Thursday, 16 September 2021

Jewel in the Henley crown for 25 years

AT 115ft long, weighing 75 tonnes and with room for 175 passengers, the New Orleans is the most iconic vessel on the upper section of the River Thames

AT 115ft long, weighing 75 tonnes and with room for 175 passengers, the New Orleans is the most iconic vessel on the upper section of the River Thames.

The paddle steamer-style boat was built in the late Eighties in response to growing demand for bigger vessels and cost £500,000.

It was so successful that it resulted in the expansion of Hobbs of Henley, a boat hire firm that dates back almost 150 years.

The company already had two smaller passenger vessels, the Maratana and Consuta, both of which could accommodate about 50 passengers on a single deck.

Tony Hobbs, who then ran the company and is now the chairman, decided to go even bigger with the new flagship boat.

His son Jonathan, who is now managing director, recalls: “In the mid-Eighties there was a boom in corporate hospitality and people wanting to have parties on the river.

“My father noticed the phone started ringing with people saying ‘have you got a boat for 60, 70 or 100 people?’ but we didn’t have a boat that could carry that number of people.

“You respond to market forces and in 1989 my father decided to build a boat as big as you could possibly get on the upper Thames, where you are restricted by the width of the locks and by the height of the centre arch of Henley Bridge.

“He took the bold step of getting a boat designed that would fulfil our needs and something of real quality that could make a mark on the passenger boat industry at the time.”

The New Orleans was designed by Don Tate Associates and was styled on a Mississippi paddle-steamer.

She has two decks — a fully enclosed saloon with bar and an open upper deck for viewing the scenery by day or dancing by night — and also boasts a restaurant.

The boat was built by Jakubait & Sons, of Greenwich, which operated out of yard where the O2 arena now stands.

Mr Hobbs says: “This was, and still is, the last passenger boat of this type to be built on the Thames and work on the Thames.

“My father wanted something that was very popular at the time. He also had a desire to design something that wouldn’t date.

“It’s New Orleans-style on the outside but actually, when you’re in here, it’s luxurious. This could be a dining room at Danesfield House Hotel.” Mr Hobbs says the late Eighties was an exciting time for the company but the cost of building the new boat rose in the wake of the Marchioness disaster, a fatal collision between two rivercraft on the Thames in London in August 1989 in which 51 people died.

As a result of this tragedy, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency introduced new safety regulations which meant the New Orleans needed to have a sub-divided hull, adding expense and time to the build.

“What you got was probably the safest boat on the river,” says Mr Hobbs.

The New Orleans took almost 18 months to build but finally made its journey from London to Henley in late May 1991 — just weeks before the first bookings were due to arrive.

In fact, workers from Jakubait & Sons had to stay in Henley over the summer to finish off the boat.

Mr Hobbs explains: “Everything customer-facing was finished but stuff behind the scenes needed to be done.

“Nothing else of this size had been moored on the riverfront in Henley so she caused quite a stir and bookings. It wasn’t like a slow burner — she was busy from that summer and just got busier and busier.

“My father was very pleased. He looks back at the whole time as being very exciting. I know he’s very proud of the New Orleans but it was a lot of hard work.

“Now she serves as a flagship vessel in our fleet. It’s great because the quality the boat exudes runs down through the whole fleet.

“In my mind she has always been the flagship vessel of everything good Hobbs does.”

The New Orleans’ first skipper was Kim Clifford, now the firm’s general manager, who held the post from 1991-2014. The job is now held by Dominic Hook.

Despite its size and the amount of river traffic, the boat has never been involved in an accident.

Mr Hobbs says: “She is a difficult boat to skipper as it involves pinpoint precision. If you’re an inch or so out you’re hitting the bridge so it’s a highly skilled job.

“As the skipper of the finest boat on the upper Thames, you have the kudos of being the best skipper on the river.

“The efforts Kim put into the great name the New Orleans had in the Nineties, plus the standards of service and quality filtered down from the vessel to the rest of the business.

“We began turning away business as the boat was so busy.”

As a result of this success, the company increased its fleet of passenger vessels. The Hibernia was built in Wales in 2001 and Waterman was bought in 2005.

