Arthur Ransome Wiki

We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea is the seventh book in the Swallows and Amazons series. It was published in 1937 and set in August 1931. In this book, the Swallows are staying in a new location, Pin Mill on the River Orwell upstream from the ports of Felixstowe and Harwich.

The book features a small sailing cutter, the Goblin, which is almost identical to Ransome's own boat Nancy Blackett. This book also features accurate geography unlike the Lakes books. Ransome sailed Nancy Blackett across to Flushing by the same route as part of his research for the book.


  • Swallows: John, Susan , Titty, Roger, Bridget Walker
  • Jim Brading
  • Mary Walker
  • Commander Ted Walker
  • Miss Powell
  • Sinbad the kitten
  • the Flushing Pilot
  • minor characters (those in parentheses are "offstage"): Frank the boatman, (boatbuilder), (old man scraping spars), (Ellwright...whose boat was salved), (Tom; one of the crew of the Emily), (Jim's Uncle Bob and medicinal Aunt), young carpenter from the boatshed, telegram boy, officer on the steamer, Dutch fishermen, the other man in the pilot boat, various Dutch kids, Dutchman in motor-boat, locksmen, Dutch harbourmaster, animal at the telegraph counter (in the cage), waiter at café, (Capt Curledge at Shotley, who sends a telegram for them), bus conductor, (Bill the bus driver), nurse (and doctor) at hospital, Harwich harbourmaster, mate on ferryboat, Bob the ferry skipper, George and the other Customs officer


borrowed dinghy, Goblin, Imp, Frank's dinghy, Coronilla, cruisers & yachts in Pin Mill harbour, Harwich Harbour ferry, lightships Galloper, Outer Gabbard, Cork, Sunk, North Hinder, yacht Emily, Rosemary of Harwich, motor-boat in Dutch harbour, Dutch battleship in harbour, four-masted barque Pommern and tug, Customs launch at Harwich, naval cutters, whalers, and gigs, various cargo steamers, barges

Plot summary[]

The Swallows help Jim Brading moor his sailing cutter Goblin when he misses the buoy. In return he invites them to go sailing aboard Goblin. Their mother agrees provided that they do not pass the Beach End buoy at the mouth of the rivers, and do not "go out to sea".

Jim agrees to her conditions. However, on the second morning during a calm after using the engine for some time, the petrol runs out. Jim rows ashore in the yacht's dinghy to buy more, saying " .... it won't take ten minutes .... I'll be back in half a jiffy" . But he does not return. Fog drifts into the harbour.

Some time later, the anchor starts dragging, John realises that the tide has risen and he should have let out more anchor chain and they are drifting. He attempts to let out more chain but the chain runs out too quickly and the anchor is lost. The Goblin drifts past the Beach End into the North Sea. John decides, against Susan's conscience that it is safer to hoist the sails and go farther out to sea rather than stay near the shore and risk being wrecked in the sandbanks and shoals in the fog. Their intention is to put about and return to the shore when they can see clearly. As the night continues, the wind rises and it becomes impossible for them to turn around once the fog lifts.

They continue to run before the wind throughout the night. The following morning, they find themselves approaching a coast which they realise is the Netherlands not France; John thought the fishing boats and pilot boats are Dutch. Roger says that the ensign is red, white and blue ie French, but Titty says that the French red, white and blue go up and down not crosswise.

They arrive safely in Flushing after picking up a a Dutch pilot; they did not want to ask for help before in case the Goblin was seized for salvage because of "all of us being so beastly young" . Jim Brading had a horror story about Ellright's yacht being seized for salvage by some longshore sharks, and says to never take a tow from anyone or let them aboard .

John sees their father embarking on a steam ferry bound for Harwich, but he jumps ship, joins his family and organizes the return voyage aboard Goblin. On returning to the Harwich estuary, the Goblin and her crew meet Jim Brading, who is looking for his missing yacht. Jim had been unconscious in hospital, suffering from concussion after being involved in a collision with a motor bus.

