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Home > Features > Captains of Ships – Charles Shawcroft
Charles Shawcroft Photo 1

Captains of Ships – Charles Shawcroft

Charles Shawcroft Photo 2

Born in Southport to a midwife mother and ambulance man father, Charles may have lived on the sea, but there was more sand than water on this stretch of Merseyside coastline and it certainly wasn’t conducive to sailing.  Instead, his recreational boating started at the age of eight, when Charles’ father used his well-honed cabinet-making skills to craft a small eight-foot dinghy.  That summer holiday, they rowed across Ullswater in the Lake District to fetch papers and milk.  The following year, a mast and sails were added and, by the age of 12, such was Charles’ talent that he began teaching all ages how to sail.  Using Fireballs, Flying Dutchman, and more, he’d race in a handful of national championships each year, amassing a decent haul of trophies.  But his first career wasn’t in sailing – far from it.

Charles picks up his story:  “I was rubbish at school, absolutely hopeless, so opted for something relatively non-academic and headed north to study photography at college in Blackpool.  I was officially trained as a portrait photographer, but upon graduation followed the money and went to work as a press photographer for the local newspaper group in Southport.  Age 23, I moved to London for what appeared to be my dream job:  photographer for Yachting World.  The work was up my street but, once I’d factored in the inflated cost of city living, my wages melted into thin air.  Six months later, I was back up north on the newspapers – supplementing my income with freelance work.

Charles Shawcroft Photo 3

“I wasn’t a remarkable photographer, I just worked hard.  Most days I’d leave the house at nine o’clock and not return until one o’clock the following morning.  Weekends were my favourite, I’d grab my motorbike, shoot a rugby match, and then have the day to myself.  I often did theatre work.  Back then, pubs would shut at half ten, but I’d invariably still be on a job, so I’d drink with the actors in their secret hangouts after closing time.  I shot politicians, footballers, stars of stage and screen, and accumulated enough wealth to buy four houses.  I got through far too many girlfriends, there was no time to get married, although I did get engaged once – turned out she was only after me for my money.

Charles Shawcroft Photo 4

“Boating continued to feature in my life.  My brother, eight years my senior, had bought an old lifeboat from RMS Mauretania, which my Dad kindly did up on his behalf.  We then acquired a wooden Watson-class RNLI lifeboat – it remains in the family some 44 years later.  I was also pretty heavily involved in the Ocean Youth Club, sailing on the Irish Sea.  It was here I met esteemed yacht captain Fred Dovaston.

“One year, Fred was having his knees operated on in Warrington.  I went to visit him in hospital and he mentioned in passing that the legendary Alan Bristow of Bristow Helicopters was looking for a mate for his 75-foot ketch Twirlybird.  An interview was duly arranged in Surrey.  I didn’t get the job.

Charles Shawcroft Photo 6

“Months later, the newspapers were on strike as part of Britain’s infamous Winter of Discontent.  I received an opportune telephone call – did I still want the job on Twirlybird?  Turned out Mr Bristow had taken a shine to me after all.  He was particularly enamoured by the fact that I could not only skipper a boat but also fly an aeroplane.  As a photographer, I spent so many hours doing aerial shoots that it made sense for me to learn to fly myself.  I’d take Mum up with me and she’d babysit the controls while I took the photos – I’m not sure if I should admit that.  At one time I held valid Dutch, British, US and Antiguan pilot licences.  Alan was impressed.

Charles Shawcroft Photo 7

“Alan was a good guy to work for, a real character.  I stayed with him for three years, cruising the Mediterranean and Baltic, and was lucky enough to meet my wife along the way.  Jenny was drafted in as a temporary chef in Corfu.  She was there a fortnight and then flew home.  Next season, Jenny came back and we got engaged.  We married on 12 December 1981.  Unfortunately, Mr Bristow wasn’t keen on having a married couple on board, so we moved to Swan 65 Cyclos.  She belonged to a German gent who also had a 92-foot classic sailing yacht in build at Royal Huisman – Cyclos II.

Charles Shawcroft Photo 8

“As Cyclos II’s launch date approached in 1984, Jenny and I suffered a horrific car accident.  I broke my sternum and was on a cardiac monitor for a few days, but Jenny bore the brunt of it and was smashed to pieces.  After several weeks in a Dutch hospital, we brought her back to England and had an audience with a Southport surgeon.  His conclusion was that Jenny’s arm would have to come off.  Shocked, I turned to the owner of Cyclos for advice, and he said we should pose the question: ‘if money were no object, what could be done for Jenny?’  Apparently there were two specialists who could save her arm, one in Switzerland and one in Bristol.

Charles Shawcroft Photo 9

“By now Jenny was incredibly poorly, knocking death’s door, so I rushed her to Bristol that evening and an operation was planned for the next day.  An Irish blacksmith was brought into theatre and the surgeon effectively removed her arm, asked the Irishman to create the steelwork that would support the limb, and then they put it all back together.  Bars were also put in her back, her legs, screws in her shoulders, you name it.  We certainly got the ‘in sickness and in health’ test out of the way early in our marriage.  Needless to say, Jenny made a remarkable recovery and went on to have a happy full life – and four children.   God bless the NHS.

