Monthly: January 2018

24 Jan


Good Little Ship


An excerpt for the new book, Good Little Ship: Arthur Ransome, Nancy Blackett and the Goblin, by Peter Willis.


‘A little white cutter with red sails was coming in towards the moored boats.’For the four children, paddling about in a dinghy among the moorings, this sighting is the beginning of an encounter which will lead to them sailing this same boat—alone and unaided, through varied perils—across the North Sea to Holland.

The children are fictitious as, for the most part, is their adventure: this is the start of Arthur Ransome’s We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea. But the location is real enough—Pin Mill on the River Orwell in Suffolk, where Ransome was living while he wrote the book. As for the ‘little white cutter’, she has a fictional name, but she was, and is, very real indeed. Ransome had not long previously sailed his own newly-acquired boat up that same river, and into those same moorings. He had named her the Nancy Blackett, but in We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, she becomes the Goblin.

‘Funny name for a boat,’ comments Roger, the youngest of the children, who is reading the name on a vacant mooring buoy. ‘I wonder where she is?’

They soon find out, for sure enough, the boat coming up the river is the Goblin, and she is being sailed single-handed.

Someone was busy on her foredeck. As they watched, they saw the tall red mainsail
crumple and fall in great folds on top of the cabin. ‘There’s no-one at the tiller’,
said John. ‘I say,’ said Roger. ‘Is he all alone?’

Indeed he is, but he seems to know his boat well enough, as he prepares to sail onto his mooring, using the jib, watched by the children who pull their dinghy clear just in time.

He was standing up, steering with a foot on the tiller, with his eyes on the buoy ahead of him. Suddenly, when he was still a few yards from it, they saw him stoop and then run forward along the side deck. The jib was flapping. The young man had grabbed the boathook, and was waiting, ready to reach down and catch the buoy.

‘He’ll just do it,’ Titty said, almost in a whisper.
‘Beautifully,’ said John.
‘Oh,’ gasped Titty. ‘He can’t reach it.’

For the boat has stopped moving a moment too soon. The boathook is an inch too short, then a foot. She is being swept back by the tide onto other moored boats. In desperation the skipper hurls a rope to the children in the dinghy; John makes it fast to the buoy in a swift, seamanlike manner, and they are thus, with a bowline knot, instantly bonded with the Goblin and her skipper.

These are the children originally encountered by readers of Arthur Ransome as the Swallows in Swallows and Amazons, the first of his children’s novels, where they enjoy dinghy-sailing adventures in the Lake District. Swallow, sailed by the Walker children, Captain John, Mate Susan, Able-Seaman Titty and Ship’s Boy Roger, and Amazon—of which the ‘master and part-owner’ is Nancy Blackett, with her sister Peggy ‘mate and part-owner of the same’—were both based on real dinghies. Their lake is a fictional construct, but it combines elements of Coniston and Windermere, and individual locations are identifiable.

Book for sale from SCA here.

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24 Jan


When Steering is a Drag



The rudder began vibrating and then groaning. In a quick-rising Lake Superior storm I was slewing along on a series of big waves, sometimes going sideways. My home-built plywood rudder was taking a beating.

Bending over Persistence’s transom, I saw that the blade seemed OK. Still with all the racketing and noise, the rudder was under considerable stress.

What if the rudder broke? How would I steer in a storm?

I had a plan: I would attach a line from my portside cockpit winch to my big 14-pound Danforth, and then attach another line from my starboard winch to the Danforth. And throw everything overboard. The Danforth would drag in the heavy weather’s following seas but I could crank it from side to side.

All this was theoretical.

I had tried something like this before. For my young son I had built a toy boat out of a 2 x 4 piece of lumber and wrapped a knot around one end. In the water, towing it behind my boat, the toy boat swung to one side and my 17-foot sailboat would turn that way. Eureka! Accidentally, I had another steering method.

That would be my untried plan. But one day I heard the tale of Dudley Dix, the ingenious South African designer who draws and sails marvelous ocean racers—built out of plywood—to frolic in the boisterous waters off Cape Town, not far from the horrific seas at the Cape of Good Hope.

He was blasting along in his 36-foot plywood rocket in the Cape Town-to-Rio ocean race. Suddenly his plywood blade broke. Black Cat spun around. Dudley went below, found a large bucket, tied two lines to its handle, connected each line to a cockpit winch, and threw the bucket overboard.The steering drogue worked fine, he told me, and he and his crew sailed confidently several days with the lash up, ignoring offers of a tow from other boats.

The bucket? It was a heavy-duty metal bucket of the type South African construction workers and bricklayers use. In the trans-oceanic race, rules require the sailors to carry a bucket aboard.

I don’t carry a bucket, but I do have three Danforths and a mud anchor onboard. Maybe they’d work in an emergency.
Marlin Bree ( used the bucket steering story in a chapter in his novel, Broken Seas (SCA Library). He is a contributing writer to Small Craft Advisor and the author of numerous boating books. He has twice won the coveted Grand Prize Award in Boating Writers International’s annual Writing Contest.

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