Dad’s Boats: amazing pedal boats crafted by Norfolk man
- Credit: Archant
We discover the story behind a beautiful pedal boat being built in Norfolk and meet the craft’s remarkable creator
A Super 8 cine film flickers into life; the soft colours, lighting and family saloon car instantly place it in the 1960s.
Two young men untie a craft on the roof of the car, which is parked close to the water’s edge on a beach in the early morning sunshine. The sea is smooth and calm as the pair put the boat in the water, don lifejackets, climb in and, facing each other, turn and pedal swiftly and smoothly out to sea.
The next film shows the two returning as the sun lowers, happy at what they’ve achieved – a 12.5 hour, 60-mile circumnavigation of the Isle of Wight in a home-made pedal boat.
The films were shot exactly 50 years ago and one of the two men in the boat was David Williams, who now lives in Horning and was the creator and builder of the boat. He still remembers the trip in detail.
“We had a word with the coastguard and they said they’d keep an eye on us, just in case. So we worked our way out to The Solent and went all the way round the island. We did have the tide to help us, but we were quite fit then!”
They had other adventures on the south coast but had to abandon a Channel crossing attempt. There was no problem with the pedal boat but the escort vessel was not coping well with a slightly bumpy sea.
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David, who retired to the Broads almost 40 years ago after a career in the textile business in the City of London, actually made his first pedal boat, nicknamed ‘The Sieve’ by his family, when he was 16 to allow him to follow his radio-controlled yachts while keeping his hands free.
It worked well enough, though David found it a little jerky to use solo. National Service intervened but when he returned he decided to have another look at the pedal boat.
“The poor old Sieve was falling to bits,” he says. So it was turned into firewood and he had a new idea. “With a two-man one you would have an even drive, a smooth ride.”
He set to work and the Cyclone was born. “It worked so well that I brought it up here with my wife on honeymoon and we spent fortnight on the Broads with a yacht and the pedal boat in 1961.”
Norfolk had always had a hold on the family. “We always holidayed here. My grandfather used to bring his children here in the 1890s, my father brought me and my brother, I brought my children and they brought their children!”
Cyclone was an essential part of the family too. “When we had small children on holiday we used to take Cyclone with us… though there was one mishap when it came off the roof of a car on the motorway!”
It was repaired and gave many more years of service before it was donated to a toddlers’ school where it was adapted to become a see-saw boat.
David then made one which suited him and his late wife Jean. They’d pedal the craft every morning from Horning halfway to Wroxham and back while they were in their 70s. But eventually Jean wanted a more stable boat and Lifecycle, the current design, came along.
It was that design which, eventually, led to the creation of the company Dad’s Boats to build and sell a luxury pedal craft to well-keeled customers. It was started in 2012 by David’s son-in-law Stephen Pitkethly and his wife Anita.
“When we’re pedalling along we get so many people saying ‘where can you hire one of those from?’ I didn’t take any notice really, because I thought it was just a family thing that we amused ourselves with,” says David. “When Stephen decided to make a business out of it I thought that was great and I was happy to help.”
“We always said one day we ought to do something with dad’s pedal boats,” says Stephen. “With the popularity of cycling, everyone being encouraged to exercise a bit more and the environmental issues around how we power things we thought ‘now would be a good time’.
“It was mid-recession and we were constantly hearing on the radio about how rubbish we are at making things in this country and we don’t invent anything any more and we thought; actually we have a really good idea here and we know loads of people who are fantastic craftsmen in Norfolk so we said; let’s start the company now and let’s make it in Norfolk wherever we can.”
From his time working in design in the automotive industry, Stephen knew where to look. An expert automotive firm makes the 17ft long fibreglass hulls, a stainless steel fabrication company does all the hardware and Colin Buttifant’s Swallowtail Boatyard in Ludham, famed for traditional wooden yachts, finishes it all. It is not a quick process; it takes around six weeks to build a boat.
“Everywhere we go it is extremely well-received. People think it is a fantastic idea, that the guy who invented it was a genius, that they can’t believe the idea is that old because it is so current,” says Stephen. “They like the fact that we’re making them in Norfolk.”
At the moment Dad’s Boats is a low volume, high quality business, making a small quantity of boats each year. Stephen is looking at the rental market as a possibility for a slightly more utilitarian version, and electric assist and solar power are other options under consideration.
Stephen says that David made a solar powered craft, Terrapin, five years before the Broads Authority launched their own vessel, Ra, and would like to explore developing some of David’s other remarkable designs alongside the pedal boats.
You can hire one of Dad’s Boats from Belaugh Boatyard. If you fall in love with it and decide to invest in one you’ll need to find £12,700.
You can also see the 1968 footage and video of the new boats at dadsboats.com
Less expensive than the boats, but as beautiful, are the hand-made wooden propellers that David, now 84, still crafts in his workshop. They were born out of a need to find exactly the right gearing for his pedal boats.
“If I wanted to experiment with cadence rather than change gears, which I didn’t know how to do, I’d just make another propeller with a different pitch and that would do the job for me,” he says.
He makes them painstakingly, joining pieces of wood to create a rough shape and then using his craftsman’s eye to sculpt the propeller by hand using simple tools and sandpaper.
You can buy propellers from dadsboats.com and prices start at £149.