Early yachtsmen

Before proceeding to discuss the evolution of the fore and aft rig, which must needs form an integral part of yachting history, we will offer an account of some early coasting trips which seem to be little known nowadays. They were scarcely ‘yachting’ trips, for the yachts in which to make them did not as yet exist; but they were very certainly sporting adventures, and of much more importance to our history than were the gay pageants which attended great occasions of state. Of the pageants it is not necessary to say much. A very full account of one of the finest, and fortunately also the earliest, has been preserved, and is to be read in more than one printed collection. This took place in October, 1501, to celebrate the arrival of the unfortunate Catharine of Aragon, then betrothed to Arthur, Prince of Wales. Catharine came by water to Gravesend, and was there received and escorted by great numbers of boats and barges filled with the officers of state, with the lords and ladies of the Court, with bands of music – in fact, with all ceremony proper to the occasion. The piece is interesting no doubt ‘as a curious specimen of state ceremony during the times when the pomp, order, and magnificence of the Courts were kept up to the height.’ But it is not of much importance to yachting history, for it adds nothing to our knowledge of the type of boat used. The later pageant of 1638, of which Mr. Clark is able to give an illustration, is more interesting, for the reception was made by yachts under sail, not by row-boats. Socially it yielded in importance to many of the Tudor functions, but for our purpose it has far greater merit. Yet it has withal one insuperable disadvantage. It was not English; it marks, in fact, the advance of a rival.

It is to be doubted whether many boat voyages such as are here described were made. To begin with, they depended one and all for their origin upon bets or other hope of lucre, and this being so, the success of one would naturally spoil the market for the next bold adventurer. Again, the principals seem to have been sufficiently proud of themselves, as is reasonable, to write accounts of their experiences, and the fact that very few of these narratives exist goes far to show that not many such adventures were undertaken.

There were, indeed, long passages made up and down the Thames as far back as we can trace in what we would now consider most unsuitable craft. Henry VIII., for instance, in October 1532, went in an open boat to Sheppey; but the boat was a bigger one than he usually employed, her crew being eighteen men, compared with the ten rowers that he was wont to employ for shorter distances, and there is a separate entry for a sail, an anchor, and a cable which were bought for the occasion, at a cost of five shillings. But though most kings would prefer something with a deck on it for a passage down Sea Reach and past the Nore, yet there is no comparison between such a passage as King Hal’s and that of Richard Ferris nearly sixty years later.

The Spanish Armada had been accounted for, and now at last men felt that they could breathe. There would appear to have been a good deal of boasting at the Court that now of a truth Britannia ruled the waves, and to prove it our adventurer, one of five ordinary messengers of Her Majesty’s Chamber, undertook in a small wherry-boat to row by sea to the city of Bristow.’

Possibly the enterprise was determined on when the wine was in and the wit was out; at any rate, it is certain that on second thoughts Ferris was not enamoured of the job, and owns that it was ‘rashly determined.’ However, he persuaded a friend named Andrew Hill to go with him, and then ‘in respect that I never was trained up on the water . . . I thought it convenient to seek out some one expert pilot, to direct me and my companion by his skill the better to pass the dangers, whereof I was foretold.’ In pursuance of this sane resolve, he found one W. Thomas, a man of sufficient skill and approved experience, ‘by whom, he modestly says, I was content to be advised.’

The wherry was new and was painted green, a favourite Tudor colour, and had a sail which was presumably a spritsail. She was also well furnished with flags, a St. George’s Cross, the Royal Arms, and a pennant for the stern. They sailed from Tower Wharf on June 24, 1590, and made their first stop at Greenwich, where they were entertained by the Court. ‘And having obtained leave before of the Rt. Hon. the Lord Chamberlain, the Lord Admiral, and Master Vice-Chamberlain for my departure: I took my leave and so departed.’ Glad, possibly, to be clear of the atmosphere of red-tape. ‘Setting up our sails (sic) and taking to our oars we departed towards this our doubtful course.’ The passage to Margate is scarcely touched upon, and thence ‘we wan the Foreland with some high billows,’ after which they had reasonable weather all the way down to the Solent, a slice of fortune which may be set down to beginner’s luck. In the Solent they had ‘a great storm,’ but got safely through it, and so on to St. Alban’s race, where ‘we were in a great fret.’ Portland naturally treated them in the same way, but by the good direction of our pilot and master we sought and strove by great labour to take the advantage of the tide and weather; whereby we passed through it in an hour. Here did the billows rise very high so that we were in great danger: yet God be thanked! we escaped them without any damage.’ And the experience of high billows was renewed off the Start.

