50 years of Dras­combes

The de­fin­i­tive day­boat?

Practical Boat Owner - - Contents -

All too of­ten it takes years or even decades be­fore we come to ap­pre­ci­ate the sig­nif­i­cance of some­thing we ex­pe­ri­enced as a child. We were per­haps too young at the time, or we sim­ply failed to make con­nec­tions whose im­por­tance we sub­se­quently came to ap­pre­ci­ate. In any event, we had no idea how priv­i­leged we were to have been in a par­tic­u­lar place with par­tic­u­lar peo­ple.

By the time I started meet­ing Ian Proc­tor on the River Dart, at least I knew who he was and had al­ready owned sev­eral of his fine dinghies. Chay Blyth (not Sir Chay at the time) was among the other nau­ti­cal celebri­ties to fre­quent this part of the world. I saw him most re­cently while fol­low­ing the hunt in the Cotswolds. Mud, wellies and wa­ter­proofs still fea­tured this time but all were a dif­fer­ent colour.

Had I known I was go­ing to lurch into a pre­car­i­ous ca­reer – if you can call it a ca­reer – as a nau­ti­cal hack and snap­per I would have taken more no­tice of some of those early en­coun­ters. I have a clear rec­ol­lec­tion of stand­ing in Hon­nor Ma­rine’s show­room at Sey­mour Wharf in Totnes, look­ing at the bright red and blue decks of a pair of 420s. Vivid though that mem­ory re­mains – and though I knew that they were in­deed 420s – it was not un­til delving into the his­tory of Hon­nor Ma­rine for this fea­ture that I learned of the com­pany’s ori­gins in the world of per­for­mance dinghies. I have al­ways as­so­ci­ated Hon­nor Ma­rine not only with Dras­combes – as have many peo­ple – but also with the Ocean Bird. This lat­ter as­so­ci­a­tion arose be­cause my fa­ther bought one of th­ese 30ft (9m) John Westell-de­signed tri­marans in the late ’60s and kept it on a moor­ing at Dit­tisham, close to the 40ft (12m) wooden pro­to­type, Mata­mona, but not quite in view from our

house. When we moved to the Dart from a vil­lage on the other side of Dart­moor (co­in­ci­den­tally, just a few miles from John Watkin­son’s home at Dras­combe Bar­ton), I was told that my par­ents’ pri­or­i­ties were har­bours, schools and houses – in that or­der. While they did well with the har­bour and the house, the chaotic Bo­hemian ex­cuse for a school was not a good choice. Some of my con­tem­po­raries ap­peared to es­cape rel­a­tively un­scathed. The rest of us weren’t so lucky, to the ex­tent that some ended up as yacht­ing jour­nal­ists.

Re­turn­ing to one of the more pos­i­tive sto­ries Totnes has to tell, ev­ery en­thu­si­ast of tra­di­tional dinghies knows how John Westell came to de­sign the 505. This was the boat that, thanks to Westell’s spe­cial­ist knowl­edge of pro­duc­tion build­ing in the then-rel­a­tively-new ma­te­rial of glass fi­bre, launched Hon­nor Ma­rine.

All three of the com­pany’s orig­i­nal di­rec­tors had been in­volved in the de­vel­op­ment of an­other per­for­mance dinghy, the Scor­pion, which was sub­se­quently built by Westerly Boats in Rock (at the yard where you will now find Cor­nish Crab­bers) along­side Ian Proc­tor’s Os­prey and Way­farer. Al­though the 505 was the boat that gave Hon­nor Ma­rine a kick-start, hav­ing the li­cence to build the 420 in the UK added some se­ri­ous pro­duc­tion vol­umes. It’s not of­ten Bri­tish boat­build­ing has had oc­ca­sion to be grate­ful to the French (twice over in this in­stance, given the pedi­gree of the 505 and the de­sign of the 420).

An un­likely tale

Apart from de­sign­ing the hugely suc­cess­ful ‘Five Oh’ and, later, the Ocean Bird, John Westell played a major role in the de­vel­op­ment and pro­duc­tion of the Dras­combes. The ques­tion, you might well be ask­ing, is how a builder with its ori­gins in per­for­mance dinghies and un­con­ven­tional tri­marans came to take on a range of tra­di­tional-style day­boats, es­pe­cially given the num­ber of Bri­tish yards that have fallen by the way­side be­cause the per­sonal in­ter­ests of the di­rec­tors and builders held sway over com­mer­cial re­al­ism. Thank­fully, Hon­nor Ma­rine’s de­ci­sion-mak­ers never lost sight of the rea­son why they were in busi­ness.

