So Long, farewell

So Long, as she is now, photographed by Christopher Sainsbury

Journalist Paul Sullivan has been making enquiries about a sailing cutter that was moored on the marshes at Lymington and which recently disappeared, pretty well without warning, as far as most people were concerned. Here’s his story:

For half a century, an old clinker-hulled boat moored out in the salt marshes near Lymington in Hampshire was a familiar and cherished sight for locals, and a fascinating discovery for visitors. But then, suddenly, she vanished. This is the story behind the mystery of a missing landmark.

She sat in the middle of the narrow channel known as Oxey Lake, on the seaward side of the sluice gates at the ancient salterns just outside Lymington, tucked in behind the Isle of Wight, away from the shipping lanes, the broiling waters around the Needles Channel, and sheltered from southwesterlies.

She was a century-old sailing cutter, supposedly built at the Mediterranean Fleet’s yards in Alexandria, Egypt, to a Royal Navy blueprint first drawn in Nelson’s time.

At 32ft in length, she was originally a two-masted lug-rigged harbour supply boat, but from the 1970s converted to a ketch, but now moored fore and aft in Oxey Lake, owned by a reed-cutter called Norman, who lived on board.

She’d settled into this sedentary life, offering cramped but cheap single-man’s accommodation in return for his enthusiastic if less-than-Naval guardianship. Tarpaulins across the boom kept the rain out of her cockpit and her white hull got an occasional touch-up, but most importantly Norman’s occupancy was life-preserving – the night-time heat of a Calor stove and sooty oil lamps was just enough to keep the damp at bay.

In her silent moored solitude, under huge skies, she became a landmark, a sight to be discovered by the summer people, on foot, in plastic kayaks, along the rail of the Wight ferries or from the sparkling decks of company yachts. Passing runners, dogwalkers and birdwatchers fixed on the flight pools might barely gave her a glance, but at a still dawn or twilight, you could pause to study her silhouette and her perfect reflection on the water.

Before that? She’d had a hard working life, it’s said: lashed to the deck of warships, sent off to haul back supplies from bays and shallow harbours. She had no home: at each harbour boats like her were usually exchanged for another similar vessel that would ferry out the supplies and be hauled up to take her place.

So she passed from warship to warship, with no captain’s log to record the passing. Someone might know more, of course, but Norman, if he knew, usually said nothing, though sometimes among friends and fellow drinkers at the Thomas Tripp pub he would paint heartbreaking scenes of her chopping through fractious seas littered with the great allied fleets off Suvla Bay, taking the boys in to Gallipoli.

There were other stories too but, really, who knew? Whatever the truth, by the late 1950s, she found herself in a civilian yard in Southampton, on a fleet disposal list, a curiosity tucked in behind the surplus torpedo boats and dented landing craft.

Norman bought her, worked a re-fit of sorts, added a proper cabin, laid new deck, repaired repairs and, with help, re-rigged her as a ketch, then took her to Lymington, and then Oxey Lake, and lived on her.

But then, just in the last year or so, he left. Although the reed-cutting finished by the end of the 90s, Norman was allowed to stay on the mooring into his retirement, hauling back and forth between bank and boat in a little tender for shopping and trips to see family, and to go to the Thomas Tripp for sometimes risky Saturdays at the bar from which he’d return on his bike after midnight, slow and tottering along the bank in the darkness, quietly cursing and searching for invisible ropes.

Those who knew kept an eye on the boat and on him, but he was strong and strong-minded, and determined to stay. For his family it meant years of concern until a mild stroke a few years ago swept away his objections to leaving. In the end, a compromise was reached: Norman moved onto a fibreglass cabin cruiser with curtains at the old Dyer Brothers yard in Southampton.

The yard offered good access and other boats, electricity, heating, and the unexpected pleasure of soft carpet under bare feet. At night there were far fewer visible stars, but there was hot water and headroom.

Meanwhile, the cutter waited, out in the salterns, her hull settling in the mud. The violence of her past – the groundings, the gales, the collisions, the boots and bullets, the bangs and scrapes – many were hard and damaging, but they were working injuries, things to be itemised, repaired, replaced and attended to. But now with no work and no plan, the damp went cold to her core, unchecked. Light fingers of dark rot caressed her keel, searching for a hold.