Mr Hobbs says: “I like to think that by 2001 or 2002, with the fleet increasing, we were recognised as providing the best passenger vessels on the upper Thames.” He estimates that at least 300,000 people have been on the New Orleans over the last quarter of a century.

Famous faces to have graced her decks include the late magician and entertainer Paul Daniels, who had his 50th and 60th birthday parties on board, and chef Jamie Oliver.

Model and actress Elizabeth Hurley held a party on board even though the boat was unable to move due the river being in flood.

Mr Hobbs recalls: “She was very disappointed. She was worried about paparazzi, I think.

“With the boat not moving she would be photographed. She was wearing a white all-in-one cat suit and big dark glasses.

“Respect to the skipper and the crew as by the end of the party she’d had a wonderful time and she left very happy.”

DJ Fatboy Slim, alias Norman Cook, worked on the New Orleans at an anniversary party being held for his wife Zoe Ball’s parents.

Mr Hobb says: “I remember Johnny Ball being on the upper deck and Fatboy carrying his records and Johnny saying ‘come on Norman, you're late!’”

Other highlights in the boat’s history include being part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee river pageant in 2012 at Henley Business School.

The New Orleans has also hosted countless charity fund-raisers with Hobbs providing the boat free of charge.

“She still very busy,” says Mr Hobbs. “There has been a slight decline in corporate hospitality and corporate bookings but private bookings are pretty stable.

“We have gone through a recession which affects corporate hospitality. We used to have banks and financial services in the late Nineties and early 2000s but you just don’t have that now.

“We have also got far more competition now. Go back to the Nineties and a river boat party, or a day out at Henley Royal Regatta, was one of the best things you could do in the corporate entertainment world.”

So what of the boat’s future?

“She’s in remarkable good nick and still looks as good as she did 25 years ago,” says Mr Hobbs. “It’s credit to the skipper, crew and staff who keep her at this standard.

“We’re not looking to replace her but you have got to be realistic and everything must have a shelf life of some sort.

“On the Thames she’s very highly regarded. She’s still one of the finest boats on the river and she has not been eclipsed by anything, I would say.”



AT 115ft long, weighing 75 tonnes and with room for 175 passengers, the New Orleans is the most iconic vessel on the upper section of the River Thames.

The paddle steamer-style boat was built in the late Eighties in response to growing demand for bigger vessels and cost £500,000.

It was so successful that it resulted in the expansion of Hobbs of Henley, a boat hire firm that dates back almost 150 years.

The company already had two smaller passenger vessels, the Maratana and Consuta, both of which could accommodate about 50 passengers on a single deck.

Tony Hobbs, who then ran the company and is now the chairman, decided to go even bigger with the new flagship boat.

His son Jonathan, who is now managing director, recalls: “In the mid-Eighties there was a boom in corporate hospitality and people wanting to have parties on the river.

“My father noticed the phone started ringing with people saying ‘have you got a boat for 60, 70 or 100 people?’ but we didn’t have a boat that could carry that number of people.

“You respond to market forces and in 1989 my father decided to build a boat as big as you could possibly get on the upper Thames, where you are restricted by the width of the locks and by the height of the centre arch of Henley Bridge.

“He took the bold step of getting a boat designed that would fulfil our needs and something of real quality that could make a mark on the passenger boat industry at the time.”

The New Orleans was designed by Don Tate Associates and was styled on a Mississippi paddle-steamer.

She has two decks — a fully enclosed saloon with bar and an open upper deck for viewing the scenery by day or dancing by night — and also boasts a restaurant.

The boat was built by Jakubait & Sons, of Greenwich, which operated out of yard where the O2 arena now stands.

Mr Hobbs says: “This was, and still is, the last passenger boat of this type to be built on the Thames and work on the Thames.

“My father wanted something that was very popular at the time. He also had a desire to design something that wouldn’t date.

“It’s New Orleans-style on the outside but actually, when you’re in here, it’s luxurious. This could be a dining room at Danesfield House Hotel.” Mr Hobbs says the late Eighties was an exciting time for the company but the cost of building the new boat rose in the wake of the Marchioness disaster, a fatal collision between two rivercraft on the Thames in London in August 1989 in which 51 people died.

