England 1947-71

Growing Up in SE London Before the “Swinging Sixties”

SE London is where this biography begins….I’m a native of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, England, home of the Cutty Sark, Royal Observatory and the prime meridian of longitude “where east meets west.” The England I knew in 1960 was still a very proper country where everyone knew their place in society.  Anyone who questioned how you should look, think or behave risked being labelled an “eccentric” or worse. So how to explain how  I became aware of the wider world, grew a beard, and escaped from the banks of the River Thames, and found a home in faraway Oregon?

The favorite pastime of my early years was attending football matches at the Valley, home of Charlton Athletic F.C., where I started watching pro football with my father when I was a little kid. (He died of a heart attack when I was 10.) Charlton were importing players from South Africa in the 1950’s, which must make them one of the first British teams with an international lineup.

Charlton's goalkeeper for over 20 years was Sam Bartram.

Charlton’s goalkeeper for over 20 years was Sam Bartram.

But at the age of 10, I won a place at the very proper Colfe’s Grammar School (founded in 1652) and was schooled there from 1958 to 1964. Winning entry to a “good” school was supposed to be my ticket away from my working class roots, but demanded I submit to five years of intensive study. The daily indoctrination from 9 am to 4 pm for 40 weeks a year becoming increasingly frantic as the years passed.

I needed an outlet for my youthful energy:  roaming the neighborhood and playing pick-up footie games on Blackheath   sufficed until I was 14. It was cycling that offered a real escape from the gray drab city streets. Then, a classmate named Marcus Burroughs happened to pass me the Youth Hostel Association handbook. I opened this pocket-size booklet and  I learned there were hostels all over southern England just waiting to be discovered! My life changed forever!

From that moment on, the YHA became my lifeline. All I had to do was survive the exams and the six-week summer holiday  would be waiting for me! Luckily, my mother realized that riding 60 miles a day would leave me too tired to get into trouble! I persuaded a friend to join me, and we made a practice ride of 60 miles to the south coast and Hastings (site of the famous battle of 1066) while my relatives drove down for the weekend. We arrived exhausted but happy. We were glad to be driving back the next day, but the dye was cast.  Now we plotted our big adventure–a ride west to Devon and back.

YHA signpost

That 11-dayhostelling trip in August, 1963 at the age of 15, was the beginning of the end of my well-behaved English life. When school re-opened, I listened as my schoolmates regaled me with their summer antics.  They were already preparing for a future filled with wine, women and song–and I was dreaming of  all the hostels to visit and roads to ride. But the next educational hurdle to fit us for entry into the adult world was to survive the ordeal by exam and pass the demanding GCE national exams in eight subjects–at the tender age of 16. This should have prove me worthy of  a rewarding mid-level career in the City of London in insurance, banking, accounting etc.

.I had also been influenced by the first satirical show on the BBC-That Was the Week That Wasand realized there was a lot of self-deception in the English way of life encouraging everyone  to believe the best they could expect was a night at the pub or two weeks of freedom on the beaches of the Costa Brava. By then, I was reading a sailing book per week, and luckily found one classmate, Ian Sanders, whose family had a boat. They agreed to take me along and we drove to  the north Kent coast.

The 15' 6" YW catamaran was high technology in 1962.

The 15′ 6″ YW catamaran was high technology in 1962.

My first sail was at the Catamaran Yacht Club on the Isle of Sheppey, an hour’s drive east. It was a club race, and on a gusty day it took three of us to keep the 16′ boat upright. It was fast, wet and everything I could have hoped for! (Little did I suspect that this was the start of my lifetime affair with multi-hulled boats!)

Desperate to find regular sailing,  once again it was the YHA that provided the answer. There was a YHA dinghy-sailing club at a  hostel on the River Blackwater in Essex. At the age of 16,   I began cycling 50 miles out to the Essex coast every month to learn the art of sailing. On my first solo outing, I managed to capsize a heavy traditional dinghy in the middle of the Blackwater estuary, and had to be rescued and bailed out by a passing yacht. I remember treading water and looking up to see the Spitfire-class emblem on the manisail as the skipper politely asked if I needed any help! A new club rule was made for beginners to stay inside the breakwater, but that didn’t slow me down….

This was at the time when a small group of Englishmen were inventing the sport of singlehanded ocean racing. In 1964. When I read about the second Observer Single-handed Trans-Atlantic Race (OSTAR) starting in Plymouth on 23 May, I knew I had to go. I caused my mother distress by doing something completely out of character: skipping school for three days to hitch-hike 230 miles to Devon.

