How a conversion saved a classic
In the late 1960s William Stanton carved up a West Solent racer to turn her into a cruiser. It seems sacrilege now Ð but probably saved her
A group of students turned a West Solent One Design racer into a cruiser in the 1960s – but it saved the boat
Isaw recently that Halloween was for sale, at £58,000. She’s a West Solent One Design, built in 1926 by the Berthon Boat Company; sail number W11 of some 32. Vivacious (1927, W22) was also for sale, at £44,000. Yet in the 1920s, when first built, they cost £600.
Surviving West Solents, at 90-odd years old, have been substantially rebuilt and with the cost of materials and yard charges upwards of £35 an hour, the price of the finished yacht is going to be less than the cost of her restoration, unless the owner does the work.
So what is an old yacht worth? How to weigh maritime heritage and the cost of restoring a fine boat so it will still sail as designed? Is a yacht built 90 years ago and rebuilt so she’s actually stronger and more finely-finished than the original, often kept under wraps except for the occasional outing to be the belle of a regatta, in fact a new boat?
My first boat was Linette, the West Solent built before Halloween in 1926, sail number W10, and we bought her for £475 when she was 43 years old. She was propped up at Wicormarine, Chris Waddington’s yard at the back of Portsmouth harbour, and she needed lots of work.
‘We couldn’t walk away from that beautiful wine-glass hull despite her shabby state’
But we couldn’t walk away from that beautiful wine-glass hull – 34ft 6in overall by 7ft 6in beam and 5ft 3in draught – despite her shabby state.
The owner had had enough of her, which would have been clear from her state if he hadn’t said it.
He didn’t put us off, no more than the chicken-coop of a plywood coachroof, nor yet the attempt to create a toe rail/rubbing strake by screwing lengths of floorboard to her top strake so it stood up a couple of inches above the deck. Nor the deck itself, sheathed in a layer of scrim laid in pale blue polyester resin, which had cracked.
That wasn’t the only thing cracked: thin bars of sunlight slanted across the cabin from the opened topsides and several frames in her quarters had gone at the turn of the bilge. We wondered if they’d been broken by grounding, but soon discovered that stress in a hull will cause steamed frames to crack where the shape changes sharply.
Linette had a 2-cylinder Stuart Turner 8hp hand start 2-stroke petrol engine, famous for many idiosyncrasies such as refusing to re-start when hot – and of course catching fire.
She had sails too (stained and baggy), galvanised standing rigging (rusty) and running rigging (mostly polypropylene), a CQR anchor and chain and a head with lead plumbing. There was no compass, echo sounder, dinghy, fenders… or anything else much.
There were three of us at first, and we all wanted the challenge of restoration and converting her for cruising. A wooden boat was the proper thing, we thought, and in 1969 there weren’t GRP yachts going cheaply.
But when you’re 20-odd there’s all the time in the world to learn, making the problems seem insignificant. Well except for one: with all those open seams, would she swim?
We reckoned that, if we launched minus engine and all gear and she sank, we’d have two choices: wait to see if she’d plim up; and if that failed, the two tons of her lead ballast would be worth more than we’d paid.
So we bought her, took out the head (a Baby Blake, worth more than the lead now), removed the flimsy coachroof, faux toe rail, rotten forehatch and what bits of interior joinery there were, covered her in a tarpaulin and left her for the winter.
Mike took the engine home, located a Stuart Turner manual, stripped it down and revelled in cleaning every part. When all was ready he went to Stuart Turner’s factory for spares. I remember his glee when he returned to say that the storeman had looked up the engine in a handwritten ledger and told him it had been installed after the war.
I wrote to Berthon to say we’d bought W10 and would be grateful if we could come to Lymington for a chat. They were very helpful, showed us the shed where the West Solents were built and even the remains of some building jigs.
We wanted to cruise, so our plan was to increase the limited accommodation
space with a new coachroof. This led to two radical decisions. The first was to build a coachroof from lightweight foam sandwich, the new technique we’d seen when we visited Derek Kelsall’s yard in Sandwich where he built multihulls.
We built it at home: iroko frame, then 20mm polyurethane foam, chopped mat and rovings laid up on both sides and shipped it over to Wicormarine on top of the car.
It’s extraordinary now to compare the crudity of that process – not to mention its inappropriateness – with the immaculate vacuum-bagged lamination of the deck and cabin structure on my Nigel Irens lug yawl Romilly built 25 years later.
The second decision involved committing the sin of having a shipwright widen the deck opening and reduce the cockpit with new beams and carlings so we’d have more space under the coach-roof.
By the spring it was clear that we couldn’t do it all, even driving down to Wicormarine just about every weekend, camping alongside the boat and working 12-hour days. So we did what was most pressing, learning as we went from books, from our neighbouring restorers, and from bodgers.
We doubled the cracked frames with iroko steamed in a box we made, while a carpenter friend made a replacement for the rotted false keel out of iroko laminated and glued with resorcinol.
As the weather warmed up, we stripped off layers of old household paint from the hull with a blowlamp, scrapers and sanders, right back to bare wood, and drove many new bronze fastenings.
We did the same with the decks, after removing as many fittings as possible. Linette had no covering boards, but straight lengths of tongue and groove yellow pine which had once been covered in canvas. We sanded them with an electric sander for hours, then laid Trackmark (now called Treadmaster), turned over the deck edge and tucked under a new rubbing strake.
Next we bolted down the new coachroof and forehatch with galvanised studding (for economy), replaced the deck fittings plus a new iroko toe rail screwed through to the deck beams.
