Tom Cunliffe introduces a hilarious extract from Quality Time, the autobiography of Mike Peyton, Britain's best-loved yachting cartoonist who died in early 2017.
Not many readers of Yachting World will have failed to come across the cartoons of Mike Peyton. Whatever branch of yachting is our choice, Mike caught us to a tee.
His ability to squeeze the juice out of a situation we all have shared, while populating it with characters we know so well, was unique. He died in January at a fine old age and will be sorely missed, both by those privileged to be close to him and by a wider circle of friends who knew him through his work.
Mike was one of the few men left with whom we could talk about the Second World War. He was born in a Durham mining village in 1921, lied about his age to sign up, fought in the desert with the eighth army, was captured, escaped twice, but still spent enough time in a POW camp to hone his skill at spotting the ridiculous and committing it to paper.
The early post-war years led Mike to Essex, where he became a bargain basement yachtsman. He started with no experience at all, and the creeks of the Thames and the North Sea fed his art and gave the rest of us a priceless mirror on our own efforts.
The extract below is from his book, Quality Time (Fernhurst), a collection of reminiscences and cartoons describing a different world from our own. The photographs are from Dick Durham’s excellent biography of Mike (Peyton, The World’s Greatest Yachting Cartoonist – Adlard Coles).
Both books are on my bedside table. On the wall next to them is a framed cartoon Mike doodled for me on the back of a cigarette packet. It shows a desert island with two shipwrecked sailors scowling at the mast of a sunken yacht. The caption? ‘If ever I meet that Tom Cunliffe…’
My first boat had been what was known as a penny sick, a 24ft open gaff-rigged centreboarder with 18in draught.
In its working life it had taken holiday-makers to the end of Southend pier and back. When I bought it someone had built up the topsides and decked it over, covering the deck with lino. It cost me £200 and left us with £3 in the bank.
Yachtsmen wore peaked caps in those days and put white covers on them, navy fashion, on the morning ordained as the start of summer.
Ensigns came down on the dot at sunset. Paid hands were only just disappearing. I went on boats where the only access to the forepeak was through the forehatch where the paid hand had lived with the paint and sails.
I can date the first sail I had in Vagrant (I called her that because she had no visible means of support) by the other world-shattering events that were happening at the same time. One of them was the Hungarian revolution.
It was because of this I also got my first crew. Many people had to leave Hungary in a hurry; people were asked to take them in and we got Gabor, a student.
So on our maiden voyage there was Gabor who was keen but couldn’t speak English and hadn’t even seen the sea (he’d flown in at night) and Tommy, an unflappable ex-army friend of our desert days whom I discovered by chance was a near neighbour.
So we three tyros set off on our maiden voyage, the plan being to sail to the mouth of the Crouch and back. We had on board a copy of one of the finest books in the body of English literature – Sailing by Peter Heaton.
If Heaton had one fault it was to advise his readers to eschew the engine until they could handle a boat under sail. I’m very good at eschewing and as the engine wasn’t working it was only too simple.
Peter Heaton had pride of place on the engine case where Tommy and I had frequent recourse to the information he had to offer, and Gabor had his new English-Hungarian dictionary to flip through and a roving commission with the boathook.
We ran down the Crouch with the ebb tide under us in a state of bliss, and it was only when we got to Shore Ends that we found we hadn’t quite the experience to sail back against wind and tide.
We didn’t know enough to anchor and wait for the flood, so we kept on running before the wind. Our shoal draught kept us afloat as we ran up the coast over the sands.
The weather worsened as we sailed north and we had a panic when Gabor flipped through his dictionary and pointed below saying, ‘Puddle, puddle!’ Looking below we saw the floorboards were awash and every time Vagrant pounded, the centreboard case grew two watery ears where the centre bolt was.
We learnt a lot on that trip from Vagrant and Peter Heaton, but the first thing we did when we got into West Mersea was to sort out the engine. Vagrant continued to teach me a lot as is the way with your first boat and Peter Heaton, who had ended up as pulp in the bilges, was replaced and now shared the bookshelf with Maurice Griffiths and later Eric Hiscock.
These two authors influenced a generation of yachtsmen: it was either Essex creeks or distant horizons. Personally I am pleased I plumped for the former.
Moving on from Vagrant to Clementine
The day finally dawned when, looking at Vagrant from the shore as oft times in the past and thinking that I must be one of the luckiest men in the world to own such a fine vessel, I found faults. I had outgrown her. I sold her to a banana importer from Birmingham.
