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Sunday, 26 December 2010

John Herbert Thom - Part II - Sunbeam to Gigha


In 1925 Herbert Thom returned to yacht racing after his self-imposed exile of seventeen years. He bought the 19/24 footer Sunbeam, designed by Alfred Mylne and built by Robertsons in 1904 and immediately began to make an impact, finishing second in the class with 14 first places and 7 seconds out of 36 starts. In 1926, 1927 and 1928 he was class champion, ending up with a grand total of 108 placings out of 143 starts aboard Sunbeam.

By the winter of 1928 the 19/24s were seen as obsolete. The class dated back to 1897 and after so much hard racing the hulls were tired.  As we have seen in an earlier post the Clyde Clubs Conference that winter enacted the rules for the Scottish Islands Class and the first five of the new yachts were commissioned. Herbert Thom declined to join the Islanders, because he disagreed with the decision to instal engines and the associated rule that if you didn't want one you had to carry equivalent weight and have a useless propellor. Instead he bought Fife 6-metre Lucille, renamed her Susette, came third in 1929 and became champion of the sixes in 1930. The Glasgow Herald noted

"As usual, the contests in the 6-metre class were tremendously keen, and provided excellent sport. Mr J H Thom's Susette headed the A Section and took 24 flags in 39 starts.....Susette took a considerable time to strike her form, but from July 5 onwards she was only twice out of the prize list, and Mr Thom had the satisfaction of winning three races in succession before Fintra and Coral went to America and Finvola was laid up..."
Susette

We have seen that by 1930 there were seven Islanders racing regularly and giving very close competition and the one-design nature of this class, in which it was purely helmsmanship that counted, must have appealed. Also James Buchanan had commissioned a new boat that was to  become Iona. Herbert Thom relented and commissioned Gigha from Alfred Mylne's Bute Slip Dock.

Gigha well heeled

I have already provided a detailed report on the 1931 racing season, so for new readers will just repeat part of that post here. Again I quote from the Glasgow Herald's end of season report:-

"GIGHA'S FINE SHOW

...Mr J H Thom dominated the Scottish islands class with his new boat, Gigha, which had the score of 29 prizes in 33 starts, including 18 firsts. Her wins included the Bryce Allan Cup, and she also won the Coulson Points Cup. Sanda, last year's champion of the class, was the runner-up with 24 flags in 34 races. In addition she won the McBeth Points Prize at the "Fortnight."

And in  October the anonymous Clyde Notes commented:-

"...Mr J H Thom, with his new boat Gigha was signally successful throughout the season, so much so that the varnished racer- the only one in the class- earned the nickname of "The Yellow Peril." The Islands Class is one-design, and I cannot credit the scarcely veiled suggestions in some quarters that Gigha was something different from the others. Rather do I favour the view that Mr Thom is too good for a local class and would be more in place, as he was last year, in the 6-metre lot."

Subsequent events were to show that there was absolutely no truth in this suggestion. Instead I suggest it is the case that Herbert Thom brought yacht racing, certainly the Scottish variety, and whether professional or Corinthian, into the modern age. He brought the same dedication to his sport as he had done when learning his business after the early loss of his father. He studied every aspect. The major significance of trim we have already noted. He carried this to extremes by requiring crew members to lie down below in calm weather, which must have been hell as such weather would also have been very hot. His yachts were varnished, because this made the topsides lighter, and he had to defend his right to this when other owners argued that a bright or clear finish was not a colour. He let it be known that he carried only a minute amount of petrol aboard, just enough to get to the start and home after the finish.

Some of this was pure psychology, which I guess Herbert Thom greatly enjoyed. An example was his racing flag, the International Code signal for "follow me." Far more important was his habit of meticulous note-taking, which involved recording the courses taken by other boats and their positions at different stages. He also spent time studying the tidal currents and wind patterns in the Firth of Clyde, sometimes from the slopes of the hills behind Gourock and Hunters Quay.

I think there is perhaps only one area where his approach was mistaken. He favoured keeping the rigging slack and omitted the wooden chocks at the mast partners that are usually seen as obligatory. He also believed that a hull should be able to flex, whereas I think the present-day view would be that stiffness is desirable in a small hull.

In summary I suggest that Herbert Thom's approach was simply too scientific and serious for at least some of his competitors. Certainly the record of 29 flags out of 33 starts in a new boat bears this out.

The pattern continued in 1932, with Gigha getting 27 flags out of 38 starts and in 1933, with 24 flags out of 36 starts.

Again I repeat part of my previous post.

In general we can see that a finishing order has been established by now, with James Buchanan's Sanda the only boat seriously challenging Gigha. Discontent within the class was now at a height, with much rumouring about Gigha being simply a faster boat. George Jackson's Westra had now missed two seasons and he put her up for sale. When Herbert Thom heard that she had been sold to someone on the Solway he persuaded the purchaser to accept his Gigha instead. He would now take on the competition with the oldest boat in the fleet. The Field correspondent reports:-

"On the relative performance of the two boats the exchange may seem somewhat surprising. There is only one explanation I can think of. Allegations were sometimes heard that the success of Gigha was accounted for by her out-size. Remeasurement more than once showed that there was no foundation for these statements, but Mr Thom is a good sportsman and I expect that he has taken this course to remove any unpleasantness, no matter how unjustified."

Part III of this short biography will follow in a few days time.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

John Herbert Thom 1891 to 1986 - Part I - the early years



Herbert Thom was born in Cardonald in the outskirts of Glasgow. He came from a family who had worked for generations on or by the sea, his grandfather John Thom having been a Clyde fisherman. John Thom's wife is rumoured to have been the daughter of an English army officer, who had eloped with him.

