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Golden Vanity: The rebirth of an artists’ boat

A true working yacht, the 112-year-old Golden Vanity has a new role for 2021, as Nic Compton discovers

The lockdown of spring 2020 prompted all kinds of unusual purchases. People bought puppies, bikes, hot-tubs… Not many opted to buy a 23-ton, 112-year-old wooden cutter, yet that is exactly what Southampton-based charter operator Charlie Tulloch did when he purchased Golden Vanity.

“Everyone’s got a lockdown story,” he says. “Mine was trying to keep the business running and home-schooling the kids. It was incredibly stressful. I realised that, although we have three boats of our own, we were reliant on other people’s boats to supplement the fleet.

We needed another boat to take more control. When I heard Golden Vanity was for sale, I thought about it – not for very long – and bought her.

“Lockdown madness? I don’t know. We’ll see!”

There is some logic to it. Golden Vanity offers First Class Sailing’s existing customers a very different kind of experience, while her heavy construction provides a steady platform for beginners.

Golden Vanity has a new lease of life working for a Solent charter company in 2021. Photo Nic Compton

But the real reason Charlie bought the boat was emotional rather than rational. “I did some relief skippering on Provident, Keewaydin and Golden Vanity a few years ago, and I liked the ethos of getting young people involved. I loved the boats, the history, the wood, the teamwork, the skills, the look, smell and sound of them. My livelihood is in GRP yachts, but my heart is in these old boats.”

Golden Vanity’s beginnings

Charlie isn’t the first to have fallen for Golden Vanity’s charms. The yacht was commissioned by Arthur Briscoe in 1908 when he was just starting to make a name for himself as an artist. He had previously owned an 8-ton gaff cutter which he, his wife May, their son William and their terrier Jock lived on for eight months of the year, cruising extensively on the East Coast, the English Channel and in Holland and Belgium.

On the way, Briscoe sketched continuously, gathering material for his paintings which depict mainly working boats and their crews, in what turned out to be the last days of working sail. He held his first solo exhibition of mostly nautical paintings on Bond Street in 1906, to rave reviews.

Two years later, when he was 35, he commissioned a new boat, funded by his mother. This was an era when cruising yachts tended to be closely based on working boat types, and Briscoe was in no doubt what boat he wanted: a ‘Mumble Bee’, the little sister of the famous Brixham trawlers he loved so much.

Briscoe designed the boat’s rig himself but left the design and construction of the hull to WA Gibbs and J Sanders & Co in Galmpton, on the River Dart – one of the most prolific builders of Brixham and Lowestoft trawlers in the country.

Photo Nic Compton

Briscoe named his new boat Golden Vanity after the eponymous shanty set in the ‘lowland sea’ – an appropriate name for a yacht that was destined to spend a great deal of time in the lowlands of Holland.

For the next 20 years, Briscoe and May lived on board for most of the year, famously going out in any weather, accompanied by their Dandie Dinmont terrier, while their son William was looked after by his grandmother.

Erskine Childers was a regular guest and is thought to have borrowed the boat and sailed to the ‘lowlands’ (although this was long after he had written his celebrated book The Riddle of the Sands).

Lost to a new love

After the war, Briscoe conceded to some home comforts and fitted a small Kelvin engine and a heads. He also discovered a new artistic medium in which he would excel and make himself a very comfortable living: etchings. He was soon producing striking images of English and Dutch working boats and square-riggers – often etching the plates on board Golden Vanity.

By his early 50s, however, Briscoe had divorced his first wife, May – who by all accounts was a jolly, outdoorsy person – and in May 1927 remarried an Alice Baker, who was more of a city dweller.

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The couple moved to London, and Golden Vanity was chartered out. Briscoe did take his new wife, together with his publisher, on a cruise to Holland. But despite the new engine and heads, Alice didn’t enjoy the boating life.

Golden Vanity was put on the market the following year, and the artist had to content himself with a small lugger based at St Mawes instead.

Changing hands

Over the next few decades Golden Vanity attracted an illustrious list of owners. The two after Briscoe were both former Olympic rowers: including Arthur Frederick Reginald Wiggins, who won silver at the 1912 Games.

In the 1940s, she was owned by Captain Clifford St George Glasson, an influential figure at Trinity House, who kept her on a mud berth on the East Coast for the duration of World War II.

In the 1960s, she caught the eye of another marine artist, David Cobb. Cobb served on motor torpedo boats during the war, and afterwards moved to Newlyn to become ‘a painter of our sea affairs’.

He and his wife Jean Main, also an artist, lived on the 36ft gaff cutter White Heather, followed by the Alfred Mylne 8-Metre Alpen Rose, before buying Briscoe’s more commodious ‘floating studio’, aboard which the couple lived for six years.

Although Cobb was fond of painting ships in their full glory, usually heeling over in a breeze, for his own yacht he chose to paint her alongside a quay with the tide out, having her bottom scrubbed.

Cobb’s painting ‘Scrubbing the yacht Golden Vanity’. Photo: National Maritime Museum

The resulting painting, entitled ‘Scrubbing the yacht Golden Vanity’, was exhibited at the Royal Society of Marine Artists in 1966 and immediately snapped up by the National Maritime Museum – the only Cobb painting in its collections.

