A Tale of Sea and Scouse
In the late 1950s before GRP, polyester ropes and GPS. Yachts where big and white with smart uniformed crews to match, but there was the smaller vessel most under 40 ft owned and maintained by slightly eccentric and strange people who obviously enjoyed getting cold and wet and could be found wading up to their welly tops in mud hauling lengths of chain while performing the annual March ritual of laying and checking THE mooring.
Having performed the initiation of paddling my canoe miles in winter on the Liverpool Leeds canal and obtaining my scout charge certificate by rolling her over a few times in February (we didn't know about hypothermia) I eventually joined this hallowed band, the main reason being lack of success chasing girls on the weekly Sunday foray with my mates to Southport fair, which lead to us finding the gaff rigged hire boats on the marine lake. While the weekdays where spent learning my trade and Geoff. Struggled with his “A” levels, Sunday would see us thrashing these 20 ft versions of the Lancashire nobby up and down the lake. The addiction was further fuelled with copious amounts of Maurice Griffiths“ Magic of the swatch ways, Le Tomalins “Kurun around the world” and Annie Van De Wildes “ West in mine eyes”.
By the end of the summer there was no doubt about it we had to have “a proper little cruiser” but how? Michael Verney, s “lifeboat into yacht” seemed to point the way. So on winter Saturdays, after the morning visit to Nem's record store in Whitechapel, we scoured the Liverpool docks. The ones we found were all either too expensive or displaying signs of the famous “gribble.” The last was straw chasing “a nice 27ft Montague whaler” from the north docks to Albert dock (not today's posh development but grimy with suspicious strange floaty things) we arrived to the greeting “yer too late wack we've just chopped er up for firewood”. Looking across the Mersey at Camel Lairds We realised we where about to join the ranks of shipbuilders.
We popped our postal orders off to Yachting Monthly and duly received a set of M.S. Gibbs plans for the 16ft yachting Monthly Senior, a real boat with a lid. Lists were drawn up costing,s made and like all good projects we couldn't afford it, so we started anyway. Lacking Lairds slipways we needed a place to create our dream, my dads green house looked ideal it had a couple of broken windows so we could knock it down and use its concrete base to build on, we thought! but dad thought otherwise, We needed another victim! Uncle Alf had recently moved into a house up the road with a garden in need of a visit from ground force. We timed it like a military operation, as they were about to depart on the Saturday trip to the in-laws we arrived “Can we build a boat in your garden?” we innocently inquired the reply “probably” was enough! As the car disappeared around the corner we grabbed a handcart and legged it the two miles to the Northwest timber, Co. When they arrived back they had a beautiful new garden feature, a set of building stocks! Building at Alf's we could see had other assets, like the nice big box of tools he possessed as a woodwork teacher, that would nicely supplement our blunt screwdriver and hammer, (to this day he claims to find drill bits and chisels lost in midnight building sessions which consumed light bulbs from the house at a rate of knots)
Building commenced and the summer of 1959 saw us performing mysterious rites with boiling kettles and sheets of marine ply, by November the hull and coachroof being completed she was moved to dads garage for painting we spent a lot of time getting a really smooth finish including on the decks, Big mistake! as we then had to paint them with a none slip finish. We used the new fangled two-pot polyurathene paint on the hull but ordered the sails from Jekells in Egyptian cotton as polyester was new and untried also halyards in tarred hemp, sheets in cotton and anchor cable in coir. The next few years saw a change similar to that in navigation with the advent of cheap GPS, Just two years later I would not have dreamed of buying anything but synthetic.
February of 1960 saw us launch “SAXON” into the Liverpool, Leeds canal at Maghull where we moored close to the parish church to rig her. As March approached we sat in the cabin planning the maiden voyage, puffing foul pipes while the hurricane lamp dimmed through lack of oxygen.
Easter was at the end of march that year and it provided a whole four days off work, Saturday morning we headed off towards Liverpool building up muscles opening the man-sized swing bridges, wearing the rig of the day, donkey jackets and trilby hats to keep the rain off, passing through Bootle and Kirkdale hard hats would have been better, as we provided targets for the local scruff's to drop bottles and bricks from the bridges, we retaliated with catapults and eggs brought by inspiration (I had worked around here) finally passing through a dark dank tunnel, she motored into Nelson dock, we had reached salt water.
We were directed to a small basin by the clock tower where a large chain was pulled across behind us. The evening was spent drinking tea and chatting with other “Yacht owners!” one of whom, the owner of a nice forty foot prawner convinced us that perhaps the fifty mile trip to North Wales was not an ideal first trip, “Go out at low water and head up river with the tide you'll think your sailing even if your not” was his good advice.
