

(The barque was on a passage from Canada to the UK and had struck a storm. It sank, only one lifeboat was launched, and the surviving crew were line-hauled aboard from the sea, one by one. They rowed through the night and were rescued at dawn the following day by a coal clipper bound for San Francisco.) 


Brewers were set to work with all expedition

John Cooper – The Queen’s Agent: Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth I (2011)

“From the moment that the beacon fires warned of the Armada’s sighting off the Lizard on 19 July 1588, the Privy Council sat in session at Richmond and St James’s. Walsingham was present at every meeting, sweating over the deployment of troops and weapons and communicating with the lords lieutenant in the counties. Keeping the navy supplied with gunpowder and ammunition soon became a problem. The city of London was searched for any private stores of gunpowder. Lieutenant of the Ordnance, Sir Robert Constable, was urged to send as many wheelbarrows as he could find to assist in strengthening the blockhouse which Henry VIII had built at Gravesend. Brewers in Dover and the Cinque Ports were set to work ‘with all expedition’ to provide beer for the navy.”

(Walsingham, perhaps the first great English public servant, did more than any other person to keep Elizabeth safe on the throne. As the Queen’s principal Secretary of State he was party to almost every major decision made during her reign. His extensive network of spies in England and abroad provided crucial intelligence about Catholic plots against the Protestant monarch, including the invasion ambitions of Philip of Spain.)


It was quite the usual thing to do

Stanley Spain – Beginnings (1958)

“The first sailing race that I can recollect as having taken part in was on Boxing Day 1878. The dinghy I sailed was about 15’ long, 4’6” in beam, 2’ deep, fitted with a fixed fin. Centreboards were only to be found in very few boats in those days. She was rigged with a sprit sail, bamboos being used for spars – partly for lightness, but principally because they grew in great numbers in Wally Bennett’s old home in Shell Cove. Our victory was mainly due to the fact that most of the others in the race capsized. It was quite the usual thing to do if you could not win. It was a kind of excuse. I never did hold this view, and although I have been in many races since, I have never been in the ‘drink’. Perhaps I am lucky.”

(Stan Spain was a stalwart of the Sydney sailing community and won many championships in his 22-foot open boat Mischief. He was an active member of the Sydney Amateur Sailing Club for 64 continuous years – a club record. Spain died in 1967.)


The new Commodore, Lord Granard, showed his mettle

Henry Boylan – White Sails Crowding: A History of the Royal Irish Yacht Club (1994)

“Despite the fines introduced in 1857, members continued to stay very late in the Club-house, playing cards sometimes until 5 a.m. However, as only a handful of members were involved, the committee contented itself collecting fines to pay for the extra expense in heat and light. The Queen had not given a cup for a number of years, but now the new Commodore, Lord Granard, showed his mettle by successfully persuading her to donate a cup, value £100, for the 1865 Regatta. In 1866, the Vice-Commodore, Charles Putland, informed the committee that as he had exchanged his 70-ton schooner for a much smaller yacht, he thought it right to tender his resignation.”

(But the Committee pressed Putland to withdraw his resignation, which he eventually did. The incident showed how important it was thought to be, more than a century ago, that flag officers should always also be active yachtsmen.)


Applications are invited from any person

Syd Fischer – Report to the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron (1982)

“A company has been formed, named Australian Challenge for the America’s Cup. The Syndicate has now been in operation for well over a year and has engaged Alan Payne for the design of the challenger. Alan, as we all know, is a most meticulous man, and is presently finalising the design. We of the Syndicate are confident that Alan’s design will be a well-rounded and thoughtful yacht, which should perform with the World’s best. The yacht will be constructed from aluminium, by Aquacraft, and is scheduled for completion by August. Crew is now being selected and applications are invited from any person considering they have the attributes, and are prepared to dedicate themselves both mentally and physically to the enormous task of the Syndicate to wrest the cup from the New York Yacht Club.”

(The syndicate struggled for support and their campaign was chronically underfunded. Without the benefit of tank testing Alan Payne’s design for the 12-metre Advance was soon shown to be uncompetitive – a “dog”. She was eliminated early in the challenger trials in Newport in 1983 and Payne then sportingly acknowledged the boat’s shortcomings by presenting skipper Iain Murray and his crew with a bag of dog biscuits.)


She sailed well in our watch

Dora Birtles – North-West by North (1935)

“We rigged the square sail but the wind dropped. It rose again with the coming of night. During my watch we raced along, not a star to be seen, the moon hidden and giving a diffused grey light that made the sea a polished black pearl shell. Why was it that the helmsman felt responsible for the wind, pleased as if he had blown it along himself when the ship made good time? In the mornings, when we compared notes of our night watches, we always liked to be able to say that at any rate she sailed well in our watch, and we estimated the rate – five knots at least, or four, or six. To Sven’s inquiry, ‘All the time?’ the answer usually was, ‘Well, most of the time’. He always took a discount off our estimated rate of the night watches and said nothing about it.”

(Birtles was one of three women in the crew of Skaga, a 34-foot cutter with no engine that made a leisurely eight-month journey from Newcastle in NSW to Singapore in 1932. Her book is part travelogue, part personal memoir, and includes some penetrating insights into the psychology of crew relationships during a long voyage.) 


It has been my safe haven

Ovid – The ship of my banishment – Tristia I.X.10-12 (AD 8)

“fida manet, trepidae duxque comesque fugae, 
perque tot eventus et iniquis concita ventis                                    
aequora Palladio numine tuta fuit.”

“It stays faithful to me, the guide and companion of my anxious flight, and through so many changes of fortune, so many seas swirled up by unfriendly winds, it has been my safe haven under Minerva’s divine protection.”

(This beautifully sentimental passage from the poet Ovid’s Tristia – “Lamentations” – refers to the boat that took him to his exile from Rome into the Black Sea. He had been banished by the emperor Augustus and settled in Tomis – present day Constanta in Romania. He died there without ever seeing Rome, or his wife, again.) 


Boats started to get weaker and weaker

Ben Lexcen – The Bulletin (January 1985)

“Very few of the blokes who actually formulate the rules know anything about boat structures. They don’t seem to know anything about safety. Go to any IOR meeting and you would swear you were looking at a bunch of London bankers. They’re usually dummies, rich blokes and corporate executive types who wouldn’t know the sharp end from the blunt end. They just sign cheques and allow themselves to be led by the designers. Boats started to get weaker and weaker. That’s OK for boats that tootle around the Mediterranean or off the California coast. Ninety percent of the world’s boats get away with it, but not in Australia. When you’re in the middle of Bass Strait you’re in the middle of the ocean. These are the guys who have to sit down and think hard about the lesson of the Hobart Race.”

(Lexcen’s opinion was sought after the punishing 1984 Sydney-Hobart. The fleet was pounded by a strong Southerly on the first two days. From a fleet 155 starters there were 104 retirements and one death. Many of the rig and hull failures were later traced to under-strength construction and equipment.)


Mega broach“On second thought, maybe we shouldn’t gybe just yet…”

There’s much fun to be had searching this photo in detail for clues as to how the crew of the Swan 45 arrived at their predicament. But the poor bloke in the bow has had enough – he can’t bear to even look.


This seemed illogical to me

Ricard Tabarly
Ricard Tabarly

Eric Tabarly – Pen Duick (1970)

“We crossed the finishing line in the late afternoon to the cheers of the crowds packing the quays. Australians take a keen interest in the Sydney-Hobart race. The second and third boats to finish were Fidelis and Kahurangui. We quickly learnt that we were first of our class, and by a good margin. But to the Australians, what mattered most was the result of the handicap race. This seemed illogical to me. Trying to give a variety of craft of different sizes an even chance doesn’t make sense, despite the time allowance, for the competitors are scattered about the ocean on different points of sailing and do not generally meet the same wind and weather conditions. A handicap race would only have some meaning if the wind remained constant, which hardly ever happens. Therefore the result is distorted, and the handicap result becomes a matter of luck.”

(Tabarly’s exploits in a string of uniquely innovative offshore yachts all named Pen Duick helped establish the French dominance in long-distance ocean racing. He won the Fastnet, OSTAR, the first singlehanded Transpacific Race, and was awarded the Legion d’Honneur. Tabarly was swept overboard and drowned in the Irish Sea in 1998.)


They are part of sailing history

TAFT Sailing gear Car crewMarshall Phillips – Meanderings in Irish Rover (1989)

“The ‘Tafts’ are an ancient suit of foul weather gear. Originally orange in colour, they are now faded, sullied and patched from a lifetime of abuse. Their name is derived from their manufacturer, Taft. Although not as famous as Solomon Levi, who turned canvas into trousers in the 1880s, Taft had the same idea. The suits are made from underground electrical cable covering, strong enough to withstand the blow of a navvy’s pick. The stiffness of the material restricts the occupant’s movement in the same way as medieval knights were restrained by their armour. Where the tubes of material for the arms and legs come together, wide strips of duct tape replace the failed stitching. ‘Tafts’ go back to the 1977 Hobart race and are not to be parted with. They are part of sailing history.”

(The earliest ‘off the rack’ brand of wet weather gear in Australia was Marlin in the late 1960s, followed soon after by Taft. When the Line 7 products appeared from New Zealand in the late 1970s the marketers called them “high-performance offshore wear”. Today’s ranges from Helly-Hansen and Henri Lloyd like to describe themselves as “technical clothing”. But you still get wet.)


They have discovered that the servant of Monsieur Commerson …

Jeanne Baret
Jeanne Baret

Glynis Ridley – The Discovery of Jeanne Baret (2011)

“In April 1768 two French ships, the Boudeuse and the Étoile, rode at anchor off the coast of Tahiti as 330 officers and men took their first shore leave in nearly a year. The ships constituted an expedition, under the command of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, to circumnavigate the globe and claim lands for France. On the beach a single woman stood surrounded by a group of men whose looks required no translation. Fearing herself in danger of rape, she screamed an appeal to a French officer to save her. But to the wonder of the French, the woman was not an islander but one of their own crew. As one observer recorded the event, with a striking restraint given what was being described, ‘They have discovered that the servant of Monsieur Commerson, the doctor, was a girl who until now has been taken for a boy.’ For two years on board, Jeanne Baret had presented herself as a young man, using the name Jean Baret, and had worked as principal assistant to the expedition’s naturalist, Philibert Commerson.”

(Baret was a skilled herbalist, and almost certainly also Commerson’s mistress. Up until the time of her exposure she had claimed to be a eunuch. Mademoiselle Baret was allowed to remain with the Bougainville expedition and lived to become the first woman to complete a circumnavigation of the globe.)


A word which is somewhat pedantic

Anti-cyclone
Anti-cyclone

L. Pearsall Smith – Letter to The Times of London (1911)

“Every one will, I think, admit that another word, or at least an alternative name, for ‘anti-cyclone’ would be an addition to the language. Now that the facts of meteorology have become matters of common knowledge, it is surely regrettable that for so benign a phenomenon as an anti-cyclone, with its periods of windless calm, we should have no better name than this – a word which is somewhat pedantic in conversation, impossible in verse, whose end is stormy, while its prefix is loaded with suggestions of conflict, from anti-Christ to anti-vivisection.”

