Upcycled adventure

Two young architects refit a decommissioned lifeboat for an upcycled – and stylish – ocean adventure. Leaving the south coast of the UK behind, they head for the west coast of Norway – just themselves, the ocean and their inquisitive dog, Shackleton.

Words by Guylee Simmonds
Photographs by David Schnabel

Click click, tap tap, separated by our two laptops David and I irregularly discuss our work; an interesting new client, a trusty builder gone rogue, an slow planning department causing further delays. The mundane chatter of two 28-year-old architects, probably much the same as everywhere and little different from the generic back and forth that characterises offices and co-working spaces around the world. Then the more unusual excerpts:

“Did you pump the grey water tank?”

“How’s the solar doing today?”

“My hands smell of mackerel…”

Suddenly not such normal workplace conversations. Turning from my laptop I look out to my left over mirror-like water, reflecting a busy cloudscape above. To my right a sparsely vegetated island, no doubt home to a few dozen sheep, or perhaps an angry ram to intimidate my curious retriever, Shackleton. We’re floating at 70 degrees north, in one of many archipelagos that scatter the western coast of Norway, having emerged from one of the many indented fjords. With the backdrop to our office a constant distraction, our commitment to emails does not last long. We’re four months into life aboard our converted lifeboat, Stødig, meaning steady or reliable in Norwegian. She spent twenty years as Clansman Lifeboat No.1, indigenous to the Western Isles of Scotland aboard a Calmac Ferry, as an means of escape designed to carry 100 people to safety in the worst conditions. Rigorously designed and tested, and costing six figures new, these lifeboats are unlikely to be put to use, instead spending their life well maintained, always ready for a potential calamity, but rarely fulfilling the purpose for which they are designed. 

In February 2018, after concluding her service in Scotland, being gently lowered off the ferry she had served, little did this lifeboat know about the adventure ahead. Unaware that meanwhile in Newhaven, East Sussex, two architects were planning a meticulous conversion prior to a 5,000km voyage beyond the Arctic Circle. 

It is all too easy for dreams of adventure to remain as that, dreams of a parallel life. Similarly many grand plans become distilled, as the realities of our commitments, relationships or jobs can make that ultimate trip seem unattainable. In our case however, what started as a modest hiking trip, grew and mutated into a greater beast than we had ever expected. Sitting in our respective offices in 2018, not long after we had both completed the onerous eight years of architectural education, planning our Norwegian adventure provided an escape from the routine and responsibilities of our work. I was running construction projects in Northern Haiti, David designing beautiful houses in South Wales. By phone and email we would scheme and dream, eager for adventure. Over a number of years the idea of a move to Norway had gestated, before a curveball. I became fascinated by the potential of a converted lifeboat as an ultimate expedition craft, having seen a small converted survival craft on the River Thames and researched their indestructible fabric. From a family of seafarers, a boat seemed a natural way to explore Norway with its fragmented and dramatic coastline. Despite being from a more land-loving family, I knew David would be the perfect crewmate and so set about convincing him of the viability of the idea. 

The lifeboat arrived in Newhaven one snowy morning in February and we set about our project in earnest, working freelance to earn funds to pay for the conversion and initially working evenings and weekends on the boat. Gradually the boat, as boats often do, took over all aspects of our lives. As we began work on Stødig, the scale of the task started to become apparent and our original departure in the summer of 2018 was quickly forgotten. Essentially starting with a fibreglass blank canvas, we leapt at the opportunity to design something for ourselves, unfortunately something that evades most young architects. Unbound by any preconceptions of what a converted lifeboat should be like, we went about creating a comfortable and uplifting interior, contrasting the utilitarian and functional exterior. Keen to survive in remote places for extended periods we packed the hull with 15cm of insulation, installed a wood burner, a composting toilet, solar panels and a wind turbine. Embracing the opportunity to do all the work ourselves, we were able to keep costs down whilst also developing an intimate and useful knowledge of the boat and her workings. Months disappeared, as we became part of the fabric of the boatyard and were rarely seen by those who did not also frequent the muddy tidal waters where we had our mooring. Everything else was pushed to the side as our departure date in the early summer of 2019 crept closer.

Photographs by David Schnabel

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This feature appears in ISSUE 10: Interpreting whalesong of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue Ten
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