BLUEBIRD OF CHELSEA
BLUEBIRD OF CHELSEA (1940 Blue Bird)
Type: Motor Yacht
Draft: 4ft 3ins
Displacement: 23.42 tons
Engine: 2 x Perkins 6354 Diesels
Construction: Double mahogany on Canadian rock elm
Builder: Thornycroft, Hampton-on-Thames
Buying a pleasure boat is rarely the outcome of logical thought. More often it is a sudden impulse; certainly, it is a love affair, indulged in even by men of otherwise strong character and sound judgment. No wonder we attribute the feminine gender to boats.
Malcolm Campbell, world land-speed record holder in 1924, was knighted in the year he commissioned his new boat Blue Bird. He added the world water-speed record to his others just six years later. The name Blue Bird was taken from Maeterlink's play L'Oiseau Bleu and given to all his record-breaking cars and boats and the three successive yachts he owned. Bluebird of Chelsea (her present name) was Malcolm Campbell's second yacht. He sold her after only three years when he felt uncomfortable about her petrol engines, which he considered dangerous. A gypsy had once warned him that "his death would come from the water". Bluebird had three more owners before the war and, like others of her kind, was requisitioned by the Admiralty. She made two false starts in getting to Dunkirk. The first time she developed engine trouble. Then, when she got as far as Sheerness, there were too many volunteers and she was left behind.
Finally, she set out, commanded by a yachtsman, Lt. Col. Barnard, with a crew of naval ratings. At 4ft 3ins her draft was too great to let her work comfortably off the beaches, so she must have ferried troops from the harbour. She suffered no major damage, but it was recorded that her fuel tanks were accidentally refilled with water. Bluebird's twin screws were fouled by debris and her engines stopped. She may have picked up one of the many army greatcoats discarded by soldiers to make it easier for them to swim to the rescuing ships.
Bluebird was finally towed back to England by HM Schuit Rika. After Dunkirk, for the rest of the war from 1942 onwards, she was used by No. 1 Water Transport Co., RASC based in Gourock, near Holy Loch. She was used for the movement of troops, food and equipment around various Coastal Artillery sites guarding the entrance to the River Clyde. She was also used for advanced navigation exercises based at Rothesay on the Isle of Butte. In 1943 she was used by the Orkney and Shetlands section RASC for the movement of personnel and equipment throughout the islands. She apparently finished the war being used for target towing and radar decoy work between Weymouth and Gosport, still in service with the RASC. Then, in 1984, she made another conquest. A new admirer took up with her, aware of the illustrious past and dormant beauty, but apparently blind to the enormity of what he was taking on!
Martin Summers, a dealer in impressionist paintings living in Chelsea, took his daughter along the embankment to Cadogan Pier where she asked him why they could not have a boat. Though no sailor himself, the idea appealed to him and he discussed it with his friend, Scott Beadle, an art director and experienced mariner. This was just the kind of assignment Scott enjoys and it was not long before he found the very thing. An advertisement in 'Yachting Monthly' described 'a beautiful yacht originally built for Sir Malcolm Campbell, lying in the South of France' and she appeared to be going cheap. Martin Summers became enthusiastic and within a few days, he and Scott Beadle were on their way to Grau du Roi in the Camargue to see the lady. What they found made their hearts sink. She was clearly in a very poor state and Scott, from his knowledge of boats, realised that the cost of restoring her would be prohibitive. But before they could abandon their idea, fate intervened. While they were aboard, their hire car had been broken into and all their money and possessions taken. They appealed for help to Bluebird's owner who consoled them so well that their optimism returned. In the middle of the night they went back to have another look at their dream. By the light of their headlamps, the ship looked far more romantic. They found a hatch open and climbed aboard and as the battery of their car began to run out, the depressing aspect of rotting wood faded, and they saw a vision of what might be. By now they had talked themselves into it.
Back in London, they appointed a surveyor who explained that the ship had been well built and its hull was sound, but that restoring her would not only be expensive, but would require skills which are no longer common. Martin Summers decided to buy Bluebird and found a delivery skipper, 'Ginge' Sargeant who, with only one engine working, started out for England. She leaked, she listed, but she limped home. Martin and Scott flew out several times to check on her progress. Finally, there only remained the English Channel which she had crossed so gallantly in 1940. As on that memorable occasion, she needed to be towed home again this time, when her second engine stopped.