(Despite these protestations, ‘anti-cyclone’ is still the common term for the large-scale circulation of winds around a central region of high atmospheric pressure – clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. Pearsall Smith’s own suggestion for an alternative word was ‘halcyon’ – from the Greek – which today is an adjective but was originally a noun used to describe periods of calm and ‘quietude’.) 


The sail could only be used with a following wind

CheopsPeter Kemp – The History of Ships – The Cradle of Seafaring (1978)

“If we date Cheops’s funeral ship at about 3,000BC, we know from stone reliefs and hieroglyphics that the ships of Egypt carried a square sail on a bipod mast which could be lowered when the rowers took over. From the fact that this bipod mast was stepped well forward in the ship it is evident that the sail could only be used with a following wind, though early pictures on rock faces and pottery show ropes attached to the end of the yard, which indicate that the yard could to some extent be braced round to the wind. There were still no ribs rising from the keel to support the outside hull planking and no deck beams to maintain the upper hull shape.”

(But the canny Egyptian boat-builders had alternatives to ribs and deck beams. A large rope was stretched from stem to stern and tensioned with a bar of wood like a Spanish windlass. Athwartships, two ropes were taken up tightly around the whole upper hull and tensioned by a series of turns on a smaller rope.)


Great free seas with their ever-changing horizons

Kenneth Dodson – Stranger to the Shore (1942)

“This was his introduction to the sea – the full-bowed vessels creaking and straining restlessly at their moorings in San Francisco’s China Basin, the fascination of rigging and compasses, of weathered planking, and salt-soaked cordage. These things spoke to him of strange lands beyond the Golden Gate and of great free seas with their ever-changing horizons. With his boyhood acquaintances he ran about their decks, tugging at sheets and halyards, calling out imaginary orders, climbing aloft. But the things he felt inside he told to no one. So, in his early teens, after his father had been killed by a falling spar and his mother had died after a prolonged illness, it was only natural that he had looked for a berth at sea. The sea was now his home.”

(Kenneth Dodson was a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy who became famous for his best-selling wartime memoir Away All Boats. Encouraged to continue his writing by Carl Sandburg he authored a string of maritime books and also worked in Hollywood. Dodson died in 1999.)


We may as well go to sea on the back of a knife

Kelpie

Keel Issues – The Sydney Mail (1884)

“Racing, no doubt, has improved the form and build of yachts, for racing means competition and therefore improvement. It is only when competition is not properly controlled that it becomes evil. Just as the English turf’s undue encouragement of short races gave us a wretched weedy class of thoroughbred, so in yachting a badly considered rule of measurement has resulted in our racing yachts becoming ‘junks of lead bolted on to a superstructure of wood’ that I venture to say, at least among the decked class, are not perfectly seaworthy. We have heard of three-tonners being built on the Clyde, 60 feet overall with only 3 or 4 feet beam, and 11 feet depth. We may as well go to sea on the back of a knife as in a craft of that sort. Seeing that this infection has reached our doors it behoves our racing authorities to see that it does not spread.”

(Appeals to the authorities to ban or penalise extreme design developments through handicapping are as old as the sport itself. The narrow-beamed, deep-keeled “breadboard” sloops certainly provoked controversy, but they also gave Australia such classic little racing yachts as Kelpie – pictured – and Sao.)


It should never be taken lightly

Frank Dye

Frank Dye – Ocean Crossing Wayfarer (1977)

“A buoyant open boat, a good sea boat like the Wayfarer [designed in 1957 by Ian Proctor] is capable of cruising safely across open water. The principles of open water cruising are exactly the same as they have always been throughout the history of sailing – in bad weather always make sure that you have plenty of sea room and never get caught on a lee shore. I grew up in awe of the sea which has never left me. It can be kind, tolerant, beautiful even generous, frightening, majestic and terrifying. It is totally uncaring. It should never be taken lightly. It reminds me of the courtier who, after each audience with the Great and Powerful Majesty, frequently checked that his head was still on his shoulders.”

(Frank Dye, the “madman of the Atlantic”, was one of those indomitable Englishmen who seem to derive a sense of satisfaction, even pleasure, from self-imposed discomfort and danger. In his 16-foot open boat Wanderer he made a succession of harrowing passages across the North Sea from Scotland to Iceland and Norway. He died in 2010.) 


The ship rolled violently to starboard

HMAS Melbourne Voyager CollisionJohn Milliner, Radio Mechanic – Where Fate Calls: The HMAS Voyager Tragedy

“I was in the café playing Tombola at the time of the collision. There was a garbled pipe seconds before the impact – no one in the cafeteria understood it but I never knew why. When someone queried the pipe, I answered jokingly, ‘We’re sinking’, and the next second we were. The ship rolled violently to starboard and instead of coming back, as it always had, she kept going. I found myself standing on lagged air-conditioning trunking which runs along the deck-head as the bow section had almost completely turned over. I was totally disoriented. It was pitch black and the strange thing is that I cannot recall any noises. It was as though I was alone in absolute silence.”

(The aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne had cut the destroyer Voyager in two. Milliner escaped through a hatch in the bow section and swam clear, but it sank within ten minutes. Of the 314 personnel aboard HMAS Voyager on the night of the February 1964 collision, 82 perished: 14 officers, 67 sailors and one civilian dockyard employee. Five years later the Melbourne bisected and sank another destroyer, the USS Frank E. Evans, with the loss of 74 American sailors. On both occasions the Melbourne was later found not to be at fault.)


An open race without time allowance

1851 CowesJohn Scott Hughes – Famous Yachts (1928)

“Arrow was built in 1821 by Inman at Lymington for Mr. Joseph Weld. She was a cutter of 84 tons, measuring 61 feet in length and 18 feet in the beam. Her slightly-raked mast was stepped almost amidship, and she carried a long and heavy bowsprit. She was straight-stemmed, with a nice sheer lending grace to her somewhat high freeboard. On August 22, 1851, fifteen yachts, among them the schooner America, which sailed over from the United States, competed in an open race without time allowance for a cup valued at £100 offered by the Royal Yacht Squadron. The course was eastwards from Cowes round the Isle of Wight. Arrow, over-confident or through ill-luck, ran aground on the rocks near Ventor when in the lead. Volante, the British yacht next astern, soon afterwards sprang her bowsprit and retired. Alarm stood by to render assistance and America, now with a commanding lead, finished first at Cowes.”

(This account moderates the persistent legend that America, with a superior Yankee design and crew, had out-sailed “all comers” in that famous race. The details of precisely where on the course the yachts were when these incidents occurred are unclear, but if not for the grounding of Arrow and the broken bowsprit on Volante there might never have been an America’s Cup. The owner of Arrow was fond of saying that his yacht “was never beaten by America”.)


Impractical claims of oceanic exclusivity

Grotius
Grotius

William Langewiesche – The Outlaw Sea (2005)

“By the early 1600s ocean travel had become common enough that the Dutch East India Company felt compelled to hire a local lawyer named Hugo Grotius to write Mare Liberum, a carefully reasoned defence of international freedom on the high seas, based on concepts of ‘natural law’. The immediate purpose was to counter impractical claims of oceanic exclusivity by the Spanish and Portuguese, and specifically to justify a Dutch privateer’s 1602 seizure of a Portuguese galleon in the Strait of Malacca. Paradoxically, this defence of an act of piracy turned out to be the starting point of modern international maritime law.”

(Grotius – pictured – set the limit for territorial seas as a band of water three nautical miles wide – at that time the standard cannon-shot distance from shore and therefore about as far as any nation without a strong coastal navy could expect to exercise control over foreign ships. Australia now claims an Exclusive Economic Zone on 200nm.) 


There was little in the way of a formal plan

Alan Payne
Alan Payne

Warwick Hood – Alan Payne: A Memoir (1995)

“I went to work for Alan in mid-1956. It is difficult to describe the atmosphere in Alan’s ‘office’ in those days. The office was actually one room of his living quarters – the back half of a cottage in Chatswood. Alan liked good music and good literature, particularly poetry. Morning tea would often be taken with a reading from Alice in Wonderland or something similar. There was little in the way of formal plan or document storage. Into all of this, each working day, would step Alan’s father, Captain Payne, Master Mariner, retired from a life at sea. He would arrive wearing a bowler hat and carrying a briefcase with sandwiches and a newspaper in it. He would attempt to tidy the place up, mop the floor, make cups of tea and be generally useful. It was a tough job because there was so much going on.”

(Payne’s influence on sailing and naval architecture in post-WWII Australia was immense. He designed the Payne-Mortlock canoe, the champion offshore racers Nocturne and Solo, the Tasman Seabird class and such enduring classics as Fare Thee Well and Karalee. His innovative design work on the 12-metres Gretel and Gretel II laid the foundations for Australia’s eventual triumph in the 1983 America’s Cup.) 


Politely request the skipper to retire to his cabin

Art of coarse ...Mad CapnMichael Green – The Art of Coarse Sailing (1959)

“That lunch-time the ship’s master went insane, through drinking gin and cider. Insisting on his right of way as a sailing vessel, he steered straight across the path of a 1,000-ton tramp steamer and, to make matters worse, drunkenly harangued its skipper from underneath the bows. I believe that the Manual of Seamanship says that under such circumstances a group of officers should politely, but firmly, request the skipper to retire to his cabin. We simply threw him overboard to sober up. It worked just as well. After tea the cat died. It was very sudden and probably due to heart failure after the day’s events. Not unnaturally, this cast a gloom over the proceedings.”

(Michael Green was a knockabout journalist from the Midlands whose love of rugby and amateur theatrics led to his best-selling “Art of Coarse…” series of humorous books. A natural bachelor of messy and hard-drinking habits, at the age of 77 he eventually married his girlfriend – after a 23-year courtship.) 


Suddenly, with one careless stroke

Donald Crowhurst
Donald Crowhurst

Chris Eakin – A Race Too Far (2009)

“Incredibly, it got worse. On Christmas Eve, Crowhurst blundered badly. During a radio call he was again refusing to give a precise latitude and longitude position, saying he had not the time to take the relevant sights of the sun with his sextant. Under pressure, he inexplicably said he was ‘somewhere off Cape Town’. Suddenly, with one careless stroke, he had lost any resemblance whatsoever between his actual and faked progress. His actual position was close to Brazil, still only two or three days’ normal sailing below the equator. He had yet to sail the entire length and width of the South Atlantic to get to where he had just claimed to be. The appalling predicament he had just put himself in was that he could not, now, give up without disgracing himself.”

(The tragedy of Donald Crowhurst and his fatal voyage in the Teignmouth Electron trimaran is well known. Inexperienced, under-prepared and over-confident, Crowhurst radioed false positions pretending to lead the 1968 Golden Globe single-handed around the world race. After his deception became obvious the boat was found adrift and unoccupied at 33°N 40°W.) 


