Ann Smith recalls how the discovery of a 1930s Watson 41 became a three-year labour of love, which proved all the doubters wrong

It all began when my husband Rob’s work took him down to Southampton where, on his travels, he happened to spot an old boatyard. Of course he had to have a look around, and this is where he spotted Arklow a sorry looking old RNLI lifeboat that was built in 1938.

He’d always wanted a lifeboat and this one happened to be a Watson 41, which to him was one of the best types ever built. She was a beautiful shape. It was not long before he took me down for a viewing. I must admit that I was speechless for a while; what I saw was a shambles! She was holed in at least three places, one of which was quite large and the others were not exactly small.

The boat had been bought from the RNLI some years before by a fisherman and had unfortunately been swept onto the rocks in some very rough weather, hence the damage. Matters didn’t improve much upon climbing aboard.

The incongruous wheelhouse was the first thing to go…

The original cabins had been removed and the previous owner had built a wheelhouse in the style of a telephone box. There were no engines and, as I looked down into the engine room, all I could see were rusty engine bearers and the ground below through the largest hole.

If we bought her she’d not be the first boat we’d worked on, as we’d spent much of our lives in boatyards and worked on every boat we’d had, but none of them were as bad as this one.

However, seeing her potential we made a deal with the boatyard owner who took our current boat in part exchange for Arklow. We had her delivered to Maylandsea boatyard on the River Blackwater about eight miles from where we live. Everyone just laughed and said we’d never finish her. Our answer was “Wait and see!”

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We started work that very weekend. The first job was to take down the wheelhouse, which was very high. This would allow us to assemble a cover to work under. The next job was to rip off the make-do patches that had been applied to the holes in haste when she hit the rocks. We needed to see the amount of damage that had been done.

The main timbers were in quite good order. She had a teak keel, English oak timber stern post, Canadian rock elm gunwale and the planking and decking were double diagonal Honduras mahogany, which gave us a very strong base to work on.

But we decided before we began working on the holes we’d start work on the hull above the waterline. It would give us a boost to see part of the boat clean and a little brighter. After giving her a good scraping and caulking where needed we applied a good coat of primer and a couple of undercoats which cheered us no end, and gave her protection from the damp evenings which were about to come, as by now it was September.

Repairing the holes

It was now time to start work on the holes. We decided we would use 2mm stainless steel as it would be far too expensive to match up the original timbers. Measurements were taken and we started work on the smaller holes first using stainless steel screws and jointing mastic. They turned out very well but we knew the large one would be more difficult as it happened to be on the curve of the hull just below the waterline.

The piece of steel was cut to the size required. However, because of the curve it needed to be specially shaped as you would a piece of clothing, leaving a surplus of material. To remove this, a dart was marked out on the steel and then cut away, allowing the steel patch to be bent and securely attached to the boat with mastic and stainless steel screws. Once the holes were filled in, they were fibreglassed from the inside to make extra sure they’d be watertight.

Damaged planking from Arklow’s time on the rocks is removed, leaving a large hole!

The evenings were drawing in now and it was turning cold and damp. We put the cover up and worked under a light and heater. I climbed down into the bilge to get on with some scraping and cleaning while Rob got on with the more technical jobs such as sorting out all the old wires, pipes, steering and the places where the engines would be housed. The engine room would have plenty of room for two Perkins engines if we should be lucky enough to purchase a couple of second-hand ones.

It was one of those cold winter days. We had a small Calor gas fire under our cover but the regulator froze. Water must have got into it and we couldn’t switch it off – something to watch out for in cold weather. It could have been dangerous, as we were in a confined area, so Rob decided to simply throw it out into the snow and sort it out later.

Interior design

As spring approached, it would soon be time to take the cover off. The evenings were getting lighter and we’d spent a lot of time designing the layout of the cabins and working out how to get the most from the huge expanse of deck.

We decided to have the galley in the centre of the boat as that would be over the engine room. It would also serve as the wheelhouse, being the highest point in the boat. From here there would be three steps leading down to the forward cabin with a heads right up in the in the bow. A further two steps would lead down to the aft cabin. None of this work could be started until we had the engines in as the thick iron decking would have to be lifted to enable them to be dropped in.

Construction of the forward cabin underway

After many enquiries and much searching we were fortunate to locate two second-hand Perkins P6Ms. They were quite old and would need a thorough overhaul, clean, scrape and repaint, but at least we had them.

There was plenty to do before having them dropped in, such as fixing the wires, leads and battery housing.

One engine was in better condition than the other but both needed certain parts replaced. They were water-cooled engines so had pipes and exhausts to sort out.

Luckily we didn’t have to pay out for any work to be done as Rob could turn his hand to almost anything and I was not too bad as second in command.

