Speed, grace and beauty – The Clyde Fortnight 1923

For 13 tantalising seconds in the newly released Pathe archive newsreel above, we are treated to the full broadsides beauty of King George V’s G.L. Watson-designed cutter, Britannia: the special one; probably the most famous racing yacht there will ever be; in her element, easing to windward through the Firth of Clyde waters of her birth; competing incredibly well against Mrs Workman’s much more modern Charles Nicholson design, Nyria.

Nyria had been the first of the largest yachts to be retrofitted with the modern, triangular bermudan (or marconi) mainsail, in 1921. But it would be a few years yet until universal acceptance in the Big Class. As can be seen, gaff rig still ruled on the Clyde in 1923; what a feast to the eyes that gives us.

There’s a great rig comparison between Britannia and Nyria in this very short clip, perhaps from the same day.

The other Big Class competitor on the Clyde that year, but unseen here, was Terpsichore (later Lulworth), always gaff rigged. Despite 14 years age difference with Nyria and 27 with Terpsichore, and her old-fashioned yet highly evolved gaff rig, the longer Britannia received no ‘home’ favours from the local handicappers in 1923. They well knew that in the past winter she had completed a major bottom structure rebuild to bring her into Lloyds survey class as if new, and her rig had been modernised two years earlier under locally based supervision by Watson’s star pupil, Alfred Mylne, including the fitting of a Ewing McGruer Hollow Spar Company ‘plywood’ boom. So Britannia was scratch boat in class, giving over four minutes to Nyria and over seven to Terpsichore in forty miles. But it worked out just fine, with the royal cutter saving her time in enough races to win overall.

The smaller, dark-hulled cutter with exquisite lines in the early shots of the fleet running out of Rothesay Bay is, of course, another G.L. Watson design, Verve (IV). She was built in 1899 by Robertson of Sandbank as a handicap racer for Watson’s faithful client, Robert Wylie, of the Glasgow country house and yacht outfitters Wylie & Lochhead.

At the helm is her Irish owner from 1913 until 1932, John H. Bennett, who in the summers 1921 to 1931 escaped from the highly competitive business of supplying malt to Guinness, by sailing Verve up from Cork to the west coast of Scotland for the Clyde Fortnight and cruising. Bennett’s records of these voyages are in the safe keeping of Cork City Archives, including his description of her as:

“… that unique and almost perfect little ship.”

From the Glasgow Herald reports it is easy to understand that this was the first time Clyde yachting folk could truly feel that things were getting back to something like the pre-first world war sunset of ‘the golden age’. That war and its awful consequences would have touched most of the participants, including John Bennet who lost his son to it. The joy of sailing can be a healer.

Pathe recently released 85000 of their archived newsreel clips to YouTube, an amazing treasury of moments in time, weird, horrific and wonderful. In this case only wonderful, and all the better for being from the silent era, so that we’re spared the outrageous commentary of the 1930s through 1960s.

peggy-bawn-pressAlso very well worth watching at the Peggy Bawn Press web site is one of the oldest known moving image clips of yacht racing, filmed at Hunter’s Quay on the Clyde in 1899 by Belfast whiskey distiller Robert Mitchell, and featuring two of G.L. Watson’s Big Class designs. The web site is also the place to read more about Martin Black’s G.L. Watson biography, G.L. WATSON – THE ART AND SCIENCE OF YACHT DESIGN and to even purchase it securely online.

~ Iain McAllister ~

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Scotia’s “Thistle”

Thistle thundering down Kieler Fjord c1910 as Kaiserliche Marine’s training yacht Comet. (© Jorma Rautapää)

Kaiserliche Marine’s training yacht Comet (ex Meteor, ex Thistle) thundering down Kiel Fjord c1910.
(© Jorma Rautapää)

Inevitably, a 127 year-old challenge from Glasgow, Scotland to New York, USA for yachting’s Holy Grail, the America’s Cup, has left lingering family memories and mementoes.

It was a big deal, as it would be now, and is still within a timescale where handed-down knowledge is informed by human interaction. For example, my father just knew his grandfather, who crewed aboard the G.L. Watson-designed Royal Clyde Yacht Club challenger, Thistle, in the 1887 America’s Cup match. And I learned about it from my father. Sadly, nothing tangible survived; they were a family of thrower-outers.

