Nimbus sails again - and in Exmouth 'home' waters

PUBLISHED: 08:55 14 August 2019 | UPDATED: 08:55 14 August 2019

John Westell at the helm of Nimbus going past number 17 buoy off Exmouth in the summer of 1947. Picture: Gillian Westell

John Westell at the helm of Nimbus going past number 17 buoy off Exmouth in the summer of 1947. Picture: Gillian Westell

Archant

The International 14ft racing dinghy 'Nimbus' K316 was designed and built by Uffa Fox in 1934 for Alan Rees Colman, whose family milled a little mustard in Norwich, writes Gillian Westell.

John Westell and Tommy Linton alongside ‘Nimbus’ at the 1947 POW Cup Race held at Hunstanton. John was helm and Tommy his favourite crew. Tommy was a local fisherman who later became cox’n of Exmouth Lifeboat. Picture: Gillian WestellJohn Westell and Tommy Linton alongside ‘Nimbus’ at the 1947 POW Cup Race held at Hunstanton. John was helm and Tommy his favourite crew. Tommy was a local fisherman who later became cox’n of Exmouth Lifeboat. Picture: Gillian Westell

The wealthy Colman family were leading lights of the sailing/yachting scene at the time, especially in the Lowestoft area and played a significant role in promoting the International 14 class.

By 1938, 'Nimbus' had been acquired by Exeter medic, Dr John Carlton Heal, who successfully raced her on the Exe up until the outbreak of war.

My father, John Westell, bought her from Mick Martin in the winter of 1946. He had intended to build a '14' to his own design over that winter, but post-war timber restrictions prevented this.

Rather than miss the coming season's racing, he opted for acquiring a second-hand boat and set to work on completing some 'go-faster' alterations - a 'swivelling' centreboard for example.

The poster advertising the re-launch of Nimbus at Exe SC. Picture: EXE SCThe poster advertising the re-launch of Nimbus at Exe SC. Picture: EXE SC

These worked and, together with Tommy Litton as crew, they gained many successes that year.

My father, John Westell (1921-1989), was a boat designer and sailing journalist, best known for designing the iconic International 505 Racing Dinghy.

He spent all the summers of his youth on Dawlish Warren where his family had a bungalow and from an early age he was honing his sailing skills amongst the strong currents and shifting sandbanks of the Exe estuary.

He was a member of Exe Sailing Club and competed successfully with first a 'uility' boat, then a 1ft National 'Marante' and finally, an International Fourteens, the hottest thing around at the time.

The '30s and '40s was the 'Golden Age' for these craft and there was a very strong fleet at Exe Sailing Club.

Many top helms were either based there or regularly visited. Sailing these dinghies was not for the fainthearted - with the huge sail area, you needed to be strong, physically fit and preferably heavy in order to keep the boat upright without a trapeze. Equipment was primitive, with cotton sails, wooden masts, minimal buoyancy and no self-bailers.

Life jackets were unheard of, and sailing clothing consisted of shorts, shirts, 'daps' and 'oilies'.

In those days more than one race was won by baling out more than the others! I knew nothing of 'Nimbus' until, three years ago, when I came across a dusty old typed manuscript amongst my father's papers.

Entitled 'Nimbus 1947 - A Book about Racing Dinghies.', it not only details all the racing he did both on the Exe and elsewhere during that year, but includes his entertaining account of the 'epic voyage' he undertook with friend Bill Cherry.

This entailed sailing little 'Nimbus' from Itchenor right round the coast to Harwich and included, amongst other excitements, a night crossing of the Thames estuary!

In January 1948, with a new job as assistant editor of Yachts & Yachting and marriage on the horizon, my father advertised 'Nimbus' for sale and what happened to her during the intervening years is, as yet, unknown. Of course, I never dreamed that, after all these years, 'Nimbus' would still be in existence, but in an idle moment, I googled 'Nimbus' K316 and discovered to my astonishment that she was listed as being one of the 400 or so craft held by the EISCA Collection. In fact, she was stored, along with about 50 other racing dinghies, on metal racking in a polytunnel in Lowestoft, where they had been languishing for many years.

With some misgivings, I gained access to her in May 2017 and, having been warned that she might be in an awful state, was surprised and buoyed up to find that, in fact, all things considered, her condition wasn't all that bad. The main problems being several cracked ribs, a very woodwormed gunwale and no rig - all 'very do-able'.

I'd heard on the grapevine that the charity might be heading for the rocks, so kept my ear to the ground and so it proved to be.

Only a few weeks later EISCA duly went into receivership and the entire collection was put up for sale by internet auction that July - decision time for yours truly!

I decided to 'go for it' and succeeded in buying her, against stiff competition and with my heart in my mouth!

It's just as well I did, though, as a lot of the boats were acquired by a 'Chinese interest' and were packed into containers for a long sea voyage. Had she suffered that fate, I'd never have forgiven myself!

Happily though, a handful of other early Int 14's, including 'Zeus' K500, another Exe SC boat, and other rare and interesting dinghies were 'saved' during that sale.

I was clear in my mind that I wanted a 'sensitive' restoration with as much as possible of the original boat and patina of age retained and this, I am happy to say, was achieved.

Simon Hipkin, in Essex. came highly recommended, was 'down the road' from Lowestoft and was keen to take the job on, so that was an easy decision and one that I never regretted. I had every confidence in him right from the start. He was a joy to work with, albeit, necessarily, at long distance, took a great interest in 'Nimbus' and did an absolutely marvellous job on her.

When we put her on the water for the first time last September, there was only one very small leak!

The other big job was replacing the rig. A new sitka spruce mast was ordered from Collars and mast fittings replicating those on the aforementioned 'Zeus's' mast were skilfully fashioned by a retired engineer friend of Simon's.

The mast winches, however, were of the right period, having come from the 1935 boat 'Whirlwind' K330.

The new mainsail and genoa were commissioned from Mike McNamara, Whirlwind's owner having kindly loaned hers to be used as templates.

The past three years have been extraordinary and exciting and often a rollercoaster, but I wouldn't have missed a minute of it. I have frequently been touched by people's kindness and willingness to help, have made many new friends and shall ever be grateful for the support and encouragement afforded me by some very knowledgeable individuals. Ever since acquiring 'Nimbus' I have wanted to bring her back down to the Exe where my father 'Learned his Trade' and where I feel she truly belongs.

This day has arrived and I couldn't be happier.

● Nimbus is being launched from the club's northern slipway at 6pm on Wednesday (August 14)

Most Read

Most Read

Latest from the Sidmouth Herald

Hot Jobs

Show Job Lists