HomeHistoryClub HistoryThe first hundred years – Part II

The first hundred years – Part II

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Sunbeam II

Sunbeam II

Sir Walter Runciman Bart. was a founder member. In 1922 he acquired Sunbeam, Lord Brassey’s schooner, and in 1929 he ordered Sunbeam II an auxiliary three masted schooner modelled on the earlier Sunbeam to be built at the yard of Denny Bros. at Dumbarton. Sunbeam II was 659 tons, length 195 feet, max. draft 16’10” and sail area 12,700 sq. feet.. The Runcimans undertook many notable cruises in her. A cruise to the Mediterranean in 1930 is delightfully chronicled by Mary Richardson, in her book “Sunbeam Ahoy! ” The Viscounts Runciman also had a succession of yachts in addition to Sunbeam II, including Souvenance, Asthore, Astrea, and Lavengro. The Runciman family has been closely associated with the Club and its development. Sir Walter’s grandson, Leslie Runciman became second Viscount, and Commodore of the Club from 1945 until appointed Admiral for Life in 1975. His first boat was Zulu, a gaff sloop of some 4 tons. He then got involved in six metre sailing on the Solent. After the second war, he bought a 8 ton ketch, Red Quill, and sailed her out of Chichester Harbour. She was soon replaced with Mary Lunn, a design from the board of Uffa Fox. Mary Lunn was named after a character in one of Hilaire Belloc’s tales who had “a whacking lot of fun”. Mary Lunn led to Sandavore, another Uffa Fox design, which he cruised extensively in European waters. Eventually, in 1966 he replaced her with a motor- sailer, Bondicar, in which he cruised the Mediterranean, before returning with her to the U.K., visiting Blyth more than once.

The Runcimans were instrumental in obtaining the inclusion of the Club on the list of Yacht Clubs authorised to use the “Blue Ensign of His Majesty’s Fleet defaced with the badge of the Club”, the Percy Lion with the stiff tail. The Club’s Royal Warrant followed in 1935, after which it became the Royal Northumberland Yacht Club, and in 1955 the Club was honoured to receive the Patronage of H.R.H. The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and in 1963 provided crew for His Royal Highness’ yacht, Bloodhound, for part of her round Britain cruise.

Among the foremost boats in the Club in the early years was Saunterer a 16 ton yawl, built by Sibbick’s at Cowes and formerly in the ownership of Captain Oates of Antartic fame. She has continued on the Club register to the present day being owned at various times by Major Pelham Kayll, and Alec Sutherland. She was originally introduced into the Club by Thos. Belt who joined in 1898 and was the proprietor of a rope and canvas business in Bigg Market, Newcastle. Legends abound of Saunterer’s exploits. Thos. Belt sailed with a paid hand called Appleton. One day when coming onto the moorings in South Harbour in a fresh westerly, they held sail too long, and despite towing a bucket astern, were coming down the harbour at a rate of knots. Although offered a line, Belt declined with a polite “Good Afternoon”, and steered Saunterer’s bowsprit straight through Tyne’s saloon window. “It does much less damage that way,” confided Belt later.

On another occasion, approaching North Berwick, he put Saunterer hard aground on rocks on a falling tide, and launched the dinghy to inspect the situation. Saunterer was sitting upright on her keel and Belt rowed off toward North Berwick. In response to agitated hails from a disconcerted crew, he calmly announced, “I am going ashore to consult my underwriters.” and continued on his way. Saunterer floated off undamaged.

Another good story is when Saunterer had been becalmed off Newton Haven, and Appleton was in the dinghy laboriously towing her into the anchorage. Another Club member, Fred Beer, arrived in his motor ketch Usan and offered Saunterer a tow, on condition that Belt should describe the leading lines to Beer who was not familiar with the place. Safely in, Appleton was told to cast off the tow line and drop the anchor, but no-one hailed Usan which was promptly run aground. Belt regarded Usan philosophically, remarked: “Smelly things – motor boats,” and retired below.