Herbert's father, also John, was born at Inverkip in 1855 and on leaving school went into the drawing office of Scott & Co in Greenock. Scotts was one of the oldest Scottish firms, founded by John Scott in 1711. By the time John started his training the firm was building almost exclusively steam-powered ships rather than sailing vessels.

John Scott IV had developed new types of high pressure compound engines and John Thom would have been trained in an office at the cutting edge of steam technology. Once trained as an engineer he moved to the Barrow Shipbuilding Company, where he progressed rapidly to become the chief engineering draughtsman. While there he designed and patented various technical improvements, the best known the "Thom Patent" for a special type of piston valve. These were adopted world-wide, an interesting example being the new steam yacht built at Delaware for Mr W K Vanderbilt in 1886. In 1887 Thom's patent slide valves were used in the Royal Navy's state-of-the-art torpedo boat Fearless.

John Thom holding important but indecipherable paper
Thom family, Herbert the little boy in the middle

John Thom's health broke down and forced him to leave Barrows. It's now not entirely clear whether he had developed a severe respiratory problem or angina, but in any event he was never to make a full recovery. After spending time recuperating in Algeria, which would suggest the former,  he  returned to Glasgow . He joined the Scottish Institute of Engineers and Shipbuilders in 1889 and commenced work as a consulting marine engineer and naval architect. He became associated with George Lennox Watson in designing engines for the latter's elegant steam yachts. At some point after his return John Thom acquired the pump-making company Lamont & Co Limited and renamed it Thom, Lamont & Co Limited. In due course Herbert would spend his working life in this company.

In common with a great many West coast businessmen John Thom's main relaxation was sailing. He owned the 17/19 class yacht Daisy Bell (designed by Watson in 1894), then the 19/24 footer Susette, followed by Susette II and then Sapphire, all designed by Alfred Mylne.

Susette I

Susette 1903
From his earliest years Herbert was sailing dinghies and taught himself the principles of steering and tacking without a rudder, by weight distribution alone. He never forgot these lessons and later applied what he had learned in boats right up to 12 metre size to ensure correct trim.

By the age of seven Herbert was sailing with his father. He later recalled memories of his father sending him out on the bowsprit to hold the jib-boom to weather and getting dooked in steamer wakes. At the age of ten he was sent up the mast to clear the winning flags that had got tangled up and returned to deck in tears when his father gybed the boat. He was told to stop filling the boat with water. In 1903 he won his first yacht race aboard the Rose, one of the Royal Clyde Yacht Club fleet.

In the early years of the Twentieth Century the Thom family lived in a large flat in Westbank Quadrant, near to Glasgow University and with a great view over Kelvingrove Park. Herbert didn't ever get to university, but in later life he maintained that he had been educated at five schools. I have traced four of these, Woodside, Glasgow High, Glasgow Academy and Alan Glens, all excellent institutions and it's a real puzzle why he moved about so often.

From 1905 John Thom was a semi-invalid and unable to sail, so his yachts were raced by his wife until in 1908 the entire family gave up sailing. By this time Herbert, aged 17, was undergoing training in the office of Thom, Lamont & Co and working very hard to master the business. When John Thom died in September 1909 Herbert became by default the chief breadwinner for the family and was not  to return to sailing for seventeen years. His younger brother Dorian had little interest in making pumps and his interesting career will be the subject of a later post.









Monday, 20 December 2010

Keeping comfortable sitting and sleeping

The problem of arranging the seating and sleeping in a narrow hull with limited headroom is one of the main challenges facing the designer of a small yacht's interior. If you want a wide enough berth it has to be positioned so high that you lose headroom for comfortable sitting. 

Albert Strange pointed out that the solution has to be separate arrangements for sitting and sleeping, with fold-down cots for the latter.

Stroma's original interior sacrificed headroom for a good sleep and during her restoration I adopted a variation of Strange's system. 

It's useful to retain some space at a higher level, so I decided to build a dedicated cooking space to port and a navigation table to starboard, in each case about two feet long, leaving about four feet each side for daytime sitting. I made plywood platforms that notch onto stringers at the outboard side and hang from short lengths of rope from a deckbeam, where I fixed eyebolts. Only one hanger is needed at each side, as the aft end of the platform sits on the cooking and navigation stations.

We sit on benches made from recycled church pews about a foot wide and a foot above the cabin sole.

Albert Strange didn't favour mattresses, but nowadays there are alternatives to horse hair and we have a four foot and a two foot long cushion down each side. The smaller ones are handy in the cockpit if it's not raining. The following rather poor image gives an idea of the set-up.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Racing from 1935 to the War

fresh breeze

In 1935 a new presence arrived on the scene, with the purchase of Jura by Mrs W M Bergius, very much a family project, as she has her children for crew and her husband donates a Points Cup to the class. Jura proves to be immediately a strong contender.

After only a year of ownership J B Whyte has sold Iona to G N Lyall.

