September 14, 2014

The urge to build boats

EVERY NOW AND THEN I feel the urge to build a boat. This has been going on all my life from the teen years onwards. Mostly, I am able to keep the feeling under control but on a few occasions I have succumbed.

I sometimes wonder if other people feel the urge, I mean ordinary people who don’t even live near water and normally have nothing to do with boats. There might be a quite a lot of them. They might get the urge and not know what it is, apart from some vague feeling of unease or some suspicion of a life mission not completed.

Scientists tell us we came from the sea. There is salt in our veins. So I would guess there is some vestigial desire to build something that can float on the sea, not only to enable us better to catch fish but also to allow us to indulge in that other great human urge to explore the world, most of which is covered by water.

I have never shown any great talent for boatbuilding. My first experience came in my teens when I helped an older friend build a small Harrison-Butler carvel-planked sloop.  I was the gofer and the one who held the heavy dolly on the head of the copper nails fastening the planking to the ribs. He was the one inside the hull, fitting the copper rove collar and clipping off the nail short before riveting it tight with swift light blows from a ball-peen hammer.

My next outburst of boatbuilding came many years later when I helped a friend build a 33-foot light displacement sloop. She was strip-planked, and each plank was through-nailed and glued to the ones beneath. I remember thinking at the time that she was virtually a copper mesh surrounded by wood. It certainly made her very tough, but I hated to think how complicated it would be to repair a stove-in plank at some later date.

Both those boats were wooden, of course, and wood is still the finest material for small boats, as far as I’m concerned. You can, of course, build a fiberglass boat if you wish, but it’s a very messy business and quite full of stress as you wonder if one layer of glass fibers saturated with resin is really going to stick to the last layer. Or did you leave it too late, so that the resin has already cured sufficiently to lose its stickiness? I wouldn’t like to think about that in a storm at sea.

And the killer for me is that you have to have a mold to build a fiberglass boat, or at least some kind of lattice work or framework in the form of the finished hull. Normally, that means you have to build a wooden boat first, to form your mold, which doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

Many wooden boats, perhaps the great majority these days, are covered with a sheath of fiberglass in any case. This not only waterproofs them, but also prevents the bitey things in the water from burrowing into the wood and eating the hull from the inside out.

There were occasions when I build a string of four small racing dinghies from kits, but that doesn’t take much skill, just patience and a lot of time to get a decent finish. I only had one major disaster, in the early days before I properly understood the technique of stitch-and-glue to join the seams of a plywood boat. The resin supplied with the kit was of the kind used for building up several layers, which I did, before and after applying the fiberglass tape. Nobody told me that this kind of resin would never cure hard unless you excluded the air from the last layer with a plastic covering, or sprayed on a chemical to exclude the air.

So, yes, the resin stayed sticky and nothing I could think of doing would make it set. In desperation I painted over it anyway, called the boat Messy, and deliberately dabbed ugly splodges of paint over the hull to make it seem like one big joke.  I have to say that she did, in fact, hold together, and after a few years her seams appeared to have cured somewhat, but it was a long, hard lesson for me.

I dreamed the other night that I was crafting a lovely sleek 14-foot clinker-built Whitehall rowing boat with two rowing stations and a sculling notch in the transom. I knew all the time that it was far beyond my shipwrighting capabilities, of course, and I did wonder if I shouldn’t be building something simpler, such as an Irish curragh; but in dreams nothing matters except the emotions and sensations. That’s how I got to win the Finn class in the Olympics — but that’s another dream.

Today’s Thought
Unpinned even by rudimentary notions of time and space, dreams float or flash by, leaving in their wake trails of unease, hopes, fears, and anxieties.
— Stephen Brook, The Oxford Book of Dreams

Anything unrelated to elephants is irrelephant.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

No comments: