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..."

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:-


...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:-


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