The story part 1: DISCOVERING DENEYS REITZ.
The accidental encounter
In 1992, we were looking for an unusual boat. It should:
- Have the sea-keeping qualities to take us on long sea voyages,
- Have a good enough range to cover good distances and take us to places where fuel was cheap
- The flexibility to navigate small canals and rivers
- Have enough room to sleep 6 and sufficient water and storage to keep a lot of food, wines and beers
Our initial search for a trawler to convert was getting nowhere. Anyhow, old wooden trawlers had massive draughts and wouldn't fit into canals.
Then, out of the blue, things started happening.
We were in Conwy, in North Wales, on a visit to Charlotte's 93 year old mother, a formidable lady, and still independent at this time. Across the Conwy estuary, near its mouth, was the small, and near derelict, silted-up harbour of Deganwy. Lying on the beach, was the remains of a handsome old boat, and as Don and Charlotte were sloping down the beach to see if there was any hope of reviving the rotting heap, their attention was arrested by another wooden near-wreck. Only, somebody appeared to have started working on this one.
As there was nobody in it at the time, we enquired after the boat of a marvellous Liverpudlian character living with his dog, “Old Scorofulous,” in a boat that was never going to sea again. Scorofulous, the dog, had many Liverpudlian attributes, his special one being the offer of Unconditional Positive Regard to all he met. (His other act of generosity, the offer of fleas, was less welcome). Having got past the dog, and to his owner, our man proved, as with all of his ilk, to be a mine of information and opinion.
“Yeh, dis bloke was doin' it up, but e's run temporarily outa money, so e's gone away to ern some”. When he had “reterned” and finished it, he intended to sell it for £10, 000. It was an old lifeboat, but he didn't know how old. “'Elp yerselves, 'ave a look”.
So we did. It was easy to clamber on deck, owing to the low freeboard, and the list. Inside, it was half full of water, and stank of rot, but we liked the layout. But, we concluded, here was another dream that was unlikely to be fulfilled. Enquiries made locally failed to locate any news of the owner of the boat, although the man who owned the harbour gave us to believe that he might owe him money.
The wreck at Deganwy
(Since beautifully restored)
Still, the germ of a new idea had been planted.......
That afternoon, we went over to the new Conwy marina, to see why the locals had objected so violently to it. We couldn't find any reason, and concluded that maybe they were frightened that it might attract English yachts. Then we saw a trawler, just the kind we had been dreaming of.
The marina had been struck by a violent late-autumn gale, which had toppled a line of expensive-looking yachts (English, bang on boyo!) like a row of dominoes. At the end of this line, standing four-square amongst the wreckage, was the massive bulk of a large wooden trawler, of about 50 feet in length. There were two men working on it, and it was surrounded by scaffolding.
In less than a trice, we were up on the scaffold platform, and peering inside. It was huge to our eyes. Having become accustomed to the constraints of a 28 foot boat, the internal space seemed cavernous, and the timbers certainly were massive. It was a little like being confronted by HMS “Victory”. The one other feature, which stood out, was the draught, which seemed a little over 2 metres.
We had an interesting and quite inspiring conversation with the owner, who intended to sail the finished article to the Mediterranean, across the Bay of Biscay, because he thought that the draught might be a little (!!) too much for the French canals. That was it for us! Trawlers were written off.
Lifeboats!!!! That's the thing!!! Poop! Poop! (Mr Toad).
We resolved to start the search for a boat in the Spring of 1995, when we might be less frantically involved in work.
2. The Advertisement
Back home in our village, the highlight of the winter season was the “Fill-Dyke race”. This, it was put about to newcomers, such as us, was an event hallowed by many centuries of tradition (It was started in 1988).
When we managed to dig through the bull, we discovered that the event was basically a race in plastic dinghies, two or more people to a boat, down the river Deben, which runs through the village. The race could only be run, so to speak, when the river was in flood, and February was the preferred month. All in all, the whole thing was a wonderful piece of English eccentricity, fuelled by mulled wine, whiskey from optics on the river-bank, and much hot soup and booze in the “Bell” later. If by this time, readers have developed the suspicion that Cretingham is full of strange people and incipient alcoholics, they would be quite correct. We feel quite at home.
