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Home / News / The history and restoration of Boleh (3rd November 2023)
Home / News / The history and restoration of Boleh (3rd November 2023)
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The history and restoration of Boleh (3rd November 2023)

Published 09:34 on 16 Nov 2023

A fascinating talk by Craig Coupe, operations director, the Boleh Trust.

There is nothing quite like Boleh. She is the most unusual and distinctive sailing vessel you will ever see. She is well known to most of us as she graces E pontoon in Haslar Marina and cannot be mistaken for anything else.

She is a long-keeled junk yacht with a unique quadruped mast and a sliding gunter. Her auxiliary power comes from two electric motors powered by batteries and a big generator. She weighs more than 18 tonnes, and, fully armed and crewed she is probably not far off 20 tonnes.  That's a lot of boat in 40 feet.

Craig Coupe, the operations director of the Boleh Trust, gave us a fascinating insight into her history, restoration, sailing characteristics and her role today giving sailing experience to everyone from disadvantaged kids to recovering ex-servicemen and women.

Craig described how Boleh was the brainchild of Robin Kilroy, a Royal Navy officer stationed in Singapore.  He developed an interest in the junk rigged local sailing craft and designed Boleh, taking in what he saw as the best attributes from the East and West. She was built by Malay shipwrights, largely from Chengai, an incredibly hard local tropical wood. When you hit your head on a beam you will know it. It's known as the 'Boleh Bump'. Her original auxiliary power was what is probably the first inboard-outboard with a removable drive leg through her strange, high stern.

After she was completed in 1950, Robin Kilroy sailed her back to the UK with three other Royal Navy officers and a Chinese cook. She embarked on a new career as sail training ship, mainly for service-connected organisations.

Sadly, she was badly damaged by fire, probably the result of vandalism.  Fortunately a carpenter and boatbuilder, Roger Angel, fell in love with her, bought her and carried out her first restoration before sailing off with his family to Mallorca.

Then she seems to have fallen off the map.

But some years later George and Henry Middleton, the nephews of Robin Kilroy who had sailed on her as children, had their curiosity piqued and a search turned up what could only be Boleh rotting in a Mallorca boatyard. The surveyor's view was "don't touch that boat with a bargepole", so of course they promptly bought her and put her on a low loader and took her back to England. 

The perseverance of the Middletons managed to raise funding for her restoration through the Heritage lottery fund, and a complete apprentice scheme was set up in Portsmouth to restore her to as near original as possible.

Last November, actually a few years after the restoration was complete, she was formally recommissioned by Princess Anne at Haslar outside The Creek.

So, what's she like to handle? Sailors will think "sails, it's easy"; motorboaters will look at the twin drives and think "easy, I can handle that".  Trust me, Boleh will soon put them in their place!

Craig explained that she's designed predominantly for sailing off the wind, though she doesn't go badly to windward, but needs a good wind to get moving.

She is solidly re-assuring in any conditions, he said. Compared with modern flighty boats everything happens slowly.  But once things have started happening, well, they just keep on happening.

She's steered by a massive tiller, but the loads are not particularly heavy. A bit of muscle is needed to raise the mainsail and gunter a sliding spar that rises up a steel cable (thin, to reduce air disturbance over the sail) using a big windlass. A young crew is useful at this point.

She may look unusual but those of us who have had the privilege of sailing her, love her.

Thank you, Craig, for sharing so much about her with us.


Jonathan Clare            

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Last updated 10:50 on 17 November 2023

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