Dad (Kurt Berger) was I think introduced to sailing by fellow students at University, with whom he went on the Norfolk Broads just after the war. That would have been in Hunter boats. Many inland boats were hidden or even intentionally sunk during the war to preserve them from being used/sequestered/purloined either for the war effort or by an invading army, and I’ve a hunch that may have happened to Hunter’s boats. Dad continued to sail with, in particular Ken Bushell (later my sister’s godfather) who was a very keen sailor of Dragons, Etchells and in his dotage a Burnham One Design – he was a very long-term member of Royal Corinthians at Burnham. I crewed for him a few times, once for the Medway (Dragon) Regatta. This involved sailing the Dragon across the Thames Estuary the weekend before the regatta, and back afterwards.
Not only did we have swans and geese on the river, but also a duckling!!
Dad (Kurt Berger) and sundry young boys including me, on the foreshore I think up at the London Apprentice
Dad took us on a few Broads holidays as we becoming large enough (and could swim!) during our formative years, and at some point he took me out in an acquaintance’s boat up river at Kingston. From that time on he was inspired to build his/our own dinghy to sail at Chiswick. This was around the time that the Mirror dinghy was being promoted, but being quite a bit of a carpenter, Dad rather eschewed the “new fangled” construction method of “Stitch (with copper wire) and Glue” (with polyester resin and glassfibre tape) developed by Jack Holt and Barry Bucknell (that early exponent of DIY). So Dad chose the Mermaid dinghy, sponsored by one of the DIY magazines. Designed by Roger Hancock this was constructed with built in buoyancy tanks and stringers running the length of the boat. Flat bottomed (with fore and aft rocker) she was very stable, rowed well and with a gunter rig could easily negotiate Kew Bridge whatever the tide! Another important criterion in favour of the Mermaid was the pivoted centreboard (as opposed to the Mirror’s dagger board). I did have a bit of a hand in building “Ondine” (number 125, blue with tan sails), and we started “racing” her at Strand when I was about 12 or so. I “helped” on the Black and Decker stand at the Ideal Home Exhibition at Olympia one year to construct a Mermaid dinghy during the exhibition and had a very early (in this country) experience of bowling in a 10 pin bowling lane imported from the USA for the exhibition. My Pic even appeared in the Brentford and Chiswick Times.
The Broads has been a bit of a theme and when John Mack and I were 16 we hired one of largest Hunter boats (Lustre, Luna or Lullaby) along with two of our primary school friends and another acquaintance for a week in June. We collected the boat and set off with tranny on the cabin roof, with the World Cup match commentary, leading to our victory over Germany. 5 sixteen year olds unaccompanied… unheard of today! We had a great week which included trying to get the lugsail dinghy to plane, sinking the dinghy, inventing gybe Jumping on Wroxham Broad where one gets up onto the boom at the gooseneck, works their way along the boom to the clew, hanging onto the topping lift whilst the helm bears away to the point of the gybe. The idea is to get propelled as far as possible on the gybe. Hopefully the helm will be good enough to come back and collect the swimmer! The following year a few of us chartered on the Islmeer in Holland from Hoorn. A number of years later I sailed a Hornet European championships there in “Rhadegund”
I went to Strand school (as did my 3 sisters) so the riverside was a frequent haunt after school, long before I sailed there. Jack Hallet could be seen most days rowing his clinker boat up and down stream around the “trots”…those piles that have mostly now gone between the Railway Bridge and what was AMS (Auto Marine Services) Boatyard Pier. Jack Hallet was (I remember being told) a Freeman of the river, and was able to collect dues from the boats moored to those trots. AMS were mostly (exclusively?) concerned with motor boats of one sort or another, but there was also a gloomy drinking club deep inside the bowels of AMS which I did investigate once or twice.
No account of the Strand from that time would be complete without mention of “La Paz”, a centre cockpit motor boat moored just near the railway bridge as a live-aboard. The woman (Eileen Hacket?) who lived aboard La Paz, was renowned as being intolerant of people who disturbed her peace, especially were their boom to scrape along the hull (as Paul Williamson tells me) … she was wont to tip a pot of night soil over you! James called her Miss Piss!
