Shropshire Star

Shropshire's David has proud Dunkirk day after restoring £30,000 cruiser

When David Shotton started his big restoration project, paying over the odds for an unseaworthy old pleasure cruiser, wife Trish was not on board.


"He bought it without any consultation. It didn't go down very well. It was not a very good start," she said.

And when David got to have a good look at his £30,000 acquisition, he realised he had a far bigger restoration job on his hands than he had realised.

"He didn't dare to show it to me when he discovered how rotten it was. It was a long time before I saw it," said Trish.

"She would have freaked," said David.

Built: Holland, 1937.

Length: 43ft.

Tonnage: 15 tons.

Powerplant (current): Two refurbished Gardner engines.

But this was no ordinary pleasure cruiser. It was one of the legendary "little ships" which took part in the epic evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk in June 1940.

The story has a triumphant end because David realised his dream of having the Marsayru ready in time to join a flotilla of the "little ships" taking part in a 75th anniversary crossing to Dunkirk in May.

By this time Trish was very much aboard and part of the crew, along with their eldest son Dan and three local men who had helped with the restoration, making it very much a team effort.

Now the 43ft boat is back at their home at Ditton Priors and more adventures will beckon once the last part of the restoration – the fitting-out of the interior – is completed.

A pre-war picture of the pleasure cruiser Marsayru, a 'Dunkirk little ship.

For 71-year-old David it all began when a friend gave him a book about Dunkirk by David Divine, who had crossed the English Channel in his 35ft boat to rescue British soldiers.

"I read the book and was really taken by the situation in 1940, the Dunkirk spirit and what the little boats did. I thought 'Wouldn't it be nice to have one of these boats and do a return trip?'. Then I thought that I liked boats and working with antiques, and that if I renovated one it would be a really worthwhile thing to do."

He began to look for a suitable boat to do up.

"I had known about the Marsayru for some years. The fact it's steel attracts me. I knew it had been laid up, but I had assumed it had been sold. It was in Brittany and the owner had died and his widow Yvonne couldn't sell it and she brought it back to Margate."

Crowds wave off the flotilla of Little Ships as they head for France for the 75th anniversary of Operation Dynamo

Making inquiries and learning that despite being advertised the boat had not sold, he went to view it.

"It was unseaworthy, and was a project. When I got it home and started poking around, I realised how much work was ahead of me. I loved the shape. I could see it was going to be a nice sea boat. The headroom throughout attracted me – I'm 6ft and can walk anywhere on that boat. It had this amazing history.

"It was skippered in 1940 by (actor) Sir Laurence Olivier's brother Gerrard Oliver, who was known as Dickie. I'd been talking to his wife, who has just died in her 90s. She lived in Plymouth and was able to confirm certain things. It went over to Dunkirk with a very capable engineer called Cyril Coggins. The boat got machine-gunned by four Messerschmitts for half an hour, but they couldn't hit it and then three Hurricanes turned up and they vanished. It recovered at least 400 soldiers from the beach and transferred them to other ships anchored two and a half miles offshore.

Troops seen climbing on board rescue boats during the evacuation of Dunkirk in June 1940

"The propellers got fouled up on several occasions with rope. Presumably. Cyril Coggins cleared them – and the only way to do that is to jump in with a carving knife and cut away.

"Then I presume it was low on fuel, and they towed it back to Dover. During the night the tow rope broke and they couldn't find the boat – all those aboard had been transferred to a bigger boat. It was found at 4am the next day by a naval lieutenant who started it up and took it back into Dunkirk. It was filled up with soldiers and towed to Dover. When it returned to Dover Olivier said 'that's my boat', fuelled it up, and went back with Coggins for another session. He got the Distinguished Service Medal and Coggins was mentioned in dispatches."

That was the boat David bought in October 2012. "It was such a big project which needed so much doing. I could appreciate it had a really good story, and that's what he bought – the story, not so much the boat. He didn't think hard enough about the boat," said Trish.

Marsayru had been built in Holland in 1937, a 15-ton pleasure cruiser which, before the war, sailed on the Broads and the Medway estuary. The owner was Charles Wyatt and the name Marsayru is a blend of the names of his daughters Marjorie, Sadie, and Yvonne, and his second wife Ruby.

David said: "The engines had both had their day. The hull had got huge holes in it. When I shotblasted on it, I blew holes in it as big as a kitchen table. The decks were finished, leaking like a sieve, and the wheelhouse was made of concrete and body filler and had to be replaced. The wiring was terrible. The exterior didn't look too bad, but the boat was going rotten from the inside out.

"But the ribs were good, which is pretty important."

The 'little ships' moored in the harbour during a military parade through Dunkirk in May

It was not David's first boat restoration, and his approach is perhaps an object lesson to all restorers and DIY-ers who think they have bitten off more than they can chew.

