It’s a fact that few of the graduates from the various excellent boat building colleges leave having built an entire boat. They may have scarphed the stem, put in a garboard (just one mind you) riveted the third strake, and done a bit of caulking, but a whole boat? Nah. They will have learnt a great deal about sharpening tools (I’m still learning by trial and error) and received a thorough grounding in a variety of techniques, most of which they will find useful one day. If they also learn the value of speed and adequate accuracy, and basic accounting practices, then the course fee would have been worthwhile. They may even find employment.
That sounds meaner than it’s meant to sound. I envy those who learnt at leisure, under the guidance of an old fellow in brown overalls with the patience of a saint. You’ll know that my experience was gained in a year at a working yard, with deadlines to meet, and yes, I did build a boat, a 15ft clinker dinghy after four months, and had planked up an 18ft Norwegian boat by the time they threw me out.
I count myself fortunate; I can’t imagine what it’s like to put up the port garboard and hand over the starboard side to someone else. Mark Stockl, under whose benign influence I spent my time at the yard, swore by one man one boat. “Then you’ve only yourself to blame,” he said. All those check shirted blokes (and a token woman) in advertisements promoting American boat building colleges, crowding round that up-turned hull, one holding a brace and bit, the other a screw, the other a clamp... I’d go bonkers with claustrophobia.
It is amazing what you can achieve working alone. My friend Tim, who left the yard soon after me to build a plank on frame cutter, hung the 35ft larch planks by himself. If there’s any discrepancy between port and starboard, which I doubt, it’s at least symmetrical. A helping hand is often welcome when it’s tme to rove up those last few; many hands when it comes to turning over a hull. Between times, just leave me alone.
The little clinker boat I’m building at the moment is a case in point. I don’t need any help. The fourth plank on the starboard side is beginning to stray from the mould. So I’ll have to watch it, maybe bring the opposite number out a touch to balance. It’s my problem, and noone else’s. There’s no explanation needed to a third party.
It also helps that the overall length of the boat is just 45in. She’s a proper boat in every way: scarphed backbone, 3/16th larch planking, riveted, steamed oak frames, stem rabbet, proper jerrolds or gains, mahogany transom. It’s proved an invaluable refresher course in clinker building, enabling me to hone my accuracy to a high degree. And there’s no hefting huge planks around. At 45in or so, they can be got out of scraps, and resawn to give book matched pairs. I can put up four planks on a good day. The whole project will take no more than two weeks.
So I recommend boat building in miniature to all principals at our burgeoning boat building colleges. It enables students to build an entire boat for one thing. And if they expect to have grandchildren, as the owner who commissioned my boat does, then she’ll make a fine cradle for a future boat builder. Those formative months curled up inside a clinker boat will afford ample time to study the subtleties of planking. The eye for a fair line should stay with the little mites for a lifetime.