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.


  1. I am JHT's grandson-in-law and have recently been researching some family history, mainly focused on his son, John D Thom. I would be interested to hear for Ewan.

  2. Hello Alistair

    I'll be delighted to exchange information with you. Please send me a private email on