Friday 30 November 2007

Earls Court Boat Show 2007

To the metropolis for the new Earls Court Boat Show, a brave but probably doomed attempt to wrench the boating community back from Docklands.
Amazingly, the show had a special feature devoted to rowing, but it wasn't rowing for pleasure. It was rowing for agony. In short, transoceanic rowing.
I've never been able to understand it. Rowing across an ocean is like a stretch in Devil's Island with worse food. The labour is never ending, the sun relentless, the sores unhealing, the view an unchanging level horizon punctuated by terrifying, trouser-staining tropical storms.
God knows why they do it.
Here's a general view of the exhibit. In the background is the James Caird, famous for Ernest Shackleton's epic voyage to safety when his Antarctic exploration vessel Endurance sank in 1916. More later.

Tuesday 27 November 2007

Rowing in Victorian Connecticut

Sooner or later, everyone falls to the temptation to Google their own name. The results are always particularly galling for me because the first two million pages are always devoted to a character from some American sitcom. But googling "Rowing for Pleasure" yielded this little gem, an 1889 article from "Outing" magazine about sculling from Yale in Victorian times. They don't write 'em like this any more - the language is arch and flowery even by Jerome K Jerome standards - but it is an evocation of an age that was truly golden if you were young and wealthy. Not so golden is the description of the waiter who serves them in the seafood restaurant at Savin Rock, which is typical of the casual racism of the period.

Thanks to the admirable LA84 Foundation Library for the text.

Outing Magazine 1889


Or, Rowing for Pleasure.

By Richard M. Hurd,

Yale class of 1888 and author of A History of Yale Athletics 1840-1888

In those good old college days when the sun rose earlier and our hearts were lighter than now, it was not seldom that we turned aside from the graver considerations of mathematical formulas, of logical premises and psychological conclusions, to themes no less dear to us because not included in the curriculum.

How many pleasant hours did we spend, not only in engaging in the various forms of athletic exercises, but in theorizing as to their development, in looking up the fables and facts of their past history, and in collecting statistics to prove beyond question their illimitable value to the race in general. And especially in one branch—the art of rowing a boat—how ardently we discussed the varied styles of rigging and rowing a boat, and how warmly we dwelt upon the power and skill, the pluck and genius of young and old boating men.

How eagerly we studied up the course of the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, the currents, tides and setbacks of the Thames, the system of training of the English University oars, and patriotically announced that Yale could undoubtedly defeat either Oxford or Cambridge. And, again, how patiently we pursued the fate of the two hundred odd Harvard and Yale oarsmen, and showed that, despite the croakers, they did not all die of heart disease within a few years after leaving college.

Few there were, I am sure, more zealous for true advancement, and more devoted “heelers” and backers in general of Yale’s athletic, and especially aquatic, fortunes than the humble occupants of our pair oar.

To say that the Wanderer was a cedar-built, mahogany-trimmed, lap-straked, pair-oared barge, some twenty feet long and twenty-eight to thirty-four inches beam, with two sliding seats and one stationary one, fitted with triple-barred outriggers, would be but a bald and commonplace description. She was the soul of beauty, riding the ardent waves that kissed her sides in homage like the true queen she was. An obedient mistress, quick to hear and answer, a dozen strokes would send her cleaving the waters and throwing off showers of fine spray, while the word “avast” or “hold” would check her impetuous course, like the curbing of a high-spirited charger. What care we that she had “Meaney” slides and “Kerns” rowlocks, or that her footrests were movable and inclined 37½ from the horizontal, when we know that we loved her as a friend to be trusted in, a companion who never wearied us, and a source of pleasure that never lost its zest.