A boat that wholly relies on computer code

David ‘Freddy’ Carr – crewman on the INEOS AC75 challenger (2020)

 “When you push off the dock, your life is in the hands of computers – and the guy piloting the boat out of the water. All the systems on the boat, other than the winches rattling around, rely on computers. You’re very aware that you are now sailing a boat that wholly relies on computer code. With the AC72 catamarans in 2013, and then in Bermuda on the AC50, you felt very connected with the boat; you could look through the trampoline and over the side. You could see the water rushing past, so you had a good idea of boatspeed. And you could hear the foils really well – you could tell how fast you were going by listening to the pitch of the squeal. Now, with these 75-footers, if you can feel and see the environment, you’re in the wind and that’s slowing the boat down. So it’s unlike any boat I’ve ever sailed in terms of feeling, for the vast majority of the crew. It just feels like sailors should hold ropes.”

(Carr is a veteran of five America’s Cup campaigns, beginning with the GBR challenge of 2003. That he can retain a crew position as a grinder is proof of his commitment to physical fitness and the Cup competition. Nevertheless, his frank description of sailing the current AC boats carries a whiff of nostalgia for the days before fly-by-wire racing.)


Like faithless and treacherous villains

Hadley Meares – The Wreckers (2018)

“As long as there have been merchant ships, there have been wreckers. For many isolated communities around the globe, shipwrecks were godsends – and a headache for government officials. The Rules of Oleron, a set of laws first promulgated by the French around 1160, singled out those who ‘like faithless and treacherous villains, out of design to ruin ships and goods, guide and bring her upon the rocks.’ During the colonial era, sea captains often tried to avoid notorious wrecker communities in places like the Cornish Coast of England and the Outer Banks of South Carolina. In the Florida Keys, the Georgia Gazette reported in 1790 that ‘The wreckers generally set the ships on fire after they have done with them, that they may not serve as a beacon to guide other ships clear of those dangerous shoals.’”

(There is much mythology about remote coastal communities luring ships to their doom at night by using bonfires or powerful lanterns as false navigation markers. The true extent of that heartless practice is difficult to establish. What we do know is that many seaside villages welcomed the rich pickings of a wrecked ship.) 


Fitness of sailing craft is measured by their behaviour

C. A. Marchaj – Seaworthiness: The Forgotten Factor (1968) 

“In the light of accumulated evidence it appears that recent trends in sailing yacht design (largely encouraged by the International Offshore Rule, IOR) must take some blame for the increased rate of casualties among contemporary yachts. Sailing people have an uncomfortable feeling that the IOR type of ocean-going yacht aggressively invading the whole boat building industry, is unfit for seagoing. Admittedly, sensible and prudent cruising owners have been alerted to the IOR fashion. But many boat owners cannot properly distinguish an honest, sturdy and long-lasting cruising boat from a flimsy, unseaworthy and short-lived racer. Are IOR boats designed with singlemindedness of purpose really fit for offshore racing? Fitness of sailing craft is measured by their behavior and ultimate effects – their statistical propensity to survive. This appears to be lamentable.”

(Marchaj was a Polish-born yachtsman and professor who published a large number of scientific studies into the aerodynamics and hydrodynamics of sailing boats. He settled in the UK in 1970. His warnings about seaworthiness came a decade before the tragic 1979 Fastnet Race. Marchaj died in 2015, aged 97.)


It’s a constant evolution

Ichi Ban - photo by Andrea FrancoliniMatt Allen – A Year in the Life of Ichi Ban (2020)

“Since the boat was launched in October 2017 we have not stopped improving it. All the small details that go into a modern race boat are what make the difference between ‘good’ and ‘great!’ (or second and first). When looking at these changes we divide the boat into two parts, the hardware and the software: the hardware is the boat and equipment, and the software is the crew. It’s a constant evolution tinkering with the boat. Many of the changes are so miniscule you have to use your gut feel to know if they’ve been beneficial. I confer frequently about optimisation and performance. As the owner, I make the final decision. It is a sport, but it’s run like a small business – except profits are rare!”

(Ichi Ban – ‘Number 1′ in Japanese – has been one of the most successful offshore and regatta yachts of the current era. The Botin-designed TP 52 won the Sydney-Hobart on handicap in 2017 and 2019 and was RORC Yacht of the Year in 2018 and the 2019 World Sailing Boat of the Year.) Photo by Andrea Francolini.


The simple accident of a candle falling

The Burning of the Barque India in 1841Kieran Hasty – The Burning of the Barque India in 1841

“The wooden, three-masted India sailed from Greenock, Scotland, on 4 June 1841. On board were 186 Scottish emigrants, including many young families from a single village who were travelling with their own church minister. A spilled glass of medicinal rum and the simple accident of a candle falling onto it caused the horrific ship fire. Once the fire took hold the flames quickly spread, engulfing the India and forcing the passengers to abandon all their belongings and crowd onto the ship’s bowsprit, huddling away from the wall of flames. Eighteen men, women and children died. Luckily, a French whaling barque – shown in the painting – soon arrived. It rescued the surviving passengers and crew and took them to Rio de Janiero.”

(The dramatic painting that records this event is now in the collection of the Australian National Maritime Museum. More than a million people emigrated by sea to the Australian colonies during the 19th Century. Of those, fewer than 4,000 perished in the journey – a credit to the skill of sailors who crewed the ships.)


‘Come on board’ becomes the invitation of the day

Yachts Raft up‘Bobstay’ – in ‘Thoughts on Yachting’, Australian Town & Country, February 1882

“If there is one thing more than another which helps to form part of a yachtsman’s pleasure, it is what is known by the term ‘ship visiting’. I do not know anything, especially after having gone through a more or less roughish time of it for a few days, more enjoyable than finding on arrival at your port a goodly number of yachts riding at anchor; because though there may be many of them whose owners are unknown to you, still it almost always happens that mutual friends abound, so that you seldom are allowed for any length of time to remain an unknown quantity, and ‘Come on board’ very soon becomes the invitation of the day. Supposing the yachts to be visited are those drawn to the port or harbour for the express intention of racing, then most will likely soon be filled till the gunwales are almost on a level with the water with those all bent on a merry evening.”

(More than 60 years before the first Sydney-Hobart race, ‘Bobstay’ seemed to be describing what for many years was the traditional scene at Constitution Dock.)


When the ship goes ‘wop’

Passengers on a ship being given Ricqles mint spirit to cure their seasickness. Educational card, late 19th or early 20th century.Rudyard Kipling – Just So Stories: How The Whale Got His Throat (1897) 

“When the cabin port-holes are dark and green
Because of the seas outside;
When the ship goes wop (with a wiggle between)
And the steward falls into the soup-tureen,
And the trunks begin to slide;
When Nursey lies on the floor in a heap,
And Mummy tells you to let her sleep,
And you aren’t waked or washed or dressed,
Why, then you will know (if you haven’t guessed)
You’re ‘Fifty North and Forty West!’”

(50°N and 40°W is in the North Atlantic off Newfoundland – a rather unpleasant stretch of ocean. Although born in Bombay, Kipling was named after Rudyard Lake in Staffordshire. The first English-language writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Kipling’s fierce brand of imperial nationalism gave us the phrase “The White Man’s Burden”. He died in 1936.)


The pressure was bending her like a bow

Shackleton's ship Endurance Iced inCaroline Alexander – The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition (1998)

“The 26th dawned clear, save for gentle, fleecy clouds, and full of sunshine that glinted with sparkling beauty off the ice. With the roar of pressure in his ears, Shackleton was struck by the surreal incongruity between the serene beauty of the day and the death throes of his ship. From the bridge, he had seen how the pressure was actually bending her like a bow, and it seemed that she was gasping to draw breath. She was leaking badly again, and the exhausted men worked the pumps in shifts – fifteen minutes on, fifteen minutes off – half asleep on their feet. The Endurance had quieted, but that evening an unsettling incident occurred while several sailors were on deck. A band of eight emperor penguins solemnly approached. Intently regarding the ship for some moments, they threw back their heads and emitted an eerie, soulful cry.”

(It is interesting that for what he’d named “The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition” Shackleton chose a ship designed and built in Norway. Launched in 1912 as Polaris, the 144-foot three-masted barque was originally intended for luxury tourism in the Arctic. It took 10 months for the Antarctic ice to trap, crush and eventually sink Endurance.)


An experience few of us are ever called upon to undergo

Ann Davison
Ann Davison

Ann Davison – My Ship is So Small (1956)                       

“When there is no way back, no way out, you must be very, very sure of what you are doing. I did not know how I would react to absolute solitude. It is an experience few of us are ever called upon to undergo and one which few of us would voluntarily choose. Even being on one’s own in undeveloped country, popularly supposed to epitomise loneliness, is not true solitude, for one is surrounded by trees and bush and grass and animal, all part of the substance of one’s own living. But the sea is an alien element. When a man says he loves the sea, he loves the illusion of mastery, the pride of skill, the life attendant on sea-faring, but not the sea itself.”

(In 1952, at the age of 39, Davison became the first woman to sail the Atlantic single-handed. Departing from Plymouth in her 23-foot sloop Felicity Ann she made landfall in Dominica. From there she sailed on to Florida and finally New York.  Davison had previously been an aviator in the UK, delivering mail. She died in 1992.) 


With their bronze-fanged beaks they made destruction

Battle of SalamisAeschylus – The Persae. A Persian messenger describes the battle of Salamis (480BC)

“The first rammer was a Greek which sheared away a great Sidonian’s crest; then close, one on another, charged the rest. At first the long-drawn Persian line was strong and held; but in those narrows such a throng was crowded, ship to ship, could bring no aid. Nay, with their own bronze-fanged beaks they made destruction; a whole length of oars one beak would shatter; and with purposed art the Greek ringed us outside, and pressed, and struck; and we – our oarless hulls went over, till the sea could scarce be seen, with wrecks and corpses spread.”

(The Greek fleet of triremes, commanded by Themistocles, was vastly outnumbered but they trapped the Persians in a narrow entrance to the Bay of Eleusis. The playwright Aeschylus fought in the battle himself as a marine so was able to write this account of their famous victory over Xerxes from the standpoint of a genuine eyewitness.)


The decisions of the Chief Measurer cannot be appealed

IMOCA Weird speedInternational Monohull Open Class Association (IMOCA) – Class Rules (2021)

“Class Rule interpretations shall be made by IMOCA who shall delegate the task to the Class Rule Committee, who may, at its sole discretion, issue an interpretation. Any request for interpretation of the Class Rules shall be made in writing to the Chief Measurer, who shall pass it on to the Class Rule Committee. Requests for interpretations may only be made by IMOCA members or the Chief Measurer. The origin of a request for interpretation shall remain confidential. The cost of a request for interpretation shall be set by the IMOCA’s Executive Committee. The decisions of the Chief Measurer may be subjected to validation by the Class Rule Committee via a request for interpretation but cannot be appealed and cannot be contested by an event jury, including an international jury, nor by any other legal court or tribunal…”

(…and so on, for 52 pages, single spaced. Can we go sailing now?)


A most frightening lesson

Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson – The Sea Around Us (1951)

“As long as there has been an earth, the moving masses of air that we call winds have swept back and forth across its surface. And as long as there has been an ocean, its waters have stirred to the passage of the wind. Forecasts of the state of the sea and particularly the height of the surf became regular preliminaries to invasion in the Second World War, especially on the exposed beaches of Europe and Africa. But application of theory to practical conditions was at first difficult; so was the interpretation of the actual effect of any predicted height of the surf or roughness of sea surface on the transfer of men and supplies between boats or from boats to beaches. This first attempt at practical military oceanography was, as one naval officer put it, ‘a most frightening lesson’ concerning the ‘almost desperate lack of basic information on the fundamentals of the nature of the sea.’”

