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June 22, 2007

Halcyon days?

Looking back on one's childhood tends to be through a filter of emotionally tinted glass, and this picture is no exception. It shows the pre-race launching slip for a mixed fleet of dinghies, their crews in the last throes of preparation. The Monk is the lad stood wistfully watching in the foreground, a position he occupied for a couple of years before finally being taken on as a forehand on a Sprog, in fact the one on the extreme left of the picture. At the time of this photo, taken around 1954, the Monk was considered too small to be allowed to sail and had to sit on the shore watching everyone else enjoying it until he was old enough to join in. Occassionally he would be taken on as extra ballast by one of the larger boats - usually when it was very light airs and unlikely to require much muscle power, or by his father on the rescue launch, again, when there was almost no chance of anyone needing assistance. Such are the forces that shape one's view of the world and sometimes one's personality.

Launching for the race, from left to right, the Sprog "Sash", the Sharpie "Toledo", the Winger "Wahoo" and the Sharpie "Panga".

The weekends spent here at the Yacht Club were a fun time for the most part. The Yacht Club kids tended to come in all ages and shapes and from every social background, and soon formed friendships among our own age groups. The older ones tended to sail with their fathers or have boats of their own to race, the younger ones looked after themselves playing on the beach, swimming (The Monk once swam off the end of the short breakwater in the background round to the Orient Beach on the other side with a group of friends. The next time we went out to do it we looked down to see a large shark basking among the footings .... It was off the menu after that!) and playing games in the adjacent goods sheds to the annoyance of the Dockyard Police. We also visited interesting ships in large groups, dressed for the beach and sometimes looking like a pack of Dickensian urchins - but always got a warm reception and usually some treats from the seafarers.

In those days the harbour was busy too, with many ships coiming and going during our sailing time. You learned the Rule of the Road did not include big power giving way to small sail - regardless of what it said in the book. Big ships simply did not dodge little dinghies in confined waters - something many users of the Thames in London would do well to remember. You learned to keep alert as the big tugs (700gt and possibly the most powerful then afloat) could appear suddenly and silently (steam remember!) around the end of a quay and you found yourself having to make an emergency tack to avoid him. Once the Monk got a hiding from his father for taking a quick tack across the bows of the Edinburgh Castle, a Royal Mail Steamer, who gave five short blasts on his fog horns. The moment he heard them he knew he was in deep trouble - it meant that the ship could not see me and that the Club would get a rocket from the Port Captain. Five short blasts on a big ship's sirens (Hers could be heard up to five miles away) mean "You are standing into danger of collision" and there was no way her 26,000 gross tons was going to be stopped for a small sailing dinghy - unless our wreckage fouled her screws! The Monk won the race, but boy did he get it in the neck, first the Club Commodore, then the Port Captain and finally his father .....

Did it scar the Monk for life? No, it didn't. He knew he deserved it and he knew full well he had endangered himself, his crew and the club's reputation. It was not a mistake he has ever repeated in that or any other similar situation. In short, a lesson in life that was well learned and never forgotten.

Yes, looking back, we took a lot of chances and so did our parents - the Monk was thirteen when he was given charge of a Sprog for the first time and fourteen when he won his first sailing trophy. Visiting the ships was also risky in retrospect, yet none of us was ever injured, molested or in any way threatened. A different world, one in which trust played a major part, one which, sadly, seems to have vanished forever.

Posted by The Gray Monk at June 22, 2007 09:42 AM

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