Monday 16 December 2019

Book Review: Little Ship, Big Story: The adventures of HMY Sheemaun and the amazing stories of those who have sailed in her by Dr. Rodney Pell

The latest book to land on the doormat at Blitzwalker Towers is this fascinating account of the life and times of one of the many "little ships" that served, not in this case at Dunkirk but one which took part in another equally important, although perhaps unsung role as part of the Royal Naval Auxiliary Patrol on the River Thames and it's estuary. 

The book is entitled "Little Ship, Big Story" and to quote directly from the cover, it tells of "the adventures of HMY Sheemaun and the amazing stories of those who have sailed in her." It is written by Sheemaun's current owner, Dr. Rodney Pell and his obvious affection for this doughty vessel is apparent on every page.

The author has taken a novel and quite clever approach to telling Sheemaun's story and rather than just writing a standard account of the vessel's building and subsequent service in peace, war and peace once again, which could appear somewhat "dry" to the general reader, he has told the story by skilfully interweaving the history of the Sheemaun through the eyes of those who have owned her, sailed aboard her and those whose lives have been affected in one way or another by her. Not content with that aspect alone, Dr Pell expands on the life stories of her various owners, telling us what they did before and after Sheemaun came into their lives. In the case of some of the other characters who feature in the Sheemaun story, a few names have been changed in order to "protect the innocent" as the saying goes!

The story is all the better and more entertaining because of this approach and to give the reader further perspective, the author writes the story in a logical, year-by-year basis with a timeline added at the end of each chapter so that the reader can look at Sheemaun's history against the wider background of what was going on at any given time in the rest of the world.

Sheemaun came into this world in 1934 in a place that is just about as far from the sea as it is possible to get in the United Kingdom - Matlock in Derbyshire. She was the dream of one Ernest Richards, manager of the local branch of the erstwhile Williams Deacons Bank, later to become part of Williams & Glyns Bank and nowadays a constituent part of the Royal Bank of Scotland group. Richards had a love of the sea and of sailing and indeed was the owner a motor boat called the Gypsie, which fulfilled his dream up to a point but which rolled uncomfortably when at sea and was somewhat cramped for the needs of his family. Ernest, perhaps with an eye on his future retirement, decided to commission something altogether more suitable for his needs and approached a company of naval architects, Messrs GL Watson & Company in Glasgow to design a 25 ton auxiliary ketch rigged yacht. She was to be built from pitch pine and larch on sturdy oak frames and had a comfortable teak deck house to boot. 

The new yacht was to be built at the yard of James Noble & Company in Fraserburgh, some 450 miles north of Ernest Richards' home in Matlock. She was Yard No. 561 (all ships are initially known by their Yard Number) and was of a sturdy construction typical of this yard. A ship might have a predestined name but is only christened at launching, or when substantially complete. The idea for the name of Yard No. 561 came to Ernest Richards from his then fourteen-year-old daughter Helen as she sat at home one evening reading aloud Henry Longfellow's poem, "The Song of Hiawatha"  which refers to Cheemaun, a war canoe. Helen loved the name and it was quickly decided upon, with the proviso that the spelling was amended by substituting the 'C' for an 'S', giving the softer spelling of the name that the ship carries to this day. She was launched in spring of 1935 and christened by Helen with a bottle of white wine.

Following successful completion of sea trials, Sheemaun was delivered to her owner by the shipyard to Colwyn Bay, the nearest convenient port for Ernest Richards but one which was still some 75 miles distant, a daunting prospect, especially as Richards did not drive. The realities soon hit home to Mr Richards and reluctantly, in September 1935, after just one summer of enjoying Sheemaun, he decided to put her up for sale. It was inevitable that such a fine new yacht would find a new owner and sure enough, after being on the market for about one month, she was purchased by a Mr LSL Saunders for £1,100.00, which ensured that Ernest Richards had at least made a modest profit on the amount he had paid for the initial construction. Incidentally, £1,100 in 1935 equates to around £72,500 at today's values, so we can see that the commissioning and building of a yacht such as Sheemaun, was not something to be taken lightly.

From these beginnings, Sheemaun has gone on to lead an eventful life in wartime and in the subsequent peace. Today, she is part of the National Register of Historic Ships, a similar accolade to a Grade One Listed Building on land and as such, rubs shoulders (or perhaps rubs gunwales) with vessels such as HMS Victory, HMS Warrior HMS Belfast, the surviving 'Little Ships' of Dunkirk and many others, all of which are listed online on the National Historic Register's website.

Rodney Pell has owned Sheemaun since 1987 and thus was her custodian when she was included on the National Register in 2003 and when she took part in the Grand Thames Pageant for HM The Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and acted as Flagship of the historic vessels taking part that day.

I've given some modest details above of the birth of Sheemaun as well as some of her more recent highlights; in between, there are many fascinating tales of the ship herself and of the many characters who have owned her and featured in her life, as well as the sometimes world-shaping events that she has witnessed, which Rodney Pell has very skilfully interwoven in this fine book. Unfortunately, in the edition sent to me, there were one or two very minor errors of omission and commission in the text, which was down to the absence through illness of the original editor of the book. These have been corrected in a subsequent edition, so further mention is pointless and in any case did not detract from my enjoyment of this book, which I most highly recommend to you.

Little Ship, Big Story by Dr Rodney Pell is published by Conrad Press at £9.99 and is available at all good bookshops and also direct from the author via his website as per this link.

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