A potted history of Tom Cunliffe
At University I spent most of my time sailing Fireflies when I should have been studying. In my third year I hitched round the United States in the summer holidays and ended up working out of Provincetown, Cape Cod on the William Hand schooner ‘Hindu’. It was a real Road to Damascus moment.
After that I ditched my course and drove down to the South of France in my MGTC, which was an adventure in itself.
I ran a small sailing school there off a beach west of Marseilles. I taught in a coble, but part of the job involved patching canoes in the off season.
The next step in my life at sea was as a gash hand on a Baltic Trading ketch called Johanne. But she had to be fitted out prior to setting sail in February for the Caribbean. There was a lot to do…
It was whilst on Johanne I met Ros, the girl I wanted to spend my life with, and I have.
The first boat I ever owned was a 22ft centreboard sloop called Leihane. She was built on the Isle of Wight by Woodnutts in 1932 and had full crawling headroom. Soon after Ros and I bought her we sailed her to France. It was an epic trip which decided us to buy a bigger boat. In order to make some money I did a variety of jobs, one of which was teaching on a private yacht out of Hamble.
In due course we bought Saari in the early 1970s. We lived on board berthed in the mud at Debtor’s Jetty, on the Hamble River. A chance meeting with a man in a pub who said he would give us a job if we sailed to Brazil, led to us stocking up and setting off with £50 in our pockets. We spent a year looking after his boat near Rio and travelling around South America.
A few years later we returned to the UK via the Caribbean, America and Canada. The crossing from Nova Scotia was beset with easterlies and heavy gales. It took 39 days.
Our daughter was born shortly after our return and I desperately needed another job, so I became mate on a coastal ship, the Greta C.
It was an extremely hard winter with icicles hanging from the bridge and all the ropes freezing on deck.
Taking my Yachtmaster exam during that winter led to work at the National Sailing School at Cowes. Here I became an examiner and sailed Seals, Contessa 32s, Fulmars, Rivals and skippered the RORC race boat Griffin, narrowly missing being on the 1979 Fastnet Race.
I also had the chance to skipper another couple of interesting boats during this time. One was the 50ft Brixham Trawler yacht Regard and other was the famous 1913 55ft Le Havre pilot cutter Jolie Brise.
My private yacht during this time was a 28ft 1895 gaff cutter called Marishka, but after four years I was burnt out with teaching and Ros was itching to sail away again. With our four-year-old daughter in tow we bought Hirta, a 1911 51ft Bristol Channel Pilot cutter and set off in the wake of the Vikings across the North Atlantic via Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland.
After that voyage which lasted 3 years, I began writing whilst still teaching and delivering boats.
Hirta remained with us for 15 years, then we had built a 40ft boat based on the pilot cutters of the Bristol Channel. She was designed by Nigel Irens and called Westernman.
For 40 years we had owned traditional gaff-rigged boats and sailed them to such diverse places as South America, Greenland, North Africa and Communist Russia, but after getting our bus passes, we finally decided to go for a boat that would be easier for just the two of us to handle and maintain. We bought a 44ft Bermudan cutter in America.
Over time I’ve been lucky enough to skipper/sail/crew/teach on a variety of boats from a 20ft Cape Cod fishing dory to the 160ft schooner Eleonora. Some, I’ve just spent a day on, others I’ve crossed oceans on. Here’s just a small selection.