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Donegal Boat with Wartime "Mystery History" is Restored in Southwest Wales

11th May 2021
1938-vintage Blue Hills newly afloat in Milford Haven, with owner-restorer Robbie Mason in thoughtful mood on the foredeck
"A sailing man's motor-cruiser" – the 1938-vintage Blue Hills newly afloat in Milford Haven, with owner-restorer Robbie Mason in thoughtful mood on the foredeck Credit: Andy Whitcher

Veteran skipper Rob Mason, from Milford Haven in southwest Wales, made a dramatic impact on the Irish sailing scene in 2017, when he turned up at the Volvo Dun Laoghaire Regatta during its special year of the Kingstown Bicentenary, sailing his drop-dead gorgeous 37ft cutter Myfanwy which was designed in 1897 by one of the connoisseurs' favourite naval architects, Alexander Richardson of Liverpool.

Rob – a former tugboat skipper on those massively powerful vessels you see at Milford Haven - had restored Myfanwy in a four-year project by his own efforts from a state of virtual dereliction, transforming her into a classic among classics. And she didn't just look good. She sailed like a witch, and at regatta's end, she made the passage back to Milford Haven with the regatta's special Bicentenary Trophy for the event's star boat stowed safely below.

The Star of the VDLR Bicentenary Regatta in Dublin Bay in 2017 – Rob Mason's own-restored 1897-vintage Myfanwy from Milford Haven. Photo: Afloat.ie/David O'Brien   The Star of the VDLR Bicentenary Regatta in Dublin Bay in 2017 – Rob Mason's own-restored 1897-vintage Myfanwy from Milford Haven. Photo: Afloat.ie/David O'Brien

Mysfanwys successful crew in 2017 were (left to right), Max Mason (Rob's son), Gus Stott, Andy Whitcher, and Rob Mason. Photo: W M Nixon   Mysfanwys successful crew in 2017 were (left to right), Max Mason (Rob's son), Gus Stott, Andy Whitcher, and Rob Mason. Photo: W M Nixon 

Soon afterwards, Myfanwy was snapped up by an international buyer to join the highly-developed Classics scene in the Mediterranean, for the ever-active Rob already had another project in mind. He'd got to hear of an interesting vintage motor cruiser of classic Scottish fishing boat style but now in a tired state, berthed in the drying river port of Hayle on the north coast of Cornwall.

Regular longtime readers of Afloat will know something of how this attractive and historically interesting vessel Blue Hills has come to spend some time in a refit and restoration berth right outside Rob's house on the shores of Milford Haven.

The 42ft-boat was originally built in 1937-38 by for Commander Frank Gilliland of Derry, who'd previously owned attractive sailing cruisers. But with advancing years, he sought "the kind of able fishing boat style motor-cruiser that would be suited to a sailing man", and he made a significant personal input into the design of Blue Hills, which was built by Weatherhead & Son at Cockenzie on the Firth of Forth on Scotland's East Coast.

Blue Hills moored in Mulroy Bay in Donegal in 1938   Blue Hills moored in Mulroy Bay in Donegal in 1938  

But although Donegal was where Blue Hills spent some of the summer of 1938, by 1939 she'd been commandeered by the Royal Navy as having potential for Special Forces use in the North Sea between Scotland and Norway after the latter had been occupied by the Nazis, smuggling underground agents who could be hidden in specially-constructed secret bunks for the sea passage.

There is still some evidence of these secret compartments in Blue Hills, though whether she played a significant role in the "Shetland Bus" operation away in the far north is still unclear. Be that as it may, over the years after the war, she became known as a boat with a mysterious past. But Robbie Mason's interest in her was exactly the same as Frank Gilliland – he wanted a motor-cruiser in which a sailing man could feel at comfortable.

Getting her home to Milford Haven from the far end of Cornwall was quite an effort on the limits of the road trailing with the vehicles available, but a mid-winter attempt on a direct sea crossing of the Bristol Channel was not a sensible proposition, a viewpoint which has been fully borne out by the amount of work which has had to be done to restore the hull and equipment to full seaworthiness.

The tides of Milford Haven are big, but only a few are big enough to carry a boat the size of Blue Hills within hauling distance of Rob's handy fit-out berth at his waterside house. The right tide was expected in March 2018, so with the boat re-launched at Pembroke Dock, all was set up, and it went well, albeit in freezing conditions with snow still in the ground.

March 2018 – after road trailing from Cornwall, Blue Hills is briefly afloat again in Milford Haven, waiting for the last push of a "super-tide" to be heaved into Rob Mason's fitting-out berth. Photo: Andy WhitcherMarch 2018 – after road trailing from Cornwall, Blue Hills is briefly afloat again in Milford Haven, waiting for the last push of a "super-tide" to be heaved into Rob Mason's fitting-out berth. Photo: Andy Whitcher

Made it! After windlassing and man-handling Blue Hills into the fitting out berth at the top of the super-tide, getting her upright was a doddle. Photo: Andy Whitcher   Made it! After windlassing and man-handling Blue Hills into the fitting out berth at the top of the super-tide, getting her upright was a doddle. Photo: Andy Whitcher  

Secure in the berth, Blue Hills was brought upright, and Rob has been busy ever since with a massive work programme which had reached the stage of thinking of re-launching after exactly three dedicated years, with any jobs still remaining coming within the "Work Afloat" remit.

In Spring 2021, the magic super-tide was beckoning. It duly arrived in ultra-cold weather yet again, and Blue Hills was persuaded along the short ways into deeper water and back to being a living creature once more. She's a unique and handsome ship, and in due course we'll doubtless see her gracing Irish waters.

Published in Historic Boats
WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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