While visiting the Traditional Boat Show in Henley in July last year I met Colin, the owner of Clewer Boatyard, onboard Gelyce. He invited me to visit the boatyard the following week, as I wanted to see Fixitor for myself as she wasn’t at the show. Interestingly, bought in 1949 from an army officer stationed abroad, the boat’s name came from the owner’s decision then to ‘fix it or let it rot’ such was her condition at that stage. Her original name is not yet known, but research continues.
Clewer Boatyard, near Windsor in the the U.K., is the most unassuming operation behind a drab, brown fence. As you enter, you think you may be in the wrong place; a pile of broken rowboats, their clinker construction barely discernible, lie amoungst the undergrowth. The dirty, brown water doesn’t look deep enough to float the shallowest draft, but under a plastic tunnel, you can see a beautifully varnished transom with the name ‘Gelyce’, once the 50ft ‘tender’ to Lord Lipton’s two yachts, now fully restored and insured for GBP2.5 million. She was bought for just GBP20K by a collector through Colin and Steven Messer, who run the Boatyard under the watchful eye of their mother and a few cats.
That restoration is not the only proof of their exceptional skill and luck. The other boat I’ve come to see had a write up in Woodieboater.com. ‘Fixitor’ was one of the first English racing boats to possibly compete in the 1904 Harmsworth trophy race. She’s a beautiful deep green, double ended, torpedo-shaped boat, 25 foot in length. But I have been warned she is currently undergoing another restoration as a result of a tree falling on her! Now, when we pull back her cover, her condition is nothing like it was in the Peter Zabek images I saw, except for her cockpit, resplendent in shiny brass gauges and steering wheel.
”Fixitor” - glad they decided to fix it!
She was found in a delapidated state near Henley and bought for just GBP400. Not the instant barn find success story, as Colin explained, they knew nothing of her provenance at the time. They were intrigued by her shape thinking she might make a good yacht. I was told the same thing was said of Halcyon. Only when she was back in the Boatyard did conversation turn to her very hydrodynamic rudder blade; why was so much time devoted to her rudder?
Then it became clear; traces of ‘British Racing Green’ paint were found on the hull during her restoration- the color used in the 1908 Olympics. This was the only occasion that power boat racing was included at this event.
She must have been one of the earliest racing boats; no gears, towed to the start line. The winner was often the boat that finished, or if none finished, the boat that made it furthest. Her massive Thornycroft engine would have been capable of 16 knots. That was fast in 1908! These racing boats often sank and given the danger of hot engines and fuel fumes in close proximity, it is amazing she’s is still around.
Mr Taylor, the current owner, who is an engineer aged in his 60s, was quoted in a Daily Mail article as saying: 'It's the oldest power boat in Europe - there are other boats around, but they're not still afloat. It has no flat surfaces on the hull or on the deck and this helps give us the date. It also has holes for tow ropes, which is a sign of an Olympic trial boat as these were the only ones which had them.'
Today, 'Fixitor' is fitted with a 1950's MG 1500cc 4 cylinder sports car engine. Originally, the boat would have had a rather more basic petrol unit, but they were very heavy with a poor power-to-weight ratio. These unreliable engines were not replaced until after the First World War, with the lighter, more efficient engines that were developed for aviation. After the war surplus engines found their way into racing boats.
This boat won ‘The people’s choice’ award at the Henley Show the year before. Quite the most beautiful boat I’ve seen.