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The Gold Standard: Racing the Sole-Surviving British J-Class Tender Through London

Article courtesy of Classic Boat magazine. Words: STEFFAN MEYRIC HUGHES, Photos: PETER ZABEK

A new dash was made – gold-plated, in line with the boat's original fit-out, for durability as well as aesthetics.

The story of Gelyce is, as with so many old boats, a slow-burning play of desire, abandonment, and resurrection. In this case, the story is intertwined with the heyday of J-Class racing in the 1930s, a world at war, and possibly the early days of the British secret services.

Gelyce attracting attention again on the Thames.

The interior, as original, but now with a fridge for 'supplies'.

The sleek 1930s Camper and Nicholson commuter yacht has long been held as one of the great prizes left to restore, but for decades she sat rotting in a siding on the Upper Thames under one tenacious owner, while would-be buyers with their boat builders hovered, hopefully awaiting their turn at the monumental challenge of ownership.

One hopeful partnership was Peter de Savary and Peter Freebody, but an attempted purchase in the late 1980s fell through and she floated in a corner of the Freebody marina for years after. She looked like a nightmare back then, slowly dying on her feet, with the shape still proud above the water. I remember seeing her on a stroll around the yard a decade ago with the late Peter Freebody, a figure of almost mythical status, even in his lifetime, for his encyclopedic knowledge of craft like this, and his benevolent but stern, almost intimidating, aura. So it was amazing that he had so little to say about Gelyce. Looking back on it now, his silence was the only reasonable reaction to the hopeless limbo afflicting the boat.

Gelyce, as found.

One party that had been quietly biding its time a few miles downriver was an owner-builder partnership which has been responsible, over the years, for saving Fixitor, Knight Errant, and many more lauded riverboat restorations. We are speaking here of owner Wint Taylor and boatbuilder Colin Messer. Their patience paid off in 2015 when Wint bought Gelyce and brought her to the Messers' yard, Classic Restoration Services, on the banks of the Thames at Windsor. Wint is one of a handful of collectors of historic river boats, a niche group that also includes Bill Rose and Adam Toop, owner of the smaller Gelyce Class boat Islay.

Wint's got the bug really bad, though. We meet at his riverside house in Chiswick, where a bus request stop stands in the hall. "The first thing I bought," remembers Wint. In his drive, under a tarp, is a 135hp sleeper Mini. He's also got a number of buses and other cars, but it's Gelyce we are here to see, and we take a quick drive to a pleasure boat pier to await her arrival. And so it is that on a warm day late in 2017, under a thick sky, a shape in dark green appears in the distance from behind an island in the Thames off Chiswick, in leafy west London.

It's hard to describe what Gelyce looks like in this setting. The shape is so confidently elegant, so flamboyant, that it's hard to imagine she sprang from the English imagination. It begins to make sense when you remember that when she was built, Britain ruled a quarter of the world. Every metal fitting, inside and out, glints like gold, and that's because it is: 18-carat Welsh red gold to be precise, just as original. You expect to see Cruella de Vil on the helm. It's not though – it's Colin Messer, with brother Stephen and partner Jane Percival: Classic Restoration Services is a family affair.

She comes up alongside the Thames river cruiser Queen Elizabeth, four years older than Gelyce, but a rough character with real tideway credentials. Her crew, similarly tough-looking, take Gelyce's lines, engaging in some good-natured mockery at this pedigree arrival with its whining bow thruster, then Wint and I jump aboard.

Photographer Peter Zabek shadows us from the bank, snapping away, then suddenly we part company and we're in an impromptu Top Gear-style race, creaming along nicely, while Peter scuttles off to our destination of St. Katharine Docks to try to photograph our arrival. The rules of our race allow Peter to use any form of overland transport he likes. He opts for a train to Waterloo and a taxi from there. We have Gelyce, top speed 28 mph. Colin opens the throttle on the 175 hp, 1960s-vintage Rolls-Royce car engine and the revs climb to 3,000 as the ebbing tide starts to gather force: the race is on.

The 1960s Rolls-Royce engine that powers Gelyce, with
gold-plated detailing. It produces 175 hp and once powered a car.


