Saturday, 6 October 2018

Volunteering on Britannia

The following blog was written by one of "Britannia's Friends"  Andrew, who volunteered to work with us for four days in October.  

"In October 2018 I met Sam, Vicki and Britannia for the first time in 25 years. Sam and Vicki had withstood the passage of time remarkably well, barring the odd dodgy knee, but sadly Britannia wasn’t quite the elegant, if elderly, lady I had last seen at the quayside in Portree in 1993. The intervening years have of course seen her reluctantly sold by Sam and Vicki and subsequently enduring a period of neglect compounded by misguided and insensitive alterations resulting in the loss of most of the painstaking fitting out of her interior undertaken by Sam in the 1970's, and her sad decline from a graceful sailing vessel to little more than a hulk used as a floating dormitory in an obscure backwater.

Enter Sam & Vicki once more, fuelled by a determination not to let her slip into terminal decline but to rescue her and give her a new lease of life and a new purpose in her second century, once restored to her formal glory. A thoroughly praiseworthy goal, but a huge challenge nonetheless despite the growing army of supporters and volunteers Sam and Vicki have enlisted to the cause. Having decided that the practical problems of working on her in a boatyard a considerable distance from their home in mid-Devon compounded the difficulty of the project they decided on the bold step of transporting her lock, stock and barrel to Winkleigh, about 30 miles from the sea, where the local community now seem to be taking her to their heart.

 Of course a Devon field may be a picturesque setting for her, but serious restoration work on a boat of this size and complexity requires a wealth of facilities and a suitably protected working environment, which Sam and a growing team of volunteers, drawn from the local population and the many friends and admirers of Britannia they have accumulated over the years, have set about constructing over the last few months, so that I renewed my acquaintance with her in a magnificent purpose-built shed which has grown over and around her. 

Given the sad state of Britannia herself if was really heartening to see how much has already been achieved in constructing her temporary home, creating a setting in which similar magic can be worked on the old lady herself. Seeing the shed immediately impressed upon me that these people know what they’re doing and are seriously determined to meet this challenge, had I ever doubted this. In the light of what has already been accomplished it is much easier to believe that the damage and neglect of the past 15 years ago can and will be fully reversed.

Despite the lack of superstructure and interior fittings she is still recognisably the same boat that first bewitched me in 1988. She literally has a heart of oak and although much of Sam’s painstaking craftsmanship has been stripped from her, her keel, frame, hull and deck are mostly intact and what is there now is largely sound and secure, much irredeemably rotten and damaged timber having been removed before she was moved inland.

Faced with such a task it was great to get stuck in for a few days and do my small bit to move things forward a little. We removed large amounts of accumulated detritus, redundant wiring and pipework from within the old saloon area and remaining cabins, leaving a clearer field of operations for work on actual restoration to begin. 

We also took delivery of some heavy-duty woodworking machinery from storage elsewhere, ready for its installation in the shed so that serious woodworking activities can commence. Best of all we manhandled a stack of huge pieces of sawn mahogany into safe storage in the shed to provide the wherewithal for eventual refitting of Britannia’s interior to the standard that old friends of her will remember from her heyday providing unforgettable sailing holidays amid some of Britain’s most beautiful land- and seascapes.

None of this is going to be quick or easy, and a lot more financial and practical help will be needed in the next few years before the dream of returning her to the sea in A1 condition can be realised. I left with the firm conviction that Sam & Vicki’s new vision for their old friend is realistic and achievable and I cannot wait to have the opportunity to give another helping hand to the work and to admire the further progress I expect to see when I’m next able to visit. Meanwhile if it’s crossed your mind to lend a hand, do it! I could not have been made more welcome and it’s hard to think of a more satisfying and rewarding way of spending a few days than by rolling up your sleeves and getting stuck in!"

Britannia 1988 Loch Carron

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Storms and Sugar

Happy New Year!   2018, roaring like a lion.

