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Donkin on Sailing

August 2010 - Swallows and Amazons revisited

Sitting by the pontoon in the state-of-the-art marina is a stubby little boat, painted white, with varnished fittings and a wooden mast. Atop the mast is a pennant with a skull-and-crossbones on one side and a swallow on the other. On the stern is the boat's name - Nancy Blackett.

Anyone familiar with the Swallows and Amazon adventure books by Arthur Ransome will know that Nancy Blackett, leader of the Amazons, was one of the author's favourite characters, recalled when he bestowed the name on a Bermudan cutter that became the inspiration for what some enthusiasts believe was his best book: We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea.

"The early books were set on lakes but by the time that Ransome had come to live in Suffolk his characters were ready to take to the sea," says Peter Willis, chairman of the Nancy Blackett Trust that maintains and sails the boat from its base in Woolverstone Marina on the River Orwell in Suffolk . "In this book the children face their most testing challenge and people see it as a right of passage," he says.

Up to the late 1980s the boat was rotting in Scarborough harbour on the Yorkshire coast before it was restored, then sold to the trust thirteen years ago.

Today Ransome enthusiasts come from all over the world to see and, in the season, sail on the boat, sometimes tasting the kind of adventure they read about as children. "Grounded! Nancy 's night on a mud bank," says one of the entries on the trust's web site, recalling one of her most recent escapades.

"Perhaps we sailed up one creek too far," said a sheepish crewman who had been on board during the mud bank drama when the boat had to wait two tides before it could be refloated.

 While groundings are not recommended by the trustees, there is an acknowledgement that sailing an old boat is going to incur some occasional damage. "We think the best way to preserve a wooden boat is to sail it and maintain it. Every year it comes out of the water and gets a new coat of varnish," says Willis.

For anyone who has read the Swallows and Amazons series of books, to step aboard is to revisit the scene of a much loved adventure.   The blue canvass bunks of what was called the Goblin in Ransome's story are just as they were described in the book. The cabin is lit by a pair of oil lamps, illuminating photographs of the author and there is a collection of his books on board for those who choose to immerse themselves in nostalgia.

John Smith, one of the volunteer skippers who looks after the boat during the summer season, hands me a cup of tea made from water boiled in an old copper kettle in keeping with the boat's vintage. "Some evenings when the oil lamps are lit and there's a glow coming off the varnish it feels as if you're back in the time when Ransome sailed her," he says. The 28ft cutter was built in 1931 by Hillyard of Littlehampton. Ransome owned her for three years. The bunks were too cramped for his second wife, Evgenia, a tall woman who had been the former personal secretary to Leon Trotsky during the Russian revolution.

Some time ago, sailing the Nancy Blackett, Smith and Willis retraced the fictional voyage of the Goblin across to the Netherlands but this day, under another volunteer skipper, retired boat-builder Ed Williams, we sail no further than Pin Mill, the village where, in the book, the Swallows are spending their holiday before accidentally finding themselves at sea.

"The great thing about this book is that within the first few chapters the children learn all the lessons they will need to add to their existing sailing knowledge if they find themselves at sea. When this happens, they apply these lessons in finding their way across the north sea. It's a terrific book," says Willis whose passion for Ransome's books is infectious. "I'm in that phase of arrested development that grown ups go in to when they get to rediscover their childhood," he says.

In our much shorter voyage I'm becoming familiar with a boat without winches for the foresails and with a tiller for the helm. She's a handsome sight in her rust-red sails. "She's very simple to sail when you get her set up and she's very forgiving," says Williams.

Looking across to the shoreline at Pin Mill, with Thames barges squatting on the mudflats and the pink Alma Cottage, featured in the book alongside the Butt & Oyster pub, the scene does not appear to have changed much since Ransome's day. It speaks of a gentler, more innocent time.

Today it is possible through the trust to relive Ransome's adventures with a remarkable degree of authenticity. Trust membership is 15 a year. No more than a quarter of the trust's 400 existing members seek to sail on the boat. Those that do enter a bidding process where the boat may be sailed by competent members for a fee of about 30 a day or by swapping credits earned by working on the boat. The skippers often take out school children in line with one of the trust's aims to ensure that Ransome's experience remains accessible to young people.

"A lot of children grew up with these stories and everyone seems to know the boat," says John Smith. "Hats get tipped when we sail by. It's good to be involved in a part of our literary and sailing heritage."


 For details of the trust visit:


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