‘Twas in early spring when first we stepped into our pair oar, and, though the sky was a little dark and chill, we donned our rowing suits, loosened our girths, tightened our foot straps, and glided steadily up the Quinipiac. The waves were rolling in gray, with soapy crests from the harbor, but duck-like we rode them, and so gaily kept on past the four bridges to the marshes, where the reeds were shooting up bright green from the brown earth. The clouds floated away one by one, and the sun came out to brown our arms and backs, white with the winter’s covering. On the sunny side of a hill thick with bushes we lolled away our lunch hour, making our meal of a box of crackers, a bag of oranges and a tiny bottle of champagne (from California, be it confessed). And so, on and on, the river winding ever, the salt marshes left behind and the country now a smiling farming land, till the water grows more shallow, the current swifter, and we stop at a farm house on the bank to learn where we are. The sloping sun warns us to be returning, and we swing back in the growing coolness to the boat house, where we meet the ‘Varsity crew ending their day’s pull. Twenty-five miles for the good Wanderer between 12 noon and 6 o’clock and not a weak spot or a cranky touch in all the paces we have put her through! A good draught of ale to the health of our mistress, and long may we swing in her to the tune of “Jolly Boating Weather!”

What so rare as that day in June when we rowed out into the broad harbor where the shining undulating waves were reflecting the deep blue of the sky above. As the shores receded all things seemed melted into a world of blue, sky and sea meeting and blending in shifting tones of light, of pearl gray, of cobalt, of warm and restful blue. Alone, seeming in a world of calm and sweet light and color, with lazy sails in the distance and ducks flapping by overhead, we drifted and dreamed for a brief hour. A plunge in the water from a creamy sand spit and a long, lazy swim awoke us to the realities of life, and it was with sharpened appetites that we sought the little hotel at Savin Rock, famous for its sea food dinners. We will pass by the oysters, raw and broiled; the clams, stewed and fried; the crabs, the lobster, the fish, all served by the blackest and most obsequious of darkies, and retake our seats as we start idly homeward. A glory of the setting sun fills all the heavens and is flashed back and forth from drifting clouds, pink, saffron, pale purple and crimson. The abundant rays bathe the Sound in soft and hazy light and show the sand hills of Long Island, a mirage on the horizon. The water is almost motionless, only a slow and gentle swell’ makes shifting gleams of sunset pink and sea blue along our course.

We throw our heads back, bareheaded, regardless of “form” or “style” in our rowing. We have no sharp-eyed ‘Varsity coach in the stern to remind us to “keep our eyes in the boat,” our “backs up,” etc., ad nauseam, and breathe in the fragrant air and revel in the world of richness and light above and about us. The colors grow warmer and deeper, the shores reflect deep browns and madders and purples, and at length are clear cut in black against the transparent lemon yellows and pale greens of the dying day.

It had been a cold and rainy summer up to the end of August, when the good Wanderer brought us together for a week of life on the water, in which Nature amply compensated for her cool behavior by a lavish bestowal of smiles and caresses. Ignoring as much as possible such dull things as names and dates and facts, let us recall only the sweet essence of this joyous trip, the memory of which comes back to us in our routine life like a parched flower’s recollection of a refreshing dew.

The day of our start was one to be remembered, with life and vim in the air, in which all things stood out strong and clear and real. From the old city of Middletown, down past the wharves where idlers in barges gaze stolidly at us, a two-mile stretch takes our thin rowing shirts off our backs, and it is in working costume that we swing steadily through the winding turns that high hills make in the river. Heavily wooded to the top with beech and maple and birch and walnut, a deep shade is cast on the river, and a sense of rare stillness pervades, where the only living thing is an eagle high in air, or a fish rising with a plash. Pleasant it is to loiter along, enjoying each new turn and vista of the changing views, gazing now at forest trees waving their foliage high in air and now at strips of green pasture nestling in bends of the river—new-made land, perhaps never yet trod by the foot of man. But there is work ahead, and for a few hours the crew sticks to its oars, till a rocky point entices us to a noonday siesta. The Wanderer is tied and two weary oars stretch themselves under the shade of dense hemlock trees. A dip in the river cools their backs where the August sun is already beginning to write a story, and the slender lunch disappears quickly. The first and only accident may here be recorded, which was the totally uncalled for excursion of the patented tin clothing case—waterproof, air-tight, non-sinkable, which slid down the rocks, with the cover off, into the river, breaking a bottle of cooling beer and soaking our entire stock of white flannels, blue blazers, striped belts, etc., in the watery element.

We pass now little villages on either bank of the river, all alike, a cluster of white houses with green blinds, in a bower of elms, with here and there an old white steeple pointing upward. Occasionally also a long narrow island, the gift of the river, with, perhaps, a hay house or a corn field to indicate its human ownership, is left behind.

