Boat building: An old craft, a new beginning
Benjamin Blech meets graduates of the Lyme Regis Boat Building Academy and assesses the impact boat building has had on the town
Published in April ’14
There’s something magical about a workshop full of boats, just hours before they are lowered into water for the first time.
Lunch hour is shorter than usual on the eve of launch day at Lyme Regis’s Boat Building Academy (BBA), as fresh pots of paint are prised open, and the air is filled with the urgent screech of power.
It’s the infamously time-consuming carvel method that gives Colin Hurner’s 22½-foot half-rater its smooth, seamless finish, he explains in well-chosen layman’s terms, as he runs a dusty finger along the immaculate wooden hull of his traditional yet modern take on William Fife III’s 1894 design.
It was a stint travelling Europe, shortly followed by working as a deck hand chartering super-yachts between the Mediterranean and the Caribbean that brought the young South African to what he thought was ‘the quaint seaside town’ of Lyme Regis, where he’d learn the art of hand crafting beautiful seaworthy yachts like the one before him on a rainy day last June.
‘It’s a traditional design, making use of some modern advancements in technology’, explains Colin, rolling up his sleeves with quiet conviction in the academy’s laid-back canteen, a short distance from the clattering and banging of the workshop. ‘We used glue, instead of copper nails, an epoxy coating, which seals the wood so that it can’t flex and crack like a traditional boat, and we also completely redesigned the keel and rig, to make use of modern technology to improve performance’.
‘Surrounded by the beautiful English countryside, with great workshop space, and being right on the sea – as a boat builder, I’d say [Lyme Regis] is an ideal location’.
At the other end of the spectrum, dwarfed in size by Colin’s half-rater, is the majestic yet modest 7½-foot clinker dinghy built by Ben Charny. As boat building goes, it’s as traditional as it gets; row after row of overlapping wooden planking, joined with copper nails to produce the Viking-inspired line that never fails to please the eye, as renowned Lyme Regis boat builder Gail McGarva explains.
Ben Charny’s clinker is a replica of Pip-Emma, built by F E Morgan Giles for his children in 1916, now housed in the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth.
Despite being visibly exhausted by the pre-launch rush, Ben’s love of working with wood and his closeness to the sea shines through, which is what eventually led him to return to dry land and explore another side of his passion.
‘Having spent several years working on classic sail boats, I became interested in how boats work and how they’re put together. I chose a boat of this size, mostly because of my budget, and because I wanted to build a traditional clinker. Then the opportunity came up to measure a boat down in Falmouth, an area I’ve got ties to – so it all seemed to fit’.
After the course, Ben will return to France ‘to join another boat as ship’s carpenter’ until he can raise enough money to start his own boat building business.
As well as providing a portrait of life as a Lyme Regis boat builder, BBA’s graduates are part of the broader story of how a small Dorset fishing community, interspersed by the volatile comings and goings of major commercial shipping, was put on the map as a stop-off point for those on their way into today’s global marine industry.
‘Our people go out all over the world and take on a wide range of jobs, from repairs and maintenance in local yards to building super-yachts for high-profile celebrities, says BBA Principle, Yvonne Green.
Few Lyme Regis residents can appreciate how the town’s boat building has changed like local maritime historian Ken Gollop, who, following in his grandfather’s footsteps, eked out a living from Lyme Bay for close to half a century.
‘When I was a kid a lot of local people had a boat; it was part of life,’ Ken recalls, as raindrops splatter on the windows of his Lyme Regis living room, overlooking the sweeping shoreline of the harbour below.
Although Lyme Regis hasn’t been a major commercial boat building centre since the late-1800s, Ken remembers a time when ‘people were building boats in garden sheds’, and local builders were churning out a steady stream of boats to supply a wide range of local industries.
In the twenty years after the outbreak of World War 1, demand for locally built boats declined to an extent that’s difficult to imagine at a time when boats are considered an expensive luxury, and people with skills to maintain a wooden boat are part of a tiny minority.
In 1940, Harold Mears – the last of Lyme’s commercial boat builders – moved to Beer. By the late 1950s, the production of fibreglass had been perfected, the number of builders with the skills to maintain wooden boats had reached an all time low, and ever-bigger, more technologically advanced, modern fishing trawlers were well and truly in business.
The decline of local boat building and ownership caused the town’s maritime culture to change beyond measure.
‘People started calling us Bristol-on-Sea because half the boats were owned by Bristol or Taunton people,’ remembers Ken with a wistful smile. ‘Even these days, whenever I see boats coming in and out of the harbour I never know the people on them, whereas when I started up you’d always see people you knew.’
Boat building didn’t return to Lyme Regis until 1997, with the founding of the Lyme Regis International School of Boat Building, which was subsequently taken over by a new enterprise, Lyme Regis Boat Building Academy in September 2003.
Although not as previous generations knew it, today boat building is back in business in Lyme Regis. According to Yvonne Green, BBA is now launching ‘an average of fifteen to twenty boats a year’.
There’s no doubt about it, for today’s boat builders, there’s plenty to smile about. Students consistently say that the outlook for today’s boat builders is excellent, particularly for those with solid wood-working skills.
‘There are many classic wooden boats built in the last 100 years, which constantly need repairs,’ explains Colin.
‘At the moment, it seems like there are more jobs than available people’ adds Ben.
Yvonne Green believes ‘there’s been a resurgence of interest in wooden boat building and craftsmanship generally, as people begin to look at the quality of their lives and appreciate the value of objects produced by craftsmen.’
Yvonne’s view on why demand for boat building courses is increasing was echoed by the experiences of Alex Kennedy, who recently joined BBA from a career in the motor trade. Over lunch, Alex described his previous life in automotive manufacturing, where there was ‘no proper training, no long-term view and no clear way to progress’. He believes boat building will give him the opportunity to invest in a practical skill, while producing a physical manifestation of his efforts.
Ben also identified his lifestyle as being part of the pull towards boat building: ‘At some point, I’m going to want to stop sailing and be more land-based, so I wanted to have something I could do on land rather than just at sea’.
Although few of Lyme Regis’s contemporary boat builders have strong ties to the area, there are signs that boat building is starting to make its mark on the local community, and that there is a definite drive to preserve the town’s maritime heritage and way of life.
‘Many of us live by the sea but have little connection with it’, admits Gail McGarva. ‘In Lyme Regis, gig building and the Gig Club has helped local people renew their connection with the sea, and with each other through the collective use and ownership of locally built boats.’
Gail is now working on the latest addition to the Gig Club’s fleet – a light Cornish skiff – with the aim of inspiring the next generation of rowers to carry on giving traditional boats ‘a new life in a modern-day context’.
Although very different from what past generations would have experienced, boat building in Lyme Regis is definitely doing well, thanks to the shifting demands of a global marine industry, and a collective local effort to preserve a long standing seafaring culture that had, until relatively recently, come close to dying out.
In the absence of a new industrial offering, there’s little to suggest large-scale commercial boat building will return to Lyme Regis any time soon, but equally, there’s no reason to doubt that the town will continue to be seen as a choice destination for the next generation of boat builders. ◗