THE STORY OF BRITANNIA
Britannia was built in 1914 in Kings Lynn, Norfolk, by a well-known and respected family of shipwrights, the Worfolk brothers. The Worfolks had the rights to source their wood from Sandringham Forest being boat builders to the Royal family, and Britannia’s beautiful grown oak frames came from Sandringham
She was commissioned by the Worfolks’ brother-in-law, Alfred Rake, who had a reputation as a late Victorian “drop-out”. He had had a classical education and was fluent in both Latin and Greek. He kept his personal log in Latin, and his accounts in Greek!
Britannia was the last and largest Class One Smack to be built by the shipwrights. She was the largest vessel built in the Friar’s yard for 40 years, and her launch in April 1915 was recorded in the Lynn Advertiser.
Britannia is a Gaff Cutter, 58 feet long on the deck, with a 13 foot six beam and drawing eight feet – a beautiful hollow-bowed, fast vessel, whose lines still attract admiration whenever she is seen, out of the water or in. She is singled-framed, all grown oak crooks, specially chosen by the boat builders from oak trees from Sandringham Forest. These frames are immensely strong, which is why, 100 years since they were first laid, they are all still intact and original. She was planked with 2″ Archangel Redwood, fastened with 5″ galvanised spikes. She cost £290 in 1915, exclusive of sails and rigging. Her mainsail cost £99.00.
She had a 10″ pitch pine mast, as soon after launching, she ran aground on the Long Sand in the Wash. Her bottom was so fine that the crew were able to walk ashore along the mast.
Alfred Rake’s grand-daughter believed that Britannia may be the only British craft to have had a friendly encounter with a German U Boat in World War 1. She met the submarine whilst it was on the surface and some of the German crew went aboard exchanging food and a few bottles!
In 1917, she rescued the crew of a Russian ship found in distress, and Alfred’s wife, Louisa, fed and housed the crew for some time in her home, as Russia were in revolution at the time and had no Government to support or claim the seamen.
She was caught in the ice when the River Ouse froze over in 1918, and food and fuel was taken to the crew by improvised sledge.
For the next fifty years Britannia had a career firstly as a Whelker sailing out of Kings Lynn and Boston by the Wash.. She was very fast, her lines being similar to the Revenue Cutters. Unusually for a whelker she was fine and deep-drafted, unable to dry out on the sandbanks, which was normal practice for the Wash boats who were generally shallow drafted enabling them to go aground, catch the whelks and then sail off on the next tide. Britannia’s style was to carry an open boat on deck, anchor off the sandbanks, put the boat over the side for the men to catch the whelks and then they could get back on board before the tide was full, and sail at speed back to port to sell the whelks at market. First back got the best price!
The Whelking industry steadily declined in Lynn and eventually Britannia was the last Whelker left sailing out of the Port. Also, because of the decline in whelking, the smacks who originally all carried topmasts, began to strike their rigs of topmasts and topsails. Again, Britannia was the last smack to retain her topmast. She was sold on to Boston in the Thirties.
In the late thirties she was fitted with a large Marine engine, and used for power trawling her fishing registry changed to BN42. There is no record of her after this until in 1968, working as a powered fishing boat, she ran aground on a spit whilst returning home to Boston, and the steepness of the bank caused her to capsize and sink.
She was pumped out and raised, but the owners could not afford to put her back in working order and she was sold to a dentist from New Zealand, Rodney Robinson. He re-decked her, but ran out of money or enthusiasm, and she was then put up for sale again.
In the autumn of 1973 Britannia was purchased by Haydn (Sam) and Vicki Samuels. They lived on board Britannia in Lowestoft docks, and then Oulton Broad, for that winter. In November that year their first son, also called Haydn was born. Vicki had to return to her job, whilst Sam worked on making Britannia seaworthy. He made temporary bulwarks, raised the mast and made all the standing rigging. Britannia had no sails, but Sam was able to rescue blocks and sails from the Lowestoft fishing fleet which was being destroyed at the time, making way for the boom in North sea oil exploration.
In the spring of 1974, Sam judged that Britannia was seaworthy enough to make the trip from Lowestoft to Bristol, where Vicki was living with Haydn, – a pretty epic and scary maiden voyage. This adventure took place with the help of a good friend of the Samuels family, Hwyl Price, a very experienced sailor and an exceptionally talented boat designer and builder, who agreed to skipper the vessel. The voyage took about 5 days. The engine broke down, inevitably, and the scrappy sails that had been rescued from bonfires in Lowestoft, helped to sail Britannia into Newhaven where repairs to the engine were effected.
