I had a strange coincidence the other day. Someone on a Porsche Facebook page was asking for a Porsche 996 umbrella – one of those that fits in the slot in the passenger-side door sill. I replied, saying I had one and would happily give it to the person in exchange for a donation to the RNLI.
My grandfather and great grandfather were lifeboatmen for Barrow Lifeboat, based on Roa Island, where my family lived for many years. And the strange thing was, the person I was giving the umbrella to, his family were also lifeboatmen who lived on Roa Island. In fact, the two families were very close. It seems some things are just meant to be.
Some years ago, I drove a Porsche 997 Carrera 4S up to Roa Island to discover more about my family’s roots and, of course, to enjoy a road trip in a fabulous car. Here’s my story and a few photos:
I’m standing at the top of a ruined castle, surveying the desolate island around me, its king standing by my side, looking over at the cottage my great, great grandfather lived in. Far away, on another island, I catch a glimpse of my Guards Red 911.
This strange situation has came about after driving a back to its roots 911 back to my roots. Let me explain. Ever since its launch in 1963, Porsche has steadily added to the 911, making it faster, more sophisticated and more refined. All good and necessary changes, granted, but fast forward to 2010 and I wonder if some 911s have become overloaded with electronic trickery and luxuries which at times are at odds with Porsche’s sporting heritage.
Sure, a wide-bodied 997 Carrera 4S with four-wheel drive, active suspension, double-clutch seven-speed automatic transmission, heated and ventilated seats and the like can be an astonishingly capable machine, but all this devilry can leave you somewhat removed from the 911 driving experience. Drive, say, a 911SC from the early 1980s back to back with a modern 911 and you’ll see what I mean. Sure, the new Porsche is in a different league in terms of performance, handling and refinement – it’s a better car all round – but maybe it lacks that elusive quality that classic car enthusiasts call character (and everyone else calls failings).
So wouldn’t it be good to have a modern 911 that combines everything that is great about a 997 with a healthy dose of that traditional character (for want of a better word)? Well, you can have just that; simply order a bog-standard 3.6-litre Carrera and hold back on ticking the options list.
That’s just what I have here. Finished in timeless Guards Red (remember, metallic paint is an extra-cost option), the only nod to extravagance on the outside of this second-generation 997 is a set of black-painted alloys which, with a bit of imagination, hint at the classic Fuchs wheels of old. OK, a lot of imagination, then, but there’s no doubt they look the part.
The wheels are 19-inch in diameter, which is another option – the standard alloys are 18-inch but I’ve never seen a set of these on a 997. They are hanging off standard suspension – no PASM here – which means the car sits higher than we’re used to seeing these days, but it’s the sort of ride height older 911s offered (but lower than the 964’s ridiculous front suspension). Everything else is mechanically standard, too.
Inside, there’s standard black leather on standard seats, albeit with optional electric operation and Porsche crests on the seat backs. The PCM screen has the sat-nav and phone modules, an iPod link and Bose sound upgrade but that’s about it.
The car is, in short, close to basic specification, and those options that it does have don’t affect the feel or performance one jot.
So, what am I doing with this back to its roots 911? Taking it back to my roots, of course. I’ve always had a close affinity with the sea and enjoy living by the coast and sailing. You could say it’s in my blood, as my father’s side of the family has been involved in the sea for six generations. My mission, then, is to explore the areas where my ancestors lived and, at the same time, discover if a basic 911 still cuts the mustard in the high-tech 21st century.
The Raby family hails from the northwest of England, some 360 miles from my home on the south coast. That means an early start and a long slog up through the middle of the country on the tedious and over-used motorway network. It’s on this journey that I appreciate the sophistication that is standard fare on any new 911. The flat six engine develops 345bhp which is an astonishing figure for a base model – the 911 Turbo had less power than that until 1992 – yet DFI (Direct Fuel Injection) ensures that I’m averaging 32mpg at typical motorway speeds; if I tried, I know I could touch 39mpg – not bad for a high-performance 3.6-litre engine.
