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Great seamanship: Scarborough to Brightlingsea

Tom Cunliffe introduces an extract from Albert Strange’s early corinthian cruising account of sailing from Scarborough to Brightlingsea, a trip which was not without its challenges.

The Edwardian period of English yachting is best remembered for the great cutters and schooners of the racing scene. From Cowes to the Clyde professionally crewed yachts competed for big-money prizes while fortunes changed hands by way of wagers on results.

Albert Strange, Yacht Designer and Artist by John Leather. Lodestar Books, £20

But while this extravagant scene raced on, another world was unfolding. Corinthian cruising, in boats small enough to be single-handed – or at least sailed without paid men in the fo’c’sle – was slowly coming of age.

With it arose a new breed of amateur and semi-professional designers, and many of their craft are still sailing today. Among them are designs from Albert Strange, the son of a shopkeeper who dreamed of the sea and made it happen, becoming an enthusiastic member of the famous Humber Yawl Club in 1891.

He was a trained artist and a notable writer with a delicious turn of phrase. In this rollicking account Strange is sailing Cherub II, a 22ft centre-plate yacht from his own drawing board.

He describes part of a singular cruise from Scarborough in Yorkshire to Brightlingsea in Essex. Having ducked inland via the Humber, he is now on his way to the Wash by way of the river and canal system and is confronting an apparently insurmountable obstacle…

On the banks of the river were many anglers, doubtless enjoying the weather as being the most propitious for their gentle art, and far off awaited us the ruined lock at Bardney and the unsolved problem as to how to get through it.

The very faintest of airs gave us bare steerageway, and it was noon before we finally reached the problem which it was necessary to solve or else retrace our way to Grimsby.

Yes, alas and as foretold, the lock was totally shut up, bolted and barred by big balks of timber. The lock keeper came out and looked at us, shook his head, and said he thought we should have to go back. I had forgotten to purchase dynamite, and it really looked as if all progress was impossible.

We made fast, however, and Fred, my youthful companion, began to fish for perch, whilst I suggested lunch. After this meal had been completed we sat and looked at the forbidden lock again, more in sorrow than in anger, and whilst we were thus engaged a large Lincolnshire man strolled up. He heard our tale of woe, bit a large piece of tobacco off one of my plugs, and then said, “Might pull her over if we’d some help.”

Still going strong, Emerald is a 1938 Albert Strange design. Photo: Gordon Buchanan

“Grand, nay, superbly magnificent idea!” But where to get the help? For no houses were visible. Oh, he’d just look up some friend of his who would come along (it being Saturday) and give a hand if there was anything forthcoming for their trouble!

Good heavens. I would give untold gold rather than go back, and speeded him on his way with large promises and a three-finger nip of whisky as an earnest of good things to come. So off he went, and we began to strip the boat and carry the things beyond the lock.

Haul out

Presently he returned with four other men like unto himself in stature. The five then solemnly undertook to haul the Cherub over the bank, along the lockside, and launch her again for the sum of two shillings (10p) each and a quart of beer apiece, and to exercise all due care in the operation.

We had only the oars to roll her on and our own cables to haul with, but, after much pulling, splashing and sweating, we succeeded in getting that 8cwt (400kg) of bare boat out of the river, dragged her some hundred yards through nettles, weeds and rushes, and launched her into her native element below the lock.

In half an hour or so we were being towed down the river to a little ‘pub’ that must have depended upon the beasts of the field and the birds of the air for its customers, for it stood quite alone, hiding behind the riverbank, and in its modest parlour I settled up with my helpers, the sum of 11s 8d (58p), satisfying all their claims, and, to judge by their remarks, leaving them my debtors.

A little breeze springing up, we went on our way, the five stalwarts lined up on the bank watching us disappear into the rain and mist, and the crew of the Cherub certainly very light-hearted.

We got to Boston next day in a howling gale, a wintry blast from the north lashing the river into wavelets. I saw Fred off at the station, and returned on board after a tramp through the town, feeling that the gods were making sport of all sailors in sending such weather.

I shifted the boat a little lower down to a better berth, and found a smart little steam-yacht to lie alongside of. Presently the owner invited me on board, and I learnt that he was bound out as soon as he could get away, but his skipper had no fancy to tempt Providence by an outside passage in such weather.

I spent a pleasant evening on board, and left with the promise of a tow down the Cut when they could continue their voyage.

It was two days before that happened, and when we left the locks the scud was still flying across the sky from the north, and the day promised to be anything but fine. At a speed of about nine miles an hour Cherub towed beautifully, and we were soon at the lower end of Boston Deeps when they said ‘Good luck!’ and cast me off.

