Famous lifeboat that saved hundreds of lives restored in Essex

  • Watch a video report by ITV News Anglia's Charlie Frost

A famous lifeboat that has saved hundreds of lives has been given a new lease of life during lockdown.

The Sir William Arnold, also known as Lifeboat 52-02, has been bought by Essex lifeboat lover Colin Trowles, who wants to turn it into a floating classroom and musuem.

The Sir William Arnold is being restored in Essex. Credit: ITV News Anglia

The boat, which saved more than 200 lives during its 24 year service and is best known for the Bonita cargo ship rescue near Guernsey, is now in Heybridge Lock.

The plan was for her to be permanently docked at St Katharine Docks in London, but when lockdown was imposed, Colin docked her in his hometown of Maldon to work on her.

He will be moving her to St Katharine's next month.

When he bought her, he says she was 'in a pretty bad state', so he has used the time to have the hull repainted in its original blue and to source and fit all of the original technology inside.

The second of the Arun Class lifeboats to be built in the 1970s, the 52 foot and 30 tonne boat is partially wooden and is the prototype for lifeboats still in service today.

It is named after the former Guernsey Bailiff, Sir William Arnold, who had led the fundraising mission for the then new lifeboat.

Sir William Arnold going for a spin around Jethou in 1974. Credit: ITV Channel TV

Costing £100,000, over half was raised by the people of Guernsey, who did so largely by community effort, rather than big individual donations.

From islanders opening up their gardens and charging for entry, to Guernsey Police raising £1,000 by rowing from Salcombe to Guersnsey.

It was officially launched and named on the Channel Island by the Duchess of Kent in 1974, with crowds filling St Peter Port to watch the Duchess be whisked away on it, out of the harbour and around the tiny island of Jethou.

The Duchess of Kent is whisked out of St Peter Port in Guernsey on the Sir William Arnold Lifeboat Credit: ITV Channel TV

This boat could tell hundreds of stories of escaped peril and triumph, but as well as a rich history of rescues, crews that served onboard the Sir William Arnold have a huge affection for her.

Every coxswain that has sat in her driving seat has won a gallantry medal for saving lives, and in fact, crew members earned an outstanding 15 gallantry medals between them while serving on her.

Colin Trowles has been a huge lifeboat fan since he was little. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Colin first fell in love with lifeboats while doing a school project when he was seven years old, he even saw the Sir William Arnold in the first book he read on lifeboats.

He has crewed for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and volunteered as an assessor, and fundraisier.

Now, he wants to pass his passion on and make sure more people know about the fantastic achievements of this special boat, and perhaps even inspire people to want to become crew for the RNLI.

You can find out more about The Sir William Arnold and its restoration here.

The Bonita rescue, December 1981

MV Bonita was an 8,000 tonne Ecuadorian cargo ship sailing from Hamburg to Panama.

On the 13th of December 1981 it got caught in a hurricane and sent out a distress signal from its position in the English Channel.

On board were 36 people, including some women and children.

Seven people were rescued by helicopter, but conditions worsened and the aircraft was struggling.

At lunchtime the St Peter Port lifeboat, the Sir William Arnold was scrambled.

Facing force 12 winds, sleet and 50 foot waves, as big as three storey houses, it took the eight man crew four hours to arrive at the Bonita.

When they got there the ship was sinking, lying on its side, one wing of the bridge fully immersed in the water.

The cargo ship Bonita was sinking on its side when the Sir William Arnold crew arrived. Credit: RNLI

To get the remaining 29 men off the ship, the lifeboat crew got them to walk along the other side of the wing, outside the railings, down to the back of the boat and jump off the stern into the water, where they could rescue them.

One man was swept off the back of the Bonita, while another jumped too soon and hit the deck of the lifeboat hard. He died when he got to hospital on land.

Everyone else survived.

All of the Sir William Arnold's crew members were awarded bronze gallantry medals by the RNLI for their part in the rescue. While the Coxswain Michael Scales recieved a gold medal.

In 2011 the extraordinary rescue came to light when the RNLI commissioned a special film on it.

At the time, in 1981 the success of the Sir William Arnold crew was overshadowed by a tragedy that happened in a separate rescue effort later that same week.

The Solomon Browne lifeboat launched from Penlee in similar conditions to try to help a coaster boat.

The lifeboat was lost with no survivors on it or the boat it was trying to rescue.