Of course, we had to pay for the engines to be lifted in, and if anyone in the boatyard ever gave us a lift with anything very heavy, we’d always give them a big tip.

The engine room had been cleaned, scraped and painted ready for Porky and Bess, as we named them. The operation went well and they fitted perfectly.

Glassing over the plywood cabin deckhead

There was still a lot of work for Rob to do in the engine room so we decided to get on with the outside while the weather was good and leave that until later. We only had evenings, weekends and occasional days off to work on Arklow so we had to make the most of the light evenings.

We started by applying antifouling and undercoat from the waterline to right under the belly. We were happy to do that in the evenings when it didn’t matter if it was a little damp. The rest of the hull, however, we did at weekends. We painted her in Lifeboat Blue and she was really beginning to look good.

It was now time to order the materials for the cabins and wheelhouse, and after a measure-up we had them delivered to the boatyard. We decided to start with the wheelhouse first, making the most of the natural light. When the evenings got darker Rob could switch to the engine room, so we had the big iron floor lifted and put aside on the decking to make it easier for him to work when the time came.

Topsides caulked and primed

Any spare time we had, we spent searching for windows that would fit in with our design. We’d been lucky to find what we wanted for the wheelhouse and the aft cabin. The forward cabin was yet to be solved.

We got to work on the wheelhouse, fitting a sliding door either side. The wheelhouse and the two cabins were all to be made of ¾in marine ply and the deckheads were to be covered in a thick layer of fibreglass.

We made good progress and the weather was kind to us. In fact, we were rather too warm when we did the fibreglass on the wheelhouse roof, as it tends to thicken up very quickly in the heat, making it difficult to spread. But it worked out well in the end, and with the wheelhouse painted and the windows and doors fitted we really felt we were getting somewhere.

We had a bank holiday weekend coming up and the weather was still good so we decided to get on with the aft cabin. The porthole windows looked great, and we had two steps going down from the wheelhouse for easy access.

We still had part of the wheelhouse floor up ready for when Rob got started on the engines, but as the forecast looked good for the rest of September, we got on with the forward cabin.

We managed to purchase the windows that suited us. These were four long, narrow ones; two for each side with a brass porthole to go between each. We took a couple of days’ holiday, but luck was still on our side when we returned, and we got the fibreglass done.

Back to the engines

Before the damp evenings set in we completed all of the outside painting. Now it was time to rig some lights so Rob could get to work on the engines. While he was busy with those – it took many hours to complete all the work – I painted the inside of the cabins. The next job was to sort out the electrics. The old wiring had to be ripped out and replaced and we fitted new instruments and cabin lights.

One thing we were very pleased about was that the original steering wheel was still there. It was huge – just right for that boat. It was quite a job to fit, however. Although it was on the boat when we bought her, it wasn’t in the place that we wanted it. Eventually we fitted it securely in front of the wheelhouse next to all the instruments, which would give us a good clear view through the large windscreen while underway.

We decided to have a rare weekend at home – but this was still spent working on items for the boat, such as making nameplates and painting life rings. I had to make curtains for all the different size windows, and was lucky to buy some material in the same colour as the hull. This was the icing on the cake!

On the next visit to the boat we started one of the engines. We chose to do this early in the morning when not many people were about. It took a few turns then suddenly it burst into life with lots of black smoke. This we expected, and we only ran it for a few minutes. We were happy that it started. The engines would have a proper run when we were by the jetty and we could sort out the final tuning.

The former Arklow lifeboat turned into the cabin cruiser Arklow

We fitted the nameplates, the curtains, cooker and sink unit. Underneath were the cupboards. Our galley-come-wheelhouse was almost finished. The time had come to sort out the anchors and ropes. We’d always found fisherman’s anchors to have the best holding with Nelson rope for the warp; we had two in case of an emergency.

We planned to be tied alongside the jetty for a few weeks to make sure the engines were running as they should, and to sort out any other small jobs such as the plumbing in the heads.

At last the day arrived for Arklow to be launched, almost three years to the day since we’d told those who laughed at us to ‘wait and see!’ When we watched her being moved through the boatyard we could hardly believe it was happening. And we had a wonderful surprise when former lifeboat inspector Herbert Larter turned up to have a look and gave his seal of approval.

Former lifeboat inspector Herbert Larter (right) gives his seal of approval

We spent the first night on board as we wanted to make sure all the patches were watertight. We expected a few little leaks and drips until it all settled down, and had a submersible pump on board in case of any problems, but it all went well.

That same year we went to Ireland for a holiday. We were invited to the lifeboat station in Arklow where our boat began her life in 1938. We met three of the crew who had served on her at that time, including the coxswain. They were getting on in years and were so pleased to learn that their old boat was back on the water.

We had three very large photo albums showing our work right from the start, which they enjoyed looking at while Rob and I were treated to a trip in their very latest lifeboat.