Well its 2.30 am and we are lying awake listening to the wind howling, and its joined by a few claps of thunder.  Storm Eleanor is raging.  The dogs are undisturbed, thankfully, albeit one is stone deaf!  I console (!) Sam by saying at least we have had 18 years of worry-free windy nights whilst we were no longer boat owners.   I guess all boat owners will relate to this.  It doesn't matter how much you prepare, sometimes there is just nothing more to be done and all you can do is hope.  I did my best to cheer Sam up by reminding him of all the gales that we had endured, the cups of tea in the middle of the night and what was it, oh yes, warm milk, honey and cinnamon - yum.  And listening to radio 4, up loud to drown as much of the wind as possible.   Sometimes, like hearing Big Ben chime, all appears to be normal and safe when you hear the BBC, despite what is going on outside.

Britannia is safe ashore, but we are still worried about the covers tearing.  I am worried about her being blown over, which I know is ridiculous, but we were having gusts of 60 -70 knots from the west which would be hitting her broadside.  Somehow, all your fears are magnified at 3am, 

Hopefully Storm Eleanor has passed through without too much damage done anywhere or loss of life.  A few big trees have come down, sadly, but the ground is very soft after all the rain this last couple of weeks.  Some people are without power - it feels like a bad winter so far for storms.

But all is well, when we checked her in daylight there was no damage at all to the canvasses, - everything still snugged down.  Sam and John had done a really good job of tying them down.

Yesterday the news was full of health concerns about the amount of sugar being consumed by children, mainly through sugary snacks and drinks.   I guess I am lucky not to have a sweet tooth - much prefer savoury snacks, but then, when I was growing up, sweets were still on ration after the war.  In fact I believe that they were the last foodstuffs to come off ration, being seen as a luxury, not a necessity.  Food rationing started in 1940 and sugar came off ration in 1953 when I was 5 years old.  But even after that, sweets and chocolate were in short supply and I guess were quite expensive. 

3 children eating carrots on sticks instead of ice-cream!
I feel sure the population would have been healthier then - not that I'm advocating rationing as an answer.

Looking back on my own children, I suppose I was quite hard on them regarding sweets.  They were only allowed to have a 10 pence mix up once a week, which was a treat much looked forward to.  I don't think they thought they were deprived!

When we lived on the remote Hebridean island of Canna,  all our groceries were delivered by ferry once a week ( sometimes in the winter, if the weather was bad, we had to wait longer ) so it was easy to stick to the once a week for sweets rule.  We also allowed ourselves a bar of chocolate which was shared amongst 5 - supposed to last a week, but usually it was all gone by Saturday night!  I guess its easy to be strict when there is no temptation to buy.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Snowy weather in the winter!

I take so long to write these blogs that they are nearly always a bit less than topical - apologies for that!  I started this at the beginning of this week when arguments were raging  about the weather!  Apparently it has been the coldest day of the year so far.  Great, get rid of some of the germs.  I am old enough to remember going to school in 1963 when we were "snowed in" for 3 months.  My school was never closed, sadly!  

The River Brue at high tide

But life on board Britannia when the boys were little was sometimes chilly.   I remember the winter of 1975/76 when we had a berth on the River Brue in Highbridge in Somerset.  We were sitting on a mud berth in the river, the tide flowing in from the Bristol Channel with a rise and fall of 40 feet, the second highest in the world.  We moored up against a very long wooden jetty, crossing the mud flats which was about twenty yards long and twenty feet high where it reached the channel.  For 12 hours a day we sat comfortably on the soft mud.  However, during that winter, the mud froze and so did the tide on its way in and out.  The sea froze around us and you could hear the ice cracking when the tide turned.  The boat, normally toasty if in salt water, was quite cold.  We had a wonderful little cast iron pot bellied stove   that burnt anything and throughout that winter we foraged for wood, using a collapsed, broken down jetty nearby.  With some surprise, when Spring arrived, we realised that we had burnt the whole of this long jetty..  hopefully no-one else noticed it's gradual decline.  The stove is no longer, having gone the way of the majority of her interior, sadly.

