Rebuilding Our Lizzie

The story of a journey, not just a refit….

Peter J Manning

I had spent many years looking for a pilot cutter but didn’t find one that suited. When you’re looking for a boat everyone has their criteria, a preferred type and so on. But this is not enough. I believe you know when a particular boat is right for you; a bit like when you meet the girl you will marry, you know or feel that bond very quickly. I wanted a wooden boat (I still wonder why) that I could handle on my own, which was well found and good at sea. Speed, within reason, was not an issue but stability was and I preferred a certain degree of comfort such as sensible headroom and heads you can use comfortably.

When my wife Geraldine and I decided to spend some time travelling while we are still young enough to do so, my criteria changed slightly. Geraldine would not be a sailor if it were not for my passion, though she does enjoy it, and has travelled well over 25,000 miles at sea. The cockpit arrangements and the accommodation of most pilot cutters would not offer the comfort for her to enjoy travelling, despite these vessels having exceptional sea keeping qualities.

So, our search began and – like everything in life – there were high and low points. On one occasion I introduced Geraldine to a boat which I considered to be perfect for us only to be told, “I don’t like it”. I would get no reason given, no explanation, just that she didn’t like it and couldn’t explain why. It was the same with me on occasions; I would look at a boat and despite it meeting all the ‘right criteria’, I would have the feeling that it just wasn’t for me. On these occasions none of my logical arguments or perfectly good reasons would matter and the search would just have to continue; after all, the boat we were after had to be something both of us were comfortable with, and both felt was right. 

 Finding Our Lizzie

Back in 2010 we did – eventually – find a boat through Wooden Ships on the river Dart which we both thought was perfect for what we wanted. It was Our Lizzie and she needed a lot of work which, whilst I was concerned at the costs involved, would give us the opportunity to configure the boat as we wanted it.  Our Lizzie was built to be a fishing drifter; launched in 1920, she fished out of St. Ives until 1934 when she was then sold and converted to a yacht, changing her rig from that of a lugger to a ketch.

She has an interesting history involving a spying mission to Germany prior to the war, taking part in the rescues at Dunkirk and working for the Royal Army Service Corps during the war years. As a vessel she was bulkier than a pilot cutter as she was built to fish and had a large counter stern to allow her to lift gently in lumpy seas while drifting. She was solid and stable with pretty lines and her bulk allowed the interior to be configured for comfortable living aboard while travelling. At the turn of the last century drift fishing was a massive industry involving thousands of drifters around the United Kingdom and a shore industry in support that was the life blood of many coastal towns. The industry died with the introduction of engines and trawling in the ‘30s and I only know of three surviving drifters today, Our Lizzie being one of them.

In the time I took to consider the work and the costs another buyer had struck a deal with the owner and Our Lizzie was gone. Geraldine said at the time “it was just not meant to be”. Five years later, when we were still searching for a boat in which to travel, we spotted that Our Lizzie was up for sale again. I contacted the owner who wanted to keep her for the 75th anniversary of Dunkirk and then sell her. He had carried out some work to keep her seaworthy but, apart from replacing the hydraulic steering with a tiller, she was much the same as she was in 2010.  We struck a deal, purchased her and Geraldine said this time “It was meant to be”, and that Our Lizzie felt right for both of us.

Our Lizzie: the journey begins

Once I sailed Our Lizzie to Gosport, where I had a berth, the planning began. I knew basically what I wanted to achieve so I set about measuring Our Lizzie and producing scaled sketches and sections. I am a quantity surveyor and am comfortable with drawings but the changing curves of a vessel like this presented many challenges when you are trying to maximise the space and storage. Nonetheless, after several weeks of measuring and producing scaled sketches, I was in a position to communicate to an architect what I wanted to achieve. The written part of the initial brief was some seven pages long and only dealt with the concept of the design. This was enough to engage and communicate my intentions to an architect to start to develop the design and the project detail. I engaged a firm to carry out a more detailed survey, including the removal of items, in order to achieve more accurate measurements and after several tweaks and changes I had a set of drawings which were sufficient to communicate accurately to a prospective boat builder what was required.

