Keith Johnston and friend saved from a dunking by a Selway Fisher-designed tender

Selway Fisher designed Skylark dinghy

Many of us become very attached to craft that serve us well – but tenders aren’t usually the object of our deep affections. However, Keith Johnston tells a story about an experience that taught him the value of his tender in a big way.

‘My friend and I have been sailing Devon Yawls for more than twenty five years simply because they are a modern fibreglass moulding of the Salcombe yawl.

‘Salcombe yawls are now hand built in top quality timbers and are £20,000 16’ dinghies that sail like serious deep sea boats and are a fiercely competed class in Salcombe. More importantly for me, they are based upon a very much tried and tested local inshore fishing boat. The locals know when a boat is good, and the Salcombe yawl is the best, so we’ve been sailing the Devon Yawl is an equivalent boat made in GRP from a mould taken off an a Salcombe yawl. (In fact, I have now graduated from the Devon Yawl to the Devon Dayboat, which is a Devon Yawl with a small cuddy) that provides a little shelter in rough weather or a camping shelter for two. Some of the original Devon Dayboats, like mine have a Stuart Turner 5hp inboard, which makes them reall useful all-round cruising boats.)

‘But back to my story. When we first started sailing yawls we moored the boat at various points on the River Tamar on the border between Cornwall and England. To get to her, we used a Fairey Duckling, which is a superb moulded double diagonal ply built dinghy loosely based on the World War II airborne lifeboats. These were made by Fairey Marine and were dropped from search and rescue planes so that ditched air crew in the North Atlantic and North Sea could rescue themselves. (For more on airborne lifeboats, click here; for more on Fairey Ducklings, click here.)

‘Believe me, the little Ducklings take after their big sister airborne lifeboats and are tough little boats, and we could just about carry the Duckling from the car to the tide line, which was sometimes 150 or 200 yards. As time went by, however, the Duckling seemed to get heavier (or had we got older?) and we realised the Duckling had become a collectors boat and was too valuable to be used as a general beach dinghy any longer. So we decided to try and find a cheap dinghy as a replacement.

‘The first boat I ever built when I was twelve was a ply-on-frame pram dinghy built using the plans for Kingfisher available from the magazine Practical Mechanics. It worked very well – but in the intervening years I had lost the plans! So we looked about for a good looking design but simple to build. We sailed approximately 32 times a year and were intent on getting a lot of sailing done rather than building a boat.

‘After a lot of looking around I found a two sheet (of ply) design with a stitch and glue method of construction. The quality of the catalogue drawing was marginal but it did have very good ends and was not like the then usual GRP bathtubs, which take water on board in any kind of a lop. We had both spent too many perilous trips from deep sea yachts to strange shores and harbour walls in the dark to want one of those.
The plans arrived and immediately we knew that we had been right in the choice. We bought the materials and then built the basic boat in a weekend! We couldn’t believe it. The next weekend we painted and put on two parallel skegs to take a small axle with two demountable pram wheels (they’re stowed ahead of the forward thwart in the photo) to take the weight when walking the boat down to the tide line. Set up this way, she worked a treat.

‘In our third year of using the boat we offered our mooring to some visiting MacWesters for their annual visit to the club and took a temporary mooring on the opposite side of the channel for two days.

‘We had a great sail down the Tamar and round the Plymouth breakwater, put the Yawl on the temporary mooring and got into the dinghy to row ashore. We saw a trip boat (60ft and 100 passengers) coming downstream from Calstock and knew that they pulled up a pretty deep wash at about 7kts. That would be no problem, as we had coped with that many times before and knew how to ride the wake. So off we went, and she passed us.

‘Just at that moment a forty foot gin palace of a boat appeared. It was travelling fast up-stream against the tide and pushing a mountain of water! Now we had a problem: the wakes of both boats were going to meet exactly where we were.

‘I was rowing on the forward thwart and my friend was sitting in the stern. We look at each other with alarm and immediately threw ourselves towards the centre of the dinghy, my shoulder to his opposite shoulder; my hands were as low as I could reach to keep the oars out of the water and I turned the blades to the vertical position.

‘The first wave hit, we seemed to go upwards almost vertically, and I was supported by my friend’s shoulderas my feet slipped about in the boat.

‘Then all was reversed, and the bow went down the other side of the first wave and I was supporting my friend’s weight. In fact, we then crashed about through a series of about five waves from each craft as they passed in opposite directions to each other. I remember the racket made by the gin palace as being horrendous; twin V8 diesels can make a lot of noise!

‘Suddeenly the wash returned from the river banks and it all started over again – but from abeam. This was serious! We were two six foot 14 stone blokes being tossed around like corks in a little dinghy taking waves from ahead, astern and both beams, and we pitch and toss for what seems like ages – but we are dry and still in the dinghy. And suddenly the causes of our troubles have both gone, and we’re sitting in silence and blinking with surprise!
‘As we settled back onto our original thwarts and I gather the oars a voice from above shouts ‘Are You two ok?’
We look up to see a friend of ours standing on the bow of his Contessa 32 looking down at us with his life belt in hand.

‘Err, yes I think so!’ we both chorused simultaneously.

‘I was just picking up my mooring and saw the waterborne motorists ripping through the moorings and realised that you couldn’t see him so I cast off and came to pick up the pieces! I can’t believe that dinghy rode out such a violent wash, what is she?’

‘A Skylark, designed by Selway Fisher. We built her in two weekends,’ I explain.
‘Well I was amazed at the antics you got up to. You could be in a circus trapeze act! Not many dinghies that size could have survived that dreadful wash. That idiot should be banned from the river for ignoring the speed limit and putting you and all the moored boats in danger.’

Our potential rescuer returned to his mooring and we rowed ashore. It wasn’t until we came to up-end the dinghy against the bank where she normally lives that we realised that there was absolutely no water in the boat at all. It had kept very dry indeed, which certainly is the test of a good tender design.

The Skylark has now passed to me and has now been in constant use for nearly twenty five years. The only repairs it has needed were two new outer gunwales, which I fitted this year. Otherwise, she has needed nothing more than the odd coat of varnish inside and paint outside.

I have sailed other designs by Paul Fisher and they without question all have had great qualities. So many thanks Paul – my friend and I very nearly got extremely wet, but thanks to you we’re still here to tell the tale.

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One thought on “Keith Johnston and friend saved from a dunking by a Selway Fisher-designed tender”

  1. I built a 7’9″ Skylark tender in the winter of 2001 in our living room. Next year we took her with us to the Med on our 30ft boat and wintered in Barcelona where I put a sailing rig in her. Our children learned to row and sail in her and she was the best tender I ever had. Usually I towed her and she survived the roughest seas without harm. Great little boat.

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