JESTER: A SHORT HISTORY
Jester must be one of the most easily recognised yachts in the world with her full enclosure and characteristic junk rig set on an unstayed mast. The hull is a 25ft Folkboat although carvel- rather than clinker-built and cold-moulded rather than planked. The boat is handled and all deck work carried out from the central control hatch which is fitted with a rotatable canvas dodger so that the crew can keep a proper lookout with his face in the open but protected from rain and spray. Access is through two side hatches which can be dismantled when conditions permit. The boat is steered manually by means of a vertical whipstaff instead of a tiller or, at sea, by the wind-vane which can be adjusted from the control hatch. The lines for handling the rig – halyard, sheet, downhauls and so on – can likewise be reached from the control hatch. There is thus normally no reason for the crew to go on deck at sea. Jester has no engine but a 13ft sweep is stowed on deck, which can be useful at times. Jester was designed (conceived is perhaps a better word) by Blondie Hasler and built by Harry Feltham in Portsmouth in 1953.
The particular advantage of the Chinese rig for short-handed sailing is the ease with which it can be handled; the sail for example can be reefed in a matter of minutes and
there are no sail changes as the sail is simply hoisted or lowered according to the conditions. Further the rig is unstressed with no compression strains and the fully battened sail is gybed simply by putting the helm over. The rig is not close-winded but on the other hand makes little leeway.
Just after the war Blondie won the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s points championship in an ex-German 30-square metre but he later concluded that ocean racing was simply a sport, like tennis; cruising he felt was different because the boat was trying to get somewhere, and to arrive in a more or less civilised state, not full of wet sails, wet clothes and wet people. The problem he believed (and this was the late fifties) was that all the effort in the design of small seagoing craft was being put into producing boats that did well under the ocean racing rules of measurement. It was this line of thought that induced him to propose in 1957 a single-handed transatlantic race from east to west, against the prevailing winds and currents, as a stimulus to the development of suitable sailing craft for short-handed long distance sailing. The first race, organised by the Royal Western Yacht Club and sponsored by The Observer newspaper, was held in 1960 from Plymouth to New York and won by Francis Chichester in Gipsy Moth ll. Jester was second. The race has been held every four years since 1960 and there has been a Jester in each one.
I bought Jester from Blondie in 1964 when the boat got back from the second race, by which time she had completed four transatlantic passages and a patrol of Loch Ness in search of the monster. My first voyage was to the Azores and back and in 1968 I took her in the transatlantic race (we were last, but no more than half the fleet got there at all). From the beginning the boat seemed to me a work of genius so effortless was sailing her in almost every condition. In the twenty-four years I owned that particular Jester we made ten transatlantic passages as well as a number of other ocean voyages, including five to the Azores and back. The boat’s fastest east-to-west crossing was with Blondie in 1964 in the remarkable time of 38 days, her longest, 59 days in 1972. The fastest west-to-east crossing was 30 days from Bermuda to the Lizard in 1981, an eventful voyage that encompassed an attack by Killer whales off the Grand Banks and a knock-down with the loss of the self-steering gear in the Western Approaches. In 1986 coming back from Nova Scotia the boat was overtaken by a storm of extraordinary ferocity some 300 miles west of Ushant and successively knocked down and finally rolled over and dismasted. She continued the passage on the deck of a banana carrier and had the considerable damage made good by Alec Blagdon's yard over the winter.
The following OSTAR (to use the old name) was alas to be Jester’s last. On 15 July 1988, some 500 miles south-east of Halifax, Nova Scotia the boat was abandoned and the skipper taken off by mv.Nilam, a 60,000-ton bulk carrier bound for New York. A rogue wave had smashed in the superstructure leaving the boat open to the seas. The boat was finally lost under tow. For me it was an occasion of immeasurable sadness which I found great difficulty getting over. The boat had not been insured and I was in no position to replace her.
However, Jester was not without her admirers and a trust was formed to build a replacement that could continue to represent the particular nautical values with which the boat had become associated and to ensure that there would continue to be a Jester in every single-handed transatlantic race. The new boat, for which Colin Mudie drew up the specification, was to be an exact replica of the original except that she would be cold moulded rather than planked. She was built by the Aldeburgh Boat Company just in time for the 1992 OSTAR, in which Jester, albeit the new boat, made her second fastest passage. The summer of 1994, after her return, was devoted to a voyage of navigational discovery to Portugal, Madeira and the Azores, which I recall as the most idyllic of all her voyages. The next OSTAR (1996) took rather longer than I had hoped and I laid the boat up in Newport and sailed back the following year, to be presented with a world record certificate by the Guinness Book of Records for having crossed the North Atlantic alone and arrived at the ripe old age of 80 years and 31 days.
The Royal Western Yacht Club decided for one reason and another to increase the minimum length for the millennial transatlantic race from 25 to 30ft. This excluded Jester but because of the boat’s historic connections with the race the boat was invited to participate as a guest. I ended up my written account of the race as follows: “Shortly after noon on 1 September Jester took up the berth in Mayflower Marina she had left three months and so many nautical miles before”. We had had a stove fire and diverted to the Azores to repair things and so delayed matters that although the boat was past the half-way mark, she could not possibly arrive before the race had formally ended. I was not distressed but could not help recalling the tale of the New England whaling captain returning after a year or so away explaining “No, we saw no whales but we had a damned fine sail”
Copyright © Mike Richey
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