Lit Bits

A PILGRIM AMONG THE SWATCHWAYS: Chasing the Ghost of Maurice Griffiths

Riverside

The name Maurice Griffiths is not particularly well known in the United States, but in England he is most certainly an iconic figure. A dapper fellow with a goatee beard, he was born into modest circumstances at the turn of the 20th century, the second son of a traveling glove and underwear salesman who had an eye for ladies and racehorses and consequently died bankrupt. At age 19, in the year 1921, not long before his father passed away, Maurice and a friend sold a much-loved model railroad set, invested the proceeds in a 50-year-old semi-derelict cutter named Undine, and the rest--as they say--is history.

Over the course of the next six decades, Griffiths bought, sold, and cruised innumerable small yachts, and wrote 15 books on sailing, one of which, The Magic of the Swatchways, is now a classic of British sailing literature. Griffiths also trained himself as a naval architect and became a successful yacht designer, drawing several pioneering designs for simple shoal-draft cruising boats. Most important, perhaps, he was one of the first on either side of the Atlantic to publicly champion the concept of sailing as a sport for the common man. During his 40-year tenure as editor-in-chief at Yachting Monthly magazine, he transformed what had become an elitist yachting social journal into a practical, but very literate bible for middle-class sailors who dreamed of getting afloat aboard boats of their own.

As a sailing journalist myself, and as the former owner of a Golden Hind 31 designed by Griffiths, I am obviously more attuned to his legacy than most Americans. Several years ago, when I was invited by the Little Ship Club, which Griffiths helped to form in 1926, to attend their joint cruise with their American sister club, the Corinthians, on that portion of the English coast that had been Griffiths’ home cruising ground, it seemed inevitable I should view the venture as something of a pilgrimage. I arrived in London by plane one early summer morning, surprisingly bereft of expectation, boarded a train at Victoria Station, and, like so many English-speaking sailors before me, rocketed out of the city through the green countryside toward the coast to embark on a modest exploration.

Maurice Griffiths

Maurice Griffiths in the offices of Yachting Monthly circa 1959

Map

Our cruising ground

I arrived in Chatham on the River Medway and found the home of my host and skipper, Richard Gapper, buried deep in the bowels of the old Chatham Dockyard. For more than four centuries, from 1547 to 1984, the Dockyard’s sprawling 600-acre complex was a logistical focal point where warships of the Royal Navy were both created and serviced. Now it is, in effect, a vast museum where relics of Britain’s nautical heritage are interspersed with unique private residences. Richard’s house, for example, on what is known as Officer’s Row, sat alongside the joiner’s and carpenter’s workshops and overlooked a series of drydocks in which old warships were encapsulated for posterity. His own boat, a Beneteau Oceanis 411 called Bonaventure, was berthed conveniently close at hand at a pontoon on the river only a few hundred yards from his door.

An avid and erudite sailor who previously lived in London, Richard, I soon learned, had only recently switched cruising grounds from the South Coast, which features such highlights as Cowes, the Solent, and a glittering social scene, for what he assured me were the more sublime pleasures of the East Coast, which encompasses the Thames estuary and the myriad rivers and creeks that so enthralled Maurice Griffiths. I received more explicit advice on the differences between the two venues at the sumptuous dinner that formally opened our cruise, which was held at the Commissioner’s House, a plush mansion that once housed the anointed ruler of the Dockyard.

“They say the South Coast is for yachtsmen,” explained Malcolm Lewis-Jones, owner of a Moody 38, Amber Sea, who sat beside me and attempted to educate me during our meal together. He smiled and raised a glass before delivering his punchline: “And the East Coast is for sailors.”

We set out the very next morning. The crew of Bonaventure consisted of Richard, myself, Dick Durham, from the staff of Griffiths’ old comic, Yachting Monthly, and an older couple, Rob and Patricia Calmels, who like Richard and Malcolm were also members of the Little Ship Club.

We dropped lines at the Dockyard shortly before 0900 and quietly puttered down river to line up for the start of what was billed as a race from the Medway around to Bradwell Marina on the River Blackwater. The entire fleet consisted of 25 assorted member vessels of the Little Ship Club, most of which were hosting visiting American crew from the Corinthians. Only one of the little ships, it turned out, had been designed by Griffiths. This was Wigeon, a Golden Hind 31 that had led a very interesting life, as I later learned when her owner, Seton Jory, showed me the bullet holes in her hull (nicely patched) from a Yugoslavian sojourn some years earlier.

