Richard Walwyn - A sailing life
In about 1930 my father, who was a textile engineer, emigrated to what was then called Bombay in order to seek his fortune in the colonies. Soon after he moved to India my mother, who he had known since their childhood in Lancashire, went out to marry him. Subsequently, over a period of fourteen years, they had four children all born in India, two boys and two girls and I was by far the youngest, being born in 1944.
When living in Bombay my father joined the Royal Bombay Yacht Club which was, and still is, a highly prestigious institution. My father rowed competitively, but he also acquired a big dinghy called Shearwater which became a much treasured possession. She was shipped to Liverpool when he retired here in 1947, coming to Borth y Gest and then being re-exported to Karachi in the 1950s and eventually finding her way to New Zealand. Our family connections with Borth had begun in 1938 when my mother’s sister Mary opened a café cum arts and craft shop in the village. We had been coming to Borth for some time before my parents bought Mirain, the last house on the right beyond Ysgol Borth y Gest where we lived before his job took my father to London in 1951.
Shearwater was one of a fleet of heavy 21ft three-quarter-decked day boats designed by Morgan Giles in 1920 to race in Bombay harbour. Known as the Bombay Seabird Class they were all named after seabirds. Shearwater was clinker built entirely of Burma teak; teak frame, teak planking and all. She was gunter rigged having a very heavy cast iron centre plate with the usual Morgan Giles bronze winch. There is still an active fleet of these dinghies in Bombay, though now, unlike Shearwater they are all fibreglass.
I first remember Shearwater from being taken, aged five or six and not always willingly, to sail out to the bar and back – I don’t remember going anywhere else, but unlike my big brother and sisters I would not have been welcome when Shearwater was being raced as she was from time to time in the Borth y Gest regatta. There were a number of heavy dinghies in Borth y Gest in the nineteen fifties and sixties. I was not a very good sailor and my misery was compounded by being shoved out of the way under the ample foredeck where the smell of not-so-fresh mackerel and the petrol dripping from the seagull outboard made me feel quite ill.
I have much happier memories when, aged ten, I sailed in Shearwater with my parents and friends of my own age in Karachi harbour. That was really when I learnt to sail and was allowed to take the helm of a ‘proper’ boat.
When I had finally emerged from some less than satisfactory teenage years, I settled down to life as a schoolmaster. This job came complete with a tied cottage so in 1978 I bought Trem y Don in Borth y Gest in order to start on the home ownership ladder and to gain a toehold in Borth. I had a teaching colleague who owned an 18ft (plus 2ft bowsprit) dinghy which, like Shearwater, had been designed by Morgan Giles. Khamsin was sufficiently reminiscent of Shearwater to make her desirable so she too came to Borth. Khamsin, who I found had originally been called Puck, was designed as an all out racing dinghy before 1920 in order to compete in the Torbay Class Two handicap races. She was strip planked in elm and was really coming to the end of her useful life when I bought her. In her youth she had been based in Paignton and, I discovered, had been maintained ‘like a piece of furniture’ by the local boatyard for her first lady owner. However, when she came to me she invariably sank before taking up on first being launched each summer, so I sheathed her in Cascover, a very heavy nylon cloth glued on with a two part epoxy which extended her life, and for some years she served well as a family dingy on the estuary. She really needed a crew of four heavy adults sitting out to give of her best in any but the gentlest winds and was frankly scary on the run, but she was very much loved.
Much to my parents’ disappointment, for they were both very competitive, I have never thrived on competition and was therefore reluctant to take any part in the culture of organised ball games which more or less went with my job. However, the school owned a fleet of half a dozen Firefly dinghies which were sailed on the River Avon near Pershore. There was a need for someone to take over responsibility for running the club and teaching new recruits to sail. This suited me just fine and over the next twenty years or so I spent many happy afternoons on the river. The limited sea room means that river sailing calls for precision and quick judgement. We started a program of inter-school team racing fixtures with an annual outing to Itchenor for the Public Schools Firefly championship. That is where I cut my racing teeth and learnt the racing rules in order to be able to conduct the inevitable protest meetings.
Khamsin was very lovely, but I always hankered after something much smaller for pottering about in the estuary and capable of being easily managed single handed. The answer came in the form of a small, tubby clinker river rowing dinghy which I found rotting in the reeds by the river Severn. I sheathed this wreck in fibreglass, added a dagger board, rudder and the rig from a defunct Mirror and Swallow was born. She came to Borth for the summer holidays and acted as a safety boat on the River Severn during term time. My idea of heaven was to sail to a far corner of the estuary on a sunny day then lie on the bottom boards looking at the sky while steering with my toes. A lot of children learnt to sail in her and she doubled up as a capacious trailer for carting the family’s goods to Borth for the school holidays. For all her lack of decking and speed she was absolutely trustworthy in winds which kept most people in harbour. I loved her dearly, but over the years she turned from being a wooden dinghy sheathed in fibreglass into a rather thin fibreglass shell not very well supported by rotten wood. She spent a short afterlife upended on her transom as a garden seat. I couldn’t bear her indignity so eventually she went to the tip. All that now remains is the rudder I made for her which now graces my present boat, Tern, and her nameboard. Sadly, I do not seem to have a photo of Swallow.
So, when I found Tern languishing on Borth y Gest carpark she proved irresistible. Tern is a 3.45m fibreglass dinghy designed in 1963 by Ian Proctor and probably built soon after that by J. L. Gmach & Co. of Fordingbridge. I think she was intended for teaching children to sail but she is large enough for two adults and a dog (just), but is a comfortable single handed sail and light enough to hop out and pull along in very shallow water. Tern is number 24, and I believe she may have come to Borth from Wellington School. The Firebird class never caught on and they are now very rare, but I believe they are just about perfect for our estuary. They were given a Portsmouth Yardstick of 1201 in 1987, making them about half way between a Mirror and a Wayfarer. Quarter decked with good dry stowage under the foredeck, a pivoting centre board for dealing easily with sandbanks and a very high boom giving wonderful visibility and allowing the boom to clear one’s head when rowing, she is just fun to sail and very forgiving. In 2019 she was given a thorough overhaul by the wonderful Michael Clishem (aka ‘Jimmy Dick’) so maybe she will now see me out.
When I first started sailing seventy years ago safety precautions were rudimentary. I suppose Shearwater must have carried a lifebuoy and Khamsin was latterly equipped with inflated buoyancy bags, but I am fairly sure these would have burst free leaving Khamsin to sink under the weight of her plate if she had capsized. She never did. In the nineteen fifties my father often used to take some of the retired sea captains then living in Borth out for a sail. One of his best chums, who should perhaps remain nameless, used to leave the house on a Sunday Morning heading for Chapel in his Sunday best but divert to the harbour for a sail instead. It would have been considered the very height of poor seamanship to have got into trouble at sea, though of course it did happen and one tragic accident in 1880 led to the death of three of the Borth y Gest pilots. The subsequent enquiry recommended that the pilot boats be equipped ‘with air pipes round the sides’.
There is one other boat that deserves a mention. Escape was a beamy 22ft clinker built Dauntless sloop with a cabin of sorts, twin cylinder Stuart Turner inboard petrol engine and rudimentary equipment. These boats had been built down to a price and Escape was in very poor condition when I bought her, having been used as a houseboat by the previous owner. I painted her bottom with bitumastic and we sailed her a bit, once making it as far as Llanbedrog. The engine was never satisfactory, probably in need of a new magneto at least. I think I had the all too common dream of sailing off into the sunset – well, as far as the Isle of Man anyway – which never came to fruition. I learnt a lot but with hindsight should really have stuck to estuary pottering in Tern.