Monday, 23 May 2011

Where this blog is now at

Regular visitors will notice that I haven't posted anything new on this blog for some time. This is deliberate, as the blog was always intended to create an archive of information about the Islanders and the people who sailed and continue to sail and look after them.

Instead of creating new postings I have been steadily correcting any errors found in earlier ones and adding details as they are found. In the course of the blog I've received a lot of information and encouraging comments from the families of former owners, but there are still lots of blanks in the story. It's still my intention someday to produce a volume celebrating the Class, which will present the information in this blog, in particular the images, in a more attractive format, but I won't embark on that voyage until I'm satisfied that any remaining blanks just cannot be filled.

So, if you do have information, memories, old photographs or whatever please let me know. And if you haven't already found it please visit my more general site,

Happy sailing!

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Dorian Thom, aviator

Daring young man
William Dorian Thom was born on 3 August 1892 in the family home at 5 Westbank Quadrant in the West end of Glasgow, the second son of John Thom, consulting civil engineer and owner of the business of Thom, Lamont & Co Limited. He had two older sisters, Mary and Helen and an older brother Herbert. His youngest sister, Mina, would arrive a few years later.

I think that Dorian, commonly called Dorrie, probably attended the Glasgow Academy a short distance from the family home. He had just turned 16 when his father died after years of ill-health and I suspect that he would have joined the family business of Thom, Lamont & Co at that point, as did Herbert. However the two brothers had vastly different personalities. Herbert was always serious, careful and meticulous, with a deep sense of obligation, whereas Dorian believed in enjoying life and taking risks.

The outbreak of war gave Dorian the opportunity to get out of the business and by the summer of 1916 he had a probationary commission as sub-lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps in 34 Squadron, being confirmed in that rank in October. In July 1916 he won the DFC. 34 Squadron flew the primitive and slow BE2es, single-engined biplanes with a maximum speed of about 70mph (110kph), which the pilots themselves called "Fokker fodder" and the Germans called kaltes Fleisch. When 52 Squadron arrived in France they were equipped with slightly faster RE8s, but which had the disadvantage that they easily went into an uncontrollable spin and crashed. The end result was that each squadron fancied the other's machines, so they duly swapped them.

99 Squadron was formed in August 1917 and sent to France to fly twin-engined de Havilland bombers as part of the Independent Air Force. Dorian joined it and survived numerous bombing raids, when the squadron took horrendous losses. When the Royal Air Force was formed in 1918 the Army objected to their use of military ranks, so Dorian became a Flying Officer.

Prince Albert, the later King George VI, was posted to the staff of the Independent Air Force at Nancy in the last few weeks of the war and got to know 99 Squadron. Dorian was appointed to escort him and took him up for a flight in his de  Havilland. On Armistice Day, when the prince was 23 years old he sent the following letter to Dorian, who was then 25.

Post war, 99 Squadron was sent to India and flew bombing raids in the North-west frontier. Dorian wrote home that "the machines were certainly out of date but good enough for the job as there were no machines against us" and "if you didn't take off in the early morning you couldn't get off at all as there seemed to be no lift in the air when it got warmer."

Dorian was still in the Royal Air Force in 1924 and eventually left with the rank of Flight Lieutenant. He then returned to a directorship at Thom,  Lamont & Co Limited. In September 1921 he had married Peggy Ramsay and set up house in Pollokshields, where they had three sons and two daughters together.

One son, David Trenchard Thom was to go on and distinguish himself in the commandos after D-Day and later had an eccentric career as a Newmarket trainer. There is a quirky biography of him in which his biographer  Terry Jennings reports him as saying that father Dorian had little interest in the business of Thom, Lamont & Co Limited apart from the director's salary that he drew. The book is entitled "A man before his time"  but a better title would have been "A man of his time" as I can't imagine David Thom having lived at any other period in history.

Dorian Thom enjoyed sailing, mainly aboard Aline and Falcon. Needless to say he didn't sail with Herbert.  He wrote "I fell in off Falcon when steering, was very annoyed as I had just got my stop-watch back from the makers. It was very amusing watching the Eights trying to get near me - they must have read in a book about gybing as they seemed to be getting further away all the time. However a wee lugsail slipped in and picked me up." One can imagine a certain tension in the boardroom between the two brothers.

