The Dinghy

The Dinghy

Here is another work of fiction by talented member Gandalpuss.   If you have any stories or articles you would like to write for the Lovesail blog then just email us at  You don’t need to be a member it just has to be sailing-related and around 400-500 words long.

The Dinghy

A neighbour three doors away on our council estate of Wythenshawe in South
Manchester had died. Ron Hepburn had died of a heart attack. My mother learned this
from another neighbour who was collecting for the funeral. We knew Mrs Hepburn
would not be allowed to remain in her Council house. The death triggered a reaction
from the council well known among the tenants. On such occasions, the family would
be re-housed in a smaller home. The council’s policy had in turn over the years
triggered a custom among the tenants of the estate. The custom was for immediate
friends of the family to help themselves from the items left in the front garden. It was a
sort of parting gift, a memento from those who once occupied the house. There were no
charity shops or house clearance companies in the period not long after the Second
World War.

Later, others, also neighbours but not immediate friends of the family leaving,
could help themselves to what remained. Everyone knew the council workmen would
come with a large two-wheeled hand cart to empty the house, make repairs and clear
gardens in readiness for a new tenant’s family. It was common knowledge this
represented an ideal opportunity in the days before fly-tipping to tip into the garden
whatever items other neighbours found difficult to dispose of for one reason or another.
Ancient cast iron gas cookers, old lawnmowers and washing mangles – even First
World War Lee Enfield rifles, now rusting and dangerous, might mysteriously appear,
then disappear, ghostlike. This was a sort of recycling precursor to today’s community-managed waste management.

My younger brother came running up to me, “Mrs Hepburn’s garden has a
square boat in it,” he shouted.  Over a low privet hedge, I saw what at first looked like a bath upside down. The object, discoloured with green moss and the trace marks of dead plants, lay among sticks of
furniture, old carpets, bits of rusty bicycles and broken-backed chairs. Except this bath
was gently curved from back to front, made of wood and had no feet, taps or plughole.
The dark blue paint was for the most part blistered by the weathering of many winters in
the Hepburn’s back garden. A threadbare red coloured patch of the canvas of a sail
attached to a pole flapped in the tame air of the council estate. The pole, once a
varnished surface, was now dirty and scored with haphazard spiders’ webs of cracks.
The object that looked like a bathtub had already been examined and rejected
by all who saw it. Another scavenging neighbour pulled from under it a complete set of
pram wheels with solid white rubber tyres only half worn down from years of usage.
The wheels were still attached to their axles which in turn were attached to the curved
tubular pram supports having been hack sawn-off long ago. Tilting the object which
looked like a bathtub, my eyes confirmed my brother’s assertion to be correct. The
shiny varnished underside of ply, though discoloured with plant and insect dirt and
black fungal mould, was unmistakable as the insides of a boat. Yet, oddly, this boat
seemed to lack a proper boat’s pointed bow. Someone had either chopped the bow off
or had not enough wood to construct a bow. Having lifted the vessel to see what was
inside, to my sixteen and a half-year-old mind, she felt solid. For all the neglect and
detritus covering the hull she felt firm and intact.

I had established, by dragging this object into our garden, my ownership of the boat to all around.
My pulse quickened.  Not having a clue what I was looking for, I returned to the deceased neighbour’s garden
and sifted through piles of bundled newspapers. I searched inside dirty old wooden
orange boxes. I sought anything of the same colour as the boat or made of wood which
might match with something on the boat’s hull. This way I, found a badly rotted rudder
and a tiller and daggerboard. I found some pulleys and bits of neatly coiled twine yet
thicker and grey with a red fleck not normally used in a garden.
I knew my Father would not allow me to keep the boat in its sorry-looking state
in our back garden.

I was not disappointed. I was given three days to get rid of it. The only person I knew
who might know what it was that lay in our back garden was my Uncle Tom. My Uncle
had been an Able Seaman in the Royal Navy during the war. Uncle Tom had regaled
me with tales of his time in the Navy and encouraged my interest in boats, yet was
adamant in his opposition to my joining the Navy. My uncle agreed to having the boat
in his garden for he was well aware of my Father’s views. This was the real reason for
my visit – I hoped my relative might show me how to restore the boat. Not daring to ask
my Father for help transporting the dirty old hull, I removed what dirt I could with a
bucket of water and a stiff scrubbing brush. I persuaded my best friend, David Copsey,
to help hand carry the dinghy three quarters of a mile across the council estate to my
Uncle’s house. Uncle Tom was unable to tell me anything about my boat except that it
appeared to be a plywood sailing dinghy which lacking a pointed bow. He thought it
might be called a ‘pram dinghy’.

