Why my wife cold-shouldered me for a week

You've saved �200. Do you splash it on a desperately-needed kitchen or a boat that used to take daytrippers around Southend Pier?

Steven Russell

You've saved �200. Do you splash it on a desperately-needed kitchen or a boat that used to take daytrippers around Southend Pier? Mike Peyton chose the latter - and his wife didn't speak to him for a week. Steven Russell meets 'the nautical world's best-known and much-loved cartoonist'

CLOUDS hurry across the sky and occasional bursts of spring sunshine add welcome sparkle to the pondwater. It's the relative calm after the night before, when southerly winds and rain boxed the ears of anyone with the temerity to be out. It was a decent blow, wasn't it? Was it? asks Mike Peyton. “I don't know. I didn't hear. I sleep like a log on land and yet, on the boat, anything happens - somebody strikes a match - and I wake up. My wife gets annoyed. We got struck by lightning once - Kath said the television was on fire - and I never woke up.”

Mike's a bit of a legend in the nautical world. For years his cartoons have brought a smile to the faces of fellow sailors and for more than half a century he and a succession of boats have been fixtures on the east coast. The Blackwater and Crouch, the Orwell and Stour, the Deben and Alde . . . he knows them like the back of his hand - but insists they're different each time he sails them.

At the age of 88 he's still to be found out on the water, either with Touchstone, the 38ft yacht he's had since 1981, or crewing for a pal.

“I've been very lucky, really. I put it down to my wife's cooking! She doesn't like cooking, you see, so we never get anything fancy. That's what I tell her . . .”

Most Read

He was out the weekend just gone - when he sailed to Rowhedge, on the Colne near Colchester - and in fact was crewing on a friend's boat on January 2. “I've always liked winter sailing because there's no-one else about,” he smiles.

For three decades he ran a charter business, with paying guests crewing his boats and enjoying weekends on the east coast rivers or longer trips to Holland and France. Many came year after year: a crowd from Gloucester, for instance, and folk from the railway engine sheds at Crewe.

“They come as old friends now, though they keep kicking the bucket. They're all pretty ancient, and all retired.”

Cartoons still glide off his pen. “It's been a super job.” There are, for instance, illustrations to be done for a regular column in Yachting Monthly where sailors confess their stupid mistakes. And here's an example of a cartoon that's aired in a British magazine and has then been adapted for a Dutch counterpart, with the caption translated.

So he gets paid twice for the same work? “This is euros - for the good of the country,” he grins. “I'm not doing it for my own good, you understand!”

Ideas often come from watching sailors or from incidents that arise on the water. At the heart of each cartoon is an essential truth with which nautical folk can identify. “You just push them a little bit further.”

He might have lived on the Dengie peninsula near Maldon for more than 50 years but Mike's a Northerner. He hails from Durham, though his dad - a miner - took the family south when work was scarce around the time of the General Strike in 1926. Mum's father came from Lancashire, so they moved to Radcliffe, near Manchester.

Before the war, Mike had been to night classes for drawing. When hostilities ceased, he went to art school in Manchester before transferring to London. His ex-serviceman's grant was two guineas a week, which in the capital stretched only to bed and breakfast, so in order to survive he scrubbed pubs and did other odd jobs.

On his trips back to Manchester, hitching in lorries, he'd get ideas for cartoons and sold some to magazines such as Commercial Motor.

It was while an art student in London that Mike caught the sailing bug. He shared digs with Brian, another ex-serviceman, who bought a 12ft-long, canvas, sailing canoe with a 12ft mast. The pair sailed on the Thames. “It was as we travelled downstream that we learned the essentials of working our tides and of reefing, early lessons which have stood me in good stead many times since,” recalls Mike in his book Floating Assets. They also learned to plug the many leaks with heated-up tar reclaimedfrom wartime pill-boxes!

Art school also introduced him to his wife-to-be. Mike had designs on marriage, but Kath's parents didn't consider him suitable husband material, so they had to elope: “an archaic word no longer used but which meant getting married without parental consent, which one needed if under 21. My friends had a whip-round to buy Kath such essential wedding presents as a sleeping bag and a decent pair of walking boots, as we were bound for the Swiss Alps, the idea being to scramble about them until my money (�40) ran out, which it did in six months”.

They also spent a year in Canada and America, keeping the wolf from the door with jobs such as re-setting the pins in a skittle alley - an occupational hazard was being hit by flying skittles! - and collecting worms on golf courses to sell for bait.

There was a trip to Northern Canada in a canoe. Mike went to Toronto library to see what trappers lived on. It was the 3Bs: bacon, beans and bannock - a flat bread essentially made with flour and water. “So we bought a side of bacon, a sack of beans and a bag of flour, and put them in the canoe. We survived!”

When they came home they sold articles about their adventures.

In 1956 he and Kath, who had been left just enough money to buy it, moved to a derelict cottage near the River Crouch without floors or windows. The essentials were added bit by bit.

