How an ex-racing man decided that speed, comfort and seaworthiness could all come in one traditional-looking vessel. Joan Bennett tells the tale:
High on any list of classic fore-and-aft rigged sailing craft must be the Pilot Cutters of Britain's Bristol Channel. Speed, efficiency and seaworthiness are the qualities for which these boats were renowned and they were vital in the days of their working lives around a century ago. Racing to be first to meet an incoming vessel in the often treacherous conditions of the Western Approaches crewed by just two men and a boy, it was the fastest cutter that secured the trade. Add to these features a beauty seldom seen in modern yachts and it is not surprising that the owners of today's few survivors take such pride in them.
Looking for something different
As time passed the attraction of sitting on the weather rail in gale force winds began to wear off. Dick looked around at many modern yachts in the 50-55' (152-16.8m) range. And then: "I may be shortsighted, but I suddenly realised that, to me, from a distance they all looked the same ... and then I remembered those beautiful old boats ... and that's how it all began".
Annabel J has been described as a replica of a Pilot Cutter but Dick insists firmly that this was never the intention. Inspired by the cutters, yes - but it was their performance he wanted to reproduce, using new materials wherever appropriate.
Dick's enquiries led him to model-maker and author Malcolm Darch whose book Modelling Maritime History (published by David and Charles) describes one of the best-known surviving Pilot Cutters. Marguerite T was built in 1893 by Edwin Rowles at Pill for pilot Frank Trott and quickly gained an enviable reputation with a long run of successes in the prestigious pilot-port regattas.
For a short time in the 1980s she had been based in Salcombe with the Island Cruising Club. Malcolm had taken line drawings for a model and Dick was able to purchase these from him. And so it is from these drawings of the Marguerite T that the design of Annabel J is based.
Building a team
Plans were drawn up by marine architect David Cox and completed by Gary Mitchell of Duchy Boatyard Services, with engineering details by Phil Hughes; Gary Mitchell also designed the interior.
A & P Appledore of Falmouth secured the contract to construct the 54' (16.4m) hull, the first complete hull to be constructed in Falmouth Docks since 1930, and Harry Spencer was chosen to make the mast and rigging. This left just a shipwright to be appointed. It was a little 14' (4.3m) dinghy that influenced Dick's choice. Needing something for pottering with his family on the River Severn, he visited the Wooden Boat Show at Greenwich. There he bought a Brock dinghy built by the Bridgend Boat Company, based on the River Yealm and run by Richard Checkley and his partner Julie Hammond. The standard of finish on the Brock so impressed him that he asked Bridgend to undertake some of the fitting-out of Annabel J.
Initially, their contribution was to have been relatively minor; however, the more Dick talked with Richard and Julie the more confident he became of their ability to tackle the whole project; "They had enthusiasm, sound commercial sense and seemed to know exactly what I wanted. They had some great ideas of their own too".
The right people and the right place
For the boatyard, it was a wonderful opportunity. Annabel J would be their largest contract to date. But the one problem was accommodation, as she would not fit into their existing premises and the hull was already nearing completion at Appledore's in Falmouth. However, over a pint at the local pub Richard met a friend who had a friend who had a friend with a barn to rent in an industrial unit at Smithaleigh - just 6 miles from Bridgend and close to the A38. Measuring 90' x 30' (27.4 x 9.1m), it also had the essentially huge entrance doors.
There were no problems over the workforce: two first class local craftsmen were so excited by the project they offered their skills for the full six month period. With Howard Swift on deck, Mark Paynter below, and Richard himself overseeing the contract, they were to prove an excellent team.
Six weeks of intense liaison at Falmouth between all design and building teams ensured a close understanding of what had to be done, by whom and how. The welded steel construction had been specifically designed to eliminate any through-deck fastenings, with fixings formed into tapped stainless steel discs welded to the deck. Not only the doghouse and hatches, but the precise position of every decklight, ventilator and fairlead had to be predetermined before the hull and deck left the yard.
The journey in mid-December under police escort from Falmouth to Smithaleigh will long be remembered by those involved. Driving in gale force winds, they had to go miles out of their way to avoid the narrow Cornish roads. On arrival the low slung lorry `bottomed out' on a hump in front of the barn and it took a backbreaking five and a half hours to jack up the lorry before the hull was finally inched inside - Richard and Julie trying not to think about the larger and heavier hull that would one day have to come out!Just six months to completion was quite a target. Obstacles such as Christmas were cast aside and work began immediately. Three more men were recruited to work full time; despite the time element, Richard preferred to keep the workforce small, employing extra labour and specialist sub-contractors when necessary.
Style with strength
The general concept was for a totally new interior to allow for the best in modern comforts and equipment, whereas above decks the layout would closely follow that of Marguerite T. The deck was epoxy faired, covered in marine ply and finished with teak planking, straight laid from the centre and scribed and cut to incorporate the fixings and framings. Prism decklights lie flush with the finished deck. The self-draining cockpit is lined in teak. The bowsprit is fixed between massive traditional bitts, welded to the deck and encased in oak with polished bronze caps. These echo the original huge baulks of timber passing through the decks which were vital to the old cutters when being towed astern of the piloted ship. The low bulwarks have hollow steel posts and a solid teak capping rail. Provision has also been made for guardrails to be fitted in case of future chartering.
Rare among clients, Dick gave free rein to the craftsmen to add their own individual touches - and was delighted with the results. An `AJ' motif on the engine hatch and two dolphins inlaid in the decks are examples of this.
