Commodore Ralph Munroe and ‘Egret’.
The boat that started it all.
E. is for escapism.
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There’s a really nice bench on the green outside the conservative club in Hamble village UK and looks out over the river of the same name. It’s a nice spot and in the days when i worked in Southampton and lived near the village i often used to walk down there, get a coffee from the deli and just sit and watch the world of boats go buy ; there’s always something going on through the summer and weekends are hectic with boat activity.
My usual routine after working a whole month of far too many shifts in a row, i was broke…..was to catch the ferry across to Warsash and visit the nautical bookshop there for my monthly treat which was always a new book about something sailing related. There used to be a very good bakery on that side of the river too so i’d often pick up something for the lunch i would have on the park bench.
One time i’d been across the river, bought book, coffee and cake and was sat on my favourite bench when i noticed a fair amount of activity ; not on the water but lots of people around….lots of ‘suits’. I did notice that quite a few of the ‘suits’ were young and tough looking and seemed to have ‘eyes everywhere’ and more than one of them more than once just happened to amble over and give me the once over so i asked him what was going on. After a few direct questions he admitted that it was an election run and one of the top politico’s was due to start their campaign right there that day.
I should have twigged, being sat outside the conservative club and all that but i was still very tired and foggy from my long run of nights so i didn’t take any notice ; anyway, i had all that i needed in the shape of a new book, a coffee and something to eat.
About 15 minutes later, totally absorbed in my new book and fascinated by this shoal draft boat i was reading about …. i remember now the very arresting photograph of the same boat skimming across very shallow clear water with sand just below and a shallow bank just to windward ; obviously somewhere warm…….and rudely interrupted by a TV crew who asked me if i had any idea of what i’d just done or in this case : what i hadn’t just done. Well anyway, let’s get on with the important stuff , that is, talking about the boat ; we’ll deal with my sins of omission later.
That first photograph that i saw and kept going back to isn’t the original Egret but a modern replica of sorts : there are photographs of Munroe and the original boat , as above, although no lines drawings exist and the half model that Commodore Munroe made of the hull is said to be very unlike the actual boat. The original boat doesn’t exist either, it being thought to be buried under tons of Florida real estate long past.
What we do know is that Egret was of a double-ended Sharpie/Lifeboat type hull, single chined with a flat bottom , centerboard and 2 freestanding masts with gaff rigged sails. There was a small cabin/cuddy with minimal space ; just enough room it is said to get the mail bags that Munroe delivered among the Florida inlets in there. Today, while there are many replicas most of them have been modified in some way, usually to give at least sitting and lying down space in the cabin and most have a modified hull….less rocker aft, a flatter run and less dip in the sheer line amidships.
Munroe’s design evolution is fascinating because ‘Egret’ almost seems to be a retrograde step in that he designed the flat bottomed and chined boat after he’d already designed the Presto Sharpie with it’s round hull first. Go and look at Presto today and you’ll see a boat that was years ahead of it’s time ; that’s one slippery looking hull and i’ll be coming back to Presto later on this year with a look at a modern version which is my ultimate fantasy boat….at least for now. Egret draws a lot on New England type working Sharpie’s which were usually built for the oyster dredging trade so they had to work over very shallow banks so that the crew could deploy oyster tongs to retrieve the shellfish.
Egret was very much a working boat as well as a cruising boat though ; her principal work being that of delivering the mail up and down the Florida inlets and as such had to be able to run in over shallow breaking bars. As such she was never intended as a ‘stay-aboard’ even less a long term cruising boat ; the original design at 28 feet has less usable space inside than my 22 foot centerboard Liberty. A lot of the internal space is taken up by the large centerboard space and she has barely sitting room over the sole. There are downsides to the ‘box’ Sharpie as well ; they aren’t great boats to windward and rely on a lot of internal ballast for stability, as i said earlier most modern variants have been modified in some way to make them better cruising boats.
The Egret photo file. (please note that none of these are my own photographs)
I could live like that !
The year of my (John) Major incident on the green at the Hamble must have been 1997 and it wasn’t a very happy time for me ; not only was i broke and with a big tax bill to pay but i really was working every shift going so that i could try and catch up with the bad negative equity situation with my Sheffield flat. I’d given up professional sailing after what i felt was my failure at being a big-boat skipper and in fact i’d all-but given up sailing completely ; all i was doing was the occasional help out with projects down at one of the Hamble yards. I was back in full time work, more than full time in fact, in the intensive care unit ; i guess i was permanently tired from the long runs of night shifts and lack of exercise aside from the long cycle to and from work.
I had the most profound reaction to that one photograph ; which is partially why i managed to not notice that the country’s outgoing prime minister was strolling over for a chat, heck he might even taken an interest in odd looking boats although i suspect only reason he was there was to bolster support for the failing Conservative cause…whatever.
My reaction was this : ” i could live like that” i thought and what i meant even then was that i thought i could live full time on a small sailing boat, maybe somewhere warm and where i could just drop off the radar. At the time i had nowhere near the funds to start thinking about buying or building a boat like that and in fact my thinking about a long term liveaboard boat rapidly diverged from the Egret model ; that’s not the important thing though, what is important is that was the pivotal moment when i thought that i might live like that and not like how i was living at the time. If anything it gave me the impetus for what happened over the next couple of years which was a kind of personal kick up the bum.
The Major incident really did happen or so i’m told ; i was completely oblivious to anything going on that day. My ‘i could live like that moment’ was only the first in a series of 3 that happened over the next few years : the second one happened in a bookshop one rainy day in Southampton and it was the late Bill Mason’s book ‘Song of the Paddle’ that time. The last one of the 3 happened in the Yosemite back country a couple of years later and there were no other influences other than being there : i thought that with a bit of equipment and a store of food i could quite happily live out there for extended periods. During my last trip out there i got talking to the bartender at Curry village one day and he told me about ‘Yogi’ Bear who was a guy living out in the Yosemite high country .
Years later i came across this documentary in which Yogi appears….about 1hr 18 minutes in.