As the rays of the sun fall more and more obliquely upon us, the long bridge of the Shore Line Railroad assures us that the mouth of the Connecticut is reached and that the work of the day is nearly done. We are well tired, we will confess, and we stretch out to rest on a stony beach, compared with which the bed of San Pedro of Alcantara was a downy couch.

And so in the soft twilight we reach Fenwick, and are not ashamed that it is but slowly that we stow away our boat, for we have put forty odd miles to our credit since 8 in the morning, and we are well pleased with our first day’s work. If it were not that the athlete, the oarsman, is a Spartan ever, and disdains to recount the bodily ills suffered in the enjoyment of his pastime, some mention might be made of sunburnt backs, of cold cream, of intermittent slumbers, but, under the circumstances, we forbear.

We were somewhat lazy, it must be confessed, the next day, and after a fine morning plunge in the salt waves did not get under way till about 4 in the afternoon. It was a glorious time to row, however, the water still and a gentle breeze fanning our sunburnt limbs. And a rare old supper we had, sitting on the bank of the river, some eight miles up, discussing a roasted chicken, a loaf of fresh bread and a bottle of new milk. With beauty ever fresh, the sun, about to end another day of labor, painted the glowing clouds, which in turn reflected their changing colors on the calm river. We lingered on and on, loath to leave, and it was black darkness when we reached Deep River.

Our search for an hotel brought us to what had been evidently in former years a flourishing hostelry, and one that might yet be restored to somewhat of its lost prosperity. “Wal, yaas,” the young owner said, “folks hey bin daoun from Hartford tew look at the house and they talked some of buyin’;” but it was easy to see that with the slow caution of the countryman he mistrusted the glib-tongued city folk.

A solid night’s rest and a swim in the river put us in good trim for breakfast, where we met a number of typical New England women, the relatives of the young owner, peaked and sallow in appearance, jerky and whiny in speech and of an irritating nervous energy. One of them, arrayed in rusty black, told continual anecdotes of her departed husband, and evidently derived much importance in the eyes of the others from her loss.

We were not sorry to settle down to work again under the blue canopy of heaven, with the sunshine playing about us on river and fields and hills. A pleasing triumph of the day’s row was our defeat of a steam launch on a three-mile stretch into Middletown. We smiled with renewed satisfaction in the “Bob Cook” stroke— even though, rowed by duffers—as we saw our adversaries “coaling up” without avail. We will not intrude into that rare old farm house where a college friend entertained us over night. The house itself, a hundred and fifty years old, the wealth of fruit and flowers and vegetables, the horses, the dairy, the poultry—all merit a detailed account beyond the limits of the present opportunity.

After half a day’s rest in Hartford we found our row upon the Windsor Canal the most charming feature of the next day’s experiences. A still stream, six miles long, sixty feet wide and thirteen feet deep, winding high above the rocky, dashing river, along the face of a sandstone cliff, it is surely one of the choicest spots in the world. A low towing path on the riverside reveals a view of wide and varied attractions, while nearer at hand is a fringe on either side of tall grasses and reeds, mingled with daisies and buttercups and clover.

The cliff, once harsh and bare, is now covered with drooping bushes of birch and sumach, while mosses and lichens and maidenhair fern hide the gashes in the rock and show only bits of soft red color. We revelled in the beauty of the scene, the tranquillity of the limpid stream and the absence of human life that lent to our advance all the charm of a discovery.

One more blissful day, down the canal, into the Connecticut, and up the Farmington, and the Wanderer's first boating trip is over. A hundred and thirty miles in six days, no mishaps, no casualties, the best of weather, the best of boats, the best of friends, combined to make up a week that, as the Arabs say, will not be counted in our length of days. Let those who will go to the fashionable hotels to dance and flirt the summer away, or to the mountains to walk, or the streams to fish, or the woods to shoot, but give me a light and trim-built boat, a willing companion, a beautiful river, and the radiant health, the buoyant spirits and the sweet scenes of nature that remain indelibly on the mind will repay one more than a thousand fold for the time and labor spent in manning a “pair-oared crew.”