There were times when the denizens of the creek, of whom I was now a paid-up member, would go down to the Ferry Boat Inn at Fambridge for a drink where we would rub shoulders with proper yachtsmen who paid to keep their boats on swinging moorings and sailed to foreign parts.
It was here in the bar that I overheard a conversation that had lasting implications for me. The speaker had just come back from Holland where, because of the polderisation, he told of rows of sailing fishing boats going for a song in the fishing harbours around the Zuider Zee.
I hadn’t many pounds at the time but what I had were then rated as hard currency. A few weeks later I owned an ex-Dutch fishing boat, E B 49, a 40ft Botter with a 13hp Kromhout diesel.
It had a fish well, all its gear, and I paid its wooden-clogged owner £400 for it. The botters all looked alike to me, but this one was varnished and all the others were tarred, so that was how I chose it out of many.
Three of us went to collect it: Gordon, who had most experience as the nominal skipper; John, who had lots of sea time that was discounted as it had been on an aircraft carrier; and myself to sign the cheque. We sailed on 5 November.
I considered calling her Guy Fawkes but the sail Number 49 led to the ‘miner forty-niner and his daughter Clementine’ and so I called her Clementine and forgot the ‘Sank beneath the foaming brine’ bit.
We were bound across the Zuider Zee for Amsterdam and due to some oversight we hadn’t provisioned the boat. We arrived absolutely famished and by sheer luck found a taxi in the dock area.
It is difficult to believe now, but then not all Dutch taxi drivers spoke English. We reverted to sign language by rubbing our stomachs.
Perhaps we rubbed too low down or maybe he jumped to conclusions, but whatever it was we were delivered to a brothel. The Madam took the loss of business quite well and sorted it all by arranging for the driver to deliver us to a restaurant. Even more important, she ensured he would pick us up afterwards, as only he knew where the boat was.
Enjoying a full English
Most people have a memory of some exceptional meal and on this trip I had mine. It started by my being as sick as I have ever been in my life. There wasn’t a retch left in me as Gordon and John nobly stood my watches.
Then came the time I realised I was over it and staggered weakly outside to take the tiller. Before Gordon went to his bunk he asked if I wanted anything, to which I replied ‘Food.’ ‘Dry bread?’ was his query. ‘No, food!’ was my reply.
He later returned with a frying pan full of sausages, bacon, eggs, beans, tomatoes, fried bread and a large spoon. Steering by leaning on the tiller I started shovelling it down.
As I was doing this he returned with a mug of tea which he placed on the large gimballed antique compass, which was in a box at my feet. Then he left me to it.
Only a yachtsman can appreciate what such a meal meant. It was then I also realised how lucky I was.
There was I, master before God of this fine vessel with a fair wind on the quarter and brown sails straining above as we rolled homeward bound across the grey North Sea. Below was sleeping a trusty crew with whom you could sail the seven seas. I can assure you, at that moment I would not have called the king my uncle.
Back in England Clementine proved ideal for the East Coast with her shoal draught and ability to take the ground. All her gear was basic and pretty near unbreakable, though heavy.
You pumped her out, if that is the correct term, with a shovel. This shovel had high sides and fitted almost exactly in a channel in the bilges by the fish well and, if you worked quickly enough, you could scoop up a shovel full of water and get rid of it into the fish well which opened to the great outdoors.
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She is the only boat I have sailed in where I came under unfriendly fire. It was a dark night and I was chugging up the Crouch on the tide when two friends of mine appeared rowing out of the darkness in a large dinghy.
‘Just the man we want,’ they said as they climbed aboard and made the dinghy fast. I could tell immediately by the alteration in the engine note that they had been – and now I was – towing a drudge for oysters.
No wonder they had been happy to see me, but what could I say? They were friends.
Then shortly afterwards out of the darkness we heard shouting and cursing from the sea wall and a shotgun was fired in our direction. However, luck was on our side and we got back to the creek unscathed.
A lot of people had a lot of pleasure on board her, although the communal bunk – it was 12ft wide – was never popular. I cannot recollect the details of her sale but the day before the new owner was due to come and take Clementine away I went down to the creek and on going aboard found her leaking.
There were two jets of water coming in on the port side opposite the mast. When the tide had left her I shovelled the water out and, putting on my gumboots, waded through the mud and hammered some caulking back in.
The following day we were having coffee with the new owner prior to the handover. He told us the previous evening he had been at a party in South Kensington where he had been talking to someone who was considered to be able to see into the future.
During the conversation he mentioned he was buying a boat and received the amazing reply, ‘I can see it now. Very big and brown,’ – a perfect description of a varnished botter – ‘and on the right side of it opposite the mast there are two jets of water coming in.’
I choked on my coffee.