Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Making A Bit Of A Splash... barely a ripple across the Droitwich Spa Marina as 'Smiffbob' Sandhills 24th boat dipped her toe in the water.

The day started as all good days should, not too early and with a nice cup of tea. We had been invited by Bob and June (of Autumn Myst fame) to our first boat launch. Sunday the 26th January was a miserable day. A proper British winter day, not particularly cold but wet and more importantly windy. The launch was due for the next morning. Hmm, with gusts as they had been I wasn't sure if the craning of 18 tons of Sandhills and Alexander Boat Builders craftsmanship would be going ahead.

The boat owners Steve and Lyn Smith (or is that Smiff) were due to leave home for Sandhills boatyard near Redditch at about 07.00, a couple of hours later I called Bob - no bad news so it looked like it was on. We took the short (and remarkably cheap at just over £5 for both of us return) train journey from Snow Hill in Birmingham to Solihull where we were picked up by Bob and ferried back to his and June's lovely house in the 'burbs. June was very welcoming as was Jimmy, Bob and June's latest trainee guide dog puppy. He is doing remarkably well for a young pup and padded quietly around us with his over-sized labradoodle paws (definitely the best example that I have seen of that particular cross so far).

We had never been to visit Gary, Mark and Sue who make up the Sandhills team so we popped over to meet the team at their workshop behind S. E. Davis and Sons (part of the same family group of companies) on their massive landscaping material, concrete supply, plant and training centre. Like most boat builders it is essentially just a big workshop with all the machinery needed for fitting and painting a narrowboat. It was lovely to meet the team and put names to the faces of not only the craftsmen but also Sue who has been very helpful in the past sorting out paint codes and varnish advice for my LJ, DIY.
Ready to feel rain on her roof

Time to bring in the big guns

A bit of persuading of the workshop doors and there was room for the crane

Before Smiffbob could be hauled out of the shed and transferred over to the low loader, Sandhills No. 25 had to had its roof peeled off and its old traditional Dutch engine dropped in place so it could go in for fitting. This was going to take a while so we made the executive decision to leave the Smith family and the Sandhills team to it and head over to the marina and wait for boat and crane to arrive. Luckily there just happened to be a pub around the corner so we decided a little drink and a bite to eat was needed.

We had been to the pub before at the back end of 2012 heading up from the Severn towards Braunston. Pip and John had joined us for the day with Daisy the JRT (if memory serves correctly) and we were moored outside the pub called 2 4 6 8. I though little of the name except that it was a bit odd, but when we were inside we realised the concept - main courses priced at £2, £4, £6 or £8 remarkable value and pretty good food this time as well. Of course it does have a name it's the Eagle and Sun, but we hadn't seen that at the time. Jimmy was allowed in as he had his 'guide dog in training' vest on. You really wouldn't have known he was there. Fingers crossed that after his socialisation with Bob and June he flies through 'guide dog uni' and finds the right match with a grateful new owner. Whilst we ate, drank, looked out at the rain squalls and talked boats and cruising, Bob kept in touch with look-outs in the marina.

We had the call. Last minute slurps of coffee and rest-room visits preceded a dash over to the marina. Smiffbob was still on her low loader. It would have been a disaster to have missed the launch. Luckily the crane hadn't arrived yet so we had plenty of time to check camera batteries and chat to the gathering well wishers. I was reintroduced to Jim Sparks from Alexander Boat Builders He built the shell of Smiffbob and our very own Lois Jane, I think that's four of Sandhills boats that are lucky enough to have a Jim Sparks hull now. Still the crane hadn't arrived, the calm that we get as the sun starts its final decent was with us. The winds lowered and we waited for the crane.

Lyn Smiff had been busy though and whilst we had a little pause, out came tupperware boxes of homemade cakes. Unfortunately Lyn has now set herself the precedent that all visitors to Smiffbob will be expecting lovely home baked cakes. We talked batteries and propulsion with Steve (Smiffbob has hybrid diesel electric propulsion and has over a ton of batteries!) and solar panels and power audits with our lookouts for the day, Tony and Pat from Tilda, Sandhills no.23. The launch had been due for noon but a delay with the low loader at its previous stop in the NEC (or whatever its called now), and the crane had put the timescales back by three plus hours so far and light was fading fast. Still no crane.

The well wishers gathered

Sue, Bob, Jimmy, Tony and Pat

Another member for the Jimmy fan club

Before the sun got too low we were treated to a guided tour of the marina by Tony from Tilda and a sneaky little look around their lovely boat. Bob wrote a blog of Tilda's progress when it was being built here and Adam reviewed her in May 2013 edition of Canal Boat. A very nice boat and I'm sure that the Sandhills guys are very happy that she is being so well looked after by Tony and Pat. 'Thanks for the look around guys'. And still the crane... No here it is!

The Smiff son and daughter doing the official naming

Apart from being a little late the launch went fantastically smoothly. As the bow broke the surface tension of Droitwich Spa Marina there was hardly a ripple. Flashes pinged and well wishers whooped, a new boat was born, welcome to the cut.

After congratulations and champagne came the tour of Smiffbob, wow what a boat Sandhills have out done themselves. Whilst you can see the similarities in craftsmanship between our Lois Jane (Sandhills No.1) and Smiffbob, the innovation has progressed vastly over the last fourteen years and Sandhills has evolved into a world class brand - anyone thinking of commissioning a new boat is making a mistake if they don't consider Sandhills. 

What a lovely day. Congratulations to Steve and Lyn, many thanks to Bob and June, Job well done to Jim Sparks at Alexander and Gary, Mark and Sue from Sandhills.


  1. Hi James and Debbie
    What a lovely write up and pictures you have produced of the day I am sure Steve and Lyn will enjoy reading it. Really enjoyed your company, Jimmy was so tired when we got home that he slept until late the next morning. Hope to catch up with in the not too distant future.
    Bob June and Jimmy

  2. Hi James and Debbie
    I agree with the comments made by Bob, June and Jimmy. That was a lovely write-up, with really good photo's, and nice comments. Thank you so much for coming to the launch, and we are really looking forward to meeting up with you out on the cut when we are out on Smiffbob.
    All the Best
    Lyn and Steve (Smiff - er, I mean Smith)

  3. Well done you guys, lovely record of events, great pictures despite the fading light.
    Good to see another Sandhills creation joins us on the water.
    Mo and Nessa
    Sandhills boat No 15 -ish nb Balmaha