It is a century since the first Deben Cherub was launched. Julia Jones looks back at the history of this 21ft river racing class

The Deben Cherub and I first met when I was less than two years old. I don’t consciously remember this, but my mother did.

Years later she wrote to remind me that I’d been strapped into my pushchair and parked in the cockpit.

The topsides were low enough for me to see out and when the little boat heeled slightly on a windy day, I was able to watch the wave patterns.

‘Over and go, over and go,’ I apparently chanted, allowing my parents to conclude that I was commenting on a wind-over-tide situation.

We were on the River Deben in Suffolk, it was early in 1956 and the Cherub was CC15 Ceres, later renamed Windsong.

A boat with white and red sails on a river

The 21ft Deben Cherub was designed for competitive class river racing. Credit: Doug Atfield

The Cherubs are a well-named class, there’s a fullness in their forward sections which makes one think of the chubby cheeks of baby angels, blowing breezes from the corners of an antique chart.

Rev John Waller, rector of Waldringfield, speaking at the funeral of Captain-Surgeon Harald Curjel, described the delight Captain Curjel must have felt sailing CC4 Sea Pig on the Deben in the 1930s: ‘The river was the nearest one could get to heaven,’ Rev Waller declared, ‘it afforded a glimpse of what is to come when we leave this earth’.

The first undisputed member of the Deben Cherub class was CC2, Cherub, built 100 years ago in 1924 at Everson’s boatyard, Woodbridge (now The Woodbridge Boat Yard).

Her owner, Alfred Curjel, resolutely refused to have a number on his sail because she wasn’t just a ‘Cherub’, she was Cherub.

She’s CC2 on the list as she followed Trinity Hall, an open boat built at Everson’s in 1924.

Vanessa Bird, writing in Classic Classes, describes Trinity Hall as a half-decked, gaff-rigged day boat, herself developed from a 2½ tonner called Dream, also built by Everson’s, probably from a 19th century Linton Hope design.

A black and white photos of the Everson's boatyard with boats outside of buildings

All of the Deben Cherubs were built at Everson’s boatyard at Woodbridge, now The Woodbridge Boat Yard

As the Deben Cherub class reaches its centenary, it’s hard to get too worked up about its ancestry.

The real cause for celebration is that Cherub is in good condition, is still living at the yard where she was built and sails the same stretch of river – with, potentially, a half dozen of her sisters.

As well as being individually angelic, the Cherubs are notable as an early example of series production.

They are ‘pocket cruisers’, characteristic products of the sailing ethos of the 1920s and early 1930s when increasing numbers of people found they had the leisure to take to the water.

These new owners might be described as ‘dirty shirt’ sailors, young and enthusiastic but without the money (or perhaps the inclination) to employ paid hands.

A bacl and white photos of a boat

Originally Ceres, Windsong was the last heard of in Aberdeen. Credit: George Jones

A small yacht with even the simplest cabin offered them a significantly wider range of possibilities than a half-decked or open boat like Trinity Hall.

Alfred Curjel, Cherub’s first owner, was a solicitor in Ipswich and a member of the energetic and newly founded Waldringfield Sailing Club (1921).

Curjel also belonged to the much older Deben Yacht Club upriver in Woodbridge.

The DYC (founded in 1838) was in the doldrums. It had even tried re-naming itself as a ‘sailing’ club to appeal to a less snooty membership.

New events such as a Ladies Rowing Race, introduced at the 1909 Woodbridge regatta, had proved briefly popular but when yacht racing had resumed after World War I, only two vessels entered.

In 1920 the club’s AGM only attracted one member, Mr Cyril Everson.

People sitting on the deck of a Deben Cherub boat

The Deben Cherub is ideally suited for sailing or racing on rivers. Credit: Charmian Berry

This however was significant. Cyril was the son of boatbuilder Alfred Everson, whose yard was next door to the club.

Alfred became the DYC’s official starter, using his 12-bore shotgun, loaded with blanks.

In 1924, when Alfred Curjel was thinking about a new, small racing yacht he talked over his ideas with Alfred Everson.

The boatbuilder listened and interpreted his client’s wishes according to his own practical experience as the builder of Dream and Trinity Hall.

The result was Cherub. Later the same year, Etonia (CC3) was built to identical specifications for DYC member Lieutenant (later Captain) Pitt-Miller.

In 1929 Alfred’s brother Harald Curjel ordered Sea Pig (CC4).

A back and white photos of a small sailing boat

Robert Shipman sailing his Deben Cherub CC5 Rohaise II launched in 1931

Formalised, the Deben Cherub class specification was for a 3-ton cruiser, length 21ft, beam 7ft, draught 2ft 9in; keel, stem, transom, rudder, floors and timbers of English oak; planking and stringers in pitch pine; copper fastened; cabin sides teak.

