February – boat building, and a rediscovered sailing book

My most recent surrogate for sailing has been to watch You Tube videos from the Sampson Boat Company – an addictive glimpse into a  world where something beautiful, functional and powerful is being constructed out of wood, in a project run by an English boatbuilder working in the USA. I highly recommend it to anyone, boat person or otherwise, who wants to wind down from today’s tensions. This is a link. The YouTube viewing figures show that hundreds of thousands of others have found that out too.

Planking the hull of a 1910 Pilot Cutter being completely rebuilt at Sampson Boat. Still from YouTube.

I’ve built three small dinghies from kits, all less than 12 feet, and renovated two others. But that’s in a completely different world, and  I can’t even pretend to be a boatbuilder round here – our next door neighbour is a professionally trained wooden yacht builder and repairer.

The hull of  an Iain Oughtred-designed Feather pram ready to turn over and fit out. I built it 7 years ago.

This month‘s other sailing surrogate was a book published first in 1961 called All Season’s Yachtsman by Peter Haward, a professional yacht delivery skipper, full of the most extraordinary tales of how to deal with heavy weather round the UK and down to and across the Mediterranean.

As a hired skipper, he often had to deal with yachts in poor condition as well. He experienced one terrible tragedy, when a young man crewing for him was lost overboard. A result of that was Haward’s development of the safety harness, and its subsequent widespread adoption on sailing yachts.

The book was lent to me by David Fairhall, who crewed for Haward and is mentioned in the book. All Season’s Yachtsman was a precursor to the classic text Heavy Weather Sailing, which appeared in 1967 from the same publisher, Adlard Coles, and is still in print, much updated. Adlard Coles himself wrote the first edition of Heavy Weather Sailing, and I can’t help thinking he probably  got the idea from Peter Haward’s book, which he had published on his eponymous firm’s list 6 years earlier.

I have just ordered my own paperback copy of Haward’s book, retitled and republished in 1990, from a second hand seller on Amazon, to keep next to Heavy Weather Sailing.

1990 edition


This month was almost entirely occupied by overseeing the building of a small barn-cum-garage at home. Now the roof is on, I see it happens to cover just the right size space for a workshop to build another Iain Oughtred dinghy one day, maybe bigger than the Feather pram, perhaps with a sail. Tempting. Who uses a garage for cars anyway, now modern ones are so rustproof? Most neighbours use them for workshops or storage.

I would buy another kit from Jordan Boats, the firm that supplied the feather pram. They’re quite basic, leaving much wood to be bought and made into components from scratch, but they do two absolutely crucial operations: the planking is computer cut, saving the skilled process of cutting and fitting every curved plank individually, which I’ve been watching on the latest Sampson video; and the hull moulds are outlined and ready to cut and assemble.

I’d keep any new boat modest in size. When I built a far simpler 11 foot hard-chine plywood sailing dinghy many years ago, I shared the workspace with a couple building a 20 foot wooden boat. That’s when I saw the cube law in operation: the amount of material and work involved in a boat rises roughly in proportion to the cube of the length, so I’d guess a 20 foot boat is 8 times as big a project as a 10 foot boat.

Back to the future

I was intrigued by the equipment list below, which is more than three decades old, because it was a reminder of how long we have been arguing about the risks and rewards of electronic navigation. I found the list in some old files I was checking last year for the sixth edition of Pass Your Yachtmaster by David Fairhall and Mike Peyton, which I was commissioned to update by Adlard Coles*.

A 1989 list of yacht electronics talked about at the Boat Show

The list was part of an article I produced for the Guardian newspaper about electronics for small boat navigation, under the headline ‘And a satellite to steer her by’, researched by talking to manufacturers due to appear at that year’s London Boat Show. I had forgotten all about it.

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April – sea fever

It’s the time of year when we recommission Spring Fever, paint the bottom, ready the gear and sails, update the charts and clean and polish the hull. These essential rituals lead up to that perfect moment when we head out from the harbour and the bow first rises to the swell from the sea – a cliché, I know, but it is a spring-time experience always  to savour.

That’s impossible with the boatyard shut and we, the owners – as a slightly-older category of person – banned from leaving home. It’s only when I can’t get on a boat as the summer approaches that I realise quite how much it still means after all these years. Sitting here in Suffolk, 20 miles from the coast, the east wind smells of the sea and, if I’m not careful, I’ll soon be reciting John Masefield.

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