Thursday, October 15, 2009

From Fisherfolk, Royal Yacht,to Americas Cup .

A Tale of Three Whitstable the author of this blog

Long has it been a tradition for seaman to congregate in pubs and around harbours and mull over old times relate sea tales and Whitstable, was no exception, seafarers are a close knit breed and can be a little aloof, to folk who are not involved with their world, they would work long tiring hours plying their trade to eek out a meager living but that did not dampen spirits as all would have a cheery word if they knew you.

As a child the harbour was my everything and I knew most of the people who derived a living in whatever way from that area, I would hang about within earshot and listen to the tales and yarns, spun by the fisher folk it was best when the weather was blowing one of those. and going to sea not possible, some would even go to the “dole office” and sign on for a day or so until the weather improved, but going back to the 19th and early 20th century there was no helping hand when you had no income, and during the Oyster close season there were other jobs you could turn your hand to, some of the company men were still employed running as far afield as Holland transporting brood, and in 1919 skipper Stroud was demobbed, and joined the Ham Company and skippered Whitstable’s largest smack the “Seasalter” F322 Built 1870, LOA 51.8ft 14ft Beam, Hold Depth 7.8ft she was then used mainly for brood transportation ( young Oysters) from Essex with the occasional trip to the continent, prior, to 1900 she made regular trips to Falmouth bringing brood back from the Ham Companies owned beds in that area.Before the Great War oyster drudging and fishing in general enjoyed its heyday nothing was known of modern fish finding and weather forecasting instruments and was solely reliant on experience and the weather glass (barometer). I went to sea in the late 50’s , and was well aware of what would be expected of a skippers mate having gone to sea as a teenager with Ollie Wiseman (who came to Whitstable with Alf Leggett, ) Ogie Laker, and Sid Stroud (Smoker) in his Whelk Boat, I did this as often as I could .
Sid Stroud was a fisherman I preferred the company of. I knew him in my childhood through to my middle twenties, growing up with his son David, we eventually worked on the fishing boats together. There were two prominent fishing or drudging families in Whitstable the Stroud’s and Rowden’s there were others but that was more father and son, but it is the Stroud’s, principally, that this article will relate to, but another family will be mentioned later in the story.Sidney Stroud, “Smoker” as I shall hereonin call him was a great seaman as were all of his family, and arguably the best sailors to come from one family, seven brothers in all, and all made a living from the sea, I worked with Smoker on seawall reparations for Whitstable Urban District Council in 1959 this could only be carried out in the winter, as the council did not want to inconvenience the public during the summer season, over a period of time I knew him quite well, he would talk of his father Earnest having owned a pub in Whitstable “The Royal Native” in Harbour Street, he also had a hand in other money yielding projects dealing in shellfish and smoked fish he had his own smoke room and copper for cooking shrimps and shellfish, Smoker, I remember saying that’s , where I got my nickname going round the boatyards and fetching back sacks of oak shavings and then lighting the smokehouse fire, it was one of my allotted chores, but like to think that this name derived from the fact that he always smoked a pipe and that he fueled it with hand rolling tobacco “Hearts of Oak” which tended to smoke more than pipe tobacco, and when in deep thought would puff more regularly and would soon fill a bar with a haze.

I would often see Smoker in the Smack public house, he particularly liked that watering Hole and this particular evening I decided to make this my first port of call, it was a Friday, and payday. Smoker was in his usual place looked, as you do, when the latch noise signals an entrance, he nodded a greeting, we had both had a very cold winters day on the sea wall, at one time blowing a northerly blizzard, I took my drink over to join him, passed the time with small chat, I spoke of being a bit unhappy with my life and thought a six week course at the sea school in Gravesend, and then into the Merchant Navy would solve my demise, it was at that moment he came to life with agreement at my suggestion, and went on to talk of his teen years, saying that he had reached that particular crossroad in his life, and went on to relate this amazing life he had led at the age roughly I was at that moment, his Father and six brothers were all involved with the sea and were proficient in all aspects of fishing and drudging including five fingering (drudging starfish) for fertilizer in the close season, and stoning (Drudging for Mussels) he went on to say he was fed up and was off to seek his fortune, he certainly found it, by joining King George the V’s Sailing Yacht “Britannia” K1 at the age of nineteen, which was a fabulous 40 Metre Class Yacht, , these craft were the epitome of sheer opulence.

Smoker had established his career and stayed full time for a number of years and was made up to Boatswain commonly Bosun ( this post today on a modern yacht, sail or motor can command £5000+ a month salary) It should be mentioned that a racing yacht of the size of “Britannia” could not have operated without a bo’sun, Smoker said that it was very informal aboard, and that the King would often consult with him regarding the boat, and race tactics so that there were no surprises during the course of a race, Smoker was senior or leading deckhand versed and responsible for running rigging, sails, warps and sheets , anchorage, stores, and indeed anything that effected the smooth running of a racing vessel conveying orders to the crew via the captain or officer and of readying the ship for sea, orders could be piped and were on some yachts, with a bosuns whistle which also doubled as a badge of rank hung around the neck and could be heard above howling winds and flapping sails, though not in Britannia’s case the pipe was considered by this time to be obsolete for that task, so verbal orders only. And that is how the old superstition came about, no seaman whistles at sea, it was said it summoned up the wind, the simple explanation was of course it could confuse the crew as to what duty to perform and the result could have been calamitous. I remember asking Smoker about the King and his attitude towards the crew he remarked that the King was a gentleman, in fact he said the King remarked once we are all different sized well oiled cogs that keep my yacht sailing at optimum speed and safety and that is why I employ this crew, praise indeed. Off duty all was very informal, Smoker also commented, that perhaps this bonding was based on the fact that being in the same boat, life’s value is the same as the next man regardless of rank or class.

