‘You won’t find another boat like this...’

LABOUR OF LOVE George Middleton, left, and Brian Taylor who are working to bring Boleh, an historic junk yacht, back to life at Eastney.  Picture: Ian Hargreaves  (120316-5)
LABOUR OF LOVE George Middleton, left, and Brian Taylor who are working to bring Boleh, an historic junk yacht, back to life at Eastney. Picture: Ian Hargreaves (120316-5)

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They didn’t know each other, but a shared love means that the lives of Robin Kilroy and Roger Angel will always be intertwined.

Both men dedicated much of their time, energy and passion to Boleh, a 40ft yacht modelled on the Chinese dhows that are still a familiar sight in the Far East.

ON THE WATER Boleh pictured in 1949 in Singapore

ON THE WATER Boleh pictured in 1949 in Singapore

While it was Robin’s vision and hard work that saw Boleh constructed in the first place, it was Roger’s tender dedication that led to her being rebuilt following a devastating arson attack.

There was just something about this unusual-looking junk yacht that got under their skin.And although both men are no longer around to see their prized possession, Boleh lives on.

Slumbering in a workshop, this unique boat is part-way through a journey that will take her back to the water to teach a new generation about the joys of sailing.

Badly in need of restoration, Boleh is at the heart of a project designed to teach young apprentices in Portsmouth about the art of boatbuilding.

At the moment, the trust behind her reincarnation has had to down tools while it waits to learn if an application for a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund has been successful.

George Middleton – Robin’s nephew, and one of those responsible for the Boleh Project – is hopeful that the money will come through and that work will begin again in September.

And he’s already excited about what this new chapter of the yacht’s history will bring.

‘People are inspired by this boat,’ says George.

‘There’s no doubt about that.’

George was eight when Robin triumphantly sailed into Salcombe, Devon, after a voyage that lasted nearly eight months.

Naval commander Robin had served with the Fleet Air Arm in the Far East and stayed in Singapore when the Second World War was over.

He’d always dreamed of building his own boat and the Chinese junks he’d seen during his time there provided the inspiration for his design.

Robin’s original plans now line the walls of the workshop where Boleh is being restored, giving an insight into what building his dream boat meant to him. His sketches have been annotated with notes – and George chuckles as he points out that Robin had given plenty of thought to where he could store his whisky and beer.

With the help of two Malay shipwrights, building work began in 1949 and Boleh was ready to launch by October.

Robin’s crew for the voyage was made up of two fellow naval officers, John Rusher and Peter Aplin, a naval shipwright, George Jarvis and Robin’s Chinese cook, Chang.

‘It was extremely unusual at the time,’ explains George. ‘It was front page news when he sailed back into Salcombe. It was about 12,000 miles to sail back and it took him about eight months.

‘As children we would spend holidays with him and would go sailing.’

After Robin’s death Boleh was sold out of the family and George and his brother, Henry, lost track of her. An arson attack in 1978 could have wiped out Boleh’s story forever if it wasn’t for Roger.

The yacht was just completing a refit in Rye when she was almost totally destroyed by fire.

‘Roger was an engineer and a keen sailor, saw the wreck and bought her as an insurance write-off,’ explains George.

‘Then he dedicated the rest of his life to restoring her and looking after her. It was a massive amount of work and took over his life. I think originally he thought he would sail around the world, but he got as far as Mallorca and stopped there. He lived on board with his wife Wendy. They had a great life.’

The Middleton brothers had always been interested to know what had happened to Boleh and various enquiries eventually led them to Roger.

But it wasn’t until ill health forced Roger to put Boleh up for sale in 2007 that they finally set eyes on their uncle’s beloved boat once more.

‘She wasn’t in a seaworthy condition and Roger was still living on board but was very ill,’ remembers George. ‘We ended up buying her and had to put her on a low-loading lorry to get her back to Portsmouth in 2008.

‘It had inspired us as children and we wanted to reproduce that. We decided to buy her and give her to a charity to restore and look after.’

Roger died shortly after Boleh arrived in Portsmouth, so never got to see how work to restore the hull took off. And the project desperately needed more money if the work was to continue. The trust must now wait to see if Heritage will give it the £440,000 needed to restore her and establish the apprentice training programme.

Once the work is completed, the emphasis will change from restoration to training, with Boleh put back on the water and used to teach young sailors.

And in time, it’s hoped that the trust will be able to find and restore more boats so that this cycle of training – both off and on the water – can continue.

For George, the project is a great way to keep Boleh’s history alive and do something really useful for the area’s young people.

‘Boleh was everything to my uncle,’ he says. ‘He put everything into it in the same way that Roger Angel did. The amount of effort he put into restoring it is incredible. He went to the trouble of finding the original plans and talking to people who had sailed her. He had no links to this boat until he bought it and discovered all about her.’

He adds: ‘My uncle would be very excited about this. We’ve been contacted by a lot of people associated with Boleh in the past, including the nephew of the shipwright and the son of one of the naval officers.

‘She is unique, you won’t come across another boat like Boleh.’

WORK IN PROGRESS

At the moment, Boleh lies in The Old Pump House workshops in Henderson Road, Eastney.

Shafts of light from the dusty windows reveal how the hull has been refurbished but there’s still a lot more work to do.

The Boleh Project will work with sailing and training charities to make sure that the boat can be used to help young people.

Portsmouth City Council has allowed the project to use the workshop and IT Paragon will oversee the apprentices to see that they gain the hands-on experience required for their NVQ.

Other young people will be able to take part in two-week work placement schemes to learn the basics of boatbuilding.

And once the restoration is complete, Boleh will become a floating classroom, helping up to six youngsters at a time to learn how to sail.

Shipwright Brian Taylor will help train the apprentices and says there’s a shortage of boat builders in the area.

‘There are so many young people out there. By doing this it gives them the opportunity to see what it’s like and if they’ve got a feel for it, great,’ he adds.

‘They’ll be able to learn the skills and that’s very important really. It’s going to be labour intensive so there’s maximum opportunity for them to learn.’

To find out more about Boleh log on to bolehproject.com