Sailing: “A Bunch of Pirates” – America’s Cup, J Class yachts, and Rowhedge smacks

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“They were nothing but a bunch of pirates!” Stuart announced as he leant back against the cushions and tried to get comfortable on Laranda’s settee.  My old yacht Laranda – built by David Hillyard of Littlehampton in Sussex in 1934 – was lying to her mooring in Dockyard Creek in Grand Harbour, Malta – long before the Grand Harbour Marina was even on the drawing boards.

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Laranda sailing past Fort St Angelo (Castello del Mare) Grand Harbour, Malta. I was setting out for Tunisia

It took all my powers of persuasion to convince Stuart Cranfield to come aboard at all; and then – just as I thought we were all set to have a chat – two of the port’s tugs snarled their way past us and out of the creek to worry yet another cargo ship into one of the dry-docks.

“A dog shouldn’t have to put up with this,” Stuart moaned as he swayed with the yacht’s motion.  “I must have been mad to get on this floating gypsy’s caravan!”

Not the sort of remark you’d expect from someone whose family – particularly his Great Grandfather – had been amongst the most skilful and sought after helmsmen and ‘yacht captains’ Britain ever produced.

“What do you mean – they were all a bunch of pirates?” I asked, trying to turn the conversation back to where the tugs had cut it short.

“Well, they were” he said emphatically, then lifting his glass and taking a hearty gulp of port.  “What else would you expect of a family of East Anglian fishermen? Smugglers and pirates – the lot of them!?

“Did you find the photograph of your great-grandfather?” I asked.

“Yes, but I don’t know why you’re interested.  Who the devil’s going to want to hear about my great-grandfather?  It’s all history – gone!  This is the age of high technology.  I can’t see much style or grace in the yachts of today.  Boring, functional machines – like most modern cars.”

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William Cranfield: Rowhedge fisherman, who became yachtmaster of Britannia – the legendary J Class yacht of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales – later King Edward VII – and also of Valkyrie III

Stuart may well have a point to argue to support his views, for the yachts his great-grandfather skippered were the great ‘J Class’ racing yachts – the Big Class yachts of yesteryear – such thoroughbreds as the Prince of Wales’Britannia– without doubt the most successful and popular big racing cutter ever built – and all three of theValkyries, as well as Lord Dunraven’s other magnificent vessels.  So what lay behind the story of how a fisherman found it so easy to cross the clearly defined boundaries of Victorian class-consciousness and society and become the friend and confidant of the aristocracy and the Royal Family?  Simple!  The race for the America’s Cup.

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HMY Britannia – J Class racing yacht of Albert Edward Prince of Wales – later King Edward VII, and then King George V.  Scuttled 1936. Image in the Public Domain.

The America’s Cup dominates the high-tech racing world, and for most of us it is a world we can only observe from afar; a world for the wealthy and the elite.

More than any other race, the America’s Cup has fired the imagination of sailors and yachtsmen worldwide, and projected the sport of ‘yacht racing’ into hitherto undreamt of prominence in our consciousness.

The dissimilar spheres of sport, commerce, and war all sought the fastest of vessels, and the expertise in any one sphere inevitably influenced the others. – whether in design, material, or seamanship.   The great races of the Clipper ships are romantic history, but the race for the America’s Cup remains a living romance of today.

As far as yacht racing as a sport is concerned, it was developing from about the end of the eighteenth century, and its popularity spread from the coasts of Essex, North Wales, and Ireland.  It rapidly became a sport for the wealthy, but they rarely had much personal sailing knowledge or skill.  Even though they may have loved the sport, most of them needed to employ experienced seamen to crew and sail their yachts for them

The latter half of the nineteenth century saw enthusiasm for yacht racing sweep across the world, from Southampton Water to Sydney Harbour.  The sport has proved an ideal outlet – and a continuing source of challenge – for man’s competitive nature.  But the America’s Cup is not merely a race of boat against boat, or crew against crew; the personalities involved become fiercely nationalistic and, as a result, it is a race of personal and national endeavour.  When the British lost the first race – and the trophy – on their own stretch of water, it was a blow to their national pride.

Striving to recapture the America’s Cup, men like the Prince of Wales – later King Edward VII  – Prince Arthur, Lord Dunraven, and Thomas Lipton, had the vision and the cash to build such magnificent yachts asBritannia, the multiple versions of theValkyries, Shamrock, andEndeavour.  They could well afford their luxuries and pleasures, but – for the America’s Cup – and the other great racing events that soon filled the calendar, the ‘Big’ and ‘J’ Class yachts were never solely the preserve of the gentry and the wealthy, Building such vessels was all very well.  Sailing and racing them was another matter.

Looking around for expertise, the fishermen of Essex now seem to have been an almost obvious choice.  Their long experience of working and conning their vessels around the shifting sands and through the tricky channels of the Thames estuary and the North Sea, and the muddy tidal reaches of the rivers and creeks of Essex – seeking every ounce of advantage from wind, tide, and hard-won local knowledge – had honed and proved their skills.  They were in the right place at the right time, and became ‘yacht captains’ in the summer, and going back to fishing in the other months.   As time went on, some of them became full-time ‘yacht captains.’

In the late eighteenth century, yachts were built in the east coast yards at Ipswich, Brightlingsea, Rowhedge, and Wivenhoe.  The dove-tailing of yachting and fishing led to the development of both types of craft, and by the mid-point of the nineteenth century the fishing smack of the east coast was a beautifully designed top-sail cutter looking very much like the similar sized racing yachts of the period.

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William Cranfield’s Rowhedge Smack: Sunbeam

The Cranfield family lived in the village of Rowhedge on the River Colne, and had earned and enviable reputation both as fisherman and sportsmen.Sunbeam was their most successful racing smack.  The brothers, Lemon, Bonnie and William Cranfield were head-hunted, and took the step from fishermen to ‘yacht captains’.  They crossed the divide of Victorian society – where everyone knew his or her place – and settled in a new profession.

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Rowhedge Fishing Smacks on the River Colne C 1880  Left tp right: Sunbeam – William Cranfield; Neva – Lemon Cranfield: and Xanthe – ‘Bonnie’ Cranfield

As captain ofValkyrie III, William came closer than any other British captain to wresting the coveted trophy from the United States.  You’ll find his portrait hanging in the clubhouse of the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes on the Isle of Wight, and also as you enter the clubhouse of his great rivals in New York.

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Valkyrie III. Photo 1895 by J.S. Johnston. Gift to State Historical Society of Colorado.  Public Domain

“So that’s some of the story,” Stuart said, as he ducked his head and stepped up into Laranda’s cockpit.   Then he looked down at the dinghy and asked….

“Now, how do I get off this thing without sitting in that floating dustbin?”

“You don’t” I answered, “unless you prefer to swim ashore.”

“Good heavens!  Whatever gave you the idea I would go swimming?  God forbid!  Give me another drink and I’ll pretend it isn’t happening.”

Copyright Rob Weatherburn

Rowhedge Smack photos courtesy of Stuart Crnafield.

This article first published in Cruising Helmsman  – Yaffa Publications, Australia