Also in 1974 the huge JK6 Lister engine that had been powering Britannia was lifted out by hand crane in Bristol Docks ( it could be privately hired then) and sold to John and Mark who collected it and installed it in the ketch Excelsior, from Lowestoft. John Wylson is still heavily involved with the Excelsior Trust which is a very successful Trust offering sail training to youngsters.
Once safely berthed in Bristol docks, the Samuels family stayed there for two years, living on her secretly – the only liveaboards at the time as it was frowned upon, but the Dockmaster, a retired Master Mariner, called Captain Hobart, turned a blind eye and often visited for a chat and a cuppa. Britannia was flush decked with very little headroom down below, having been a workboat previously. The only place one could comfortably stand up with enough headroom was in the forecabin, the first third of the boat. So for a while, this area was the only liveable space Sam managed to utilise the rest of the space in the boat by constructing a low deck cabin which allowed them to have a separate galley and saloon. The Samuels also bought a little pot-bellied cast iron stove from a scrapdealer for £5. The stove was in the boat the whole time that the family owned her but sadly has now gone.
In 1975 Britannia went south in the Bristol Channel, berthing for a year at the head of the River Brue. Sam continued to work on her, but living aboard there with a two year old was quite difficult – no marina, electricity or water, and with a half mile trek along the river bank to the road to fill water containers. There were no power tools or generator – everything had to be carried or, when the tide was in rowed to the boat in the tender.
In the hot summer of 1976 the Samuels family sailed south again, staying at Bideford and Padstow en route, finally berthing at Mylor Bridge in December where for 3 years, Sam was working on her and sailing sometimes in the many summer regattas held for Falmouth Oyster boats in Cornwall. Sam was asked to crew on one or two of them – something he still remembers as a great experience, not to be forgotten!
In February 1978, Vicki had another baby boy, Gareth and gave up her job. The Samuels had shared the upbringing of their sons, as living aboard was a very cheap way of life and they were able to live quite comfortably on Vicki’s part-time salary, together with additional pieces of work that Sam was able to do whilst continuing to work on Britannia and fund her restoration himself.
Towards the end of 1978, they sailed back up the Bristol Channel and kept Britannia on a mud berth at Uphill, just south of Weston super Mare where they wintered and then in 1979 took her to Bristol docks again. Sam was working on a major restoration of a 60 foot baltic trader, Consultant Shipwright to the restoration of the Pascal Flores, a beautiful schooner that was in the dry dock, and managing the boat yard.
In November 1979 Britannia was involved in filmwork for HTV – the Smuggler TV series with Oliver Tobias and Lesley Dunlop. Sam and a motley crew spent two weeks filming off Ilfracombe in quite difficult conditions. Britannia was the Customs and Excise boat and she was fitted with bronze cannons borrowed from Berkeley Castle. On returning to Bristol, and with the money earned from the filmwork, she was immediately hauled out where there were facilities to work on her and that is where she stayed for two years – the family still living on board, but now twenty feet up in the air, overlooking Brunel’s SS Great Britain. That is where her major hull restoration was completed, the stern, new rail, covering board and down below, some home improvements were done, such as putting in water tanks and a diesel tank, finishing the galley, new masts and spars were made and new rigging.
Having had enough of hot dusty summers in Bristol, in 1984 Britannia went north – to the Inner Hebrides to be precise. Sam took a job as handyman on the remote Isle of Canna, population 18, and sailed Britannia from Bristol to Canna with just one other crew member, Dave Hargreaves. Canna lies between the west coast of the Scottish mainland and the Outer Isles, Barra being the nearest. Sam sailed across the minch to Barra one day but took no money with him, having been used to living on Canna without any need for cash, he was unable to go ashore for a beer!
Canna has a very safe harbour and Britannia was beached on a high spring tide, and rested on legs for 2 Scottish winters. Sam made a wonderful zip wire for the boys from the mast to the shore.