"The thing with these projects is that if you break them down into several parts, you can cope. If you look at the whole thing as a big picture, you walk away. It's the same with a car – when you're doing a vintage car up you break it down into engine, body, chassis, running gear. You renovate each part as you come up to it.

"I did have a lot of help. I had a friend of my son's who is an absolutely superb welder, Tim Roper, from Blackford, near Wheathill. He was up for the job and threw himself into it with great enthusiasm.

"There was another lad, Luke Edwards, from Stoke St Milborough, who put a lot of his own time in." Among others who were part of the restoration story were blacksmith Christy Tindall and Dominic Grosvenor.

"He's a local man with a foundry in Wolverhampton. Very early in the renovation I didn't have any suitable bronze bollards, the things you tie the boat up with. Dominic is a can-do man and took a pattern of a broken bollard and cast four beautiful bollards and fairleads for me, complimentary. I found this a real boost."

The 'little ships' moored in the harbour during a military parade through Dunkirk in May

The launch was at Stourport.

"Everybody came down and watched, all expecting it to sink."

In fact, he says, it didn't leak a drop. Marsayru had last been on the water on the French canals in about 2000, and had done a previous returned trip to Dunkirk, in 1990, for the 50th anniversary of the evacuation.

David would typically work on the boat 10 hours a day, with one day a week off, and all the time had a deadline in mind – that of having it ready for this year's 75th anniversary trip.

"If I had missed that, the whole idea would have fallen flat on its face. I wanted to be there and wanted everyone to come and have a good time. And by God they did, and I did, and everything couldn't have been better."

Although still not finished inside, the original upholstery was given a clean and it was made habitable for the crossing.

"I said I wasn't going without the sink and toilet working. I was the only lady aboard," said Trish.

"We ended up really quite comfortable."

David said: "I've had a lot of encouragement along the way to keep me going. We have done this fantastic trip, all the family are up for it, and looking forward to the next phase. The idea is to finish the fitting-out this winter, and relaunch it in the spring. Where, I'm not sure. The boat is still in primer – it hasn't been painted properly yet. "

The full crew on the Dunkirk trip was David and Trish, eldest son Dan, with Tim Roper, Luke Edwards of Stoke St Milborough, and Duke Lawley from Alveley, all of whom helped on the project. On the way back they were joined by naval trainee Lauren Parsons, of Southampton.

David is a member of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships.

"It's £25 a year but you have to have a little ship. It's about the most exclusive club you can have for eccentrics."

Born in Stourbridge in October 1943 and brought up in Quinton, his father Phil was a metallurgist in an iron foundry in Oldbury. Leaving school at 16, David went into a metal tube factory at Oldbury and it was while there that something happened which indirectly led to him having a career at sea.

"I had a horrendous accident on a centre lathe which gave me 12 months off work. I had to have my large intestine removed, patched up, and put back in.

"I was 16. Something came off the lathe, hit me in the stomach, and perforated my duodenum. The doctors in the hospital did not twig this – they thought it was bruising. It was just a big bruise.

"Actually my intestines were leaking all the time. I was at death's door, literally. The doctors couldn't understand it."

His skin had not been penetrated, but luckily eventually he was operated on, and after a slow recovery he returned to the factory, "thin as a rake", and was put in the wages office.

"It was right alongside the canal in Oldbury and the barges were going up and down – this is 1961 – taking coke to Brierley Hill blast furnace. I looked at the barges and thought 'That's what I'll do – join the Navy and buzz off'. And that's what I did."

He joined the Merchant Navy, taking a five-year marine engineering apprenticeship with Port Line, a Cunard subsidiary. It included two years at sea, during which he was to travel the world.

"It was terrific. I loved the job."

In his final year at marine college he met Trish through mutual friends. She lived in West Hagley and went to school in Stourbridge. He decided to marry, and not pursue a maritime career. At first they lived in Halesowen.

He had several jobs and then started planting small trees on motorways and bypasses as a subcontractor for a big nursery. This expanded to grass seeding and his firm is still in existence, run by his sons, doing work like levelling sports fields, drainage and landscaping. His handiwork has changed the landscape.

"There are trees in Kidderminster like this (holding his hands to indicate huge trunk girth). I planted those as a sapling."

Wanting a more rural lifestyle, the couple moved to Ditton Priors in south Shropshire 47 years ago.

David's previous renovations included being in a partnership doing up a 70ft Scottish fishing trawler.

"I had my hips done in about 2001 and had to sell it."

Then there's a 1935 35ft cabin cruiser called Bonsano, which he still has.

"I renovated that but it took me ages because I got ill in the early part of the renovation. I got throat cancer which, touch wood, I'm a survivor of."

As for the latest restoration of Marsayru, it has taken a lot of time and effort but he does not think of his project in terms of monetary cost.

He said: "To be quite honest I haven't added it up – and I'm not going to because it's irrelevant."

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