Again, on a mud berth at the mouth of the river Axe at Uphill in Somerset, 1978/9.  Same thing happened.  Poor Gareth was just crawling and because he was so low down, we had to make sure he hadn't turned blue and constantly had to lift him up so that he could enjoy the warmer air at the top of the cabin.  We put all our old coats and blankets, and sheepskins on the cabin sole to give us a little more insulation.  

And then, in Bristol, we were out of the water, on the hard for nearly 2 years whilst Sam was doing her first major rebuild.  One winter was particularly cold - a few nights were minus 18 degrees F.  During that time we had to boil a kettle of water and then unfreeze the standpipes in the yard in order to fill our 5 gallon containers with fresh water.  The calor gas cylinders had to have the hot water treatment too when it was below freezing!

River Axe, Uphill 1979

Haydn, and Bonnie, Mylor

The most vivid memory though is because of the time of year.  Christmas has always been a bit of a challenge for me, but the best Christmas ever was spent in the middle of Mylor Creek - stranded on the mud when the tide was out.

We arrived in Mylor harbour, Cornwall in December 1976. A quiet sail around Lands End from Padstow found us safe in Mylor on December 23rd. We tied up against the quay and were told by a confident local fisherman that we would be safe and sound there unless an Easterly blew, but winds from that direction were extremely rare - he said!. Well, you guessed it, 12 hours later, on Christmas Eve, a vicious East wind piped up, rapidly becoming a full gale. Whilst the tide was receding Britannia received a terrible pounding and we thought we were going to lose her. The noise of the wind and of Britannia crashing against the quay wall and the sea bottom as she was grounding was terrifying. We had no insurance, Britannia was everything we had. We knew no-one in Mylor and had nowhere to go. Haydn was just 3. Sam just had to keep our home safe, there was no other option.

As soon as the tide was right out and Britannia was grounded, Sam checked further along the river and we made the decision to take her there as soon as the next tide came in.

Whilst Haydn and I went to the pantomime in Falmouth, -  a wonderful production of Snow White -  Sam made all the necessary arrangements to move Britannia as soon as we could. So, as she began to float again that evening, we warped her around in the dark, and once floating free, we let go the warps and drifted for about half a mile under bare poles as far as we could go down the river until we were sheltered from the wind. We anchored in the mud in the middle of the river and waited until the tide went out again. The mud was soft enough for us to lie upright, so relieved and happy we managed some sleep!

Mylor Creek after the storm

Next day was Christmas morning.  The dawn was calm with bright clear blue skies and no wind!  Suddenly we heard a knocking on Britannia's hull and to our shock, looking over the side, we were confronted by 2 local fishermen who had waded through the deep, soft mud by pushing a dinghy in front of them. They had brought us some goodies and had come to see if we were OK! I believe a few drinks were act of kindness indeed.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Plastics in the ocean

Today is a big day.  The United Nations at their summit in Nairobi are discussing the growing problem of plastic islands in our oceans.  At last, and whilst I am struggling to write a press release for Britannia moving from Gweek to Devon tomorrow, I am also listening to discussions about plastic on the radio.  As always with issues of waste/recycling/reuse etc, there are so many different arguments that is hard, as a layman, to know what to do.  Instinctively, though, I think that we have to reduce our consumption and our waste, and if we do not produce anything that cannot safely be disposed of without doing harm to the environment, then we won't go far wrong.  

Gareth 6 years old on Canna looking at Britannia 1985
Plastic pollution is not a new issue, though.   I saw at first hand the problem of plastics polluting the seas when we lived on the Isle of Canna, nearly forty years ago.   As well as being a real eyesore on these beautiful Hebridean beaches, plastic rubbish caught up in the seaweed on the tideline had a much bigger impact.  The islanders had traditionally farmed Canna the natural way.  Being 25 miles from mainland Scotland, they had to be self sufficient and were inter-dependant.  When we lived there in 1984, there were only 18 adults - our family increased the population to 22 adults and 2 children!

