Gloucester Old Spots and Percy the wild boar are my companions down at the farm by the shores of Loch Broom where I build wooden boats. The field above my shed is awash with sheep who converge pathetically on my Land Rover every morning (you can’t expect a sheep to know the difference between the shepherd’s 2.5 litre Td5 diesel and my 200 series Tdi). All is idyllic. Pete comes with his pale to feed Percy mid-morning and check on the piglets, Tam who’s building an organic vegetable garden, stops to pass the time of day and there’s always the chickens to chase from the shed where they take refuge overnight from the farm dogs – two collies who behave well alone and like wolves when allowed to roam together.
This, then, is the quintessential, traditional boatbuilding scene. Rural tranquillity, a brisk tapping of roving hammers (split by the occasional scream of the thicknesser), the grunt of pigs, crowing of cockerels, clatter of sleet on corrugated iron roofs. This is why I left the city. This is what every commuter stuck between Blackfriars and King’s Cross dreams of on a Friday night in June when his boat’s already lifting to the tide off Pin Mill.
And yet it makes no sense. The traditional boatbuilding industry in this country is hanging on by a wasted keelbolt. You’ll find pockets of expertise all round our coasts – a yard here and there which can still do competent wooden boat repairs – but nothing on the scale of what you would find on the east coast of the America.
Now I have visited New England three times, and not to look at wooden boats. It was in the 1980s when Australia was edging closer to winning the America’s Cup. On the strength of the advertisements in Classic Boat’s sister magazine WoodenBoat, the sheds – they call them shops – by the waterside, are alive and throbbing. To slip a canvas apron over your lumberjack shirt, stick a pencil behind your ear (and a few more in your special pencil pocket) strap a tool belt round your waist, hitch up your denims and make with the Lie Nielsen bronze smoothing plane is well, cool. In Old England it’s crazy.
John Perryman told me something odd at the London Boat Show apropos wooden boats. “It is a strange fact that a furniture maker need only mark up his chair 300 per cent and people think it’s more valuable. A wooden boat builder has never been able to ask a reasonable price for what he makes.” Did you know that Camper & Nicholsons never made any money from building boats? So what hope have we?
I write this having just quoted for another 18ft clinker double ender. That’s 60 days work, plus materials, costs, rent, overheads, sails, spars. What does £8,500 sound like? The phone goes quiet for a moment. He’s thinking “strewth, that’s a lot for a little wooden boat? I could buy a brand new Fiat Punto for less than that. Or two Plastub simulated clinker rowing boats, or a Drastic Plugger.” And he’d be right. Off the shelf, delivered tomorrow, comes in blue or green. Why in heaven should a production line glassfibre boat for £8,500 sound reasonable and a hand-made larch on oak clinker boat of the same length that took three months to build “a bit steep”? Beats me.
I have a theory – several in fact. Number one. The myth of maintenance. Wooden boatbuilders (and I don’t mean plywood and epoxy) have been too slow in espousing new technology. We have microporous water-based varnishes that last for decades; we have flexible mastics that ensure a clinker boat will not leak, ever. Yet we persist in slapping 50/50 varnish on bare wood, and wonder why it’s peeling by next spring.
Number two. People have bought the myth of glassfibre. It’s too late to convert all but a very tiny minority. Glassfibre is now the traditional boat building material (just as steel makes cars). Forget it.
And thirdly they think we just do it for fun. They think we enjoy spending our days in and around draughty old milking parlours on the shores of Highland lochs, with piglets and cockerels for company, listening to Mozart on the radio, passing the time of day with farmers and market gardeners, laying coats of enamel on smooth topsides and shaping larch into perfect curves…