Simon Robins spends a lot of his nights in bed searching eBay for broken boats. Bringing them back to life has been a longtime hobby for him in Wales, on the U.K.’s west coast. He once scored a 1962 wooden restoration project for about $30. His sweet spot for fixer-uppers has always been around 20 feet length overall. Nothing too crazy. Just for fun.
One night in January 2021, he leaned over and showed his wife a listing on the screen for a 72-footer that the U.K.’s Royal Navy had built in 1943. “He came across Sarinda and said, ‘Gemma! Gemma! Look at this boat!’” she recalls. “And I was like, ‘No.’ It was massive.”
Sarinda was a survivor of World War II, having participated in the D-Day invasion of northern France as a navigation leader with Operation Neptune. Her crew had also captured a German submarine in Allied waters.
By the time Simon caught up with her, she was rotting in an estuary in the U.K.’s northwest, having been bought by a man who couldn’t afford to fix her, but who also couldn’t bear to see a vessel with her pedigree scrapped. While more than 400 of the Harbour Defence Motor Launches, or HDMLs, were built, precious few remain today.
“We kept talking about it, and the day after, we went to go and see it,” Gemma says.
The hull was still solid, but whoever had converted Sarinda into a yacht in the late 1970s and ’80s had been less than stellar on the workmanship. All of the frames and stringers were damaged. Rainwater had been freely falling inside. The plywood used for the interior rebuild was falling apart.
And being aboard felt a bit creepy, as if people had abandoned her in a rush. Trash was everywhere. The cupboards were all full. The beds still had duvets atop them.
They decided that this was not an acceptable way for a World War II vessel to die, so they paid about $9,100 to buy her—with the full knowledge that it would take them years to find enough money and time to rebuild her. They would have to repair Sarinda in their spare time, when they weren’t running their camper-conversion business or busy raising their two kids.
“It was sort of a heart-over-the-head decision. She hadn’t got long left,” Gemma says. “People kept saying, ‘You need to get it surveyed, you need to get this, you need to get that,’ and we just thought, we already know that it’s broken. What’s the point of all that?”
With their family and friends still on lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic, Simon and Gemma made a video of the boat and put it on YouTube, just to show the people they knew what they were up to with the new project. They thought about 10 folks would watch it.
That first video spawned what today is a whole YouTube channel called Ship Happens. They now post weekly videos to show the repairs they’re making, and they are as surprised as anyone to have about 45,000 subscribers cheering them on—and sometimes even helping them out.
“We’ve met so many new friends,” Gemma says. “We had a few painting parties during the summer where we scraped all the sides and painted her for an extra layer of protection. Like 20 people came to help us. It was mind-blowing. They were from all over the country. Some people drove six hours to come up.”
Fans of the project are sending money for the project through a Patreon account. Random things arrive in the mail: Someone sent tea towels, and someone else sent an oven and a television. Tools show up all the time.
“Last week, a Dremel kit came,” Gemma says. “People also send me chocolates. I can’t eat them all. It just blows me away every day, how supportive people are.”
Every bit and penny goes into the boat, with a goal of having her ready to do the crossing in 2029 for the 85th anniversary of D-Day. The work is slow going, not only because they’re doing it in their spare time, but also because getting to Sarinda is a challenge. When the water is low in the estuary where she’s lying, they can walk to her, but to bring anything to or from the boat in the tender, they have to time the tides. Just getting all the trash off the boat took them about two months. “You can’t just pull a car up to her to unload all the rubbish,” Gemma says. “We have about an hour and a half window during high tide to do this.”
The first thing they did, after cleaning her out, was get solar and wind power going so they could have a full security system installed and be able to use tools as well as lights. Sarinda is once again watertight, and Gemma says the boat could move under her own power now. She floats a couple times of month with the tide, but they’ve decided to keep her in the estuary while they continue the repairs.
“We looked at putting her on the hard, and we priced it out, but it’s a wooden boat, so you don’t want it out of the water too long anyway,” Gemma says. “And to get it craned out and put on the hard is about 250 pounds [about $330] a week storage fee. We can’t pay that. She’s in a nice, soft mud bed, so she’s all supported. It’s the best place for her, really, that’s not costing a fortune. Every penny we get now can be put into the repairs.”
They spend about a day and a half each week on board, when they’re not at their full-time jobs or editing the videos of their progress that tens of thousands of fans are now clamoring to watch. As the winter holidays were approaching at the end of 2021, they were dealing with woodwork on the hull.
“A lot of the frames are snapped and absolutely rotten. All the decks are rotten,” she says. “At the minute, we’re concentrating on the bow area, and we hope that by the time the weather improves next year, all the frames will be in and we can replace the decks in the bow.”
Aside from doing the D-Day anniversary crossing, their only other plan is to rebuild Sarinda to go cruising. They’re taking her back to the yacht-conversion spec, but with a more modern interior. Gemma figures they’ll be able to sleep 10 people on board, and with their experience building camper vans, they can fit a lot of whatever they might need into small spaces on board.
“We are putting the hull back to battleship gray,” she adds. “We’ll put her warship numbers on her. It’ll be a mash-up of old and new.”
They also now have a Ship Happens group on Facebook with about 3,600 members. In December, Gemma posted a link there to a listing for a 55-foot project boat, with this note: “Someone tell Simon Robins to stop looking at broke boats on eBay!”
Clearly, a few of the group’s members are with Simon, and are inspired by the Sarinda project.
One fan commented: “But it would be fabulous.”
This article was originally published in the April 2022 issue.