Brief History

Vigilance BM76 is a piece of floating history. She’s one of the few surviving sailing trawlers built in Brixham. When she was launched in 1926, she represented the pinnacle of trawler design and proved it with her record-breaking speed and by winning Brixham’s coveted George V Cup in the annual Trawler Race.  But, sadly, she was moth-balled after just eleven years when steam-power took over from sail, and during WWII – little more than a hulk – she was used as a platform for tethering barrage balloons.


Following the war, she escaped being broken up for scrap and was refitted as a gentleman’s yacht. Vigilance then survived an attempted arson attack and several more years of neglect before enjoying yet another career as a sail training craft and an Arctic Survey Vessel.


In 1997 she was ‘rediscovered’ moored up on the Isle of Man and sailed back home to Brixham by a group of local enthusiasts to be restored. It was a precarious voyage; the bilge pumps were working overtime the whole way! But her arrival back in the bay marked the first step in establishing Brixham’s present day Heritage Fleet and Vigilance is now enjoying yet another new lease of life as a floating and working reminder of the port’s role in international fishing history.


Vigilance is proudly owned, maintained and crewed by Brixham people. She is the only boat in the Heritage Fleet currently relying entirely on voluntary support. The owners are “The Vigilance of Brixham Preservation Company Ltd” and shareholders are mainly local people with a love historic sailing vessel. All the money raised from our regular sailings and charters is invested in the care and upkeep of the boat.


From the outset the prime objective of the Company has been to preserve Vigilance for the enjoyment of as many Brixham residents and visitors as possible. The aim is to give people the opportunity to experience the unique delights of sailing this classic boat and in the process perpetuate the skills and craftsmanship required to keep her ship-shape.


Her restoration is a constant work-in-progress. Both above and below decks she has been sympathetically modernised in a way that balances present-day safety requirements  and creature comforts with the desire to preserve, as far as possible, the authentic look and sailing qualities of this historic vessel. She is certified for commercial charter sailing. All safety and emergency equipment comply with the latest standards.


Even if you’re not a sailor, there is opportunity to get involved in keeping Vigilance afloat.


Maintenance isn’t only a job for the winter months. All year round there are weekly maintenance mornings, usually on a Tuesday, when enthusiasts can come aboard to help with the ongoing repairs and renovations or to bring their own experience of carpentry, electrical systems or plumbing. Lack of expertise is no barrier as there is always painting and polishing to be done!


Over the years since her return to Brixham, Vigilance has had a new engine, many planks replaced, a new mast and spars and her rigging is frequently overhauled. Fitting the new mast in the winter of 2012 was quite a spectator sport as it was fashioned from a tree in the Old Fish Market. In 2005 we purchased a felled tree which is currently being seasoned in preparation for one day being fitted as a new mizzen mast.


Brixham Sailing Trawlers, even in their heyday, were not built to last.


Many were launched, worked pretty much to destruction for 10 or 15 years and then scrapped. In some cases, they were sold on by less-than-scrupulous owners who knew that they were soon to become an expensive liability. So, it is little short of a miracle that Vigilance, the last of the surviving sailing trawlers built in the port is still afloat today, more than 90 years on.


Her restoration marked the first step in establishing Brixham’s present-day Heritage Fleet. She is the only trawler maintained and crewed entirely by volunteers whose dearest wish is to see her sail serenely on into her centenary year.


Three times a week, from April to October Vigilance takes holidaymakers and classic boat enthusiasts for half-day trips around Torbay, picking up her passengers from the town’s Heritage Pontoon, just a heaving-line’s throw from the site of J. W. & A. Upham’s yard where she was originally launched in 1926. (The site is now occupied by apartments and a pub, The Prince William).


In the intervening decades she has worked not only as a trawler; she has also seen service as a gentleman’s yacht, a barrage balloon platform, a sail training ship and had a spell working off Greenland as an Arctic survey vessel. She has survived a hurricane, attempted arson, neglect, and ignominy at the hands of a foolhardy (fortunately, anonymous) Australian owner. But Vigilance has emerged with her pride intact to star in many television productions from dramas to cookery shows (celebrity chefs Heston Blumenthal and Mitch Tonks have cooked on board her) -along the way garnering an impressive collection of silverware as proof of her tidy turn of speed.


