One of the most thrilling aspects of The Riddle of the Sands is the way it overlaps with the real world, such that you can still read of people assuming that it is a true story. As RM Bowker says of it in his 1978 edition, ‘to me, as to others, this book and all its detail is so filled with life that it simply had to be true.’
This weird mix of fact-and-fiction is most obvious in the way Childers describes the Dulcibella, the ugly yet practical yacht which Davies has sailed all the way to Flensburg. When Childers first sees her, there is great comic potential in the gap between his expectations of a gleaming, elegant super-yacht with full crew, and the cramped, crowded reality. On the 27th of September, when he first experiences sailing in her, there is even more complaining of her ordinariness:
She seemed very small (in point of fact she was seven tons), something over thirty feet in length and nine in beam, a size very suitable to week-ends in the Solent, for such as liked that sort of thing; but that she should have come from Dover to the Baltic suggested a world of physical endeavour of which I had never dreamed.
It’s now universally acknowledged that the model for the Dulcibella was a boat called the Vixen, which Childers acquired in or around 1897. He wrote an article about the Vixen for Yachting Monthly Magazine (my source for all this is the book The Riddle, by the magnificently-named Maldwin Drummond). In this article, he described the Vixen like this:
To start with, no one could call Vixen beautiful. We grew to love her in the end, but never to admire her. At first I did not even love her for she was a pis aller, bought in a hurry in default of a better, and a week spent fitting her for cruising – a new era for her – had somehow not cemented our affections.
Childers was refitting the Vixen for his own voyage to the East Frisians, which became the inspiration for The Riddle of the Sands and which we’ll cover in a future post. In his article, Childers describes Vixen as being thirty foot long with a draft of four foot, or six foot four inches with the centre-board down. She is listed in Hunt’s Universal Yacht List as being the property of R.E.Childers of 20 Carlyle Mansions, Cheyne Walk, London SW from 1898 to 1903.
The Vixen‘s certificate of registry says she was built by J. Price of Albion Road, Ramsgate, of whom little is known that isn’t legend and hearsay. But it is thought that Price specialised in turning lifeboats into yachts – and that he may have done his boat-building directly on the beach at Ramsgate. It’s also suggested that Price named all his boats Vixen, which suggests either a wicked sense of humour or a terrible failure of imagination.
According to Maldwin Drummond, the Vixen was initially the lifeboat Thomas Chapman, built by Thomas William Woolfe & Sons of 46-47 Lower Shadwell – just at the end of the Ratcliffe Highway, which Childers visited during the early pages of The Riddle of the Sands. The Thomas Chapman was the second lifeboat of that name, built for the lifeboat station at Kingsgate, near Margate in Kent. The only trouble was, it seems the boat was a little too wide for the gap in the cliffs down which Kingsgate lifeboats were launched, and it seems the Thomas Chapman only launched once, after which he was sold to Joseph Price, and became a she, the Vixen.
To turn a lifeboat into a yacht isn’t necessarily complicated: you give it a false keel, a centre-board, some internal ballast, you build a deck over the top, with a coach-roof to give it some internal headroom (though not enough for the likes of Carruthers), you stick in a mast and perhaps a mizzen-mast, and you build a counter at the back for the helmsman to sit on and to give the boat a more ‘yachty’ shape. All this Price did to the Vixen, and this was the boat Childers bought from him. He made some of his own changes – removing the false keel, for instance, so that the Vixen would stand upright in sand when the tide went out and the centre-board was up. Did he know, then, that he was about to do his own exploring in sandy, shallow waters?
And there we leave her, for now. We’ll come back to the Vixen, to discuss how she became the Dulcibella – in fiction, and in real life – and how she came to a sad, unregarded end on a backwater on the south coast.