Hirta: Maritime Memories from the 50s

Historic Vessels often have more stories and relationships during their long lives than many people will. For the lucky few that own, skipper and sail vessels such as these. They make and leave their own stories with the vessels. By the very nature of being unique, rare and historic, a certain type of sailor takes these vessels on. Then when it is time to part company another sailor takes up the mantle. It was the same for Fenland in one of our previous articles. Below you will find the story of our Trustee Mark Grimwade, and his relationship with a very special Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter, Hirta.

Some of you reading this may know many other stories of this vessel. As well as some of the people that have sailed onboard, including Tom Cuncliffe. If you are interested in the history of Hirta, check out a piece written by Tom for the Pen and Sword Blog. Mark originally wrote his stories with Hirta back in 2007 and kindly recalled the story to share with you all.

Which starts on a summer’s night back in 1955….

Near the pier at Woolverstone on the River Orwell, I was sleeping off a few pints in the tiny cabin of my 18’ gaffer “Seagoon”. “Excuse me, can you do artificial respiration?” enquired a calm voice out of the darkness. Looking out, I was faced with the huge bulk of a gaffer which had come alongside the pier. As I had recently obtained my Life Saving Certificates before leaving school, I boarded “Hirta” (a 1911, 33-ton Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter) to find the owner’s wife suffering from exhaust fume poisoning in the heads. We got her on deck, pumped her out and she soon recovered. Peace returned after a few beers – and me back to my small cabin.

Consumed with curiosity and awe at the size of “Hirta”, I went back next day on the pretext of enquiring after the lady’s health and duly admired Hirta. I helped the owner – Derrick Hare – to anchor in a suitable spot and my offer to keep an eye on the yacht was accepted whilst he returned to his other yacht “Polaris”, a 61-ton Abeking & Rasmussen ketch, then his home in Gt. Yarmouth.

For the next couple of weeks, I thoroughly inspected and admired “Hirta”. On telephoning Derrick to assure him that all was well, he mentioned in passing: “You can sail her if you like.” Me!  19 years old and with only small boat experience! Undaunted but terrified, I collected a nucleus crew of old school friends. My first discovery was that her old Petrol/Paraffin Gray engine had reverse rotation (i.e. it ran backwards and had to be cranked by hand in the opposite direction to normal). It was the “wrong” one remaining of a handed pair. The engine had been fitted in the USA before the Second World War by her then owner, the Marquis of Bute.  He re-named her after the main island at St. Kilda (which he owned). She was used to transport shooting parties back and forth and originally, she was “Cornubia” then, briefly, Trubador and Cornubra before becoming Hirta. I also learned that she spent the war on the River Clyde with a barrage balloon and winch on deck.

Our first voyage was the ½ mile to dry out alongside Woolverstone pier (just, and with much luck) where a vast quantity of marine growth was cleaned off her massive bottom. Then we sailed … and I learned a great deal … fast! An 8ft draught proved “interesting” as did her rig and massive proportions. Being young and fit we soon learned the basics and were cruising the East Coast after a few weekends. It was a steep, frequently hair-raising but satisfying learning curve, eased considerably by the intake of vast quantities of beer.

Hirta at sea – Mark Grimwade

We started off sailing Hirta under the “Jolly Roger”. A young lady of my acquaintance thought this “unimaginative” and made me a personal house flag out of her mother’s old nightdress. Its official description was of Two-pint beer mugs either side of a pipe “rampant” – white on black. In those days, one could register a house flag at Lloyds, so I sent mine in. They rejected it on the grounds that “You may regret it in later years”. I replied that if I gave up beer and my pipe, I probably wouldn’t have a yacht to fly it from either. Lloyds replied that this was a worthy argument – and duly registered it. I still sail under it!

Mark’s House Flag – Mark Grimwade

At this time, we adopted the ship’s motto: “Look after yourselves chaps, there are very few of us left.” With the coming of winter, I negotiated a berth in Ipswich Wet Dock for “Hirta” where the company I worked for owned vast lengths of vacant, non-tidal quay.  Here, for the princely sum of 2/- (10p) per week she lay in comfort and security, the latter provided by the presence, on the ex-naval pinnance next door, of the friendly and unique Professor Jack Zeek the local tattooist, fire-eater, sword-swallower and knife thrower who could often be seen, sitting on deck, chewing lightbulbs….. with whom no-one argued! There is now a Marina at this spot, and I have calculated that our 2/- for a week, today, could buy Hirta 7½ minutes berthing.

Here, we worked away on the boat at weekends and held incredible parties: the highest count being 150 people and a jazz band. During one such function we warped “Hirta” round to see how many walked off on the wrong side ……. only one did —– me! 

