Going down a storm: Mike Peyton

By Dick Durham, Monday 7 January 2013

Mike Peyton, 92, has been dubbed the World’s Greatest Yachting Cartoonist: his drawings have struck a grim chord with sailors and landlubbers alike for seven decades. As his eyesight is failing he’s put together his favourite cartoons for a retrospective book

It was one of those late autumn afternoons when the light starts fading fast. Three sailing boats were rafted up alongside each other in a lonely Essex creek as geese arrowed across the lowering sky. One of the craft was Touchstone, a 38-foot ferro-cement ketch owned by Mike Peyton, who never sailed anywhere without the benefit of a coal stove. The crew of the other yachts gathered around Mike’s glowing hearth and started swapping yarns. Discussion turned to ‘What was the best meal you ever had?’

The first skipper told of the mouth-watering roast beef he’d enjoyed at a top London restaurant, the second jugged hare. Mike sat listening carefully then, when it was his turn, he said in his artless Northumberland accent: ‘Well actually it were Alsatian, in a German PoW camp.’ Mike and his fellow inmates, who were starving, had captured two camp guard dogs and cooked them up.

It was his incarceration in the PoW camp that gave birth to his cartooning. He started sketching as a schoolboy, but aged 19, he went to war with the Eighth Army in North Africa. His drawing talents soon had him seconded to the intelligence corps to draw maps of the desert. When his unit was overrun, he was taken prisoner and shipped first to Italy and later Poland, spending the rest of the war in PoW camps.

Here he helped to run a newspaper, drawing cartoons poking fun at camp life, which distracted him from the daily brutality and gave fellow inmates joy. It would also spark a new career for Mike and the birth of a new genre, nautical cartooning.

Peyton has been at the pinnacle of that genre for 70 years with his roughly scribbled drawings of drenched sailors naively heading for impending doom. Though if the jump from PoW camp to yachtsmen lost at sea seems huge, Peyton has the answer, ‘The secret to cartoons is that you always need something going wrong.’ (Scroll down to the bottom of this page to view some of his wonderful cartoons).

Mike has spent almost 40 years drawing cartoons for Yachting Monthly and, with the exception of yachtsmen who recognise themselves in them, everyone has a favourite. ‘They are all true,’ Mike says, ‘I’ve either seen them happen, or they’ve happened to me. And when I get stuck for ideas and I can’t get afloat I take a bath. I remember years ago I thought I’d run out of ideas. But I never have.’

After the war Mike went to art school in Manchester, where he met his future wife, Kath. They were like chalk and cheese – he the son of a Durham miner who grew up in a one-room flat in view of the colliery, she the daughter of a reservoir engineer who grew up in Surbiton and rode horses. They spent their honeymoon sleeping rough across Europe, paying their way by collecting waste paper. ‘I reckon I’m the only bride that ever had to collect salvage in Paris to earn her fare back across the Channel,’ Kath laughs. She became a novelist and her much-loved Flambards books for children, set around the First World War, were made into a TV series in the Seventies.

Mike went on to work as a freelance cartoonist for more than 30 publications, from Tatler to Modern Caravan, Corsetry & Underwear to the Church Times, Swift comic to the New Scientist. But it was sailing that became his passion and messing about in boats, from his East Coast home to the Baltic and the Med, as well as the US, that made his name. His cartoons have been published from Japan to America, and across all Europe.

Because of macular degeneration, Mike can no longer draw but, as the world’s most famous nautical cartoonist, in 2012, dressed in black tie from an Oxfam shop, he received the Royal Cruising Club’s award for lifetime services to yachting.

On January 6, Mike and his friends will gather at the Fambridge Yacht Club’s little wooden shack on the banks of the River Crouch. They will celebrate Mike’s 92nd birthday.

Could it be a rerun of his gale-battered 90th, when family and sailing friends gathered round a campfire (stoked up by Mike with pallets acquired by him ‘from the pony club’) below the lonely sea wall near his Essex home, doing their best to sing shanties above the howling wind?

Quite possibly, but as Mike told me firmly, ‘Make sure you get there early, there might not be any sandwiches left.’

Cartoons © 2012 Mike Peyton. Taken from World of Peyton by Mike Peyton, Bloomsbury, £16.99. Dick Durham’s biography of Mike Peyton, Peyton: The World’s Greatest Yachting Cartoonist, is published by Adlard Coles Nautical, £16.99. 

This article originally appeared in Saga Magazine . For more fascinating articles like this, delivered direct to your doorstep each month, subscribe today.

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