A short biography of Arthur Ransome’s sailing career
Ransome’s introduction to boats came during his childhood, in the period 1884 – 1897, when his family took their holidays at Nibthwaite, at the south end of Coniston Water. Although there is no evidence that he learnt to sail during this time, he would have had opportunities to row, when taking part in family visits to Peel Island and fishing with his father.
These early experiences gave Ransome his lifelong love for Coniston, and also introduced him to the lake steamer Gondola.
In 1904, Ransome developed a close and influential friendship with W.G. Collingwood’s family, who lived at Lanehead, at the north end of Coniston. The Collingwood’s had use of an assortment of boats, including a heavy, one-time fishing boat called Swallow, which Ransome later described as “the first of a long dynasty of Swallows in my sailing life”. It was here that the Collingwood children, Dora, Barbara and Robin, taught Ransome to sail.
In the Baltic
After his happy experience with the Collingwoods, writing, marriage, the Great War and the Russian Revolution all combined to interrupt Ransome’s sailing career. It wasn’t until he left Russia and settled in Estonia in 1919 with his mistress Evgenia Shelepina that opportunities rose again. After experimental coastal voyages in an open dinghy, Slug, and a small keelboat, Kittiwake, Ransome was determined to own a proper yacht. His opportunity came when he met Otto Eggers, well-known pre-war as a boat designer and builder in Reval. Eggars agreed to design a yacht for Ransome, which he had built – not without much frustration – by a boat builder in Riga.
The result was Racundra, the first of six yachts that Ransome owned. Ransome took possession in 1922 and cruised in her with Evgenia and the hugely-experienced local sailor Captain Schmel. Racundra’s First Cruise (1923) and Racundra’s Third Cruise (2002) describe this period of Ransome’s sailing life.
Back to the Lakes
When Arthur and Evgenia returned to Britain in 1924, they settled at Low Ludderburn, a cottage close to Windermere. In 1928 he was able to renew his links to Coniston, when W.G. Collingwood’s daughter, Dora, her husband Ernest Altounyan, and their five children arrived for an extended visit, during which they stayed at Bank Ground Farm, next door to Lanehead. Ernest and Arthur agreed to buy two dinghies for Ernest’s children to sail, on the understanding that they would subsequently keep one each.
During 1928, Ransome was a frequent visitor to Lanehead and Bank Ground. When the Altounyans left in 1929, to return to Ernest’s hospital in Aleppo, Syria, they kept Mavis, whilst Ransome had Swallow, which he took over to Windermere. It was his friendship with the Altounyans at this time, and the renewed memories that they invoked of his own childhood in the Lakes, that led Ransome to write Swallows and Amazons (1930).
The East Coast
Arthur and Evgenia continued to live at Low Ludderburn for several years, during which they sailed Swallow on Windermere. They also took cruising holidays on the Norfolk Broads, which helped to inspire Coot Club (1934). Ransome had introduced a friend, Charles Reynold, to fishing and, hoping to inspire him to sail as well, he persuaded Charles to have a dinghy built. This dinghy was called Coch-y-bonddhu, after a famous fishing fly. Charles, however, preferred fishing, and eventually gave Ransome the dinghy.
By 1935, Ransome was once more feeling the urge to own a yacht and sail offshore. Tiring of Low Ludderburn, Arthur and Evgenia moved to Suffolk, settling close to the River Orwell. Ransome took Coch-y-bonddhu with them, but unsentimentally sold Swallow. He then bought a 7 ton Hillyard cutter, which he purchased on the South Coast. Re-naming her Nancy Blackett, Ransome nearly lost her – and probably his own life – when overtaken by a storm on her delivery voyage. Despite this he was delighted with her. Inspired by sailing offshore once more, he soon turned Nancy Blackett into the Goblin, where she starred in We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea (1937) and also appeared in Secret Water (1939). For the former, Ransome took her across to Holland as part of his research. He also enjoyed local cruises, especially to the creeks and mudflats of the Walton Backwaters.
