Far from plain sailing – but a Fairy tale ending

Mark Rainey talks to a maritime historian whose passion for restoring classic yachts brought him back from the brink

Monday, 17th May 2021, 8:15 am
Updated Tuesday, 18th May 2021, 7:17 pm

The meticulous restoration of an elegant Edwardian yacht for use on Lough Erne is only one half of a heart-warming and uplifting story because, in bringing the craft back to life, its owner also saved himself from the depths of despair.

Paul Louden-Brown is renowned maritime historian and author with a passion for historic yachts and classic cars, but his world was shattered when the E-type Jaguar he was driving crashed in 2015 – crushing his leg and leaving him to cope with a lifetime of immobility and chronic pain.

Debilitating depression quickly set in and he went from living an active and carefree life on expansive waters and the open road, to being housebound and barely able to get out of bed.

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Fermanagh man Paul Louden-Brown has meticulously restored Fairy class yacht 'Petrel'

However, following three years of harbouring suicidal thoughts in a “very dark place,” Paul’s dream of sailing his own classic yacht on Lough Erne grew strong enough to spark a flicker of light in the darkness.

Fast forward to May 2021 and Paul is preparing for an emotional launch day, and a future of helping others with disabilities to experience the freedom and exhilaration of sailing Fairy class yachts.

“There is nothing quite like sailing those boats out on Lough Erne. It’s like the land that time forgot. When you’re out on that water you could be turning back 100 years... but I had given up the idea of ever sailing again,” Paul said.

“Petrel was very nearly finished but I had a very serious car accident which basically put me in a wheelchair, so I couldn’t do anything on the boat for the last five years.

Paul Louden-Brown in the early stages of the Fairy class yacht 'Paxie' restoration

“I was in too much pain, and it’s only just in the last year that I’ve got anything that can help me with the pain, but I’m now a disabled person so I’ve got to rely on help.

“I was in a very dark place for a full three years. Depression had got me absolutely by the throat.

“I just didn’t care about anything. I wasn’t interested in getting up in the mornings. All I could think about was pain and a lack of mobility and not being able to do anything.

“My leg was crushed and the nerves severed. In my case the nerves are now sending out impulses when they shouldn’t be and I have to have a nerve blocker drug.

Paul Louden-Brown's 'Petrel' Fairy class yacht during restoration

“It just gets to the point where you can’t find your way through it. I just couldn’t find an answer. Pain just takes over your being and it’s very quick for you to become completely addicted to opiates.

“In my case I was taking 140 milligrams of opiates a day, and it took me a year to get off that. In that year, every month I felt better mentally, and yet my pain didn’t increase.

“But it was only through going to discussion groups with other people who were suffering from chronic pain, and finding strategies on how to deal with it, such as distraction therapy... and working on the Fairies is a distraction therapy.“If you haven’t got anything to get you up in the morning then all you are left with is pain and, for three years, I found that overwhelming. I know the damage that has been done to me is irreversible, but I’ve got over that.

“You go through a mourning period, realising that you can’t walk up stairs, or can’t bend down to tie my shoelaces, and realising you are dependent on people. It takes a long time to get used to those sorts of things.

Paul Louden-Brown with son Conor as Petrel finally leaves the workshop

“But I have come through the other side of that.”

Thankfully for Paul, son Conor is also a sailing enthusiast and now totally hooked on restoring the 22.5ft long Fairies. He has returned from England to work on the two latest acquisitions and to finish the Petrel restoration.

“The stuff that I did with Petrel, I can’t do that level of work again. I’m just not physically not able to do it, as there is a limit to what you can do sitting in a chair, or in a wheelchair, but I can point my son in the right direction and he is great.

“I am a maritime historian and I do a lot of work with Titanic Belfast. That is my day-to-day work, writing about and researching ocean liners, but my passion has always been sailing and driving classic cars.

“I had to give up driving my E-type because I couldn’t drive it any more. I couldn’t drive a car with a manual clutch any more so that precluded ever driving an E-type again.

“That was the car I had always wanted and had restored. I thought I would have had that car until my dying day, but I had to sell it because it was lying in the garage for five years.

