|3 Jan 2023|
|OP Yacht Club|
THE GLORY OF THE RIDE - A ‘HAUL DOWN’ REPORT
by Ewen Southby-Tailyour
Edward Monkton was absolutely correct:
He knows not where he's going,
For the ocean will decide,
It’s not the destination,
It's the glory of the ride.
Sailing and exploring by sea have been the two dominant factors in my life with both providing maximum, lifelong excitement, enjoyment and not a few frights.
Through service appointments and creative leave-planning I have been privileged, or lucky enough, to have ‘sailed’ to the Denmark Straight, Iceland’s fjords and the Norwegian Arctic, to Patagonia, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and to the southern Ocean; from Hong Kong to the West Indies via Bombay, to Oman, Malta, Cyprus, Crete, Sardinia, Corsica, Minorca and to the islands of the Dalmatian and Greek coasts; from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Baltic; from Florida to the Chesapeake river; from North Island, New Zealand and the east coast of Australia to the Maldives; from the Persian Gulf to the Outer Hebrides; from Italy’s Lake Garda to the Canadian lakes; from Britain’s rivers and canals to those of Germany and northern France in rowing and racing dinghies, day-boats, square-riggers, out-riggers, catamarans, trimarans, gaff cutters, Bristol Channel pilot cutters, sailing trawlers, ‘covert’ Norwegian fishing trawlers, Bermudan sloops, ketches, yawls, schooners, naval whalers, admirals’ gigs, kayaks and canoes, Arabian dhows, Chinese junks, Cornish ‘crabbers’, a sand yacht and even (please excuse me) as a deck hand in a ‘super yacht’ while ‘working my passage’ from Nassau to Miami.
To which list I must add inflatable and rigid raiding craft, assault and mechanised landing craft as well as small, medium and large hovercraft. Nor can I ignore a North Sea oil rig, two trans-Atlantic Cunard ocean-liners, one troopship, a P&O cruise ship, an ‘expedition’ ship in South Georgia, a 150-ton motor vessel and a cement-built, Colin Archer ketch among the Falkland Islands; a 40-knot, water-skiing boat, a five-knot narrow boat and a 20-knot ex-Royal Navy, 112 ft, Fairmile B Class motor launch, a veteran of the Normandy beaches in 1944. Nor would I ever want to forget a variety of submarines, amphibious assault ships, frigates and aircraft carriers of various nationalities.
Some of the above vessels, and most notably Olga, a Bristol Channel pilot cutter, and three of my four Black Velvets, will feature in the following pages... but, I must start with my christening!
On 1st March 1942, when I was two weeks old my father, Major Norman Tailyour, melted a handful of snow into his yacht Sea Vixen’s bell and invited his battalion’s RNVR vicar to ‘do the honours’; which he did in the NAAFI’s snow-bound Nissen hut at Stobbs Royal Marines camp, clinging to a windy hillside above Hawick. Norman had had Sea Vixen built in Alexandria during the 1935 Abyssinian crisis and then brought her home as deck cargo on a troop ship.
Although, post war, I was introduced to the delights of using broken glass to scrape down her spars, it was sad that the wooden hull, laid up ashore, did not survive six years 1939-45 out of the water. She was soon exchanged for an ex-Royal Navy Fairmile B Class ML, Naughty Princess, in which we lived briefly. But as she came without propellers, ownership was short-lived!
The only godfather at my christening was Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Phibbs. He was a most successful pre-1939 skipper of naval whalers and gigs. Almost a generation older than Norman, he had been wholly responsible for my father’s nautical upbringing. Hence Pat’s official family status as my ‘honorary grandfather.’ This makes him the first of four generations of RCC members with my sixteen-year-old grandson Jacob hopefully continuing this family ‘tradition’ by swiftly maturing into the fifth generation.
Until I joined the Royal Marines in 1960 I lived, on and off, with ‘Uncle’ Pat in Olga. So faute de mieux he became responsible for my nautical advancement. It wasn’t, though, an entirely easy induction. Apart from Elizabeth Mary, a Polperro ‘hooker’ owned since the mid 1930’s, Pat had added Olga, a Bristol Channel pilot cutter, to his collection in 1946. I am thrilled to say that both are still sailing in the West Country.