  The OSTAR and Me 

But it was an unforgettable experience that changed my life forever.  I briefly met two entrants: I was the sole spectator of a TV interview with Francis Chichester across the bay at Mashford’s boatyard in Cremyll;  I accosted Derek Kelsall as he came ashore and was able to run some errands for him the day before the race began. I stretched that casual meeting into a connection that lasted for over 50 years–and later led me to drop all pretence of living a conventional life. (You could say I ran away to sea.)

On start day I watched from Plymouth Hoe as Frenchman Eric Tabarly led the fleet out into the Channel. (His victory 27 days later would jump-start the whole french nation into an affair with sailing that continues to this day!) Back in the classroom the next week, I had no idea that the OSTAR had set in motion a smaller series of events  that would inexorably change my life for ever–and gave me a head start in writing about ocean racing and record breaking in 1990.

Derek Kelsall's 35' trimaran was the fastest boat in the OSTAR, but had to return to Plymouth to repair a broken rudder.

Derek Kelsall’s 35′ trimaran was the fastest boat in the OSTAR, but had to return to Plymouth to repair a broken rudder.

I hitchhiked home in 1 1/2 days and was back in school on Monda morningy. Now I was really out of touch with the latest news in the classroom. I remember there was a buzz of excitement a few weeks later when the Beatles released A Hard Day’s Night–the first album written by Lennon and McCartney. It was the first time an English group had  broken free of America’s grip on rock and roll, and inspired the great English pop music revival.

At this time I had no direct connection with the sea or ships, and at the age of 16, I had failed the official eyesight test, so lost any chance of becoming a professional mariner. Just as well, because I later found I am permanently prone to seasickness!

English life was showing small signs of change, but not in my world. Having no great talent for the guitar, and having failed to get signed by a football club, I had no job prospects that would make my seventh and last year of secondary school tolerable. My next step was more constructive: I applied for a place as a navigating officer cadet with a shipping company.  But first I had to pass the stringent eyesight test.  After a few minutes in total darkness, I failed and wandered out into the city wondering what next? (They should have had a seasickness test too, and I would have failed that as well!)

I dropped out anyway, and went to work for the London County Council stamping car licenses in a vast room in County Hall. Everything  was still done by hand, in a style that  Dickens himself would have recognized. Ironically, my office overlooked the busy River Thames with Big Ben, the symbol of English life, visible on the far side.

I rode the train to Waterloo station for the first week, surrounded by people whose lives were running on predictable lines, just like the train.  That was a desperately unhappy  time until I started cycling to the office, cheerfully dodging the traffic on London’s  narrow busy roads. For the next six months, the bike kept me sane on the daily commute and over the weekends. I was working in the great central city in  the midst of the “Swinging Sixties,” but I definitely did not want to ride a motor scooter or hang around in coffee bars. Instead, I found a local hosteling club in Eltham and found new friends who also wanted to get out of town–though they also spent plenty of time in country pubs!

I joined many of their overnight trips, staying in rustic youth hostels in all weathers.  (I was definitely on the right track, because I still enjoy hosteling 50 years later!) But at the tender age of 17, I felt I was a total failure for five days a week. I saw myself as full of  ambition but already stuck in a dead-end 9-5 office job. As this winter of my discontent came to an end,  a letter arrived from the USA asking me if I would join the crew of a big trimaran sailing to the USA in the spring. Derek Kelsall, who barely knew me,  hadn’t forgotten the sail-crazy boy on the dockside!

After he sold his boat, he had been approached by a doctor having a 45′ trimaran yacht built in Cornwall. He declined the delivery job, but suggested me as an extra hand. That was my ticket out of the office–and I grabbed it and ran away to sea in May 1965. Although I didn’t get further than Brittany, France, the next spring, the die was cast.  I began my boatbuilding education in England with Derek in 1965, working on the first multihull to win an open, ocean race–the 40′ foam/fiberglass Toria in the first Round Britain Race.

Ithought myself sufficiently competent to buy an old, 11′ dinghy and sail it up and down all the local rivers in 1966. I wrote my first story about that adventure for the Youth Hosteller magazine.Ultimately, it didn’t work out. The owner was arrogant and incompetent and inexperienced as I was, even I could see that. But it didn’t matter…I had my first taste of freedom and knew I would never go back to office work.