But this ditty by Victorian Lochfyneside poet – and perhaps story teller  – William Rhind, has been passed down in the family of one of Thistle’s post-America’s Cup crew, Duncan McArthur, who, like my great-grandfather, came from the parish of Strachur, Argyll, on Loch Fyne’s east coast. It reached me via Duncan’s great niece, someone I’ve known for many years without realising that we had this connection:

Scotia’s ‘Thistle”

by William Rhind

(A Ditty) Air “Duncan Gray” [see below]

Scotia’s Thistle long ago
Blow! Breezes, Blow! Heave Yo
Set at Bay the Danish foe
Blow! Breezes, Blow! Heave Yo
Our Modern “Thistle” ploughs the Main
With her cordage on the strain
Her path is o’er the watery plain
Blow! Breezes, Blow! Heave Yo

Her advent in the bustling West
Blow! Breezes, Blow! Heave Yo
Was but a muddle at the best
Blow! Breezes, Blow! Heave Yo
“Stars and Stripes,” have nought to boast
Of Laurels won, or Laurels lost
We wish them welcome on our coast
Blow! Breezes, Blow! Heave Yo

Mark the Thistle Chief and Crew
Blow! Breezes Blow! Heave Yo
Ready hands, and will to do
Blow! Breezes, Blow! Heave Yo
When her breast is in the Sea
Rolling foam is on the Lee
Bounding o’er the billows free
Blow! Breezes, Blow! Heave Yo

Royal Trophies are her due
Blow! Breezes, Blow! Heave Yo
She has won them, not a few
Blow! Breezes, Blow! Heave Yo
And long may the “Thistle” ride
O’er the current and the tide
Shed her fame both far and wide
Blow! Breezes, Blow! Heave Yo

Musical enlightenment here by Ewan MacColl:

There will be other families who know that their forebear was one of Thistle’s crew: in the America’s Cup, around the Scottish, English and Irish coasts during the racing seasons of 1887 to 1890, or from 1891/92 when her name changed to Meteor under Kaiser Wilhelm II, or from 1895, when ownership was transferred to Kaiserliche Marine, the German Navy of that time, and she took the name, Comet. She was broken up in 1921. It would be wonderful to hear from them. Our earlier post about the Thistle and her crew has so far found three descendants with one new positive identification made. More on that to come, and look out for news at Thistle’s Twitter feed @Thistle1887.

"Was but a muddle at the best". Thistle is nowhere to be see, 21 minutes behind, as the Americandefender Volunteer rounds Sandy Hook Light Vessel, the turning mark  (fvffgbfb)

“Was but a muddle at the best”. Thistle is nowhere to be seen, 21 minutes behind, as the American defender, Volunteer, rounds Sandy Hook Light Vessel during the first race, America’s Cup 1887.
(Library of Congress)


G.L. Watson designed  four America’s Cup challengers. After Thistle’s failure in 1887, his learning curve steepened: Valkyrie II (1893) and Valkyrie III (1895) were very good boats, and Shamrock II (1901) was probably outdone only by the genius of Charlie Barr at the helm of the defender, Columbia. Ironically, Barr was one of Thistle’s crew in 1887 under his half-brother, John, and was born in Gourock on the Clyde. Martin Black’s  beautifully illustrated biography, G.L. WATSON – THE ART AND SCIENCE OF YACHT DESIGN, takes a fresh look at these challenges, using primary sources to reveal that the British challengers more often than not snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. It can be ordered online here, or from the growing list of worldwide stockists here.

~ Iain McAllister ~


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The yachting firsts of Dublin Bay

No matter the era the weather remains nature way of reminding us who is Boss. (Hal Sisk)

No matter the era, the weather remains nature’s way of reminding us who is Boss.
(Hal Sisk)

In a response to W.M. Nixon’s Sailing on Saturday blog post for Afloat Magazine last week, Peggy Bawn Press publisher and author, Hal Sisk, contributed a fascinating, myth busting comment on the earliest days of sailing… as a sport… or was it…? Before Dublin Bay’s amateur sailors got it all organised in a manner that racing sailors today would recognise.

Hal’s original comment at the end of W. M. Nixon’s fascinating piece can be read at the link above. We thought it would also make a great post here: the pre-history of organised yachting.

And of course, we should say that the 2nd Edition of Hal’s popular book, DUBLIN BAY – THE CRADLE OF YACHT RACING, can be purchased online here.

PBP_daisyWell done William! A splendid account of early Irish yachts and yachting, before our amateur sport became established in the 1850s. But how significant were the Clubs, and were the early yachts truly leisure craft?