Cutter

An antique cutter encountered on our way down the River Medway

GH 31 Wigeon

Wigeon underway

I had concluded that the Little Ship Club did not take its racing very seriously when I found the following footnote in its racing rules: “All protests must be accompanied by a non-returnable deposit of a bottle of gin.” So I was not surprised when the start devolved into anarchy, with a number of competitors crossing the line on the wrong side of the committee boat. Our course led us out the Medway and across the vast entrance of the River Thames, which is choked by long parallel fingers of sand that reach miles out into the North Sea and are exposed at low water. In places there are channels across the sandbars, known as swatchways, that canny sailors can exploit as they transit the coast. Dick Durham, who grew up in the area, was well acquainted with them and reminded me as we passed through the Spitway across the base of the bar known as the Gunfleet Sands, that Maurice Griffiths had once almost met his end not far from here.

This had occurred in the fall of 1922, when Griffiths and a companion attempted to take a small racing sloop round from Harwich to West Mersea in rough weather and ended up hard aground on the Gunfleet Sands four miles from shore on an ebb tide. Having lost their dinghy to a parted painter, with no flares to signal for help, they spent a lonely night out here, high and dry, waiting to see if their boat would break up in the heavy seas when the tide returned.

“That waiting was the worst part of it all,” wrote Griffiths later, “and those hours of darkness seemed interminable. We should either be afloat or a mass of drifting matchwood before daylight came.”

Fortunately, in spite of an anchor rode that parted just as their boat floated free again, Griffiths and his friend survived the ordeal.

On Bonaventure, fortunately, we experienced no such traumas. Arriving third over the line at Bradwell after a long afternoon’s sail in light air, we put into the marina for the night, enjoyed a fine meal aboard, and next morning joined the rest of the little ships on a quick jaunt across the Blackwater to West Mersea on Mersea Island. The topography of the harbor here, known as Mersea Quarters, mimicks that of the Thames estuary itself, and is laced with long sinewy mudbanks. Along the shore there are peaceful salt marshes studded with wrecked antique vessels that have been remade as houseboats, and in the town itself residents still seem more concerned with the water and marsh that surrounds them than with doings on the mainland.

That afternoon, before attending yet another formal dinner at the local yacht club, Dick Durham and I strolled about the place, and he showed me the house where Griffiths did in fact finally end his days in 1997--at the ripe old age of 92. It was a small, plain modern brick bungalow and gave no hint at all of the spirit that expired there.

Packing Shed

An LSC gathering at the Packing Shed at Mersea Quarters

Houseboats

Houseboats interspersed along the salt marsh

Houseboats

The modest home in which Maurice Griffiths ended his days

Dick Durham

Dick Durham in his element. His biography of Griffiths, The Magician of the Swatchways, was published in 1994

Appropriately, the next stop on our itinerary was Walton Backwaters, a vast maze of marsh and creeks that lies hidden behind a curled fist of land called the Naze. It was here that Griffiths made his first attempt at settled domesticity. Having found someone who must have seemed a perfect mate--a female sailing journalist, Dulcie Kennard, who went by her pen name, Peter Gerard--Griffiths married in 1927, and after a brief honeymoon cruise on a newly purchased 34-foot pilot cutter named Afrin, the newlyweds decided to live aboard permanently at Walton.

From here Maurice could catch a train into London each morning to attend to his new job as editor of Yachting Monthly, while Peter minded the boat and worked as a freelance writer. It was here, too, that Griffiths had found inspiration for some of his most compelling writing. His accounts of his cruises on this coast feature both dramatic moments when he and his boats were hard pressed and, more tellingly and most evocatively, those moments when he felt perfectly secure and content, nestled at anchor in a cozy cabin with curlews crying on the mudbanks around him.

Peter Gerard

Peter Gerard all ready to get afloat

Afrin

Afrin underway in a drawing by Griffiths

In the end, unfortunately, the seemingly perfect couple was riven by their disparate prejudices as sailors. Maurice liked nothing better than to potter about his beloved creeks and rivers; Peter preferred open water and despised the shoal-choked East Coast. They first compromised by owning separate boats for several years, but finally they divorced in 1934. Griffiths was single for a decade thereafter, but eventually, while commanding minesweepers during the war, he married another woman, Marjorie Copson, who was much more comfortable refurbishing houses than she was on the water.

