Sailing is a theme that occurs in nearly all Shute's novels and covers aspects from dinghy sailing in the sheltered waters of Chichester Harbour to a single-handed crossing of the Atlantic. Shute's love of sailing did not stem from his family for neither parent had any connection with the sea, nor were there seaside holidays where he came into contact with boats. At the Dragon School he learned to handle canoes and punts on the river Cherwell that runs beside the school and to sail dinghies on the upper Thames during the holidays. His affection for sailing and yachting came by chance when he and his friend from the Dragon School, Oliver Sturt, answered an advert in the personal column of the Times for two undergraduates to crew for an elderly Southampton solicitor, Mr Hepherd.
In Slide Rule, Shute describes that first voyage westwards from the Solent in some detail, for it evidently made a profound impression on him, and laid the foundations for a recreation that endured for the rest of his life, and for a thread that was to be interwoven in his novels. That first cruise in the Aeolia took them as far as the Scilly Islands and it is the Scilly Island that featured in his first published novel "Marazan".
In many of his novels sailing is a means of escape, of getting away from it all. For Peter Dennison in "Pilotage" he escapes to sea from his failed marriage proposal to Sheila. David Anderson in "In the Wet" sails his boat to escape from the pressures of being a Captain in the Queen's Flight and it is also a common interest that he has with Rosemary Long. The Corbett family can escape from the horrors of wartime bombing by taking to their yacht on the river Hamble, even if it does mean cramped living on board with a baby and two small children. Even Jack Donnely, the illiterate Oregon fisherman in "Trustee from the Toolroom", can escape from sophisticated Hawaii to sail south to "the Islands" and provide Keith Stewart with his only affordable chance of reaching Tahiti in the Mary Belle.
So too for Shute sailing was a recreation and a means of escape from daily routine. The interest first engendered by those early voyages as a student had to wait for some years until he moved south to Portsmouth with Airspeed in 1933. The move brought him back to the Solent and the Hamble and enabled him to resume sailing for pleasure, initially in "Skerdmore". After his departure from Airspeed in 1938 and the money from the sale of the film rights to "Ruined City" he was able to commission a 40ft boat from the David Hillyard yard at Littlehampton. Runagate was built in 1939 but Shute had little time to sail her before the outbreak of war, although legend has it that he was sailing in the Channel when war was declared on 3rd September 1939. Even before that boats and the sea figured in his everyday working life when he was involved in the Toraplane development and testing with Sir Dennis Burney. He observed many of the tests on board a Naval trawler out in the Solent or had meetings on board HMS Grive, the Admiralty yacht that had been put at the disposal of the Burney team.
When work on the Burney Toraplane was abandoned in favour of the RAE design and with the imminent threat of invasion in June 1940, it was the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve that Shute applied to join in response to their call for "elderly yachtsmen". He was hoping to take command of some small naval vessel, perhaps a trawler or drifter where command would not be too demanding and he could go on writing. He reported to the training establishment, HMS King Alfred in Hove, whose commanding officer had been briefed to look for technically qualified entrants. After only a few days there Shute found himself being interviewed by Commander Charles Goodeve. Although Shute was furious at being directed to join a technical department rather than to go and fight, he must have seemed God's gift to Goodeve. After all he was an engineer with experience of aircraft, had run his own organisation and most recently been involved with the development and testing of secret weapons. During the war there were few opportunities for him to get to sea and none for recreational sailing. Shute was to spend the years 1940-44 working in an office in London as head of the Engineering Section of the DMWD with, as he put it, "occasional trips to sea to see my things go wrong". Nonetheless these provided sailing backgrounds for his later novels. The central theme of "Most Secret" is about using a French fishing boat for raids on Brittany ports. The Sunday afternoon trip by Bill Duncan and Janet Prentice from Beaulieu to Lymington that features in "Requiem for a Wren" is set in waters that Shute knew well but that were transformed by the huge build up of ships and vessels in preparation for D-Day.
Shute's writing of sailing is, of course, based in his time. When he embarked on that first cruise in 1919 most craft had either no auxiliary engine or only a temperamental one so that manoeuvring in confined waters required considerable skill. Sails and gear were generally heavy and required considerable manhandling. He writes too of the discomforts of being at sea, of cooking on Primus stoves and oil lamps that required trimming and filling and of fetching water in canvas bags that required filling ashore and emptying into a tank once back on board. The details are all there in his novels and serve to inform the reader but never to bore him with too much detail. For the most part his characters have a sense of release at being at sea where their worlds are shrunk to considerations of course, tide and weather and battling with an element that is for the most part benign. There are exceptions such as the wrecking of the Sheerwater in a hurricane and Donald Woolfe's terror during the storm as he sails across the Atlantic single-handed. After his return from Burma in 1945 Shute could at last pick up the threads of a civilian life, take Runagate out of mothballs and resume pleasure sailing from his home at Pond Head house at the top end of Chichester harbour. His daughters sailed in dinghies and friends were invited to go sailing on Runagate or even to borrow her for a trip.
It was inevitable that the first new boat Shute owned would be named Runagate for this was a name he had given several of the yachts that appear in novels written well before he could afford such a boat.
When he left for Australia in 1950 Runagate was sold, but when he eventually settled at Langwarrin his house was close to Port Philip Bay and he joined the local yacht club but never again owned a sailing boat like Runagate.
© John Anderson 2009