During my visit to Cardiff at the end of January, my sister, my mum and I took a look at the World of Boats museum in Cardiff Bay. It was freezing cold under the canvas ceiling in there, but at least it gave some protection from the wind outside and the boat collection was really well worth seeing.
There were dugout canoes and coracles in the first hall; it seems that people from very different parts of the world came up with the same ideas at around about the same time in history. (This phenomenon doesn't only apply to the history of boats, but to many other kinds of artefact, coins for example, and I wonder why.) Rafts were another early invention, made of reeds or logs. As I recorded from my visit to the maritime museum in Sydney, the first people to come ashore in Australia almost certainly came in a craft like this, 40,000 years ago.
We saw a beach canoe such as is still used by the Yami people from the Lanyu (Orchid) Islands near what is now called Taiwan.
What affected me most were the stories that went with some of the boats on display, such as a "Very Slender Vessel" or sampan from Vietnam which had once carried three refugees over 600 miles of ocean to Hong Kong. We saw a camouflaged "cockle" from the 1940s used as a raiding canoe (see photo above) in World War 2, both in France and Japan. The museum's story about the "Cockleshell Heroes" made such an impression on me that I've since bought a recently published book about it, written a couple of years ago by Paddy Ashdown, which I'm avidly reading at the moment. It's called A Brilliant Little Operation: the Cockleshell Heroes and the Most Courageous Raid of World War Two.
A replica of the launch used by 18 men loyal to Captain Bligh after the famous Mutiny on the Bounty was in the Cardiff museum too. They'd spent 42 days on the Pacific in this tiny vessel (7 metres long), from the Pitcairn Islands to Timor, having travelled on water for 3618 nautical miles; that's further than the distance from Ottawa to London. All they'd had for navigational aids were a quadrant and a pocket watch.
Then there was a metal boat not much bigger nor more seaworthy than a bathtub, it seemed, a jokey home made craft called Wun Betta (sic) that tried and failed to reach the Canary Islands from Wales. It was built by a would-be sailor aged 55, called Brynmor Griffiths.
In 1980, Griffiths and Wun Betta, complete with its red dragon stickers, the symbol of Wales, set sail westward from Oxwich Bay. No sooner having rounded Cape Finistere, the Welshman encountered heavy seas in the Bay of Biscay. He was well protected by the plastic bubble cockpit canopy above his head. This was originally used in an aircraft and acquired from a scrapyard in Swansea. "This item saved my life. When I was in the fully enclosed position it made my little craft almost impervious to the following seas breaking over me. These lifted her stern end up and buried her nose. However on my first capsize, a substantial amount of water got in past the edges and although the little boat self-righted again, the interior was about a quarter full, and sloshed back and fore with quite a wave action. It was rather uncomfortable. I bailed the boat out and decided to continue to the Canary Islands for repairs but was again capsized. This time I was too tired and too dispirited to continue further. For 7 days I sat, ate and slept and generally lived in about one foot of sea water before arriving back at Looe in Cornwall."...where the boat was abandoned.
After inspecting a Portuguese crab-fishing boat, a Venetian gondola and a Maltese water taxi, we came upon the narrow kayak used by "Gino" Watkins of Lancing College, the Cambridge University Air Squadron and the Royal Geographical Society, to explore the coasts and inlets of Labrador and Greenland. It was a very primitive expedition. Watkins was lost hunting seals in Tugtilik Fjord in 1932; and though they retrieved his kayak, they never found a trace of him.
Although I entitled this blogpost "Brave men in little boats," perhaps I should have called it "Foolhardy men in little boats," because prudence and common sense were not their dominant qualities.
There was only one more person in the museum at the time we visited it: the man in charge, who also sold us the entrance tickets and manned the Look Out Café Bar which was kept a good deal warmer than the exhibition space. Mum declined his offer of a drink and we hurried back to the Millennium Centre for a pot of tea over there, instead, passing, on our way, the memorial to Captain Scott and his men of his Antarctic expedition that came to grief––Captain Oates and company. They had set off from Cardiff Bay.