  Canna is a small island, 6 miles long and about three quarters of a mile at its widest point.  It was essentially a farm, grazing highland cattle and sheep and growing their own crops to feed the stock.   For years and years, the farmers had hauled the dried seaweed from the beaches to spread on the land as fertiliser, but sadly, that practice had ended as the seaweed was so contaminated with rubbish that did not degrade, that they could no longer spread it on the land and there were not enough people to beach clean or separate the rubbish from the seaweed - they did not have the time.  And anyway, what could they do with it?  No bin men came to Canna! So the result was that artificial fertilisers had to be bought in and shipped from the mainland,  and that continues to this day.  Sad isn't it?   But I am delighted that at last the issue is being spoken about, and people are looking for remedies.  It's not too late to change our ways, and this is just the beginning, so today is a good day.   

Monday, 27 November 2017

In Homage to the Whales

Being nearly 70 I'm not of the generation that “does” instant messaging, texts, whatsapp, instagram – I can just about manage a facebook page occasionally and twitter always gets the better of me.. Which is why I have taken nearly a week to write about this, which is very dear to my heart. I need time to think about things, a plodder who doesn't react instantly! Well, that's my excuse for writing this a week after the event.

There was, thankfully, a huge public reaction to last week's episode of “The Blue Planet” where a pilot whale mother was filmed refusing to let go of her dead baby. The reason for the death was most probably a high level of PCB's in the mother's milk, which effectively poisoned the calf. This in itself is more than sad, but I also recently learned of something that has affected me personally.

Britannia in 1992 in the Sound of Sleat, between Skye and the mainland

Between 1982 and 1996 we sailed Britannia on the West Coast of Scotland, taking passengers every week to enjoy the beautiful scenery and abundant wildlife. Every year we made several sightings of a large pod of Orcas, more than 40 creatures, and I now learn that they were known as the West Coast Community Orca pod. They are the UK's only resident pod of Orcas. I didn't know that then. When we saw these magnificent creatures, we were full of wonder and awe and felt hugely privileged to be able to view them so closely, hear them blowing and, yes, smell them!

Apparantly at the beginning of 2016 a female orca was washed up on the shore of Tiree, a small Hebridean island. She was identified as a member of the now dwindling West Coast Community Orca pod. Her death must have been excruciating as she had been entangled in fishing rope, which had prevented her from swimming, ultimately causing her to suffocate. The West Coast pod now has just 8 individuals, 4 males and 4 females with no calves having been observed for 20 years!! If that isn't bad enough, on examining the female's body, - she had been named Lulu, - it was discovered that:

"The levels of PCB contamination in Lulu were incredibly high, surprisingly so. They were 20 times higher than the safe level that we would expect for cetaceans to be able to manage. That puts her as one of the most contaminated animals on the planet in terms of PCB burden, and does raise serious questions for the long-term survivability of this group (of UK killer whales)."

Dr Andrew Brownlow, head of the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme.

It is not just plastics that can be seen in the ocean, making hideous and lethal plastic islands. The ocean is downstream from everything, and much more still needs to be done to ensure that PCBs currently in landfill sites are locked-in and secured so they can’t leak out into streams, rivers and estuaries.

The chances of survival for the remaining members of this pod of orcas is slim, and if they are unable to breed or keep their calves alive, they will soon become extinct. This is heartbreaking and a tragedy that need not be happening. We do not need plastic! We must stop producing anything that cannot be disposed of safely and without harming the environment. We must all work together to stop polluting our seas and our beautiful planet before it is too late, as it is for this iconic West Coast Community of Orcas.

