Boats and Boating

In the 1950s Ajax had very few boats. The fleet comprised, two single sail clinker-built wooden dinghies, a 16ft wooden rowing boat named Norge, a 27ft wooden rowing whaler named PYMBS (named after the crew that collected it from down river: Pete, Yank, Mike, Bish and Slash) and a couple of other small rowing boats, all kept on moorings. Over the years the fleet has expanded beyond all recognition compared to the modest original collection of boats.

In the late 1950s and early 60s the original wooden boats were replaced by fibreglass rowing/sailing boats, i.e. two 20ft ‘Home Counties’ class gigs: PYMBS & Norge (designed by Chiefy Sharman of Ajax and Eric Ebbage of Leander Sea Scouts) and four 12ft Sea Scout class dinghies: Dart, Deben, Dee, Doon. These boats continue at the heart of the Ajax fleet to the present day, although the Norge has been replaced with a new gig and all the others have had several substantial rebuilds. These boats have all been sailed at Ajax summer camps at various coastal locations including Chichester and Poole Harbours, the rivers Blackwater, Crouch and Deben on the East Coast as well as East Mersea. The prototype gig was tested by Ajax Senior Scouts on the tidal Thames, on the Medway and on Lake Windermere. In 1967 the two gigs, crewed by Ajax Venture Sea Scouts, took part in a cross-Channel sailing cruise organised by London Sea Scouts.

In the very early days, there were some canvas kayaks, but these didn’t stand up to Sea Scout use. Subsequently there was no kayaking in Ajax for some 30 years until March 1982 when nine Apache fibreglass kayaks were added to the fleet. Under the guidance of Len Leach, a Senior British Canoe Union Instructor who often dropped in at Ajax for a cup of tea, kayaking was finally underway again. Kayaking has continued to increase in popularity and over the year numerous youngsters have become highly skilled in the discipline with Eskimo rolls being a not uncommon sight during sessions afloat. The Apaches have long since been replaced by plastic kayaks and the fleet now also includes open canoes. To expand still further the range of water activities on offer, we are currently considering the purchase of some Stand Up Paddleboards (SUPs) since this is very much a growing sport.

Dinghy Sailing has always been a strong feature in the Ajax programme and various types of dinghies have come and gone but in recent years our Laser Picos have formed the mainstay for RYA training with the addition of two RS Vision high performance dinghies in 2014. Today, much of the dinghy sail training carried out by Ajax takes place at Island Barn reservoir where we keep a fleet of Laser Picos, as well as some Toppers and the two new RS Visions. The waters at Island Barn are much more open, the winds uninterrupted by trees and buildings, and there is no river traffic to avoid. Consequently, the standard of dinghy sailing has risen dramatically since the days when we sailed solely on the Thames.

Ajax has always endeavoured to provide its members with challenging sailing experience beyond the confines of the river Thames. In the 1960s there were regular trips to the Medway where we sailed whalers from the RN base at Chatham. More recently there have been numerous weekends at the HMS Bristol RN sailing base in Portsmouth. Currently our prime tidal focus is Chichester Harbour where we organise regular sailing weekends based at the Cobnor Activities Centre where we sail their fleet of dinghies as well as our three 16ft Wayfarers which we keep nearby.

Since the early 1980s Ajax youngsters have been encouraged to go on the Rona Trust’s offshore yachts for a week’s sail training along the South Coast and frequently across the Channel. In the past few years, many have gained RYA Competent Crew certificates during these voyages, a testament to the training they have received Ajax. In May this year, nine of our Explorer Sea Scouts led by Nick Barber, crewed the Rona Trust’s Donald Searle with Peter Wadsworth as the Mate. Peter has been a Rona Trust volunteer ever since his he first sailed with them as a teenager. Indeed, several of the Rona Trust volunteer ship’s officers are Old Ajaccios. We are very proud to have provided the initial opportunity that fired their enthusiasm to the benefit of subsequent generations.

Except for some highly unreliable outboard engines which were occasionally clamped to the backs of gigs and dinghies and also used to propel makeshift safety boats, powerboats did not form part of the Ajax programme until the early 1980s when the Group acquired a purpose-built Dory safety boat with a 20hp outboard. Since then Ajax has steadily upgraded its fleet to the point where the Group now owns several powerboats. These include a RIB named ‘The Stokes’ with a 130hp outboard which is used for high speed powerboat training and for safety support on tidal waters; and a ‘Saltram 18’ displacement boat named ‘Connie West’ which is used for powerboat training on our home waters and for fleet safety support.

On two occasions in the 1960s boating was impossible at Ajax because the river was frozen with the ice sufficiently thick to enable cycling and there was even an Austin Seven car that was driven around Thames Ditton Island! With global warming it is unlikely we will see such things again.

This is an edited excerpt of George Barber’s “70 Years of Ajax and 65 Years an Ajaccio”, first published in the 2018 Ajax Group Annual Report