Northumbrian Piper

Dave Ward

Over twenty years ago I converted a Northumberland Barn into a house. With the vagaries of interest rates during the eighties, the task nearly broke us, but we stuck it out, and brought up our kids in it. Later, we were able to afford some sailing, which along with my daughter’s pony club exploits took the place of the seemingly lavish holidays our acquaintances seemed to manage.

As time passed, the kids grew up, and a reduction of five years in my retirement age brought the contemplation of what I would do after retirement. The mortgage would be paid off, the pension I had earned through nearly forty years in the public service would be there, and I would have time for a bit more messing about in boats. Much as I have enjoyed sailing on the NE coast, and much as I like Rosie III, something a bit bigger, and more welcoming inside was called for. I reckoned that a 33ft boat, four or five years old, might fit the bill, put on the Clyde where I would have time to take advantage of my investment

A few phone calls brought showers of drooling matter, covering everything from A to Z – or at least from Bavarias to X-Yachts. But with four years to go, I contented myself with a trip to the Scottish used (and unused) boat show.

We looked at charter purchase, and particularly the Sunsail scheme – pay 50% down and get your yacht, suitably beaten up, in five years time. But the yachts not on my list were the French mass produced ones – sheer prejudice I suspect, but they don’t appeal. Clyde Charters set out the finances of Scottish charter operation, and I was impressed with the both Moody S31 and Maxi 1000. But new these were both very expensive yachts, going on the water for over £70,000.

I drooled and drooled. Four years to go, and plenty of time for more drooling. Then, at Christmas 1997 to my surprise there was an envelope for me on the Christmas tree. Two tickets for the Boat Show, dinner B&B at the Metropole Hotel, together with a chat from Robin Knox-Johnstone. And tickets for the show for Nick, my 25 years old. Very thoughtful. Time for more drooling.

So we went and looked at Westerleys (disappointing), Starlights (better), Maxi’s, X-yachts, Moodys, you name its, and concentrating on the 33ft end. Amazingly, none of the yachts built now offer pilot berths, which I reckon are one of the best features on Rosie, as a well as on many other RNYC favourites. Many of them are desperately short of handholds. We looked also at the Victorias, Vancouvers and the like. I will have to experience yachts of this type before I spend on one.

Having had our fill of drooling, I thought we’d done everything. We’d marvelled at the dinghies, been snooty about the gin palaces, and wanted all sorts of electronic wizardry. It was time for a beer and a rest. I thought Nick had been most forebearing, because most of what we had looked at was too “cruisy” for him. So with a little trepidation I mentioned that there was one which we hadn’t looked at, but from their brochures, I had been impressed with the interior of the Bavaria 32. There was no model available at the show, but on the pool were 38ft and a 41ft models. Drooling turned to pipe dreams, but the queue wasn’t long so we put on slippers and went aboard.

After looking at so many, fatigue had set in, and anyway, one winch really is just like another, and one Selden mast is just like the next, and one expanse of white plastic, or teak decking is the same as another. But the woodwork was impressive, and the price was very competitive, being almost £20,000 less than the Moody S38, which is very similar in hull shape, rig and accommodation. I thought Nick was a little bored, and had engaged the salesman in some sort of chat. After the usual polite interval, I asked a few polite questions and we came off.

“We could do a deal here, dad”. Ey-up, here we go, what’s all this about? “Buy one and put it on charter”. Well, we had a drink, and since we’d come 300 miles, another hour wouldn’t be time badly spent. So we went to see the importers, and the charter management company they had in tow, and to round it off, the marine mortgagers. The importers told us that the charter company operated a guaranteed income scheme, under which they did everything, let us have time on the boat, and passed a fixed amount to the owner. Being averse to risk taking, this appealed to me. I proffered the plastic for a returnable £250 deposit, to reserve a boat, and a trial sail.

On the train back to Nick’s house in Cambridge we discussed a few more aspects of the pipe dream. This is where all my hard work twenty years ago comes in. I thought I still had a big mortgage, but I did have about £100,000 equity in the house even so. What if I borrowed against that. But only on the understanding that if all went pear shaped, I sold the boat rather than being turned out of my house. A few calculations showed that we could be about £200-300 a month short. Nick would share that. We would get six weeks use a year, which is more than I have leave, plus some weekend use. Marginal, but not outrageous.

Back in Morpeth, turning matters over in my mind, I rang a mortgage broker. What could he do for me. He came back with a fixed rate remortgage at 5.75%, with the equivalent of my retirement lump sum on an interest only basis. This was £200-300 less than our original calculation. So it came about, that a week after going to the show, with no thought of any purchase, we decided that this enormous expenditure might be a sensible thing to do.

We went all the way down to Gosport for our trial sail in February – on a cold, windless Sunday. I had hoped to look at the charter company’s fleet to see how they were wearing, but there was only one boat there. On Monday we went back to talk details, and there were about 25 Bavarias on the moorings. Even in February, business is brisk.