Then came the specification and the detail. I went through every area of the boat, describing in detail what was required and as this process evolved there were many minor tweaks and alterations. I consider myself lucky that I knew what I wanted, though it sometimes didn’t feel like that with the changes. All designs are not just produced; they are developed and evolve over a period of time.

The driver for our decision-making was the construction of a boat that would be a comfortable, airy, live-aboard traveller with sensible storage space – all sailors know you never have enough storage for longer travelling! I used pictures of detail that I had located on other boats to aid the description and these proved invaluable in communicating with the boat builder, in assisting me in choices of style and finish, and in opening my mind to what might be achievable.

As this initial plan was developed, I produced a list of specified items, of everything from the engine to the cooker, sinks, pumps, windlass, steering system… and the list went on. There were separate sections on the mechanics, the electrical and electronic systems and the rigging. The decisions were based upon a combination of what I needed and what I wanted.

With the rigging I wanted to be able to sail single handed and the problem with the main and the mizzen was not so much the hoisting but the lowering, as without a crew, this would be difficult. The solution was lazy jacks on both and they work really well. My jib and staysail are set on furlers, for which I used the Wykeham Martin system. During the project I introduced new shroud irons to take the running backstays as this transferred the load from where it was on the deck to the structure on the side of the boat. I half regret not putting in a winch for the main; whilst it can be hoisted and made tight on my own it is hard work. I certainly need the exercise!

The previous owner removed the hydraulic wheel steering and replaced it with a tiller. This meant it was almost impossible to single handed sail. I installed wheel steering on a hydraulic drive with auto-helm and, apart from the increased pleasure when travelling, it holds the boat nicely into or just off the wind for raising and lowering sails. One thing I did want was a bow thruster. Most boats are poor in astern mode and Our Lizzie is no exception; she is 35 tonnes displacement and with a long flat keel, she does not pivot like most yachts. Her manoeuvrability is reasonably restricted and a prop walk was necessary to turn her in short spaces. I could not be certain that the fitting of a bow thruster would be physically possible because of the spacing of frames and the knee at the bow, as well as the fact that that part of the structure takes considerable impact and is strengthened accordingly, all of which restricts the available space for a bow thruster. This was set as an extra in the initial contract and I was lucky that we managed to engineer a suitable bow thruster in; it is a Godsend when manoeuvring. Am I betraying the boat’s heritage? I don’t think so!  If bow thrusters were around in 1920 the Penberthy brothers, who commissioned her, would have had one fitted.

Many boats used for living aboard while travelling have a generator and whilst I could have engineered the space, it wasn’t something I wanted. It would be another thing to maintain. I opted for two 24v high capacity alternators, with generous battery capacity. I was running 24v throughout on most things and I carry 4 x 270AH Mastervolt AGM for my service bank. I spent considerable time considering the use of lithium batteries for the space and charging benefits but felt they were still a bit new and I was comfortable with a more basic set up, as it served my requirements.

From dreams and visions to tenders and contracts

With drawings, pictures, a detailed description of works and a long list of specified materials I was lucky to find James Pratt, a naval architect who also has a passion for wooden boats. James works on many different types of vessel but sails a wooden boat himself. I engaged James to supply me with a typical contract for refit work on a project this size. In the construction industry there many standard forms of contract which have been developed over the years; I found this not to be the case in the boatbuilding industry. James provided me with a contract he had worked on previously which I modified this in line with typical construction contracts to deal with variations and adjusted it to suit these works. Contracts provide protection for both parties and allow a framework for the work to be carried out. The most important thing is to balance the risk or place it with the party who is best placed to manage it. If you are asking a builder or boat builder to take on too much risk he will either refuse or make sure he is covered financially for doing so. I was unsure of what the ‘normal’ was in the world of boat building and have since found that there is no ‘normal’ in this industry. The most important thing was to make very clear what was required of the work and have this clearly stated in the final tender document.