Here  are the Official Results:-

                                                      Starts    1st    2nd    3    4    total

Westra- J H Thom                               38     18       6    6    0      30
Sanda- James Buchanan                       36       4      12    7    2     23
Jura- Mrs W M Bergius                        33       7        5    2    1    15
Canna- J D Cochrane                            30      4         7    5    0    16
Fidra- A R Keith Thomson                    36       2         1    5    3    11
Bernera- R K Sharp                              35       1          3    4    1     9   
Stroma- Geo Nisbet                               37       1          2    5    1    9
Iona- G N Lyall                                      24       1          1    1    0    3


the fleet



1936 continues in the same vein. The Glasgow Herald reports an exceptional season that has made history, with among other events the first International Fortnight on the Clyde and the Prince of Wales Cup for International 14s. Record numbers of boats have been turning out and two new classes have been recognised, the Dragons and the Snipes. The arrival of the former was probably the main reason why the Islanders failed to increase their numbers. A new Islander with her Watermota cost about £350, against £250 for the lighter and engineless Dragon, which McGruers had now been mass-producing for several years.

A high point of the year was the Tarbert Race at the beginning of August, won by Westra with a time from Hunters Quay to Tarbert of 4 hours 21 minutes, with free sailing in strong winds all the way.


The Official Results for the year were:-

                                                           Starts    1st    2nd    other    total

Westra- J H Thom                                    34    18        2          4       24
Sanda- James Buchanan                            33      7      15          5       20
Jura- Mrs W M Bergius                             34      5      10          5       20
Bernera- R K Sharp                                   32      2        6          7       15
Fidra- A R Keith Thomson                         35      3        2           4        9
Iona- G N Lyall                                          19      2        0           0        2
Stroma- Geo Nisbet                                    16      0        2           2        4



1937 was reported as a less successful season than 1936, with fewer visiting yachts and a lot of Clyde owners going South for events including the Coronation regatta at Torquay.

Herbert Thom was now sailing his new 6-metre yacht Circe. Typically he has won 24 flags including 6 firsts, largest number in any class, despite being dismasted on first day of Clyde Fortnight. The Glasgow  Herald reports he already had 312 flags in 12 years, so is now up to 336.

The paper goes on:-

"JURA CHAMPION OF THE ISLANDERS

Mrs W M Bergius's Jura, sailed by the youngest crew on the Clyde, is the champion in the Scottish Islands class. The members of the crew are Messrs Walter and Cecil Bergius and Miss Margie Bergius, sons and daughter of the owner. With her total of 29 flags Jura shares the distinction with Froya of having won the largest number of prizes during the season. As was the case last year, Mr James Buchanan is the runner up with Sanda. Mr R K Sharps' Bernera and Mr A R Keith Thomson's Fidra have had the most successful season of their careers, with 24 and 20 flags respectively to their credit."

As many as 22 Dragons were turning out. George Nisbet has got one and has sold Stroma to John Buchanan.

The Official Results:-

                                                           Starts    1st    2nd    other    total

Jura- Mrs W M Bergius                            36    19        6         4        29
Sanda- James Buchanan                            36    10      12         2        24
Bernera- R K Sharp                                   36      4      11         9       24
Fidra- A R Keith Thomson                         39      5        6         9        20
Stroma- John Buchanan                              23      1        0         6          7
Iona- G N Lyall                                          24      1        0         0          1
Westra- F P Rankin                                    23      0        2         0          2


Extract from the Glasgow Herald's review of 1938:-

"The Scottish Islanders as usual provided keen and interesting racing. Mrs W M Bergius's Jura again tops the class, but this year only by a very small margin from Mr James Buchanan's Sanda, which had 4 wins more than Jura, but 4 fewer flags. Mr R K Sharp's Bernera is again in third place, close to the two leaders and well ahead of the other Islanders."

This year J D Cochrane's new boat Canna appears, but finds the going tough.

The Official Results:-

                                                              Starts    1st    2nd    other    total

Jura- Mrs W M Bergius                              39      11    11          7        29
Sanda- James Buchanan                              36      12    10          3        25
Bernera- R K Sharp                                    36         8     7          6         21
Fidra- A R Keith Thomson                          33         3     6          5         14
Stroma- John Buchanan                               31         3     3          4         10
Iona- G N Lyall                                           23          2    1          5           8
Canna- J D Cochrane                                  23          1    0          3           4


Finally, to bring us up to the cessation of yachting for the War, here are the figures for 1939.



The Official Results:-

                                                         Starts    1st    2nd    other    total

Sanda- James Buchanan                         34    15         8       4         27
Jura- Mrs W M Bergius                         34     11       12       2         25
Bernera- R K Sharp                                32       5         7      11        23
Fidra- A R Keith Thomson                     33       2         4        5        11
Iona- G N Lyall                                       14       1         1        0          2
Stroma- W S & C R Dobson                  23       1         1        0          2
Westra- John Buchanan                          13        1         0        0          1
Canna- J D Cochrane                              17        0         2        2          4

Sanda won the Bryce Allan Cup

James Buchanan has his best season yet and is champion at last.

John Buchanan has sold Stroma to the Dobsons and bought Westra. A curious feature of the class is the tendency for owners to sell one Islander and replace her with another one. Were there lingering suspicions that the boats were not truly identical?

Westra, Bernera and Cara

Monday, 29 November 2010

Hull Colours again

Followers of this blog will understand that having analysed the racing results for the period to 1935 we are all in need of a little break, so here is something different.

While researching the Thom archive I came across some further information about hull colours. It's never been obvious to me why the original owners took this subject so seriously, but there's evidence that they did, especially when Herbert Thom insisted that a varnished finish was "a colour," which common sense suggests is correct.

The reason Herbert Thom gave in an interview with George Findlay of the Glasgow Herald was simply that a painted hull would accumulate layers of paint and become heavier as the years went by, whereas presumably his boat would be scraped off at the end of the season and refinished in the Spring. I suppose this would also allow the topsides to dry out a bit.

