Tragedy lifeboat seaworthy again

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THE FORMER Arbroath lifeboat ‘Robert Lindsay’ in which six of her seven-man crew died in the lifeboat disaster of October, 1953, is being rebuilt to her original seagoing condition in Norfolk.

And the work has progressed so well that she might take to the water this summer.

The twin-screw RNLI Liverpool class lifeboat was constructed in 1950, by the well-known lifeboat builders, Groves and Guttridge, at West Cowes, Isle of Wight.

She was introduced to service at Arbroath in 1950 and capsized on October 27 three years later, tragically with the loss of Coxswain David Bruce and Harry Swankie, mechanic; Thomas Adams, bowman; and William Swankie, David Cargill and Charles Cargill.

The only crewman to survive the tragedy was Archie Smith who caught a line fired in the direction of voices crying for help.

The lifeboat was withdrawn from service, refitted by Groves and Guttridge, and in 1955 was re-allocated to Girvan, where she served until 1960.

After this she was then re-allocated to Criccieth in Wales, where she served from 1960 to 1968.

In 1968 she was sold out of RNLI service and in 1969 was purchased by a Devon owner, renamed Taupo and, it is believed, made pleasure trips.

In 1986 she had just over a metre cropped from her stern to bring her down to the 30 feet required by the then fishing regulations. At this conversion the engine canopy was removed and gifted to the Lowestoft Maritime Museum.

She fished out of Lowestoft but in 1999 was sold and moved to Wells-next-the-Sea where she continued fishing until she was pensioned off due to her poor condition.

In 2005 she was put up for sale again and was eventually purchased by George Hewitt, boatbuilder, Old Military Camp, Greenway, Stiffkey, Norfolk.

George and his brother, David, are boatbuilders and shipwrights and for the last seven years the siblings have been restoring RNLB ‘Robert Lindsay’ to as near original condition as possible, accepting that some parts are no longer available and others would cost a fortune to have manufactured, but some have been made.

After considerable negotiation over several years, the Lowestoft Maritime Museum agreed to sell the canopy for £500 so it is now back aboard ‘Robert Lindsay’ and being brought back to RNLI condition. It has always been George’s intention to own an ex-RNLI lifeboat and once ON 874 is restored he will retain ownership for his lifetime.

The original engines and spares have not been available for many years and as with many of this class of lifeboat the vessel was re-engined with twin Perkins 4/107 diesel engines. A pair of these engines (actually virtually identical 4/108s) has been located and are currently being re-furbished at a cost of about £2,000.

An appeal fund has been launched by Mike Woodroffe, retired RNLI Deputy Chief of Operations, in the hope that donations will help defray these costs.

George hopes by later this year ON 874 will be sufficiently up together to be launched and sea-trialled, but it will be a while longer before the project is finished and she is ‘shipshape and Bristol fashion’.

George told the Arbroath Herald: “The hull, foredeck and sterndeck are all finished with just the main deck panels still to be screwed down. The engines are installed but are not wired up yet. Fuel tanks, exhausts and seacocks are all done and the steering is all there but just needs bolted down and connected.

“The canopy is all built and ready to put the fittings on and portholes in. I have not managed to find all the right portholes but have enough to look fairly good.

“I had new rudder gear made but still need to make and fit a rudder blade. The scuppers and all little blocks around them are all fitted, the mast tabernacle is fitted. This is not the original but is bronze. I have a mast to make and sort the lights, wires and shrouds.

“I also have to make the locker boxes for inside the canopy but most of the work is now complete.”

He concluded: “It takes ages to do all the little jobs. We rubbed down all bulwarks, washboards and gunwales ready to re-coat last week. They have sikkiens on them which they do not make any more but I have enough to finish.

“The outside of the hull was all painted the proper colour but the colour has shifted so it needs to be redone. However, all in all she is mostly done.”

Violet Bruce, Stoneycroft Lane, daughter of Harry Swankie, the mechanic who died on the RNLB Robert Lindsay, said that it might be considered insensitive by some for the boat to be refurbished and put back in the water, but it would depend what she was used for.

She went on: “It is so long ago now and I would not have any objections, and I don’t think my sister, Emmie Lewis, would either. Indeed, it would be nice if the lifeboat could come to Arbroath for a Sea Fest or similar so people could see the difference in lifeboats from the 1950s to the present day.

“It would bring back painful memories for some but the men then, as now, know the dangers when they put their names forward for RNLI crew.”