The nicest thing ...
Mar 01, 2006 by Capt.-John-Campbell

The nicest thing that ever happened to me in yachting did not concern financial gain, did not involve beating other people in a race, nor did it cause any records to be broken. It simply meant that a bunch of kids were allowed to succeed in a small adventure.

In 1967, soon after leaving university, three of us bought an old gaff cutter; myself, my girlfriend Judy, and my ex-flatmate, Mick. Judy and I had decided that a traditional boat would not only give us more pleasure to own, but would teach us a lot more than perhaps a more modern boat ever could. Nothing but a traditional gaff cutter would satisfy us.

After a bit of searching we found Gypsy, a traditional gaff cutter built about 1908. Her origins were a little hazy, but the story we liked to believe was that she was built as a "Gin Ship" to carry bootleg liquor to offshore fishing fleets. She had to sail well to be able to outrun the revenue cutters. From the waterline up she looked a lot like a "Nobby" – the famous sailing-prawners of Morecambe Bay – but she drew a couple of feet more, which certainly helped her sailing performance.

We bought the boat for the princely sum of 1,000 pounds ($1,500) and hauled her out at the fledgling marina in Glasson Dock, on the fringes of Morecambe Bay in northwest England. We had a survey and she was deemed to be acceptable, so we clinched the deal. We did not have enough money left to re-launch her, so she lay ashore for about six months while we worked on her with every available hour. Our plan was to have her fit and ready to launch in time to sail to Holyhead, in North Wales, the following Easter.

Generally, a cold reception

Most of the other yacht owners looked down their collective noses at us – a bunch of young kids with an old and decrepit boat. There was one old chap though who treated us a bit more kindly. He was a retired Air Force Wing-Commander, with a nice, well-found motoryacht. Wing-Commander Ambler never patronized us; he never told us what to do, but he did take an interest in the proceedings and he liked to ask us slightly pointed questions, delicately probing the depth of our collective knowledge.

As I recall, it was he who found the two retired fishermen who had spent their working life fishing under sail. He got them to teach us how to set up the dead-eyes and lanyards of the rigging. As launch day drew near, he gently asked about our plans.

We would launch a couple of weeks before Easter, but would really have just one weekend in which to make sailing trials, before the big (for us) voyage of almost a hundred miles. A day-trip out from Glasson Basin is all but impossible – one has to lock in and out, and the lock operates only near high-water. The approach channel was not one we could undertake in the dark, so our first venture out would have to be overnight.

You have to remember that this was 1967. There was little in the way of electronic navigation aids available. We did have a battery-powered echo-sounder with a revolving neon light that required a degree of "interpretation" in its readings; however, we found the lead-line was more reliable and usually more accurate.

We also had a radio direction finder – a radio receiver with an external antenna that gave a bearing of suitably equipped lighthouses. But that was it. We had no electricity; the navigation lights, cabin lights and cooking were all run on kerosene. Very few yachts had radar in those days; in fact, in the whole marina, only Wing-Commander Ambler’s boat had radar. Marine VHF had yet to be invented, cell phones had not even been dreamed of and satellite navigation systems were still in the distant future.

There were no certificates required for sailing yachts; no safety inspections nor other legislation affecting yachts. Still, we took our survival pretty seriously, and Judy and I had both been to night school and, much to the obvious relief of our mentor, we both knew how to navigate with a sextant, and could calculate the tides quickly and accurately.

The boat was eventually as ready as time and money would allow. We launched and made preparations for our weekend sea trials, the weekend before Easter. Again, the Wing-Commander asked a few probing questions. Where would we anchor for the night? What would be the time of low water? What would the depth of the water be at low tide in our chosen spot? There are big tides in Morecambe Bay – about 20 feet in many places – and as any true sailor knows, there is always a spring tide close to Easter, so the tides would be at their biggest.