At Plymouth ‘we met with Her Majesty’s ships, where Master Captain Fenner and Master Captain Wilkinson gave us great entertainment, especially for that they saw that we had leave given us from the Rt. Hon. Her Majestie’s Council for our quiet and safe passage. And for that I was Her Majesty’s messenger they gave us the greater entertainment.’ The Lizard ‘we passed in the current of the tide, with great swiftness but with wonderful danger: where, had it not been well looked unto, of the master, we had been all cast away.’ The next event to stir their pulses came on July 20, when, standing a long way off shore to get a good tide round the Land’s End, ‘our master descried a pirate having a vessel of four tons; who made towards us amain meaning doubtless to have robbed us. But doubting [i.e., fearing] such a matter we rowed so near the shore as we might. And by that time, as he was almost come at us, we were near to a rock standing in the sea,’ which, under its guise of the Raynalde Stones, is to be identified with the Runnell Stone. Here, fortunately, it fell calm, and the wherry had the advantage. But, thinking that they would feel more comfortable if they could put something more solid than sea-water between themselves and the pirate,’ as we rowed to come about by this rock, suddenly we espied a very plain and easy way to pass on the inner side of the said rock, where we went through very pleasantly: and by reason thereof he could not follow us. Thus we escaped safely; but he was soon after taken and brought into Bristow.’

This was an exciting day, for no sooner were they quit of the pirate than the wind freshened against them, meeting the tide, which, it will be remembered, runs to the northward for nine hours off the Land’s End, thus giving plenty of opportunity to rude Boreas to indulge them with a further succession of ‘high billows.’ However, they had good sea stomachs by this time, and, ‘for we wanted victuals, our master was constrained to go climb the great cliff at Godrevy, which is at least forty fathoms high and wonderful steep; which none of us durst venture to do.’ Then to Bottrick’s Castle, where they were weather-bound, until, ‘on the 18th day, the foul weather ceasing, we did again put to sea, through the race of Hartland, alias Harty Point, which is as ill as the race at Portland.’

But their adventures were not yet at an end, for ‘between Harty Point and Clevelly, Andrew Hill in taking down our sail fell over­board into the sea: where, by great good-hap, and by means that he held fast to a piece of our sail, we recovered him, although he were a very weighty man.’ On Saturday, August 1, they were at Ilford Coume, and Ferris, thinking possibly that the journey was lasting too long, with some difficulty persuaded his mates to make a night passage. But the wind came off the land ‘very sore ‘ – and an off-shore wind at the Hangmans is no joke – so that ‘I myself was constrained to row four hours alone on the larboard side; and my fellow rower was compelled to lade forth water (so fast as it came into the boat) which beat upon me very sore.’ Following this, they passed ‘Mynette’ (Minehead), and came to Bristol with­out further difficulty. Then all was feasting and junketing, with ‘trumpets, drums, fifes and ensigns to go before the boat.’ Also, needless to state, once was enough, and they returned home by the overland route. After the fashion of the period the booklet con­tains plenty of bad verses made in honour of the occasion; but we forbear to quote from them, preferring to reserve as much of the reader’s patience as may be for the excerpts from the ‘Water Poet’ which follow very shortly.

