A Swallow's Tale — Notes and Observations

The online publication of A Swallow's Tale by Roger Wardale was announced on TarBoard on 31 March 2014, and was followed (as usual on TarBoard) by some commentary. We decided to preserve observations which were amplifications or observations to the original text, but have deleted posts which weren't really relevant. We have tried to preserve a semblance of the indentation format which TarBoard uses to reflect a connected thread of comments and replies, but have economised on spacing by letting most posts flow into a single paragraph, unless meaning or coherence would be lost.

Dave Thewlis 31 March 2014:

A new article by Roger Wardale, A Swallow's Tale, was added to the Boats and Dinghies section of All Things Ransome, together with an excerpt of the 1991 letter from Roger Fothergill to Roger Wardale concerning Fothergill's owning Swallow in the 1930s. The article is slightly updated from the original, which appeared in the 2014 edition of Mixed Moss, the journal of The Arthur Ransome Society. Our thanks to Roger for submitting the article to ATR. All Things Ransome encourages anyone with material that may be suitable for inclusion on the ATR website, or with suggestions for new items, to contact us at contact@allthingsransome.net.

Magnus Smith, 01 April 2014:

This is pretty much the most exciting technical article about Ransome you could ever read. Thoroughly researched information about the real boat behind the story version we all love so much. Thank you Roger! I love the photos. Ransome appears to be sitting on a cushion in the first one! Maybe it is a folded oilskin, or perhaps his piles were bad. I note he is sitting far aft (right at the back) in two of the photos. These days no-one would sit there to helm, but it may help to move bodyweight aft to make the deepest part of the keel dig in the water and reduce leeway. To tack it would help to move forwards. The sail must have been pretty large for a dinghy used by children: if the hull was nearly 14ft and the sail extended beyond the transom, that really enlarges the area on a lug rig. The sheet would have really pulled against your arm. I had not heard about the removable stern thwart before. It cannot have been a very large locker though? The floor of these dinghies usually rises up a great deal at the stern, and narrows, leaving quite a small gap under that thwart. I wonder what the vertical side panel was like; just a slab of wood blocking in the area? Or maybe slatted? It is a shame the photo doesn't reveal detail of the boom downhaul (the rope which pulls down on the jaws, and helps the sail keep its shape). I'd like to know if there were blocks (pulleys) and where they attached, etc.

Andy G, 04 April 2014:

Regarding the (overly?) long boom - the suggestion that Swallow had excessive weather helm would make me consider reducing the chord of the sail) to move the centre of effort forward - though with the reliance of "a peg" at the transom end-of-things for sheeting, probably the boom would have to remain as long as it was. All fascinating research, though.

Magnus Smith, 04 April 2014:

In case anyone else reading isn't a sailing nut, I'll just briefly explain that 'weather helm' is where a boat wants to steer itself round and point towards where the wind is coming from. To go in a straight line you have to pull on the rudder/tiller hard, and it can make your arm ache. (A light amount of weather helm is fine as it acts as a safety mechanism if you drop the tiller.) In the 1930s most people sat comfortably inside their boats, and let the boat lean over if the wind blew harder. This will increase the amount of weather helm. These days most of us lean backwards off the edge of the boat (it's called 'hiking out') to counterbalance the wind and go faster without any extra weather helm. Letting Swallow lean over would have made the weather helm problem worse, and taken all a child's strength to pull on the tiller and keep her on course. After Ransome sold Swallow, the next owner added a jib, which balanced the centre-of-effort of the rig better and solved this problem a bit. He also moved the pigs of iron/lead you may recall being mentioned in Swallowdale.

Adam Quinan, 05 April 2014:

How does the film Swallow sail? Does she have severe weather helm of the kind described for the original Swallow? Do you sail her comfortably sitting inside the boat or perched on the gunwale? How does she compare with the original in measurements etc. I seem to recall in the film, the actors spent most of the time sailing downwind gybing frequently (practicing for the Swallowdale sequel?).

