(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column by John Vigor)
IT ALWAYS INTERESTS ME to see how much interest there is in building and sailing wooden boats. After all, our modern age calls for boats to be mass produced from liquid resins and strands of glass. Fiberglass, carbon fiber, and exotic composites are now the materials of choice, along with fancy alloys of aluminum, and sometimes steel, of course.
But good old-fashioned wood is still one of the best boatbuilding materials. In fact it is THE best for one-of-a-kind boats. It is stronger, pound for pound, than fiberglass, aluminum, and even steel. It accepts fasteners well. It’s plentiful. It’s easily repaired with simple, hand-held tools. And, fittingly, it floats.
On top of all that, there’s something about wood that touches the human soul, something warm and welcoming — something completely lacking in plastic or metal.
When I was a teenager I helped a friend called Ray Cruickshank build a beautiful little wooden Harrison-Butler design called Thuella, a 24-foot double ender. The planks were fastened to the ribs with copper clinch nails. Ray worked on the inside with a roove iron and I worked on the outside, holding a heavy iron dolly against the nail head while he clenched the rooves with a ball-peen hammer.
When she was finished we took her out to sea for a trial run. I was the navigator, because Ray knew nothing about it. I didn’t know anything about it either, but Ray didn’t know that until we got completely lost. It took us three days to find our way back to port.
Some years later, another friend, Dave Cox, built a wooden 33-footer in his back garden. She was strip planked, with every plank made concave on one side and convex on the other. They were laid tight against each other on a bed of glue, and then nails were hammered right through the plank, through the plank below, and into the third plank. She was strong and light, tight as a drum, and we sailed her 33 days across the South Atlantic from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro. Once again, I was the navigator, but I had learned to handle a sextant by then, and we found Rio and its exciting beaches with no problem.
A few years before that, another friend and I crossed the English Channel in a 17-foot centerboard sailboat called Salty Dog. She was clinker-built of wood and we cruised the canals of France, Belgium, and Holland in her for three months.
When we returned to England, I became the paid mate of a 72-foot wooden ketch called Thelma, but eventually I settled down to a more normal lifestyle (permanent job, wife, kids, cats, garden, and mortgage). I bought a lovely cedar sliding-seat canoe, and after that a plywood 14-foot racing dinghy, and after that I built a series of four 11-foot Mirror-class plywood dinghies, hoping each new one would go faster than the last one. It didn’t, but I enjoyed building them anyway. I still have access to a wooden Mirror, but my big boat, my 27-footer, is plastic now, of course.
If I were rich, she would be wood. I really miss wood. But there’s a problem when your taste tends toward champagne and your budget stipulates beer. In that case, plastic trumps wood, I’m sorry to say.
I don't like things that can be reproduced. Wood isn't important in itself but rather in the fact that objects made in it are unique, simple, unpretentious. — George Baselitz
Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #12
Barometer. In middle latitudes, a high barometer reads about 30.50 inches (1033 millibars. A low barometer reads 29.50 inches (999 millibars). The average reading at sea level is 29.9 inches (1013 millibars).
“Good news, honey. We don’t have to move to a more expensive apartment any longer.”
“The landlord has raised the rent on this one.”