Steamboat enthusiasts sail ahead in Avonbridge before canal launch

Steam boat enthusiast John Hendry (right) on board his vessel with Andrew Anderson (left) and Jack Bell. Picture: Michael Gillen
Steam boat enthusiast John Hendry (right) on board his vessel with Andrew Anderson (left) and Jack Bell. Picture: Michael Gillen

A secluded garden in a rural part of the Braes, eight miles inland from the coast, is not the most likely of locations for a makeshift boatyard.

Yet on an overcast Thursday afternoon in early May, a half dozen steamboats are being inspected by an engineer to check on their seaworthiness ahead of their launch at the Falkirk Wheel basin the following day.

steamboat rally at LUCS Linlithgow May 2014

steamboat rally at LUCS Linlithgow May 2014

The sharp, unmistakable tone of steam whistles frequently punctures the smoke-filled air as men in overalls tinker with engines and move sacks of coal from boat to boat.

What is remarkable is that all this is taking place a short distance from Avonbridge, a small village not previously known for its marine industry.

There are two reasons why these boats have gathered at this particular garden; they are all small enough to be towed by trailer, meaning they can easily be transported overland; and this is the home of John Hendry, a member of the Steam Boat Association of Great Britain.

John (72), has invited his fellow enthusiasts and their boats to his home so they can be inspected ahead of a scheduled Union Canal cruise from The Falkirk Wheel to Linlithgow.

All the vessels here are fully steam-powered and are lovingly maintained by their owners, some of whom have travelled from as far away as Cornwall for the occasion.

“This is the third time we’ve gathered at my house,” said John. “It serves a serious purpose, but it’s also a social occasion and an opportunity for the members to catch up.

“The state of each boiler on every boat has to be inspected at least once a year, before they can take to the water. The engineer will raise the pressure beyond the boiler’s limit to check if the safety valve is working.”

The Steam Boat Association of Great Britain was established in 1971 to promote the enjoyment of steamboats and steamboating.

The group has more than 1000 members – around 30 per cent of them are based overseas – and has around 90 steamboats in working order that make regular excursions throughout the summer months.

John is a relatively new member of the group but his interest in marine engineering grew from his time as a young apprentice at Sharp & Sons in Camelon.

There he worked alongside Andrew Anderson, from Bonnybridge, and more than fifty years on the firm friends are both active steam boat enthusiasts.

It’s fitting that two men from the Falkirk district are helping to keep alive the spirit of steam-powered marine travel.

The area, after all, has a distinguished history when it comes to steam boats. The Charlotte Dundas, recognised as the world’s first practical steamboat, was built in Grangemouth in 1803 and was powered by an engine built by the Carron Company.

The vessel was tested on the Forth and Clyde Canal, paving the way for commercial steamboats to ferry passengers to and from Glasgow along the waterway in the days before railway travel.

It’s fitting, then, that the same canal is still being used by locally-maintained steamboats more than two centuries later.

Not all of the Association’s members are engineers by trade. Chairman Mark Rudal is an Anglican priest and others work as teachers and designers,

“It’s the love of all things steam,” said Mark, who has travelled north from his home in England. “It appeals to people for the same reasons as volunteers working on steam preservation railways and the like.

“It’s a very sociable group of people. Most of the Scottish members are here today, and most of them will travel south of the border this year to sail as well.”

John, however, comes from a skilled industry background. He worked his way up to the position of superintendent engineer and was working on a freelance basis in shipyards in South Korea before taking semi-retirement four years ago.

“It was a very interesting job, very full-on, and I needed something when I came back to Scotland that would interest me and keep me busy,” he explained.

“This is such a demanding hobby, so it suits me. It’s not something that you can just dedicate a few hours to now and again.”

He bought his boat, the 27-foot Suliven, complete from a retired orthopaedic surgeon.

“I contacted him from Korea, and he told me that he had no interest in his pride of joy going to the other side of the world. I had to explain that I would be moving back to Scotland,” he said.

The Association’s activities have also had a knock-on benefit for industries other than boat builders. They buy the very best Welsh steam coal, which produces very little ash.

Their regular orders has led to one Welsh coal merchant returning to business.

“It’s the type of coal popular with idiots like us with boats or miniature trains,” laughs John.

For the trip down the canals from The Falkirk Wheel to Linlithgow, the Suliven will burn a single kilo bag of coal.

While that’s a modest amount of fuel, there’s no getting away from the fact that this is an expensive and very time consuming hobby – although it is far from being the preserve of the wealthy, attracting as it does people from a variety of backgrounds.

John paid around £20,000 for his boat, but other steam-powered craft can be bought for around £6500.

Above all, this is a labour of love for those involved and money does not come into it.

“It’s a marvellous feeling, keeping these boats and the skills involved alive,” said Mark.

“And our wives are glad to see us out of the house.”

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