Chesterfield Canal Cuckoo Boat safely launched

The first Cuckoo boat to be built for over 80 years, by volunteers using only hand tools who even made their own nails, has been safely launched on the Chesterfield Canal.

Cuckoo boat

Cuckoo boats were unique to the Chesterfield Canal. The design did not change from the 1770s right up to the 1920s when the last ones were made. Up to the end of commercial use in the 1950s, they were still horse drawn. They were never equipped with engines. A mast was used when they ventured onto the River Trent. The last Cuckoo boat ‘Dawn’ rotted away over 20 years ago.

A group of Chesterfield Canal Trust members decided to build a new Cuckoo boat in the early 2000s. They decided to call it the New Dawn Project. After much research, they drew up a list of all the timber that was needed. This was published in the Trust’s magazine, also called Cuckoo, in Spring 2004 and sponsors were found for every piece within a few weeks. Seven and a half tons of fresh Lincolnshire oak and boat-skin larch was then bought and stored in a secret location to season. An appeal also went out for traditional hand tools of the type used a century ago.

An agreement was reached with British Waterways to do the work in a corner of Shireoaks Marina. Construction started in 2011. The work was led by David Bownes who has a vast knowledge garnered by talking with working boatmen the Chesterfield Canal. He was involved with working on Cuckoo boats as a young man, so he was one of the very few people alive – possibly the only one – with real working knowledge of their construction. As a result of this build, there are now several others who have picked up this knowledge. David was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Chesterfield Canal Trust at its A.G.M. this year.

It has taken four years to complete the boat. Some of the planks (or strokes) that make up the sides are 27’ long, 10” wide and 2” thick. They had to be planed exactly and then put into a home-made steamer for several hours before being bent into place. There are 90 planks along the bottom. Each one had to be planed precisely and they were then fixed into place by three hundred and sixty home-made nails each 9” long and hammered upwards.  Vast quantities of old rope, tar, pitch and linseed oil have been used to make the boat watertight.

Following completion of the work, there was a hiatus to get the red tape completed. Some organisations were baffled because they had no experience of new, wooden, horse-drawn boats. Simple things like insurance took a long time to be sorted out. There was a long debate about how to accomplish the launch. The boat is 70’ long and weighs nearly 10 tons. A crane was the obvious method, but there was a fear that the boat might break in half. A cradle could be made, but this would be vastly expensive. Finally it was agreed to launch it down the slipway with an especially lengthened trailer.  The front of the boat was lifted a few inches by crane and the trailer was slid underneath. Extensions were put onto the trailer and the rear of the boat was jacked up to until it was sitting straight. This process took several hours over the course of two days. There followed a full twenty minutes of a tractor manoeuvring the trailer to reverse down the slipway until finally the moment of truth arrived. The boat slowly entered the water, started to float and eventually slipped off the trailer – a perfect launch.

A mooring has been secured at Shireoaks Marina. The boat will be financed by a group of supporters. If you would like to be involved or want further information, contact Michael Edwards by ringing 01246 477569 or email The boat will be named on 6th June at the Worksop Water Day organised by the East Midlands Waterways Partnership, at the Lock Keeper pub in Worksop. It is hoped that it will arrive under horse power, but this has not yet been confirmed.

All materials and images © Canal Junction Ltd. Dalton House, 35 Chester St, Wrexham LL13 8AH. No unauthorised reproduction.

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