Unlike ‘Miss Sian’, the first in the series of ex military FPBs we featured in ‘Yard Arm’ a short while back the history and class of Thunderchild, a similar though not identical craft is something of a mystery. Owned by David Carter she was bought through a local newspaper advertisement in April 1992, and was then named `Sea King`. “I can’t resist old boats”, admits David candidly, adding that his fascination in all old craft began when he had a trip on a 100ft ex German Coast Guard Cutter while on holiday in Holyhead during 1949. “It was my first experience of these sort of boats. I remember it had a huge diesel engine with individual cylinders, and the memory of that trip has never left me”
“I’m particularly saddened over how many of the UK’s historical military craft have now gone as boats like Thunderchild are stripped and then broken up. If I hadn’t bought her she would have been off for a date with `Mr Chainsaw`”, continues David with sadness. “When I bought her she was moored at Tewkesbury on the River Avon, which is where she is today. Her condition was pretty poor. She was leaking through various places, but nothing that I could not fix. For example there was a large hole in the starboard side of the engine room, which was covered by a substantial patch, and another smaller one on the port side close to the water line. It looked like a missile had gone in one side and out the other”.
It seems the previous owner bought ‘Sea King’ from someone in Sharpness, who had removed her original engines, installing a single Leyland 6-cylinder 3.0 litre diesel unit in its place. “The engines, sea cocks and everything else of value had been stripped out and sold off”, adds David ruefully. “Though curiously, the original stern tubes, shafts complete with propellers, rudders and most of the steering gear were left in place because, presumably, they had no value as scrap”. Nevertheless, despite her condition, in the early days David and his family enjoyed many happy times cruising the Avon, Thunderchild being a regular sight making her way to a popular pub some 6 miles down stream, with an evening stopover and cruising back the following day. “I renamed her ‘Thunderchild’ after being on board during a storm with my daughter” David explains. “The name of course comes from the film, ‘Star Wars’, and seemed particularly appropriate.”
At approximately 35ft overall it is clear Thunderchild began her life as a tender for a Cruiser or Aircraft Carrier, the eyelets on the hull sides and stem post still being in evidence where the hawsers would have been attached for lifting her aboard. Originally, the helm position would have been in an open forward cockpit with a fully enclosed cabin behind incorporating bunks/seating facilities down either side and across the rear. However, in contrast to Miss Sian - whose twin Perkins engines were located in the open rear cockpit encased in timber weatherproof cases - Thunderchild’s engines were housed in a separate ‘engine room’ structure the engines themselves accessible through removable hatches. Like Miss Sian the rear cockpit was an open affair with, it is thought, a small canopy at the aft end with glass panels either side, which provided a degree of protection from the elements. ” There is a small brass plate affixed to her hull so I know she was built sometime during or before 1942 by boatbuilder Leo Robinson, whose yard was at Oulton Broads near Ipswich”, explained David. “During the war Robinson also built HDML 1396 (which later became ‘Pride of the Dart’) and HSL 340 – renamed ‘General Jenkins’ – both becoming leisure craft in their latter years. Coincidentally, Robinson also opened a yard on the Avon close to where Thunderchild is moored today. Unfortunately, though, I’ve been unable to find out any other information about him, his yard or the craft he built.”
By 1992 Thunderchild’s superstructure looked very different from her original design though her condition and poorly executed modifications presented few problems to David, a cabinet-maker with some 30 years experience in the trade. ”When I bought her a cabin had been built over the aft cockpit”, continues David. “It was made from chipboard and was completely waterlogged and collapsing. Most of the forward cabin was also quite rotten. So, the first few years were spent cleaning the bilges, painting, and replacing the wheelhouse and forward cabin. I also added a small galley and heads, with seating and berths for 4 people. The aft cockpit was rebuilt and left open, with removable covers to keep the weather out, with new seating and a drop-down table.”
But, despite all this hard work David was to suffer a major blow when Thunderchild sank on her moorings a few years back. She spent almost 2 weeks, three quarters under water, lying at an angle of about 30 degrees, while David decided how he could rescue her. In the event, some plywood, nails and two sump pumps were sufficient to raise her from her murky resting place. An hour after making a start Thunderchild was afloat again but everything aboard had been wrecked, including the engine. “I still don’t know why she sank”, recalls David ruefully. “There were no leaks that I could see”. So, it was back to cleaning (the bilges and most of the topsides were full of river mud) and stripping out. Then just before Christmas 2006 she sank again when the stern mooring line snagged a tree during rapidly rising floodwater. Luckily, the water soon subsided sufficiently for the plywood, nails and sump pump rescue process to play their part successfully for a second time.
It was at this stage that David began thinking seriously about restoring his fascinating ex-military craft to original specification. However, it was his lack of information that caused him to seek help and advice from the British Military Powerboat Trust. It is hoped that through the good offices of the knowledgeable Phil Simons – the Trust’s Honorary Historian – David will be able to see exactly how she looked during her service career. “Apart from the builders plate I’ve have had no luck in finding any numbers or identification anywhere”, bemoans David. “That said, I’ve become quite adept at restoration detective work as I’ve stripped her, things like bolts and rivets each telling their own story. The outer skin of the transom had been replaced with plywood before I bought her though both of the aft bulkheads are original and still in place. As is the access panel for the fuel tank, the space suggesting a tank capacity of around 50 gallons.”
