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Isle Of Dogs: Why the Massey Shaw fireboat is seeking new volunteers

Historic vessel lying in West India South Dock looks to ensure its stories continue to be told

Massey Shaw is currently moored at West India South Dock
Massey Shaw is currently moored at West India South Dock

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This is not the story of the fireboat Massey Shaw. How could it be?

Just to stand on the deck of this remarkable craft at her berth in West India South Dock is to feel her planks and steel plates quietly pulse with the decades of history they’ve absorbed.

It would be possible to fill this space many times over without coming close to bottoming out the sheer depth of material associated with this remarkable boat.

It might be the part she played saving goods worth many millions of pounds just a year after coming into service by blasting down the walls of a warehouse with the power of her main jet to stop a fire in its tracks at Colonial Wharf in Wapping. 

It could be the more than 500 lives she saved as part of the flotilla of little ships launched to help rescue British servicemen from the beaches at Dunkirk in 1940 – ferrying soldiers from the land to larger craft and herself taking about 100 back across the channel, making three trips despite the danger of the sea and enemy fire.

Or it may be the part she played in the desperate firefighting effort during the Blitz.

Massey in full flow

But these stories – and many more – are best told by those who know, the volunteers who are working to keep her shipshape and who hope eventually to open her to the public as a museum ship.

Built in 1935 by J Samuel Whites at Cowes on the Isle Of Wight for £18,000 (more than £2million in today’s money) she served the London Fire Brigade from launch until 1971.

After a decade in the wilderness, in 1982, the Massey Shaw And Marine Vessels Preservation Society embarked on a project to restore her and to sail her once again to Dunkirk for the first time since the 1960s.

Today, after much passion, a sinking, restoration work, vandalism, repair and renovation, she lies by the entrance to West India Docks, sharing space with the 1920s steam tug Portwey and the Dockland Scout Project. 

From there, the Massey Shaw Education Trust, as the society has become, intends to use its 40th anniversary year to raise awareness of its work, the vessel herself and the opportunities available for those who might like to get involved with the ongoing  project.

Rescuing troops from Dunkirk

Trust CEO David Rogers – himself a former firefighter, albeit a land-based one – said: “We’re a completely voluntary organisation and we’d really like to engage with a wider audience including people who are in Docklands.

“Perhaps they’ve seen this black and red boat that looks a bit strange – we often get questions about what she is and what she does.

“So one of the things we want to do is to get more volunteers of all ages who can come along and support us in our plans for the boat.

“We’ve had her for 40 years, but we see ourselves as custodians and we now need people to take her forward for the next 40.

“This boat has a unique history and we want to help people understand it and to help shape it whether they’re involved in the fire service or not.

“We want people to come and be trained so they can run the engines, operate the boat and man her pumps so she can appear at events. 

“But we also have a big archive that we’ve built up over the years, so we need people with IT skills to help organise and digitise that.”

Massey Shaw Educational Trust CEO David Rogers
Massey Shaw Educational Trust CEO David Rogers – image Matt Grayson

Currently the team are working towards getting Massey Shaw ready to once more cross the channel in 2025.

“We’re part of Dunkirk Little Ships, which celebrates the journey made by those boats in 1940 to save troops from the beaches,” said David.

“The crews who went over during the war were all volunteer firemen and fortunately they all came back safely, but some of the soldiers they rescued had been badly injured.

“We’d especially like young people to take part in our next trip, to learn the skills that were taught back in the 1930s, which are needed to operate the boat so future generations can continue to enjoy and learn about her.

“Volunteering is a great deal of fun – over the 40 years I’ve been involved, I’ve met some fantastic people and I’ve always enjoyed it.

“It’s great when visitors come onto the boat, especially if they have stories to share about individuals who perhaps served on Massey Shaw or were associated with her. 

Massey's 'monitor' which shoots its main jet
Massey’s ‘monitor’ which shoots its main jet – image Matt Grayson

“Also, the opportunity to go out on the boat, to show people what she can do and what it was like in its early days gives you a real buzz. We’re here to prove she can still do the job she was built for.”

Descend into Massey Shaw’s engine and pump room and you can see exactly what he’s talking about.

The beating heart of the vessel is her two main engines that require constant maintenance to both propel the boat and to power its firefighting equipment, capable of pumping enormous amounts of water to where it’s needed.

David says the main brass cannon on deck – called ‘the monitor’ – is capable of pumping 13,000 litres of water every single minute with enough force to propel the whole boat along when in full flow. 

“Last year we had an open day and the pump was running and the harbour master ran up the dock and said it was just fantastic – that he’d never seen anything like it,” said David.

“That’s the reaction we want – people clap and cheer because it’s such a great thing to see. We’re hoping to hold another open day to raise greater awareness of what we’re doing on August 14 and we’re very keen to attract new visitors.

“Beyond that we’re working to get Massey Shaw ready for Dunkirk in 2025 and we have an Arts Council application in to become an independent museum.

“Then we want to find somewhere we can have a link to the shore so we can display our archive.

“We’re also looking to partner with other local organisations and companies so we can expand and move forward from here.”

The Massey Shaw Education Trust is actively seeking new volunteers, partnerships and funding for its activities.

