If the cause of little wooden boats is to be furthered; if the sailing of small traditional craft is to prosper, and in order to encourage more youngsters and women to take an interest in classic dinghies, a major issue has to be addressed: beards.
You cannot fail to notice at classic boat gatherings and jumble sales the length of the land that the vast majority of those running their fingers over varnished gunwales or squinting at sheer lines or discussing the merits of standing over balanced lug rigs are men, usually over 50, and invariably bearded. Of women and the young there is usually no sign. And those that are present look impressed (in the sense they look as if they’d been rounded up by the Press Gang and shovelled into the family MPV).
There are exceptions: the other day I delivered a 15ft faering (yes, the one I’ve been wittering on about for months was finally delivered) to a family in the Lake District. To a man, woman, boy and girl they were mad about little boats, and the children all wore red woolly hats like Swallows (or was it Amazons?). No sign of boredom there, and not a Game Boy to be seen anywhere. Heart warming.
Then along came the bearded ones. Now I have to be careful here as they are all good friends, who I respect and like a lot. And one of them was, to be honest, beardless. Oh, and there was also a young woman amongst them who would be sorely offended if I suggested she had even the slightest trace of a beard. Nevertheless, beardless or no, they all looked as if they should be bearded.
As a beardless one myself – any attempts have been pathetic – I am not a little envious of those old-fashioned, luxuriant chin bushes and side whiskers you still occasionally see. The ones that look as if they might shelter two larks and a wren or if shaken would disgorge the crumbs from half a loaf of wholemeal bread. These are seldom the beards one sees at British traditional boat gatherings, however, which are usually less flamboyant. More an excuse not to shave, or perhaps a disguise. Maybe even as a deterrent, for women, by and large, do not like straggly beards.
Little old boat gatherings are clearly among the last havens for the hunted and harassed and soon to be made redundant old British male; places where this endangered species can range around safely without dressing to attract a mate. He can poke about boat jumble with impunity, rummage through skeins of cheap rope, stroke varnish in peace, away from the critical gaze of spouse or partner, and converse endlessly about grommets, the genius of Albert Strange, centreboards and buttock lines without that tug on the sleeve that signifies “I’m bored, I want to go home/get a burger/recharge my Game Boy/ go to a garden centre or sit in the car and watch telly.”
In America little old wooden boats are also largely owned, admired, stroked, varnished, built, designed and sailed by bearded men over the age of 50. However, the clothes are smarter, beards much neater – often modelled after Ernest Hemingway’s. You will find throngs of Old Men of the Sea, lacking only a battered straw hat and a pair of ragged canvas trousers, and more women (anthropologists discuss).
Over here we need more young families in red woolly hats involved in little boats. And more women. Bottom line is a bunch of bearded old geezers in scruffy jeans is not only unsightly but deeply unsexy. So smarten up lads.