Tally Ho's Fastnet

Tony Watts recounts Tally Ho's Fastnet Race in 1927.

When Charles Hellyer of Brixham asked Albert Strange to design the 30 Ton cutter BETTY for him he could not have envisaged what a colourful life the ship would eventually have. She was intended for relaxed cruising and some deep-sea fishing but in other ownership and under a different name she won the third Fastnet Race, crossed oceans, visited Rarotonga (where she was substantially re-built after a grounding on coral at Manuae in the Hervey Islands), Hawaii and eventually Brookings, Oregon where she ironically became part of the fishing fleet. Hellyer kept her until 1913 when he commissioned Albert to design the larger BETTY II, a 50ft waterline ketch, and BETTY was sold to Lord Stalbridge who, being no believer in the traditional view that to change a boats name is unlucky, re-christened her TALLY HO.

The first Fastnet race took place in 1925 after several prominent members of the Yacht Racing Association expressed a wish for a true ocean race that would keep sea-going yachts at sea for several days in testing waters; a course from the Isle of Wight to the Fastnet Rock was decided upon, the rules limited the size of the boats (50ft WL maximum, 30ft WL minimum) which meant roughly 50 tons TM to 10 tons TM and specifically excluded yachts of the International Classes which were regarded as racing machines and unsuitable for the exposed waters of the Atlantic. Seven entries were attracted and JOLIE BRISE, a converted Havre pilot boat built in 1913, was famously the winner. In 1926 there were nine entries with ILEX, a 20 ton cruising yawl built in 1899, coming first. JOLIE BRISE had entered again and finished fifth.

The summer of 1927 in England was appalling with storms, floods and generally unsettled weather; the fortnight before the scheduled start of the race, Saturday 13th August, had seen south westerly gales with rain squalls and there was talk on the eve of the race of a possible postponement, but in fact the weather moderated overnight and when the 15 starters came to the line there was only a light south-westerly breeze. JOLIE BRISE, ALTAIR. PENBOCH and ILEX from the 1926 race were joined by eleven newcomers: TALLY HO, LA GOLETA, SAOIRSE, NICANOR, MORWENNA, SHIRA, CONTENT, MAITENES, SPICA, NELLIE and THALASSA.

LA GOLETA was a schooner of 30 tons owned by Mr R Peverley, designed by the American John Alden, built in England only just in time for the start of the race and with Alfred F Loomis (the author of several books on sailing) of New York aboard as navigator. Further American interest was in NICANOR, another Alden design, a 36 ton schooner built in America in 1926 for Alvin T Simonds and sailed across the Atlantic in 22 days to take part in the race, for which she picked up additional local crew. SAOIRSE was the 20 ton square rigged staysail schooner made famous through his books by Conor O’Brien who had Miss O’Brien, Miss Peter Gerard and Maurice Griffiths aboard. SPICA, a 22 ton cutter, was co-owned and sailed by Mrs A M Hunt and Mr J T Hunt and Mrs Aitken Dick also took part. NELLIE at 12 tons was the smallest boat in the race, she was a 40 year old cutter built on the lines of a fishing smack and based on the East Coast.

Lord Stalbridge’s crew on TALLY HO consisted of his son, Hugh Grosvenor, Mr Peter Bathurst and paid hands Mark Spinks, Jim Wills (cook) and Lou Springett (steward). The crew was divided into two watches; the starboard watch being Lord Stalbridge and Mr Bathurst and the port watch his son and Jim Wills, the other two crew members to be available on call at any time.

The weather gods did not relent for long; shortly after the starting gun at 11.30am strong winds and rain hit the fleet and the weather was so thick that the yachts lost sight of each other whilst still in the Solent. At that time, according to Loomis, JOLIE BRISE was in the lead followed by NICANOR, ILEX and then TALLY HO and LA GOLETA alongside each other. Once they left the shelter of the Island they were met by the full force of the wind and big seas and it became necessary to hand topsails and reef mains for the beat into the night. Over the next two days beating down Channel much damage was suffered by the fleet.

On Monday with the wind at gale force JOLIE BRISE, NICANOR, TALLY HO, LA GOLETA and ILEX were off Start Point when ILEX sprang a leak, blew out two jibs and was forced to turn tail and run back to Plymouth. JOLIE BRISE carried on in the lead until the Lizard Light where she was hit by a wild squall, took down her main and ran back to Falmouth speaking to TALLY HO on the way. These yachts had in fact weathered the conditions rather better than the rest of the fleet but by Tuesday the 16th of August only LA GOLETA, TALLY HO and NICANOR were left at sea.

Split mainsails had caused ALTAIR and MAITENES to run for shelter in Weymouth and Fowey respectively, CONTENT was unlucky in that she was handling the weather in the Atlantic well when her compasses became unreliable and she put into Queenstown in Ireland, SAOIRSE with a rig more suited to down wind sailing gave up and ran back to the Solent, little NELLIE with her low freeboard found a safe haven in St Helens after a wet and windy struggle and the equally small PENBOCH, the converted French fisherman, was in Dartmouth. After putting in to Falmouth for respite (where three of her local crew jumped ship) NICANOR carried on short handed into the Irish Sea only to be forced to retire with a broken gaff boom leaving TALLY HO and LA GOLETA to fight it out.