For example, the Stuart royal yachts were mini warships, built from funds voted for the Navy and in battle with the Dutch in 1673, one was sunk and another, Catherine, was captured. Similarly the Dutch Spiegeljachten and the Cork yachts were primarily working craft, the 17th and 18th century equivalents of limousines or executive jets. In an almost unimaginable era when road building and maintenance was at best haphazard, and long before the railways, personal travel by water was often smoother and possibly faster than on land, especially so in one’s own private vessel for those privileged few who could afford it. Such a primary utilitarian weekday non-leisure use of yachts continued right up to the railway age, which first started in Ireland in Dec 1834 and was not widespread until the 1850s. This is also illustrated by Falconer’s Marine Dictionary of 1780′s primary definition of a yacht:

“a vessel of state, usually employed to convey princes, ambassadors, or other great personages from one kingdom to another”.

Yes, the Dutch, and the Cork gentry, occasionally engaged in admiral sailing. But as with the early 19th century clubs in the English speaking world, were such clubs not primarily “monuments to social exclusivity”? Club rules were more about blackballing prospective new members, of course only yacht owners, and defining distinctive uniforms, and rituals for dining ashore. Gentlemen’s clubs, yes, but not true sailing or yacht clubs we might recognise.

Contrary to the conventional foundation myth for yachting, the English did not introduce yacht racing in the 1660s. A once off race is recorded in 1661 between King Charles’ Catherine and the Duke of York’s Anne, but apart a few isolated examples in the 18th century, one cannot point to a continuous yachting tradition in England after the Stuart kings.

If we may describe races as tests of speed, there were multiple races in the winter of 1662/3 in Dublin Bay where Sir William Petty wrote that he had successfully matched his experimental 30 ft catamaran on several occasions against the local-based “large black pleasure boat”. (The Dutch word “jacht” had not yet entered the English language.) Was this the World’s First Frostbite Series?

The emergence of (Royal) Yacht Clubs in the 1820s and 1830s was a general social trend which we can see happening in every major port city all over the British Isles. Belfast, Cork and Dublin were part of this new trend, following the lead of the Royal Yacht Squadron in 1815.

Such clubs all followed a similar pattern of development, and the fashion eventually took root on America and on the Continent in the 1840s.

While not denying that there were larger yachts around before the 1820s, primarily deployed for practical and utilitarian purposes, some of the Irish clubs then formed owe their origins to a local tradition of sailing smaller craft. Thus the “pic-nic” club known as the Little Monkstown Club, founded in 1822, renamed itself the Cork Yacht Club, later the Royal Cork YC, and in exactly the same period, 1822-28, the Dublin yachtsmen already had no fewer than three classes: Wherries, Hookers and Dantzics. (All this according to the published contemporary spokesman for the RCYC, and for Dublin, the authoritative yachting chronicler, James Acheson Lyle.)

I recently confirmed with Elisabeth Spits at Het Scheepvaart Museum in Amsterdam that there are no records of any yacht races in Holland from the very first yachts of around 1600 right through to the late 1800s. This also confirms the Cork phenomenon as an outlier of this Dutch tradition. Although of a new departure, the Royal Yacht Squadron of 1815 was at first reluctant to get involved in racing, or anything more than occasional stately processions.

Yachts of the Water Club of Cork, 1720. (Badminton Library)

Yachts of the Water Club of Cork, 1720.
(R.T. Pritchett, Badminton Library)

Do we over emphasise racing? It’s the litmus test and the trigger for active participation by true amateurs, and for experiencing the challenge of sailing in conditions when casual day sailors will naturally avoid. On board non-racers we may not be truly involved as crew and we may be mere passengers, which many so-called early “yachtsmen” were on their professionally manned floating carriages. That passive on-leisure use was more necessary and evident in Ireland, not just in Cork, but also on Loughs Ree, Derg and Erne, unlike England which is less well endowed with lakes.

So instead of identifying as our predecessors those self important clubbable gentlemen dining ashore, we may empathise more with those actively sailing small craft, with small yacht racing on the Thames in the late 18th century, and especially on our Irish lakes, and in Dublin and Cork in the 1820s.

And especially with the Sligo “Ladies of the County” who in 1822 presented their splendid silver trophy for “fast sailing on Lough Gill”. They raced in cutters not longer than 26½ feet overall around an 18 mile course, sometimes completing it at an average of 8 knots.

