Watching the movie Dunkirk you will probably be aware that some 700 small boats sailed across the English Channel and into heavy shellfire and bombing to rescue the British Expeditionary Force.

These weren’t Royal Navy boats, but often private yachts of different shapes and sizes. Many of these boats are afloat today, though some are in a sad state of disrepair. There is a tribe of mostly older men and women who fall in love with boats as much for the stories those boats can tell as for what they have done, and spend years restoring them.

This article will focus on the Little Ships of Dunkirk and reflect on the labours of love that have gone into giving older craft a new lease of life.

Boats are ‘shes’ not ‘its’

Boats are living things. Two boats built in exactly the same way and of the same lines and gear can behave very differently. Sailors will speak of the character of a vessel – her personality. I’ve known a few that are jaundiced old bastards, others that are flighty and difficult, and still others that are gentle and kind. Most, like people are a mixture of all kinds of pathos, but most importantly if you treat them well they will treat you well.

You drive an old boat hard in an emergency and she may get you home but without a little tender loving care as a thank you she may let you down just when you least need it – boats can develop attitudes too! Like people, they can get into a bad state of repair after 20 or so years, and should really have a good refit every ten in much the same way as someone should get to the doctor for a routine check-up when they hit 40!

Unlike people, boats don’t have a lifespan – in theory a well looked after vessel could last 200 or more years. The US Navy flagship USS Constitution is 220 years old and according to tradition could still be used as a weapon of war even today. While she put fear in the hearts of Royal Navy admirals in the 1800’s, I’m not even sure North Korea’s Kim Jong Un would be too worried should she set sail for SE Asia, though let’s see if she’s needed should diplomacy fail that way…

A tale of two Navies

I told Kavas Yachting I’d like to write this piece as a few years back I saw a rotten old boat in need of some repair on eBay. She was one of the Dunkirk Little Ships, and was credited with carrying one of the thousands of escaping British and Empire troops from Dunkirk when the dark forces of Hitler overwhelmed the Low Countries and France. I was in the wrong time and place of my life so had to turn away. Other people have bitten the bullet and rescued these old ladies. Some of the tales you read of these boats are compelling

what about the Count Dracula that saved 700 souls from Dunkirk?

The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships website explains that she was originally built as a steam launch and as a gift from Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II to Admiral von Hipper.

She was used as the admiral’s launch on the German Navy ship Lutzow until it began to sink in the Battle of Jutland, when he used the Dracula to escape to the Moeltke. She was aboard the Hindenburg in 1919 when the German Navy surrendered to the Royal Navy in Scapa Flow and when the battleship was scuppered, some kind German naval rating undid the lashings to the Dracula, who floated free and was salvaged by the Royal Navy.

Count Dracula went on to save more than 700 soldiers at Dunkirk and when the order came for all Little Ships to return to the UK, abandoning a group of Royal Engineers in the French town, the Royal Navy commander of the Count Dracula had other ideas:

"I felt rather pleased at the last little jab because at midnight on June 1st, the order was passed: 'all small boats back to England under escort.' - German 'E-Boats' had come down the coast. The intention was to abandon the Royal Engineers and to allow them to get into the town of Dunkirk as best they could - if they could. A difficult job then, because the Germans were close to the beach and had it under machine gun fire."

We did!

A Mr. Jeffries from Brighton (a garage owner, I believe) and myself decided to take a chance and see if we could get the Royal Engineers off. We did. All of them. And as they came away, they were exchanging fire with German troops in lorries or armoured cars. A close thing. I received a reprimand for leaving the convoy of small ships, but as it was one of many reprimands I had during the war for doing odd things, I didn't worry a great deal.

She went back to being a yacht and eventually was found by the Griener family (who had taken her as a yacht from the RN after World War I) rotting on the Thames as a houseboat. One of the soldiers she rescued had a son and the son, David Wilson, is in the process of rebuilding Dracula for £220,000 with the plan of getting to the 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation in 2020.

Rescuing a boat

You take a wander up any creek or estuary in Europe and you will see boats in varying states of repair, sometimes abandoned by people who just haven’t the funds to maintain or interest in their dead parent’s pride and joy. To some this is a passing sadness – to others it could ignite a passion.

While the larger boats sometimes cost millions of Euros to repair and rebuild, it is possible to invest time and effort to learn boatbuilding skills and to set about giving these old ladies a new lease of life. Wooden boatbuilding is an old trade and thankfully there are still people around who can teach you what you need to do to get the job done. If you do find a boat like this it is well worth learning those skills to do the job properly as if you don’t it could result in real problems further down the line.

The Classic Boat magazine website fires a warning shot across anyone’s bow who thinks that a refit of an old wreck is going to be a doddle: “Anything more than a tidy-up on anything more than a 20-footer (6.1m) usually turns out to be the single biggest challenge of the boat owner’s life. For every one of them, there are five abandoned projects and another five limping on year to year on a diet of epoxy, plywood and hope. TLC means exactly what it says on the tin: time, labour and cash.”

The article is a very good wake-up call for those who have perhaps seen something that they think they could get their teeth into – you may back off.

The choice of the boat or her...

They say in business that it is better to fail early, and where it comes to rescuing a boat the same applies.

You don’t want to have spent €€€ on an old wreck, have no life at all beyond going down to the boat, only to wake up one morning and realise that you need five more years and €50,000 to get the job done when your partner has just told given you the choice of the boat or her

For those who may have a bit of money to donate but no real knowledge of boatbuilding, it might be worth getting in touch with the Dunkirk Little Ships Restoration Trust who have a list of vessels in need of attention. There are people who might want to take on a volunteer to help them do their own refit, as long as you spend less time waggling your jaw and more time waggling the making iron as you caulk the hull in the freezing rain. It is a good way to learn and you can perhaps bring another’s dream to reality by helping them with their work, and as with another person’s baby you can hand it back if the business gets too arduous.

There is a saying that really applies to wooden boats: “A boat is a hole in the water to throw money in” – this is largely why people prefer to charter yachts rather than buy them outright!

As with your old Dad or Mum, the older they get the more repairs they need, and there is no state health service for old boats where they can be fixed for free! If you have the time, energy and enthusiasm to bring an old girl back from the brink of death to her former glory, she will often reward you (but do be aware that this is never going to be cheap and easy)…

Richard Shrubb

See also ↠ Traditional Greek vessels