It all began in 1961 with the entry into West Bay harbour of the schooner ‘Black Rose’. She was an old Baltic Trader and had been bought by John de Savary to be renovated and restored at West Bay. John de Savary had recently moved his timber and furniture business to Pymore and traded under the name of Duncan Tucker and later, Solent furniture. With the Black Rose came two sailors, Uwe von Stefan who was the Captain and very experienced and his assistant,Jan. They were to undertake the task of changing an elderly commercial vessel into a luxury yacht with help from the owner’s factory. Uwe was an extraordinary character and claimed to be both Swedish and German. He was well over 6 ft tall, had immense physical strength and great skills in carpentry, seamanship and engineering. He made an indelible mark on West Bay and became the centrepiece of many an unconventional event as he drove his ex US army jeep around the Dorset countryside at breakneck speeds. He lodged in various places including a spell in an old glider body in wildest Corscombe. In his frequent visits to the Riverside, he set out his dreams of buying his own boat and sailing to the Caribbean to run adventure sailing courses for American University students.
Eric Hamblett (future West Bay Harbour Master) and I were very interested and promised to join him if he ever got the venture off the ground. We assumed it would not happen.
At that time, my mother and sister ran the Riverside and I had employment elsewhere which was not very fulfilling and my first marriage was coming to an end. The Black Rose conversion was completed and handed over in August 1962 in a ceremony at the Bridport Arms and Uwe Stefan returned to Hamburg to try to realise his dream. The Black Rose sailed on many a voyage but was eventually wrecked on the sand bar off the Algarve coast in Portugal.
Out of the Blue in early summer 1963, Uwe phoned to say that he had bought a boat that was tied up in Hamburg and being prepared for his voyage to the Caribbean. He expected Eric and I to join him as promised. So we did.
The’Mary’ was a 30 metre three masted top sail schooner registered in Marstal in Denmark . It had been sailing the Baltic and the North Sea as a trader for many years and was substantially built to endure the rigours of northern winters. It had a 3 stroke Baudouin engine started by an explosive cartridge. The sails were heavy canvas and the fittings were heavy and built to last. It had been sailed by a crew of 8. There were only 5 of us, mostly without any experience of sailing and certainly not in this type of vessel.
After our arrival in Hamburg, we all contributed to get the ‘Mary’ ready for sea.
There was no budget and everyone contributed what they had. Uwe even secured the job of towing an old paddle steamer down the River Elbe to the Kiel canal. A bizarre sight, a schooner towing a paddle steamer, but there was a fee that we needed. We rested a few days in Cuxhaven before setting sail for Portsmouth where we would purchase victuals and fuel and get ready for the transatlantic journey. Several hours out from Cuxhaven, we found a stowaway boy called Jan who had spent time on the quayside talking to us about our plans. He was only 13 and he stayed with us for several weeks until we were able to send him home from Spain.
It was now September and we needed to try to get out of the north Atlantic before winter. We scraped together enough cash to purchase basic foods from a Cash and Carry but could not afford more fuel. We left Portsmouth to sail to Cherbourg where we hoped to load cheap ballast from local quarries and we were able to do this. After a couple of days, the local press, L’Ouest France and La Presse de la Manche discovered us and with our stowaway, we became celebrities for a few hours.
It was now the end of October and we headed out for the West Indies via the Canary Islands across the bay of Biscay. We were not to be spared a full gale and although the Mary achieved 12 knots +, some of the sails blew out and we had to head towards La Coruna for repairs.
We moored for several days amongst the Basque Tuna fishing fleet waiting for a window of good weather to arrive so we could round the notorious Cape Finisterre in safety. One morning, the Basques had departed and it seemed to be our queue to set sail which we did on November 13th. All seemed to be going well although the wind was rising gradually and was soon blowing a full gale but the Mary seemed to go well. My biggest fear was climbing the masts with the ship bouncing around, Holding on to the yard arms and shifting heavy canvas with no safety harness, with at one moment, the sea beneath you and the next moment, the deck. Eric had far greater agility and enjoyed the challenge.
At about midnight the weather calmed down and we went for a sleep only to be awakened by the howling of wind and the crashing of solid objects. We later learnt that we had got into the eye of the depression and a reverse wind change had caused the backstay of the mizzen mast to snap. That released the tension on the fore and main masts and without support they had snapped off just above deck level and driven down in to the hold. At first we did not know if they had gone through the bottom but they had smashed our escape boat.
There was complete chaos as we drifted in mountainous seas with breaking crests, trying to assess the damage in the middle of the night. As dawn broke, we could see that the masts were down, the sails torn apart and the ‘Mary’ almost wrecked. At some stages during the early morning, we thought that we could not survive. But survive we did (only 4 of us by now). We set upon the task of clearing all the debris, making sure that all cordage was clear of the propellers so that if we had enough fuel to get the engine going ,it would not be fouled up. It took over 24 hours to clear everything and a couple of ships stopped to offer help, but the seas were too mountainous for them to get close.
Eventually we attempted to start the engine not knowing if we had enough fuel to get to the nearest port, Vigo. After several attempts it did start and we moored in Vigo with almost no fuel left. The battered boat drew big crowds and we all realised how lucky we were to survive the storm and dismasting. We stayed in Vigo for several months to effect repairs and had many different adventures but our savings and money ran out and Eric and I had to return to the UK.
I had no alternative but to help out at the Riverside and by December 1964, my mother and sister passed the lease to me and I am still there 50 years later.
We heard that Uwe managed to re-fit the ‘Mary’ and set sail again only to fall overboard near the Canaries and be recovered still swimming, some 12 hours later. The’ Mary’ got to the West Indies and was engaged in Island trading when, with a load of cement on board, it sprang a leak and sank like a stone. Its northern timbers and caulking gave out in the warm seas.