The Dras­combe story be­gan when John Watkin­son built the pro­to­type Lug­ger him­self in glued ply – Katharine Mary, named after his wife – later part-build­ing a fur­ther 18 in con­junc­tion with a lo­cal joiner and the Kelly and Hall boat­yard at Brid­gend on the River Yealm, in which he had in­vested some years ear­lier. Kelly and Hall had taken one of the boats they fin­ished to the Earls Court Boat Show in 1968, sell­ing it and 10 more.

It was clear that the Lug­ger – con­ceived by John Watkin­son as a boat for him­self and his fam­ily – was find­ing an ap­pre­cia­tive mar­ket among those who shared their en­joy­ment of coastal sail­ing in a sim­ple, shal­low-draught open boat that was roomy, ver­sa­tile and easy to trail. The Watkin­son fam­ily had al­ready sam­pled off­shore cruis­ing, hav­ing sailed to the Mediter­ranean in a 13-ton ketch a few years ear­lier. Ap­palling weather and lack of com­forts were among the fac­tors that led to their com­ing home and leav­ing the boat in the Med: day-sail­ing seemed a much bet­ter way to en­joy their time afloat, as many of us have sub­se­quently found even if it might have taken us a few years to get there. Kate made it clear that she dis­liked be­ing clouted on the head by the boom, breath­ing in en­gine fumes and hav­ing to en­dure bad weather on long pas­sages. She wanted a day-sailer so she could ‘go home to my own bed ev­ery night’.

In de­sign­ing a boat that would keep the fam­ily sail­ing to­gether, John gave the Dras­combe a loose-footed main­sail and an out­board in a well at the stern. The de­sign kept the off-putting el­e­ments of boat­ing to a min­i­mum while pro­vid­ing plenty of ap­peal.

The rate at which or­ders were soon flood­ing in made it ap­par­ent that build­ing in wood was not go­ing to be fast enough. That’s why, in 1968, Watkin­son ap­proached Hon­nor Ma­rine to ask if they would be in­ter­ested in pro­duc­ing the Dras­combe Lug­ger in GRP. It was re­fresh­ing – and per­haps a lit­tle sur­pris­ing – when his pro­posal was greeted pos­i­tively. After the switch to GRP con­struc­tion, fur­ther changes were in­evitably made to the Lug­ger over the years in­clud­ing, per­haps most ob­vi­ously, the switch from lug rig to gunter, though the lug more than served its pur­pose in nomen­clatic terms. The story is that it took a long and con­vivial evening with friends and sev­eral bot­tles of cere­bral lu­bri­cant at

Dras­combe Bar­ton be­fore it was de­cided that ‘Dras­combe’ was the ob­vi­ous choice for what would th­ese days be called the ‘brand name’. Had the boat not had a lug rig, one won­ders what the ‘model name’ might have been and whether any­thing else would have done half as well.

Tons and Lug­gers

Once Hon­nor Ma­rine started build­ing in GRP, num­bers took off: they av­er­aged 100 Lug­gers a year for the first 10 years. How­ever, it took barely a year for Watkin­son and Westell to see the po­ten­tial for a big­ger ver­sion: stretch­ing the Lug­ger by just over 3ft pro­duced the Long­boat (21ft 9in/6.63m), which Hon­nor Ma­rine started build­ing in 1970 ei­ther as an open boat or in Cruiser form with a small cabin. Like the Lug­ger, the Long­boat was also built in wood by Nor­man Whyte, John Kerr and, prin­ci­pally, the El­liot broth­ers. De­spite the ex­tra length, she was a mere 4in beamier than the Lug­ger and, at 880lb (400kg), only marginally heav­ier.

Next among the bet­ter-known mod­els in the range came the 15ft 6in (4.7m) Dab­ber, then the Drifter. With her long shal­low keel and twin bilge plates, plus a small but fully-en­closed two-berth cabin and the op­tion of an in­board en­gine, the Drifter was more small cruiser than big day­boat. More than 20 years after the last one was built came the Drifter 22 (tested in PBO July 2009) which re­mains part of Chur­chouse Boats’ Dras­combe range to­day.

The in­tro­duc­tion of new mod­els fur­ther up and down the size range con­tin­ued when the Scaffie came along in 1979 as a baby Dras­combe for sin­gle-handed sail­ing.

Then it was time to re­place the Cruiser Long­boat with the Coaster, leav­ing the hull and rig vir­tu­ally the same but mak­ing the cock­pit smaller, adding a bridgedeck and chang­ing the cabin.

