A Forgotten Talent by Johannes Erdmann
John A. Ley, a Scarborough man, built splendid little yachts. Only one of them became famous when a German yachtsman sailed the 23-foot-sloop ‘Kathena’ around the world. But it was not the only ‘Scarborough-Sloop” Ley designed.
A portrait of a brilliant naval architect and boat builder.
Not many facts are known about ‘Kathena’, one of the most famous German blue water yachts. When Wilfried Erdmann sailed his wooden boat into the port of Helgoland in 1968, he had been at sea for 131 days nonstop since departing South Africa. The German sailing magazine ‘YACHT’ covered the story about the first German singlehanded circumnavigator with a sizeable article. But issue 12/68 gives only a little background information about the impressively small, but seaworthy boat he sailed on. ‘Kathena’ was built in 1952 by John A. Ley in Scarborough, England. So, who was this man? Where did he work? Which other yachts did he build? Even in the 1960s, barely anyone outside of England had heard or read about Ley.
Long after Erdmann’s remarkable nautical performance the story behind his boat stayed in the dark. In the ‘YACHT’ magazine’s archive, which is a chronicle that carries almost every answer to German sailing history, nothing can be found. Yet, John A. Ley was a great draughtsman and talented boat builder with roots going back to the country which made one of his boats famous. His family originally came from Germany. Around the turn of the last century Ley’s ancestors emigrated to England. This connection has been discovered more than 60 years after ‘Kathena’s’ launch. To reveal the whole story behind it, I had to go back to the place where Ley built his boats.
During the 47 years after his circumnavigation on ‘Kathena’ Wilfried Erdmann bought nine other boats and called each of them ‘Kathena’. He did many more long voyages, even three more circumnavigations of the globe. Because of the impact that the first boat had on his life Wilfried always wanted to know a bit more about the history of the first ‘Kathena’. He did some investigations and sailed to Scarborough in 1996 on his Dehler 33 ‘Kathena Ina’. But his research was not very successful. ‘John A. Ley did not outlive the building of 'Kathena' for long’, Erdmann writes in his book ‘Nordseeblicke’.
Only the oldest members of the Scarborough Yacht Club had any memories of that time. Today, almost 20 years later, Ley seems completely forgotten. Nick Taylor, commodore of the Scarborough Yacht Club, said ‘I have lived in Scarborough for 26 years, but I have never heard of that man, although I am quite active in sailing business”. About three hundred miles to the south, in Torquay, there is somebody who remembers the name ‘Ley’.
The draughtsman's niece still lives there. Ingrid de Leyva is 67 years old and knew her uncle for just eight years. He died in 1956, only three years after the building of ‘Kathena’. De Leyva has a box full of family memories from that time with pictures and drawings. Piece by piece she was able to give some character to the name of ‘John A. Ley’ whose identity has been a secret for so long. She spread several photographs over the glass table in the kitchen of her cottage. The pictures were small and some of them had already turned yellow from their age. The first one showed a young man tacking aboard a wooden sloop with long bulges in front of the harbour of Scarborough. The boat's name was ‘Fancy Free’ and in the background of the picture is the distinctive shape of the ‘Grand Hotel”. When the hotel was built 150 years ago, it was one of the best hotels in Europe. But today is costs only £35 a night and occasionally y the health authorities have had to close the business down. Times have changed.
Another photo showed a lean man with round glasses. He is at the tiller of a boat right next to a young woman. Through this picture John A. Ley gets a face. ‘He would have liked knowing that a German sailing magazine (in which the story was published first] is interested in him’, his niece explains, ‘because that is where the family has its roots”. They lived in Spain at first, but since the ‘de Leyvas’ were part of the Habsburg-family they emigrated to Germany more than 200 years ago. After a while the name ‘de Leyva’ transformed into ‘Ley’. Johannes Carl Ley, the father of John A. Ley and also the grandfather of Ingrid de Leyva, moved back from Danzig to Spain to reunite with the family. Shortly after that he decided to emigrate to the USA. He did not like living there and finally moved to Bridlington, in England, just 17 miles to the southeast of Scarborough. He married a German woman, Freda Weissbeck, and together they owned a farm.
