The very first crewing I did was aboard a 20 foot canvas and wooden sailing canoe. I couldn’t have been older than 14. This unique yawl had been designed and built by a neighbour for his son who was a very good friend. Indeed, it was because of this friend and his father that I became interested in canoeing and built my own canvas canoe.
Bill and I – yes, another Bill, who was really named David – frequently took our canoes to the River Tone for sailing and paddling, but the 20 footer was something different; she was really special. Because she was rather heavy she was kept on a mooring near the entrance to the River Brue, adjacent to the Burnham-on-Sea Sailing Club, in Somerset – not to be confused with Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex. This meant we could only sail ‘Tilikum’ at weekends, because there was a 30 mile bicycle ride to get there.
Our pattern was to take camping gear on a Friday evening and sleep overnight on the concrete floor of a small wooden hut which served as the Burnham Yacht Club HQ. Technically this was not permitted within the club rules, but no one found out – until later. On the Saturday, according to the tide which has a whopping 12 metre rise and fall at springs, we would sail with the flood up the River Parret beyond Combwich and towards Dunbar; then return on the ebb.
You can imagine the excitement and fun we two Bills had tacking our beamy flat bottomed canoe, first to the southwest, then to the south east as the river snaked its course. After Combwich the muddy waters flowed northwards, then east and south again before Dunbar. These meanderings kept us alert with constant sail trimming.
‘Tilikum’ was an unwieldy vessel in light airs because of her weight and surface drag. She was not at all easy to paddle, being far too beamy for double paddles, which forced us to use single blades in unison while sitting side by side.
My friend was three years older than I; ‘Tilikum’ had been built for him, so there was never any doubt as to who was in charge. Big Bill was the captain and I was his crew. What I haven’t explained is that my friend had a paralysed leg, but this never prevented him from doing anything. He was a strong swimmer and he could, by using his good leg, cycle faster than me!
Before going for a morning sail it was always our routine to have a swim in the murky waters of the River Brue. After that, with the aid of a Primus stove, we would prepare and eat a full English breakfast. Thus fortified, we would bring the canoe to the mud-caked shore by hauling in her running mooring line. Once rigged, off we would go for another glorious adventure, but one weekend was different. In fact it was the last we would have with the ‘Tilikum’.
Instead of cycling to Burnham on Friday evening we got up exceptionally early on Saturday morning. Arriving at the club house shortly after dawn we notice our beloved canoe had fully capsized. I suppose she was in about 9 feet of water. It was really cold and I didn’t fancy going for a swim, but both of us stripped and donned our costumes. I was relieved to receive the ‘command’, “You stand here while I swim down and get the mast out of the mud,” then he said, “If I don’t come up within 3 minutes you get me out.”
Bill was the Senior School Champion Plate Diver – that meant he could collect more enamel plates thrown into the swimming pool during the school gala than other boys in the upper school. I happened to be the Junior School Plate Diving Champion, but that didn’t bolster my confidence in being able to rescue Bill if he got into trouble.
Without a moment’s hesitation he dived into the water, swam to the upturned hull, took a deep breath, then he made a duck dive with his good leg pointing straight up into the air. I started to count the seconds. One minute passed, then another and finally the third. There was nothing for it, I had to go, but at that moment Bill’s head burst free at the surface and with much gasping he said the mast was well and truly stuck. After regaining his breath he tried again and once more. I’m ashamed to confess I was petrified. Just as I thought I must make a brave effort to help, Bill proclaimed enough was enough! We would not be going for a sail.
That morning we couldn’t’ get into the club house because the lock had been changed. No doubt someone had discovered we had been using it for free overnight accommodation, but breakfast in the open was great. Once fortified, we sadly made our way home to tell Bill’s dad what had happened. He retrieved the sunken and badly damaged ‘Tilikum’ the next day, and we never sailed her at Burnham again.