In EM, as she was known, we, just man and very young boy, trawled under sail anywhere between EM’s moorings at St Mawes and Pat’s final military posting in Plymouth. Then, on his retirement from the Royal Marines in 1947, Olga became not only Pat’s permanent home but, during most school holidays until 1960, mine too...and it was here that the fun, and the education, really started!
Many evenings, with Olga on her Percuil River moorings, I and a girlfriend (later an international, fashion model who was then living on board the only other yacht (a Brixham trawler) on the anchorage, would ‘shoot the trammel’ at dusk. Pre-dawn (before the crabs arrived for their breakfast), we would row back to Amsterdam Point to hand the net before selling the produce on St Mawes Quay.
Discipline was tough and sometimes even harsh while all the time various maxims were drummed into me such as: ‘Seamanship, boy, not showmanship’; ‘Blades forrard in the dinghy, please, as the ladies sit in the sternsheets!’; ‘If you fall overboard you are dead’; ‘One hand for the ship, the other for the King’; ‘Yachts have destinations not times of arrival’, ‘No voyage should ever be constrained by a time limit for that can lead to bad decisions’; ‘Never set out to sea unless you are prepared and equipped to stay there’; ‘Always wear sea boots that are two sizes too big’…and so on. This last saying, in particular, was to save my life - twice.
Pat’s discipline was uncompromising and exacting although occasionally he met his match. During the spring of 1955 when I was just thirteen, I refused, for some long-forgotten reason, to climb to the truck of Olga’s mast to re-reeve the burgee halyards. “Right, pack your kitbag and put it in the dinghy.” No second chance.
The British Seagull outboard engine took us to Falmouth dockyard railway station where, with a label attached to the collar of my coat for the various guards en route, I was despatched, parcel-like, to Waterloo. After at least four changes and well over seven hours, I handed my mother a tear-stained note that read, Darling June, you sent your son to me to be taught seamanship. He has failed! Love, Pat. I was taken home, fed, bathed and returned to Waterloo the next morning. In Falmouth I handed Pat the same smudged note. On the back, my mother had written. Darling Pat, I sent my son to you to be taught seamanship. You appear to be failing! Love, June. I climbed to the truck!
Easter leaves from prep and then public school were men-only affairs at St Peter Port in order to take advantage of the spring tides for Olga’s annual bottom-scrub and anti-foul. During the summer holidays we cruised cross-Channel down to France’s Biscay coast or even, sometimes, as far south as northern Spain.
Often my mother would join us with a girlfriend, or my younger sister, Veryan, and Pat would give up his double cabin aft. These trips were the late 1940s when there were few other yachts in post-war commission. There were so few, indeed, that if another sail was sighted, we would consult Lloyds Register of Yachts while closing to shouting distance and exchanging, or comparing, pilotage notes. Nowadays we tend to veer away! Anchorages and alongside berths were empty. There were, thankfully, no marinas; not that Pat would have dreamt of entering one. Tunny fishing was still conducted under sail.
Olga carried two ‘ship’s boats’ with the smaller praam upside-down in the sailing dinghy. There was no life raft and I never saw a lifejacket or safety harness. Navigation was largely a matter of dead reckoning or, if pushed, by using Consul and she carried two sextants - one quadrant and one bubble. The oil navigation lights were lit (and then only after much palaver) if another vessel’s lights were sighted, then soon extinguished. Lighting below was courtesy of Tilley lamps and heat via a coal-burning stove in the saloon. The engine came from an old lorry and was fitted athwartships. Eventually, Pat acquired an electric windlass - of sorts. An ex-concrete mixer engine powered a light aircraft’s dynamo which, in turn, drove a motorcar’s self-starter attached to a large cogwheel bolted to the winch. It worked!
By the 1950s we were venturing further afield. In 1956 Olga, with scratch crews picked up and disembarked along the way, sailed to Malta where my father was stationed. The holidays then were spent cruising those islands and Corsica.
Meanwhile the year before I had joined the Nautical College, Pangbourne. Here sailing was on the river Thames in Firefly dinghies. We had a good team in my last season there including a future Olympic Games gold medal winner (Rodney Pattisson). I was actually offered an Olympic trial in 1959 but turned it down. Sailing, for me, has never been about cut throat-competition. I have also disliked the manner in which many races are won, or lost, in the protest room and not through fair sailing.