This is a great cruising car. The torquey engine is unstressed in top gear and pleasantly quiet, allowing me to listen to music through the excellent Bose speakers. I have to admit that I stop for coffee and use one of the superbly (if unnecessarily) engineered cupholders to cradle my cappuccino. I’m being cosseted in a way that I couldn’t dream of with a classic 911. I appreciate the standard suspension, too, as it gives a remarkably compliant ride – better than PASM in Normal mode.
Three hundred-plus miles pass without incident and the sat-nav is soon telling me to leave the motorway, which I’m more than happy to do after five hours.
My first destination is close to the small port of Glasson, near Lancaster. It’s here that my great, great, great, great, grandfather, a farmer by the name of Francis Raby (Francis is my middle name, by the way) decided, for reasons long forgotten, to up sticks and become a lighthouse keeper. I guess I have to thank him for that; otherwise I could today be into horse riding or turnip growing.
Back in the 19th century, Lancaster was trying hard to become a major port so a lighthouse was hurriedly built at Cockersands, on the estuary of the River Lune, to guide ships into the town. Francis was the first keeper of this lighthouse, 160 years ago, and I’m going to see the cottage he lived in with his wife and seven children.
Heading down a bumpy, single-track lane I’m glad the Porsche has standard suspension with decent ground clearance – I wouldn’t get a GT3 along here without grounding. After much jolting, I ease the 911 into a shore-side car park and come to a stop. It’s a bleak place, with Heysham nuclear power station looming ominously in the distance. Of course, this wasn’t there in Francis’ day but, that apart, I suspect this remote, rural area has changed very little in almost 200 years. The original wooden lighthouse which abutted the cottage was removed in the 1950s but a stumpy brick companion light about half a mile out on the shingle while is still in use, albeit now computer-controlled from hundreds of miles away. The sturdy little stone house, though, is still there, although no one is home when I knock on the door.
I sit on the shore and wonder what life must have been like for Francis and his family. The idea of being a lighthouse keeper sounds romantic, but I suspect the reality was that it was very tough. Before the days of cars, Lancaster would have been a long way away, and the family would have had to be self-sufficient; growing vegetables in the garden – which remains heavily walled to keep out the worst excessives of the Irish Sea weather – and stretching nets out into the estuary to catch salmon to sell to richer folk in Lancaster.
Some of Francis’ descendants remained lighthouse keepers here right up to the 1950s but one of his sons, Richard, gained a licence as a pilot in the hope of earning a living guiding ships into the river and up to Lancaster. Unfortunately for him, though, ships weren’t attracted to the fledgling port in the numbers the town’s leaders had hoped, preferring instead to head further up the coast to the more accessible Barrow in Furness, on the other side of Morecombe Bay. Happily, Richard’s licence also allowed him to operate as a pilot in and out of the developing port of Barrow, so he packed his bags and headed west, which is where I’m going now.
I’ve no idea if Richard sailed the 12 miles across the bay or he took the longer, 50-mile inland route, but I suspect it took him longer than it does me in the 911, despite the usually excellent sat-nav directing me through the congested centre of Lancaster before returning me to the M6. Thankfully, I only have to endure a short stretch of motorway before hopping off west onto the A590. This turns out to be a great road, skirting as it does the wonderful Lake District. I have stunning hills to my right and tantalising glimpses of the sea to my left, and the road treats me to broad, sweeping bends with sections of dual carriageway to let me roar past slower traffic. It’s the sort of road a 911 is made for, and the car is in its element.
Pushing hard through the corners, I’m aware of the limitations of the standard suspension, which feels wallowy at times, but I don’t care – it’s a lot of fun to drive and it’s good to have a car I can explore the limits of without being on a racetrack. And, here’s a thing – this really does feel like a 911. It’s got that lightish front end so beloved of classic 911 enthusiasts, and the car really communicates to you in a way that you just don’t get with PASM. (Porsche Active Suspension Management). I can’t help but wonder, though, that part of my thrill is because I’ve grown up with older 911s and this car reminds me of those. If you came to this 911 via, say, a 997 GT3, then you may be less enamoured by it.
Enjoying myself immensely, I round a bend and see a ruined castle rising from the sea like something out of an Enid Blyton story. This is Piel Island, my next destination, where Richard Raby went to live in one of a row of cottages built for ships’ pilots.