The next sportsman who claims attention is John Taylor, ‘the Water Poet, whose Pegasus was a wherry, and whose Helicon the Thames,’ certainly an exceptional character. This man, who was born of humble parents in 1580, was sent to the Grammar School at Gloucester, but, as he got ‘mired’ in his Latin accidence, he was taken from school and apprenticed to a London waterman. From that occupation he was pressed into the Royal Navy, and served the Queen for seven years, having a share in some of the most notable adventures of the time, such as the expedition under Essex to Cadiz in 1596 and the Islands Voyage of the following year. In the course of this service he must have become a thorough seaman, but he also picked up a ‘lame leg,’ which induced him to quit the navy and again turn waterman. He had a ready wit and a fluent tongue, which made him a marked man among watermen, so that, when any business of importance was toward, he was put forward as their spokesman. This no doubt cultivated his ‘literary’ faculty, with the result that when, in the middle of James’s reign, he found competition upon the water growing severe, he determined to trust to his pen for a living. As the event proved, he combined the callings of waterman and author to some extent, the method being to make a more or less fantastic voyage, by water or by land, and to sell an account of it to subscribers who had been induced to promise their support in advance. His out­put was very great, but the quality is not superlative. He was, in fact, a ‘literary bargee,’ and his written vocabulary included such terms as we are accustomed to associate with his calling. Also, he applied them very freely to those who had the misfortune to incur his wrath, as, for instance, in his ‘Kicksey Winsey,’ a tirade directed against 800 defaulters who had promised to subscribe their sixpences for the account of one of his boat journeys, yet paid not. ‘As literature his books are contemptible; but his pieces accurately mirror his age, and are of great value to the historian and antiquary.’ It is because they mirror, if not the practice of the age with respect to yachting, at least its potentialities, that they are of considerable importance in this inquiry.

Taylor’s best-known voyage was made in 1622, and is described in a preposterous poem bearing the equally preposterous title, ‘A Verry Merry Wherry-Ferry Voyage, or Yorke for my Money.’ A few lines from it may, or may not, tempt the reader to explore the whole:

‘Our Wherry somewhat old, or struck in age,
That had endured near four years’ Pilgrimage,
And now at last it was her lot to be
Th’ adventurous bonny bark to carry me.

Thus, being furnished with good wine and beer,
And bread and meat (to banish hunger’s fear),
With Sails, with Anchor, Cables, Sculls and Oars,
With Card and Compass, to know seas and shores,’…

being, in fact, very well found, they dropped down river to Gravesend, where they slept

‘Whilst Zephyrus and Auster, mix’d together,
Breath’d gently, as foreboding pleasant weather.
I rous’d my men, who, scrubbing, stretching, yawning,
Arose, left Gravesend, rowing down the stream,
And near to Lee, we to an anchor came.
Because the sands were bare and water low,
We rested there till it two hours did flow.’

And then they weighed and ran over the Maplins in 2 feet of water, till they passed Foulness, when, seemingly taking no account of the Buxey, they squared away, or, as Taylor puts it,

‘I made out straight for Frinton and the Nass.
But being three leagues then from any land,
And holding of our main-sheet in my hand,
We did espy a coal-black cloud to rise,’

which behaved after the usual manner of thunder squalls. However, it seems to have come up astern, and it did not last long, so that they made Harwich that night. Gravesend to Harwich is by no means a bad day’s work, even allowing for the fact that they got away at three, and did not reach Harwich until

‘Illustrious Titan gan to steep
His chariot in the Western Ocean deep:

The next day they reached Yarmouth, and Taylor says pretty things of everybody concerned, including the red herrings. Next day they went on with fair weather

‘Till drawing towards night, we did perceive
The wind at East, and seas began to heave:
The rolling billows all in fury roars
And tumbled us, we scarce could use our oars:
Thus on a lee-shore darkness began to come,
The sea grew high, the winds gan hiss and hum.
At last to row to shore I thought it best,
‘Mongst many evils thinking that the least.’

So they landed, safe enough but very wet, and found that they were at Cromer.