In the small aft cockpit, Stephen Messer, whose roles include yard historian, goes through the boat's history. She was built in 1931 by Camper and Nicholson to a Charles Nicholson design of 1912, and she remained under Nicholson ownership until 1936. In that year, she was sold to a Mr. Nuttall, who owned her for only a year before she returned to her maker. It was during the 1930s that she was used as a tender and support vessel to Shamrock V and Endeavour in the Solent, both of them J-Class yachts designed and built by Nicholson, both of which challenged for the America's Cup, and both of which failed, the latter gloriously, coming about as close to winning as any attempt in history.

She never accompanied her giant charges to the hallowed waters off Rhode Island to support them in their bids for the 'Auld Mug', unsurprisingly, as both sailed there on their own hulls, a stipulation of the race at the time. There is, however, some 1934 Pathé footage showing her with Endeavour, as she left Portsmouth to sail to America, "carrying the good wishes of the whole nation".

Gelyce with Endeavour, 1932.

In 1939, Gelyce was requisitioned by the British government for the war effort. This part of her history has partially eluded Stephen's efforts to uncover, although he has a clue. Stephen is a fierce researcher: when all else failed him on Wint's Fixitor project, he started going through Lloyd's Registers page by page, checking every craft's dimensions until he found an exact match, working on the theory that she might have had a name change. He eventually found Fixitor.

Similar tenacity has led to some information about Gelyce's role. It is now known that she spent a good part of the war based in Southampton and servicing the barrage balloons, tethered to barges at sea. The survivors of that squadron remember Gelyce to this day.

It's in the muted halls of the National Maritime Museum in London that an even more tantalizing clue lies. During the war, the government kept records of requisitioned craft and in one of these 'Services Small Ships Pool' books, the name Vectis appears in brackets after Gelyce's name. HMS Vectis was the name of the now-forgotten naval base set up in 1941 in Cowes across the Solent from Southampton. The base was run as a point of departure for the first members of the Special Operations Executive to infiltrate the occupied continent on intelligence missions. It's likely, but far from certain, that Gelyce, with her high speed and low draft, would have taken special agents to enemy-occupied France.

After the war, Gelyce returned to a life of more sedate glamour, under the ownership of Hugh L. Goodson, a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron, who renamed the boat Seapecker and went on, in 1958, to back an America's Cup bid with the 12-Meter Sceptre. She was sold again in 1951, and renamed again, this time to Suani. She went through owners until some time in the 1970s, when she was bought by her long-term owner Jeremy Lion, under whom she experienced a long winter of benign neglect (no damaging alterations were made). The glorious green apparition we were now on, cutting a swath through central London, had cut an even broader swath through much of the 20th century.


After the decade of glory that Gelyce enjoyed with the Js in the 1930s, people who know the type tend to refer to all Gelyce Class motorboats as J-Class tenders, but it was only Gelyce that actually performed that duty. In fact, she's one of only two J-Class tenders from the 1930s left in the world (the other is the American boat Bystander).

All in all, around 30 tenders were built in the Gelyce class. Some were smaller. Ten were built at this largest size (50 ft./15.1 m). Some, like Islay, were built at the 36 ft. (11 m) size. Stephen thinks they were probably often used as spectator boats for yacht racing, so although Gelyce was the only J tender, many others in the class would have attended racing in big yachts, ferrying wives, family, colleagues, and friends to watch the action out at sea.

The Camper and Nicholson yard burned down in 1941, taking most of the yard's records, but it is known to this day that Gelyce class tenders were sometimes sold for export, two of them reaching as far as the Kremlin. Stephen and Colin, who have specialized in river craft all their lives, marvel at the hull shape, which is a shallow-draft, moderate semi-displacement shape. "She'll do 12 knots without leaving a trace," says Stephen, somewhere near Waterloo Bridge. "She leaves less wash than a slipper launch."


The wartime fire at the C&N yard meant there were no drawings to go on, but Gelyce's light, strong build and the fact that she'd remained afloat and buoyed by water meant that she had retained her shape, as well as most of her original gear.

Interior, showing the strong, light construction.

