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Michael Goffe - Farewell to a thinking sailor

by David Henshall 4 Jan 12:00 GMT
He might not have been so mobile as he was in his dinghy days, but show Michael Goffe a boat and all the old skills returned, despite his being into his nineties © Alison Garrett

If the only metric to be applied when considering who would be on a list of our 'great' sailors was the number of major championships wins, then it is unlikely that the name of Michael Goffe, who died in the days after Christmas, would be highlighted. Yet his omission would be so wrong, for in so many ways Michael deserves to be taking his place right up there with that great post-war generation of the giants.

In those early post war years of the late 1940s, things were so very different to how they are today, for in terms of top-flight competition there was only the International 14, the National 12 and then the newcomer, the Fairey Firefly. Yet at the same time, the UK was blessed with a profusion of superb sailing talent, with the Jardine brothers and Stewart Morris, Charles Currey, Bruce Banks and Martin Beale, Jack Holt and Ian Proctor to name just a few of the sailors who were all at the top of their game at the same time. In short, there were far more championship quality sailors than there were opportunities to win and in a culture that only really rewarded the winner, there was little room to mention the other podium places. So for Michael Goffe to be talked about as the equal of these great names suggests that he had other attributes and as we will go on to see, his story is far more than his single 'major' win which occurred 70 years ago in 1949.

He was born into what was very much a medical family as both his parents were Doctors with a busy practice. Life for Michael would have been very pleasant, with plenty to keep a young boy occupied as he was the third of four boys. Coming from a 'well to do' household would see Michael being sent away to Bryanston School down in Dorset for his education. The key lesson in his life would not come there but up at Abersoch during a summer holiday when the family had hired a small lugsail dinghy. With home being at Kingston, Michael would be able to develop his skills both as helm and crew, at Minima during the summer and at Ranelagh during the winter.

With so much of the 'air-war' taking place above the waters of the Channel, the number of planes that would make a crash landing 'in the drink' would prompt the Air Force to provide small rubber dinghies for the downed aircrew. Most had never been anywhere near a small boat, so those who had some sailing experience were called in to give lessons in boat craft before the crews were sent out on operations. Without a centreboard, there was no way a small inflatable would go to windward, but thankfully the prevailing breeze would help push the boat on a northerly heading, with this being helped by the addition of a short telescopic mast and a pocket handkerchief sail. Minima would be one of the training locations, with Michael being one of the instructors who would be used to give what was little more than the most rudimentary of training, seeing that much of it took place not on the Thames but in the pub!

It may come as something of a surprise that dinghy racing continued on through the war with the Thames clubs being a hotbed of sailing in National 12s, but we now know that instead of waiting for the return of peace, Jack Holt had already started building the first Merlins out of black-market timber whilst the last years of war were still being fought. Part of the plan for Merlin was for Beecher Moore to promote the boat amongst the river clubs along the Thames and it is probable that Michael would have seen the boat and probably sailed in one. In what would be a fortuitous coincidence, in 1946, when the new Merlin class headed south to Hayling Island SC for their first Nationals, Michael, who was now in the RAF would be on hand. Officially he was on leave recuperating from an illness, with the medical advice being to keep out of the sun and the water, but when RJ 'Jimmy' Ledwith's crew couldn't make it, Michel ended up crewing in Merlin number 3 Clare, coming second overall. Michael would later recall how difficult it was sailing these very tender boats on the sea, for Jack Holt had decided to optimize the boat's performance on the river by giving it a 25ft wooden mast that required a good deal of rigging to keep it standing straight. Moreover, the Merlins had settled on a rotating semi-wing mast section which though quite efficient, worked out to be a lot of weight aloft. Michael would tell how the boats had to be sailed upright, for once they started heeling, it was difficult to stop them rolling on into a capsize.