Mark and some of the lads – Mark Grimwade

The next spring saw us become more ambitious. After an uneventful if chilly Easter cruise to Burnham-on- Crouch, we planned a trip across the North Sea for our fortnight’s Summer Cruise. A sometime crew member was a wholesale potato merchant and had access to cheap food. For a very reasonable sum he promised to put aboard “vittles’’’ for 8 crew. On boarding on the night of departure we discovered that our supplies consisted of 2 gross tins of Steak & Kidney Pudding and 2 gross tins of Golden Syrup Pudding – 576 tins of stodge – accompanied by 3 cwt. of onions. This diet was to prove fairly disastrous to our constitutions and utterly so in other, more antisocial, respects! We became adept, however, at finding different ways of cooking our “stock food” (It was certainly a case of “Sacre-bleu” rather than “Cordon Bleu”!)

Relaxing on the Hirta, Mark at the helm with his pipe – Mark Grimwade

Hirta’s sails were flax, pre-war and somewhat “tender”. She had old-style pennant reefing (apparently never having been fitted with the usual roller reefing found on most of her sisters) and as the stresses of tying down a reef usually produced some nasty tears; we became fairly proficient sailmakers!

To celebrate our arrival in the Montgomery Dock in Ostend (now the Mercator Basin, re-named after the square-rigger Mercator which is moored there), we hoisted our ill-gotten and very large Royal Standard to the horror of a Colonel in the Household Cavalry and the British Consul on a nearby yacht.

A useful additional form of navigation for us was to know the routes and timing of the various ferries which plied our waters – “2pm and there’s the westbound train ferry – we must be near the Westhinder lightship!”. (The Goeree and West Hinder lightships were navigational aids for ships navigating off the coast of Holland).

Hirta in the rough North Sea – Mark Grimwade

After some more coastal cruising where the regulation 44 pints a head was rigidly maintained, another drought-free Winter in Ipswich Dock was “enjoyed”.  Our association with the local Police Force was augmented by the Dock’s shunters who, finding their activities blocked by various vehicles on the Quay, joined our parties whilst allowing us to drive their steam shunting engine around the Dock.

We had a Rayburn Cooker and a Tortoise stove on “Hirta” which provided, as well as warmth, the nucleus of our diet of lentil soup and tea with 5 gallon tureens of both sitting on the hotplate, the former being topped-up as time passed with anything “handy” such as stale bread, oxtails, baked beans and anything left over from the Works Canteen. We also discovered a failsafe (and necessary) cure for hangovers – black coffee using boiled stale beer instead of water!

‘Bosun Jim’ crew member onboard Hirta – Mark Grimwade

The Rayburn nearly caused the end of “Hirta”, on a return voyage from the Continent, I hid 7 bottles of Brandy in the chimney. Unaware of this, some bright spark lit the stove, all the bottles burst and the contents ran burning into the bilge . . . blue flames licked up through the floorboards but fortunately flickered out before harm was done to the boat – but the same could not be said for my feelings!

During the winter we bought – for a fiver – the wheel steering gear from the sad hulk of the Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter “Saladin” to replace Hirta’s man-throwing tiller. Solid bronze, I believe it remains on her to this day. In the ‘50s, Bristol Channel Pilot Cutters littered the River Orwell; in addition to Hirta and the hulk of Saladin (ex-Maud – see Surgeon Commander Muir’s book “Messing about in Boats”) lying alongside Bourne Bridge. There was Theodora (now reverted to Kindly Light then Chris Ellis’s yacht in which he founded the Ocean Youth Club), Cariad (Frank Carr, laid up on the Hard at Pin Mill), Alpha, Idris (Ken Sykora the jazz guitarist, wrecked at Ipswich – Idris, not Ken!) and Veteran, (Guy Grindlay, foundered off Burnham on Crouch) together with Gladimaris (ex-Venture, an Exmouth Pilot Cutter).

Mark hoisting onboard Hirta – Mark Grimwade

The following summer saw us take Hirta direct from Harwich to Imujden (at an average of 8 knots) and on up the North Sea Canal to Amsterdam. The weather being “iffy”, we decided on a canal trip through Haarlem to Rotterdam. The various Dutchmen who befriended us (mainly through seeing the WWII Parachutists’ Corgi motor scooter we carried on board and which took them back to the then no-so-far-off days of Arnhem) didn’t mention some shallow patches on our route. One stretch had to be covered at full power with the 14’ dinghy swung out on the end of the boom, full of water and crew, to heel Hirta sufficiently to get through. We stopped abruptly at Leidchendam – in the lock – with the road and rail bridges open – our 33 tons hard aground on the sill. An hour passed while the road, rail and canal traffic built up around and above us.  Eventually, after futile efforts with warps and launches, a small oil tanker put a turn round the mast. She leapt up – and out. We kept going!

Arriving at the Royal Maas Yacht Club basin in Rotterdam, we were met by the Club Secretary on whom we tried the Dutch taught us by a friendly Pilot to wish him “Good morning!” He assured us that his parents were married and enquired as to which of “those ploddy Pilots” had taught us Dutch!

On down the coast to Veere which, in those days, was still a tidal port – no Veersmeer then.  On locking into the Walcheren Canal our trusty engine failed and Hirta was towed its length by our aforementioned 100cc. Corgi scooter to the cheers of a large proportion of the population.

