Dick Durham considers the often maligned concrete boat and speaks to Rob Hart about Barbarossa, his own 49ft concrete boat

Circumnavigator, Rob Hart, poked the glowing embers of his coal stove, set a cup of tea in front of me and said: ‘You know the best thing about a concrete boat?’ I had to confess I did not. ‘The worst ones are at the bottom of the sea,’ he added.

‘Concrete’ as a material for a sailing boat is quietly looked-down upon by some who see it as a cheap, corner-cutting route to a large offshore craft. It is both of those things, but such pragmatic vices, if that’s what they are, cannot take away from the aggregate’s offshore virtues.

We were sat aboard Barbarossa, the 49ft ferro-cement, gaff-ketch that Rob started to build himself 50 years ago on the banks of Benfleet Creek in Essex. Her 68-year-old skipper was reflecting on the 87,000 miles he’d sailed in her since.

Launched just a week before his marriage to Su, Barbarossa immediately became their home and still is half a century on. But unlike most couples, their home has been round the world, through the Great Lakes of the US and down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

In that time the green-painted gaffer, with the distinctive white ‘cannon’ portholes has also been the crucible for the raising and schooling of the couple’s two children: Sam, and Charlotte, both of whom work in the marine industry.

Rob’s earliest memory of maritime influence was playing on his maiden Aunt Gladys’ bed – which she pretended was a ship – while going through postcards of world ports and ‘sailing’ to them. In later life he was to realise those postcards in his DIY-built boat.

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And en-route the couple’s children were given lessons, the like of which no school could ever provide: like measuring the time it would take a bottle top to sink to the floor of the Atlantic Ocean and how far the ship would be from that position.

‘The answer was 11.5 hours to reach the sea-bed by which time Barbarossa would be 66 miles away.’ However clunky the physics, the imagination was suitably stretched.

As they approached the Tuamotus Archipelago, and hearing the dangers of ship-breaking reefs, young Sam re-named them the ‘Tommy-Wreck-Your-Boatos’, but Barbarossa survived.

It was during a visit to Ashmore Reef – the closest point of Australia to Indonesia – that Sam witnessed the many wrecks of fishing boats dumped there by illegal immigrants. It turned out to be a windfall for Barbarossa. ‘There were fears the diesel tanks of the wrecks would eventually spill and ruin the local environment,’ said Rob, ‘so I asked if I could take some of the fuel. “Pump as much as you like,” they said and we filled eight 45-gallon drums which we stowed on deck.’


A boat moored in the Tuamotus

Later in the Timor Sea they witnessed 30 or 40 sailing craft heading towards them. They were all boats carrying goods for sale which Barbarossa’s crew were hassled over. When they refused to purchase any goods the shipboard shop-keepers started to get agitated.

‘Fearing the worst, I shouted: “Manchester United! David Beckham!” and then the cry went up from all the boats: “Manchester United! David Beckham!” and they hauled in their sheets and sailed away,’ said Rob.

During their cruise around the Great Lakes via Washington D.C. to Mobile, Alabama, they encountered floods in the Illinois River. Su said: ‘Trees, buoys and buildings were all under water, but the current was so strong we couldn’t stop.’ To their horror they saw a lock-keeper’s house coming up fast – it was flooded up to the ridge tiles.

With hearts in their mouths, they watched as Barbarossa simply sailed straight over the top of the weir.

‘All we had as a depth gauge was the height of the lock-keeper’s house – we reckoned it was higher than Barbarossa’s six-foot draught,’ said Su.

She was right and the ship sailed on with many more sea miles ahead of her and as a ‘good concrete boat,’ unlikely ever to become an impromptu reef.

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