Trawler fishing is thought to have started in Brixham as early as the 1760s. The shallow waters made it ideal for the trawling of bottom dwelling cod and ling. When the railway line to the port was built in 1860 fish could be sent directly to Billingsgate Market in London; by 1870 two thousand tons a year was being transported.


In 1910 350 boats were registered and they trawled on the east and west coasts – it was their heyday but a huge storm in the Bristol Channel hit four Brixham trawlers and the original Vigilance went down with all four hands. The shock was galvanising; local Brixham people raised six thousand pounds for widows and orphans of the gale.


But the First World War did irreparable damage to the trawling fleet. Not only did many of the fisherman die on the battlefields of Europe but thirty-five smacks were lost to U-boat attack and mines. Vigilance was one of only 20 built to replace the losses.


When she was launched in 1926, she represented the pinnacle of sailing trawler hull design. Her first owner George Foster paid £1250 just for the hull and spars (about £75,000 in today’s money) and had to take out a mortgage of £350 to pay for the 1000 yards of sailcloth and hundreds of man-hours needed to make the suit of twelve or-so sails normally carried by gaff-rigged beam trawlers of the day.


By strange co-incidence George lived in the house now occupied one of her present-day volunteer crew, the author of this article. (A copy of this mortgage deed was in the legal paperwork passed on to me when I bought my flat and it sends a shiver down my spine to realise, I am typing these words in what would probably have been the Foster bedroom!)


George’s brother Fred was the skipper, and like all boats of her size she was sailed by three men and a boy. For this reason, given the weight of her spars and sails the old trawlers are often pictured in harbour with their mainsails still hoisted. It was hard work getting them aloft so they were seldom dropped.
The main beam in Vigilance’s aft cabin still carries a carved inscription certifying that there is accommodation for four seamen.


Today for charter trips and weekend outings to heritage rallies along the south coast she has RYA coding to carry fifteen, including up to ten passengers plus crew.


The original less-than-sanitary ‘bucket-and-chuck-it’ arrangements have been improved upon too. She now has two heads (one boasting an electrical flushing system).


George Foster owned the boat for eleven years and she did him proud. During her working life she set a record by running fully-laden from Milford Haven back to Brixham in under 24 hours – an average speed of 8-plus knots. The old trawlers needed a wind of at least a force five and were designed to work in a gale as the nets ((of the 45-metre trawl)) acted as sea anchors when deployed for trawling. The boat would also have been carrying a huge weight – coal for the steam boiler (which powered the winches), ice and up to twenty tons of fish.


There was some ‘show-boating’ too. In 1933 she took the King George V Perpetual Cup in Brixham’s annual Trawler Race. Though she was the last of seven boats to cross the starting line she was first to finish, more than three minutes ahead of her closest rival Torbay Lass. George’s decision to bring in an expert racing skipper was rewarded by a first prize of £15.


But the glory days of sail were already drawing to a close. Canvas was losing out to steam and in a business where speed was of the essence the wind was a fickle business partner.


In 1937 – when only four boats competed in the King George cup rather than the splendid fleet of three hundred that had competed in days of yore – Vigilance was sold at auction to Percy Upham, son of the original builder, for £525.(George Foster was declared bankrupt the following year).


Vigilance languished in the harbour – suffering serious damage the following year when hurricane force winds dragged her free of her mooring – and into Torbay Lass – demolishing her entire port stern quarter.

She was repaired and at the outbreak of the Second World War she was requisitioned as a barrage balloon platform protecting south coast harbours from aerial attack.


After the war, timber was in short supply for building pleasure craft and she was snapped up by a buyer who may have planned to break her up, but who also saw the potential for selling her on as a gentleman’s yacht. Only three months later in 1949, she was sold on to a keen yachtsman and solicitor, Harold Owen.


He changed the original tiller steering to a wheel and installed a deckhouse and a paraffin-driven engine. But he sadly did not have long to enjoy his investment. Harold was drowned off Le Havre while sailing his motor yacht Solange with his son Peter. The day after his cremation, Vigilance herself was badly charred and smoke-damaged in a mystery fire.