At that time quite a few boats were kept on tidal moorings on the foreshore. Jocelyn “Keep your head out of the slot” Bailey had a 12 foot clinker dinghy, Olly Taylor had his 15 foot Halcyon – quite a sleek and river worthy clinker boat. Peter Hatton bought the first Enterprise (Comma) off Jack Holt’s stand at the Boat Show in Earls Court around 1966. In the 60’s we had two pretty exotic fibreglass boats in the club, Michael Kemlo’s Wineglass –effectively a smaller 505 without trapeze (I think brother Hugh borrowed this one year and won the Wineglass Nationals), and John van der Post’s 420 “a coffee table of a centreboard” I remember him saying once after grounding in the shallows. John lived next door to Post Office Alley. One particularly high tide in the 50’s Dad took us down to see the tide pretty much up to the roof of the tunnel between the two houses either side of the Alley. This was of course pre-Thames Barrier and many houses along the Strand were prone to being flooded on Spring tides. That and the price of houses prewar enabled the canny Joseph Armitage (James’ grandfather) to buy several properties along downstream Strand.
The Beatles used the City Barge as a location for one shot in one of their films, with a stuntman jumping/being thrown through a (sugar glass) window onto the tow path. John van der Post entertained (at least some of) the Beatles to a brandy during their filming he was pleased to tell us!
Sailing with Dad in the Mermaid became a bit limiting, and there were also at least 2 of my sisters who would crew occasionally, as did mum (Margaret Berger), so opportunities to sail with others provided variety. My good friend from Strand Primary school, John Mack had borrowed our upstairs room (where the Mermaid was constructed… Dad had carefully calculated beforehand that he could with sufficient help get the boat downstairs and out once built!) to restore a wooden canoe he’d been given by his woodwork department at school. He later took on/bought Donald Rintoul’s Heron dinghy and I sailed with John in that sometimes.
Bob Folkherd sailed an absurdly heavy and slow Coypu, and Rodney Newman I think it was, bought a small (23 foot or so) centreboard cruiser which he kept on the East Coast. Ian – you are in excellent company! I remember sailing/motoring across the Thames Estuary to the Medway with him one very hot and windless weekend, praying the temperamental 2-stroke Stuart Turner didn’t conk out. It was a devil to restart when hot. You nearly always had to change the spark plug! Rodney was very imaginative and never minded having to leave the boat in unusual places. The boat would take to the mud easily, and Bob would just catch the train back home from wherever he’d ended up and carry on from there another weekend later.
Small dinghies lend themselves to “Car-Topping” …indeed the Mirror and the Mermaid were both designed with that in mind. Amongst other ventures this led us as a family to take Ondine on top of our Austin Cambridge up to Loch Lomond one summer when sister Rachel had just turned 17, and I remember Dad coming back from a solo sail where he claimed to have planed all the way back to the hotel from the south of the loch.
We also took her to the Camel estuary, camping at Rock, and up to Morston (and its mud!) near Blakeney in North Norfolk.
As a club, Strand has always been willing to look at other sailing opportunities, and Michel Kemlo’s membership of the Royal Southampton YC at Gin’s drew us down to the Beaulieu river on a more or less annual basis from around 1965. Someone else suggested Harty Ferry on the Swale and I think we went there a couple of times, once loading 6 or so dinghies into the back of a lorry driven I think by Stephen Kendall. On that occasion, Mary Oliver’s wooden Gull (number 9, and it never had a jib even!) was damaged in transit and I have a memory of fibreglassing it up before we launched her.
During these years we also had Island parties and one year there was a very memorable parade of dressed boats, followed by a party on the Oliver’s Island. Using 2 old bike wheels I made Ondine into a stern wheel Mississippi paddle steamer.
I was by this time getting too big to crew Ondine and at some point helped Dad decide to move up to an Enterprise. We bought “Takista” E11665 from someone in Essex and it involved having a towbar fitted to the car, but the trailer didn’t have the now universal ball hitch, just a pin through a hole in the trailer. Takista had been generally very well built from a Bell Woodworking kit and held together well, although I remember we did have at some point to remove and rebuild the centreboard case.
On one long distance race, I crewed for David Sibthorp in his Graduate. We got down to Tower Bridge and promptly capsized. Olly Taylor went on down as far as Erith Marshes. You got a point for every bridge and a point for every mile beyond Tower Bridge. Needless to say, Olly won the prize that year. We had several more races/cruises (sailing both ways) down to the Festival Hall, tramping through the foyer in our sailing gear to use the loos!
David Sibthorp (left) with his Grad and prizes.
