Cruises of the Joan by WE Sinclair

Cruises of the Joan is a well made and often very funny account of WE Sinclair’s travels in his tiny 22ft Falmouth Quay punt, Joan.  It’s published by Lodestar Books.

The cruises described took place in the 1920s, and are a circumnavigation of Great Britain, a trip to Vigo and back, and an attempt at crossing the Atlantic to North America via the northern route.

It’s a good read and I enjoyed it greatly – but can’t recommend it for everyone, as I’ll explain in a moment.

For some reason I particularly enjoy whacky stories about unusual people, and this has a few good ones – for example, there’s a great tale about a man who keeps crabs in his hat. Arguably, though, the most eccentric character to be found in this book is its author.

But while I enjoyed Cruises, I will be very careful about lending it to anyone: it really can be recommended only for the historically minded, tolerant and somewhat experienced sailor.

One reason is that in one or two places Sinclair uses language that seems quite appalling in these days. Some might consider that it was normal for his time and therefore something to be quietly ignored – but others will be less forgiving. Both groups will have a point.

Another cause for concern is his tendency to do stupidly dangerous things. Sailing huge distances in a tiny boat in the days before small yachts had radio was daft enough, but he often without charts and always using a wristwatch in place of a chronometer.

It’s just the kind of thing that gets some of my sailing friends very heated indeed, and it was one of these mad exploits that led to Sinclair and his crewman known only as Jackson finally losing Joan in the North Atlantic after being damaged by a particularly large wave. They very nearly lost their own lives in the process.

The Joan seems to have been an excellent boat in bad weather, but nevertheless there are limits to what a small timber-built cruising boat can reasonably be expected to withstand.

I really fear for what might happen if a copy of Cruises of the Joan ever falls into the hands of someone who has only done a little sailing. The nervous might decide to restrict themselves to the local boating lake, while the more intrepid might decide Sinclair has a point when he decides cross the Irish Sea and sail down the coast until he sees somewhere that looks like a port…

There’s a sample chapter here that provides a nice example of his style.

Sinclair is an intriguing character, and someone I’d like to find out more about. Those who have read Bob Roberts will know that he crewed with the barge skipper on an epic journey to the island of Fernando Pó off the West Coast of Africa, but what I hadn’t realised is that Sinclair himself also wrote and published an account of it. My hope is that it will reveal a little more about the man himself. Also, I wonder – do any readers have memories to share of Sinclair as a man and sailor?

Cruises of the Joan is the second of a series of uniform volumes now available from the Lodestar Library – the others are Swin, Swale and Swatchway by H Lewis Jones (which I read a little while ago and thoroughly recommend) and On Going to Sea in Yachts by Conor O’Brien. I gather many more are to come.

The books are priced at £15 each including postage – but Lodestar is currently offering them a three for the price of two offer that seems hard to resist.

An interview with Bob Roberts’ Cambria mate Phil Latham

Phil Latham on sailing the Cambria from Richard Fleury on Vimeo.

Richard is the chap who runs the The Quay website, which campaigns for the maritime future of Faversham Creek.

On the day of the Cambria’s relaunch earlier this week he was lucky enough to be able to meet Phil Latham, who was Bob’s mate aboard the sailing barge from 1964-68, and and to film an interview. I think it’s of great interest to anyone fascinated by sailing barges and Bob Roberts,  but also to sailors who know or plan to visit the East Coast.

A folklorist looks at cannibalism afloat: the ‘custom of the sea’

The ninth wave, by Ivan Aivazovsky. Before the advent of radio, cannibalism among shipwrecked seafarers seems to have been so common it was seen as normal – and even excusable. Image from the Wikipedia

A gruesomely fascinating  article in this year’s Folk Music Journal examines cannibalism at sea and the songs about it that have come down to us in our time.

The ‘custom of the sea’ is the horrific name for the once fairly common practice of killing and eating fellow crew-members in survival situations afloat when the alternative is death for all, and a number of songs and printed ballads – both silly and serious – continued in the oral tradition well into the last century.

I’ll spare you the goriest details, but author Paul Cowdell reveals how these killings worked and describes some historical instances, including the story of the waterlogged and dismasted Francis Spaight, whose survivors apparently attempted to catch the attention of passing vessel by waving their victims’ hands and feet in the air. I’m surprised the method seems to have worked, however, for if I saw something like this I think I might be inclined to sail in the opposite direction!

Happily, he also adds that such events have been rare since the advent of ships’ radios and that this may be the reason that humorous songs about the issue were found among sailors in the mid and later 20th century, whereas in earlier times sailors seem to have treated the matter in a very serious way.

Among the broadsides and songs Paul discusses are the Shipwreck of the Essex, the widely admired The ship in distress, La courte paille (otherwise known as Il etait un petit navire), W S Gilbert’s comic Yarn of the Nancy Belle, and various versions of  William Makepeace Thackeray’s humorous skit Little Boy Billee, including the version famously sung by the well known barge skipper Bob Roberts.

Paul’s paper is well worth reading, and so is his weblog post on the issue. The reference is: Cowdell C (2009) Cannibal ballads: not just a question of taste Folk Music Journal 10(5): 723-47 and the journal is available from the English Folk Dance and Song Society at