Jonty Pearce takes a look at how the Penguin Cruising Club all began...
Maybe I should explain further in case by any chance readers of these pages think that I have finally been ejected from the confines of my mind. I am not referring to some fantasy huddle of Penguins in icy climes who gather to elect a Penguin President (though they do have an Emperor), Secretary (using squid ink?) and Treasurer (I’m sure their accounts are frozen, anyway). No, I refer to the Penguin Cruising Club (www.penguin.org.uk), whose AGM and Ceilidh I have just enjoyed. I am honoured to have been Commodore of this very active land-locked club, and continue to pen its newsletter. Gladly, this year the snow held off and we had a full and active party. Some readers might have heard of ‘Penguin’ and some might even be member, but for those to whom the name is novel I will summarise our story.
‘PENGUIN SAILING’ did not really start as a club. It had neither a written constitution, nor affiliations, nor subscriptions, nor any sort of clubhouse. What it had was enterprise, enthusiasm, a burgee, and a history going back to before 1970. Founder Kevin Walton, then on the staff at BRNC Dartmouth, sailed one of the college’s yachts, Pegasus, back from Norway after a Tall Ships race in 1968 through the Caledonian Canal, continuing down the West coast of Scotland and the Irish Sea and thence home to Dartmouth. Kevin had long been a devotee of the West of Scotland but had never seen it from the sea before. The Walton family duly borrowed a yacht from a family friend in 1970 and cruised for 3 weeks, and the seed of an idea was born in Kevin’s brain.
Having moved to work for Malvern College he put forward the idea of an ‘alternative’ CCF summer camp – sailing in several charter boats for a week at a time. Right at that early stage the value of sailing as a flotilla was understood for sociability and, perhaps above all, for safety. The problem in 1970 was finding any boats to charter that far North. The first cruises saw an ill-matched pair set forth – a 52ft Gaff rigged ketch and a 32ft modern sloop. With various lads from Malvern College on board plus as ever, a number of Kevin’s friends and family caught up by his infectious enthusiasm, the cruise was successful. Easter sailing offered a unique experience and our organisation has sailed on the West Coast of Scotland every Easter time since 1971.
While cruising off Mull in 1972 Kevin and his crew hit on the idea of forming an official club. But what to call it? Being just off Staffa at the time, the club was logically declared to be the Fingal Club. A search of the vegetable locker found a cabbage, some carrots and a couple of other vegetables whose provenance has been lost in the mists of time. They were duly all stuck together with sausage sticks to form a mythical animal, the ‘FINGAL’. Burgees were sewn up showing this worthy beast which were flown on all cruises until 1976 when an alliance with Robin Lunn, a teacher at Glenalmond college, who had been sharing the organisational load came to an end. After the split, Kevin and Malvern College decided to revert to the previous formula under the new name of Penguin Cruising, reflecting the number of members who rank as ‘FIDS’. A Fid is one who has served in the Antarctic with the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey or with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).
So, once or twice a year Kevin took a deep breath and chartered two or three yachts. He then proceeded to invite skippers, mates and crew to join for one or more weeks sailing off the west coast of Scotland. The cost of a Cruise was shared equally by all taking part. In 1986 it was £100 a week each for everything except travel to Mallaig. Since then, the club has grown like Topsy, though the principles remain the same. Penguins now travel worldwide and Cruises have included Maine, BVI, Mallorca, Greece and Turkey, The Norfolk Broads, Ireland, The Lofotens, and The Faeroes.
As in the early days, a social gathering was expected so a group of Penguins meet every January.
When the structure of the club became more formal with the formation of ‘Penguin Cruising Ltd’, a committee doubled as a board of directors, a constitution was written, and an AGM became mandatory. Colwall Village hall was chosen as the venue as that was where Kevin, our first formal club Commodore, lived – right across the road from me. It was inevitable that I would get involved…
What makes Penguin different from any other cruising organisations? Firstly, the club owns nothing. We have enough money in a bank account to put down deposits for the forthcoming season’s cruises – but that is our only material asset. Our overheads are thus minimal which has allowed the annual club membership fee to stay low – £7.50. The costs of our cruises are still remarkably cheap by any standard – largely because no-one gets a free or even a cheap cruise, unless they are a youngster on one of our sponsored places. Even the commodore afloat and skippers, all taking on considerable responsibility, pay the full fee. Nobody gets paid anything, yet we are never short of volunteers.
Penguins come from all backgrounds, are of all ages and seem to have a knack of getting on remarkably well for a week at a time in surprisingly primitive and cramped conditions. It is a very different organisation from the efforts of the early 1970’s, yet in many ways it is remarkably unchanged and can truly claim to have stuck to the club’s original aim: ‘To introduce as many people as possible, and as economically as possible, to the pleasures of cruising under sail’. Kevin Walton died in 2009. He had lived an amazingly full and varied life and had achieved a lot more than most people during his 90 years. But to the very end he maintained that one of the proudest achievements of his life was to have started Penguin Cruising, and one of his greatest pleasures as he grew older was to watch ‘Penguin’ grow and develop. He did his final cruise a month short of his 85th birthday – it is important to remember how much we owe to this remarkable man.