How did we get into sailing in the first place?
Editor William Mills recounts his early sailing days and his parents’ experiences afloat in William’s Biography
Looking through my family’s photograph albums I’m surprised at how vivid a picture they paint of times gone by.
The title image is of my elder brother and me emerging through the hatch of a submarine in what was the Haslar base at Gosport on a day out arranged by my father.
I’m the little fair haired boy on the right, aged around two which dates the photo to 1959. Years later when the German TV series ‘Das Boot’ set during WWII was broadcast in England, it brought back a rush of memories.
Of the metallic crash of the main hatch being slammed shut. The hiss of compressed air as the captain shouted ‘dive’. The sweep of the periscope. ‘Fire!’ he orders. The first mate holding up his stopwatch in order to call out the run time. ‘Five, ten,….’
So where did it all start?
My mother, Anne Bowater was born in 1925 to prosperous paper merchants who had made their home in leafy Surrey. And for summer holidays Anne visited her grandparents who lived near Woodbridge on the Suffolk coast between the Norfolk Broads and Harwich.
It was easy to slip into Arthur Ransome’s book ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’, set at Pin Mill on the River Stour and published in the 1930’s. I was raised on a mixture of Swallows and Amazons and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books.
Anne was twenty by the time the war finished and crewed at Burnham on Crouch in a National 12 dinghy. In the pre-race briefing they were told, ‘ the mine fields are clearly marked and you have been warned to steer clear of them’.
She was based at Kingston upon Thames near her home at Weybridge.
In 1952 she met my father whose early nautical adventures were very different.
My father Stuart Mills was born in 1909 and joined the RAF in 1928 aged 19 as an apprentice mechanic. He subsequently received a commission and trained as a pilot.
On 9th April 1940 Hitler invaded Norway.
The British Government promised immediate aid and Stuart, now a flight lieutenant with No.263 squadron RAF Fighter Command was ordered to fly onto aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and head to war, eventually landing on a frozen lake in the mountainous Scandinavian far north on 24th April.
The above iconic photo has been published several times. It depicts Stuart standing next to his Gloster Gladiator which he’d just landed on a frozen lake. After the ice melted the plane sunk in the shallows.
A Norwegian farmer towed it out and hid it in a barn. And there is stayed until discovered in 1982 when it was restored and is now exhibited in a museum in Oslo.
They traced the pilot, who was now Group Captain R.S. Mills DFC, RAF (retd.), and he flew over with Defence Minister Keith Speed MP to the unveiling ceremony.
Back in 1940, no 263 squadron made it into the history books for being the first squadron to suffer 100% casualties in one day when they lost all 14 of its aircraft on 25th April.
But they re-equipped, and Stuart was in action again.
The British evacuated from Norway in early June and the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious was despatched from Scapa Flow to bring back the RAF contingent.
Stuart, as walking wounded, was assigned to act as an aircraft spotter from the bridge of another ship to help avoid friendly fire incidents.
His RAF colleagues weren’t so lucky as HMS Glorious was overwhelmed and sunk by the German battleship, Scharnhorst sneaking up on them on 8th June. Over 900 went into the water and only 37 survived when they were picked up on 10th June.
The circumstances surrounding the sinking and its aftermath were highly controversial resulting in a parliamentary debate as recently as 1999. Stuart recounted to me his viewpoint from an RAF perspective, and it makes a fascinating story, but to be told another day.
On his safe return to the UK Stuart was allowed to convalesce and recover his health during much of the summer.
But with the fighting raging there was a shortage of experienced officers, so having been promoted to squadron leader, on 24 August 1940 took over command of no. 87 squadron based at Exeter.
In 1952 we find him a Wing Commander and service member of the Hamble based RAFYC. It was there he met my mother and they shared their hobby of sailing, together.
In 1945 the Royal Air Force acquired a number of pleasure craft which they had found moored in Northern Germany and lying within the British area of occupation.
Under the terms of the surrender, as it was unconditional everything was deemed to be ‘a prize of war.’
A number of these so called ‘windfall’ yachts were allocated to the RAFYC and sailed to the River Hamble.
In 1952 Stuart and Anne sailed together in the Solent.
And finally in 1954 they tied the knot. Anne’s father Sir Noel V. Bowater Bt, GBE, MC, was Lord Mayor of London so they were able to have their reception at the Mansion House.
I was born in August 1957 and am pictured here with my elder brother and father in Kingston upon Thames where our National 12 was kept.
I was lucky enough to grow up in the countryside in West Sussex.
In the early 1960’s my mother crewed on dinghies from Sussex Yacht Club at Shoreham.
However she felt the river tide was too strong with young children on board, so preferred to drive us all the way down to Itchenor Sailing Club in Chichester harbour where we acquired a 9ft Duckling dinghy.
I remember driving back through Shoreham and waiting for ages to cross the old footbridge which in those days permitted single file road traffic.
Around 1970 we had moved again and bought a Scorpion 14 ft dinghy which we kept at the Arun Yacht Club in Littlehampton. I was a young teenager at the time.
In 1971 I was sent to Lancing College and we sailed 12ft Fennec sailing dinghies on the upper reaches of the River Adur above Shoreham.
The following year my house won the school’s sailing championship and I was one of a team of six. I was awarded my house sports’ colours for this achievement.
One summer in the early 1980’s I worked for the Sports Council as a dinghy instructor for a couple of weeks on Lake Windermere, in the Lake District.
Around this time I owned a Fireball 16 ft dinghy sailing it from Chichester harbour.
Finally in 1987 I bought my own home moving to Brighton’s vibrant Kemptown area and immediately joined Brighton Marina Yacht Club.
There I met Barrie Dixon who owned a UFO 31 named ‘Info’. For the next three years I was part of his crew and learned much of my sailing knowledge from him, which up until then had been mainly confined to dinghies.
Then in 1991 I pestered my mother into buying Info as she had always wanted a yacht of her own and we kept her until 2004 having some fabulous sailing trips along the way.
I soon found myself immersed in a whole new world of boat yards and refits as well as winning yacht club trophies for racing.
Fortunately I have always kept a daily diary of these more recents times and will write a sequel detailing my early adventures afloat in Brighton and beyond.