Llys Helig is a little ship with an extraordinary story. As she nears her 100th year, she is about to embark on a new life. In her time she has been the pride of a city, entertained the rich and famous, has had at least three names, has been modernised and chopped, has been sunk and practically abandoned. Along the way she was a pirate HQ. What will the next 100 years bring?
1922 – Our story starts on a rainy day in Southampton in 1922. The staff at the Woolston Shipyard of John L Thornycroft were expecting a very special visitor. William Ernest Corlett, a wealthy solicitor and property owner from Liverpool, had commissioned a motor yacht and would be arriving to inspect the boat. The twin screw vessel had been designed following the template of some of the fastest patrol boats of the Great War, and was one of the few projects in the yard at the time.
The boat was to incorporate the latest technology with an exceptionally strong riveted steel hull, for the first time with experimental electric welding along many of the vital joints including on the engine blocks. With sleek lines designed to cope with the heaviest seas, 360 horsepower engines and large fuel tanks, this boat was no weekend runabout. She would make 15 knots and was in effect a fully operational transatlantic liner squeezed into 107 feet of length and 18 ft beam.
Now she was nearly ready to launch, and had been scrubbed ready for the visit of the new owner. So it was with horror that the yard manager discovered a scruffy looking mechanic wandering around the boat in a pair of dirty overalls. He ordered the man off the boat, and gave him both barrels: how dare he go on board on such an important day. What would Mr Corlett say if he turned up to see someone running grimy fingers over his new yacht? His anger quickly turned to embarrassment when the “mechanic” simply smiled off his tirade. The man in the scruffy work clothes was in fact William Corlett himself who had turned up much earlier than inspected and couldn’t help himself but put on his work clothes and scramble into the engine room to have a proper look at his new purchase.
1922-1962 – For forty years, Llys Helig spent most of her time moored in Wales. Corlett had been to school in Conway and was a keen climber around the north Wales hills. Corlett was more than an amateur climber – for a time he had held the Matterhorn record and he was a huge contributor to projects to help young climbers. He named the boat “Llys Helig” after a Welsh myth. The story goes that the rich and powerful Prince Helig ap Glanawg had a palace constructed high on the welsh cliffs near Penmaenmawr, the most magnificent Wales had ever seen. One night in a storm the whole place collapsed and sunk beneath the waves. Legend has it that the bells of the palace could still be heard ringing out from under the sea centuries later. It was perhaps an unfortunate and prophetic name for the boat.
Unfortunately, Llys Helig would never make the transatlantic crossings she was built for. Corlett had become Chairman of Higson’s Brewery in Liverpool just after the end of the War and he had apparently little time to take the boat on long trips. He moored her in Conway (Conwy) harbour, near his old school, where she was the largest boat and drew many admiring glances over the years.
Immaculately maintained, she was run out for trips in the Irish sea, and to the family’s summer home in Scotland. In modern times she would have almost certainly been chartered or loaned to friends and would have put many sea miles in the Mediterranean and Caribbean under her belt. But William kept her in good order, even if he did not use her that often. One of the interesting results of her long stay in Conway is that she was much remembered by locals and holiday-goers, and appears in the background of dozens of postcards of the Conway harbour and estuary.
The current owner’s grandparents would have seen the motor yacht on their many family trips to north Wales.
Corlett died in 1960 and the boat passed out of the ownership of the family in 1962.
1962-1980– There are some gaps in the history of the boat during the 1960s and 1970s but this is what we (and others) have pieced together.
In 1962 she was acquired by engineers George Galliers-Pratt and his son Anthony. They were the owners of the Pratt engineering company, originally founded in Yorkshire, which was one of the UK’s largest machine tools businesses. Tony was a keen sailor, as well as an amateur racing driver, with houses in the Solent, and later in Monaco and Mallorca. But he had just bought the Baroque masterpiece Mawley Hall in Shropshire, which needed extensive restoration and became his life’s passion. So they only owned Llys Helig for three years.
In 1965 she was sold to G.H Bainbridge of Whippingham, Isle of Wight.
At some point in the 1960s work was carried out to “modernise” the boat. Her tall yellow funnel was cut down, as were her two masts, and the top deck was built up to provide additional outdoor space. Her original 4 cylinder diesel engines had been replaced with 5 cylinder Gardners in 1929 and in 1961 these were updated with more modern 8 cylinder Glennifer units.