Dawn broke to us topping up the seagull outboard and being told by a bunch of cheerful dockers, “yousel, drown out der in dat”, and “I feel sorry fer yer mam”. When after a quarter of an hour of this we showed signs of wavering it changed to,
“ yerll ave to go now we've dropped the chain”. They weren't going to be cheated of their entertainment.
Dressed against the cold in “Yogi” suits RAF artic survival suits purchased for thirty bob (£1.50p) from the Army and Navy stores, consisting of a rubberised gabardine outer with big yellow feet and an inner layer of silk filled with down. In which we looked just like the cartoon character. We puttered down through the docks bridges lifting to let us past. On either side there where Blue Funnel ships and Harrison Line boats, loading and discharging cargo, at last we entered the Princes lock built to take the Lusitainia and Mauritainia and now about to be emptied for us free of charge!!
The gates closed, sluices were opened and we dropped the height of a three story building on the thirty three foot spring tide, the wet walls rising above us like the grand canyon, at last the outer gate opened and the first wave rolled in with trepidation we slipped our lines and entered the mighty Mersey.
Five minuets later as we approached the Pier head we altered course to pass inside the ferry Royal daffodil as she came off the landing stage, the linkage we had rigged between the tiller and the outboard arm chose this moment to jam hard over, we pirouetted like a prima ballerina between the ferry and the landing stage while being swept up river by the five knot tide, much to the amusement of the day-trippers on their way to New Brighton. After a while the engineering department got this sorted and sail was hoisted to a light northeasterly.
We entered the widest part of the river of nearly five miles; at this point the Gods thought they would amuse themselves with a blizzard Great!! With visibility down to to fifty yards we were to use that well-known nautical expression “Lost!!” We dug out our compass that had last seen service in a Lancaster bomber and headed east. Eventually a low shore appeared out of the snow “Land Ho” but which land, a fix was required, the bow was put into the mud and I clumped ashore to a near by cottage. The lady of the house after her initial shock at finding this strange round grey thing with big yellow feet (obviously some form off Hobbit) on her doorstep informed me that we were in Speke.
The tricky navigation problem being resolved and the tide having turned we started down river. The snow stopped and as we passed Garston bottle works we came to a number of lifeboat conversions of differing qualities. Looking for a place to anchor we received a hail “ youse can pick up dat moorin der” from one of the boats. We grabbed the pickup buoy and hauled up a chain that would have held the Queen Mary good ¾ inch chain that put our stern up like a bobbing duck.
As the tide dropped we settled into some interesting mud that came over our welly tops when we waddled across to the boat that had hailed us. John the owner informed us that he was “ temporally resting” i.e. on the dole (He would chase floating planks up river in his eight foot clinker dingy sometimes for five or six miles, haul them back and incorporate the best in his boat the others he chopped up and sold as fire wood to help with his rest). “Come up t der ouse an ave a cuppa wid me mam” he invited, So off we clomped through the mud to the two up, two down with outside loo, in which he lived with his mother and brothers and sisters. With the typical hospitality of the poor parts of Liverpool we where given chipped mugs of strong sweet tea and large plates full of scouse, a tasty stew made with end of lamb, potatoes, onions and any other vegetables available all seasoned with plenty of salt and pepper.
The weekends between Easter and whit saw us sharpening our skills and learning about tides, in a sixteen footer with a five-knot tide you soon learn that you go with it or not at all. We found exotic anchorages such as Tranmere oil jetty where we were informed from the deck of the tanker we had anchored alongside, that if we didn't put that stove out we would achieve what Hitler hadn't, blow up Birkenhead!
The decision was made we where heading towards Conwy over the three day whit bank holiday, Friday evening we humped our gear through the mud passed the ship breakers yard which rumour had it was haunted by the ghost of Fyed, whose skeleton had reputedly been found sealed between the plating on a tug. Not being the possessors of an alarm clock the only way to make sure that we caught the four O clock tide was to stand watches. So it happened that at about 1 a.m. I was sitting in the cockpit smoking my Capstan full strength (we thought it matched our tough sailor image!!) the mist was drifting across the rising moon, through it I heard the clank, clank, of chain and through the mist there appeared a shadowy figure dragging chain! Fydes Ghost!!! Help! Wake up Geoff, through the mist came the voice,
“ yer all right la I'm layin youse a morin”.
It was John!!. Hearts finally slowed down, the tide rose and dawn came. We set sail to a light northeast wind and off down river. As we passed the Rock light and entered the Rock channel we tingled with excitement, we were off to a land off stunning mountains fantastic valleys sandy beaches, where there were beautiful dark haired girls who spoke a different language. We were “Going Foreign” we where going to WALES!!