Planes, trains, and pilot cutters

Dateline: October 2023, The Royal Ocean Racing Club, London

The pilot cutter in question, Jolie Brise, won the first Fastnet Race in 1925. Originally a French Pilot Boat out of Le Harve, in the 1920s, she was subsequently sold to the British yachtsman Bobby Somerset.

The first edition of what became the Rolex Fastnet Race was at that time called, no kidding, The Ocean Race. At the post-race gathering of competitors in Plymouth, the Ocean Racing Club was formed and subsequently granted a Royal warrant. I am presently seated in the Fastnet Room of the Royal Ocean Racing Club, in St. James Place, London, and what a treasure trove of sailing history it is.

Apart from the oil painting of Jolie Brise reaching away from Fastnet Rock hanging over the fireplace mantle in our room, there is a lovely large color photo of her in the dining room. She is leaping out of a wave, water streaming off the foredeck, looking in some respects not so old fashion. She sports a long bowsprit with a sail on a roller out on the end, dead eyes and lashings for the textile standing rigging, tiller steering, gooseneck way down on the spar just above the deck, squarehead mainsail masquerading as a gaff.

I read, in the club’s history, one of many books in the club library, that the idea for the Fastnet was originally mooted by one James Weston Martyr in 1924. Ian Dear, the book’s author, writes in a very entertaining way about the genesis of the club and the characters who launched it.

Martyr survived the First World War, but was greatly impacted, likely permanently, by being next to his Batman, who had his head shot off by a shell. Dear reports many characters in the early days of the club had similar experiences, well before Warrior Sailing of course. Apparently, working in New York as a ship broker was his next stop and thence onto the 1923 Bermuda Race.

He was one of those Brits who had the means, or as Dear remarks, conned his mother into giving him the means, to enjoy a life well lived. Back in the UK following his participation in the Newport to Bermuda Race he wrote in Yachting Monthly a glowing account about this experience thrashing to the Onion Patch and declaring that ocean racing is “the very finest sport man (or woman) can possibly engage in.” He seems to be well ahead of his time by including the reference to woman in this article.

The directors of the Yellow Cottage boat yard and marine works are in the UK to cover the International Shipping Week conference, or at least Jill is. I am the official bag carrier. We are staying at the RORC for a few days, and it is like reliving my childhood.

Growing up reading about and hearing all things sailing from Britain: Robin Knox-Johnston, later knighted for his circumnavigation, Chichester, similarly lauded, the Fastnet Race, reading Swallows and Amazons, Hillaire Belloc, Erskine Childers’ Riddle of the Sands, Eric and Susan Hiscock, Blondie Hasler and the beginnings of the OSTAR, Sopranino, the Admiral’s Cup, and all the rest. I felt like I knew more about the English South Coast than Sydney Harbor.

The actual Admiral’s Cup lounges in its own custom display glass box in an alcove off the dining room. The building itself, at 20 St. James Place, backs onto Green Park. As befits a Royal Club, there is a large, paneled front door, with a nice raised circular timber detail, resembling the wheel hub of a wooden steering wheel. There is a buzz-me-in box on the right, with a keypad for after-hours entry.

The entry is a largish foyer with stairs in front of you and the offices on the left. On the right is the “Luggage Room.” Up the stairs, one arrives at a landing with more stairs up to the rooms on the top floor. Straight ahead and to port is the bar. To starboard is The Fastnet Room. Exactly like it sounds: high ceilings, wooden paneling, a fireplace (sadly dormant), another picture of Jolie Brise in The place of honor above it. Big and massively comfortable leather-bound armchairs, reading lamps, side tables and a view back up St. James Place. Downton Abbey could have been shot there.

On the adjoining wall to the bar are the two floor-to-ceiling bookcases, one on each side guarding the door to The Fastnet Room. These are perhaps ten feet high, six feet wide with eight shelves per, with every shelf full, to the point of books laid horizontal on top of the verticals, all jammed in. Lots of books on voyaging, from authors I have never read (as yet) plus all the usual suspects. Sail Power, Comeback, Looking at Sails, Vertue 35, the club’s editions of the books I refer to above, and many more.

The bar itself is the second biggest room in the place behind the adjacent dining room. More comfy chairs, side tables, reading lamps, another oil painting of Jolie Brise over another regrettably dormant fireplace. As befits a senior Yacht Club, the well-stocked bar gives the membership a nice view of half of St. James Place. The other half is unfortunately recently obscured by a ritzy hotel. A delightful feature of the club is that on the weekends the occupants may pour themselves a drink and record the “purchase” of it on the honor system notepad placed on the bar for the purpose. It is all very British.

The well-known (at least to members of commonwealth countries) British sense of humor is sprinkled throughout Dear’s book. One episode is described with respect to an account of an “at home” party for members of the allied navies during WWII.

The building hosting these festivities took a direct hit in the Blitz, dividing the house in half. It is reported that the bomb destroyed the center staircase and one end of the building and that the steward was killed. The trophies, records and a large amount of furniture were recovered and moved to higher ground. Perhaps most importantly, the wine cellar was spared and its contents recovered. The members on site removed the bottles on a stretcher covered by a blanket, in the course of which onlookers stood solemnly and raised their hats. The telegram informing the commodore of this event read: ‘Clubhouse bombed. Steward killed. Wine saved.’

Lest it be mooted that the Yotties were lounging around swilling wine in the midst of a global conflagration, the (typically older) members not otherwise engaged in the war were quick to answer the call when it came. There was something called the Small Vessels Pool, originally the small boats that evacuated Dunkirk. The genesis of this fleet of small ships remained and were used to move men and material around the inshore waters as needed and were commanded and crewed by RORC members.

In 1958, The Duke of Edinburgh was made an honorary life member and was the guest of honor at that season’s annual dinner. The then commodore made a speech referencing the meme of sailing being the most expensive way to go nowhere slowly and be very uncomfortable while doing so.

Prince Phillip, not to be outdone, responded along the lines of “I know a bit about the sea to have an unbounded admiration for anyone who belongs to this club. But if I had any more knowledge, I would think you are all nuts.” He went on to inquire how the new rating rule worked. British humor responded perfectly. A quickly drafted formulae was presented as the Drinking Time Allowance (DTA) based upon the Trophy Tunnage Rating, comprising measurements for greatest diameter of the trophy, dent correction factor, froth factor, forward girth station of the winner of the trophy, forward inner girth station of the above, the difference between these two measurements, and so on. This formula was delivered to the Prince. There is no record in Dear’s book of his response, though one suspects it was well received.

Our time in the RORC clubhouse was an interesting mélange of my childhood sailing history, or perhaps my reading about it. Of the “great” yacht clubs and races, stories I have heard firsthand and the yarns supporting them, and memorable contests in some of the harshest waters we sail in.

I do not infrequently look in the mirror and wonder just exactly how Little Joey Cooper from Sydney, Ozstralia managed to end up here in this sailing milieu, having a great life in the lee of such fascinating characters, characters of course being the one constant we all enjoy in our shipmates, when at sea. They make the most appalling weather less unpleasant.■

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