Early Yachtsmen

It is not easy at first sight to assign limits to the Restoration period of yachting, but it may perhaps be thought allowable to draw the dividing-line when we come to the first yachtsmen who were not courtiers. Jan Griffier satisfies this condition; but being a Dutchman, he is of the less importance in this inquiry, and he has therefore, as a yachtsman, been included in the period to which his art belongs. Lord Dunblane also might conceivably be included in the Court period, save that we have unfortunately no knowledge, beyond a bare mention, of his career as a yachtsman. The only incident in which he figures at all prominently belongs to the reign of William III. It seems logical, therefore, to look upon the Hon. Roger North, the youngest of an illustrious brother­hood, as the first of the yachtsmen who took no heed to the doings of the Court. Happily he has left us an account of his proceedings which is as vividly interesting as it is detailed and satisfactory. It will be best to allow the yachtsman to speak for himself, adding such comments as seem necessary to illustrate obscure points. The narrative is taken from his autobiography published in Dr. Jessopp’s edition of the ‘Lives of the Norths.’

‘Another of my mathematical entertainments was sailing. I was extremely fond of being master of anything that would sail; and consulting Mr. John Windham about it, he encouraged me with the present of a yacht, built by himself, which I kept four years in the Thames, and received great delight in her. This yacht was small, but had a cabin and a bedroom athwart-ships, aft the mast, and a large locker at the helm; the cook-room, with a cabin for a servant, was forward on, with a small chimney at the very prow. Her ordinary sail was a boom mainsail, stay foresail, and jib. All wrought aft, so we could sail without a hand a-head, which was very troublesome, because of the spray that was not (sailing to windward) to be endured. My crew was a man and a boy, with myself and one servant, and once, making a voyage to Harwich, a pilot. She was no good sea-boat, because she was open aft, and might ship a sea to sink her, especially before the wind in a storm, when the surge breaks over faster than her way flies; but in the river she would sail tolerably and work extraordinarily well. She was ballasted with cast lead. It was a constant entertainment to sail against smacks and hoys, of which the river was always full. At stretch they were too hard for me; but by, I had the better; for I commonly did in two what they could scarce get in three boards. And one reason of the advantage which they had at stretch was their topsail, which I could not carry.

‘The seasons of entertainment were the two long vacations, Lent and autumn, especially towards Michaelmas, for the summer is too hot and calm; unless by accident those times are cool and windy, without which the sea is a dull trade. But these were for long voyages, as down below bridge to Gravesend, Sheerness, etc., which lasted for the most part five or six days. But for turning up the river, and about the town above bridge, I could, giving time, have the yacht at any stairs for an afternoon’s enter­tainment, as I saw occasion and found the tide serve. Once on the last seal day, we top practicers in Chancery, as usual, made merry together, and in a frolic would go to sea as I used to call it. I sent for the yacht, which had lain all Trinity term in the heat uncaulked, so that her upper work was open, though her bottom was as tight as a dish. We went aboard, and when the vessel began to heel the water came in at her seams and flowed into the cabin, where the company was, who were too warm to perceive such an inconvenience, till at last they were almost up to the knees, and then they powdered out. We called for boats and went ashore, and the yacht was run ashore to prevent sinking downright. This made much merriment when we came together again, discovering what a present we had like to have made to our friends at the Bar by sinking and drowning the premier practicers, and so making way for the rest.