Although Ransome later described Nancy as “The best little ship I ever had”, Evgenia was not so impressed with her small and uncomfortable galley. Ransome consequently sold Nancy Blackett and had Pin Mill boat builder Harry King build his largest yacht, Selina King, together with a new 10′ tender, which Ransome named Swallow. Selina was launched in 1938, but Ransome was barely able to sail her before the Second World War broke out. After a dramatic trip to Lowestoft, where she was laid up for the duration, Ransome never sailed her again.
The war also took Arthur and Evgenia away from the Orwell, to settle at the Heald, on the shores of Coniston. They took Coch-y-bonddhu with them and she was a frequent sight on the lake during the period from 1940 – 1944. The return to the Lakes inspired The Picts and the Martyrs (1943), with Coch-y-bonddhu appearing as the Scarab.
Build, Build and Build Again
Towards the end of the war, Arthur and Evgenia moved to London, again with Coch-y-bonddhu in tow. Ransome’s thoughts had, however, were on building another yacht and this led to him commissioning Harry King to build Peter Duck. Although the design, by Laurent Giles, went on to become respected and successful, both Arthur and Evgenia were frustrated and dissatisfied by her. Ransome sold her in 1948, immediately rebought her – at a loss – and then sold her again in 1949.
With Evgenia’s approval he soon commissioned Lottie Blossom, a 6 ton centre cockpit sloop with wheel steering. His papers suggest that Evgenia would have preferred the greater luxuary of a 10 tonner, but Ransome’s advancing years and increasingly frail health made him realise that a larger craft would be beyond him.
Arthur and Evgenia sailed Lottie Blossom for less than 200 miles in and around the Solent before deciding to sell. Amongst other niggling irritations, Ransome didn’t like the centre cockpit and having to steer with a wheel. But he was impressed by the basic Hillyard design. He therefore decided to build one last yacht, commissioning Hillyards to build an aft cockpit version of Lottie Blossom. Ransome kept the name for the new yacht, whilst the original Lottie Blossom was renamed Ragged Robin III.
The new Lottie Blossom was ready for cruising in 1953 and one of the Ransome’s earliest trips in her was to inspect the Coronation Review at Spithead. Despite persistent mechanical problems, they enjoyed a final two sailing seasons in 1953 and 1954, during which they made two successful cruises to Cherbourg. Age was, however, catching up with Ransome and, after a final enjoyable day’s sailing into Littlehampton, in August 1954, he accepted that his sailing career was finally over.
Where are Ransome’s Boats Now?
Of the many dinghies and yachts he owned, sailed, or was closely associated with, Ransome turned Swallow, Mavis, Coch-y-bonddhu and Nancy Blackett into fictional characters in the Swallows and Amazons books.
The list below gives brief details of the current whereabouts of Arthur Ransome’s boats: the vessels he owned are in bold, those he sailed or was otherwise closely associated with are in normal text.
|Swallow (1904)||Fate unknown|
|Racundra||Wrecked in 1976 on a reef near Caracas, Venezuela|
|Swallow (1928)||Fate unknown|
|Mavis||Privately owned, on public display in the Ruskin Museum, Coniston|
|Coch-y-bonddhu||Owned by TARS, on public display at Windermere St Anne’s School|
|Nancy Blackett||Owned by the Nancy Blackett Trust|
|Swallow (1938)||In private ownership in England|
|Selina King||Currently in private ownership in Bermuda|
|Peter Duck||In private ownership in England|
|Barnacle Goose||In private ownership in England|
|Lottie Blossom||Renamed Ragged Robin III. In private ownership in England|
|Lottie Blossom||Location currently unknown. Believed to be derelict|
Arthur Ransome wrote about his own sailing experiences in a number of books. These include:
Racundra’s First Cruise (1923, current edition with an introduction by Brian Hammett, 2003)
Racundra’s Third Cruise (with an introduction by Brian Hammett, 2002)
The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome (Arthur Ransome, 1976)
There are a number of books covering the subject of Arthur Ransome’s sailing career. These include:
Nancy Blackett – Under Sail with Arthur Ransome (Roger Wardale, 1991)
Arthur Ransome & Captain Flint’s Trunk (Christina Hardyment, Revised 2nd Edition 2006)
The Life of Arthur Ransome (Hugh Brogan, 1984)
You can check the availability of these and other books at the TARS Stall.