CLICK picture for skreo-dz salvage story.

It was Jack Frost who sank the schooner Elise of London, as she lay moored to a pontoon in the Pouldavid Estuary of Southern Brittany in the winter of January 2010.

Hard frosts are rare in the great Bay of Douarnenez, but the thaw cracked a bronze cockpit drain and by nightfall the watchman at Port Rhu was calling for the fire brigade and the sapeurs pompiers could not save her.

Police frogmen dived into dark water to search for bodies and reported that she had settled 4 metres down but was almost upright, held by the chains of a new harbour pontoon. With cruel French realism, someone telephoned owner Ted Meredith in South America: "Only your masts are in the atmosphere."

William Fife III's 63ft masterpiece, a unique clipper-bowed gaff staysail schooner, 72 feet [22m] overall, built in pine and mahogany on grown oak frames at Fairlie on the Clyde in 1912, lay on the river bed for the next seven days.

Two years earlier, she had been filmed off Brest cruising in company with the 1898 Fife cutter Pen Duick, the yacht that Guy Tabarly gave to his famous son Eric, and from whose deck the great circumnavigator was lost overboard at night off the Welsh coast on passage to the 1998 Fife regatta. Pen Duick was hull 411, Elise was yard number 601. "First reaction to the dire phone call was one of complete disbelief, quickly followed by total despair", said Ted, who was in Ecuador with his wife Bridget on January 20, 2010, running their high-altitude plant breeding and propagation business "six thousand miles away from Elise".

"But sometimes blood is thicker than water", said Ted. "Within twelve hours our son Pete had downed tools on the nursery in Gloucestershire, jumped on to a Brittany ferry and reached a very beleaguered Elise. He was soon joined by an action man from the insurance company. As the ensuing week progressed we became more and more relieved by updates from Pete. He knows Elise rather well, having spent three years working on her 1992-6 restoration and having skippered her for three years on charters."

The first victory in the eleven month campaign to save the schooner was won by divers from the BLM firm in Brest who refloated her with air bags on the evening of January 27.

Next day, Fabienne Perrot from Marine Service Douarnenez reported with enthusiasm that: "La goélette, en elle même, n'a pas trop souffert", as her husband Clément's workboat nudged Elise downstream from Port Rhu to the quay wall at Tréboul, where she could be lifted by mobile crane and cradled on the quay.

The Merediths were offered technical help and many messages of "bon courage" when they arrived in Douarnenez, or DZ, as the once-communist sardine packing town is known from its fishing boat registration letters].

Elise lay all summer on the quay under the branches of a plum tree. The locals marvelled at her original teak skylights and the characteristic Fife Chinese dragons on her bow, but started to ask questions about her future when ripe plums began to accumulate below her keel. "There was a very good reason for the delay", explained Ted Meredith when he arrived with Bridget by car from an overnight ferry to see his beloved yacht lifted again on the first icy morning of November 2010.

"We had been working at home since 2004 on the restoration of our 40ft Robert Clark sloop Kalistra, built by Miller of St Monance in 1939. When Elise went down, I reckoned that if we could just finish and relaunch Kalistra, there would be a restoration berth available in Gloucestershire."

Ted's plan called for the schooner to be shoe-horned into one of the longest extending and steerable boat trailers in Europe. "It was sad to see her lose her bowsprit and very humiliating for her to have to travel stern first out of town", he said when Andrew Rosthorn from Sealand Boat Deliveries arrived in DZ. Sealand had just persuaded British Waterways to allow a heavy haulage rig to cross the Fretherne swing bridge on the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal.

It called for slinging and lifting with a mobile crane hired from French specialists amusingly trading as Le Gai Matelot, then loading to an ultra-long trailer, steered at both ends by a supremely experienced driver, Ruud Vasterburg from the Dutch firm Transportbedrijf Van de Wetering. "Her loading was absolutely critical", said Ted. "I wanted to make sure that the trailer cross members supported the hull through her keel and not through her stern timbers. We had to adjust the shape of the trailer yet leave the lorry capable of negotiating narrow streets and roundabouts in the old town. I am a fervent European. That morning I was delighted to see how well everyone worked together, in French, Dutch and English, to make sure the old girl didn't suffer too much.

"In the ten months since she was refloated, we have done a lot of heart searching. We are still open-minded. Should we write her off? No. Never. Should we sell her as she is? Maybe. Or should we have a Fairlie-style restoration to concours standard? Maybe.

"Or should we restore her to the beautiful and serviceable condition she enjoyed before her sinking? Maybe. Probably. Should we then bring her home, make her safe in the workshop, thereby buying some thinking time? Certainly. Yes. That is what we have done.

"In her present situation, a restoration is very do-able, with new electrics, electronics, engineering and many man hours. She was a hundred per cent sound on the day before she sank and so she will be again. It's going to be a big 3-5 year project. We are interested in hearing from anyone with ideas or skills to offer."

Ruud Vasterburg hauled Elise across the Fretherne swing bridge three days later for a mobile crane lift into a still-roofless refit workshop above a new keel pit. 2011 is the centenary of the laying of the keel of Elise of London in the floating dock on the Ayrshire shingle where the great shipwright built his famously "fast and bonnie" yachts.

Owner Ted Meredith [left] and driver Ruud Vasterburg

CLICK picture for Elise rescue story.

Griff Rhys Jones's celebrated Rhodes 45 sloop UNDINA alongside at Cherbourg, bound for Les Voiles de St Tropez.

Lifting UNDINA to a Transboat super-low trailer for a BTX move from Cherbourg to St Tropez in 2007.

Undina 2007

CLICK this picture of UNDINA for boat transport news from 2009.

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