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Sailors Stories

Still Sailing After All These Years

Dick Durham throws a centenary birthday party for his gaff-rigged cutter, Betty II, to commemorate her launch in 1921.

In the early summer of 1921 at a small boatyard on the banks of the Thames Estuary, a yacht was launched, the lines of which had as much to do with terra firmaas H2O.

Her owner, Harry Smith, was a city gent who commuted by train to the Square Mile each day from his home in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. Before settling into the Daily Telegraph crossword he wanted to be able to see his new yacht from the carriage window, which meant a mooring on the local mudflats. 

Although the first written mention of Leigh is in the Domesday Book – the Norman census which turned us all into property-owning obsessives – the ‘on-sea’ was actually added much later by a council PR man who wished to ignore the fact that Leigh is actually only on-sea for about four hours a day. For the rest of the time the village squats on mud, and Maplin Sands, to which it is adjoined, is the largest mudbank in Europe.

So, Harry Smith’s boat had to be shoal-draught, but, as he was a keen racing man and flag officer of the Essex Yacht Club, she had to be fast, too. Smith, therefore, contacted the Burnham Yacht Building Company, at nearby Burnham-on-Crouch, which was making a name for turning out swift and pretty boats, including the Royal Corinthian One Design fleet raced by that club’s members.

Here he met his namesake, naval architect Harry Smith, who had designed yacht hulls with flat wetted sections which produced a new performance known as a ‘skidding’ hull. Such designs were much later plagiarised by design legend, Uffa Fox, who coined the term ‘planing’ hull. 

Harry’s boat was named Betty II, because the name had already been taken by her proud owner’s youngest daughter, and she was launched at Cole Wiggins & Wiggins yard in time for Southend Yachting Week. The event was held from the 9th-16th of July with HMY Britannia, sailed by King George V, racing for a prize of £75, sailing in Class A and Betty II sailed by Harry Smith, racing for a prize of £6, in Class C.

As the eighth owner of Betty II, I felt obliged to hold a centenary birthday party for her in our home town of Leigh-on-Sea. To that end, I set about tracking down previous owners to invite and was astonished to unravel a family tree whose roots could be traced right back to her beginnings.

Sadly, I was not in time to meet Betty Smith, known in the family as ‘One’, as she had already died some years before. I did however find her niece, Sheena Schmidtchen, who still lives locally. Sheena told me her Aunty Betty had many partners at the local yacht club dances as she was quite a mover. This seemed an apt description of the boat, too.

Betty II’s next owner was the late Ralph Mountstephens, who cruised her, without an engine, to Holland, Belgium and France with his wife and two sons. I was able to track down one of Ralph’s sons, Neal, who now lives in Lymington, Hampshire where he still sails. He sent me a sketch of the boat’s original layout and said she was always known as ‘The Betty’ in their household.

Next came a sailmaker, the late Stan Bishop, who described the boat to a Yachting Monthly reporter as having ‘a pitch pine hull as sound as a bell and as dry as a bone.’

Her fourth owner was Ray Davies, who rebuilt her in the 1970s, adding seven laminated ring frames, new timbers, and who also re-fastened her. He now lives in Brightlingsea, Essex and is married to Alice, daughter of the globally-known sailing writer, Bob Fisher, who died this year.

Ray did not finish his Betty II project as his father decided to sell his own classic yacht, the 26ft Bermudian cutter, Almita, which is also still sailing. Ray has now also rebuilt a Falmouth workboat, Bluebell, which he races locally.

He sold her to another Leigh sailor, Dick Johnson, who at the time was Editor of Yachting World magazine and later the voice of Cowes Week, whose workload dictated that he sold her on before getting her sailing again.

Her sixth owner was Nick Titshall did complete the re-build which included the construction of a new centre-board case, all the ironwork, and re-decking. While Betty II was laid up her lead ballast ‘went missing’ so Nick contacted a plumber friend who supplied him with lead pipework being replaced in old buildings, which Nick then melted down into 22 pigs.

After a decade of cruising on the East Coast, Nick sold her to headmaster, Ben Collins, who had her road-trailered to her new home at Keyhaven, Hampshire on the Solent. From here Ben cruised her to Brittany and the West Country, as well as racing in the Solent including 2nd place in the Round the Island Race. He had a modern diesel engine installed and also made her cockpit bigger by cutting 18inches of the stern deck away.

By now Betty II had come well onto my radar: I spent 15 years trying to buy her. Firstly, Nick promised her to me then changed his mind – so I bought a Contessa 32, Minstrel Boy, on the rebound. Next Ben promised her to me then also changed his mind, causing me to buy another gaffer, Wendy May, a 26ft Maurice Griffiths’ design built in 1936.

Finally, Ben let me have her four years ago and I sailed her back to the Thames Estuary in October 2017 with my old Bay of Biscay shipmate, John ‘Glum’ Green.

Another old friend and shipmate, Roger Cooper, a carpenter-joiner, this year replaced the aft deck back to its original state.

So now Betty II is not just back home, but also back to her original build and ready to face her second century.

Note from Dick Beaumont Chairman

of Kraken Yachts:

If you build them well in the first place they’ll not only outlast their mortal owners, but enable those same mortals to survive all the rigours the sea and the weather will throw at them. Betty II is a perfect illustration of exactly that. Well done old girl.

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