Posts Tagged ‘hovercraft’

BHC Hostel and Training Centre

Alan Hunter contacted me last year and told me about the apprentices from BHC (British Hovercraft Corporation) back in the 60’s being some of the first guys to start surfing. Earlier this week I met up with Alan and he told me a few stories from those times.

British Hovercraft Corporation (B.H.C.) had an apprentiuce hostel and training centre located in the old Naval Hospital in Whippingham on top of the hill in East Cowes and near to Osborne House. There were dormitories, workshops and a drawing school in the old wards which was a row of long buildings connected by a covered walkway. The dormitories were probably a bit like old being in a boarding scholl with rows of beds along the sides and lockers in the middle. Each dormintory could hold about 30 apprentices.

This is where Alan Hunter, Geoff ‘Ned’ Gardner, Derek ‘Cosmic Leashes’ Thompson, Tad Ciastula, Dougie Clark and Bob Booth started their working lives as Apprentice Engineers. The other apprentices were either from the mainland or came from parts of the Island where there was no sufficient public transport to be able to get them to work on time so they stayed at the hostel. The apprentices were a mixed bunch with Islanders, ex public school boys and lads from the ‘Metal Box Company’ in Croydon, London and the ‘Metal Box Company, Carlisle, Scotland who did their first years apprenticeship at the Training Centre on the island.

It was a melting pot of different people, many of whom went onto great things. All around the hostel were the old Saunders Roe Test Centre, with test tanks, windtunnels and various works. At the back of the dormitories was a big tin shed which would always be a hive of activity. The apprentices would spend their free time working on there own personal projects from bikes, motorbikes, scooters, cars, fly by wire model aeroplanes and shaping surfboards. This tin shed was just as essential to their learning as the Training Centre was.

Alan remembers that Tad came from Winchester School and that Tad’s father was a designer on the Saunders-Roe Skeeter, a two-seat training and scout helicopter. The Skeeter has the distinction of being the first helicopter to be used by the British Army Air Corps.

The apprentices were paid very little and out of their wages was taken rent/keep for staying at the hostel too. So on a friday morning they would trek over to Cowes to sign on as the government would subsidise apprentices wages. Some of the apprentices were lucky enough to some cash work on a saturday morning reapiring hovercraft skirts for the Seaspeed Hovercrafts. Alan remembers being told of a story of when Tad was winching up a hovercraft to get at the skirts to repair them when the winch malfunctioned and tipped the hovercraft on end. Alan said if it had gone completely over the hovercraft would have been completely written off.

The apprentices were paid on a thursday and with what little they had, they would always be seen crossing the fields behind the hostel and around the back of the St Mildred’s Church at Whippingham and down to The Folly Inn. Geoff ‘Ned’ Gardner was fondly remembered as a real character and for entertaining the other apprentices with impressions while they were at the pub. These were your normal impressions but were amazing impressions of outboard motors. Alan remembers his impression of a Seagull Outboard Motor being started up being particularly good.

Sunday nights were also spent at the Folly Inn, usually sitting out on the decking listening to the Goon Show on the radio and drinking scrumpy. On a few occasions Alan remembers Tad, Dougie, Derek and himself taking a couple of rowing boats from the slipway at BHC and rowing to the Woodvale Hotel in Gurnard for a few drinks.

Alan remembered buying a huge old Bilbo surfboard from Dougie Clark in about 1968/69 but admits he never really got into surfing. Dougie on the other hand made surfing his lifestyle, deciding to no longer wear shoes or socks as he wanted to harden his feet for surfing, and also decided he wasn’t going to wear a shirt and tie anymore, opting for a sweatshirt. The managers at BHC went absolutely mad but Dougie would not budge on the matter and insisted he would not wear shoes or a shirt and tie anymore.

In the tin shed/workshop at the back of the dormitories Derek Thompson brought in his old Lambretta Scooter anouncing that it looked really tatty and the spent weeks hand painting it in the workshop. When Derek it was finished Alan says it was the most amazing paint job on a scooter he had ever seen. Derek jumped on the newly painted scooter and rode off down the road. After a few hundred yards one of the panels fell off and scaped along the raod getting really badly scratched. Derek was gutted.

