From A&E to the high seas
A fleet of about 20 traditional-style yachts is circumnavigating Britain between April and August. We spoke to one of the event organisers and sailing association President, Mike Beckett, about the experience and the surprising similarities to running a busy London A&E department.
"You don’t buy a yacht to get from A to B. If you want to get from A to B, you get in your car. You sail for the experience and the enjoyment,” says Mike Beckett, President of the Old Gaffers Association (OGA) sailing club. With this ethos in mind, about 20 yachts are circumnavigating Britain between April and August this year to celebrate the club’s 60th anniversary.
An old gaffer is a traditional-style yacht with a four-sided mainsail that was originally developed to give fishing boats more power. These traditional yachts are more fun to sail, according to Mike. “More skill tends to be required in getting the best out of it, as there are more ropes and more adjustments that can be made,” he says.
Many enthusiasts like the aesthetic appeal of gaffers. “A group of gaffers on the horizon looks like a view from the distant past,” Mike explains. Like driving a vintage car, these boats often gain far more attention from fellow sailors than modern plastic yachts.
The “Around Britain” voyage started in Ramsgate in April and will end on the River Orwell, Suffolk in August. With about 20 yachts taking part, crew are travelling from across the UK and beyond to offer support at different legs of the journey. This includes friends, family and sailing enthusiasts that might not have a boat of their own, but due to the length of the journey the core group of sailors tends to be the young retired. “We have some Dutch boats joining us too. There’s no easy equivalent of the trip around Britain in Holland. They see it as quite a challenge – which it is for any yachtsman,” Mike explains.
William Crossfield and his sons in their boatyard at Arnside, Cumbria, circa 1910.
Dealing with the unexpected
In his professional life, Mike was an A&E consultant at West Middlesex Hospital in London. He was the first and only consultant in the department for many years, before adding more to his team.
Being able to keep up morale is part of the art of heading up a busy emergency department, as it is being a skipper. “You may have nights at sea, you can be wet, cold and miserable – that’s the nature of sailing small boats,” Mike says. “If you take on new crew, some of them have very little experience. You don’t know if they’re going to be seasick or how robust they’re going to be.”
“A&E is very much making order out of chaos, and sometimes sailing’s a bit like that too,” he says. “Not everybody likes that. Some people like an ordered life.”
There are several exposed points on the journey, where sailors are very dependent on the weather. For example, going from Land’s End to Milford Haven in Wales where the sailor is exposed to the full scale of the Atlantic. Some of the Scottish waters can be challenging too. Most of the journey can be done in daylight trips during the summer, but there will be some nights at sea. This can be difficult to sail alone, as spending a full night sailing before coming into a new harbour the next morning can be very stressful, Mike explains. “If there’s fog or strong winds, that’s potentially quite a dangerous time,” he adds. And while most skippers have crews, some are doing the trip single-handed.
Having sailed all of his life, Mike is no stranger to rough weather. Indeed, when he sailed into St Ives harbour in Cornwall in December with his brother in the 1970s, police searched his yacht. “It was in the days of the Irish troubles. They suspected we were gun-running for the IRA because they couldn’t believe anyone would be out in such bad weather or pull into a harbour like St Ives in late December,” he laughs.
Restoration of a Victorian yacht
Some of the boats in the OGA are new and some are decades old with extensive restoration. Mike owns a 35-foot yacht called Bonita. She was built in 1888 and has been shortlisted for the Classic Boat “centenarian of the year” award twice. While she has never undergone a formal restoration, she requires a constant trickle of maintenance.
Not much has changed: Bonita in 1938
This is not always easy, as plenty of the skills and materials that were used to build her are now quite rare. For example, last winter Mike looked to replace the old bolts holding the keel on that were made of wrought iron. “It is much more resistant to corrosion than steel. It’s a good material,” says Mike. “As the old ones were wrought iron, I felt the new ones should be. It was quite a trouble to get them. There is only one supplier I think in the world, certainly in this country, who produces the rod. The rod then has to be turned into a bolt and they don’t do that. The original builders would have just had a word to the local village blacksmith and it would have been done as a routine.”
While some OGA members have small boats that they run on a shoestring, others have spent millions of pounds on restoring large, classic boats. They are well-respected within the boat club, as some of these classic yachts would just rot away without a wealthy benefactor.
The fleet has already struck gale force winds off the coast of Devon, which caused quite a lot of delay and left some yachts needing repairs. “Usually the forecasts are pretty good 24 hours in advance for British coastal waters, but this was not predicted. These things can happen, even with modern weather forecasting,” Mike explains.
While that may sound unnerving, Mike insists sailing is the “perfect antidote” to a stressful life. “I’m a great believer that you rest your muscles by doing nothing. But you don’t rest the mind by doing nothing. You rest the mind by doing something different. Sailing is completely different. It’s sufficiently absorbing that it fills your mind,” he says.
As such, it’s a sport that attracts a wide range of characters, “all of whom have an interesting life story, which many will tell you in the evening in the pub,” says Mike. With the fleet stopping at pre-agreed harbours around the country, being welcomed by regional yacht clubs throughout the journey, there is plenty of opportunity for this. “There’s some real high-achievers who get great enjoyment from getting a small boat from A to B. It’s amazing how much pleasure even a 20-foot sailing boat can give to someone who’s had tremendous professional success in their lives.”
To follow Bonita’s voyage around the UK, you can read her skipper’s blog at bonitayawl.blogspot.com