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Taking tea in tar with the ‘duke’

Richard Griffiths is a feature at Oxford Boatyard in Oxford, Md. The English-born 70-year-old has lived a true cruiser’s life of adventure, most often aboard his converted 1903 lugger Rosalind. Griffiths writes about his adventures regularly in Soundings.

Rosalind is a converted 1903 lugger.

One day, struggling with things I really didn’t understand on Rosalind’s afterdeck, a tall man with a hooked nose and aristocratic bearing hailed me from the dock. I invited him aboard for tea and we introduced ourselves.

“Hello, I’m Richard Griffiths,” I smiled, extending a grubby hand.

“And I am the Duke of Argyth,” he said as he returned my handshake warmly and surveyed my endeavors from astute eyes below bushy eyebrows.

Now, I am a country boy from the depths of rural Devon and had never before shaken hands with a duke of the realm and was in considerable awe. It did cross my mind at the time that the royal duke’s clothing was as covered in tar and paint as mine. I assumed that His Grace (the correct address to a duke) must be eccentric as many of the fading nobility of England were at the time.

The duke (who must have been about 70) informed me over tea that his yacht was tied up a mile up the river and that it would be his pleasure if I would care to join him aboard the following day. I didn’t inquire about the size of his yacht or the number of crew he employed, but only imagined the tea served by a white clad steward, the great staterooms, the polished brass and the gold leaf embellishing her bows and cove stripe.

I took extra care with my attire before I drove my 1936 Austin alongside the River Adur to “Take Tea with Aristocracy” on a sunny summer afternoon.

There she lay, but this was not the upper-crust yacht I was expecting.

She was an Irish-built fishing cutter of 36 feet overall and black-tarred from stem to stern to masthead. She lay half under a railway bridge by the riverbank.

A little taken aback, I hailed her. The tar-speckled snow-white head of hair slowly rose up from a small square hatch followed by the great Roman nose. The effect was like a jack-in-the-box with a worn-out spring. His gracious smile of welcome exposed the yellowed incisor.

I was ushered to the small aperture in the deck, where he lowered himself into this Hole of Calcutta. I followed him and hesitantly descended into what appeared to be a coal mine. As my eyes slowly adjusted, I perceived I was astride the duke’s back, who had assumed the crawling position to facilitate moving forward.

Rosalind's galley is a much more welcoming place than that aboard the Duke of Argyth's black-tarred Irish-built fishing cutter.

The duke’s boat was seriously black — everywhere black and completely black inside and out. We crawled on hands and knees deeper into his warren of tiny compartments where there was no standing headroom.

On reaching what I assumed was the saloon, the black was somewhat relieved by Victorian gold-leafed prints and paintings such as the Pre-Raphaelite-era painting “The Stag at Bay.”

Crouching low, the duke inched forward with the tea kettle in his right hand and placed it on — believe it or not — an oversized pot-belly stove that entirely occupied the adjacent compartment. How he’d installed it I could not fathom. This stove emitted a sinister and intense blood-orange heat that gave off noxious fumes of sizzling coal. The boat throbbed with this toxic temperature, melting the pitch, which ran like rivulets of molten lava down the side of the boat.

I’d never seen anything like this in my life before.

Candles flickered. With no portholes or other lighting from the outside world, I anxiously wondered if the duke kept a caged canary below, where its death would signal the need for immediate emergency evacuation.

It was bloody eerie down there to realize it was still summer outside somewhere.

Seated on I-know-not-what, he offered me a cup of tea in a dreadful chipped mug. It looked like it hadn’t been washed in months, but how can you refuse a duke’s offer of tea in his yacht?

He vanished into the gloom only to return from God-knows-where producing old mildewing photo albums. The sepia photographs showed people standing outside a huge castle in Scotland in 1880. A woman was holding a baby. He recounted how that was him, the rightful duke of Argyth, and that this little boy here had stolen or robbed him of his title. Continuing, he claimed he had been banished for some reason and lost his rightful title over the imposter. One day he would regain his rightful estates since he still was legally the duke.

Griffiths and the other denizens of Pink's Easton Boatyard held their breath when the 'Duke' set sail for the West Indies.

This was romantic stuff, listening to a duke discuss his history in a candlelit coal mine with gold heirloom family paintings looking down.

With our friendship warming, our conversation turned to nautical things and the rigging of boats like ours. The duke was ecstatic about stealing two wooden ladders from a building site. He now used them as stays, lashing them with scavenged rope to prop up his short stolen mast. He claimed that in his great experience the steel stays that I intended to use on Rosalind when I could rig her were not necessary.

The stove was going full tilt. The cabin was very hot and exacerbated the enveloping odor of tar and decay. It was time to leave the company of the duke.

I drove back to Rosalind slightly shaken, but resolved to return again to the noble “duke’s” company.

In spite of the unsavory odors, I always enjoyed taking tea with the duke on his yacht. At least the conversations were not boring. And often the duke, over the still-unwashed tea mugs, would captivate me with the tales of his youth in the great castle with 50 servants at his beck and call.

He had become a popular person in the Pink’s Easton Boatyard and there was much conjecture as to the possible fate of such a well-liked character. The consensus of opinion was that, with the state of the vessel and the very aging not-well-fitting sails, it would take probably 14 knots of wind to move the boat and 15 knots to sink it.

But the duke was a roving man and even though his great stove in winter kept his fetid interior at above blood heat, he longed for the sunshine of the Caribbean.

The Big Day came when the duke deemed his vessel ready for an ocean crossing to the expected palm trees so far from his ancestral home in Scotland. It was with regret that we shared our last mugs of tea before his departure.

A young fisherman with a small motorboat towed the great duke down the river through the stone breakwaters and cast off the towline. Unsure whether this fisherman was doing him a favor or sending him to certain death, there was a rush to the beach with binoculars to bid farewell to our brave friend.

But luck was with the duke. There was not a breath of wind and, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge said in the famous poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” his vessel sat “As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.” There was a strong tide off Shoreham and again the duke was lucky. Since the tide was flowing toward the West Indies, he was off.

The sails hung uselessly in the wind, but away he went until the tarry black spot of his vessel finally managed to go over the horizon. I think even people like me with no religion prayed for the duke that night.

Our prayers must have worked because in the night the tide had turned, bringing our friend back to within a quarter of a mile from where he had started. We waved and he waved back. And again the tide turned and again he was away heading for sunny climes. The wind was good to him and stayed somewhere else. And so back he came again like a horizontal yo-yo in slow motion on an invisible string.

This is where providence smiled kindly on the brave duke as he had run out of drinking water.

On his second, or perhaps third return on the tide, he beckoned to us onlookers on the shore. We interpreted this as a sign of distress and the same helpful or murderous fisherman was kind enough to motor out and tow him back with his gallant vessel between the sheltering breakwaters of the River Adur. For some reason after this experience the duke seemed to have lost his penchant for palm trees and decided to never put to sea again.

I will never know whether the duke’s ancestral claims were real or not.

This article originally appeared in the Mid-Atlantic Home Waters Section of the October 2009 issue.