Barnet and Watson Self-Righting - Ships Nostalgia

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Barnet and Watson Self-Righting

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Old 9th January 2013, 21:36
415618 415618 is offline  
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Barnet and Watson Self-Righting

I have just retired and at these times, thoughts turn to the things you have done and projects you have worked on. I have been fortunate enough to work for the same company for nearly 43 years and it has turned out to be an interesting and varied career. Projects include the only British rocket to launch a satellite, hovercraft and ship model hydrodynamic tank testing, and working in the Company's experimental department.

As an apprentice in the early 70s, I worked on a project to retrofit the RNLI's Watson and Barnet lifeboats to be self-righting. l have searched the web and can find only brief references to this work which I have always been proud to be involved in and that eventually went on to save lives. As I am one of the few people from the small team who were involved in the project to still be around I thought I would record this account for posterity.

The Company won the contract after the Longhope and Frazerburgh disasters in 1969 and 1970 when 13 brave men were lost. It designed a single use system and used its tank testing capability, and hovercraft skirt technology to produce an inflation bag system to roll the boat upright in the event of a capsize. These were the early days of such technology but since then, the company has become heavily involved with helicopter floatation systems, and similar systems can be found on inshore lifeboat today. It was interesting work and as an 18 year old engineering apprentice I had the opportunity to travel to many lifeboat stations and boatyards around the country, from Plymouth to Lerwick in Shetland (before North Sea oil) with a skilled fitter to install the kit.

I met some amazing people and, in some of the small, obscure Scottish stations, I really did meet crew members who were the local butcher and baker. I still have the greatest respect and admiration for these people who selfless lay down their lives to help others on a regular basis. These meeting inevitably ended as a late night in the local bar with many tales of rescues. It was work experience for a youngster in the truest sense!

My first involvement in the project was in assisting in the assembly of the component parts that were all manufactured in-house. This was my first experience with pneumatics and included pressure testing and proof loading the system parts. In the end I could assemble a whole system and install it on a boat.

The system was relatively simple and included a huge rubber inflation bag mounted on the aft cabin roof and a large 2500 psi compressed air bottle fitted with a bespoke valve. This valve was capable of venting the entire contents of the bottle into the inflation bag in a few seconds. Finally there was a control box containing a bleed valve operated by a weight on a lever arm. The weight was held in place by a 'V' shaped pendulum pivoted at the point of the 'V'. This straddled the lever arm and prevented the main weight lifting and operating due to heaving and pitching in heavy seas, but if the boat capsized and turned upside down, the 'V' pendulum would rotate and release the main weight that would drop under gravity and operate the system

Although large, the inflation bag was folded and stowed under a flexible cover that snapped into longitudinal channels on the aft cabin roof. This was easily jettisoned by the bag as it inflated. When looking at a photo of a Watson or Barnet boat it is easy to see if the kit is fitted as the stowed bag can be seen, along with three retaining straps fitted in wide retaining channels on the side of the aft cabin. Sometimes an aft cabin window would be removed and banked off to accommodate the correct alignment of the straps.

The initial installations took place locally at the Groves and Gutteridge boatyard at Cowes on the Isle of Wight. We carried out the first Barnet installation there which was followed by a capsize trial. The boat was to be rolled over using the old, hammerhead crane that was such an important part of the J Samuel White's shipyards in the war. It still stands there today and is a listed monument, although in poor condition.

The trial was to be filmed by the BBC technology programme 'Tomorrow's World' and the presenter, Michael Rodd and the TV team arrived. The purpose of the test was not only to check the self-righting system but also the additional systems installed to blank off engine intakes and exhausts to preserve the engines and prevented internal flooding that would make self -righting more difficult. Ropes were wrapped around the boat and the crane attached. As the crane lifted, the Barnet majestically rolled over. The system triggered and she rolled back upright. When we reboarded her to set up another test, we found the main air bottle valve to be completely surrounded by ice, a huge block over a foot cubed. This made the combined weight of the ice and air bottle too much for us to lift to exchange for a charged bottle so the next test, and the TV team had to wait while we tried in vain to thaw the ice. It still amazes me to think of the temperature involved to freeze seawater instantly to such a block. Some while later we carried out a similar test on a Watson boat at Devonport dockyard in Plymouth.

