A Golf Day

Ian Walker - one-time skipper of the mighty Green Dragon - offered me the poisoned pill of speaking at the recent North Sails Golf Day, a fundraiser (to the tune of over £7k, a few hundred of which came from auctioning Spanish Castle to White Night) for the John Merricks Sailing Trust. As an incentive, 'you can plug your book' he said, 'and take the piss out of me, if you like...'

So, I think I found a way to do both, here's a short extract from the speech - I should preface this by saying that Ian was one of the better (if not the best) of the writers in the Volvo fleet:

I’m going to tell you about one of Ian’s rather less successful email efforts, one that should have made it into the book, but didn’t. It started well enough, in fact, I was quite excited when I first read the email, and I quote (a slightly edited version):

'Before my Grandfather passed away he gave my mother some handwritten letters written about his shipwreck on the Falkland Islands as a boy, probably around 100 years ago.

'I keep copies of these letters and from time to time, I read about how he had to swim ashore as the ship went down. Well, this morning at first light, we were tacking to pass around the Northern edge of the Falklands, and I found myself dodging the unmarked reefs. Every mile we had to sail on starboard tack to clear the island was a mile lost to the opposition as we needed to head east.

'Wouter (Verbraak, the navigator) and I checked the chart and found a very tenuous passage inside some islands and through some reefs that would cut 10 miles off our course. Wouter was very confident in the accuracy of the charts - saying that the British Navy would have surveyed every inch of these islands - and after consulting with Damian and Neal we decided to take it on.

'I have to admit, the thought of explaining how a second member of the family had become shipwrecked on the Falklands had crossed my mind, but with some short tacks and some weaving we safely found our way through.'

Fantastic, I thought, what a great story for the book – I was always looking for stuff a little out of the ordinary that would give us some background on the sailors, a little insight into the personality - this spoke of generations of hardy Walkers traversing the South Atlantic and struggling against the travails of the sea. And all tied together by the coincidence of Ian narrowly escaping the fate of his ancestor on the rocky shores of the Falkland Islands.

It even had a nice visual touch - if I could get hold of the original letter, then perhaps we could scan it in, and use it as an image in the book. So, as soon as I got to Rio I got in touch with Ian, discovered that the original was in fact in the possession of his mother, who was tasked to bring it out to the next stopover.

And when I got sight of the letter in Boston, it was everything I had hoped for - Ian’s great-grandfather was Captain Albert Wadsley. As an 18 year old cabin boy, he’d sailed south with a cargo of Welsh coal on the Fonthill, a wooden, three-masted schooner.

The letter was written on the 12 April, 1897, about three days after the events related. It was an amazing hand-written account of shipwreck, and I quote again, this time from Albert.

‘Our Captain, seeing she was too far gone, ordered the yards to be squared in so she would drive high and dry up on the sands… taking a pretty heavy list to starboard breakers curling in on top of us, smashing in most of the starboard bulwarks and carrying things off the deck…’

Gripping stuff, except for that bit about treacherous sands…

Now I’ve been to the Falklands and from the bits I saw, you’d be pretty hard pushed to find some sand to run aground on. So I read a little further, and low and behold, it turned out that those treacherous sands were in fact the coast of the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul.

Not the Falkland Islands at all.

In fact, it’s over a couple of thousand kilometres from the Falklands, and you’d have to go about 500 kilometres out of your way on the rhumb line to Rio to hit it.

So, needless to say, that was the one that got away – the email didn’t make it into the final cut for the book.

The one other thing that Ian suggested I could do today, was to say a few words about Johnny Merricks, the reason we’re all here, and hopefully the reason we’ll all be gathering for many years to come.

There’s always one particular moment I remember about Johnny. It’s not the best story, and let’s be honest, there are some crackers. And it’s certainly not the funniest, nor is it going to tell us why he was so blazingly fast upwind in a breeze. But it might give us a tiny bit of insight into why we’re all gathered here.

It was the autumn of 1996, back in the day when I was still drinking in the King and Queen of a Friday night. I’d had a busy summer, been away most of the time sailing, and had topped it off by achieving a very long-standing ambition, with my first novel published by Random House a couple of weeks earlier.

I headed down to the pub to catch up with people as you do, and found Johnny propping up the bar, as he did. I hadn’t seen him since he and Ian had won their silver medal in Atlanta. I fully expected him to bask in the glow of congratulations as people rolled into the pub – as most of us would have done. But not Johnny, as soon as he saw me come through the door, and before I could get a word out about silver medals or Olympic Games, he said with that unique grin of his…

'Hey I heard you got your book published, congratulations, how’s it going…?'

And that, I think, is the reason we’re all here, it didn’t matter what he achieved, Johnny Merricks had that first thought for other people.


Mark Chisnell ©