Commissioned into the Royal Marines in 1960 I was introduced to the wooden, RNSA 14-foot dinghies. I also bought my own Firefly which, in theory, I still own as I gave it to Wellington College on permanent loan. Having completed initial training, I specialised in the then dying art of the Landing Craft branch. This included the complexities of amphibious operations, inshore pilotage, celestial navigation and, inevitably, Morse and semaphore.
Three tours in the Middle East acquainted me with the mysteries of the dhow and even a ridiculously-dangerous sand yacht in the Oman desert. Later, two visits to Hong Kong offered chances to crew a junk - a fascinating experience as was an outrigger off Kenya’s coast. Then, as a fifty-year-old, I had a sharp learning curve when reefing the foretops’l of the ill-fated brig Maria Asumpta in a rising channel gale.
Finally, before retirement from the Marines, I managed by some subterfuge and despite many senior, raised eyebrows, to ship a five-ton gaff cutter to an Arctic Norwegian winter in one of my landing craft.
On one occasion, during a year’s appointment to a Plymouth-based commando, I was asked to take over the duties, inter alia, of sailing master of the 50-square metre, windfall, Sea Soldier. I had skippered her often before and knew her to be the highly-strung thoroughbred she was designed to be by Abeking and Rasmussen in 1936.
Sea Soldier was a real delight to sail fully crewed or (much to the horror of the generals) single-handed. As well as being available for ‘private hire’ from within the Corps, she was also the Royal Marines’ sail training vessel. Dozens of young marines and ‘officers under training’ grappled with her quirks, especially the temperamental Stewart Turner engine and the equally awkward Baby Blake heads. From first-hand experience I know that countless south coast employers of young ladies would groan openly when they saw Sea Soldier’s duck-egg blue hull glide serenely in to an anchorage in time for the six o’clock opening hour!
I wrote earlier that I did not really like racing. But in 1963 I was coerced into navigating a plastic 30-foot sloop in the Fastnet race. As the smallest entry, and having been beset by a vicious gale while all others were safely back in Plymouth, we came last by well over a day. It had been a hideous week in a ‘dry’ vessel (alcoholically, but most certainly not on deck or below) and with a humourless skipper. I swore ‘never again.’
Two years later, I was tempted back to the Fastnet by the same skipper who, wisely now, owned a more suitable Nicholson 36. I was hooked, but not by the ‘racing’ side of affairs – I left that to others. Rather, it was the navigational challenges that attracted me allied to those of a skipper’s tactics and the eccentricities of the weather and tides.
I went on to skipper or navigate four more Fastnets including, in 1969, as a fore-deck hand in the RORC’s Griffin III. She had been so poorly maintained and stored by her bo’sun that, when I de-briefed the club’s notoriously-prickly secretary, I was invited never to renew my temporary membership. Among a number of other calamities, I had explained in straightforward language, that there had been no charts of the course on board (until bought at the very last minute), the dinghy was stolen on the morning of the start, we ran out of water and food (although oddly there was plenty of tonic water and corn flakes) and we had to jury rig the port, topmast shrouds and the steering gear. In addition, the Brookes and Gatehouse instruments failed as we rounded the Rock.
My next racing experience came the following year. I had entered the Royal Marines Sailing Club’s 36-foot, wooden sloop in the first Two-Handed Round Britain race in 1966 but had not been able to take part as I was building a sand yacht in the Oman. However, in 1970 together with Roger Dillon (before he joined the RCC; his uncle had been the Secretary of the Royal Yacht Squadron) I was leant a beautiful, wooden 49-foot yawl, Speedwell of Cremyll (now, happily, owned by RYS and RCC member David Reynolds). During the work-up I was knocked out and overboard by the spinnaker boom. This confirmed my view that it is not an officer’s sail! As I came-to with the Hasler self-steering, servo blade slicing past my left ear at six knots, I watched Roger climbing over the stern pulpit and shouting “Don’t worry, Ewen, I’m coming in to help.” Just in time, he had remembered that we were two-handed. The lifebelt he threw was a genuine lifesaver. Had I not been able to kick off my oversized sea boots, I would never have reached comparative security.