‘When I prepared for one of these voyages, I used to victual my vessel with cold meats in tin cases, bottles of beer, ale, and for the seamen brandy. And I mention this because I was sensible from it that all the joy of eating, which gluttons so much court, consists in appetite, for that we had in perfection, and though our meat was coarse (beef for the most part) yet no epicure enjoyed that way so much as we did. Once being bound for Suffolk, I layed in a pilot at Greenwich, who understood the North course out of the river well. With a good gale I got in one tide as low as the Ooze edge, and there anchored, and lay for the next tide. This is a great way below the Nore, opposite to Thanet. There is a small sand that lies within the river, above the Nore, called the Middle ground; and a small thread runs from that to the Ooze edge, where is a buoy, to warn sailors of it, whereby it notes that the current is there a little divided, but upon the sands themselves a great deal, so that it does not set with that force as elsewhere. And I observe that all those shelves have a manifest cause from the coast, for where a place is sheltered from the current, as at the point between Thames and Medway, there a shelf, as at the Nore, grows. For want of a stream to scour, a shelf grows there, and is dry at low water. In the evening the wind slackened, and the surge yet wrought, which was a most uneasy condition, to lie stamping and tossing without a breath of wind to pay our sail, which wrought and flapped about most uneasily.

‘Here I observed that there was wind aloft, though I was too humble to enjoy it. For empty colliers came down with topsails out, full-bunted, and bows rustling, which did not a little provoke me, but patience is a seaman’s capital and necessary virtue.

‘Next morning it was hazy, and . . . when the tide was made we weighed, and the wind freshened, and we stood down the King’s Channel, and the gale holding we stemmed the neap tide coming in, and, it being high water at the Spits, we ran over all past the Gunfleet, so that the neap ebb by evening carried us into Harwich, where we anchored and went on shore to refresh.

‘At the point of the low country between the Thames and Malden waters there is a very ugly shelf for many over [sic] there were several wrecks upon it, and a great mast is set down at the point which they call the Shoe (that is the name of the shelf) beacon. . . . There was little remarkable in this day’s voyage, only that I, with my friend Mr. Chute, sat before the mast in the hatchway, with prospectives and books, the magazine of provisions, and a boy to make a fire and help broil, make tea, chocolate, etc. And thus, passing alternately from one entertainment to another, we sat out eight whole hours and scarce knew what time was past. For the day proved cool, the gale brisk, air clear, and no inconvenience to molest us, nor wants to trouble our thoughts, neither business to importune, nor formalities to tease us; so that we came nearer to a perfection of life there than I was ever sensible of otherwise.

‘At Harwich we were asked if we had left our souls at London, because we took so little care of our bodies. For our vessel was not storm proof, and if that had come we must have run for it, not without danger, but that is pleasure to the eagerness of youth. After our visit . . . we had a fierce gale about S.W., wherefore we were obliged to turn it out of the harbour; but then made but one run to the Spits, and came to anchor, intending to pass through in the night by the soundings, without sight of the buoy, as we did, it being tide of low ebb. And, keeping in two and three fathoms, – we succeeded well, and anchored again in deep water, expecting the tide. The reason of our putting through in the night, as the pilot told me, was to have a consort, or resort in case of distress; for there lay in the King’s Channel, above the Spits, four great East Indiamen, and if a storm had rose we could not have rode it out in the Wallet where we lay, nor safely put through to come at the great ships, much less shifted in the night by making to any port. As soon as the tide of flood was made, we sailed, turning up the King’s Channel, ahead of these Indiamen, that weighed not till the morning, and, being ahead, we dropped again, not to lose our friends, if need should be, and lay till broad day. I could not but concern myself in this important naval conduct, though most of my crew, except the sailors, slept. And at midnight in the air, the eating cold meat and bread, and drinking small beer, was a regale beyond imagination. I can say, I scarce ever knew the pleasure of eating till then, and have not observed the like on any occasion since.

‘Work being over I took a nap, but before I lay down the pilot asked,

“Master, if the ships send us a bale of goods, shan’t we take them in?” I answered ” No,” considering that if I was caught smuggling, as they call it, I should be laughed at for being condemned to forfeit my vessel at the custom house, where my own brother was a ruling commissioner, as he had certainly done. It was not ill advised to resolve against such a tempta­tion, for next morning a custom-house smack came aboard us and searched every cranny, supposing we had been dabbling. It was not unpleasant to observe the desperate hatred the seamen had to these water waiters. One vowed he could scarce forbear to run his knife in their guts, for he was at his breakfast; and they would snarl and grin, like angry dogs, upon all such searches, which frequently happened to us in the river, but durst not bite, or scarce bark at them, by which I see the trade that such men drive upon the river.

