Why I bought the Vigilant in Topsham
IT is all very well dragging an ailing vessel around the south coast and depositing it in Topsham, the question is why?
There have not been many days when a small crowd has not gathered to watch, and sometime lend a hand, to the remarkable project being undertaken in the town's quay.
And Benjamin Squirrell and boat builder David McCabe admit there is more than a touch of madness to their efforts to bring a piece of Britain's maritime history back to life.
The Vigilant, a Thames sailing barge which is on the Historic Ships Register, was built in 1904 and was once used for transporting cargo and racing. She had spent the past 20 years in a period of neglect and was rotting in an Essex boatyard.
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Benjamin said: "She was sinking into the mud and permanent retirement. But this is a piece of our country's heritage and, as no one else was going to do it, I decided to buy it and see if I could bring back its former glory."
A task which is easier said than done, but Benjamin says he and David have "already achieved the impossible" by using dwindling resources to rebuild the bow and stern, and fitting a new engine to power her away from Essex down the English Channel to Topsham.
He said: "David is probably the only person as mad as me to want to take something like this on, and we would only have seen it as a missed opportunity if I hadn't bought it.
"We both thrive on proving people wrong, and so far we are ahead – the cognoscenti said she would never go to sea. Well, she did. The same wise men said she would never sail again. So far we have managed to track down the sails which have sat in a sail locker for 18 years, and at the moment we are rebuilding the ribs so the boat will have the structural strength to sail again. Vigilant was built as a racing barge and that's what she deserves to be again."
They are appealing for volunteers to join their efforts.
"We are very grateful to Exeter City Council for accommodating us," said Benjamin, "So many residents and visitors have said it is the best thing to happen to Topsham in years.
"It has brought a vast number of people down to the quay which has benefited local businesses. A number of the community have actually volunteered to help with the rebuild and still more have contacted me to voice their support for the project. Relatives of the family who commissioned the barge and sailed her have been in contact, and a captain who used to sail her in the 1970s has offered to teach us."
Despite being flat-bottomed bath tubs, these boats were capable of travelling across the channel and over to Ireland with payloads exceeding 120 tonnes.
As well as being workhorses they were fast and were frequently sailed with just two crew. It is hoped the project will take about 18 months.