True to my expectations, Uncle Tom rolled up his sleeves after returning from
work and we spent hours cleaning, sanding, painting and varnishing the hull. He
showed me how to replace rotten parts, providing materials from his capacious shed. I
learned a lot during those precious evenings at my Uncle’s. Not the least of which he
taught me how to use hand tools. More than this, in my Uncle’s company, his
infectious enthusiasm, his ’can do’ spirit and his unstinting generosity – in later years I
found common to many in the sailing community. The time flew by. The day of the
launch of the ‘mirror dinghy’ approached.

The nearest stretch of open water was the River Bolin. This river was several
miles away accessed down a wooded track from a bend in a lane not far from
Manchester Airport. It was too far to carry the dinghy by hand. My uncle called in a
favour of a friend who drove a small flat bed lorry for a greengrocery supplies
warehouse in Manchester.

In those days, shops were not allowed, for religious reasons, to open on Sundays, so the
lorry was available for the launch. Life jackets only existed at that time on ships so, as
a precaution, a half inflated scooter tyre’s inner tube of black rubber was positioned and
held by string across my chest below my arms.

The day of the launch was raining and windy. The dinghy now had a
rudimentary sail cut and shaped and stitched on my Auntie Irene’s cast iron foot treadle
operated sewing machine from a template of the original ragged red canvas. This sail,  as with the jib sail, was made from dark red marquee tent canvass which, with a wink of
his eye, my Uncle told me had fallen off the back of a lorry.
Knowing nothing about sailing I had come to assume Uncle Tom would instruct
me once afloat. With the confidence of youth, I soaked up my Uncle’s instructions full
in the knowledge of the all shining certainty that what this man said would come to
pass. Both my Uncle and I were relieved to get out of his friend’s chain smoking,
cigarette fog, of a smoke filled cab. Using his friend’s sack barrow we all three eased
the dinghy down the track to the river.

I was instructed to row to the middle of the river where I would lower a thirty
pound greengrocer’s scales weight borrowed from the lorry now reborn as my anchor.
The anchor was attached to a length of clothes line secured to the bow of the boat. I was
thrilled to heave on the oars as the dinghy ploughed forward under the power of my
arms toward the centre of the river. I was told to lower the dagger board within its’
central housing and attach the rudder on its pintles. I was oblivious to the rain and wind
of that day. Once at anchor, my uncle shouted instructions over the noise of the swelling
surge of water. I raised the main sail and its Gunter boom, cleating off the main halyard.
The sail flapped like a frightened beast in the rain, its lower boom banging against my
leg. Next, the jib sail was hoisted as instructed. I was only just able to catch my
Uncle’s instructions above the combined din of the flapping sails and rush of river

I hauled up the grocer’s weight anchor. By the time I reached the stern my
companions were racing along the bank. This was how fast the current had swept my
craft. Caught in the surging water the boat rocked. The main sail filled and jammed,
forcing the boat sideways on to the river’s flow. Unaware, I was standing on the jib’s
controlling rope called the jib sheet. The jib sail filled and bellied. Unable to flap, it
caused the dinghy to tilt at a crazy angle.

Through my grip of the tiller, I felt the raw power of these sails pull the dinghy towards
an overhang of trees as the river approached a bend.
The speed of movement made the dinghy all but leap sideways, taking the boat under
the lower branches of the canopy of trees.
The wind here became light, the mast shot up vertical taking me off balance.
The main sail’s upper Gunter boom struck the lower branches of the canopy, shaking a
deluge of water which soaked me inside the boat.
I slipped ….. SPLASH! In I went.

I surfaced with the inner tube partially covering my face, spitting out the brown
river water. My companions ceased running – falling about in paroxysms of laughter as
the now tangled jib formed, to them, what looked like a nun’s wimple against the black
of the inner tube. My feet found the river’s bottom as I stood up, presenting an even
more comical sight, for I had become the anchor for my boat.
It occurred to me – a boat owner I might be, but I was far from being a sailor.


Copyright “Gandalpuss” member of


the dinghy

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