When Britannia is sailing again, she will be a flagship for raising awareness of the state of our oceans, and for us, Board members of Britannia Sailing Trust, the tragic tale of the West  Coast Orcas makes us even more determined to get our historic boat back to sea and working, to try to make a small difference.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Bristol Channel Pilot Cutters

Alpha sailing off Staffa island - original watercolour

Seeing all the gorgeous photographs of the Bristol Channel Pilot Cutters racing these last two weekends has set me to thinking about our long relationship with these beautiful old boats. We have strong connections with Peggy and Alpha,  and Dolphin to a lesser extent.  In fact we went  to look at Peggy in 1973 before we bought Britannia, as we were looking for a boat that we could sail off shore but would be comfortable to live aboard.  Pilot cutters were designed for the pilots to live aboard for periods of time whilst waiting for ships to pilot up the Channel, so we figured that one of these would suit us well.  Peggy was for sale at the time and was on a mooring in Penarth.  We travelled from our home in Somerset to take a look, but decided against buying her - can't remember why now - maybe she was out of our price range!  Anyway, not long after that we came across Britannia and Sam fell in love. And then we heard that Peggy had been bought by Mark and Diccon Priddy and was based in Bristol, so we caught up with her again in 1974 when we took Britannia to Bristol.

Peggy had an almost catastrophic accident in 1980, whilst waiting for the tide to get back into Bristol docks.  The crew had been instructed by the lock keepers to lay alongside the quay, and as the tide dropped, and she was drying out, a baulk of timber that was waterlogged and submerged,  pierced her hull, leaving a hole a couple of feet across.  When the tide came back in, she rapidly filled with water and despite many people baling and pumping for hours, she didn't lift. Bristol Docks Authority gave them 24 hours to move the boat or they were going to dynamite her as she was blocking the entrance way to the dock.  So Sam decided that the only solution was a coffer dam, which would contain any water coming in and allow Peggy to float again.  He designed and constructed a coffer dam in the few hours before the tide came in again, working with Martin Cornes as his mate. They worked in the dark, fitted the shaped box, sealed it to the hull, and when the tide came in, up she popped!  They were then able to move her to a safe place where she was patched before eventually getting into the safety of the floating dock.  Sam remembers being interviewed by a news team and defended the crew against some allegations that they had caused the disaster through negligence, which was not the case at all..When we left Bristol, Diccon and Mark gifted us a beautiful tender which was the first fibreglass boat out of a mould taken off a 19th Century American boat that Mark had brought back with him from the States.  We still have her!

Alpha - photographed by Beken's of Cowes

Alpha was very much part of our lives when we were in Scotland.  Sam organised and sailed her on a delivery trip from Lowestoft where she had been stored for 18 years.  The owners then were Neil and Pauline Pettefar and they, having watched us sailing Britannia from Portree, decided that they wanted Alpha brought up to Skye.  Unfortunately, Neil suffered a major stroke just after she arrived in Portree and they were never able to sail her.  They sold her to a good friend of ours, Dr Michael Humphries, and then Sam led a major rebuild of her in Corpach in 90/91.  We then became involved in chartering her with Mike, her owner, from Portree, and managed and skippered her chartering in the Canaries for a winter's season.  Sam has skippered her in one of the Bristol Channel races but we cannot remember the year!  Despite loving Britannia, he says Alpha is the most sea-kindly boat that he has ever sailed and it has been a privilege to have been given the opportunity to do so.

Our relationship with Dolphin is a little more tenuous.  One of her previous owners, Ken Briggs, sailed with us as crew for a week on Britannia around the islands so that he could become more proficient sailing a large gaff-rigged boat.  He got on well with our skipper at the time, Tim, who then worked for Ken for a season, skippering Dolphin.  We also met the present owner, Roger Capps in Bristol at the Festival of the Sea in 1996 when we had Britannia up for sale.  Delighted for Roger that he won this year's Cock of the Channel race in Dolphin - well deserved.   It is a small world isn't it - traditional wooden boats?  So many connections.

We have a facebook page, britannia sailing trust, and a website - for anyone interested in Britannia's progress.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Why we are doing what we are doing..

Well, it's been a couple of weeks since I last wrote anything and because of that I have had time to think about what we are taking on and exactly why!  Why are we doing this now?  We don't need stress in our lives, who does?  Having anything to do with boats again was not on our agenda or lifeplan, as we gently descended into our "third age"! We sold Britannia in 1996 because of other forces that demanded attention, but it had been a very difficult decision and for a while we were not sure whether we had done the right thing. Life was very different and quite tough at times without her, and dare I say it, a little less interesting.