Tad and Dougie spent some of their time out in the old tin shed designing and shaping a knee board like the one George Greenough rides in Crystal Voyager with a scooped deck. Dougie had an old 105E Anglia car and Tad and himself would always be driving off to the beach at Compton when they could to get waves or just to be at the beach.

In the dormitories Tad used to do this thing where he would stand on the edge of his bed and fall forward only putting his hands up in front of his chest to catch the fall as he landed flat on his bed. One day on the beach when Tad went back to the car Dougie and Derek dug a huge hole where Tad had put his towel and then carefully laid the towel back down again over the hole. When Tad came back he stood at the bottom of the towel and dropped (just like he would on his bed), but this time he fell straight through his towel and into the huge hole. Alan says it was very dangerous and Tad was lucky not to have broken his neck, understandably Tad was furious.

Alan remembers one day Ned getting a really nasty gash across his head that needed stitches after pulling into a barrel at the bay.

Another surfer Alan remembered was a girl called Merry Hughes who went off to the south of Fance and Biarritz for a whole summer. When she returned from France Alan says that all of a sudden she got lots of attention from the boys as she had blossomed into an absolute stunner.

I told Alan that I’d been in touch with Tad and was hoping to speak to Bob Booth soon toobut wondered if he knew the where abouts of some of the other apprentices. Alan says he remembers Dougie Clark heading off to Morroco to teach English language but hadn’t heard from him since and the last time he saw Derek Thompson was at Alexandra Palace at a Wind and Surf Exbo in the late 80’s advertising his leashes and Mountain Bikes. At the same show he said Tad had a special booth where he was shaping boards, which would have been about the time of Vitamin Sea surfboards.

Alan said he always used to try and keep in touch or at least find out was all the old apprentices and it was great to see the write up on Tad and Sue and that they were still living the dream.

Alan also remember one day down at Little Hope Beach waiting for the waves to pick up when Carrots came flying down the hill right from the top on his skateboard until he hit the curb at the bottom and ended up in a heap.

Equipment and Jake Wilson surfboards


As mentioned earlier, most of us didn’t have our own boards in the early days; this was because: a) the only place in the UK at that time where you could buy boards was Cornwall & b) we couldn’t afford one anyway.

The other main thing that you needed to go surfing on the Island was a wet suit. I remember borrowing a Long John from Rusty one day and was amazed at how warm I was compared to wearing just an old tee shirt! Again, suits were difficult to come by. The only things available locally were diving suits, which were not designed for the strenuous activity required for surfing. They were, by & large, just rubber with no nylon lining. Getting these things on (& off!) was a work of art involving ample sprinklings of talcum powder or applications of Fairy Liquid. I always preferred talcum powder as Fairy was always cold & clammy, but strangely, never bubbled up. Eventually, it became possible to buy nylon lined, neoprene sheet and many happy hours were spent with paper patterns, scissors & Evostik.

My first suit was a two piece diving suit which I bought from Bob Ward. That served me well for a few years, until there were more repairs in it than original material. I made a shortie for summer use, which I also wore in winter, over the trousers of the diving suit & under the jacket. That was very warm, but I could hardly move in it. Eventually I bought an O’Neil Long John and a Gul top. That combination wasn’t particularly warm, but it was flexible. At last suit design & materials improved enough for me to buy a custom made Second Skin winter steamer, which was brilliant.

The next thing you needed was board wax. Back in the early days (mid-sixties) there were no specialist waxes like now, so every couple of weeks a trip had to be made to the local chemist for, as Jake says, ‘Something for the weekend’. This was not (necessarily!) condoms, but a block of low melting point Paraffin wax. This was available in most of the larger chemists, but what its official use was, I’ve absolutely no idea. There was also a product that arrived on the scene in the late sixties/early seventies called ‘SlipCheck’. This was an aerosol that sprayed some sort of non-slip coating onto the board. It even came in different colours so that you could make designs on the deck. It wasn’t that popular though, because it was slightly abrasive and had a bad effect on wetsuits & bodies and wasn’t available on the Island.

