Lying in her Bayswater Marina berth, the 64-foot W1 looks like many other classic launches, lovingly maintained by a caring owner. That she is, but a fascinating, 85-year history lies beneath her glossy exterior. Story by Lawrence Schäffler.

I’d suggest even British navy aficionados would be hard-pressed to recognise her today, but W1 is an ex-WWII sea rescue vessel imported into New Zealand by the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1939 for coastal defence duties.
A high-speed launch (HSL) originally powered by triple 500hp Napier 12-cylinder aero engines, she is one of 22 sisterships built by the legendary British Power Boat Company – principally to rescue downed pilots in the North Sea before they drowned or succumbed to hypothermia. Speed was of the essence. The Napiers ran on high-octane aviation fuel and with the taps wide open the HSLs topped out at around 38 knots.

Of the 22 only two survive – HSL 102 and W1. In fact, British naval authorities believed the entire fleet had been destroyed. But in 1994 a rotting hulk was discovered on the mud flats on England’s Dart River (being used as a houseboat) and was saved from oblivion in the nick of time.
After an extensive (and expensive) rebuild project, HSL 102 was restored to her wartime specification and relaunched in 1996 – a functioning showpiece of the Royal Navy’s illustrious heritage collection. The British trumpeted her as the only surviving example of the HSL class. But they were wrong – they’d forgotten about (or were unaware of) W1 lying at the opposite end of the planet.

The HSL Genesis
The launches were developed and designed by British speedster Hubert Scott-Paine – a chap who lived equally easily the rarified worlds of aircraft and boats. He was deeply involved in Europe’s pre-WWII Schneider Trophy air races.
The planes he developed in his quest for dominance led directly to the emergence of the Supermarine Spitfire. Prior to WWII, when he established the British Power Boat Company to build launches, much of his design know-how – for building light, fast aircraft – migrated to the marine sector.
HSL hulls were constructed in 5/8-inch double-diagonal-skin mahogany, making for very light vessels (19 tons) and, with their near-flat bottoms they were designed to plane. By the time war broke out in 1939, numerous Allied countries had ordered HSLs. But as the situation in Europe deteriorated most of the orders were cancelled and the boats retained for local use. Inexplicably, W1 slipped through the net.

Turns out W1 was actually one of a pair of HSLs ordered by the RNZAF – her sister was W2. But they were shipped separately and W2 never arrived – her freighter was torpedoed. Note that W1 arrived here nameless and was only given her rather innocuous title when she was launched.
Given the limited space in the engine room, her triple Napier powerplants (the 12 cylinders comprised three banks of four cylinders in an ‘arrow’ formation) saw the two outer engines mounted conventionally (facing forward), with the centre engine mounted back-to-front. It drove its propeller though a Vee-drive gearbox.
Details about W1’s war duties are a little sketchy. We know she carried a 10-man crew and was based at the Hobsonville airforce base, but it seems she rarely left the dock – the authorities were nervous about damaging their prize vessel. She did, however, play a role in rescuing 20 passengers from the ill-fated Niagara liner which struck a German mine off the Hen and Chickens Islands in June 1940.

In keeping with the original ‘sea rescue’ design brief, she carried relatively light armament. It included two Lewis machine guns, though depth charges were later added to ward off lurking enemy submarines. She was also fitted with a plexiglass gunner’s turret from an Oxford aeroplane – for observation.


Along with much war surplus material, W1’s air force life came an end in 1945 and the War Asset Realization Board eventually sold her to a Norman Allright in July 1951 – for the princely sum of £675.

He adapted her spartan interior for family cruising, swapped the triple Napiers for twin 671 GM Detroit diesels with counter-rotating props (themselves war surplus acquisitions) and renamed her Carroma – an anagram of his children’s names. One of the original Napiers is now displayed at Auckland’s MOTAT museum.
About 10 years later Allright’s son made additional changes to the vessel – including the installation of a flybridge – and the family enjoyed decades of cruising before selling her to a Tauranga owner. There she suffered a mishap with the travel lift during a routine haul-out – poorly-positioned slings severely damaged her fragile double-skin hull and she was re-bottomed in plywood.

That owner in turn sold her (in 1998) to Auckland’s Keith Bellingham. Bellingham had the boat surveyed for commercial charter work, but because he wasn’t a qualified skipper he employed Auckland’s Peter Hendriksen to run the vessel. Hendriksen tells an interesting story about the aftermath of Carroma’s Tauranga misadventure:
“The boat behaved awfully in reverse – she traversed all over the place – and we could never work out why. But one day we examined her counter-rotating props and discovered that they’d been inadvertently swapped. They should have been spinning outwards but were instead spinning inwards – and the boat was in fact being driven with the gearboxes running in reverse. So we beached her, swapped the props and corrected the gearbox linkages. She handled like a dream.”

Today W1 is owned by Auckland’s Francis Lings. He bought her (Trade Me) in 2005 and after a few years embarked on what was going to be a “relatively basic do-up project”. As they always do, that project became a little more extensive than originally envisaged (the budget tripled). She was finally relaunched in 2014…
The entire interior was gutted, says Lings. “She was just a large canoe – an empty shell – we started from scratch.” The boat’s interior now has three cabins – with plenty of teak cabinetry – and boasts accessories such as air-conditioning, a diesel heater, a windlass, bow and stern thrusters and a full electronics suite.

Gone too, are the twin 671 GMs. They’ve been replaced by a single 650hp V8 Detroit diesel – a two-stroke engine fitted with twin turbos, a supercharger and an intercooler. It spins a 33” prop. Lings bought the engine (and its sister) secondhand with a view to installing both – but space decreed only one would fit. The second engine is now a ready source of spares. She carries 1,600 litres of diesel in a single, transverse tank.

While the triple Napiers pushed the sleek hull to 38 knots, the best the twin GMs could do was about 17 knots. The single V8 is good for 22 knots.
The decision to refurbish the boat, says Lings, “was as much about improving her accommodation for comfortable cruising, as it was to preserve her. She has an extraordinary history and I like to think I’ve played a role in saving a piece of our maritime heritage.”

And to underscore his point, he reinstated the vessel’s original name – W1