In 2008, Aquabelle was abandoned on the Rhône à Sète Canal in the Carmargue region of southern France, and suffered the indignity of being used as a "squat" by drug addicts. Her teak decks were rotting, as was part of her mahogany superstructure.
Aware that she had an interesting history, and not wishing to see such an attractive yacht decaying to her death, a French wooden boat enthusiast, Dominique, decided to rescue her. Dominique is a member of Marine et Tradition, an organisation local to the Languedoc coast which restores and exhibits traditional fishing boats with the lateen or catalan sail rig which is characteristic of the Mediterranean. He acquired ownership of Aquabelle and moved her a short distance to a boatyard close to the ancient town of Aigues-Mortes. Over the next two years he stabilised the decay by fitting a new foredeck, saloon roof and sides and removing some structures added during her long life. He also recovered and protected many unique fittings including the binnacle, searchlight, commemorative and builder's plaques, together with the unique flag flown only by Dunkirk "Little Ships".
Finding it difficult to devote sufficient resources to complete the restoration, Dominique turned to his friend and fellow member of Marine et Tradition, Alain, for help. In 2010, together with another enthusiast, André, Alain gathered a group of volunteers - Les Amis de L'Aquabelle - to continue the restoration with the aim to return Aquabelle as close as possible to her 1939 condition. On 15th May 2011 she was carefully moved to a new location, Palavas les Flots, a port and holiday resort some 50km to the west.
As her history began to emerge, the Mayor of Palavas, Mr. Christian Jean Jean, recognized the historical importance of her restoration and agreed that Aquabelle could be based at Les Quatre Vents, the Headquarters of Marine et Tradition, on the River Lez at Palavas about 1km from the sea. At about the same time the restorers turned to the internet for help in the form of a blog on a World War 2 website "War44". A request was made for documents, testimonies and evidence of the involvement of this ship at Dunkirk in 1940. Fortuitously Colin, the grandson of Aquabelle's first owner, spotted the blog and made contact with "Les Amis". He was able to supply the volunteers with vital information concerning her early years, including a blueprint, photographs and, extraordinarily, colour 16mm cine film of her launch and early cruises on the Thames and the English Channel.
In addition he told the team he possessed her original Blue Ensign, Royal Motor Yacht Club Burgee and Bell. Remarkably, Benjamin Taylor's daughter Joyce, (Colin's mother aged 97) was able to assist by describing the interior of the boat including the colour of fittings and fabrics, and to identify original equipment from photos and videos. She clearly remembered her various excursions on Aquabelle and proved an invaluable source of detailed advice and inspiration
This windfall of information enabled the restoration team to identify and replace many components removed from Aquabelle and to proceed with confidence that her 1939 appearance was being faithfully replicated.
In the meantime, Aquabelle's venerable engines were overhauled and re-painted and deck and cabin fittings replaced. As one of her two masts had disappeared earlier in her long life, a suitable replacement was found and a new mast seat (tabernacle) was created using the restored original one as a pattern. It was decided to retain her later stanchions and pulpit as they were seen as a more robust design than the originals.
Les Amis were well aware that Aquabelle's hull was not fully sound and this was confirmed in March 2012 when removal of cupboards in the galley revealed an area of rotten planking at the level of the waterline. This was quickly given a temporary repair. There was also growing concern about a leak below the waterline at the port side of the transom which necessitated regular pumping of the bilges. It was decided that a full hull restoration was necessary which could only be undertaken out of the water.
The soundness of the hull became of increasing importance when the restoration team found out that the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships was planning a commemorative crossing from Ramsgate to Dunkirk and back, to be held in May 2015 on the 75th anniversary of Operation Overlord. This event, and Aquabelle's proposed participation, became the focus for completing the remaining restoration and gave it a hard deadline. Again assisted by the Mayor of Palavas, negotiations began with the Capitainerie of the Port of Palavas for a location in the Zone Industrial where boat repairs were undertaken. Eventually a space was offered for December 2013.
