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Golden Vanity 1908 - Exploring the River Dart for 111 years

Golden Vanity debriefing pilotage

VHF CH14 "Salcombe Harbour, This is Golden Vanity 1908”

If you are skippering a rebuilt classic yacht with hardly an original timber, then adding her build year 1908 to a VHF call to the harbourmaster might sound a bit like vanity,  but in the case of Golden Vanity she is the real thing, and it is a badge of honour for a rather resilient old lady.

Co-founder of Classic Sailing Debbie Purser was on board last week, to learn her ways from her current skipper Jim Bonney, so she could skipper her later in 2019 with some young people.

These are her thoughts and her travel blog from last week. (June 2019)

At first it was tempting to compare her with my previous RYA school boat ‘Eve of St Mawes’, as they are both gaff rigged cutters and a similar size. Vanity, however had other ideas. This is some of the delights and challenges I discovered:

Debbie Purser on Golden Vanity in Dartmouth - Fore & Aft moorings
Debbie Purser on Golden Vanity in Dartmouth - Fore & Aft moorings

South Devon - Born and Bred

There were a few things she had to get straight first: Golden Vanity was built in a fisherman’s boatyard at Galmpton, and they built them strong, with a deep displacement keel. Going straight whilst fishing in rough seas was a virtue. Which means she glides for hundreds of yards. Like was once said about Maggie Thatcher – ‘This lady is not for turning.’….unless you are very nice to her, and do all the right things.

This has advantages for beginners as you have an incredibly stable platform to learn seamanship skills and big wide decks with sturdy bulwarks between you and the sea. Changes of course take place slowly and purposefully, without all that twitchy heeling and violent flapping of sails. She was built for maritime artist Arthur Briscoe, and I can just imagine him hove to quite happily, with tan sails amongst a fishing fleet of Brixham Trawlers hauling nets.

What she teaches the ‘hothead’s’ on a RYA Day Skipper course that want to be in charge, is that they have to think ahead and plan manoeuvres with an awareness that she weighs the same as a 60-70ft ocean going yacht. You always need a get out plan, and eyes in the back of your head, if you are in a busy port.

Golden Vanity off the abandoned village of Hallsand
Golden Vanity off the abandoned village of Hallsand

What is the Secret of Golden Vanity?

As co-founder of Classic Sailing, it is obviously my job to persuade people to sail on the vessels we promote, but I’m not a sales person that will sell you anything, regardless of whether it fits you. I like to bond with the historic boats we work with and get inside the heads of the skippers who shape their voyages.

With my ‘other hat on’ as a sailing business advisor, it is all about finding a good niche for a sailing ship, which fits their character. I like boat owners that chose a sailing ground which will compliment the proposed voyage style and vessel’s history. It was great to talk to new skipper Jim who has some great ideas for Vanity’s role in the 21st Century.

Critical to a charter vessel’s longevity is also is the right skipper: Both as the boat’s champion to keep her well maintained, and to help the guest crew appreciate the full picture of what they are experiencing.

Here are my considered opinion on why you should go sailing on Golden Vanity, the smallest vessel in Classic Sailing Fleet, and the third oldest.

take the tiller on Golden Vanity - take my hand
take the tiller - take my hand

Small & Big Boat Skills – all in one week

There is a big difference between being guest crew one of Classic Sailing larger vessels and being THE CREW on a vessel the size of Vanity.

When the main gaff needs hoisting, there is no good looking behind you for someone bigger and heavier. If you are on deck with clothes on, it’s YOU. If you are below deck when the vessel needs to gybe, we’ll usually wait for you. At sea there are bursts of activity which can be just as physical as larger traditional ships, and everyone needs to be alert for other marine traffic around us. You are learning an active team sport, not just travelling under sail.

If you want to learn skills by doing, then 40ft Vanity has everything in miniature that you would find on a big gaff schooner, ketch or tall ship. Perfect for developing your deckhand/watch leader/mate skills once you have mastered the basics of sailing by the wind.

