Former builder Pat Boon has been fascinated by boats since childhood. He welcomes Bob Aylott aboard his 26ft Westerly Griffon, sings him a poem and tells him about his love of solo sailing
I’m in Folkestone Harbour, searching for Nice Lady of Purbeck, a Westerly Griffon. It’s blowing a Force 8 as I gingerly slide across the mud and then, through the gloom and the gale, I hear the sound of someone crooning along to a ukulele. That’s the clue I need.
I climb a dodgy-looking stern ladder and shout, ‘Ahoy, anyone there?’ Unfortunately, singing poet Pat Boon can’t hear me over the climax of the sea shanty he’s currently murdering. Eventually he removes the washboards, looks out at the horizontal rain and beckons me down below. ‘High tide is at 1300,’ he says. ‘I’m okay two hours either side, but even with water we won’t be going far in this.’
The 26ft Griffon, designed by Ed Dubois and launched at the 1979 Southampton Boat Show, was the replacement for the extremely popular Centaur. However, loyal customers demanded an extra 50 Centaurs before the final one was laid to rest in August 1980. By the end of the production run, in 1989, 450 Griffons had been sold. Most had bilge keels, although some deep fin keel models (4ft 9in/1.45m draught) were also built. Hull no. 149, Nice Lady of Purbeck, is a Mark I model built in 1980 and launched in 1981.
The Griffon is roomier than I expect, and, with a mahogany interior, she has a comfortable, homely feel. There is a pull-out chart table to port. The galley to starboard is a bit cramped, but Pat has added stowage above the engine box and its cover provides extra work surface area. Pat makes some tea and offers to sing me another poem while we wait for the tide. I politely make my excuses, but throw him a lifeline and agree to a reading later.
72-year-old Pat, a former south London builder, tells me boats have always been a part of his life. ‘When I was five years old, my dad made me a wooden boat for the bath,’ he says. ‘Then, when I was at school in the 1950s, a pal and I built our first boat. We commandeered the wood from a mate’s dad, wrapped it in rubberised canvas from an army surplus store, and launched it on Clapham Common pond.’
In the 1970s, Pat built two small motorboats and began cruising the Kent and Dutch coasts. Soon bored with motoring, he bought his first sailing yacht in 1980. Lilaud was a 21ft Audacity designed by Laurent Giles. ‘I’d only ever sailed dinghies on the River Thames at Deptford,’ Pat says, ‘but I’d cruised The Netherlands in a motorboat so I stupidly thought I’d take her to Holland and learn to sail there. By the time I crossed the English Channel and sailed along the coasts of France, Belgium and The Netherlands, I had well and truly learned how to sail.’ Next was Zingaro, a 23ft bilge-keeled Westerly Pageant that Pat moved from Gosport to a long-term mooring in Boulogne.
‘It wasn’t as crazy as you may think,’ he says. ‘These were the days when a day-trip on the Sea Cat from Folkestone to Boulogne cost £1 and the French mooring was half the price of Folkestone.’ Pat would leave home on Friday night with no luggage, spend a weekend on the boat and buy a 10-franc return on Sunday night.
Now cruising officer for the Folkestone Yacht Club, he bought his 26ft Griffon, Nice Lady of Purbeck, for £15,000 in 1998 and tells me she will be his last boat. ‘Most of my sailing is singlehanded,’ he says. ‘She is set up so I can do everything on my own. She’s big enough to be comfortable and small enough to squeeze into any marina, or I can bounce her up on the beach for the night. She is a totally practical boat and perfect for me.’
Pat has kept up with maintenance, and replaced the windows and headlining. He moved the instrument panel to above the companionway, added a gantry at the stern for a radome, a VHF radio aerial and a wind generator, and fitted a removable bowsprit for his cruising chute. The boat had a 15 lb CQR anchor when he bought her, but Pat has replaced it with a 20 lb Danforth and carries a traditional fisherman’s anchor as a back-up or kedge.
From Folkestone, Pat has cruised the continental coast north to Den Helder, and south as far as St Malo in north Brittany. One year he spent three months port-hopping to Cornwall. ‘I jog along like a pirate,’ he says, ‘hop in here and hop out there. I plunder the local supermarkets, re-fuel, fix any repairs and escape as fast as possible. I’m not one to wander around sightseeing for days on end.
‘On a cruise like the West Country trip, I’ll miss every other port on the way down and then stop at the missed ones on the way back. That way, I see everything.’ Every other weekend, Pat sets off for a five-hour, 25-mile trip to Boulogne. ‘On a clear day I can see the French coast as I leave Folkestone Harbour,’ he says. ‘With a strong north-east wind it’s a half-day sail. I’ll reef down, set the autopilot and never touch the tiller, except when dodging ships, when I do prefer to helm her. I can’t fault the way the Griffon handles, and if she doesn’t like what I’m doing to her, she tells me off.’
