Charles Henry Ashley really is a G.L. Watson for the Weekend – you can sail and row in her… or should it be row and sail…
“To a reader today, it may seem strange that men would elect to use oars as the motive power in a lifeboat that they would take to sea in the most testing conditions. But the crews were local fishermen who might well have used sail to take them out to the fishing grounds, but who recognised from long experience the power and precision that rowing offered in a boat of 40ft or less. Generally speaking, on those parts of the coast where there were many sandbanks and shallow water, the men tended to favour oars because it gave them very close control over their craft. The last pulling lifeboat did not leave service until about 1948.”
(Martin Black, G.L. Watson – The Art and Science of Yacht Design)
The pulling and sailing lifeboat Charles Henry Ashley, fully restored and operated by Clwb Cychod Cemaes/ Cemaes Boat Club on the north coast of Anglesey, North Wales, is a remarkable survivor from the days when man and sail power were still preferred by the majority of the crews of smaller lifeboats of Britain and Ireland over the fledgling internal combustion engine.
Built in 1907 by Thames Ironworks at Bow Creek to G.L. Watson’s 38ft non self-righting* design, she cost £1090, and remained (very patiently… launched in anger only seven times) on station until 1932 at her precarious and exposed looking eyrie at nearby Porth yr Ogof. Perhaps her light use in service contributed to her later survival and revival…
After decommissioning, the station was closed and Charles Henry Ashley led the usual life of many an ex-lifeboat – a combination of pleasure boating, lay up and static display. But importantly for her unique place now in posterity and in the G.L. Watson story, she never left the area, and her previous role in the maritime life of that exposed coast wasn’t forgotten.
Her rebuild in the experienced local hands of John Jones, Classic Sailboats – builder of many of the newer Dublin Bay Water Wag dinghies as well as Hal Sisk’s replica Dublin Bay Colleen Class sloop Colleen Bawn – was completed in 2009.
Clwb Cychod Cemaes/Cemaes Boat Club offer a unique chance to experience the skills and fitness levels of the remarkable lifeboatmen of the past aboard the Charles Henry Ashley, with various levels of membership, including “Single Day Sail”.
For anyone experienced, or just interested in the joy of the teamwork involved in rowing twelve oars in unison, it’s surely the chance of a lifetime. But the adrenalin rush of – like it or not – hurtling down a slipway at more than hull speed, shipping oars and raising sail into a strong onshore breeze – on the call of volunteer duty – will just have to be imagined. Nowadays her home is the picturesque drying harbour at Cemaes; sailing sessions follow nature’s timetable.
IM/ MB (Big thanks to Mac Ozanne of Cemaes Boat Club, and photographer Kevin Lewis)
*Amid all the pomp and circumstance of his long hours on designs for America’s Cup challengers and palatial steam yachts, G.L. Watson worked from 1887 for a very low annual stipend on improvements to lifeboat design as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s Consulting Naval Architect. He advocated better stability over self-righting ability. Via his successors, J.R. Barnett, William Smart and Allen McLachlan, G.L. Watson & Co. continued the consultancy right up to the relatively modern 52ft (16m) Arun Class, the last of which was withdrawn from service in 2008.
Read all about it in Martin Black’s comprehensive and beautiful biography -