The characters of Chichester Harbour

Liz Sagues writes....

Saturday, 4th July 2020, 11:43 am
John Davis, hands-on harbour master, clearing weed at Dell Quay. Photo: Chichester Observer

Journalist Liz Sagues surveys the great characters...

"As activity on the waters of Chichester Harbour gradually resumes something like summer normality, what do those racing high-speed dinghies, exploring in sailing or motor cruisers, enjoying windsurfing, paddling, canoeing, or even swimming know of the characters who preceded them?

Characters some of them were, certainly. Among them was Ian McKay, harbour master from 1974 until 1988. A keen windsurfer, one day he was out in the main Itchenor channel when he saw a speedboat going faster than the 8-knot limit.

Remarkably, he intercepted the offender. "I am not sure who was the most surprised," he remarked afterwards, "the [person] driving the boat or myself as I dropped my sail in his path, and shouted 'Stop! I am the Harbour Master! Do you know you are breaking the speed limit.'"

McKay undoubtedly left his mark. There is the splendid photograph of him in the Chichester Harbour Conservancy collection showing him aboard his windsurfer in top hat and tails. And his frustration with some harbour users is recorded in one exasperated comment on the way they attached their craft to moorings "with old sheets, clothes lines and any come-in-handy gear".

Other notable harbour personalities are remembered in the names of the yellow racing marks which dot the harbour waters. Among the most recent are John Davis, south of Pilsey Island, and Pusinelli, down channel from Emsworth SC, the club to which Nigel Pusinelli gave so much.

John Davis, after a distinguished career in the Royal Marines, was appointed harbour master in 1997 and oversaw the millennium Rhythms of the Tide projects – the oyster boat Terror and sun-powered Solar Heritage, which both continue to tour the harbour, were two of them.

Davis was an enthusiastic sailor of classic boats, including his Sunbeam Fleury. It was at her helm in August 2010 that he suffered a fatal heart attack, a sad loss for all who love the Harbour.

Nigel Pusinelli raced dinghies from ESC for almost 50 years, and became the club's third Admiral, following a very distinguished predecessor, Lord Mountbatten of Burma. But the reason that he was rewarded with the coveted honour of Freeman of Chichester Harbour centred on his pivotal role in the Harbour Conservancy, for which he worked tirelessly for 38 years. Renaming the existing Oyster mark in his honour was an expression of recognition by both Conservancy and club of all that he did.

Notoriety perhaps more than dedication gave John's Folly, another of the south-of-Pilsey marks, its name. John Aumonier, also a keen participant in Harbour management, sailed an International Canoe in the days before protective wetsuits or drysuits. As he grew older he became increasingly concerned about the consequences of wearing damp clothing in a chilly breeze. His frequent solution was to sail naked.

Several more staunch (and fully clothed) Conservancy volunteers are recorded by named marks, but in the case of Lowles, a neighbour of John's Folly, the reason is different. Sir Geoffrey Lowles, a commodore of Itchenor SC, was responsible in the early 1930s for introducing the Solent Sunbeam keelboats to Chichester Harbour, where the large modern fleet remains a splendid sight.

Not all the "personality" marks are named after sailors. Treloar, at the very mouth of the harbour, owes its name to the man who founded the hospital for tubercular children on Sandy Point, Hayling Island, just opposite the modern mark.

Sir William Purdie Treloar was a City man and Lord Mayor of London who directed his influence and philanthropy to setting up first the Cripples Hospital and College at Alton in Hampshire and, in 1919, its seaside offshoot. There, 50 young patients from London spent the maximum possible time outside in the sunshine as part of his ambition "to cure the suffering and then train the helpless cripples to become useful members of society". While the hospital is long gone, Sir William's efforts are remembered still.

Going back in time, there are so many more Harbour characters.

St Wilfrid's arrival in 681 (though by land much more probably than by sea) and his miraculous solution to the Bosham famine is chronicled in Bede' s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

Did King Canute sail on its waters? Who knows, but Bosham is considered the place where he attempted to rule the waves and repulse the tide, and there's a legend that his daughter, drowned in the mill stream, was buried in the village church. One of Canute's henchmen, Earl Godwin, had a fleet of fighting ships that could have been based in the harbour, and Godwin's eldest son, the brutal Swegen, was known to have ships at Bosham in 1049.

Another of Goodwin's sons, Harold – he of the arrow-in-the-eye at the Battle of Hastings – is also thought by historian Philip MacDougall to have used the harbour as a haven for the royal fleet during his brief spell as King of England.

And between then and now... Well, what about the privateers whose activities are recorded in the Spanish national archives or the royal mistress whose demands established a local noble dynasty? But they must wait for another article, or you can read about them and many more in detail in my book, Chichester Harbour: England's Coastal Gem (Robert Hale).

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