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 Continue reading “Keith Johnston and friend saved from a dunking by a Selway Fisher-designed tender”

Spindrift, a Scotish fifer-style boat built in New Zealand


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Phil Smith, who recently sent us a fascinating report of his experiences sailing a converted airborne lifeboat, has written for us again.

This time his story is about Spindrift, a fifer-style boat built from kauri in New Zealand. Phil and partner Susie owned her for a while and, just as he did with airborne lifeboat, Phil makes this boat sound very desirable as well as interesting.

For the record, Spindrift measures 30ft (9.14m) loa including bowsprit, 27ft on deck, 10ft in beam, has a draft of 4ft and displaces 5.3 tons.

‘While wandering the piers at Tauranga Marina, New Zealand, about 20 years ago my attention was drawn to a white motor sailer. At first glance she looked odd: like a 42 footer with 15 feet sawn out of the middle and the ends stuck together. She had very high topsides, and a surprising amount of sheer put the stemhead almost 6ft above the waterline. Continue reading “Spindrift, a Scotish fifer-style boat built in New Zealand”

‘I had a beautiful yacht… ‘

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Photos of Aerial by Phil Smith

Phil Smith has written to show us these photos, and to tell us about his airborne lifeboat Aerial, which he had in the 1980s in New Zealand.

‘In the early eighties I had a beautiful yacht called Aerial. She was 23 feet long, around six foot of beam, floated in ankle deep water, and went like the wind.

‘Her name derived from the fact that she was an airborne lifeboat designed for use in rescuing downed aircrew from the North Sea during World War II.

‘Built of double-diagonal mahogany on dozens of thin oak ribs with epoxy dynel sheathing, she was a strong but slippery boat and surprisingly seaworthy. Stability was provided by a heavy steel quadrant shaped centreplate and on either side of the centrecase were the tangs from which the parachute harness was attached.

‘The airborne lifeboats were designed by British naval architect and maritime legend Uffa Fox to fit under the hull of a medium bomber.Within the hull were numerous watertight lockers which, as well as providing buoyancy, contained food, water, first aid things and sailing equipment.

‘The boat was dropped by parachute to survivors in the sea who would rig the mast and rudder and sail to safety.

‘On my first day out I was apprehensive about going alone. It was 10 knots, gusting to15, and Aerial looked like she could be a bit of a handful.

‘A very experienced yachting friend, just returned from a solo voyage from Tahiti, came and officiated. To my horror and delight he sheeted her hard in and, with four bums on the gunwale and my friend grinning wickedly at the tiller, we took off up the harbour in a cloud of spray.

‘She tacked perfectly, sat nice and straight downwind, didn’t slam into chop and never looked like putting a spreader in the water though we tried hard!

‘Because of the strong tides and sometimes fluky winds in the area I fitted a 4hp Evinrude to a light transom bracket and she became unstoppable under power.

‘A relative of Uffa Fox’s Flying 15, Aerial was rigged like a small trailer-sailer, and while simple to launch she was a swine to retrieve due to her length and lack of any keel.’

Thanks Phil – that’s a super story. I wonder whether any of these conversions are sailing now?

Follow the link for more on airborne lifeboats at

PS I’ve been sent these photos of an airborne lifeboat looking very like Phil’s being carried by a US Coastguard plane. My informant, a kind chap called Eric, has no idea where he found them, so if anyone feels I have infringed their copyright in putting these small images us, please contact me and I will take them down immediately. However I would be grateful to be able to leave them in place – the airborne lifeboat story is an important one and should be remembered. Thanks Eric!