The first ‘hero’ I ever met was an American guy called Robert Manry.
These days few remember him but on August 17th 1965, Manry stepped off his tiny sailing boat “Tinkerbelle” onto the steps of Custom House Quay in Falmouth, Cornwall having completed a solo 78 day transatlantic voyage from Falmouth, Massachusetts.
At the time, “Tinkerbelle” was the smallest boat to have made the crossing (only thirteen and a half feet long) and I, amongst a crowd of thousands, was (for once) in the right place at the right time.
As a schoolboy living in Falmouth, Cornwall the Manry crossing had been big news all summer. Throughout July and August the BBC news and the local Westward TV station issued regular bulletins of the latest developments of this extraordinary sailor tacking his way across the Atlantic to my hometown.
Some days (long before satnav and tracking devices) he disappeared altogether and we wondered whether the voyage had been too ambitious and the sea had finally taken him. But then an RAF Shackleton would track him down and the flame of interest would be re-ignited.
Manry was a resourceful man. He had planned meticulously for the trip and was an experienced sailor although that experience had been mostly on lakes in Michigan and Ohio.
As we soon discovered, Bob Manry was a newspaperman. He worked as a copy editor on the Cleveland Plain Dealer but had always been keen on boats.
He bought a small sailing boat in 1958, christened her “Tinkerbelle” and lovingly transformed the cabinless thirteen and a half footer into a vessel in which he could take his family on sailing holidays to places like Lake Pymatuning in Ohio and Indian Lake in Michigan.
Telling his newspaper bosses a small white lie that he wanted time off to cross the Atlantic in a large sailing boat with a friend, and despite being declared uninsurable by Lloyds of London when he revealed his true mission, Manry sailed out of Falmouth, Massachusetts on June 1st at 10.30 in the morning.
He planned to the smallest detail and his supplies included 28 gallons of water, 30 tins of turkey loaf and a copy of John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
78 days later, Manry passed The Manacles near the Lizard (the most southerly point of England) on his way into the port of Falmouth, Cornwall and the history books.
The night he arrived was as exciting as if the Beatles had turned up in town and played the local ABC cinema. It was a warm evening and my mum and dad had the black and white TV switched on.
We watched as various aerial shots of Manry in “Tinkerbelle” surrounded by an armada of small boats who had gone out into Falmouth Bay to meet him, flickered across our screen.
What was even more amazing was the fact that I could look out of my living room window across Gyllyngvase Beach and see the boats for real. For a ten-year-old boy this was about as exciting as it got. The news right on your doorstep.
It wasn’t long before I realised that this sight wouldn’t stay there forever. I suggested to my mother that maybe we should drive to Pendennis Point, a headland peninsular just below Pendennis Castle, and get a better view. We jumped into the car.
It was a big mistake. Pendennis Point was absolutely packed with people who had all had the same idea as us but two hours earlier. There was no way you could even get a place to park along the congested Castle Drive let alone secure a vantage point.
The TV news earlier had said that Manry was going to step ashore at the Custom House Quay just off Arwenack Street. There was nothing else for it. We turned the car around and headed into the town itself.
When we arrived, there were even more people if that was at all possible (later press reports said that 50,000 people turned up to welcome Manry).
By some miracle we found somewhere to park and set off on foot to get as near as possible to the quay. It was so full of crowds that we were just about to give up and return home when my mother bumped into an old friend who was a ‘Special Constable’ with the police.
He was one of many trying to control the crowd and took us inside a building above a car showroom where there was a superb view looking directly down on to Custom House Quay and the thousands of people. Talk about a ringside seat. We couldn’t believe our luck.
We waited with about ten other people in that small room for Manry to arrive. It was a warm evening but there was little wind. In the end, I believe Manry accepted a tow from the harbourmaster Frank Edwards so that he wouldn’t disappoint the thousands of people who had turned up to see his arrival.
Then the armada slowly sailed into view from the Carrick Roads around the edge of the docks. It looked like hundreds of small craft, yachts, and motorboats all criss-crossing and escorting the tiny “Tinkerbelle” into port.
Flags were waved, people cheered and some of the large ships in the docks (including a large white cruise liner) sounded their Klaxons in joy and celebration at this remarkable man and his extraordinary voyage.
Manry then stepped ashore to be greeted by his wife Virginia, daughter Robin and son Douglas who had flown over from Willowick, Ohio to be there.
Falmouth’s Mayor Samuel Hooper, resplendent in his scarlet robes and golden chain of office, officially welcomed the lone sailor to the town as the St Stythians Silver band (one of Cornwall’s premier brass bands) performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever”.
A shaky Robert Manry, wobbly from 78 days at sea, got down on all fours and kissed the ground in gratitude for his safe journey.
Next we went out into the narrow Arwenack Street and waited for Manry to drive by. We waited and waited and then a black police car drove through with an officer repeating over a loudspeaker that Robert Manry would be following two cars behind. This was helpful information as people got their cameras ready to roll.
Unfortunately by the time Manry’s car arrived there was so much excitement and pushing amongst the crowd that few managed to get a clear shot of the man as flashbulbs fired off in every direction but the one intended.
And that was that; people started drifting back to their cars, homes and hotels. One of the most exciting nights in the town’s history was over.
But Falmouth had gone “Bob Manry mad” and there was more to come.
Firstly there was a civic reception at the Princess Pavilion Gardens, a local park and tea garden where “Tinkerbelle” was proudly put on display under a covered bandstand.
It was here that Robert Manry, with his family, presented the Mayor with “Tinkerbelle’s” ensign. And for those who missed this opportunity to see the famous sailing boat, a local garage and car dealership, Jennings of Falmouth, let the public view her inside one of their car showrooms off Kimberley Park Road.
Everywhere you went the talk was of Robert Manry and “Tinkerbelle”. You couldn’t move for an opinion on how he had managed such a difficult crossing in such a small boat. It gripped the town.
But where was the great man himself? Well, Robert Manry and his family were staying at the Greenbank Hotel, one of Falmouth’s finest with its wonderful sea views looking towards Flushing and along Falmouth’s waterside.
I was determined to get Robert Manry’s autograph and once again badgered my mother to take me down there.
As we walked up to the hotel, Manry suddenly appeared through a side door and stepped into the little rose garden where he signed my autograph book (see photo above).
He was looking relaxed, tanned but had now exchanged his sailing gear for a smart grey suit and red tie. He looked tired as only a man who has just sailed the Atlantic could look. He spoke about his astonishment at his extraordinary reception.
So that was that. Robert Manry had sailed from Falmouth to Falmouth in 78 days in the smallest craft ever at that time to make the crossing.
And a few days later, I had met him.