Saturday 24 November 2007

Round the back of Portsea Island

A couple of years back I navigated the Hilsea Channel that connects Portsmouth and Langstone harbours, in company with Conrad Natzio, designer of my Sandpiper spritsail boat. He sailed his own Oystercatcher.
Everyone has to do Hilsea Channel eventually because it looks so tempting on the map and forms a 'voyage' (we sailed from Bosham to Fareham) but it is a bit dismal to be honest. The channel is completely canalised and although one side is formed by the grassy ramparts of the Hilsea Lines, built in Victorian times to defend Portsmouth from the French, the other side is the M27 motorway.
The best plan is to start on a rising tide about two hours before HT to allow a decent air space under the bridges. There is no alternative to rowing (sorry sailing types!).
We went east to west, starting from the hospitable Tudor Sailing Club. The first bridge is the Eastern Road, which is not a problem.
We anchored and had lunch, being entertained by a broken-down van being towed off the bridge.
A member of the Langstone Cutters who had done the trip told me that the railway bridge was so low they had to lie down in their seats and hand themselves under it, avoiding threatening-looking ducting with 'High Voltage - Danger of Death' on which must have been alarming but we had plenty of room at this state of the tide.
This is a footbridge with a great big water pipe (at least, I assume it was water...) slung under it. This is looking back towards the railway bridge (rower's viewpoint).
This flying footbridge is not a problem for sailors but we might as well be complete.

Next challenge is the bridge under the Cosham Roundabout, which is actually a pair of bridges separated by a short culvert. Dark and uninviting but not a problem. It is entertaining to note that the older bridge (1920s?) has fancy stone balustrades but the later one, built when the roundabout was constructed in the 1970s, is brutally functional. I don't know which is worse - the half-hearted ornament or the don't-care functionalism.
That is the last of the low bridges. The next problem was that the new lagoon formed by the loop of the M275 didn't have enough water in it. Here is Cap'n Conrad scouring the horizon for a channel.
An inexplicable thing floats in the middle of the lagoon. Is it art, or some sort of beacon, possibly to attract alien spacecraft to Pompey?
The end is in sight when you reach the motorway bridge. It looks as though the traffic engineers have been generous to sailors this time, but the height is really there to provide headroom for the interchanges further down the road. Beyond the bridge on the north is a handy inlet for setting sail before entering Portsmouth Harbour.

A windless winter day

Put Snarleyow in at Itchenor today, and it was cold as charity but mirror-calm. Ideal. Followed the tide up to Dell Quay where I got out for a brief rest. DQSC had a race on, and the sailors were standing up in their boats pumping them from side to side trying to get a bit of speed up - they were working harder than I was!

Thursday 22 November 2007

What's a skiff?

Sooner or later, every boat forum goes through a controversy over what is, or is not, a skiff. The problem is that every area has a boat called a 'Something Skiff' and local people refuse to believe that a skiff can be anything else.
In America, a skiff is quite a large power boat, and in Scotland the term refers to double-ended fishing boats that can be 40ft or more. Film makers can have some very odd ideas about what a skiff looks like.
In England, and on the Thames in particular, a skiff is always one of these:

Master boat designer Gavin Atkin prompted the thought on his blog by linking to a curious page on the Penwith District Council website giving definitions of all kinds of boats from Abras to Zooms, for some reason. 'Skiff' is defined thus:
"Has been used, to refer to many various types of seemingly unrelated small boats. The word has a complicated etymology: it comes from the Middle English skif, which derives from the Old French esquif, which in turn derives from the Old Italian schifo, which is itself of Germanic origin. The word is related to ship. One current usage of skiff is to refer to a typically small flat-bottomed open boat with a pointed bow and a flat stern originally developed as an inexpensive and easy to build boat for use by inshore fishermen. Originally designed to be powered by rowing, their form has evolved so that they are efficiently powered by outboard motors. The design is still in common use today for both work and pleasure craft."

