An airborne lifeboat on the Isle of Man

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Mk 1 Airborne lifeboat

Mk 1 Airborne lifeboat Mk 1 Airborne lifeboat Mk 1 Airborne lifeboat

Mk 1 Airborne lifeboat Mk 1 Airborne lifeboat

Martin Birchenough’s Mk 1 airborne lifeboat

I’ve posted about Uffa Fox’s fascinating airborne lifeboats several times now (see post 1, post 2, post 3, post 4, post 5). They had an amazing story in saving downed airmen’s lives during World War II, and after the war their lovely lines enabled them to be converted into sporty big sailing dinghies. Old Uffa could certainly draw a hull!

I’m delighted to be able to post some more photos, thanks to Martin Birchenough, who lives in the Isle of Man.

Here’s what he says:

‘My airborne lifeboat was one of four Mk1 boats that were based at Ronaldsway Airport in the Isle of Man during the Second World War.

‘It ended up in the grounds of a house at Castletown near Ronaldsway where it was damaged by cattle but was rescued by an elderly chap who patched it and then painted it with bitumen and moved it to his property in Kirk Michael where it lay for some years.

‘I had reason to visit him and saw the boat, spoke about it and he said he had been trying to find a home for it for some time but no one would take it on and I eventually took it on as a restoration project.

‘It was in pretty bad shape and after scrapping the bitumen off and repairing the holes the only way to save the hull which had become springy was to use West epoxy and clad it. I obtained plans from the RAF Museum at Hendon and had the dagger board and rudder fabricated locally and It is now solid but obviously not original.

‘I have added a fore deck and gunwales and had a rig designed by Jeckells and have made a mast. I sailed it with a bit of a jury rig prior to making the mast and it went like a scalded cat – it was so quick that it was in danger of sailing itself under water while close-hauled.

‘I am hoping to have it back in the water set up for the Peel Traditional Boat Weekend in July 2011.

‘Regards, Martin’

That’s fabulous thanks Martin. If you get some sailing photos sometime I’d love to see them please!


PS Do check out the Uffa Fox website – there’s a terrific film clip narrated by him that includes Drumbeat cracking along in a good breeze, and even a snatch of the old boy singing.

22 thoughts on “An airborne lifeboat on the Isle of Man”

  1. Beautiful! – You can definitely see the theme Uffa used later with his Jollyboat. I would love to sail one.

  2. Until recently I owned a Thistle racing dinghy and despite Sandy Douglas' claims to the contrary, it was an Uffa Fox hull.

    None better.

    This hull shape is so similar it's hard to imagine someone would claim otherwise.


  3. I came across a Jolly Boat for the first time only this summer on Barton Broad. She had smart crisp sails and looked great – if you're in the area, keep your eyes peeled and you might see it.

    I remember reading in one of Fox's books that he designed and built a still larger light-weight planing dinghy intended to be transported around the world by the Royal Yacht Britannia. Interestingly, I remember this boat had chines aft to improve its planing performance, which is a feature seen in a lot of later smaller planing dinghies. Can't remember which book it was in just at the moment…


  4. Morning Gav, A mate and I owned a Jolly boat in the early 70's. We succeded in pitchpoling it in a squall. Well we thought we had the legs to get behind the breakwater but……………. Lost the mast and rig but dived for it later on, but she was never the same after repairs. A Cherrub was my favourite boat, but the Jolly boat came a close second.

  5. Hi Gav, the boat you mention is the Fairy Fox and features in Uffa's book "Sailing Boats". What I also find interesting about this design is that Uffa made her gunter rigged to prevent, as he says, capsize when on a mooring!! It didn't seem to slow her down any as she often achieved speeds in excess of 17 knots.



  6. To come across a converted 23ft airborne in sailing condition,70 years after manufacture is outstanding and speaks volumes about the original design and designer Uffa Fox!

    I started racing sailboats in 1951 at the Phoenix Boat Club (RAF) on the Great Bitter lake (Canal Zone,Egypt). The main racing classes were Firefly and Snipes, but the club also owned two bermudan rigged Airbornes. P11 "Skean Dhu" was the fastest sailing boat on the

    lake and frequently proved it during the "large" miscellaneous class at the big yearly regattas run by the seven clubs around the 12 by 6mile lake. We sailed winter and summer, every afternoon, seven days a week! In two and a half years I went from novice to Rear Commodor! During that time it rained once for 25 mins! Two races were cancelled because of a Kamseen (40mph hot southerly wind).

    After returning to the UK I found another airborne at RAF Kinloss, which I sailed at Finhorn YC; This one was gunter rigged, but I was able to get the club to purchase a second hand bermudan rig. It was faster than the Findhorn One design boats; but a 18ft National could pass us on a spinaker leg (but only if he tried to leeward!). We did not own a spinaker!