Magnus Smith 05 April 2014:

The Swallow used in the 1974 film is 12ft long compared to the "between 13 and 14ft" mentioned in S&A. Her mast just fits inside her, which I think(?) applies to the real Swallow too; you can infer mast lengths from that (half a foot less). The film Swallow's boom hardly extends beyond the transom at all. The long keel (instead of centreboard) makes her very stable in a straight line. I once sailed her alone, left the tiller to its own devices, and went to sit in the bows like Roger (taking the mainsheet with me). She just carried on going straight beautifully! Unfortunately the flip side of this means she doesn't tack readily and needs careful handling to make it round to the new side. I learnt the knack eventually! Gybing is easier as you are going faster and not fighting the wind. I'd been used to modern dinghies prior to 2010 when we bought her, and was used to flinging the tiller from side to said and having the boat instantly respond. A whole different ball game.... She will display weather helm when heeled, same as any dinghy. I've never felt I am fighting the tiller too much. You can't really hike out to counterbalance the wind as the gunwhale is thin and uncomfortable to sit on. However, I have found that sitting on a wooden seat with your knees higher than your hips gives you a painful bum after 5 hours sailing anyway.

Roger Wardale 01 April 2014:

Thank you Magnus! Ransome says the downhaul had blocks in SA, and on this occasion I think we can rely on the description 100%. In his illustration 'Night Sailing', Clifford Webb shows a block beneath the boom for the downhaul. Your point about the size of the sail is well-made. My view is that Susan and very small Roger did little actual sailing, and never by themselves, but were occasionally taken out by either Mum or Dad in Swallow to see how it was done.

Magnus Smith 02 April 2014:

I agree about the descriptions in S&A; I was wondering more about how many blocks the downhaul had (if it was a 3:1 purchase system, for example) and how they were tied off (using a peg in the thwart to act as belaying pin perhaps?). I'd like to hear more about the mainsheet, if information is available. The article mentions it is taken past a peg in the quarter knee, but I don't see how that would run freely without a block. Or was it lodged there to take some of the strain when adjustment was not needed? The illustration "Do you surrender?" (S&A) shows a mainsheet really well. Titty is sailing Amazon though! She's holding the sheet as it comes from the quarter knee. Can we assume Swallow was the same? I am amazed there was no purchase on that sheet... "Under jury rig" (Swallowdale) shows a single line from boom to quarter (not to the hand). The plan of Scarab (Picts & Martryrs) shows the sheet as a tiny rope dangling loosely from the boom, and indeed in the later "It acts as an extra sail" Dick is holding the sheet straight from the boom with a clearly outstretched arm. It could be that a mainsheet was tied on to the transom, went through a block on the boom, and then to the hand. This would have given a 2:1 purchase, requiring less strength. Even an adult wouldn't feel at ease with the direct pull of a small lugsail on their arm for an hour. Or were blocks simply too dear to afford?

Roger Wardale 02 April 2014:

I sent a very detailed list of questions that was passed around from Altounyan to Altounyan for answers. Quote ( think it's Roger's handwriting) Tack downhaul attached to an eye under the boom and led to a ring in the keel and belayed by a double hitch round the standing part. (Mavis was different) In answer to the question 'Did the sheet pass through a block. Roger wrote, Quote No. Sheet held at corner of transom under a pin through corner knee. (Mavis was similar) Best I can do.

Mike Dennis 03 April 2014:

'Best I can do' Far too modest Roger! An interesting article, even to the likes of me - my only knowledge of boats and sailing come from reading AR! Curious you should mention the Altounyans, clearing out some cupboards over the week end I came across a video of the TV programme about AR in the Awfully Big Adventure series from the BBC. Watching it, I'd forgotten much of it but in particular the interviews with the Altoynyans and some of the photographs of AR's wife and daughter.

Magnus Smith 02 April 2014:

Wow! Things were even more 'agricultural' than I suspected. So no purchase on any of the rope systems. It would require a pretty darn strong child to:

1. step the mast (heavy weight waving around in the air, listed 1ft up and inserted into a hole whilst keeping it dead vertical)
2. hoist the sail (hauling up the weight of the yard and the boom too)
3. pull the downhaul tight (weight of yard and tension of sailcloth fight against you) and do up the knot without the rope slipping back through
4. hold on to the sheet all day (can't use the pin in the quarter knee for the period before and after a tack)

I know kids were tougher in the 1930s, but this is astonishing!

