The Eventider's News
Issue Seven, Autumn/Winter 2006
Page No 2
'Cevamp and Me' an extract from the forthcoming book
This is Chapter Two of the book that Jackie Williamson has written. Her father Alex built Cevamp and Jackie and her husband sailed her as well.
Cevamp was sold and renamed, she is new owned by Ron Billings and called Gypsy Maiden
Alex had always enjoyed building boats. Although he spent the first twenty years of his life living far from the sea in Slough and joined the Royal Air Force in preference to the navy, sea water coursed through his veins and sailing boats filled his dreams.
His first foray into the world of shipbuilding resulted in a small motor boat for the family to use on the River Avon in Stratford while he was stationed in Warwickshire. Later, while the children were young, growing up in north Norfolk and spending their school holidays in the Ransomesque idyll of Wells-next-the-Sea, he was forever building sailing boats for them, starting with a Mirror dinghy. He named it the Christine, after his eldest daughter. At ten feet long or thereabouts, it was the perfect introduction to sailing for the children. Of the two boys, Mike was the more interested. His brother Phil, older by a little over a year, was a bit fumble-fingered, even then, and although family photographs show him tanned and tousle-headed in the dinghy – with one arm in plaster – he usually preferred to spend his time with his head in a book. The boys occasionally allowed their younger sister Chris to tag along when they went sailing together but at two and a half years younger than Mike she was never in any doubt that she was only there on sufferance.
The Mirror was probably the craft that triggered Mike’s enduring passion for yachts and the sea. To this day he enjoys boyhood memories of being caught out by the fickle tides that drained the creeks and salt marshes, and suffering the indignity of plodding doggedly home along the flats dragging his boat behind him.
All the while, though, at the back of Alex’s mind, lurked a plan to build a yacht. A proper boat. One on which, come retirement, he would climb aboard with his wife Vera and his fishing tackle and sail off into the sunset, down to the Med and a life of perfect contentment.
Although he made numerous small boats he always dreamed of building a big one and while he was still in the RAF he bought a set of plans for a twenty six foot Yachting Monthly Eventide. This was a sailing yacht designed by the legendary Maurice Griffiths, whose Eventide, Golden Hind and Waterwitch designs were famous for their sea worthiness. They became popular among sailing self-builders and there are few British harbours that don’t have a Griffiths design on one of their moorings. As well as designing yachts, Griffiths was a highly respected sailor and writer. Founder of The Little Ship Club, he died on 11th October 1997, aged 91.
Alex built the frame of his Eventide in the garage of the family’s home in Norfolk. This was a large detached dormer bungalow, also built by Alex. Building the yacht’s frame entailed a lot of work involving wet wood and clamps – the garage seemed always to be full of clamps and the bath full of wood, soaking in water to make it more pliable. Once the wood softened, Alex bent each piece the way he wanted it and then clamped it firmly so that it dried into the required shape. Having got off to such a good start with the frame, Alex then found he had no time to go any further and took it to pieces again, storing it all in the garage. Realising he couldn’t construct the ocean-going yacht of his dreams while he was still in the RAF he settled for a smaller one to tide him over, a sixteen foot, two berth Yachting Monthly Senior.
‘The Senior was started in Norfolk, finished after we moved back to Slough in 1970 and launched on the Thames at Old Windsor,’ recalled Alex. He named her the Lizbo, after his youngest child, Elizabeth. Over the years this play on names became something of a trademark for Alex: naming boats after members of the family, but usually by playing with words or family initials in such a way that only the family would get the joke.
By the early 1970s Phil’s career with the British Bank of the Middle East had taken off and Mike was studying hard for his promotion exams with Thames Valley Police. Alex had left the RAF after twenty three years and had recently returned from a two year stint installing air traffic control systems for the Saudi government. Now he’d returned to his roots and was working in Slough as a systems analyst with Plessey, the electronics giant. Alex and Vera’s relocation to Slough with the girls was overshadowed by the still un-built Eventide. None of the properties the couple viewed was suitable for Alex’s yacht-building scheme and, exasperated, Vera went off and bought a tiny, cramped cottage in the interim, leaving the embryonic Cevamp behind in Norfolk. The right house eventually came along, but it still had to have the garage extended before another pantechnicon could be despatched to Norfolk to collect the yacht’s frame and all the other bits and pieces that Alex had accumulated over the years. Even then there was no room for a car.
Twelve years had passed since Alex bought the plans for the Eventide and although she was still nothing more than a few skeletal limbs and a big pile of wood he had never given up on his dream.
‘It started way back in the mid 1950s when I was a young officer in the RAF. We often flew down to the Med and I was transfixed at the sight of all the beautiful yachts gleaming in the sun and sailing the dappled waters that I could see through the aircraft windows. I dreamed of the day when mine would be among them,’ he told us.
