A Dunkirk ‘little ship’ being restored after spending 40 years as a houseboat on the Chichester canal was one of dozens of vessels destroyed in a major fire at a boatyard on the Isle of Wight.
Firefighters and police have begun investigating the cause of the fire at Medina Village, Cowes, on Monday which created huge plumes of smoke which could be seen across the Solent on the mainland.
Seven fire engines from the island fought the blaze and four further appliances from Hampshire were brought in to assist.
Nobody was injured in the blaze, although nearby residents were evacuated from their homes.
One of the casualties of the blaze was the Vere, one of only about 100 remaining vessels of the operation to rescue servicemen from Dunkirk in the Second World War.
The 1905 cruiser, which was used to rescue 346 men from the French beaches in 1940, was undergoing restoration work at the boatyard.
Jason Carley, spokesman for the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships (ADLS), said: “To lose a Dunkirk little ship in circumstances like this is terribly sad.
“Vere survived two world wars and was one of the few little ships skippered by her owner at Dunkirk. With only just over 100 little ships still remaining and even fewer afloat, the loss of any of them is a real tragedy.”
After the war, Vere had a number of owners and spent over 40 years on the Chichester Canal as a houseboat.
One of her owners, a schoolmaster who inherited her from his father, discovered while carrying out restoration work two German machine-gun bullets embedded in her frame.
Ten years ago she sank in shallow water in the canal because of substantial damage from water penetration.
She was raised by the Receiver of Wreck and was about to be broken up when a group of maritime enthusiasts rescued her and removed her to the Isle of Wight.
Also destroyed in the fire were racing yachts being stored for a regatta in the spring.
On Facebook, Etchells regatta chairman David Franks said: “Approximately 14 Etchells appear to have been destroyed in the fire. We have already sourced equivalent replacements for nearly all of them.”
Clothing firm Rapanui posted on Twitter that its warehouse had been destroyed in the fire, saying: “Team safe and well, building just about standing but contents gone.”
The organisers of the Cowes Carnival wrote on Facebook that its floats built to mark its 120th anniversary had been destroyed.
They wrote: “The fire started in the unit right behind us, so our unit did not stand a chance. We did not just lose the float.
“We lost tools that have been collected for 15 years. Boat batteries that run our electrics. Chairs, lighting, trailers. The list goes on and on.
“Yes, insurance will pay out, but it could take months of investigation.
“Are we going to give up in our 120th year? The answer is no.”
An Isle of Wight Council spokeswoman said: “Fire investigation crews are on site today and will undertake investigations alongside police colleagues throughout the day.”