In the mid 1960s our family pulled up its winter stakes in Florida and headed to St. Thomas. My dad and I were avid inshore and offshore saltwater anglers. Compared to Florida, the Virgin Islands were unspoiled, uncrowded, their reefs and deep waters were ripe for exploration; and their trade wind climate spoke for itself.
My dad’s older sister and sidekick, Zelma, was the family daredevil and free spirit. She could brag that she once managed a steamship coaling dock in Sarnia, Ontario. She and husband number two, Bob, were all-in for family adventures. In contrast to us, they were sailors, not stink-potters. The winter of 1967 was the family’s second in St. Thomas. Zelma and Bob persuaded my mom and dad to charter a vintage sixty-foot yawl, Tontine II, for a week’s cruise in the Virgins. My parents never had spent a night in a sailboat, much less a week.
Tontine’s decks were leaky and foul weather gear was the preferred pajama, but the four of them had a blast, especially my dad. Before the cruise ended, he tasked Tontine’s hired skipper to find a sailing yacht suitable for our family and for the Caribbean charter business. The result would be some sort of joint venture. It didn’t take the skipper long to find a distinctive 60-ton British ketch in Grenada. The rub for him was that Alianora already had a skipper, Mike Tate, a retired Royal Marines officer and a very experienced blue water sailor. To top it off, there were three more crew, a first-rate boatswain, a competent deckhand and a very accomplished cook. Mom and Dad headed straight down to Grenada and bought Alianora, kept Mike and the crew, and gave Tontine’s skipper a cash commission for finding the yacht that became part of our family for twenty-five years. At the time, we knew a bit about Alianora’s history but her more lurid details were only recently uncovered, thanks to some great research by my colleague, Kerri Jaffe.
Capt. O.M. Watts designed Alianora for Thomas A. Clarke, laird of Brecqhou, a seventy-four-acre speck of land near Sark in the Channel Islands whose massive tides explained the robust fittings she had for beaching legs. She was built in Scotland, launched in 1938 and featured in the May 1938 issue of Motorboat & Yachting. Her lines were those of a classic North Sea sailing trawler known as a Zulu. She was sixty tons, seventy-two-feet, double-ended, built of oak and yellow pine, and had a massive, slow turning Gardner diesel. By 1967, she had been refitted from stem to stern, above and below deck, and re-rigged for tradewind sailing. Her expansive deck included a cozy deckhouse situated around the companionway, plus plenty of space for a seaworthy tender, gear stowage and lounging. Below, she had roomy accommodations that included three double staterooms with lower berths, a huge main saloon, a vintage galley and plenty of space for captain and crew.
And then, there’s the history, much of it written. According to Simon Hamon’s Channel Islands Invaded, in the spring of 1940, Mr. Clarke, the original owner, sensed that the Nazis were about to invade the Channel Islands, so on June 20, he and Alianora left Brecqhou and the seventy-four-acre island’s staff of five behind for good. Alianora made it to England’s south coast in time to be pressed into service during the Dunkirk evacuation and, then, drafted into the Royal Navy as a tender, stripped of her spars, sails and rigging. At war’s end, she found herself orphaned; neither her elderly owner, nor her spars, sails or rigging had survived the war.
Alianora’s first postwar owner was a British businessman, D.B.W. Markham, who is said to have re-rigged her using a J-Boat mast cut into three pieces. The lower part served as her main mast, the middle portion as her mizzen and the top, her main boom. Mike Tate told us that Markham or her next owner, the notorious British fascist, Oswald Mosley, had garishly restored her accommodations to a garish un-yacht-like state.
Mosley and his equally notorious wife, Diana Mitford, were anxious to escape England following release from wartime detention. But, the Labour Party refused to issue them passports, so they couldn’t book conventional air or sea passage to a more ideologically friendly place. The solution turned out to be Alianora, purchased in 1949 through a proxy, Robert Heber-Percy. Alianora became the Mosley family’s ticket to Spain, Portugal and the Mediterranean, where their connections with Franco and Salazar required neither passports, nor ideological apology. Diane Mitford wrote extensively about their two-year cruise in her autobiography, A Life of Contrasts. Alianora’s proxy owner, Heber-Percy, better known as the “Mad Boy” was a lifelong and equally infamous Mitford family friend. His obituary described him as “an English eccentric in the grand tradition” as did Sofka Zinovieff’s autobiography, The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me.