Colin takes over the story: "We put her on the slip to see the bottom and were all quite surprised at how good it was. The decks and beams were shot and the beamshelves were fine. We found some rotten planking, so a hole 13 ft. (4 m) long by 18 in. (45 cm) wide had to be cut out on the port side and reinstated."

In the shed at Windsor.

The two planking layers (diagonal on the inside and fore-and-aft on the outside, to give a carvel appearance) are each of mahogany just 9 mm (1/3 in.) in thickness. The framing is all done in steam-bent oak timbers 3/4 in. by 1/2 in. in section (18 mm by 12 mm) on 18 in. (45 cm) centers. This is very light for a working launch expected to take a full load of passengers to sea to spectate at yacht races. But Gelyce is not built like most boats. For a start, she has five stringers each side, as well as the beamshelves. All that longitudinal strength is matched by great transversal stiffness provided by the furniture, every item of which works as a partial bulkhead. Colin shows how the stringers are pyramidal in section, a sign of thorough craftsmanship for only minimal weight saving and an attractive appearance in a seldom-seen part of the boat. Even the shaft log's edges are chamfered all the way along. The overall effect is of a well-crafted near-honeycomb structure–stiff and light.

After making the repairs necessary to timbers (only six needed replacing), the restoration became interesting. A method that Colin sometimes uses is to re-skin tired hulls with new, thin layers of timber, a deeply practical solution that nevertheless causes some controversy. First of all, to give the Gelyce all the strength she'd ever need, even in rough seas, Colin and company glued three more skins of mahogany to the outside, with SP106 epoxy and polymer nails fired from a gun to hold the cure. Some 700 mahogany strips and 75,000 nails were applied, in around 15 weeks in total.

L-R: New pitch pine deck going down; an early color experiment – the other side is green.

After this work, surveyor John Tough (grandson of Douglas Tough of Operation Dynamo fame) considered the hull so strong as a monocoque that the interior framing became immaterial. The propeller shaft was done by Steve Bil of Marine Solutions. "It's so perfect it doesn't move at all," said Colin. Marrying the beautiful engine to the boat's drivetrain without cutting parts of it away was one of the biggest headaches, cured by Mike Bellamy at Lancing Marine. The two-speed auto with no true neutral would have had insignificant creep when idling, with two tonnes of car above it and the driver's foot on the pedal, but with a river boat, the inability to stop to come alongside or manage locks, would have been unthinkable. The solution was to remove the two-speed gearbox and weld a new, custom 6 in. x 18 in. (15 cm x 45 cm) steel driveshaft to the drive plate. "It was a classic boatbuilder/engineer conversation," says Colin with a smile. "It sounds so simple. But imagine how precisely that driveshaft must be made. The tiniest imbalance and it would fly off, destroying all in its path."

A flexible Python Drive takes the gradient out of the long prop shaft run from the engine under the foredeck to the propeller 2 ft. (60 cm) inboard of the stern. The tired teak cabin trunk got a similar treatment to the hull. Today, it is sandwiched either side by new 6 mm (1/4 in.) teak. Colin points out that this method preserves all original material (albeit invisibly) and that it's a way of adding back what the years have eroded. "It was probably 1 in. (25 mm) thick originally, and probably lost about a 1/4 in. (6 mm). We're replacing it all at once."

The only noticeable modern addition is the foredeck hatch. "They used to cut the boat up and put it back together again to lift the engine out," said Colin. Most hardware inside and out is original and gold-plated. A new dashboard and instruments were made for the boat.

L-R: Aft deck showing the metalware in Welsh red gold; interior gold-plated clock.

Today, Gelyce must rank among the finest motorboats in the world. "It's the best thing we've ever done," says Colin, without having to think. "I've wanted to restore Gelyce since laying eyes on her 20 years ago. She's the most stunning taxi ever built. Very seldom do I come upon a boat and think it can't be bettered in any way. You can take a foot-long rule and try to place it flat on any part of her. You won't do it."

We reach St. Katharine Docks to a small crowd of onlookers and lock in. Peter the photographer is nowhere to be seen. He never stood a chance. ■

Note: Since writing this article, Gelyce won her category (Restored Powered Vessels) in our 2018 Awards, by popular vote. See classicboat.co.uk for features on the smaller Gelyce class tender Islay and the J-Class tender Bystander.

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