Tragedy inspires couple to give up City and sail
The sight of Tower Bridge lifting to allow their 44-foot pilot cutter to pass was an emotional moment for Nick Beck and Melisa Collett. They quit their city jobs in the aftermath of the London Bombings to pursue a passion for sailing.
Nick said: “We used to walk to work across Tower Bridge every day but on that fateful day in July 2005 the walk back was frantic as we tried to contact missing friends. Melisa lost a dear friend and colleague that day and the tragedy was the reason we quit our jobs and fulfilled our dream of launching a sailing charter business. We decided life really was too short.”
Six years later, Nick and Melisa returned to the capital with the ITV 'Hungry Sailors' film crew. As a small part of the city came to a standstill to allow them through it was a moment for quiet reflection.
Before the disaster, Melisa and Nick, who both sailed as children, spent every spare weekend pottering around the Solent and haring off to France and the West Country aboard a small yacht. During the week they had successful careers in financial IT but they yearned to make life at sea more permanent. ‘Sell up and Sail’ was among the books that littered their shelves.
For them both, life changed forever when their friend stepped aboard a bus bound for Tavistock Square. Nick says: “We realised that if you have a dream you’d better get on with it and in our friend’s memory that’s what we’re doing.”
The couple left their home in Bermondsey, quit their jobs for higher-paid consultancy roles and ploughed every penny they had into commissioning boat builder Luke Powell at Gweek Quay in Cornwall to create a replica Scillonian Pilot Cutter. 18 months later the Amelie Rose was born – and with her came the couple’s new business Topsail Adventures. She’s berthed at Poole and the couple now live nearby in Shroton, near Blandford.
Nick said: “We spent a lot of time researching which boat to buy and had read a lot about pilot cutters. In the 19th century these boats were used by maritime pilots who would race one another to become the first to board incoming trade vessels and win the contract guiding them in. They’re the most beautiful, well-designed and speedy boats yet they had to withstand stormy weather and violent seas and so they’re also incredibly sturdy.”
The couple opted for a traditional gaff rig boat because they’re more suitable for long-term cruising being easier and cheaper to maintain than modern Bermudan rigged boats (see build notes below). She sleeps up to 11 and the galley is fully equipped to ensure the crew is always well fed. “We wanted our guests to get a feel for what it was like to be aboard a boat of Nelson’s era”, said Nick.
Last year the Amelie Rose captured the attention of an ITV1 film crew, who were preparing a new series called The Hungry Sailors. Unlike other boats of her size, the 24-ton Amelie Rose is incredibly stable and hard to rock which, together with her traditional appearance, made her an ideal film star.
The crew, which includes Celebrity Masterchef finalist Dick Strawbridge and his son James, spent 60 days filming with Nick and his First Mate Stephen Hall. Their journey began in Cornwall and passed along the south coast of Britain to the City of London. Local food producers were visited along the way and the chefs cooked up local delicacies in the galley.
The show airs at 4pm every weekday for four weeks from January 16. Dick is a presenter of Channel 4's Scrapheap Challenge, and the Hungry Sailors series combines this with his love of food. Foodie inventions which feature on the show include bangers made with a bicycle pump, a wind-powered coffee grinder and a solar egg cooker.
When they’re not busy filming, Nick and Melisa charter out the Amelie Rose to individuals and groups; offering exhilarating days and sometimes nights at sea and teaching the ropes to both experienced and beginner sailors.
Melisa added: “We get a real buzz when a couple of days into a charter our guests manage a job like hoisting the jib without needing us to direct them.”
Unlike more modern boats the Amelie Rose doesn’t have colour coded ropes and modern gadgets.
“It’s back to basics with us”, said Nick. “Every rope is important and, when you get it right the Amelie Rose can reach speeds of up to 9.8 knots.”
The move has involved huge material sacrifices from Melisa and Nick, who previously enjoyed the fruits of successful city careers. Nick said: “We’ve realised just how unimportant those material things really are. Our lifestyle has changed enormously – we live like paupers* but being able to share our love of sailing with others and being caretakers for such a beautiful, exhilarating boat means we really are living the dream.”
The Amelie Rose was so named after the film Amelie (Amelie means ‘hard worker’) and Rose which is an oft-used name in Melisa's family. Continuing the tradition of meaningful naming Amelie Rose's dinghy is named Mary Rose – Mary being Nick's mum who was an avid supporter of the project and who died of Motor Neurone Disease in January 2008.
Nick said: “Three years after we set up our new business life couldn’t be better. When we sailed through Tower Bridge with Dick Strawbridge and the film crew we reflected on how greatly our life has changed since we were racing around London and the tremendous personal journey it took to achieve our dream. For us the good life certainly trumps the high life.”
Topsail Adventures offers daytime, weekend and weekly charters to sailors of all abilities from its base in Poole. To find out more visit www.topsail-adventures.co.uk
(*paupers with a big boat! - ed)
Construction of the Amelie Rose
Amelie Rose was built by Luke Powell of Working Sail Ltd. She’s square in the forefront, deep and upright in the sternpost, with a long sloping keel, a high rise of bilge and a trademark lute stern. She’s modelled on the Isles of Scilly Cutters from the early 1800s. In their heyday 46 of these boats worked the treacherous waters surrounding the remote south-western outposts of the British Isles. Although commercially they were usurped by steam in the early 20th Century, their blend of strength and pace was enough to keep some in service. More recently builders like Luke Powell and Dave Cockwell in Cornwall and the Bristol based RB Boat Building have been replenishing the stock of Cutters – with 12 new cutters constructed in the last 15 years.
Amelie Rose is made of larch on oak, with an opepe backbone and deck. All halyards and sheets are controlled by ash blocks and tackles. Down below she’s traditionally laid out with varnished oak and painted softwood panelling.
Why a gaff rig?
The gaff rig, although less efficient upwind than a modern Bermudan rig, can be viewed as more suitable for long-term cruising because the rig is under less tension and therefore puts less loading on the deck and shrouds. The gaff-rig gives reasonable windward performance but as the main mast is shorter has more inherent strength. Amelie Rose has six shrouds which means that should one fail the others can take the strain whilst a jury rig is assembled. Lastly, as the rig comprises nothing more complex than wood, galvanised wire and rope, it is possible to fix it with few tools and little in the way of high-tech materials.
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