Piel isn’t accessible by car (although you can, illegally, get to it in a four-by-four at low tide), so I abandon the Porsche and ring the King of Piel for a lift in his boat. Yes, the king; in a tradition that dates back to the 15th century, the landlord of the lonely pub is crowned king of the island. The present incumbent is the genial Steve Chattaway and, as we chug across the channel in his motorboat, he apologises for the smell of diesel emanating from his royal overalls.
Steve and his wife Sheila are restoring the island’s 18th century pub and are presently living in a caravan. Apart from the pub and 14th century castle, the only building on the island is the row of eight pilots’ cottages, built in 1875. I’m unsure which one my ancestors lived in, so Sheila grabs her Blackberry and calls some locals with insider knowledge. There’s a debate, though, with some say it was the third house along, others the last.
For now, then, I don’t know, but as I walk along the shingle beach I enjoy the tranquillity and remoteness of this mystical place (although Steve says it gets busy with campers in the summer), and it strikes me that Richard’s son, my great grandfather, Herbert Raby would have played here as a boy, and no doubt clambered around the ruins.
He grew up to follow in his father’s footsteps and became a ships’ pilot and coxswain of the lifeboat but, after his wife died at a young age, Herbert and his two sons left Piel and moved the short distance to neighbouring Roa Island, which is joined to the mainland by a causeway. In those days, a railway ran along this causeway but today there’s a road. With a railway station, 34 houses, a pub (which has since closed) and a watchtower for the pilots, Roa must have seemed positively urban after Piel. One of the sons, another Richard, was my grandfather, who stayed on the island and also became a pilot, so the next part of my journey is to Roa.
Steve drops me back and I rejoin the Porsche. With the sun setting, the evening light shows off the 911’s evocative lines perfectly. You can’t go wrong with Guards Red and I do like those black wheels (although £990 to have them painted thus is a bit steep). Being a basic Carrera it doesn’t have the wider rear end of the four-wheel drive model so it lacks that car’s aggressive stance. However, there remains a purity to the narrow car’s lines and I believe it’s a look that won’t date.
Roa Island is a place close to my heart as I have happy memories of childhood visits to my grandmother, and I soon locate her terraced house where my father was born. Locals complain that these days the island is overrun by cars and tourists at weekends but it’s quiet today and, talking to people, it’s clear that this is still a close-knit community. There’s just one Raby still living here – Alan, my father’s second cousin, whom I’m delighted to meet.
The lifeboat station on the island that my great grandfather was in charge of for 35 years has recently been replaced by a stunning new building and the present coxswain, Alex Moore MBE (who comes from another old island family, which is vaguely related to mine), is keen to show me his new toy – a £3.5million Tamar Class lifeboat. It’s an astonishing piece of technology that cocoons the crew safely inside a weatherproof cabin, each with their own computer screen, and I wonder what Herbert Raby, whose stern portrait looks down on the boat, would have made of such a vessel, as he and his brave crew donned cork lifejackets and used oars and sails to make their way through storms to save lives.
Once again, I realise that island life sounds idyllic but, in reality, must have been tough. The pilots kept a constant lookout for business, using telescopes to search for ships flying the signal flag requesting pilotage and, even today, there is no mains electricity or water on Piel. It and neighbouring Roa Island must, though, have been wonderful places for children, my father included, to grow up.
I come away with a greater understanding of my family’s history and feeling proud to be a part of it. Like most families, the Rabys now spread out across the country and the world. However, part of that maritime heritage lives on. I’m never happier then when I’m racing one of my sailing dinghies (or, indeed, any boat); a passion which my daughter shares. What’s more, my nephew is a professional kitesurfer – an activity that would have astonished Rabys of old!
So, while some things have changed, other things have stayed the same, and the same can surely be said of the 911. The 911 has come a long way since 1963 but today’s basic model, above all others, proves that the car’s DNA remains intact. It could be all the 911 you ever need.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider giving a donation to the RNLI, in memory of my mother who died in 2015, and who was a fervent supporter of the organisation. Please click here to donate.