Cruiser Fleet – Guest Speaker & Carvery Lunch 22 Feb 2023
19th February 2023
The Cruiser Fleet held their second event of 2023 on Sunday. At midday more than 50 members and their guests attended the talk given by Duncan Kay. Duncan has been a Royal Corinthian member since 1960 and his excellent and interesting talk focused on an exciting time of his life when he was taking part in high profile offshore racing events.
Duncan learned to sail in the Hornet Class which was active at the Royal Corinthian in the 1960s. Jean and Emi Berger were Swiss Nationals also sailed Hornets at the RCYC, they won the National Championship and then decided that they wanted to try their hand at Offshore Racing. After a short period of practice on larger boats they had Stargazer built, following the design of a boat that had won the Class 2 Offshore event in 1965. They took all Hornet sailors as their crew, including Duncan, introducing him to a form of the sport that was to shape his life.
Duncan’s second offshore race (Southsea to Harwich) saw him working the foredeck, changing headsails at night in weather that only offshore racers would venture out in. they found themselves winning first place in their Class of 10 starters. More success followed in their third race, West Mersea to Breskens in the Netherlands. The race was not without hazard, including grounding on a concrete mole at Zeebrugge, but they still achieved a convincing win. A following 630-mile race from Harwich to Copenhagen saw them losing first place by just 13 minutes after five days at sea. A small compensation for this was a magnificent dinner honouring the competitors, held in Elsinore Castle, with five Crowned Heads also attending. At the end of only their first year taking part they had achieved the amazing result of winning the Royal Ocean Racing Club Championship.
Jean Burger was inspired by his success with Stargazer and decided to commission Joran, a beautiful steel hulled one tonner in which they took part in the One Ton Cup based in Heligoland. Later they entered the same boat in what became a very eventful Fastnet Race, they were laid flat by the weather and came up again with a 50ft spinnaker, halyard, and sheets, all flying on the wind ahead of them, only attached at the masthead. After recovering these (eventually) they found themselves in the wind shadow of the Fastnet Rock being carried onto it on the lee shore in the dark. This caused the lighthouse keeper enough worry to bring him out with a torch to yell at them to stay away; whilst they tried to point out that they didn’t really need the extra encouragement.
In the late 60s and 70s there were 110 British Clubs regularly taking part in the RORC Championship, with up to 187 boats starting in the Fastnet Race. The East Coast clubs were very strong at this time. West Mersea Yacht Club took the Championship in 1968 and 69, Royal Burnham in 1970 and 71. In 1973 the Royal Corinthian were 10th.
In 1969 Jean took Joran to New Zealand to race under the Swiss Flag with an all-Swiss team. Duncan took his skills and experience to another East Coast boat called Mersea Oyster, who were trying to enter Admirals Cup. Twenty-eight boats competed for the three places. Mersea Oyster just missed out and were made reserve boat. In the same year Ted Heath, the Leader of the conservative Party at that time (he became Prime Minister in 1970), bought the first of his famous Morning Cloud series of boats. He had only been sailing for three years at that time, mostly in Dinghies, but as in all things he was ambitious and wanted to do the Admirals Cup. He knew Jean Berger’s Navigator, Anthony Churchill (a journalist), and asked him to find crew for Morning Cloud. Anthony recommended Jean and Duncan; Sammy Sampson, and Owen Parker completed the core crew.
They first crewed Morning Cloud together at Burnham Week, and followed this with and Offshore race from West Mersea to Ostend. Other races followed and eventually Ted Heath accepted a suggestion that they should enter the Sydney to Hobart Race. They started having weekly meetings in Ted Heath’s flat, these meetings eventually moved to 10 Downing Street, and sometimes Chequers. The boat was improved in many ways, with more sail area, but the aim of keeping the rating the same.