I corresponded with Derek, who encouraged me to attend the Amateur Yacht Research Society meetings in London, which I did for the next five years. This only drew me further into the cult of multihulls, with the hope that the motion would be better than a keelboat. (It was, but that didn’t help much.)  I worked in Derek’s new boatyard in Cornwall during my college vacation in 1966. He was building the radical 42′ trimaran  Toria–one of the first yachts built in foam-glass in Sandwich, Kent of all places. He asked me to test the model of this breakthrough design in an AYRS regatta on the Round Pond in Kensington Park–a boat now recognized as the world’s first successful offshore racing trimaran.

Toria, the first modern trimaran, which I helped to build during my college vacation in 1966.

Toria, the first modern trimaran, which I helped to build during my college vacation in 1966.

That gave me an entry into the first Round Britain Race in 1966 and  more meetings with pioneering, English sailors. In fact, after the start, I sailed back up the Channel with Mike Butterfield on the catamaran Misty Miller that he had raced in the OSTAR. After the finish, I took my one and only ride on Toria,  around the harbour, then sailed up the Channel again on Severn–a converted 8-Meter (47′) cruiser-racer  that had trailed far behind Toria in the race.  (Read more about this in the blog under “OSTAR”)

Then I was persuaded to return to civilization to further my education by studying to become a PE teacher–a reasonable option at the time, but one that wasn’t fated to last. So I studied physical education at the College of S. Mark & S. John in Chelsea 1966-69, and actually learned a few things that have come in handy, though not in the way intended.

Dinghy Cruising on the East Coast Rivers

The heron 11' dinghyI had to do something to get afloat that summer, and had the (misplaced) confidence to try a dinghy-cruising adventure on the east coast. I took the obvious route: I found a small 11′ sailing dingy in the classified ads, bought it and had the owner drop it off in my mother’s very small front garden.

Again I convinced best friend, Andrew Strachan, that he had to join me. I needed my uncle Tom Carr to use his big furniture lorry (truck) to move the boat to the Thames. We found a dis-used ramp strewn with garbage, skidded the dinghy down to a dirty beach, and loaded up our camping gear.  Once we launched into the current, there was “no turning back!”

The Thames_estuaryThe four-week cruise I took along the east coast rivers, with Andrew along for the first and last weeks, was modest but became a minor epic. Later, I wrote a short story for the Youth Hosteler magazine–never imagining that it would one day lead to bigger stories.

I managed to get afloat on a variety of craft in the following years, most notably in 1968 racing in the East Anglian Offshore Racing Association with David Brooke and his family on West Mersea, Essex . Their wooden yacht was the 37′  Matambu designed by Robert Clark, a smaller version of Francis Chichester’s 40′ Gipsy Moth III. I also joined them cruising in the Baltic–a trip that was described in David’s book Three Boys in a Boat.

A Welsh Adventure

That winter, I was studying hard and living at home, and attending AYRS meetings where I was exposed to many boat builders, including James Wharram, who advocated sheet plywood as the best material for home building of multihulls. A visit to the Wharram encampment in Deganwy, North Wales in mid-winter, convinced me to join the low-budget club–a decision that had far-reaching consequences for me and everyone who else who invests a good sum of money and thousands of hours of hand work into a boat project.

In 1969, after I I graduated, I bought the pair of 30′ V-shaped  floats from Wharram’s failed attempt to build a racing trimaran. They made a fairly good platform, but with raking sterns there was no easy way to fit rudders, so Andrew and I built an ineffective steering oar.  We pulled together a nice ketch rig from various spars and sails we found in the area, and built a tolerable deck shelter.

For the third time in my very brief career, I pushed off with a fair wind on an untried boat with no way to turn back. A mile or so down the coast, I began to wonder how long we could without real steering or lateral resistance before hitting something! I can’t recall how we managed to transit the currents in the Menai Strait between Wales and Anglesey, or found our way down the Welsh coast to Abersoch. We beached at high tide and the boat stayed high and dry for a few days. I even managed to acquire a girl friend from Derby, until the tide rose back to float us off. Somehow, the boat found its way back to Deganwy, often pointing way off course.

Unfortunately, I thought I could work around this failure, and soon started sketching a new boat.  The next month, I started teaching at Eltham Green Comprehensive School, close to my house. It was soon clear that I wasn’t cut out for this work. (I should have been teaching outdoor activities, but there were no college courses in that specialty in the 1960’s.) Within a few months, I was leafleting the neighborhood to find a building space for a catamaran that could carry me across oceans.

Out of My Depth

After attending many AYRS meetings, and studying all manner of bizarre ideas from wingmasts to hydrofoils, I was convinced that I could  draw and build my own cruising catamaran at a low cost– I was already working on what I thought was a simpler building method than Kelsall’s foam and fiberglass system.

