Photograph: Courtesy of Poppy Lee
Jonathan Lee celebrates the 60th birthday of the Mirror – the revolutionary flatpack dinghy that democratised sailing – by voyaging up the Dart.
Gasping from cold-water shock, I swim around the bow and grasp the centreboard. A few hefty pulls and Florence flips upright, shivering river water from her spars and sails. As I haul myself over the gunwale I curse my error: not predicting a lightning-fast gybe and inevitable capsize.
The tidal Dart has a reputation for such legerdemain. She’s one of UK’s most beguiling rivers – a majestic, snaking ‘ria’ flanked by oak forests and dotted with boathouses and country estates – but her gusts and hidden mud banks can outwit the most experienced sailor, let alone a newbie like me.
My voyage started so well too. The mission: to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Mirror by sailing my 1978 craft solo from Dartmouth to Totnes; a meander of around nine nautical miles from the Devon coast inland.
The sun is beaming as I rig up Florence on Dartmouth’s harbour wall bang on low tide to catch the push upstream. “Hey,” shouts a teenager, “look at that weird boat,” before leaping high and plunging into the wash.
Us Mirror sailors are used to such brickbats.
Designers Barry Bucknell and Jack Holt eschewed a pointed bow, creating a blunt-nosed pram dinghy out of marine ply, copper stitching, tape and glue. Drawn by the Mirror’s affordability and versatility, the British public took the plunge en masse and shattered sailing’s elitist image for good.
I can see the attraction: Florence runs like the clappers in a force four, can be rowed during slack winds and will happily power along on an outboard motor. And at under 11ft bow to stern you can even transport her on the roof of your car.
I cast off and south-easterlies puff me past Kingswear’s pastel-coloured houses, safely through the ferry line and beyond the Royal Naval College. I race a passenger ferry bow to bow and settle into a beam reach.
A few tacks and I’m already zipping past Greenway, Agatha Christie’s holiday retreat. The Georgian mansion inspired her Poirot tale Dead Man’s Folly: an apposite reminder as I skirt the Anchor Stone, a dangerous outcrop of rock to port.
A pint at the Ferry Boat Inn tempts here at Dittisham, once home to Sir Walter Raleigh’s hunting lodge, but wind and tide persuade me to plough on.
Florence picks up speed and heels as I pass Flat Owers, a cockle-rich sandbank. I’m now easily outrunning my Drascombe lugger photography / safety boat.
To my surprise I make a smart gybe west at Galmpton, where boatyards once dedicated to building Brixham trawlers turned out armed fishing boats during World War II.
I relax as I settle onto a run south of Sandridge Barton, the new home of Sharpham wine with its 32 acres of vines.
I aim for a tea stop on the shore at Blackness Point, only for disaster to strike – I totally misread the wind, fail to switch to a port tack, gybe and pay heavily with a capsize.
After righting Florence, bailing out and paddling ashore for a restorative cup of tea I set off again, extremely gingerly at first, past my home clubhouse at Stoke Gabriel and around the gentle curves of Ashprington and Sharpham points.
This is my favourite stretch of the river: amid vast oak forests and total silence I feel as though I have the entire Dart to myself.
On previous jaunts I’ve spotted seals, cormorants and herons on these sweeping curves. It’s where the Mirror lives up to AJ Mackinnon’s tongue-in-cheek description: “It was clearly designed some time in the 1900s,” he writes in his Mirror odyssey The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow, “as a joint project between Arthur Ransom and Heath Robinson, with Ernest Shephard (sic) chipping in occasionally on the blueprints.”
Although this stretch feels timeless, life has moved on. The fishing nets of Duncannon are no longer, while the Sharpham estate – its Palladian villa bankrolled by bounty from the captured Spanish ship Hermione during the Seven Years War – is now a mindfulness retreat complete with bookable bathing house.
Despite the light fluky winds, Florence picks up the lightest puff and I’m still making good progress thanks to 69 sq ft of sail (main and jib) on a boat that weighs less than 62kg fully rigged.
The Dart narrows and woods give way to rushes as I enter the final strait, St Mary’s 15th-century church tower guiding me in.
Boho Totnes, with one foot in 1967 and the other in the Middle Ages, delivers a fitting reception: a lilting mediaeval melody floats in the evening air courtesy of a hurdy gurdy player on the river bank.
I moor, dance a short celebratory gig and flop down on the pontoon, utterly exhausted after four hours and 20 minutes of challenging journeying.
Sailing home to Stoke Gabriel the next day I pass scullers and paddleboarders enjoying the Dart sunshine. A canoeist shouts across the water: “Mirror dinghies rule!” And so they do. Many happy returns, the Mirror.
* Thanks to accompanying helm Richard Hoyland and photographer Poppy Lee.