The Norfolk racing launch story completed

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Original Norfolk racing launch

The original early 20th century Norfolk racing launch – clearly showing lines that are not  fully developed for planing

Readers may remember the intriguingly incomplete story of a Norfolk racing launch spotted at Reedham some time ago. Keith Johnston takes up an entertaining and interesting story:

I was delighted to receive an e-mail from intheboatshed.net’s editor, in which he passed on an e-mail from Melanie Farrar giving a different history of the Rocinante. Very soon after that we received a couple of fascinating emails from Mike Barnes, the owner of the second hull made moulded using the original early 20th century boat mentioned in the post linked above, and then later again I had a telephone call from Rocinante’s builder himself, Richard Farrar.

With all is separate threads drawn together, the collective story is as follows:

First Melanie Farrar’s reply:

‘Rocinante is owned and was built in its entirety by my father Richard Farrar. The original hull was indeed once owned by Stephen Sanderson but was passed to my father upon the sale of the property where it was stored. Unfortunately, any restoration work which had taken place had deteriorated greatly. In any case, my father’s intentions had always been to take a fibreglass mould from the hull. This he did himself at his home just outside Cambridge. Two mouldings were laid up, one of which, as you rightly said, was passed to a friend (the new owner of the property whence she came). He then proceeded to fit a small diesel engine and to complete all the bright work etc in Rocinante himself. My parents have enjoyed taking her on a voyage down the Soane and across the Etang du Thau into the Canal de Midi in France. We are very proud of my father’s achievements in building Rocinante on which we have had many many hours of pleasure. I just wanted to set the record straight.’

Now to the reply from Mike Barnes the owner of the second launch moulded from the 1903 original.

‘Further to Mel Farrar’s response above; I am the owner of the “other” boat, which is called Hazard, and I confirm that her account is pretty much the way it occurred. I was privileged enough to be able to buy Holly Farm from Colin Sanderson and family when they moved in 1995. The original launch was left in the garden when they went, and so its remains became mine. It had indeed been rescued by Steve Sanderson from the river bank at Yarmouth where it would surely have soon ended its days. It had not however been subject to any works thereafter and if there was an engine with it then, it had quite literally fallen through the bottom and disappeared by the time we found it. My company has restored many wooden boats a lot older than this, so I can say with confidence that it was beyond repair with one caveat – had we been able to find any provenance, there might have been some reason to retrieve it but as with so many old launches like this, they spent very little time in their original use and ownership, and very many years as day hire craft during which much of the original boat’s details were lost.

Dick Farrar approached me with a proposal that he should take the remains and would try to repair and reinforce it to a fair enough shape to be able to take a mould off it. If he was successful, I would get use of the tool for one moulding and if he was unsuccessful, well he would save me the trouble of disposing of the wreck. Dick made a fantastic job of saving the hull shape and fairing the remains, and I was very pleased to take a very clean moulding out of the tool.

Dick completed his boat first, very much like a slipper launch in layout, with the engine up front under the foredeck and one large cockpit with Lloyd Loom chairs. At Dick’s suggestion (I suspect to preserve the uniqueness of his own boat!), I went a different route, with the engine mounted dead amidships under deck hatches and with two small cockpits, one in front and one behind the engine. The engine is a Chevrolet 6.5 litre V8 diesel that  “pushes it along nicely”. All construction was done in my workshops at home (where the original boat was), between myself, Alan Lee and Maynard Watson.

Aside from the hull, all construction is teak, selected by me in India and being mostly the off cuts and scraps from the restoration of the Wherry Ardea that my company was performing at the same time. Many people have complimented me on the finished article but to save anyone asking, Dick Farrar has never given permission for any further copies and I doubt he ever will!

Regards, Mike Barnes, managing director Norfolk Broads Yachting Co.’

