The Restoration of ‘Stroppy’ – the prototype Sprog
Plus An Appeal for A Permanent Place to Display Her
by Frans Loots
I could clearly recall seeing a sailing dinghy on display at the Port Elizabeth Museum when we went there on primary school museum day outings. And I especially remember how we would shove the tiller backwards and forwards despite the “no touching” signs. I also remembered that the tiller extension was made out of cane – just like the headmaster used for whacking the standard 5 boys if we caused trouble in art class.
Because I would read the SA Yachting magazines at the municipal library I knew that the boat in the Museum was a Sprog. That’s all I knew. It was a Sprog. Primary school boys don’t read signs in museums.
If I had read the supporting display inscriptions I would have learnt that the boat was ‘Stroppy’ the prototype Sprog which Herbert McWilliams designed while serving as a rating in the Royal Navy during World War II.
But fast forward by about 40 years and a visit to the museum with our young children. While they were checking out dinosaurs I sneaked off to go and look at the Sprog again. But the boat was gone! And that is where I left matters. Until early last year.
I started making enquiries about the boat’s whereabouts and the very friendly Curator of Displays advised me that the boat was still there, but in storage in the basement of the Museum complex. She was very accommodating and agreed that I could come to Port Elizabeth and view the boat.
This we did and on entering the basement – and there she lay. The rig, complete with sails still attached to the mast, boom and forestay, simply dumped in a pile resembling a boat which had just been dismasted. Pigeon poo on the dusty decks, a computer key board in the cockpit – you get the idea? And flaky paint, corroding screws pushing up the paint, gunwales looking like the family dog had eaten it, bits of washing line tied to the sails and rig. All in all, just a big mess.
My initial inspection revealed that the boat was complete except for the jib sheets and the whisker pole. The hull was in bad nick, but not too far gone. And then I stuck my neck out. I offered to remove the boat, take it home to St Francis Bay and restore it back to display condition at my own expense. There was just no ways I could leave such an important part of our sailing history lying there in a heap.
But I coiled the mainsheet before I left.
Richard Crockett of SAILING Magazine gave me a reference in support, and the Museum agreed to the removal of the boat on condition that it was painted in exactly the same colours as before.
At the time it was made clear to me that the Museum did not have space for the boat to be put on display again, and that another possible home will have to be found for the boat if it was to go back onto display.
Undeterred I took my son and a young friend and we went to fetch the boat in PE on a Friday afternoon. We lifted and tilted and pushed and shoved the dusty old ‘Stroppy’ past various bits of redundant museum displays, plaster of paris models in build, stuffed penguins etc and up some stairs and all of a sudden she was out into the sunlight again.
Then followed a nerve racking time in Friday afternoon rush hour traffic with one of the last remaining bits of South Africa’s sailing heritage in tow behind the car.
Once home in St Francis Bay I could do a proper inspection and plan the job ahead.
First thing was to clear the rigging from the mast and get that and the boom stored on the mast rack in the garage. Of all the gear, the mast and boom were in the best condition, beautiful straight grained Oregon pine spars.
The rudder stock was badly delaminated and had been repaired in the past. The rudder blade itself was a heavy metal plate (took the scale to 6 kilos when subsequently weighed!) and rusting.
The plywood on the deck was delaminating on a number of spots and badly scratched. Cockpit bulkheads also showed areas of delamination. Most of the fittings were attached with either mild steel screws or chromed screws which were causing havoc with the surrounding wood.
Flipping the boat over revealed the worst bit. Again it was a case of corroding fasteners causing the damage. The keelson had also taken a beating and would require a lot of attention to repair. The hull sides were in pretty bad shape with flaking paint and exposed timber.
At this stage I had to get my head around how to approach the job on hand. A number of people who were friends of Herbert McWilliams had learnt about the boat being removed from the museum and raised their concerns that any work being done on the boat would destroy the character of the boat as it was when McWilliams donated it to the Museum. This concern as well as the general condition of the boat would guide me going forwards with the job.
I had secretly hoped that I could take the boat out for a gentle sail once completed, but the condition of the plywood and some suspect fittings and cotton sail soon put paid to that idea.
Renovate, restore, preserve, or repair?
They all have very different meanings. I am not quite sure which is which. And so I set to work. My objective was simply to retain the unique character of ‘Stroppy’, and to repair what was broken, spruce her up with a new paint and varnish job, polish up the few fittings and tidy up the rig and sails.
And all of the above start off with sandpaper. Lots of it! This kind of job is 95% sanding and 5% fixing and painting.
But before any of that started, fittings were removed where at all possible. A 1946 sailing dinghy does not have many. Jib fairleads, rudder fittings, 3 chainplates and a becket for the mainsheet block on the cockpit floor. That’s it! No cleats, no boom vang, nothing to adjust this or that.
Something of interest, Herbert McWilliams soon learnt that the plywood was not waterproof, thus the delamination of bulkheads and decks. The boat also started leaking and to fix this he taped all the chines, the keelson and hull to deck joints with 40mm cotton strip soaked in paint. In this day and age it would have been 200gram f/g cloth and epoxy.