With mast, standing and running rigging, roller mainsail, roller jib, sail covers, boom crutches, boat hook, anchor and chain the total cost of a Cherub came to £125. Engine £10 extra.

From 1931 to 1937 Everson’s built 13 more Cherubs. The DYC meanwhile revived its racing programme with regular challenges downriver to Waldringfield.

David Shipman’s father, Robert, was a 26-year-old solicitor based in Ipswich when he ordered CC5 Rohaise II.

She was launched in June 1931 taking her name from Robert’s father’s yacht. Lindy Lou and Lufra were built that same year, followed by Snark in 1932.

The plans for the Deben Cherub

The plans for the Deben Cherub

Robert Shipman became an energetic and successful DYC secretary, Curjel acted briefly as treasurer.

Snark (later renamed Charity) was raced by the Crockett sisters. They won the Commodore’s Cup in their first year.

When a Ladies’ Cup was instituted in 1936, however, Robert Shipman was sufficiently shrewd to ask the Deben’s top helmswoman, Miss Poppy Orvis, to sail Rohaise II and win it for him.

By 1936 the fleet was almost complete: Everson’s had built Agility, Curlew, Annette (later Ariel), Sea Swallow, Jubilee, Ceres (later Windsong), Wild Rose and Violet Mary (later Dunlin).

Lynette (CC18), the youngest of the fleet, was built with a larger cockpit and smaller cabin so she could also be used for fishing.

Currently, in 2024, the whereabouts of Agility, Sea Swallow, Ceres and Wild Rose are unknown though only Violet Mary (Dunlin) is definitely known to have been destroyed.

Some Deben dwellers remain optimistic that those four lost Cherubs are still out there, somewhere.

A Deben Cherub boat with white sails on a river

Lynette was the last of the pre-war Deben Cherubs to be built and had a shorted coachroof. Credit: Matt Lis

As soon as the World War II obstructions had been cleared away from the upper reaches of the river, sailing began again.

David Shipman was ‘roped into’ Rohaise II (literally) from the age of about five and soon became part of his father’s regular racing crew as well as enjoying picnic sails with his mother.

The usual course was relatively short (from opposite the DYC clubhouse to Hams Reach, just above Waldringfield) but during Deben Week the full length of the river was raced.

Cherubs also took part in the annual Deben cruise out to the Cork light vessel.

David remembers feeling thrilled by the rough waters of Felixstowe Ferry and the Deben bar as his father and Rohaise II gave the racing everything they’d got. ‘The rougher the better’ he felt.

Continues below…

In 2023 the current Cherub fleet left the Deben for the Orwell to take part in the East Coast Classics at Levington.

They sailed in wild conditions (some will admit they were carrying rather too much canvas) but all agreed the little boats, designed and built primarily for river sailing, coped magnificently with a 30-knot sea breeze.

David Shipman describes the cool attitude of Alfred Curjel on race days. He’d arrive on his bicycle, trousers neatly clipped, exactly 15 minutes before the start, row briskly to Cherub on her mooring opposite the clubhouse and cast off just in time for the 10-minute gun.

His brother, Harald, may have been keener on cruising. He is said to have lived on board Sea Pig for a while, having an additional porthole fitted in her port bow so he could see out comfortably.

Deben Cherub cabins are small but the 7ft beam ensures they’re not unreasonably cramped, particularly for just one or two people and occasionally a very small child.

A Deben Cherub with red sails sailing down a river

Of the 17 Cherub’s built, 12 are believed to have survived, including Dunlin. Credit: Liz Whitman

Marvyn Godfrey, the engineer at the Woodbridge Boatyard and current owner (with his father) of Lynette does admit that her shorter cabin (allowing for her larger cockpit) meant he and his wife Sarah found it impossible to make themselves comfortable once their daughter grew beyond a certain size.

Tim Everson, great-grandson of Alfred and owner of Ariel (formerly Annette) is not a racing man.

He likes nothing better than to row away from Woodbridge to his mooring at Methersgate, watching the Tide Mill and the church tower diminish; listening to the splash of the oars, the water chuckling under his Everson-built dinghy and the calls of the wading birds.

Then he’ll enjoy a sail downriver to Ramsholt or Felixstowe Ferry, a pint in a pub and a meal cooked on board.

He keeps Ariel’s cabin very simple using an oil lamp and camping equipment, no electrics.

When Tim needed to replace the original Stuart Turner engine, he made a deliberately ‘retro’ choice of a 2-stroke Dolphin, whereas Marvyn has installed a 14hp Beta on Lynette.

A man standing next to a boat

Tim Everson, the great-grandson of Alfred Everson who founded the Everson yard, now owns Ariel, one of the Cherbus built between 1931 and 1937. Credit: Julia Jones

Cherub’s current owner, Sebastian Watt is considering an electric outboard.