A few days later we were in Millbay Docks awaiting the pre-race three-man inspection team. In true Royal Marines style, we had laid everything out as for an admiral’s inspection which, in effect, it was. To my horror, I saw that the approaching inspectors were being led by the ‘notoriously-prickly’ RORC secretary. Rather negatively, I thought, he began by pointing out to his fellow inspectors the Royal Yacht Squadron’s burgee at our masthead. I turned to Roger and said quietly. “We may have a problem.”
In the saloon, and in silence, Roger and I sat opposite the team while waiting for the inevitable inquisition - but it never came. After some anxious moments, the secretary turned to his colleagues and said, “I know this young skipper and can safely state that this vessel and her crew are, in all respects, ready for sea. We needn’t carry out an inspection.” Then, turning to me he ordered, “Now, Tailyour, I think you owe me a drink!” We, more than willingly, obliged. While I was, admittedly, flattered by this grossly undeserved accolade I knew, too, that he was taking a risk. In truth, few if any sailing vessel can really be, ‘in all respects’, ready for sea. If the inspectors had so wished, any number of reasons could have been found to prevent us sailing. On reflection I think it was his way of apologizing for kicking me out of the RORC.
Apart from the parties in Crosshaven, Barra, Lerwick (especially the Lerwick Boating Club) and Lowestoft the race highlight for us occurred when an off-course pigeon fluttered below. Desperately seeking a perch as the ship rolled gently in the windless swell, it spotted Roger, asleep on his back and naked. Deep in the bird’s primeval brain it knew it had to find a twig, branch or bough...and it did!
In the end I entered the first nine Round Britain races for much the same reasons that I had enjoyed the Fastnets. I never had any aspiration to win but to remain firmly in the middle of the fleet where the best parties were. For the record, I eventually started in six, retired in three, was disqualified in one and finished two. The disqualification came in 1989 when, on entering the final compulsory stop of Lowestoft, my co-skipper, the late Colin de Mowbray, unilaterally and suddenly, decided that Brighton was a far better run ashore...!
The 1993 RBR race was another notable event for me. That was the year in which I had had built the third of my four Black Velvets, this one a gaff-rigged Tradewind 35. Notable, too, as my son, Hamish was the youngest ever co-skipper while also becoming known for his bagpipe playing as we entered and left each of the four stops. We were the last to finish but it had all been so enjoyable!
But I have jumped forward in time. In 1978 I was posted to the Falkland Islands. My orders as the officer commanding a small Royal Marines detachment, were to plan the defence of Port Stanley rather than, as hitherto and farcically, rushing off with the detachment across the bare countryside to play guerrilla warfare against any invading force. This, to my mind, made it necessary to study the beaches and inter-island passages, not only to gauge where an enemy might land but where, also, a British force might do so in response.
Although I had under command a 150-ton motor vessel it was much more fun to survey the coastlines under sail. So, with good luck a passing, cement-built, Colin Archer ketch, Capricornus, was briefly pressed into service. What a joy it was to explore a few of those unspoilt, unvisited waters under canvas. The result was a 120-page, A4 notebook crammed with pilotage notes and sketches plus 1,000 or so photographs and the very few Admiralty charts that covered the archipelago, all dating from the 1830s, on which I had scribbled dozens more observations.
Returning home, I posted the whole package to the Chief Hydrographer of the Royal Navy who swiftly sent it back with a curt note explaining that ‘These are the amateur jottings of an itinerant yachtsman and are of no interest to this department.’ I have to admit, rather immodestly, that three years later during the Falklands War those ‘amateur jottings’ were classified Secret and became quite useful!
On my retirement from the Royal Marines after 32 years in 1992, my third Black Velvet was built specifically for high latitude exploring and certainly not for speed. She was strengthened around the waterline, was gaff rigged, filled with extra ballast to compensate, fitted with a robust heating system and space for two and a half tons of ‘cargo’. Unsurprisingly she could set no spinnaker but, instead, crossed a 26-foot squares’l spar.
For five seasons (and more than once during a summer) this Black Velvet (by then a commercially registered sailing vessel) was hired by the Devon Wildlife Trust to take four ornithologists at a time into the western approaches seeking the elusive Wilsons Petrel - known to the Trust as willy-watching patrols. This was hard work as the ‘birders’ refused to take any part in running the yacht or such chores as cooking and washing up. I drew the line when vegans began appearing. It was only thanks to the Trust that Black Velvet was (most reluctantly) fitted with GPS following a complaint that my fixes with sextant, hand bearing compass and Walker Log were not accurate enough. Really!
