Sir Donald Gosling's superyacht memories
by Sir Donald Gosling
Former owner of 75m Leander Sir Donald Gosling has passed away at the age of 90. Read his obituary here.
My love affair with the sea started when I was nine. My mother used to take me to the Round Tower, which overlooks the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour, to see all the warships coming and going, getting ready for the Second World War. From that moment I knew that I was destined to go into the Royal Navy.
My boyhood interest in nautical things and my love for the sea and boats was clearly shown by my bedroom, whose walls were covered from one end to the other with photographs of yachts, ships and warships. Thats all I ever read about and all I wanted to know about. Then I was lucky enough to get into boy's training aged 13 on the Arethusa in August 1943 - the quickest way into the Navy.
It was a tough introduction to all things nautical, and the training, down in Salcombe, south Devon, covered everything from rowing boats to sailing vessels and motor boats. In 1944 I joined the Royal Navy, heading to HMS St George on the Isle of Man for naval training, in preparation for the sea - the real sea - and in 1946 I joined the cruiser HMSLeander. We sailed for the Med in July 1946, and from our base in Malta we had two action-packed years it was a wonderful form of nautical education and character building.
With the advent of a post-war Atlee government the Navy was cut to shreds, with the 1,500-strong fleet reduced by more than half. It was at that juncture I came out of the service with a surge of other people, and settled down to train as a surveyor.
I found civvy street difficult, and it wasn't long before I had a hankering to get back on the water. As soon as I was able, with the help of a few savings, I bought a 3 metre clinker-built boat with an inboard engine that I kept on the Thames. Afloat at last!
As time went by I teamed up with Ron Hobson - now Sir Ronald Hobson - and we started a company building car parks and petrol stations. All the time in the background was my yearning to find a bigger boat. Backed by Ron, we searched every weekend until we found the most perfect boat for our requirements: Elizabeth Gertrude. She was built in Porthleven, Cornwall, in 1934-5 for Lord Rothschild and was at that point berthed alongside Tags Island by Hampton Court. She was owned by the general manager of Ford Motor Company, Alistair Mackintosh, and she was immaculate.
With a length of 18.3 metres and weighing 60 tonnes, Elizabeth Gertrude was built in pitch pine on oak frames with twin Thorneycroft petrol paraffin engines - you would start up the engines with pure petrol and once the manifold reached a certain temperature, you'd switch over the fuel supply to paraffin. The yacht was fitted with two robust masts and carried a certain amount of sail, but I suspect it was only for steadying. As our operational area went up and down the Thames, and it was impossible to lower the masts, I had them removed and built a workmanlike metal mast arrangement that would lower to go under bridges, but would carry all the necessary aerials and flags.
In those days the only crew member we had was a car park attendant who had served in the Navy and went by the name of Bob - Bob the Bosun. He did everything. We sailed most weekends out of Ramsgate, and visited many of the channel ports from Ostend in Belgium to Le Havre, the Seine and even up to Paris. They were very happy days - every guest on board had a duty to attend to: I did the skippering, while our local builder did the engineering. It was a great learning curve.
In 1956 we had an offer for the boat and decided to let her go as I had ambitions to build a new vessel. Elizabeth Gertrude then had one very good owner, Howard Crook, who improved the vessel, but when he died she was sold to an unknown purchaser. She was only used as a houseboat and had a very sad ending, sinking just outside of Malta Grand Harbour having been towed out by the authorities for not paying harbour dues.
In 1960 I built in The Netherlands a 22.9 metre steel yacht powered by twin MAN engines and named her Silver Goose. She served for seven years, and we cruised Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. I used to keep her alongside my home at Leander House on the Thames at Teddington.
When the time came to make the passage to the Mediterranean across the Bay of Biscay, the captain approached me and said that he was the only qualified ticket holder - as it was a long crossing over Biscay, he wanted to take on a passage captain. From an advertisement in a yachting magazine I found a passage captain and agreed terms. He would take the yacht with my captain and be a watchkeeper as far as Gibraltar, and would then be flown home. He then asked if he could take his daughter on the trip, and I said it would be no problem as there was plenty of room on board.
When the ship sailed I disembarked at Poole harbour and returned to work. The yacht continued with its crew of seven, the additional captain and his daughter - they shared a cabin - and Aurora, a Spanish au pair, whose contract had ended at Leander House and who had requested a lift home.