(Carson was a marine biologist and author. After three books on oceanography, her 1962 classic Silent Spring did much to alert the world to the dangers of synthetic pesticides in agriculture. It inspired the grassroots environmental movement and, eventually, the foundation of America’s EPA.)


It might somehow jinx us

Dennis Connor on Stars & StripesDennis Conner – Comeback: My Race for the America’s Cup (1987)

“On the day of the fourth – hopefully, final – race, I had mixed emotions. This was D-Day for the Kookaburras. To beat Stars & Stripes would have meant four straight victories against us – something that hadn’t been done all summer. The Cup was at last truly within our grasp. I had pictured the moment so often in the past, and yet now I found myself unwilling to conjour it up in case it might somehow jinx us and turn the dream into a nightmare. I didn’t want to do anything that might jeopardise the job. That is why I agonized over taking eleven bottles of champagne – on for each guy. Moët had been a generous backer and eventually I was persuaded to bring them aboard.”

(Stars & Stripes won the final race by 1’59”. While not the most popular international sailor, Conner’s record in the America’s Cup is unparalleled. He has won it four times – in 1974 as crew, and 1980, 1987 and 1988 as skipper – and lost it twice, in 1983 and 1995. By defeating Kookaburra III in 1987 he became the first skipper to lose the Cup, then win it back again.)


Not rapture unalloyed

Ladies sailingThe Daily Telegraph – The ladies were not amused, Sydney, (1885)

“The aquatic fete consisted entirely of evolutions, free of racing, and concluded with the entire squadron being photographed at Double Bay. The steamers Admiral and Cammeray conveyed visitors to the scene. The last named was crowded principally with ladies — relatives and friends of those more actively engaged in the fete. During the first hour there were from the ladies expressions signifying that the sight was lovely, enchanting, and good, but as the afternoon slowly wore away to be nearly four hours on the excessively crowded Cammeray, watching aquatic evolutions free from the shadow of racing, at points often too far away to see anything exciting, even if it did take place, was not rapture unalloyed.”

(“Evolutions” – the parade of vessels in close formation responding to speed and course variations signalled from a flagship – were a popular amusement among the ‘Royal’ sailing clubs. The rituals were an echo of “ships of the line” naval battle tactics.) 


They left their outcast mate behind

The CastawayWilliam Cowper – from The Castaway (1799)

“Obscurest night involv’d the sky, th’ Atlantic billows roar’d,
When such a destined wretch as I, wash’d headlong from on board,
Of friends, of hope, of all bereft, his floating home forever left.

He shouted; nor his friends had failed to check the vessel’s course,
But so the furious blast prevailed that, pitiless perforce,
They left their outcast mate behind, and scudded still before the wind.

No poet wept him; but the page of narrative sincere,
That tells his name, his worth, his age, is wet with Anson’s tear,
And tears by bards or heroes shed, alike immortalize the dead.”

(The obscure reference in the final stanza requires explanation. Between 1740 and 1744 Commodore George Anson led a squadron of eight Royal Navy ships on a disastrous mission to disrupt Spanish possessions in the Pacific. Only 188 men of the original 1,854 in the convoy survived, hence the “shed tear”. This was Cowper’s last poem. A chronic depressive, he died a year after completing this elegy to a seaman washed overboard.)


There is no halfway status

Douglas Reeman – The Best of Boat Worlds (1968)

“Sailing, boating or yachting, call it what you will, is neither a sport nor a hobby. It is a religion so fanatical and demanding that those who partake of its mysteries have little time for lesser beings who merely stare longingly from jetty or beach. There is no halfway status in between. You either do or you do not. There are of course many who feel their way from earth to water, but known results are more alarming than encouraging. You can crew for a friend who already owns a boat. This can be entertaining. It can also be quite disastrous to both boat and friendship. Even divorce is not unknown at the end of such a venture.”

(Reeman was an RN midshipman at age 16 and saw widespread service during WWII in destroyers and motor torpedo boats. He was badly injured during the D-Day landing. As an author of 68 maritime-themed novels he used the pseudonym ‘Alexander Kent’ as well as his own name. He also taught navigation.)


Flying Cloud
Flying Cloud

The culmination of centuries of progress

Alan John Villiers – By Way of Cape Horn, 1929

“There is something strangely attractive, some glimmer, maybe, of the elusive and indefinable thing called romance, something of adventure and of life as all men would have it lived, if they knew how, about the setting out of a big sailing ship for the sea. The mere fact that for weeks and weeks to come – months and months often – over perhaps 14,000 miles at sea, she will be dependent upon the wind to blow her to her destination, gives to the sailor an air of the sea that can never be the steamer’s. The steamer is a machine which uses the sea as a handy means for the conveyance of goods; the sailing ship is the culmination of centuries of progress towards the evolution of the perfect vessel which may progress with the wind at sea.”


The afterguard may be getting a bit old

Dame Pattie
Dame Pattie

Bill Northam – after Intrepid defeated Dame Pattie 4-0 in the 1967 America’s Cup

“We Australians have built only two 12-metre boats; the Americans have built 22. I’m not offering excuses for Pattie’s defeat, only explanations. When the syndicate built Pattie it decided to punt on light weather at Newport. Therefore they built a boat which would do her best at 10-12 knots. This was a bad mistake. There is no doubt that Pattie is much tenderer than Intrepid. In a stiff breeze you could play billiards on Intrepid’s deck, while Sturrock has three crewmen pumping out the water that sloshes into his cockpit. Pattie also had troubles with her sails stretching. For some reason, off Newport, they began to bag. Finally, there were problems with Pattie’s crew. The afterguard may be getting a bit old. Averaging around 50, they seemed slow at times getting the mainsail over during gybes. I’d like to open up the America’s Cup to the whole world. But most of all, I hope that we Australians can have another go.”

(Bill Northam – later Sir William – came late to sailing and won the 5.5 metre gold medal at the 1964 Olympics, aged 59. He was chairman of the Australian branches of the Johnson & Johnson and Slazenger companies, and campaigned Caprice of Huon offshore before selling it to Gordon Ingate and setting his sights on the Olympics.)


The unprovoked attack

Kon TikiThor Heyerdahl – The Kon-Tiki Expedition (1947)

 “The cook’s first duty when he got up in the morning was to go out on deck and collect all the flying fish that had landed on board in the course of the night. There were usually half a dozen or more, and one morning we found twenty-six fat flying fish on the raft. Knut was much upset one morning because, when he was standing operating with the frying pan, a flying fish struck him on the head instead of landing right in the cooking fat. But the unprovoked attack was quickly forgiven by the injured party, for this was a maritime land of enchantment where delicious fishes came hurtling through the air.”

 (Heyerdahl’s balsa-log raft took 101 days to drift and sail 3,770nm across the Pacific Ocean from Peru to the Raroia Atoll. There were five crew.)


Every taboo was swept away

Batavia‘Simon Leys’ (Pierre Ryckmans) – The Wreck of the Batavia (2005) 

“Nothing was of any use. After several hours of frantic activity, it became clear that the ship would never be floated off; she was now as rigid and motionless as the reef that had broken her course, and she would not budge until the sea, which kept pounding her with blows, eventually broke her to pieces. When it became obvious that the Batavia was irretrievably lost, chaos reigned. Mercenaries and sailors broke into the stores of wine and spirits and engaged in a wild orgy. Every taboo was swept away: drunken sailors invaded the hallowed quarter deck, forced their way into the great cabin, broke into the chests, took the plumed hats, brocades and golden chains of their leaders and improvised a grotesque, desperate carnival.”  

(The Batavia, a ship of the Dutch East India Company, was wrecked in June 1629 on the Houtman Abrolhos reef off Western Australia. Most on board survived and moved to a nearby island, but a mutiny and bloody massacre then saw 100 murdered. A rescue party eventually reached the island where the worst offenders were tried and executed.) 


The first in the South Sea that we have encountered

TasmaniaAbel Janszoon Tasman – Journal entry, 24 November 1642

“Course held East by North and sailed 120 miles; the wind out of the South West and then South with a light topsail breeze. Afternoon, about 4 o’clock we saw land, had it East by North by our estimation 40 miles, very high land. Towards the evening saw in the East South East three high mountains and in the Northeast saw also two mountains. This land is the first in the South Sea that we have encountered, and is still known to no European people, so we have given this land the name of Anthoonij van Diemens Land in honour of the Hon. Governor General our high superior who sent us to make this discovery.”

(Tasman, sailing just North of Macquarie Harbour, had discovered the large island later to be re-named in his honour: Tasmania. He was also the first European explorer to reach Fiji and New Zealand.)


Notwithstanding so heavy a calamity

HMS Bounty Bligh cast adrift by mutineersLieutenant William Bligh – journal entry after being cast adrift by the Bounty mutineers (1789)

“As soon as I had time to reflect, I felt an inward satisfaction, which prevented any depression of my spirits. I had scarce gone a furlong on our way when I began to reflect on the vicissitude of human affairs, but in the midst of all I felt an inward happiness which prevented any depression of my spirits; conscious of my own integrity and anxious solicitude for the good of the service I was on – I found my mind most wonderfully supported, and began to conceive hopes notwithstanding so heavy a calamity, to be able to account to my King & Country for my misfortune.”

(Bligh, who had been on active Royal Navy service from the age of 16, was cast adrift by the mutineeer Fletcher Christian in the 23-foot ship’s launch with 18 loyal crew. There was just 7 inches of freeboard. In an extraordinary feat of seamanship and navigation Bligh completed the 3,618nm voyage from Tofua to Timor in 48 days, without losing a single man.)


It’s not just a test of skill and endurance

Sir James HardySir James Hardy OBE – Foreword to All Piss & Wind (2007)

“I’ve spent a large part of my life in, on, and around boats – simply messing about – and an enormous part of that messing about has been the wonderful fun to be had with all the people involved. Yachties are a special community. You can’t spend a decent stretch of time sailing with anyone and not get to know quite a bit about them – their likes and dislikes, their strengths and weaknesses. If you’ve gone to sea together, then it’s quite literally a case of putting your life in their hands, and vice versa. Not many sports demand such a high level of trust between team-mates. That’s one of the many aspects of ocean racing that make it so special. It’s not just a test of skill and endurance, but of character as well.”

(Jim – later Sir James – Hardy competed in the first of his many Sydney-Hobart races in 1957. He won a World Championship in the 505 dinghy class, represented Australia at the Olympics and Admiral’s Cup, and skippered three Australian challengers for the America’s Cup.)


The melancholy sighing of the wind

Ships in the stillness of the night by Ivan Aivazovsky 1888
Ships in the stillness of the night by
Ivan Aivazovsky 1888

Charles Dickens – American Notes: The Voyage Out (1842)

“To one unaccustomed to such scenes, this is a very striking time on shipboard. The gloom through which the great black mass holds its direct and certain course; the rushing water, plainly heard, but dimly seen; the broad, white, glistening track that follows in the vessel’s wake; the men on the lookout forward; the helmsman at the wheel, with the illuminated card before him, shining, a speck of light amidst darkness, like something sentient and of Divine intelligence; the melancholy sighing of the wind through block, and rope, and chain; the gleaming forth of light from every crevice, nook, and tiny piece of glass about the deck as though the ship were filled with fire in hiding.”