‘But we, supposing all was safe and well,
In shunning Scylla on Charybdis fell:
For why, some women, and some children there
That saw us land, were all possessed with fear:
And much amazed ran crying up and down,
That enemies were come to take the town.
Some said that we were Pirates, some said Thieves,
And what the women says the men believes,
With that four Constables did quickly call,
Your aid! To Arms your men of Cromer all!
And straightway forty men with rusty bills,
Some armed in Ale,’

… took charge of them. There they remained with very scant entertainment, for the constables could by no means be persuaded that they were harmless. Perhaps the officers could not read, for Taylor seems to have been armed with letters of introduction which should have proved his identity. Meanwhile, the natives were not idle. They drank beer, and said that mine host could take the reckoning out of the pirates, and they ransacked the boat, knocking a big hole in her. In the morning a Justice of the Peace was brought, and he, knowing Taylor by repute, contented himself with making him and his companions take the oath of allegiance, and let them go after entertaining them.

The rest of their voyage north is much more humdrum. They discovered the Eager – or, as they termed it, the Higer – in the Wash, and, not having met it before, were duly impressed. And they had an adventure with a fresh east wind meeting the ebb in the Humber,

‘And as against the wind we madly venture,
The waves like Pirates board our boat and enter;
But though they came in fury and amain,
Like Thieves we cast them overboard again.’

The rest of his merry adventures on this voyage need not concern us, for he sold the boat at York, and returned home in a conventional manner. But conventionality and Taylor were by no means good friends, if we may judge by the account of another of his adventuresome journeys, undertaken in 1619. He, with a friend named Roger Bird, a vintner by trade, and, on Taylor’s evidence, ‘a man whom Fortune never yet could tame,’ undertook to row from London to Queenborough in a boat made of paper with a pair of oars made of ‘stock fishes unbeaten, bound fast to two canes with pack-thread.’ Needless to say,

‘In one half-hour our boat began to rot:
In which extremity I thought it fit
To put in use a stratagem of wit,
Which was, eight Bullocks’ bladders we had bought
Puft stifly full with wind, bound fast and tought,
Which on our boat within the Tide we ty’de,
On each side foore, upon the outward side.
The water still rose higher by degrees.
In three miles going almost to our knees,
Our rotten bottome all to tatters fell,
And left our boat as bottomless as Hell.’

The bladders did their part; indeed, Taylor’s pretty wit had taken the additional precaution of having them blown up by eight of the most unmitigated scoundrels he could find, on the principle that ‘such breaths as those . . end with hanging, but with drowning never.’ The rest of the voyage was miserable in the extreme, but they drove down with the tide, and did in due course fetch Queenborough. There the town turned out and made much of them, and in return they proposed to present their noble craft to the Mayor as a souvenir. But the country people tore it up

‘In mammocks peecemeale in a thousand scraps,
Wearing the reliques in their hats and caps.’

And so the Mayor got none – a loss which he seems to have borne very philosophically.

It is scarcely to be wondered at that, after this adventure, Taylor indulged in good resolves. ‘Many,’ he wrote, ‘either out of pride, malice, or ignorance, do speak harshly and hardly of me and divers others, who have attempted and gone dangerous voyages by sea with small wherries or boats, . . . that we do tempt God by undertaking such perilous courses (which indeed I cannot deny to be true).’ But he proceeds to console himself by arguing that all men, whether they desire it or not, are of necessity adventurers, yet ends none the less with the resolve, ‘but as concerning adventuring any more voyages to sea with wherries, or any extraordinary means, I have done my last.’ But the resolution lasted little longer than if it had been made on New Year’s Day.

It will be noticed that in the above passage he refers to wherry journeys undertaken at sea before 1619, also to ‘others’ who offended in the same respect as himself. Of these earlier voyages there seems to be no record – not that it is needed – while as to the ‘others,’ they were no doubt the crews of his wherries. The frontispiece to one of his books shows a very rough woodcut of a wherry running before the wind, with two men rowing, and Taylor, in a fine hat and cloak, at the helm. The boat is rigged with a small spritsail, and the mast is stepped right forward, differ­ing in this respect from the spritsail boats of which illustrations are given.

