Memories of the hard old days of sail


These wonderful autumn days have been ideal for drying sails. I was able to leave my genoa hanging limply in the sun while moored at St Katharine’s Dock. When it was dry I unbent it and packed it below, replacing it with the yankee jib.
Soon I noticed a sailing barge following suit: the Phoenician was airing her canvas and drawn closer for a look I noticed the barge alongside her: the Will. And here’s an excuse for a salty yarn.
The Will, was built and traded as the sailing barge Will Everard. Her most famous skipper was the late Jimmy Uglow. Many years ago I interviewed him for a biography I wrote about Britain’s last sailing skipper, Bob Roberts (The Last Sailorman, Terence Dalton, 1989).
I taped the interview and Jimmy can be heard creaking forward to tap the ash off his cigarette, from a specially sprung chair: to all intents and purposes it could be the rigging of an old barge rocking to her warps in the background.
Jimmy was a hard skipper and not very popular with his three-strong crew. Once bound up Channel to the Thames from Southampton, Jimmy climbed over the stem-head and down onto the anchor stock to try and clear a fouled line from the jib which had caught up round the bobstay. The barge was surging along under all sail when sudddenly the anchor chain slipped on the windlass and Jimmy was plunged into the Channel. ‘For a moment my nose was pressed hard against the stem and only my trilby was above the waterline then the anchor slipped again and I was gone,’ he told me. He made an incredible journey banging along beneath the barge’s bottom , managed to grab the rudder locking chain as he cleared her transom and climbed back up the rudder and over the bulwarks. He found the crew literally jumping for joy still up on the foredeck: ‘The skipper’s gorn, the skipper’s gorn’ they shouted while dancing round in a circle.
‘No he hasn’t, you little buggers, now get back to work,’ growled the old shellback as the crew almost collapsed in disbelief.
They don’t ‘born ’em’ like that anymore!