Mind you, they did need a new kitchen, to replace the lean-to shed with sagging roof that did for food preparation. The couple saved �200, but when Mike saw a boat advertised for that sum he couldn't resist. He knew, “even if only subconsciously, that it wasn't only a boat I was buying but a way of life.

The seller, who became a good friend, kindly knocked �5 off the price when he found out it would leave us without a penny to our name.”

Kath told him only later that she was so incensed she didn't speak to him for a week. “And what really annoyed her was that I was so taken up with the new purchase that I didn't even notice,” he admits.

The �195 boat he'd bought was Vagrant, a 24ft by 8ft by 1.6ft gaff-rigged centreboarder (for those who know about such things). She had been used to take holidaymakers out to the end of Southend Pier and back - a “penny sick”, as such vessels were known.

Vagrant was kept in a muddy creek off the Crouch. “From this base we pottered about the east coast, invariably with our distinguishing flag hoist of drying nappies, for we now had two daughters” - Hilary and Veronica.

To make ends meet, Mike illustrated magazines on a freelance basis. Among them was The New Scientist, for which he worked one day a week for more than three decades - illustrating “things I knew damn all about, really!” One year, seeking money for a bigger boat, he worked full-time as the art editor.

He also drew a regular cartoon for Commercial Motor magazine, but “rejection slips from yachting magazines for the sailing cartoons which I'd submitted to them could have papered a room”.

Kath, meanwhile, deserves an article to herself. She'd written since the age of nine and had her first book published at 15: A&C Black offering �75 for Sabre, the Horse from the Sea. The Surbiton girl longed to live in the country and own a pony, but couldn't, so lived out her fantasies in print. She's pretty much had at least one book published each year since the 1960s.

Kath's Flambards novels, about an orphan who goes to live on a country estate, was well-known in the 1970s - especially when Yorkshire Television turned the first three books into a TV series.

Vagrant was outgrown. At The Ferry Boat Inn in North Fambridge, Mike overheard chatter about cheap fishing boats for sale in Holland. He bought one from a clogged fisherman for �400 and called it Clementine. She was a tad too heavy to crew comfortably, so was sold to someone planning to use her as a houseboat.

Sugar Creek, a 30ft gaff cutter, was easier to handle. It was during the Sugar Creek era that he sold his first yachting cartoon. “It was a satisfying week for me when, after sending innumerable cartoon ideas to all the yachting magazines, three editors - two of monthly magazines and one of a new fortnightly, Yachting and Boating - wrote to me in the same week asking if I would call and see them.” He plumped for the fortnightly one. Soon, his work was also appearing in Yachts and Yachting.

One of the final trips on Sugar Creek almost proved tragic. He, Kath and the girls were bound for Whitstable to meet friends when they hit trouble and were heading for the Barrow Sands. The magneto didn't work, so they couldn't use the engine. The wind reached gale force and boats in the Southsea-Harwich race kept every lifeboat on the east coast busy, he remembers.

Sugar Creek could do little but be blown by the wind. Then “the lights of a ship came close enough for Kath to put her Girl Guides training into use and flash out an SOS”. The vessel was a train ferry bound for Harwich. “A rope ladder was dropped down to us from a doorway in the ferry's side, and though it was fine for Kath and myself it was hopeless for Hilary and Veronica at three and four years of age.

“It was a crew member who took his life in his hands and solved the problem. Two of his shipmates held him by his belt as they themselves held onto the doorway. Only in this manner could he reach down low enough to make contact with me, where I was standing on the hatch, and take one of the children from me. His remark on our first contact, for we did not always make contact, was 'Eff me mate!' to which I replied in all sincerity 'Well, come back; there's another one.'”

Meanwhile, part of the ferry's hull made a hole in Sugar Creek's deck. By the time Mike got off, water was up to the bunks. “However, this did not seem to affect the girls and we heard one tell a sympathetic sailor proudly that she had been shipwrecked 'just like Rupert Bear'.” Sugar Creek floated on and was later towed into Harwich by a Trinity House vessel. She was repaired in Walton Backwaters. “The insurance paid up and she sailed again.”

Other boats followed - there's been more than a dozen in all - and Mike opted to get involved in chartering, taking groups out onto the water. There was little money in it, but he was now selling cartoons to magazines all over the world, including Japan.

Dowsabel, a 33ft yawl, was a bit small. He figured a larger boat would give better returns for little extra outlay and in the early 1970s had a 40ft ferro-cement vessel designed that featured all the best bits of the boats he had previously owned. It was built behind the house and friends came to help on “plastering day”, when the cement was applied to the wire-mesh frame.

She sailed local waters, summer and winter, for the next decade or so. “To me, sailing out of the River Crouch seemed the ideal area for a charter boat. Once you are out of the Crouch there are 13 rivers to make for and explore, all possible in a weekend depending on the prevailing conditions. When conditions were ideal we could make Calais and back in a weekend and my regulars always had their passports in their bags on the offchance . . . On week-long charters it was invariably France and Holland we went to . . .”

