The Boats

Mirror 34404 “Gnat”

The Mirror dingy needs little introduction. We built “Gnat” from a box of bits supplied by Bell Woodworking in 1973. The plywood stitch and tape construction was designed for home assembly in a small space, Granny’s garage in our case. Dad, a capable wood worker led the build, my sister and I helping or hindering as necessary. The bright yellow hull was Dad’s choice, “So that I can see you when you capsize”. There were no frills on the Gnat, wooden fairleads (no jammers), cotton hawser laid sheets and hemp halyards which twisted like snakes. Dad’s one concession was a block at the end of the boom, the nylon fairleads which came in the kit sufficed elsewhere.

We loved her, rowing or sailing. With Dad on board we used a Seagull 40+ outboard which sent water shooting up the dagger board case. As children we were not allowed the outboard. We had to learn to handle the boat properly, shipping oars and rowlocks when coming alongside. Tying the sails in a harbour stow when not in use.  

Aged 12 I was set loose to sail single handed up the length of Ullswater racing against Dad in the family cruiser. I must have been given a good head start, after a double crash gybe and near capsize at the narrows I finished an hour ahead of Dad.  The bar of chocolate prize was mine.

Gnat went to a family friend in the mid 1970s, ending up stored in his garage.  His widow passed Gnat back to me in 2005 along with a 1961 Seagull 40+. We have been sailing Gnat in North Wales ever since.

Mirror “Y Ddraig Fach”

Soon after we got married my wife Jan made the mistake of saying she would like to learn to sail. Our first boat together was an aged Mirror formerly painted russet brown and named Ketchup.

Our first trip was to the River Dart, I had loaded the Mirror onto the car roof, collected Jan from a night shift and driven down to Greenways Quay where we paid through the nose to park but got afloat. After blasting around Dittsham we sailed down to Dartmouth for a fish and chip lunch. Jan was hooked.

With new rowlock blocks, oars, a coat of green paint and her new name “Y Ddraig Fach” (The Little Dragon) sign written by Jan’s uncle across her stern, the days of Ketchup were gone.

An early spring trip to Falmouth and St Mawes provided delightful sailing until we capsized in the middle of Falmouth Roads whist heading for the Pandora Inn for lunch. Back to St Mawes to change into dry clothes, load Y Ddraig on to the car and still in time for lunch at the Pandora.

Not only did this craft get us afloat but also provided a route to membership of Topsham Sailing Club. 

After a fun season a larger boat with a keel and bunks was contemplated.

Hurley 22 1079 “Lady Elinor

In the early 1970s Hurley 22s were the boats we aspired to. Base on the Nordic Folkboat, produced in GRP before the oil crisis days of reduced scantlings. These tough seaworthy boats glided across the lake. Up in Scotland they proved their see keeping beyond doubt.  By the mid-1990s they were still holding their original prices but inflation had made them affordable, even to our meagre resources. 

Between arranging the viewing and going to see Lady Elinor we found that Jan was pregnant. We went ahead with the viewing anyway. Lady Elinor had been set up to a high standard by her original owner, her second owner had let things slip. The survey was structurally sound with a few recommendations and the usual surveyor’s caveat about “wicking”. We bit the bullet “if we don’t do it now we never will” and bought her. Friends and Grandma helped antifoul and prepare her for launching,

The delivery trip from Kingsbridge came to a halt in Salcombe with high winds and the discovery of a failed taluit on the shrouds. Returning the following weekend with Dad, a Norseman fitting to replace the failed taluit and good weather, we set off pursued by the harbour master for a week’s use of a mooring. A glorious sail with the tide round Start Point and up to Fishcombe cove for the night, where we were joined by Jan after her day shift. Then up to the River Exe and a mooring I had rented near Topsham.

Over the next few years we gradually cleaned, restored and upgraded Lady Elinor. We racing her from Topsham SC three nights a fortnight when the tides served and cruised the Devon coast with friends. In the first season Jan’s sea sickness was passed off as aggravated morning sickness, while we got some basic sailing training and qualifications. After Alys was born the excuse of morning sickness passed but medication had been found to take the worst of the effects away.

Passing seasons improved our performance in the races and extended our cruising grounds. Social events like Royal Dartmouth Regatta became part of our calendar. Lady Elinor looked after us well, As the Lindisfarne song put it “I’m all right here in your arms”.