Regrettably it seems that Dorian's constitution was not up to the demands of his lifestyle and he died at the early age of 43 on 10 May 1936.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

John Herbert Thom - Part Four - Canna cleans up

Of course yachting was suspended during the war years. The smaller yachts were laid up, many not to survive long periods of neglect, and the larger ones commandeered. There were occasional disasters such as the fire at Mcleans which destroyed inter alia Westra. The Firth of Clyde was itself dedicated to war service and out of bounds, the only small boats seen being occasional Navy whalers. The press speculated that leisure sailing would never return.

Apart from running the firm of Thom Lamont & Co Herbert Thom volunteered for the Clyde River Patrol and in 1942 he bought Beechwood House, Dunoon, a large house with a great view over the river. Meanwhile Sub-Lieutenant John Thom RNVR was taking part in various dangerous missions, which were to earn him the DSC and bar. His brother Herbert Junior joined the Fleet Air Arm but was found to be colour blind and so was not allowed to fly. Circe was sold to Captain G E T Eyston and went to the Solent.

Post-war Herbert Thom enjoyed himself as a popular guest helmsman on various yachts on the Clyde, generally bringing home the prize. In early 1948 he went to the Solent and helmed Circe for Captain Eyston in the Olympic tuning-up races, winning the Solent Cup in her.

Racing in the Islanders continued in the pre-war spirit with very close competition and generally at least six boats turning out. The Islanders, being a local class, were not affected by the 1948 Olympic Games, which attracted a lot of talent South, so that for example at the opening Clyde regatta there were no starters in seven of the ten classes. Canna had been put up for sale by Mr Norman McK Manclark and the temptation proved too much, so a new "yellow peril" returned.

Canna must have needed some tuning up (and replacement of topside paint with varnish), as she ended up in third place behind class champion James Buchanan's Sanda with Jura, now skippered by Adam Bergius, second. By 1949 Herbert Thom was back as champion and he repeated the feat every year apart from 1959, when he was ill, until again illness cut short his season in 1963. 1956 must have been frustrating for the other owners, as Canna entered 22 races and was first in all of them. (Cruise in Company incorrectly gives this total as 32.)  This was also the largest number of first places he ever gained in one year.

By the end of 1957 the David Boyd-designed Sceptre was being built by Robertsons at Sandbank. There was plenty of press speculation about who would helm her in the America's Cup. Asked at the launching if he would be going to the States in September Herbert Thom said "no, but I might change my mind before then." But the challenging club was the Royal Yacht Squadron and it remained to be seen if they would select an all-Scottish team of designer, builder and helm.

On 22 April 1958 the Herald disclosed that Herbert Thom was to helm Evaine, built in 1936 to a Charles Nicholson design, in the trials off the Solent in May. Sceptre's helm was likely to be Lieutenant-Commander Graham Mann, who had won a bronze at the 1956 Olympics at the helm of the Duke of Edinburgh's Dragon, Bluebottle and was the Duke's sailing master.

At the opening weekend of the trials in June Evaine beat Sceptre five times, this being mainly attributed in the press reports to the skill and tactical ability of her skipper. The papers speculated that the final selection would be a choice between youth and experience, the two main candidates being respectively 34 and  67 years old. 

After a few weeks of controversy Herbert Thom indicated that he would be willing to go across as helmsman, but had no interest in being appointed "crew adviser." In one interview he even suggested that Evaine should be sent across for the challenge. He also suggested swapping the crews over, but this was not taken up. At the end of the month he returned to the Clyde and maybe just to prove a point not only won the Islander race, but finished ahead of the 8 metres, which had started 20 minutes before Canna. The outcome of the Cup series is of course history.

There was an echo of this history in the summer of 1963 when Sovereign was being tuned up on the Clyde with Sceptre as trial horse. Herbert Thom had watched from the committee boat as the score stood at eight to Sovereign against two to Sceptre. He was given Sceptre's helm and notched up another two wins. This time there was no suggestion that at 72 he should be involved further.

It was stressful racing in a competitive class under the eyes of the general, as well as the yachting, press, because until fairly recently yacht racing attracted a lot of press attention. For example in May 1957 the Scotsman found it newsworthy that Herbert Thom had not come first in a yacht race. By late August 1963 he was exhausted and, perhaps mindful of his father's history of heart trouble, decided to retire. Canna was duly sold and he didn't race again. I'm happy to report that he didn't suffer any long-term effects and lived to enjoy a happy retirement, before passing away in 1986 at the age of 96.

Over a racing career that lasted 60 years Herbert Thom had won 690 flags, including 453 first places. Here is his record sheet.