The talk in the Tripp was of something crueler. Gribble worm eats at the frame of a wooden boat, they said, weakening the joints, slowly letting the mud suck the keel down, locking it in a greasy embrace strong enough to let a rope and a hard tow rip her in two. Could be she’ll stay there, they said – who’d want the risky job of moving her and be left with nothing but responsibility for the clear-up and the bill.

Still, they said, you’d think he’d have cared more, not just left her. Just bar talk, perhaps, but each drinker felt the irony of her coming fate, in the sucking, stinking blue-grey mud.

And then she disappeared.

The news seeps back in to the town, from a morning jogger, from a couple just back from walking their retrievers – that old boat is gone, with just the tender left on the bank. It’s weird, they said, like seeing a well-known painting with the subject rubbed out, like someone had taken away Tesco’s or the war memorial overnight, so familiar it takes a while to work out it’s missing.

Bit by bit, by word of mouth, by phone, by text, email, people asked about her, realising they don’t even know if she had a name. (Norman had privately christened her So Long, though 2850 Alx is what the Navy stencil-cut into her stern.) She is missed, loved. People want to know where she is, where he is, what happened. Over a week, the story unfolds.


At early light, Norman was back, finally. With a friend, and with the cabin cruiser pushing against a bitch of a tide for most of the trip they’d nosed in to the mouth of her channel, come along her port side. Working quickly and efficiently, quicker than he’d thought, they’d tied a line to her bow, cut the mooring ropes. Norman stayed on her, the friend on the cabin cruiser eased her around and pulled just ahead. Gently throttling forward, the towline rising, tightening, feeling into the load. There was a moment – and then she moved easily, eagerly, the unlikely pairing cutting smoothly out into a calm, biddable sea, a light wind, clear and bright.

Those few who saw, working out early along the Solent, peered through cabin glass, slowing their engines, turning to stare at her fine white hull, rocking masts, quickly understanding the cabin cruiser’s rude proximity, the nature of this voyage.

At a pre-arranged point, another cabin cruiser with big twin engines, a neighbour from Dyers, took over the tow, taking the speed up to 6 knots. And Norman stayed on her, for nearly eight hours, as this strangely unmatched little flotilla of three slowly disappeared east.

Now she’s back in Southampton, out of the water, properly laid up for winter for the first time in decades, unrigged, de-masted, shored up securely in the busy little Drivers Wharf yard on the Itchen, just down from Dyers, where there are workshops filled with noise and skills and tools and knowledge.

Craftsmen’s eyes have looked her over; their hands have rubbed along her sides, studied her shape, assessed and itemised her needs. Norman couldn’t leave her; he is still strong, focused, and making plans. Next year he’ll be 80, though she’ll be well over 100. She waits, warming gently in the sun.

Copyright © Paul Sullivan, 2017. All rights reserved. Photos © Christopher Sainsbury, 2017

Thanks Paul and Christopher! Here are some more of Christopher’s photographs:

28ft historic wooden boat for sale (or free to someone who will move it quickly)

Fellow musician and boat nut Alan Lamb is looking for someone interested in taking on a Royal Navy launch – he has found that he will be unable to use it for his original purpose.

If you’re interested, email me at and I’ll put you in touch.

The 28ft, 10ft beam double diagonal construction mahogany on oak launch comes with a 68hp diesel engine. The boat was originally the launch for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary salvage vessel Kinbrace. It was built in 1945 and saw service during the Suez Crisis in 1956 and with the UN in Somalia in 1994.

The mother ship was broken up in 2004 and the launch was used for mackerel fishing out of Pool Harbour for some years.

He bought partly as a piece of experimental archaeology: I had moved to a cottage on the banks of the upper Severn near Bridgnorth. Knowing that much larger boats used the river until about 1900 (although they often had to wait till the water was high enough) I intended to restore the boat and see if it was sometimes still possible to use a boat of this size on the river – the boat has a fairly shallow draft and a large engine.

However, as I have got to know the river better over the last few years I realised that the fish weirs that used to be common on the river increased the depth of the pools.These fish weirs and the barge gutters that bypassed them were crucial to the former navigation by large boats, so I had to abandon my plans.

