Posted by Admin on 25 July 2011, 12:18 pm

Although my mother’s Uncle Alfred, the warden of a London Infirmary, sailed for only one week a year, the fact that he could handle a boat extremely well was indisputable. But, for those members of the family to whom the sea was unkind (and my mother was one of them), the annual appearance of their relative was not a source of unalloyed pleasure. Quite often it entailed extra work, for my grandmother and her daughters were called upon to repair curtains, make new cushion-covers, or to renovate a bit of bunting, while aboard his cutter, which had been laid up at Fishbourne for fifty-one weeks, the owner spent a couple of days putting everything shipshape and Bristol fashion.

From what my father told me, I learnt that Alfred never ventured far beyond the Needles, being quite content, as he said, to ‘let her dip her nose three times in the channel’ and then turn back.

On Friday, his special treat (one not universally appreciated) was to take the whole family to see the Town Regatta, and after embarking near the Floating Bridge they would skirt the Victoria Parade – the venue for stilt-walkers, conjurers, escapologists, Punch and Judy shows, and gipsies selling carnival novelties – and sail past the RYS Castle where elegantly-clad women and men occupied red-cushioned basket-chairs on its elm-studded lawns. Then, having reached the committee’s mark-boat off Prince’s Green, they would anchor and, if no-one felt ill, stay to watch the rowing and dinghy races, the ‘duck hunt’, and the attempts to climb a well-greased pole.

Proof of Uncle Alfred’s seamanship was given on the morning he took my father to see the sailing races start. There was a fresh breeze and, having threaded their way through a maze of yachts that extended from Old Castle Point to Egypt Light, they took a position calculated to give them a close-up view of the ‘big-uns’ –  a position my father thought rather dangerous.

The starting-gun was fired and the yachts, each cutter carrying between eight and ten-thousand square feet of canvas and heeling until its lee gunwale was awash, came tearing towards them. They made an awe-inspiring sight, and as the yachts drew near there was a lot of angry shouting to which Uncle Alfred turned a deaf ear.

My father, wishing himself safely ashore, exclaimed, “Look out! They’re going to run us down!”

His companion, unperturbed, shook his head, and pointed to a steam yacht anchored nearby. “Oh no. If they hit us, they’ll hit her too. They’ve got to change course.” And they did.

Being unsure of the date, I am unable with accuracy to name the yachts that were racing. It is, however, fairly safe to assume they included Mr R. Young’s Nyria, Mr Miles Kennedy’s White Heather, Sir Thomas Lipton’s Shamrock, and possibly Colonel Bagot’s Creole and Sir J. Pender’s Kariad. If, as I think likely, this incident occurred during the reign of King Edward the Seventh, the Britannia would not have been among them; for after his accession the King gave up racing, and his cutter, with her sail area reduced from 10,395 to 8,923 square feet, was modified for cruising. One can imagine Edward, at ease in a wicker deck-chair, watching the competing yachts and, no doubt, recalling the bitter rivalry that existed between the German Emperor and himself, and remembering the contests between Britannia and Wilhelm’s Meteor when, with the great advantage given by her shallow hull, the new and fair-weather Meteor won fourteen out of twenty-one encounters.

To give an idea of what my father saw racing towards him, I will refer to John Irving’s book, The Kings’ Britannia, and to Lloyd’s Register of Yachts, and give the dimensions of the King’s Watson-designed cutter as they were from 1900 to 1920. The length by Thames Measurement, i.e. from the fore side of the stern to the aft side of the stern post on the range of the upper deck, was 100 feet: the beam measurement was 23.3 feet. The height of the mast, complete with its fidded topmast, was 145.5 feet. The main boom was 83.5 feet long. The Britannia’s tonnage by Thames Measurement was 221. The mainsail weighed a ton, and to make sail it took a crew of thirty an hour. For comparison, the Nyria was 98 feet long; the White Heather 95.6 feet; and the Shamrock 96.6 feet.

And of what a panorama those two onlookers and their small craft were a part; for from the reign of Queen Victoria until the First World War the Solent, during Cowes Week, presented a unique spectacle that comprised the largest and most luxurious privately owned vessels then extant, sailing boats of diverse sizes and rigs, steam pinnaces with bell-topped funnels, and a vast number of rowing-boats ferrying people to and from their yachts, or delivering provisions ordered from the town’s ‘by appointment’ grocers. Light, reflected by the water, marbled black and white hulls, burnished brass fittings glinted in the August sunshine, ensigns and burgees flapped in colourful profusion and, to complete the picture, there were two or perhaps three royal yachts, the latest Victoria and Albert and the two veterans Osborne and Alberta. In 1907 the Alexandra replaced the Osborne.

Years later, on a perfect morning in the early ‘twenties, my father allowed me, a boy of fourteen, to row him out to the Victoria and Albert. If at that time the Cowes Roads were not so crowded as they had been in the pre-war days, there still was enough marine pageantry to make it a memorable experience.

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

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