We got through the lock and down the channel without any big scares, and hoisted sail for the very first time. That was exciting in itself. We were blessed with gentle winds, calm seas and a good forecast, and had a great sail across the 10 or 15 miles to Peel Island on the north side of Morecambe Bay.

None of us slept much that night, but it was more out of excitement than fear. The following day, we returned safely up the channel and locked up into the basin, ready to be debriefed by the Wing-Commander.

No fear of a Friday

The following weekend was the big one. We were listening to every available forecast during the week, keeping our collective fingers crossed that we would get suitable weather for the overnight passage down to Holyhead.

Eschewing the superstition about not sailing on a Friday, we locked out of the basin on Good Friday itself. We shared the lock with the Wing-Commander, who was heading out for the weekend with his family. He wished us bon voyage, and we chugged off down the channel to the open expanse of Morecambe Bay and the Irish Sea itself.

We cleared the bay and set a course directly for Holyhead. We had to cross Liverpool Bay and the approaches to the Mersey; in those days, a very busy shipping area. To begin, we had a fair wind and made great progress. But as luck would have it, just as we approached the main shipping channel into Liverpool, two things happened: The wind dropped and thick fog enveloped us.

We did have a radar reflector, but our foghorn, to put it kindly, was inadequate. It was a mouth-operated trumpet affair that had started life in the hands of a Greek train guard. Don’t ask. Even when blown by a pair of frightened lungs, it could perhaps be heard a hundred yards away, at best. We drifted slowly to a halt, listening to the tump-tump-tump-tump of passing ships; some louder than others, but each and every one served to tighten our collective sphincter muscles.

We had a bit of a dilemma. The engine was a recalcitrant beast, which on a good day took at least 5 minutes to start; it was quite a rigmarole to say the least. So if we saw the bows of a ship looking out of the fog, there would not be time to start it. The alternative was to start the engine and motor on our course. That may seem the blindingly obvious thing to do, but the engine was quite noisy, and so we would not be able to hear the approaching vessels.

We eventually decided to motor, and at least this would minimize the time we would spend in the main shipping channel, but it was quite scary, being deaf as well as blind, with only the Greek railway horn doing its pitiful best to advise the world of our presence.

In the morning, success

In the morning, success

All inclement weather eventually comes to an end, and finally the fog lifted without us getting run down. The rest of the passage was largely uneventful, and we all logged our first overnight passage.

Just before dawn we sighted the lights of Anglesey, and found our way into Holyhead without even resorting to the sextant. We were quietly pleased with how well our dead-reckoning navigation had coped with the vagaries of the currents off Liverpool, and our few hours of being becalmed. We picked up the mooring with great satisfaction and contentment.

The next day, Easter Sunday, we decided to sail down the coast to meet with some friends in another bay.

We had been sailing along for a couple of hours when we were startled by the hoot of a vessel overtaking us. Who should it be but the Wing-Commander and his family.

They circled us once, took lots of pictures and waved goodbye. That was actually the last time that I ever saw him. He died just a few short years after that Easter.

About 15 years and lots of sailing later, I was in England visiting my parents, and in a fit of nostalgia, drove up to Glasson Basin for a visit. The marina had expanded enormously, but Charlie the yard manager was still there.

He remembered me, and over a cup of thick Lancashire tea, we reminisced about Gypsy, which we had sold long ago, and discussed our adventure. I told Charlie that we had by chance met the Wing-Commander off the coast of Anglesey, after our big voyage.

He laughed, and told me that despite all the quizzing and checking up on us, the old Wing-Commander had still been a bit nervous about us making the trip to Wales. What he had done was to lurk about 10 or 12 miles behind us, out of sight, but following our every move on his radar.

If there had been a problem, he would have been there to help us, but he had the graciousness to stay out of sight, and let us have our adventure on our own, or so we thought. A real gentleman to the last.

I hope that some day I can repay the debt, and be as helpful and considerate to some other person who is starting out on their own adventure.

Contact Capt. John Campbell through editorial@the-triton.com.

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