Winter Refit Chronicles

At over three decades old, Helen Mary R is a testament to her enduring craftsmanship. Yet, the inevitable wear and tear necessitates a meticulous maintenance programme annually to ensure the vessel's safety and operational efficiency.

Winter Refit Chronicles

  • 10 min read

Our vessel, Helen Mary R, is very special to us. Not only was she the first 'big' boat that Matt sailed, but it was also his introduction to Sail Training! Helen Mary R holds a special place in many people's hearts, and it's not surprising; since she was launched in 1986, she has inspired over 5000+ young people and sailed over 100,000 miles! That is some legacy!

Her first 24 years were with the Rona Sailing Project (formally London Sailing Project) until 2010 when we bought her and formed the Morvargh Sailing Project here in Cornwall. Back in 1985, the staff at the London Sailing Project were looking for another boat and convinced their Trustees it would be feasible to buy a bare fibreglass hull of a proven design and fit it out at their base at Universal Shipyard on the River Hamble. (Legend has it that they designed the interior based on a sketch on the back of a cigarette packet!) Several designs were considered, and the final choice was the Bowman 57, brought to fame by John Ridgeway, who completed the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1977-78!

The Bowman 57 is a classic bluewater cruising sailboat designed by the renowned British naval architects Holman & Pye. She was built by Southern Boat Building Company and fitted out by Rona Sailing Project, with a sleek hull, ketch rigged, and spacious interior that is light, airy, and highly convenient to live and work in.

Let the refit commence!

At over three decades old, Helen Mary R is a testament to her enduring craftsmanship. Yet, the inevitable wear and tear (12 teenagers every voyage, and we won't even talk about the adult volunteers!) necessitates a meticulous maintenance programme annually to ensure the vessel's safety and operational efficiency.

Her age brings unique challenges that demand our attention, and regulatory changes necessitate even more. This year, there are new requirements around marine pollution; next year, a new code of practice. Our winter refit is a challenge to navigate both from a financial and staffing viewpoint. Still, one thing is certain: it is a vital undertaking to preserve Helen Mary R's legacy and safety aboard. 

Code of Practice for Small Commercial Vessels

Helen Mary R is a 'coded' small commercial vessel. To be 'coded' entails an annual certification process where HMR is surveyed to ensure she complies with the stringent standards set forth by the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA).

Annually, the coding process evaluates areas like servicing, emergency procedures, and safety equipment, and once every five years, there is a complete out-of-water structural survey. This process ensures that Helen Mary R is maintained to a standard exceeding the codes of practice requirements and has the safety features, equipment, and capability to be sailed up to 60 miles from a safe haven or in category two waters.

Our coding is pivotal in creating trust and confidence among trainees, parents, teachers and other stakeholders. Prospective sailors, clients, and regulatory bodies place implicit faith in the vessel's coded status, underscoring a commitment to safety and industry standards. This compliance not only meets legal requirements but also becomes a cornerstone in establishing the reputation of Helen Mary R as a vessel dedicated to the highest standards of safety and professionalism.

Throughout the year, we fix, maintain and repair as we go along; the winter allows us time to breathe and plan larger jobs. Helen Mary R is getting to an age where we require increased routine maintenance and the servicing or replacing of major systems aboard.

Over the last few years, we have been experiencing the fallout from damage caused by a lift-out, not in Fowey, which has caused the replacement of Helen's drive train, a near complete rewire, a new shaft seal, ancillary engine parts, several additional lift-outs and more. With the help of Adam Russel at ADR Marine, we have closed this chapter after significant expense. 

As Helen nears her 40th birthday, we are looking towards securing her future by planning significant work aboard; we need to find funding to purchase new waterproofs (£8960) and new sails (£36,000) and undertake a complete interior refurbishment along with meeting any increased regulatory requirements in the new Sport and Pleasure code that will replace MGN-280 in 2025.

Our pressing refit tasks this year: fitting of black water tanks, undertaking a MARPOL survey, re-caulking some of the deck, replacing the nav equipment, some minor repairs to woodwork below decks and getting ready for our annual RYA/ MCA coding inspection in March.

Black Water Tanks...Or..."You're storing what under my bunk!"

There is now a requirement for vessels engaged on international voyages of less than 400 tons and certified to carry more than 15 persons to have an International Sewage Pollution Prevention certificate. The regulations now require black water tanks that can store sewage from the toilets aboard until we can either pump it ashore or, when 12 miles offshore, pump overboard.

Of course, finding somewhere on a 57ft sailboat with 16 bunks and limited storage to hide two 125-litre tanks was quite the challenge. But before we skip to finding space, the first challenge was what size tanks we needed! The regulations are primarily written for large ships and specify the need for a capacity of 70 litres per person per day - a tank of 1120 litres! We don't even carry that in freshwater!

Thankfully, there is room to negotiate, and the last time we were out of the water, Vicky and I undertook some very scientific (if not slightly icky) measurements of how much water is flushed through the toilets on each flush. All we then had to do was Google human waste production...yuk!

