Richardson Little Giant (1936)
When I first started the restoration project of this 1936/7 Richardson Little Giant model, I had no idea that the Old Lady would change my life forever. My previous boat restoration projects had become a tedious task, same old this, and same old that. The wooden boat brought a welcome change and she was soon to be christened “The Ark”.
As we proceeded to strip away the old paint and previous repairs, she revealed all her rot. She hadn’t seen water for a great number of years and what timber she had left was so dry that the calking was dropping out at the merest touch. The bow leader and most of the keel was so badly rotten that it turned to powder as soon as it dried out after stripping away the outer layer of old fibreglass.
A further complication of the dry wood and rot was that the entire craft had become structurally unstable, and I was loath to proceed with structural repairs until the hull was more stable. The decision was taken to coat the entire hull with two layers of fibreglass tissue after re-calking was done. After that, the bow leader and keel were replaced with new timber, and a number of bilge formers were repaired or replaced. I felt that the craft was structurally sound. We could now replace all rotten planking and re-fibre the bottom.As the project had come to me via an agent, it was only around this time that I finally met the owners of the boat. It soon became apparent that Rosheen and Ian attached great sentimental value to the boat, and I had started sharing those exact same sentiments towards her. I have a tendency to get these feeling for well-built, vintage things, like buildings, cars, and of course, boats.
This compelled me to do some research as we had no idea of the age or model of the craft. It soon became apparent that we were dealing with a Richardson Little Giant and most probably a 1936/7 model. The history of the Richardson brand was most compelling as they had developed a rather unique marketing strategy. The boats were built during winter and fitted according to the client’s specifications. During the following springtime, the craft was delivered to its new owners who would take it on its maiden voyage from North Tonawanda to New York, via the Erie Canal and down the Hudson River – over a distance of five hundred miles. Along the route, various stop-over destinations would welcome the new sailors with great fan-fair and ensure that a festive atmosphere prevailed. What a way to spend your spring holidays! To think that I had the privilege to work on a boat constructed over seventy years ago by craftsmen that lived and worked (and loved boats) even before the Second World War! Needless to say, I learned that Rosheen’s family had raced wooden boats during the same time, and that the boat was to be named after her Mother. I had fallen hopelessly in love with the aged but fair Lady June. By now I had to come to terms with a new problem, that of authenticity.
Most Richardson hulls were painted white but the superstructure remained unpainted. This boat was to be blue and white with precious little of the original timber showing. Upon learning the prices of quality American timber in South Africa, I shelved the idea of attempting an authentic wooden boat refurbishment on this craft. New buoyancy regulations compelled me to fill the bilges with polyurethane foam, and extensive use was made of fibreglass products to strengthen and seal the timber construction below the waterline. As mentioned, the hull was coated with two layers of fibreglass tissue, allowing for the individual planking to show and the “feel” of the boat to remain. Thus, she looked the part and was now far stronger and safer than ever before.
The three-cylinder Yanmar motor was removed and serviced and all injectors refurbished. This specific motor didn’t have a sump plug, and oil changes were notoriously problematic. I proceeded to remove the sump and created a sump pick-up which I piped under the motor toward the front with a stopcock and permanently fitted an electric pump. This will ensure effortless oil changes in future. The gearbox was inspected and found to be in good shape, after which the drive shaft, propeller and rudder were removed. Upon inspection, it was found the drive shaft bushes were out of round by more than a millimetre. All bushes were replaced with Vesconite, and a centre carrier bush with water seals was designed and manufactured.
I got hold of photographs of other Richardson boats in America and Canada, and it became apparent that the styling was quite individual and that a wide range of finishes and fittings were used. At the time I learned that this 25-ft Little Giant was deemed to be the only left-hand Little Giant in existence, according to the MHA (Maritime Heritage Alliance) – making her far more collectable and valuable than previously thought.
This allowed me some artistic freedom that led to some amazing finds of period fittings. Thus began the more fulfilling aspect of the job. The superstructure and hull were painted and suddenly the boat came alive. In certain cases, fittings had to be designed and manufactured for specific applications.
A new diving platform with stainless steel ladder was fitted. In order to board the boat from the rear, the platform was canter-levered inside the hull, thus eliminating the need for carrier brackets and allowing the platform to overhang the mooring jetty. My favourite addition was the pennant mast, manufactured from solid Meranti and hinged to allow access to the boathouse. Whilst it was important to keep the vessel authentic in style and quality, I deemed it as important to modernize the amenities. The entire boat was re-wired, with dual long-life batteries fitted, onboard charger, fridge, courtesy lights, navigation lights, sound system and bilge pumps.
All electronic equipment was hidden and even the fridge was hand-built into the original cooler compartment, retaining the beautiful 75 year old doors. Extensive use was made of LED lighting and more than 200 m of new electric cabling was laid. Long time friend and electrician, Louis Nel, did a stellar job on the electrical installation!
The original galley was converted into a bar with shelving for bottles and glasses, and the name of the vessel inlaid in solid brass. A handmade brass light fitting was sourced to complement the area. The next step was to satisfy the requirements of Maritime Law. As stated, buoyancy foam had been installed. A total of 60 kg of raw product with an expansion ratio tallied a total of 1 200 litres of buoyancy. This is enough to carry a vessel of four metric tons, and Lady June only weighs in at a trim 1 900 kg.
The Lady performed her first water test on 30th of November 2011, eight and a half months after she was delivered to me. Despite some teething problems with the rudder, all aspects of the craft performed well, and in some cases far better than my expectation. I was most impressed with the amount of power generated by the Yanmar motor and even more impressed by her stability and general demeanour on the water. On 2nd of December 2011, she went home for the first time. After 15 long years since she was previously registered, the 75-year old wooden import from America did a three hour trip down the Vaal River, from Sam Gross in Three Rivers, to Millionaires Bend, without missing a beat. To me, it was an epic journey, one that started with a quotation and ended with an understanding of the magnitude of the feeling her first owner must have had when leaving Lake Tonawanda for New York, long before I was born.