At this stage James helped me in improving my descriptions of the work required and provided a very detailed specification on everything – timber, fittings, paint and so on. The scape of the project was reflected in the thickness of the document, which ran to more than an inch and a quarter, and I decided to ask boat builders to tender for the work which would include labour, plant, preliminary items and various sundry materials but exclude nearly all the supply items such as tanks, pumps, electrical units, toilets, sinks, ironmongery and mechanical items.

I did this for two reasons: first, to remove the need at tender for the boat builder to have to obtain prices to supply these items and, second, to allow me a final decision on the choice of supply. There was a five page list of equipment and materials which the boat builder did not have to include for the supply of a tender. The contract made provision for these materials to be supplied by myself or by the boat builder with a percentage on cost added. I had wanted timber, ply, epoxy and glues to be included but, in the negotiations, agreed to have these items put on the excluded material list. These items were particularly expensive, especially the timber, and making a sensible estimate to include these in the contract would have been difficult and, to some extent, unfair. Whilst I came to learn just how expensive material such as timber was, the arrangement was fair. I was paying for what was needed and the boat builder did not have to take a large risk like this at the tender stage.

Following weeks of reading through, adjusting, worrying about what I might have missed, I finally had a document I was happy to ask boat builders to price. I knew there were only certain yards capable of a project of this size; many operate with lower levels of employees; some I spoke to said they would be able to increase their resource and another said they would prefer not to. On the whole I found an honesty in the replies I got when speaking to yards about this project. I got the distinct impression that a lot of people viewed this as a project that would start and may never be finished: I have heard of several projects that end up like that. I was discussing with James the choice of boat builder and some of the difficulties which I had found and he suggested a couple of options, one of which was the International Boat building Training College (IBTC) at Lowestoft.

I contacted the College and they outlined the nature of their organisation and explained how they worked. They undertook projects which could be completed by students where the owners paid for the materials only and the labour was effectively free, or they would undertake a project commercially like any other yard. I had a look at their premises and facilities and they had a workforce of sufficient size (about nine at the time) which was ideal for the project we were proposing. I remember asking Mike Tupper, the owner, if students would be used to do some of the work. He said they would at different stages when the work suited what they were learning at the time. I replied, “and at times when the yard was under pressure”. He smiled and said, “only very occasionally.” I was happy with this and even happier with the work go be carried out by an establishment involved in training people. I said I was happy to have students involved as much as was practical and the amount of involvement was left to them to decide. Our Lizzie is an historic vessel and very much part of our heritage and I felt this training establishment to be a fitting place to carry out the work on her, albeit on a commercial basis.

They visited Our Lizzie in Gosport and again I got that impression they thought it was likely to be another project that would be started and not finished, but they priced the work and we proceeded into the pre- contract negotiations. They were ten thousand pounds dearer than a boat builder in Cornwall but I was much more comfortable with them, and, as noted above, I liked the fact that they were a training establishment. The order was agreed and my next job was to deliver Our Lizzie to Lowestoft.

Back to college (and to Lowestoft)

I left Gosport in January 2015 using the best weather windows I could find, as the deck planks were caulked and payed, and leaked in all the wrong places. At this time, Our Lizzie had no heating and a very exposed steering tiller which I regularly cursed. I blew a head gasket shortly after leaving Gosport and it was firing oil onto the manifold creating oily smoke. We had little wind, good in some ways but not enough to sail with and after shutting the engine down for periods we put out a call for assistance. We were in no immediate danger but the risk of a flash or fire in an oily wooden engine compartment was a risk we decided not to run.

Newhaven lifeboat was launched and towed us to Newhaven. The ferry had damaged the visitor’s pontoon there and, even at that time of year, they could not find anywhere to put us. We ended up on the lifeboat station inside the lifeboat and thanks to the hospitality and assistance of Paul and the crew we had the gasket replaced and left on our journey. The rest of the journey was wet and cold and we broke the trip in several places, sometimes because of the weather and other times to let crew return and wait for others to be available. Strange how it was hard to find crew for a cold and wet boat in February! I was very grateful to all those who helped me make this journey.

