Before he was married my father lived in a motorboat on the River Lee at Broxbourne in Hertfordshire. I’m told by family friends that he turned down a very lucrative job with Jaguar Racing Boats, to move to Portsmouth. That probably explains his love for the old Jags, and the couple that he owned over the years. I was four when they built this boat, a twenty-four-foot Eventide named Miga – taking the first two letters of Len and dad’s kids’ names MIchael and GAry. I remember standing on the deck while it was on the garage forecourt. I was not at all convinced that my father would be able to catch me when I jumped down.
So started a life-long interest in sailing. Somewhere, probably my sister has it, there’s a picture of me aged five or so in my own little sailing dinghy – complete with a white teddy bear on the dark tan sail. I have to admit that at the time I was much more interested in submarines than sailing boats.
Sailing was nearly the death of me
Twice I took unexpected trips over the side. Once while we were moored and I was enjoying boyish fun on the shore, I ran back to the boat and missed the gangplank. I fell between the bank and the boat straight into the Chelmer canal. Fortunately, a near-by adult reached down, scruffed me, and hoisted me spluttering out of the water. I have never forgotten the long embarrassing walk back to the car in my PJs.
My second attempt at drowning myself was very nearly successful. We were anchored near Mersey Island in the Blackwater estuary. Dad and a friend were fishing from the cockpit, and I was playing with a toy submarine over the stern. There were no guardrails in those days and I rarely wore a lifejacket. I’ve not got much recollection of how it happened.
I was on my hands and knees and must have reached down over the transom for some reason, and slipped in. I clearly remember looking up and seeing my father’s white jumper with a blue band swimming around frantically searching for me. Apparently my departure over the side had been quiet and unnoticed. It was pure luck that they realized I had gone.
To add to my father’s sodden discomfiture, once back on the boat, I made a huge din. Not because I’d nearly drowned – but because my favorite bobble hat had floated off and was disappearing down-tide. He had to row like a maniac to get it – still soaking wet. I kept that hat for over forty years. The hat was cyan with a red and yellow bobble. It stretched over time so it always fitted me, man and boy. I somehow lost it in one of my recent moves. I was very upset when I discovered I no longer had it.
There was a family story about me being lashed to the mast while we sailed through some storm in the English channel. It never happened. I only found out about it by accident in 2008. My uncle was convinced it was true. He’d have only been a kid himself at the time. I’m sure one of my other uncles, always ones for the tall tales fed him the story and he swallowed it whole.
They kept the boat for around four years, and I believe my father used the proceeds of the sale to go towards buying some land and building a house.
Apart from a couple of weekends crewing, I was twenty-one before I went sailing again. In the meantime, I read all the Arthur Ransome ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books and graduated to stories of people racing and cruising their sailboats around the world.
Herts & Essex Observer Article text in full
More and more people are becoming addicted to “mucking about in boats” and two men who have been bitten by the bug in a big way are Hare Street garage manager Mr. Len Thomsett and his foreman Mr. Steve Allman. Since Easter of last year the lights have been burning until mid-night almost every evening at the premises of Newmarket Motors as Mr. Thomsett and Mr. Allman toiled away at their project – the building of a Bermudan sloop 24ft. 6in. in length and with an 8ft. beam.
Their progress has been watched with considerable interest by the villagers, not least by the 22 men who man-handled the hull which then weighed about 1½ tons from the workshop where work began to Newmarket Motors’ main garage.
When an Observer representative was shown over the yacht by its two creators it looked somewhat out of its element in a corner of the garage but still a thing of great beauty. Of “Yachting World’s” Eventide class, it has a 30ft. mast and is equiped with an auxilary engine. The yacht has a double mahogany skin and four full berths. Its modern navigational equipment includes an echo depth sounder.
Mr. Thomsett, who valued the craft at about £2,250, told the Observer that during the course of construction he and Mr. Allman used 9,000 rivets and 63 gross of brass screws.
In the near future the yacht is to be taken to Rye House for launching after which it will be taken by way of the River Lee and River Thames to the Heybridge yacht basin. In July Mr. Thomsett and Mr. Allman, whose previous boat building experience was confined to two small sailing dinghies [plan to] take the yacht to [Holland for a] well earned holiday.”
I remember the evening the boat was launched. Nothing specific, in fact, the only detail I remember is the twilight silhouette of a huge cast-iron water or sewage line. The pipe ran alongside a bridge that was a short way downstream from where the boat was moored. I also remember the trip to Holland. I didn’t go, but I kept the postcards they sent from Holland for years. They brought me back a pendulum clock with a windmill whose sails went round with a regular ‘tick, tick, tick’. Oh, and of course a tiny pair of clogs.
Heybridge Basin & Chelmer Canal – revisited in 2007.
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