This is the story of how we came to buy Mermaid. The story came second in the Classic Boat writers’ competition and was published in the May 1998 issue of the magazine. The competition was judged by the late Hammond Innes, who said of the story that it was "a tale of seaside seduction, starring an old boat and a little girl."
My wife, Vickie, and myself have travelled throughout Europe on Vickie’s parents’ motorboat. Our daughter joined the crew at the age of three months on a trip to Berlin. As she approached her second birthday she announced “Daddy’s going to build a boat for Tilly”. Well I had been talking about the possibility of building one.
Although we liked the idea of a modern boat with spacious accommodation for its size, I also have a love of old boats. This is not surprising for someone who has trained as an art historian and is more than a bit of a Romantic. Naturally, I subscribe to Classic Boat and whilst reading the May 1997 issue I came upon a small article titled Mermaid in distress. Mermaid is an extraordinary boat, being built in 1860 by Alfred Payne on the lines of a Southampton pilot cutter. I pointed her out to Vickie and she agreed that Mermaid retained much of her beauty, even though she was in a severely neglected and, one might even say, vandalised state. Tilly’s face lit up when I showed her the picture and Vickie persuaded me to phone Chris Nation at Weir Quay Boatyard to find out about Mermaid.
It turned out that the owner wanted to be rid of her and so did the boatyard. There was even talk of burning her! We decided to go down to Devon to have a look. It would be a short holiday even if Mermaid proved to be unsuitable or even already sold by then.
We set off on Thursday, 15th May, on our five hour journey to Plymouth. Tilly was in the back of the car, coughing and spluttering. It got worse as the journey went on and what should have been a joyful voyage in search of our dream boat became very distressing for all. Our first stop in Plymouth was the A & E unit of the local hospital. After examinations and x-rays it was decided that Tilly had a bad attack of hay fever or, possibly, asthma. A prescription was issued and we dashed off to the supermarket pharmacy to get the medicines. Tilly was dosed and we made our way to the hotel. At last a quiet drink, an evening meal, and then we turned in for the night with Tilly coughing in the cot at the foot of our bed.
The next morning was much better. Tilly’s medicine was working and she was much improved, although it would take all weekend before she was anywhere near being back to normal. We had breakfast and then, with the sun shining, set off to find Weir Quay Boatyard. We were greeted by Lucette, who showed us some papers relating to Mermaid’s history and introduced us to Bob, who outlined the deal. “There she is,” he said, “what you see is what you get. Go and have a look at her and, if your still interested, we’ll talk.” Tilly was put into her life-jacket and we made our way across in a small inflatable. As we scrambled up the side a small voice said “Tilly’s boat”. The tide was coming in and as we scrambled over the decks, we felt her lift out of the mud. “At least she floats,”: a bit surprising as she was half full of water! We peered inside, through the doghouse, through the portholes, and through the hole in the deck where the planking had given way, but we could not get inside without getting seriously wet.
I stood on the deck over the counter stern (that’s the bit that drops off when a boat is really rotten) and it just felt so right.
Back on land, I asked Vickie, “What do you think?” “You’re mad!” “Yes, but what do you think of the boat? Should we give it a go?” “Well, yes.” We told Bob we were still interested. A deal was proposed and if agreeable to the owner we could have the boat. It was implied that we should take her away, but that’s what we wanted to do anyway. Bob offered to help with the transport. I then took some photographs and we left to enjoy our weekend.
The following week Chris Nation rang to say that everything was O.K. Tilly now has her boat, Mermaid, but daddy has the considerable task of making her seaworthy. Daddy’s going to re-build a boat for Tilly.