The year is now 1885; the age of steam
is well over the horizon.
But as this series returns James Onedin now owns 25 ships under sail. One of
them, an addition to his fleet, is the Angela, played by the Søren
Landlubber Jonathan Rafoan boarded this restored Baltic trader for the trip
from Avonmouth round to Cowes. It was, he finds, the best of times . . .
and, as the Søren Larsen lurched and staggered unseductively, the worst of
exercise a queer hold on the English imagination. There's nothing
like the sight of a square-rigger for reminding even the weediest of
chain-smokers that he's really a heart of oak; the rightful heir to
the tradition of Nelson, Drake and the great maritime adventurers of
empire. Our literature is steeped in sailing lore. Where Americans
have Westerns and pioneers, the British have sea stories and
One could see it all in the eyes of the
gathering crowds as the Søren Larsen chugged down a bleak suburban
canal in Gloucestershire: all sails tightly furled, her masts
dwarfing church steeples, office blocks
and gasometers, she was making a royal stir. Factories emptied for her, as lines
of men in boiler suits came out to watch her pass. She brought the morning
traffic to a stop. People came dashing out of bungalows with Instamatics to get
her picture; whole pools of typists stood framed in high windows, pointing
down. There was something at once splendid and absurd about her progress - a
tall ship stuck, improbably, in a landscape of 20th-century gimcrack.
On board, her crew and passengers were basking in the glow of her celebrity.
The canal pilot - and pilots are usually as ! taciturn as clams - was babbling
happily about her virtues.
'She's lovely. Isn't she lovely? You only have to touch her wheel and she
answers immediately. Not like your modern coasters. And she could take any
weather, this one. Any weather.'
He spun the wheel, and she made a right-angled turn around the corner of a tyre
depot. The pilot's thunder had been stolen, though. Scott, who at 17 was the
youngest member of her crew, had chosen this particular moment to be hauled up
the mainmast in a bosun's chair. He hung there, covered in conspicuous glory, 40
feet up below the futtock-band, greasing the mast with tallow.
Standing on the fo'c'sle with my fingers frozen, I knew that this
wasn't my party. I belonged with the curious camera-clickers on shore, not
on board this living symbol of hardihood and enterprise. As I got out of
the way of someone doing peculiar things to a coil of rope, I felt an
impostor in a cheerful, Philistine, outdoor world; a world where everybody
except me was putting his shoulder to the wheel, mucking in, exchanging
loud, extrovert, outdoor jokes, showing off an alarming quantity of
I went below to warm up. In the woody half-darkness of what had once been
the ship's hold, I found a pile of copies of Yachting Monthly. Its macho
prose didn't do much for my spirits.
. . . A good old-fashioned thrash down Channel and round Ushant . . . Our
hopes rose. If the topping lift was trapped round the rudder then we stood a
chance . . . I raised a passing tanker on the Aldis. ' 2182 ' I tapped out
very slowly. But that brought no joy . . . We were on our own. On with the
banker and northioard ho!
As I gloomily faced the prospect of a good old-fashioned
thrash down the Bristol Channel and round Land's End to Cowes, I wondered what on earth a
honker was, and whether the Søren Larsen had a topping lift on board.
Back on deck, I made a few cautious inquiries. Er . . . what exactly
the Søren Larsen? Technically speaking (and sailors speak no other way) she
was a hermaphrodite brig. That meant that her front mast was rigged to carry
square sails, while the mast at the back carried a single ' fore-and-aft'
sail on a huge, swinging boom. It was a piratical rig; brigantines got their
name from the Italian brigandini, who used them to escape capture by running
fast with the wind. The Søren Larsen looked as if she'd just sailed out of a
blood-and-thunder chapter in Captain Marryat or Robert Louis Stevenson.
In fact, she was a sheep in wolf's clothing. She'd been built in Denmark
in 1948 as a Baltic trader. Her masts had been stubby, then, and she'd been
rigged as a schooner, only using her sails to provide some ancillary power
to her marine diesel. She'd carried 240 tons of general cargo, and most of
her life had been spent tramping unromantically round the Baltic coast,
heaving coal and scrap and sand to Hamburg, Stockholm, Copenhagen and
Her new career as a film and television prop had begun two years ago,
when Tony and Robin Davies, who run Square Sail, the Colchester-based firm
From Gloucester Docks (below) the 'Søren
Larsen' ran under power (left)
down the Sharpness Canal to the Severn Estuary, and thence to the open
sea. There, under the bulge of Glamorgan, we set sail. The wind took
bold, the bellies of the topsails stretched and thrummed and the
of the bull began to groan and flex.
