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Steering the ship of state
Hugh McIlvanney
August 23, 1971
British Prime Minister Edward Heath was off sailing, leading his country to world yachting glory. But who was minding the country?
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August 23, 1971

Steering The Ship Of State

British Prime Minister Edward Heath was off sailing, leading his country to world yachting glory. But who was minding the country?

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There was a fair range of tactical options open to the 41 boats that fought out the Channel race. But when Prospect of Whitby went into a dominant position it was by making perfect use of an electrical storm, broad-reaching home at nine to 10 knots. The U.S.' Yankee Girl, whose long white hull was to be a frustrating beacon for smaller pursuers all through the series, took second place on corrected time, which is fixed under a handicap system that sets a boat's actual time against her measurements. Behind Yankee Girl came Morning Cloud, after sailing a sound, well-navigated race. Arthur Byrne's Salacia II gave Australia fourth position but, with Cervantes IV coming next, the little British boats had provided the home team with a commanding point lead that it never was to lose.

However, for the captain, even if he had the inclination, there was no time to wallow in congratulations. There was irresistible pressure from London. The collapse of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, a Glasgow consortium that had pleaded unsuccessfully for a transfusion of six million pounds from the government, had brought occupation of the shipyards by the workers and angry condemnation of the absentee Prime Minister. "Can Heath sail through the Clyde storm?" the newspapers wanted to know, reminding him that at least 4,000 employees were to be made redundant. The Prime Minister left Morning Cloud before the second race and returned to the House of Commons, although he was not due to speak in the debate on the Clyde issue. For the most part the discussion was as ineffectual as it was somnolent, the threat from militant trade unionists to "go down and kick hell out of that playboy's boat" had evaporated in the sooty air outside the Clyde-yard gates, and Heath was soon able to leave the green leather of the government front bench for the hard helmsman's seat on Morning Cloud.

He arrived back in Cowes to find that the second race had turned out badly for Britain, but in the third event, with Heath sailing again, the British moved farther ahead in the point standings. The U.S., the defending champion, almost certainly lost the competition here when Yankee Girl was disqualified for passing on the wrong side of a marker boat. The race was a disheveled affair all around, with some of the larger craft running nearly out of control in the heavy weather. Morning Cloud did not get by unscathed, either, as a spinnaker tore loose from its mounting and caused slight damage to both the ship and an unfortunate crewman who happened to be in the way.

Ted Heath would have been pleased to dwell on this minor anxiety. Instead, he was required to hurry back to London for a meeting with Brian Faulkner, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland; the commander of the British troops in the province; and his own Home Secretary and Secretary of State for Defense. It was announced that they had agreed to send 1,000 more soldiers to Ulster. What was not announced was that they had also agreed to round up and intern without trial hundreds of those believed to be involved in terrorist activities there. The tightly coordinated dragnet was scheduled for a time when Morning Cloud would be far out in the Atlantic.

Was it legitimate for the British Prime Minister to be asail on her at such a crucial moment? The government subsequently responded that it was "imperative that Mr. Heath should be on board." Otherwise, it was announced, suspects in Ulster might have guessed that something special was up and gone into hiding.

So Ted Heath was restored to the Isle of Wight and to the distractions of Cowes at a time when the little seaport annually beckons to the international yacht world with Cowes Week. It is to be hoped that the Prime Minister found the town more agreeable than did most other visitors. There were no gunmen in Cowes—unless one counted the affable man from The Special Branch who was assigned to guard Heath—but there were evidences of banditry nevertheless. Some of the local hotelkeepers and tradespeople seemed to be bidding for the overcharging championship of the world. One disgruntled victim, who had put up at a pub in Yarmouth, a $6 taxi ride from the regatta, marched to the notice board in the press tent and pinned on a bill for one night's stay (without full breakfast). The charge came to $43. Such a document obviously embarrassed the jolly conspirators of the island, for someone slipped into the tent, tore down the bill and trampled it underfoot. Some of the traders freely admitted—admissions were the only things that were free—that the grossly swollen profits of Cowes Week subsidized their businesses for the rest of the year.

Money grabbing is not the only disagreeable aspect of human behavior to be encountered during Cowes Week. Although it was not uncommon to find as many as 500 or 600 sails veering and billowing above the gray waters, under the constantly changing English sky, making a sight to stir the most landlocked spirit, on shore it was different. In the narrow, hilly streets that twist charmingly to accommodate the contours of the sea-front, and in the pubs feverishly generating a yo-ho-ho bonhomie, the scenes were less varying and much less attractive. For the thousands who descend on this low, infinitely green island at the end of July, Cowes Week is an excuse to play the class game, a kind of Royal Ascot in espadrilles.

The week ended on the Friday night with a display of fireworks that was immediately put in its place by a thunder-and-lightning storm sufficiently spectacular to provide a backdrop for Boris Karloff. The sky was colorfully broken but not noticeably unfriendly when the Admiral's Cup fleet sailed out for the final race past The Needles, those intimidating rocks that guard the entrance to the Channel. The boats were rushing to round the promontory in the six hours before the tide turned powerfully against them. Some made it, the great majority did not. Nearly all would return to Plymouth with at least one tale of misfortune. The Australians endured most and, though Ragamuffin won the last race for them, their challenge disintegrated in a confusion of failed batteries, broken steering cable and a shattered rudder.

Morning Cloud's own sufferings began when she was twice becalmed, once having to kedge in 40 fathoms for three hours, and became acute on the way back when the whole of her spinnaker gear was ripped away—leaving an 18-foot alloy pole swinging crazily in the air. "If we had not found a foolproof way of lashing that lot down, the pole might have come back at 50 mph and gone right through one of us," Owen Parker said later.

These troubles, however, represented no more than a tinny counterpoint to the news coming through on the radiotelephone. Twelve people died violently in Ulster on the first day of the emergency internment measures. The toll rose to 17 the next day, and the London Daily Mail's front-page editorial demanded that a helicopter airlift the Prime Minister from the deck of Morning Cloud to Downing Street. The article made ironic comparison between the yacht's progress and what was happening in Northern Ireland: "Hundreds of homes in Belfast burnt out. A Roman Catholic priest shot dead while administering the last rites. And Morning Cloud was lying sixth on corrected time. When will someone start to correct the times in Northern Ireland?"

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