The Magic of the muddy bits !.

Mr Giles and Mr Griffiths.

Post 1 : Maurice Griffiths.

Part ‘G’ of the boats and designers series.

Blog time : it’s late April 2020, by now i should have been well on my way along the UK south coast , my plan being to get around to the east coast by autumn and finding a temporary winter home for WABI”’ somewhere in one of the rivers around the Thames estuary.  Instead, my own boat is behind a locked gate and of course there is a good fresh breeze and sunshine !.   Iv’e never really sailed on the east coast, my only experience being when i brought the Deben 2 ton ‘Inanda’ across the Thames estuary from the Orwell river and all the way home.   From reading books such as ‘The Magic of the Swatchways’ and also the late Charles Stock’s book i expected  and got lots of shallow water, a low lying coast and mud…lots of mud.

Walton backwaters.

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My plan was to write these posts as part of my summer cruise because one of the two ‘G’s , Maurice Griffiths is strongly associated with east coast sailing ,not so much the boats although many of them are distinctly suited to east coast sailing but that his books really are about that area .  It’s a while since i read Griffith’s ‘Magic of the Swatchways’ and by coincidence it’s one of the books i have loaned to my neighbour who just recently asked me if i had any books about sailing ?…..i can admit to a few !.  Of the pile of books that i left in my neighbour’s porch it was the 2 books by Maurice Griffiths that had the most instant appeal for him and he said that they reminded him of some of his own early sailing experiences.     This post then, is more likely to be about the books that Maurice Griffiths wrote as it is about the boats he designed.

MG ‘Eventide’ (i may be wrong) in the shed at the yard.

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Last year when i came back from my 3 month’s cruise in Brittany i did a quick refit of my boat and then sailed back to the west country with the intention of having a late summer into early autumn cruise before laying up for the winter.  The cruise didn’t work out that way at all because gale after gale came blasting up the channel and all i could do was quickly move from creek, to river, to shelter : i spent days on end high up in Ruan creek , drying out on the big spring tides as the wind boomed in the trees overhead.

For some of that time i got into sequence with some other cruising/liveaboard boats that were making the same decisions and choices as i was, 2 of those were a couple of old style catamarans laden with extra gear : the third boat that i kept seeing whenever i moved into deeper water was a wooden sloop of about 28-30 feet, deck edge design and quite homely/chunky looking.  Because i can anchor WABI”’ in very shallow water and happily dry out i would often go past the white sloop as i went into an anchorage , her owner seeming to judge it just so that he could be in shelter and shallow water but still afloat.

I passed the boat several times, often said hello to her owner but because of the usually brisk conditions i couldn’t pass ‘close aboard’ and stop for a gam….not having a dinghy also caught me out as if i’d had a dinghy i would have rowed over and asked about the boat : i think it was one of Maurice Griffiths designs , possibly a Tidewater ,and one that had recently been for sale via Ebay, it looked like a homely and chunky cruising boat and potential liveaboard but was outside of my budget.  This isn’t the boat, and i don’t seem to have caught any decent pictures but it’s very similar to this one below except that the one i saw also had a short bowsprit and wasn’t quite as smart.

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The place.

Maurice Griffiths most well known books are as much about a small section of the east coast as they are about the sailing there and the boats that he owned and sailed, and later designed.   When i talk about Griffith’s ‘east coast’ then, it’s really only the area bounded by the limits of the Thames estuary and the rivers to the North ; so the Orwell, the Crouch, Deben and that cruising ground really runs out at the Alde to the North and Ramsgate to the south.  It doesn’t include the Norfolk coast and the Wash further north and ‘going foreign’ was to the similar flat and featureless coast of Holland.  Maurice Griffith’s hardly ever sailed to the south coast and i don’t remember him ever talking about the west country.

I started my own sailing life in the very different waters of north Wales and the Irish sea, which hardly anyone writes about and isn’t really a ‘cruising’ coast : once out of the Menai straits where i learnt to sail there is very little shelter and it’s usually a leeward coast and there’s lots of hard windward work to do. There are parts of the north-west coast that are more like the east coast, like that is in having shallow estuaries and muddy rivers but i only got to know those later on.    It was only after the end of my own big boat racing life that i came across Griffith’s iconic books and that was when i developed my enthusiasm to go and see what his east coast was all about.  That enthusiasm was also driven by the late Charles Stock’s book (Shoal Waters) and the film ‘Riddle of the Sands’ which was filmed on that coast.  Maybe it was just the contrast with what i had done ; lots of long and deep ocean trips out of sight of land mostly, and Griffiths poetic descriptions of quiet anchorages and solitude that created that desire….whatever, it had a strange appeal and i felt that i needed to embrace my ‘inner mud’ !