Finally, the worldwide sport we know today owes more to the pioneering amateurs of Dublin Bay than to the wealthy yacht owners of the 18th and early 19th century. Thus as well as several spectacular silver trophies, the key figures of the Dublin’s Royal Alfred YC gave us in the 1850s to 1870s the following yachting firsts:

  • World’s First National Yacht Racing Rules and Regulations (published by the RAYC in 1872, adopted by the Yacht Racing Association)
  • World’s First Offshore Racing Club (1868 to 1922)
  • World’s First Single and Double handed races (1872)
  • World’s Premier Amateur Sailing Club (1857–)

Add to that the Water Wags of Dublin giving the world the One Design concept in 1887, and we may well ask who made the greater contribution to our sport and who left the greater lasting influence?

~ Hal Sisk ~

PBP_daisyDBYachting historian Hal Sisk describes how the worldwide sport of yacht and dinghy racing was popularised and formatted by the pioneering yachtsmen of Dublin Bay in the revised 2nd edition – with data added on how, when and where the sport spread – of his popular, DUBLIN BAY – THE CRADLE OF YACHT RACING. Read more and purchase online here.

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Was but a muddle at the best

Wendur (ddfgg)

Wendur, 1883
(N.L. Stebbins/ Wiki commons)

Apologies to subscribers to this blog who received a sneak email preview of a future post by mistake today. Sometimes the technology can get the better of one… We hope you will all memorise your lines, excuse any unedited typos and wait patiently for the final version of Scotia’s Thistle.

As a little sweetener, we offer G.L. Watson’s beautiful 1883 yawl, Wendur, built of steel – with flush topsides plates – at D. & W. Henderson’s Meadowside Shipyard, Partick, Glasgow.

It’s a wonder that Hendersons ever found the time to build ships, so busy were they at knocking out G.L. Watson’s designs for “sail and steamboat yats.”

PBP_daisyMartin Black’s award-winning biography G.L. Watson – The Art and Science of Yacht Design – exceptional in quality both for its contents and production value – is available to purchase online here, or from the growing list of worldwide stockists here.

~ Iain McAllister ~

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The Club Steamer – PS Duchess of Hamilton

asfffrgrrgrrgr (srdg)

PS Duchess of Hamilton chock-a-block full at a Royal Northern YC Regatta, Rothesay, July 1898.
(Maclure, Macdonald & Co., Yacht Racing on the Clyde 1898)

During the 1890s and early 1900s heyday of the Clyde Fortnight regattas, the Caledonian Steam Packet Company’s elegant paddle steamer, Duchess of Hamiltonlaunched this day in history, 1890 by William Denny & Bros, Dumbarton – was a popular and regular ‘Club Steamer’.

For a regatta day, she would eschew ferrying trippers across the Firth of Clyde to be instead at the disposal of the organising club’s members; those unfortunate enough not to have their own steam yacht. We’re not sure at the moment if this was totally exclusive, but if the photo above is anything to go by, one imagines it was a profitable matter.

Yet, as sport and leisure historian Matthew L. McDowell explains in a fascinating paper on the 1890s Clyde steamer opulence wars, the drive to be seen to be offering increasingly high catering standards sent margins into the red.

Sometimes it’s better not to know that kind of stuff, and revel instead in the Victorian positiveness of it all. Which is most probably what the local Board of Trade inspector thought too; anyway, the Titanic disaster was fourteen years in the future.


The Duchess of Hamilton was one of a multitude of dashingly elegant paddle and subsequently also turbine powered vessels that helped to make the Firth of Clyde what it is today. Their demise, on the rise of affordable motor cars through the 1950s, and cheap package holidays abroad from the 1960s, left many of the communities of genteel riparian villas they helped to  develop – a kind of maritime, summertime suburbia – subsequently rather isolated.

The sole reminder of those heady days is the last of the Clyde paddle steamers, the Waverley, launched in 1947 at the Pointhouse shipyard of A. & J, Inglis, now the site of the spectacular Zaha Hadid designed Riverside Museum, and earlier the shipyard where G.L. Watson served the second phase of his indenture in naval architecture under the mentorship of Dr John Inglis. Waverley’s engine space (above) and her original triple expansion steam engine, built by Rankin and Blackmore of Greenock, has mesmerised this lad – and overgrown lad – from its viewing gallery for over fifty years.