All of the fabulous J class would attend the regatta’s along the south coast, Weymouth, Poole, Falmouth Southhampton and sometimes the east coast they would compete against each other, “Britannia” always attended but could not compete, as her class was Forty Metre so to rectify this King George had his Yacht modified to conform with J Class specifications.Smoker went on to say that the two most memorable sights to stir the salt water in the veins were, a Spritsail Barge flying full canvas in a stiff breeze, and close hauled, the other is to see a J class, cutter rigged, flying everything, again close hauled, or goose winged (running before the wind), he retorted, that has to be the most beautiful sight a sailor can cast eyes upon, I think he was reminiscing “Britannia”, which alas, when King George V passed away his beloved yacht was towed out to sea by the Navy at his request and scuttled in such a way as to leave no trace, this was on the south side of the Needles, Isle of Wight. In 1936. It was common knowledge that he could not bear the thought of anyone else owning her.

Smoker’s next job found him aboard “Shamrock V” J 3, built in Gosport in 1929 her specifications were 119 ft 1in LOA, 81ft 1in LWL, Draught 14ft 9ins with a further drop keel, and a sail area of 7,550 sq ft her mast costing more than the hull itself she also had an 80 ton lead keel, so, complete with her new innovative new look rigging “Bermudan” as opposed to “Gaff “ a much more dapper and efficient sail plan and easier to handle, she was built to race for the Americas Cup by Sir Thomas Lipton of food and tea fame. Smoker enlisted as Bosun and her crew numbered twenty two and among them was his brother Skipper Stroud and another Whitstable oyster and fisherman Harry Harman. Smokers elder brother, a very experienced seaman, had joined the Merchant Navy, in the twenties and was to sail all over the world. It is here the story gets more interesting .Firstly I will give a brief history of the Americas Cup, The J Class has its roots in the oldest sporting race in the world, The America's Cup, and still challenged for today established in the early 1800’s. This International Event was born from an annual race around the Isle of Wight, hosted by the Royal Yacht Squadron and called the '100 Guinea Cup' or as some liked to call it ”The Queens Cup” In 1851, an overseas yacht was allowed to participate for the first time. as part of the Royal Exposition of 1851. In response, a syndicate of six business men, led by John Cox Stephens, spent $30,000 to build a new racing schooner, “America” after sailing to France to be repainted and outfitted with racing sails, she was entered in the 58-mile clockwise race around the Isle of Wight. Sailing against 17 other English super yachts, “America” finished 18 minutes before her closest competitor. Queen Victoria was informed of the outcome and enquired as to which vessel was second. This question resulted in the famous response, "Your Majesty, there is no second."Several existing large British yachts, ‘Astra’, ‘Candida’, ‘White Heather II’ and ‘Britannia’, were converted to comply with J Class ruling and raced alongside the J's. Smoker went on to say that the King would not have a J on his sail to denote the yachts class as he was a K, being King, so his sail number finally read K1, the Royal Yacht Squadron allowed this. Of the true J-Class, only ten were ever built (4 in the UK and 6 in USA) and these raced together for just seven seasons from 1929 to 1937. With the loss of the King in 1936, 1937 saw a new racing season but it was all a bit half hearted and there were ominous rumblings in Europe, and the Wall Street crash all contributed to the decline, racing on the scale it had been was destined to become a treasured memory.The crew had joined “Shamrock V” J3 at the beginning of the season and it would be decided by the outcome of the regatta races along the south coast which boat should represent us, and to bring back the trophy lost seventy nine years earlier, the crew were chosen on sea skills and three crew from Looe in Cornwall were chosen, A.J.Pengelly, Joe Uglow, and Jack Sargent , A.J.Pengelly had previously sailed on “Velsheda” and another J Class, so was well experienced. They did the regatta tour, Smoker as I remember had mentioned the Cornishmen and said that they were a tough bunch, and used to seas being less kind than that of the North Kent Oyster drudgers and flatsmen. Shamrock exceeded expectations racing at the 1930 Regatta’s, and at the end had the most number of flags. The King in his “Brittania “ giving “Shamrock V” the most tactical problems which she surmounted and earned the right to challenge for the cup. Smoker went on to say after competing successfully.“Shamrock V” sailed to Gosport where she readied herself for the journey across the Atlantic to Newport. Rhode Island, USA.Smoker related It was July 1930, the off day, we were given a send off befitting the task that was entrusted to us, apart from the Atlantic crossing which was daunting enough, entering waters that were unknown to all of us, , we were all a little apprehensive the morrow saw us making good headway nose to wind and blowing a stiff southwesterly we were forced to reef our mainsail area to one third, the wind gained strength to the point of being uncomfortable the crests between waves were shorter than our length which caused, on about every third crest our bow would dig into the wall of water, causing a lot of water over the bow, then the bow would rise quickly and the stern would be under, the safest place was amidships with safety lines on, A.J.Pengelly said that this boat was built for speed and not rough weather, he was also quoted as saying he would sooner have made the crossing in his own boat “Our Daddy” (still afloat today) although less than half the length was built to withstand these conditions. The crew stood watch at four hours on and four hours off, Smoker said that “Shamrock V” had taken a pounding, she had sprung a plank and was leaking badly, Smoker organized running repairs which were a temporary measure and made for the Azores to effect proper repairs. 