Obituary: Barbara Calder, pioneering yachtswoman

Barbara Calder at the helm of family boat
Barbara Calder at the helm of family boat
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Obituary: Barbara Calder, yachtswoman. Born: 19 July 1924 in London. Died: 27 January 2018 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, aged 93.

Barbara Calder was a pioneering yachtswoman in an era when the sport was seen as a bastion of male supremacy. She blew that theory and the chauvinism around the sport out of the water when she became the first woman in Scotland to attain the Yachtmasters’ Certificate and then skippered the first all-female crew in the 1968 Tall Ships Race from Harwich in Essex, to Kristiansund in Norway.

Competing against 32 other ships from five countries, Calder’s crew, clad in polo neck white sweaters, jeans and blue caps, caused a PR sensation and were in huge demand, not only for “being one of the smartest and shipshape crews that ever set sail” but also for their sailing ability and their good looks. Before departing on the 400-mile race across the North Sea, they enjoyed cocktails aboard one of Her Majesty’s naval frigates.

The press, however, saw them as purely a sideshow and questioned their ability, remarking, “The crew of the Crackerjack are, fashion-wise, absolutely unsinkable.”

Unfortunately, halfway through the race, Crackerjack, their 17½-ton yawl, encountered rudder problems and Calder was forced to dock briefly in the Netherlands; despite finishing towards the back of the race, the women were awarded a special prize “for perseverance in difficult conditions”.

Born in London, in 1924, Barbara Brydone was daughter of James “Robin” Marr, a doctor, and Mary “Mamie” Brydone, a housewife. With a sense of maritime adventure running through her blood, she was a descendant of the Scottish surgeon, James Marr Brydone, who served in the British fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. He was famed for being the first person in the main British battle fleet to sight the Franco-Spanish fleet, and did so without a telescope. The information was signalled to the flagship HMS Victory, allowing Admiral Nelson to ready his force.

Her father enjoyed sailing, but Barbara was the only one of his three daughters to enjoy and thrive on sailing his boat, Chinkara, along the south coast. These experiences sparked her lifelong passion in the sport: “The sea has held a lure and a challenge for me ever since.” Her first proper experience came later as a watch-keeper aboard a cutter.

Initially educated at home by a governess, Barbara was later sent to Roedean School, the girls’ boarding school in East Sussex, but with the outbreak of war in 1939 was quick to volunteer for the group of 40 girls evacuated from wartime England to Edgehill School in Windsor, Nova Scotia, Canada. Nicknamed “Barb” or “Barbie”, she blossomed in a society that she perceived to be less stuffy and judgmental than in England. Later, thanks to family connections in the US, she completed her schooling at the Masters School at Dobbs Ferry, a suburb of New York, on the Hudson River.

In 1942 Barbara decided to return to London and joined the Wrens (Women’s Royal Navy Service), serving in London as a dispatch motorcycle rider before being reassigned to Machrihanish in Argyll, to drive supply lorries.

Towards the end of the war, while on leave visiting her aunt’s house, Austin Hall, in Devon, she was introduced to Norman Calder, a Scottish doctor. The attraction was instant and six months later, in 1946, they married and settled in Aberdeen, where they had three sons.

As the boys grew up, she introduced them to sailing and during the summers, when the boys returned home from boarding at Gordonstoun, in Moray, she would take them out on her 26ft Atalanta yacht, Terrapina. While the boys were away, the diminutive yet resolute Calder became a Sea Ranger, feeling more at home with fishermen and seafarers than the genteel ladies of Aberdeen. “I don’t have antlers,” she would retort, responding to being addressed as “dear”.

In 1967, in a field of 20 students who had enrolled for the Yachtmasters’ Certificate through the navigation school in Aberdeen, 19 were men. Against the odds, not only did she secure her certificate, she was also the only one to pass, becoming the first Scottish woman to do so. This experience spurred her on throughout her sailing career. Soon after she became chairman of the Sail Training Association in northern Scotland.

However, the media of the time questioned her motives for sailing. Why desert the comfort and security of home for the discomfort and exposure of the sea?” It was simple, she enjoyed adventure.

Undeterred by critics, Calder persevered and one of her first challenges as chairman was raising funds to fit out the Malcolm Miller. The Miller was one of the original three-masted topsail schooners used in the 1960s by the Sail Training Association, now called the Tall Ships Youth Trust.

Through her sailing, Calder met the Duke of Edinburgh after all-girl cruises were included in his Award Scheme. In one interview, she resolutely rebuffed any suggestion that girls were less competent than boys, arguing, “Boys tend to exhaust themselves very rapidly in showing off their strength. Girls, knowing they have less strength, are more economical and tend to think more before they carry out an action.”

Never fazed by anything and never wanting to hinder her girls’ “worldly” experiences, following an invitation to a soirée aboard HMS Ganges, an 84-gun second-rate ship of the line, it was hinted by the officer offering the invite that the admiral wanted Calder’s crew to wear skirts; she declared, “Even if we have to make them out of spare sail cloth, we’ll be there, in skirts.”

Over the next 20 years, Calder continued to race tall ships in the North Sea, around the British Isles and the Mediterranean, barking orders with her distinctive, crisp, cut-glass accent, and skippering her female crews, which included women from all walks of life and all over the country, including a maths teacher, a typist, a secretary and an accountant.

Calder continued sailing until 1990 when poor health curtailed any further sea faring adventures. With the death of her husband, Calder moved back to Canada in 2009. She died peacefully, having suffered for a number of years with dementia. She is survived by her sister, Susan, and two sons, Hamish and George; another son, Robin, predeceased her.

She will be interred with Norman at a later date in Laurencekirk.

Martin Childs