When old and new worlds come together
Crusty boats, an old boating friend of mine used to call them. I don’t know why; maybe it was his amalgam of ‘classic’ and ‘rusty’. He was talking about what we more politely call historic or ex-working boats.
Once upon a time they were more rusty (or rotten, given that some are built of wood) than classic, but there has been a quite a revival of interest in historic craft.
So much so that there managed to be two classic boat rallies on the same weekend earlier this summer and both Braunston and Lymm drew large numbers of entries.
I have to say that I do like a crusty boat show. Last year we went to Lymm (which features cars and traction engines for the full classic transport experience) and this year to Braunston. It was certainly fun, thanks in large part to the parade.
This is a kind of vaguely organised chaos where boats attempt a circuit via a threepoint turn at Braunston Turn, along the canal and through the marina. Anything can happen and usually does – most often in the shape of an ‘I know my rights’ private craft which has turned a blind eye to the multiplicity of boat rally warning notices around the area and then discovered that a 70ft boat and butty pair are a pretty formidable obstacle to encounter on a crowded canal.
Or a bunch of happy (in the alcoholic sense) hireboaters who panic at the sight of a oncoming Big Woolwich bow – and who wouldn’t – engage hard reverse and find themselves broadside across the cut.
Braunston Turn is the place to watch, not just for these antics but for the artistry with which the steerers of these big boats can turn them around with such precision.
And being someone who has never mastered the art of reversing a car and trailer, I gazed in sheer slack-jawed appreciation at people able to reverse 140ft of boat and butty back around a bend.
But it’s not just the steering, it’s the boats themselves that I like to see and find out about. To be honest, though, I found the travel to the show even more revealing than the weekend itself.
On the way down we repeatedly met working boats at locks or moored up at night with them – it was a chance to ask a few questions and learn a bit of background. That can be harder at a show when boats are moored three or four deep and most of the owners are away three or four deep at the beer tent bar.
When I was a motoring hack I made an early career decision to steer well clear of classic cars – there’s no-one so pedantically picky as a classic car enthusiast. They find holes in everything. If not in the writing, then in the cars. ‘They never made them with those wheel nuts... that colour’s not standard’ - you know the sort of thing.
I’m sure there are the same types in historic boating but to me it all seems a lot more open and accepting. Old boats aren’t like old Ferraris; more like old spades - three new handles and two new blades but it’s still the same spade.
Boats that were once wooden bottomed are now steel, engines have been changed, some have grown cabins, some have had them stripped off and are back to their original carrying form, some are scruffy, others gleam like new.
Most entertainingly, to the outsider like me, is the way some over the years have found themselves becoming more than one boat. During the years after the end of carrying the boats that weren’t simply sunk were routinely butchered about for all sorts of purposes.
At least two owners we spoke to had acquired a boat which was half a historic and which they were restoring by building a new matching ‘proper’ half while at the same time the owner of the actual other historic half was doing the same thing to his! Who got to keep the name was a big bone of contention.
I enjoy shows like Braunston – it’s a chance to get a small insight into what the working canals must have been like. I’ve never helmed a 70ft working boat, something I’d definitely like to do before I hang up my windlass but when I do, you can rest assured it certainly won’t be in front of a crowd of hundreds at Braunston Turn.
‘As someone who has never mastered the art of reversing a car and trailer, I gazed in sheer slack-jawed appreciation’
Ah, the joys of classic boating