Patrick Ellam, pioneer of small boat sailing offshore and founder of the Junior Offshore Group, adventurer, author and wartime SOE agent, died at his home in Tucson, Arizona, on 19th February 2018 aged 97.
Patrick Ellam was born in Soho on 8th September 1920 to a well to do family. His father ran a business making office machinery, and they owned a 70’ sailing yacht which they kept at Itchenor and which they cruised to the Channel Islands and Brittany. Young Patrick at first rowed the yacht’s dinghy around Chichester harbour, and when his father thought him sufficiently capable of staying out of trouble, equipped it with sails for him. He never had any formal sailing lessons.
After Stowe school, he passed examinations to go to Oxford University, but instead of going there he went to France and Germany to learn languages. He became quite fluent in both French and German and whilst in Germany he heard Hitler speak at one of his rallies. He volunteered for the armed services at the outbreak of war in 1939, joined the artillery and was sent to France, eventually evacuating from St. Nazaire in June 1940. He embarked on one of two ships in the dock, the other being the Lancastria which was sunk on her voyage home. He then commanded an anti-aircraft battery based initially in Wales and then south of London. After a couple of years, he saw an advertisement calling for volunteers for dangerous missions behind enemy lines, and decided to apply. Joining the Special Operations Executive, he received training in burglary and forgery (both from professionals out of prison for the duration), knife and pistol fighting, silent killing, parachuting and many other useful skills for a secret agent. He said that it was the most enjoyable school that he ever attended.
On one occasion he was called to a meeting at SOE Headquarters at 64, Baker Street. He was taken out to lunch, at which nothing of significance was discussed, but afterwards during a walk in the park he was given a mission to get two downed British airmen out of the civilian prison in Rennes. He was given a free rein to make his own arrangements, and called the RAF to provide a B24 bomber to drop him over occupied territory. As this was a large and noisy aircraft, which Patrick liked, they had to arrange a small bombing raid on a factory on the other side of Rennes to conceal their real objective. It was a moonless night, and after parachuting from the plane, he walked into Rennes and checked into a cheap hotel opposite the prison. Eventually he was approached by a man who said that he was a prison guard, and after the exchange of a sum of money (there was no shortage – the French Francs were printed at the Royal Mint and were indistinguishable from the real thing) it was agreed that the airmen would be handed over that evening. Patrick purchased three bicycles, and they made their way to the coast to be collected by a vessel sent from Dartmouth to get them.
After this adventure, much of Patrick’s time with SOE was devoted to smuggling in arms and collecting fellow agents from the coast. The vessels they used sailed out of Dartmouth, and were painted Mountbatten pink. This grey-lilac colour was thought to make them harder to see at sunrise and sunset, the only times at which they would not be in harbour. No doubt Patrick’s pre-war cruises on the family yacht gave him useful knowledge of the coastline in darkness. After that, Patrick was based in Lyon, assisting a resistance group but he finished the war in the far east, in Singapore and Burma.
Patrick then returned to work in his father’s business, designing an office duplicator that was, at the time, the fastest available. In his spare time he went back to sailing and in 1948 he commissioned Theta, a modified version of a Sharpie, a design still sailed in parts of the country. It had a divided cockpit, some waterproof lockers and a ballasted centreboard, but was really wholly unsuitable for sailing offshore. Despite this, Patrick and his crew, sometimes an ex-fighter pilot, crossed the English Channel nine times. He formed a friendship with John Illingworth, then Commodore of the Royal Ocean Racing Club, and a major figure in the renaissance of post war yacht design and offshore racing. Illingworth, who also founded the annual Sydney – Hobart yacht race, persuaded Patrick to stop sailing Theta and to get something safer which also offered the possibility of sleeping on board. Since pre-war yachts were commanding premium prices, and anyway were regarded as being heavy and slow by the new generation of offshore sailors, and building materials were scarce and very expensive, the only option was to build small boats. So, Patrick commissioned Sopranino from Laurent Giles, who passed the design work on to a young naval architect on his staff called Colin Mudie. She was really just hull built round two bunks, a small chart table and galley and a cockpit. All this fitted – just – into a 20 feet long wooden clinker-built but quite narrow hull, and she proved to be seaworthy, fast and relatively safe.
Patrick was anxious to race her with the RORC, but they would not admit such small vessels into their fleet. It was therefore decided to form a separate club, to be called the Junior Offshore Group, and the inaugural meeting was held at the RORC’s St. James’s clubhouse in December 1950. John Illingworth was the first president, and Patrick Ellam the first captain. Other notable founder members were Ian Proctor, Laurent Giles, Michael Henderson and Robert Clark. JOG’s first season was in 1951, running from April to August. The longest race was from Cowes to Ostend, and most were won by Sopranino though not always with Patrick at the helm. Inspired by the success of Sopranino, Patrick conceived the idea of sailing her across the Atlantic and persuaded Colin Mudie to crew for him. They left Falmouth in September 1951, and coasted down to the Canary Islands. From there they made their departure for Barbados, where they arrived in February 1952. They then worked their way up to Cuba, from where Colin had to fly back home. By this time the voyage had attracted quite a lot of press attention, and Patrick was pleased to welcome a curious Ernest Hemingway on board in Havana. After that he sailed up the eastern seaboard of the United States, sometimes with a pickup crew, and sometimes alone. Later he and Colin wrote a book about their experiences, simply called ‘Sopranino’.
In America, Patrick met June and they married after a short engagement. For many years they ran a successful yacht delivery business, and required all their skippers to have sailed the Atlantic to qualify for a job. Upon retirement, the Ellams moved to Tuson, Arizona, where Patrick died. He is survived by his wife of 62 years, June, and their son Broderick.