The home-made U-boat sailing an English canal: It has a sewage pipe periscope, pedal-bin torpedoes and a delightfully eccentric skipper
By DAVID LEAFE
Last updated at 11:09 AM on 29th July 2011
There are gaily-painted barges bedecked with geraniums, fishermen casting their lines into the water and families enjoying ice-creams under the summer sun. And then, of course, there is a portly man dressed in the uniform of a German submarine commander and standing in the turret of a U-boat.
‘It’s not going to fire at us, is it?’ asks an elderly lady, out walking her poodle, but the residents of Burscough need not be concerned.
Ahoy there: Richard Williams on board his replica U-boat
Lone wolf of the North: Mr Williams' replica cost £50,000
The moor the merrier: Mr Williams, with a crew member standing guard
The vessel is named U-8047. It’s not a relic of Hitler’s Kriegsmarine but a former narrow boat converted into a scaled-down replica of the real thing.
Complete with periscope and dummy torpedoes, U-8047 is the creation of 51-year-old Richard Williams.
This Captain Birdseye lookalike is a former mobility scooter salesman who has spent more than £50,000 building what, of late, has proved to be something of a nautical nightmare.
When he launched this craft last autumn all was plain sailing, but two weeks ago came newspaper reports that it had been targeted by thieves and vandals while moored in nearby Wigan.
One hull of a boat: Mr Williams sits proudly in the officers' quarters of his replica
Dedicated: Mr Williams was never likely to torpedo the idea of building a replica
First, Richard and his wife, Laurel, had the generator and their boxer dog Rambo stolen from the back of the boat. Then they woke at 4am to find themselves under fire from a prankster local resident armed with a jar of mayonnaise.
‘He started pelting the boat and it made a terrible mess,’ says Richard. ‘But what upset us most was him shouting that we are Nazis — which we most certainly are not.’
It seems to me that the easiest way to avoid being called a Nazi is probably to stop dressing as one, but Richard has never been one to be bound by convention.
After leaving school in Blackpool to deliver sausages for Wall’s, he built up his own company selling products for the elderly and disabled — but the little boy in him never seemed to grow up.
U goes there: Mr Williams gives our photographer a salute, while the boated is moored at Burscough in Lancashire
As a child, he was a dedicated fan of Star Trek, and so ten years ago he converted a spare bedroom at his flat into a replica of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.
Or rather, a replica of how it might have looked had Captain Kirk and Mr Spock sat in two old car seats and navigated outer space via a bank of second-hand television sets. It might not have convinced many people, but it made Richard happy.
‘Every little boy wants a spaceship, but I got to 40 before I could have mine,’ he says. ‘Every little boy fantasies about having a submarine, too, and I’ve had to wait until now to fulfil that ambition.’
Richard’s U-boat idea came about by chance when the approach of his 50th birthday last year coincided with the onset of acute angina. His father bought him the barge so that he could enjoy life at a more relaxed pace, but Richard was soon looking to put it to more exciting use.
Originally he planned to turn it into a tribute to The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine but, once the hull had been converted, he discovered that the specialist paint required cost £4,000 so he opted for black paint, which was much cheaper.
‘When it was finished, Laurel said it looked like a U-boat. I’d always been very interested in naval history and that’s where I got the idea of taking it further.’ At 45ft from bow to stern, U-8047 is one-fifth of the length of its real-life counterparts and, with the help of a company which supplied props for the Star Wars and Bond movies, he has turned it into a floating museum.
Enemy sighted! David Leafe goes into action on board the 'sub'
Visitors are entreated to come onboard by Richard’s patrols up and down the towpath. Entrance is free, and those who clamber below decks find themselves transported in a gloomy interior copied from the set of Das Boot, the German film about a legendary Nazi killer sub.
At one end is the torpedo bay, with the long black missiles fashioned from old drainage pipes, and their launch tubes made from small silver pedal bins set into the walls.
From here, an oval door leads into the control cabin where visitors experience Richard’s recreation of a sea battle. This begins when Richard invites me to look into the periscope, formerly a plastic sewage pipe with a CCTV camera at the top and a screen at eye-level below.
I can see nothing more threatening than a family of ducks bobbing serenely alongside us, but Richard suddenly shouts ‘battle stations’ and throws a switch which bathes us in an eerie red light.
A CD blasts out the sound of pinging sonar, followed by the shrill ringing of a bell, the bubbling of water and a recording of Richard’s voice booming: ‘Dive, dive, dive.’ ‘Normally, we have strobe lights and an electronic pump spraying out little jets of water as if we are leaking,’ he bellows over the din.
‘But we’re a bit limited on power now, because of the generator being taken.’
He is interrupted by a thunderous boom as we are depth-charged by our imaginary foe and, as a finishing touch, the boat lurches from side to side. I later discover that this is down to his wife Laurel, rocking energetically to and fro on the deck above.
Such effects may be crude, but Richard hopes that they will give visitors at least some idea of the conditions endured by the crews aboard wartime submarines.
The real thing: German U-boats stalked the seas around Britain during the Second World War, terrorising merchant shipping convoys
‘During World War II, there were around 40,000 German sailors aboard the U-boats and 30,000 of them never came back,’ he says. ‘I think it’s interesting for people to see what sailors put up with on both sides of the conflict.’
The mayonnaise incident aside, U-8047 has encountered surprisingly little hostility, and Richard is keen to keep it that way.
The captain’s cabin is crammed with memorabilia including propaganda posters and old sea-charts, behind which lurk a cleverly disguised iPod. This blasts out a carefully balanced mix of World War II recordings.
‘We play a German song, then a British one,’ explains Richard. ‘Then we’ll have a speech by Hitler followed by one from Churchill. We don’t want to cause any unpleasantness.’
Talking of unpleasantness, I am curious about the rather horrible smell which suffuses U-8047. Richard points to an air freshener which pumps out a pungent male pheromone with a pong reminiscent of body odour.
‘The showers on these boats were often used for food storage, so the men would go without washing for weeks at a time,’ he says. ‘I wanted to recreate that, although I’m not sure how successful it has been. Children usually say it smells of rabbits.’
I can only hope that this device is turned off at night, because the torpedo bay in which it is located also forms the sleeping quarters of second officer (wife) Laurel.
As we climb back into the sunshine and fresh air above, she explains that Richard is already planning his next jaunt — a trip to Liverpool this weekend.
He doesn’t know what dangers there might be along the way but, come mayonnaise or other missiles, there is no sign of this pseudo-submariner surrendering anytime soon.
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