We were very enthusiastic and keen to participate, especially as a son-in-law had been a member of the Olympic bobsleigh team, and therefore, we assumed, could be trained to be a demon paddler.
Alas! We did not have a plastic dinghy. All we had was an old rubber boat, coming towards the end of its useful life. The obvious solution was to buy a plastic dinghy, which could replace the old rubber one, used for picnics on the river. Everybody read “The Wind in the Willows”. So, Charlotte bought “Exchange and Mart”, and started to search for dinghies. In no time, we saw an ad for one, rang the people, and said we were interested, our usual routine with boats.
Just as Don was putting the magazine down, after ringing the dinghy owners, a very small advert caught his eye. It simply said:
Lifeboat for sale
Good for workboat or fishing
A short conversation convinced us that there was nothing to be lost in calling the number. A richly Cockney voice answered. “Yes”, the lifeboat was still for sale. What did I want it for?” “Conversion to a cruising boat”, said Don. “I wouldn't think it's much good for that”, said the voice at the far end. For God's sake, what is wrong with the British?
So, we ignore this discouragement, as a matter of principle. “Can we come and see it?” “Yes, if you really want”. We fix to go to Canvey Island the following weekend. During the week, it snowed, heavily.
The Marina at Canvey Island is one of those World's End places, with a remarkable selection of boats, ranging from new gin palaces to a large range of decaying Dreams of Sailing to Faraway Places. To get to the old lifeboat, we have to wind ourselves across a muddy creek on a chain ferry, and then tramp a serpentine course on ancient and very “iffy” pontoons. Eventually, we come, in a far corner, to a snow-covered, blue and white boat. The paint is faded and peeling.
We announce ourselves to a rather cautious man, with a pencil moustache, a slightly conspiratorial manner, and an accent reminiscent of Arthur English, the Cockney spiv. This is Dave, the owner. We are invited aboard for a cup of tea, in the rear cabin, a rather cramped affair, which shows signs of having been “converted” from its original lifeboat configuration by a truly talented bodger.
Dave warms rapidly, and tells a story of dreams of sailing the world, thwarted by a lack of money, and finally scuppered by the refusal of his wife to venture outside the marina on the boat. Something to do with a rough first trip, we gather. We can also see by the park benches screwed to the deck, fore and aft, that Dave, our new friend, has gone to great lengths to make the boat attractive to Sylve, his wife. It rather sadly reminded us of nature programmes in which male birds offer tempting and brightly coloured objects to a potential mate and are coldly ignored.
We inspect this craft, which has seen better days, but some time back, we suspect. It is large, seems very well built, and has a beautiful hull shape. It is also covered in deep snow. We arrange to come back with Tony Hewitt, who built our previous Aqua Bell. Tony seems a little lukewarm about the prospect of converting an obviously old wooden lifeboat, but we are used to people being lukewarm, by now.
A week later, on a dreary grey day, we wind ourselves across the creek, with Tony. Dave is unable to be present, but has told us where to find the key. At least, he trusts us, or perhaps there isn't anything worth stealing-----
This time, we have a very thorough look around. Dave has obviously made some bodging efforts to convert the boat. It has two bunks in a very cramped fore cabin, with a very dirty sea toilet. Otherwise, there is a rear cabin with a bench seat, an old gas stove, and some 1950's radio equipment. Dave has inserted a crude wooden fillet into the cabin structure, so that it is possible to stand whilst making tea, obviously the true purpose of having a cabin at all. So the lifeboat crew were not able to stand in the old days!
The wheelhouse is rudimentary, with a huge wheel, and very old-fashioned controls, which look as though they needed three men to work them. The radar set had a distinctly Battle of the Atlantic look to it, and the engine room filled a watertight compartment in the middle of the boat. The rest seems to be stuffed with flotation boxes.
