YM looks back at the life of former editor, Des Sleightholme

Des Sleightholme was born in Lincolnshire in September 1920, the son of an agricultural engineer who had never got over losing the family farm to the bank, and a mother who was not going to let bankruptcy spoil appearances.

By the time he was 14 the family had moved 12 times from Lincolnshire to addresses scattered throughout Yorkshire, Somerset, Devon and Hampshire, as his father, Percy, was alternatively fired from jobs he was not suited to, or walked out of jobs he hated.

Des’s mother, Kathleen – known by the nickname Hicky – dominated. Nobody ever questioned her judgement. ‘Somebody had to be the skipper,’ Des told YM in an interview two years ago. Aided by their Catholic faith the family struggled on.

Des was given a home-made easel by his father and a 30-year-old, incomplete correspondence course on how to become an artist – one which had not worked for Percy!

Perhaps unsurprisingly Des won only two certificates, one for swimming 50 yards and another for taking third prize in a guinea pig contest. ‘It was not the documentation with which to face the world,’ he said.

Des’s first glimpse of the sea was at Redcar, Yorks when he was taken there with his sister on a family outing. But it was to be many years before he got some sailing in, at the age of 15, with boyhood friend ‘Spoofer’ Murray.

Des got a job in a boatyard on the Isle of Wight and with Spoofer (so-named because he was such a ‘lying bugger’) Des started exploring the creeks of the Solent in leaky old dinghies. Soon Des was delivering yachts as well – though only the ‘cheaper’ ones.

Despite their eccentricities the Sleightholme tribe had great virtues – it was a very ‘literary’ home, both parents read a lot and discussed books and Des found he could write – he is the author of seven books on sailing.

Des progressed from his boat-yard job and his occasional delivery trips to becoming an instructor in seamanship at the Outward Bound Sea School. From there he became a charter skipper and a founder member of the Island Cruising Club (named after its location on Island Street in Salcombe, Devon). With them Des skippered the 50-ton Edwardian schooner Hoshi, and the Brixham trawler Provident. In these heavy craft Des took charter parties around the Channel Islands, across to Brittany, Normandy and into the Bay of Biscay, through the Chenal du Four and the Raz de Sein.

Des lived for sailing and loved every minute of it, but when his wife Joyce fell pregnant with their daughter Michelle he was forced off the charter scene to find a regular job with a living wage. He landed a job with Yachts & Yachting and swapped the deep water of the West Country for the shoals of the Thames Estuary at Leigh-on-Sea in Essex. ‘I had never worked in an office. I was a caged bird. It would take more than a little mirror and sprig of millet to comfort me.’ But for Y&Y Des signed up as a stand-by crew with the RORC and soon was at sea on Harwich to Hook race. He went on to sail in six Fastnets.

Des – known as JDS (his first name is John) on Y&Y because editor Bill Smart would not allow by-lines – made all his mistakes on Y&Y but learnt the hard way. When he got the length of a cable wrong the editor, Bill Smart, made him write out 20 times : ‘ A cable is a cable is a cable.’ It was published in letter form signed : ‘Des Sleightholme’s homework.’

Des went on to edit Yachting Monthly, after first taking the deputy’s job following an interview in the Savoy by the legendary Maurice Griffiths, who was himself then in the editor’s chair.

Des went on to run a series called ; ‘The Skipper’s Weekend’ in which readers would join a cruise from Salcombe to Plymouth and ‘things would happen on the way.’ Man Overboards, Maydays, and Abandon Ships pre-arranged by letting off a thunderflash in a galvanised bucket had the poor reader shaken to the core. ‘But something, some lesson always came out of it,’ said Des.

Des’s team took people out into the Channel and made them wear ‘foggles’ – spectacles with dimmed glass lenses giving a sense of being in fog ( an invention Percy would have been proud of !) They then set the wearer navigational tests. Gas leaks were contrived by dropping fresh onion rings around the cabin sole. They even had a scuba-diver on hand to see how different anchors gripped the sea-bed in different conditions. Des feels many of the old ways of seafaring are becoming lost to the modern day yachtsman who sails from ‘marina to marina.’

The efforts Des spent as a youth at his father’s DIY easel did pay off in the end – it helped him create cartoons for YM including the Old Harry series about an old salt who, not unlike Captain Pugwash, gets by more through luck than judgement.

After retiring from Yachting Monthly in 1985, Des, continued to contribute to YM’s Sea Sense column and who also wrote a column for Classic Boat, moved from his home in Suffolk back to Devon – scene of his earlier years with the ICC.

There was another reason for this – his daughter Michelle – who had started sailing instruction with the club had moved to Salcombe. She still lives there, though now she works with special needs schoolchildren.

In his last years Des loved walking up on Bolt Tail, watching the passing yachts and tut-tutting if they used their engines instead of the tide.