I was then a student and a family friend asked me to help him sail his 35-foot yacht back across the Atlantic from America. How could I resist an offer like that?
The boat in question was old-fashioned, even then. She was built throughout of wood – even her mast was wooden – and most of her fittings were made of bronze rather than stainless steel. Her rigging was made of galvanised steel and she had a long, deep keel – great for stability but not for speed. She was called Saecwen, sea-queen in Anglo-Saxon, appropriately enough, as she was a Saxon class boat, built by Priors to a design by Alan Buchanan in 1961. She may not have been fast, and she was certainly leaky, but she was tough and seaworthy. And she had lovely lines: long, low and slim.
The ‘skipper’ was Colin McMullen – a retired Captain of the Royal Navy. He’d been Gunnery Officer aboard HMS Prince of Wales when she put a crucial shell into the awesome Bismarck up in the Denmark Strait in 1941. One of Bismarck’s fuel tanks was holed and she had to cut short her first and last combat mission. Colin saw HMS Hood blow up a few minutes later, when straddled by one of Bismarck‘s deadly accurate broadsides. All but a few of her crew of 1400 died. Not many months later Colin was one of the last to leave Prince of Wales when she in her turn was sunk by Japanese bombers off the coast of Malaya. He coolly swam off the bridge just as she turned turtle and went down. Luckily there were no sharks around and he was safely rescued. Later in the war Colin commanded destroyers escorting the Arctic convoys and he was also involved in the Dieppe Raid. It was not his fault that the raid was a disaster. He won two Distinguished Service Crosses. Here he is as a dashing young Lieutenant in full dress uniform back in 1932
Colin was also an immensely experienced cruising yachtsman. He’d been messing about in boats all his life, starting in Waterville, County Kerry, during the First World War, and by the time I got to know him well he was Commodore of the Royal Cruising Club – an organisation that acts as a magnet to small-boat-sailors (often eccentric) who enjoy exploring out of the way places, from the Arctic to the Antarctic – and everywhere in between. I’d been longing to learn how to navigate using the sun and stars, and Colin was just the man to teach me.
To be continued…