(Dickens made two trips to America – a rather unhappy visit in 1842 and a longer, and highly lucrative, speaking tour in 1867-68. Mark Twain saw him perform in New York.)


Reliable under strain and easy to untie

Paul N. Hasluck – Knotting and Splicing Ropes and Cordage (1904)

“Knotting is an ancient device with which very early inhabitants of this earth must have been acquainted. The importance of being able to make the best knot suited for the occasion both rapidly and correctly may come in new light to some when it is pointed out that both lives and property have over and over again been sacrificed to ill-made knots. Men break their nails and teeth gnawing at their own knots endeavouring to untie them, and time and material are wasted. Time spent in learning a few of the simple bends and hitches, reliable under strain and easy to untie when the strain is released, would never be regretted.”

(Hasluck’s wonderful little book, first published in 1904, demonstrates no fewer than 98 distinct knots, bends, ties and hitches.)


A sufficiently consistent bearing to set a course

John Blake – The Charts of War (2006)

“Early navigation was a hit and miss affair. No compass, no means of measuring distance, and no chart. If the fog closed in sailors were lost. Harsh experience, memory and personal anecdote were passed down the generations. The earliest European navigational chart that has survived dates from the end of the 13th Century. It typifies a type of seamanship that was applicable in the Mediterranean, a virtually tideless sea. The peculiarly predictable winds gave rise to the Phoenicians developing the wind rose, with four main directions. By ascertaining the wind direction and relating this to his understanding of the sun’s movement during the day, a mariner could gain a good sense of direction. By night, the Pole star kept a sufficiently consistent northerly bearing to set a course. By the time of the climactic meeting of the Greek and Persian fleets at the Battle of Salamis in 480BC, Greek mariners were steering by relating to these winds.”

(Pre-dating the Phoenicians, the Hebrew Bible in c.500BC already had names for the four cardinal directions: kedem (East), siphon (North), negev (South) and yam (West). The link between these cardinals and the four prevailing winds gave us the Old Testament phrase “scattered to all the winds”.)


One of the highest kinds of pleasure

Joseph Addison – The Spectator, 1712

 “Of all objects that I have ever seen, there is none which affects my imagination so much as the sea and the ocean. I cannot see the heaving of this prodigious bulk of waters, even in a calm, without a very pleasing astonishment; but when it is worked up in a tempest, so that the horizon on every side is nothing but foaming billows and floating mountains, it is impossible to describe the agreeable horror that rises from such a prospect. A troubled ocean, to a man who sails upon it, is, I think, the biggest object that can be seen in motion, and consequently gives his imagination one of the highest kinds of pleasure that can arise from greatness.”

(Addison’s travels to Europe and Ireland gave him first-hand knowledge of the sea. A brilliant essayist he was a leading contributor to The Tatler and The Spectator, periodicals that helped establish the English tradition of social and literary criticism.


Then it hit us

Syd Fischer – recalling the tragic 1979 Fastnet Race (interviewed in 2016)

“We didn’t know much about it because we’d turned the radio off as soon as we’d given any information we had to give. But then someone put it on again and there were helicopters taking people off boats and all kinds of things. Apparently I got on the radio as team captain to encourage the other boats to keep going. They reckon I said ‘Don’t give up’. I don’t remember doing that but I do remember hanging on for grim death. We went over a big green one and then out the back of it. There was another big one coming like a dumper in the surf. I said to the crew, ‘This bastard’s going to break!’ Then it hit us and we were under water for a while. When we came up there were no sails on deck. The headsail we had up and the reefed main were all gone. But we were still there, thank Christ!”

(The storm that overtook the fleet in the Irish Sea on the third day of the race saw winds of up to 80 knots and waves topping 50 feet. Fifteen sailors perished, 75 yachts capsized and 24 were abandoned. Of the 303 yachts that started only 86 finished. All three Australian entries completed the course, clinching the Admiral’s Cup.)


I am prepared to meet difficulties

Captain Arthur Phillip RNCaptain Arthur Phillip – Letter to Lord North, on the provisioning of the First Fleet (1787)

“I have repeatedly pointed out the consequences that must be expected of the men’s being crowded on board such small ships, and from victualling the marines according to the contract which allows no flour. This must be fatal to many, and the more so as no anti-scorbutics are allowed on board. I am prepared to meet difficulties, and I have only one fear – I fear, my Lord, that it may be said hereafter that the officer who took charge of the expedition should have known that it was more than probable he lost half the garrison and convicts, crowded and victualled in such a manner for so long a voyage. And the public may impute to my ignorance or inattention what I have never been consulted in, and which never coincided with my ideas.”

(Lord North, the Home & Colonial Secretary, had originally only approved provisions equal to those for a six-week Atlantic crossing. Phillip used a one-month stop at Capetown to replenish the fleet’s stocks and build up the health of everyone on board. Only 48 people from the 1,480 who had set out from Plymouth died during the 252-day voyage to Botany Bay.)


A desire to pit their skills, wits and courage against the oceans

Eric Hiscock WandererEric C. Hiscock – Voyaging Under Sail (1959)

“It might seem to the uninitiated that a long passage out of sight of land in a small vessel must be a dull business; but that is not so. Everyone who has made such a passage will surely agree that it was one of the most memorable and satisfying things he has ever done. All small-boat voyagers have two things in common: a love of freedom – for they can go where they will almost unhampered by rules or restrictions, except those which are part of the seaman’s lore – and a desire to pit their skills, wits and courage against the oceans in every mood. The mainspring of this activity is, I believe, not the desire to be well thought of by others, but the desire to think well of oneself.”

(Eric and Susan Hiscock made three circumnavigations in their small yachts, all named Wanderer. Their meticulously detailed books on passage-making became the standard reference for long-distance cruising. Eric died aboard Wanderer V in Whangarei, New Zealand, in 1986.)


Its victims show no desire to recover

Mr Christian CrewPeter Stuart-Heaton – Sailing (1949)

“There are few things in the world so fascinating, so rewarding, or so productive of the good in man as the art of sailing. John Masefield calls it ‘sea fever’ and it is rather like an incurable disease. You cannot tell the exact moment you catch it; the infection is gradual. Its symptoms are many and varied, but if, when the sun shines through your office window, you have a vision of sunlit waters and a forest of slender masts continually blotting out the work in front of you, or if, while making conversation to some acquaintance, you find yourself wondering whether that new chain bobstay will be ready, or whether you’ll have the sails tanned this year, you’ve got it and you’ll never get rid of it! There is one important point about sea fever: its victims show no desire to recover.”

(Stuart-Heaton was a classic Royal Navy officer. Educated at Broadstairs and Charterhouse he had a ‘good war’ serving in corvettes, armed merchant cruisers and torpedo boats. His book on sailing is crammed with light-hearted humour, useful instruction and sound advice.)


A whole show when he was mad

Irving Johnson – The Voyage of the Peking from Hamburg to Chile via Cape Horn (1929)

“One of the men didn’t steer well, and the captain took a poke at his jaw to encourage him to do better. But the poke missed the mark, and the captain’s other fist bent the fellow up by hitting him in the stomach. The captain was a whole show when he was mad – yelling, cursing, stamping the deck and waving his arms. If ever there was a real, husky old sea-dog, he was one, standing six feet and two inches, weight 240 pounds, hands the largest I have ever seen, and his thumbs nearly two inches wide. He knocked thunder out of two or three boys who didn’t steer properly. A boy who was looking on said, ‘Ven I see zee captain, I travel a beeg circle so I vill not meet him.’”

(After serving on square-riggers as a young man Johnson and his wife circumnavigated the world seven times in their yachts, all called Yankee. He joined the US Navy as an adviser to the Pacific Fleet in WWII and finished the war as a commanding officer. In later life he was a leading figure in sail training.)


The dictates of natural laws

Walter Reeks – The Illustrated Sydney News (1888)

The 88-foot steam yacht Ena designed by Walter Reeks and launched in 1900
The 88-foot steam yacht Ena designed by Walter Reeks and launched in 1900

“The thoughts of our yacht-builders appear to have been mainly aimed at an attempt to create a new set of natural laws. We find excrescences of every conceivable form added: straight flat-sided keels, outrageous dead-woods aft, and deep fore-feet, to say nothing of all the floating power being bunched up into one place. The last two or three years have, however, brought us back once more to our senses, and instead of trying to batter the water into our way of thinking, we have succumbed to the dictates of natural laws, and build accordingly. There is good prospect of several new craft for next season, and with the improvements shown in the yachts themselves there is little doubt that Australia is about to come to the fore in this direction, as she has in all other kinds of sports.”

(Reeks, born in England in 1861, trained as a naval architect but then migrated to Australia seeking a warmer climate. He soon established himself as the leading – and, for some, time only – qualified naval architect in the colony. Reeks often pursued highly unconventional ideas in his designs for both yachts and steam-powered craft.)


This trial of speed

John Cox Stephens – Letter to Lord Wilton, Commodore, Royal Yacht Squadron (1851)

“Commodore Stevens presents his respects to Lord Wilton, and begs to present for his consideration the enclosed proposition. The New York Yacht Club, in order to test the relative merits of the different models of schooners of the old and new world, propose to the Royal Yacht Squadron to run the yacht America against any number of schooners belonging to any of the Yacht Squadrons of the Kingdom, to be selected by the Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron, the course to be over some part of the English Channel outside the Isle of Wight, with at least a six knot breeze. This trial of speed to be made at an early day to be selected by the Commodore.”

(The challenge was accepted, America won, and so began the most famous contest in the sport of yacht racing.)


A wild and magnificent jumble

Mark Twain – Following the Equator – Mark Twain’s Adventures in Australia. (1897)

Phosphor dolphins“The passengers were sent for, to come up in the bow and see a fine sight. It was very dark. One could not follow with the eye the surface of the sea more than fifty yards in any direction. But if you patiently gazed into the darkness a little while there was a sure reward for you. You would see a blinding flash or explosion of light on the water – a flash so sudden and so astonishingly brilliant that it would make you catch your breath. It was porpoises – porpoises aglow with phosphorescent light. They presently collected in a wild and magnificent jumble under the bows, leaping and frolicking and carrying on, never making a miscalculation, though the stem missed them only about an inch, as a rule.”

(Mark Twain – real name Samuel Langhorne Clemens – embarked on a lecture tour of Australia to stave off bankruptcy after his disastrous investment in a typesetting machine. He wrote that Australian history is “like the most beautiful lies, but they are all true.”)


If she did wild or wicked things

Ernest Hemingway – The Old Man and the Sea, (1952)

“He always thought of the seas as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things about her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motor-boats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them.”

The Old Man and the Sea

(The Old Man and the Sea was Hemingway’s last full-length work released in his lifetime. The short novel, simultaneously published by Life magazine, was written in Cuba and made the author an international celebrity.)