48 hours later saw us again on our way but the wind was still south westerly and was to remain that way for the duration, Smoker said that sleep was a luxury, all the crew were wet through and there was not a dry place on the boat, changes of clothing were wet through and the cooks tried to muster food for the crew but alas it was mostly sandwiches for the duration, in all the crossing took twenty six days, and Smoker said dryly, that was twenty six days of hell. Like all trials when they arrived at Rhode Island there were boats of all shapes and sizes coming out to meet them, fire tugs with all hoses fired up escorting them in, the hooters and sirens were deafening and as they neared the quayside the people lined the quay in hundreds cheering and whistling, waving flags, quite a lot of “Jacks”, blowing trumpets and whatever else could make a noise, as the tugs nudged her gently into her berth, she had no engines, the hellish trip over faded into obscurity, we were left bathing in friendly welcoming sounds which made you feel really special.A great welcoming ceremony was held at the yacht Club where the food suddenly improved, Smoker remembered making a bit of a grunter of himself but he wasn’t alone and some even had the luxury of a hangover he recalls. The following day saw the yacht making ready for her challenge, and it was Smokers job to check and double check sails, warps, halyards, standing rigging, rudder mechanism , sheets, cleats, winches, blocks, all this done she was now ready to compete. The following day was spent fine tuning, studying charts, the race course, and discussing race tactics, which may have to be revised should the weather differ from the forecast, it was a bit hit and miss in those days.The race day came and moorings were slipped, “Shamrock V” and “Enterprise” which was the American entry, were towed out to open water and the start line, with a great many small craft following, eager to see these majestic giants do battle for yachting’s most coveted and prestigous prize, the Americas Cup, as it was now known. Over the next few days the races took place Smoker did not go into detail only that the weather was perfect for sailing but at the end of the agreed number of races to decide ownership of the cup “Shamrock V” had lost four out of four races they had a real trouncing, the night following final race a farewell dinner was held in honour of the challengers at the “Hotel Belvedere, Rhode Island” and no great thing was made of America successfully defending the cup it was as though it was an inevitability, but Smoker remarked that “Enterprise” could point to wind a lot closer than Shamrock, A. J. Pengelly also made reference to this, and of the thirty crew, aboard “Enterprise” only ten were on deck at any one time, the rest were engaged below working the winches even trimming sails was done below decks, Enterprise was also made of Duralumin, Aluminium to us, including the frame , this would have made her about one third lighter than Shamrock none of the rules on class build were compromised and we were beaten fair and square. I do not know much about the return journey only that Gosport was the first port of call and a refit ready for the following season. I believe that Smoker was paid off and rejoined the Kings yacht Britannia which was in 1931 converted to a cruising yacht and fitted out to a very high standard so as to impress foreign dignitaries and also the ladies, as it was now becoming fashionable for ladies to go aboard what has always been a man’s domain and where functionality was the only concern, women, at least the more adventurous had their own yachts built and became formidable adversaries when racing, Tracy Edwards is just an example of many other top notch skippers.It is gratifying to know that the J Class “Shamrock V”, “Velsheda”, and “Endeavour” are still sailing to this day having been rescued, and so the legend lives on, I must also add that having lost the trophy in 1851 the United Kingdom has never won it back, ever. Countries that have been successful are Australia, Once, New Zealand Twice, and lastly Switzerland, Once.I would like to dedicate this article to the memories of Smoker Stroud, Skipper Stroud, Harry Harman the three Whitstable men and Alfred (A.J.Pengelly) from Looe, Cornwall (Who wrote the book “Oh for a fishermans life in 1979”) and whose son Terry, T.J.Pengelly who is now senior hand of the family and keeper of family archives at seventy nine, whom I am in touch with, , he has kindly allowed reproduction of pictures for this article, also remembered are the other selfless fishermen who left families behind in the summer months when little or no fish were to be had, and join the large yachts and race the summer season regatta’s on the south coast, thus earning enough money to keep their families fed and the landlord from the door.I would like to say that all of my photographic, postcard, and firstday covers will be the property of the Whitstable Museum on my departure.

Regards and fair winds.

Dave Jordan

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