There was more wind than I had bargained for to make the passage to Blakeney. However, it was a fair wind and with two reefs in we were soon scudding through the Bennington Swatch and into Lynn Deeps.

Going across towards Hunstanton the wind hardened and veered a point eastward. If it was going to do this I should find myself on a dead lee shore at low water off Blakeney, and the prospect was not a pleasing one. But it had to be faced as there was no getting back with the ebb tide drying the swatches and making a bigger sea every hour.

When off Hunstanton I came up to a smack or two dredging; they had two reefs down, and were pitching into it pretty well.

Looking for sunk sand buoy

I hailed one of them to ask for the position of the Sunk Sand Buoy, which I could not pick up owing to the lowness of Cherub’s side and the height of the sea, which had grown during the last hour.

A man popped his head above the smack’s bulwarks and, instead of replying to my inquiry, asked me what the ‘Hades’ I was doing off there in a little thing like that and when I told him I was bound for Blakeney he grew almost angry, and tried to persuade me to run for Lynn, whither he was bound after he had made his haul. “Tis no place for any man to go for in weather like this, isn’t Blakeney. You come along arter me.”

The Albert Strange-designed 24ft Venture was built at Oulton Broad in 1920. Photo: Den Phillips

But I wanted to be at Blakeney, not at Lynn, and after he had told me that the Sunk Buoy had broken adrift, but that I was alright for the ‘Bays’, I waved him farewell and left him in a sort of angry sorrow at my pigheadedness.

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Along through the Bays, which is a channel inside the Woolpack Sand, we had much less sea, though the wind kept freshening in squalls. The boat reached along beautifully, easy and dry, and I took the chance to get some food, especially as I felt rather downhearted after the fisherman’s warning, and I always find that things look rosier on a full stomach than on an empty one.

We were now dead to leeward, and when off Brancaster I pulled down the third reef because I knew what awaited us when we should have cleared the Woolpack and be at the mercy of the full fetch of the sea.

I had lost my proper account of the tides, and had no desire to get to Blakeney too soon. But there was no holding the boat; the full ebb seemed to be still with me, and the miles sped away astern, and early in the afternoon I was off Blakeney much too far inside the Bar buoy, and with a young flood tearing up towards the channel bearing me fast to leeward.

Desperate measures

It was now blowing very hard, the surf to leeward was making the air misty, and everything looked as if at least an hour’s wait outside was imperative if we were to get inside safely.

But, with the staggering sea and the strong lee-going tide steadily sucking me ashore, the boat made nothing at all to windward and would certainly bear no more sail in the broken sea that was there.

I tried her on both tacks, but lost ground each time, and things looked very bleak. So, with my heart in my mouth, I pulled up the centreplate and pointed for the place where, amidst all the breakers, there seemed to be most water.

The son of a shopkeeper, Albert Strange dreamed of the sea

On she ran, past the first outer buoy, then the second , and then, as she sank in the hollow of a sea, bang! She touched, and a walloping sea burst over her stern. But in bursting, some of it lifted her along, and, as well as I could, I crawled forward and managed to keep her from broaching to with a long, strong boathook, when she touched aft again. The same business was repeated, but I felt that only a very few more doses would fill her, and our last cruise would have been finished.

Still, the strong flood tide kept her straight on to the sea, as she only hung on her heel, and after one or two more hard knocks she went over the Bar into smoother and deeper water. Intensely thankful to the kindly powers that had preserved us, I ran her into the Pit, let go the anchor, and looked below. The water was just up to the floorboards, but the bed, stowed under the foredeck, was untouched, and the stove in its locker was dry and ready for action.

I have always felt that I owed my escape to the fact that the boat’s greatest draught of water was right aft, and also to the strong (six knot) tide that had held her straight.

With a level keel or more draught amidships she would certainly have broached to and been rolled over by the tide and sea, and, as Blakeney Bar is miles away from all living beings, there was but faint hope of a rescue.

So, after returning the water to its proper place outside, I rested, refreshed myself with hot drinks, and waited for the tide to rise sufficiently to enable me to get to the quay.

When I came on deck to get under way for a really safe spot, the sky had lifted from the horizon and an angry glare spread in a bar above the sea to the westward. And, creeping round the point, there came a little mournful procession – a lifeboat under reefed sails escorting some half-dozen of the Sheringham fishing boats which, unable to beach, had either to be abandoned and the crews taken out by the lifeboat, or run the gauntlet of the Bar as I had done to gain shelter at Blakeney.

The old salts shook their heads and said that this was the worst summer they had ever known, but they always say that, so soon do we forget the bad weather of the past in the bad weather of the present.


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