Were 1960’s The Last Great Age of Sail? An Essex Boy Remembers

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By John Simpson

When I was ten my father sold his old 12 ton smack ‘Dauntless’ and moved further down the River Crouch from Brandy Hole. My parents bought (a younger) 1906 30ft Falmouth yawl called ‘Patience’ with a lovely canoe stern. Keeping her on Tucker-Brown’s mooring at Burnham.

Mum, my sister Pat and I used to cycle over from Leigh-on-sea on Friday evening for the W/E’s sailing. Whilst Dad often came later after work on his 500cc Norton motor-bike (lucky enough to win the bike during his firm’s Christmas raffle!). The three of us would pedal six or seven miles down to Canewdon, and then catch a small passenger ferry over to Burnham.

During those early days being a typical Essex boy; I was always looking to make a few bob! Using my father’s dinghy to row folks over the river after seeing them waving. If they’d walked east from Canewdon until opposite the moorings at Burnham. King’s had part of their boatyard with a small slip there. It was a hard row across the tide with a couple of grownups aboard. So I used to make ‘em pay…

Bob and Sonny Cole ran Tucker-Brown’s building traditional yachts. Many were Ocean Racing types for various wealthy sailors of three big clubs’ on the Crouch; Royal Corinthian, Royal Burnham and Crouch Yacht Club. Prior’s and King’s were competing boatyards at Burnham during this period. My father joined the Crouch Yacht Club; my sister and I became junior members.

The partnership between to two Cole brothers at Tucker-Brown worked extremely well. Bob who was lame (Polio as a kid!) ran the boat building and mooring part of the business. Whilst Sonny did the selling very often skippering some of their new racing boats. They employed as many as twenty ship-Wrights along with other hands. Many of these men built beautiful models of Thames Barges and sailed them in their spare time. Bob’s passion was to go and watch athletics’ particularly if it was an Olympic year!!

They ran a very busy yard. To this day I remember watching their master ship-Wright making a new stem for a big yacht, out of a single huge lump of grown Oak. Amused that he had on little half-glasses to read the drawings. He cut away using his adze just like a surgeon whilst talking away to me. Asking how I thought measurement in three dimensions could be done (didn’t have a clue; he did it mostly by eye). What magic to watch a great craftsman at work!

One night when we were all asleep on the mooring in ‘Patience’ there was a terrific bang. My father shot up into the companionway to see what had happened. Sonny Cole was towing a honeymoon couple back in his launch after they had run out of wind. Being rather distracted with each other they had allowed the tide to carry them sideways and had broken our bowsprit. My mother was frantically tugging at my father. He never wore pyjama bottoms and was exchanging some choice words with the young people, after his fright!

Once into my teens during the summer I would have preferred not to go down to Burnham sailing with my parents. Having a large group of school friend’s home at Leigh where we raced GP14 dinghies (We had Sally Setford who was current National Champion helping us improve). But at my tender age I wasn’t given any choice!

We had wonderful family cruising holidays on ‘Patience’ visiting Holland, Belgium and France. Dad won the Crouch Yacht club’s ‘Bamber Cup’ for the best family log, three years in a row! A few years later I got to know Sonny Cole much better. He’d seen us Leigh lads racing our dinghies during Burnham Week and living on Dad’s boat.

Apparently he’d become very worried about us. When he’d spotted four GP 14’s coming down south into the Crouch. A very doggy sail through the Ray Sand Channel in a hat full of wind whilst dinghy cruising! He was out working up a one of the new ‘Whirlwind’s’ (IV?) racing yachts. One of several Kim Holman had designed for a Mr. Wilkinson (razor blades). Though he never mentioned it to me, but told my father! He’d stood the new boat off and on at the entrance to the river fearing for our lives!

Sonny loved Holman’s designs much preferring them to Buchannan’s boats. He always thought that, though they were fast Alan’s designs were too tender. One big ketch called ‘Starfire of Kent’. He nicknamed ‘Starshite of ….’(Essex men were never to keen on folks from Kent, anyways!). They’d just raced the boat in the North Sea Race. “She put all her deck including coachroof in the water going upwind, in just a moderate breeze, John”. She had to be re-designed adding another ton of ballast. To be fair to Mr Buchannan yacht design wasn’t an exact science then!

After successfully campaigning Holman’s first ‘Twister’. Sonny decided that the 26ft smaller clinker ‘Stella’ design might bring plenty of new boat orders for the yard. It did, particularly as by this time the yard had run out of most of their seasoned teak (which had been put down before the war!); they started to use Oroko for planking!

My first job teaching sailing was on a new ‘Stella’. Sonny asked me to help out a much older couple on their boat. They’d run into trouble during their first North Sea race. The lady was some form of London psychologist! I worried she might be trying to analyse me; being only fourteen or fifteen. Other little days teaching jobs followed. One of many highlights helping out racing on one of the Royal Corinthian One Design day boats with a young couple…

After fifteen I was allowed to stay at Leigh over the W/E’s. Racing dinghies against my friends. This was more fun. But just a couple of years later I discovered that racing bigger boats offshore was also very challenging. Being lucky enough to combine both.

Looking back I realise how brilliant that period was in helping me later becoming a sailing coach. But at the time it all felt normal for any keen East Coast sailing lad.

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