“Believe me my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” And you know, and have lived by, Kenneth Grahame’s eloquently concise words from Wind in the Willows whether you have read the book or not.
As sailors we know what he was saying. Just ‘messing about in boats’ is something deep-rooted that whenever I hear it or write it, takes me back to where it all started in an instant and I’d be pretty sure that what Kenneth Grahame had in mind if it had existed back in 1908 when he wrote the book, was the Salterns Sailing Club in Lymington.
If you’ve ever wondered where Britain’s Olympic and Grand Prix medal factory starts, it’s here. Tucked down off a lane that if you carried straight on would lead to you to the infamous Chequers Pub in Lymington, the scene of many an Admiral’s Cup or Whitbread Round the World party in the day, it’s a detour into the world of Wind in the Willows where under 16’s can safely take their first tentative steps out onto a 3ft deep enclosed lake. It was the vision of the great Tony Hibbert MBE, a war hero, who deigned to create a safe space for children to sail on his land back in 1960 away from the busy, bustling Lymington River – and my, the rest is history.
My personal memory of the Salterns is one of initial fear. The boats we sailed were British Moths – no other boats were allowed at the time – and I was crewing, yes crewing, for a friend I had known since nursery school in these single-handers. We capsized. We once broke our mast on a dead run. We got wet. We got very cold at times. I learned to sit out. I learned that I hated light-air sailing. I was terrified of the mythical pike that didn’t exist but was warned about by a mischievous elder. And I had a blast. We won the club championship one year – there’s a photo in an album somewhere – and it was a spring-board to sailing a Topper dinghy to some success out on the Solent.
That was the early 1980’s, a time when children should be seen and not heard, and certainly only mildly tolerated in the posher yacht clubs, so the Salterns Sailing Club was perfect. Since my time, the club has gone from strength to strength and what piqued this column was a text from a friend, a very very good sailor in the XOD Fleet in Lymington who highlighted that Britain’s Hannah Snellgrove, runner-up in the ILCA 6 fleet at the 51st Trofeo Princesa Sofia Mallorca, was what we call an ‘Old Salt’ – an alumni of the Salterns Sailing Club. But there’s more…
We started digging and the roll-call of honour that has come from the club is pretty impressive: Matt Cornwall, Nick Thompson, Pippa Wilson, Richard Mason, John Claridge, Hattie Rogers, Nick Rogers, Ben Paton, Toby Collyer, Rory Heron, Sophie Weguelin, Kirstie Urwin…the names of top flight dinghy world, european and national champions, Cup sailors, Olympic medallists and legends of the sport that continue to move the dial just rolls on and on. It’s the starting point, the nucleus, ground zero for Britain’s medal factory and it’s an institution for those lucky enough to experience it.
Today it’s a thriving mecca for children of this sailing enclave nestled on the central south coast of England. I used to say that living in Lymington was akin to living at a ski resort, if you didn’t sail, there wasn’t much else to do. That’s not true obviously but sailing is deep-rooted in the town and the nursery slopes are found down at the Salterns. It’s where children can learn if they like our sport or not, whether they enjoy the wet, the racing, the ‘messing about’…many do, some don’t and that’s just fine. For those that find that sea-water is coursing through their veins, it’s a remarkably quick transition from their parents standing beside them in waders at the Salterns to Olympic or foiling glory.
Yes there are plenty of places around Britain and indeed around the world where youth sailing at the very start is encouraged. Parents and volunteers, coaches and grand-parents are ingenious at finding safe spaces for those taking their first steps into our sport but the Salterns is a special place – a magical space – where seamanship starts and greats are created.
Tony Hibbert’s influence stretches even further though than just encouraging youth sailing. There’s a very reasoned argument in yachting that if it hadn’t been for his diplomacy, vision and encouragement of the International Moth class, its builders and sailors, it’s very likely that we wouldn’t have foiling goliaths in the America’s Cup. Hibbert corralled the Mothists and encouraged them to build the extraordinary – wings, narrow hulls, exotic sailcloths, new build methods, materials development etc – and the genesis to foils began. I wonder what he would think were he alive today, but his passing in 2014 meant that he will have seen the Bladeriders and the L’Hydroptere’s which must have been a source of great satisfaction.
But his greatest legacy is the Salterns Sailing Club and it’s one that will last for generations and generations to come. More quintessentially British you could not wish to find. Generous in its spirit, a crucible of encouragement, the Salterns is where it all starts for many.
I’ll leave you as I started with the most magnificent of paragraphs from Kenneth Grahame, one often not read but apt as the Salterns alumni graduate from the pond to the sea:
There, sooner or later, the ships of all seafaring nations arrive; and there, at its destined hour, the ship of my choice will let go its anchor. I shall take my time, I shall tarry and bide, till at last the right one lies waiting for me, warped out into midstream, loaded low, her bowsprit pointing down harbour. I shall slip on board, by boat or along hawser; and then one morning I shall wake to the song and tramp of the sailors, the clink of the capstan, and the rattle of the anchor-chain coming merrily in. We shall break out the jib and the foresail, the white houses on the harbour side will glide slowly past us as she gathers steering-way, and the voyage will have begun! As she forges towards the headland she will clothe herself with canvas; and then, once outside, the sounding slap of great green seas as she heels to the wind, pointing South!