Projects: The White Seal with the mysterious past
Rumour has it that the Ròn Bhán – Gaelic for White Seal – was commissioned for gun running between Ireland and Scotland; but is it true? We dig deeper into the renovation of this classic carvel construction from the James Silver boatyard and see how a complete overhaul with the help of WEST SYSTEM® epoxy has left her gleaming once again.
The Ròn Bhán is not everything she seems. Designed by John Bain and built in 1939 by the illustrious James Silver, this carvel construction in teak, oak and mahogany came from a family of boats that was widely regarded as the ultimate luxury in gentlemen’s yachts. Certainly, owner Alan Tattersall had difficulty getting hold of one. “I knew I was looking for a James Silver back in the early 2000s but I was getting very frustrated; there aren’t that many left now. Many I found were either too expensive or too far away,” he says.
However, when he spotted the Ròn Bhán – just sitting quietly for sale on the Gloucester-Sharpness canal – he wasn’t quite prepared for the tale she had to tell. “I bought her straight away but when I looked into her history I got quite a bit more than I bargained for!”
The Ròn Bhán was commissioned by Ronald McDonald Douglas in 1938. An established author and fervent Scottish nationalist, Douglas was imprisoned in 1935 for trying to buy weapons from the Germans in order to start a Scottish insurrection. After being released and exiled to Ireland, he apparently commissioned Ròn Bhán in order to sail there.
However, it was later strongly suspected that Douglas had in fact built the boat to smuggle guns from Ireland to Scotland in order to arm a nationalist rebellion.
The question is, would renovating the Ròn Bhán turn up anything to confirm this?
When the rot set in
Certainly, the renovation process hasn’t been straightforward – although it seemed that way to begin with. When Alan first found the Ròn Bhán, she was structurally sound but cosmetically poor and so he spent four years living on and renovating the boat. “I had her in really excellent condition,” he says.
However, when work called him away from the Ròn Bhán, it became too difficult to look after her. “Even though I’d moored her close to my workplace, I didn’t get the chance to work on her. For three years, she was moored under a tree and falling wet leaves caused some serious rot problems,” he explains. After being moved out of the water and stored in a barn for another three years – “I really hoped she wouldn’t deteriorate any further,” Alan says – the Ròn Bhán continued to rot so badly, that her structural integrity was under threat.
At this point, Alan called for extra help from local boatbuilders RW Davis & Son.
A total makeover
Craig Glassonbury, General Manager of RW Davis, began working on the Ròn Bhán with his team in summer 2014. Since then the boat has been almost entirely reconstructed, with new knees, several new oak ribs and over 350 linear feet of new iroco and marine ply planking.
“We started by putting some planks in, just to try and protect the shape so we could take the rotten planks out,” says Craig. “We went on to replace quite a lot of frames and about 15 ribs, as well as 20 feet of rotten deck shelf on each side.”
The five-feet long rotten decks on each side of the wheelhouse were also replaced and laid into epoxy. Indeed, epoxy was used extensively on the side decks and the transom. “Throughout the renovation we used WEST SYSTEM 105 Epoxy Resin® mixed with WEST SYSTEM 205 Fast Hardener® and thickened with WEST SYSTEM 406 Colloidal Silica,” explains Craig. “We use Colloidal Silica all the time as it bonds, fills and provides excellent additional strength.”
Craig also used WEST SYSTEM 105 Epoxy Resin® mixed with WEST SYSTEM 207 Special Clear Hardener™ to coat the refurbished sapele transom, finishing it off with varnish. “The hardener doesn’t go milky at all – it lets the natural wood shine through. It looks so good,” he smiles.
Back to her former beauty
The RW Davis team spent two and a half years slowly bringing the rotten Ròn Bhán back to her former glory. Today, she’s very nearly finished. “Ròn Bhán is now sitting comfortably on her new mooring on the Gloucester-Sharpness canal. She’s just waiting to have her topsides revarnished to bring her completely back to her former beauty,” says owner Alan.
In the near future, Alan – who spends much of his time living in Australia – intends to live on Ròn Bhán over the summer months, while he is in the UK. “My long term plan is to bring Ròn Bhán out to Australia, where she will be an absolute Princess on Port Phillip Bay!” he adds.
However, the burning question remains: did the refurbishment unearth any contraband stowed away on board, or shed any further light on whether Ròn Bhán was indeed used as a smuggling boat? “I’m afraid not!” smiles Alan. It would appear that this Gaelic beauty intends to keep her mysterious past very much to herself.
For more information on RW Davis & Son Ltd., visit their website.
Want to know more about the full range of WEST SYSTEM epoxy products and how they work? Visit the West System International website.