Sail­ing out of the dark­ness

Yachting Monthly - - COLUMN - DICK DURHAM

What do a Ger­man mul­ti­mil­lion­aire yacht de­signer and an Es­sex barge skip­per have in com­mon? An­swer: as en­e­mies, they both learned how to sail in a World War II bomber’s dis­pos­able fuel tank. Christoph Rassy, 84, was born in Bavaria and, as a school­boy, col­lected the jet­ti­soned drop tanks of the USAF P-51 Mus­tang bomber to con­struct his first boat, and taught him­self to sail on the Starn­berger See.

Jimmy Lawrence, 84, was born in Colch­ester, Es­sex an, as a school­boy, used the jet­ti­soned drop tanks, pos­si­bly of a Luft­waffe Junkers Ju 88, to con­struct his first boat on the River Colne.

Christoph went on to run one of the most suc­cess­ful boat­build­ing com­pa­nies in Europe, Hall­ber­grassy. Jimmy went on to found one of the most suc­cess­ful sail lofts in Europe, James Lawrence of Brightlingsea, and re­vealed his story to me this sum­mer at the launch of his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Lon­don Light: A Sailor­man’s Story.

In the book, Jimmy re­calls his early im­pro­vi­sa­tional skills to get afloat: nav­i­ga­tion lights made from Lyle’s Golden Syrup tins with a can­dle in­serted in a cut-out, with red or green ‘win­dows’ made of cel­lo­phane used to wrap wartime tooth­paste that was pro­duced in tablet form. Later, he con­structed a barom­e­ter from an empty whisky bot­tle placed neck down into a jam jar con­tain­ing two inches of wa­ter. The wa­ter rose as an anti-cy­clone ap­proached and dropped with the on­set of the next de­pres­sion.

Jimmy’s use of mend and make-do would stand him in good stead through­out the years of aus­ter­ity fol­low­ing the war. Fru­gal­ity among the barge skip­pers was an old habit which died hard. When I sailed some 20 years later as mate of the last sail­ing barge to carry cargo, Cam­bria, I used to cough loudly while saw­ing off another chunk of loaf so that her skip­per Bob Roberts couldn’t hear the bread knife at work. Bob proudly told me once how, as mate, his own skip­per ad­mon­ished him: ‘bread ‘n’ marge, boy, or bread ‘n’ jam. Not bread, marge and jam.’

Two colours dom­i­nate the world of barges and barge­men: brown and blue. The for­mer is dis­played in the cow-coloured can­vas used in ma­noeu­vres, the lat­ter the lan­guage used when it goes wrong. Both are dealt with in Jimmy’s book. The first – the recipe for dress­ing barge sails – was a wellkept se­cret among barge own­ers as the shinier the fin­ish, the faster their fleet went and the more freights they would se­cure. Jimmy gives us the recipe of Fran­cis & Gilders’ Colch­ester fleet: 60 pounds of yel­low ochre, 30lb of red ochre, 45 gal­lons of wa­ter, eight gal­lons of cod oil and a bucket of stale beer. The sails, when be­ing dressed with yard brooms, can’t be left folded for too long as they are ‘sub­ject to spon­ta­neous com­bus­tion’!

As for the blue lan­guage, Jimmy gives an ac­count of a pas­sage out of Sur­rey Com­mer­cial Dock.

Skip­per of a PLA tug via loud­hailer: ‘Oi, sailor­man, you are not al­lowed to **** ing sail in the **** ing dock.’ Jimmy: ‘I’m not **** ing sail­ing, I am **** ing drift­ing.’ PLA skip­per: ‘What’s that **** ing sail do­ing then?’ Jimmy: ‘I’m **** ing dry­ing it.’

For all their adapt­abil­ity, Jimmy once told me, ‘The spritty barge is a poor tool out­side the Thames Es­tu­ary.’

He is cor­rect, but the skills he learned aboard the sail­ing barges gave him an in­sight into mak­ing sails for ves­sels bound across oceans.

Lon­don Light: A Sailor­man’s Story by Jim Lawrence is pub­lished by Chaf­fcut­ter Books and priced £13.50

He im­pro­vised nav­i­ga­tion lights from golden syrup tins with can­dles in

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