Project’s getting ship shape for epic trip

Clive Gray shows Morpeth Rotary members and guests around the new workshop in Blyth with some of the Tall Ship Project's trainees and mentors.
Clive Gray shows Morpeth Rotary members and guests around the new workshop in Blyth with some of the Tall Ship Project's trainees and mentors.

Morpeth Rotary Club

Morpeth Rotary invited Clive Gray, founder and Chief Executive of Blyth Tall Ship project, to talk, and followed this with a visit to the ship at Blyth South Harbour Quay.

Clive was an officer in the Royal Marines Special Boat Service. He is a Scout leader and licenced reader for the Church of England.

He wanted to bring hope and aspiration to young people in Blyth and change attitudes to the local community. The project is all about regeneration and helping the area to rediscover its links to the early exploration of Antarctica.

The plan is to refit a tall ship in Blyth as part of a training venture, and to repeat an epic voyage.

In 1819, Captain William Smith, of the brig Williams, was the first to discover land in Antarctica. Before then it was thought that there was only ice. He has an island and a cape named after him. He was born in Seaton Sluice in 1790 and had the brig built in Blyth.

There is a plan to repeat the original voyage in 2019, on the 200th anniversary, using a similar boat, the Danish ketch Haabet, which means ‘hope’.

It is a 100-year-old, 90 tonne ship, which took six days to bring back from Denmark last year with a crew mostly of engineers. It had not been sailed for ten years. Some 15,000 people lined the quay to see it come in. It has been renamed Williams II.

The deck caulking, canvas, rigging and Gardner marine diesel engine have to be renewed and an anchor chain layed. The project gained a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to cover the purchase and two-year refit. It had to come out of the water and have tonnes of planking replaced. Planking is 4ins thick and each takes four hours to steam into shape.

The plan is to repeat the journey in three legs. It will set off from Blyth in October 2019 to the Falklands. From there it will sail to Antarctica, where the crew will land, then it will return to Blyth via Mexico, Panama and the West Indies.

Crew will be selected in 2018. Members must spend a minimum of ten days training on a tall ship to qualify. The ship can be moved with a crew of four, but needs six to put the sails up. A normal crew would be 12-strong, but the project will take 22 for a round the UK sail before the main voyage.

It is the only tall ship based on the east coast and still needs one-and-a-half years of refit to get the coding for the trip.

The project is also developing a visitor attraction with a heritage centre, museum and fish restaurant.

It has three-and-a-half paid employees and 60 to 70 volunteers who train young people in sailing, boat building, ship repair and heritage woodworking. They are all ages, with three aged 75, 85 and 90.

A supporting project is to plan a Williams’ Gansy. They will research the design of clothing worn by merchant sailors at the time and all types of outdoor clothing will be tested on the expedition. Expert knitters will work on patterns and identify the wool and oils used. Around 100 will be made, with one for each of the crew. Clothing will be licenced globally in collaboration with Berghaus.

It was a great boost to the project that the Tall Ships event was happening all around it, with the Williams II acting as the host tall ship. The project will also help with a three-day Blyth Heritage Maritime Festival in July 2017.

There are places for 50 young people each year for training in welding, rigging, woodworking and marine engineering, which can be done at NVQ levels 1, 2 and 3. Each trainee has a mentor.

So far 30 per cent of trainees have gone on to work, and 40 per cent to further education and training.

Clive is an ocean going yacht master for the Arctic and Antarctic, and was a Royal Marine ship commander. He introduced the project on the Robson Green TV programme Further Tales from Northumberland.

The main workshop is in a 100-year-old, converted wooden riverside shed that had been condemned. It has uneven wooden floors, looks nautical and smells of ancient tarred timbers.

In the grounds is a pile of well-conditioned boat keel timber dredged up from boats sunk in the harbour. Other wood is from trees from near the Cheviots. Two-year-old larch and oak was being weathered ready for boat building and repair.

A new, purpose-built workshop, which cost £150,000, has been built nearby. The public has started to donate wooden boats to do up and sell.

In the first workshop they were rebuilding a wooden carvel, edge to edge plank constructed boat. Next to this were trainees repairing a clinker, overlapping planks made boat. Both are typical east coast designs with drop keels so they can work into coastal shallows. They will keep both in their classic collection.

In the new workshop they were working on a wooden boat that is to be hung on the stern of the Williams II as a tender, but they use a rubber tender boat on less formal occasions.

At the back of the workshop were sailing boats in for repair.

The star attraction was the 85ft long William II, built in 1914 for the Baltic trade, with rigging similar to the original Williams.

All 32 Rotary members and friends were allowed on board for a tour of the main deck to experience the swell of the River Blyth and to take in the grand view of Blyth harbour.

Rotarian Alan Clark thanked Clive for a wonderful talk and visit, and wished him and the project all success, with good wishes for the Antarctic voyage.