We sold Lady Elinor with some reluctance when an extended overseas tour promised the funds necessary to think of a bigger boat for our growing family.

Cornish Shrimper 291 “Daisy”

13 years were to pass before I bought Daisy with my friend Gordon.

Gordon and I had many adventures in his Drascombe Lugger McPuffin of McDuff (foreshortened to McPuff’) sailing around the North Wales coast up the Conwy River through the Menai Straits in the dark and competing in the Sail Caledonia Great Glen Raid, winning our class and the Highlander Trophy for fastest unsupported run. A particularly wet and cold wind over tide passage back from Caernarfon through the Swellies on up to our mooring at Beaumaris convinced us that as we had both turned 50 we could justify something with a cabin to provide some protection from the weather and cooker to warm us up again.

We had both admired the Cornish Shrimper and enjoyed Sam Llewelyn’s Minimum Boat series in Practical Boat Owner. A proper little ship which could be kept on a trailer. If other commitments got in the way, we could keep her ashore at minimum cost. If we wanted to sail anywhere elsewhere in the UK we were no more than a day’s trail away from North Wales. Keeping our skills up and gaining a few certificates we could still charter bigger boats elsewhere.

Browsing the internet we found that Sam was selling Daisy the eponymous “Minimum Boat”. A visit was arranged, a deal agreed and Daisy was ours. Many of the articles in this blog are about our (miss-)adventures in Daisy.


Contessa 32 “White Knight of Purbeck”

Since my teens I have wanted to sail some distance, say around Britain and beyond to the coast of Europe. Whilst Daisy is ideal for day sailing up to long weekends, and good weather weeks in relatively sheltered coastal waters, off shore sailing for weeks at a time demands something a little larger. Three basic requirements to gain management’s approval were: – a “proper” cooker (including an oven), standing headroom below decks and a proper heads. For some reason Jan is not a fan of crouching to cook or the bucket. In addition, my requirement was a navigations space big enough to lay out a (folded) chart and hold some instruments out of the weather.   Whilst these requirements can just about be crammed into some 26’ boats the compromises are rarely elegant. So, we targeted the 28-32’ LOA range.    

At the end of our search (see article “In Search of a New Boat) we bought White Knight of Purbeck a Contessa 32 with our friends Ian and Jonathan.   David Saddler designed the Contessa 32 in the late 1960s as a step up from the popular Contessa 26. The design did not push the limits of IOR but did popularise the fin and skeg arrangement. Already popular as a round the cans racer and training boat the Contessa 32 became renown when Willy Kerr’s Assent, skippered by his son Alan, became the only boat in Class D to complete the infamous 1979 Fastnet Race. Willy went on to sail Assent to the Arctic, Antarctic, Pacific coat of Canada and Alaska.

Jan had seen and fallen for Contessa 32s back in the mid 1990s when we had sailed Lady Elinor to Brixham to find ourselves in the midst of a CO32 Association rally. Sailing two up for any length of time effectively means each person needs to be able to sail the boat single handed. In reality two adult couples cruising in relative comfort means a 6 berth yacht. Quarter berths may be the berth of choice for the hard racing skipper / navigator in foul weather. In a cruising boat less that 35’they are either the home of the still supple, the masochistic contortionist or stowage (aka a dumping ground) for everything large and loose that people want out of the way, close to the companion way but not on deck (cushions, deflated dinghies, oars, spare boat hook, sweaters, dog bed etc etc).

The conversion of the saloon table into a “double berth” creates either a very cosy double, in which both occupants can enjoy enforced body contact but neither will get much sleep, or a spacious single. The opposite berth makes another adequate single, lee cloths can turn both into quite good sea berths.   The Vee berth in the bows, either with or without the infill, creates a reasonably sizable double / twin berth at the head, and footsy playing at the toe. For more racing inclined owners Jeremy Rogers offers pipe cots for the forward cabins of Contessa 32s. So looking at our likely cruising crew combinations: – Single handed with care. Two handed in luxury. Three or four handed in reasonable comfort. Five at a squeeze provided we had a candidate / volunteer for the quarter berth.  Six only as a doss house in a marina mode. Racing would engender a different mind-set and revised expectations of “comfort”.

With White Knight the survey confirmed we had a solid boat in reasonable to good condition. With a small budget set aside to tackle the most urgent upgrades over the first season and winter.  Based in one of the most beautiful cruising grounds in the world for the remainder of our first season.

Let the fun begin.

White Knight of Purbeck