At Poole, H & T Marine (Hiscock and Titterington) together with a team of superb craftsmen, took over. Her entire wheelhouse was decayed and there was serious rot in her stern. Little of the original interior panelling was intact and her electrics were dangerous. It was difficult to decide where to begin and where it would end, but Martin Summers is a perfectionist and he was determined. New plans were drawn up based on the original ones from a 1931 copy of 'Motorboat'. The entire wheelhouse was rebuilt, and a new transom was constructed. The large sliding sun-roof was improved to keep the water out and the after-deck was carefully redesigned to provide a large and elegant dining area with a folding table and varnished lockers which double as seats. A new clinker built dinghy of traditional design was added and swung from derricks at the stern. The hull was carefully shored up to preserve its elegant shape while the deck and beams were removed. New planks were fitted to the hull, the ribs were doubled up and strengthened and an entirely new teak deck was laid.
Martin Summers was now able to indulge his love of beautiful interiors. Helped by Gaynor Hill, an interior designer, at the time Scott Beadles' girl-friend and now his wife, they started on the galley, the saloon, the cabins and the bathroom. In the master cabin a ribbon-and-rose cotton chintz was used for both walls and bedding. The saloon sofa cushions and seats were covered in Peruvian fabrics from the High Andes.
A bath was constructed of mahogany panels with an ash inlay, made leak-proof by polyurethane varnish and they fitted brass taps to match the bronze portholes and gleaming door-knobs. In the galley, the varnished mahogany cabinets were supplemented by a modern kitchen worktop and a 240-volt domestic cooker as well as a microwave and freezer.
Scott Beadle took charge of the machinery and Graham Parker of the electrics. Her two Perkins diesels were entirely overhauled and a 10KVA 240-volt generator was added to supply the domestic equipment and charge her over-size batteries. The latest radio and navigation equipment were installed in the mahogany panelled wheelhouse, alongside the old brass compass and wooden wheel. Every handhold and window catch, every light fitting, hatch and porthole is in period and in impeccable taste. The floor throughout is covered in Persian rugs. When Bluebird was first built, it took Thornycroft’s 55 days. Her restoration in 1984 took a whole year and cost fifty times as much but then, when men of vision fall in love, they rarely count the cost!
Bluebird of Chelsea, as she was named when they relaunched her on 19th April 1986, like any wise and well- loved mistress, has repaid Martin Summers amply for his generosity and care. Lying at Cadogan Pier, in the heart of London and only a few hundred yards from his beautiful Chelsea home, Bluebird has opened a new dimension in his life. The world looks quite different from a small boat than from land or from an ocean liner. Strangely, she spent much of her time at Cadogan Pier in Malcolm Campbell's day. Martin Summers has cruised many of the Dutch and French canals, has taken her to Paris 6 times and to the lochs of Scotland plus many trips along the North coast of France - more than 30,000nm in total.
Bluebird has given Martin Summers access to more than just the world of cruising. Through her, he has become one of a very exclusive circle far removed from his world of modern art. The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships is quite different from any ordinary yacht club. It is the ship which qualifies you for membership. Only owners of authentic Dunkirk Little Ships can join. But that is the only qualification. Wealth, connections and social class are considered totally irrelevant.
Among the members are cockle fishermen, Thames firemen, ship-wrights and garage mechanics. There is a spirit among members of the Association which makes it quite unique. They treat their ships with a kind of reverence and all of the owners make great sacrifices for them, in time and money. They all share the belief that the Little Ships of Dunkirk should never be allowed to die and yet few would wish them to become museum pieces like vintage cars or sought-after rarities to be auctioned at Sotheby's.
They prefer to keep them active, to live real lives, as close as can be to their original purpose. More people are desperately needed with the vision and the enthusiasm of Martin Summers, and the practical and design skills of Scott Beadle to take pity on some seemingly doomed Dunkirk Little Ships, sunk and derelict on our rivers and shores, with not much time before they are broken up. The legend itself will never die, but wooden boats are vulnerable to the elements and need people to cherish and preserve them.
This vessel is one featured individually on a series of stamps called 'Little Ships of Dunkirk'. These were issued in Palau in 2015 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Operation Dynamo.
Updated: April 2018.