‘I made up my mind that one day the dream would come true. If I’d known how long it would take, I would probably have given up in despair.’
Nearly three decades passed before he finally stood at the harbour-side of a small town in north Wales and watched the launch of Cevamp – the jewel of his fleet and the best name of them all. Pronounced Sea Vamp, the letters of her name represented the initials of Alex’s own family: Christine, Elizabeth, Vera, Alex, Michael and Philip.
It was a long gestation, one that had already lasted more than a decade before Alex even bought the first timbers for his yacht. And that was when Cevamp’s story really began.
It was round about the time that native trees all over the country were falling victim to the voracious and deadly Dutch elm beetle.
‘Vera wanted some garden furniture,’ Alex recalled, ‘and one sunny Sunday afternoon, when we were living in Slough, we decided to take Liz for a drive in the country. We got to Abingdon and as we drove along this lane I heard a buzzing sound. “That sounds like a sawmill,” I said to Vera. “I reckon I could get some timber for making your garden seats and table”.’
Leaving Vera and Liz in the car at the top of the lane, he walked down to the sawmill. ‘There were a couple of chaps working there and one told me to hang on and he’d be with me in a minute.’ While Alex waited he had a look at the timber and one piece in particular caught his eye. ‘The man came over. I told him I wanted some elm for garden furniture but I was also interested in this other piece . . . for making a boat. I thought it was oak, but something about it said it wasn’t and it turned out to be chestnut.
‘I told the man how big the boat was, and that I really wanted English oak. He pointed to a tree trunk that was just about ready. It’d been “in the stick” for quite a few years, but the longest lengths were only twelve feet. He said he couldn’t help me to scarf - or join - them but said he would cut them as long as possible to keep joints to a minimum. We went over to have a look. It looked good, nothing rotten.’
There and then, completely forgetting about Liz and Vera who were sweltering in the car up the lane, Alex got the man to cut the pieces for the hog – or frame – and the keel so he could load them onto the roof rack and take them home with him. The rest would be cut to size and delivered later. ‘It was a good hour later that I got back to the car. Vera was fuming. She asked me where the wood for her furniture was. I told her I hadn’t got any . . . but I’d got wood for my boat!’
A few weeks later Alex was the proud owner of a rough-cut pile of wood. All from the one tree, it was just what he wanted and had cost the princely sum of £260. As far as we know, Vera never did get her table and chairs.
Buying the oak tree acted as a spur. Other bits and pieces for the Eventide gradually began to mount up . . . and so did the cobwebs that gathered upon them. Alex’s father gave him some wood for the floor timbers, the rudder was crafted from an ancient piece of wood that had probably come from a boat and then been used in a building and the piece which was eventually to become a magnificent tiller was made out of driftwood.
It seemed there was a tale to tell about every piece of wood that went into Cevamp, but Alex reckoned that acquiring the skin, the marine ply, was the most bizarre. He needed twenty six sheets and knew how expensive it was. He scouted around and eventually someone gave him the phone number of an importer who was thought to have just had some brought in. Alex gave him a call. Yes, he had some, but not a lot. Just a few sheets of top quality BSI 1088, but if Alex phoned ‘the guy at Bristol docks’ he could probably ‘work something out with him’.
The importer was right. The man at the docks did have some left and promised Alex that if he paid for the lorry to take it away he could have the ply for nothing. ‘I had no idea what that would cost,’ said Alex, ‘but he wouldn’t wait long for an answer. I asked Plessey Transport to give me an idea of the cost of a lorry from Bristol to Slough. The answer was that it would be about £100 and I knew that even if I could only get two or three sheets of ply that would be worth about the same, so I told the man in Bristol to go ahead.’
A few days later Alex drove home from work to find a very large, open sided truck parked outside the house in Merton Road and two men unloading a piece of wood. ‘I would have been thrilled just to have received half a dozen sheets. That would have set me well on the way. So I was delighted and astonished in equal measure to find there were twenty seven sheets of 8 x 4 marine ply stacked up against the side of the house. I’d got it for a give-away price, and even now, twenty years later, I still can’t believe my luck.’
By 1978 Alex had retired from Plessey and he, Vera, Chris and Liz were now doing the one thing they always said they would never do – running a pub – in a part of the world they said they’d never move to – Wales. It was to be a family business, with Alex and Chris in charge of the pub while Vera and Liz ran the hotel and restaurant. They did this with no little success.
In his book ‘The Hidden Places of Britain’ Leslie Thomas describes his ‘unerring nose for a good hostelry’ and writes about being served ‘a nice plate of roast goat and three veg’ by Liz when he stayed there whilst researching the book. The New Inn in Llangynog nestles in a peaceful valley at the foot of the Berwyn Mountains forty miles from the coast and is the last place you would expect to find a yacht being built. But the inn’s old barns and outbuildings gave Alex the space he needed. At long last Cevamp began to take shape.