In retirement I began writing books as well as sailing. In the mid-1990s, while exploring up and down the Gironde Estuary while researching my biography of Blondie Hasler and Operation Frankton (the Cockleshell Heroes – a term he hated!) I had a never-to-be-repeated exercise (except in a 12,000-ton warship - as I had earlier done!) in Black Velvet. The Gironde estuary ebb tide is no joke.
Throughout most of my ownership of this third Black Velvet I held an annual ‘Biscay booze cruise – and no marinas’ with three like-minded friends from Pangbourne and the Royal Marines days. For many reasons that should not need an explanation, none of these ‘adventures’ made it in to Roving Commissions!
In 1997, Hamish and I entered the RWYC’s two-handed Iceland Race. Unlike the other stripped-out competitors, we were laden with skis, sledges, climbing ropes, crampons, ice axes, 15 pairs of climbing boots, three months of basic food and the same of sealed, bonded stores. We certainly used up the planned ‘cargo’ spaces - and more. Having collected some climbers in Reykjavik we then dumped them back again after a week for the storis was too thick for us to reach the east Greenland coast. Hamish and I then cruised the last five, un-surveyed fjords of Iceland’s dramatically indented north-west coast.
In these fjords was the solitude and peace we both so enjoyed. Not another vessel, no inane chatter on any of the VHF channels, and no mobile signal. Just stunning scenery, wildlife galore, a useful task to complete and enough ‘impact hydrography’ to keep our chart work interesting - and up-to-date! Similar to exploring those other islands ‘down south’.
Following two more Icelandic voyages supporting climbers, plus a serious ‘scare off Iceland’s inhospitable southern coast in a southerly F11 (so ‘scary’ that it was even written up in Peter Bruce’s text book Heavy Weather Sailing), I looked for a change and decided that the quiet and peace of the French canals would be a suitable counter balance to a Denmark Straight ‘hooley’. Consequently, Hamish and I removed all the spars, sails, rigging and two of the three anchors from Black Velvet before heading towards the Somme.
A peaceful year followed until this idyll came to an abrupt end. On the 365thday, and in our absence, Black Velvet was burgled while moored in an immigrant town to the north east of Paris. Les voleurs also ruined the gearbox. So, with no replacement to be found she, most grudgingly, came home on a lorry. This occurred in spite of the insurance company, Pantaenius, initially refusing to pay with the amusing excuse that, “It is a pity that you do not have your spars and sails with you as you could then sail home!” Yes - about a quarter of a mile to the north and a cable to the south! Pantaenius did compensate handsomely for the stolen goods but it required the threat of a small claims court to recover the rest.
However, les voleurs did have a sense of humour. Although they took everything – bicycles, clothes, food, booze, the ship’s decanter of port, various sailing ‘medals’, all the cutlery, plates, cups, saucepans and glasses – they placed just one, unopened bottle of Tesco’s ‘cooking brandy’ neatly on the saloon table facing the companion hatch awaiting my arrival. Obviously not good enough, even for an Algerian!
Then there was a wonderfully nostalgic cruise (for me!) navigating Skip Novak’s 70-foot sloop, Pelagic Australis, among the Falkland Islands in 2003. Other memorable experiences included the satisfaction of tabulating the underwater profile of Friendship Bay’s beach in Bequia; the sobering experience of rounding Land’s End at 25 knots in the late Mike McMullen’s radical trimaran Three Cheers during a December gale; the navigational conundrum involved in the search for USS Bonnehomme Richard in 1979; and a trans-Atlantic record attempt in Robin Knox-Johnston’s huge catamaran Sea Falcon in 1983.
In 2006 I was privileged to be a trustee of Blondie Hasler’s revolutionary, junk-rigged Jester. With Mike Richey’s ‘retirement’, we needed to find a new owner for the exact replica who would not alter her rig or fit an engine. Once Trevor Leek (whom I knew from a Round Britain Race) had bought Jester he came to me and asked, “Now what do I do with her?”