Whitening all the sea road

Henry David Thoreau – Cape Cod (1865)

Henry David Thoreau – Cape Cod mackerel fleet

“As we plodded along, either by the edge of the ocean, where the sand was rapidly drinking up the last wave that wet it, or over the sandhills of the bank, the mackerel fleet continued to pour round the Cape north of us, ten or fifteen miles distant, in countless number, schooner after schooner, till they made a city on the water. They were so thick that many appeared to be afoul of one another; now all standing on this tack, now on that. Still, one after another, the mackerel schooners hove in sight ‘whitening all the sea road’, and we watched each one for a moment with undivided interest. It appeared as if every able-bodied man and helpful boy in the Bay had gone out.”

(Thoreau lived most of his life in Concord, Massachusetts, but was fascinated by the sea. His more than 20 volumes of essays, articles, poetry and journals contain the essence of a nature-based philosophy that we recognise today as environmentalism.)


I didn’t know much about sailing

Vic Meyer – owner/skipper of Solo (1985)

Vic Meyer's yacht Solo“In 1953 I did the relay mother ship job in the Sydney-Hobart race. I had at that time a big motor sailer, Lauriana. I was so impressed with sailing that when I came back I got the idea I would build a boat. I didn’t know anything about wood but I had a foundry and all the equipment so it had to be in steel. So I got Alan Payne, the naval architect, to design me a boat – a cruising boat for V Meyer. It wasn’t a racing boat. I had the idea of cruising in the Pacific, from all the stories I had heard about coloured girls in Tahiti and what not. So we built a boat. The reason why I started racing was that I didn’t know much about sailing. That was my apprenticeship to go cruising.”

(Meyer’s “apprenticeship” included Sydney-Hobart handicap wins in 1956 and 1962, second place in 1957 and line honours in 1958 and 1959.)


Beken of Cowes photographThey know the mood and movement of each

Tim Jefferey – Sailing Thoroughbreds, (1998)

“Beken photographs are portraits without equal and they owe much of that to the close relationship of a remarkable family dynasty to the sea and the vessels that used it as both highway and playground. Fashion photographers urge their models to see the camera as an extension of the photographer. They build up a relationship so that the model projects straight off the page, as if the camera wasn’t there at all. The Bekens have no means of cajoling, coaching and animating their subject. Their art comes from an innate knowledge of boats and the sea. They know the mood and movement of each and have the skill to combine them in a way which unfailingly pleases the eye.”

(Alfred Beken, a pharmacist, moved his business from Kent to the Isle of Wight in 1888. Inspired by the sight of the great yachts sailing from Cowes his son Frank developed a special large-plate wooden camera adapted for photography on the water. He sold the prints from the chemist shop, and a tradition was born.


This anxious and boisterous life

Admiral Lord Collingwood – Letter to his wife (1806)

Admiral Lord Collingwood
Admiral Lord Collingwood

“I have lived now so long in a ship, always engaged in serious employments, that I will be unfit for any thing but the quiet society of my family. I have scarcely laughed these three years. I look for happiness, if ever I am relieved of this anxious and boisterous life. Tell me how do the trees which I planted thrive? Is there shade under the three oaks for a comfortable summer seat? My bankers tell me that all my money in their hands is exhausted by fees on the peerage, and that I am in their debt, which is a new epoch in my life, for it is the first time I was ever in debt since I was a Midshipman.” 

(Collingwood, who was Nelson’s second-in-command at Trafalgar, was at sea for most of the 50 years he served in the Royal Navy. For one period he went 22 months without going ashore. Collingwood joined the Royal Navy aged 12, died at sea aged 62, and was laid to rest beside Nelson in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral. The suburb in Melbourne was named after him, or after a local pub, the Collingwood Hotel, named in his honour.) 


Wait till I get out on the ocean

Jack London – The Cruise of the Snark (1911)

Jack London's Snark
Jack London’s Snark

“The rig of the Snark is to be what is called the ‘ketch’. The ketch rig is a compromise between the yawl and the schooner. Of late years the yawl rig has proved to be the best for cruising. The ketch retains the virtues of the yawl, and in addition manages to embrace a few of the sailing virtues of the schooner. The foregoing must be taken with a pinch of salt. It is all theory in my head. I’ve never sailed a ketch, or even seen one. The theory commends itself to me. Wait till I get out on the ocean, then I’ll be able to tell more about the cruising and sailing qualities of the ketch. And, oh, there is one other excellence of the Snark, upon which I must brag, namely her bow. It laughs at the sea, that bow does; it challenges the sea; it snorts defiance at the sea. To touch the bow is to rest one’s hand on the cosmic nose of things.”

(The Snark was 55 feet LOA and 45 feet LWL with a 70hp auxiliary. Jack London’s romantic dream of a leisurely South Seas cruise became a cautionary tale for novice seafarers, but the experience did yield an entertaining travel book.)


The main thing’s having fun

Vanessa Dudley – Offshore veteran and Laser Radial Grand Master World Champion

Vanessa Dudley – Offshore veteran and Laser Radial Grand Master World Champion
Vanessa Dudley – Offshore veteran and Laser Radial Grand Master World Champion

“Everyone does things wrong in a race but it’s important not to dwell on it – to stay in what you’re doing now. Keep focused on what’s happening now. It’s really easy to get distracted by things that don’t actually matter. The main thing’s having fun, really. If you have fun sailing, you’re a winner. I really hate yelling even though I started as a complete martinet as a kid. Now I don’t want to yell. Crew harmony is really important. Keeping your head out of the boat. Having a plan. I love the cut and thrust of racing, but as I’ve got older I think more and more about sportsmanship – and how important it is. It’s just more important to be a nice person on the course, and not such a bugger!”

(Vanessa Dudley’s contribution to the advancement of women in the sport is immense. She has crewed in 24 Sydney-Hobarts, including a 2nd and 3rd place overall. As a dinghy sailor she was World Junior Moth Champion in 1975 and in the Laser class Dudley won the Radial Grand Master world championship in 2013 and 2016.)


She took her time

Kay Cottee – First Lady (1989)

Kay Cottee adjusting the vane steering equipment in the Indian Ocean
Adjusting the vane steering equipment in the Indian Ocean

“I was brought sharply out of my trance by yet another knockdown. My life flashed before my eyes for the second time in an hour as I was washed just over the top of the leeward safety railing before my harness lines pulled me up short. I held my breath under water until my lungs felt like they would burst, willing my lovely Lady to right herself and praying that the two harness lines did not give way. She took her time, but true to form gracefully rose again, this time with me dangling over the side. It was a mammoth effort to heave myself up, and I don’t think I could have managed without the help of the next breaking wave that half washed me back on to the boat.”

(In 1988, at the age of 34, Kay Cottee became the first woman to sail around the world alone, non-stop and unassisted. Her voyage took 189 days and raised more than $1m for the Rev Ted Noffs Life Education Program.)


The accident distressed those who witnessed it

The Australia Day Regatta – Report of an unfortunate incident, 28 January, 1864

Cannon firing“By far the most bizarre accident to befall a spectator occurred on board the flagship, SS Lady Jocelyn, towards the end of the racing. It was customary in those days for a gun to be fired when the winner of a race crossed the finishing line. Just as the order to fire was given, a young man moved into the line of fire unnoticed by the gunner who was watching the umpire for his signal. Despite the efforts of the ship’s medical officer and two local doctors the young man died 20 minutes later. The accident distressed those who witnessed it but had no effect on future demand for tickets to the flagships, which were undoubtedly the most popular vantage point for views of the regatta.” 

(The Australia Day Regatta, first known as the ‘Anniversary Regatta’, is the oldest continuously-conducted sailing regatta in the world. Held annually on Sydney Harbour it celebrates the proclamation of the colony on January 26, 1788. Held since 1837 it originally also included rowing races for whaleboats, gigs and waterman’s skiffs but today is confined to sailing craft.)


Things are not so simple at sea

Norman Dahl – The Yacht Navigator’s Handbook, 1983

Sextant“For the newcomer, navigation can be a trial and a disappointment. Fresh from the winter navigation classes, where dead reckoning, estimated positions and fixes march in ordered progression across the chart, he finds that things are not so simple at sea. His observations never seem to match up with his estimated position; landfalls never appear when and where expected; and conspicuous objects on shore might be printed on a different chart for all the help they are to him. And whilst it is easy to stop a car and ask the way of a passing stranger, it is more difficult (and embarrassing) to do the same at sea. There are few navigators who can truthfully claim never to have experienced the sickening feeling of being lost.”

(Norman Dahl served in the Royal Navy on destroyers, cruisers and submarines. On retirement he was President of the Royal Institute of Navigation. An active offshore yachtsman he later moved to Australia and died in Brisbane in 2018.)


Three crosses of red ink

Robert Louis Stevenson – Treasure Island (1881-83)

“The doctor opened the seals with great care, and there fell out a map of an island, with latitude, longitude, soundings, names of hills, and bays and inlets, and every particular that would be needed to bring a ship to safe anchorage upon its shores. There were several additions of a later date; but, above all, three crosses of red ink – two on the north part of the island, one in the southwest, and, beside this last, in the same red ink, and in a small, neat hand, very different from the captain’s tottery characters, these words:– ‘Bulk of treasure here.’”

(The son of a prosperous lighthouse engineer, Stevenson rebelled against his conservative Scottish upbringing to become a writer. Treasure Island began as a serial titled “The Sea-Cook” in Young Folks magazine. That one short adventure novel has defined the “pirate story”.)  


All the happy and strenuous days

Alain Gerbault – The Fight of the Firecrest (1924)

“It was on the morning of the 10th of September that I sighted land, Nantucket, for the first time since leaving the African coast, a few days out from Gibraltar. But I cannot say I gave a cheery cry of ‘land-ho’. On the contrary, I felt a little sad, for I realized that it stood out there forecasting the end of my cruise; that it meant that all the happy and strenuous days I had spent on the open seas would soon be over, and that I should be obliged to stay ashore for several months. No longer would I be king of all I surveyed, but amongst human beings and a sharer in civilization once more.”

(Gerbault had crossed the Atlantic solo, east-to-west, taking 101 days in a 39-foot snub-nosed pilot gaff cutter built in 1892. The feat earned him the Legion d’honneur. He’d previously been a flying ace during WWI and French tennis champion. He died in East Timor in 1941 but is buried at Bora Bora.)


Devised by the restless mind of man

E.B. White – The Sea and the Wind that Blows, 1977

Smoky LHI Ian Hansen
Ian Hansen – Smoky Cape homeward bound from Lord Howe Island

 “If a man must be obsessed by something, I suppose a boat is as good as anything, perhaps a bit better than most. A small sailing craft is not only beautiful, it is seductive and full of strange promise and the hint of trouble. If it happens to be an auxiliary cruising boat, it is without question the most compact and ingenious arrangement for living ever devised by the restless mind of man – a home that is stable without being stationary, shaped less like a box than like a fish or a bird or a girl, and in which the homeowner can remove his daily affairs as far from shore as he has the nerve to take them, close-hauled or running free – parlor, bedroom, and bath, suspended and alive.”