Ready to ex­plore a new mar­ket was the Gig, 25ft (7.62m) long and in­tended to take over where the Royal Navy’s Mon­tagu Whaler had left off. Watkin­son was fa­mil­iar with the Whaler from his time in the Navy, as was David Thomas (the Mer­chant Navy in his case), who drew upon it for in­spi­ra­tion in his de­sign of the Lib­erty and Min­strel for Hunter Boats.

Other Dras­combe mod­els over the years have in­cluded the Peter­boat (double-ended and built in three sizes in wood only) and the Launch, based on the hull of the Dab­ber but with just a steady­ing sail, propul­sion com­ing from a small in­board. In­tro­duced a year later was the Driver, longer than the Launch and de­signed to sail – un­like two other river boats, the Hen­ley and Mar­lowe.

That the suc­cess of the Dras­combes had a mas­sive part to play in the his­tory of Hon­nor Ma­rine is un­de­ni­able. Like ev­ery boat­builder, how­ever, the com­pany went through rough patches as well as smooth and also moved premises a time or two. From Totnes, it was just a few miles down the road to a new home in Staver­ton. Later, Luke Chur­chouse, one of the orig­i­nal di­rec­tors, set up on his own in Wales be­fore Ste­wart Brown took over in 1998 from Luke’s son, Jeremy, and moved Chur­chouse Boats to Hamp­shire. Dras­combes were also built for a while by McNulty in New­cas­tle.

Ral­ly­ing calls

The nature of the Dras­combe boats – and their own­ers – makes them ide­ally suited to get­ting to­gether on so­cia­ble ral­lies: they’re easy to trail and, with their shal­low draught, can ex­plore creeks and rivers that oth­ers sim­ply can­not reach. Beach­ing for pic­nics, bar­be­cues, fun and frol­ics or sim­ply en­joy­ing the tran­quil­lity is, for many, a large part of what own­ing a Dras­combe is all about.

An ac­tive as­so­ci­a­tion – founded and, for many years, run, by Luke Chur­chouse – or­gan­ises up to 30 ral­lies a year in lo­ca­tions rang­ing from Cornwall, the So­lent, the Nor­folk Broads and the Lake District to coun­try canals, Wales and Scot­land. In 1997, the rally at Cal­shot to mark the 10th an­niver­sary of the as­so­ci­a­tion and 30 years of Dras­combe at­tracted 90 boats. An ac­tive con­tin­gent in Hol­land or­gan­ises its own events. Dutch own­ers are of­ten wel­comed at Bri­tish ral­lies too, but want to make sure any­one trav­el­ling to Hol­land is un­der no il­lu­sions about what to ex­pect. While we all know that sail­ing in Hol­land can be won­der­ful, the peo­ple are friendly and the sun can shine, one Dutch rally for later this year pro­motes it­self thus: ‘grey, wet, cold, of­ten foggy, some­times frosty...’

To ex­pe­ri­ence a Dras­combe gath­er­ing and get to know the boats a lit­tle bet­ter, I ac­cepted an in­vi­ta­tion to at­tend the major rally of the year at the WPNSA in Wey­mouth to mark 50 years of Dras­combes. After a din­ner on the Thurs­day evening to kick off the event, which was sup­ported by Chur­chouse Boats, ev­ery­one re­con­vened the fol­low­ing morn­ing for the hop of eight miles or so to Lul­worth Cove. On a beau­ti­fully sunny morn­ing in early July, a stream of tan sails made its way out of Port­land Har­bour and down­wind to­wards the chalk cliffs of Lul­worth. The fleet in­cluded half-a-dozen Long­boats and Long­boat Cruis­ers, lots of Lug­gers, a Gig, 17 Coast­ers, five Dab­bers, and four Drifters and Drifter 22s (one of the lat­ter be­ing Ste­wart Brown’s, which I tested in 2009).

Drift­ing with pur­pose

My ride for the day was with Peter Tiplady in his orig­i­nal Drifter, Si­esta, and I couldn’t have wished for a more knowl­edge­able host when it came to mat­ters Dras­combe. Peter has been an ac­tive mem­ber of the as­so­ci­a­tion for many years, hav­ing started with a Dab­ber and mov­ing on via a Coaster to the Drifter. Be­fore buy­ing the Coaster he tried a Long­boat Cruiser on a rally but de­cided he pre­ferred the Coaster be­cause the com­bi­na­tion of the

bridgedeck and the smaller cock­pit of­fers more re­sis­tance to flood­ing. As for the Drifter, its per­for­mance sur­prised me, es­pe­cially on the beat back to Wey­mouth. Once you have ac­cepted that you will in­evitably make some lee­way, you can en­joy sail­ing a boat that’s nicely bal­anced and both faster and more re­spon­sive to tweak­ing than you might ex­pect.