Other yachts which came into the Club were the pleasure boats originally built by Wm. Fry of Tynemouth for trips around the bay from Tynemouth Long Sands. These were open clinker built centre-board boats, about 40′ in length, and 12′ beam, with fully elliptical sterns, remarkable for the steamed larch planking abruptly bent to the centre-line. W.B. Nisbett sailed Northumbria as an open boat, but they were very successfully decked. After his old boat Brent, a very wholesome straight stemmer with a short counter but said to be quite rotten, sank at her moorings, Major H.E. Burton converted one of the Fry boats, Wanderer, into a fully-decked cruising boat, and she was later sailed around Britain.

There was a “Seabird” class: Cormorant, Curlew, Eider, Evelyn, Gannet, Puffin, Teal, Tern and Widgeon, and also a class of Canoe Yawls. In the 1930s a tendency developed for members to buy ex-racing boats from the South Coast and the Clyde. Thus in 1931 G.R. Dundas acquired Susanne, a 30′ “skimming dish” with long overhangs, with which he achieved considerable racing success, despite a persistent leak which oozed from everywhere at once. The experts were called in and Bill Campbell discovered that beneath a skilfully fitted hardwood facing board the keelson was as ripe as an old pear. The vessel was condemned, and a gang of volunteer members were called in to saw off the bow and stern overhangs, and convert what remained to matchwood with hammers. There is a strong lust for destruction in us all. The aftermath was that Dundas acquired the Alfred Mylne designed and Clyde built Caribou, which with a new Bermudian rig designed for her by Mylne and mast constructed by Bill Campbell, became a consistent winner of races. She was subsequently run down and sunk by a collier in broad daylight. Six metres also became a popular racing class, from the 1930s through to the 50s. There were Sioma, Sonoma, Valdai, Rozel, Ayesha and Vengla.

The Farnes Channel

The Farnes Channel

The most popular class of small boat was a 16′ gunter-rigged centre-boarder selected on the proposal of J.C. Gunn in the early 1920s as the Northumberland One Design. They were named after small birds: N.1 Sparrow, N.2 Swallow, N.3 Flycatcher (later renamed Falcon), N.6 Finch, N.7 Lark, N.8 Fluff, N.9 Wren and N.10 Wagtail. The whereabouts of N.4 and N.5 are not known, although one is believed to have gone to North Wales and the other to Norway. The first seven boats were built by the Ashcroft method (double diagonal strip planking, with oiled calico between the veneers) the original builder being Wm. R. Hails of the Lawe Shipyard at South Shields. Fluff and Wren were carvel built by Ritson at Blyth. Although there were other imitations, the last of the class, Wagtail, was built by John Swinburn of South Shields in the early 1960s, for K.R. Yeeles, who had previously owned Finch, and was so impressed by her that he returned to the same design. Fluff is still on the Club register, and undergoing a refit in time for the Centenary.

A close reach

A close reach

Smaller yachts in the pre-war years were almost invariably engineless, and safety equipment virtually non-existent. There were no guardrails, pulpits, pushpits or safety harnesses, beyond possibly a line around the waist. There might be a 2″ foot rail around the deck. Personal buoyancy was cork or kapok, and too bulky for normal use. Major Burton was thought to be slightly eccentric for routinely towing a red line astern in case he fell in. It was quite usual to sail small open boats with ballast and no buoyancy, and from time to time these were tragically lost. In 1932, Sunbeam II’s boat, Cutty Sark, was sunk while racing. One man was lost, but Mary Richardson and another guest from Sunbeam II were saved by Marjorie Lamb in her 16′ Zulu. The following year a small centre-boarder, Phoenix went down on passage from Blyth to Amble, with the loss of both her crew. In 1938, Iris sank on passage to Holy Island from Blyth, again with the loss of both crew.

