Of the many reasons I love owning and sailing a classic wooden boat, one of the most important is the connections these boats can make. By definition, old boats have long histories, and they can create distant and often unexpected connections between places and people. Waif made one of these fascinating connections for us recently, when we received an email from California. The email reached us (of course) via an earlier Waif connection, our friend Benjy.
[As an aside; take a look at Benjy’s brilliant small boat and other designs at http://www.woodenwidget.com]
Benjy forwarded an email from a man called Simon, who had recognised photos of Waif on Benjy’s website. I emailed Simon, and he wrote back:
“My history with Waif dates from about 1965 when I was 11. The owner at that time was Peter Mayer, who owned the grocer’s shop in Axbridge, Somerset. Peter had an interesting past, being just old enough to serve in the RAF at the end of WW2. He was an enthusiastic motorist and he and his friend Barney Lovell raced saloon cars in the 1950s, and competed in both the RAC and Monte Carlo rallies, sponsored by MG. Peter also took up sailing in the 1950’s and crewed aboard a gaff cutter called Judy Anne out of the river Helford. In about 1960 Peter was left some money by his uncle and he purchased Waif in Southampton for £3,000, a tidy sum in those days [more than £45,000 now!]. He sailed her with crew up to Highbridge in Somerset where she was refitted. I then crewed for him when he kept her at Porlock, on a mooring just outside the lock gates. We cruised regularly there, with trips down to Ilfracombe and Lundy, but the grocers shop really only allowed him short weekends. He laid her up for her first winter at Dave Blake’s yard at Highbridge, where Dave was to do some repairs as recommended by the surveyor. Waif was on a cradle at the end of a long slipway fitted with rails. The wind started to blow up the river Brue, and it was dark and raining hard. Dave cranked on the winch to pull her up the slipway, but instead, the cradle was being pulled out from under… She struck hard over on her port side and as the tide rapidly came up she was flooded with mud and water. The next day Dave got her hauled out (quite a job!) and cleaned her up before calling Peter to tell him what had happened. There was some damage to her port side and the rudder, and the engine was flooded with seawater. Dave put doubling frames on the port side, that are probably still there [they are!]. He made a new rudder, stripped down the engine, and fitted new bunk cushions – in effect a refit courtesy of the insurers. Peter then sailed her down to Brixham where I continued to crew for him while I was at school.”
“In about 1980, I was in accountancy articles in London and Peter and I were taking the boat to Guernsey where I was going to sail her with a friend from college, after Peter had come back on the ferry. We set a heading for Les Hanois light off Guernsey (dead reckoning in those days) motorsailing on the starboard tack as the wind got up. Waif was going at top speed, probably making 7 kts, when we cut the engine – at which point she took off on the top of a wave and fell maybe 10 feet into the trough with a shudder. It did not feel good, so I went below to have a look and found water gushing up in a fountain by the heads in the forepeak. We pumped continuously for maybe 2 hours, just about keeping the water maybe 6 to 9 inches deep in the cabin. The engine wouldn’t restart as the magneto had been soaked by a leak from the bilge pump. By then the wind had dropped, as we headed north up through the Little Russell channel on the east side of the island with just steerage way and the tide sweeping us north. We inched our way into St Peter Port, and dropped anchor, exhausted, in the middle of the harbour around midnight. The harbour launch told us to move so with his help we raised chain and anchor and he towed us across the sill to be alongside the harbour wall. I can still remember after nearly 40 years looking up at the top of the wall to see a policeman looking down and asking if we were okay! With a 40ft tidal range we loosely tied fore and aft lines, had several drinks and a meal and fell into our bunks, dead to the world. Bright sunshine in the morning, completely dried out, so we could see what damage had been done to the hull. All the paint on the port side was fractured along the caulking lines from the waterline to the gunwhale from the bow to midships, maybe 10-14ft. As she fell off the wave she must have landed on her port side with tremendous force [presumably forcing out the caulking]. Needless to say our cruising plans were off. We had her hauled out at the boatyard in St. Peter Port. The hull was recaulked, some work done on rebuilding the flooded engine, and the large bill covered by the Navigators and General Insurance Company! I think we went to collect her two months later. We had had a narrow escape, as off Les Hanois the water level was gaining faster than we could pump. It was the nearest Peter and I had ever come to sinking! With only a hard dinghy stowed on the coachroof I am not sure whether we would have survived in the water for long. Joys of sailing.”
We sent Simon some photos of Waif as she is now. He described her original mast (her 1960 original at least) as being shorter than the current mast, but with no topmast, so you could not set a topsail. She had a Thornycroft “handy billy” petrol / paraffin engine that he describes as “a brute to (hand) start, with a massive flywheel, but once going it was very reassuring.” [I believe this was her original 1929 engine – see one running here]. She had no electrics and no battery, with oil lamps only.