But what of slipping to enable him to give Thunderchild a full hull overhaul and repaint? David says there is a dry dock near Evesham and he plans to hook a small outboard on to the transom, sufficient to give her steerageway and move her down stream. “The whole thing is going to be done on a shoestring budget”, admits David candidly. “The programme I’ve mapped out is to complete the hull and superstructure work this year. Then I’ll undertake the fitting out next year and install the engines the year after.” David plans on tracking down a pair of Perkins 6354 diesels, which should give her a good turn of speed. “Even now many people stop and show interest as they walk along the toe path”, concludes David with pride. “So when she’s finished she should attract more interest still.”
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In his spare time Graham Anderson is a volunteer crewmember with the Humber In-Shaw Rescue service. He is also the proud owner of Miss Sian, otherwise known in her working life as FMB 43129, a 35 foot Fast Motor Boat built by Osbournes of Littlehampton, West Sussex. Weighing some 3.5 tonnes she is built of Canadian Rock Elm with African Mahogany diagonal planking. Early versions of her class were fitted with twin petrol engines while later craft - including 43129 - had twin P6M Perkins diesels giving a her a maximum speed of 20 knots and 16-18 knots cruising capacity. Looking not too dissimilar above the waterline to the RAF's 41.5 Seaplane Tender with its single main cabin structure, originally 43129 would have had a centrally located cabin with two berths along both sides though, unlike the RAF version with it's enclosed helm position, the FMB had an open forward cockpit and centrally located wheel steering with only a screen for protection. Aft was a second small cabin housing a further twin berths. Access to the engines was achieved by lifting the hatches in the open rear cockpit. In all some 332 FMBs were built, of which British Power Boat Company built 36 while Osbournes assembled a further 30.
Among the original duties of boats of this type was to act as the Principal Power Boat on Southampton Class Cruisers as well as Barges for Flag Officers, Seaplane Tenders for Aircraft Carriers and as Picket Boats to supplement the 45ft versions on Capital ships. In fact, it was as the PPB for HMS Birmingham (a photograph taken of Birmingham shows an FMB alongside, almost certainly thought to be 43129) that she undertook much of her service with the Navy between 1945 and 1959.
Graham, a member of the Hull Bridge Boat Club, bought Miss Sian from a fellow Club owner though says that initially he was somewhat sceptical of buying an elderly wooden boat. Being a plastic fanatic, at the time he owned a 16ft Microplus with a 15hp Yamaha outboard, ideal for his trips up river, which is very much his kind of pleasure cruising. "We have all kinds of boats in the Club and we're lucky enough to have an old barge which we use as a dry dock so we can undertake the usual maintenance on the hull, which is ideal for wooden boats like mine." The fact that he can undertake this kind of work himself must have helped Graham in making the decision to buy the shapely ex-military craft though he admits to having painful memories of his first trial trip. While dealing with one of the warps as they let go to manoeuvre upriver Graham took off a finger end, which quickly curtailed the day's testing. Undeterred, however, and with finger end stitched back in place, he agreed to a second attempt, this time to fall for the charms of old wooden boats, and this one in particular. "We went for a 7 mile trip and that convinced me," recalls Graham. "It looked like a proper boat with cabins and twin screws while the incident with the finger has made me treat her with respect. Also, my wife likes her because she has wide decks either side of the cabins."
Now looking radically different from when she was in military service in the '80s a previous owner made major changes to the topsides, fitting a centrally located fully-enclosed cockpit and providing twin berths in each of two cabins with separate heads and kitchen facilities forward. In addition, over the years a lot of remedial repairs have also been made to the hull. Even so during his inspection Graham could see that it needed still more restoration since there were leaks around the chine lines and some of the front frames and ribs were in poor shape and needed replacing. In addition to changing out the rotten timber, since buying her in April 2004, Graham has raised the head height in the cabins (at 6' 3" tall he says he was fed up with banging his head) as well as re-skinning the hull entirely in 9mm marine ply and giving her a new coat of paint overall. As for future work he says he's got some work to do on a smoky P6 Perkins engine. "Could be the injectors or even the rings," he adds, though clearly, despite his early trepidation over timber craft he's very much been bitten by the bug.
"I have fishing in my family background," adds Graham, "which is perhaps why I like the water. As a member of the Humber Rescue squad we have over a hundred shouts a year so if I'm not working on the boat I'm probably out in the Humber Estuary. Our two main calls for help are over people who've jumped off the Bridge or craft with engine failures." Meanwhile, preferring river trips to the open sea during the summer he and his wife enjoy spending most weekends on board Miss Sian, as well as the challenge of maintaining such an unusual craft.
Wishing to find out more about the history of his fascinating craft Graham contacted the British Military Power Boat Trust and through the good offices of the knowledgeable Phil Simons - the Trust's Honorary Historian - he was able to gain a clearer insight into her background as well as obtain copies of construction drawings, which should prove invaluable for future maintenance work. "The fact that she was associated with HMS Birmingham makes it a bit special for me," he says with pride, adding that he'd like one day to restore a completely standard FMB. "That would certainly be an interesting project."
Article written by: Mike Taylor
Words for Business
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© Copyright Mike Taylor
For the use by The British Military Power Boat Trust for reproduction in 'Yardarm'