As a postscript to a life on the water I should record that Herbert Thom built up and directed a highly successful business, whose pumps did service throughout the World. In January 2001 the British Antarctica Survey in South Georgia reported:- 
".... visited the old whaling station in search of an item to rescue, and found it in the old 'Coppersmith's Coal Shed'. It was a pump. A particular pump. A Twin Cylinder Vertical Steam Water Pump Circa ... well, we are not sure 'what circa'. The whaling station closed around 1960 when the pump was last used. The only identification we can find on the body of the thing is the manufacturer's label and a designation 5 x 5 x 6 which was probably the stroke and capacity. The pump, serial number 14398, was made by Thomas (sic) Lamont & Co Ltd, Engineers of Paisley, Scotland. But to what use was it put ? That we cannot answer either."

This pump is now in the Grytviken museum.

 There's another one at the Tokomaru museum in New Zealand.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

John Herbert Thom Part Three Six Metre Adventures

Herbert Thom enjoyed just three seasons with Westra, becoming class champion in each of the years 1934, 1935 and 1936. As before the main opposition was coming from James Buchanan's Sanda, which was generally second to Westra's first place. By the end of 1936 perhaps a point had been made and it was time for another change.

The Dragons had arrived on the Clyde and were being built in quantities by McGruers, but Herbert Thom refused to consider sailing a foreign design. He may also have wanted a larger boat, as he had been married to Hilda Stark since 1914 and they now had three children, Hilda, John and Herbert. Instead he was approached jointly by Alex Robertson & Sons and David Boyd, who suggested that they produce a new six metre for him. The result was Circe, which was David Boyd's first design for a metre boat.

By the end of 1937 Circe had won 24 flags including 6 firsts, the largest number in any class, despite being dismasted on the first day of Clyde Fortnight. The Glasgow  Herald reported that her helmsman already had 312 flags in 12 years, so was now up to 336.

September 1938 saw a team of four British six metres going to Oyster Bay, Long Island to contest the British America Cup and separately the Royal Northern Yacht Club challenged for the Seawanhaka Cup.

The British America Cup would go to the first team of four to win four races. Team racing has to be regarded as a separate sport from normal yacht racing, as the prize goes to the team with the best overall score  and the racing rules must be exploited to achieve this. For example if you find your yourself in first place,  but the rest of your team are well down the fleet your tactic must be to baulk the other teams yachts,  by luffing them,  exploiting port and starboard situations and so on. It requires a different cultural approach , a profound knowledge of the rules and the confidence to put boats at risk and get away with it. It's best done on true one-design boats, which six metres patently are not. I suspect that the British team would have had little if any experience of this rather aggressive version of their sport.

The British yachts were Mr R M Teacher's Erica, Herbert Thom's Circe, Mr J H Maurice Clark's Vrana, all Scottish boats, and Solenta, owned by Eldon and Kenneth Trimingham of Bermuda. The American team consisted of Mr Briggs Cunningham's Fun, Mr George Nichols' Goose, Mr Paul Shields' Rebel and Mr Henry Morgan's Djinn.

The Scottish yachts were duly craned aboard the Anchor liner California, while Herbert Thom, accompanied by his mother and son John travelled on the Donaldson Line's Letitia. The cost to each owner would have been about £1,500, a very substantial sum.

The races were a disaster for the British team. 

In the first race, sailed in variable but mainly light conditions, the Americans got first, second, fourth and seventh places, with Circe last. 

In the second race, sailed in a nice breeze of 10 to 13 mph, the Americans forced Circe and Vrana over the start line and they were recalled. The Americans got first, second, third and seventh places, Solenta at fourth was the best British boat and Circe came sixth. 

The next day the wind was very light. Djinn forced Solenta and Circe over the start line at the expense of being over herself and all three got recalled. Later on Djinn fouled Circe and Henry Morgan promptly withdrew. The British boats were now generally doing rather well, when the race committee decided that the time limit of four hours would not be met and cancelled the race. 

On day four Goose luffed Solenta and collided with her, causing both to protest. The yachts had been only five feet apart when Goose's skipper put his helm down hard and at the subsequent hearing she was disqualified. As this was a resail of the third race Djinn remained disqualified for her skipper's behaviour the day before. The British skippers pleaded with the committee to waive this and allow Henry Morgan to compete, but the rule was enforced, so the Americans had a serious handicap. They got the first and second places, but still lost on points. Circe came fourth. 

In the fourth race, day five of sailing, there was a good breeze. The Americans won with first, second, fifth and eighth places and Circe came fourth again. 