Cross-references and chronology[]

We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea is cross-referenced to other books in the Swallows and Amazons series:

  • a pewter mug on the Holly Howe mantlepiece (WD16): SA or SD or WH
  • Peter Duck is referenced by Titty, reminding Roger of the foghorn signal: "Three hoots ... Sailing vessel with the wind aft. Remember Peter Duck?" (italicised like this in source) (WD10)
  • It'll be like that night on the lake in Swallow when we counted a hundred first on one tack and then the other ..... the wild night in the dark on the lake had been two whole years ago (WD11): SA
  • Titty asks whether they can recover the lost anchor by diving Like when Swallow was wrecked, last summer (WD8): SD.
  • Titty suggests sending a postcard to the Amazons and the Ds at Beckfoot (WD3): this implies that the Amazons and Ds are still holidaying together following the events described in Pigeon Post
  • WD takes place in the summer following Winter Holiday: John recalls signalling and Nancy's pumpkin face in the last winter holidays (WD15)
  • John refers to when old Swallow was towed behind the Beckfoot motor launch and Nancy went too fast by mistake .... (an event not in earlier books) (WD13).

Timeline Of The Book[]

Numbers are days (but not actual dates) in August 1931 (...warm August sun... WD3 and long August night (at Pin Mill) WD14); days of the week are known for this story. Names are chapter titles.

  • (Before the story: Roger had been discussing engines a great deal at school, Jim completed school at Rugby, Jim has been sailing in the South for 10 days (with a man to assist); Daddy left China about 7 days before the start of the story on a 12-day intercontinental train journey, perhaps on a Monday)
  • ("day -1" a Sunday) (Walker family were in a train; Jim Brading was in the Downs wishing for a wind. -WD4)
  • ("day 0", a Monday): (before the book starts, the Walker family arrived at Pin Mill: Only the evening before they had come down the deep green lane .... Last night they had slept for the first time at Alma Cottage (WD1). Two days ago ... we were in the train say Titty and Roger while Jim said he was in the Downs wishing for a wind (WD4)).
  • Day 1 (Tuesday. Tide getting on for low water at 6pm -WD1): A Bowline Knot • Sleepy Skipper
  • Day 2 (Wednesday)("five hours" after breakfast, say 1pm, it is "not long after high water" -WD3):
    • morning: "We've All Promised" • Down the River
    • evening: Down the River • Sleeping Afloat
    • night: Sleeping Afloat
  • Day 3 (Thursday) (Daddy is in Berlin):
    • morning (7am; dead low tide at 8.16am): "Nothing Can Possibly Happen" • "He's Been an Awful Long Time..."
    • afternoon (High tide is at 2pm, barometer down three-tenths): "He's Been an Awful Long Time..." • The Beach End Buoy • Drifting Blind • Out to Sea • Whose Fault Now?
    • evening: Whose Fault Now? • A Cure For Sea-Sickness
    • night: Woolworth Plate • At Pin Mill • Keeping Awake
  • Day 4 (Friday, high water predicted to be at four o' time for tea - WD3):
    • morning: At Pin Mill • Dawn at Sea • Shipwrecked Sailor • Land Ho! What Land? • Signal for a Pilot • Grown-Up Noises Below • Surprises All Round • In a Foreign Port
    • afternoon: Dutch Afternoon • Happier Voyage
    • evening: Happier Voyage
    • night: Happier Voyage
  • Day 5 (Saturday, expected day of arrival of Ted Walker -WD1 )
    • morning: Happier Voyage • Lost! Two Days and a Boat • "Nothing to Declare..." • Coil Down
  • ("day 8") (Monday): (Jim's Uncle Bob's planned arrival to join Jim on Goblin two days after the end of the book): I've got my uncle coming on Monday and we're going to have a try for Scotland (WD1).
  • "in a month": Jim to start university at Oxford (WD1).

Wind direction and point of sail[]

All but ob

'All but OB': correct point of sail (broad reach on a starboard tack) shown.

Wd puffin cover

the Puffin cover of We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea showing Goblin on port tack (even the sidelights are coloured to maintain the deception)

John after making sail on Goblin steers North-east (WD9) following the tide out to the Cork lightship. In WD10 the wind is described as dead aft (therefore from the south-west, as they are heading north-east). When they reach Cork, they jibe and head south-east and a little bit east (WD10), therefore on a broad reach with the sail on starboard tack. They maintain this point of sail through the entire voyage to Holland (give or take the odd attempt at turning back and kitten rescue). The fog signal used (three hoots: sailing vessel with the wind abaft the beam) does not change as they jibe, because steering south-east and a little bit east in a sou'wester, the wind remains very slightly abaft the beam. (Fog signals are an imprecise clue to exact wind direction in a sailing yarn.) Goblin is correctly depicted with her sails on starboard tack in the illustrations 'All but OB', 'Night encounter', 'The loom of a lighthouse' and 'Signal for a pilot'. The chapter-end drawing after 'Shipwrecked sailor' (WD17) shows her sails on port tack, but also with both foresails, so this is obviously a "stock photo" for use anywhere in the book. But the biggest error of all is in the colour version of 'All but OB' used on the Puffin cover throughout the 1970s. This picture is run in mirror image (and incidentally extended upwards by four extra masthoops worth of mast and rigging): it seems the publishers needed some clear sky for the title text so either made the North Sea storm a nor'easter or else had the Swallows sailing from Holland to Harwich!

