The history of what is now Sutton Harbour Plymouth Classic Boat Rally goes right back to 1988 when the idea of a rally of classic boats was initially conceived by the Committee of St Luke’s Hospice. The idea was that such a rally would form the back drop for a shore-side “village fete” style event which would generate funds for the hospice. Plym Yacht Club (“PYC”) readily responded to the need for maritime expertise to run the Rally under our founding chairman, Tim O’Flaherty.
The first Rally was held in 1988 with 35 classic boats moored on the Plym Yacht Club moorings. RAF Mountbatten made its base available for a ‘fun day’ whilst the Rally events were held on Oreston Green with catering and organisation run from the adjacent PYC clubhouse. The Parade of Sail and races took place in Plymouth Sound with many members of the public watching from Mountbatten. That first Rally was opened by Dr David Owen, the then MP for Devonport (later Lord Owen). The oldest entrant was Barnabus, a St Ives Lugger built in 1881. The Cattewater Harbour Commissioners donated the trophy for the Concours d’Elegance and other businesses gave cups and prizes for the races.
Encouraged by that initial success, which raised £3,000 for St Lukes, the Rally was to continue the following year when it was opened by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and then it continued year after year.
The friendly reputation of the Rally spread and the number of entries increased rapidly making it impractical to continue mooring the participating boats in the river. Fortunately, nearby Clovelly Bay Marina, later to become Plymouth Yacht Haven, offered use of the marina and the Rally moved to a new base with the great advantage of boats laying against pontoons thereby increasing the sociable nature of the event. With RAF Mountbatten closing, St Lukes decided to move its ‘Fun Day’ and associated fundraising effort to Plymouth Hoe. By that time, the Rally gathered its own momentum and continued at Yacht Haven until 2005 with large marquees set up for catering, entertainment and award ceremonies. During that time, the Rally became peripatetic with the fleet moving on after three days at Yacht Haven to be hosted by Torpoint Mosquito and Weir Quay Sailing Clubs before some departed in the feeder race to Fowey Classics.
Plymouth Classic Boat Rally had become established firmly as an important event in the national boating calendar drawing entrants from far and wide including the UK East coast, the Bristol Channel and the more immediate SW Coast of Devon and Cornwall as well as overseas visitors from Germany and Brittany. That success in delivering the event would never be matched by financial success. As such, the staging of the Rally would not be possible without the generosity of its hosts, financial Sponsors, supporters “in kind” and the volunteer organisers and workers who have given many thousands of hours so freely over the years.
A change of business policy at Yacht Haven meant that the Rally was to be without a venue free of charge, which was a huge challenge to the then chairman, Andy Demaine, the committee and
supporters. Andy was chairman for nearly 15 years and was supported in his role by his wife Ann and their very enthusiastic children, Lucy, Oliver and Tom, who all put in so much effort to organise the Rally and to keep it so cheerful. Andy took on that challenge with the welcome result that in 2006 Sutton Harbour Marina offered to host the Rally for free and to provide services and man power. It was stimulating to be able to stage the event in such a fine historic location which provided something of a natural amphitheatre to show off the boats.
However, all was not quite simple. In that first year, the marina was not fully developed and there were no pontoon berths available to the Rally, only stone quay walls down which the crews would have to climb in order to access the boats. The separation of the boats, and the need to climb down walls, was felt by many to be a critical disadvantage to the friendly and sociable ethos of the Rally. A plan was hatched and I borrowed from Chris Parsonage, a local businessman, a large number of pontoons which he held in storage for staging powerboat races. Sponsorship was raised for an articulated lorry and an 80 ton crane so that the pontoons could be ferried in and then launched at Elphinstone car park, to the seaward side of Sutton Harbour. The Catttewater Harbour Master, Captain Tim Charlesworth, being a keen and kindly supporter of the Rally, was able to arrange for the pontoons to be towed by tug into Sutton Harbour and secured to the walls for the duration of the event. The pontoons stretched all the way west from Cap’n Jaspers, parallel to Quay Road, then north to The Three Crowns pub before turning east to run to the end of available wall. All was not finished! Those pontoons then had to be bolted to one another to make them safe, a task undertaken voluntarily by boat builder David Darlington (later to be a Concours Judge) and blacksmith Dick Carloss (committee member).
That first Rally in its’ new home at Sutton Harbour in 2006 was a huge success. In the following year, the C.E.O of Sutton Harbour Holdings was to tell the organisers that he was very impressed by their dedication to the event but that they did not need to put in so much physical effort henceforth because the Company had installed permanent double width “Event Pontoons” for us. Those “Event Pontoons” run eastwards, away from Cap’n Jaspers, into the middle of the harbour and end in a hammerhead – a perfect setting for the Rally and a facility which was to allow members of the public to view the boats up close.
