Britannia under full sail on Loch Carron in the 1980s.

Sailing Around the Western Isles

It was not too many years ago, that Britannia and her family spent much of their lives sailing the seas around the western Isles. Sharing the open ocean, sea locks and coves with the playful dance of the porpoise and dolphin, the laughter of the grey seals and the occasional whale and basking shark. Britannia sailed under charter, skippered by Sam and sharing her world with Golden and Sea Eagles, merlins and Falcons, in a landscape so beautiful and dramatic, ever changing and enchanting that it would be hard to leave.

Britannia yacht sailing in the Western Isles Scotland

In 1973 Britannia was purchased by Sam and Vicki Samuels, were they lived on board in Lowestoft docks, and then in Oulton Broad. In November that year their first son Haydn was born. Vicki had to return to her job, whilst Sam worked on making Britannia seaworthy. He made temporary bulwarks, raised the mast and made all the standing rigging. Britannia had no sails, but Sam was able to rescue blocks and sails from the Lowestoft fishing fleet which was being destroyed at the time, to make way for the boom in North sea oil exploration.

In the spring of 1974, Sam judged that Britannia was seaworthy enough to make the trip from Lowestoft to Bristol, where Vicki was living with Haydn, – a pretty epic and scary maiden voyage. This adventure took place with the help of a good friend of the Samuels family, Hwyl Price, a very experienced sailor and an exceptionally talented boat designer and builder, who agreed to skipper the vessel. The voyage took about 5 days. The engine broke down, inevitably, and the scrappy sails that had been rescued from bonfires in Lowestoft, helped to sail Britannia into Newhaven to make repairs to the engine.

Once safely berthed in Bristol docks, the Samuels family stayed there for two years, living on her secretly – live-aboard’s were frowned upon- but the Dock master, Captain Hobart, turned a blind eye and often visited for a chat and a cuppa. Britannia was flush decked with very little headroom down below, having been a workboat previously. The only place one could comfortably stand up with enough headroom was in the fore-cabin, the first third of the boat. So for a while, this area was the only liveable space. Sam managed to utilise the rest of the space in the boat by constructing a low deck cabin which allowed them to have a separate galley and saloon. The Samuels also bought a little pot-bellied cast iron stove from a scrap-dealer for £5. The stove was in the boat the whole time that the family owned her but sadly has now gone.

In 1975 Britannia went south in the Bristol Channel, berthing for a year at the head of the River Brue. Sam continued to work on her, but living aboard with a two year old was quite difficult – no marina, electricity or water, and with a half mile trek along the river bank to the road to fill water containers. There were no power tools or generator – everything had to be carried or, when the tide was in rowed to the boat in the tender.

In the hot summer of 1976 the Samuels family sailed south again, staying at Bideford and Padstow en route, finally berthing at Mylor Bridge in December where for 3 years, Sam was working on her and sailing sometimes in the many summer regattas held for Falmouth Oyster boats in Cornwall. Sam was asked to crew on one or two of them – something he still remembers as a great experience, not to be forgotten!

In February 1978, Vicki had another baby boy, Gareth and gave up her job. The Samuels had shared the upbringing of their sons, as living aboard was a very cheap way of life and they were able to live quite comfortably on Vicki’s part-time salary, together with additional pieces of work that Sam was able to do whilst continuing to work on Britannia and fund her restoration himself.

Towards the end of 1978, they sailed back up the Bristol Channel and kept Britannia on a mud berth at Uphill, just south of Weston super Mare where they wintered. In 1979 Britannia was taken to Bristol docks again. Sam was working on a major restoration of a 60 foot baltic trader, Consultant Shipwright to the restoration of the Pascal Flores, a beautiful schooner that was in the dry dock, and managing the boat yard.

In November 1979 Britannia was involved in film work for HTV – the Smuggler TV series with Oliver Tobias and Lesley Dunlop. Sam and a motley crew spent two weeks filming off Ilfracombe in difficult conditions. Britannia was the Customs and Excise boat and she was fitted with bronze cannons borrowed from Berkeley Castle. On returning to Bristol, and with the money earned from the film work, she was immediately hauled out where there were facilities to work on her and that is where she stayed for two years – the family still living on board, but now twenty feet up in the air, overlooking Brunel’s SS Great Britain. That is where her major hull restoration was completed, the stern, new rail, covering board and down below, some home improvements were done, such as putting in water tanks and a diesel tank, finishing the galley, new masts and spars were made and new rigging.

Having had enough of hot dusty summers in Bristol, in 1984 Britannia went north – to the Inner Hebrides to be precise. Sam took a job as handyman on the remote Isle of Canna, population 18, and sailed Britannia from Bristol to Canna with just one other crew member, Dave Hargreaves. Canna lies between the west coast of the Scottish mainland and the Outer Isles, Barra being the nearest. Sam sailed across the minch to Barra one day but took no money with him, having been used to living on Canna without any need for cash, he was unable to go ashore for a beer!

Canna has a very safe harbour and Britannia was beached on a high spring tide, and rested on legs for 2 Scottish winters. Sam made a wonderful zip wire for the boys from the mast to the shore.

The family spent two years on the island – having a house ashore with plenty of space. The boys, being unused to the flimsy nature of some houses, managed to break a few fittings and had races down the hall, but in 1986 they went to Skye where Haydn was at secondary school. Back to living on the boat again in Portree harbour until they found a flat in October and moved off the boat again. Scottish harbours are no places to live aboard in the winter – 3 months was enough rowing the boys and Gemma the family’s Alsatian dog ashore in a south westerly gale. The boys aged 12 and 8 were very accomplished boatmen, but the waves were too high to risk them in a dinghy by themselves.

In 1987 the family launched Skyes’l Charters to mainly sail the seas around the Western Isles. having outgrown the boat – (teenage boys) they moved ashore permanently but not wanting to let Britannia go, decided that she could earn her living as a charter boat amongst the most beautiful sailing grounds in the world. The stunning scenery and abundant wildlife drew holidaymakers to Skye, to learn to sail on a traditional boat. Although most trips were for a week around Skye and the Hebrides, occasional longer passages were made to St Kilda and Portaferry in Ireland, Brest in Brittany.  Skyes’l Charters first skipper, Tim Ebdy, made a point of visiting Bill Worfolk, one of Britannia’s builders, then well into his Nineties, in Kings Lynn in 1989, and spent an afternoon with him yarning and learning about Britannia’s build and sea trials. Bill said that she was the fastest boat that they had ever built.

The summer of 1995 was spent on the south coast of England with Sam and his 17 year old son Gareth as crew, attending various boat festivals, and Britannia won the Concourse d’ Elegance in Falmouth for the best kept workboat. Just before Skyes’l Charters ended in 1995, Britannia had a winter in the Canaries, based in Los Christianaos, Tenerife. In order to go abroad, she had to be registered as a British Vessel and sadly had to be renamed Spirit of Britannia because there could not be two Britannia’s on the Registry even though this Britannia was older!

In 1996 the Samuels’ stood on the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol and watched their boat sail down the Avon without them. – no longer “their boat”. For 25 years they had been her custodians, but she had had to be sold, not out of choice, but necessity.


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