In a letter to Yachting Life in June 1999 Mr Robert S Sharp, son of R K Sharp, the sometime owner of Bernera and Sanda, confirmed the original hull colours as follows:-

Westra           yellow
Cara               mid blue
Bernera          black for one year, then green
Stroma           grey
Sanda            navy blue
Jura               light blue
Fidra             red
Iona              white
Gigha            varnished
Canna           white
Isla               white

To comply with the class rules Iona must have changed colour before Canna arrived. Canna was varnished (JHT again) before Isla arrived.

I'm not going to change Stroma, as I'm fond of her Epifanes green 30.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

1934 Racing Season

winning flags 1934

"As before, Mr J H Thom headed the Scottish Islands class; he won with Gigha last year, and this time has repeated with another and older boat, which shows that it is the man who counts." The Field.

The Glasgow Herald:-

"Mr J H Thom scored a success in Westra, with which he tops the list in the Scottish islands class with 29 flags in 38 starts. His prizes include the Bryce Allan Cup and the No 2 Tarbert Cup."

Need I add more?

The Official Results:-

                                               Starts    1st    2nd    other    total

Westra- J H Thom                       38     20        4         5       29
Sanda- James Buchanan               35       6      11         6       23
Cara- J M Christie                        31      4       11         2       17
Bernera- R K Sharp                     34       2         6         7       15
Stroma- Geo Nisbet                     38       2         1         8       11
Iona- J B Whyte                           19       3         2         3         8
Fidra- A R Keith Thomson           38       1         3         4         8

So we can see that William Russell has sold Sanda to James Buchanan, who has in turn sold Iona to a newcomer to the class, J B Whyte.

A major event in the calendar was the Tarbert Cup Races, held over the first weekend of August. Westra's victory in the No 2 Cup was the first time an Islander had won. Herbert Thom had built a reputation as a heavy weather helm and he was in his element in this demanding race. The Glasgow Herald again:-

"There was a fresh breeze from the south-south-west, with very hard squalls and heavy rain in Loch Fyne. The conditions gave the yachts a hard beat from Hunters Quay... The second division racers found the conditions quieter in the Kyle of Bute than in the firth.....they had a keen race in hard squalls to the finish."

Westra
Westra and Sanda
a close race
Westra
Cara, Bernera, Westra and Stroma

The 1933 Racing Season

Herbert Thom in his prime

Cara returned to the racing but Westra and Jura still stayed away, leaving a fleet of seven. Gigha didn't get it all entirely her own way, as Sanda ran her a close second. Again the Glasgow Herald:-

"In the Scottish Islands Class Gigha secured the most firsts, but Sanda has the distinction of winning most flags, not only in the class but in the fleet. Some protests towards the end of the season have yet to be decided, and may make some slight alterations in the records."

The reference to protests, that obviously hadn't been quickly resolved, suggests that Islander racing had not been an entirely pleasurable activity for some. The official records show:-

                                         Starts    1st    2nd    other    total

Gigha- J H Thom                    36    14        7         3    24
Sanda- Wm Russell                36    10       11        7    28
Stroma- Geo Nisbet               35      6         4        8    18
Bernera- R K Sharp               33      3         4        6    13
Iona- Jas Buchanan                25      3         5         3    11
Fidra- A R Keith Thomson     32      0         3         1      4
Cara- Dr Christie                    21      0         2         2     4

Sanda's wins include the Bryce Allan Cup

In general we can see that a finishing order has been established by now, with William Russell's Sanda the only boat seriously challenging Gigha. Discontent within the class was now at a height, with much rumouring about Gigha being simply a faster boat. George Jackson's Westra had now missed two seasons and he put her up for sale. When Herbert Thom heard that she had been sold to someone on the Solway he persuaded the purchaser to accept his Gigha instead. The Field's correspondent reports:-

"On the relative performance of the two boats the exchange may seem somewhat surprising. There is only one explanation I can think of. Allegations were sometimes heard that the success of Gigha was accounted for by her out-size. Remeasurement more than once showed that there was no foundation for these statements, but Mr Thom is a good sportsman and I expect that he has taken this course to remove any unpleasantness, no matter how unjustified."

The 1932 Racing Season

Gigha well heeled

1932 saw no new boats joining the fleet, but George Nisbet's Stroma, which had not competed in 1931, returned to the fray. Fidra appears under the flag of Mr A R Keith Thomson, who had either bought or chartered her from Mr Wordie. Mr Thomson was certainly her owner by 1935 and his family's ownership only ended in 1978 with the death of his widow. Westra, Cara and Jura, their owners perhaps dispirited at being beaten most weeks by Herbert Thom, stayed away leaving a diminished fleet.

Once again Gigha was almost unbeatable. The Glasgow Herald reports:-

"Gigha for the second season was champion in the Scottish Islands Class with a total of 27 prizes, including 21 wins, a record for the class. Next in place was Sanda, with Stroma close up, followed by Bernera, Iona and Fidra."