To test Lady of Purbeck and punish her crew, Pat raced her in the 2010 Round The Island Race. He takes up the story: ‘I crewed the year before on a Bénéteau First 35.7. She had everything you ever dreamed of: racing carbon mast, fin keel and a wheel like the London Eye. I decided to do it in my boat the following year. We crossed the start line 20 minutes late, but got the gun. The westerly wind was coming over the island and it caused an inshore wind shadow, so I stayed on the mainland side. I stole the wind and passed dozens of yachts. Then, once round the south of the island, we poled out the headsail, put the weight of the four crew members aft and were off like a rocket.’
At Ventnor, an official marshal’s RIB shot out and circled them closely to check they weren’t running the engine. ‘Our time was 11 hours and a few minutes,’ Pat says. ‘Overall we were number 464 out of 1,778, and mid-way down our class. It wasn’t bad, considering we were the Black Flag Brigade – the last odds and sods.’
He pokes his head up through the companionway and shouts down to me, ‘Don’t get excited, this little ship’s not going sailing today.’ The skipper’s decision is final. We will instead have an evening of poetry recitals and song.
When we wake with the morning sun, the gale has passed and it’s all go. The incoming tide slowly lifts Lady of Purbeck’s twin keels out of the mud. Moving gently, she regains her independence. The 20hp diesel engine roars into life, scattering the gulls. Pat clears the lines, manoeuvres around the small fishing fleet and heads for the harbour entrance. A perfect sunrise ignites a strip of red fire that sweeps the length of the French coast.
Dropping the sprayhood gives us clear, all-round vision, although a shorter helmsman may have to stand to see over the cabin top. Pat assures me we have half a metre under the keel, but says: ‘Since the ferries and Sea Cats stopped running 10 years ago, the harbour has become even more silted up.’
‘In the last year alone we’ve lost more than a foot of water,’ he explains. ‘Every year the harbour bed shifts. There’s a metre difference in heights on the bed. Instead of dredging, the harbour authority is talking about scraping it off to one level. It’s not ideal, but at least something will be done.’
We pass through the narrow entrance, checking for traffic. Once out in the bay, Pat slows the engine, hoists the mainsail and unfurls the genoa. ‘We are in the last of the ebb flowing to the west,’ he says. ‘There’s an hour before slack, when the tide starts pushing us back.’
We point our bows west along the coast, following the route of Folkestone Yacht Club’s usual five-mile race course. ‘We call it racing but it’s not serious like the Solent boys,’ Pat says. ‘We don’t even have a gun start. It’s all very gentlemanly. We race down to Hythe on the tide and then run back with the incoming tide.’
Alas, the wind is not kind to us and the English Channel is like a millpond. But the Griffon is a delight to sail when there’s wind, Pat assures me. ‘Rigged up properly, she will practically sail herself. For example, on a trip east to Dover, I can beat into an easterly Force 6-7 with two reefs in and she’s as good as gold.’
With a little help from the engine, we run the course at a painful two knots. We pass Folkestone’s waterfront buildings, including the Leas Lift, built in 1885, and the iconic lump that is the Grand Hotel. Further along and in total contrast is a futuristic glass box containing the head office of Saga, the senior citizens’ magazine.
Seeking a bit more breeze, we head out towards the traffic separation zones. ‘You hear too many scare stories about crossing the shipping lanes,’ Pat tells me. ‘I’ve had crew on board screaming about massive tankers about to mow us down. To reassure them, I’ll show them on the radar that they’re safe and that the big ship is actually about two miles away.’
As we turn back to the sanctuary of the harbour, Pat tells me that Spencer Tunick, a world-famous artist renowned for photographing large crowds of naked people, is to visit Folkestone. Rumours suggest he will use the harbour to create his new picture. Pat says he may write a poem about it, but has no plans to strip off and join 300 other locals au naturel in the mud.
‘My art is my poetry and I find inspiration in the solitude of solo sailing,’ he says. ‘I sit for hours either down below or in the cockpit with the tillerpilot on, writing poems. She makes it all happen for me. She is like a comfortable floating armchair I can always rely on.’
