Had G.L. Watson been asked how he wished to be remembered by future generations, there is no doubt how he would have answered: “For my lifeboats.” (Martin Black, G.L. Watson – The Art and Science of Yacht Design).
The student of the epic story of yachting during G.L. Watson’s lifetime will eventually, inevitably be drawn to the hometowns of the professional captains and crew, such as Brightlingsea, Rowhedge and Wivenhoe, all on the River Colne, Essex. Places where famous yachts were known for their captains rather than their owners, and the crews were local heroes held in the highest of esteem.
A visit to Brightlingsea’s beautiful and ancient All Saints Church reveals Captain Edward Sycamore’s grave, skipper of Sir Thomas Lipton’s G.L. Watson designed 1901 America’s Cup Challenger, Shamrock II, among many other famous racing yachts: a peaceful spot.
But stepping inside the 13th-16th Century church, one is immediately struck by a sobering display of the awesome power and violence of the sea at its worst, and its impact on small coastal communities in the days before accurate weather forecasting and a safety culture; a reminder that ‘one hand for the boat’ and trust in their vessel’s builder was all that sailors of the 19th Century, and earlier, had for comfort as they earned their daily bread.
Threading around the nave at dado level is a memorial frieze of tiles, one for each person from the small town of Brightlingsea lost at sea since 1872. There are 212 tiles.
The seas are safer these days, you want to think, and of course less folk from such communities depend on the sea for their living.
But it can still be the most dangerous of environments, especially in the congested shipping lanes of the southern North Sea, and in its oil-rich northern sector.
In the space of fifteen days this month, 12 seamen have lost their lives there in two separate incidents. You might not have heard, such things are not major stories these days; in an increasingly non-broadsheet world, such news gets quickly overlaid.
In one case – which will eventually be apportioned to human error, despite, or bizarrely, perhaps because of the array of technological navigational aids available – 13 seamen were winched and hauled to safety after two ships were in collision in open water, 60 miles west of Rotterdam. 11 of their shipmates weren’t so lucky, either trapped in their holed and foundered car carrier, or swept away. And further north, a relatively small and rather elderly oil rig standby safety vessel was so overcome by the power of a particularly fierce North Sea storm that one crewman died and the remaining 11 had to be evacuated by helicopter in atrocious conditions, their ship abandoned.
G.L. Watson’s entry, in 1887, to a parallel career as Consulting Naval Architect to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution began after even worse loss of life: 27 lifeboatmen in one night, this time on England’s northwest coast.
It could be said that his influence lasted into the 21st Century, as the hull lines of the mainstay of RNLI deep water rescue for the last 30 years of the past millennium, the Arun Class of lifeboats, were drawn by Allen McLachlan, a director of G.L. Watson & Co. for 25 years. The last Arun was finally withdrawn from service in 2008.
This other side of G.L. Watson’s work and influence is perhaps the most surprising and inspiring part of Martin Black’s biography.
More information on the tile frieze in All Saints’ Church, Brightlingsea here.
[Baltic Ace update 9 December 2014: Wreck removal animation (below). Two years on, lost seamen not forgotten on Tyneside at South Shields Seafarers Centre.]
Martin Black’s beautifully illustrated and written biography, G.L. Watson – The Art and Science of Yacht Design, can be purchased online at our website www.peggybawnpress.com, from Amazon UK and Amazon USA, and from the bookstores listed here.
~ Iain McAllister ~