It was a relief to finally arrive at Lowestoft at the end of February; IBTC had a mooring for us and we decamped the boat. James Pratt, the architect carried out a stability assessment prior to the basic strip out and removal of the pig iron ballast as this would be the only opportunity until she was re launched. Once Our Lizzie was lifted, and just before she went into the shed, she was stripped of her masts and rigging and nearly all her interior fittings. At this stage I had initial drawings which were sufficient to communicate the work intended to the boat builders but they were not of adequate detail from which to build. Now that the boat was stripped, a very accurate measurement survey could be done, together with a detailed assessment of the structure, most of which could not be properly inspected until now. I had made provision in the contract for an amount of frame and plank replacement but, of course, not nearly enough. James carried out a detailed survey of the structure and identified the replacement and repair of some 60% of the frames and planking. Now he did say I could only do about half of the work and he would prepare a schedule of when he would expect the other half to need replacing. The trouble was that now the boat was stripped, this was the easiest and most cost effective time to do this work; I decided to ‘bite the bullet’ and do all the work required. Of course, this was not the end of it as throughout the process there were more items that presented the same decision, particularly the need to rebuild the counter stern which was out of shape. This I had known about and, since so much else was being done, it just did not make sense to leave it.

Pride, passion and teamwork

I was in awe of the workmanship and the pride the team had in the job they were doing. Whilst it was a slow process – as everything was sequential – the stages when you could see the progress taking shape were inspirational, as were those moments when things worked out particularly well, such as the fitting of the bow thruster. James assisted greatly with the whole process for me and also for the builders; he has an amenable personality and is very much an expert naval architect. James was easily approachable; David, the Yard Manager, and the whole team were comfortable in approaching him for advice and to discuss various issues. I was very fortunate with James, David and the College.

The attitudes of these people and their working relationships resulted in a very challenging project being both enjoyable and successful. There were, of course, things I decided to do which, in hindsight, I would probably not. We replaced the iron ballast with lead and put three tonne on the keel to increase the stiffness and stability. In theory, it was a wonderful idea but, as the project was progressing, it became clear that the difficulty and amount of work involved would diminish any envisaged cost-benefit gains. IBTC underestimated this work, as did I, although, on several occasions, a compromise was agreed.

Following some soul-searching over the dilemma about whether to buy a steering wheel or have one made, I decided to have one made. Rob, an ex-student at the College who continued to work there, was assigned to make the wheel. He did a marvellous job and with immense pride. His name is now engraved on the brass front of the wheel. Whatever the piece of work or item being carried out, the level of pride and attention to detail never ceased to amaze me.

Another student, Laurie, made the companionway steps and we worked out templates and details so that we achieved the easy and comfortable access from the deck, through the doghouse and then to the saloon. This was one of the many important features in providing comfort and easy access for Geraldine (and for myself) designed to make for comfortable living aboard whilst travelling.

My son, Anthony, is a Joiner and he made the table top in the saloon which has corners that fold out so it can accommodate a crew for eating, or fold in when just Geraldine and I are on board, allowing easy access to the seating around it. I am proud of this table as I am of every aspect of the Our Lizzie project. There were several times throughout this project where I questioned my sanity in undertaking a task of this size, particularly when faced with continually rising costs. Now that she is finished and we have preserved a wonderful piece of our history; one of the very few surviving drifters and a Dunkirk Little Ship that is now as beautiful as she should be – a graceful lady of the sea, my pride and my gratitude to all those involved is immense.

I am starting a new journey now; one of travel and of maintenance which, even after designing out a little of it, remains an ongoing labour of love. I hope this new journey will be as successful as the refit journey and I hope it takes much longer and is even more enjoyable than our great refit adventure.