Chris Ellis

History of OYT South

1951: the first youth voyage with Chris Ellis

The Ocean Youth Club - out of which OYT South grew - was founded in 1960 but the idea was developed earlier when Chris Ellis started taking young people to sea.

Peter Tracey took part in the the first youth sailing adventure with Chris Ellis in 1951. Here's his account of the voyage:

I was thirteen years old and it was my first term at a new school. A message was posted concerning a possible sailing adventure to Norway the next year. What an exciting opportunity.

A friend had lent Chris Ellis his Bristol Pilot Cutter. She was called Cariad and had not been sailed  for many years. We would have to spend our Easter Holiday getting her seaworthy.

We arrived at Pin Mill on the Orwell when it was low tide. There she was in the distance, glowing a dirty white with mud all round her. No way could we sleep on board, so we settled in to the nearby sail loft with all the rest of her gear. When the tide came up we sculled a dinghy out to her to explore. 

One or two planks above the water line were rotten and she needed a lot of paint. She had two miles of ropes all made of hemp and some were rotten. The only way to test them was to  stretch them over one’s back. The sails were incredibly heavy and needed eight of us to get the mainsail on board. The mast had twisted with the sun and had to be lifted out and rotated.

We worked from dawn to dusk and I did not wash for a month. It was heaven. Just once we went to a cafe in Ipswich for  a slap up meal.

CariadBefore we set sail at the start of the summer holiday Chris got the engine going so as to reassure the assembled parents that we did have reserve power. As we left Harwich in a brisk head wind the engine moved on its bearers and never worked again. That was sailing as Chris liked it.

Someone said to me “Mule (that was my nick name) you left your porthole open”. I had been told to share a double bunk with an older boy and a plank had been fixed between us. It was so narrow that, to turn over, you had to lift yourself up above the plank and drop down the other way round. Every time Cariad plunged into a wave, a shot of water poured on to my bunk. It was really hard to close and latch the port light before the next wave hit. Coming back on deck it was a race between me and the cat to be the first to be sick. The cat was a good seaman and could be enticed to walk to the end of the bowsprit. He jumped ship in Norway, probably to find a fair Norwegian mate.

“I have closed all the seacocks” announced Chris. “Now you do everything over the side.” Actually, sitting on the stern counter with one’s bottom exposed to the elements was very refreshing.

As we got out to sea the wind came round behind and we set our square sail with another smaller sail on top called a raffee sail. These square sails were very heavy to get up and are not used today except on traditional square rigged ships.

I wanted to wash some clothes and was told to use the powder on the shelf over the galley. I had never washed clothes before and was surprised that the water did not froth up. Eventually I was told that I had been using flour. To rinse the clothes out I towed them in a net bag astern.

Now aged fourteen, I was the youngest on board. There were five other boys and one adult, Archie Nicholson, who had not sailed offshore before. Half way to Norway Chris got pneumonia and lay in his bunk teaching Archie how to navigate in the event that Chris became unconscious.

In the early morning after five days at sea the lights of Mandal in Norway could be seen on the horizon. We hove to waiting for the dawn. There was little wind and a fishing boat towed us in. Mandal is a beautiful small town, right on the southern tip of Norway. There were almost no leisure craft outside Oslo in those days. At Mandal there was just one yacht. She was British and Chris knew the family who made us welcome.

The East coast of Norway is very beautiful with many islands and inlets. For much of the way we hardly had to go to sea at all. Norwegian charts were good but we had none of the modern means of navigation that we have today. Luckily we had good weather and Chris, being a brilliant seaman, managed all this without an engine. 

Three days later we got to Oslo and moored up alongside the Royal Norwegian Yacht Club. We looked very shabby next to the shiny yachts around us and had to do a quick paint job to be more presentable. Friends in Oslo were incredibly hospitable but we soon had to start for home.

One evening I was asked to make supper. I decided to produce a really good stew and filled the old cast iron pressure cooker to the top. I lit the primus stove and waited for the cooker to boil but no steam came out of the pressure relief valve on the top. I pumped up the primus to hurry it up but to no avail. Eventually I decided something was wrong and unscrewed the relief valve with a spanner. A shot of stew went up into the sky. I was lucky that the cooker had not exploded.

Threading our way back down the east coast we went through one passage near Karagero which was so narrow that the boom almost touched the rock on one side. At Christiansand we went on board the Sorlandet, a Norwegian square rigged training ship which is still in use today.

We were delayed by bad weather but eventually set sail for England. The weather was not good enough to use a sextant and there were no electronic navigation systems then. The best was called Consols which could only tell one’s position within 5 miles. 

The weather was good to start with and one evening we had a wonderful display of the Aurora Borealis in the northern sky. On early morning watch with one other boy a ship started to come up from astern. We tried shining a torch on the sail and then my Peter Tracey's model of Cariadfriend decided to try a message in morse. What shall I send says he? We decided on “Go to hell`”. The ship passed us without incident. Then the weather got really bad and we had to reduce sail because we could not keep up with the pumping of water from the bilge. I got very sick and retired to my bunk. Eventually we had to heave to until the gale had passed.

It was incredibly peaceful entering Harwich harbour and flat water. Chris had brought us safely home at a cost of 81 pence per day including fitting out. We had sailed 1,322 miles at an average speed of 3 knots.

Chris Ellis was an amazing man. At school he taught mathematics. He also ran the Art School, the Carpentry Shop and the Pottery Shop. He played the flute and the cello. He also designed everything for the Marionnette Society. His experience and leadership at sea was outstanding. He was one of the few adults we could all talk to about our lives beyond schooling, about politics and about life in general. He encouraged us to think, for example by suggesting on one occasion that he was a communist. His strong social conscience led him on to work with youth groups in Stevenage and eventually to founding the Ocean Youth Club.

The adventure on Cariad was dangerous and could not happen today, thank goodness. Cariad had no guard rails, no flares, no VHF radio, lifejackets were never worn, there was no life raft and the engine never worked.The OYT boats today are completely different. They are very well equipped and the professional crew are well qualified to deal with all emergencies. 

Peter Tracey 

“I love working in our watches – miss all you lovely people.” Jenny, 15