The Americans won again on the final day with first, fourth, fifth and sixth places in very light airs. Circe, considered to be a heavy weather boat, came seventh.

The series demonstrated the classic features of team racing, mentioned above. Everyone declared that they had thoroughly enjoyed the sportsmanship, but I expect the British sailors had learned a thing or two the hard way. I'm not at all sure that Herbert Thom would have felt really at home in this form of the sport;  he had too competitive an instinct for that. Also the conditions had not been suitable for Circe. 

On the evening of the last day the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club declared that Goose would defend the Seawanhaka Cup and the Royal Northern nominated Circe to challenge for it. It is unlikely that the challengers felt they had much of a chance, but by now Herbert Thom had had time to learn about the local conditions. For the challenge he had his pick of crew from all the British boats. He selected William MacAusland from Mr Teacher's Erica and Sandy Baird and Murray Maclehose from Maurice Clark's Vrana to sail with him and his son John. He selected the best sails from all the British boats too.

Baird, MacAusland, JHT, Maclehose, John Thom

On the first day of the series any American complacency was severely shaken. The Glasgow Herald reported:-

"It was a nasty day for sailing, judged by the standards of ladies afternoon sailing parties. There was an easterly blowing up the sound, seventeen miles an hour at the start and clear to twenty five at the finish. It was piling up a real sea, steep, rugged navy, and out of the low gray clouds heavy cold rain squalls sluiced down now and again. Maybe Circe thought she was back at home in her own Firth O' Clyde waters, for it was a dour day for these parts. At any rate she went, and Goose, fastest all-around yacht of the American six-metre fleet, couldn't hold her under the conditions."

The course was a windward/leeward one from a line off Oak Neck to a turning mark off Oyster Bay and back. At the end of the first beat Circe was a minute ahead, then set a huge borrowed spinnaker for a scary run back to the start. During the second lap the wind steadily increased, but both yachts struggled with genoas on the beat and Circe was still a minute ahead at the turn. Aboard Goose Nichols underestimated and had to pinch up to the mark. This time Circe set a smaller spinnaker than Goose. The latter tried a reaching course with a gybe while Circe went straight for the line and finished a minute and forty four seconds ahead.

The second race had a triangular course, sailed in another blustery day. Herbert Thom gave Circe a perfect start and Goose couldn't catch her, finishing twenty four seconds behind.

The third race was sailed in Goose's weather, a light easterly with a windward/leeward course again. Goose had by far the better start and covered Circe as the latter tacked several times in quick succession. Suddenly the wind whipped round to the southeast, giving a reach to the windward mark, at which Goose was two minutes thirtyfive seconds ahead. The return was now a reach in about seven miles an hour of wind and Goose rounded the next mark just over five minutes ahead. There was now a run to the original weather mark. Circe made up a little and was four minutes ten seconds behind at the final turn. The final leg was now a beat. The wind died and both boats drifted along, Circe holding inshore of Goose. Herbert Thom must have scented a land breeze, because while Goose lay becalmed Circe silently eased sheets and started moving very gently, gradually overhauling her and steadily easing sheets again, picking up speed, while the crew of Goose could only sit and watch. The wind eventually reached Goose, but it was too late. At the very end she tried the expedient of setting her spinnaker, but to no avail. Circe finished half a minute ahead and won the Cup.

Circe on Oyster Bay

A year later Herbert Thom and Circe successfully defended the Cup against the Norwegian Noreg III, designed by Johan Anker. Circe's crew were William MacAusland, Murray Maclehose, John Thom and Herbert Junior. Noreg and Circe were both heavy weather boats quite unsuited to the conditions they encountered.

The first race was sailed in a near calm, with the yachts towed to a start off Toward. The course was a windward leg to a mark off the Big Cumbrae, a run back to Toward and round again. Circe was over the line at the start and lost a minute in the recall. Noreg was the faster boat in the conditions and was one and a half minutes ahead at the first mark, then opened out a lead to finish the first round four and a half minutes ahead. The boats were well separated and Circe was able to stand out to the North on port tack, then the wind went westerly and she was able to fetch the mark on starboard, forcing Noreg behind her. The Norwegian boat then recovered her lead but Circe got ahead again and was twenty seconds ahead at the windward mark. On the final run the positions changed several times as little puffs of wind came and went. Towards the end Circe was ahead when a wind came up behind Noreg and she ran very fast, but it died away and Circe won by twentyone seconds.

The second race took place in similar calm conditions. The course was twice round a seven mile triangle and it was only just completed within the four and a half hour time limit.

