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Swallows and Amazons: where did it begin?

East Coast OGA member, Tessa Hodgkinson, describes the start of the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ event. Reflecting on the early days of small boat events in the OGA, she lets us into her teenage sailing tactics, with elder sister Clare Thomas, in the East Coast Race and Shotley Festivals in the 1980s – 1990s. Why not join us for the event this year, 7 – 9 June, 2024? Booking opens soon – watch this space.

The late Jon Wainwright had always encouraged open boats, Class III as they were known, to attend East Coast OGA events and race when possible. At the annual East Coast Race there was always a Class III course and in the 1980s I remember ‘Gremlin’ and ‘Bilanbil’ regularly fighting it out through the Blackwater chop. Despite being a small event it was a competitive day, often starting with a morning scrub off on the shore. As teenage crew aboard my sister Clare’s 18’ Walton and Frinton One Design ‘Bilanbil’, I would find my time spilt between bailing and trimming jibs, or on lighter days hoisting the half parachute spinnaker in khaki green silk of World War II vintage. ‘Grolsh’ beer was the sustenance for the day. It had to be ‘Grolsh’ with the clever stoppers, as on ready about you both re-sealed the bottles and threw them in the bilge. On the new tack you then scrambled for the fuller-looking bottle of beer.

In 1989, East Coast stalwarts the late Jon Wainwright and Brian Hammett started up the wonderful Shotley Classic Boat Festival. Having food and loos ashore, it was ideal for those with open boats as well as the larger OGA fleet. The week always included a trip over to Walton and a lunchtime a ‘race around the island’ for dinghies, open boats and more daring shoal craft yachts, one famously stuck there overnight! ‘Bilanbil’ was still a keen contender and being one of the largest open boats, often led the fleet. This was not always an advantage. On one memorable occasion, I remember Jon calling out, “follow ‘Bilanbil’, she’s a local boat”, but as we entered the Wade, we realised we were at the top of the tide. All the usual landmarks were covered, it was indeed an inland sea, and soon we found ourselves on top of the marsh. Clare and the other crew jumped over the stern, as I took the helm. Sometimes walking, sometimes swimming, but always holding on to the transom, we fought our way over and through the marsh. These races were really the beginning of the Swallows and Amazons event.

When Shotley could no longer host the festival, it morphed into the East Coast Classics. Pete ‘the Knife’ Elliston and I stepped up to help with arranging events. With encouragement from Jon Wainwright, the Swallows and Amazons race grew into an overnight stop at Walton and then split apart into its own event. From 2000 onwards it grew and grew, regularly hosting 40-50 small boats. These were a wonderful collection including real classics over 100 years old, ex-fishing boats, Lune whammels, winklebrigs, smacks boats, barge boats, 1920s one designs, whalers, dinghies, tenders, self-built boats and the list just goes on. They came from all over England and Wales in a spirit of goodwill and fun. The handicapping was almost impossible, but I got round that by making a multitude of classes and giving out lots of prizes (but only one to each boat).

Swallows and Amazons has reduced in size now, but there is an increasing fleet of East Coast smacks boats and other small boats that regularly support it. Why not join us for the event this year, 7 – 9 June, 2024? Booking opens soon – watch this space.

Words: Tessa Hodgkinson (first published in Gaffers Log, 2014)