Tender Care for Elderly Launch

Complex Move Brings War ‘Veteran’ to New Home

By Kate Jones

World War II veteran Rescue Motor Launch 497, or RML 497, now calls Hartlepool on the North Sea coast of the UK home.

After a long and varied life on the water, the launch was moved to The National Museum of the Royal Navy Hartlepool, or NMRN Hartlepool, ahead of a conservation program to display it at the museum on a permanent basis.

Constructed in 1941, the vessel is an 81-ton, 34-meter-long Fairmile B motor launch – a type of small military vessel in British Royal Navy service, built by boatbuilder Fairmile Marine, during World War II, for the Royal Navy for coastal operations. According to the NMRN, the boat undertook service all over the UK during World War II, rescuing downed British Royal Air Force pilots, training soldiers from the British Commandos and undertaking a Commandos raid on the Channel Islands. After the war, in 1947, the ship became a passenger ferry, carrying people for many years on the waters of the south of England.

NMRN acquired RML 497 in 2015, and last year, planning permission was granted for the launch to be located at NMRN Hartlepool. The vessel had been moved to Southampton, located on the South coast of England, for a lift out of the water to perform a survey and was unable to make the journey to Hartlepool under its own power due to its fragile condition. The launch therefore needed to be moved to Hartlepool via barge — an operation which took place in January this year.

Cradle to Grave
Two and a half years were spent planning the move, with a number of attempts being made to move the motor launch prior to the successful transportation. An initial challenge for the NMRN was who they could contract to undertake the project. The NMRN historic ships department’s contacts in maritime logistics were found to be lacking, according to Arabella Roberts, NMRN’s historic ships manager.

“We couldn’t simply call on a couple of people that we knew because we didn’t really have that network, so it was quite difficult from our point of view at the start, just to make sure that we were contacting the right people,” Roberts said.

French engineering, project management and consultancy company Artelia was hired last year as project manager for the move and oversaw it in its entirety, as well as the construction of a temporary building to house RML 497 once it had arrived at NMRN Hartlepool. As the venture was a public, fully funded project, the firm had to go out to the marketplace to find its contractor. In September last year, it chose UK-headquartered Robert Wynn and Sons Ltd., or RWSL, for the move due to the suitability of its solution. It proposed floating RML 497 into a heavy-lift, roll-on/roll-off semi-submersible barge, the Terra Marique, to move the launch to Hartlepool.
“Other companies that we looked at were talking about using cranes and that kind of thing, which obviously would put a lot of pressure on the vessel,” said Ross MacAskill, project manager for Artelia UK.

Some Extra Lift
The vessel was prepared for loading into the barge at Williams Shipping’s facilities at the Port of Southampton. This required it to be towed there from a pontoon on the River Itchen (which flows down to Southampton) — the vessel’s first movement in three years. Before the tow, a waste oil barge came alongside the pontoon to remove fuel and oil from RML 497 so it wouldn’t pose an environmental risk if it sank while being towed. Additionally, during planning for the move, there was notification from the Harbor Master at the Port of Southampton of a need for secondary buoyancy because of the boat’s fragility. In a previous movement of a historic vessel on the River Itchen, that vessel had sunk in the channel and become a navigational obstruction. Therefore, RWSL rented 60 tons of buoyancy bags and placed them inside the boat to offer extra buoyancy if the boat started to take on water while being towed.

A bespoke, 45-tonne steel cradle, manufactured by Malin Marine Consultants from Glasgow in Scotland, was constructed at the Port of Southampton to support the motor launch.

“During the planning phase of the project, it was discovered that there were no dedicated lifting points on the cradle, and that in order to achieve sufficient clearance between the keel of RML 497 and the support cradle once it had been lifted onto Terra Marique, the cradle had to be loaded directly onto the deck,” Sally Weston, RWSL group engineer, noted. “RWSL was contracted to design and fabricate suitable jacking lugs that could be retrofitted to the cradle once it had been delivered, as the design stage of the support cradle had ended with the cradle designers.”

The cradle was lifted into the Terra Marique’s cargo hold, overcoming gusting winds, by a 500-ton crane, and subsequently welded onto the barge so it didn’t move during transit. RML 497’s fragile state meant that to support the hull enough once out of the water in the purpose-built cradle, internal bracings were needed to preserve the hull’s integrity and, after recommendations from naval architects on the location of the bracings, RWSL chose to use Acrow props with wooden bracings.

Going Under
The Terra Marique was semi-submerged to receive RML 497 in an operation that took more than six hours and was not without its challenges.

