Peter Willis reviews Man the Ropes, the republished autobiography of explorer, naval officer and yachtsman, Augustine Courtauld

Man the Ropes
Augustine Courtauld
Golden Duck, £11.99

Duet, the graceful Edwardian yawl, has been a familiar sight on the East Coast for many decades.

Her presence, as the UK’s longest-serving sail-training yacht, is the ultimate responsibility of the man who named her: Augustine Courtauld.

In 1930-31 he spent five months alone in a tent on the Greenland ice-cap, completing a meteorological survey, sustained partly by mentally designing his ideal yacht.

When he came back he happily discovered she already existed, designed by Linton Hope, and was for sale.

‘August’, who went on to help found the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in World War II, was the classic English adventurer – fearless, loyal, and above all self-deprecating, with a dry sense of humour and a droll, laconic delivery that makes this book a rare delight.

As a young man Courtauld describes himself as having ‘no use’ for girls and considering them ‘rather a nuisance’.

When he fell in love with the ‘tall, slender and very pretty’ Mollie Montgomerie he invited her (with her chaperone) for a sailing holiday on his friend Frank Carr’s Cariad.

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The domestic arrangement left something to be desired.

Cariad was still as she was built in 1904. There were no sheets, only somewhat smelly blankets. In order to save water, I used to inspect the basin every morning after the girls had washed: if the water was clean enough to serve another turn, they were made to use it again. The men, of course, just didn’t wash.’

At the end of the holiday, he asked Mollie to marry him. Apparently ‘it didn’t go down too well.’

Fortunately for Courtauld she eventually relented and became a valued helmswoman, particularly when racing in light airs.

Later chapters describe their family life at Spencers in Essex with their six children.

August Courtauld sailed Duet hard – there’s a harrowing tale of a gale in the Bay of Biscay – and when he had to swallow the anchor, he handed her on to his son Rev.

Christopher Courtauld (benefactor of many sailing charities) who cruised her extensively with his own friends and family, then used her to set up the Ocean Youth Club, and later handed her on permanent loan to the Cirdan Sailing Trust.

This new edition of his autobiography, originally published in 1957, is embellished with helpful fore- and after-words and is part of its publisher’s growing collection celebrating the role of ‘yachtsmen volunteers’ in the Second World War.

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