The official results were:-

                                    Starts    1st    2nd    other    total

Gigha- J H Thom                38     21       4         2       27
Sanda- Wm Russell            33       6       7         7       20
Stroma- Geo Nisbet           37       9       5         8       19
Bernera- R K Sharp           31       2     10         3       15
Iona- Jas Buchanan            29       2       6         1         9
Fidra- A R Keith Thomson 17       0       4         1         5


Gigha and Sanda
before the start at Largs
start at Largs 6 August 1932
close finish

The 1931 Racing Season - Arrival of the Yellow Peril



At the start of the season the fleet was joined by two newcomers, James Buchana's Iona, no 8 and Herbert Thom's Gigha, no 9, both built by Alfred Mylne's own Bute Slip Dockyard at Ardmaleish on Bute. Thus while the first five boats had been built by McGruers the next four were all from Bute. An article in Classic Boat from 1995 stated that the two yards used identical sets of moulds for the hulls, but it would be good to have chapter and verse for this, as the article contains a number of inaccuracies, for example stating that the boats had iron keels. This is important, as it is likely that the involvement of two yards gave rise to later accusations about Gigha.
Westra, Sanda, Bernera, Cara, Gigha and Iona


Again I quote from the Glasgow Herald's end of season report:-

"GIGHA'S FINE SHOW

...Mr J H Thom dominated the Scottish Islands class with his new boat, Gigha, which had the score of 29 prizes in 33 starts, including 18 firsts. Her wins included the Bryce Allan Cup, and she also won the Coulson Points Cup. Sanda, last year's champion of the class, was the runner-up with 24 flags in 34 races. In addition she won the McBeth Points Prize at the 'Fortnight.' "

The season's records were as follows:-

SCOTTISH ISLANDS CLASS

                                    Starts    1st    2nd    other    total

Gigha- J H Thom              33     18     10        1         29
Sanda- W Russell             34       9     11        4         24
Westra- G Jackson           21       5       5        4         14
Bernera- R K Sharp          31       1       1      10         12
Cara- Dr Christie              28        1       5       3           9
Iona- James Buchanan      31       1       1       4           6
Fidra- W Wordie               20       1       1       2           4

Following the Bryce Allan competition in August The Field commented:-

"This [The race from Hunter's Quay to the Kyles of Bute] is one of the most popular events of the Clyde racing season. All the yachts competed on a general handicap for the trophy, and each boat from the smallest to the largest had a sporting chance of success, and Gigha's victory was gained by the narrowest margin, as she saved her time from Mr W F Robertson's 8-metre Caryl, which was conceding her 1 hr 7 min 12 sec, by only 1 1/2 min over a course of 24 miles...."

And in  October the anonymous Clyde Notes commented:-

"...Mr J H Thom, with his new boat Gigha was signally successful throughout the season, so much so that the varnished racer- the only one in the class- earned the nickname of "The Yellow Peril." The Islands Class is one-design, and I cannot credit the scarcely veiled suggestions in some quarters that Gigha was something different from the others. Rather do I favour the view that Mr Thom is too good for a local class and would be more in place, as he was last year, in the 6-metre lot."
winning flags 1931

Many years ago I was told, I can't remember by whom, that Gigha was secretly examined after she was laid up for the winter and that her mast was weighed, but no discrepancies found. However the rumbles and rumours were to continue over the next two seasons until Herbert Thom took some decisive action, as we shall see in a future post.

Friday, 26 November 2010

The 1930 Racing Season

At the start of the season the existing five boats were joined by Thomas Dunlop Junior's Jura, no 6 and William Wardie's Fidra, no 7, both built by Alfred Mylne's own Bute Slip Dock at Ardmaleish. For a description of the years racing I can do no better than to quote from the local paper once again:-

The Glasgow Herald 4 September 1930

"CLYDE YACHTING

REVIEW OF THE SEASON

...

FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT

The Clyde yacht racing season, which has just come to a close, was favoured with remarkably good sailing weather. There were comparatively few days of prolonged calms and of really hard weather, and what there were of these were the exceptions to eh general rule of racing days with breezes of nice summer strength. Seldom has there been a season in which finishes were so consistently early. The stormiest experience the yachts had was at the Tighnabruaich regatta on July 21, when out of 35 starters 13 boats were forced to give up owing to mishaps. One dismasting took place early in June, but it was due to an extraneous circumstance, Mr J Buchanan's Pallas having her "stick" snapped in the wash of a passing liner. Great popular interest was shown in the appearance of Shamrock V at the Clyde Fortnight, and her successful performances gave immense satisfaction. Nine days hence the challenger will start on her bid for the America's Cup, and there is a widespread feeling of hopelessness as to her chance against the American defender, Enterprise."
Prophetically, for what was to come in the Islands Class in later years, the paper went on to note that:-

"As usual, the contests in the 6-metre class were tremendously keen, and provided excellent sport. Mr J H Thom's Susette headed the A Section and took 24 flags in 39 starts.....Susette took a considerable time to strike her form, but from July 5 onwards she was only twice out of the prize list, and Mr Thom had the satisfaction of winning three races in succession before Fintra and Coral went to America and Finvola was laid up..."

With regard to the Islanders the paper noted

"Mr William Russell's Sanda was the champion in the sporting Scottish Islands Class, which continued to be notable for its remarkably keen racing and close fnishes. The runners-up were Cara and Westra. Sanda also won the cup for the points competition for the class. The official figures show that her margin was only four points ahead of Cara, which were in turn was four points ahead of Westra."
The closing records for the class were:-

                                Starts    1st    2nd    other    Total

Sanda- W Russell          36    14        6          3        23   
Cara- Dr Christie           33      9        5          5        19
Westra- G Jackson        35      6        7          8        21
Jura- T Dunlop Jnr         37      3        8          7        18
Stroma- G Nisbet          35      2        6          7        15
Bernera- R K Sharp      30      3        3           2         8
Fidra- W Wordie          30      2        3           2         7

The official figures in the points competition for the cup presented by Mr J M McEwan are:- Sanda (winner) 100 points, Cara, 96, Westra 92, Stroma 77, Jura 74, Fidra, 63 and Bernera, 56.