These were hard times in the racing dinghy world, pre self-bailers and transom flaps, when a capsize could be a race ending event (even more so in the Merlins, which only had a small cockpit opening... Proctor described them as '7/8th decked' which made bailing out a nightmare). By now Michael's reputation would see him sailing in a number of boats, but it would be the National 12 that was his first love, though as he said later, he couldn't afford the costs of campaigning a 14, but the National 12 was within his reach. When the Fairey Firefly was named as the single-handed class for the 1948 Olympics, those who had experience of sailing the not dis-similar National 12 had something of a head start. After a series of Selection Trials around the country, the top sailors would be brought together at Hayling for a final decider, yet at the completion of the series there was still no clear 'stand out' winner. With Charles Currey ruled illegible because of his employment with Faireys, the RYA asked the popular favourite Bruce Banks, along with Martin Beale, Michael Goffe and Arthur Macdonald to stay on for a winner takes all shoot out. Michael was at something of a disadvantage as these final races were held in breeze and Michael was giving away between 22 and 28kg to the others. Had it been a light airs series things may have worked out differently, but the races would continue until in the end the RYA got the 'establishment' figure they wanted when they chose Macdonald, only for him to have an unhappy time at the Olympic Regatta a month later!

Being one of the final finalists would soon be capped when at Weymouth in 1949 Michael would win not only the coveted Burton Trophy for the National 12s. but also the Yachting World Silver Points Cup. The small boat world was changing fast, but Michael was in the coveted position of being able to bridge across both the earlier generation through his friendship with Uffa Fox and the coming era which had Ian Proctor very much in the vanguard. Then, as the clock ticked over into the 1950s, the IYRU were looking for a performance dinghy, with Uffa Fox having two goes at getting this right. His first, the hard chine, sharpie-like Tornado was anything but a success, with Fox going on to create the Jollyboat which again was not what the sport was looking for.

Though his friendship with Proctor, Michael would instead end up sailing early versions of the Osprey, a boat he described as little more than a stretched out version of the Proctor Merlin Rockets that were proving so successful.

Although missing out in terms of pure power to the Flying Dutchman and Coronet/505 at the 1953 La Baule Trials, Osprey would catch the eye of many courtesy of being meticulously prepared and superbly sailed. Although Proctor was very much in evidence in France, he had stepped aside from the helm of Osprey in favour of Michael, who had been perfecting the technique of spinnaker reaching with his crew out on the wire. Once the Trials afloat had been completed the political horse trading started, suffice to say that thankfully Michael had no part in it; he had done his job in showing Osprey off to the best of the boat's abilities.

As the 1950s ran on into the 'swinging sixties' top flight dinghy sailing was becoming increasingly played out on the international scene but by now Michael had both a growing family and the demands of his busy dental practice to occupy his time, so he focused his efforts on sailing on the domestic scene. He also broadened his horizons by sailing bigger boats, though his preference now was for cruising rather than racing. Like so many of the great sailors of his generation Michael was keen to be able to give something back to the sport that had given him so much, which saw him qualify as a Dinghy Instructor, then with that love of cruising, he became both a Yachtmaster Instructor and Examiner. His love of the water was such that he stayed active, getting afloat whenever his more limited mobility would allow him. When the chance came to sail one of the Illusion singlehanders, modified for disabled sailors at Bisham Abbey SC, he enjoyed a two hour reconnection with the joys of river sailing, though he added that the only thing missing was some competition to make a race of it, for the old habits die hard.

An ever-greater gift was Michael's ability to clearly recall events and people in a very concise and insightful manner. He was modest of his own achievements but was there when many of the boats and the very foundations of the sport as it is today were being laid. Talking with him was to get a first-hand account of some great moments, told with charm and a lack of bias; it helped of course that he was an easy subject to interview, but I for one would want to pay thanks to him for the he gave with a number of historical projects and the early chapters of what will become the story of the 505.

Yet, when during the interview I pressed him on his championship record from 70 years ago, he ruefully admitted that whilst he had been very good, it was a time when there were those that were even better. One could imagine a Finn sailor from more recent times thinking the same as they lived in the Ben Ainslie/Giles Scott years of domination, though not all would admit it with such grace.

But now, just 4 months short of his 97th birthday, to borrow the words from the Goffe family announcement, "Michael sailed peacefully over the horizon". In doing so, he leaves us with a legacy that is far more than just a name inscribed on a trophy, but as a sailor who was there when history was being made and in his own way, he would leave his mark there too.

Michael Goffe 5th April 1923 - 28th December 2019

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