During the production of Martin Black’s biography G.L. Watson – The Art and Science of Yacht Design, we were painstaking in our desire to give place and time to the wonderful images at our disposal, and amazed at how little more much of the Firth of Clyde had been developed since the 1890s. This award-winning book – exceptional in quality both for its contents and production value – is available to purchase online here, or from the growing list of worldwide stockists here.

~ Iain McAllister ~

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Dublin Bay – 2nd Edition


Read more and buy online here.

The revised second edition of Hal Sisk’s popular book, DUBLIN BAY – THE CRADLE OF YACHT RACING has arrived.

Irish yachting historian and Peggy Bawn Press founder, Hal Sisk, reveals how the worldwide sport of yacht and dinghy racing was popularised and formatted by the pioneering yachtsmen of Dublin Bay.

Reviews for the first edition (2013):

“I couldn’t put it down.”

– Larry Power, Commodore, National Yacht Club, Dún Laoghaire.

“… this soooooper book.”

– Ian Nicolson, yacht designer, surveyor and author.

“…small in scale but large in inspiration… most interesting and diverting… also very handsomely designed and produced.”

– Llewellyn Howland III, yachting historian and antiquarian book dealer, Boston, USA.

“Well worth reading… Hal is a great devotee of the sport of sailing and a doyen amongst those who debate the history of going afloat.
“He pays strong tribute to the Royal Alfred Yacht Club for its work in starting the sport of yacht racing: ‘No club achieved more in shaping the worldwide sport in its formative period than Dublin’s Royal Alfred YC, Wherever amateur sailors are coming to the line, racing under nationally agreed regulations, they are sailing in the wake of the pioneering yachtsmen of Dublin Bay.’”

– Tom MacSweeney, This Island Nation blog at afloat.ie.

Read more and buy online at:



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Order of the Thistle

It continues to be the America’s Cup silly season: the void between the last, enthralling episode, and the next; wherever it may be; in whatever boats… And crew nationality has raised its head. Last year’s ‘American’ defender, Oracle Team USA, had only one American among her winning crew: should a clause be introduced to at least limit the number of non-nationals of the challenging or defending club’s country per boat?

As we learn time and again, apart from the technology of the boats participating, there’s nothing really new in the America’s Cup; history has a habit of repeating itself. For example, prior to 1895, Scandinavian professionals crewed the American Cup defenders.

But there was no nationality issue surrounding the fervently patriotic, all-Scottish 1887 America’s Cup challenge by the Royal Clyde Yacht Club with the G.L. Watson-designed clipper-bowed Thistle. She was built of steel under great secrecy at Partick, Glasgow, by D. & W. Henderson. The head of her all-Scottish owning syndicate, James Bell, would later become Glasgow’s Lord Provost and gain a knighthood. And her crew were Scots thorough-and-through.

fgfdgfdg (vddf)

Jaggy bunnets, Erie Basin, New York, September 1887: Thistle’s hands are decked-out in sennet hats, and suitably emblazoned ganseys. Her hirsute skipper, John Barr, is sitting, right. But is his soon to become very famous half-brother, Charlie here? And is your forbear too? Archibald McNicol, the author’s great-grandfather, from St Catherines, Loch Fyne, Argyll, is the white-faced lad sitting 2nd from left on a cushion – the only clean-shaven one. Is that Charlie Barr, and his piercing eyes, sitting to his left? Or is he standing, 4th from left?
(Image by J.S. Johnston, courtesy, Long Island Maritime Museum)

Whatever the make-up of the defender crews, their skippers through to the mid 1890s remained home-grown. But things were soon to change: the growing success up to this time in U.S. waters by Scotland’s leading yacht designers, the friendly rivals William Fife Jr and G.L. Watson, would bring two major America’s Cup characters to the fore for the defence – both Scottish. One of them would become an America’s Cup icon.

Thistle’s racing skipper, John Barr (aged 42), from the Firth of Clyde fishing village  of Gourock (the rail-head didn’t arrive until 1889), and his half-brother Charlie (23) who shipped aboard just for the Cup races, most probably knew by this time where their future as professional yachtsmen lay: they were already intimate with the waters of the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, having delivered and raced Clyde-built yachts there. They liked what they saw and American yachtsmen took to them.

By 1889 John had emigrated, to Marblehead, Massachusetts, then arguably the most prominent of American yachting stations. And Charlie, despite a reported brief return to Scotland, never really left in his mind – finally becoming a U.S. citizen in 1893, thus clearing the way to becoming an America’s Cup defending skipper.* Both enjoyed successful careers thereafter, but Charlie’s was stellar: a story for another day.