Charles Shawcroft Photo 9

“In time, I went back to work skippering the 65 and new 92.  I did a Caribbean season while Jenny was recuperating, and then she came back to join us.  It was clear that I couldn’t drive both boats simultaneously, so I was given the choice between Alaska in the Royal Huisman or day sailing out of Monaco in the Swan.  We opted for the latter.  As the summer ended, we went back to the UK, via Palma, and noticed a large ‘egg’ had appeared on Jenny’s arm.  The surgeon instructed Jenny to stop sailing immediately or once more be faced with amputation.  She stopped sailing.  Not that she stopped working.  Jenny loved to be busy and ran the local yacht club and the Association of Yacht Support Services – among other things.

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“In 1986 I was offered a job on 83-foot Benetti motoryacht Bambu owned by a chap called Steve, who happened to be Prince’s manager.  We did a lot of miles in that boat, but I only saw the chart-topper briefly once, in Miami.  Three years later Bambu was sold and I jumped across to work on ex-Falmouth harbour tug boat, St Eval, now owned by British entrepreneur Peter de Savary.  He spent millions converting her into his America’s Cup command centre as he put the final touches to his campaign boat – sophisticated hydrofoil Blue Arrow.  I also skippered Peter’s old Victory 83 on a tour around England.  Then I switched my attention to the 1989-90 Round the World Race, supporting yachtsman Lawrie Smith in his Whitbred Maxi 81 Rothmans.   I also worked with US yachtsman Patrick Malloy in his first Intuition, a Doug Peterson-design 42-footer.  In between, I did a bit of racing and a few deliveries, including 28-metre William Fife Tuiga from Cyprus to the UK and her bigger sister Altair from Palma to the UK.  In short, I took all the work I could – I enjoyed making money.

“By 1995, I was back alongside Pat Malloy working on plans for the second Intuition.  He’d bought David Bowie’s old boat, classic 38-metre Benetti Deneb Star C, and taken her back home to America.  In the office, I found audacious plans to convert a big offshore supply vessel.  The search began, and together we found a 196-foot pilot cutter built in the 1970s for the Netherlands Pilotage Authority.  We brought her back to Hamble for conversion into a luxury superyacht.  Vosper Thornycroft handled the metalwork, Southampton Yacht Services redesigned the interior and with, the help of more than 75 day workers, she was ready for her maiden voyage from Southampton to Newport, Rhode Island, in just two years.

“There followed season upon season of cruising the Caribbean and Florida in the winter, and east coast USA, Canada, Ireland, Scotland and the Med in the summer.  Pat and I got on so well.  He’d have me drop his daughters off at school, and later university, and include me in his social circle.  But in 2007, over 18 years since we first met, Pat let me go.  He had his reasons, and to be honest it was a good time to finish.  I was able to finally spend time at home with my family and my wife, who sadly died of cancer in 2016.

“I’m 71 now, I have a nice house in Hamble and an equally nice place in Antigua, where I am active in the Antigua & Barbuda Search and Rescue – a voluntary organisation that provides 24/7/365 support.  I have a collection of fantastic children and a couple of small boats to mess around in.  I was also fortunate enough to meet a lovely lady to whom I became engaged at a mid-Atlantic fancy dress party in 2019.  Bren was dressed as the North Atlantic garbage patch at the time, covered in rubbish – highly romantic.  You could say I don’t need to work anymore, but I want to.  We only get given a certain number of breaths in life – and I intend to enjoy every one of them.

“Life has slipped into a routine of deliveries.  I’ve done well over 50 in the last decade or so, with an added dash of project management – such as 26-metre Twirlybird VI’s refit in 2008.  I love the camaraderie on and below deck.  I’ve just renewed my licence for another five years and I’m still game to take on anything – motor or sail – so long as they pay.  Having spent all those years as a photographer, I’ve learned to bend a bit.  I can also pick up on people’s feelings straight away.  Both these skills are rather handy for a delivery skipper.   When I join a yacht for the days, weeks or months they need me, I make sure the crew and owner know that I am just there to keep everyone happy and safe – if they have any problems, they can telephone their skipper.  When I depart, I go without leaving a mark.

“Last year, I delivered a two-masted gaff-rigged 42-metre schooner from Portugal to London.  Launched in 1930 as Te Vega, she’s owned by an English guy who is so hands on that he knows every nut and bolt of that yacht – his enthusiasm is infectious.  It was a treat for me to return to Te Vega as 30 years prior I’d towed her from Southampton to Bilbao.  I am delighted she’s with an owner who truly loves her.  This year, I did a ten-day stint on 43-metre motoryacht Cyan owned by a rather famous rocker, followed by an Atlantic crossing on 45-metre Perini Blush owned by a talented drummer – a musical summer.  I also raced in the 2021 Rolex Fastnet on Swan 65 Desperado, AKA Cyclos – the very same boat I skippered in the 1980s.  Soon I’ll be in Antigua, and next year I plan to take 156-foot Hoek Wisp from Palma to join the St Barth’s Bucket.  Add a dash of diving, motorbiking, skiing, motorhoming and tending to my chickens and it’s a pretty interesting life with Bren, for which I am grateful on a daily basis.”

Sarah Forge, hello@sarahforge.com