Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Meeting Ben Lucas - 25.3.2015 by Julia Jones

Punts racing off the Stour Sailing Club 2003 Regatta
Ben Lucas is 22. It's easy to assume that a young man of that age will have spent most of his childhood indoors hunched in front of a screen blasting aliens or engaged in virtual high-speed car chases. It wasn't like that for Ben. He was born in Harwich, although the family soon moved to Bradfield, where he grew up, as well as in Manningtreee – all beside the beautiful River Stour. Ben is part of the Lucas family who have been winning the unique sailing punt races at Manningtree regatta for the last hundred years. Sailing punts had been in the area for centuries before that. They have big sprit sails but no rudder or centreboard and were originally used for punt-gunning and eel-fishing in the shallow waters of the Stour.

Ben working on one of the floors
for the Trinity House tender
 Ben did not take up punt-sailing but spent many hours of his childhood standing in the river, usually on Bradfield beach, sometimes up to mischief with his friends, sometimes looking out for evidence of young bass at low water. “As soon as the gulls began to dive, you'd rush over there and chuck in your line. You'd maybe get three or four and then the bass would move and the gulls would follow and you'd follow them.”

His father had a 16' dory, and a friend had a caravan and a barbecue, so every day could be spent on the beach in the school holidays. He was so deeply suntanned he looked like Mowgli, he said. He remembers an especially good birthday present of a knife with a serrated edge and a gadget to undo shackles. As Ben grew up he helped his father with the game-keeping on the local estate. He learned to shoot and was invited on friends and family pheasant shooting days as well as wild-fowling and clay-pigeon shooting. There was a moment of disruption in this happy rural childhood when his parents split up but Ben was determined to stay local to Manningtree. Even when home was directly opposite the Harwich School he made the trip to Manningtree every day to continue attending school there.

Ben liked school. He wasn't especially academic but was happy in the environment and knew he would miss it when he left. He did labouring jobs in the summer and got his 5 GCSEs at A* - C. At 16 he moved to attend Otley College to do what he had thought was a game-keeping course but turned out to be more agriculture and conservation. He made good friends during his year at Otley, then moved to Suffolk New College to study motor cycle mechanics. Ever since he'd been a child Ben had loved taking things to pieces to see how they worked. Now he was learning to put them back together again. A parking job (he's good at backing trailers) at Suffolk Yacht Harbour at Levington led Ben to realise that outboard motors were not so very different from motorcycle engines laid on their sides so he began working in a marine workshop there.
A section of planking completed by Ben
Ben was 18-19. This was his first adult job. The work was busy and varied. It could be dirty, when replacing wheel-bearings in a seized up trailer for instance. Ben's very tall (it's a family characteristic) and, while that was a help in making it possible for him to do quite a number of heavy jobs unaided, it could be quite a squash getting into cuddies and cramped engine rooms. Ben recalled the delight of being able to get out on the water and test an engine in whatever power-boat he'd just finished servicing.

Ben, through no fault of his own, left this first job in quite difficult circumstances and had very little to show for a year's hard work – except invaluable experience. A bleak period followed. Ben's father had moved to Portsmouth so he worked a while there, subcontracting. That was time-limited and anyway Ben's life still centred on the Manningtree area, so he came home and existed as best he could on casual work and the dole. He remains angry about the number of employers who don't even bother to acknowledge a CV or a job application when someone is struggling and doing their utmost to find work.

Discussing a problem with
Harker's Yard shipwright, Mick
The Job Centre put him in contact with the Prince's Trust who, at that time were running regular taster courses in partnership with Pioneer. “Loads of us came for the trial sessions,” Ben recalls, “But when we were told we had to stay two nights on the boat, most of them dropped like flies.” Ben worked for about six weeks in the yard and working on joinery. He had never done any carpentry before and particularly remembers the impression made on him by Jim, Pioneer's skipper, with his extreme carefulness and attention to detail. That's a quality Ben recognises in himself and it was a very good moment when Felicity called him into the office and said “We'd like you to stay.”

Now Ben is nearing the end of his time as an apprentice at Harker's Yard. He still sees himself as likely to be working in something like mechanics or agriculture or anything connected with his beloved sport of shooting but he has learning some important things that he knows will help in the future, whatever he does. He has discovered that he likes learning – of all the apprentices he is the first to compile his NVQ folder and he's proud of that. He knows he likes working with other people, being part of a project, and earning respect. He doesn't like blame culture; he likes finding a problem and suggesting a way to fix it. He likes the sense of community at Harker's Yard “There are no strangers here.” While he's ready to “flee the nest” he knows he'll miss Pioneer – and he hopes that the others will miss him too. “I tell them, they'll never find anything once I'm gone. I'm organised. I know where things are kept.”  
Transferable skills - Ben has been making a new stock for a family heirloom shotgun.
Here he explains different sizes.