Nancy Blackett and Arthur Ransome

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AR on NBw350Nancy Blackett was Arthur Ransome’s favourite amongst his various cruising yachts. He named her after his favourite character, the adventurous and irrepressible leader of the Amazon Pirates in his “Swallows and Amazons” books.

She provided him with the inspiration for possibly his best book, “We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea”, widely regarded as a classic of both children’s and seafaring literature, in which she plays a leading role as the Goblin. Its action takes place almost entirely aboard the little boat, as the four children seek to sail her across the North Sea, at night, in a storm without any adult aboard. Ransome sailed the course himself in Nancy, and worked on the book aboard her, while living near Pin Mill on the River Orwell in Suffolk, where the story starts.

Nancy Blackett is immediately recognisable from Ransome’s description, illustrations and many key details:

“I say, just look down,”said Titty. They looked down into the cabin of the little ship, at blue mattresses on bunks on either side, at a little table with a chart tied down to it with string, at a roll of blankets in one of the bunks, at a foghorn in another, and at a heap of dirty plates and cups and spoons in a little white sink opposite the tiny galley, where a saucepan of water was simmering on one of the two burners of a little cooking stove.”

Many visitors to Nancy Blackett like to identify the bunks used by the individual Walker children (girls in particular have a penchant for Titty’s bunk – fore-cabin, port) and other features.

Origins and Life With the Ransomes 

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Nancy Blackett was built in 1931, by Hillyards of Littlehampton. She is twenty-eight feet long, excluding her bowsprit, with an unusual Bermudian cutter rig. Exactly like the Goblin, she has roller-reefing, operated by a little brass handle, and, down below, four bunks with blue mattresses, and a little white sink opposite a tiny galley.

She had already had two owners, and two names – Spindrift and Electron – before Ransome found and bought her in 1934, for £525. He was at the time in the process of moving from the Lake District to East Anglia, with the aim of doing some sea sailing. His delivery voyage with his new boat, from Poole Harbour to the East Coast, was hair-raising, as his Biography and Letters reveal: gales, damage, and an occasion where the navigation lights blew out, and he used a torch shone through a red plastic plate to ‘frighten off the Flushing-Harwich steamer’ – an incident which eventually appeared in “We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea”. Ransome got plenty of good sailing out of Nancy.

As well as his research trip to Holland, he took her round to Portsmouth and back with his friend Richard Rouse, a voyage he wrote up under the title ‘Saturday to Saturday’ for the Cruising Association Bulletin. But one of his favourite destinations was the Walton Backwaters, just a few miles down the coast from his home on the Orwell. He would sail down, and anchor there, ostensibly to work, but often yielded to the temptation to do a little exploring in his dinghy, Coch-y-Bonddhu. The Backwaters formed the setting for his next book, “Secret Water”, which includes a brief appearance by the Goblin.

The Ransomes rarely hung on to boats, or houses, for very long. By 1937, in deference to his wife Evgenia’s desire for a larger galley, Arthur had ordered a larger yacht, Selina King, to be built at King’s boatyard in Pin Mill, and sold Nancy Blackett in 1938. He retained his affection for her, however – perhaps because she was the one boat out of the seven he owned which he had not bought new.

“Fools build and wise men buy,” he once said, but it was advice he rarely followed himself.

Rescue and Restoration 

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Over the following half-century, Nancy Blackett had five different owners, who mostly cared for and enjoyed her. But by 1988 she had been allowed to deteriorate in Scarborough harbour, and it was here that she was discovered in near-derelict condition – planks worn and holed, hatch-covers gone, water pouring in and out of her – by Michael Rines, who decided to purchase and restore her, though at that time, knowing nothing of Arthur Ransome or her connection with him. By pure chance, he lived on the Orwell, almost next-door to the house Ransome had lived in when he owned Nancy Blackett, and he brought her back to the Orwell to be restored.

After a year of hard work, she was in good enough condition to be exhibited at the East Coast Boat Show, and Mike Rines held a celebratory dinner at the Butt & Oyster in Pin Mill, to which he invited many influential Arthur Ransome devotees (including members of the original family on which the ‘Swallows’ were based) with whom he had corresponded during the restoration. Many of them had not met each other previously, and a year later, triggered by another restoration, this time of the dinghy Amazon, they went on to form the Arthur Ransome Society.

Once Nancy Blackett was fully restored, Mike Rines put her up for sale. The newly-formed Arthur Ransome Society was given the option to purchase, but was not then in a financial position to do so, and so she went to another private owner. It was when he put her on the market, in 1996, that the dream of preserving her for posterity, and of owning her for the enjoyment of all Arthur Ransome fans, was born.

The result was an appeal which raised the purchase price of £25,000 in five weeks, and which became the Nancy Blackett Trust. Under its care, Nancy Blackett’s future is assured; she is sailing again, and will remain recognisable as the boat Ransome knew and loved. In the summer of 2002 she retraced Goblin’s fictional route from Pin Mill to Flushing (Vlissingen) in Holland, and has so several times since.

For a complete summary of Nancy Blackett’s ongoing adventures see the Timeline.

Header image: Still from BBC Countryfile, April 2013.
Page image: Arthur Ransome sailing Nancy Blackett.