As a result of this tragedy, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency introduced new safety regulations which meant the New Orleans needed to have a sub-divided hull, adding expense and time to the build.

“What you got was probably the safest boat on the river,” says Mr Hobbs.

The New Orleans took almost 18 months to build but finally made its journey from London to Henley in late May 1991 — just weeks before the first bookings were due to arrive.

In fact, workers from Jakubait & Sons had to stay in Henley over the summer to finish off the boat.

Mr Hobbs explains: “Everything customer-facing was finished but stuff behind the scenes needed to be done.

“Nothing else of this size had been moored on the riverfront in Henley so she caused quite a stir and bookings. It wasn’t like a slow burner — she was busy from that summer and just got busier and busier.

“My father was very pleased. He looks back at the whole time as being very exciting. I know he’s very proud of the New Orleans but it was a lot of hard work.

“Now she serves as a flagship vessel in our fleet. It’s great because the quality the boat exudes runs down through the whole fleet.

“In my mind she has always been the flagship vessel of everything good Hobbs does.”

The New Orleans’ first skipper was Kim Clifford, now the firm’s general manager, who held the post from 1991-2014. The job is now held by Dominic Hook.

Despite its size and the amount of river traffic, the boat has never been involved in an accident.

Mr Hobbs says: “She is a difficult boat to skipper as it involves pinpoint precision. If you’re an inch or so out you’re hitting the bridge so it’s a highly skilled job.

“As the skipper of the finest boat on the upper Thames, you have the kudos of being the best skipper on the river.

“The efforts Kim put into the great name the New Orleans had in the Nineties, plus the standards of service and quality filtered down from the vessel to the rest of the business.

“We began turning away business as the boat was so busy.”

As a result of this success, the company increased its fleet of passenger vessels. The Hibernia was built in Wales in 2001 and Waterman was bought in 2005.

Mr Hobbs says: “I like to think that by 2001 or 2002, with the fleet increasing, we were recognised as providing the best passenger vessels on the upper Thames.” He estimates that at least 300,000 people have been on the New Orleans over the last quarter of a century.

Famous faces to have graced her decks include the late magician and entertainer Paul Daniels, who had his 50th and 60th birthday parties on board, and chef Jamie Oliver.

Model and actress Elizabeth Hurley held a party on board even though the boat was unable to move due the river being in flood.

Mr Hobbs recalls: “She was very disappointed. She was worried about paparazzi, I think.

“With the boat not moving she would be photographed. She was wearing a white all-in-one cat suit and big dark glasses.

“Respect to the skipper and the crew as by the end of the party she’d had a wonderful time and she left very happy.”

DJ Fatboy Slim, alias Norman Cook, worked on the New Orleans at an anniversary party being held for his wife Zoe Ball’s parents.

Mr Hobb says: “I remember Johnny Ball being on the upper deck and Fatboy carrying his records and Johnny saying ‘come on Norman, you're late!’”

Other highlights in the boat’s history include being part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee river pageant in 2012 at Henley Business School.

The New Orleans has also hosted countless charity fund-raisers with Hobbs providing the boat free of charge.

“She still very busy,” says Mr Hobbs. “There has been a slight decline in corporate hospitality and corporate bookings but private bookings are pretty stable.

“We have gone through a recession which affects corporate hospitality. We used to have banks and financial services in the late Nineties and early 2000s but you just don’t have that now.

“We have also got far more competition now. Go back to the Nineties and a river boat party, or a day out at Henley Royal Regatta, was one of the best things you could do in the corporate entertainment world.”

So what of the boat’s future?

“She’s in remarkable good nick and still looks as good as she did 25 years ago,” says Mr Hobbs. “It’s credit to the skipper, crew and staff who keep her at this standard.

“We’re not looking to replace her but you have got to be realistic and everything must have a shelf life of some sort.

“On the Thames she’s very highly regarded. She’s still one of the finest boats on the river and she has not been eclipsed by anything, I would say.”



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