The family spent two years on the island – having a house ashore with plenty of space. The boys, being unused to the flimsy nature of some houses, managed to break a few fittings and had races down the hall, but in 1986 they went to Skye where Haydn was at secondary school. Back to living on the boat again in Portree harbour until they found a flat in October and moved off the boat again. Scottish harbours are no places to liveaboard in the winter – 3 months was enough rowing the boys and Gemma the family’s Alsatian dog ashore in a south westerly gale. The boys aged 12 and 8 were very accomplished boatmen, but the waves were too high to risk them in a dinghy by themselves.
In 1987 the family launched Skyes’l Charters, having outgrown the boat – (teenage boys) they moved ashore permanently but not wanting to let Britannia go, decided that she could earn her living as a charter boat amongst the most beautiful sailing grounds in the world. The stunning scenery and abundant wildlife drew holidaymakers to Skye, to learn to sail on ta raditional boat. Although most trips were for a week around Skye and the Hebrides, occasional longer passages were made to St Kilda and Portaferry in Ireland, Brest in Brittany. Skyes’l Charters first skipper, Tim Ebdy, made a point of visiting Bill Worfolk, one of Britannia’s builders, then well into his Nineties, in Kings Lynn in 1989, and spent an afternoon with him yarning and learning about Britannia’s build and sea trials. Bill said that she was the fastest boat that they had ever built.
The summer of 1995 was spent on the south coast of England with Sam and his 17 year old son Gareth as crew, attending various boat festivals, and Britannia won the Concourse d’ Elegance in Falmouth for the best kept workboat. Just before Skyes’l Charters ended in 1995, Britannia had a winter in the Canaries, based in Los Christianaos, Tenerife. In order to go abroad, she had to be registered as a British Vessel and sadly had to be renamed Spirit of Britannia because there could not be two Britannias on the Registry even though this Britannia was older!
In 1996 the Samuels’ stood on the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol and watched their boat sail down the Avon without them. – no longer “their boat”. For 25 years they had been her custodians, but she had had to be sold, not out of choice, but necessity.
She was sold just after the Festival of the Sea in Bristol Docks, to an enthusiast, Peter Arstell who kept her as a private yacht. He kept Britannia for a few years and made many improvements, particularly to her main saloon, and kept her in very good condition. She was berthed for a while in Cowes in the Isle of Wight.
A few years later, she changed hands again and was sold to a syndicate of four men, Phil Hodson and Bob Cole being two of them, who are now involved in the current restoration project. She was loved by these owners, too, and now called “Spirit” for short, Phil named his little terrier after her, and the little dog is still going strong. A good omen for the future!
The syndicate had her in their care for 5 or 6 years but realised that they had neither the time or the resources to maintain her in pristine condition. These beautiful vessels need much care and attention to keep them at their best, so they made the difficult decision to donate her in 2006 to the Trinity Sailing Foundation in Brixham.
In 2013 Gareth Samuels found Britannia on a mooring in Brixham harbour and discovered that she had been there for at least 6 years.. He had heard that Trinity wanted to sell her. After much soul-searching the Samuels’ decided that they could not let the boat they still thought of as their Britannia founder as she had meant so much to them and been such an important part of their lives, so an arrangement was made to travel from Skye to Brixham to view her.
In September 2013 it was decided to take her to a place of safety and haul her out for the winter whilst trying to drum up enough funding from past friends and folk who had sailed on her to buy her. Sam negotiated her purchase from Trinity after having paid for a substantial condition survey to be done by David Cox, a well respected marine surveyor who specialises in wooden boats.
The Samuels’ bought her back again from Trinity and then commenced to set up a Charitable Trust called the Britannia Sailing Trust. The Trust was registered as a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation in December 2014 and at the inaugural meeting of Trustees, Britannia was donated to the Trust. Meanwhile there are about 50 people who love her and are regularly donating money to keep her safe and under cover, whilst fundraising is ongoing to fund her restoration.
Britannia is a truly historic vessel, part of our British Maritime heritage, she is the very last of her kind and celebrated her centenary in 2015. The Britannia Sailing Trust is currently fundraising to restore her so that she can be used for sail training and will be a flagship for raising awareness about the pollution of the sea and global warming.
If you would like to see a video of Britannia sailing in the waters off Falmouth in 1995, click on the link to see a lovely video of her on our You Tube channel: Britannia 1915
Read our blog: Crew Britannia
Or download this History as a PDF: britannia history with pics
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