It has been speculated that Harold’s wife may have been behind the blaze as a means of discouraging her son from setting sail in her again, but the truth will never be known.


Now Vigilance suffered another period of sad neglect, tied up in Shoreham were she was used for storage and as a pontoon. Much of the valuable and movable items ‘disappeared’ from her decks and she became a sorry sight. When her next, Australian, owner decided he was going to sail her ‘down under’ he set out with a tarpaulin jury-rigged as a mainsail. He didn’t get far; he was intercepted by coastguards who declared him a hazard to shipping and towed him back into Littlehampton.


This was a stroke of luck. The Australian employed Ken Harris, a local cabinet-maker and keen dinghy sailor, to do some repairs to Vigilance’s interior and also borrowed money off him for materials. It came as a shock to Ken to turn up for work one morning to discover the owner had disappeared without trace, leaving the trawler to him in lieu of an £80 debt!


If Vigilance is going to celebrate her centenary in 2026 it will be a huge tribute to the love and care bestowed by Ken in his 42 years as owner. He lived aboard and devoted 14 of those years to restoring her to proper seaworthiness. He hand-forged one and a half tons of galvanised metal fittings and used 19 tons of British oak to renew frames, deck beams, dog house and bitts. He fitted an old engine from a Leyland truck. ((He had a knack of ‘acquiring’ things: the bottom of the mizzen was replaced with part of an old landing-light from an old airfield in Hampshire.))


Ken signed her up as a training vessel in the Cutty Sark Tall Ships Association. In 1974 she won the Solent Old Gaffers Race and later with an all-women crew took prizes in the Tall Ships Race sailing from Dartmouth to Weymouth and on to St Malo – coming in third overall and first-placed working boat. Between 1986 and 1988 she spent some time in the Arctic as a survey vessel off Greenland.


By 1997 Ken’s health forced him to live ashore. Vigilance was berthed in Peel on the Isle of Man when a former Brixham fisherman Bill Wakeham heard about her. He had a dream to bring a Brixham-built trawler back to her home port and entered into negotiations with Ken.


Bill said he had got a group of local enthusiasts to club together to buy her and sail her back home to Devon. In fact, he had raised only £15,000 of the £60,000 asking price but made the down payment as a deposit promising Ken the balance in Brixham if he helped sail the boat back.


He recruited a crew of eight who motored back, pumping the bilges all the way.
When she sailed into port sporting canary yellow topsides, she caught the imagination of the local population and eventually 50 shareholders pledged £2,500 each to buy and restore her. The Vigilance of Brixham Preservation Company Ltd was formed.

This was a group of fishermen, doctors, bank managers and the like with varying degrees of expertise but all united in their enthusiasm for bring a tangible piece of trawling history back to the port.


Since the summer of 1998 her red sails have become a familiar site doing her thrice-weekly visitor sails around Tor Bay.


Now she is regularly joined on the towns Heritage Pontoon by the oldest surviving Brixham Trawler, Pilgrim BM45 built in 1895 in the same yard as Vigilance. She was also brought back to the port by Bill Wakeham but in need of major structural repairs paid for by a National Lottery grant. She now operates with a paid skipper. Two other sailing trawlers Provident BM28 (1924) and Leader (1892) and a smaller gaff-cutter Golden Vanity all built in nearby Galmpton, are also based in Brixham.


Vigilance takes pride in being not only the most ‘authentic’ trawler – her engine and other mod-cons notwithstanding – but also being the only boat of her type crewed entirely by volunteers. She is also now supported by Friends of the Vigilance, a recently formed registered charity raising money to fund her preservation and support the aims of the Company, to be self-financing, keep the boat in sea-going shape in Brixham and sail her regularly, involving the community and youngsters as much as possible.


In the summer of 2019 she clocked up 70 days sailing. She carried more than 360 passengers on her regular trips and private charters. But without a doubt for her crew the highlight of the summer was racing over the finish line in the Heritage Rally to lift – once again – the George V Cup!


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Vigilance is a Gaff-rigged Ketch

Still classed as a "Brixham Sailing Trawler" although no longer fishing. She was the last of a long line of beam trawlers or smacks built at Upham's Shipyard in Brixham in 1926. As a heritage vessel of national importance, she is part of the UK Historic Fleet.