David Sibthorp’s dad, Nigel drove the safety boat most weeks, all 5 horsepower of the British Seagull Silver Century 2-stroke outboard pushing a heavy clinker boat kept on a mooring. He had to kill the engine during a rescue, and you would pray that he could restart it before both “safety” boat and rescued craft were swept onto the next bridge! All this without a recoil starter, clutch or reverse gear! How times have changed.
All 6 Sibthorps lived in Jocelyn Campbell’s house- Number 3, on the Strand before they moved to Kingston
Nigel Sibthorp crewing for Olly Taylor in the Taylors’ National 12. (right)
Various Strand residents outside number 4 (above)
Sibby (Jeremy Sibthorp), and I borrowed Takista for a winter season or two at London Corinthians, but we soon decided she was too heavy, so Sibby and I went halves in a better boat E7549. We managed to persuade the Ent Association that “Knee Trembler” was a suitable name after they rejected at least one smuttier name! Bob Southgate’s laconic comment was “at least we’ve moved from the toilets to the bus shelter”. When Sibby and I went to buy her, we took some bathroom scales to ensure the boat was down to weight. Knee Trembler worked for a few years for us, but the thirst for performance led us to buy a Hornet (with sliding seat and spinnaker). The boat we bought had suffered a broken mast, and the new (insurance job) Needlespar mast hadn’t been rigged. Nil Problemo! We had the standing rigging etc made up and away we went. Many capsizes and 2 or three seasons later I decided to measure the mast and discovered it was about 10 inches longer than it should be! – more clearance under the boom for sure, but also less stable. We took her down to Salcombe one year for the regatta and stayed with Mary Henderson and Will at Kellerton. I then went on to Fowey for a further week’s regatta with a very “game” young woman who was to become my girlfriend. No amount of capsizing at sea seemed to put her off! Sibby was bitten with the speed bug, and went on to buy “Rats” a much newer and proven Hornet, I think built for (or by) Dick Batt – a sailmaker down in Devon. Sibby quickly moved on from the Hornet to International 14’s which he sailed first at LCSC then at Itchenor.
I crewed for Sibby now and again in the I14 but my interest in not jeopardising a relationship through neglect (or perhaps I just wasn’t good enough as a crew?) led Sibby to sign up someone more available and reliable (Julian Pearson or was it Rob). We did do one memorable Prince of Wales week-long event in Mounts Bay, Penzance. There was a Sherry reception one evening hosted by the St Aubyns in the castle on St Michaels Mount. I had missed the practice race, travelling down on the overnight sleeper after some work commitment or other, so I wasn’t really best prepared. We also once sailed the Bloody Mary together in the I14. This is a pursuit race on the reservoir out near Heathrow. Being one of the faster boats, most other classes started earlier. We were in good time for our start, but Jeremy Pudney, also in a 14 had left it a bit late to get to the start so came hurtling along with spinnaker up. Pudney worked at de Beers, the diamond merchants and was frequently seen puffing a cigar whilst racing. His crew stepped forward to collect in the pole (part of the spinnaker drop routine) and the boat’s nose must have dug in because the mast folded in half in a spectacular collapse. End of his race!
By this time I’d been through Uni. Sailing at Uni was impractical for me doing Engineering, as we had lectures and labs five and a half days a week. Sailing took place on Wednesday afternoons (Labs) and Saturdays (4 hours of lectures from 9am) , so it would mean missing something whenever I went sailing. I did mange it at least twice. In the winter we sailed at St Ives on the Ouse, and after Easter at Grafham. The one time I went to Grafham we got there and it looked lovely…lots of wind …but the water authority decided that bodies in the water would not be good for water quality so they banned us from launching. Maybe they thought students were the great unwashed!
I kept on with Hornets (I think I’ve owned four) and later teamed up with Nick Flower, in Rhadegund. Nick had decked and fitted out a bare hull right down to weight. Both of us had crews who had defected to parts foreign and we started to do quite well on the open meeting circuit …Nick’s obsession with weight along with few pennies meant that I pulled quite a few fittings off the boat to start with. Once I’d bolted and screwed everything down a great deal firmer and we learnt how to avoid capsizing, we went on to do quite well. Nick had sailed at Uni and knew Will Henderson well. Our partnership also led us on to making our own sails with which we won some races – even selling a few. At some point it became clear were we to be serious about sailmaking as an income stream, one of us would need to give up full-time work and we would need to invest in space and some machinery and stock. Nick was quite a way along the route of becoming an ENT surgeon so he wasn’t going to jeopardise that. I did my own sums and decided it would be extremely risky and difficult to make much money at it, so we continued to bumble along as we were. Later on Nick and I found some of the Hornet sailors rather boorish and tried our luck with a Fireball, followed by a better Fireball a year or two later.
