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A piece of British boating history is restored to brilliance

Waterway and Maritime TransportationBritain
Victoria Fash's antique boat, the Humble, dates to 1902
The vessel Humble was used by the Prince of Wales on a tour of Europe
During WWII the Humble served as a firefighting boat in England

When Victoria Fash retired from her job in London and decided to move back to the United States, she planned to sell her seven antique boats.

But when the time came, there was one vessel she just couldn't part with, the one named Humble, a wooden, electric boat built more than a century ago.

"I loved them all dearly," she said of the fleet. "When I got to this one, I couldn't do it.... I just couldn't leave her with somebody else."

Fash, a former chief executive with a global healthcare information and technology company, arranged, as they say in Britain, a crossing. Humble traveled by freighter to San Francisco, then on a big rig to Newport Beach, where the boat is now moored in the harbor waters facing Fash's Lido Isle home.

The craft usually sits under a cover, but Saturday, roughly a year after its journey, it was shown publicly in its new home city for the first time, along with about 46 boats at the Balboa Yacht Club's inaugural wooden boat festival. The old vessel ended up claiming first prize at an event attended by more than 1,000 enthusiasts.

"Anybody, whether you love boats or don't, is going to get blown away by seeing what is here," Ralph Rodheim, the show's organizer, said before the event. "You can't describe it. The designs, the colors, the varnish, the majesty, I don't have a big enough vocabulary to tell you how awesome this is."

Bringing Humble stateside cost a "bloody fortune," Fash says, but she found organizing and paying for the passage well worth it.

Humble was, after all, considered the best boat in England at one time, said Fash, who has pieced together a rich history.

Built in 1902 by an unknown ship maker, Humble was acquired by the Prince of Wales, who took her on a European tour.

But the "brave little boat" wasn't just used for leisure and travel. The British Navy commandeered it during World War II, outfitting the vessel — named Able at that time — with hydraulic pumps and a steam engine. It was used as a firefighting boat to protect military supplies and buildings.

In the late 1950s, two brothers turned the boat into a passenger ferry, installing cheap chairs and a tacky umbrella. They shuttled up to 50 people at a time along the River Thames, from Windsor to London, until the mid-1960s.

Then the boat, renamed for the brothers' grandmother, fell on hard times. Her keel started to rot —until a wealthy owner came along, who Fash said remade the craft to look exactly as it should.

By the time Fash discovered Humble, in 2002, it had been through a host of new owners and again fallen into disrepair.

The 52-foot boat was a wreck, kept from sinking only by the strap of a crane, which a boatyard owner had kindly slung underneath. The tip of the boat was under the water. The floorboards had been taken out. Its appearance was dulled.

But the beautiful shape of the bow convinced Fash of one thing: The vessel had to be saved.

"It's a beautiful, unique piece of floating history," she said. "I thought, 'Well, it's only money. You'll do something that lasts forever, if you take care of it.'"

Fash, an American prone to using British expressions from her time abroad, bought the boat for about $120,000. Restoration took two years, and soon, she was taking the boat out on the water for 150-guest parties and dinner seatings of 22 around the dining table.

The English took to calling the now-shining vessel "Not So," as in "Not So Humble."

Humble arrived in Newport Beach roughly a year ago, again in need of work. Its British electric charging system did not work in the U.S. and had to be replaced. The original mahogany needed varnish.

As Fash put it, "She was such a mess from the trip, poor dear."

Standing on her dock Thursday with her toy Pomeranian, George, cradled in one arm, Fash remarked that the boat is now in top shape.

Humble was washed last week, and a team had been polishing its many brass accents. The mahogany shone, the metal steering wheel sparkled, the monogrammed champagne flutes were at the ready.

Inside Fash's home, one of her antique clocks was being worked on too. Since buying Humble, she has developed a love for old things.

For the show, she bought a new Victorian-era outfit — a rich purple dress, white parasol and gloves, round hat and purple shoes — as she does for every boat show she enters.

Wearing the same outfit twice, she said, would be tacky.

emily.foxhall@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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