Relaxing on the deck of Hirta – Mark Grimwade

We sailed “Hirta” across to Ostend and needed TVO (Tractor Vaporising Oil – which is a form of paraffin and was used in those days in modified petrol engines). We lashed jerry cans to oars and ‘the Hirta crocodile’ proceeded into town not knowing the right word in French – or Flemish.  I tried “Tay Vay Ohhh” and “Parafeen”, neither of which worked at several petrol stations. A helpful Belgian suggested we try a different word (I forget it now) at a small shop up a side street. The crocodile proceeded to the address given and I asked for 200 litres of ‘the word’. The shopkeeper came outside, surveyed the crew all bearing cans and said. “Mon Dieu – you are ALL constipated?”

The following winter began as previously but Derrick, Hirta’s ever-tolerant owner, indicated that she had to be sold as he was starting a major re-build of Polaris. He generously offered her to me at £1,000 – amazing today but outside my meagre apprentice wage and savings. We discussed a partnership between the half dozen nucleus crew but decided that group-ownership would probably cause problems as would her upkeep.

After much uncertainty as to our immediate future with her, she was bought by Adam Bergius and spent the next 20 years as part of his family in Scotland – where Derrick originally found her after WWII. Between us, we bought a brace of fishing smacks (Stormy Petrel and Martha Two), an ex-6 metre and an Aldeburgh beach boat.

When on holiday at Polruan (where Hirta was built in 1911 by Slade) some years later, I mentioned her to a very old gentleman named John Thomas living in the cottage next door. It turned out that he was an apprentice at the yard when she was built as Cornubia and he gave me a photograph taken of her sailing off to her home port of Barry – following her launch …. his cottage even stands in the background!

Hirta as Cornubia in 1911 – Mark Grimwade

The rest of Hirta’s story is undoubtedly well known to readers and well documented. I have kept in touch with her over the past 60 plus years and shall always be grateful for the opportunity to sail – and skipper – an amazing ship. She taught me an enormous amount, was utterly forgiving and I think she too enjoyed this brief and unusual part of her long and intriguing life span.

Mark Grimwade

We hope you enjoyed Mark’s stories and anecdotes. As you can see quite a lot happened to him during his time with Hirta.

Do you have or know anyone with stories like Mark’s to tell that relate to Ipswich’s local maritime history? In Autumn 2020 we will start to save and secure the multitude of stories of Maritime Ipswich in an exciting new project. Be it your experiences working on the Wet Dock, Cliff Quay, or sailing down the Orwell. You may have relatives that used to work and frequent the many pubs that used to line the Ipswich Docks. So if you have any please send them in to us, when the project launches in a few weeks. We are also looking at developing an anthology of these stories. As well as start oral histories over the next few months to keep these stories alive. Why not join in on social media to and share with us your stories using the hashtag #MyMaritimeMemoir.

Reader Interactions


  1. Graham Jacob says

    My father should really be the one to write this as he bought Cariad in 1957 from Frank Carr. I think for £600. My parents spent the next 8 years making her seaworthy, or at least sailable.

    I moved aboard aged 3 weeks in February 1963 and she was the basis for all our holidays until we moved to Australia at the end of 1970.

    • Mark Grimwade says

      Hi Graham!
      I have only now found your correspondence concerning Hirta and Cariad. I well remember Cariad laid up in the mud on Pin Mill Hard – when she belonged to Frank Carr – then the chief at the National Maritime museum. I heard that Cariad became part of a maritime museum on the Exeter Canal – possibly with you aboard?
      It wasn’t until 2018 that, when cruising Southern Brittany in my current yacht, I found Cariad on the River Vlaine close to Vanne. She appears to be in good order and, when laying up at Arzal Marina this autumn, she was parked ashore nearby.
      In those far-off days there were 7 Bristol Channel PCs on the Orwell.
      Best Wishes and a Happy, Healthy and Humorous 2021
      Mark Grimwade

    • O Dixey says

      Built in Pill by cracker Rowles.. she was the last pilot cutter to be stationed at the pilot station off Barry in 1912 and was working as a Bristol cutter out of Pill. When she was rebuilt in the 2000s I managed to save part of her original stern section and me and another Pill lad sailed from Pill to Barry last month to mark the 100 years with part of her lashed to the pushpit of my own sailing boat.

  2. Daniel Lee says


    I now own Cornubia … wonderful to read about your adventures.

    We are taking her off to the Arctic circle next summer exploring the coast of Norway on the way…

    She is a truly wonderful boat and I feel very lucky to be the current custodian.

    We are in the process of building a website for Cornubia and it would be fantastic if we could use some of your photos…



  3. glen cross says

    I sailed aboard Hirta in on/about 1984 with Tom and Roz C as well as daughter Hannah (Clint, Lizzie, Paulo who through me overboard!) from Mystic, CT, USA to Brooklin, ME, USA and back to Mystic, Ct. Life changing experience. Have done limited sailing since but other more important wisdom gained informed by those memories. ‘Cornubia’ always grabs my attention, my memories and my hopes for safe and favorable winds and seas.

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