The LIFE of a BOAT

The ‘Nautobiography’ of a 90-year-old lifesaver— with tales of shipwreck, heroic rescue, wartime tragedy and its later resurrection

Ninety years ago, on February 26, 1931, the RNLI took charge of new lifeboat which is still surviving after a heroic career and a longer period of retirement. Nearing the conclusion of its third major rebuild, the boat’s birthday is due to be celebrated by the publication of its ‘nautobiography’.

However, just as the book was being prepared for publication, the boat was seriously vandalized while lying afloat at a private quayside mooring. The current lockdown restrictions have limited the opportunities for assessment of the damage and its future repair. Nevertheless, we are publishing to celebrate the boat’s history and help finance its life support.

This is the life story of a remarkable boat which served the RNLI for 40 years before retiring to a new life as a pleasure cruiser. The 45ft 6in Watson Cabin class boat W&S (ON736) was built by craftsmen for use by craftsmen. It spent its first three decades at Penlee in Cornwall, responding to more than 100 shouts in the most extreme weather and including harrowing wartime conditions. It later spent a further 10 years in Scotland as part of the Reserve fleet, where it saved another six lives during its final service. One of the RNLI’s longest serving lifeboats, it saved a total of 108 lives.

This diary of the vessel’s long life is written by maritime journalist Graeme Ewens in collaboration with Elaine Trethowan (Bawden), Press Officer at Penlee lifeboat and Captain Rod Shaw, the current owner. Its 224 pages include more than 300 period and contemporary photographs and artworks. The story begins with profiles and nautical interests of the donors whose bequests funded the build of the boat. It covers its background, from the legendary boat designer G.L. Watson, and its build at the Cowes yard of J.S. White. Chapters establish the Cornish context in which the boat operated and profile leading crew members — mostly fishermen from the village of Mousehole — who served on her. This is social history, maritime history, lifeboat history — Cornish history (with a nod to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Essex).

The Life of a Boat then details every single service, identifying the casualty vessels and people involved. Drawing on extensive records of service, deck logs and contemporary news reports, the narrative is augmented and brought to life through the stories of crew members and survivors, including medal-winning Coxswains and the recorded memories of the mechanic who lovingly looked after the boat for 29 years.

Among its memorable services were several dramatic shipwrecks, including the heroic medal-winning rescue of the crew from the battleship HMS Warspite, which went aground in a gale in Mount’s Bay in 1947. There were also incidents involving U-boats, helicopters and missing aircraft, and inevitable tales of human tragedy.

In retirement the boat was converted to a long-range cruiser in Ireland, voyaging to the Mediterranean before eventually returning to Cornwall. After several years of neglect it was rediscovered in a sad condition in Mylor by retired sea captain and Harwich lifeboat man, Captain Rod Shaw MBE, who took the boat to Essex and started on a prolonged labour of love to bring it back into use, realising that the superb build quality of the hull would see it safely through into its next century. The Life of a Boat covers every stage of its journey, acknowledging each coxswain and the later custodians who would have taken the helm. Rod Shaw’s own maritime history, from lobsterman to navigating officer of the world’s biggest ship and surveyor of the Royal barge, makes fascinating reading.

Captain Shaw has been immersed in the boat’s resurrection since 2013 and had managed to get her back up and running. Then, in September 2020, four young vandals boarded the boat, smashing windows, forcing open the wheelhouse door, damaging the engine controls and leaving the vessel exposed to the elements. Dealing with the insurance survey and sourcing parts and materials under the lockdown conditions has been difficult, but an insurance settlement was finally reached one week before the boat’s 90th birthday.

However, as Capt Shaw says: “This is obviously an ongoing, long-term project and despite inevitable ups and downs, I am determined to see the W&S (ON736) fully functional and in a serviceable condition for whatever role awaits her. In the context of nine decades a few more years is a mere blip. As we prepare for the boat’s 90th birthday in February 2021, the resurrection continues and this Nautobiography approaches its publication date. I wish to thank everybody who has expressed interest and support for the project and hope to welcome you aboard when circumstances permit.”

The final page proofs are now being read and we intend to publish in time for the summer season. Any proceeds, after the production costs, will be shared between the boat’s restoration and the Penlee lifeboat station.