SO what do you do after you take early retirement at the age of 54 following a career as a computer systems engineer working for British Airways? That was the question facing Derek Beake from Richmond Drive, Shepperton in 1997 – a question he solved by talking to the husband of one of his wife’s friends who invited him to come and crew on a Thames pleasure boat down at Runnymede.
“I’d always enjoyed messing about in boats,” says Derek, now 65, “and I’d done some sailing in the United States, so when this chap, who was ex-Navy, came up with the idea I thought I’d give it a try – and I haven’t looked back since.”
Derek joined French Brothers launches as a crewman but he quickly graduated to skipper, having acquired his Maritime and Coastguard Agency licence to pilot a boat on the non-tidal Thames above Teddington. He was then given command of a 50-foot paddle steamer replica called the Lucy Fisher.
“She’s a beautiful little boat,” said Derek, “and we used her to take people for 45-minute trips up and down the river by Runnymede. She’s also been a film star in her time, appearing in a movie called Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan starring Christopher Lambert and in two or three TV shows.”
In addition to his role as a boat skipper, Derek has also made himself popular with his new employers by utilising his engineering skills to repair and enhance boats in the fleet.
“I built an extension to the Lucy Fisher’s funnel using air conditioning ducting and some fire hose and I made a new deck air vent for her by taking a plaster cast of the other one and using it to build a new fibre glass replica – I love doing things like that,” he said.
Sadly, the Lucy Fisher is now laid up at the Runnymede boat yard owned by French Brothers awaiting some repair work to her hull, and Derek’s regular charge is now the Bray Princess in which he takes passengers on trips ranging from Windsor to Hampton Court.
“It’s great fun, being a skipper,” Derek said, “I’m basically getting paid to play on boats and I’ve met a whole load of wonderful people while doing it.”
But are there downsides to the job, I wondered?
“The things that drive me mad are people behaving irresponsibly on the river,” he admitted. “I sometimes see people in charge of boats they’ve hired for a day trip who clearly don’t know what they’re doing. I think the hirers should spend more time ensuring that people know how dangerous the river can be if you don’t keep your wits about you.”
Derek cites one of his own early experiences in command of a launch when the fast-flowing river made it virtually impossible for him to turn the boat around.
“You have to take a great deal of care in a boat when conditions are like that,” he said.
THANKS to Joyce Threadgill from Staines Sailing Club for sending through information in response to my question about a barrel which carried somebody over Niagara Falls. I hadn’t realised there were so many brave (or foolhardy) folk who had tried it! But I’m still no closer to establishing whether such a barrel actually exists in the Staines area. Can anyone else help me on that?