The mast was one of the lucky finds that often seemed to come Alex’s way. Although Cevamp was a wooden boat he wanted an aluminium mast and after ringing around his many contacts he discovered someone on Hayling Island who had them for sale. They were 6 x 4 sections, which was roughly what he wanted. Blithely leaving Vera, Chris and Liz at home to run the pub, look after the overnight guests and cook for the restaurant, Alex drove south to meet the mast man. The man told him about a shipment of masts he’d ordered from Holland that, on arrival, turned out to be the wrong shape. He added that his only option was to get rid of them, as it would cost him more to send them back. This got Alex thinking. Through his long-standing connections with the Eventide Owners’ Association he knew there were a lot of people building Eventide 24s, which the surplus stock would be just right for, and he reckoned he could easily get rid of the unwanted masts. So he struck a deal with the man. Alex would arrange to offload the redundant poles and in return he would get the mast he wanted for £30. The deal was done; Alex cornered the market for Eventide 24 masts and returned home with a brand new 32 foot mast lashed to the roof of his Ford Cortina 1600E.
‘That mast certainly startled a lot of people on the journey home and I got a lot of funny looks from other drivers,’ he remembered. He got a lot of funny looks when he got home too, from his wife and daughters. ‘Wait till you hear what I’ve been doing,’ he announced excitedly as he burst into the kitchen of the inn on his return, naively unaware of the anger they had been brewing at yet another of his absences on boat business. All they knew was that they’d been left holding an extremely demanding baby while he’d been off enjoying himself. The reception he got was considerably cooler than the enthusiastic welcome he was expecting.
As so often happened on these occasions, a huge row erupted in the bottom bar. ‘You’re always out there on that bloody boat,’ and ‘It’s all boat, boat, boat with you,’ raged the women, as they thrashed out their emotions and vented their pent-up frustrations. Alex was genuinely surprised at their wrath. ‘I thought you were proud of what I’m doing. You’re always telling people about it. I really thought you’d be pleased about the mast.’
‘We are proud of you Dad, but can’t you see how exhausted we get? While you’re out there in the barn or chasing boat bits all over the country, we’re left to do all the work. Surely you can see how frustrated it makes us. If you pulled your weight a bit more there’d be less for us to do and we wouldn’t get so tired.’
It was a familiar scene, caused by a combination of resentment at Alex’s absences, their tiredness and overwork but, as always it soon blew over. Chris stood up abruptly. ‘Right,’ she said, as she usually did at these times. ‘Now we’ve all let off steam, who wants coffee?’ and in an instant everything was all right again.
Her memories of those bitter confrontations remain vivid, although, with the passing of years, she is able to look back on the noisy scenes with fond amusement rather in anger.
‘As far as Dad building the boat was concerned, the words blood, sweat and tears always come to mind. Blood because of the times he hurt his hands or hit his head on something; sweat, because of how hard we all had to work, especially Dad doing continuous shifts (bar, boat, bar, boat) and tears, mainly Mum’s, Liz’s and mine because of how tired we got running the business. Yes, we grumbled at him and resented his absences but he was always a tower of strength, even though he must have been as tired as we were, if not more so.’
The keel was another challenge. Like his father, Alex enjoyed working in wood: it was a material he felt at home with. But iron and lead and molten metals were alien elements and Alex wasn’t sure what to do about it. He knew the keel would have to weigh about a ton and what’s more he knew it was a job for an expert. Worse, he’d previously visited a foundry at Hampton Wick and discovered that to have one made amounted to a great deal of money.
‘I’d had the idea of making a mould and then casting the keel out of pig iron in a reinforced box sort of thing,’ he told us. ‘By this time word was getting round about what I was doing and because of this I got to hear about a man down on the south coast. He was building a modified Eventide, which he was planning to launch in the near future. Tragically for him, his boatshed caught fire and everything was destroyed except the keel, which he said I could have. It cost me peanuts, about sixty-odd pounds. Problem-solved.’
Or was it? There was a snag. How do you get a one ton iron keel from Southampton to mid Wales? The answer is, you tow it on a trailer behind a borrowed Land-Rover. And when the promised Land-Rover fails to materialise? Well, what the hell. You tow it behind your own car – a game little Ford Fiesta, which was, amazingly, fully up to the job! Another good day for Ford and the Williamson yacht building project but, once again, Alex returned home to find three worn out women who were less than enamoured by his latest exploits.
Having got the keel home, he found that manoeuvring it was no easy job for one man working alone. But he was nothing if not ingenious and rigged up a system of blocks, tackles, pulleys and wedges, which worked fine until the day the end of the keel rose a little too high, a little too fast, and smacked Alex right on the nose.