Diving still deeper into their pockets

The Sydney Morning Herald – Letter to The Editor, signed ‘Sail Your Own Boat’ (1876)

“Sir; I have always been under the impression that our regattas were intended to develop and encourage seamanship, and a love for aquatic pursuits. How is it that in the yacht and sailing-boat races the amateur element is passed by, and we find boat-owners who have already been put to very heavy expense in building and fitting out their craft, diving still deeper into their pockets to pay a crack crew, and a professional to steer for them? Why should this be? I do not think there is one yacht or sailing boat owner that would object to the restriction, if placed upon them, to steer their own boats. It is not yet too late to alter this, and I hope to see it done. I know of several boats whose owners cannot and will not go to the expense of a professional crew and skipper.”

J P Morgans yacht Corsair
J P Morgans yacht Corsair

 

JP Morgan – Millionaire, philanthropist, yachtsman (1837-1913): “I will do business with anyone; I choose only to sail with gentlemen.”


18 foot skiff crew

The Sydney Morning Herald – exchange of Letters to The Editor on 18-footer racing during WWI

From: H.C.Bell, Vice-President of the Sydney Flying Squadron (16 September 1916):

“Sir; I consider that, in face of the serious aspect of the war, the boat owners and crews should reconsider their intention to continue the season’s sailing programme. The yacht clubs, the Sydney Amateur Sailing Club, and other aquatic bodies have cancelled all events, and as 250 to 300 smart young fellows engaged in the 18 footers can be more seriously employed in the naval reserve, or otherwise, let them enlist. I appeal to the boat owners and crews to recognise their duty to the Empire.”

From: Sapper Fisher, who returned fire the following day – and didn’t miss:

“Sir; Mr Bell insinuates that the boats are to be manned by young fellows who would be better at the war, and tries to make out they are all shirkers. Well, in defence of those who cannot go, I would like to say that out of the Sydney there are 11 of us who are either in camp or at the front. Now, the Sydney is going to race this season (with rejects and men over age), and I suppose he likes to term her a shirker’s boat, which I think would be an insult to the two dead and two wounded of the crew.”

(More than 150 of the 18-footer sailors served in WWI. Of them, 27 died – seven at Gallipoli – and 49 were wounded.)


Blessed are the cabbage-planters

Francois Rabelais – The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-4)

Rabelais Storm & wrecks“Tempests and squalls, whirlwinds and hurricanes were lighted up all around us by thunderbolts, flashes, forked lightning and other manifestations. Our looks expressed horror and dismay, as the hideous tempests whipped the mountainous waves of the sea.  Believe me, we felt that ancient Chaos had come again; that fire, earth, sea, air and all the elements were in rebellious confusion. How blessed, blessed and four times blessed are those men who plant cabbages in solid earth. Why, O fates, did you not spin me a cabbage-planter’s lot? Few and signally blessed are those whom Jupiter has destined to be cabbage-planters. For they’ve always one foot on the ground and the other not far from it.”

(For a man who began adulthood as a Franciscan novice, then became a Benedictine monk, then a doctor, then an anatomy teacher and finally a country curate, Rabelais had a delightfully bawdy and irreverent talent for satire. From him we have the terms ‘Rabelaisian’, and ‘Gargantuan’ – after the name of the giant in his story.)


You settle for what you get

The crew of Mistral II (1947-1950)
The crew of Mistral II (1947-1950)

Bill Snaith – skipper of Figaro in ‘On the Wind’s Way’ (1973)

“The ideal crew member is a rare creature indeed. He has the coolness, courage, and derring-do of James Bond; the inventiveness and mechanical skills of Tom Swift; the agility and strength of an Olympic decathlon winner. He has a fund of new stories, is a good listener, and is as neat in his cabin habits as Mr Clean. A crew should be skillful enough to reassure a captain in the fastness of his heart. The captain must know that when all hell breaks loose and he doesn’t know what it’s all about, someone aboard does and, what’s more, will do something about it. You start with these requirements and settle for what you get.”

(An architect by training and industrial designer by trade, Bill Snaith campaigned four yachts, all named Figaro. He won the Transatlantic race, competed in the Bermuda race seven times and captained the winning 1961 US Admiral’s Cup team.)


There would be fewer mouths to feed

Ernest Shackleton – South (1919)

“A boat journey in search of relief was necessary and must not be delayed. The nearest port where assistance could certainly be secured was Port Stanley, in the Falkland Islands, 540 miles away, but we could scarcely hope to beat up against the prevailing north-westerly wind in a frail and weakened boat with a small sail area. South Georgia was over 800 miles away, but lay in the area of the west winds, and I could count on finding whalers on the east coast. I calculated that at worst the venture would add nothing to the risks of the men left on the island. There would be fewer mouths to feed during the winter and the boat would not require to take more than one month’s provisions for six men, for if we did not make South Georgia in that time we were sure to go under.”

 (The successful rescue voyage of the James Caird remains one of the great small-boat epics.) 


I did not think it was consistent with safety

Commander James Cook – Journal of the Second Voyage (1772-1775)

“At 4 o’Clock we discovered from the Mast head thirty eight Islands of Ice extending from the one Bow to the other, that is from the SE to the West, and soon after we discovered Field or Packed Ice in the same Direction and had so many loose pieces about the Ship that we were obliged to luff for one and bear up from another. From the Mast head I could see nothing to the Southward but ice. I did not think it was consistent with the safety of the Sloops or any ways prudent for me to persevere in going farther South, even supposing this to have been practicable, which however is doubtful.”

(Cook’s position in the Resolution that day was at 64º18’S. He eventually turned back at 71°10’S.)


The taste of these animals very disagreeable

Sir Joseph Banks – The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks (1769)

“Our bread indeed is but indifferent, occasioned by the quantity of Vermin that are in it. I have often seen hundreds, nay thousands shaken out of a single bisket. We in the Cabbin have however an easy remedy for this by baking it in an oven, not too hot, which makes them all walk off, but this cannot be allowed to the private people who must find the taste of these animals very disagreeable, as they are every one taste as strong as mustard or rather spirits of hartshorn.” 

(Hartshorn was a solution derived from powdered deer antlers, then the main source of ammonia.) 


Followed by a milky train

Charles Darwin – The Voyage of the Beagle (1831-36)

“While sailing a little south of the Plata on one very dark night, the sea presented a wonderful and most beautiful spectacle. There was a fresh breeze, and every part of the surface, which during the day is seen as foam, now glowed with a pale light. The vessel drove before her bows two billows of liquid phosphorus, and in her wake she was followed by a milky train. As far as the eye reached, the crest of every wave was bright, and the sky above the horizon, from the reflected glare of these livid flames, was not so utterly obscure as over the vault of the heavens. I am inclined to consider that the phosphorescence is the result of the decomposition of organic particles, by which process the ocean becomes purified.”

(Reflecting on how the long voyage changed his personality and view of the world, Darwin said “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts.”)


These took a negligible toll…

Naval physician treating sick sailorsDudley Pope – Life in Nelson’s Navy (1981)

“In the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), the Royal Navy lost 133,700 men by disease and desertion, but only 1,512 were killed in battle. In the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, which lasted with a short break for twenty-two years, the Royal Navy lost 1,875 killed in the six major and four minor battles fought by its fleets and four by its squadrons, compared with more than 72,000 who died from disease or accident on board, and another 13,600 who died in ships lost by accident or weather. A musket ball, the slash of a cutlass or the jab of a pike – these took a negligible toll of men’s lives compared with scurvy, typhus and yellow fever.”


Do not forget to show your enjoyment during a race

The Spirit of Sailing and The Sea - Paul Elvstrom –The Spirit of Racing, 1965Paul Elvstrom –The Spirit of Racing, 1965

“A race is, and always must be, a game. The racing rules must be observed but you must also be reasonable about this. Hard competition only gives more excitement to the game, and it is really exciting to find out who can win. We all ought to be friends, and be glad we are sailing together. When you feel that none of your competitors are afraid to lose to you then you will also not mind losing to them. When your competitors are happy to see you win, you are naturally happy when their turn comes to win. Also, do not forget to show your enjoyment during a race. You only need to make just the smallest friendly gesture when you pass near one of your competitors, such as when crossing on port or starboard. If you do not show that you are enjoying the competition you can spoil the pleasure for your competitors.” 


A cap full of wind…

The Spirit of Sailing and The Sea - Robinson Crusoe - ships in stormDaniel Defoe – Robinson Crusoe, 1719

“I had slept well in the night, and was now no more sea-sick but very cheerful, looking with wonder upon the sea that was so rough and terrible the day before, and could be so calm and so pleasant in so little time after. And now, least my good resolutions should continue, my companion, who had indeed entic’d me away, comes to me. ‘Well, Bob,’ says he, clapping me on the shoulder, ‘how do you do after it? I warrant you were frighted, wa’n’t you, last night, when it blew but a cap full of wind.’ ‘A cap full d’you call it?’ said I, ‘’twas a terrible storm.’ ‘Do you call that a storm? Why, it was nothing at all; give us a good ship and sea room and we think nothing of such a squall. But you’re but a fresh water sailor, Bob; come, let us make a bowl of punch and we’ll forget all that.’”

(While commonly thought to be based on the true story of Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk, more recent scholarship indicates multiple sources for Defoe’s famous novel, claimed to be the world’s most translated book after the Bible.)


The Spirit of Sailing and The Sea - American Packet Ship DevonshireHow quietly they do their work

Richard Henry Dana – Two Years Before the Mast, 1840

“One night, while we were in the tropics, I went out to the end of the flying jib-boom, upon some duty, and having finished it, turned round, and lay over the boom for a long time, admiring the beauty of the night before me. I could look at the ship as a separate vessel – and there rose up from the water, supported only by a small black hull, a pyramid of canvas towering up, as it seemed in the indistinct night air, to the clouds. The sea was as still as an inland lake; the light trade wind was gently and steadily breathing from astern. The sails were spread out wide and high. Not a ripple upon the surface of the canvas; not even a quivering on the extreme edges of the sail. I was so lost in the sight that I forgot the presence of a man who came out with me until he said, half to himself, still looking at the marble sails, ‘How quietly they do their work!’” 


Like the king of the world

Tchaikovsky 1812 OverturePeter Mounsey – circumnavigator, solo racer, delivery skipper (1986)

“In the last single-handed race I did there was one incident I will never forget. It was very calm on the ocean – the water was like glass – and there was perfect silence. I mean, how many people have heard nothing? There was not a sound on the boat, there was no swell. I thought to myself ‘I can’t hear anything’. No birds around – it was absolutely quiet. And I sang out, real loud, ‘Hey!’ I had a tape recorder and I went and put on the 1812 Overture and had it on real loud and poured myself a scotch and sat down like the king of the world! It was a wonderful feeling.”

(It seems doubtful whether Tchaikovsky’s famous blast of orchestral bombast has enjoyed many such replays at sea since.)


A little cup of metho…

Ragamuffin 1964
Ragamuffin 1964

Phil Eadie – the veteran Ragamuffin navigator remembers some more forgetful days racing offshore (2016)

 “Just about every Hobart we’d leave something behind. Once we left the blankets on the dock. Once we didn’t have any milk. Another time we didn’t have any matches to light the stove. We pulled the cabin lights apart and shorted the wires over a little cup of metho to make a flame and get the stove going. And once we even left the spinnaker pole behind and someone had to come roaring out with it in a dinghy. Another time we were doing a coastal race through the night and it turned out that all there was for breakfast was toast and Bonox. I remember Syd saying, ‘Fuck! I’ve spent a fucking fortune on this boat and that’s the only fucking thing they can bring – toast and Bonox!’”


