Adventures without adults by Julia Jones

Master Mariner (Cally & Hetty)
As a writer of sailing adventures where the main protagonists are older children and young teenagers (with a seasoning of redoubtable geriatrics) I wonder sometimes whether I’m stretching credulity too far as I put them through the trials and tribulations of my somewhat melodramatic plots. It was immensely reassuring therefore to spend a few days in late July at the Cadet World Championships in Bodstedt, Northern Germany in the company of approximately 242 young sailors in my target age group.
          The Cadet is a granddaddy of a dinghy. Commissioned by Yachting World magazine from legendary boat builder Jack Holt in 1947 it was a rapid success in the more family-friendly, less class-divided world of postwar Britain and soon went international. As a 1950s child learning to sail in a classic 12’ clinker-built dinghy with plenty of room for Mum or Dad, I looked with awe and envy at my contemporaries who were sailing Cadets. 
          The Cadet dinghy has no space for adults.  They are 10’ 6” long with 4’6” beam but their broad side decks make a very small central well; neat for the 7-17 year-olds for whom they were designed, not so appealing to anyone bulkier.  Though, as I write this, I begin to wonder whether, as my generation begins to shrink back towards our more skeletal 80- and 90- year old selves, whether there might be a second chance for those of us who missed out first time round … pull some of those 3 digit sail numbers out of retirement, do away with the baffling rainbow-coloured ropes and relaunch…as the 'Senex', maybe?
          It wouldn’t be impossible to find plenty of those mid-twentieth century dinghies. The oldest currently competing has sail number 735 and, although over 10,000  Cadets have been built since 1947 -- in GRP as well as plywood -- they possess the capacity to inspire lasting affection. Rather like children’s first ponies, passed from Pony Club family to family, many Cadet dinghies change hands privately when the last child turns 17. I observed an English mother coming up to one of the more middle-aged dinghies, currently being sailed by two Belgian girls, and giving its bows a little stroke. ‘We had this one for several years,’ she explained when she saw me watching, ‘when our children were much younger.’ Cadets can move across the world. At the end of the Bodstedt event, a container was to be filled with surplus equipment and outgrown dinghies for donation to Cuba where the class is in need of additional support.