Mike Tate’s boss, Robert Turner, bought Alianora in 1963. Beside Mike’s pre-war blue water sailing experience much of his wartime service was aboard Royal Navy ships escorting convoys to Murmansk. He went to work for Turner after the war and Mike’s sea stories infected his boss with the circumnavigation bug. To that end, he bought Alianora, and Mike prepared her for a leisurely sail around the world. The adventure lasted only as far as the Caribbean and Grenada. When they reached dry land, Turner’s wife and daughters declared that they liked ponies and horses better than long passages in a sailboat, the family jumped ship leaving Mike and Pam on their own with the task of caring for and selling Alianora.
We kept Alianora in Grenada for the first couple of years. We took advantage of that with cruises that took us to just about every island and anchorage in the Windwards and Leewards. When Mom and Dad bought a home at the east end of St. Thomas, Cowpet Bay became Alianora’s winter base. This made Alianora’s distinctive profile and rig a familiar sight from Charlotte Amalie to Anegada and especially North Sound. From our first visit in 1964, all of us were enchanted by North Sound’s remoteness and solitude, unspoiled shoreline and reefs and the calm, breezy anchorage off John O’Point.
We started noticing activity ashore at John O’Point in the late ‘60s when Basil Symonette, a former St. Thomas charter skipper, bought thirty-odd acres along the North and Eustatia Sound shoreline. This turned into The Bitter End Yacht Club, a colorful, rustic beach bar and restaurant with a cluster of somewhat finished bungalows on the hillside above. Basil made no bones about Bitter End being a yachting hangout. Everyone who came in a boat was welcome, that is if they obeyed the simple house rules, prominently displayed at the end of the dinghy dock:
Welcome to Bitter End
No one ashore before 10:00 AM
No children under 16
Alianora’s visits to John O’Point were frequent, and the custom was for Mom and Dad to have cocktails ashore each evening with Basil. I wasn’t privy to the conversation during one of those cocktail hours but it resulted in our buying Bitter End in 1973 and making it our family retreat. Alianora’s base moved from Cowpet Bay to John O’Point, where she became the queen of the John O’Point anchorage and Captain Mike the king of the Clubhouse Bar’s north corner.
But, Alianora was not a homebody. Her horizon always extended well beyond North Sound. She circumnavigated the entire Caribbean on a sea turtle research expedition and represented the BVI in New York Harbor for the U.S. bicentennial. She cruised the Atlantic coast all the way to the Canadian Maritimes and then fulfilled my dad’s dream of navigating his own boat through the St. Lawrence Seaway. When she got to the Great Lakes she stayed for two years. Afterwards, we moved her home port to Camden, Maine.
Alianora was a tender to my racing boat, Love Machine, during Block Island Race Weeks and New York Yacht Club Cruises and she was Vision’s tender when we raced the vintage 8-Meter in Hankø, Norway earning a respectable second and edging out King Olaf in the 1983 8-Meter Gold Cup, the Royal Norwegian Yacht Club’s centennial regatta, celebrating Olaf’s 80th birthday and his farewell to competitive sailing. Alianora even had the honor of hosting the King on board and serving him the bootleg booze that she had smuggled from the Caribbean. She wrapped up that Scandinavian summer with a memorable cruise along Sweden’s west coast.
As the 1990’s approached, Mike and Pam retired back to England, Zelma and Bob were gone and Wendy and I were embarking on the Blue Flame era of our sailing lives, so Mom and Dad decided the time had come for them to swallow the anchor. After an amazing twenty-five years, we reluctantly entrusted the care of this adventurous and worldly grande dame to a new owner.