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Living treasure of Dorset, Gail McGarva, traditional wooden boat builder

Gail McGarva’s journey to boatbuilding may not be as hard as that of the Cornish Gigs she builds, but it was certainly not the obvious one. She started off as a sign-language interpreter, in Bristol and then took part in a long trip to the source of the Thames; this in turn led to her ‘letting boats be the core focus’ of her life.
She got a City and Guilds bursary, enrolled at the Lyme Regis Boat Building Academy in 2005 and, as soon as she walked through the doors, felt that she had come home.
She was named National Trainee of the year, followed her heart and now her life is working with boats and wood, along the way collecting a certificate from HRH Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace for traditional boat building.
She is thought to be the only female Cornish pilot gig builder in the country. These gigs were originally built to get a pilot out to incoming ships as swiftly as possible, to guide the ship in to the rocky, dangerous Cornish coast. The first pilot boat to get to an incoming ship got the job – and therefore the payment – so they were built for speed.
Pictured here in her boat shed in Lyme Regis building Tempest, her third gig, which she will race (with the help of five fellow oarswomen and a cox) from St Agnes to St Marys in the Scilly Isles, Gail feels that the boats are ‘reconnecting people with the sea,’ and seem to be very popular, especially with women.
Her passion for these beautiful 32-foot-long craft shines through and she describes their skeletal frame and form with real love: ‘It’s a form that’s evolved through generations rather than being assigned to a museum,’ she says. She got the local community involved with building Tempest, with people being invited to take part, to add a ‘knee’, even getting the chance to write their name on it.
Gail is passionate about traditional wooden boat building and one wonders how she can bear to let her precious baby (they do coincidentally take 9 months to build) out onto the water, but the boats are only living things when they are in their watery element. Her community spirit and open nature are evident and her warmth and genuine enthusiasm for her boat building inspirational.
❱ Portrait by Millie Pilkington; pen-portait by Liz Pope. Abridged from Great Faces, published by Dovecote Press, ISBN 978-0-9929151-0-0 at £

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