‘The smaller the boat, the greater the pleasure’ is rolled out almost as often as Ratty’s total delight in simply ‘messing about in boats’. That old song, Messing about on the River captures a world of summer days, floaty dresses, quanting poles, boaters, bonnets and fair hands dipped in still waters. And underlying all is the assumption that the boat is old, and wooden, fastened with copper, shining under a translucent film of copal varnish, details picked out in gold, spoon oars cupped in bronze rowlocks.
Messing about in warm mahogany may be pleasurable, but building them is a business fraught with financial danger. When one learns from the official biography that Camper & Nicholsons never made a penny from building boats over the centuries, only from repairs and brokerage, it throws the whole romantic edifice into new perspective. Wooden boatbuilding the traditional way may have nostalgic overtones of quaint sheds, fragrant oak shavings and well-honed blades, the reality was often very different. Boatbuilders in the time of Nelson may have been among the elite, as Colin Mudie once told me ‘the rocket scientists of their age’, but it’s been downhill ever since.
Traditional clinker boats, for all their craftsmanship, do not command a premium. Show a man an 18ft dinghy, hand made from finest materials that took three months to build, and a price tag approaching five figures and he’ll think you’re mad. He’ll talk about maintenance, about ‘taking’ up. He’ll likely quote his grandfather’s suggestion of soap, sawdust and tallow, and (despite telling him there’s a bead of Arbocol between the lands, not sheep dung) submerging her for two weeks. That’s like suggesting his new Peugeot will need running in at 40mph for the first 1,000 miles.
Old boats, quite simply, have a bad reputation. Insurance companies are wary and surveyors pepper their reports with ‘as far as was possible to ascertain…’. And yet, having taken a new 18-foot clinker double-ender to London’s Excel a year or so ago, I can vouch for the huge delight on people’s faces, jaded after a sea of glassfibre, as they run their hands around the gunwale, stroke the varnish and squint at the way each plank rises up from amidships. ‘How do you do that?’ they ask. ‘Does the wood come in precut boards, planed to fit? Is it ply?’ You tell them it comes in log from the forest, is cut on site to 5/8in, thicknessed to 1/2in, each plank spiled to fit its lower neighbour and they begin to get some idea of what they think they cannot afford. Sometimes I reckon I’d have more joy making bookshelves from old boats, cut off amidships and stuck on end, for loft conversions.
Underlying this reluctance to value new boats built the old way is an assumption that it’s fun. Which, up to a point, is true. No matter how draughty the chicken shed in which you work, cold the winter’s day, you are your own master, something very precious these days. Who’d be a lawyer when you can build a wooden boat, shaping larch to conform to curves drawn by Vikings, steaming English oak as it’s been steamed for centuries?
As for making money; dismiss the thought. The answer for those who wish to keep tradition alive is not to give up the day job. I know several yards, and a number of boatbuilders who subsidise their work by enslaving themselves to the computer. The flickering screen makes a fine scarf joint against the work of chisel and plane.
And I believe it’s the best, and perhaps only way to keep traditional ways of crafting boats alive. Stick with the draughty sheds which go with the trade, keep the long hours and late nights; in essence, the ethos of the old ways. Just take out some of the uncertainty.
Incidentally, I had that fellow Doug Peterson, designer of America’s Cup winners, on the stand at Excel, running his fingers round my gunwales, squinting at the run of planking. He may have spotted a flat spot. Never let on. Just smiled and muttered something about ‘the smaller the boat…’