At the height of the swinging sixties, Llys Helig found her way to the Mediterranean. In 1967 she had been renamed “Siskebab III” and was owned by the Pedro Marine Corporation, and by 1971 by John F. Bennison, of Cannes. By 1973 she was called “Les Autres” owned by Petonyer Air Navigation Ltd, London and by 1976 was owned by B.W Ashmore of Yeovil.
She came to Burnham on Crouch under the ownership of Peter Moore, who ran the famous Radio Caroline pirate radio station, and she became the station’s floating HQ. She was again much altered, with her elegant torpedo stern cut off and her bow changed from the 1920s style almost vertical to a more raked and modern look. Her main deck had been extended forward and a new enclosed top deck added to provide more living accommodation. But she retained most of her sleek lines.
During Peter Moore’s ownership she sank in her moorings in Burnham – she was never intended to sit on her narrow keel in the shallow water and mud of the Crouch estuary and years of modernisation and additions had made her top heavy. But Peter was able to refloat her quickly with the help of friends. He eventually sold her to a local couple who made her their main home.
2017 – Having been a houseboat for many years, she finally rolled over onto her starboard side in March 2017 where she would lie for three years. There are a few theories as to why she finally capsized. She already had a number of patches filled with various things – concrete, wood, foam, fibreglass and metal. So she leaked, and needed constant pumping to stay afloat. She was top heavy with – among other additions- a brick fireplace built into her funnel on the top deck – and a heavy metal mast. She might have simply filled with river water, or there may have been a leak in the fresh water pipes serving the kitchen and bathroom on board. The pumps may have failed or the electricity serving the boat might have been cut off by a storm. She might have drifted to the edge of the hollow she had made in her berth and simply fallen over when the tide went out. Whatever the cause, local people remember the ominous creaking and sighing as she slowly fell over and began to fill with water one night.
The previous owner found it impossible to right her, so late in 2017 he listed her on the auction site eBay as a “steel houseboat project”.
In the meantime, lack of progress on the boat was causing concern at the local council and a fear that local taxpayers might have to foot the bill for the boat to be broken up and removed. She became quite well known to locals as “The Burnham Titanic” or “Smalltanic” and to local children as the “fally-down boat”.
That’s where the current owner comes in. Howard Dawber picks up the story:
I BOUGHT A SUNKEN SHIP ON EBAY
“I had been looking at boats having always had an interest. I wanted to know what was the biggest one that could be bought for not much money. So searching for length versus price delivered a whole load of dutch barges, narrow boats and then this came up. “Steel Houseboat Project”. That word “project” was perhaps the understatement of the century. It was certainly big – and a huge challenge, But something about the lines of the boat struck me. There was a real little ship under there, somewhere – not just a modern plastic tub.”
“But it would be crazy to spend thousands on buying a sunk boat, so I didn’t bid for it. And it sold. So I forgot all about it.”
“Then a few weeks later the same listing was back on eBay. The purchaser had decided not to go ahead – put off maybe by the scale of the challenge. So this time I had a deeper look and did some research.”
“What I discovered was the story of the Llys Helig – a 1922 Gentleman’s Yacht built by Thornycroft and in her day a very beautiful vessel. A boat that like should never be in danger of rusting away on her side in the Essex mud. So now I was interested. It may have also been a late night after a few drinks. Emotion got the better of me so I put in a bid. This time it was actually heart-breaking that I was outbid and yet again the boat sold to someone else.”
“But this time, I felt that I had made a huge mistake. I should have bid more, I had let her get away. For days I could not get the boat out of my head. It just seemed like it was somehow destiny that she would end up with me, and something was wrong. So after a couple of weeks I contacted the owner and asked if she had indeed been sold, or had the sale fallen through again?”
“To my surprise, the second purchaser had also failed to come up with the money, and even a third interested party had come in and not been able to follow through. So I went straight to Burnham, met the owner in the Cabin Dairy cafe next to the boat, and bought her. In true Llys Helig style, the date was Friday 13th.”
“Then all I had to do was explain this patently ridiculous purchase to my other half, who thankfully wasn’t too angry – or surprised.”
