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Maestro of Milford Haven Works His Maritime Magic Again

16th January 2022
Effortless progress – Rob Mason’s newly-restored 1938-built trawler yacht Blue Hills moves sweetly through the waters of southwest Wales
Effortless progress – Rob Mason’s newly-restored 1938-built trawler yacht Blue Hills moves sweetly through the waters of southwest Wales Credit: Andy Whitcher

To say that Rob Mason of Milford Haven has an eye for a boat is a bit like saying that the late Vincent O’Brien was quite a good judge of horseflesh. The retired Milford Haven tugboat skipper turned up from southwest Wales at the Volvo Dun Laoghaire Regatta 2017 with his newly-restored 1897-vintage Alexander Richardson-designed cutter Myfanwy, and this classic’s sweeping lines of elegant double curves, allied to a formidable performance, was a reminder that though the Liverpool-based designer’s most famous boat was the all-conquering Irex of 1884 for John Jameson of Dublin, Myfanwy was the real masterpiece, the unexpected gem of his later years.

She won all hearts in Dublin Bay, and she won the overall champion trophy too, in what was the main celebration of Dun Laoghaire Harbour’s Bicentennial. Not surprisingly, she was soon snapped up by a discerning buyer for the Mediterranean Classics circuit, as Rob already had his eye on another boat which neatly filled the eternal requirement of “a motor-cruiser suitable for a dedicated sailing enthusiast”, and here too there is special Irish interest.

John Jameson’s 88ft Irex RStGYC of 1884 vintage, seen here after winning the Royal Harwich YC regatta in Essex in 1888.John Jameson’s 88ft Irex RStGYC of 1884 vintage, seen here after winning the Royal Harwich YC regatta in Essex in 1888.

Rob Mason’s restored 1897 Richardson design Myfanwy on her way to becoming overall champion at the Volvo Dun Laoghaire Regatta 2017. Photo: Afloat.ie/David O’BrienRob Mason’s restored 1897 Richardson design Myfanwy on her way to becoming overall champion at the Volvo Dun Laoghaire Regatta 2017. Photo: Afloat.ie/David O’BrienRob Mason’s restored 1897 Richardson design Myfanwy

He found the 42ft Blue Hills in a place called Hayle on the north coast of Cornwall. Although Hayle is just across the bay from picturesque St Ives, it’s not one of those cute places you’ll see on Rick Stein’s Cornwall-promoting television shows. On the contrary, it’s a nondescript estuary port where boats go to die, and that seemed the future for Blue Hills when Rob and his shipmates rescued her, and road-trailed her the hundreds of miles round to Milford Haven, for she wasn’t fit to attempt the direct crossing of the Bristol Channel.

But after they had her hauled on the foreshore at his house in the sheltered upper reaches of Milford Haven, he was able to confirm his reckoning that most of the boat was directly restorable, although some timber would need renewed. But it was the engine and auxiliary rig and other gear that really needed lengthy attention or replacement, and every job completed was another step towards a new life for a seriously interesting boat with history to match.

Blue Hills in Mulroy Bay in Donegal in 1938. Photo courtesy RCC.Blue Hills in Mulroy Bay in Donegal in 1938. Photo courtesy RCC

Blue Hills was originally created in 1938 by noted fishing boat builder William Weatherhead of Cockenzie on Scotland’s east coast for Frank Gilliland of Derry, who sought a motorised trawler yacht after many years of cruising the 17-ton Mylne-designed McGruer-built sailing ketch Melmore. But as a leading figure in the Royal Naval Reserve, Gilliland only had a year or so of cruising in Donegal and the Hebrides with his new boat before he persuaded the Admiralty that she would be ideal for conversion for use in conveying spies and resistance fighters to Norway and Denmark after World War II broke out in 1939. 

The big tidal range of Milford Haven enabled Blue Hills to be hauled into a drying restoration berth beside Rob Mason’s house where Myfanwy was also given new life. Photo: Andy WhitcherThe big tidal range of Milford Haven enabled Blue Hills to be hauled into a drying restoration berth beside Rob Mason’s house where Myfanwy was also given new life. Photo: Andy Whitcher

Consequently, she spent much of the 1940s back on the east coast of Scotland with all sorts of secret compartments being installed, though whether or not she was ever used on the famous Shetland Bus clandestine route across the North Sea to Norway has never been completely clarified. However, by the time she was decommissioned from Admiralty use, Frank Gilliland was so advanced in years that she went to another owner, and she worked her way south to become a familiar sight on the coasts of Devon and Cornwall, eventually assuming semi-houseboat status in Hayle.

But now she is alive again, and while the summer of 2021 saw her afloat and under way for sufficient time to demonstrate her elegant sea-keeping qualities, this current winter has been devoted to completing the many interior jobs which will make her fit for longer passages. With any luck in the summer of 2022, we in Ireland will again be able to see that Rob Mason has a great eye for a boat.

 

A hull so graceful she scarcely disturbs a calm sea

Published in Historic Boats
WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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