The first leg was a close reach and Circe to leeward steadily drew ahead, until the wind increased, Noreg getting it first and turning the first mark thirtysix seconds ahead. The yachts then set spinnakers for the run and just as on the previous day the wind came and went. Eventually the yachts were becalmed beside each other for fortyfive minutes. When the wind came Circe got it first and rounded the downwind mark three minutes ahead. Noreg now got becalmed while Circe opened out her lead to a mile. The wind eventually came up and the second round proved much less eventful. Noreg reduced Circe's lead to just under eight minutes by the finish.

The third race went to Noreg by a margin of four and a half minutes. The course was another windward/leeward one, from Skelmorlie to Ascog on Bute and back, twice. Circe started slightly ahead, but Noreg sailed faster and pointed higher, turning the windward mark two and a half minutes ahead. Downwind Circe had trouble setting  her spinnaker and lost several minutes, but eventually reduced Noreg's lead a bit. At the end of the first circuit Noreg was three and a half minutes ahead. On the second circuit  Noreg again sailed better to windward and Circe better off the wind, but Noreg had secured her first win.

The next day's racing started in near calm conditions and was declared void after three and a half hours, when Noreg had managed to ghost some distance ahead of Circe. Another two attempts to run this race on succeeding days were also defeated by the prevailing calms. The fourth race was eventually run over a triangular course seven miles long, with two rounds as usual. There was a fresh north-easterly wind and the course was run in just under two hours twenty minutes. Circe led at the start, but Noreg was the faster boat to windward and had a lead of thirtyfive seconds at the mark. On the run Noreg set her spinnaker faster and increased her lead to 58 seconds. Circe was faster on the reach that followed, reducing the lead to 35 seconds again. On the beat again there was a tacking duel, which reduced Noreg's lead down to 25 seconds. Noreg again handled her spinnaker more smartly, Circe caught up once she got going, but the distance remained about thirty seconds. Things became very tense on the final reach, with Circe closed up and tried to luff Noreg above her course with a view to then bearing away swiftly, but Noreg was too alert and bore away immediately Circe did so. Near the end Circe was ahead but Noreg was to windward and the race went to Noreg by one second. Afterwards Herbert Thom went aboard the flagship and pointed out to the race committee that they had laid the finishing line incorrectly. The rules required the mark buoy to be left to starboard, but the line was to be perpendicular to the course. This had not been done, so the yachts could not sail straight through the line, but had to circle the mark and in doing this Circe had to give room to Noreg. He refused to make a formal protest however, so the result stood.

With the score level at two all there were then some  more days of agonising calm before the deciding fifth race took place.

The deciding race was run over another windward/leeward course wit the start off Toward and the windward mark off Cumbrae, twice round and a distance of fourteen miles.

Noreg got a better start and sailed better to windward, turning the first mark twentyeight seconds ahead. On the run Noreg sailed over to Bute, while Circe went straight for the mark and got there three minutes ahead. On the next beat the wind fell light. The yachts close-tacked over to Cumbrae, where the wind freed a little and Noreg turned the mark thirtyfour seconds ahead. All now depended on the final downwind leg and the wind went lighter still, making it doubtful if the time limit would be met. This time Circe held over to Bute and after a frustrating spell of calm the wind eventually came from that side and took the lead, while Noreg still lay just outside the belt of moving air. With only twenty minutes left there was now a mile to cover. Circe raced along, her spinnaker now pulling well, and beat the time limit by seven minutes, with Noreg four minutes behind. The race finished amidst screeches of the sirens of steam yachts and the hooting of car horns on shore.

I clearly remember as a child being told that Herbert Thom had carefully studied the settled weather pattern of the cancelled race days and had concluded that if the wind came from anywhere it would be from Bute. Thus on round one he went straight to the mark, so as not to give anything away and on round two Noreg's skipper  of course copied what Circe had done last time.

Tenacity, local knowledge, experience, cunning and a bit of luck all went into the mixture that got the Cup for Circe and her crew against what proved a faster boat.

Post script

Since posting this originally I have learned a bit more about Circe's crew at Oyster Bay. Sandy Baird, on the left of the photo, went on to be harbour master at Bermuda. Murray Maclehose, the tall chap on JHT's left, was twenty and a student at Baliol at the time. He went into the diplomatic service in Paris and elsewhere, was involved in Harold Wilson's attempts to end the Vietnam War, became UK Ambassador to Vietnam and elsewhere and was finally became the longest serving Governor of Hong Kong, greatly respected and liked. He died aged 82 in 2000.