‘In the morning when we weighed we had only the tide to carry us up, for it was a dead calm, and no glass was ever so perfectly smooth as the surface of the sea; the reflection of the heavens was as bright and distinct from the water as above, scarce a sensible horizon; and there was every­where about us much small craft bearing up in the tide. This posture was dull, and if it had been hot weather would have been very painful. We found we had good way by assaying the lead, but otherwise we could scarce know we moved. About nine of the clock the seamen called out that a wind was coming. I looked out as sharp as I could to see this wind, wondering what it should be like; at length with my glass, I could perceive in the horizon at E. as it were a thread, almost imperceptible, whereby only the horizon was a little more sensible than in other places. It was always strange to me that the seamen would descry by their bare eyes things at a distance as well as I could by my glass, though a good one. And I often proved this by asking what a vessel was, how she stood, and what tack she had aboard, and the like: all which they would plainly describe when I could scarce with my bare eyes perceive anything.

‘The coming of this wind due east was great joy, because so favourable, and it was a great diversion to observe among the craft which had it and which not; now this, and then another, for it came with much uncertainty, . . . and we laid our sails as fair for it as we could, and at last it came and fluttered us a good space, for, as I said, upon the edge it was very rolling and uncertain, till at last we were full paid and stood in with wind and tide and stemmed good part of the ebb. At last, the wind failing, we came to an anchor within the middle ground, upon the coast of Kent, above St. James’ Point. And there shall end the relation of this voyage, which I have made more largely than pertinently, supposing it might at least show the strong inclination I had to action and the pleasure it gave me; for otherwise I could not have had such an impression from it as not to forget one circumstance. And I must needs recommend it to all persons that are fond of pleasure to gratify all inclinations this way, which makes health the chief good we know, rather than those which weaken nature and destroy health.

‘This I have related as one of my mathematical entertainments, for the working of a vessel, its rigging, and position of the sails, do exercise as much of mechanics, as all the other arts in the world.’

Little need be added to this very interesting account, beyond, perhaps, a reminder that there is some uncertainty about the exact date of North’s sailing trips. He seems only once to have gone out of the river, in 1683; but seeing that Windham, who gave him the yacht, died in 1676, it is hard to account for his statement that he kept his yacht on the river for four years only. He was called to the Bar in 1675, and can hardly have done any yachting before that date, as his allowance was very small. By 1683 he was becoming very busy and was earning a large income, so that it is unlikely that he could spare much time for the amusement in later years; and, on the other hand, we know, by his own confession, that during his yachting days he was not well enough off to marry. If, therefore, we are to believe that he yachted continuously from the time when he received the yacht till his brother became Com­missioner of Customs, the four years he mentions will not stand. If, however, the four years be accepted as authentic, one of his dates must be wrong. The present writer, bearing in mind that North wrote his ‘Autobiography’ from memory, not from a journal, is strongly of opinion that the date 1683 cannot be accepted; that in looking back and remembering that his brother had been at the custom-house he confused what might have been with what actually was; and, finally, that the days of his pleasure-sailing lay probably between 1675 and 1680.

Another yachtsman of this period is, thanks to Macaulay, better known to the present generation than Roger North, though his claims to recognition are vastly inferior. He was Peregrine, son of Thomas Osborne, who became in turn Earl of Danby, Marquess of Carmarthen, and Duke of Leeds; and since his own style altered as his father rose in the peerage, it becomes necessary, in order to avoid confusion, to introduce him with all formality. From 1674 he was Peregrine, Viscount Osborne of Dunblane, in the peerage of Scotland, and it is known that, as Lord Dunblane, he had a yacht, or pleasure-boat, on the Thames; when in 1689 his father was raised to the Marquisate of Carmarthen, he became by courtesy Earl of Danby, under which title Macaulay introduces him in the adventure shortly to be related; five years later, when the Dukedom of Leeds was conferred upon his father, he became Marquess of Carmarthen, which was his title during his association with Peter the Great. Finally, after his seafaring days were done, he succeeded to the Dukedom of Leeds.