Owing to a bridge at the mouth of the River Lez being too low for Aquabelle's wheelhouse, a considerable distance needed to be travelled in order for her to reach the Marina despite it being only around two kilometres away as the crow flies. On the 9th December she set off on a three hour cruise to head westwards on the Rhône à Sète Canal to Frontignan followed by a sea trip of the same length back to Palavas.
This voyage was not without incident as Aquabelle ran aground on the edge of the canal shortly after departure from Les Quatre Vents owing to strong cross winds, a side flow through the canal bank and momentary inattention by the helmsman. She was eventually towed off using one of the team's 4X4s using a 250m rope and the delayed voyage was completed without further excitement.
Aquabelle was lifted from the water for the first time in many years to reveal extensive weed growth underwater. The team water jetted her hull to reveal her underwater structure and started the long job of removing her paint in order to reveal the condition of her mahogany planking.
To the relief of all, the majority of the planks exposed by the sanding were in sound condition although several areas showed obvious decay would necessitate replacement. These were under the stern on the starboard side, along the hull under the long rubbing strip, around the galley area, and where the transom met the hull planking. Also, several individual planks around the portholes on the port side were rotten. It was often seen that where a plank had decayed, adjacent planks were also attacked in the centre of the wood but this damage was not visible on the surface, so leading to a greater number of unacceptable planks than was first realised. Overall, some 30m of decayed mahogany planks were condemned by Eric, the wooden boat expert who joined the volunteers the previous year, and took the responsibility of judging the state of the hull. As some of the planks were removed it was seen that some of the frames near the stern were split, possibly by impact damage. These were too difficult to replace and so extra ribs were fabricated as doublers and fitted next to the damaged items.
After some debate it was decided that the entire transom was suspect and so it was completely replaced by mahogany plywood. On completion the appearance of the varnished stern, previously painted white, looked so good to all that it was agreed that it would be left in the unpainted state.
The opportunity was also taken to restore her underwater fittings. Her bronze rudders, stainless steel shafts and brass propellers were cleaned, painted with antifouling and sacrificial anodes replaced.
All her sea cocks were replaced as was the steel "slipper" which protected her keel from damage. It was noticed that her keel had been significantly lengthened at some point in her life, by approximately 2 m so that it extended almost to her stern. The "butterfly" joint was strengthened as a precaution.
When all the woodwork was deemed by Eric to be sound, he then proceeded to caulk the entire hull, firstly with hemp rope and then with white cotton. The joint was finished by a layer of putty before sanding to give a smooth profile.
At this time the opportunity was taken to replace underwater fittings and to install an echo sounder transponder to complement her new satellite navigation equipment.
Painting began with an orange primer followed by several top coats of white paint. The waterline was positioned using a combination of old and new technology - using old photographs to locate the line and then a laser to ensure that it was drawn level around the hull. The blue waterline colour was selected to reflect her 1939 colour scheme. Finally, the entire hull below the waterline was coated in black anti-fouling paint.
Aquabelle was returned to the water on 16th June 2014, with a small ceremony and some consumption of champagne and the singing of "God Save the Queen"! She proved to be leak-tight, mainly thanks to the technique of filling her bilges with seawater when caulking was finished to ensure her planks expanded to close any gaps. The next day she set sail (literally as the crew found some sails that approximately fitted her two masts) for Les Quatre Vents, again via the Mediterranean, Frontignan and the Rhône à Sète Canal. Problems with the water pump on her port engine forced the crew to run on one engine for most of the way but she moved very easily through the water with her refurbished hull, making 6kts on the single engine at around 850 r.p.m. The errant water pump was later refurbished.
Back at Les Quatre Vents the final stages of the restoration continued throughout the autumn and winter of 2014, mainly concentrating on her extensive plumbing (e.g. three toilets!) and complex electrical systems.