As time passed, another item that became indispensible, apart from gloves & boots, was a leash. I remember being down in Newquay in ’69 or ’70 & seeing someone with a length of rope running from their ankle to a large sucker cup on the nose of their board.

Tony & I went to the nearest hardware shop & bought rope & a couple of suckers of the type that you would use to hold tea towels on the back of kitchen doors. Needless to say success was somewhat limited, & it was a miracle that neither of us drowned, with our legs tangled up in several feet of blue nylon rope.

However, another entrepreneurial islander soon took up the challenge. Derek Thompson utilised scrap pieces of Hovercraft skirt to make up patches with slots that could be glued to the tail of your board and came up with some red gas hose and Velcro to make the first Cosmic Surf Products surf leash.

I think that one of the most important, but overlooked pieces of kit, was the hat. At last, ice-cream headaches were a thing of the past & early Sunday morning winter surfs were suddenly a lot more pleasant.

Short Boards

I was finally persuaded in about 1969/70 to exchange my popout for something more modern & I thought I’d have a go at making my own board. I bought a Groves Foam blank, but where I shaped & glassed it is lost to my memory in the mists of time. The board was 8 feet long, very narrow with a drawn out ‘gun’ tail and rather crudely shaped rails. I had a job to paddle it, but when I did catch a wave it went like a rocket in a straight line, but was very difficult to turn. After about a year, I gave in and bought a ridiculously short 6’6” Bilbo. I couldn’t even catch waves on that, let alone ride it any sense. It did fit inside the Cortina, though! Then I progressed to a 6’10” Bilbo. I could catch waves on that, but I just could not transition onto my feet. Then, in about 1971-2 I got Rog Cooper to make me a new board, 7’7” long, lots of floatation, but again a semi-gun shape. After 2-3 years struggling with shorter boards & almost wanting to give up, suddenly I was surfing again!!

Around this time, I went on a trip with Jake, Tony Mac, Don (a buddy from work who said he could cook!) and Chris Coles from Northwood, down to Llangenith on the Gower. One night we were coming back from Swansea, having partaken of strong drink, when Don wanted a pee. I stopped the car & we all got out to take our ease, except Chris, who, pissed as a rat, climbed into the driving seat & drove off, leaving us at the roadside in the pitch dark at midnight in the middle of nowhere! It was some time before he came back & we never did get an explanation as to where he’d gone or why. And Don couldn’t cook.

Jake Wilson

Having had a go at making my own board, Jake & Tony Mac wanted to have a go as well. We decided to pool our resources & talents and make boards. Jake came up with the name ‘Will Jason Surfboards’, an amalgam of our names. I thought this sounded a bit too smooth & so suggested ‘Jake Wilson’, which I thought had a bit more bite, and so, eventually, ‘Jake Wilson Surfboards’ was formed. A friend printed up some Jake Wilson stickers on tissue paper for us to lay up under the glass & we were away. We made boards for ourselves using the infamous Groves Foam and orders from Sid, Rob Clark & Rob Greenhalge, among others, soon followed.

Jakes’ garage was divided into two parts by a polythene sheet over a timber frame, one area for shaping & one for glassing. Tony was the glasser, Jake was the pin line wizard (he had such a supple wrist!) and I did the shaping. Resin was weighed out using ordinary domestic scales (I don’t think Jen ever found out!) and Tony occasionally got the ratios a bit wrong & got a hot mix going which had to be thrown out onto the drive to prevent a fire. It’s a wonder we didn’t all succumb to the fumes sometimes. In fact, Rusty Long always said that resin fumes made him fart; and I know that one day he was forced to stop his works van half way up Quarr Hill so that everyone could bail out due to the smell, so perhaps that also goes some way to explaining Jake’s gaseous habits.

In truth, our boards were nothing to write home about, but we did have some good fun making them! I don’t know how many we made, but I don’t suppose it exceeds single figures. Are there any still out there? I think Sid still has his. We certainly didn’t make any money out of the venture & I think Jake probably made a loss due to providing endless cups of coffee & gallons of water to clean the brushes that was so hot, Tony called it ‘superheated steam’.

Happy days; I remember talking to a Spanish guy in Laredo, northern Spain, & he was interested in my board, pronouncing it Yak Vilson