    RAF Gibraltar had a fleet of about 12 converted Airbornes, gunter rigged, in which I sailed during the annual GIB v UK events.

    You havnt lived if you havnt planed a 23ft boat! Uffa Fox was a outstanding character and designer!

  7. I am about to commit heresy! My research reveals that Uffa Fox did NOT design the Airborne Lifeboat! Yes it came off one of his drawing boards in his office, and the concept was Uffa's, but we have many folk locally on the Isle of Wight (where the ABL was built and designed) who helped to build them and who are adamant that the design work was all done by Uffa's chief naval architect and life-long friend, W T (Bill) Waight who died in 1980. The only fully restored example in captivity is in our museum!

    Noel Stimson

    Curator, IOW Classic Boat Museum

  8. I think I understand where Noel Stimson is coming from. The Uffa Fox website states that he "conceived the idea" of the Airborne Lifeboat. Surely he did design the 1928 International 14ft dinghy Avenger?(which won over 50 races that year!) This was the beginning of the planing rear section on sailing boats. That same shape can be seen on the Mk1 and 1a Airborne. I would imagine that W. T. Waight was not so vocal as Uffa who was not slow in coming forward!

    Your Mk1a is a sight to behold, others can be seen at the Wroxham museum, also the Norfolk and Suffolk at Flixham.

    Peter Oakley (Airborne Lifeboat fan)

  9. Peter Oakley hits the nail on the head; the ALB was Uffa's concept, and Bill brought it to life. Although even the original idea was not Uffa's. It came from the Dep. Dir. of A/SR Grp Capt Waring in 1941. His assistant Lt Robb RNVR approached Uffa with the idea at a sailing function in Cowes, and Uffa took it from there. Checkout Stephen Brewster Daniel's book "Rescue from the Skies".

    I had a long talk with Bill Waight's daughter (nearly 80 now) and she confirms that her father did all the design work, including the lines, for the ALB, Avenger and Wishbone. I was amazed! Bill's shyness and reticence did not get him any real recognition. Shame. he was a brilliant naval architect.

    Noel Stimson

  10. Fairey Fox was modified with a bowsprit and masthead gennaker and several trapezes, and sailed at Chichester Harbour Federation Week about ten years ago. Very cool! I don't know wether seh still exists, as i haven't bene to Fed Week for a number of years – old age and wifely caution combine to discourage me!

  11. I just stumbled across this site, and am interested in the history of this boat. My uncle Bob ( Robert Armstrong.) was in the royal airforce until the early 1960s. He was stationed at Ramsey on the IOM then later at Pembroke Dock in wales. He bought converted and raced at least 3 of these ABL's which all had the word star in the name , e.g. Starfire, Shooting star etc.,he finished his sailing career in Plymouth sailing an Albacore Dinghy.

    Brian Evans.

  12. It is great to hear all this talk of airbornes. I recall St. Andrews sailing club having 4 converted airbornes. They were quite a sight moored abreast in the old harbour butI only recall ever seeing two sailing at the same time. Three were open boats and the fourth had a cabin. They were named the Wanderer, Conqueror, Borderer and Sorceror. Alas there are none now. The Wanderer is in a maritime museum in Irvine, Ayrshire. The Conqueror (renamed ZULU) capsized and was lost. It was, however, recovered from a beach, in sorry state and with a broken back. It was transported to Orkney and resides in the Scapa Flow Museum. I understand that the other two rotted and were cut up. I sailed many times on the Wanderer and was on board the ZULU when it capsized. It had a plywood dagger board which sheared off preventing windward progress. We drifted and ended up being capsized by a breaking wave and were airlifted to hospital courtesy of a big yellow Wessex helicopter belonging to 22 Squadron, RAF. Dramatic stuff.
    I loved the look of the Isle of Man Boat. From one of the above posts it would seem to have been for sale/sold. Does anyone know what has become of it now? Is it still sailing?

  13. Just tripped over this site,we had six at RAF Changing in 1951 I have pictures somewhere.
    I could look them out if anyone interested,went like a bat out of hell
    We sailed them whith a crew of five

  14. I’ve just come across this ABL blog. I remember, as a late teenager in the 50s, a member of West Kirby Sailing Club (I’m not sure, but I think it was Dick Uren) turned up with one of these creatures. I don’t think it had been converted at the time because I seem to remember it had quite a small rig. My father was ex-RAF, Lulsgate Bottom M.U., and he told me about them how they were dropped from Sunderlands, Catalinas and such like. I don’t know what this one was like to sail, but it generated a lot of interest, especially amongst us kids.

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