LIFE of a BOAT tells the history of a 90 year old lifesaving boat in a new book

W&S on acceptance trials in February 1931 by Beken of Cowes. Credit RNLI Archive
W&S on acceptance trials in February 1931 by Beken of Cowes. Credit RNLI Archive

The LIFE of a BOAT is a new book, or as author Graeme Ewens calls it, a ‘Nautobiography’, about a 90-year-old lifesaver comprising tales of shipwreck, heroic rescue, wartime tragedy and its later resurrection.

Ninety years ago, in February, 1931, the RNLI took charge of a new lifeboat, the W&S, which is still surviving after a heroic career and a longer period of retirement. The publication of its ‘nautobiography’ celebrates the boat’s history and will help finance its life support. A share of proceeds will also be donated to the Penlee Lifeboat Station.

The LIFE of a BOAT is the story of a remarkable boat that served the RNLI for 40 years before entering a new life as a pleasure cruiser. The 45ft 6ins Watson Cabin class boat W&S (ON736) was named after the benefactors Winifred Coode and Capt Sydney Webb. It spent its first three decades at Penlee in Cornwall, responding to more than 100 shouts, often in the most extreme weather and including harrowing wartime conditions, before it was replaced in 1960 by the ill-fated Solomon Browne.

It later spent a further 10 years in Scotland as part of the Reserve fleet, saving another six lives during its final service. One of the RNLI’s longest-serving lifeboats, it saved a total of 108 lives.

The hull at Harwich during third rebuild. Credit G.Ewens
The hull at Harwich during third rebuild. Credit G.Ewens

This diary of the vessel’s long life is written by maritime journalist Graeme Ewens in collaboration with Elaine Trethowan (Bawden), Press Officer at Penlee lifeboat, and the current owner, Essex lifeboat man Captain Rod Shaw MBE. Its 224 pages include more than 300 period and contemporary photographs and artworks. The story begins with profiles and nautical interests of Winifred and Sydney whose bequests funded the build of the boat, designed by the legendary firm of G.L. Watson Ltd, and built at the Cowes yard of J.Samuel White. Chapters establish the Cornish context in which it operated and
profile leading crew members — mostly fishermen from the village of Mousehole. This is social history, maritime history, lifeboat history, littoral history.

The LIFE of a BOAT details every single service, identifying the casualty vessels and people involved. Drawing on records of service, deck logs and contemporary news reports, the narrative is augmented and brought to life through the stories of crew members and survivors, including medal-winning Coxswains and recollections of the mechanic who lovingly looked after the boat for 29 years.

Memorable services to several dramatic shipwrecks included the medal-winning rescue of the crew from the battleship HMS Warspite, which went aground in Mount’s Bay in 1947. There were several wartime incidents involving U-boats, convoy attacks and missing aircraft, with tales of heroic seamanship and inevitable human tragedy.

In retirement the boat was converted to a long-range cruiser in Ireland, voyaging to the Mediterranean before eventually returning to Cornwall. After years of neglect it was rediscovered in a sad condition near Falmouth by retired sea captain Rod Shaw, who took the boat to Harwich on a prolonged labour of love to bring it back into use, realising that the superb quality of the hull would see it safely through into its next century. Rod Shaw’s own maritime history, from lobsterman to navigating officer of the world’s biggest ship and surveyor of the Royal barge, makes fascinating reading.

W&S on Penlee slipway courtsey Penlee Lifeboat
W&S on Penlee slipway courtsey Penlee Lifeboat

Captain Shaw has been immersed in the boat’s resurrection since 2013 and had managed to get her back up and running. Then, in September 2020, four young vandals boarded the boat, smashing windows, forcing open the wheelhouse, and leaving the vessel exposed to the elements. Sourcing replacement parts and materials under the lockdown conditions was difficult, but an insurance settlement was finally reached one week before the boat’s 90th birthday. As Capt Shaw says, “This is obviously an ongoing, long-term project and despite inevitable ups and downs, I am determined to maintain the W&S (ON736) fully functional and in a serviceable condition for whatever role awaits her. In the context of nine decades a few more years is a mere blip. The resurrection continues and I wish to thank everybody who has expressed interest and support for the project and hope to welcome you aboard when circumstances permit.”

The author, Graeme Ewens is a photojournalist, author and editor of magazines and non-fiction books, with a particular interest in maritime affairs. His works have been published and/or syndicated on five continents and in many languages. From 2008-2015 he published Harwich Ahoy! for the Harwich Lifeboat, and witnessed the arrival of the W&S, which he documented and helped to decaulk. He has owned several small commercial workboats and now lives in Falmouth.

He is a contributor to Maritime Journal and has been published in Lloyd’s List, Ships Monthly, Port of London News, International Tug & Salvage, Anglia Afloat, Classic Boat, Shipping News Clippings, as well as national dailies including The Guardian and regional papers such as the London Evening Standard, Western Morning News, West Briton and international publications.

This edition of The LIFE of a BOAT is limited to 1,000 copies and any proceeds, after the production costs, will be shared between the boat’s restoration and the Penlee lifeboat station.

The cover price of the thread-sewn paperback is £15.

The book extends to 224 pages, 240 x 170mm, Buku Press, 2021. ISBN 978-0-9523655-3-2

For sales and distribution enquiries please contact by email.

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