The English yachting narrative with particular reference to Cornwall

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The English yachting narrative with particular reference to Cornwall

The June 2009 edition of the NMMC journal Troze is now online and and is packed with gems from the history of yachting.

The article in question is titled The English yachting narrative with particular reference to Cornwall and is written by yachtsman and retired clinical psychologist Mike Bender.

Here are some quotations I particularly enjoyed. From the beginnings of yachting:

‘In the reign of Elizabeth I, Richard Ferris decided it would be a atriotic act to show that no Englishman need be afraid of sailing in home waters after the Armada had been defeated in 1588. In 1590, with two companions, he rowed and sailed in a wherry from London to Bristol. He was not molested by the Spaniards but had to take evasive action near Land’s End to avoid a pirate ship.’

That’s a great story, if I ever heard one. Writing of the Corinthian generation of yachtsmen in their small wooden boats in the late 19th Century, Bender concludes:

‘What is interesting in these texts is that they are usually little more than expanded logs and journals, so it must have been the novelty of these passages that made them of such great interest to the contemporary reader, combined with the use of lithographs which invariably show the boat being pitched around in rough seas going round some suitably perpendicular headland. This Romantic imagery obviously appealed to the dreamer in the reader; but there is a self-denying, almost self-flagellating quality, in the self-chosen tussle with the sea in which the sailor engages.’

On women, he writes:

‘There was a long period of resistance before the First World War towards accepting women into yachting and yacht clubs. Sailing by women was feared for giving too much leeway for the dress and freedom of bodily movement required (and hence, being sexually arousing); and as a statement of equality or independence.’

And on the importance of recording the recent past:

‘There is also a certain urgency… If no-one looks for or after them, the historical records of those pre-GRP, pre-GPS endeavours – the accounts, the letters, the contracts, the tools – will soon be lost; and if no-one is interested in taking down the accounts of the sailors who used them, and getting them published in one of the many forms now available, they will take their experiences to the grave, and we will be the poorer thereby.’

This article is well worth reading. Find it here.

King George the Fifth, the king who was first yachtsman in the land, and his love for a boat

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King George the Fifth at the helm of Britannia, taken from the Wikipedia

I’ve just bought a copy of Frank Carr’s book The Yachtsman’s England, published in the spring of 1937. Carr could write carefully turned and well researched material, but on this occasion he seems to have been employed to provide lots of colour with special emphasis on the Empire and old socks school of writing, and he certainly included some fine sentimental stuff in this one!

Writing about the yachtsmen of England, he has this to say:

‘It requires,’ said a writer in the London Review over seventy years ago, ‘a combination of those attributes which distinguish a modern Briton to make a racing-man or genuine yachtsman.’ What was true in 1862 is equally true today; and no-one can think of those fine qualities which go to make a great yachtsman without remembering first the man in whom they were so perfectly combined – our late sovereign, His Majesty King George the Fifth. He who so dearly loved the sea, who by his subjects was so dearly loved, had won a place in the hearts of all of us who know the ways of little ships, not as our King alone, but as the First Yachtsman in the land. Most of us knew him only as a slight figure on the deck of the splendid old Britannia; or from the happy photographs taken of him at the helm, or hauling on a halliard, or looking up at a sail to see with a master’s eye that they were all well set and drawing. But we knew that he was a sailor as well as a King, who could see with a sailor’s eye and feel with a sailor’s understanding. We knew that he felt the power of a little ship to win the love of those who sail her, and we loved him for the love he bore Britannia.’

Many of us who enjoy sailing can get pretty misty eyed about our boats, perhaps particularly when they’ve seen us through a trying passage, but King George V’s affection for Britannia seems to have been a bit extreme. Perhaps it was from jealousy that anyone else might sail his yacht or maybe it was to avoid the sad effects of decay and decline that have afflicted other great racing yachts, but his dying wish was for his yacht to follow him to the grave. And so in 1936, probably just weeks before Carr sat at his desk to write, Britannia’s stripped hull was towed out to deep water near the Isle of Wight, and sunk.

To many of us now it seems like a big and unnecessarily wasteful gesture, but it turned out to be more than that – for it also marked the end of big yacht racing in Europe.

For more on Britannia at the Wikipedia, click here.

For Uffa Fox’s view, click here.

For more on Britannia at, including film clips, old photos of her racing and news of a revitalised Alfred Mylne company, click here.

For more on Frank Carr, click here.