Possible sources[]

On anchor dragging and "pirates": "The rule of thumb is: Three times as much chain as there is depth of water. This in my youth [...] I neglected in the port of Harwich, thinking that it was nearer high tide than it was, so the little ship got adrift, and was rescued, or as the man preferred to call it, 'salvaged', by a barge called Lily. [...] The owner of the Lily claimed one-third value of my boat, 'Because, said he, 'it was salvaged below London Bridge' (Hilaire Belloc The Cruise of the Nona')

On drifting out to sea: Arthur Ransome researched this by delibertely allowing Nancy Blackett to drift out from Harwich harbour. He had a man called Herbert Smith with him, who was terribly seasick.(CFT)chap no req


  • The book is dedicated to Mrs Henry Clay.
  • The Walkers had come to Pin Mill to stay at Alma Cottage the evening before Day 1 (that is, on Monday)
  • Nancy, Peggy, and the Ds were all at the Lake.
  • But the Ds have gone home from the Lake, called away to join parents (SW1); they had left just after the Swallows had gone south (that is, just before the events of WD) (SW11).
  • Daddy is to be stationed at Shotley and is on his way home from China, a 12 day trip (WD23); he is in Berlin on Day 3 (WD 'At Pin Mill'); it has been a long time since the kids have seen him.
  • Jim Brading had been at Rugby until last term, and got a scholarship and is off to Oxford in another month (WD1)
  • Jim's Uncle Bob is coming Monday (2 days after end of this book) to try for Scotland with Jim on Goblin.
  • Roger has a penny whistle and was taught to play it by a boy at school (that is, before the events described in PP).
  • Susan had not sailed with Daddy as John had going out of Falmouth Harbour in a little fishing boat.
  • Polly the parrot was not there, and Gibber was at the Zoo (permanently?), now spending his time spinning nautical yarns to the other monkeys at the Zoo (WD7,23).
  • Peter Duck is referenced by Titty, reminding Roger of the foghorn signal: Three hoots ... Sailing vessel with the wind aft. Remember Peter Duck? (WD10)
  • Goblin is 4.86 tons registered, 7 tons Thames, #16856.
  • When Daddy says I never thought of anyone bringing you across to meet me Susan replies We didn't mean to go to sea (WD21).
  • It is implied that Daddy left his luggage aboard the Flushing-Harwich steamer: they bought a toothbrush for him in Flushing along with the doll, wooden shoes and cigars (WD23). When he joins them he said Lucky I saw you coming just in time to make a pierhead jump ... a minute later I couldn't have done it (WD21).
  • When Titty pulls out the S flag "a dark blue square with a wide border" (the signal for a pilot) she says regretfully that we shan’t want it on this voyage (WD6). A note (*) at the bottom of the page now says that in the new code the signal for a pilot is G, with "upright stripes of blue and yellow". As the international code was changed in 1930 and 1961, the note was added from about 1961. Later of course (WD19) Titty finds the flag when they need a pilot, off the port of Flushing!


  • The Walker's oilskins have different coloured tabs: Titty's is green, Susan's is brown, no mention of what colour the boys' are.
  • The burgee on Goblin is blue, red, and white.
  • Daddy left his luggage on the ferry when he made a pierhead jump at Flushing: they bought a toothbrush for him along with the doll and wooden shoes (WD 'Dutch Afternoon')
This page uses content from Guide to Swallows and Amazons series by kind permission of Bill Wright.
Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series

Swallows and Amazons | 'Their Own Story' | Swallowdale | Peter Duck | Winter Holiday | Coot Club | Pigeon Post | We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea | The Big Six | Secret Water | Missee Lee | The Picts and the Martyrs | 'Coots in the North' | Great Northern?