An overriding impression is that RNLI designers had thought of a specification to stand the most extreme conditions, and then doubled it. Inside the wheelhouse, there is the distinct feeling of being in the conning tower of a Jules Verne submarine.
Don is, as always, enthusiastic. “Built like a tank, wonderful sea boat, great scope for conversion, etc.” Charlotte likes it too; she also feels that it could be attractively converted, and it has to be the ultimate go-anywhere boat. So they both turn to Tony and utter the fatal words, “Well Tony, what do you think, do you feel you could convert it?”
Tony is cautious. He thinks it is a lot of work, it is difficult to assess its real condition, but...., it would be a real challenge.......
So, we begin to talk ourselves into it. We agree with Dave that we can have the boat surveyed, and he tells us that before he bought and named it “Daniel Arthur”, after his grandfathers, it had served in as the lifeboat for Fowey, in Cornwall.
3. The Commitment
Telephone calls to the Royal National Lifeboat Institute unearthed a very helpful man called Ray Wheeler. The preamble was however, a little stuttering. “Good morning”. “Good morning.” “I would like to make enquiries about 'Daniel Arthur', a Watson 47 lifeboat.” “Its Official Number (carved on a beam in the forecabin) is 186110”
“There is no such boat.” “Beg your pardon?”
“No, 186110 was called 'Deneys Reitz' and it was a Watson 46'9" not 47. Its lifeboat number of ON919”
“Oh, sorry.” “That's all right, you weren't to know.”
Ray turned out to be a mine of information. The boat had been built on the Isle of Wight in 1954, and had served in Fowey in Cornwall until 1979, when it had been sold to the Sheerness Pilotage Company. The money to fund it had been raised in South Africa during World War II and just after by a woman called Patty Price. When it had been a lifeboat, its Official Number had been ON 919, i.e. it was the 919th RNLI lifeboat to have been built. More interestingly, it had been named “Deneys Reitz” after a fascinating character, who had been South African High Commissioner to London in the 1950's.
Ray offered a full set of drawings, service history, and any other help we could think of.
This was all very exciting. It was becoming hard to remain hard-headed and rational.
Evidence of this was a growing fixation with old lifeboats. They seemed to be everywhere. Why had we not noticed this before?
There were two in the marina where we kept our boat. One day, we noticed that some people were standing around on one of them, an older boat than ours, because it still had sails. So, we went across, and introduced ourselves, and had a conversation with a very loquacious and enthusiastic man. He invited us on board, and a bearded chap, who had remained silent until then, showed us round the boat. He was the owner and he had converted it himself, and then lived on it for 15 years. It was a beautiful conversion. The bearded man, who was called John Krejsa, lived in Woodbridge in Suffolk. We told him about our boat and exchanged telephone numbers. We then forgot the conversation, not realising that we had just logged into an invisible underground movement.
We decided that we were serious about embarking on a lifeboat conversion, whatever that meant. So, the next step was to find a surveyor, who knew something about old wooden boats. After some abortive attempts, we unearthed a name from the manager of the Canvey Island marina. With such a variety of assorted old boats, Canvey had to be the logical place to find a man who could suss out wooden wrecks.
The man we found was called Jeffrey Norman Casciani-Wood.
Or, to put it another way: Jeffrey Norman Cascani-Wood: ”Eur Ing., C.Eng., F.R.I.N.A., F.C.M.S., M.A.S.N.A.M.E., M.I.I.M.S. [Engineering Council Registrant 302877]”
This man had a truly serious C.V.! It was fully six pages long. From it, we learned that in addition to having sired 5 children, he was a member of many august bodies, including the Academy of Experts . His busy life had been further enriched by attendance on many, many courses. Clearly, continuous learning was a serious commitment, and we were further impressed to see that he was enrolled for the Wells Krautkramer course on NDT. Judging by his publications, he was something of a specialist in subjects as diverse as “Caldwell's Screw Tug Design”, “Nozzle Propulsion” and “Time Effects of Wet Penetration in GRP Hulls”. This was the man we needed to have on our case! We commissioned him immediately.