By chance i grew up near the east coast but i never got to know it except for one school camping trip to Wells in Norfolk, which i loved immediately, and one trip out driving where we had to go to Kings Lynn for some reason : the tide must have been out and it was a dull day so all i remember of that was an endless expanse of grey-brown mud !. Then, years later, when i was actively searching for the type of boat i have now i made the long drive over to Essex and eventually found the end of a lane that petered out into the grey-brown mud near Burnham on the river Crouch, once again it was a dull morning, raining too and as bleak a run down boatyard as i have ever seen.  The boat i went to see was scruffy, dirty, sun-faded and over-priced……my enthusiasm rapidly withered even then and my plan of having a boat on that coast for a season totally disappeared : instead i looked forward to my own coast of bold cliffs and blue water.

Essex…..somewhere !

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The sailing.

For the purposes of this post i re-read The Magic of the Swatchways (1932), Swatchways and little Ships (1971) and i recently found a copy of his first book ; Yachting on a Small Income.  Right now i’m waiting for a copy of one of his later books about yacht design.  Of those books i would say that ‘Magic’ was his best as it seems the to stand the test of time, as fresh and readable now as it must have been a radical read when it was first published.    It’s worth remembering that the era that Griffiths was writing about was before the second world war and at a time when there just weren’t that many small cruising boats available ; it was long before GRP and mass production methods.

Sailing in that era does sound very different to what it is in the same place today, with far fewer boats , no marinas or huge mooring fields to contend with but equally it was still the era of cotton sails and unreliable engines and long before electronic echo-sounders first came on the market.  A lot of Maurice Griffith’s writing about the actual sailing seems to be at the far ends of the spectrum : either heavy weather thrashes and breaking bars or windless drifts on the tides.  The boats often seem old and run down, wet and unweatherly , their gear crude and heavy .

When i did finally get there myself it was in a boat and a style of sailing that Griffith’s would have recognised ; i’d bought an east coast boat , a Deben 2 tonner, Gaff rigged and with no winches or sail handling gear that actually worked ( i don’t include the Wykeham – Martin gear)…..so i had a pretty authentic passage from Ipswich to the Backwaters and across the Thames estuary to Ramsgate,  Something i quickly discovered was that a boat designed for the east coast really wasn’t at home in the bigger seas of the Channel which is why i as quickly sold her on.

Inanda (Deben 2 Ton)

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The boats.

In his lifetime Maurice Griffiths owned 22 boats many of which appear as distinct characters in his books.  The first story in ‘The Magic of the Swatchways’ is a winter delivery trip with a friend in that overcanvassed first boat, in heavy weather and almost ends in disaster on the breaking Deben bar.  After that boat he went on to try many different types of east coast boat, from traditional deep keel yachts with over-long bowsprits to barge yachts and much handier cruising boats more based on the locally evolved smacks and Bawleys.

My first contact with a Griffiths designed boat wasn’t auspicious : i was at the yard one weekend (this was Dickies of Bangor and way back around 1978) when Chris the rigger turned up with a boat he was delivering up from the south coast.  As i helped him stow her gear i commented that whatever this boat was it was ‘dog ugly’ with a large and awkward looking cabin and an even uglier stern cabin with big windows….turns out that it was an ‘Atlantic Clipper’ design from the board of our man Griffiths.  I asked Chris what it sailed like ; he just rolled his eyes and said ‘motors ok’ and then added that it ‘wasn’t so bad’ but only offwind.  I have to remember that my only sailing experience was with IOR race boats or a sleek and fast 8 metre cruiser racer….i had no cruising boat experience at that time.  It’s unfortunate but several years back when i started this blog i was going to do a whole section based on the idea of the world’s ugliest boats and that one was going in the list !…..there are worse boats though .

Atlantic Clipper and it still looks like a shed mounted on a decent looking hull.

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Unfortunately……i also think that several other of MG’s designs are also ugly and boxy looking things even if they work well : this is sad because i do like many of Griffiths designs visually.  For example i like ‘Kylix’ which is a chunky and shallow draft hull and as i said earlier i liked the homely look of the boat that i kept meeting up with , a tidewater i think.

For now, that’s really all i can say : that i really enjoyed Maurice Griffiths books and that they influenced me to at least go and take a look at the east coast as he described it. I can’t say that i liked it or enjoyed the sailing there, most of what i saw was heavily industrial ; Harwich docks for example and i had a good look at the Swale and the London river from the road….all heavy docks industry and mud…..lots of foul smelling brown/grey gloop.    I’m sure that there are really nice places too, i enjoyed my nights in the Walton backwaters and i’m persuaded that the east coast grows on it’s enthusiasts : for me though i prefer the south west’s combination of blue/green open water and the steep sided river valleys of the Dart, Exe, Fowey, Tamar, Fal and Helford…..i can’t help but think that the south-west needs it’s own modern version of Maurice Griffiths.

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