Harald Curjel’s former Sea Pig, aged 95, currently lives in Devon, but may be returning to the Deben in search of a new owner.

Etonia, now in the Netherlands, will also reach her 100th birthday this year.

Her owner, Kai Köllen, first saw a Deben Cherub when he was exploring the Suffolk and Essex coasts, inspired by the writings of Frank Mulville and Maurice Griffiths – a perfect mindset for a Cherub purchase.

In 1979 he found Etonia (renamed Sea Nymph) for sale at Great Wakering in Essex and fell in love with her.

She wasn’t in great condition but after some months of care and the replacement of her original engine, Kai sailed her to the Netherlands.

A Deben Cherub with red sails sailing along a river

The Cherub has a gaff sloop rig on a keel-stepped wooden mast. Credit: Charmian Berry

He owned her for 12 years, enjoying the task of bringing her into top condition and racing her in Dutch classic boat regattas.

“She was a joy,” he says simply. Then tempted by a larger boat, he sold her and lost sight of her until 2021 when she turned up, looking forlorn.

“She looked so sad, varnish and paint peeling off, engine dead, some visible rot. With all my fond memories, I couldn’t stand that. She had to survive and look bright again. So, I became the co-owner of that little ship again.”

“We have been working hard to restore her, some new planking, new ribs, deck overhauled, all brightwork and spars revarnished. We put in a revised Vire engine as the former one was badly corroded. We still have to redo the interior, but we can sail her again. She is not ready yet for the ‘concours d’elegance’ but will be thriving on her 100th birthday.”

Sebastian Watt has also bought Cherub twice. Once in 2017 when he’d just returned to England after living in the Caribbean; he kept her for a year and then was ‘seduced’ by something sleeker.

She remained at the Woodbridge Boatyard until Sebastian realised that ‘his heart was with the darling Cherub’ and re-purchased her.

He considers Cherub a perfect traditional small cruiser designed specifically for the East Anglian rivers.

People sitting on the deck of a boat with red sails and a white hull

The Deben Cherub class specifies that the boat must have a 2ft 9in draught, with floors and timbers in English oak and planking and stringers in pitch pine. Credit: Doug Atfield

He can sail her alone or use her to teach his grandsons to sail in the same way he was taught by his grandfather on a similar pocket cruiser.

He loves the way she handles: “Very eager and raring to go as soon as the wind pipes up but also docile and safe for small members of the crew. She, like all wooden boats, has a real character and charm and, when reaching down river with a 10-knot breeze, I swear she actually talks to me!”

Tim Everson was even more powerfully drawn by the history of the boats and the place.

Although his grandfather Cyril Everson was an active shipwright, taking the business on from his father Alfred, his wife, Tim’s grandmother, was determined that her sons should venture further into the world.

Tim’s father joined the RAF and his uncle the Navy. Tim had an itinerant childhood, following his father to his various postings.

When he was sent back to boarding school it was to Ellesmere College in Shropshire, far from his family’s Suffolk roots.

Men buiding a boat

The original Deben Cherub cost £125. The engine was £10 extra

Perhaps fittingly Tim has spent much of his professional life in Traveller education.

This work brought him home to Suffolk, but it was not until redundancy due to education funding cuts that he happened upon Ariel and fell in love with her.

Bringing her back to the yard where she’d been built by his grandfather and great-grandfather felt the right thing to do.

Over the 100 years of Debn Cherub history so far there have been periods when only one or two have remained actively sailing on the Deben.

The current gathering at the Woodbridge Boatyard is partly happenstance – Marvyn and his father had already purchased Lynette further upriver at Melton before a chance conversation gleaned the information that Woodbridge Boatyard was in need of a specialist marine engineer – but it has since been developed into deliberate policy.

When Brian Green, long-term owner of CC14, Jubilee, died and there was concern she might fall into disrepair, she was brought into yard ownership.

Technically Jubilee remains for sale, but boatyard manager Matt Lis explains that, since she is now ‘safe’, the quest for new owners is focussed on the boats with less certain futures.

Matt has what he terms a ‘re-homing shed’ where Charity, once sailed by those Crockett sisters, waits hopefully alongside other interesting but needy small yachts.

Jubilee, meanwhile, as a working member of the boatyard, is used to demonstrate some options for good environmental practice.

She’s antifouled with biocide-free Seajet Eko and her topsides are painted with Allbäck organic linseed oil-based paint.

She’s also the current holder of the recently revived Cherub Cup.

A community is gathering around these small yachts.

Marvyn, who has sailed on the Deben since childhood, finds it particularly satisfying to be able to offer the yard’s apprentices and friends the chance to experience this type of sailing.

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