1974 AYRS quarterly magazine on hydrofoils for offshore sailing!

1974 AYRS quarterly magazine on hydrofoils for offshore sailing!

The result was  a rustic 36′ open-deck plywood catamaran with a single chine. In a spacious back yard I found,  I started to build my dream boat. In 1970,  I quit teaching after a year, which pretty much meant I was giving up on the years in college, the teaching degree,and any faint chance of living an acceptable English life.

After a year’s work, with occasional jobs in the evening, the hulls were complete enough to launch. The problems began with the search for a launch vehicle, ramp, helpers, and a crew to wherever I was bound. I located a suitable vehicle and d river I could hire, and persuade one of the PE teachers I had worked with to bring his rugby team along to pick the hulls up and load them on the truck.Somehow, I transported the parts to a muddy creek on the River Medway and assembled the parts with the help of an Australian,  Milton Scully and a German, Stephanie Grunwald, who had agreed to try sailing with me.

Bill Tilman's old wooden pilot cutter moored to the pack ice in 1971 in Greenland--after I quit in Iceland.

Bill Tilman’s old wooden pilot cutter moored to the pack ice in 1971 in Greenland–after I quit in Iceland.

But a second time, a casual letter I had written to a well-known sailor had an unexpected effect. Major H.W. Tilman, the world’s top authority on  high-latitude sailing replied with an invitation to join him and fill out the crew roster on his old Bristol Channel Pilot Cutters, the Sea Breeze. So I left the catamaran and found myself sailing on a voyage to the Arctic and Greenland. I soon learned the awful truth: I was not going to “get over” my seasickness….as the Skipper wrote, I was “one of those for whom use and wont was no cure.”

I was seasick for most of the two weeks at sea and I had to get off the boat in Reykjavik for good. I had a pleasant interlude hitch hiking around the remote island before I struggled home by ferry, encountering another does of  seasickness, and realizing that it could disable me me at any time. Nonetheless, I had no choice but to press on. In September 1971, I successfully revived my catamaran and the two crew I had found, Milton Scully (Australia) and Stephanie Grunwald (Germany) and piloted the cat to the Dutch coast in September with a good strong blow to make it a memorable arrival. That was my only experience of captaining a boat sailing away from England–but not too far.

This was the second time rough passage that year but a wonderful time awaited once on shore. I needed to let go of the cruising dream, but I hadn’t really got the message. As for the boat,  I  realized it was cheap and it showed, while the low-budget rig and sails meant it didn’t sail fast enough for its size. We found temporary work in a pickle factory in Amsterdam and  we all began to enjoy the Dutch experience. We found some casual work in a pickle factory, and I biked around the city’s magnificent old streets and canals, and visited a Dutch woman I had met at a hostel in Iceland.

With winter approaching, we sailed to Hoorn, so I can claim I have sailed “around the Hoorn,” then across the the Ijselmeer to enjoy a passage on some tideless flat water. We turned back without much idea of where we were going, but when we landed in Medemblik, I found a low-cost operation for laying up boats in a field using a crane and slings. Again we found some casual work, this time in a boatyard, where we worked until all the boats in their care were hauled out on their slipway.

I had my boat lifted out for the winter, and set off for the ferry port back to England. I stopped off in Den Haag to visit a Dutch sailor who had visited the boat during our short inland cruise. As far as I can recall, I was walking around the town center near the Dutch parliament,  when a young American woman noticed an English label on my backpack. She had spent several months in the Netherlands and was happy to chat.

It was probably her who suggested we walk around for a while–since I was still too polite to suggest anything like that to a stranger. She was interested in art and was going to a museum show of prints by MC Escher–the Dutch artist whose mysterious and physically”impossible” compositions had made him popular in the USA. So one thing led to another, we fell for each other, and after a day or two, we teamed up to travel back to England. I can’t remember how my mother reacted when we showed up at her house, but we managed somehow with her sleeping on the couch.

She had  a remarkable effect on me, even daring to ask why I kept sailing when I was sick all the time! After a few days, it was time for her to fly home, leaving me alone in SE London doing substitute teaching and somewhat adrift. That couldn’t last long, so then she flew home. She pretty much dared me to leave the boat and try flying to the USA to see her again, if I ever wanted to visit other countries.

Footnote: In 2013, I returned to those familiar back roads of Kent with a three-day stay at the Rochester, Kent hostel, and visited many places described by Charles Dickens in the 1840’s, and the Naval Shipyard where his father worked.

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