So a skiff is a little ship! I'll buy that, though I have to say I draw the line at the word skiff being used to describe a high-tech racing dinghy.
Milton, as ever, got it right when he describes a lost sailor anchoring on a whale, thinking it to be an island, in Paradise Lost. Calling the boat a skiff instantly puts over how fragile and vulnerable the poor sinner is:
Leviathan, whom God of all his works
Created hugest that swim the ocean stream:
Him haply slumbering on the Norway foam,
The pilot of some small night-foundered skiff,
Deeming some island, oft, as seamen tell,
With fixed anchor in his scaly rind
Moors by his side under the lee, while night
Invests the sea, and wished morn delays


The best thing I have bought for my dinghy Nessy is a pair of square rowlocks, very like the ones in both the pre-war Snarleyow boats in the previous post.
Round rowlocks make feathering the oar very hit-or-miss, and getting it wrong can result in you lying on your back with your legs in the air, like Ratty. And I have never liked the feel of the round oar wobbling in the round rowlock.
Square rowlocks hold the oar firmly in place, either horizontally or at the correct 6 degree angle to the water, so you can put the power on with confidence.
Nessy's square rowlocks are things of beauty, created by American sculptor Doug Martin. They are cast in manganeze bronze, with nice big flats to take the pressure and horns at the top to hold the oar in safely.
I got them from Duckworks at an incredible $50 the pair. Similar items in the UK are £50 each - at current exchange rates that is four times the price. At the moment, getting stuff shipped in from the US can offer huge savings over your local chandlery.

Saturday 17 November 2007

Memories of Patricia Partridge (nee Wilder) 1924 -2007

My mother Pat Partridge died a couple of weeks back, which is why I was looking through the family photo albums. Cousin John sent me this picture of her getting out of Snarleyyow I, the Norfolk punt used for fishing the Thames at Wallingford. This must have been taken just after the War. I remember it well, though in the 1960s it was replaced by a nearly identical one, called Snarleyow Too.
Behind is the double skiff, Snarleyow III (I think - the numbering got a bit confusing and the name lost a Y as well). And to complete the fleet, here is my uncle Tim in 1949 at the wheel of the magnificent new Andrews slipper launch
The reason my grandparents chose the name is lost in the mists of time. Snarleyyow, or The Dog Fiend is an entertaining book of the sea by Captain Marryat. Snarleyow was a heroic artillery horse in Kipling's poem of the same name. Neither seem obviously appropriate for boats, but it is a strong and unusual word so I have named my small skiff Snarleyow in tribute.

Sunday 11 November 2007


Another piece originally written for Duckworks Magazine, after a trip to Venice.

I hadn’t realised that not all boats in Venice are gondolas. The Venetians have developed a type of boat for every conceivable purpose, from little personal craft to delivery barges. My first picture shows the contrast between old and new. On the left is a wooden sanpierota, named for the island in the lagoon where it was first developed. Sanpierottas are small work boats, the ‘white van’ of Venice. On the left is a buzzy little plastic motor boat that young people sit in for hours, chatting, while they rev the engine.
Some sanierottas are elegant craft for family transportation.
Everyone’s favourite boat is the sandolo, very small, light and fast. They are rowed standing up, facing forwards, with crossed oars. Every Venetian learns how to do this while we were learning to ride bikes. The complex wooden oarlocks are called forcole, and come in everyday and luxury versions. The everyday ones built for strength and utility, and are deliberately made plain so that no one will steal them! Luxury forcole are works of art, carved in ornate shapes from walnut or wood from a fruit tree, and often decorated with gold leaf. I snapped the young man sculling his sandolo down the Grand Canal, perfectly at ease despite the motorway traffic of water buses, water taxis, phut-phut boats and, of course, gondolas.
The UPS truck of Venice is the topa, a traditional barge that used to be sculled but is now inevitably engine driven. Here is a topa delivering stock to a corner shop in the San Polo district.

When Venetians get the builders in, they arrive on a huge steel barge that forms a floating building site, and, just like builders everywhere, block the road for weeks on end.

I could not go to Venice without taking the obligatory picture of gondolas.

One of the wonderful experiences of Venice is taking the taxi to the airport. The water taxi, that is. Is there anywhere else in the world where you can do this? The sunset picture was taken as the water cabbie opened his engines out and sped over the lagoon at incredible speed. Great.