The planking seems sound and in general it seems a strong boat but there is some rot at the top of some of the ribs. A poor quality plywood and fibreglass deck was added at some stage and this would need replacing as would the steel sheathing on the keel timber. When I bought the boat two years ago I was told that it floated and that the engine was in working order but I have not tested either of these claims. The engine is out of the boat at present

The boat is on blocks outside building eight, The Royal Ordnance depot, Weedon, Northants and can be viewed at any time. It has to be moved as soon as possible and in view of this any reasonable or even unreasonable offer will be accepted. The new owner would be responsible for moving the boat and should make their own enquiries about haulage costs, if necessary.

The Dutch in the Medway, by PG Rogers

The Dutch burn English ships during the Raid on the Medway, 1667)(Jan van Leyden, 1669)

People are getting quite excited about Medway Council’s commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the Raid on the Medway, which includes a series of events leading up to fireworks on the 17th June.

Perhaps the most excited group are Dutch yachties, who have long since booked up every space in local marinas and moorings. I expect the Medway’s creeks will be nearly as busy as the waterside that evening.

The battle itself was actually a huge humiliation for the English Navy and a daring, in some ways lucky, but carefully calculated success on the part of the Dutch United Provinces navies. There are some interesting short videos to watch on YouTube (one here and one here),  but if you really want to understand what happened at Sheerness, in Gillingham Reach and off Upnor Castle (and what is now Chatham Marina, Seaforth Publishing has just released PG Rogers’ classic work on the topic, The Dutch in the Medway.

Nab it quick, I say, while it remains on offer, for as well as explaining the background and aftermath, its chapters describing the action is as gripping as it is fascinating – even more so if you’re a North Kent sailor and know the Medway.

It’s really essential reading ahead of an event that will be a celebration for the Dutch (who call the battle ‘The Trip to Medway’). For the British it’s a bit more complicated – I’m expecting both a celebration of how our nations now get along well, but also a moment for commemoration and quiet thought about how such a national humiliation was allowed to happen. My take, which won’t surprise many who know me, is that we should never place too much trust in government decision making or propaganda.

The background was the second Anglo-Dutch war, which was sparked by continuing rivalry over trade and anger over the torture and the killing of nine British traders at the island of Amboyna by the Dutch.

In the period before the Medway, the second Anglo-Dutch war was generally thought in England to be coming to an end: there had been battles and now peace negotiations were taking place at  Breda.

But it was also a time when state finances were at a very low ebb, military procurement badly managed and payment very slow, Navy vessels unmanned, slow progress in building military defences, and a very small army, and a King who was apparently more interested in the fun of court life than the affairs of state. It was, you might think, just the right moment for a Dutch military intervention aimed at influencing the outcome of the Breda talks.

Intervene they did – and this is what Rogers describes so well.

With the help of various disillusioned English seamen and military officers, the Dutch sailed up the Thames, took Sheerness and then, aided by a handy NE breeze, sailed up the Medway for two fierce engagements in the narrow waters off Gillingham and Chatham involving cannon fire, fireships, the destruction of a defensive chain, and boardings of English ships defended by unarmed men – some of whom, not surprisingly, chose to escape rather than face certain defeat and very likely death in an unequal fight.

The second battle occurred three days later – but by this point the British defence had been strengthened, and the attackers were subjected to heavy cannon fire. The Dutch did not reach and destroy the Chatham shipyards, probably partly because the narrowness of the channel (making navigation difficult, perhaps particularly with a NE wind) and because a number of ships had been deliberately sunk to narrow the channel.

By this point a great deal of damage had been done to bthe English Navy’s vessels, its reputation and pride. Ships had been sunk or burned, and the big and symbolic Royal Charles (previously it had been the ship that brought Charles II to England) had been captured. There were attempts at propaganda belittling the Dutch victory, but it seems to have been difficult to hide the truth of a defeat so close to London.

And it wasn’t over yet – the Dutch continued to ply the Thames Estuary, preventing cargo ships from delivering good such as coal to London, and terrifying the folks of capital, who by now were half sure that the Army and Navy were in no state to protect them from the apparently fearless, well led and well informed Dutch, who had gained considerable respect.

It’s perhaps a minor point, but even the feat of  getting the half-rigged Royal Charles down the shallow Medway and safely back to Amsterdam was seen as a great achievement. Once there she was put on show as a prize, which naturally caused great anger in England.

My assessment is straightforward. The Dutch in the Medway is well worth reading, perhaps particularly at a time when we’re reconsidering our role as a trading nation and our relations with the rest of Europe.