In due course, the survey report arrived. It was very thorough, and in general, seemed rather positive. Mr. Wood thought that the underlying condition of the boat was OK. It had, we were pleased to see, excellent Liverpool Stays, and good Elbows, but its Knees needed a fair bit of work. But the key element was the condition of the hull, which Mr Wood had comprehensively assaulted with both Four and Eight-inch Pricks.
This thorough inspection had revealed no real signs of rot, although he was doubtful as to what lay under the several “Tingles (??)”, which adorned the hull.
A lengthy telephone conversation demystified the terms used in the report. The net result was that the survey provided no excuses for not buying the boat, although maybe we might have been forewarned by the careful wording of the conclusion... “We are of the opinion that, though the conversion of RNLI boats is, in general, rather difficult, this one is probably worth the effort....”
One last time, we put Tony on the spot. “Now, Tony, you are 100% sure that you can handle the project?” “Well, I think so, although I'll need a lot of help” “Good, that's settled then, we'll go ahead.” Talk about not listening to the nuances!
We indicated firm interest to a by now very bullish Dave, subject to a solicitors agreement being drawn up. Dave was very leery of solicitors, but he had no choice in the matter. He also waxed lyrical about the wonderful condition of the boat, “ready to go to sea termorra”.
The solicitors search revealed nothing untoward, but unearthed that Dave had not registered the boat under its new name of “Daniel Arthur” so it was still called “Deneys Reitz”. The time had come to make an offer to Dave, but there was one little drama when it was put to him that part of the deal would be for him to sail it round to Burgh Castle, in Norfolk, where it had been decided with Tony to keep it at Goodchild's boatyard.
“Oh, f.....g 'ell”, said Dave, “I'll 'ave to get a few bits sorted.” So, amongst other things, we got a new starter motor on one of the engines. Eventually, Tony found a Norfolk transport company, Abbey Transport (brilliant, they were!) who were willing to try to get the boat into Goodchild's yard, and he was soon able to report that the boat was snugly sitting on the hard standing at Burgh Castle.
4. The blessing (sort of) by the old crew
Then came more sensitive issues. Don and Charlotte, wanted to find out more about the history of the boat, and a telephone call to the Lifeboat office in Fowey elicited the fact that several members of the old crew were still on this earth and that there were many pictures and records of her rescue services available. So we asked to visit and show the conversion plans to anybody that was interested. Keith Stuart, the handsomely bearded current Cox of the Fowey lifeboat - a craft as similar to Deneys Reitz as, well, the “Starship Enterprise” is to a wooden lifeboat - said he would round as many up as possible, as most came in for a natter once a week.
So armed with John's plan, off to the pretty port of Fowey on the Atlantic South-West coast of England to get the vital approval of her crew, without which all manner of bad luck might happen. The visit had mixed results.
- Keith Stuart took us to a local photographer and newspaper offices, where there was copious archive material about the old boat. He rustled around in the back of his shop and came up with a whole series of original shots of the boat in her heyday. One shot is of the crew, back in the 1960's. Apart from a very cute young woman, the mascot, perhaps, the crew were a truly piratical looking lot. This is a group of blokes you would take seriously anywhere, whether on the ocean in a hurricane, or in a pub on a Friday night.
- Keith strongly supported the conversion, “Saves the old boat from a nasty lingering death”
- Fowey has nice pubs and restaurants
Slightly mixed things:
- Crew leave distinct impression that they feel we are going to tart up their beloved boat. Get the feeling that they fear it might become a scented, mincing, girly kind of boat; not a real man's craft. Offer assurances that it will have an interesting life and furthermore, we'll bring it to visit in its new guise
- They ask us to keep the name “Deneys Reitz”. Agree, despite awful premonitions about future radio communications with port authorities etc. “Gawd almighty, we'll have to spell it every time: Delta Echo November Echo Yankee Sierra - Romeo Echo India Tango Zulu”.
- But its radio call-sign is MIKE TANGO TANGO GOLF. That's not so bad.
Armed with A PLAN, a sort of blessing from the old crew and a funny name, we were ready to go! Let the Great Works commence........