Peter Hyland 03 Apri 2014:

I am not a sailor, and can't comment on the technical stuff, but Magnus has identified something which has long puzzled me. Whenever I look at Mavis/Amazon (now in the Ruskin Museum at Coniston) I am struck by how large and heavy the craft seems to be. I can't imagine two children aged 10 and 11 being able to haul her up on shingle, for instance, and then being able to push her off again. And once afloat there are other difficulties, as Magnus points out.

Mike Dennis 03 April 2014:

Curious! If you read my comment mainly for Roger's benefit, this was explained in the TV programme. It was assumed they would be safer for the children, but they were heavier to handle.

Magnus Smith 03 April 2014:

Well, it is possible that kids could land a heavy old dinghy on the shingle, leave her 99% floating, and tie her painter to a tree to stop her drifting away. You wouldn't need to pull her right up like we do with modern boats. With no tide in the Lakes, the boat wouldn't get left high and dry, and you ought to be able to relaunch her without too much effort. I know the books often say "Roger and Titty pulled her nose up the beach" (or similar) but this may just have meant 2 inches up, rather than 2ft. However, the 'careening' process mentioned in S&A would have required someone damn strong if the boat was fully beached.

Peter Hyland 04 April 2014:

Although not a small boat sailor, oddly enough I do have experience of pulling boats up on shallow beaches and pushing them off again. I know the drill that you should not load the boat until you have pushed the boat off a little way, otherwise you'll never get her off. (And you load stern first – vice versa when running in) Anyway, I have done a brief (but not exhaustive) check to see how AR handled this in his SA text.

First landing on WCI – "Susan had gone to the stern to lighten the bows of the boat and . . .there was a gentle grumble and scrunch and Swallow's nose was on the pebbly beach . . .Roger had jumped ashore with the painter". It looks there as if Swallow's momentum carried her up the beach slightly, but she was mainly secured by the painter.

When they first enter the hidden harbour, the procedure was much the same – Swallow "ran her nose up the beach" and the painter was fastened to a tree stump.

Captain John returns from visiting Captain Flint (end of Ch XV): "He pulled Swallow up on the beach" Here we have a 12 year old boy pulling a wooden craft up the beach by himself possible perhaps because the mast and sail had been taken out.

Setting off for the Amazon river (Ch XVII) – " . . the mate and the boy climbed in and went to the stern. The captain pushed, and as the Swallow floated off . . ."

When Man Friday left the Island (Ch XVIII) – "Mother got into the boat, and pushed off with an oar." Note that Titty did not push her off here – would the combined weight of the rowing boat and Mother have been too great? However, what about this:–

"A few moments later Captain Flint's rowing boat grounded beside the Amazon. It was instantly seized and pushed off again by Nancy and Peggy." (Ch XXVI) A heavy rowing boat with a heavy(ish) person in it, which has been rowed fast and has therefore driven itself hard up the beach – pushed quickly off again by two girls aged 13 and 12? Well maybe . . . Perhaps the beach was steeper than one imagines?

Duncan 03 APril 2014:

I was always surprised that they tied her fore and aft in the harbour rather than just pulling her up the beach, but it makes more sense now! (Having said that, I suspect our old Heron was not a lot lighter than one of these boats and we managed to heave her around reasonably successfully.)