One person who no doubt watched the Islanders' racing very closely was J Herbert Thom. He had made his name in the 19/24 Class, which disbanded at the end of 1928, having given keen racing since 1897 and the Islanders had effectively taken their place. Herbert Thom had won 108 prizes, including 67 firsts, in his Sunbeam over the four seasons 1925 to 1928 inclusive. In 1929 he had decided to move to the 6-metre class with the Fife-designed Lucille, which he had bought and renamed Susette. He was the class champion, as noted above, his 24 flags including 8 firsts, but maybe felt that his skills would be better tested in the strict one-design racing offered by the Islanders. He duly placed an order with Bute Slip for what was to be Gigha, yacht no 9.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

A hearty welcome to friends from Germany

I was excited and pleased to find that my blogs have been picked up by www.fky.org, because I have happy memories of friendships made in Germany and sailing in the Baltic. Sailing together in small boats is a great way to get to know another country and make lasting connections. As you will see from my posts I am interested in researching Scottish/German connections and it would be fantastic to develop some research partnerships on specific topics.

It is obvious from the archives of the leading Scottish designers that many fine yachts went from their desks and yards to Germany in the period prior to 1914. A good example of a German client is Edmund Nordheim, who had five yachts designed by Alfred Mylne and built by Alexander Robertson on the Clyde.

After my first sailing visit in 1997 I started to learn German and can now read the language reasonably well, so please don't bother to translate any contribution.

Mit herzliche Gruesse

Ewan

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The young Alfred Mylne


I am indebted to Martyn Webster for the above image and the following article from The Bailie magazine of 29 June 1904 :-





Saturday, 16 October 2010

Scottish Boating, my new blog

I have a lot of nautical material that is only vaguely connected to the Scottish Islanders, or is of general interest, so I have decided to post this on a separate blog.

You can view the Scottish Boating blog here

My idea is to cover a number of subjects, including the history of yacht design and stories about particular yachts, technical issues of design and construction, including my experiences with the six boats I have built and general pieces about small boat sailing in Scotland and around the Baltic.

At the moment I've got a couple of stories with Scottish and German interest posted. There will be some Scandinavian stuff soon. Please take a note of the URL, scottishboating.blogspot.com

I will be delighted to carry any items that I consider appropriate and will always acknowledge contributions.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

J Herbert Thom

I am now researching the racing career of the legendary J Herbert Thom, who really deserves a whole book to himself as one of the most successful racing helms of all time, having proved almost unbeatable in local, national and international competitions.

In the pre-war years Thom won hundreds of races, mainly in the Islands Class and whether sailing his own or one of the other boats. In 1938 he took his new six metre yacht Circe, designed by David Boyd and built the previous year by Robertsons, to Oyster Bay at New York to win the Seawanhaka Cup, which he successfully defended on the Clyde against the Norwegians the following year. Later he was involved in the preparations of the America's Cup challengers Sceptre and Sovereign, but did not helm in either of the actual competitions.

I first heard about Herbert Thom as a sailing-daft child in the 1950s and I know that there are countless stories out there about his meticulous ways, racing tactics and so on. I'm very anxious to record everything and am pretty sure that people a little older than me will have memories they can share.

Alistair Thom has kindly agreed to give me access to his grandfather's archives, so I will have chapter and verse for much of the factual stuff, but anecdotes and memories are what make these projects interesting, so if anyone reading this can help please get in touch.

Herbert Thom was devoted to introducing young people to sailing and there is a fascinating educational film from 1961 on the Scottish Film Archive. The opening sequence shows the man himself on board Canna and apart from the sailing footage the film gives an interesting insight into how attitudes to certain things have changed in quite a short period. I'll refrain from detailed comment so as not to spoil your enjoyment.


Clyde Sailing Video

Monday, 27 September 2010

The yacht on the church - a mea culpa

image courtesy of the Church website

The lovely yawl Latifa is one of William Fife III's finest creations, but she certainly wasn't around in 1929 when the first batch of Islanders were racing. She was launched at Fairlie in 1936 and is still sailing, having been restored some years ago in Italy.

The finial with the fine scale model dates from 1951 and was dedicated to the late Mr Fife.

The map will have to go back to the drawing board.
 
Such are the perils of relying on ones ageing memory!

The 1929 Racing Season, Part 3

By mid August Clyde yachtsmen were into the end of season closing matches. The first of these was on Saturday 17 August at the Clyde Corinthian Yacht Club at Hunters Quay.

"In light and fluky winds the courses were shortened." 

I don't know what the courses were, but can imagine a frustrating drift in the tide and gentle little puffs of air in the triangle between the Holy Loch, Kilcreggan and Gourock. The results were:-

Cara        2 hrs 22 mins 20 secs

Westra    2 hrs 24 mins 24 secs

Stroma    2 hrs 25 mins 51 secs

Sanda      2 hrs 29 mins 3 secs

Bernera    2 hrs 29 mins 39 secs

On Saturday 24 August the Royal Gourock Yacht Club held its closing matches.

There was a strong Westerly wind with bad squalls off the Holy Loch and rough seas. The course from the start off the clubhouse at Gourock was a hard thrash upwind to Hunters Quay, then a helter skelter dead run down to Rosneath Patch, then another hard beat back to Gourock, a total of 11 3/5 miles. The results were :-

Westra    2 hrs 17 mins 35 secs

Sanda     2 hrs 19 ins 42 secs

Stroma    2 hrs 21 mins 34 secs

Bernera   2 hrs 29 mins 10 secs

"Cara gave up", said the paper, or rather her crew did, because the boat usually handles the weather better than the mere humans aboard.

