Peter Willis: Boatman and Boat Builder to King’s, 1934 -2016

Peter Willis 1934 – 2016.

10 December 2016

Michael Dover writes:

Peter Willis, boatman to the King’s Canterbury Boat Club for 42 years from 1957 to 1999, died on 27 October at the age of 81. Born in Cambridge, Peter served a five-year boatbuilding apprenticeship with Banhams after school, before being lured to the East Kent marshes and the dubious pleasures of the River Stour by David Goodes, to replace an Oxford man who had missed the bustle of the Isis.

Peter and his wife Marjorie were installed in a specially-built house in the pretty village of Fordwich, where the school had its fours boathouse. Eights boated further down the river at Pluck’s Gutter, a desolate spot prone to mud, floods and extremes of weather. So narrow is the river there that eights could only turn by inserting bow or stern into drainage ditches to swing the boat round, no mean feat with a strong tide running and a sharp wind blowing. Peter’s skills were constantly in demand to keep boats and oars in usable condition. Halfway through his time at King’s, the river was abandoned, after more than a century of rowing, for the comparative calm of the Westbere Lakes, old gravel pits near Fordwich.

Peter not only repaired equipment but made boats as well, and fleets of beautifully crafted single and double sculls and pairs emerged from his workshop, as well as the occasional coaching boat. They were not just exquisite works of art, they were fast, and many a Peter Willis boat won gold in domestic and international regattas. In the mid-1960s, he was one of the first to take a saw to an eight, inserting bulkheads and large screws to create a sectional boat, so much easier to transport.

But Peter was much more than a boatman who ran his boathouses and river frontages efficiently and well, without fuss or drama. He appeared at all the major regattas to ensure the equipment was as perfect as it possibly could be. He was also a much-loved mentor and friend to the boys, and later the girls when King’s went co-ed. Encouraging, unflappable, immensely knowledgeable about boats and rowing, he took on some of the coaching of the novices, and in due course some of the junior boats. For generations of King’s rowers, he was an institution, a legend, the solid bedrock around which the fortunes of the boat club waxed and sometimes waned. He was thrilled to know that two of his charges won gold and silver in the eights at Rio. He was, quite simply, the perfect boatman, and a gentleman through and through.

Off the water, Peter was a great family man: he had two daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was an avid reader with an extensive library, a classical music buff and a fine dancer. Peter is much missed.

Peter Willis, born 16 December 1934, died 27 October 2016.

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