So that is the basic story of these two beautiful replicas. However, following a couple of supplementary questions from Gavin Mike came back with more information as follows:-

‘On the measured mile, Hazard was timed at a relatively sedate 25 knots. It would obviously be even quicker with a lighter engine of similar output, but actually I like the way it feels – which is substantial! These boats were originally built at a time when planing hull design was in its infancy (the thinking then was narrow and long was equal to fast) and the hull form is too narrow really to be a proper planing hull – it is more semi-displacement – but it does get up and go although being so long, it has a big turning circle. I also have a wooden 1950s Chris-Craft Continental, which planes easily and is much faster with the same engine, as it is much wider in the beam and flat aft so planes cleanly, it also turns on a dime such was the way hull design moved on between the wars.

We did do some further research on the boat after the replica Hazard project got under way and although we certainly never found any inkling of who might have been the builder or even the date of build or first owner (in fact not an iota of solid information from before Steve finding it), we did date it according to contemporary hull development and similar racing craft, to a probable build date of around 1910. It is possible that the boat could be one of a clutch of local boats built for Howard Hollingsworth, who also much later commissioned Ardea, but before the first war was a launch racing enthusiast.

He raced here in Norfolk and in Monaco (he had that sort of money) and I have a picture of him sitting squarely in a large overcoat driving a very similar looking launch at speed.

The critical thing to recognise with dating hulls from this era, is that both hull design and available engine output were of a similar level of development before the first world war and planing hull design only really developed when available engine output increased to a level where planing became feasible. A Brooke Marine engine of the time would have been of heavy cast iron and brass construction, and would have struggled to put out 30hp for launch of this size, whereas the first war prompted development in aviation engines that within the next five years saw engines built lighter in aluminium and out puts increase by a factor of 10.

This was why launch racing was transformed the moment the war was over, as there was a huge surplus of otherwise worthless aero engines that innovative builders snapped up and used to build racing boats around them. Then you had Malcolm Campbell and others vying for new world records seemingly in successive weeks and the rest is history. The boats from before the war, such that they were, were rendered obsolete overnight and thus consigned to the ignominy of being used as hired day boats, if in fact they weren’t simply destroyed, which is why so little is known of them now.

Many years ago, myself and colleague Steve Evans worked on a very old speed boat called The Bat Boat, which dated from 1912. It was a preserved example of an experimental hull design and was actually one of the very first stepped-hull hydroplanes to come into existence, and powered by a vast 12-litre V8 aero engine. The reason for the step was to enhance the performance of the floats on early sea planes, as the step in the hull promoted aeration of the water flowing underneath, which in turn promoted planing at a lower speed. These two areas of development ie flying boat float and fast hull design thus had much in common from a very early stage and knowledge of that development enables us to tie down the hull age pretty closely of the original boat.

Regards, Mike Barnes, managing director Norfolk Broads Yachting Co.’

‘Following these emails I then had a telephone call from Dick Farrar himself. He really is an interesting chap and spoke at length to confirm all the above information and to add that he also built the Bermudan sloop that can be seen moored on the inside mooring in the picture of Rocinante in the original article.

Dick summed himself up by saying that the name Rocinante says a lot about himself. The launch is named after Don Quixote’s horse, which carried him through a life of jousting with windmills. A lot of us get a great deal of satisfaction from following our dreams and can wholeheartedly empathise with Dick. Very many thanks to Melanie Farrar, Richard Farrar and Mike Barnes for telling us this great story.’

I’d like to add my thanks to Keith, Mike, and Melanie and Colin Farrar for taking the time to tell us the stories of their beautiful boats, one with a (to me) huge engine and the other so well travelled. Dear readers, if you see them passing by, remember their stories and give them a wave!

Mike Barnes' Hazard launch

Mike Barnes photos of his boat Hazard

3 thoughts on “The Norfolk racing launch story completed”

  1. Boy! That is one handsome boat. It looks like it's going fast out of the water. Thanks for the pix and the whole story.

    Jeff

  2. Facinating, we are now corrected in our assumption that she was a Thames slipper as we passed her many times at Reedham, steaming in SL Banjo. I came accross this artical while researching the start of motor boat racing at Oulton Broad. The first race in 1903 was between steam launches, but the complete fleet does not appear listed. Banjo belonged to Russel Colman at the time and based at Oulton Broad, and RNSYC. A prime candidate I would have thought but who knows? Phil.

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