The temptation is strong, however, to say that as a yachtsman he is an impostor. The blame is not his, for we have no reason to believe that he posed as such, but Macaulay’s, whose ignorance of everything connected with the sea combined with his usual care­lessness to give an utterly false impression of the incidents on which Danby’s yachting reputation is based. The first of these is con­cerned with the Jacobite plot of 1690. The conspirators had chartered a smack, the (Thomas and Elizabeth Macaulay calls her the James and Elizabeth), in which to sail for France in order to concert matters for a rising. ‘Intelligence of what was passing was conveyed to the Lord President. He took his measures with his usual energy and dexterity. His eldest son, the Earl of Danby, a bold, volatile, and somewhat eccentric young man, was fond of the sea, lived much among sailors, and was the proprietor of a small yacht of marvellous speed. This vessel, well manned, was placed under the command of a trusty officer named Billop, and was sent down the river.’ Meanwhile, on the night of the last day of the year, the conspirators had slipped away and, in fear and trembling, had passed the guardships in the river and had got below Gravesend. Thinking all safe, ‘their spirits rose; their appetites became keen; they unpacked a hamper well stored with roast beef, mince- pies, and bottles of wine, and were just sitting down to their Christmas cheer, when the alarm was given that a swift vessel from Tilbury was flying through the water after them.’ So they hid on top of the ballast, where Billop’s party found them.

As far as Billop and the conspirators are concerned, the account is true in essentials, but in everything that concerns Danby it is false. The boat which Billop used was not a yacht, she did not belong to Danby, and there was no exciting chase. If we go to the fountain-head for our information, we learn from Billop’s evidence that –

‘My Lord President told me he heard there were divers persons had papers of dangerous consequence and were going to France. . . . I told my Lord I thought the best way was to go to Woolwich or Deptford, and to take a man-of-war’s pinnace with us: upon that, my Lord of Danby being by, said he knew of a boat that he could have, which was my Lord Duke of Grafton’s; and my lady Duchess had lent it him and he would go and get it ready. . . . My Lord Danby came to Tower Wharf himself with the boat. . . . We put off from Tower Wharf. It was calm, and we rowed down towards Gravesend. . . I was resolved to take them before they were gotten too far; so we rowed away for Gravesend, and afterwards went down into the Hope, and I did judge that no vessel that came from London that tide could be ahead of me.’

He pressed a fisherman who knew the Thomas and Elizabeth by sight, and by an artifice got him to point her out to him; then, as the smack came slowly down in the calm weather, he rowed along­side. The conspirators were found lying on the ballast. As one of the crew of the smack said in evidence, ‘When I cried that the barge was a-coming, they took the victuals down into the quarters, and there lay they and the victuals atop of them.’ It may be added that the victuals included a chicken, not specified by Macaulay. The boat’s head was then turned towards London, and she was rowed all the way back. Obviously, there is little of yachting interest here. Indeed, the whole point of the matter was quite unknown to Macaulay. Danby had recently been appointed Colonel of Lord Torrington’s First Marine Regiment, in which Christopher Billop was a Captain. This force was very nautical in its organization; and in addition Danby was appointed on January 2, 1691, to be Captain of the man-of-war Suffolk, of seventy guns. This post would bring an increase of pay; possibly it was given to him in acknowledgment of the small share he had in catching the conspirators. As a Captain, and afterwards as an Admiral, he had some war service, but failed to distinguish himself. There can be little doubt that Peter the Great made friends with him, not because he was a volatile yachtsman, but because he was a naval officer of rank. In what concerns yachting, as in more weighty matters, Macaulay is not a safe guide.

Read on … The Eighteenth Century