Having built a Mirror dinghy and taken it to the Isles of Scilly on a ferry, Peter Baylis and friends realise they may have overlooked a few details...

As young lads in the 1950s we went to many of the big exhibitions held at Earls Court and Olympia.

Regular annual ‘must-see’ events were the Motor Show, Motorcycle and Bike Show, and the Schoolboys’ Own Exhibition.

It’s not that we were particularly interested in any of these subjects, it was just a good day out and we could ride there on our bikes.

One year a bunch of us cycled up to Earls Court for a day at the Boat Show.

In those days, the salesmen on the big stands prevented anyone going aboard the show craft If they looked like timewasters, which we lads whose combined wealth was about a fiver certainly were.

They even turned away adults if they didn’t look the business: you really had to be wearing a blazer and tie to blag your way on board.

That year’s visit to the show coincided with the launch of the ubiquitous Mirror dinghy.

It was designed by TV do-it yourself presenter Barry Bucknell, and sold in kit form to be built at home.

There are now tens of thousands of these dinghies in existence around the world – all made from plywood sheets cut to shape and stitched together with copper wire and then sealed with glassfibre tape.

The Mirror dinghy hard sell

The kits were cheap and it didn’t take Roger, Mac and me long to persuade the relatively affluent Mike to buy one.

“Piece of cake to build,” said the salesman.

“You’ll have it finished in a couple of weeks,” he said.

Well, two years later the 90% finished hull still dominated Mike’s living room where he was unwisely building it.

His mum was not happy with the project or the sawdust and glue fumes that filled the house.

To the rescue came Roger and I.

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We were planning a trip to the Isles of Scilly and thought it would be fun to have a boat, so we made a deal: we’d work non-stop to finish the boat and remove it from the house in two days in exchange for its loan to take to Scilly.

Mike was uncertain and wanted to think about it, but his mum bit our hands off.

“It’s a deal!” she cried. “Get the bloody thing out of my house and don’t bring it back!”

Road trip

So we set to work and in two days we had the Mirror dinghy finished and on the roof of my Morris Minor, lashed down firmly with the lengths of rope thoughtfully provided with the kit.

We set off for Penzance, Roger, me and Bob Pryde – a good mate of mine from university.

We made a great team and were dead keen to sail although none of us had a clue as to how to go about it.

The dinghy was loaded aboard the Scillonian in Penzance for the three-hour voyage to St Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly.


View from a Mirror dinghy sailing off the coast of Rhosneigr, Anglesey, North Wales. Credit: Charlotte Machin / Stockimo / Alamy Stock Photo

On arrival the three of us manhandled it down to Porthcressa Beach, even before we pitched our tent on the adjacent Sandy Banks Campsite.

Then it was time for some pints of the local brew before proudly launching our Mirror dinghy the following morning. The day dawned with a fresh southwesterly wind.

Excellent – just what these four debutants needed for their introduction to the gentle art of sailing – or so we thought.

We quickly stepped the mast and bent on the sails – we were ready to go and carried her down to the quite considerable surf.

Now, waist deep in water we gave her a final shove and leaped aboard: Bob with the headsail, Roger with main and me on the tiller.

In the drink

Five seconds later and we were all in the water and swimming for the shore. The Mirror dinghy was on her side and full of water.

After the cold water shock we righted her and bailed out gallons of water to try again. Shove off, leap in and same result – all back in the briny.

We tried a third, fourth and fifth time until we lay exhausted and panting on the fine white sand.

When we could at last speak, we agreed that there must be more to this sailing lark than meets the eye.

Just then a kid aged about 12 strolls over from where he had been watching the show with his mum and dad.

Wise advice

“You’ll never get it to sail like that, mister,” he says.

“What do you know about it, son?” says Roger, slightly aggressively.

“We do sailing at school,” says he. “And I know you can’t sail a boat without sheets.”

“But we have sheets,” says Roger. “Can’t you see those big red flappy things up there?”

“They’re not sheets,” says the lad. “They are sails. The sheets are ropes you control the sails with – don’t you have any ropes like that?”

“Well strangely enough,” says I, “it did come with two rather nice ropes with which to tie it to the roof rack!”

Mirror dinghy sail No7

One of the early ones… Mirror dinghy sail No7

“Where are they?” said the lad.

“In the boot of the car in Penzance.”

Of course they were indeed the sheets.

Rather than return to Penzance we bought a length of rope from the local chandlery and made them up under guidance from our young adviser.

He bowlined them to each sail and we prepared once again for sea.

There was no doubt that the lad, who for some reason we christened Isaac, was in charge of the operation.

“Isaac,” says I, “as you are so smart, why don’t you come sailing with us?”

He rushed off to get permission from his mum then ran back and started to give launching instructions.

When he gave the word, all four of us leaped aboard and guess what, we sailed sedately off into the distance.

No problems – a steady five knots with the satisfying sound of water gurgling past the hull.

The best Mirror dinghy holiday

Over the next few days Isaac taught us to sail: going about, gybing, close hauled, broad reached and running were all in the syllabus.

He was a magic teacher and thoroughly enjoyed himself.

One of the conditions of the deal was that he was to creep up to our tent at 0900 and, without waking us, light the Primus and brew the tea.

At that point he was allowed to gently wake us by passing steaming mugs of tea into the tent.

While we sipped the hot and sweet brew, Isaac trotted off to the beach to prepare the boat for the day’s sailing.

This arrangement continued for another week until the end of Isaac’s holiday.

His mum and dad even came over to thank us for making it a holiday of a lifetime for their son.

And thanks to those trusting parents, who let their 12-year-old son go off in a boat with three total strangers, we all had a great time: we blokes learnt to sail and Isaac had the best holiday of his life, apparently, and learnt how to brew a decent cup of tea to boot!

If you have a short adventure to share email pbo@futurenet.com and if we publish you’ll get to keep the original Jake Kavanagh cartoon.

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This feature appeared in the November 2021 edition of Practical Boat Owner. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a magazine subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.

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