The Wilderness Boat Owners Club is probably one of the larger boating related clubs in the country and our friendly looking little trail boats are seen at most canal festivals and campaign rallies throughout the year. Wherever you go on inland waters you are likely to spot one at some time during a day’s cruising.
So where is the Club based? Answer, – nowhere and everywhere! They have no club moorings nor clubhouse and yet have a membership more widespread than most other clubs. There are and have been members in France, Germany, Sweden, USA, Ireland and New Zealand as well as on home waters.
Is this a club like some that have been formed to keep a boat-builder in touch with his aftermarket? Far from it. Although the original builder of these GRP craft for 30 years, Ian Graham, is himself a pioneer and great enthusiast of trail boating, he has steadfastly kept his distance from the Wilderness Boat Owners Club, believing that it should be run independently by the members, for the members. And likewise Bob Howell, the present builder through Wilderness Trailboats of the Beaver, believes the same. So, what is it that binds this Club together when members don’t have expensive shiny boats to pose with (indeed, some are ‘well used’ in broker’s jargon – which means pretty scruffy) and also don’t ever have a chance to meet other members at a clubhouse?
To answer this, you have to turn the spotlight on the members and their chosen form of boating. If you talk to owners of full length narrowboats, some will tell you that they used to have a little GRP boat but then moved on, having tired of boating doubled-up in cramped cabins. But in this Club you find an unusual proportion of doctors, dentists, engineers and professional people who simply have chosen not to move on. Many years ago, the Waterways press dubbed the Wilderness boats as ‘the thinking mans canal boat’ and more recently Waterways World said they are “a ‘boater’s boat’ in which the crew can enjoy the fresh air and birdsong rather than the air conditioning and DVD player”, meaning that they were the only full-headroom, comfortable, live-aboard, go anywhere boat that was available. It is the last item, the ‘go anywhere’ feature, that was and still is the big attraction for WBOC members, and is why they hold onto their boats for so long.
Some narrowboaters call it cheating but at the same time are perhaps a little envious of the ability to zoom along the motorways for a couple of hours, then slip the boat in, to be at a new waterway or to support a local restoration project. IWA Restoration Committee is well aware that the perceived value to the public of a restoration project is enormously increased if there is an opportunity to see boats on the water. It is often only the trail boaters that can provide this support on isolated sections and is the ‘raison d’etre’ for the IWA National Trail Boat Festival. Who else can get on to the higher reaches of the Lancaster or the Grantham or many other isolated waters. At less than 1 foot draught, these little boats venture into waters not yet suited to their big sisters.
The Wilderness BOC annual subscription is minimal (no moorings, no premises!) and most of the funds go towards the Club Newsletter which is a past winner of AWCC awards for best boat club magazine and the IWA / Canal & Riverboat Tom Rolt award. The Newsletter editor, Helen Huish, says that the Club does have to try hard to have a good magazine as it is the main method of communication between members but also believes she is very fortunate in having such a wide range of contributors. In the past few issues are articles on the Club trips to French waterways, news from Canada, Ireland and Scotland, boating on the Zambezi, the Birmingham 24hour Challenge and much else from isolated waterways, the main system and the sharing of experiences and practical tips. The ‘virtual clubhouse’ at www.wilderness.org.uk provides other high quality communication and is managed by webmaster Bill Perry to an exceptional standard, being also a winner of National and Internet awards.
The club is active in the Association of Waterways Cruising Clubs. There are advantages to WBOC members in being able to use other club’s slipways around the system but because WBOC has no reciprocal facilities, such hospitality has to be repaid in other ways. Club members have in the past filled the AWCC posts of National Chairman, National Technical officer, and regional officers as well as representing AWCC on various other National bodies.
An ongoing campaign of the Club hopes to persuade BW, EA and other Navigation Authorities to move towards a National boat licence. Another is to protect existing and promote new slipways across the waterway network. The Club initiated and supported the trials of the BW/EA Gold licence and the BW Explorer licence but believes that much more should be done to encourage youngsters to boating and to remove the licensing barriers to widespread cruising in the UK. Influenced by their frequent club trips to France, members see the present UK licensing arrangements as being a hindrance to ‘go anywhere’ boating and in need of fundamental change. Hopefully, this might prove to be another example of Wilderness BOC going first where other boats can follow later!!