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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
In the morning, success
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
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
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