# Flush Method Waste Produced Flush Produced
1 Five pumps to pre-flush the toilet
Ten pumps to flush the toilet
Ten pumps to clear the bowl
457ml 2470ml
2 457ml 2520ml
3 457ml 2820ml
4 457ml 2650ml
5 457ml 2248ml
Average 457ml 2541ml
Average Total Per Visit 2998ml

This all leads us to finding a location for the tanks. They need to be close to the heads, not take up too much room, be easily accessed, and ideally be able to be purchased off the shelf as custom tanks get expensive quickly. The place we decided on was under the lower saloon bottom bunks. The downside is that currently, this is where we store our tools and a lot of spares. Ah well, we needed to sort that out anyway!

Any significant change to the boat is always expensive, and purchasing all the required parts has cost just over £2500 so far! There are many combinations of fittings, pumps and layouts, but thankfully, there are a few guides to work it all out. We're well into the installation now, and hopefully, this weekend, we'll have all the pipes attached. It has taken several weekend refits and a lot of planning to get to this point, but there is light at the end of the tunnel, and the environmental benefits are enormous.

The environmental impact is two-fold. Installing black water tanks mitigates the risk of nutrient enrichment in coastal waters, which can lead to harmful algal blooms and negatively affect marine ecosystems. Secondly, it contributes to safeguarding water quality by preventing the introduction of pathogens and contaminants associated with untreated black water. We've wanted to do this for a while, and we hope it helps us in our commitment to responsible marine stewardship, acknowledging Morvargh's role in preserving the health and integrity of the waters we navigate.

New-ish Navigation Equipment

Our second major project is installing some newer Raymarine navigation equipment. Our very old Raymarine RL70c plotters finally gave up mid-season last year, and we have been slowly pulling together all the required cables and parts to install slightly newer Raymarine E Series plotters.

Although no longer supported, they are a substantial upgrade to what we had before - we'd love new Raymarine kit, but sadly, a single plotter alone costs over £5000, an expenditure we can't justify at this stage. Our Watch Leaders had an excellent refit weekend, pulling out all the old cables and measuring new cable run lengths. Although it was a slightly messy job, they clearly enjoyed it!

The evolution of marine technology has undergone a massive change in recent years, with each progression bringing enhanced safety, efficiency, and operational capabilities. Electronic navigational charts, real-time data, and voyage planning tools provide mariners with a comprehensive and interactive navigation platform. It would be amazing to showcase this to our young trainees, especially those wanting to stay in the marine industry.

Our new system, although not entirely cutting-edge, will allow young people to build an understanding of how these systems work. We installed a Raspberry Pi over the summer and plan to do further work with this to allow projects like data logging and online posting to our website. To help with STEM subjects, we'd like young people to be able to log things like wind speed, boat speed, barometric pressure, and power usage as part of an online ship log.

Towards the coding survey

The refit of Helen Mary R is a series of tasks, each seemingly modest in isolation yet collectively shaping the renewal of Helen Mary R for another season. The mundane yet vital chores – sorting, tidying, and cleaning. These tasks, often overlooked, lay the foundation for a rejuvenated vessel.

As we near our coding survey once again, we're looking at our final weeks of refit and the tasks still to be achieved. We'd love to hear from you if you have some spare time and practical skills!

Helen Mary R is being lifted out of the water again at the brilliant C Toms & Son in Polruan between the 12th Feb and 19th Feb, and we have refit weekends planned on the 2nd - 3rd and 16th - 17th March if you're free! 

We extend an open invitation to those with some practical skills to come and help aboard. The collaborative spirit fuels our small team during the winter months. It is a testament to the community that rallies behind the Helen Mary R. Whether wielding a paintbrush, lending a hand in deck re-caulking, carpentry, or offering expertise in marine systems, every contribution is really and truly appreciated.

As winter draws to a close and we move into spring, our refit is entering its final phase, and our anticipation of Helen Mary R's return to sailing becomes palpable. She is a living testament to a fantastic maritime history; we are proud to be her custodians.

Helen Mary R's 40th birthday looms on the horizon, a milestone that beckons not just a celebration but a reflection on the countless stories etched into her decks. She is not just a vessel but a platform for the next generation of sailors to learn, explore, and weave their own narratives.

Vicky and I would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to those who have helped aboard during refits, and we welcome new hands eager to contribute.

If you can help in any way, please get in touch via email at! You can also support Morvargh and Helen Mary R's refit in many other ways, from a one-off donation, regular monthly giving, corporate or in-kind donations, or even using EasyFundraising to generate a donation from your online shopping - find out more on our donate page.


Morvargh Sailing Project is a Community Interest Company registered in England No: 07132688. Registered address: Willow Barn, Lower Bodwen, Redmoor, PL30 5AT


Fowey, Cornwall



+44 (0)7481 546577

Vessel Location:

50°20'00.8"N 4°37'46.9"W

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