‘Why I keep my boat in Folkestone’
At the moment, it’s a case of the good, the bad and the ugly. Folkestone is a quaint, old-fashioned harbour suitable only for small fishing boats, bilge-keel yachts and other small craft that are able to take the ground upright. There are pubs, quayside restaurants and fresh fish stalls and it has bucket-loads of charm, character and cobblestones. The west side of the harbour has been flattened by concrete crushers in readiness for investors with deep pockets to arrive. This place hasn’t got the Brighton syndrome yet; there are no punters sitting on balconies staring at pontoons and night-time revellers.
Shelter and tidal access
The entrance is narrow and exposed to the east. In strong easterly or south-easterly winds, a nasty swell can make the approach treacherous. In a northerly or westerly, however, shelter is excellent thanks to the main breakwater. The harbour dries completely and boats can access their mooring for about two hours either side of high water, depending on their draught.
The Yacht Club
Folkestone Yacht Club was built on a bombsite given by the local council in 1953 and the bombed cottage walls are still visible in the club’s car park. It has 135 members and space for 26 members’ boats moored in the harbour. The club is a short walk from the harbour and always welcomes visiting yachtsmen. It offers a bar, changing facilities and a function room.
Boats are lifted out between October and April and there is hard-standing space in the car park. The new high-speed, 45-minute train link to London could attract the capital’s leisure sailors. A large car park adjoining the clubhouse also doubles for winter pull-out.
A mooring costs £350 per half year, but there is only a ‘waiting to die’ list available. For visiting skippers, daily mooring fees are £25 per 24 hours or part thereof, with a 10m upper limit. Don’t forget the dinghy and a wellies though or you’ll be stuck for hours.
Our verdict on the boat
What’s she like to sail?
The Griffon (especially the bilge keel model) doesn’t like to be sailed too close to the wind, but if you ease her off to around 45° apparent, a Force 4-5 breeze will have her tramping along nicely at 6 knots or more, although making some 8-10° of leeway. Under sail, her tiller is sensitive but not too prone to weather helm – despite having an unbalanced, transom-hung rudder.
She has wide sidedecks with good moulded non-slip and a full-height guardrail. Her cockpit has a spacious working area and the footwell is the right width for bracing oneself as she heels over. The wide, flat-topped coamings are high for safety and angled for comfort. There are two large drains at the aft end of the cockpit sole, along with a manual bilge pump set into the sole that can be used whilst still helming the boat. Her foredeck is uncluttered, with a simple chain-pipe to feed the anchor chain below decks and a bow roller designed to accommodate a self-stowing anchor.
The masthead sloop rig is sturdy, with a single pair of straight spreaders, cap shrouds, aft lowers, a babystay and a split backstay. Rotostay furling headsail was standard, as were cockpit-led reefing lines. The mainsheet track is on the afterdeck, but a shortish boom rather compromises the sheeting angle.
The Griffon is well known for giving a steady and reasonably brisk performance for a 26-footer. Previous experience of the model in stronger winds confirms she has a sea-kindly manner, even when pushed hard, and is easily capable of making long passages securely and in comfort.
What’s she like in port and at anchor?
If you lash the tiller to one side, six people can sit comfortably on the 2m-long (6ft 8in) cockpit seats. A good-sized sprayhood will cover the first two feet of each seat, giving the crew a sheltered place to perch. A deep cockpit locker contains the water and fuel tanks, but still has room for all the usual cruising gear. The pushpit rail has a gate for boarding via a folding transom ladder, with space each side to stow man overboard kit and an outboard motor.
She’s a nimble yacht in port and manoeuvres easily under power. Many Griffons retain their original 13hp Volvo or Bukh engines, but some have been re-engined, often with a 20hp Beta.
Down below, she’s very comfortable for two sailors and adequate for four, with a double berth in the forepeak and a double quarter berth under the cockpit. The saloon berths can serve as single berths, too, but it would be stretching it to sleep six aboard. Saloon headroom is 1.83m (6ft), but her galley is minimalist. There’s no shower, but there is an enclosed heads compartment.
Would she suit you and your crew?
The Griffon is ideal for singlehanded sailing, but she’s also a good, economical choice for a couple or a small family. Her forte is coastal cruising and short- to medium-range offshore passages. She is easy to sail and has a practical deck layout with a secure cockpit.
The hull is well-constructed, although some early bilge-keeled models did have a problem with their keel attachment and had to be reinforced by Westerly in a recall. The MkI model was a little basic and lacked the smart teak joinery of the MkII, but all Griffons are comfortable and practical, above and below decks. She isn’t a speed machine; she’s best suited to pottering along – but that’s exactly what most of us want from a cruising yacht.
Does she suit your style of sailing?
Offshore passage-making 3/5
Creek crawling 4/5
Coastal port-hopping 4/5
Trade wind voyaging 1/5
High-lattitude adventure 1/5