Morning Cloud was selected as the reserve boat for the RORC’s team for the Southern Cross series, which allowed them to enter the 628-mile Sydney to Hobart, with 69 boats on the start line. Morning Cloud was the smallest of the starters. There were also reckoned to be 4,000 spectator boats out at the start. They had been given the advice to go out to sea early in order to try to pick up a southerly current thought to be out there. Clues to this elusive southern current were thought to be a temperature rise to 72 degrees, and a stream of small blue jellyfish. They went 60 miles out and didn’t really find the signs they had been advised of. They flew the spinnaker for 67 hours in one session as they passed very close schools of whales, some of which were larger than the boat. Suddenly conditions changed and they were facing a gale. Well reefed down they carried on into driving rain and hail with very deep wave troughs. The boat started to leak, and the pumps couldn’t work with the angle of heel they were at, so they had to resort to buckets for hand bailing. After 12 hours the storm abated and, as they sailed back into the East Coast, they found they only had 60 miles in order to beat into the Darwin River and home. They won the race by 50 minutes. The only boat to win in the previous 45 years which wasn’t Australian or New Zealand based. On top of that no British boat had won a major offshore race since 1963. Another British boat Prospect of Whitby was second. The other RORC entrants also did well, Crusade took line honours and Morning After was eighth overall. A great time for British Ocean Racing, and some celebrity for the crew, including a TV interview for Duncan on Sportsnight with Coleman.
After this success Ted Heath decided to start a campaign to win the Admirals Cup. He had a new Morning Cloud built. A beautiful wooden boat, built in Cowes, and it proved to be a very fast boat. This cost him a lot of money, not least because he liked to buy champagne for the team when they won. They won the Roman Bowl for the overall winner of the Round the Island Race, twice (and again later with Ted’s third Morning Cloud). They were selected for the Admirals Cup team, and Ted was asked to be Team Captain, The racing was exceptionally close that year, but Britain won the Admirals Cup, with America second and the Australians third. In that same autumn the boat was shipped to Australia for the Hobart Race, Skippered by Sammy Sampson. They finished fourth overall, but still won in their class.
The following year, 1972, the boat was fitted with a wheel. They had a very successful year culminating in eight wins in a row, firstly The Trafalgar Bowl for the race from Ramsgate to Burnham, followed by seven straight wins at Burnham Week.
The third version of Morning Cloud was designed and built to win the Fastnet Race, she was bigger at 44 feet, and much heavier, as the Fastnet is often a heavy weather race. They were once again selected for the Admirals Cup Team. They won the Round the Island Gold Roman Bowl, as well as the Solent points for the whole season. Unfortunately, light airs dominated the Fastnet race, unfavourable conditions for Morning Cloud; and the Germans won the Admirals Cup. Morning Cloud continued to win when there was a good breeze, winning three days of Cowes Week, then the Round the Goodwins Race. Burnham Week was predominately light winds and they were not very successful there.
After that the boat was trusted to an experienced movement crew; which included Christopher Chads, Ted Heath’s Godson, who had only just joined the crew. They left Burnham on Sunday morning in rough but tolerable weather. They decided to push on to the south coast. Then disaster struck in the form of wind pushing 50 knots, and very big waves. Six miles off the Owers Lightship the boat was knocked down, two men were washed overboard, sadly one of their lifelines broke under the strain, and Nigel Cummings was lost into the sea. They turned the boat around but could not find him. The boat was then knocked over again. This time Christopher Chad was lost overboard, he had been just coming out from the cabin as it happened and had not had time to hook on. The companionway hatch and the forehatch had both been torn off, together with the locker containing the six-man life raft. The remaining five crew abandoned ship into the four man life raft. They spent the next eight hours at the mercy of the huge waves and were eventually tipped into the surf near Brighton and were swept up the beach. They must have felt desolate about what had happened. Morning Cloud was wrecked completely, and when what was left of it was later recovered, half of it had been ground away by the action of the sea.
Duncan was married in 1975, and decided not to commit to sailing every weekend so that he could have a family life. He was still working for Keith Musto and carried on ocean racing in the Maxi series and the Fastnet. Still giving commitment in his “retirement” than most of us ever manage to achieve.
Duncan gave us an excellent presentation with many amusing and interesting anecdotes. Sadly, there is no room to include them all here. The Cruiser Fleet were informed, entertained, and amused by this excellent speaker and showed their appreciation by giving three separate rounds of applause. If you ever get the chance to hear Duncan speak don’t miss the opportunity.
Cruiser Fleet Captain