The Barrs would become the first subjects for discussion about nationality and the America’s Cup. Maybe even nationality in international sport of any kind?

What of the other, apparently anonymous lads in the wonderful crew photo above, taken in September 1887 when Thistle was in the Erie Basin dry dock, New York, for cleaning and measuring. Who were they? Thankfully, because of the general furore the Thistle challenge generated around Glasgow, we at least know their names.

ffgkfgfgffgfgf (Library of Congress)

Thistle, about to anchor (or weighing anchor?) somewhere near New York, 1887, with John Barr prominent at the tiller. The full beauty of Watson’s sheerline is clearly seen in a rare image of her almost at rest.
(Library of Congress)

Unusually in the press reporting of yachting, even now, Thistle’s full crew list for the 1887 season – including the America’s Cup races – was published.

John Barr, Master; Alex McDonald, 1st officer; Daniel McKenzie, 2nd Officer; William Wright, steward; Alex Hill, first cook; Archibald McNicol, second cook; John Graham, sailmaker; John Crawford, carpenter; John Fyfe; John Graham; Angus Kennedy; William Craig; James Wilkie; Archibald McIntyre; James Shedden; James Hughes; Daniel McKellar; William Holmes; Hugh Howat; William Griffin.
[Note added 26 March 2014: this list, taken from the book 'Famous Clyde Yachts 1880-1887', is missing Thistle's trans-Atlantic Navigation Master, Captain Donald Kerr (see alphabetical list below).]

Why not? These were national and local heroes. Had there been any previous sporting event where a Scottish team had travelled to take on America – over there?

That my great-grandfather was one of them was passed down in family lore by word of mouth, but without proof. When I began to dig out the facts, finding Archibald McNicol listed as one of Thistle’s crew was a major moment. Apart from the blood ties, I had learned to sail at the Royal Clyde Yacht Club in the mid-1970s, in a Loch Long One Design sloop named Thistle.

As Captain Para Handy’s Mate, Dougie, once said,

“I sometimes wish, mysel’, I had taken to the yats… it’s a suit or two o’ clothes in the year, and a pleasant occupaation. Most o’ the time in canvas sluppers.”

As yachting on the Firth of Clyde and west coast of Scotland gained popularity apace through the Victorian years – the almost unique result of Glasgow’s immense industrial power and wealth generation happening within a short train ride from an aquatic paradise – so too did the industry surrounding it. The labour-intensive yachts of those days required big crews; racing yachts even bigger.

These yacht hands were mainly drawn from the coastal fishing communities: men used to handling sail powered boats and a bit of dusty weather – through Scottish winter, for that was the season. They were available in the summer and took up positions on yachts in numbers.

Loch Fyne Fishermen 1883Perhaps Archibald McNicol’s family was typical. We might now refer to them as maritime crofters. The McNicol croft lay at St Catherines, opposite Inverary, on the east shore of Loch Fyne; one of two fjord-like stretches of deep, easily navigable and sheltered water that reach north from the Firth of Clyde’s interface with the lowlands, long into the mountainous highlands of Argyll. They were fish catchers and smokers, and self-sufficient, with enough land to feed themselves from what they grew there, and the loch full of herring.

It’s a beautiful location that has barely changed (if you forget about the main road driven through the middle of the croft in the 1950s). A little part remains in my family, its beach the playground and daydreaming place of childhood holidays for three McAllister boys, wondering why stones were piled into strange formations and realising much later that these were the remnants of the jetties and the bases for net drying stakes employed by our forebears. It’s hard to imagine that life here was as tough as it would have been for many in the 1880s.

The large families of the time ensured that some sons could go off to summer yachting, leaving enough help back home to maintain that self-sufficiency.

Being in the ‘house’ side of things (’2nd cook’ on Thistle) – although he wouldn’t have got away without lending his muscles to sheets and halyards during a race – Archie’s career path eventually led to him becoming a steward from 1891 aboard James A. Allan’s G.L. Watson designed steam yacht, Hermione: lucrative work at a pay rate equal to the Captain’s. One of his brothers is said to have worked for Kaiser Wilhelm II aboard the German Imperial yacht Hohenzollern II.

I’m constantly amazed that my forebears worked on such iconic yachts, and that, by chance really, so have I: the brother with the middle name, McNicol.

