Around the turn of the twentieth century the Humber Yawl Club exerted a national, and international, influence in the world of cruising under sail which completely belied the parochial horizon its name suggests. George Holmes (1861–1940) was for decades the leading light in what was a grassroots social and cultural movement, embracing boat design, cruising, writing, and visual arts; he recorded this milieu in words, drawings, and etchings, which appeared in the club’s journals and national magazines of the time, but his extensive output was never made widely available; not, that is, until I suggested to my friend Tony Watts that he write and compile the definitive book on George Holmes and I publish it. As a long-time member, and the Archivist, of the HYC he was better placed than anyone to undertake the labour of love which was to appear in 2009 as Holmes of the Humber, and whose worldwide success was the beginning of Lodestar Books. Here is Jenny Bennett’s review of the book in WoodenBoat magazine:
In 1940 an obituary was published in the Humber Yawl Club Yearbook. Its closing paragraph read: ‘We shall all have to pass on sooner or later, but it will fall to few of us to leave a gap so difficult to fill in the sphere of our activities as did George Holmes, or leave so many memories of kindly acts and unostentatious help to others.’
George Holmes was born in 1861, the grandson of Thomas Holmes, founder of a tanning firm, which in adult life George would take over from his father. His family owned a coble at Hornsea in Yorkshire, which they sailed on the unforgiving waters of the North Sea. But it was another form of small boat that would capture Holmes’s imagination and heart. In 1876, at the age of fifteen, he witnessed a regatta of sailing canoes on Hornsea Mere. In later years, he would write: ‘The impression made upon one schoolboy by the brightly varnished tiny canoes with their cedar decks, gay flags, and swelling white sails has lasted down to the present day… Upon the crisp wavelets of Hornsea Mere the dainty little craft looked quite in their element, but thrilling tales were told of fierce battles with the swirling muddy tides upon the Humber, of strandings upon sandbanks, and of voyaging on and camps by delightsome foreign waters.’ As Tony Watts writes in Holmes of the Humber, this was to be the ‘formative moment of Holmes’s life in sail.’ It would lead him, in 1883, to become one of the founding members of the Humber Yawl Club (HYC)—a club that still exists and whose members share a love of small canoe-type and other yawls—and ultimately to do more to develop and promote the ‘canoe yawl’ than anyone other than his friend Albert Strange.
Holmes was an amateur designer of considerable ability. He drafted fifty-six boats—most of which were built—ranging from, as a boy, a 4ft 8in dinghy to the 3.5-ton, 30ft Oyster, drawn for the Yachtsman Design Competition of 1899, and the 29ft Onaway auxiliary sailer designed for Joseph Burton. He was a prolific writer whose published works appeared in yachting magazines and journals as well as on the pages of the HYC Yearbook; he was also an artist who was rarely seen afloat without his sketchbook and whose equisite sketches were often turned into small but extraordinarily detailed etchings by his own hand; but above all he was a sailor whose challenging home waters of the Humber, Trent, and Ouse created in him a waterman of consummate skill and knowledge with a taste for unpretentious cruising in small boats.
Much of his prolific writing and drawing has survived and is here reproduced by longtime HYC member Tony Watts. The collection is at once broad and intimate and, while Watts offers linking passages and introductions to the chapters, for the most part the book’s voice is that of Holmes—light, informed, easy, at times self-deprecating, and always unassuming. At first glance his cruising is unimpressive—weekends up the Humber, weeks in Holland and Scotland—but the tidal currents on his preferred rivers could reach up to five knots, the tidal ranges up to twenty feet, and between 1883 and 1912 Holmes’s boats were never longer than twenty-one feet, and always engineless.
His voyaging was not without incident: He went aground, dealt with foul tides or recalcitrant commercial boatmen, battled rough seas and inclement weather, fell overboard, waded through mud towing a dinghy behind him, was rammed, dismasted, holed, and generally buffeted about. And yet his voice is never complaining nor without its sense of humor.
