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Maritime skills make Lowestoft the best

PUBLISHED: 12:27 21 August 2008 | UPDATED: 21:05 05 July 2010

THE traditional art of boat building is alive and well in Lowestoft where the port is now considered a centre of excellence for repairs to some of the world's oldest boats.

THE traditional art of boat building is alive and well in Lowestoft where the port is now considered a centre of excellence for repairs to some of the world's oldest boats.

The skilled workforce of a marine engineering company in the town has been tasked with the repair of the historic SS Robin, one of the last remaining all-steam cargo vessels.

The 118-year-old vessel was towed from London to Lowestoft on June 29, to undergo restoration at Small and Co on the banks of Lake Lothing, the same company that restored the historic herring steam drifter Lydia Eva.

Paul Kirby, who took over the running of Small and Co with Paul Harper in 1993, said: “To be awarded this contract and have a vessel such as the SS Robin in your charge is quite an accolade. This will be a sympathetic restoration using a combination of modern and traditional techniques.”

The Robin, a coastal cargo steamer, was built at the height of the industrial revolution in east London and in her heyday would carry cargo such as grain, coal and iron ore.

In 1900 she was sold to a Spanish company but was rescued from the breakers yard by the Maritime Trust in 1974 and returned to England, where she is usually docked at Canary Wharf in London.

She is one of only three ships in the capital on the Core Collection of the National Historic Ships Register - the nautical equivalent of a grade one listed building - which also includes the Cutty Sark and HMS Belfast. The restoration project is funded by a £1.9m loan from Crossrail, the new east west railway for London.

Now all the paint has been stripped from the hull and soon the entire cargo hold floor will be replaced. Having carried out a survey on the ship once she was dry docked, Mr Kirby said the damage was far more extensive than previously thought.

Over the six months of the restoration period, the Robin will have all the repairs necessary for dry docking, rather than commercial use, and will then be towed back to London where she will be used as a learning centre and tourist attraction.

Although repairing historic boats is a speciality area of the business, Mr Kirby said he believed it had the potential to grow.

“We think there is an opportunity for the company to diversify and use modern day skills with more traditional repair methods. We have a good reputation throughout the UK for repairs to vessels and this seems like a natural progression,” he said.

The engineers have earned the praise of Waveney MP Bob Blizzard, who said: “The arrival of the SS Robin demonstrates how, because of our niche skills and boat building tradition, Lowestoft is fast becoming the historic boat repair centre of excellence for Britain.

“It is good for the local economy and will ensure that the maritime heritage of Lowestoft will live on.”

David Kampfner, director of the restoration project and co-founder of the trust that saved the ship from ruin, said: “We were looking for a shipyard that could carry out the necessary work and originally thought that to find the right niche skills we might have to take the Robin to Holland or Norway.

“Then we were contacted by Small and Co… and it was clear to us that Lowestoft has exactly the right skills and boat building expertise to carry out the repairs.”


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