Unfortunately, the two captains could never agree on the same course. The passage captain wanted to take the inner passage across Biscay, and my skipper wanted to take the outer passage - and so the yacht zig-zagged across the Bay of Biscay for several days.
One bright and sunny morning, land was spotted and a sextant came out and both captains declared it was Cap Ortegal, bang on the nose and on time. They were about to have a pink gin to celebrate their landfall when Aurora, the Spanish au pair, announced that it wasn't Cap Ortegal, but Cap San Adrian, some 100 miles off course. When challenged, she said she knew it was correct because firstly her father was a local fisherman, and secondly she recognised her church!
Time went by and I sold Silver Goose, and built, at Tough's of Teddington, my first Brave Goose. She was 35 metres long, built of teak on iron frames, powered by Gardner diesel engines and constructed to the highest possible shipbuilding standards.
Why the name Brave Goose? I had reserved the name Silver Goose, but during the course of the build my 11 year-old son had had a serious illness and would not stop haemorrhaging. When I went to see the boy just before he went in for an operation he was piped and tubed everywhere.
He said, "Dad, I'll be OK after the operation," and I replied, "You're a brave little goose. We ought to call the new yacht that." When he emerged from the operation the first thing he said was, "Don't forget you're going to call it Brave Goose." We still keep and cherish the name.
I kept Brave Goose in Juan les Pins, Port Galice, and one day I was approached by a man who desperately wanted to buy her. The gentleman concerned had been wooing a German countess who had steadfastly refused all his offers of marriage.
One day they saw Brave Goose entering harbour with all her harbour procedure and crew in uniform, and she declared that if he owned that yacht she would marry him. Unfortunately for me, the gentleman only told me this story after I had sold the yacht to him, otherwise I would have got more for her. (They never did get married!) Apart from the good offer, I sold Brave Goose because I was ready to build something bigger.
The next Brave Goose, built again at Toughs, was 41.7 metres long, constructed in steel with an aluminium superstructure, teak decks, and twin Kelvin engines.
At 350 tonnes she was the biggest yacht ever built on the river Thames. In order to get her to sea for trials it was necessary to remove all the upper superstructure - mast, flying bridge - which was purposely designed to come off, and on the first attempt to get under Richmond Bridge, while the yacht was under the control of the shipyard, the melting snow on top of the tide meant she could not pass under it and had to wait for 24 hours for the next tide.
This excited the world media, who were amazed that someone would be idiotic enough to build a ship that couldn't get under the bridge. Just 24 hours later she sailed perfectly and safely through without the assistance of tugs, and was moored alongside HMS Belfast near Tower Bridge on the Thames where she lay for three months while the finishing works were done.
When I built Brave Goose, I built her with a view to keeping her for the rest of my time, and so I personally checked every single nut and bolt, and even visited the manufacturers to see the equipment being made. She was a splendid sea boat and a fine-looking ship into the bargain.
But I ended up selling her, again because in a similar story to the previous Brave Goose: I was approached by an English gentleman whose wife had chartered her and had fallen in love with her.
I should add too that I'd also just bought a 48.8 metre Dutch-built yacht called Katalina (now Lady Georgina), which I deployed to the Caribbean. I had decided that two yachts would be too much headache and expense to maintain, but in no time at all I had sold Katalina to two English gentlemen and then accepted a bid for Brave Goose.
Going from two boats to suddenly having none might seem drastic, but I'd also fallen in love with a larger yacht called Edenforth (now Nafisa). She was 500 tonnes, built in Holland for an Arab prince and had hardly been used.
I spent a lot of time and investment changing her to my own colour schemes and upgrading her where I thought necessary. Renamed Brave Goose, she gave me several years of happiness as we cruised and entertained, sailing the whole of the Mediterranean in the summer and the Caribbean in the winter.
I remember one year I sailed her to St Lucia, and I took with me the former Chief of Defence Staff, Lord Fieldhouse. He'd been a friend of mine for many years, with his lovely wife Midge, and he'd had an operation, so I took him out to recuperate.
As is traditional, being a five-star officer, he was able to wear the Union flag at the masthead. One day, a rather pompous gentleman came up to the ship just as Lord Fieldhouse was disembarking. "Are you the owner of this ship?" the man asked. Lord Fieldhouse was very frugal with his words, and he raised his bushy eyebrows and replied: "Unfortunately, no."
"Oh, oh!" exclaimed the man. "Is the owner aware that the Union flag flown from the masthead is only flown for five star officers?" And Fieldhouse replied: "Yes, he is. And I am." The man put his tail between his legs and scarpered!
