Rite of Passage

(continued from . . .)

I am watching the Udder Rock buoy further up the coast. The tide is taking us inshore and I head further out to sea to stay to the seaward of it.

This is the third day of this trip, finally a day of wind, sea and sail. The cloud cover is still low, clinging to the tops of the cliffs. There are no other boats visible and, despite being close to the shore. I can see no one on the coast path.

The early mist had given the harbour a silent, closed feel.

(Click on image to enlarge)



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On learning to row

“Watch carefully, Bill.”

Aged about 12. We were leaning against the rail  looking down at the water.

A small,  elderly man was descending the wooden steps from the quay next door. He was dressed in a blue fisherman’s jersey, baggy grey trousers and canvas shoes.

Half way down, he nodded a good morning to us, untied the end of the frape and gently hauled his dinghy to the tiny landing stage beneath him.

It must have been about half-tide to have exposed this platform. Along this side of the harbour, dinghies were moored on frapes to allow the boat to ride the considerable tides and also to prevent them going aground at low water –  (in all but the lowest of low spring tides), so that they were always ready for use.

He untied the boat from the frape, remoored it to the ladder and stepped neatly into the middle of the boat. It barely moved.

The thwarts were wet from the previous night’s rain. He found a cloth and dried them.

Then he raised a bottom board and bailed the small amount of water collected there. He sponged it dry.

Facing aft, he sat down on the middle thwart, shipped both rowlocks and then the outside oar.

Twisting round, he untied the painter, coiled it into the bow and gave the boat a gentle push. Now he had room to ship the other oar.

As the boat drifted further away from the ladder, he was able to pull on the port oar turning the boat towards its destination.

With barely a glance over his shoulder, he took the weight on both oars and glided effortlessly away to the quay across the water.

The oars dipped with barely a splash – an economy of movement that gave the sense of a single unit – man and boat.

Even I could see the natural focus, the self-possession and the strength of someone doing what they have been doing for decades – a master in his element.

This was Randolph Johns. He was probably in his late sixties. That seemed ancient then – I no longer think so.

Over the next two or three summers, there would be the occasional lesson in our pram dinghy or a few words on shore.

From watching and listening to him, I learnt how to row and how to handle a small dinghy.

There was never any formality in his teaching – just the passing on of knowledge and the acquiring of some skill by doing.

I will never forget Randolph Johns. I learnt from him what it meant to master an activity – to have reached a point where the movement itself ceases to be an aspiration and becomes part of your being. He wasn’t a man who went out for a row – rowing was part of how he lived. He didn’t think about it much.

Had I rowed every day since, I doubt if I would ever have been as capable of doing this deceptively simple task as well as him. Even in those days, outboard engines had taken the necessity out of rowing and were turning it into a leisure activity. There was now choice – the attitude behind it had changed. Most of the masters of rowing nowadays will have mastered a sport, not a means of transport.

At 12, of course I didn’t understand this. But I did begin to look at how other people did those things I wanted to do – and I did learn a little from doing this . . .  and then a little more  . . .

“Watch carefully, Bill.”

Fowey, circa 1959. I took the picture. See the number of moorings compared with today. The tug on the right is St Canute which later went to the Exeter Maritime Museum.

On sailing a Folksong

On tuning the boat

The Open 60s are in Les Sables d’Olonne undergoing final tuning for the Vendee Globe.


I remember one day, in my early teens, sailing Falcon solo out of Fowey, around the Cannis Buoy off Gribben Head and back again – all of three miles.

A big adventure for me.

Falcon – early sixties, racing with my Dad and sister

That day, the wind was light, the sea calm, the sun shining – (it always shone on those days). It was the day I learnt what sailing was all about. I got to thinking about my being the connection between wind and sea. Take away the boat and here was I, sitting a few inches above the water, my feet below the waterline, moving steadily along the coast with just the wind to drive me. If I got the balance right, even for a few seconds, the equation would be sea + me + wind = performance Add Falcon back into the equation and it became:: sea + hull + tiller + me + sheets + sail + wind = performance Fantastic, I thought, the wind may change, the sea state will vary, but, with an adjustment of a sheet here, a quiet movement of the tiller there, I can ride the energy between them. What I was recognising in my rather slow way was that sailing is about sailing – any talk of a destination, or of racing, or of my voyage to the Cannis buoy and back was just an excuse to be out there moving across the sea. Many years later, when I heard someone say: “Life’s a journey, not a destination.” I thought: “Oh. . . just like sailing.”


So . . . tuning – improving performance on the water. The general equation is: hull – tiller – person – sheets – sails (with some fiddly bits in between – or a lot of very sophisticated fiddly bits on an Open 60). Start with tuning the person. Well, this one learns a lot writing about sailing, learns more reading about it, but never learns as much as when he’s out there doing it – and he needs to take more exercise.


Looking at the picture of Falcon, I remember Dad being very critical of it – he didn’t like the way we’d set the mainsail and spent some time working on it – adjusting and readjusting the set until he got it right. I now realise how much the picture affected him. He became very particular about setting that sail. I guess he used pictures to critique the boat and then . . . . oh, good grief! I’m turning into my dad!