Anyway, the bottom was sanded, filled, sanded some more, undercoats painted on, sanded some more and then the top coats applied. All to the original colour schemes. White bottom, blue and green boot topping and a mustardy colour onto the sides. The most difficult part was the back and forth to the paint suppliers to get the shades 100% correct.
The cockpit was an easy job, a thorough sanding followed by some varnish work and green paint. Sadly the two tubular self-bailers had been removed. I suspect that the designer kept them for his next Sprog. There was no indication that the crew had toe straps, only for the helmsman. The centreboard case and board differs slightly from those found on the present day Sprogs. The centreboard had been painted with silver aluminium paint so it was given the same treatment again, complete with numbers indicating board depth.
Of interest is that the boat sports a canvass tube which runs below the foredeck from the forward cockpit bulkhead. This is for stowing the whisker pole.
The deck received the same treatment as the hull. Sand, fill, sand. Followed by varnish work and painting. And lots of sanding in between.
The deck detail is very different from the Sprog as we know it. There is a proper cockpit coaming which will give you numb legs within seconds of hiking out. The coamings come together just aft of the mast step in the form of a raised deck breakwater.
The mast step is some 300 mm long to allow for the rig to be moved forward and the boat to be sailed mainsail only.
The rudder stock was badly damaged and delaminating. Here I cheated a bit and did a modern day epoxy repair and some micro balloon fairing. Oh, I also used some epoxy and micro balloon to fair in the worst of the delamination on the hull and deck. I could think of no other solution – sorry Hebert!
I was pleased that the cane tiller extension (the same one which we manhandled 50 years previously) had survived. Once varnished it looked quite the business. I also restored the original Perspex letters which spelt out the boat’s name on the aft deck. Once that was back in place I felt happy that old ‘Stroppy’ was going to be just fine again.
Working on a boat’s rig is always the bit I like most, and it was the same with ‘Stroppy’s’. The spars sanded clean very nicely and were give about 4 or 5 coats of varnish. The fittings were removed prior to sanding and these were polished up and refitted. Of interest is that none of the fittings were through bolted. The mast is a beautiful piece of work and weighs quite a bit less if compared to our family’s aluminium Sonnet mast.
The rig is simple, two shrouds and a forestay. Sheaves for two halyards and two small wooden halyard cleats. And a separate burgee halyard sheave and cleat! And the gooseneck fitting and hound fittings. That’s it.
The boom only has a becket for the two part mainsheet block and a small wooden cleat at the very aft end for the clew. No indication of ever having had a boom vang fitted.
That only left the Egyptian cotton sails to be attended to. The set of sails which came with the boat was not ‘Stroppy’s’ original sails. Stroppy’s sail number was Z15, The Z indicating Zwartkops Yacht Club and the 15 a club fleet number. For the correct sail number and class insignia I contacted Rick Nankin at North Sails and they kindly donated a set for the boat.
The folk at North have strong connections with the Sprog class. Rick Nankin, Geoff and Steve Meek and Etienne van Kuyck have all taken National and Provincial Sprog titles over the years, and gives cred to the old saying back in the day that your status in South African dinghy sailing depended on whether you had won the Sprog nationals.
I must also make mention of the rather unique set of launching wheels designed by McWilliams. The two wheels clip onto little catches just aft of the chainplates. Once the boat is launched they would be shipped and stored in special brackets on the cockpit floor, ready for re attachment after sailing. They weigh a ton and I doubt if today’s sailors would tolerate the weight.
Ditto for the steel rudder blade.
So it came that we could step Stroppy’s mast again and bend on the sails which looked rather splendid after a good wash in the bath. With a nice stretch of water a mere 50 meters away and the gentle breeze tugging at the sails there was this huge urge for me to slip her in for a quick sail for old times sake. I looked at the boat, I looked at the water. I looked at the boat again and thought to hell with the consequences, slip her in and take a spin. But then I remembered those suspect fittings and the delaminated frames and the creaking sounds which emanated from deep inside the hull during the reno job.
I wisely realised that I could go down in history as the guy who sunk the history.
Sadly old ‘Stroppy’ will not be able to sail again.
Now with ‘Stroppy’ back in the pink all that remains is to find a suitable venue to display the boat again. The one possible display venue was declined at a very late stage of the project. As things stand now she is heading back into storage at the museum. That will be a great pity, but at least we have managed to halt the deterioration of the boat and she is now good for quite a number of years to come.
APPEAL. This is an earnest appeal to everyone concerned and interested in preserving the history of our sport, to assist in finding a permanent home in the Port Elizabeth area for ‘Stroppy’.
As her designer, Herbert McWilliams, lived in the Zwartkops area, and built ‘Stroppy’ there, it is probably best that she continues to stay in her ‘home’ area.
However, I am sure that the curators of the museum where she now rests, fully restored, would consider alternatives, as may the many ‘friends of Stroppy’ who ensured that she was rescued and restored to her former glory.
Thoughts, comments and solutions to: firstname.lastname@example.org
INDEBTEDNESS. Frans Loots deserves immense praise and thanks for having undertaken this project and restoring ‘Stroppy’ to her original glory. This was months of painstaking work, dedication and the good sense needed to understand how important our sailing history is, and how it needs to be retained. Well done Frans.