The Royal Northern Yacht Club regatta at Craigmore on Saturday 31 August closed the season.

The course was from Craigmore to the Skelmorlie Bell to the Gemlyn Bank and back to Craigmore, then again to the Gemlyn Bank, then to Toward and back to Craigmore, a total of 13 miles. (Right now I don't know where the Gemlyn Bank was, so help please.)  The results were:-

Bernera     3 hrs 36 mins 35 secs

Sanda       3 hrs 44 mins 55 secs

Cara         3 hrs 47 mins 5 secs

Stroma     3 hrs 48 mins 12 secs

Westra     3 hrs 50 mins 22 secs

Bernera has achieved her first win and by an outstanding margin of 8 minutes 20 seconds! Class champion Westra is nearly 15 minutes behind.

I have found no evidence of an overall prize being awarded so early in the history of the Class and have attempted my own analysis of the results.

In my estimation Westra was the leading yacht, with six wins, seven seconds, three thirds and finishing unplaced twice. I noticed that often Thomas Dunlop Junior was on board and his experiences no doubt caused him to ask Mr Mylne to build him Jura for the 1930 season.

I would place Sanda second, with six wins, five seconds, two thirds and three unplaced finishes.

Cara comes third with five wins, three seconds, six thirds and one unplaced finish.

Stroma comes fourth with two wins, five seconds, three thirds and two unplaced finishes.

Bernera comes fifth with two wins, six thirds and five unplaced finishes. Her late discovery of form bodes well for her future however.

What is most impressive is the closeness of the finishes throughout the season. The racing must have been incredibly exciting and would have proved what is absolutely the best feature of one-design racing, that it's all down to the helmsman or helmswoman and crew. That everyone won at least a couple of races would have demonstrated to all that winning was always possible. It also suggests of course that all the owners were already seriously competent.

The 1929 Racing Season, Part 2

On Saturday 29 June Clyde Fortnight started.

The Glasgow Herald reports that all five Islanders have turned out. At the end the paper reports that the Islanders have produced very close finishes. The final positions are:-

Starts       1st    2nd    3rd    Total

Sanda        9    5    3    0       8

Cara          9    2    1    3       6

Westra      9    1    3    3       7

Stroma      9    1    2    0       3

Bernera is not mentioned in the report, but by a process of arithmetic she must have achieved a total of three third places, as these totals add up to 24 rather than 27 and all the other prizes are accounted for.

Saturday 13 July

Royal Western Yacht Club

Four of the yachts took part in the handicap race from Hunters Quay to Tighnabruaich. The results haven't been reported. Sunday was a lay day and on Monday 15 July there was the Tighnabruaich Regatta with a race over 8 miles in sunny, calm, fluky conditions. The results were:-

Stroma        6 hrs 1 min 3 secs

Westra        6 hrs 1 min 38 secs

Sanda         6 hrs 10 mins 11 secs

Cara gave up

Saturday 20 July

Holy Loch Sailing Club

Good racing took place in a fine sailing breeze. The results were:-

Cara         2 hrs 59 mins 17 secs

Stroma     2 hrs 59 mins 45 secs

Bernera    3 hrs 0 mins 50 secs

Westra     3 hrs 3 mins 59 secs

Sanda      3 hrs 5 mins 38 secs

Saturday 27 July

Gareloch Yacht Club

"The Islanders have already a well established reputation for close finishes....Cara had a long lead that looked like a runaway victory...but was caught by Sanda and Stroma." The results were:-

Sanda      4 hrs 7 mins 8 secs

Stroma    4 hrs 7 mins 44 secs

Cara        4 hrs 8 mins 33 secs

Bernera   4 hrs 21 mins 30 secs

Saturday 3 August

Clyde Corinthian Yacht Club, Hunters Quay.

There was a storm and racing postponed. On Monday 5th there were light winds and a nice bright day. The results were:-

Bernera       3 hrs 34 mins 30 secs

Westra        3 hrs 35 mins 20 secs

Cara           3 hrs 36 mins 7 secs

Sanda         3 hrs 36 mins 37 secs

Stroma       3 hrs 40 mins 43 secs

Saturday 10 August

Largs Regatta

There was a South westerly wind, a good breeze. The course was from Largs to the Gemlyn Bank, to Fairlie, back to Largs, back to the Gemlyn Bank and back to the finish at Largs.

"Westra won by 3 minutes 1 second, an unusually large margin..."

The results were:-

Westra      1 hr 59 mins 9 secs

Stroma      2 hrs 2 mins 10 secs

Sanda       2 hrs 3 mins 46 secs

Cara         2 hrs 4 mins 58 secs

Bernera    2 hrs 5 mins 29 secs

Bernera had been over the line at the start and was recalled, so if we assume that it cost her a minute the five boats had sailed about thirteen sea miles within six minutes of each other.

My next post will cover the remainder of the season.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The 1929 Racing Season, Part 1



As soon as the railways and fleets of steamers were established the Firth of Clyde became the playground for the people of Glasgow, rich and poor alike, who would go "doon the watter" to resorts such as Dunoon, Rothesay and Largs.

In the illustration above a party of cheery souls from Paisley in a charabanc are about to descend the Haylie Brae into Largs for ice cream and folly.


Meantime a fellow on his motor bike is zooming North from West Kilbride towards Fairlie, where his boat is moored, while his pal from Glasgow has just passed the Cloch Lighthouse in his red sports car.


An elderly lady is being taken out for a drive from Dunoon down to Toward Point, while a young couple have hired bikes to cycle round the Big Cumbrae and a local worthy is sculling off the North of the island.


