Curator Clare Hunt (picture) at The National Museum of the Royal Navy and her team are making good progress in preparing RML 497 for her future at the NMRN in Hartlepool. A conservation management plan will soon be unveiled, and in the meantime, much work is going on to support the construction of a new facility to display the Fairmile B Rescue Motor Launch – a rare survivor of the hundreds of warships like her that served in WWII in a wide range of roles, from gunboat to submarine chaser. In the new facility, 497’s full history will be told – along with the story of the Royal Navy, right up to the present day. Other ideas include a panorama of shipbuilding and engineering in the North-East – a world centre of ship construction during the industrial revolution, and beyond.
The “chummy ship” is a long-standing Royal Navy tradition- where two ships’ companies develop a special friendship. RML 497 is going to have the best possible chummy at The National Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool – because the museum is also home to HMS ‘Trincomalee’, a 19th century frigate built in Bombay by the Wadia family of shipwrights. Extraordinarily, ’Trincomalee’ still has 60% of her original timbers – because she was built from Malabar teak, a very strong wood with a high oil content, which has protected her for over 200 years. Now, she floats in her own dock – and it’s a thrill to go on board, feel her move with sea around her, and know that the deck you are treading on once resounded to the slap of sailors’ feet as they rushed to make sail!
… exactly what the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool has done for RML 497. Here in the car park a prefabricated shelter has been built for this greyhound of the seas. The aim now, over many months, is to let her settle and dry out, while planning continues on how best to display her to visitors. Dry out..? Well – she’s a wooden ship, and her hull has done half a century’s hard work, and her “double diagonal” construction (effectively two hulls with planking laid at opposing angles, separated by specially treated calico) though very strong, is prone to rot. Since these doughty ships were hardly expected to survive WWII, we are lucky still to have RML 497. So she deserves all the TLC that Curator Clare Hunt and the NMRN Hartlepool team are going to deliver.
Early on a sunny, windy morning, RML 497 inches her way towards her new berth at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool. A few hardy onlookers watch as she progresses gracefully up the road from Hartlepool Docks towards a special temporary facility, built to protect her from the wind and weather. It’s a slow but steady progress as the Fairmile – her graceful lines for all to see – moves along on the extraordinary ‘Self Propelled Modular Transporter’, carrying her without apparent effort in another totally new environment for 497 – a dual carriageway! The police escort, helping with traffic, seems a most appropriate honour for this WWII veteran. Walking backwards, constantly making fine adjustments, the SPMT operator shows all his skills, negotiating roundabouts and a hard turn to port onto the museum site. Safe home indeed!
OK… so it’s raining… and dark… and desolate, in a largely deserted Hartlepool dock area. But that’s not going to stop the National Museum of the Royal Navy and Robert Wynn & Sons from getting RML 497 onto terra firma. The 16 axle SPMT – Self Propelled Modular Transporter – controlled by a single operator with what looks like a PlayStation around his neck, is manoeuvred slowly underneath the cradle supporting the WWII veteran and then the Fairmile B is gently drawn onto the dockside, as the County Durham rain continues give us all a soaking! It’s a stirring sight to see this elegant vessel drift slowly onto the dockside, all the positioning pre-measured with minute care by Group Engineer Sally Weston – including with a tape measure. Computer measurements are just great, but seeing millimetre by millimetre is believing!
This amazing vehicle is a Self Propelled Modular Transporter (SPMT). It has SIXTEEN axles, so even though it’s a long old beast, it can turn within what would be impossible spaces for anything else less flexible. Its controller has a complex panel that he carries on a sling around his neck and shoulders, so he can “walk” the SPMT to its destination. It can go really low to get under whatever it needs to lift and shift, and that’s what it’s about to do here – slide under the cradle supporting RML 497 aboard her sea-going barge Terra Marique. Then the SPMT will extract the Fairmile B onto the dockside, for the last stage of her journey by road to the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool. All very straightforward – if you have the skills. They do.
Early one morning – but not quite as the sun was rising! – Tera Marique, Robert Wynn & Sons heavy lift barge slipped into Hartlepool harbour, bearing her precious cargo: RML 497, one of the last remaining Fairmile B motor launches surviving from the Second World War. It
was a landfall less dramatic than many the Rescue Motor Launch had made so often in her role rescuing downed airmen, and much less so than her service at D-Day – but the sense of relief that she’d completed a safe voyage up the East Coast was palpable. A quiet pride too as team leader Sally Weston (see earlier blog) welcomed her from the quayside. It had been a serious challenge to get such a fragile vessel safely to her new home – but Sally’s team had done it, right on time.
This was the scene as RML 497 left Southampton Docks in Terra Marique. It gives you an idea of the size of Robert Wynn and Sons’ lift and shift ship when you realize you can’t actually see any of the 34 metre length of RML 497 within Marique’s – except maybe the very tip of her funnel, if you look closely! The departure followed an anxious day or two, as scrupulous checking was completed to ensure the Fairmile B, WWII veteran and last largely intact survivor of her class, was safely berthed. And secure enough to take on the rigours of the North Sea on passage to the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool. On a brilliantly sunny day, the sight of Terra Marique forging ahead under tow was inspiring. A can-do ship with can-do people running her.
Rob is a TV producer, reporter and camera operator with 30 years’ experience at the BBC, Channel 4 and ITN, in news, factual and documentary production. He is a four times award winner, whose awards include a coveted Royal Television Society award for his work on Channel 4 News. His association with The Maritime Foundation goes back to 1995, when he won the first Desmond Wettern Maritime Media Award for a series of reports that led to a major documentary on the loss of the bulk carrier Derbyshire.