When off the Eddystone on the 15th Loomis in LA GOLETA later wrote:

… the only other contestant in sight was Tally Ho, working toward the Lizard under reefed main and spitfire jib. High though the seas rose, she seemed as steady as a church, and we watched her in silent admiration. Here indeed was a competitor.

After speaking to JOLIE BRISE Lord Stalbridge wrote:

Now was our chance as, knowing from the experiences in a gale in the Bay of Biscay what a wonderful sea-boat Tally Ho was, and also, confident in our sails and gear, we thought that by reefing her down and making things shipshape, we might be able to weather the Lizard, and if so would catch the tide and be a tide ahead of any of our competitors who failed to do so. So we hove-to and double reefed the mainsail, reefed the foresail and set our storm jib. We also got out the canvas covers for the skylights and the hatches and lashed them down securely, and put some more lashings on our dinghy and our spare spars and thus made ourselves as snug and as comfortable and watertight as we possibly could be.

After clearing the Lizard in enormous seas TALLY HO stood into Mount’s Bay and as they neared Penzance she felt the shelter of the land but as the seas moderated the wind appeared to increase and swung to the north-west. As night was coming on and with a foul tide in prospect, and believing that none of the others still at sea had yet rounded the Lizard, it was decided to run into Newlyn Roadsteads and anchor for the night before beating out round the Longships. After a more comfortable night in relative shelter she was underway again by 6.30am in a moderating wind but when the Longships was reached there was still a big sea running; beating out into the Irish Channel no other sail was in sight and by 10pm a position about 6 miles north-west of the Sevenstones had been reached, the wind went into he south-west and moderated to a nice sailing breeze and for the first time a course for the Fastnet could be laid.

At dawn the next morning a sail was sighted far astern which was at first believed to be the NICANOR but by late evening, with the Fastnet Rock some 3 miles ahead and in an almost flat calm it was in fact LA GOLETA that appeared out of the murk and hailed TALLY HO. The yachts had sailed into the centre of the low and TALLY HO was the first to pick up a light air and round the Fastnet at 1.20am some quarter of a mile ahead of LA GOLETA.

Of this time Loomis wrote:

At one thirty-five in the morning of the 18th, in pouring rain and freshening wind, we considered ourselves around and signalled our name and letter to the light keeper. We had held Tally Ho to windward, and now if we could get a reaching wind instead of this northeaster that was commencing to blow the cold of the Arctic down our way, we felt that we had a chance to save our time.

Lord Stalbridge later recorded:

The glass was now down to 29.3 and we were palpably in the centre of a depression, large or small, of course we had no means of telling, but I fear that standing into a lee shore in thick weather and a falling glass was not an act of great seamanship. However you cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs; we were out to win the Fastnet Race if we could, so we were out to take some chances and luckily they came off as, no sooner were we clear of the Fastnet, than it began to blow hard from the north-east, and from 2 to 4am that morning I think we had as big a bucketing as at any time, as the wind was against the sea. Yet we had to drive her along for all we were worth, not only to beat La Goleta, but to get sea room. And drive her we did, more under water than over I fear, but by 4am it had got too bad and we had to heave-to and reef again.

In these testing conditions the yachts raced hard back to Plymouth, often within site of each other, reefing as the weather demanded and passing through the French fishing fleet, all hove-to, with a big following sea that required only the most experienced steersmen to be at the helm. LA GOLETA, with six men on deck and the jumbo set gradually drew ahead of TALLY HO and much to the relief of those on shore-there had been concern expressed for the safety of both yachts in the prevailing conditions-crossed the finishing line at 1.40pm on Friday the 19th of August followed by TALLY HO some 50 minutes later, TALLY HO saving her time by nearly 4 hours and so winning the Fastnet Cup. In spite of the number of retirements, and perhaps because they were all carried out safely in some of the worst conditions that could be experienced, the English cutter and the American designed schooner showed once and for all to the many doubters at the time that well designed, well found and well sailed yachts could race offshore satisfactorily and give good sport to those who wished to enjoy more than sheltered waters. Ocean racing for the larger classes had been in vogue for some time but the Fastnet in 1927 confirmed that racing of this kind for the smaller classes had come to stay and Albert Strange had played his part in it.

[The extracts from Lord Stalbridge’s account are taken from his piece in The Yachting Monthly October 1927 and those from Alfred E Loomis from his account in the American magazine The Sportsman of November 1927. Reference has also been made to Maurice Griffiths’ article The Story of the Fastnet Race published in 1928 by Macmillan in Sailing Craft edited by Edwin J Schoettle.] Article from the Albert Strange Association