The cockpit coamings were original, but the rest was not, so we decided to make a self-draining cockpit using glass-sheathed marine ply.
The seats were storage bins that drained into the cockpit sole and thence through the cockpit drain. Time was running out for sailing that season, so while one of us built simple slatted bunk bases inside, the others got on with finishing the hull.
Loose caulking was raked out with a bent and sharpened file tang and recaulked until our arms ached with the weight of the borrowed caulking mallet and iron. Then seams were stopped with putty and red lead.
‘We stripped off layers of old household paint from the hull with a blowlamp, scrapers and sanders’
The hull was sanded, surface-filled with trowel cement, a coat of metallic pink primer applied, sanded again, filled and primed again until we had something close to smooth.
We lost count of the number of times we went round that hull until it was smooth enough to undercoat – at least without comparing her with Chris Waddington’s Colin Archer Saari or any of the other yachts being professionally painted in the big shed.
We decided to paint her bright red: a statement about our ownership, about how we were making her new again.
Will she float?
There she stood on the concrete pad in her gleaming red coat, ready to launch. With a borrowed submersible pump and Chris Waddington’s diesel pump on the pontoon alongside, in she went.
We were confident, so the engine had been installed again – also the heads. She didn’t trouble the big pump and only briefly the submersible. After 12 hours, she’d taken up enough for her own bilge pump to cope, or the inboard running with the seacock set to pump the bilge.
Meanwhile we’d made up new standing rigging which we swaged with a borrowed machine (we could only afford galvanised, but if it was good enough for Robin Knox-Johnston ...), collected the galvanised pushpit and stanchions we’d had made and bolted them down (galvanised bolts again), bought a second-hand main and genoa from Ratsey’s, made up new running rigging from the large drum of polyester rope we’d found at a boat jumble and stepped the mast.
Linette heads west
We sailed to Cowes, Yarmouth, Poole and Weymouth, then an overnight passage to Dartmouth with the wind getting up to Force 8 and Linette leaking like a sieve.
It was almost the end of the season and we were elated to be away from the Solent and in the West Country, where we lived and worked, keeping Linette in Dartmouth.
We were offered a council trot mooring on the Kingswear side and tucked the boat in, sleeping weekends on a 20-ton Mounts Bay lugger whose owner took us under his wing while we continued to work on Linette’s interior until the weather became too foul.
During the winter I made a one-off GRP Optimist dinghy in my spare time, chosen because it fitted upside-down on the coachroof – and it sailed, too.
We wrote to Berthon, asking for their thoughts about the leaks. They said that as the mast was stepped on top of a scarf joint in the centreline, she’d always leak unless rebuilt.
There was also the matter of the wrought-iron floors, but the leaks through the rudder trunk and along the garboards were penalties of age and the lightweight construction that enabled Berthon to sell the West Solents for half the price of cruising yachts.
Hauled out at the Creekside Boatyard in Dartmouth the following spring, we did what we could to strengthen her, and finished the accommodation before launching and cruising through that season.
By then Mike’s Canadian girlfriend and American friends Charlie and Carol had joined our little co-op and Mike was preparing to go to the west coast of Canada, where he stayed, built a 43-foot ferrocement ketch and sailed west, never to return.
At the end of that season we all agreed that Charlie and Carol would buy the shares and take Linette over. At that point, the surveyor’s valuation was £1,950.
I saw Linette once more, 20 years later, when I was launching a new boat at Mylor Yacht Harbour. She was laid up ashore and looked sad, waiting to be taken on again. I felt the pang of first love, but I wasn’t tempted because she was overdue to be properly restored – and I knew how much it would cost...
It would be easy to make a list of all the things we did wrong in our innocence, starting with our attempt to convert a narrow-waisted greyhound of a Solent racer into a cruising yacht by enlarging the opening in the deck to take a coachroof – and a glass-foam one at that – not to mention the construction of a ply-and-glass cockpit.
And of course conversion for cruising meant the huge extra weight of engine, tanks, batteries, interior joinery and general gear.
But there was also the challenge of Berthon’s lightweight construction, which meant replacing the original galvanised iron floors and their fastenings, together with most of the plank fastenings that had suffered as the hull worked, some planking, the whole deck, many frames and deck beams – and of course all our galvanised fastenings and rigging.
Working on Linette, we learned a great deal about wooden boats; and as we sailed her, the leaks made us aware of just how much work was still needed.
The increase in value from £475 in 1969 to £1,950 by 1972 was no expression of the labour we’d put in, nor indeed the enormous fun we’d had learning about her and cruising her.
The right thing to do
And perhaps we’d saved her, too. But in the end, what Linette really needed was beyond us in time, skill and cash.
That work was eventually carried out in Maldon by Peter Brookes in 1995 and 1996, when Linette had a major restoration/rebuild.
Her engine was removed and everything necessary was done not just to make her look as though she’d just been launched, but in fact to bring the technical specification up to modern standards.
Beautifully maintained, Linette is now based at West Mersea where she is raced against other rebuilt West Solent One Designs. In 2011 she was listed in National Historic Ships UK.
Still racing: Linette chasing Halloween off Mersea on the East Coast
The author at the helm in 1971
ABOVE Linette as found by the author and his friends in 1969. RIGHT Work under way to raise the coachroof for increased headroom
West Solent One Designs doing what they were built for in the 1920s and 30s – racing
Restored to her former glory – Linette on the Blackwater in the summer of 2011
Once set up for cruising Linette could travel far and wide. Here she is on her home mooring in Dartmouth in 1972, interior fit-out still in progress
Linette is still sailing and still performing