The boat must be a pleasure

Maris
Maris

Russell Slade – Owner/Skipper Janzoon II, 1966

 “I don’t care what the boat is, or how old. But she must be soundly designed, have good lines, and represent a beautiful design of her era. It doesn’t matter if you sail a VJ or a 12-metre. If you love the boat you will be down to her every Saturday and Sunday. You will watch her carefully. But the boat must all the time be a pleasure. She must never become a burden in time or money – or you lose your affection for her. This is completely impersonal. It is love for the boat, not yourself. The pleasure and satisfaction come when you make it go well. There is satisfaction also in being part of a team, among crewmen who can sustain the effort of sailing and navigating to win.”


Pleasuring on the bay

Joshua Slocum – Sailing Alone Around the World, 1899

Glass-plate photograph of Slocum sailing the Spray on Sydney Harbour, 1896
Glass-plate photograph of Slocum sailing the Spray on Sydney Harbour, 1896

“Summer was approaching, and the harbour of Sydney was blooming with yachts. Some of them came down to the weather-beaten Spray and sailed round her at Shelcote, where she took a berth for a few days. The typical Sydney boat is a handy sloop of great beam and enormous sail-carrying power; but a capsize is not uncommon, for they carry sail like Vikings. In Sydney I saw all manner of craft, from the smart steam launch and sailing-cutter to the smaller sloop and canoes pleasuring on the bay. Everybody owned a boat. If a boy in Australia has not the means to buy him a boat he builds one, and it is usually one not to be ashamed of.”

(In 1909 Slocum set off on another solo voyage in the Spray and was never seen again.)


The last line sends a chill up my spine every time…

Samuel Taylor Coleridge – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1798

Albatross“A good south wind sprung up behind;

The Albatross did follow,

And every day, for food or play,

Came to the mariners’ hollo!

 

In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,

It perched for vespers nine;

Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,

Glimmered the white Moon-shine.

 

‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!

From the fiends, that plague thee thus!

Why look’st thou so?

“With my crossbow, I shot the albatross.”

(Full poem available here)


No place for “bodgies or bludgers”…

The Spirit of Sailing and The Sea - No place for bodgies or bludgers - Hard running

Merv Davey – Owner/Skipper Trade Winds, CYC Commodore 1949-51, 1957-59

 “The type of person that goes ocean racing is self-selective. You are living in close proximity with others, and there is no way in the world a man can cover up his faults. This means that the bodgie or the bludger is just not there, because one trip and you’d find him out and you wouldn’t take him again. And the word would get around, so no one else would take him either. So any person who will not pull his weight or gets scared in an emergency or has personality defects is completely missing. And that enables you to say that a fellow – even if you haven’t any personal experience of him – who has sailed with ‘Joe Blow’ for three years can’t be a bad sort of bloke, otherwise he wouldn’t be there”.


Drunkenness is most likely to prevail …

The Spirit of Sailing and The Sea - Drunk sailorCharles Burland – The Ship Captain’s Medical Guide (1868)

“Drunkenness is a fruitful cause of many diseases. Most ships now sail on teetotal principles, but if alcoholic stimulants are entirely withdrawn, an extra allowance of coffee of cocoa should be given in their place. It is on shore, and more especially at foreign ports, that drunkenness is most likely to prevail, and the bad quality of liquor sold is as much to blame as the quantity consumed. Make the ship as comfortable as possible for the men so as to lessen the inducements for them to go on shore where they are liable to become drunk and useless, and to fall into the hands of undesirable persons.”


Big is grand, but not always best…

The Spirit of Sailing and The Sea - Adlard Coles – Sailing Days, 1944 - Adix-waveAdlard Coles – Sailing Days, 1944

“The big and very lovely yachts are, it is true, owned by rich men. They are an indication that some rich men, at any rate, know how to spend their incomes wisely. The owners of the eight-metre and twelve-metre craft must be fairly well off too because the cost of racing in such classes is high. But although these yachts stand out in the foreground of the yachting picture, they are few in number compared with the great array of miscellaneous craft in the background. The fact is that the great majority of sailing folk have but average means, and not a few are downright poor. Yachting depends on the spirit in which it is entered and zest for the sea rather than upon the possession of a deep pocket. ‘The smaller the ship the greater the sport,’ and I guarantee that the purchase of a boat is the best investment a man can make, if he values sun and fresh air, happiness and freedom.”

(In 1947 Adlard Coles founded a nautical publishing house that now lists 300 titles and still bears his name. He died in 1985.)


She would not come around …

The wreck of the Peter Iredale in the Fort Stevens State Park, Oregon, USA, at sunset ROBERT BRADSHAW, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Jeremy Seal – The Caledonia driven ashore in 1842, from The Wreck at Sharpnose Point

“‘Lee shore!’ shouted Tasker as he scrabbled aft. The storm grew to a pitch of violence that none of the men had known. The mainsail was first to go, splitting from head to foot with a sharp crack. For an instant, the wind streamed through the gap it had made. Then the sail dissolved into ribbons that streamed from the boltrope along its base before the wind tore them away leaving only the reefs and the sheets that had held the sail, cracking like insane whips until they were hauled tight. Then the foresail blew. Now only the spanker, the two topsails, and the jib were left. Together they lent their weight on the helm one last time to bring the ship to windward. But she would not come around. They were singing when she grounded. There was a brief screech from her coppered hull before the rocks bit into her timbers.”


Heaving the lead…

Richard Gordon – The Captain’s Table (1954)

“‘You see, this Captain, sir, was one of the old school and always heaved the lead when his ship was coming into port, like in the old days before echo-sounders and all that. He prided himself he could tell what port they was in just by looking at the lead and seeing the mud what was brought up from the bottom. But one day the Chief Engineer grabs the lead, sir, on its way to the bridge, takes it to his cabin, and wipes his best boots on it. The Captain takes one look at it, you see, and says to the mates: ‘Gentlemen,’ he says, ‘I have the honour to inform you that the ship is now situated at the corner of Sauchiehall Street and Argyll Street.’”


Arthur Beiser – The Sailor’s World, 1967 Compass at NightOnly the ship remains faithful …

Arthur Beiser – The Sailor’s World, 1967

“At nightfall the world shrinks to a sphere a boat length across whose centre is the red glow of the compass. Stars appear, lights flicker along a distant shore, yet the feeling of isolation persists. The air is suddenly chilly, its texture different. The wind is no longer friendly, but instead full of subtle menace. The senses become more acute in darkness. Every sound carries a message. The flap of a sail invites its sheet to be trimmed. A creak somewhere forward, a change in tempo of water rushing past the counter. The sea, barely visible, gives no hint of its intentions. Only the ship remains faithful, a steadfast ally whatever lies in store.”


Small ships evacuation from Dunkirk during World War II

To sail into the inferno …

J. B. Priestly – Radio broadcast after the Dunkirk evacuation (BBC London, 1940)

“To my mind what was most characteristically English about it – so typical of us, so absurd and yet so grand and gallant – was the part played in the difficult and dangerous embarkation by the little pleasure steamers. We’ve known them and laughed at them, these fussy little steamers, all our lives. They seemed to belong to the same ridiculous holiday world as piers, sand castles, and crowded, sweating promenades. But when they were called out of that world those ‘Brighton Belles’ and ‘Brighton Queens’ left that innocent foolish world of theirs to sail into the inferno – to defy bombs, shells, mines, torpedoes, machine-gun fire – to rescue our soldiers. Some of them – alas – will never return.”


The America’s Cup is a peculiarly ugly trophy — and it lacks a bottom, so you can’t even drink from it — yet some of the richest men in history have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in an attempt to own it.
The America’s Cup is a peculiarly ugly trophy — and it lacks a bottom, so you can’t even drink from it — yet some of the richest men in history have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in an attempt to own it.

Bob Miller/Ben Lexcen – after committing to the 1987 America’s Cup defence

“I’m already asking myself why I’m checking into this madhouse yet again. It’s like hitting myself on the head with a bloody great hammer. All I get is headaches. When you analyse this whole 12-metre thing you have to wonder why people subject themselves to all those hassles. There has to be an element of madness in there. But then if you look at the mega-millionaires involved, there aren’t many things in the world that can pander to their egos as much as the America’s Cup summer does. They’re on the world stage for three months. Even the richest guys can’t get that sort of attention unless they cause a bloody war. Nothing else allows them to command so much world attention so easily and so cheaply. That’s what the America’s Cup comes down to in the end, a huge ego trip. Why else would you do it? But now my ego is saying I’ve got to go on and defend the damned thing – to show the Yanks that it wasn’t just a fluke.”


A motivational broadside from the early days of Australian offshore racing

The crew of Mistral II in 1950
The crew of Mistral II in 1950

Colin Haselgrove – letter to his crew on Nerida before their 1950 Sydney-Hobart win

“The first duty of the crew is to drive the ship and themselves to the limit of endurance and safety. All this implies hard work which produces fatigue. Therefore, when not on duty rest every minute you can. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The general morale of the crew is extremely important. Remember to be prompt and quick to respond to watchkeeping or ‘all hands’ calls, no matter how lousy you feel. If you feel like grumbling save it until after the race. Remember that a race is never won or lost until it is finished, and that a slow boat sailed hard will beat a fast boat not driven. Every man must be particularly keen to get the last fraction of a knot out of the boat – and in the right direction.”

(The picture isn’t the Nerida crew – it’s some of the 1950 crew of Mistral II – but how evocative of the era)


Moby DickThe first encounter

Herman Melville – Ahab sights the Great White Whale, Moby Dick, 1851

“But suddenly as he peered down and down into its depths, he profoundly saw a white living spot no bigger than a white weasel, with wonderful celerity uprising, and magnifying as it rose, till it turned, and then there were plainly revealed two long crooked rows of white, glistening teeth, floating up from the undiscoverable bottom. It was Moby Dick’s open mouth and scrolled jaw; his vast, shadowed bulk still half blending with the blue of the sea. The glittering mouth yawned beneath the boat like an open-doored marble tomb; and giving one sidelong sweep with his steering oar, Ahab whirled the craft aside from this tremendous apparition.”

(The famous climax of the book is based on the sinking of the whaleship Essex in 1820 after it was rammed by a sperm whale.)


A joyous feeling

Guy de Maupassant – Sur l’eau (‘Afloat’) (1876)

Guy de Maupassant – Sur l’eau (‘Afloat’) (1876)“Then the men shipped the anchor. I seized the helm, and the boat, like a big ghost, glided through the still waters. In order to get out of the port, we had to tack between the sleeping tartans and schooners. We went gently from one quay to another, dragging after us our little round dinghy, which followed us as a cygnet, just hatched from its shell, follows the parent swan. As soon as we reached the channel between the jetty and the square fort the yacht became livelier, quickened its pace, and seemed more alert as though a joyous feeling had taken possession of her. She danced over the countless short waves – moving furrows of a boundless plain. Quitting the dead waters of the harbour, she now felt under her the living sea.”


More to come …