To be honest I can't fully remember all the boats that capsized and used the system in the rough seas. There was the Salcombe boat, Barra and I think the Islay boat. The Penlee boat was fitted but in 1981 it failed to save the crew and survivors. One issue coxswains had was that the bag would act as a sail when deploy and maybe even cause another capsize. The feeling among those I spoke to was that they would cut the bag free but that it would be a decision that only the Cox could make at the time, all things considered.

That's it really. It has been interesting going back over what was a formative point in my career, fondly and proudly remembered. I am also pleased that this project is now on the web for others to read about in the future. I hope too that you have enjoyed reading it.
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Old 9th January 2013, 23:49
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ben27 ben27 is offline  
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good morning,415618.welcome aboard.i have just enjoyed your mesage re; your carrear.or the start of same.i found it very interesting.i am no eng, i was a ships cook,never the less anything that will save a seamans life,or the passenger for that matter deserves a mention,hope you post more interesting memoiers.all the best ben27
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Old 10th January 2013, 21:37
nhp651 nhp651 is offline  
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as a builder of models of the old classic lifeboats I find your career and posting both fascinating and something to be enormously proud of, and the number of Crewmen's lives that you and your team must have saved is no mean achievement......well done, and thanks for sharing it with us all.....truely fascinating indeed.
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Old 17th January 2013, 21:34
Quinton Nelson Quinton Nelson is offline  
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One of the first boats fitted in 1972 was the Donaghadee Watson Sir Samuel Kelly, our station boat. The system had teething troubles one of which was the air escaping from the bottle. one of the team came over from Cowes to sort it, may have been yourself. I had a hillman Imp car at the time and took the bottle, in the car, to the main fire station in Belfast to have it recharged. Drove through Belfast city centre with this thing sticking out the window, people were running in all directions, Belfast was being bombed frequently at the time with home made rocket mortars, made from, you guessed it........
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Old 20th January 2013, 15:15
Iain Crosbie Iain Crosbie is offline  
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Was anything done to make the wheelhouses watertight at the same time?
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Old 21st January 2013, 19:06
415618 415618 is offline  
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Hi Quinton

Thanks for your reply. Yes, I do remember the event you refer to but it was the other team that dealt with that one.

You are right that the Donaghadee boat was an early one and from my recollections, I think she was the first.

I'm not sure what caused the leak on your boat but I do remember that we had a problem with the bottles in that the sealing face at the threaded end was not of a standard we required. They were perhaps intended for a thread seal but our design used a Dowty seal, which was basically a thick metallic washer with a rubber lip seal in it that extended out each side. Our main bottle valve was machined to a high standard but the bottle was rough machined and painted. For each bottle I had to work on this surface with a fine file, then various grades of wet and dry to improve the surface finish. I still remember it as a horrible job because, if you took too much off, you ran the risk of losing the flatness or 90 degree angle to the thread, and ruining the bottle. We didn't have access to the big machine tools that would have made this an easy job unfortunately. Stiil, I got away with it!
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Old 21st January 2013, 19:09
415618 415618 is offline  
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Hi Iain

Thanks for your reply.

I don't recall any work being done to make the wheel house watertight. I only remember the yards fitting caged ball type fitting over vent where the ball would block the vent off during a capsize.
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Old 21st January 2013, 20:23
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eriskay eriskay is offline  
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415618 - Self-Righting Gear

This gear was fitted to the 1956-built Isle of Barra Lifeboat (RA Colby Cubbyyn) around about 1975, and was undoubtedly responsible for saving the lives of her crew when she capsized in Gale Force 11 conditions, some 15 nautical miles South-East of Barra on Sunday 18th of November 1979, whilst responding to a Mayday distres call from the 300 tons Danish 'Lone Dania' whose cargo of marble chips had started to shift, causing here to take water on board and adopt a dangerous list, in a position near the Skerryvore Lighthouse.

Simultaneously, the Islay Lifeboat, Helmut Schroeder, also capsized, but was able to limp home to Port Askaig.

The Barra Lifeboat, however, was unable to get herself out of danger, her engines being incapacitated due to ropes having got wrapped round her screwshafts during the capsizing. In additon, four of her eight-man crew had suffered injuries and were eventually lifted off by helicopter whilst the remaining crewmembers stood by their storm-lashed boat and hope that help might come to the distress calls sent out.