Northumbrian Piper

Northumbrian Piper

Well, that was nearly two years ago. I am now registered for VAT, and a cheque for just under £1000 goes into my bank once a month. That balances my outgoings, and we have had four good holidays on the yacht. When I actually get my lump sum, the return will be quite good, and a lot more fun than investing in paper. I shall be expected to find a new home for her after five years, since the company make their pitch on having a fleet of average age of under three years. If it really works out, there will be no reason not to sell the boat and start again.

. My ration is a week and a weekend in summer, the same mid season, and two weeks and four weekends in the winter. Winter is October to April. Nick and his friends have it for a weekend once a month through the winter, and we spent new year on it. If we take Northumbrian Piper for a free weekend in the winter, and take another 38 at the winter rate of £400, the cost spread amongst ten or twelve people is very reasonable. I shall be doing that in April with some of my work colleagues, and Nick is having his stag weekend the same way.

The cockpit

The cockpit

The base is at Camper & Nicholson’s Marina at Gosport, so we’ve sampled all the watering holes of the Solent. Our first long trip was to the Channel Islands, where we saw little sun. We came back with the wind on our quarter, with three reefs, averaging 7.5 knots for 120 miles, in the dark mostly, and recording 56 knots max at the top of the mast. Since it was overnight, we didn’t see the waves, but wearing wet specs makes navigating the shipping lanes in the dark a bit nerve wracking. Which way is that cluster of lights moving? For those of you who haven’t been that way, the Alderney Race is memorable, especially in lots of wind. There are some lovely anchorages, and although the Marinas were busy, we found space when we needed it. There are lots of rocks to avoid, and I’m told that the booze is very cheap.

Lyme Regis

Lyme Regis

This year we have had far better weather, and have had three holidays for nowt. The longest was a leisurely cruise down to Plymouth, taking in Salcombe, the Dart and the Yealm. Almost windless on the way back, we stopped overnight at Lyme Regis, not to be recommended except in the most settled weather, but a lovely place.

Well, was it worth it. I think so. Our boat is very well looked after, and apart from a dicky fridge we have had no real faults. The charter company were not very punctual in paying for the first 9 months, but they have paid, and have done so on time recently. The users leave a £700 security deposit, which seems to concentrate their minds, and there has been very little damage. Indeed, I think the worst scratches have been made by our own guests. Charterers are not offered the use of a spinnaker, but I got Steve Goacher to make us one, and very fine it is too. And that brings me to the name of the yacht.

Northumbrian flag spinnaker

Northumbrian flag spinnaker

We wanted to make it very clear that this was our yacht, not just a charter yacht. Her home port and club is stated to be RNYC Blyth, and the spinnaker colours refer to the Northumberland flag. But there are so many Border Reivers around that we couldn’t use that. So we have gladly settled for “Northumbrian Piper”, a somewhat more peaceable name.

But what you want to know is how she sails. The designers are J&J, who were also the designers of Elan yachts. The 38 is very satisfying to sail. Other Bavarias are not all as good (unless the lads at the charter company are buttering me up) The 41 is less lively, and the 36 develops over much weather helm. There is a new 34 which is supposed to be very nice. Piper is fast and stable. As far as I can tell, she has no built in vices, such as heavy weather helm, or twitchiness up wind. She is stable downwind. The weight distribution is good, with a fin and bulb keel, giving plenty of stiffness. I have been told that a heavy chop will slow her up very much when going upwind, because the boat lacks weight. I’ve only found that once when we tried going through the horrible seas to the east of Portland Bill. The problem could be just as much the way I was sailing, and the overfalls didn’t last long enough for experimentation. Nor is that a good place to hang around. This summer we ran under spinnaker across Christchurch bay in over 20 knots of wind, with a novice on the helm. The boat was rock steady – Rosie would have been getting quite exciting in those conditions.

The worst aspect is that the although the standard sails are quite good Elvstrom products, they come without any UV protection on the genoa. As part of the preparation for charter, they are sent to a sailmaker who fits a thick canvas strip. As soon as a roll is taken in the genoa, it loses all shape. All to do away with the hardship of taking the sail down when not in use, which is really very simple, as we all know. It’s a problem which will be easily cured by throwing a bit of money at it, and getting a radial cut genoa with a take away cover. But otherwise, single line reefing and lazy jacks make life a dream.

And what you really want to know, is can you have her. Well, it doesn’t matter to me, because I get paid whether you do or not. She has 8 berths, in four doubles, but I would advise three couples. The cost to you would be £1350 a week in the high season, which you will find compares very favourably with other 38 foot charters, particularly where all boats are new. For more details give me a ring.

PS since I first wrote this, my wife has given up work, and my daughter has decided to have an all singing, all dancing wedding. Rosie III is for sale. Does anyone want a crew who keeps missing races because he’s sailing his boat in the south! It was still a good idea!