A club open to anyone who owns a Piper-built boat
From the Colorado to ‘Basil’
First published in Pipeline - Summer 2008
I have been a “canal nut” since 1966 or thereabouts. The first boat I hired was from Willow Wren, a converted 70 ft Northwich, I believe, though I could be wrong about the provenance. We got hopelessly stuck on the South Stratford where a construction crew were rebuilding a bridge and disposing of the old bridge in the cut. They towed us over the rubble with a dump truck after we had lightened the boat by removing the crew and several kegs of ale. When we recounted this and several other hoary stories to the manager at Willow Wren, he said “Well, what do you expect – taking a boat like this down a muddy ditch?” We had to own up that we had a pretty good holiday, considering.
There followed many years of hire boats and a stint on the committee of the BBC Club Inland Waterways section where I had a small role in commissioning “Savoy Hill” from Water Travel. I had one chance to buy a boat of my own, an unconverted Small Woolwich motor. I went to my friendly NatWest bank manager who was a canal enthusiast himself. He lent me £1,500 and I went back to buy the boat but the seller backed out of the deal. A good thing as it would have reduced me to penury for years.
Then life took over and I found myself married to Barbara, a stunningly radiant American girl as giddily extroverted as I was dourly introverted. Things worked out OK as we are still married and bickering 30 years later! We lived in Norwich and London and went on the occasional trip on Savoy Hill. Barbara had travelled the world extensively before we were married, including five months alone in Morocco. She infected me with the travel bug, our house in South Harrow got dry rot and I was fed up with London so we headed out on a long trip round the world before settling in Arizona.
That was in 1981 and for a year or two I immersed myself in the new culture. Barbara was more homesick for Britain than I was. I loved this country which has the Bill of Rights as a cornerstone and which has no accent-based class system. Arizona took a little longer to get used to. Gradually I came to admire the desert and developed a love for the outdoors - hiking, river rafting and cycling – a far cry from the couch potato I had been in Britain. My boating activities were limited to three 200 mile trips on the Colorado, through the Grand Canyon – no locks!
Somewhere about this time my love of the waterways became an obsession and I spent the next 20 years designing a narrow boat. My mother died in 1993 and left me some money which I invested for our future boat. Barbara was decidedly ambivalent about the whole project. She could not promise to live on a boat for three months a year but, trooper that she is, she agreed to try it as long as we could go our separate ways if she didn’t take to it. Her perceptions were clouded by previous boozy outings with assorted reprobates crammed into a club or hire boat while attempting near impossible ring navigations. Ah well, we live and learn. There must have been some tranquil moments, as that’s what I remembered most as my obsession grew.
In 2004 I retired and began work on buying a boat in earnest. Isolated from much direct experience of the waterways, I got most of my information from a subscription to Waterways World. Not highly regarded by boatbuilders and surveyors, I later discovered, but that’s all I had. I read all the reviews and narrowed the search down to three builders. In the end it came down to personalities more than anything. We liked Simon Piper instantly and I felt I could work with him from 6,000 miles away. I won’t name the other two contestants. They both did excellent work but one seemed a little bored and the other wanted me to get quotes and plans from another builder which he would then use to build a boat for £10,000 less, guaranteed. So much for ethics!
I decided to name the boat after Barbara’s favourite cat Basil, now sadly deceased, in a blatant ploy to get her to fall in love with the whole thing. Basil acted like he was the king of the household, ordering us mere humans around in an imperious manner, so the boat became “Basil the King”. Roy, a harbourmaster at our present mooring, informed me that Basil means “king” in Greek, so it’s a bit redundant, but what the hell.
As we toured builders my carefully laid plans were somewhat modified by the practicalities of modern boatbuilding. However, the finished product echoes my original plan and more than meets our needs. Piper far exceeded my expectations. The quality of the fit-out is way beyond anything I had seen at any yard, including Piper’s own. The 60 foot boat swims beautifully and is quiet and efficient. The full story of the building process including plans and specs is on my web sitehere for anyone interested in the detail.
In the end my devious attempts to win over my wife were totally unnecessary as she fell in love with the whole thing. In spite of 2007 being the “wettest summer on record” we had a great first season aboard Basil. Barbara is a hippy at heart and the gypsy life suited her fine. I, on the other hand, had a long period of adjustment. I knew that owning one’s own boat would be different than hiring a boat, running a club boat or even borrowing boats; the sum of my 40 years experience. However, I still lay awake at night worrying about every little thing that was wrong with the boat and agonizing every time I scratched it up. Simon’s staff were great, coming out on several occasions to fix teething troubles, so I had no grounds for complaint but it took me several weeks to sink into my usual waterways euphoria. We pootled up the Trent & Mersey past Anderton where we were pleased to meet Michael Minifie (see Winter issue, page 14). I did the first real damage to Basil when, on a rare sunny day, I plunged into the Stygian gloom of Preston Brook tunnel and drove into the overhang, ripping several studs off the cratch cover.
A full account of our first season is on the web. We cruised up the Llangollen which was surprisingly uncrowded, and down the Shroppie to Wolverhampton. We were intending to cruise the Severn and up the Avon, but other boaters’ stories of muddy moorings and swollen weirs put us off and so we went through Birmingham instead. Gas Street was a real revelation after 35 years absence! Anyway, Basil performed like a dream, we are very pleased with our first boat and glad that it is a Piper. RC.
By Roger Carter
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