However acquiring the ship was the easy part. What then started was a bureaucratic nightmare lasting two years to get the relevant permissions to raise the ship.
There are good laws covering salvage at sea. If a ship is a danger to others, or in imminent danger of sinking, salvage teams are allowed to rescue it immediately with not much limitation on what they can do.
Llys Helig on the other hand, despite having capsized, was still safely tied up in her river mooring. She wasn’t going anywhere and wasn’t likely to pose any imminent danger to anything else. She might have sunk, but she could not be classified as a wreck. So her salvage would have to be done under local rules.
Permission for any major works would have to be sought from Maldon District Council, the local planning authority and the owners of the berth, as well as Crouch Harbour Authority, who control the river. The Maritime Management Organisation would need to go through the methodology of the salvage and because the Crouch is a protected natural site, the Environment Agency would also have to give permission. Each of these required several weeks or even months notice and preparation, along with a fee.
There was then the logistical challenge of how to get her the right way up. The previous owner had discovered that righting her would be an expensive task. If she’d been rescued immediately, before filled with mud, it might have been a relatively simple job. After nearly a year under , the combination of heavy mud, a huge boat and shallow water was a real challenge. There wasn’t enough water to simply use airbags to lift her. She was too top heavy, and within a few weeks had filled with tons of mud. There was no safe place to bring a crane capable of lifting a 100 ton boat with perhaps another 50 tons of mud and debris inside. There are only a few cranes with that capability anyway, and they are prohibitively expensive to hire.
Howard was quoted £200,000 for a floating crane plus another £50,000 for a barge to remove her. A friend said that a floating drydock company was prepared to do a special deal to carry out the lift – when their quote came in it was a snip at just over £1.5 million. So costs were going to be a real concern here, especially as there was no way of telling the condition of the starboard side of the boat after so much time underwater – it was quite possible that the boat might split or break up. So the question of how much money to risk into a salvage operation versus the eventual value (if any) of the boat was pretty finely balanced.
Nigel (Noddy) Cardy, a local contractor recommended by the Council and Harbour Authority came up with the ingenious plan of drilling piles into the ground next to the boat and pulling her back upright using chains attached to the piles. Air bags and counterweights would be used to help.
It was on this basis that the applications were made – including planning permission for putting in the piles. It took nearly two years to get all the permissions in place. Carol Reid, a specialist consultant on marine licensing, worked for many months on the paperwork and finally everything was lined up.
But in early 2020 as preparations were being made to raise the boat, disaster struck. She had capsized further over and now her starboard side was underneath the mud. The piles and chains solution wasn’t now going to work after all. Noddy went back to the drawing board and for a time, all looked lost . . . . but the ship wasn’t ready to give up.
Howard says: “We had been calling round looking for a new location to keep the boat and one of the places we had contacted was Essex Marina on the other side of the river. Marina owner Nick Barke wanted to know how the boat would be raised and if he could help.”
Nick Barke and his family’s company Boats Limited (Boats.co.uk) had recently completed the salvage and restoration of a beautiful Oyster 825 sailing yacht and had put together a team with salvage experience and equipment.
Nick came to inspect the boat and came up with a different solution for raising her out of the mud. His plan was first to remove the mud from inside the boat, using high pressure water hoses to soften it. Then the boat would be patched up to make it watertight as far as possible. Heavy duty airbags would be attached to the starboard side, and pumps would fight the incoming tide to give the boat enough buoyancy to right herself.
With some of the licences due to expire at the end of July 2020, the race was on. Nick brought a team of 8 to scramble inside Llys Helig and start work. With advice from Noddy and Peter Moore the previous owner, they patched the hull and got her ready to swing upright.
According to Nick, where patches had to be attached to the original hull, the metal was so strong it destroyed two tungsten carbide drill bits. It was only the later additions which had failed – the original boat was as tough as anything.
On Monday 20 July 2020 the owner Howard was there to see the first lift attempt, along with a large crowd of Burnham on Crouch onlookers and the local TV and Radio news. Llys Helig shifted a little but the incoming water proved too powerful to hold back. One of the patches had failed due to water pressure during the night, and too much of the Crouch was coming in.
The following day an even larger crowd including Peter Moore the former owner was there to see her finally rise majestically from the water and settle back into her mooring space. Her journey back had begun.