The 'Søren Larsen' (opposite) is a 'hermaphrodite brig' - that is to
say, her foremast is rigged to carry squire sails while her mainmast
is for-and-aft rigged, with a huge swinging boom. She really was
something to be proud of, and Tony Davies (top) shone in the
of his possession of her.
restorers, had found her on a Thames slipway. There had been
a fire in her wheelhouse; her sides were cracked and battered; she had
already started on that rapid downhill slide in which ships end up as a few
bleached ribs sticking out of a mudbank. The Davies brothers had bought her, stripped her,
and painstakingly transformed her into a working museum-piece which looked a good hundred years older than it really was. Now only her
name gave away the fact that she wasn't a genuine survivor from
the days of those Mariners of England/That guard our native seas/Whose flag has
braved a thousand years/The battle and the breeze.
The canal gave way to the
Severn estuary, and the estuary opened out into a broken, muddy sea. Off
Avonmouth we dropped the pilot. Under the bulge of Glamorgan we set sail. The
crew, in oilskins and dungarees, went monkeying up in the shrouds, hauling on
ropes, shaking the sails clear of their booms, busy as money-spiders in their
web of cleats and shackles and stays and belaying-pins. There were nearly 6,000
squire feet of sails and about three miles of rope to handle - an operation
roughly equivalent to hanging out 170 heavy king-size sheets on a gigantic
To my eyes, it was pure chaos; a hopeless tangle of flapping
Terylene, trailing ropes and scrambling people. I was keeping my head down.
Tony Davies, at the wheel, was exhibiting what seemed to me to be an
entirely unreasonable cool in the face of pandemonium.
'Noddy,' he called, in much the same tone as he might use to ask
for the marmalade at breakfast, 'Do you think you could ease off the preventer?'
Noddy shinned down a rope, dodged a flying telegraph pole,
and eased off the preventer.
'Lovely,' said Davies.
It was too. With all sails flying, the boat was suddenly as
pretty and well-ordered as a ship in a bottle. The wind took hold, the bellies
of the topsails stretched and thrummed, and the timbers of the hull began to
groan and flex in the swell. The Søren Larsen was getting into her
stride. There was an easy, lolloping rhythm about the was she took to the sea;
getting her nose down, burrowing into the breakers and shaking them off with an
upward wriggle of her stern. She really was something to be proud of, and Tony
Davies shone in the pleasure of his possession of her. With his crew making
every last rope fast, with the compass swinging in its gimbals, and the steady
wind blowing out of Wales, he looked a very happy man.
This wasn't my party. I belonged to the curious
camera-clickers on shore, not on board this living symbol of
hardihood and enterprise. As I got out of the way of someone doing
peculiar things to a coil of rope, I felt an impostor in a cheerful,
philistine, outdoor world; a world where everybody was mucking in.
For the sake of the 'Søren
Larsen' Tony Davies and his wife Fleur (above) were living in a
draughty cupboard smelling of diesel oil; for her the crew lived a
cheek-by-jowl sort of life in swinging hammocks up in the fo'c'sle
..... I could see her beauty easily enough, but she was a
cripplingly expensive date and she subjected her lovers to such
extremes of cold, wet and lack of privacy that I found their
constancy bewildering. Other people's love affairs are often hard to
'There's no doubt about it,' he said. 'Sailing ships really must be one of
man's most beautiful creations. Like most beautiful things, though, they need a
huge amount of sodding hard work.'
For him - as for nearly every-one on board - the Søren
Larsen had been an exacting beauty. It was for her sake that Tony and his
wife Fleur were living in a draughty cupboard smelling of diesel oil, just over
the engine; for her the crew lived a piggy, cheek-by-jowl sort of life in
swinging hammocks up in the fo'c'sle. The amount of sheer labour and discomfort
which had already gone into her conversion was enormous; and there was much more
still to come. At present the inside of the vessel wasn't much more than a windy
shell; within the next year it would turn, bulk-head by bulkhead, into a
palatial floating guesthouse. Even with everyone on board her working for love
and pocket-money, the Søren Larsen was never
going to do more than barely pay her way. I could see her beauty easily enough,
but she was a cripplingly expensive date and she subjected her lovers to such
extremes of cold, wet, long hours and lack of privacy that I found their
constancy bewildering. Other people's love affairs are often hard to comprehend,
but this passion for the Søren Larsen struck me
as not far short of mad.
The gentle two-step with which she'd started her sail had turned to a drunken
stagger through the sea. Even her regular crew were going distinctly pale and
silent. Fleur Davies had cooked a handsome dinner below, but few of us managed
to finish it; and when I tried to do the washing-up, the sight of the greasy
water slopping around the sides of the bowl sent me lurching to my sleeping bag
on the floor under the hatch. Outside, Tony and John Perkins, the
radio times photographer, were
standing watch in an icy wind. Perkins had fallen in love with the Søren
Larsen too. As I rolled uncomfortably between an oildrum and a coil of steel
wire, it occurred to me that if I could simulate acute appendicitis I might just
possibly get rescued by helicopter. I woke at halfhour intervals through the
night, beset by a riddle: why should anyone be enchanted by this odious old
There wasn't any single answer to the question. What was remarkable about the
vessel was how, for each of her devotees, she was able to gratify a different
need. For Andrew, a joiner-turned-shipwright, it was her material that counted.
