Many of us sail bigger boats now than we ever dreamed of, but good seamanship is still required, whatever kit you have, says Tom Cunliffe


Easter is upon us again, reminding me of the first time I crossed the Channel as skipper of my own boat. My wife and I set out for Cherbourg from Hamble on Good Friday in our 22-foot centreboarder, built in 1932 with a freeboard measured in inches rather than feet. Her power unit was a 4hp Stuart Turner, which, as any old hand will tell you, was about as much use as nothing at
all. We knew little, we had no oilskins, no radio, and navigation was by dead
reckoning, but we managed well enough outward bound, making the passage overnight so as to pick up the lighthouses at dawn for a fix.

Coming home was a different matter. A stiff breeze filled in from the north and as we beat into the ever-rising seas, the centreboard case, which was open at the top like a dinghy’s, began to squirt gallons of water into the cabin. Our dainty brass stirrup pump kept us afloat but by the time we finally bore away up the Needles Channel I’d been at the helm for 24 hours and was in such a state I thought the Bridge Buoy – black in those days – was a yacht with a flashing light at the masthead. My wife, on her first passage, had kept me going by passing up hot water bottles to stuff up my jumper. We had much to learn.

‘The twin essences of seamanship are self-help and simplicity’

These days many of us sail bigger yachts than we ever dreamed of in our youth. Our horizons broaden in proportion with waterline length and engine power. It’s a delight, therefore, to find that people still go cruising in boats with passage plans revolving around 80 or maybe a 100 miles in 24 hours rather than the 150 many of us now look to with confidence.

One of the jobs I perform for Queen and Country is to be half of a panel of two who judge the Old Gaffers Association Cape Horn Trophy. The criteria for this award are loose but they boil down to exemplary seamanship. The world today is so full of super-heroes executing impossibly fast passages in three-legged machines on foils, that reading well-crafted logs of simple trips made without fuss in ordinary boats makes a refreshing change. This year, two citations stood out.

The runner-up, with ‘special mention in dispatches’, was Clive Robertson for his extraordinary athleticism and quick thinking when a line on an Essex smack slipped its pin. One thing then led to another, as we all know too well that it can. The line somehow snagged the hatch boards over the fish hold and flipped them up. A baby was asleep underneath and tragedy seemed inevitable until Clive, in defiance of Newton’s Laws, somehow grabbed the heavy boards before they could fall onto the little lad below. His action probably saved the baby’s life.

Had the trophy been awarded like a military medal for courage in the field, Clive would have carried the day. Instead, with overall seamanship in mind, the award went to Roy Hart for a cruise to St Malo and back to Burnham in his 19ft half-decked Memory class gaffer, Greensleeves. Roy coped with winds nudging gale force, handled calms and rode the mighty tides of the St Malo bight with quiet aplomb. Then he brought his tiny ship home again up-Channel, past tide-gate after tide-gate, through the Dover Strait and finally across the Thames Estuary without incident.

Roy describes Greensleeves as boasting ‘two seven-foot berths, a cooker and sink, a red and black bucket, plus a good sail wardrobe’. His log also mentions a number of modifications
to the boat’s standard fit-out, all inexpensive and executed in a seamanlike manner. The twin essences of seamanship have always been self-help and simplicity. You don’t have to be rich to go to sea for pleasure. Roy has 52 years of experience, yet his joy is still a pocket-sized boat, well found and well sailed. Would that I could have sat at his feet all those years ago.

Tom Cunliffe