Wednesday, 26 June 2013

SCOTS IN OYSTER BAY - Chapter One - One-design Battles on the Clyde



One-Design Battles on the Clyde

By the 1920s the Clyde racing season was well developed, with the organisation shared among a number of yacht clubs. The area must be one of the finest stretches of water anywhere for tactical yacht racing. It contains a network of sea lochs and some lovely islands against a mixed backdrop of hills and coastal towns. While relatively sheltered the Firth has to be treated with respect, as the hills cause plenty of wind shifts and squalls, while the tide creates interesting sea conditions and has been responsible for many races being won and lost.

There was a new enthusiasm for one design racing which resulted in three new classes, the McGruer designed and built Garelochs in 1924, Johan Anker’s Dragon in 1928 and then Alfred Mylne’s scottish Islanders in 1929. 

from the Glasgow Herald

The Islanders had significantly more displacement than the other boats, a bit like “sawn off ” six metres, had a little accommodation inside and the class encouraged fitting an engine, because if you didn’t want one you had to carry equivalent weight and fit a dummy propeller.

Of these new classes the most competitive were the Islanders. From their first outings they established a tradition of racing whatever the weather with close finishes, the fleet generally all home within a few minutes of each other.


The Islanders attracted experienced yachtsmen looking for level racing in a strict one-design environment. Of the first batch Number 5, Sanda, was picked by the brothers Willie and Tommy Russell. Willie and his daughter Udy were the competitive members of the family. Tommy preferred the luxury of a larger boat and eventually went on to commission the lovely Eilidh from Alfred Mylne.

In 1931 the fleet was joined by the almost unbeatable John Herbert Thom, who moved over from the William Fife six metre Susette, formerly Lucille, a design from 1928, in which he was the class champion. He had decided against a Dragon because of its being a foreign design and the engine rule had initially disposed him against an Islander, but the opportunity for keen racing won him over.



It didn’t take long for tense and sometime aggressive competition to develop between the Russells and Herbert Thom. All were people of their time, when the vibrant and rapidly-growing city of Glasgow was producing a new breed of talented industrialists inventing and making things, taking risks and enjoying challenges in their recreations as well as in their working lives. There the comparison between the Russells and the Herbert Thom ended, for their personalities were very different.

Willie and Tommy Russell were a pair of talented, sociable and hard-working engineers whose antecedents had operated the Saracen Iron Works in Springburn. By the late 1920s they had moved from mechanical to civil engineering and were dividing their time between design work throughout the country and yachting and very convivial socialising at Colintraive in the Kyles of Bute, where Willie had a sizeable house overlooking the water. At the time Colintraive was a secluded little enclave of enormous villas and home to numerous Glasgow industrialists, such as the Connel shipbuilding family, a group of mainly unmarried siblings who commuted from their Scotstoun yard in their own fast steam-yachts.

John Herbert Thom was born in Glasgow in 1890 but he had the sea in his blood, coming from generations of Clyde fisherman. Herbert’s father, John, had progressed from a training at the cutting edge of steam technology in the drawing office of Scott & Co in Greenock to become the chief engineering draughtsman at the Barrow Shipbuilding Company. 

Hard work broke his health down and he returned eventually to Glasgow and worked as a consulting marine engineer and naval architect. He became associated with George Lennox Watson in designing engines for the latter’s elegant steam yachts. He also acquired the pump-making company Lamont & Co Limited and renamed it Thom, Lamont & Co Limited, where in due course Herbert would spend his working life.

From his earliest years Herbert was sailing dinghies and taught himself the principles of steering and tacking without a rudder, by weight distribution alone. He never forgot these lessons and later applied what he had learned in boats right up to 12 metre size to ensure correct trim. By the age of seven he was sailing with his father and at the age of thirteen, in 1903, he won his first yacht race aboard Rose, one of the Royal Clyde yacht Club fleet.



In 1925 Herbert bought the 19/24 footer Sunbeam, designed by Alfred Mylne and built by Alexander Robertson & Son in 1904 and immediately began to make an impact, finishing second in the class with 14 first places and seven seconds, out of 36 starts. In 1926, 1927 and 1928 he was class champion, ending up with a grand total of 108 placings out of 143 starts. 

He had to look for a new challenge and bought the Fife 6 metre Lucille, renamed her Susette, came third in 1929 and became champion of the sixes in 1930. By the end of 1930 the sight of close competition in the Islanders won him over and he commissioned yacht Number 9, Gigha, built by Alfred Mylne’s own yard at Ardmaleish.

Herbert Thom brought yacht racing in Scotland into the modern age. He brought the same dedication to his sport as he had done when learning his business after the early loss of his father. He studied every aspect. The major significance of trim we have already noted. He carried this to extremes by requiring crew members to lie down below in calm weather, which must have been hell as such weather would also have been very hot. He let it be known that he carried only a minute amount of petrol aboard, just enough to get to the start and home after the finish.

Some of this was pure psychology. An example was his racing flag, the red, white and blue Tango, naval code for “Do not pass in front of me.” Far more important was his habit of meticulous note-taking, which involved recording the courses taken by other boats and their positions at different stages. He also spent time studying the tidal currents and wind patterns in the Firth of Clyde, sometimes from the slopes of the hills behind Gourock and Hunters Quay.

Competition between the Russell’s McGruer-built Sanda and Thom’s Bute-built Gigha at the top of a closely packed fleet became increasingly intense. Thom’s gamesmanship and steely aggression on the water eventually soured relations with the sociable Russells who enjoyed the sailing as much as the competition. Inevitably there was speculation that the yachts were different. At the end of 1933 Thom announced that to end this he had bought Westra, the oldest boat and put Gigha up for sale.


However, Willie Russell had another idea altogether.

To be continued…..


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The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water