In due course, a Glasgow-registered coaster, the Sapphire, who had been searching for the 'Lone Dania', was asked by Oban Radio to divert and search instead for the Barra Lifeboat as she was in imminent danger, whereas the 'Helmut Schroeder' and 'Lone Dania' , still under power of some sort, were considered to be at less imminent danger.

'M.V. Sapphire' duly found the stricken Lifeboat and with some difficulty and some fine seamanship managed to get a line attached to begin the hazardous tow to Barra. Halfway there, the tow broke due to the severe weather conditions, and the entire exercise of making the tow in onerous conditions had to be re-enacted.

Finally they arrived at Barra, the tow was passed to local boats, and 'M.V. Sapphire' resumed her Northerly course for Norway.

This is one case whereby many RNLI lives would have been lost but for the innovative self-inflating air-bag equipment.

Enjoy your retirement in the knowledge that you no doubt were personally responsible for the saving of lives.

I too have just retired after 45 years with my own Company, and a working career that totals 55 years.
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Old 21st January 2013, 22:34
415618 415618 is offline  
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Thank you for your reply Eriskay. It was really interesting to read the details of that rescue attempt.

Thanks for your kind remarks as well. I must say I was one of a team of 7 who did this work with some now no longer with us. Have a good retirement.
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Old 22nd January 2013, 16:23
Iain Crosbie Iain Crosbie is offline  
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There is a picture of the Barra boat with the bag inflated following the incident described on this site, :
The Islay lifeboat being a Thames class, was inherently self-righting.
The Salcombe lifeboat also had a successful righting using the air bag, the following taken from Wikipedia:
The Watson Class were not inherently self-righting but, after the capsize of the Fraserburgh Lifeboat in 1970, they were fitted with air bags that could be used to bring them back upright should they capsize. This was put to the test when Baltic Exchange was aiding a dinghy which had overturned in a force 9 gale on 10 April 1983. The lifeboat capsized too, but the air bag automatically inflated. The crew rescued their one member who was washed overboard and then put in to Brixham, the dinghy crew having been winched off by helicopter.
I wondered whether the RNLI had considered trying to make the wheelhouse more weathertight at the same time since a cabin full of water must have affected the ability to self-right quite considerably. On my own Clyde Class they went to great lengths to construct the vessel with double bottoms, a double hull and umpteen bulkheads, but then fitted the wheellhouse with sliding, leaking wooden doors. They did have a scupper system, but this was quite useless and was quickly welded up as it allowed the boat to flood rather than drain water out!

Last edited by Iain Crosbie; 22nd January 2013 at 16:28..
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Old 17th May 2013, 23:31
aguila wren aguila wren is offline  
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The aft cabins of 46ft 9in and 47ft Watsons and 52ft Barnetts were indeed made watertight as part of the air bag works. The 47ft Watsons which were structurally altered to be self-righting by building a new superstructure for'd of the wheelhouse also had their aft cabins made watertight. The sliding doors into the after cabin from the aft cockpit were removed and a watertight hatch fitted instead and the aft cockpit was decked over (I think the air tank for the bag was fitted in the void under the new deck section where the aft cockpit formerly was. As I remember a watertight door was also fitted beterween the aft cabin and the wheelhouse.

Last edited by aguila wren; 18th May 2013 at 12:46..
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Old 23rd July 2013, 20:49
john p john p is offline  
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Retro fitted self righting bag

I found your posting about your work on designing and fitting bags to Watson boats fascinating. I served briefly on a Watson on the North East coast and we suffered a knockdown on service to an oil rig off Scarborough in 1966.
Two things come to mind firstly that the Watson recovered from being on its beam end and secondly that there were so many incidents of a similar kind before your life saving design came to the rescue. Thank you for insight into the work involved
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Old 11th February 2019, 16:48
CaptainSGM CaptainSGM is offline
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Hi, I am fascinated by your account of developing and then travelling to help install self-righting equipment to RNLI Lifeboats. I too have been trawling the web for references and yours is the only one I have found and I seem to have struck Gold! You say you travelled to Lerwick, in which case you must have been involved with the installation on O.N 943 RNLB Claude Cecil Staniforth, Barnet Class. I was wondering if you can recall or have any record of the year you were there? Any info would be brilliant, factual or memories. Many thanks,
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