History: The Early Days

The article below was written for the ‘Bude and Stratton Post’ to mark the 25th anniversary of the club – and it includes a brief background on the early days of sailing at Upper Tamar.

Dinghies, Dams and Dunkings: 25 years of Sailing at Upper Tamar Lake

Tucked away on the calm waters of the upper reservoir just outside Kilkhampton, the Upper Tamar Lake Sailing Club (UTLSC) reaches its 25th anniversary this year and will be celebrating a quarter-century which has brought a great deal of excitement and fun, both for those who’ve taken part and those who’ve simply watched. It all started shortly after the reservoir first came into being; Geoff Harker, who was the dam’s Project Engineer when Upper Tamar was constructed for the North Devon Water Board in the mid-70s, remembers that much local pressure was exerted to ensure that recreational use, both sailing and fishing, was allowed at a time when the public were often still kept well away from water supply reservoirs. In particular, its use for sailing was seen as being a particular asset in providing a protected area where young people and other novices could learn to sail in much greater safety than on the exposed sea off the rugged North Cornwall and Devon coasts. Geoff, a keen sailor himself who later went on to win the 1964 Kenyan Olympic trials for Finn-class dinghies, emphasises the advantages of learning in an environment where getting swept away meant at worst a walk back along the reservoir shore, rather than vanishing over the horizon at sea.

Getting It Going

Many prominent local people contributed to getting the club going in its early years; Bill Young, well-known for his book on the Bude Canal, was the Chairman of the (aptly-named!) Steering Committee that got things started and vet John Richardson became the second Commodore. The membership of the club has always been a good mix of town and country, with many local farmers being staunch members; retired Morwenstow farmer John Walter, another former Commodore who is the club’s longest-serving member, comments that even the times of the Sunday afternoon dinghy races were fixed to fit in with milking times! The Sunday dinghy racing has formed a focal part of the club’s activities right from the early days; although it is efficiently organised to RYA (Royal Yachting Association) rules and there are cups which are keenly competed for, the rivalry stays friendly and protests are rare. Even the less-competitive members welcome the racing as a reason for getting lots of members on the water at the same time and providing a topic about which to chat in the clubhouse afterwards. Nowadays, there are normally two races on Sundays, morning and afternoon, which leaves time for chat and discussion over lunchtime sandwiches. As with most small clubs, the UTLSC runs its racing on a handicap basis, using a system called the Portsmouth Yardstick. Members can compete against each other in a wide variety of boats (ranging from out-and-out racing dinghies for the young and agile, to gentler, more sedate vessels for the the slightly less fit or more middle-aged!). As a result of the handicapping rules, boats helmed and crewed by people varying widely in age, fitness and physique can all compete in the same race and still have an equal chance of winning. Although dinghy racing forms the core of the club’s activities, members also go on organised dinghy cruising weekends away, a favoured location being the sheltered estuary of Carrick Roads, near Falmouth.

Winds of Change

The boats themselves have changed somewhat over the club’s 25 years. In the beginning, the majority of the boats were Mirror dinghies, the little red-sailed plywood boats co-designed by the first famous television DIY figure, Barry Bucknall, to be suitable for the average handyman to build in his garage. Although a few Mirrors still remain, currently the most popular boats are made of glassfibre or polyurethane that need less varnishing and painting than plywood, a big advantage in today’s hectic world where time is at a premium. Consequently, these days the commonest classes are Toppers, Otters and Lasers, together with bigger two-handed boats such as Wayfarers. One thing that has not changed is that many members buy second-hand boats, typically for a few hundred pounds; unlike cars, second-hand dinghies can be sold after a few years for almost the same price as they were bought, making sailing as practised at Upper Tamar a fairly cheap sport. It is certainly a world away from the exclusivity and expense often associated with the “peaked-cap” brand of big-boat yachting!

25 Years of Fun

More than the boats, though, it is the fairly relaxed, laidback nature of many of the members that has made the club such an enjoyable, welcoming and amusing place to sail.  The exploits of some members have become the stuff of club legend.  One story concerns Pete Pocock and his sailing Springer spaniel, Tommy; in the 80’s, the dog would regularly “crew” for Pete when he raced his Laser dinghy, sitting in front and obediently moving from one side of the boat to the other on Pete’s call of “Tack” or “Gybe-Oh”, just as a human crew would. On the occasion Tommy was left tied up on shore, he contrived to work himself free, jumped into the lake and started unerringly swimming across to Pete’s dinghy, even though it was right in the middle of the water. Quite a few members had a fairly relaxed “Just in Time” attitude to boat maintenance or sometimes “Not Quite In Time”! One swashbuckling Tamar sailor would regularly sail his fast Hornet dinghy in strong winds, only for some vital part to give way; on one occasion, the mast crashed down as the foredeck parted company with the hull, dumping his trapezing crew into the water at high speed in a plume of spray. Undaunted, he pulled the boat ashore, hammered the foredeck back onto the bow with a couple of 4 inch screws and was straight back on the water. It was the same member who was racing round the top buoy overtaking another boat helmed by the Commodore of the time, when the latter proceeded to lose his hat overboard for the third time that day; taking pity on him, the good Samaritan shouted “Don’t worry, I’ll pick it up for you'” and smartly turned his own boat round. Unfortunately, in doing so his dinghy’s boom swept across the rear of the Commodore’s boat and knocked the Commodore smartly across the back of the head and dunked him into the water. In the ensuing pandemonium, the boats then sailed right over the hat, which slowly sank out of sight to the bottom of the lake. Even the occasional disagreement usually failed to upset the convivial atmosphere; a few years ago Mike Bowman bought a dinghy that was slightly over the 16 foot maximum length permitted on the lake and was told that he was therefore not allowed to race. Undaunted, he promptly cut 6 inches off the bow of the dinghy, mounted it on a wooden plaque and walked back into the clubhouse the next week with it in his hand, saying “OK, now the boat’s the right length!”.

Ups and Downs

Of course, despite the fun, building up the club entailed a great deal of hard work. From small beginnings, the drive of early members meant that it started to grow. The club also received help from a whole host of others, such as Ken Spalding, the lake’s Warden in the early days of the club. A major catalyst for growth was the UTLSC achieving its own clubhouse in the early 80’s, a development that required extensive fund-raising and applications for grants. Following that, the club grew to a peak of nearly 100 members in the mid-80s, with regular fleets of nearly 20 boats for the weekend racing. Since that time, the club’s fortunes have waxed and waned; numbers dropped in the 90’s when the club’s 10 year lease on the clubhouse expired and South West Water took over overall responsibility for watersports on the lake, increasing the cost of sailing by instituting an annual launch fee. More recently, club numbers have slowly started to increase. In the last couple of years control of sailing has passed to the South West Lakes Trust, who provide services such as rescue boat cover, keeping an eye on sailors out on the water and being on hand to help those who capsize and can’t get going again. Relationships between the Trust and the club are currently very good; the Trust runs RYA-approved dinghy sailing courses for novices and people from these often then join the club.

Not Just the Sailing…

The club also brings enjoyment to other users of the lake. Locals and visitors, who come up to stroll round the water’s edge or take a meal or a coffee in the café overlooking the lake, frequently comment how nice it is to see the brightly-coloured dinghies heeling in the breeze on a sunny day. All in all, the club has given a great deal of fun to many people over the years and the current membership feels greatly indebted to past members whose efforts got the club started and kept it alive over the years. We sincerely hope that it will go on giving pleasure for the next 25 years and beyond.