Let me clarify, right from the start, confessions might be doctored in case my wife reads this! Secondly, classic to me is anything built before 1999 and thirdly, as we all recognise, we are financially poorer custodians not owners. Hopefully, future custodians will lift this latter burden but continue to love these boats as much as we do.
My Damascene moment started when, at school, I joined the sailing club. Being the progressive, if land-locked -read Sheffield-, school they had partnered with the Ocean Youth Club who had a small fleet of 70′ yachts one of whom, The Master Builder, was based nr Brightlingsea in Essex.
I must have impressed someone, or maybe they were desperate, but after a few weekend visits, I was offered the post of second mate. A job description was not forthcoming verbally. It took a North Sea crossing in a force eight on a dark wet night, with a crew of seasick twelve year olds, to fully understand my role. It was my watch as we criss-crossed the Goodwin Sands. Repeatedly taking bearings, on what seemed like a hundred boats, to identify the potential collisions with only one lad lashed to the helm in the horizontal rain, disaster struck. He fell asleep and we gybed. The skipper was non too impressed as I roused him from his warm bunk to reset the boats course. Once done, he put me on the helm and just said to keep a look out then went back to bed. Somehow I was hooked on sailing.
Various other sailing experiences followed on a diverse range of boats. Thames barges, J Class Velsheda, dinghies and more.
After college, I moved down to Brighton. One day, strolling along the seafront past the local sailing club. They were having an open day. I stopped in front of a small video screen showing, on repeat, a short clip of two bronzed Californians having great fun on a Hobie 14. I had to have one and an hour later was the proud owner and newest club member.
Brighton beach can be an evil launch and landing spot. Steep shingle edges two metres high either provided steep launch slides or boat breaking walls if timings were misjudged. Three hobie 14’s later (two wrecked, one folded in half at sea) I reckoned I had earned my stripes and bought the first of two hobie sixteens followed by a brilliant Hobie Tiger. Multihulls were the thing, racing in my blood and another eight years racing on twenty six foot micro-multihull. Mostly the innovative, folding Dragonfly trimarans but many others. So it became clear to me that the motto “go fast or go home” was the only one I subscribed to. No-one was more surprised to me when a chance meeting found me contemplating buying a pocket trailer sailer designed by Angus Primrose in 1968. The lifting keel 22′ Seal.
Tragically he was lost at sea in 1980 whilst competing in the OSTAR.
The Seal named ‘Chimer’ pointed well, went faster than I thought it would, and apart from the faff of trying to get the mast up in any wind, I loved that little boat.
After two years, my wife had had enough of the mast raising and lowering and rather than base the boat somewhere where this might not be necessary, it was time to think of something larger. Having spent most of the previous two years exploring the solent and having seen thousands of boats along with a subscription to Classic Boat magazine, a gaff rigged boat became the sail plan of choice. Not that I knew anything about how a gaff rig worked except for the short weekend or two spent on Thames barges. But hey ho?
An Ebay search of cheap boats produced a doer-upper. A 25′ Steel hulled gaffer named Sweet Pea. Mine for £2,250.
Unfortunately it looked like this. No Deck and had not been touched for over five years. The good news was she was five miles away in a barn. The bad news was, the barn lease was up. Good news I was renting a barn for storage. So one expensive lift later she was in her new home. Time to learn about how to relay a deck and build a coach-house.
The steel hull needed bead blasting first so we built a tent and employed a suitably equipped person to do this. Only two small but deep rust spots gave way to a see-through experience so after welding and fairing, she got several coats of primer and then topcoats in deep blue, so renamed her Bluebell.
Careful examination of the steel roof beams, prior to re-decking, revealed the previous bodger had cut away a couple of vital, load-bearing struts to make access forward easier. Back came the welder to make good.
Budgets being tight, the rest of the work I would have to do myself with whoever was stupid enough to wander within hailing distance.
Learning about how plywood only bends in one direction easily meant careful measuring to ensure minimal joints between panels and two thinner layers, crossed over the joints gave us a water-tight base onto which to fix the deck I desired. i.e. teak. After several heart-stopping estimates of the cost of the bare timber, it was back to Ebay to find suitable second-hand wood. Three different sources costing a total of less than £200 provided enough larger, timbers that I could machine down to 1” thick 1 and a half inch wide strips.
So far so good, I thought. The previous owner had saved all the bronze portlights but I wanted a couple of extras and found these at a cheap price and redesigned the coachroof to suit. The hardest bit was the sliding hatch mechanism which had ran on some kind of brown melamine runners. However after a couple of trials before fixing down, I managed a set up that would work and prevent green water on deck sloshing underneath.
So far, all in it had cost around £5000 and hundreds of my man hrs.
Bad news again. The barn owner had new plans for a horse livery in my barn and would I kindly leave at the end of the month !
Once again I booked the crane lorry to lift Bluebell into the daylight and take her eight miles down the road to Shoreham harbour to finish the work.
I had to join the yacht club in order to secure a place in the boatyard but at least I could tap into knowledge that others doing their boats up had. Some of these had been doing it to the same boat for over twenty years. They were quickly dismissed as not worthy of my tea-making skills.
Another Winter passed but by late Spring, Bluebell was ready for getting her toes wet. Advice was given and taken to drive her down the slip on the late afternoon high tide, start the engine and check all is well and no water being taken aboard before securing her over night onto a drying pontoon to make doubly sure.
I spent an uncomfortable night aboard slackening the lines as we settled onto the concrete slip and then retightening at regular intervals as she refloated. To my great relief after some 18 months of work and about £7000 all in, we were ready for her sea trials.
More next time including circumnavigating a lock, fire on board and saying goodbye.
If you’d like to share a story please send us an email to email@example.com