Wooden ships were the last refuge for the finest points of his craft. He was on
board because he could join and caulk and plane and chisel her.
the foreign language of shipboard. Not a word was spoken which did
not touch on sailing; sailing stories, sailing jokes, sailing
gossip, profoundly impene-trable sailing slang. Scott (left) wanted
to be a marine artist. For hours on end he would sit up on deck
sketching the 'Søren Larsen's' sails and rigging.
To him she was quite simple the most tantalisingly beautiful
object in his life.
For Noddy, she was something else. He was a young rag-trade heir,
temporarily off the leash from his father's fashion warehouse, a weekending
adventurer. In the Søren Larsen he seemed
to have found the rigour, and the boisterous society, of an old-fashioned
public school. David was a middle-aged bachelor who kept an antique shop in
Colchester. For him, the vessel appeared to provide a kind of close family
life, in which he occupied the position of a muchteased honorary uncle.
Scott came from a Merseyside shipping family; his father owned a fleet of
tugs. Scott himself wanted to be a marine artist, and for hours on end he
would sit up on deck sketching the Søren
Larsen's sails and rigging. To Scott she was quite simply the most
tantalisingly beautiful object in his life.
To Tony Davies, she was a complete community, of which he was prime
minister, chancellor and lord chief justice. He managed her economy, and
held her together as a remarkably friendly and equable social unit.
Designer, engineer, carpenter and navigator, he had built his own
self-contained world out of a bare hull.
It was a world as remote to me as that of Jupiter or Saturn. By
breakfast-time, we were off Land's End. The sun was up, the Atlantic was
making gentle trickling noises against our timbers, and a raft of sausages
lay spitting under the grill. Still half-asleep, I listened in to the
foreign language of shipboard. Not a word was spoken which didn't touch on
sailing: sailing stories, sailing jokes, sailing gossip, profoundly
impenetrable sailing slang. It was family talk, with that family humour in
which everyone must be ritually joshed and ribbed. I nibbled at a sausage
and heard myself asking dumb questions.
'Please, what is a futtock band? . . . Please, when do we get to Cowes?'
The English coast was, I reminded myself, only three miles off our beam; had
the visibility not been excellent, I might have measured the distance in
Up on deck, alone, I sat watching the sea sluicing past the gunwale. The foam
sizzled like fat in a pan. Even out in the ocean, we were drawing a crowd.
Curious cargo boats came up close around our stern, their crews out on their
bridges with binoculars. Dirty Panamanian coasters, pint-size Cornish trawlers,
a Naval destroyer and a matt-black nuclear submarine all changed their courses
to get a better view of us as we headed up the English Channel. Running before
the wind under full sail we must have made the kind of spectacle which causes
the most hardened old sailor to feel a sentimental twinge. It was like squiring
Jacqueline Onassis down a street; and I could feel myself to be an object of
resentful envy from one end of the horizon to the other.
We were making six or seven knots. That is a fairly tame speed for an old lady
on a bicycle; on a sailing ship, it is a tearaway pace. Our wake streamed behind
us for more than a mile; wind cracked and drummed in the sails; the plumes of
spray which we raised from our bows would have done credit to the fotains in
Trafalgar Square. Racing past the Lizard, with a picnic spread out on the
afterdeck, a mug of white wine in my hand and the musical swoosh of white water
in my ears, I could almost, I thought, have fallen in love with the Søren
We sailed under a tangerine sunset, through another night and another day.
'You're lucky,' said Tony Davies. ' You don't get it much better than this; it's
a perfect sail.'
'Yes - perfect,' I said, feeling a fink.
My last sight of the Søren Larsen was when she
lay at anchor off Cowes. I was in a speeding hydrofoil, and the Søren
Larsen was up to her old tricks as an enchantress.
'Isn't she lovely?'
'What a lovely old ship!'
Seen through the hydrofoil window, with the water winking under her bows, her
fine tracery of shrouds and spars standing out against the sky, she was
irresistible. At that moment, I would have paid dearly to be allowed to sail on
her. I shall be content, though, to admire her from a safe distance, on
television. I've learned one good lesson from her: whatever blood-group courses
through the veins of Nelson, Drake and Edward Heath seems to have mysteriously
© Radio Times
21 - 27 July 1977
Interviews and Articles
The Onedin Line