Peter Duck & me
As a child, Julia Jones had countless adventures aboard Arthur Ransome’s boat, Peter Duck. Now reunited with the yacht, she reveals how it has become the inspiration for her own series of modern Swallows And Amazons stories
Sailors were male when I grew up and boats were always she. I was slow to query these conventions. My excuse is that I was only three years old when my parents bought Arthur Ransome’s former yacht, Peter Duck. Even when I became an avid reader and spent our holidays on board reading about the grizzled old seaman who gave PD his name, I wasn’t troubled by the disparity.
Peter Duck in the story was such a reassuring character – it was he who made it possible for the Swallows And Amazons to set o to the Caribbean on a crazy treasure-hunting adventure. He was always knotting and splicing and noticing the little things that could have spelled disaster if they hadn’t been attended to. No wonder I was happy to assume that our lovely yacht was female.
‘Anything might happen to Peter Duck and he would always come out alright,’ as my heroine, Able Seaman Titty, observed.
It was 1957 when my parents bought Peter Duck and, while at home I remember wearing smocked gingham dresses and white lacy ankle socks, on board it was just shorts and navy jerseys and very little fuss about dirt. ‘Julia covered with mud, a regular mudlark!’ wrote my father with pride.
Iwas the eldest child and I was the rst to be encouraged to take responsibility. At the age of four I was rowing my younger brother ashore on our own, and by the time I was ve I was promoted to take occasional charge of Peter Duck.
‘(Julia) took us down the Walton Channel with only one attempt to put us on the mud – good e ort’, my father wrote.
In fact, my parents would never have met if my mother hadn’t wanted a boat of her own. My father had become a yacht agent after the war and she was one of his rst customers. She remembers, however, how quickly he or his brother nudged her aside and assumed command when there was a chance that her speedy little yacht would be winning races at Burnham- on-Crouch.
If my mother had wanted to join the Royal Burnham Yacht Club she wouldn’t have been eligible. Only the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975 forced the grander yacht clubs to allow full membership for women. Recently, I was at the Royal Norfolk & Su olk Yacht Club and admired the tasteful stained-glass roundel of owers that marked the small room – with a separate entrance set aside for lady sailors to be served soft drinks and sandwiches.
But how things changed later in that decade. In 1978 Naomi James was the rst woman to sail singlehanded round the world using the clipper route (via Cape Horn). Clare Francis had already become the first woman to sail single-handed across the Atlantic in 1973, and in 1977-78 she was the first woman skipper in the Whitbread Round The World race.
In 1989, Tracy Edwards and an all-female crew came second in that race. In recent years women’s achievements have been even greater. Dame Ellen MacArthur hit the headlines in 2001 when she came second in the Vendée Globe aged only 24. Dee Caffari was the first woman to sail solo non-stop around the world against the prevailing winds and tides – only four men have previously achieved this feat. Earlier this year, 16-year-old Dutch schoolgirl Laura Dekker became the youngest person of either gender to sail alone around the world. And this May, the Royal Navy appointed Sarah West its first female commander of a major warship.
One of the main reasons Dame Ellen gives for her achievement is technological advance. She is a physically small person and not all of her personal toughness and determination would have enabled her to manage the Open 60 yacht in which she set her Vendée Globe record. Modern technology makes sailing possible for anyone, male or female, young or old, despite having a less-than-iron physique.
Peter Duck was built for Arthur Ransome when he was weakened by internal ruptures. Everything was designed to be light and easy to handle. He described her as his ‘marine bath chair’, and we discovered as children that what worked well for an elderly gentleman also worked for us.
Or, almost everything – Ransome had major troubles with Peter Duck’s awkward anchor winch. I watched my father and my brothers struggling too. In 1999 my partner Francis bought Peter Duck back into our family and she became my responsibility. Almost the first action I took was to throw out the old back-breaker and buy an electric winch.
I don’t intend to take PD round the world or even to some Caribbean treasure island: I can find plenty of adventure sailing the Suffolk and Essex rivers as I did as a child, and as Ransome did. I have also begun writing 21st-century Swallows And Amazon stories.
But do I feel the need to realign my pronouns when referring to yacht Peter Duck? Certainly not.
Julia Jones is the author of the Strong Winds trilogy. Her first novel, The Salt-Stained Book, came out in 2011. Ghosting Home, the concluding volume, will be published on 2 July 2012 by Golden Duck, priced £7.99, or on eBook, priced £4.99.
Daily tip from the lady archive
"It is not always she who appears most kindly in her interest who is the safe sharer of sacred (maybe sorrowful) secrets! Charming manners do not always connote sincerity of heart!”The Lady. In Confidence. 4th April, 1918