For most members, cruising depended entirely on the weather, but it was quite feasible for small boats to undertake cruises to the Scottish West Coast, via the Forth & Clyde and Crinan Canals. In the early years, after the move from Alnmouth, members laid up their yachts in mud berths on the River Blyth above High Ferry, and also on the sands at Prior’s Haven, Tynemouth. In the early 1930s the Club acquired the boatyard, started at Blyth by W.E. Forster earlier in the century, and later run by Anthony Ritson. Bill Campbell took over the hauling out of yachts for members. The job was done by hand-winch and the average charge was 10 shillings. Bill Campbell and his brother Jack undertook repairs and fitting-out, and also built hollow wooden spars, some of which survive to this day. Among many benefactions to the Club was the “Rushforth” Shed, the gift of Walter Rushforth who had it built to house his motor yacht, Danehill. Several boats were destroyed by fire in the boatyard in 1936, including E.B. Nicholson’s Mercia. The Club retained its tenancy of the yard until 1989, when it was taken over by Blyth Harbour Commission for a road development and in its Centenary year the Club begins a tenancy of a new yard somewhat to the southeast of the former site, utilising many of the old sheds, and a new spar-shed and locker block, built for the Club by Campbell’s Boatyard Ltd.

There were as many “characters” as boats that could be accommodated on the moorings at Blyth. E.B. Nicholson, (known as Nick or E.B.) joined the Club in 1920 sailing first Dorothy and then Mercia, followed by Squib, Kit, Border Maid and finally Swedman. He was a firm supporter of youth and a host of cadets were introduced to the sport through his wise counsel and guidance. Well into his eighties, he sailed on the STA Schooner Sir Winston Churchill, and leaving his walking-stick on deck, climbed the rigging to the yard-arm, 80 feet or so above deck, just to show the trainees how it should be done. “Old Nick’s” Summer and Winter Cadet Cups are still in the racing calendar.

Cdr. S.D. Newton (known as “Uncle Newton”) was the Scoutmaster of the Tyne Sea Scout Troop and owned a 7 ton cutter called Ingena which he used for sail training. Sir Christopher Furness was the troop’s sponsor, and they sailed his Bristol Channel Pilot cutter, Bonaventure. After the War, Uncle Newton continued the scouting tradition with his 30 ton gaff-rigged yawl, Gladwyena. Jack Timms too, introduced cadets to the art of cruising in Bridget Lass.

Ridley Copeland (or “Aad Whiskers” as he called himself) was a doughty adventurer. Several times he sailed his half-decked 15′ yawl, Little Belle to the Farnes and back single-handed. His next boat was Brunette, which he re-decked to a very high standard. Once he sailed her single-handed from Aberdeen in very strong Northerly weather, and gained the River Tyne in so exhausted a condition, that he put her ashore in the Haven rather than try and pick up her mooring. There were still the remains of blown out jibs on her bowsprit. Brunette was sold to the Walker family.

Copeland’s next venture was to restore an old 2 rater, Cock-a-Whoop, which he had discovered laid up, without her lead keel, on the upper reaches of the River Thames. Undaunted he had a new keel cast in iron, increasing the dimensions to compensate for the lower density. Unfortunately the new keel was too heavy, and resulted in a much diminished freeboard, and a very wet boat. He put to sea with a paid crew of Thames fishermen, but having experienced her in a sea-way, they insisted on being put ashore in Norfolk, and he carried on alone non-stop to his mooring in Tynemouth Haven. Later he acquired the Hilliard sloop Bolivar from W.B. Nisbett. He sailed her with his pet monkeys swinging in the rigging, on one occasion cruising to the West Coast with them.

Guy Clephan undertook many significant cruises in his 13 ton yawl, Skerryvore which formed the basis for a new set of Sailing Directions, published in 1950. Another active member was Captain Arthur Johnson, who sailed a variety of cruising boats before graduating to the 6 metre, Sioma, although he had her fitted out with a cabin at John Swinburn’s yard at South Shields. Frank Kirby had Coquette, a 5 ton cutter which is still on the Club register having received a major re-fit in the 1980s. She was built by Dickie of Tarbert and was pulled by a horse through the Forth and Clyde Canal. Another yacht still on the register, indeed the second oldest in the Club, is Rowena, a gaff-sloop of 4 tons, which in the 1930s was owned by Cecil Green.

Read Part III