I was going to entitle this piece “I once met Uffa Fox” but then thought that most people would never have heard of him . . . . . .hence my reference to tall ships, with which you may be more familiar.
The unusual name Uffa was in fact not a nickname but the one that he was he was christened with. He was one of my boyhood heroes. He was born in 1898 on the Isle of Wight and grew up on the Cowes waterfront. I suppose that he was best known as a boat designer and builder, he was a successful yacht and dinghy racer and took his knowledge and concepts to designing the very first planing racing dinghy, proving his designs by practical demonstrations. In 1928, racing his International Fourteen Footer in 57 starts gained 52 first places, two seconds and three thirds including winning the Prince of Wales Cup. He was forever coming up with new ideas.
During the Second World War he conceived the idea of the Airborne Lifeboat designed to be carried beneath aeroplanes and dropped by parachute to survivors of ditched aircraft. It had sails, engine, survival kit and an instruction book on how to sail. Years later when he was caught by Eamon Andrews for ‘This is Your Life’ he was confronted by dozens of aircrews who owed their lives to his invention.
He was a total eccentric, a wonderful raconteur and a fine singer of sea shanties (his CD of some of his singing is available on the RNLI website). He became a close friend and sailing companion of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and taught Charles and Anne to sail and photos of the Royals racing on the Dragon, “Bluebottle” and the Flying Fifteen, “Coweslip” with Uffa were everyday fodder to the media. He was married three times and his last was in 1958 when he married a French lady named Yvonne Bernard was typically Uffa. He spoke no French and Yvonne no English. (I just realised that that could be the recipe for a successful marriage, if Yvonne had been the first she may have been his only bride)
In the 1960’s I had been involved as an instructor with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme in both sailing and climbing. I later became a volunteer instructor in both pursuits with the Outward Bound Trust which is also closely associated with Prince Philip and in about 1968 I volunteered as an instructor on one of the Tall Ships Trust’s Schooners and sailed on the Sir Winston Churchill and The Malcolm Miller, navigating in a couple of Tall Ship Races, once to Malaga and then later to Vigo, on the Atlantic coast of Spain. On the Vigo trip we called in at Cowes where Prince Philip accompanied by Uffa came on board to greet us.
I am not sure whether or not it was my fawning adulation of the great seafarer, or whether any crew member would have been invited but that evening I found myself at the Commodore’s House overlooking Cowes harbour, a house designed by Uffa from a 300 year old warehouse specifically for his old age, with a lift to all three floors and the roof garden. It had brightly painted balconies and looked as though it would be more at home in Portofino. I had one of Uffa’s books with me called “The Joys of Life” which he kindly inscribed for me. He was the author of more than eighteen books but I think that The Joy of Life really summed up the man, not merely as a yachtsman and designer but as a writer, philosopher and larger than life character, the likes of which will never be seen again. Uffa Fox (1898 – 1972), gone to Davy Jones Locker but still dancing and singing on Fiddlers Green.
To my sorrow my memories of that evening in the company of the great man have somewhat misted over in a haze of pink gin and sea shanties but I can be very pleased that we both enjoyed the evening and each other’s company as fellow seafarers. You have the con . . . . . .