The curse of the Breton cap

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Arctic Whaler

Mark Shiner with his boat Arctic Whaler. Notice he isn’t wearing any unnecessarily nautical attire

This entertaining and clearly genuine story of how a tiny problem can turn into an embarrassing ordeal appeared yesterday on the Dinghy Cruising Association’s excellent Yahoogroup ‘Openboat’.

As many readers of will know, the Breton cap can often be the cause of strong feelings both positive and negative. We all know people who would wear one at their daughter’s wedding – and others who feel strongly that the only person entitled to wear a Breton fisherman’s cap is a Breton fisherman.

Usually, however, the one thing one can say is that those who are strongly in favour of the Breton cap are a different group from those who are strongly against.

Mark Shiner of Stromness in the Orkney Islands, however, is in the interesting position of being simultaneously for and against them at the same time. Here’s his story, which appears here with his permission:

‘I have a Breton Cap. I wear it everywhere – except in the boat. The reasoning goes like this: if I stuff up in Stromness harbour wearing a rainbow beanie hat then the many inevitable observers will not be too surprised. If, however, I am sporting a navy blue Breton cap then I will be seen as guilty of “wearing nautical attire without due cause”, as you can imagine.

Two days ago I decided to break the taboo and, cap in place; I went to practice my boat handling in the harbour.

That was a bad move.

All went well until I decided to drop the main and run into the slip under jib alone. Lacking sea room I hastily dowsed the main, but the bitter end of the halyard went whistling up the mast and stuck in the block. My concentration now blunted by this I lost height on the slip and drifted across the dinghy line-out rope that runs out from the slip.

I grabbed it with the boat hook as it passed beneath (I had raised the plate) but was horrified to see

Read the rest of this post: the rubbery, detachable hook attempting to prise itself off the pole. I reached over the other side of the boat and grabbed the weed-slimed rope with my spare hand. I stopped; a hand on each side of the boat. Picture the scene, a bit like the point in most Road Runner cartoons where Whiley Koyote runs off a cliff yet pauses a moment before the inevitable descent. I let go the boat hook, lest it break, before realising the hand grip I had was not really that helpful. Boat and I drifted onto a huge rubber sausage under a nearby wall.

Jumping out onto the rocks beneath I pushed off and, courtesy of the outboard, roared off to find a pier where I could reach the top of the mast and rethread the halyard. Half way across the bay I remembered the boathook.

“I’ll get it later, if it’s still there!” I promised myself.

Reaching the old Northern Lighthouse Board Pier I tied alongside, climbed the steps and, at mid-tide, noticed that the top of the mast was about a boathook’s length out of reach.

“S*& F%$ £o!!ck$ t0 it!”

Just then the crew of the vast tug “Intrepid of Milford” who were alongside the pier suggested I come alongside their bows where they might reach down and thread the halyard down to me. No one told me they paint tugs with non-drying anti-vandal paint but they didn’t attempt to claim my vessel for salvage so that was alright.

I was now a bit late for home so motored across the harbour, back to the slip where I noticed my boat hook floating beneath the aforementioned wall, beyond the sausage. I went for it.

Too late I realised this lee shore intended to keep me glued there until Domesday. The harbour entrance was by now getting quite crowded as local boats drifted home so I attempted to look nonchalant as I wrestled the boat round and over the submerged rocks. Then I noticed the Graemsay ferry whose skipper had mistakenly tried to rescue me last year when a friend and I had rowed to Graemsay. (On that occasion I told him his services were not required and I was rowing for the fun of it. We got a huge lecture and he went away.)

Realising his wake would introduce boat and wall in a very bad way I made one final, desperate push and was away.

I returned to the slip without further incident – still wearing that stupid Breton Cap.

Sail safe, and let’s keep this little debacle between ourselves shall we?’

Arctic Whaler is a 16ft Bill Bailiff-designed GRP open boat. Bailiff designed and built quite a few GRP boats based on traditional designs, and Arctic Whater originally had a gunter rig, but by the time Mark picked her up for a song three years ago complete with a trailer and a bermudan rig.

See the Dinghy Cruising Association’s website:

If you should happen to wish to purchase a Breton cap for yourself, Googling for them reveals that they can be bought via the Internet from an astonishing range of sources. See this Googlewhack.

If you feel moved to comment on the Breton cap issue or have a bright idea about what Mark should have done and we can all do in similar circumstances in the future, you are invited to comment below.

Meanwhile, if you belong to the school that dislikes the Breton cap, I would like to point out that I’ve been unable to find one at Mailspeed.[ad name=”mailspeed”]

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