Sailing out of the darkness
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