From then on it was plain sailing all the way. Alex spent every spare minute and a good deal of borrowed time over the next few years in the barn behind the inn, sawing, planing and hammering. He coated the marine ply of the hull in layers of fibre-glass and epoxy resin to keep the boat dry at sea and coated the woodwork on the upper decks with layer upon layer of varnish. Although Alex frequently suffered injuries to himself during the building process and would have been a Health and Safety inspector’s nightmare, the yacht’s safety at sea was constantly uppermost in his mind and he always went way beyond all safety specifications as far as Cevamp was concerned. One of the ways he did this was to line the cavities between the hull and the outer skin with sheets of polystyrene to give improved buoyancy. It seemed a good idea at the time but as we were to find out later it was more trouble than it was worth.
The yacht was Alex’s obsession and took priority over everything else, including family life and doing his share of the work at the inn. Despite this, he still somehow found the time between boat building and running the bar to help with the building of a new house next door to the inn for him and Vera and to attend evening classes in navigation and the theory of sailing. What’s more, however battered and filthy he got while he was working on the boat, he was always clean, fresh and immaculately dressed behind the bar. Customers seemed not to notice the dreadful smell of epoxy resin hanging around the inn and were too polite to comment on the appearance of the monster pulling their pints, with face and hands swollen from a ferocious reaction to the resin after he’d been applying it to Cevamp’s hull.
‘Can’t you keep all this blooming boat stuff out in the barn?’ Vera grumbled as, tired from working long hours at the inn she went upstairs to settle down with a book for half an hour, only to find the place draped in acres of sailcloth. ‘I’ve come up here for a bit of peace and quiet and I can’t even find a space to sit down.’
Alex, deaf to his wife’s complaints, ignored her and remained where he was, sitting hunched over her 1938 Singer sewing machine, passionately turning the handle and gradually converting the voluminous and unwieldy fabric into the mainsail for Cevamp. Liz’s newer machine was also brought in on the act when, not satisfied just with making his own sails, Alex got stuck in to upholstery making, cutting and stitching the black vinyl cushion covers for the saloon and forward cabin.
By the time he had added a Yanmar 8hp marine diesel engine for about £1,000 and £400 worth of bronze nails and screws, Alex calculated the total cost of the yacht prior to launching was around £3,500. He had known just what engine he wanted for a long time and Vera gave him the Yanmar as her 50th birthday present to him, paid for from money she’d earned and saved whilst working in London prior to the move to Wales. A VHF radio, electronic log, ship’s compass, echo sounder, radar system and life raft, together with various other pieces of vital equipment such as a cooker, chemical toilet, oilskins and life jackets, bumped up the final cost by about the same again but Cevamp was undoubtedly the best equipped, safest small yacht that would ever sail the potentially treacherous waters of the Irish Sea.
More than thirty years after Alex first had his dream of building his own yacht the day finally dawned when Cevamp was to be launched. Early in the morning on a damp, misty mid-July day, a tall crane on a low loader drew up on the bend in the narrow road outside the New Inn. The time had come to lift Cevamp out of the barn and onto the back of the transport lorry that was to take her on her journey over the mountains to the sea.
Such was the excitement that a television crew turned out to record the event for that evening’s news and Vera even promised on camera, to the rest of the family’s astonishment, that she was going on a diet so that she would be fit for sailing. Up to that point she hadn’t actually set foot on Cevamp. She shared the pride in Alex’s achievement that was felt by her sons and daughters but rather than be honest to Alex and admit that she really wasn’t interested in boats she masqueraded under the belief that she wouldn’t be able to sail because of severe sea sickness. For now, though, she was happy for Alex and enjoying the celebratory atmosphere of the occasion. The grandchildren were running around in a state of super-charged energy, the family was kitted out in smart new Cevamp sweatshirts, bought by Chris especially for the occasion and Alex was taking quiet satisfaction in overseeing the entire operation.
It was a heart-stopping moment for him when his pride and joy was lifted high into the air and swung over the tops of buildings onto the back of the lorry, to cheers from the assembled villagers and a muttered ‘I hope that doesn’t crash into my garage,’ from Liz’s husband Wayne, as the yacht lurched perilously close to the roof of the house he had recently finished building for the pair of them.
There was a strong pulse of satisfaction in Llangynog that day. The building of Cevamp had given the locals, customers and visitors to the remote village something to talk about and everyone wanted to be part of what had almost become a community project.
Once the yacht was safely strapped into position on the trailer, Mike climbed into the passenger seat of the lorry and, with Alex following behind in his car, the unlikely convoy wound its way out of the village, up the steep and twisting mountain roads and across country to Porthmadog. At 12 noon on Monday, 14 July 1986 Yacht Cevamp, sail number YM1202, was launched onto an incoming tide. It was the culmination of nearly half a lifetime’s work for Alex and the realisation, at long last, of his dream.