One of Massey's two main engines
One of Massey’s two main engines – image Matt Grayson

Read more: How Terrible Thames takes Horrible Histories onto the river

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Canary Wharf: Skuna Boats offer 50% off voyages around West India Docks

West India Quay-based firm has BBQ boats and hot tub boats plus a prototype hybrid

Tommo of Skuna Boats with hybrid River in the background
Tommo of Skuna Boats with hybrid River in the background – image Matt Grayson

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For the past three years – lockdowns excepted – West India Docks has been home to knots of folk in swimsuits gently slipping through the water in curious bright red craft.

Some sport captains’ hats and sip beverages, most wave to passers-by as they inevitably become the subject of social media updates or enthusiastic messages to friends.  

They are customers of Skuna Boats, a company based at West India Quay and founded by CEO Stuart ‘Tommo’ Thomson. 

“I originally saw the hot tub boats in Holland – they’re made by a guy in Rotterdam and I spotted them when I was on holiday and thought it looked a lot of fun,” said Tommo.

Despite enforced closures due to the pandemic, his business has had its busiest summer since the first of pillar box red vessels silently sailed away from its moorings and, with a new boat in the pipeline and plans to expand operations to more sites in the UK, the future looks bright.  

Hot tub boats can take up to seven people

“I had a go in one and thought it was brilliant and that it was definitely something that should be in the UK. 

“We  started in the Regent’s Canal near Old Street for a year and then moved to Canary Wharf.

“The docks here are a lot more expansive – the boats can travel further and it’s a more interesting journey.

“The Regent’s Canal has locks so you could only go about 500m. Here the boats can explore a lot more of the dock system so it’s a much better place to go out on one.”

The hot tub boats normally cost from £225 and have a maximum capacity of seven people equating to less than £33 on weekdays.

They are filled with fresh, pre-heated water for each party which is kept at around 38ºC by an on-board stove that is stoked with enough eco briquettes to last for the duration of the 90-minute experience.

Refreshments, including limited alcohol can be purchased direct from Skuna.

“Whatever the weather – sun, rain, snow – the water will stay at 38ºC,” said Tommo.

“We’re much busier in summer but the best time of year to take a trip on one is in the winter when it’s freezing cold outside. 

“We haven’t had snow in Canary Wharf since we opened, but we’re hoping for some because it will be a great experience to sail the boats in those conditions.

“The trip lasts an hour and a half – we have a recommended route, which takes up the duration of the hire time.

“There are a few limits on where the boats can go but otherwise customers are free to explore the dock system. They travel at a couple of miles an hour for a relaxing, serene experience.”

BBQ Boats have a grill in the middle to cook whatever you like on
BBQ Boats have a grill in the middle to cook whatever you like on

Skuna also operates BBQ Boats for up to nine people who can cook on a grill at the centre of the doughnut-shaped craft. 

Restricted to North Dock by the pedestrian bridge from Crossrail Place to West India Quay, sailors are nevertheless free to bob around the struts of the floating bridge while making their food. Hire starts at £150 and drinks must be purchased from Skuna.

“You can enjoy a trip while cooking your own food with Canary Wharf in the background,” said Tommo. “It’s amazing to see all the wonderful things people prepare. We do packs of food too that people can purchase or they can order from Pizza Pilgrims.”

 Expansion beckons, with a pop-up already in place at Lakeside shopping centre. But of greater excitement to Wharfers is the company’s new prototype, currently tied up at West India Quay as it undergoes testing. 

“We want to expand the hot tub and BBQ Boats to other locations in the UK,” said Tommo. “The ones we currently use are made in Holland so we’ve developed a prototype that’s partly made of recycled plastic bottle tops, designed and built over here.

“It’s a multifunctional vessel that will be able to transform from a hot tub boat to a BBQ boat to give us greater flexibilty. It’s not ready for customers yet, but it certainly should be at the start of 2022.”

In October and November 2021, Skuna Boats is currently offering 50% off Hot Tub Boats booked Monday-Wednesday. All BBQ Boat bookings are half price until November 30.

Use code BOATOUT for the former and AUTUMN50 for the latter.

BBQ Boats are restricted to West India North Dock
BBQ Boats are restricted to West India North Dock

A PERSONAL JOURNEY

I have to admit to a certain scepticism about taking a ride on a hot tub boat. I thought the novelty would quickly wear off, that a quick 20-minute spin would be enough to get the gist and then it would be back onto dry land.

Then something remarkable happened. I’m not sure whether it was the deep warmth of the water, the process of learning to sail the jolly little craft or the dreamlike progress we made through the water, but time seemed to stand still.

The boat was extremely easy to manoeuvre, its tiny engine providing just enough thrust to make it feel like we were getting somewhere without ever careering out of control, even at full throttle.

The juxtaposition of one’s body, essentially in a hot bath, floating on deep cool water with Canary Wharf’s towers rearing up all around is peculiar.

It’s a rare expedition of near total decadence in a world of purpose and direction – a chance to escape for 90 minutes into an experience that’s pure fun and pleasure.

Everyone waves. People shout that they wish it was them. The tiny electric motor is silent, the stove doesn’t even crackle.

You’re a swan gliding effortlessly over the darkness of the dock, between the shadows of the buildings into the sunshine.

Then all too soon it’s over and, mentally, you start planning your next trip before you’re even changed. Stirring stuff. JM

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