I was totally happy with a 500 tonne ship, until 1990 when, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was asked by Peter Insull to go to a shipyard in Germany which was building warships for the Russian Navy at the rate of one a week.
The German federal government wanted commercial ships to be built and was offering financial incentives to get the business as the shipyard was so important to the area.
I flew to the Peene-Werft facility on the Baltic, and saw this immense shipyard. There were 60 brand new warships on trots, unmanned, with just a caretaker on board. But it was an incredible shipyard, and it was also building this 2,000 tonne yacht.
To cut a long story short, I fell in love with her during her build and bought her from the owner before it was finished, imposed my own wishes on the build, and changed the name to Leander - Brave Goose was already in existence as the ex-Edenforth.
In 1993 at Christmas I completed the purchase, brought the yacht back to England to the Devonport dockyard where they helped me finish the project to my own taste, made some adjustments, added a helicopter base, and that ship is the elegant Leander that is well-known to yachtsmen today.
One day on Leander, during the Kosovan crisis, I was with the First Sea Lord, having lunch. He said he was a bit concerned about the submarine HMS Splendid, and the welfare of her crew, as she had been out on patrol a long time and her crew were running short of all sorts of goodies.
I arranged to meet her in the middle of the ocean one morning - there's Leander, and suddenly up pops this heavily-used sub. I went over and interviewed all the crew, and to a man they said they did not want to be relieved - they wanted to get on and finish the job, in spite of the fact they were over what would be a normal patrol time.
I took with me a whole load of stores, from newspapers and magazines to chocolate and fresh fruit, and then we had them all back over on Leander in groups of 15 to 20 people. All they wanted was a shower and a freshen up, a fresh meal and a bit of space for a couple of hours.
In this way we got the whole crew on board in shifts while the rest had a barbecue on the subs casing. It was a wonderful exercise and we were blessed with a flat calm day. We lay with them all day until it was time for them to go back on duty.
Leander is the yacht I've kept the longest, but where could I possibly go from here? I've cruised every corner of the Med and the whole of the Caribbean and South America. The answer is that after a leap of 500 to 2,000 tonnes I'm not of a mind to go up any further - probably due to advancing years - and if I take a step forward it will probably be to build a safe, sea-going yacht under 50 metres that would fit into my favourite berth at Port Gallice, Juan les Pins, which I had specially built in 1962 for_ Brave Goose. _I would also curtail my yachting to simply cruising some of my favourite islands - Corsica, Sardinia, and the Dalmatian coast.
Apart from the superyachting side, I get great pleasure driving my other two boats - a 17 metre Sunseeker, now bearing the name Brave Goose, which gives me tremendous pleasure on short coastal runs in France. And as a complete contrast I keep at the end of my garden a 22 metre purpose-built river/canal boat, called Maisie, which is a wonderful way to view our English countryside, and particularly Hampton Court palace and all the local inns!
With such experiences over so long a time in yachting, it is hard to pick out individual moments that stick in the memory - every single boat has a story, and I could talk for hours on any one of them. Perhaps, though, there are a couple of memories that neatly encapsulate my time in yachting, from my first yacht Elizabeth Gertrude to my current yacht.
With such experiences over so long a time in yachting, it is hard to pick out individual moments that stick in the memory every single boat has a story
We kept Elizabeth Gertrude in Ramsgate, and were asked, in 1955, if we would go over for the fifteenth anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuations in Word War Two in a convoy of little ships, many of which had actually been there. On the actual day the Commodores vessel had engine trouble, so he flew his flag from Elizabeth Gertrude.
We sailed over to Dunkirk where we assembled with the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, laid a wreath, conducted a service on board Elizabeth Gertrude and sailed back to Ramsgate. In July 2009 a friend gave me a DVD of the film Dunkirk starring John Mills, which we watched on the cinema screen on board Leander.
You can imagine my complete amazement, having never seen the film, when there was Elizabeth Gertrude proudly sailing out from Ramsgate harbour, cleverly shot through barbed wire and sand bags, and spliced into the film - with me at the helm. Stardom at last!
Rear Admiral Sir Donald Gosling KCVO was the former joint chairman of National Car Parks, and is now joint chairman of several property companies with Sir Ronald Hobson KCVO. He is also president of the White Ensign Association. A highly recognised face of international superyachting, he has built a succession of yachts, and currently owns the 75 metre Leander.