A family on holiday at Port Bannatyne are out in a rowing boat off Ardmaleish Point. My late father recalled that on such a summer's day in the 1920s a whale appeared alongside the boat and alarmed the family, until my great-aunt, recently returned from her exploits in South Africa and quite fearless, sang to it and made it go away.


Most important and certainly more relevant to this post the five original Islanders are engaged in close competition between Cumbrae and Bute.


The Firth of Clyde must be one of the finest stretches of water anywhere for tactical yacht racing. It contains a network of sea lochs and some lovely islands against a mixed backdrop of hills and coastal towns. While relatively sheltered the Firth has to be treated with respect, as the hills cause plenty of wind shifts and squalls, while the tide creates interesting sea conditions and has been responsible for many races being won and lost.

By the 1920s the racing season was well developed, with the organisation shared among a number of yacht clubs based at the main centres. The racing was a spectator as well as a participant sport and many of the folk who went doon the watter would have known as much about the yachts as present day fans know about footballers.

The Glasgow Herald newspaper (it had not yet started to pretend it was a national daily and dropped the "Glasgow" in its name) reported on the racing in all the classes and what follows has been compiled from its archives. 

The sailing season started formally on 24 May 1929, but only Westra, Cara and Bernera were ready, so they decided to wait for Sanda and Stroma before inaugurating the Class.

The following weekend Sanda and Stroma were still not ready. Maybe they were trying to get their new Watermotas to start. In any event the others went ahead on 1 June 1929 at the Royal Gourock Yacht Club.

The paper reports:-

"The new class replaces the 19/24s, whose first race was exactly 32 years ago at Greenock...Westra, Cara and Bernera turned out....Westra won by 1 minute 26 seconds from Cara.

They impressed as smart, roomy and desirable little racing cruisers. The two other boats, Sanda and Stroma will join the Class very shortly....On the opening stretch to Hunters Quay Westra opened up a promising lead from Cara and Bernera, but down wind to Rosneath Patch Bernera ran past both leaders and Cara also overhauled Westra. In beating back to the home mark Bernera did not do so well and Westra soon worked into the lead again and showed the way to Cara to the finish."

On Saturday 8 June these three boats met again at the Clyde Corinthian Yacht Club regatta at Hunters Quay. There was a nice Southerly breeze. The paper reports:-

"Cara got her first premier flag, beating Westra by 3 minutes. Bernera was badly tailed off."

The course was from Hunters Quay to Inverkip, then to Cove, back to Hunters Quay, then to Kilcreggan and back, a total of 14.5 miles.

On Saturday 15 June four of the boats were at Rothesay for the Royal Northern Yacht Club regatta. The course was from Rothesay to the Gemlyn Bank at Skelmorlie and back, then to Toward Black Buoy and back, a total of 13 miles. The results were

Westra 2hrs 34 mins 27 secs
Cara 2 hrs 34 mins 47 secs
Stroma 2 hrs 36 mins 21 secs
Bernera 2 hrs 36 mins 50 secs

Thus less than two and a half minutes separated the fleet after 13 miles!

On Friday 21 June the racing was back up the Firth at the Holy Loch Sailing Club

Only two Islanders appeared and Mr W Bergius' Tringa, "the only one of the old 1.75 rater class forward" was invited to join them. The results were:-

Tringa, special prize 8 hrs 15 mins 38 secs
Westra winners prize 8 hrs 15 mins 40 secs
Cara second prize  8 hrs 18 mins 26 secs
 I was interested to note that the prizes for these races were in cash, usually a first place made £4, second £2 and third £1. Most of the yachts would have carried a paid hand, so these prizes would have financed his bonus for winning.

My next post will describe the mid-season events.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

A mystery yacht


My friend Jim Robb came across this photo some years ago on the East coast, but it seems equally possible that it was taken on either the Clyde or the Forth. In any event it is a rare shot of one of the old racers in action, at a time when it would have been very difficult to keep a camera operational at sea.

Years ago in a pub at Bowling I met an old fellow who in his youth during the Great Depression had made a little money hauling a yacht through the Forth and Clyde canal after Clyde Fortnight. The job took two days and in addition to his fee he was given the fare back West, but of course just walked home. He told me that the Grangemouth boys did similar work at the start of the Fortnight.


Looking carefully at the background we can just see some substantial buildings of a seaside town to starboard and a similar, more distant, row ahead, in each case with a backdrop of low-lying hills. My bet is that this picture was taken off Gourock with the yacht reaching in a good South-westerly breeze.

The rig suggests one of the old Clyde classes from the turn of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Perhaps she is a Clyde 30, which were gaff-rigged originally and about fortytwo feet overall, thirty on the waterline.

The iron tiller was a hallmark of William Fife III, so perhaps she is one of his creations.

She is flying the owner's racing flag, but in a race on the Clyde surely the owner would have been at the helm? The powerful chap on the helm, wearing a heavy fisherman's smock, is clearly a paid hand. The fellow balancing on the whisker pole, who also wears a smock and rubber wellies, may be a second hand. He must have been confident that the pole wouldn't break. The chap sitting to leeward is certainly the owner, with his nice oilskin jacket and yachting cap. The girl standing in the weather rigging is also sensibly dressed. Has she gone up to pose for the photo, or is she concerned about the second hand's heroics?

The yacht is bigger than an Islander, but the image gives a feel for what a typical day on the water was like about a hundred years ago. The normal Islander crew comprised owner, friend and one other, who was often a paid hand.

Answers or polite suggestions on a comment, please.