‘She had been a lifeboat’

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.’

Erskine Childers sailing his yacht the Asgard, the successor to the Vixen. Image copyright Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

The Thomas Chapman lifeboat at Kingsgate station - but is it the first Thomas Chapman, or the second?
The Thomas Chapman lifeboat at Kingsgate station – but is it the first Thomas Chapman, or the second?

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.

12 thoughts on “‘She had been a lifeboat’

  1. The lifeboat in the picture is nowhere near big enough for “Dulcibella” which was over 30 feet in length, so probably isn’t the right one.

    Another point is that it comes out in Davies’s first conversation with Bartels on 30 October that the German carpenter, Herr Krank, (who we don’t meet) had installed a mizzen mast (no small undertaking) as well as fixing the rudder fastenings, so maybe Childers had also done so to improve on Price’s work.

    “‘Oh, he helped me out of a bit of a mess in the North Sea, didn’t you, Bartels?’ he said.

    ‘It was nothing,’ said Bartels. ‘But the North Sea is no place for your little boat, captain. So I have told you many times. How did you like Flensburg? A fine town, is it not? Did you find Herr Krank, the carpenter? I see you have placed a little mizzen-mast. The rudder was nothing much, but it was well that it held to the Eider. But she is strong and good, your little ship, and–Heaven!–she had need be so.’ He chuckled, and shook his head at Davies as at a wayward child.”


  2. Also, the picture of Childers sailing “Asgard” clearly shows a mizzen mast behind him. It would have been in the same relative position on “Dulcibella/Vixen”, which was steered with a tiller, not a wheel.


  3. The shot of Childers in the boat brings up a question: What is that dark folded material in the foreground? It looks like a bearskin, or some other large animal pelt! The Mizen mast and Fore Sheet are much larger than they would be on a 30′ yacht, Asgard must have been a lot bigger than our Dulcibella


  4. Digging in my library I found a passage in Gaff Rig by John Leather (NOT The Gaff Rig Handbook by the same author) on page 228:
    ….’In 1887, E F Knight , that practical cruising sailor,used (the gaff rig) in his converted lifeboat Falcon which he and an essex bargeman from Mistley sailed from Hammersmith on the Thames, to Sweden, via Holland, Germany and Denmark. The Falcon was an old teak-built, double ended P &O ships boat built by J.S. White of Cowes and converted to a ketch with mainmast in a tabernacle, loose footed gaff mainsail and a standing lug mizzen. Like most lifeboats converted for sailing she was slow in stays, despite a false keel and a draft of 3’6″and, after voyaging to Halingen in Holland, Knight had oak leeboards fitted and was delighter with her subsequent performance. But there, here story is better told by the book Falcon on the Baltic , written in Knights Pleasant style.”…..
    I had never heard of E.F.Knight but he has a wikipedia page:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Frederick_Knight
    He wrote fourteen books. Falcon of the Baltic in 1923 although his
    voyage, according to Leather, took place in 1887.
    Here is the book online: http://www.allthingsransome.net/literary/falcon.htm Note that chapter 7 is called The Frisian Islands and if you click on it you are treated to a very familiar chart. In fact if you click on “The General map” you see the same stomping grounds of our heros, with Knights course track running right through the sands.


  5. I wonder if you are aware of the Dulcibella built for the film by John Atkins. I chartered her in 1978 and have photographs.


    1. Hi Mark, just come across this site for fanatics. love it. re pics of the film Dulcibella. I have been trying to uncover her history following filming. My I.O.W great uncles were coxswain or crew for the entire service of the Susan Ashley at Brooke IOW. believe she ended up in the ownership of two Germans in Hamburg? anyone know anymore?


    2. Tony

      Do you have any further info on Susan Ashley? The Lifeboat Enthusiasts Society has no record of her after “altered for filming in 1980”.

      John Cockell


      1. Hello John, I attended a charity screening of riddle of the sands about 3months ago talking to Drummond Challis, boat was used by film director then passed to at least 2owners
        I heard of her in Cowes early eighties but Drummond told us she was purchased by two young Germans about 1986 looking to recreate the adventure they were lost at sea/aground in the frisian Islands. I still think I should try to get proof, names etc or look for relics. My relations were either coxswain or crew during her entire service.


  6. I have begun building a 1:48 scale model of the Dulcibella. Here are links to two photos of the progress thus far: https://www.flickr.com/photos/140039433@N06/24480516253/in/dateposted-public/
    . https://www.flickr.com/photos/140039433@N06/24476736204/in/dateposted-public/ . I hope those links work. My understanding is that the film vessel was a very faithful representation, being herself made from a converted lifeboat and matching all the details the book gives us. The basic hull shape and rig reference material I am using is the simple Dulcibella diagram found here on ROTSAC. I’m relying on screen shots I am taking of the youtube version of the film and I’m re-listening to the unabridged Librivox.org version for hints about the Dulcibella’s appearance. My intention is to fully rig and detail the model and I also intend to have miniature Davies and Caruthers figures on deck.
    There is a passage in Chapter 3 in which Caruthers describes himself as “clinging to the smooth black sides” of Dulcibella while taking a swim, so I am making my Dulcibella black hulled and I like this look better than the white hull of the film. I tend to think of Davies as more of a black hull man. Other details I have picked out are that Davies “Never flew an ensign” (Ch 4) which I felt was odd. But mention is made of a burgee flying at the masthead. The book describes three reef bands on the miansail and reefs on the staysail(Ch 7). I am trying to track down what Yacht Club Davies would belong to- and who’s burgee he would fly- and I am settling on The Royal Cruising Club: http://www.crwflags.com/fotw/flags/gb~yrcru.html but am open to suggestions! Finally I have also started a pinterest board I’m calling Riddle of the Sands Inspirational Album into which I am placing everything and all that touches on the novel and the story but centering on Yawls of the period and this can be found at: https://www.pinterest.com/fhanavan/riddle-of-the-sands-inspirational-album/


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