Such a famous vessel could not be allowed to slide into obscurity. We decided to lay down a challenge based on Blondie’s original proposal. Privately saddened by the way commercialism and professionalism had begun to swamp his ideas, he had decided to run a ‘Series Two’ race closer to his original concept. It never came to fruition. Now was the perfect time to resurrect it and give Hassler’s ‘race’ back to the Corinthians. The idea was spurred by the decision to ban yachts under 30-feet from entering most modern trans-oceanic races, making a mockery of those four (out of five starters) under 30-footers that finished in 1960 – the only year with 100% finishers. By then even Jester, which had initiated the whole business, was not allowed to compete.
The Jester Challenge emerged. Each year in turn it goes to Newport Rhode Island, Terceira in the Azores or Baltimore in Eire). Most emphatically, this is not a race but merely an ‘old fashioned’ experiment in personal responsibility, self-sufficiency and self-reliance in vessels strictly under 30-feet. A cruise in company perhaps? There are no inspections, no entrance fees and no prizes. It is a truly amateur event and involves a most eclectic gang of wonderful skippers of all nationalities, ages, backgrounds, sexes, professions and experience who you will not meet elsewhere.
To begin with the yachting press was more than cynical and warned of dire failures and horrendously dangerous rescues. Yet, as members of the Royal Cruising Club in particular will appreciate, if you give responsibility to experienced, mature skippers and not to a rule-bound inspection team, the results can be illuminating. To date, and after 16 years, we have not so far (touch wood) had a fatality (nor ever a call for help). How many over-regulated, oceanic races can make that claim...? It is a fine example, indeed, of Uncle Pat’s dictum ‘seamanship not showmanship’!
My fourth and final Black Velvet, a 30-foot Cornish Crabber, is by far my favourite simply because she was ideal for our growing grandchildren yet equally suitable for a single-handed, fading grandfather! Sadly, the end came rather unexpectedly in 2021, when I fell in from the dinghy and was trapped, upside down, over the side. As earlier, I was able to kick off of my oversized boots and struggle to safety on the bank. Clearly the time had come, so she was sold to a good home - but one on the North Sea coast. I do not envy her that!
Now, as I haul down my RYS burgee, it is with regret that there is no more opportunity to detail the day Claire Francis filled the first Black Velvet’s water tank with draught Guinness. Or the time during a channel fog when, at dawn, we found a steamer’s log line and ‘fish’ wrapped around Olga’s topmast forestay. Nor even of how Patricia, while I was in the Mediterranean, slipped a fiver to a Millbay Dock crane driver and so ‘stole’ the first Black Velvet from the builder’s asset strippers (off whom I eventually bought her) so that she could take part in the 1974 Round Britain Race rather than be sold behind my back
And I have not even mentioned the 70-knot ‘snake boat’ chases across Hong Kong’s darkened and debris-strewn waters. Or the 13 winters spent in Arctic Norway developing small boat operations in support of the commando brigade (skills that became so valuable in 1982). Or the cat-and-mouse operations on the rivers and lakes of Northern Ireland during the ‘Troubles.’ Nor, sadly, is there space for all the hundreds of amusing, frightening, instructive, adventurous incidents since my very ‘nautical’ christening in a snow-bound Nissen hut all those years ago.
So there we are. It is now high time that I lowered the blue ensign, hoisted the riding light, poured the gin and raised a toast to what has been a truly ‘glorious ride’!
 On leaving an appointment an admiral (which I am not!) is required to forward to the Commander in Chief his last report, written as his pennant is finally hauled down.
 Later General Sir Norman and elected a Naval Member of the Royal Cruising Club and of the Royal Yacht Squadron.
 Elected a Naval Member of the Royal Cruising Club in 1932.
 For which the Ocean Cruising Club gave me their Award of Merit.
 Later renamed the Round Britain and Ireland race.
 I had joined, aged 28, just a few months earlier and did not join the Royal Cruising Club for another two years.
 For which the RCC kindly presented me with the first of two Goldsmith Exploration Awards while, rather surprisingly, the Association of Yachting Journalists elected me Yachtsman of the Year for 1982.
 Sea ice.
 For which, very kindly, the RCC presented me with the Goldsmith Exploration award for the second time and the Royal Yacht Squadron the Camrose Trophy and the second of two engraved Rolex watches.