A packed hall at the Fleur de Lys Centre in Faversham last night applauded to the rafters a film about the brigantine Eye of the Wind put on by the Faversham Creek Trust.
It was deeply nostalgic evening for those who know the vessel, and to others, amazement at the dogged hard work, ingenuity and luck that went into creating the sailing ship we see today.
The film was provided by the well known Tall Ships master Captain Tiger Timbs, who led the Adventure Under Sail syndicate that bought her in Sweden in a sad state of repair.
Captain Timb’s film and the memories of her story recounted by people who were at Faversham during her time at the port or who sailed on board, reveal that the vessel has benefitted from many episodes of extraordinary good luck – despite the usual superstitions about changing a vessel’s name.
The narrative of the film really begins in 1970, when having had her rig removed, she was struck by fire and put on sale – it was at that point that she caught the eye of the Adventure Under Sail syndicate. However, at that point she briefly fell into the hands of owners who intended to use her as a barge – but by some luck, by early 1973 she was back on sale and the syndicate managed to find and buy her.
The group started work in the docks at Gothenburg, but despite being provided with lots of help by well-wishers, it became clear that because of the high cost of living and the limited daylight hours for working on the ship during winter, Merry as she was still known, would have to be taken to the UK.
Happily the old ship’s engine was in a condition where it could be fired up and so the group loaded ballast and set off across the North Sea… only to find that their electric system wasn’t getting enough power from the engine. The result was they had to cross the Dogger Bank at night, surrounded by fishing vessels – and arrived at Grimsby to a welcome from the Police.
The boys and girls in blue, it seems, had not unreasonably been tipped off that an unlit vessel was arriving, and would probably turn out to be full of illegal immigrants from the Indian sub-continent.
After arriving safely at Grimsby against the odds, the syndicate sourced some trees for spars from the Earl of Yarborough’s estate in North Lincolnshire, and then moved south first to St Katherine’s Dock – which proved unsuitable for the kind of work the ship needed, and then to Faversham.
It was at St Kat’s that the Adventure Under Sail syndicate met Brian ‘Sixer’ Boorman, who was then working as a sailor aboard the replica Golden Hind.
Sixer identified Faversham Creek as a more suitable location, and so that’s where Adventure Under Sail took their ship for the major work of converting it to a brigantine-rigged sailing ship. (Sixer later sailed on the ships first voyage following the work at Faversham, and has some stories to tell… )
From the film, it’s clear that the syndicate’s time at Faversham was a golden period. Certainly the work was damned hard – the video shows young fit men with muscles like Popeye’s working hard and long on the ship, and baths had to be taken at the public baths at Sittingbourne. But there was certainly plenty of fun also, not least with other people living on board boats in the Creek, and at The Anchor pub at the end of Abbey Street.
Another bonus was the skills available in Faversham, not least those provided by rigger Wally Buchanan, who planned and, with half a dozen crew, executed the ship’s 68-ft, three-ton foremast using hauly-pulley methods without the aid of a crane.
Adding the jibboom restored the intended look of the ship’s sheerline, and reinforced concrete sleepers found in an old shunting yard at Iron Wharf provided more ballast to compensate for the new rig.< Yet another stroke of luck meant that a demolished bank in the City provided panelling for the cabins, and bannisters to make guttering for the deckhouse. Much of the interior joinery was completed using rejected floor joists, and elm from trees killed by Dutch elm disease. The ship’s batteries came from a scrapped milk float.
And – great good luck again – an ex-Royal Navy sailmaker got in touch to offer his services – it turned out that his great ambition was to make a suit of sails for a square-rigged ship, as his father had done before him.
Once the work was complete, the ship was renamed Eye of the Wind with the words ‘of Faversham‘ underneath – apparently finding a unique name was proving a problem until Sir Peter Scott’s book of the same name just happened to fall of a bookshelf and get noticed.
Once again, good luck seems to have played its part.
In October 1976, three years and eight months after she was bought by Adventure Under Sail, Eye of the Wind set for sail for Australia.
Naturally, the assembled crowd had some great stories to tell about the ship.
One explained how he had steered the ship off a mud bank off Margate under instructions from the busy Captain Timbs despite having no experience of steering ships. Another remembered the children on the ship’s first voyage enjoying sliding across the cabin floor in a tea chest during rough weather.
Shanty singer Chris Roche, who has sailed often on board Eye of the Wind told of visiting exotic islands and shipwrecks, and of Captain Timbs kind willingness to take his crews where they wanted to visit – so long as they made a presentation to the crew explaining why the visit would be worthwhile.
Chris Roche, and David Beavan
PS – David Beavan of the Southwold-based Leila Trust based at Southwold chipped in with a short but effective speech explaining the benefits of sail training to disadvantaged youngsters in a time when the opportunities for jobs are at a low ebb all along the East Coast.
‘I’ve seen what sail training can do,’ he said. ‘It gives confidence, even after just a few days on board.’ After completing five days on board Leila, the youngsters can go on to qualify on powerboats, learn basic navigation and to train as a watch leader.
The Trust has also developed links with the offshore power industry and apprenticeships are being set up that the Leila folks hope will allow to benefit from the planned economic investment.
‘Old boats,’ he said, ‘ can fulfil a genuine need in society.’
‘Hear, hear, said all of us.
PPS – It was Sixer’s 70th birthday yesterday. Happy birthday for yesterday Sixer!