Racundra's Last Cruise Published by Marine Quarterly

The article was published by Marine Quarterly in the Spring 2015 edition and Mixed Moss The journal of the Arthur Ransome Society 2016

The wind was howling around the roof of my house in Penzance one stormy day last winter, and I was feeling happy to be safe on dry land.  I was in the attic sorting through some boxes when I came across a couple of letters that my father, Rod Pickering, wrote to my family about the beautiful sailing boat Racundra.
            Racundra was built for Arthur Ransome of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ fame in Riga in 1922, and is immortalised in his wonderful book ‘Racundra’s First Cruise.  Adlard Coles bought her, renamed her Annette II, and wrote about her in his book Close-Hauled. She was renamed Racundra after Adlard Coles sold her. She passed through various different hands and fell into obscurity.  My father was her fourteenth - and last - owner.

The only photo I have of Racundra.  This is the pic my father took when he 'found' her in Tangiers, Morrocco.

            He found her in Tangiers in (I think) 1975, looking very sad and neglected.  I remember him coming home with a bounce in his step and the glint in his eye that meant a new adventure was about to begin. He had learned to sail in Southend-on-Sea, in Essex. He met my mother in the Channel Islands in the 1960s while sailing a 22 ft open boat from the UK.  My first home was a beautiful 42ft gaff cutter called Mjojo, which my father built on the island of Lamu, off the east coast of Africa, in 1966.  It was four years later, after many adventures, that we arrived back in Europe.  Mjojo was sold, and we settled in southern Spain and tried to adapt to existence on shore. At this point Racundra arrived in our lives.

A Description of Racundra[1]

Racundra is nine meters over all – something under thirty feet long. She is three and a half meters in beam – nearly twelve feet. She draws three feet six inches without her centerboard, and seven feet six inches when the centerboard is lowered.  Her enormous beam is balanced by her shallowness and though for a yacht it seems excessive, thoroughly justified itself in her comfort and stiffness. She has a staysail, mainsail and mizzen, and for special occasions a storm staysail, a balloon staysail, a small squaresail (much too small), a trysail and a mizzen staysail. She could easily carry a very much greater area of canvas, but, for convenience in single-handed sailing, she has no bowsprit and the end of her mizzen boom can be reached from the deck. (When Rod bought the boat she no longer had the centerboard fitted).

I was 10 years old when I went with Rod to Tangiers to collect her and sail her back to Estepona, in Spain, where we lived.  We spent a couple of days sorting her out and getting all the paperwork in order, then sailed her round to Ceuta. I can’t remember why we did not sail straight back to Spain; it would have been much easier if we had. The Ceuta custom officials were not happy. They were convinced we were up to no good. There was much tension over Gibraltar at that time in the 1970s, and much suspicion of drug smuggling. I remember watching the customs men pulling up the floorboards down below in a most uncareful manner. All looked lost until the big jefe arrived to cast his verdict, and recognised me as the little girl he had befriended years before when we had been living on Mjojo in Puerto Banous.  He used to give me a lift on his scooter up the long road to catch the bus to school (I still have the Asterix book that he gave me).  As soon as he recognised us he stopped the search, and allowed us to leave for Estepona.
            It was wonderful to see the transformation as Rod changed Racundra from a Bermudian ketch to a cutter, with a bowsprit and junk mainsail, and she once again became a seaworthy boat.  I sailed on her some of the time.  I learned how to splice a rope on a trip from Gibraltar to Tangiers, something I have never forgotten.  I also remember a memorable afternoon sitting on the end of the bowsprit, singing (very untunefully) to a bottle-nosed dolphin. In her, Rod trafficked olive oil and chorizo from Spain to Gibraltar, making return trips to Estepona with English produce - all very illegal, as the border between Spain and Gibraltar was closed at the time.
            All this time the ocean was beckoning, and the day came when my father could no longer resist the temptation.  He sold his architectural business and in 1977 set sail for the Caribbean.  The letters to me and my sister I found in my attic dealt with sailing Racundra single-handed across the Atlantic.  In true Swallows and Amazons style, the first starts with a crew list.  Rod talks in the plural (himself and Racundra), but he was sailing single-handed.

Letter from Rod dated 12 July 1977

Racundra, Castries, St Lucia.
Crew list
Captain – Rod
Mate – Racundra
Crew – Racundra and Rod
Cook – Rod
Ship’s boat – Racundrita, the dinghy