The cartoons he sold to the English yachting press started generating work of their own, with drawings starting to appear in foreign magazines such as Germany's Die Yacht and the French Voiles et Voiliers.

Touchstone, a 38-footer, was launched in 1981; since when she's shuttled about between the Wash and North Foreland, in winter and summer, fair weather or foul.

What's the appeal of sailing, then?

“I've always thought that one of the attractions is you never know what's going to happen. Most people know what time they're going to get up in the morning, what they're going to have for breakfast. Everything's organised, but with sailing you haven't a clue. Everything depends on the weather, the tide - things like that.”

Good things happen spontaneously. He recalls a windless spell with a charter party, “who have paid to be occupied, you might say”. There was a bottle of cider on board, and a woman said she could make moules mariniere if only they had some mussels.

“There was Foulness Sands, dried out, so we anchored off and they went looking for mussels. They found a bucket. The blokes were all spread out - nothing but sands and sea and clouds, and just our boat in the distance. I just said, casually, 'Are you all right, then?' And one of them said” - as happy as Larry at the contrast with his normal life - “It's different to the bloody Edgware Road, isn't it!”

Another time a party had halted on a miserable day and the folk were clustered in the cockpit, eating soup . . . from metal dog-bowls. (“I didn't use them as dog-bowls,” Mike hastens to add, “but I did buy them to use. They're stainless steel; they're clean. How long would a soupbowl last on board?!”)

Anyway - “One of them said 'This is fantastic!' I thought it was my cooking. I said 'They're only tins of ravioli . . .' But he said” - and again it was said with enthusiasm - “'It's not like the works canteen!' Maybe that's it - because you don't know when the next meal will be and because everything is different.”

What about the risks? A landlubber like me is terrified by the thought of being out in the open, on rough seas. Did he ever worry about his young daughters?

“Nearly lost them,” he accepts, of the Barrow Sands escape. “Never thought about it. Terrible, isn't it? I should imagine my wife did. The girls never worried.” Hilary took to sailing, even making yacht deliveries across the Atlantic, but Veronica didn't.

There was an even worse incident in the autumn of 1963, when three people died off North Foreland.

Friend John Barstow bought an 18ft boat called Snipe and a group of five, including Mike and Kath, sailed to Ramsgate to help him bring it to the Crouch. Those who wanted to sail home on Snipe cut cards for the available places. They never made it to Essex. John Barstow, Jack Worsley and Tom Bolton all died en route.

Has that kind of potential danger ever worried Mike?

“Never thought about it, really. It's just a thing that happened. Even before we met, Kath and I used to go walking in mountains. There were always accidents there: people falling off or getting lost. But I know what you mean . . . sometimes in rough weather; but in rough weather you're on your toes all the time . . .

“Every yachtsman must have had a moment when he's been lying in his boat, with his nose pressed against the side, and at times thought about there being quarter of an inch or half an inch between him and the water. But I don't think sailing's a dangerous sport. Horse-riding is; there are more people killed at that and motor-cycling.”

That's too gloomy a note on which to end. Let's recognise the fact that Mike's had - and is still having - a wonderful time off the east coast and that all his boats “always brought me and my crews safely home in fair weather and foul, time after time. The pleasure they gave was incalculable; something only another boat owner can appreciate”.

Mike Peyton's Floating Assets is published by Adlard Coles Nautical at �9.99.

ISBN 978-0713689358

AUTHOR Kathleen Peyton says the fellow art student who claimed her heart “had a penchant for excitement and led me into many adventures that frightened me to death - very good experiences for a writer. We climbed in the Alps, always living out rough; we canoed through the lakes and forests of Ontario; got lost in the Rockies when we were down to one cup of rice and a tin of cocoa”.

By the time he met Kath, Mike Peyton had already experienced much danger.

During the war he fibbed about his age to join up. He went to the Western Desert in North Africa with the British Eighth Army, where his primary duty was reconnaissance. Mike was taken prisoner and found himself in Italy and then Germany, where he was moved around a succession of camps. Forced labour included working in an open-cast mine.

Mike was incarcerated for about three years. “In one camp they were dying 10 a week, of malnutrition,” he remembers. “It was the big blokes that went first; little blokes like me got by. It was the same rations: 200g of bread a day - which is about as big as your fist - a bowl of soup and a cup of coffee, and a finger of cheese.

He and some other prisoners, deemed slow workers, were sent to a punishment camp. From a quarry on a hillside they watched Dresden being decimated by the allies in February, 1945. “I must admit, when the bombs came down, I thought at the time nobody, but nobody, should be under that lot. But, later, 'serve the b******s right,' you know . . .”

Shortly afterwards, away from the camp during a work-party, Mike managed to flee to a wood when a Russian plane flew over and sent the sentries running for cover. He reached the Russian lines, armed himself with a carbine, and joined the Russians and other displaced allied troops by advancing on the Nazi forces.

“We'd had enough sense before we left to get a Russian prisoner to tell us, in Russian, how to say 'We are escaped English prisoners.' Good lateral thinking! That was the sum total of my Russian!”