Motorboat Monday: The Military Houseboats of the River Deben

As people search ever harder for affordable housing it is hardly surprising that living on water is becoming more and more popular. Houseboats have been a thing for centuries, but as they increase in number they increase even more in variety from purpose built barges through to converted hulks.  Generations of hulls have seen out their lives as houseboats; anything still buoyant is ripe for conversion. Among the floating sheds, though, you still find the occasional gem.
Decommissioned military vessels used to be a common starting point for low-cost river living; after WWII they were disposed of in great number and could be snapped up for very little outlay. The vast majority have by now disintegrated and been consumed by the mud, but on a recent walk along the banks of the Deben, I was delighted to note that some remain being loved and looked after.

I guess the likelihood of their survival is linked with their size and ease of maintenance. The first two vessels in these photos are of similar sizes, approximately 68′ overall, big enough to offer a decent amount of volume below decks, small enough not to make the challenge of keeping it watertight completely insurmountable.
I was able to trace the history of this vessel thanks to the fantastic website of the RAF Air-Sea Rescue and Marine Craft Section Club, after confirming its identity by searching posts on the British Military Powerboat Trust forum. It’s pennant number 2605, a high speed air-sea rescue launch built by the British Powerboat Company in 1942.
It would have originally been propelled by three Napier Sea Lions, marinized variants of the V12 engine seen in  the Napier-Railton world speed record car among other amazing things. Looking at it even today it’s difficult not to imagine it roaring across the waves at a (probably conservative) rated top speed of 28.5 knots, its hard-chined hull planing from crest to crest.
What awesome machines they were, and it’s incredible to consider how many of them there once were. It’s heartening to note that 2605 has been out of the water for considerable re-planking in recent years and looks like having a presence on the water for a good few years yet.
I’ve been less successful in tracing the identity of this one, even though what is presumably a pennant number is marked boldly on the hull sides. The superstructure is presumably completely non-original but the hull looks to be similar in size and form.
Named “Astral” she looks to be well maintained though sources tell me that some of her internal bulkheads have been removed so restoration to full sea-going condition is probably now edging closer to infeasible than merely unlikely.
However, a little further downriver is one boat that I know still has a chance to get up and go, at least if the noises I once heard her making are anything to go by.
Now, I have absolutely no idea what this boat started life as. She has very little freeboard and looks like she could be extremely quick on the plane. She sounds that way too; the open cockpit shows just the one throttle but I would guess it’s linked to a very large and potent diesel engine.  What was she? I’m guessing some kind of fast assault boat from the ’70s or early ’80s.
When we did this same walk a few years back two chaps were in the cockpit and the engine was being given a bit of exercise, albeit without the boat actually going anywhere, perhaps they were just charging the batteries. It sounded damn good, though. I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t take the opportunity to ask about the boat.
There’s a brass hull plaque on the transom, squinting I could just make out “Boat No….(something or other)”  and I could see that there was something else embossed below that.
Next time I’m bringing my binoculars.
(All images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2015 apart from photo of HSL 2605 stolen from The Internet)

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  1. Fred Talmadge Avatar
    Fred Talmadge

    I lived on a old wooden sail boat in the Delta for a few months. It was pretty cool and it got me laid sometimes. My landlord was my boss but I didn’t like my job as a janitor and he kept hiring me out for work. As a poor college student I put it up with all his bs. He found this horny girl who wanted to rent it and kicked me out. Can’t say I blame him.

  2. Greg Kachadurian Avatar
    Greg Kachadurian

    That’s so awesome. I’ve never seen military boats used for these conversions but it makes sense given the wartime production numbers. Third boat doesn’t look like the kind of thing that would be on an open sea given the freeboard (making assumptions). Maybe a shallow water vessel like something for river/harbor patrol?

    1. Vairship Avatar

      It’s not only old military boats that spend time like that. Here’s a picture of the J-class yacht Velsheda ( “Velsheda1996” by Phil Whiston – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons –
      which spent decades as a houseboat before being reborn:
      “J Class Yacht Racing 9 (7615882226)” by David Blaikie from Hampshire, UK – J Class Yacht Racing 9. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons –

  3. Monkey10is Avatar

    Walking the Thames towpaths I’ve noticed another surplus vessel type that is being pressed into service for houseboats: Old lifeboats, in particular the self-righting sealed fibreglass hulls, appear to be a cheap alternative to other narrowboats and houseboats.
    With no windows, only one or two hatches and fading clearcoat they look far from ideal as a home, so I can only assume that value is their USP.

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      I suspect you’re right. I’m not sure what the latest SOLAS requirements are for shipboard lifeboats, but I guess non compliant ones have absolutely no scrap value.

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