Saturday 10 November 2007

The author at the oars

I've been looking through family photo albums and discovered this pic of me rowing stroke on the Upper Thames in 1960 with Dad at bow. The boat was a beautiful mahogany double skiff called Snarleyow. Somehow, I can't remember a single day when it rained.

River Arun

Last August I rowed up the Arun from Littlehampton to Arundel, mainly to test the new positions of my riggers.
The lower Arun is a strangely unattractive stream, because the lovely scenery is hidden by the featureless river walls that imprison the water in its channel. Some simple landscaping, perhaps with a few trees, reed beds and perhaps a few artificial beaches would make the river much more attractive and attract more boaters and walkers.
The slipway at Littlehampton is new and magnificent. All the old woodsheds that used to line the river have been replaced with flats and the area is now buzzing. There are even a few restaurants and bars.
The car park includes several double length bays for cars with trailers, a very useful feature. River licences can be bought at the nearby shop, but boats without engines are free.
The aim was to be wafted upriver to Arundel by the tide. There, I would hang around at the Boatyard & Tea Garden until the tide turned and waft gently down again. I miscalculated rather - you only need to set out about an hour before HT to catch the flow, and if you set out earlier you have to wait up to four hours for the tide to change, such is the length of the river.
The reach up from Littlehampton is lined with flats, boat clubs and a couple of big wharves for gravel barges.
Then it gets a bit boring until Ford, where the end of the old Chichester Canal can be seen. The pub does camping and has a slipway.
The rail bridge looks a bit intimidating but is easy to negotiate.

The river is rather featureless from then to Arundel, which is incredibly pretty. The bridge is very low (in the floods a couple of years ago the water came nearly over the parapet, a very alarming sight).

Upstream of the bridge is the Boatyard & Tea Garden. The bank consists of a series of concrete steps, which make getting out very awkward with the outriggers getting in the way. But the staff were very friendly and the tea plus slice of sticky cake was delicious.
Then I tried to get back in, missed my footing and fell in the river. Blast. The boat hire people were superb, bringing an electric pump and a battery to bail the boat, and even offering me a dry sweater to wear. I managed to dry out more or less on the row back to Littlehampton, though.
For a rower, looking back at Arundel is the best view of the town with the RC cathedral, the old parish church and the Duke of Norfolk's castle lined up on brow of the hill.

Monday 5 November 2007

Rowlocks need to be adjusted vertically too!

Here's another piece I wrote for Duckworks, which appeared last week.

Every so often on the boat forums, someone asks how to position the rowlocks on a rowing boat correctly. They inevitably want the spacing between the seat and the rowlocks, but I have discovered the hard way that the vertical adjustment of the rowlocks is just as important for comfortable rowing, especially with a sliding seat. My sliding seat skiff Snarleyow (Andrew Wolstenholme’s lovely Sprite design) has always felt a bit cramped. I am average height (6ft 5in), and getting my knees up between my arms as I moved forward was a tight squeeze – I almost had to scrape the oar handles down over my shins to keep the blades out of the water.
Recently, matters got even worse, which may be something to do with my waistline getting even more average. I would have to breath out to allow room for my knees, so breathing had to be strictly coordinated with rowing. I could only take a dozen or so strokes before stopping for a quick gasp.
When I started rowing Nessy, my Sandpiper dinghy designed by Conrad Natzio, I was amazed at how relaxed it was. I could row steadily for ages without stopping for breath. It was partly because the seat was fixed, of course, but I soon realised that the higher position of the rowlocks also made things a lot easier.
I decided to raise the rowlocks on Snarleyow too, by putting a spacer blocks under each rigger and a new hole through the hull for the supporting strut underneath. A rootle round the shed produced an offcut of Douglas fir of exactly the right dimensions (and the domestic authorities said I hoard stuff!). I cut it into four, drilled a hole through each one and bought four long bolts to secure the riggers in their new positions.
Snarleyow was transformed. My wrists no longer tried to bash my knees, and rowing became relaxed and flowing. Suddenly, I could row for long periods without having to take a breather. The next step was to make the job permanent by shaping and sanding the blocks and gluing them in position with Balcotan. A spot of varnish and she was ready to go. Here I am, rowing at the HBBR national meeting at the Cotswold Water Park this year, a picture of relaxed elegance and grace.