Roger Wardale 03 April 2014:

What follows are the conclusions I have reached after considerable research into the events of that so important summer of 1928.
Myth: That Arthur Ransome taught the young Altounyans to sail during their stay at Coniston in 1928.
Fact: There is no contemporary written evidence to support this. Not in letters, AR's diary, Evgenia's diary or Dora Altounyan's Journal.
Myth: That Taqui and Titty sailed Mavis and Susie and Roger sailed Swallow.
Look at the drawing that I made from a snapshot. It shows the children in 1928 at Coniston.
Do they look as if they could handle two heavy dinghies on their own? Swallow had a large sail and Mavis a small one, but Mavis had a very heavy iron centreboard. When they WERE sailing Mavis from 1933, Oscar Gosspelius constructed a 'miner's wheel' to make it possible for them to raise and lower the centreboard.
Taqui wrote a wonderful book (In Aleppo Once) but she mixed years together and is not reliable. When she stayed with me for the Chichester AGM, she confided that the received version never happened.
As I said in an earlier post, I believe that the children sailed with their parents, in Swallow and Amazon, 'learning the ropes'. There is a diary entry to suggest that this is what happened. And what with the parents being away for much of the summer, and the wet and windy weather, according to Met Office records and the Coniston rain gauge, I don't believe they had a chance to become proficient; that came later on the lake in Syria.
Fact: the Altounyans could never have turned Swallow over. Fiction: the Walkers did.
Rough quote: `We never did any of those things, they are what we would have liked to do.'

Magnus Smith 10 April 2014:

Talking of Swallow and Mavis (now renamed Amazon) I have just realised there is one aspect of construction which they both share...but I have never seen on another vintage boat... Two rubbing strakes! In laymans terms: see the two long horizontal strips of wood which protrude from the sides of the boat either side of the green stripe on Mavis/Amazon. I've linked to a photo below. See also the opening photo of Swallow in Roger Wardale's recent article, which sparked this discussion off. Again, there is contrasting paint used between the two bands of wood. Is this perhaps a design peculiar to fishing boats, to go with the extra strips of wood protecting the edges of the clinker planks lower down?


Mike Field 10 April 2014:

No, not just common to fishing boats. Here's my boat Aileen Louisa, designed and built in Melbourne as a pulling boat by Tom Whitfield, who's a boatwright from Devon. (Some more photos at the link.) Having maintained her brightwork for a number of years, while I understand why 'they' might have done it I still regret the fact that Mavis/Amazon was painted. Nor do I understand why the new Swallow is finished bright. Both are reversals of the original Swallow and Amazon finishes.....

Roger Wardale 11 April 2014:

I was lucky enough to be able to examine Mavis after the removal of the thick glass-fibre/fibre matting that had been plastered on by Earnest Altounyan, leaving bare wood. The craft was in a terrible state with rot everywhere and pieces breaking off if you so much as looked at it (so to speak). . . . three pieces that I picked off the floor that day. The wooden planking has been tidied up by sawing off the splintered ends.

Mike Field 11 April 2014:

Hh'mmm... Yes, a bit past their use-by dates, those pieces... Criminal -- I'm afraid Earnest knew little about wooden boats and took the advice of someone who knew even less. What a shame. The only way epoxy works is in new construction, where every component is encapsulated with it before assembly. Slathering the stuff on afterwards only denies water a way to move through the wood, and so it just stagnates and encourages rot. Properly maintained, a good wooden boat will outlive a fibreglass one by a half-century or more.

Magnus Smith 11 April 2014:

Aha. So it's not for fishing then. But why? Clinker construction does not need that second (lower) level of protection. One rubbing strake is enough for every other dinghy I've seen built since 1940. Useful for bumping against a post or jetty without ruining timber which is hard to replace. I've now seen the double strakes on a photo of two Lakeland launches too. These things may be labelled as 'traditional' aspects of construction, but surely they had a practical purpose in the beginning? (By the way - lovely boat Mike. Does she have a centreboard as well as that deep skeg at the back?)

Mike Field 11 April 2014:

The lower rubbing strake is there to allow a bit for wave motion when alongside. No boat really floats horizontally -- there's always a bit of pitching and rolling, and the lower rubbing strake does its bit in protecting the sheer strake when she moves against piles or a jetty. Yes, a 1/2" steel centreboard, Magnus. You can see the c/b case between the centre and forward thwarts here (burden boards removed), and in the last two photos at the link posted earlier. Apart from having a sprit sloop rig instead of a lug main only (and being larger too of course, at fifteen feet), Aileen Louisa is much like I've always visualised Amazon as being.

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