The Leysdown Tragedy of 100 years ago

The sea off Leysdown, Isle of Sheppey, in quieter times

It was my old friend Nic Lucas who drew my attention to the Leysdown Tragedy, in which nine boys – young Sea Scouts and helpers – drowned when a sudden storm struck their open boat 100 years ago this month.

Writing on his Facebook account, Nic said that as a 14 year old (this would be in the 1960s, I’d guess) he had taken part in Sea Scout flotilla that set out from the RRS Discovery (yes – that Discovery) in London and sailed to France.

The boat my friend was on board was a whaler similar to the ones pictured here, and it was a great adventure for a lad and one that he has remembered all his life.

However, Nic added that this month is the 100th anniversary of the Leysdown Tragedy, in which a group of Sea Scouts and helpers sailing from Waterloo Bridge were capsized by a sudden squall opposite Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey, just around the corner from the Swale.

They were a young group – the oldest boys were barely teenagers, and on the way, they had slept under their sails at Erith.

The capsize was seen from the island by coastguards (which wouldn’t happen now!) and valiant efforts were made to save the 23 on board the whaler,  though only 14 were rescued alive.

Nic said he thought of those young Sea Scouts as pioneers for his own trip, and for the spirit of adventure that builds fine people including his own son Sam Lucas, who was due to carry the Olympic Torch on the day my pal addressed us all via Facebook.

There’s a BBC news story describing the Leysdown Tragedy on the BBC website, and further sources are here, here and here.

The disaster was one of those that made a big impact on the public, and a striking memorial to the lost youngsters paid for by public subscription was erected at Nunhead Cemetery in South London (see the BBC link for a photo). It stood until 1969 when it was vandalised, and a modern, much simpler memorial now stands in its place.

I’ve been sailing past the site of the Leysdown Tragedy for years without knowing a thing about it. I’ll pause for thought myself, next time I go that way.

XOD racing keelboat centenary celebrations, Royal Lymington Yacht Club, 3rd June

XOD-Fleet-at-Cowes-R-Tomlinson-lr Skandia Cowes Week 2007 day 1, Saturday August 4 X166 Swallow, X86 Aora
The XOD fleet racing at Cowes; photo taken by Rick Tomlinson

The XOD keelboat class will kick off its its centenary celebrations by holding a day race in Edwardian costume at Royal Lymington Yacht Club on Friday 3rd June.

I trust there will be plenty of tweed, eminently twiddleable moustachios, and of course bonnets and demure but practical long skirts!

Some 100 or so boats are expected to compete in a three day centenary regatta including the Lymington and Yarmouth XOD fleets.

In 1911 Yachting Monthly reported that seven 21ft keelboats of a newly established one design class came to the start line for their first race, off Hythe in Southampton Water. The boats were gaff-rigged, and the Bermudan rig came in during 1928.

By 1939, 81 X One Design boats had been built. In 1961, there were 52 starters at Cowes Week, and now a hundred years after the first race the class hasn’t just survived but grown to become the largest fleet on the start line at Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week.

The original racewas won by Portsmouth brewer Harry Brickwood. One of the boats in the original race X5 Madcap, is still racing today, while the first XOD, X1 Mistletoe, which was built by Alfred Westmacott on the Isle of Wight, is now at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall.

Cowes Week 2010 was won by X26, which was built in 1923.

The XOD is a pretty wooden yacht of just under 21ft in length; it has two or three crew, and crews of all sizes compete on equal terms. The spinnaker can be flown from within the safety of the cockpit, which avoids any need for foredeck work.