Just as his first love was for small boats, so the beauty of his narration is in the small detail. Typical is this aside, written in 1906: ‘The mate could not quite make out why they stayed at Volendam when there seemed to be so much more picturesque stuff at Edam, with apparently less smell from the canals. He said they were a bit ‘niffy’, and even I could tell that there was something a bit unpleasant to the olfactory nerve. However, they all looked very blooming and healthy, inhabitants and artists alike, so evidently whatever there was did them no harm.’ And this, of a mouse in 1919: ‘He was a most ungentlemanly animal whose motto evidently was “what I cannot eat (and there seemed to be desperately little that he didn’t try to eat) I can at any rate destroy.” When it was necessary to search for anything in the dim recesses of the “spare berth”, the amount of gnarled and chavilled paper almost suggested the presence of an army of mice, and before very long we were living an uncomfortable existence, with all our fresh provisions removed from their proper place in the grub locker and hung in basses from the upper parts of our dwelling place in the vain hope of preserving them from his attentions.’ No mention is ever made of the mouse’s eventual capture or departure.
The cruising featured in Watts’s collection spans the years from 1901 until Holmes’s death in 1940, but for the reader the most interesting are the earlier voyages when Holmes is without engine. Evidence of the coming motorized era is all around. Even as he partakes in the last days of sail, Holmes cannot help but hint at a nostalgia for the past. In Amsterdam, July 1906, he writes: ‘Several changes struck us at once. The Dutch do not stand still… A large railway bridge across the canal below Zaandam was also in course of construction. What impressed us perhaps more than anything else was the enormous increase in the number of power boats. Many even of the ordinary sailing tjalks appeared to have installed auxiliary motors, with which they navigate without difficulty the crowded waters in the neighbourhood of the city.’
Nevertheless, as Holmes comments, sometimes wistfully, on his changing world the modern reader is struck by how very much we have lost since. Holmes and his friends have no trouble getting their boats carried across the North Sea as deck cargo, seemingly at a moment’s notice—on one occasion there are insufficient berths on the carrying vessel, and the steward suggests that Holmes and his mate sleep in their own boat as she is shipped home. While sailing around the Isle of Wight in the summer of 1910 he mentions sighting one or two other leisure craft at a time, not the hundreds that would be seen today. On the same cruise he and his friends set lobster pots from their dinghy—I wonder when an amateur last caught a lobster in the Solent. Leter ‘the big racing schooners all went by us, heading out for the Bullock Patch Buoy. Westward, Germania, Cicely, Suzanne was the order of the procession…’ This at least was a sight that Holmes considered extraordinary, for he writes: ‘they were a sight to make the blood dance.’ And again, a few hours later: ‘…we saw the Bloodhound racing closehauled under all plain sail and the Shamrock running with staysail and trysail. A big white barge-yacht moved sedately along and the Thorneycroft [sic] hydroplane shot like a streak of lightning across the picture’—wondrous times indeed.
But for all the occasional spectacle it is the very ordinariness of Holmes’s sailing that makes it so out of the ordinary to modern perception, that and the depth of the affection that threads through his writings and drawings. Of a foul day’s sail in 1907 he writes, ‘The skipper has a bad enough time, for the water goes in at his neck and comes out at his heels, but the poor little mate has a worse, for though he keeps dry in the cabin he is pitched about “like a parched pea on a drum head” and has to divide his attention between the bucket and the things that fall down or are pitched out of the shelves and must be picked up again.’ There are long days of sculling when the wind fails, or manhandling a tow rope from the canal path, or suffering waterlogged clothes, or discovering a much-anticipated meal gone bad in the locker, but never once is there a word of regret or complaint. For Holmes, alone or with friends, this was living, at its best.
Although the bulk of the book is made up of Holmes’s voyage accounts with their sweet pen-and-in sketches and vignettes, Watts has also included chapters entitles ‘Some Cruising Grounds’ in which Holmes writes cruising guides to his favorite bodies of water; ‘Holmes the Artist’ wherein some of Holmes’s more elaborate etchings are presented along with covers for the HYC Yearbooks; and ‘Selected Designs’ in which twenty-three of Holmes’s design plans are presented.
Inevitably not every part of the book will speak to all readers, but there will surely be something for anyone with a love of the water and boat. And equally inevitably there are some missing elements—I was sorry that Watts was unable to offer more insight into Holmes’s life and times aside from his sailing, and some simple maps to show the geographical setting of the cruising grounds would have been appreciated, as would the occasional annotation to Holmes’s text. Nevertheless, thanks to the inimitable talents of its subject, Holmes of the Humber is a wonderful volume worth the selling price for the illustrations alone, and it will surely entice the reader back to its pages time and again.