Bluebottle is the HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh's boat. The Dragon class boat has recently undergone an exacting refit. Rupert Holmes reports
After an 18-month restoration to an impressively high standard, Bluebottle, the Duke of Edinburgh’s boat, is racing again for the first time in 60 years. Even better, the boat won the class in Cowes Week, her first regatta, in the hands of Graham and Julia Bailey, with Cowes boatbuilder David Heritage as crew. She then went on to take 3rd place at the Edinburgh Cup, the Dragon’s UK National Championship.
Bluebottle was originally a wedding gift to then Princess Elizabeth and Duke of Edinburgh from the members of the Island Sailing Club in Cowes. She was built in 1947 by Camper & Nicholsons in Gosport and the Duke raced her with family, including Prince Charles and Princess Anne, as well as with esteemed local designer Uffa Fox.
He also loaned the boat to a number of sailors, including to the British sailing team for the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, where she won a bronze medal, sailed by Graham Mann, Ronald Backus and Jonathan Janson. She was later used as a sail training boat at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth for 40 years.
Given the boat had not sailed for a couple of decades, the restoration was a big job that took 18 months. “She was very structurally unsound,” Heritage told me. “A lot of the planks were hanging off the timbers where the fastenings had gone and the foredeck had a big buckle – she was in a pretty sorry state when we got her.”
There was also a concern that the hull might have lost its original shape, but Heritage was happy that was not the case: “We checked it all, then took the deck off and braced it to hold the shape,” he says. His team put in four temporary bulkheads so the hull could be safely rolled over, allowing work to start in earnest.
They then took every second plank off and cleaned each one up, before refastening and gluing them to the frames. Fortunately most of the planking was fundamentally sound, although a little new timber was needed, mostly in the middle of the boat. Once all the planking had been refitted, the plank edges were glued together with splines and epoxy, then the outside of the hull encased in epoxy and glass cloth to create a very rigid and stiff structure. Finally the hull was filled, faired and painted to a gleaming finish.
Most of the backbone is still original, although the stem had broken joints that required work. The deadwood in the keel is also original, although Heritage skimmed off the outer layer each side and sandwiched it with marine plywood, glued with epoxy, to further stiffen the structure.
The new deck is plywood, plus very thin pine with V-shaped grooves underneath to retain the visual appearance of the original planking. However the original coachroof and coamings were retained and varnished, which give a patina appropriate to the boat’s age. “We think it looks great and the hull is rock solid now,” says Heritage.
However, unlike modern Dragons, Bluebottle doesn’t have built-in buoyancy, so the boat could sink when racing in heavy weather. She’s provided with an effective electric pump, plus a big double-action manual bilge pump, but even so, before this year’s Cowes Week her crew decided a 20 knot maximum limit for racing in the Solent’s steep wind against tide chop would be prudent.
Strong winds the day before the regatta precluded a test sail, so the boat’s first proper sail was on the way to the start of the first race. “We had no data for rig settings,” Graham Bailey told me, “but it didn’t feel right, so we popped back in to put an extra three inches of rake on the rig.”
Their instincts proved correct: Bluebottle won the first three races of the regatta, dropped down to 4th on day four, but only 71 seconds behind the leader in a race of almost two hours. She then notched a pair of 2nd places to win the class overall with a day to spare.
“It’s been great fun,” Bailey added. “There’s a different quality about being on the Duke of Edinburgh’s favourite yacht – it’s a real privilege to be in his seat. The boat definitely has a fast mode upwind. You can put the bow down in a low mode and she seems to have a gear that other boats don’t have.”
However, a good high mode when close-hauled was not as easy to find. Under sail Heritage says the boat is not as intrinsically quick in a short Solent chop as modern boats, “probably because Bluebottle is heavier in the ends,” and that they also struggled to get in front of the best boats at Cowes in light airs.
Bluebottle is by no means the only older Dragon that has been restored to race in today’s fleet. “There’s a trend in Europe for restoring Dragons of a similar era to Bluebottle and making them competitive against modern boats, although to date British owners have tended not to do so,” says Bailey.
So who was responsible for the decision to upgrade Bluebottle to be competitive today, rather than carrying out a more conventional restoration to her original specification?
Heritage says the late Duke was keen to make her competitive. “When we were beginning to get the deck on, I contacted Neil Rankin, who was the link to the Duke, to ask what they wanted to do with the boat. He said: ‘Oh, we ought to race it in the Edinburgh Cup.’ So I said we’ll do a sympathetic modern fit out.”
“When we were discussing options the Duke of Edinburgh wanted it to be at the racing end of the spectrum,” adds Bailey. “It’s a shame he didn’t see the boat completed.” Heritage also told me the Duke [who died before the project was completed] saw lots of photos as the work progressed and “was very pleased it was being done in Cowes.”
Although the old wooden mast and boom were available, Rankin said they should be replaced with up to date alloy spars and modern sails. Otherwise, the fit-out is fairly sympathetic, with the many control lines of today’s boats concealed under the coachroof, instead of on top, and there’s no spinnaker chute. These factors make manoeuvres and fine tuning harder than for a modern boat when racing, but retain the stunning clean lines of the original boats.
The Royal Yacht Britannia Trust is responsible for Bluebottle today and funded the restoration. The boat is now on show at Leith Docks in Edinburgh, where visitors can look down from Britannia’s deck to get a good view of Bluebottle. The Trust is also home to the Duke of Edinburgh’s two other racing yachts – the Flying 15 Cowslip and the 63ft Bloodhound.
LOA: 8.89m / 29ft 2in
Beam: 1.95m / 6ft 5in
Draught: 1.20m / 3ft 11in
Displacement: 1,700kg / 3,750lb
Ballast: 1,000kg / 2,200lb
Upwind sail area: 27.7m2 / 300ft2
Spinnaker: 23.6m2 / 254ft2
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