GB racing's World and Promo fleets in Bodstedt
          This was my first World Championship, supporting my granddaughters aged 9 and 10. I’m not quite sure which of us was most overwhelmed by the experience. There are two fleets: the ‘World’ fleet, comprising 63 boats, this year representing eleven nations, including strong teams from Argentina (the eventual winners of gold and silver), Australia and the Ukraine. (Great Britain’s Charlotte Videlo and Tom Shepherd from Frensham Pond Sailing Club took bronze.) There’s also the ‘Promo’ fleet – not a PR stunt but for teams which might just have missed selection this time but are deemed equally worthy of inclusion in the future; another 58 boats from eight nations (with seven of the first ten places in this fleet taken by British boats).
          Some youngsters have been attending this event since they were in their pushchairs but for our family it was a first. ‘The Dutch are awesome,’ breathed the older of my granddaughters a few weeks earlier, when our horizons were still bounded by the North Sea and venturing to the Baltic seemed unbelievably exotic. Then I noticed that previous Cadet World Championships had been held in Bombay, Buenos Aires and Lake Balaton – to take only the Bs.  Cartagena, Cesme, La Coruna; Geelong, Gdynia, Glenelg, Gzycko -- all of them far, far away from Burnham-on-Crouch where the event was held for its first 16 years.
          Psychologically I thought it was a shrewd move by RYA coach Tom Mallendine to take his flock across the Bodstedter bodden on day 4 of training, to practice their starts against the Australian fleet. I felt a flutter of nerves as I watched from an attendant RIB: the competitors evidently didn’t. There was an impressive amount of jockeying and surging as the two nations pushed one another prematurely over the line in their eagerness to break away. As the event progressed many international friendships were made – to be continued next year – and there was a general swapping of hats and shirts after the prizegiving.  It’s rumoured (by the crews) that – at the helms’ post event party – there was kissing…
Hazel & Gwen off the water
          The competitors and most of their families were there for two weeks. There was plenty of time for noisy card games and swimming and minor mishaps and adolescent larking around but on the day my partner and I arrived there was a definite atmosphere of tension. This was Measurement Day.
Because Cadets are a One Design class every detail must be scrupulously fair and within the agreed parameters. But, because they are also over seventy years old, available materials and construction techniques have moved on. I listened to a 14 year old boy’s careful explanation of the pros and cons of the three different versions of the GRP (foam sandwich) moulds and then his meditations on whether the extra 2cm on the forestay of the plywood-constructed dinghies might give them a competitive advantage. His grandfather had built his (GRP) dinghy for him and it was clear that this 14-year-old was capable of sailing as thoughtfully and expertly as he spoke. My story-book hero would have been happy in his company.
          My real-life heroine for the fortnight was Hazel, the 14-year-old for whom my older granddaughter was crewing. On Measurement Day all the dinghies have to be completely stripped down and every single piece of equipment checked for its conformity to the class standards. In the process Hazel's dinghy Sorcerer’s mast was found to be bent. 
Hazel & Gwen sailing Sorcerer
          Was this a previously unnoticed fault or had it happened on the journey? That was immaterial; the problem was that the mast wasn’t safe to sail with – so what to do? Borrow one from the Cuban container? But Hazel was used to a certain type of mast. Have one flown out from England? There are no deep-pursed sponsors backing the Cadets. In the end Hazel’s father went to talk to the German hosts of the event who, overnight, sourced a mast of the exact specifications and made it available by the next morning. Watching Hazel’s intense concentration as she marked up her new mast so that Gwen, my granddaughter, would know precisely where to adjust each sail in variable conditions was an education to me. And I knew I'd already invented a fictional character who could have done the same.
          Elsewhere in the camp a long running controversy was getting its annual airing as the headsails of two of the most modern cadets were called back for re-measurement due to their slightly fuller cut. These were both on British boats and my heart sank as I anticipated the nit-picking and protesting  that (for me) constitutes the unattractive side of racing. I mentioned this to one of the most experienced mothers in the team – one of whose children was crewing on one of the boats under scrutiny. ‘I really don’t think it matters too much,’ she said. ‘At this stage of the competition it’s all up to the decisions that the children make out there.’
          That was the essence of this event. Parents could hover helpfully on RIBs ready with snacks, first aid kits and new halyards; the coaches could hold briefings and de-briefings but at the heart of the action were 121 individual units of one older and one younger child, dependent on each other. Not all were harmonious or heroic: occasional helms were heard to snap at their crews, some crews might have fumbled or been slow. I heard of one small crew member who was simply unable to stay awake through a long afternoon’s training session.  Nevertheless the training that Hazel (14) and Sorcerer were giving Gwen (10) in the World fleet and Cally (about to be 15) with Master Mariner to my other granddaughter Hetty (9) in the Promos was unique and adult-free. When I heard Hetty say, ‘Cally’s really good!’ I could also hear her determination to be equally good herself, one day.
 I shall have no more scruples in banishing all fictional parents or teachers from my stories and sending my young adventurers out to fend for themselves – with perhaps the most unobtrusive of admiring grandmothers in distantly respectful attendance.

Hetty, representing her country


Jan Needle said…
Oh memories, memories! I don't recall the Cadet I sailed in even had a name, but oh boy, the fun, the fun! As to rules and regs, I don't think in all my years I've ever raced a boat - too idle to be competitive, then, now and forever. I would have loved the idea of a bit of kissing afterwards, though. What would Jack Ashdown have said! I sailed my Winkle Brig Badsox in Langstone Harbour last week, but sadly hit the South Coast curse - no wind. Lovely piece, Jul. Get that novel on the stocks!
Susan Price said…
Julia, the nearest I've ever come to sailing is a bit of makerel fishing in Lyme Bay but I thoroughly enjoyed this. You can't beat peer-to-peer learning - as many self-publishing authors can attest!
Sandra Horn said…
Oh yes! More lovely stories coming!
Bill Kirton said…
My reaction mirrors Jan's - not that I ever had a Cadet, but I spent a bit of yesterday longing to have my old boat back and looking at a few of them for sale on ebay. My dinghy days are long gone, however, (and, sadly, I don't think I'm shrinking as fast you suggest I should, being a member of the wrinkly brigade). No, for a long time, my discussions about jib sizes and sail trimmings have been conducted sitting comfortably at a mooring with room to stretch legs and arms and a hull stable enough for me not to spill a gin and tonic. But I so enjoyed this post. Thank you Julia. More please.
Umberto Tosi said…
I was never a cadet or a boy scout, but your post evokes memories of many adult-free childhood adventures with a troublemaking pal or two - or none, getting into situations that would have made our parents' hair stand on end, then fall out.
sfin1000 said…
Not a sailor but love your books and this piece. And harking back: Capt John would be right at home in this environment as the elder. And Roger as the younger! Susan too much the mother and in between. And Titty the scribe.

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