A TALE ABOUT OUR FIRST LADY COMMODORE MRS. G. WINGFIELD-DIGBY
Written by Brian Wilkins in 2015
In the early 1950’s I was the young assistant secretary to our founder Mr A. D. Hownam – Meek. He told me that The Commodore wanted a crew to sail her Boat “Fortunette” from St. Mawes. Mrs Gwendoline Wingfield-Digby was a rather imposing lady. Her son was first Lord to the Admiralty. However unlike Sara our present very active Commodore, she was seldom seen at the club. She had a cabin alongside our clubhouse which then nestled under the Old Castle below the present caravan site, Hownam considered her a fine figurehead for the club because she did not interfere with his running of things.
I duly reported to this formidable lady. She drove us down to St. Mawes where we used a tiny folding dinghy to get out to “Fortunette” which was a small pretty centre board ketch about 19 feet long. The accommodation was quite re- stricted. I had little experience of such a craft having only sailed dinghies. The loo was a bucket and chuck it. I had to be outside when the owner needed relief, but I was allowed to go over the stern. Early the next morning we set of along the coast towards Fowey. It was a splendid sail in a fine breeze and calm sea. Now I know it must have been NW. The raising of the DODMAN was to be a lasting memory which was a most useful aid for me on more than one future occasion before the magic of GPS. Took over the mystery of not knowing where one was. At Fowey we picked up a swinging buoy in the river. I rowed her ashore and she told me that she had to go to London.
The next day I talked to an old salt on a fine ship moored fore and aft, near our mooring She was The “Jeanne D”Arc” a 40 foot wishbone ketch belonging to Lt.Gen. Sir.F.A.M. Browning. He was an Aide de camp to our Royal family and was married to Daphne Du Maurier who lived nearby. The old salt turned out to be the ships professional skipper. He suggested that I should lay Fortunette along side of Jeanne D`Arc. Also to use double bed cabin, the loo and the big dinghy. The weather became horrid so the use of this craft was wonderful. My evenings were spent ashore. The Royal Fowey Y. C. was a bit grand so I spent my time at The Fowey Gallants sailing club. This eventually led to an annual match race between them and Castle Cove which continued for several years. I then had a couple days of panic worrying that Mrs. W-D would get back before I could mend the bit of her Stuart Turner engine that I had wrecked when trying to fix a spring. A great lesson of ‘if it aint broke don’t mend it’.Of course now Mike Venning (Mick will fix it) does all mending of my disasters and has done for over 55 years.
Mrs. Wingfield-Digby made contact and I was informed that she was sending me a crew who would join me the next day. At the appointed hour I rowed in and picked this rather small gentleman called Arnold Wright who turned out to be 72 and had only sailed a little. We cast off directly and sped out of the river. Suddenly we had an all mighty gybe and the little boat went over on its side, the sea came in the cockpit. I managed to get out onto the centre board and she came back upright. Good little ship. Not a drop of water in the cabin but a lot of broken crockery.
Twas a rather subdued crew that tore off towards the east. Questions then about weather, tide and should we go on to The Yealm. All things that should have been considered before setting sail. What a steep learning curve. For several years after the event my Christmas card from Arnold.
“just said “There She Gybes”. Our arrival at the River Yealm was tidy, as Arnold knew the leading marks. Good job, as I did not have a clue. In the river at Newton Ferrers we were boarded by Customs “Who is master”? they asked. My crew pointed at me. So that was my first command. How lucky I was to have survived it. Arnold lived in a little cottage opposite the village of Noss Mayo. We parked Fortunette at the bottom of his garden where his wife cooked the nicest chips I had ever tasted. When Mrs Wingfield- Digby was phoned, maybe the whole truth was not told. The rest of the voyage is another yarn!