“As RML 497 was to remain in the support cradle permanently, positioning during docking was crucial, and because of this and the fragile nature of the vessel it was decided that she should be pulled into position on board Terra Marique by hand to provide the greatest level of control while minimizing the forces involved,” Weston recalled. “This required two teams of personnel, one on board Terra Marique and the other on board RML 497, in constant radio communication to line up RML 497 with several reference points that had been marked on Terra Marique, corresponding with the submerged support cradle on the deck of the barge’s cargo hold. Under instruction of the load master on board RML 497, the vessel was successfully guided into position and monitored closely during the whole operation, from entry into the barge to final pump-out of the cargo hold.

“The draft of RML 497 versus that of Terra Marique was such that the central keel block at the after end of the support cradle had to be removed during the float-in of RML 497,” Weston added. “This meant that divers were required to refit the block once RML 497 was in position, which turned out to be fortuitous as during the docking operation, she was initially landed into the cradle but did not sit correctly, and she had to be refloated in order to alter her position.”

When the vessel landed for a second time, it was discovered that part of a block had become detached, meaning the launch would not have been able to dock safely. It was therefore refloated again to let divers reposition the block, and on try No. 3, it was docked safely and to the client’s satisfaction.

The water within the Terra Marique was then pumped out and the vessel and cradle were secured before a journey up England’s east coast to the Port of Hartlepool. However, on pump-out of the barge, it was found that significant keel-degradation had occurred and that due to the hull’s position in the cradle side blocks, a minimal length of the vessel’s keel was in contact with the keel blocks – which, had action not been taken to spread the load, had the potential to place extreme pressure through the hull at the side blocks. To spread the load, every other keel block had to be released from the cradle, raised using hydraulic jacks and secured in position using wooden blocks and welded steel sections. This additional work delayed the Terra Marique’s departure from Southampton.

Weston said: “On reflection, it has become clear that for future projects docking vessels of a similar hull shape to RML 497, it would be beneficial for divers to be arranged in order to perform final checks before fully pumping the water out of Terra Marique’s cargo hold, as had the vessel been docked with the dislodged cradle block, there would have been significant potential for damage to the hull, especially considering the fragile condition of RML 497.”

A Stretch of Road
After a few days of delay at Southampton to ensure the vessel was totally supported by the cradle and to wait for weather conditions to improve, the 400-mile sea passage to Hartlepool took four days to complete. However, the RML 497’s arrival at the Port of Hartlepool was not the end of its journey, as the vessel then had to be transported by road to NMRN Hartlepool in a mile-long journey. RWSL subcontracted UK-headquartered heavy transport and lifting firm ALE for this part of the move.

“There was very limited space onboard the Terra Marique, and as the vessel was so fragile, it needed to be handled very delicately,” said David Trigg, ALE project manager. “We also needed to minimize street furniture removals to avoid as much disruption to the public as possible. We wanted to find a solution that removed the need for an expensive crane.”

ALE designed and fabricated 16 bespoke brackets, which it fitted on the cradle surrounding the launch. These allowed RML 497 to be jacked up evenly from within the barge’s hold, using 16 50-ton capacity climbing jacks and avoided any extra strain being put on it. In all, 16 axle lines of self-propelled trailer were then driven under RML 497, and ALE performed a ro-ro operation to load the launch onto the dock. RML 497 was then loaded onto a self-propelled trailer, or SPT, with a single powerpack, constructed by ALE before the vessel arrived in Hartlepool, as one of the challenges of the move was ensuring that the vessel was ready in Hartlepool so that a weekend booking with the police as an escort for the road move remained valid.

“We were able to source a large enough quantity of climbing jacks so that the vessel could be lifted evenly, and our computerized system ensured all the jacks operated in sync to provide a safe and accurate lifting operation,” Trigg said. “For the transportation phase of the project, we benefitted from the use of the SPT, which was very stable and had great maneuverability.”

The route to the museum was mainly along a public highway, with the heavy haulage transportation planned in detail. It was arranged for a Sunday morning, when there would be less traffic, to minimize disruption to the public. Once at the museum, the SPT was positioned in the already-assembled, purpose-built, temporary building. ALE jacked the launch down using 16 50-ton hydraulic jacks to install it in the building ready for restoration work.

Looking Back
MacAskill credited the move’s contractors, as well as coordination between the different parties involved in the move, for overcoming budget and timescale issues concerning the project. Roberts said that lessons learned from the move related to the issues of procurement, money and purpose. She also highlighted communication as overcoming challenges presented by the transportation, a sentiment that was echoed by Weston and Trigg, who noted that good communication aided ALE’s role in the move.

But more important than that, this historic motor launch made it in one piece to the museum where it is now displayed, telling the rich naval story of the coastal forces in the North Sea.

“We got the outcome that we desired,” Roberts said. “That vessel is safe and sound up in Hartlepool, in a building and out of the water, and that is all we wanted.” 

Kate Jones is a specialist port and shipping reporter based in the UK.

Image credit: ALE