Like all Fairy class yachts, 'Petrel' is almost 23 feet long and weighs close to 5 tons

“There is nothing quite as depressing as looking at a car and being reminded that you can’t drive it.”

With the Lough Erne Yacht Club becoming more disabled friendly in recent years, a hoist is now available to help wheelchair users board boats from the jetty, meaning almost anyone with a physical disability can enjoy the full yachting experience.

“These are racing yachts and these are the things that gave Edwardians their thrills more than 100 years ago,” Paul said.

“They didn’t have fast cars, they didn’t have aeroplanes, they didn’t have fast motorcycles, so they got their thrills with racing sailing against each other.

“It’s a one class yacht, so one fairy is exactly the same as another fairy, so there’s no advantage. They have to be identical – the same size of sails, same length, same breadth, same weight, and then the racing is just you against another person.

“Your skill, your ability to read the weather, the tide, the way the wind’s blowing, or your knowledge of the course that you’re racing on, it’s all down to individuals.”

Following the long hard years of battling through the pain barrier on such a ambitious, and at one time unthinkable, project, the master craftsman is preparing to launch his beloved Petrel on the pristine waters of Lough Erne.

“It will be emotional,” Paul said.

New yacht design helped ‘nouveau riche’ compete with landed gentry

Fairy class yachts have a rich history which is intertwined with the history of Northern Ireland itself.

As the north of a then unpartitioned Ireland prospered from the success of industries such as ship-building, rope-making and linen production, ‘new money’ was being used to enjoy the thrills of sailing that were previously only available to the landed gentry.

A brand new ‘Fairy’ yacht design was developed with small fleet produced in Carrickfergus in the early 1900s.

“And back in the day, when these boats were new about 112 years ago, they were all owned by the landed gentry or the nouveau riche – the monied classes that owned mills or tobacco factories, but very seldom did they do any sailing in the purest sense of the word,” Paul said.

“They would come from work and get on board the vessel, which had already been rigged by a boatman.

“These tended to be professional sailors – either fishermen or people who were familiar with Belfast Lough or Lough Erne, and they would be paid hands.

“So you would have the gentleman on the helm, and he would be getting advice from the paid hand on which way to go.

“Then when they were finished sailing it was ‘I’m off now’ and they’d leave the paid hand to take the sails down and put the covers over the boat – all of the hard work of getting the boats ready to be moored.

“You need three persons if you’re racing, but you can sail them fairly easily with two people.”

Every Fairy is built from pitch pine, yellow pine and Irish oak.

“There are 26 frames in each Fairy, so the only way that you can restore that boat is to create a cradle for it to sit on, and then take out one frame at a time, repair any problems and then make a pattern for the frame you have taken out, and laminate a new frame using American white oak and epoxy to make the shape. Once you’ve made that frame you have to trial fit it and then replace it in the boat.

“And each time that could take two to three weeks – times 26 - and there are not a lot of people who could do that type of work. It’s very time consuming and very skilled.”

‘Hand on the tiller, your legs don’t mean anything’

Having created the opportunity to temporarily escape the hardships of mobility issues and chronic pain, Paul is determined to help others benefit from the liberating experience of life on the lough.

“Our aim is to expand the number of people sailing classic sailing yachts – particularly anyone who has a disability like me,” he said.

“Because they can come out in a big yacht, even if they are in a wheelchair, and come sailing.

“If you are good on the tiller, and good at sailing, then your legs don’t mean anything anymore. It becomes irrelevant, and you would have to be pretty badly disabled not to be able to get some thrills and enjoyment out of sailing a Fairy (with a couple of fully mobile crewmates).

“The idea is to create some kind of business opportunity which would help people to lease the boats and to get people sailing.

“It is extraordinary that Lough Erne is hardly used. It is totally under-used and unappreciated, yet it is a magical, magical place.”

A special hoist at Lough Erne Yacht Club – provided by the Sailability project – has made it possible to access a wider range of boats.

“We have worked out, and tested it, so you bring a Fairy class yacht alongside this new jetty, then with the crane they can lift somebody out of a wheelchair, across the water and into the Fairy.”

• Paul Louden-Brown is the author of The White Star Line: An Illustrated History 1870-1934