When Dras­combe own­ers change boats, like Peter they tend to move to an­other Dras­combe. Some switch al­le­giance but so en­joy the Dras­combe way of life that they still join in the ral­lies. At Wey­mouth, two ‘hon­orary Dras­combes’ in­cluded a Cor­nish Shrimper and a Win­kle Brig.

Many own­ers trail their boats to ral­lies. Oth­ers think noth­ing of hop­ping along the coast and mak­ing a few overnight stops. Peter was among sev­eral to sail from Ash­lett Creek in Southamp­ton Wa­ter.

Not hav­ing a cabin doesn’t stop Dras­combes from ven­tur­ing fur­ther afield ei­ther. Many PBO read­ers will re­mem­ber Webb Chiles and his near-com­plete global cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion in his Lug­ger, Chid­iock Tich­borne (he ac­tu­ally sailed two Lug­gers on the trip). An­other in­trepid Lug­ger owner sailed from Eng­land to Aus­tralia, and fur­ther At­lantic cross­ings have been made.

Re­as­sur­ing though it is to know that you have such a ca­pa­ble ves­sel, most Dras­combe own­ers en­joy their boats for what they were con­ceived to be: sim­ple, civilised and so­cia­ble day-sail­ers-cumweek­enders that al­low you to nudge into the shal­lows and sleep un­der the stars with­out all the has­sles and dis­com­forts that Kate Watkin­son so dis­liked. Ste­wart Brown con­veys the de­lights of this sort of boat­ing on his ‘Dras­combe Quirky Page’, which he has run since hand­ing over Chur­chouse Boats to new own­ers in 2013.

Rea­sons to be cheer­ful

The Wey­mouth rally was quite an eye-opener for me. I have been aware of Dras­combes for ever: after all, I grew up with them on their home patch. But, apart from test­ing the Drifter 22 a few years ago, I must admit to never hav­ing taken much no­tice of them. While th­ese greeny-hulled day­boats with their short rigs, tan sails and se­date per­for­mance were part of the scenery wher­ever I went in the South West, they didn’t re­ally cap­ture the at­ten­tion of some­one who was more into cross­ing oceans and rac­ing dinghies. They weren’t even se­ri­ously con­sid­ered when the fam­ily de­cided to buy some­thing to sail on the Dart: a Devon Yawl was our choice. Now, how­ever, I’m be­gin­ning to see their ap­peal. For a start, they have more per­for­mance po­ten­tial than I had ap­pre­ci­ated. The long, light hulls don’t need a lot of per­sua­sion to slip along sur­pris­ingly well. If you were to give a Long­boat a lit­tle tweak­ing in the rig and cen­tre­plate de­part­ments, for ex­am­ple, I’m sure it would sur­prise a few peo­ple. At the same time, to do too much of that would be to miss the point. The boats and the as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween them of­fer you the op­por­tu­nity to go to places you prob­a­bly wouldn’t oth­er­wise go and to sail with peo­ple you might not oth­er­wise meet. Those un­fa­mil­iar with the rally ar­eas can learn from oth­ers who have been there be­fore which tree to tie up to, where to an­chor or dry out and where you can step ashore with­out sink­ing in the mud.

Off­shore cruis­ing (or just cruis­ing in an off­shore yacht) might be seen as more as­pi­ra­tional but it in­volves a lot more time, cost, has­sle and dis­com­fort. Thank good­ness Kate Watkin­son said ex­actly what she thought of it and that John not only lis­tened but also did some­thing about it.

Brad Brad­shaw’s wooden Long­boat Cruiser, built by Doug El­liott with an ex­per­i­men­tal larger cabin

A Dab­ber at the double, show­ing that surf­ing is not the ex­clu­sive pre­serve of the Coaster

Left Some of the 50-odd Dras­combes at the Wey­mouth rally set­ting off for Lul­worth

Be­LoW on board Si­esta, Peter tiplady’s orig­i­nal Drifter

Katharine Mary, the orig­i­nal Dras­combe Lug­ger from 1966, and right, at the Wey­mouth rally

Drift­ing a deux: a Drifter 22 (blue hull) and an orig­i­nal Drifter, show­ing the dif­fer­ence be­tween two de­signs 30 years apart

Here’s an­other of the Coast­ers show­ing what they can do down­wind when the breeze picks up.

All friends to­gether: a Cor­nish Shrimper flanked by a Drifter 22, a Coaster and a Dab­ber

Long­boat Cruis­ers came with a va­ri­ety of win­dow pat­terns but can usu­ally be iden­ti­fied by the square cabin pro­file

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.