Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Trouble with Old Boat-builders

Lisa von Luebeck
Adrian Morgan has just posted an interesting article on The Trouble With Old Boats, bemoaning the lack of profit in traditional boat carpentry, which he fears is partly caused by competition from colleges of boat-building taking on restorations as cost-subsidised teaching aids. His post ends with the words

"Ultimately it's the likes of us, unfunded and unsubsidised what's trying to make a living from building boats, and a craft that can't scratch a living is irrelevant and deserves to die out".

Some of the comments are reminiscent of the complaint by my wife's friend Pat, a now-retired professional opera singer, who would sometimes be approached after a performance by patrons asking "And what do you do during the day, dear, when you're not singing?" It's terribly easy for those on the outside looking in on what appears to be simply an enjoyable activity to forget that there's actually a lot of skill, self-discipline and time involved.

Actually I suspect that the competition from the colleges isn't sufficient in terms of size to make a significant impact on the rest of what is admittedly, in the UK at least, a cottage industry. I suspect that the total number of precious old boats awaiting the enthusiastic attention of the cohorts of recently-retired professionals and others attending the courses is quite small. The client of such a college looking for a cheap job has to be prepared for a long wait, as the colleges by their nature have a head start in attracting business and will start the most profitable jobs first. It's not in the nature of the wealthy, successful businessman wanting to create an impression on the "classic" circuit to be patient. He's more likely to send the work abroad, as happened a few years ago when a very high-profile yacht, now well established on the international circuit, was restored in Burma of all places.

A few decades ago almost all traditional boatyards here had either gone to the wall or converted to fibreglass. The survivors were extortionate and well beyond the capacity of any client other than the most wealthy. In line with this apprenticeships had become unknown. It's a wonder that wooden boat craftsmanship didn't die out entirely.

That there are now training courses, albeit available at a price, is entirely due to a slowly-growing awareness that good craftsmanship is something to be treasured. In the United States the stirrings started with the coming of Woodenboat magazine in September 1974. The first concrete indication that anything was happening here came with Iain Oughtred's book "Wooden Boatbuilding in Britain" published in 1986. (Iain had come from Australia in 1964, probably the very worst time to start up as a boat designer and builder, but he's a tenacious fellow.)

We are very far behind our neighbours in the rest of Europe, however.

Ten years or so ago on a visit to Luebeck I called in on the Hanseschiff project and saw a swarm of youngsters working on a massive outdoor construction. Lisa von Luebck is now complete and I quote from her website:-

"About 350 people built the ship over a five year period (1999-2004). 240 were between 19-25 years old, previously unskilled young adults who had taken up a one year course in wood and metal-working. Since the ending of the original project in March 2003 about ten municipal workers have worked to complete the ship. They have been supported by many unpaid volunteers from the city, who have given freely of their time to keep the ship going."
On the same visit I called in on the yard of Krause und Wucherpfennig, whose shed was packed with restoration projects of all sizes, from twelve metres to small commuter motor launches. One of the partners Andreas Krause, Henry Rasmussen's grandson, assured me that they had work for the foreseeable future and numerous apprentices taking up the trade.

Our German friends have certainly got the message that beautiful traditionally-built boats are to be cherished. Perhaps underlying this is the relative shortage of old yachts, since so many were pinched by the British forces after the War (and, by the way, not only those owned by the German State; a lot of private ones went too).

Developments of this sort are exactly what should be happening in Scotland, given the current concentration in our cities on encouraging awareness of our maritime heritage, the availability of brown-field land in places like Clydeside and a young generation facing an uncertain future.



  1. with the amazing growth in the Scottish Coastal Rowing Project there is now more interest in boat building in Scotland than there has beeen for decades!Whilst some may argue that the wonderful St. Ayles Skiffs are not traditional the plethora of boats both built and under construction is testament to the interest in the craft. In my opinion getting people interested in general is the first step to creating a valuable, sustainable and green industry....At Fairlie Boat Builders we hope to begin construction of our first skiff next week and if interest is high enough then start short courses in traditional construction and repair.
    Oh and Hi Ewan ,long time no see .don't you travel to Portsoy anymore ??

  2. oh AAAND whilst in love with the wooden boat building industry it needs to be noted that for education and training needs tupperware has to be delivered as well as the sad fact of life is that until oil gets too expensive then the majority of construction throughout the world will consist of plastic and being able to service this industry may assist in allowing folk to indulge in their real passion if only in a limited capacity.
    FINALLY it is about time Scotland had its own boat building school as school leaver can no longer study in this country and have to be resident in England for a year to qualify for funding to attend the colleges there.....Watch this space in the coming months for some (hopefuly good news in this subject !!!

  3. Hi Martin

    Good to hear from you and good luck with the skiff. They go together easily as I'm sure you know and I'd involved in the Isle of Seil one, see There's also a post about them here,

    Too far to go to Portsoy, so haven't been for years.


The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water