Nine lives

Golden Vanity was next bought by an army captain who planned to sail around the world, but got only as far as Inverness before giving up. It was here, in the Inverness coal dock in the spring of 1970, that Peter Crowther discovered her.

He wanted to cruise around Japan and the US west coast. But he was also fascinated by the OSTAR, which had by then been run three times, and was eventually persuaded to enter the 1972 edition of the race with Golden Vanity.

“It would have been a stupid idea to take Golden Vanity across the North Atlantic, so I went south,” he recalled. “I thought I could do it in 60 days, and I made it halfway across in 30 days.

“But I went too far south and there was no wind. The sails needed constant repairing and she wouldn’t go to windward. I didn’t have self-steering, so I rigged up a line from the jib down the side to the wheel with a bungee cord.

“She was a lovely boat and very well balanced when she was close-hauled, but off the wind she would go anywhere.”

A few days before the start of the race, Peter’s cat Gypsy gave birth to a litter of five kittens. Rather than leave them behind, he made a bed for them out of an old suitcase and took them with him. He named the kittens after Lord of the Rings character; the most adventurous being Bilbo Baggins, who delighted in clambering onto the boom.

Peter Crowther with Gypsy the cat. Photo c/o Peter Crowther

One day, Peter came on deck to find the cats looking anxiously over the side and saw that Bilbo Baggins had fallen overboard. He immediately jumped over the stern onto the top of the rudder and managed to scoop the kitten up as the boat drifted past.

Exactly 89 tacks, five reefs, 71 sail changes, and two blown-out sails later, Golden Vanity arrived in Newport to take last place with a time of 88 days – the slowest crossing in the history of the race – a record unbroken to this day.

The story of the transatlantic kittens was immediately taken up by the American press and within days of arriving Peter had sold them all.

After the race, Peter and Golden Vanity carried on their way, sailing down the Intracoastal Waterway to Florida and then across to the Caribbean.

Golden Vanity’s 88-day crossing in the 1972 OSTAR remains the race’s slowest. Photo: c/o Peter Crowther

The yacht was nearly wrecked when she went aground on a reef off the island of St Croix, but Peter managed to refloat her and get her patched up in Antigua. It was all too much for Gypsy, however, who jumped ship at this point, and left Peter to sail the boat back to the UK on his own.

Golden Vanity in disrepair

The boat was sold on twice more, and in 1981 was listed in the Old Gaffers Association newsletter with the inauspicious description: “Extensive work on hull by Uphams of Brixham. Some internal fitting required.”

In fact, Golden Vanity was going downhill fast and languished on her mooring looking very sorry for herself indeed, until three men met in a pub and decided to do something about it.

Local businessmen Howard Young, Jack Spencer and Tony Ripley formed the Golden Vanity Trust in 1983 and bought the boat to restore, and use for sail training for the young people of Torbay.

New lease of life

The trio paid just £200 for the yacht, compared to the £4,000 Peter bought and sold it for, and spent the next five years completely rebuilding the boat with a team of up to 18 people, many of them on the Government’s Youth Training Scheme, led by local fisherman Colin Beer.

One of Arthur Briscoe’s trawler prints enjoys pride of place in the saloon. Photo: Nic Compton

Their 1983/8 rebuild was comprehensive: the topside planking, stem, beam shelf, deck beams and decks were all replaced, as were all her spars. The steering wheel was removed and her tiller steering restored, and her engine was completely rebuilt.

It was in many ways a new boat that was launched into the Dart in June 1988, and it’s thanks to all that hard work that she is still sailing today.

For 11 years The Golden Vanity Trust ran sailing training charters out of Brixham, as well as taking part in several Tall Ships Races. Despite being the smallest boat at these gatherings, in 1995 she managed to not only win her class but won the whole event on handicap, sailing 1,195 miles from Edinburgh to Bremerhaven, Frederikshaven and Amsterdam.

She joined forces with the Brixham trawlers Provident and Leader to form the Trinity Sailing Foundation in 1999 and for two decades the three boats held pride of place on the Heritage Pontoon in the middle of Brixham Harbour.

Coiling a halyard aboard Golden Vanity. Photo Nic Compton

Golden Vanity was great for teaching small groups of young kids,” says Ben Wheatley who skippered the boat when he joined Trinity Sailing in 2013. “She was so well balanced you could tack and gybe without touching the tiller – just by adjusting the sails and moving people’s weight around.”

Government cuts, however, meant there was less money for the social care work which Trinity relied on for its cash flow, and in 2019 the trust was wound down and all three boats sold off. Which is when Charlie stepped in.

Sailing on board Golden Vanity just before she headed to the Elephant Boatyard for her winter refit, it wasn’t hard to see why Charlie, along with a dozen owners before him, have been seduced by the boat.

She has the patina of age, a sense of being solid and well-built, and of having survived countless Atlantic and North Sea gales. You can see how much love and attention has been poured into her over many years, in a way that a newer boat can never hope to match.

Lockdown madness or not, there is something life-affirming about sailing on a boat that has weathered so much and still managed to keep her integrity. It’s as if the boat itself is saying: life goes on.

First Class Sailing is currently crowdfunding to enable the restoration of Golden Vanity with a variety of rewards available for pledges from £10 upwards. 


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