Presently I know a little about one more of Thistle’s crew, James Shedden, a fisherman from the tiny north Ayrshire hamlet of Portencross, its picturesque harbour dominated by a 14th Century castle with Scottish royal connections. I was lucky enough to meet his son in the 1980s, the last of the Sheddens to fish from there. He told me that in James Shedden’s days the fishermen of Portencross were line fishing from spritsail rigged clinker-built skiffs – not a rig associated with the Clyde, but one they believed was easy to ‘scandalise’ in order to slow down when fishing.

Perhaps Thistle’s carpenter, John Crawford, was connected to the family of Crawfords that worked as carpenters for William Fife & Son? Maybe John Fyfe was one of the Ardmaleish Fyfes, a family of Isle of Bute boatbuilders related to the Fife’s of Fairlie; or from a branch of that family in the Ayrshire port of Ardrossan?

Who are the others? At present all we have are names. Where did they come from? Are there other genealogically interested descendants out there who were told that their great-grandfather or great uncle sailed aboard Thistle in the America’s Cup, back in the day.

Hopefully this article might start something? If you think or know that you are descended from one of the men in the crew list, we’d love to hear from you, and hope you might be able to identify him in the photo. Please “leave a comment” below.

The crew list in alphabetical order this time is below (the list above was as published in 1887)

My dream is that we all meet up for a Thistle crew descendants gathering at the Royal Marine Hotel, Hunter’s Quay, Dunoon (below), the magnificent former clubhouse of the Royal Clyde Yacht Club, designed by G.L. Watson’s architect cousin, T.L. Watson, who was also the designer of many interiors for G.L.’s larger sailing and steam yachts – but, once again, that’s another story.

The alphabetical Thistle crew list:

John Barr, Master; William Craig; John Crawford (carpenter); John Fyfe; John Graham, (sailmaker); John Graham; William Griffin; Alex Hill (1st cook); William Holmes; Hugh Howat; James Hughes; Angus Kennedy; (Captain) Donald Kerr (Navigating Master); Alex McDonald (1st officer); Archibald McIntyre; Daniel McKellar; Daniel McKenzie (2nd Officer); Archibald McNicol (2nd cook); James Shedden; James Wilkie; William Wright (steward).

[Note added 26 March 2014: this list, from a 17 August 1887 New York Times article describing Thistle's arrival from the Atlantic at Tompkinsville, NY, the day before, shows the addition of Thistle's trans-Atlantic Navigation Master, Captain Donald Kerr, then a veteran of more than 30 crossings.]

There are 21 names here for what should be considered her core crew, but 22 souls in the photo. Could the 22nd man be the young Charlie Barr in his first America’s Cup appearance. He did not appear on the list, but newspaper reports place him on board for the Cup races?

Her full complement for the 1887 Cup races was 32. Unfortunately at present we have no information on who the extra hands were. Or where they came from…**

[* The dates for John and Charlie Barr's U.S. citizenship taken from Len Paterson's excellent book. The Auld Mug - The Scots and the America's Cup, Glasgow, Neil Wilson, 2007. Other sources give varying dates.]
[** Note 26 March 2014: The final two paragraphs above have been slightly reworked reflecting the fact that after the original post we discovered the name of one more member of Thistle's crew, Navigation Master, Captain Donald Kerr.]
 [Note 1 April 2014: John Barr's age above changed to 42, based on original birth certificate and census records. Published source originally consulted added 6 years to him (1845-1909).]


PBP_daisyG.L. Watson designed  four America’s Cup challengers: Thistle (1887), Valkyrie II (1893), Valkyrie III (1895) and Shamrock II (1901). Martin Black’s  beautifully illustrated biography, G.L. WATSON – THE ART AND SCIENCE OF YACHT DESIGN, takes a fresh look at these challenges, using primary sources to reveal that the British challengers more often than not snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. It can be ordered online here, or from the growing list of worldwide stockists here.

PBP_daisyA special note about the crew photo: Long Island Maritime Museum kindly allowed us to use their image in the knowledge that it would be shared via blog, Facebook, Twitter etc in order to help find the descendants. We ask that, if sharing, you please include the credit “courtesy, Long Island Maritime Museum“, and wherever possible the link to their web site: http://www.limaritime.org/. Thanks.

~ Iain McNicol McAllister ~

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Royal Clyde Yacht Club/ Royal Marine Hotel, Hunter’s Quay, 1890s.
(Library of Congress)

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