If you are tentatively moving towards a first command, or just interested in how you apply navigation skills at the same time as sailing the boat, then Vanity is a kind and tolerant teacher. Not something we publicise often, but you do often learn best from making your own mistakes. You are always under the watchful eye of a professional skipper (and a mate on Vanity) who can de brief you kindly later.

If you want a RYA Day Skipper certificate to charter a modern cruiser-racer in the Mediterranean, then you may be better off doing your course on something more flighty than Vanity, and get used the pace of instant tacking and navigating whilst braced at a steeply angled chart table. Similar skills. Different time frame.

Ann and Malcolm hauling up the anchor off Hallsands
Ann and Malcolm hauling up the anchor off Hallsands

A skipper with more Outdoor Skills than Bear Gryllis

Vanity was launched in 1908, which is the same year that Lt General Robert Baden Powell published “Scouting for Boys” – an instruction manual for outdoor skills and self improvement. The book became the inspiration for the Scout Movement. Scouting, backwoodsmanship and survival skills are now hip once more – so exploring land and sea with Vanity and an outdoor survival specialist is bang up to date.

I would sail on Vanity again, just to sail with Jim Bonney. A quietly spoken former Royal Marines Commando Officer who lost his foot in an Alaskan climbing accident, but still has an incredible zest for life. Jim has been teaching the Royal Navy to sail on yachts for a number of years, but his real forte is small boat missions. He has a string of instructor qualifications in outdoor pursuits.

Jim joined Vanity this season 2019 as her new, but very experienced skipper. Jim can see the potential in her as a comfortable wooden ‘bothy’ for many coastal adventures. The forays he has in mind are from Vanity’s own decks or by sea kayak, stand up paddle board or a spot of wild swimming.

Jim preparing hand dived scallops for supper on Golden Vanity
Jim preparing hand dived scallops for supper on Golden Vanity

Small Boat Adventures

You start to get Jim’s drift when he mentions some of his recent small boat adventures (without the beret). With his equally adventurous wife Lara they have sailed an Drascombe coaster called ‘Spirit of Mischief’ all the way north to Scotland for a circumnavigation of Mull in winter in 2014, circumnavigation of Skye in 2017 (met up with Eda Frandsen in loch Slavaig for a resupply of cake and sugar!)  and Dartmouth cross Channel and through the Chanel de Four to Douarnenez festival and back last summer

For those of us over 25 he is already creating some great short breaks, and for young outdoor fans he runs Duke of Edinburgh Award Expeditions on Vanity.

RYA Instructor Jim always finding things to teach you
RYA Instructor Jim always finding practical things to teach you

Vanity is a Local Legend

Golden Vanity has been sailing the South Devon Coast for almost all of her 111 year life. She has gone into foreign waters though. Vanity holds the record for the slowest Trans Atlantic Crossing in a race. She has taken part as the smallest competitor in a tall ships race across Biscay. Erskine Childers sailed on her, so she is thought to be the vessel that inspired the WW1 espionage book ‘Riddle of the Sands.’

Being part of the South Devon scenery often grants her special favours and this week we gained some hand dived scallops from a Brixham fisherman. You also get an awful lot of interesting characters come up to talk to you in port.

golden vanity in south Devon

Perfect playground for the childhood you might not have had.

This was the first time I had sailed with Jim, and I felt I had met a kindred spirit. On pilot cutter ‘Eve of St Mawes’ I spend 20 years deliberately seeking out anchorages that few yachts visited in South Cornwall. With her 15ft rowing dinghy we found tiny stone quays, sea caves and zawns, seal haul out rocks and dodged through the moorings with 13ft sweeps silently approaching pubs like a smuggler in the moonlight.

As we sailed between Salcombe, Dartmouth and Torbay, and up the creeks of South Devon, Jim was happy to point out some of the favourite secret coves he had found from years of sea kayaking in Devon and recent reccies with Vanity. Like Skipper James Mackenzie on Eda Frandsen, I expect Jim to notch up a substantial number of new anchorages on Vanity each season, and I hope I can add a few too.

golden vanity under sail



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