He developed a passion for woodwork, which he shared with his son, John A. Ley, who was born in 1911. As a child, he started to build models of warships, to compete in battles held in Peasholm Park in Scarborough on a regular basis. Since remote controls had not been invented, the captains had to climb aboard their 12 feet long models with their heads tucked under the cowlings. They simulated the great naval battle of the River Plate. There were explosions and smoke. To some extent the ships even caught fire and the spectacle is very popular with tourists.
Taking part in the displays meant John A. Ley was the focus of everybody’s attention, but it was also the time when the Second World War started. Because of his origin, Ley senior was considered as possibly subversive and held captive. The family lost the farm and moved to Wales. John A. Ley served an apprenticeship as a carpenter. Due to his thick lenses and flat feet he was not drafted into the military. At the end of war he moved back to Scarborough and started to turn a storehouse near the harbour into a shipyard for wooden boats.
He was eager to build sailing yachts of his own design and North Yorkshire's coast is known for its rough conditions. Winter storms can get so violent that the harbour has to be closed. Just a small entrance at the back of the pier close to the tall lighthouse is then held open for local fishermen to enter the harbour. During low tide the inner harbour basin dries out. This is why boats in Scarborough have to have a shallow draft, the ability to fall dry and to be seaworthy at the same time. John A. Ley’s had a natural talent for streamlining curves onto the wooden boats.
From his house in St. Sepulchre Street, just a few yards from the shipyard, he spent most of his time, to the regret of his wife Kathleen, who did not favour sailing and boats in general. His first boat ‘Flicka’ was launched in 1949. It proved a big success and affirmed a promising future for the young man. When the Royal Yorkshire Yacht Club gave an award for his design, he became known across the county. Almost all of the following designs carried a canoe stern and high topsides with a projecting aft deck – his trademark.
‘Everybody liked John’, David Carrick, 76 from Snape in North Yorkshire explains. ‘Many a time he drove his old Land Rover to the harbour and someone would always request his help. Before you knew it, he would be working on a boat and often someone had to remind him: 'John, your car is still running!' In the heat of the moment he completely forgot to shut it down.’
At the beginning of the fifties, Carrick used to be in Scarborough almost every weekend. He knew Ley very well. He watched Ley working when he was just 13 years old. Carrick’s father, Bert, and Ley had met over a beer in a pub in the early winter of 1952. Of course, building boats was the topic of conversation that evening and when Bert Carrick mentioned, that he was looking for a 23 foot yacht with a centreboard, Ley pulled out a pen. On the back of a pack of cigarettes a little bulky boat came into existence, designed with his specifications.
Two weeks later Carrick came to the shipyard to talk about further details so that Ley could begin to draw his boat. But when he entered the shipyard he could not believe his eyes. In the small office, cramped with wood, the complete construction plans lay ahead of him. Who drew these? Carrick senior wanted to know. ‘Me’, Ley answered to his customer. ‘My father could not believe it’, David Carrick recalls. Ley himself was not completely satisfied with the design Bert Carrick wanted him to build, because of its proportions. His other boats were more sleek, this one seemed to be ‘as round as an apple’. A blue water yacht, not very fast, but seaworthy.
On the occasion of the next visit the keel had already been laid down. They installed a small, eight horsepower Stuart-Turner gas inboard engine and named the yacht after David Carricks mother Kathleen-Ena. In Easter 1953, ‘Kathena’ was launched. Since the shipyard was located right next to the promenade the ship just needed to get across the main street and be pushed down the slipway during high tide. David Carrick took some photos out of his leather briefcase. According to them the boat sparkled like a proud swan. When the sea came in the yacht started ‘leaking like a sieve’, he said. ‘I was frightened by the amount of water that flooded the boat.’ David and his father Bert spent six hours bailing their newly built boat. It was after midnight when they finished. At some point the flow through the planks finally ran dry.
A day after Kathena’s launch she was completely dry and never took on water again. ‘She is made of larch’, Carrick explains, ‘a wood that cannot die’, the local fishermen told me. In fact, it is very alive. On the hard it dries out, in the water it swells to complete water tightness. A lot of fishing boats have been built out of larch. Like all of John A. Ley’s boats they had frames made of oak, the planks were larch and the deck made out of spruce. Although most of them were designed in a similar style, no Scarborough-sloop resembled the other.
