Friday, 16 September 2011

More on the Scottish Islanders

Because the boats in a one-design class are identical, or at least supposed to be, researching their history is interesting only because it becomes truly a history of the people who became involved with individual boats. One-design racing appeals to a certain type of person who would rather win races through helming and crewing competence than by spending money.

The Scottish Islands Class attracted a diverse group of individuals to its ranks. Some, like William Wordie, about whom I wrote a post recently, didn't stay in the class for long. In his case I guess that the pressures of running a haulage empire pretty well excluded sufficient time to excel on the water, although I'm sure he didn't lack the competitive spirit. Others stayed with their boats through thick and thin, enduring lean years where few if any trophies were won in the hope of an eventual triumph. The skill and dedication of J Herbert Thom ensured that for some this remained something of a dream.

The Islanders went to lengths to avoid anyone getting an advantage. The original five hulls, built side by side by McGruers in an early form of mass-production, were allocated to the first owners by lot. If you didn't want an engine you had to carry the equivalent weight and have a dummy propellor fitted. Sails were ordered by the class secretary after he had obtained suitable quotations and a vote had been taken, the new jibs or mains then being allocated by lot. The boats could only be hauled out for scrubbing at certain times, to ensure they didn't become too light or unfairly weed-free. Each hull had to be a distinctive colour, but the original owners didn't bargain for Herbert Thom's preference for a varnished hull, which was allowed after some mutterings. He argued that he liked the colour brown, but in fact he was aware that a painted hull would gather weight as succeeding coats were added, whereas he would have had last season's varnish scraped off each winter.
Despite all these efforts owners still felt that some boats were faster than others. It is always possible, indeed likely, that two wooden boats from the same drawings but different builders will not be identical. The yachts from number 6, Jura, onwards, were built by Alfred Mylne's own Bute Slip yard, so suspicions naturally arose. Thus we find owners sometimes selling one Islander and buying another.

Herbert Thom owned three of the boats during his time in the class. He commissioned number 9, Gigha, and immediately became class champion in 1931, with 29 prizes in 33 starts, including 18 firsts. In 1932 he had 27 prizes including 21 wins. By 1933 the competition was hotting up. Gigha won only 14 times with William Russell's Sanda, number 5, barking at her heels with 10 and actually more places overall.

Despite Sanda's success discontent within the class was now at a height, with much rumouring about Gigha being simply a faster boat. George Jackson's Westra, number 1, had now missed two seasons and he put her up for sale. When Herbert Thom heard that she had been sold to someone on the Solway he persuaded the purchaser to accept his Gigha instead. The Field correspondent reports:-

"On the relative performance of the two boats the exchange may seem somewhat surprising. There is only one explanation I can think of. Allegations were sometimes heard that the success of Gigha was accounted for by her out-size. Remeasurement more than once showed that there was no foundation for these statements, but Mr Thom is a good sportsman and I expect that he has taken this course to remove any unpleasantness, no matter how unjustified."

This comment proved correct and in 1934 The Field commented:-

"As before, Mr J H Thom headed the Scottish Islands class; he won with Gigha last year, and this time has repeated with another and older boat, which shows that it is the man who counts."

And the Glasgow Herald:-

"Mr J H Thom scored a success in Westra, with which he tops the list in the Scottish islands class with 29 flags in 38 starts. His prizes include the Bryce Allan Cup and the No 2 Tarbert Cup."

Herbert Thom and Westra triumphed again in 1935 and 1936, but by the following year he had moved into the six-metres with Circe and the other owners began to get more of a chance. Westra was sold and then lost during the War, but post-War Herbert Thom was to return with his third islander, Canna, number 10.
Canna just after JHT acquired her, hull still white

I've written extensively about the Islanders in my other blog , where those with an appetite for data will find the pre-War and post-War racing results in some detail. That blog has now become more or less an archive of information about these yachts, which occupy a unique place in our sailing history. While researching that history I became aware that the people involved concerned themselves with other yachts as well. Further, they had interesting personal histories of more general interest, so it makes sense for these to be recounted on this blog. I shall be recording some of those histories in further posts.

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The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water