Of the rest of Taylor’s coasting voyages it will suffice to speak very briefly. The most considerable of them, and, indeed, the most risky of them all, was from London to Salisbury. On this occa­sion, as before, he had four companions, and went away flying. It was easy enough for the wherry to run down the river with a fair wind, but after they got round the North Foreland their troubles began. To begin with, they stood too far into Pegwell Bay, and got hopelessly lost among the flats. Eventually they found a shrimper shoving his net along, and to him Taylor spoke, if the poem is to be believed, in very high-falutin strain. However, the shrimper understood him, and undertook to lead the boat ‘from out these dangerous shallowes to the deepe.’ So indeed he did, leading her ‘by the nose’ to deep water, and they rewarded him profusely with two groats (eightpence), a sum which would scarcely satisfy his modern counterpart. From that point they had a stiff peg through the Downs to Dover, and from Dover they got, after sundry adventures, to Dungeness, thence to Hastings, and eventually to Christchurch. The rest of the journey was child’s play, but, considering that

‘For ten long weekes e’er that, ’tis manifest,
The wind had blown at South, or west South-west,
And rais’d the seas: to show each other’s power,
And all this space (calme weather) not one hower;’

we may hold that they did very well to struggle through with their self-imposed task. Taylor’s evidence of the behaviour of the eastern part of the English Channel is interesting. It made a decided impression on him, though he considered the weather to be abnormal. A present-day writer who is able to form an opinion from a much wider experience, personal and secondhand, of small-boat sailing in those waters can only conclude that Taylor did not know what to expect, for a dusting on the way down to the Wight is very far indeed from being an exceptional experience.

As late as 1641, when he was as much as sixty-one years of age, Taylor made a laborious if less perilous voyage up the Thames, down the Severn, up the Wye, and eventually to the Thames again at Burford after many portages of the wherry. He wrote an account of this entitled his ‘Last Voyage,’ but, as a matter of fact, he under­took a somewhat similar voyage in 1650, within three years of his death. He may be assumed to have made a modest competence out of his adventures, for, like many sailors before and since his time, he spent his latter years as landlord of a public-house. Such was John Taylor, a man surely of some interest to British yachtsmen.

The next yachtsman to claim attention, if less daring, was of far higher rank, and had a more disinterested attachment to the sea. This was Charles II., then an exiled Prince. During the flight after the ruin of the Stuart fortunes at Naseby, Charles sheltered for a few weeks in the Scilly Islands. The period was not long, but there was absolutely nothing to do, and it is more than probable that the Prince picked up the elements of his nautical education at this time. This at least is known, that when the time came to leave that Royalist stronghold for one that was still more secure in Jersey, Charles took the helm of the Proud Black Eagle for a considerable part of the voyage. This was in the early spring of 1646. His tastes were well known, and a sympathizer proceeded to put the indulgence of them within his reach. ‘On June 8 a beautifully appointed yacht arrived, which was built for him at St. Malo; she had twelve pairs of oars and two masts.’ Not a very precise description, but exact enough to let us see that she was not a yacht as the term came shortly to be understood. It is indeed very unlikely that the term was ever applied to her; she was in all likelihood merely a large open boat with a couple of spritsails. A fore staysail had by this time been introduced, but it is more likely than not that this boat had none. Two spritsails without any head-sail was a common rig in England for large open boats until very long after this date. But, whatever the details of the equipment of the boat, the fact is certain that Charles had ample opportunities of acquiring a taste for yachting during his sojourn in the Channel Islands; and when the march of events made it advisable for him to take refuge in Holland, the country where yachting properly so-called was already in a high state of development, he took thither a natural aptitude for the sport, as well as a considerable fund of experience. With these advantages it is not to be wondered at that he should have made the attempt to introduce yachting into England, as soon as the wheel of fortune turned; nor yet that the Dutch, who were very well acquainted with his pursuits, should seek to gain favour with the new monarch by the presentation of a yacht. Further considerations of this vessel and of the acclamation with which her arrival was greeted in England do not properly belong to the pre-Restoration period.

Read on … Evolution of the rig