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Community / Maggie Helen gets a new lease of life

Current owner Benoit Cayla (left) presenting Norman Moncrieff with the original bell from the Maggie Helen to keep as a memento. Prior to using the ship as a sailing boat, Moncrieff’s father Tammie worked as a fisherman on board the vessel. Photo: Sarah Cooper

A FORMER fishing boat is returning to the water after being taken over by an enthusiast team of skilled shipwrights and sailors who intend to use her to sail around Europe. They are planning to set sail later this week.

The Maggie Helen had been sitting in storage since 2007 after the historic vessel, then known as Loki, had been bought by Shetland Amenity Trust for an undisclosed sum and in somewhat controversial circumstances.

Shetland Museum curator Ian Tait said the restoration team have managed to complete “three years” work in three months after working non-stop seven days a week from around 8am to 11pm.

“It’s an immense number of working hours that have gone into it. They’ve done the most unbelievably intense job,” he said.

Current owner of the Maggie Helen, Benoit Cayla, said he became interested in the historic vessel because of her Zulu style hull.

She has a raked stern for protecting the rudder, but a straight-stemmed bow. This provides more deck space in crowded ports and was a popular choice for herring boats in the late 1800s. At one point there were hundreds, but the style is quite rare now.

Cayla has been working on historic boats for over 20 years. “We were in Ullapool with the Swallow last year when a man on our crew had heard about the Maggie Helen and wanted to visit her,” he said.

“We came up [to Shetland] and decided to take on the project. We’ve done the rigging, sails, decking, beams, everything.”

While Cayla owns the boat on paper, the team plans to break up the ownership into a consortium among all members.

Tait said the reason the amenity trust hadn’t renovated the boat was due to the ongoing costs after she would launch.

“If there had been funds, she would have been renovated, but once she’s afloat it then needs money in perpetuity,” he said.

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“Even the Swan struggles sometimes to get her core funding. Shetland isn’t a big enough community to sustain two seagoing boats like this.”

Maggie Helen at Hay’s Dock late last week. Photo: Sarah Cooper

The Maggie Helen was built in 1904 as a fishing boat and was owned by James Gatt. Ownership changed to Georgie Lovie Watt in 1907, who owned her until she was decommissioned as a fishing boat in the 1950s.

She was renamed Loki by her new owner Tammie Moncrieff in May 1951, who used her as a sailing yacht

His son Norman Moncrieff, was presented with the original bell from the Maggie Helen by the current owner.

He said: “I got involved in 1955, my first trip was to East Linga near Whalsay and we anchored there for about a day. We cruised every summer; the weather was definitely better then because we used to cruise every weekend.

Tait said the current project came about as part of the amenity trust’s efforts to address its own finances, which involved selling the Maggie Helen to create more space in the boat store next to the museum.

“I tried to find a home for her, there’s plenty of people who might say they’d love to do it or suggest the amenity trust does it,” he said.

“I put out countless feelers in Shetland to see if anyone wanted to buy the boat, but nobody did. So, I started trying to give her away for nothing, and still no takers. Nobody wanted her.”

Tait then spoke to people around Britain to try and give the Maggie Helen a new home. Prospective buyers travelled to Shetland from as far as Cornwall, and still no real interest.

He said: “People came to visit the boat, but the problem was people from mainland Britain would have taken her for nothing and fixed her.

“But there was a logistical problem of getting her down there. And how would they come here and get the workforce, material, and tools here. It was too daunting a task.”

Eventually, a solution presented itself when Benoit Cayla and his team got in touch last year. In April this year they returned on board their own historic sailing vessel Swallow to get at work in the museum’s boat shed.

One of the team, Pierre Greaume, travelled from France to work on the Maggie Helen. He works primarily as a carpenter, but is also preparing the sail.

He had never visited Shetland before coming to work on the vessel, and said: “I’ve got to see a lot through the project, and people have come to us. It’s very nice to visit a country and do something, experience daily life.

“It’s funny to arrive somewhere and tourists are taking pictures of you, when you’re a tourist too.”

Maggie Helen’s ‘maiden voyage’ after restoration will be to Denmark, and then sailing around the Baltic Sea before heading to Sweden.

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