Britannia had been at the centre of our lives for 23 years and she left a large hole.  We had spent much energy, time and all our resources to get her to the beautiful condition that she was when we sold her, and we were proud of her.  She had been our home, giving shelter to our growing family; she had looked after us when we were at sea keeping us safe; she has shown us that you can still tread lightly on this beautiful planet and lead a decent life, albeit simple, with no electricity, scarce fresh water, and learning to distinguish between the important things in life and the frills.  She taught us to live in the now, in the moment, currently a popular practice known as mindfulness.

She allowed us to make a living during our years of chartering in Scotland, for which I am very grateful.  She had been the catalyst for us meeting some amazing people whom we would never had met had we not lived the life that we did; she changed lives and saved lives - literally. Separate chapters are to come of the Romances of Britannia and Life-saving Skills of Britannia!  She has brought people together from totally different backgrounds showing them an alternative lifestyle and the abundance of wild life in the sea that is hard to forget.  The exhilaration of sailing at 10 knots with just the strength of the wind - no noise or smells from an engine, just the swish of her slicing through the waves and the wind whistling in the rigging, is an unforgettable experience.  People who sailed on her had often never sailed on a boat before, let alone sailed in the wild places of the Highlands where we took them, and they loved it, and fell in love with her - as can be seen from the numbers of people who are helping to support her now when she really needs it.. and for us, getting back in touch with our sailing friends has been a wonderful experience and a real bonus in taking on this project.  Another huge positive is meeting new people who have been attracted by the Britannia magnet and are touched by her story.

We sailed at night sometimes, by moonlight, watching the phosphorescence in the water and shooting stars.  We were in awe of the power of the sea and the wind and sometimes fearful - but oh how it made you feel alive!  The smell of a wooden boat, like an old aeroplane, is so evocative  and individual - linseed oil, stockholm tar, woodsmoke from our little pot stove, delicious food and home baking in the galley, - the sea itself, so fresh and pure.  But, and here is the rub, the sea is no longer the cleansing environment that it once was.  In fact it is being poisoned by humanity's unsustainable lifestyles.  Waste pollution, chemical pollution and now the rising sea temperatures should be a flashing red light. If the seas die, our species will have no future.  The UN resolution passed in triumph last year, may be too late.  We have to act now and force our governments to make unpopular and difficult decisions, for example a total ban on fossil fuels.  But oil companies are very powerful, as are the countries that supply them.  And some governments are in their thrall.  Thomas Jefferson said "the care of human life is the only legitimate goal of good government"  How true.

When Britannia came back into our lives in September 2013, Sam and I were very reluctant to get involved again.  We were of the opinion that It was  a chapter that was over, finished.  We weren't sure what we were going to do in our retirement, but it would not have anything to do with boats we thought!  But Britannia tugged at our hearts and we could not turn our backs on her once we saw the poor condition that she was in.   What is interesting though, is that we now have a focus instead of being a bit aimless - a sad condition that can prevail in retirement!  What we have been thinking about lately is that Sam and I are very fortunate to be healthy and fit for our ages.  At 72 and 68 neither of us feel our age, and we still have energy.  We don't want to waste the years that we have left being a bit irrelevant and looking for things to fill our day.  So having the opportunity to save Britannia for a second time is now our focus for the moment, but also,  the purpose of saving her this time is maybe her most important role yet.  To broaden her influence, using her magic and the attraction she holds for people, to try to spread the word about the terrible damage that we are doing to our planet, particularly the oceans.  She was built as a sailing boat without an engine a hundred years ago.  We want her to sail again as a flagship, with a zero carbon footprint if we can, raising awareness of global warming and climate change, the biggest threat to our civilisation today.  

We have led busy lives working to raise our family, and we are lucky to be retired now, with no responsibilities but we are in the privileged position, like many of our generation, of having time, energy and the fitness to spend the small time that we have left, (hopefully they will be years!) to do more for our beautiful planet.  And maybe spread a little happiness and have some fun on the way?  So thank you, Britannia for giving us this opportunity...