…[HMS] Gay Archer was about a month late being delivered by the builders, Vosper. When she did arrive, Vosper’s ferry crew managed to knock a small hole in her port side, evidence of which can be seen in the photo printed in the Western Morning News of 25 May 2006! That photo, incidentally, was taken very shortly after her arrival in HMS Hornet, i.e. in early May 1953. I have one of the original photographs and can identify my First Lieutenant, the Cox’n and myself on the bridge.
We sailed for the Baltic on 7 May, one week after acceptance from Vosper, but not before splitting a fuel tank on acceptance trials, with all the attendant problems of shutting everything down, being towed out into The Solent to pump out the bilges and then having to lift off the coach deck and replace the tank. Another problem showed itself early on. We would come back on board to find our upper deck some eighteen inches below that of the next boat. The engine room had flooded, but no-one at first knew why. It was later discovered that the cooling water inlet was letting water in, which somehow had got out of the engine and into the bilges. The problem was cured before long. The next problem was the inability of the Gay-class, when fully loaded and fuelled, to get up ‘on the step’ until some of the fuel had been used and the all-up weight reduced. Later on, the transom flaps shown in the picture were fitted and I believe these helped.
We nearly didn’t get away on the Baltic excursion. We were narrowly missed by Bold Pioneer, as she entered the pens one day, managing to cut the Captain’s motorboat in half! On the passage north, between Den Helder and Cuxhaven, we damaged a propeller on some driftwood. A new one was fitted in Copenhagen before we moved on to Aarhus, moored alongside in a trot of four boats; Bombardier on the jetty, then Fencer, then ourselves, with 1023—an old-style Vosper ‘shortboat’—on the outside. We all topped up our fuel from RFA Airsprite, who came along for these trips carrying the (not much-loved) 100-octane aviation spirit. About 7am the following morning—Sunday 17 May, according to my notes—the Leading Stoker in 1023 went into the engine room to start up the generator which resulted in an explosion and fire. He was blown out through the hatch and, although injured, survived. 1023 burnt merrily and subsequently sank. Gay Archer, alongside her, caught fire and after some difficulty untangling ourselves from the berthing lines and, by then, the fire hoses laid across our deck from shore being played on 1023, [we] drifted away across the basin, quite badly damaged and scorched by 1023’s fire. Having operated the methyl bromide fire extinguishers as a preventative measure, we couldn’t run up our engines. Fortunately, none of the boats actually exploded, possibly due to having full fuel tanks and thus no vapour in them.
We remained in Aarhus for two weeks being repaired sufficiently to make the passage home. On the day of the fire the ERA fell down the engine room hatch, sprained his ankle and had to be flown home. Tim Hollis, my First Lieutenant, had hurt himself slipping off a gangway in Den Helder on the way up and spent the time in Aarhus in hospital! We left Aarhus on 29 May, meeting up with Gay Fencer at Kiel, who kept us company on the way home in case, in our somewhat weakened state, we sank. Happily, we didn’t, although we did the final leg from Hook of Holland to Sheerness battling into a westerly gale and uncomfortable sea. We spent a day in Chatham dockyard de-fuelling. Fencer towed Gay Archer to Sheerness on 10 June to be de-stored, whereupon the crew all went ‘home’ to Hornet... ...Gay Archer was in no fit state to take her place in the Fleet Review on 15 June, so we had to miss that. Not long afterwards (6 July), Gay Centurion was accepted from the makers and I took command of her until I left Coastal Forces at the end of the year, by which time Gay Archer, as far as I can remember, had still not yet returned to the fold...The Gay-class of FPB were destined to be the last petroleum powered craft of the Royal Navy: HMS Gay Fencer, one of the last vessels of the type in commission, became a Torpedo Recovery Vessel, later becoming an Admiral’s Barge. Photographic evidence shows her still in use as late as 1965. Some vessels had ignominious ends—Fencer was eventually to be sunk as a target on the naval gunnery ranges off Portland. Bombardier sold privately, was caught smuggling in the Mediterranean being arrested by Italian customs; her eventual fate unknown. Another member of the class, identity currently unknown, was also caught smuggling, this time by the Spanish customs; confiscated and eventually donated to the Spanish Cantabria University at Santanda; re-named Iorana she was accidentally crushed by a Spanish naval tug and deemed a total loss in 2006. At least two others—Crusader and Charioteer?—were known to have been converted to Gas Turbine propulsion by Wessex Power Units (WPU). Whilst two more boats, Bruiser and Bowman—rumoured to be on order for the Italian customs service as P1 and P2—were noted as being on Wessex Power Units premises at that time, the true fate of these, and other boats, have yet to be determined. The writing was on the wall for the entity known as Coastal Forces. The, by then obsolete Dark, plus the exciting Brave classes, arriving too late to have any impact on decisions being made elsewhere. The famous and last Coastal Forces base—HMS Hornet—closed in December 1957—this date now recognised as finis for the Royal Navy’s proud Coastal Forces. HMS Gay Archer however is now the sole survivor of this postwar class of twelve craft. Having once been converted to a private yacht she is now owned by Paul Childs and lovingly restored to a military configuration similar to one that she once enjoyed during the 1950s (now diesel powered of course!). She is currently based at Watchet Harbour, Somerset, UK. (Photographs used in this article from the authors collection)