We eventually sailed from Tenerife bound for the wide Atlantic, only to run out of water 4 days later, owing to a leak in the water tanks. However we had an emergency 20-liter can to exist on until we could refill at the Cape Verde Islands.  Unfortunately the NE wind became aware of our blight and disappeared, to be replaced with 7 days of SW strong wind smack on the nose.  We hove to and waited, drinking a cup of tea in the morning and a cup of coffee in the evening, interspersed with wine, which we had plenty of.  I was of course expecting the wind to change every day as the pilot chart gave no indication of SW wind in this part of the ocean.  It did eventually, and we took 3 days to the island of St Vincent where it hadn’t rained for 10 years!  The water boats that bring water to the island from Africa had broken down and the local people were almost worse off than we were for water.
            I’m glad we went there for it was quite an experience.  The islands are newly independent from Portugal who, I feel, pulled out rather hurriedly leaving the locals in a mess.  Nearly all the islands are completely deserted and windswept; ships are rotting in the harbour, jetties and quays are falling down.  Beautiful colonial Portuguese houses are old and collapsing. 
            There are hundreds of children everywhere, never asking for money but asking for picture post cards and books.  All the bureaucrats told us to be very careful of thieves and told me it was essential to have a continuous guard on the boat.  However I didn’t.  I even gained from them.  The children, who used to swim out to the boat, when they saw me paddling the dingy with two bits of wood, found me an oar.
            I made friends with a water truck driver who delivered a load of water to us on the quay and filled up everything including two wine containers in case the water tanks leaked again and we sailed for the Caribbean.  We arrived at Barbados after 18 days of down hill sailing with Genoa up all the time and ‘Racundra’ sailing herself so well I had nothing much to do and got bored.  When we arrived at Cumberland bay in Barbados the marine garden on the bottom was like a tropical jungle and the ship only just crawled into the bay.  (This must be the fishing port in Bridgetown.  My father always avoided the obvious anchorages, partly because it was cheaper but also because it was more interesting). I expected to have to scrape it all off, but low and behold the next day I found it had all fallen off during the night. We arrived Saturday morning and the customs boat came out and informed us that we could not clear until over the weekend and neither could we go ashore until we had cleared!
            However the water was crystal clear, the bottom white sand and a wreck to dive on, fish to catch and time to relax and slowly get used to the hectic shore life again, so we didn’t mind too much.
            Not much to say about Barbados apart from the fact that nearly everybody had driven a London bus at some time in their life and the rum was cheap and the people happy go lucky.
            We quickly sailed for the Grenadines, a chain of 100 or so small islands and keys and reefs stretched between Grenada and St Vincent across the East trade winds.
            Here I had the best sailing I’ve ever done.  Racundra really is a perfect little ship for cruising with her handiness and shoal draft.  I did a lot of swimming and fishing and sailing into different anchorages every day, all natural and incredibly beautiful.  We eventually arrived at Grenada and spent 3 weeks working on the boat.

Letter from Rod dated 28 October 1977
Return from Green Island – Antigua
Racundra sailed one clear Sunday morning bound from Vique Cove (possibly Vieux Fort bay), 200 leagues south on the spice island of St Lucia, the crew well fed but with heavy head after feasting on roast kid lamb and celebrating with West Indian grog.
            The wind was northeast, but light. We therefore sailed to windward of the island chain and after 2 days and one night we made landfall in the evening on Canavelle (Martinique), a bold peninsula jutting out towards the Atlantic.  As the night wore on ‘Racundra’ brought the lighthouse on the point abeam and laid due south sailing to windward of the barrier reef that protects the east coast of Martinique.  A light wind, an uneasy swell, the reef to leeward on a dark night and the skipper becoming tired and sleepy was a bad combination, so we came about and hove to on the starboard tack and laid out to the east and the open sea while all hands slept.
Dawn broke sharp and bright in the east. To windward the sky was liquid, harsh green and deep purples with towering storm clouds.  But to the west Martinique shone crystal clear in the bright sunlight, mountainous, steep and green with many islands and reefs and keys.  A squall of wind soon brought rain, blotting out the land and ‘Racundra’ bore away for the shelter of Treasure Cove. 
            ‘Racundra’ foamed in through the pass between Coral reefs and islands entering an enchanted world.  We were in a large bay, cul-de-sac, indented with caves and surrounded by forested hills of the peninsular on 3 sides and protected from the sea by overlapping reefs. An ancient lighthouse on the top of the hill, overlapping the whole peninsula, guarded the bay. Apart from this, we were in a completely deserted place.
[Part two was promised but never sent.]

At Christmas 1978 Rod flew back to the UK, leaving the boat in Maiquetia, Venezuela.  It was exciting to see him. His tales of sailing Racundra in the Caribbean made me wish I had accepted the invitation to sail with him.
I particularly remember him talking about sailing single-handed without any self-steering gear, as Racundra was one of those special boats that had the ability to sail herself, reliably. He said that when he arrived amongst people, it was a huge culture shock and he could not stop himself talking! That spring, 1979 he returned to Venezuela with a new mainsail, planning to sail Racundra back to the UK. 
            During the weeks that followed, I remember my grandmother, Rod’s mother, panicking, convinced that something had happened to him.  She did this regularly, and we did not take much notice. Then the terrible news came back that Racundra had been wrecked and lost. I remember being very upset - I still am.  I really loved that boat.

It was not long before Rod flew back to the UK to give us a first hand description of what happened.  He had left Maiquetia, heading due north for the Islas Los Roques, planning to arrive at dawn.  He set the alarm and left Racundra to sail herself as usual; but with her new mainsail she was faster than he had expected, so she arrived early, and he had woken up to find her on the reef.
            As usual he described the comic side of the story - swimming around trying to rescue as much stuff as possible, his money floating away as he desperately attempted to collect it all. He tried to make light of it, but it was a sad and traumatic time.  We all grieved for Racundra.  What he did manage to salvage was taken back to Venezuela, but I have no idea what happened to any of it.
Unable to be without a boat for long, Rod found a sad-looking 27ft Wharram catamaran which he ‘found’ in Venezuela.  He rebuilt her and sailed her up to Florida.  She was a good seaworthy boat despite her diminutive size, but sadly my father was lost at sea while sailing her back to the UK in 1982.  We never found out what happened, no wreckage was ever found.  But he left me a wonderful legacy - a love of the sea that has never left me. 

I am currently on a trans-Atlantic sailing adventure with my husband and two teenage boys aboard our 35ft gaff cutter Island Swift.  The spirit of Racundra lives on.

[1] (Taken from the Appendix of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Racundra’s’ First Cruise)

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