Below decks, some 6500' (1982m) of tongued and grooved planking was then pre-sealed, before being screwed to shaped battens, fixed to the frames, and sprayed white. Furniture and fittings were either made from solid mahogany reclaimed from a recently demolished bank, or from plywood with flame mahogany veneered panels. A maple floor enhances the saloon. Everything is top quality and reflects top quality workmanship from the fully fitted galley with deep sliding drawer units and glass fronted mahogany cupboards, some of which were designed and constructed specifically to hold the owner's personal crockery and glassware, to the comfortably upholstered berths to sleep a maximum of eleven. All services are fitted above the sole and all cables are concealed inside fittings or in special mahogany trunkings. Radiators behind the seating provide full central heating.
There is a diesel-fired Eberspacher boiler for the hot water and heating system. All other equipment - including mechanical ventilation, extractor fans, microwave, and computer controlled fridge/freezer - runs through a highly sophisticated electrical system with control panels above the navigator's table.
As the completion date of mid-June loomed, pressure on the workforce intensified. Fourteen-hour working days become the norm.
A terrifying flowchart was pinned to the wall by Julie; headed `Critical Path - Countdown to Launch', it illustrated graphically just how much had still to be done. With only two weeks to go it was joined by another; `Number of Days Remaining' -'Too few!' was the penciled comment alongside.
But they made it. Despite the inevitable hiccups and dramas which at the time seemed so critical, it was six months to the day when Annabel J took to the road again. This time greased steel plates and tons of hardcore took care of the humps so the chief concern was that, with just 38mm clearance, the doors to the barn might have to be removed - not to mention the herculean task of lowering a 39 ton (40,OOOkg) boat on to a trailer. But, sleepless nights notwithstanding, her departure went a lot more smoothly than her arrival.
Trials and tributes
Shamrock Quay in Southampton was the location for the launch which included everyone involved - a joyful celebration despite one of last summer's rare torrential downpours. But at least the rain showed off the gleaming woodwork as Annabel Hickton, Dick's 14 year old daughter, cracked the bottle of champagne. The old cutters were traditionally named after their pilots' wives or daughters; Annabel, combined with Dick's wife (Jane) and son (Jonathan) account for his choice of Annabel J.
A surprise tribute to the Bridgend Boat Company came with the unveiling of two brass plates on the samson posts engraved with the names of the whole team - a gesture of appreciation from Dick. One of the happiest aspects of this project was the apparent rapport between all parties throughout.
Over in Cowes, Harry Spencer completed Annabel J's classic appearance. Although there is an electric deck winch and windlass the intention is to sail using traditional hand-gear; the running rigging, complete with bronze fairleads, is operated by beautiful purpleheart blocks, some allowing for purchase of up to 24:1. Mast and spars are of Douglas fir, with a single pole mast rather than a topmast.
Headsails, main and topsail, in all some 1500sq.ft (139.35sq.m), were made by Ratsey & Lapthorne, with an additional 1000sq.ft (93sq.m) asymmetric to be flown off the end of the bowsprit to improve light weather performance The initial sailing trials and voyage to Salcombe allayed all Dick's anxieties. "Rounding Prawle Point, the south easterly breeze was about 20 knots true, flat water and no tide. The GPS was reading 8.9 knots - and that with the asymmetric and no topsail. I knew then we'd got it right."
Sailing Annabel J
During her brief visit to the Southampton Boat Show, Gavin Davies and photographer Peter Chesworth took time out for an all too short sail up and down Southampton Water in Annabel J.
"Leaving under engine from the outer pontoon, writes Gavin Davies, I was impressed by how little power was needed to push the vessel through the water. I also liked the fact that she had a tiller through which you could feel what she was about. There were just a few of us on board and even in the prevailing comparatively light wind, initially I had some misgivings as to how we were going to set and handle Annabel J's considerable sail area without the help of winches But I need not have worried. Two of us hoisted the main without too much puffing and blowing, thanks to the generous mechanical advantage provided by the tackles on the halyards. Then I remembered that a boat like this would originally have been handled by a man and a boy in all kinds of weather - and we had the advantages of lighter, modern ropes and wooden blocks that certainly looked right but ran much more freely than their traditional counterparts could ever have done.
We hanked on and hoisted the staysail, hauled a jib out to the end of the bowsprit on a traveller and finally sent up the topsail. With the wind light and flukey in the restricted upper reaches of Southampton Water, we had little time to really set her up and get her going properly, especially with all the commercial and boat show traffic that surrounded us.
Once under way however she quickly showed that she would run straight and true without too much work on the tiller. Similarly, a few tacks demonstrated just how well thought out and functional the sheeting arrangements were. With no winches to help, good leads, modern ropes and free running blocks more than made up for the lack of manpower - after all, she had been brought up to Southampton under sail by just three people, short tacking all the way against a head wind. One of the delights of a craft that has been well laid out is the clear uncluttered deck space and the absolutely logical arrangement of all of the gear that is necessary to sail her.
Annabel J is a classic example of how it should be, and this together with her powerful but slippery hull shape, should make her a fast, safe and easy strip to handle in any weather - even if she is not chasing business in the Western Approaches."
Major suppliers and contractors involved in the construction and completion of Annabel J included:
A & P Appledore (Falmouth) Ltd, The Docks, Falmouth, Cornwall TR114NR. Tel: +44 (0)1326 212100.
Bridgend Boat Company, Bridgend Quay, Newton Ferrers, Devon PL8 1DX. Tel: +44 (0)1752 872162. Fax: +44 (0)1752 873017.
Duchy Boatyard Services, Marine Designers and Consultants, 25 Foundry Square, Hayle, Cornwall TR27 4HH. Tel: +44 (0)1736 756501. Fax: +44 (0)1736 756499.
Spencer Thetis Wharf Ltd, Medina Road, Cowes, Isle of Wight. Tel: +44 (0)1983 296743. Fax: +44 (0)1983 294126.