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Old January 10th, 2007, 05:47 AM   #1
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London's Historic Boatmen

European Union rules threaten livelihoods of London's historic boatmen
9 January 2007

LONDON (AP) - Since the 16th century, when they ferried King Henry VIII between his riverside palaces, Thames boatmen have plied the waters, fathers passing their detailed knowledge of the river to their sons.

Now, a new licensing system designed by the European Union threatens to sweep away centuries of tradition and, the boatmen say, undermine safety.

The new system abolishes apprenticeships -- completed by generations of London boatmen -- which lasted as long as seven years. In its place comes a license that can be obtained in less than half the time.

"After all these centuries, the government has changed a perfectly good system without asking us," said Gary Hancock, as he maneuvered his 400-seat Thames riverboat "Sarpedon" under an arch of Charing Cross Bridge. "We are very angry."

A burly, avuncular figure who knows every bend and bridge on the river, Hancock, 44, has plied the Thames for 30 years, the sixth generation of his family to work the river since the 1700s. His 16-year-old son James will soon follow him -- but the pair fear for the future of their river dynasty.

"Now you're going to get boatmen from other countries coming in and undercutting us -- it's just not right," said Hancock, who regales excited tourists with anecdotes about Queen Elizabeth I and the architect Christopher Wren.

The German, Belgian and Dutch governments have negotiated opt-outs from the new system for their boatmen, and the Company of Watermen and Lightermen had hoped the British government would do the same.

But the government says the new regime will harmonize rules nationwide and provide additional safeguards, including a practical assessment for applicants and a reassessment of local knowledge every five years.

"It is a quality training regime for the 21st century -- for the first time there will be a nationally recognized qualification," said Martin Garside of the Port of London Authority, which handles more than 50 million tons of oil, coal, cereals and other freight each year, mainly at deeper ports like Tilbury near the river mouth.

He conceded that boatmen from continental Europe would be able to work in Britain -- but pointed out that British boatmen would be able to work over there, too. "So it actually improves their prospects."

Because the licenses apply to all Britain's inland waterways, a young captain with experience of other rivers will be able to run a commercial boat on the Thames, which teems with pleasure boats, coastguard vessels and freight barges.

"It is total insanity," said Margaret Lockwood-Croft, who campaigns for river safety.

Her 26-year-old son Shaun was one of 51 people who died when the party boat Marchioness sank in the early hours of Aug. 20, 1989 after colliding with the 1,475-ton dredger Bowbelle. An inquiry found emergency measures were inadequate.

Opponents of the new system hope lawmakers will scrap it after a parliamentary debate Wednesday. But the governing Labour Party, which supports the new measures, is likely to keep them in place -- ending the tradition.

In the 16th century, kings like Henry traveled everywhere on the water when they were in London, commuting between riverside royal residences like Hampton Court and Windsor Castle.

But drunken boatmen tended to get out of hand and in 1555, Parliament established the Company of Watermen and Lightermen to regulate the industry.

Colin Middlemiss, clerk to the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, says the industry is thriving, with 640 licensed watermen, who ferry passengers, and lightermen, who captain freight vessels. Some 120 apprentices were taken on last year.


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