Living in Hertfordshire, and finding less time available for Open Meetings, I bought a better Enterprise (Ovation made by Dave Ovington) to sail at Corinthians with Sheila. Later I decided to upgrade to a newer boat and bought a Lufkin Enterprise with built in buoyancy which served us well. We brought her up to Yorkshire for Sheila and I to sail on the Northern circuit and then at a club on Hornsea Mere (not to be confused with Horsea Mere in Norfolk). Hornsea is a wonderful natural (left by retreating glacier) lake and an SSSI, very similar to some of the Norfolk Broads with clear winds and about a mile and a bit long beat in a Westerly. It has lots of resident and migratory birds, including the occasional Bittern (though I have yet to see or hear one). Sheila and I learnt a lot between us about wind shifts and getting the best boat speed up and down wind.
The Ent fleet at Hornsea dwindled (at least the competition disappeared!) and I was persuaded to try an Albacore. I’d hitherto thought of the Albacore as an “old man’s” boat – stable, a bit staid and you needed a pipe and tweeds to justify it. Suffice to say that she is an excellent boat (what Uffa Fox boat isn’t!). Larger and heavier than an Ent, more docile and predictable, but also extremely fast when tamed and driven well. With good sails and foils, she points extremely high, and offwind with rig slackened off, she can be sailed well by the lee to good advantage. In our day we could beat Ospreys on the water in many conditions. I sailed her in one Birkett Trophy (a 2 day event on Ullswater) involving a 5 mile-long downwind leg. We (two guys in their 60’s) sat with the main right out well by the lee (no spinnaker in the class rules), and a 29er (asymmetric youth version of the 49er Olympic class) behind us coming zipping across on a reach, jybed and then zipped back…and was STILL behind us. Very satisfying!
When I retired, I had thought a project to take on a keelboat of my own would lend further interest to my sailing. I had chartered several times, mostly around the Western Isles in Scotland, also on the south coast and in the Med (Corsica, Greece and Turkey) and had thought my own boat would provide more scope, without the need to return the boat to base at the end of the week. People would ask “Where will you keep her?” and I always thought it the wrong question. The idea being to be free to take her anywhere without the need to return to base (in the Rodney Newman mould). For various reasons it hasn’t worked out that way and at least for the time being Zarafina is in the Beaulieu river, which for anyone unfamiliar with it, is a wonderfully undeveloped area (I do enjoy the aesthetics of sailing in the natural environment). There are plenty of boats on the Beaulieu river, but one thing to be said for the aristocracy (in the form of Lord Montague anyway) is that they have resisted pressures to develop the riverside….thanks goodness! It’s a wildlife haven and really rather special and unusual in this day and age.
In the first (Covid) lockdown, I turned our garage into a sail loft of sorts and spent a couple of weeks altering a new main bought through eBay. Brand new but designed for a bigger boat, the alterations involved removing the batten pockets, re-cutting the leach/roach and sewing it all back up. I also put in a third reef. I needed then to get some eyes pressed into the finished sail, which meant a trip up to Tynemouth to Trident. I then adjusted a second hand Elvstrom jib to fit the fractional rig that Zarafina has. The new combination transformed Zarafina’s performance upwind.
I thought I might get bored during the second lockdown, so being without an Enterprise, I bought “Entre Nous” cheaply on eBay, and set about putting her right. I knew she would need partial re-decking, but didn’t reckon with lifting deck at the mast step, rot in the transom and near the bungs, softness in the centreboard case and some controls needing sorting. I got a long way on with her when lockdown ended, and she languished with me feeling increasingly guilty in a neighbour’s garage for 15 months. We do have some lovely neighbours! In Spring 2023 I decided I either had to set fire to her, or finish the job. As most of you will know, I chose the latter course, and now with a suit of pretty crisp and little used second hand sails the result has been moderately pleasing!
And for the coming year? Well if Strand would like to repeat/reinstate the “South Coast Weekend” in some form or another, then count me in. Chris Greenwood is possibly countenancing a “Round Britain” cruise this year, and I would be tempted to join him to cruise in company with Zarafina.. which just might mean coming along to meet us where we are, or to do a “Round The Island (of Wight)” before we set off for further afield.
Many thanks are due to Sibby for sending me the pics!