Doncaster to Paris direct by boat - how town boat club has grown and grown

For 50 years, they had been used to taking their boats from Doncaster, and heading off as far away as Paris.

Sunday, 9th May 2021, 12:00 pm

But last year, that ground to a halt. And for the first time, Strawberry Island Boat Club found themselves landlocked.

Although Doncaster may not be on the coast, its canal and river made sure that it was always a good place for its members to base a boat. But the coronavirus lockdown meant that the boats at the club, near Wheatley, were out of action for nearly a year from last March.

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L-r Derek Wildsmith, Committee Member, John Foster, Harbour Master/Trustee, Michael Oakes, President, Don Musgrave, Committee Member, Peter Harbon, Treasurer/Trustee and Paul Mellors, Commodore, pictured. Picture: NDFP-04-05-21-StrawberryBoat 3-NMSY

But in the last month, that has started to change. And the club, which was due to celebrate its 50th birthday last Autumn, is now taking to the water again.

And members are delighted. They are already planning their trips.

The club, described by those who attend as the working class version of a yacht club, has been built over the years by the labour of its members since 1970. They rate the facilities it has as among the best.

But it was not always like this.

Don Musgrave, pictured with the new Boat Lift. Picture: NDFP-04-05-21-StrawberryBoat 7-NMSY

When they first moved onto the site, it was an abandoned stretch of water, largely silted, and with the wrecks of old timber boats just under the surface.

They painstakingly cleared the site, until the original members were able to site their boats there. And over the years, they have built roads, slipways, club houses and quays, to develop the site into what it is today, with over 100 boats there, mainly longboats and cruisers.

The most recent development was the installation of a £150,000 boat lift in January, a sort of 50th birthday present for themselves, to help get boats out of the water for maintenance. it replacing an older, smaller model they had before, which was sold on to another club. Another nod to the 50th anniversary was an outdoor event in September for members.

The club’s site is so significant now that it is even used by the emergency services, with the police and fire service both using it for launching their own boats in the waterway.

Michael Oakes, President, pictured by his boat, Michael 'O'. Picture: NDFP-04-05-21-StrawberryBoat 1-NMSY

Peter Harbon. from Bessacarr, now one of the trustees at the club, was one of the first members back in 1970.

He said: “I was building a boat at the time in my garden, on Crompton Avenue, in Sprotbrough, and I went to a meeting in the museum, where the club was being set up. It was fun – but it was hard work. You wouldn’t believe how much it has changed here. Back then there were reeds half way across the water, sunken wooden barges, and old car tyres. We had to dig the old boats out.” Now in his 70s, he has stuck with the club right through.

The club’s harbour master, John Foster, from Edenthorpe, has been a member for 45 years. But few have voyaged so far from Doncaster than he has.

Now in his 70s, he used to sail, before moving up to a motorboat.

L-r Derek Wildsmith, Committee Member, John Foster, Harbour Master/Trustee, Michael Oakes, President, Don Musgrave, Committee Member, Peter Harbon, Treasurer/Trustee and Paul Mellors, Commodore, pictured. Picture: NDFP-04-05-21-StrawberryBoat 5-NMSY

Although he has travelled around the UK’s waterways, he has also taken a boat from Strawberry Island to Paris – twice.

On both occasions, he had to take his boat out to the North Sea, and then sail south to Calais, before entering the small waterways, and eventually, the River Seine.

The first time he made the journey with a friend, another boat expert. The second time, John, a highly qualified boatsman who has a ‘skippers ticket’ to run boats up to a certain size, took his wife who had expressed an interest in making the same journey.

“The first time I took the boat to Paris was more than 30 years ago,” he said. “It was quite rough. But I’ve been across the channel a few times now. You could actually get to the Mediterranean from here.”

But he, like the others, has missed being about to head off on the water.

He said: “We were closed for over a year.”

Commodore Paul Mellors, pictured by his Narrowboat, Twilight. Picture: NDFP-04-05-21-StrawberryBoat 2-NMSY

Members Derek Wildsmith, 68, from Balby, and Don Musgrave, 69, from Intake, agreed it felt brilliant to be able to get the boats out again, and were planning to take their boats out.

But at the moment the members can only get to Mexborough one way, and Barnby Dun the other.

A comparative newcomer at Strawberry Island is Paul Mellors.

Paul, aged 57, from Thorne Road, has only been a member for around 10 years, but is now the club commodore.

He said: “Everything we’ve got here, the members have built over the years. Last year we needed a new sewage tank, The members created that, the same as they have everything else, including the club house.”

Paul’s own boating background initially consisted of working on cruise ships, producing shows. But he and his wife later decided to buy a boat. He said: "We bought a little cruiser at first, and then a 45ft narrowboat. When we had our first baby, it was a case of give up or get a bigger boat!”

He said members were pleased to finally be getting back on their boats.

He said: “It’s been fantastic that since April 12, our members have finally been able to go boating and stay overnight on the boats. We’ve had real, serious disruption now for 12 months despite a little respite last summer. Hopefully now we will be back to normal boating and we will have our members off all over the canal system for the entire summer.”

Now eyes are on the future, with another celebration even planned for September, and even an outdoor theatre production on the site the same month.

In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Thanks to everyone who helps us ask the questions that matter by taking out a subscription or buying a paper. We stand together. Liam Hoden, editor.

Strawberry Island Boat Club. Picture: NDFP-04-05-21-StrawberryBoat 6-NMSY
Peter Harbon, Treasurer and Trustee, pictured by The Cheswold which he built in his garden. Picture: NDFP-04-05-21-StrawberryBoat 4-NMSY