We arrived at Walton on Bonaventure after a boisterous sail up from Mersea Quarters. The grey sky was shot through with sunlight in places, marred by black squalls in others, with a stiff southwesterly that pushed us quickly along the low-lying coast under headsail alone. The color of the water was alternately a weird luminescent green when the sun was out, or a dull turbid brown when it was not. We nosed into the Backwater, picked up a mooring between the vast expanses of mud emerging on the ebb tide, and quickly launched our tender, as the Little Ship Club’s itinerary called for a barbecue on shore that evening. The wind kept rising, however, we were briefly lashed with hail, and then came word via radio that the barbecue was cancelled. Soon, however, we were treated to an alternate mode of amusement--one of those minor disasters that Griffiths in his prose could portray so precisely.

“The dinghy’s flipped!” cried Rob from the cockpit.

The rest of us rushed topside to find the raucous breeze had indeed twisted our rubber dink upside down on its painter, plunging the head of Richard’s brand new outboard engine, which he had only ever used once before, deep into the corrosive salt water. We righted the tender as quickly as we could, then rushed the outboard into the head for a freshwater shower. We spent the rest of the evening nodding over books and wine in the shelter of Bonaventure’s cabin, venturing into the cockpit from time to time to sample the cold wind and the sight of the open marshes around us. For Patricia, like Peter Gerard, it was apparently a less than ideal set of circumstances.

“Oh, how I yearn for the fleshpots of Cowes,” she remarked with a grim smile as she stared off into the gathering dusk.

Rob and Patricia

Rob and Patricia on the run to Walton Backwaters

Drowned outboard

Richard with his drowned outboard

Stingo

This brightly varnished sailing dinghy, Stingo, was the smallest vessel in our flotilla

We experienced yet another minor disaster the next day, after we sailed out the Backwaters around to Harwich at the entrance of the River Stour. Setting out docklines and fenders to come alongside the town dock in a sloppy chop, we suddenly lost one fender overboard. We recovered it in a dramatic rescue that brought us within a few feet of a pierhead to leeward, Richard keeping us off at the last moment with a deft burst from the bowthruster. To our chagrin, however, on coming at last to the dock, we found yet another missing fender tangled in the thruster. After an excellent lunch at the nearby Pier Hotel, we motored across the river to Shotley Marina, our badge of shame bobbing up and down in our bow wave, and arranged for a quick haul-out so we could cut it free.

Fortunately, the conclusion of our cruise was much more serendipitous. After a lively night with the rest of the little ships in the marina, where we reveled in the wonders of a gin-dispensing winch handle that Jonathan Hague had fitted aboard his UFO 34, Hard Seed, we set out the next morning for the River Deben.

Caught fender

The offending fender

Bow thruster surgery

Richard extracts it

Winch handle

Jonathan on Hard Seed with his amazing winch handle

Dancers

Fancy dancers on shore in Harwich

Deben River

Sailing up the Deben

Riverbank

A walk along the riverbank

Barges

Thames barges (and a swan) at Ipswich

Maurice and Coppie

Griffiths and his second wife, known as Coppie, at the house in West Mersea

Here at last I understood why Maurice Griffiths had so loved exploring the nooks and crannies of this coast. After a fine sail around Felixstowe in a moderate southwesterly, we squeezed past a tricky shoal at the river entrance, then carried the flood tide up the river itself. We saw low green hills and distant pastures on either side of us, dappled in intermittent bursts of brilliant sunlight, and marshes filled with birds as we rushed silently along. Arriving at Ramsholt, a few miles on, we dropped sail and picked up a mooring, then went ashore for lunch at a quiet inn situated close by the river bank.

Sunset that evening found me strolling up a pathway on the verge of a verdant cow pasture, the hiss of the tide leaving the mud sounding softly on my opposite side. In the distance, just as the colors in the sky seemed their brightest, there came the faint plaintive cry of a curlew from across the river.

I was thinking of that sound and that perfect moment later the next day, as we sailed around in a fine breeze to Ipswich, where the little ships all gathered for the last time to celebrate our time together. I thought of it on the plane home and have thought of it again several times since. In the end, I suspect, some small part of me will always be there standing on that riverbank, listening to that lonely bird.

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