Ley sailed on his own boat ‘Fancy Free’ as often as possible, mostly singlehandedly. Even in a far distance the boat was recognizable on the horizon because it had sails that were coloured dark red. When the boat came closer to shore you were able to hear him as well. ‘John used to sing with all of his heart while sailing’, David Carrick says. Ley enjoyed every single moment of freedom at sea, because his work increased over the following years. ‘He was a brilliant daughtsman’, Carrick concludes. During that time he had two employees, later he had four. Ley was a perfectionist. ‘If John did not like something it had to be rebuilt from scratch’, he recalls. This trait caused great pressure because the shipyard had many orders.
If they did not build yachts, they crafted Cobles, the local fishing boats. But Ley’s skills were not limited to building boats. He once even repaired a Rolls Royce and modelled a beautiful wooden rear end. There was nothing John could not do. But, he was under constant time pressure. Ley used to communicate via telegram. ‘He did not find time to write letters’, David Carrick says. That is why he and his father visited Scarborough quite often to overlook the building progress personally. Ley welcomed them into his empire of sawdust with laughter and happiness. ‘Every time we came to the boatyard I collected some nails from the floor of the workshop’, Carrick explains. ‘They had been slipped from Johns hands while working, and he had simply no time to pick them up, but instead took a new one from the box,‘ he says. ‘Just recently I used the last one of them. ‘
After the grand success with ‘Flicka,’ John A. Ley used to build boats of eight metres in length and became known for it. The gate of the shipyard set a limit on the maximum width of the boats. One ship got a little bit too wide once but pragmatic John A. Ley just tore down the back of the workshop and released the hull that way. The repair of that wall is still visible even today. The building-costs of ‘Kathena’ had been 950 pounds, later Scarborough sloops cost between 1100 and 1200 pounds, around 50 000 pounds today. After a few years the Carrick family sold ‘Kathena’ to a Mr. Nuttall from Hawes. He sailed the boat to the Canal du Midi via the North Sea and cruised the Mediterranean afterwards. In 1965 Wilfried Erdmann purchased the boat in Altea, a coastal town close to Alicante. German sailors know the rest of the story.
But not so David Carrick. He learnt about the small boat’s achievement during the interview we did 60 years later. In the mid-fifties, eight Scarborough-Sloops had been based in Scarborough harbour and the Carrick family felt that their next boat had to be designed by John A. Ley as well. Some years before he had built a beautiful yacht with a canoe stern for two farmers which was on sale now. Bert Carrick took the chance. He bought ‘Fay-A’ and used the extremely high-grade and costly built yacht for weekend trips, just like he did with ‘Kathena’. ‘She had fantastic sailing abilities’, David recalls and goes into rhapsodies about the boat. ‘We attended some races and succeeded a lot.’ He is all smiles. That took place in the late fifties. ‘She had a very large spinnaker which was very uncommon at that time.’ Finally, the ship got too small for the family and at the beginning of the new decade it was sold.
Today ‘Fay-A’ is docked in Portsmouth and is on sale again. The Carrick family would have loved to place an order for a new boat with John A. Ley, but he suddenly died of cancer in 1956, aged 45 years. ‘That was a very sad day for the sailing community in this region’, says David Carrick. ‘Because everybody loved him. We called him 'Mister Scarborough', because he presented the city with its very own category of ship. It was probably his tendency to innovation, that cost him his life’. Eight years before the ‘Fähnrich 31’ was launched, as the first series-yacht made of glass fibre in Germany, visionary Ley already had started building glass fibre yachts.
On top of that he was in negotiations with the company ‘Slingsby Sailplanes’. He offered to build sailplanes from fibreglass, which was beyond imagination back then. ‘Working with synthetic resins is what killed him’, his niece Ingrid is convinced. ‘That and Aunt Kathleen’s Beef-Pie! ’ Despite the great potential for aviation and boat building, the effects of resin and fibreglass on health were underestimated. Slingsby continued using metal. Ten years later they finally adopted Ley’s idea. What is left of this brilliant draughtsman and his impressive designs? Not much.
The former workshop next to the promenade is empty today. The place is situated between a marine shop and a fast food restaurant. Just a few people remember the boat builder. Good memories, but they are fading. Even the Scarborough Maritime Heritage, a museum that chronicles the town’s maritime past, only has half a page about the man, whose designs carried Scarborough’s name offshore. But at least most of his boats are still afloat, more than 15 overall, everywhere in Europe. Even at the age of 60 they remain beautiful. Each of them unique. Those are the Scarborough Sloops. The boats that keep the unknown man alive: John A. Ley.
Pictures of his boats can be seen at: