Find me an amateur boatbuilder who doesn’t aspire to stand alongside time-served professionals in a working yard; handle the big machines; turn a pile of timber into a hull; steam and rove up straight grained oak; craft gunwales, thwarts, knees and finally launch the fruit of months of intense labour (and hours of sleepless nights). In short, to live the nostalgia, the romance of wooden boats...
Whoah. Romance? Nostalgia? Slips of the keyboard. After 12 months working alongside the partners at a busy traditional yard in the North West Coast of Scotland, I have to confess that this ancient and increasingly anachronistic occupation is - as the designer and author John Leather suggested in a letter I am sure he won’t mind my quoting - a ‘fragile and unrewarding thing to do’. ‘Nostalgia’ or ‘romance’ do not appear in John’s Pocket Oxford.
Now I take his ‘fragile’ in the sense that profit margins are as slender as a Dragon’s bow and for financial rewards you would indeed be advised to look elsewhere for a career. Oscar Wilde famously said that to make money and gain status in this world simply apply yourself, study hard and become a lawyer. While most people can be a lawyer, not everyone is cut out to be a boatbuilder. A year down the line I have built two boats, and the biggest compliment paid to me (and ever likely to be paid) was ‘not bad for a journalist’.
That does not, alas, make me a boatbuilder; it takes more than the skills to shape a plank, spile accurately, cut a bevel or steam timbers to call oneself a boatbuilder. Apart from the ability to weld, sister a frame in the depths of a rotting fishing boat, cut a thread in a piece of aluminium bronze or make a set of moulds from a photocopied lines plan you need to get on with all your colleagues, avoid wastage and, above all (although time spent thinking about a problem is indeed time well spent) cultivate speed.
Alas, on the first two counts. As to the third, I must have spent four months out of 12 thinking; which is far too long. Most people with some manual dexterity can build a 15ft clinker dinghy to a reasonable standard in five months and sell it for £4,000. Taking materials into account, say £1,500, that leaves £2,500, or £500 a month. That’s £6,000 a year. Hmm. Sharing the running costs of the yard - perhaps £150 a week- and you’d be losing £1,800 a year. No, the secret is speed. Turn out a boat in five weeks and it begins to make sense. Albeit fragile sense.
I have learnt a huge amount in my time at the yard, and yet at the back of my mind lurked the knowledge that my livelihood did not depend on building boats. To be brutal: if I had been doing it for a living I’d have gone bust in the first six months. Which makes the bravery of the handful of traditional yards that still eke out a fragile living in the country all the more admirable.
Until people are once again prepared to pay honest money for an honest wooden boat, and crucially pay up on time, keeping the flame alive will depend on us amateurs. We can take the luxury of spending three days polishing rivet heads. Trying new ways to do things done for centuries one way. Above all we can afford to be romantic. For the yards it will always be a question of watching the pennies and the clock.
And yet I have a sneaking suspicion that no boatbuilder ever quite believed he was ‘just doing a job’, toiling from daybreak to sunrise in a draughty shed turning out objects of desire for rich yachtsmen. Fragile and unrewarding it may have seemed, yet the best of them must have clung to some sense that what they were doing was more important than the work of a lawyer, bringing home more in a week than they could in a month.
What about that old fellow who stopped by the yard last month, the one who built clinker lifeboats for the Queen Mary. Was it just a job? In which case, after building hundreds of boats, why had he taken such a keen interest in mine? Surely the R- and the N-words. Sadly, in a business where the difference between profit and loss can be the price of a box of roves, romance or nostalgia, however essential ingredients, are not enough.