The Junk Yacht Boleh is the story of two men: artist and naval war hero Commander Robin Kilroy, DSC, who designed and built her 60 years ago in Singapore before sailing her back to the UK; and Roger Angel, skilled joiner and entrepreneur, who found her an insurance write-off in 1978 and painstakingly brought her back to life in a Rye harbour mud berth.
Boleh’s unusual design was influenced by the dhows, junks and other sailing craft Commander Kilroy saw during his service with the Fleet Air Arm between the wars. He created a sea-kindly, broad beamed vessel of just over 40ft, heavily constructed of Malayan ‘chengai’ (a hardwood one and a half times as heavy as oak) and designed to be at her best in ocean trade winds. The sliding gunter rig, with wishbone booms based on those used in Chinese Junks, and unstayed quadraped mast allow for easy reefing and short handed sailing, while providing excellent accommodation space below decks. Amongst other novel features Robin’s original design included an early version of inboard/outboard propulsion.
Boleh was constructed in 1949 by Malay shipwrights from Trengganu led by Embong Bin Saleh, taking about 12 months to build and costing £3000. She was launched at the Boom Defence Depot Loyang on 23rd October that year and sailed for the UK on 18th January 1950.
Robin’s Crew for the voyage to Salcombe, Devon was made up of 2 fellow naval officers, John Rusher and Peter Aplin, a naval shipwright, George Jarvis and Robin’s Chinese cook Chang. Described fully in Robin’s book “Boleh” they called at Sabang, Colombo, Minikoi, the Seychelles, Mauritius, Port Elizabeth, Simonstown, St Helena, Ascension and the Cape Verde Islands, finally arriving in Salcombe on 1st September.
After her voyage to England Boleh was registered in Salcombe and began to provide sailing experience for young people including Sea Cadets, Island Cruising Club trainees, and young soldiers from the Junior Leaders Regiment, Royal Engineers at Dover. When Robin died Boleh initially remained in his family but was later sold and had a succession of owners. Based in Rye, she was not sailed to any great extent for several years.
In 1978 Boleh was just completing a refit in Rye prior to sailing for Germany and the USA when she was severely damaged by arson. The boat was almost totally destroyed as far forward as the mast, in places down to the waterline. Roger Angel, a skilled carpenter and joiner from the area and keen sailor, had often seen Boleh and was mesmerised by her unique lines. He saw the wreck and was determined to restore the vessel to her former glory. Roger bid successfully for the hulk, sold his business, moved with his family into a caravan, and set about the gigantic task of returning Boleh to her previous condition.
Roger worked from photographs and plans in Robin Kilroy’s book and talked to some of those who had known Boleh. He was able to keep very close to the original design, altering only the interior layout. In place of ‘chengai’ he laminated the frames from plywood, and other hardwoods were used for the planking and deck. In July 1981 the enormous task was complete and Roger and his family set off to pursue their dream, calling first at Dover to renew Boleh’s link with the Royal Engineers. A history of Roger’s restoration and his subsequent life with Boleh has been compiled by David Sully (view Roger’s history page).
Boleh and her owner finally came to rest in Mallorca where her lines and rig became a familiar sight; her berth at the Real Club Nautico gave the name Shanghai Quay to one of the jetties in Palma. In 2007 increasing ill health led Roger to look to sell Boleh and, by a happy chance, this coincided with Robin Kilroy’s family seeking to safeguard the vessel’s future. A few weeks before his death in August 2008 Roger was able to witness Boleh’s arrival at The Meridian Sailing & Training Trust Limited workshops in Portsmouth where a full restoration is being undertaken. The Boleh Trust has now been established to manage the restoration and ensure Boleh is returned to the water, where she will help people with challenge in their lives.