Sutton Harbour Holding’s investment in the sponsorship of the Rally has been, and continues to be, considerable. Those double pontoons were not cheap and the contract berth holders who vacate the Rally site are compensated when the Classics turn up. Sutton Harbour Marina then provide manpower and equipment to build the site and lay it out to our specification for that particular year. The Company also pays to bring in shower and toilet blocks for the duration of the event. When the Rally is over, the Marina is then re-configured and normality and calm returns. All those efforts are overseen by management time donated by the Company.
Whilst the Rally evolved into a well received event on the Classics circuit, it also attracted much attention from all aspects of the media with extensive coverage in newspapers and on television and radio each year. Such coverage has included the local BBC and ITV networks setting up camp at the Rally and broadcasting lengthy live television reports and interviews. That attention results in thousands of visitors to the historic Sutton Harbour and the adjacent old Barbican area of Plymouth whilst our event takes place and such footfall makes a significant contribution to the local economy.
With the Rally embedded at Sutton Harbour Marina, Andy Demaine, Rally Chairman and sole Director of Plymouth Classic Boat Rally Ltd., was wanting to take time off to go voyaging and the like in 2010. The Rally was carried on by others on the committee and, in particular, John and Dorothy Merrett staged a Boat Show in a massive marquee adjacent to the Rally. There were exhibitors from local boatyards, dealers, brokers, marine artists and the like. The Boat Show was very well received and was thought by some to be the way forward for the Rally, but it was very expensive to stage at a time when the UK was experieincing its’ part in the worldwide financial crisis. Nevertheless, attempts were made to grow the event on the previous year’s success with a bigger Boat Show and a much enhanced racing programme. Significant investment was made by the Rally in advertising the event in the yachting press and elsewhere but there was a very poor response to the proposed enhanced event and the 2011 Rally was cancelled by John and Dorothy when there were no funds left in the coffers to continue.
I had been involved with the Rally for a number of years, as participant, Concours Judge and occasional organiser, and I was disappointed with the cancellation. With only six weeks to go, I set out to rescue the 2011 Rally. As the project gained momentum, John Gallagher, of the South West Gaffers section of the well respected Old Gaffers Association, made a fateful telephone call to offer support and help. Frankly, the Gaffers have never looked back! The seed had been sown for the involvement of the South West Gaffers in the continued organisation and future of the Rally. That year a slightly stripped down event was attended by over 50 boats and secured its place in the classics calendar and ensured its future.
The Rally went from strength to strength with 2012 being a particularly key year. That year the event was enhanced by the Barbican International Jazz and Blues Festival joining us with an extensive programme of music and entertainment around the area. However, the biggest highlight for me that year was the appearance of Gipsy Moth IV, Sir Francis Chichester’s iconic yacht in which he circumnavigated the world and returned to a hero’s welcome in Plymouth in 1967 in front of a crowd estimated at 250,000 strong on Plymouth Hoe. That moved me and millions of others. As a child, I had followed Chichester’s progress with great interest in a project organised at school. The epic voyage provided a model and an inspiration for the generations of solo yachts men and women who followed. Chichester’s previous boat, Gipsy Moth III, was the celebrated winner of the first solo Transatlantic race (0STAR) in 1960 earning a unique place in British and international yachting history. That earlier boat had been rebuilt in Plymouth and had been scheduled to depart prior to our event, but we were lucky to be able to have both Gipsy Moths III and IV together in Sutton Harbour and then out sailing in Plymouth Sound for a few hours prior to GIpsy Moth III departing to warmer climates with her new owner.
We have had many interesting boats at the Rally too numerous to mention, but such vessels have included Dunkirk little ships, a rare World War One motor torpedo boat still on the official secrets list (presumably by mistake). We have also been graced by a wonderful fleet of historic former RNLI Lifeboats, pilot cutters and the Tamar sailing barge Shamrock, built in 1899 and now owned by the National Trust, to name just a few.
This has been a personal snapshot of the history of our wonderful event. It is a joyful occasion full of interesting classic and traditional boats with social events, music, street parties and cake on the pontoons, a little bit of racing and awards for all sorts of things, both serious and comical. As I see it the Rally is run to cultivate and maintain an interest in, and understanding of, traditional and historic boats, their design, construction and rigs and to understand the culture of those involved historically in their use and operation together with providing a focus for such interests to encourage the continued protection of that heritage. It also provides an opportunity for social interaction and drinking. We have got up to all sorts of things over the years from treasure hunts to the celebration on board ship of the wedding of Les and Chrissey Arkell. Long may it all continue.