Sunday 4 November 2007

Building Nessy

I built Nessy in the summer of 2005. This was written in 2006 for Duckworks Magazine.

It was reading my 10-year old daughter her bedtime story that decided me to build a sailing dinghy after decades of rowing. It was Swallows and Amazons, the classic tale of children spending their holidays sailing in the Lake District in the 1930s.
What impressed both of us was the way their parents let them go out on their own for days on end without supervision or even mobile phones. There is no mention of PFDs either. Their father, at sea with the Navy, gives his permission in a telegram reading "BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN".
I mean, if my wife and I arranged our family holidays like that they would take the kids into what they laughingly call "care" and put us away for a thousand years.
Anyhoo...Nichola seemed keen on learning to sail so I started looking for a design.
Simplicity was key. In the book, Swallow was said to be ideal for children because it had a single sail and no centreboard, and that seemed good me too – I haven’t handled a sail in thirty years although I have been rowing all that time.
Bolger and Michalak designs were obvious contenders but I wanted something more traditional, in appearance at least.
It would also have to be built mainly outside on a gravel surface so precision engineering would be impossible.
At the 2005 Thames Boat Show at Beale Park I tried the Sandpiper, a Bolger-inspired flat-bottomed skiff designed by Conrad Natzio. It was just the job - simple and robust but with a jaunty workboat look.
I bought the plans from Conrad at the show, and started the search for cheap materials and parts as soon as I got home. I was under the usual delusion that it would be on the water by teatime.
Despite my resolution to stick rigidly to the plans, the first thing I did was change the butt straps joining the plywood sheets to epoxy tape. I hoped the epoxy would be invisible and the gentle curves of the ply did not look like stress hazard.
Dave Carnell's invisible butt joints offered an enticing combination of effectiveness, speed and simplicity - just the thing for a lazy and hamfisted builder!
My big mistake was to not to join the ply sheets before cutting. That way, I could have easily kept the edges nice and straight. As it was, I had to tape and epoxy the ends of two long side pieces while trying to keep them straight and inevitably ended up with one slightly banana shaped. The necessary adjustment means that the finished boat is an inch or so less freeboard than planned but so far no-one seems to have noticed....
I tested the joints scientifically by giving the side pieces a vigorous shake – and one failed. However, by then I knew the drill better and the finished parts passed the shake test with flying colours.
The next mistake was not to give the plywood a bit of a sand while it was all nice and flat, which might have saved a lot of effort later on.
And then there was the transom. I bevelled the edges the wrong way, so the frame was on the outside as though the boat had its trousers on inside out. I concealed this with an extra skin of ply, which actually makes the boat look a bit smarter at the stern.
Construction then moved outdoors, onto an old bedroom cupboard and a couple of saw horses.The boat is assembled on the frames without the need for a strongback. Quick and simple. I began to appreciate the jigless, low precision construction method, ideal for those with no proper facilities.
I also began to appreciate my son's friends.
When I found I did not have enough hands to hold the gunwales and chine logs in place for clamping, I grabbed a couple of son’s friends as they passed and, to my surprise, they helped willingly and even showed an interest. Then reverted into layabouts. Sigh.
One serious delay was not daring to get on with the sail, as I really did not have a clue despite reading Dave Gray’s excellent advice at Eventually I screwed up my courage to the sticking point, as the poet says, and bought a white polytarp on eBay (15 quid), a couple of rolls of double-sided carpet tape and some white duct tape. Waited till the wife went out for the day and cleared the dining room for a sail loft.
I had never thought that the eyeleting punch and die that my father left me (with a few hundred brass eyelets in a jamjar) would ever come in handy, but their time had come. The sail looks much better than my terrible craftsmanship would justify.
Launch day was not until January. The official temperature was about zero, but the sun was out and there was only breath enough of wind to fill the sail. For a maiden voyage, it was heaven.
The following week I sailed at Dell Quay (where the Romans invaded in 43AD) and a photographer called Bryan Davies was there. I yelled out my email address and by the time I got back these pictures were waiting in my in tray. Isn’t technology wonderful?