Friday, 27 April 2018

Boats as Art

Years ago at an art show I got in conversation with a very well known major Scottish artist famous for her countryside paintings. who asked me if I painted and when I said I didn't terminated our conversation pretty quickly. Later I realised that if people like me didn't build boats people like her wouldn't have them to paint.

Fife famously liked his boats to be "fast and bonnie" and I think most of us who make them would agree. It's difficult to imagine how one could be motivated to spend a year or two building something plain ugly, but then, I hear you say, there could be some functional beauty? Did Fife's lovely long overhangs really contribute anything other than weight where you don't want it and corners of damp rot?

Above is my wee Christmas Wherry, designed by Walt Simmons of Duck Trap Boatbuilding, which I think is pretty as well as functional. She is seen in her present configuration and colour scheme and has arrived here by quite a tortuous route.

In the early days she had a centreboard, set fairly far aft, and no jib. As a result she tracked along nicely but made a lot of leeway and was a pest to put about. This led to the centreboard being removed and replaced by a dagger board a couple of feet forward, which cured the tacking problem at the expense of introducing quite severe weather helm. In turn this led finally to the jib and bowsprit, resulting in pretty good balance.

The forward dagger board has cleared the internal space, which is better for the crew, but in turn produces the constant problem that one of Argyll's travelling rocks will spring up unexpectedly. When the current season is finished the centreboard is going back in, positioned somewhere between its original place and where the dagger now sits. Here you can see the remains of the original centreboard slot, and the daggerboard box forward.

This image shows another truth about the boats we build, which distinguishes them from artworks. Once they're done we lose interest in maintaining them. The inside is an utter disgrace and will be totally repainted when the centreboard is done.

From the outside the good ship Kelpie still looks ok and the sprit-sail, made by Gayle Heard twentyfive years ago is still setting well.

The sprit is both lovely and functional and an excuse for nice things like rope grommets.

And with a little boat like this you can enjoy extravagances such as the tiny blocks that Harry Spencer made for me in 1990, with farthings for keepers.

Come to think of it, they're also functional as well as pretty.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Classic Yacht Insurance

Peking, image courtesy of
The story of Ferdinand Laeisz contains lessons for anyone wanting to arrive safely and quickly under sail. That so many of the "Flying P" ships survived into the Twentieth Century to become sail training ships and later museum ships is testament to that.

In the final years of the sailing fleet, when merchant seamen were regarded as expendable and most sailing ships were operated on shoe string budgets as bulk carriers, Herr Laeisz continued to build ships that attracted premium cargos. With the best sails and rigging used in the hardest weather the ships could stand on in virtually all conditions. Captains were retired at forty five and sent to Head Office, while still fresh and competent. Steam tugs based in Hamburg would tow the outgoing ship until clear of the English Channel, then wait there for the next incomer. Compare the appalling losses inflicted on  Scottish ships, such as the lovely Firth of Cromarty, blown ashore at St Margarets Bay near Dover on Burns Night 1894 and later wrecked at Corsewall Point in August 1898 by a South Westerly gale.

Herr Laiesz was aware of the problems inherent in policies of marine insurance. A ship could run aground in some part of the world, say South America, remote from the underwriters and have to wait months while communications passed before repairs could be done. His company carried its own insurance, with the Captain equipped with a power of attorney enabling him to pledge the company's credit and commission repairs locally.

Marine insurance is effectively a wager between three parties, shipowner, charterer and freight-owner on one hand and the underwriter on the other with agreed values that the latter will pay out without argument after total loss. It must have been exciting in the early days of the Trans-Atlantic trade when profit from the first voyage paid for the ship, the second the cargo and thereafter pure profit. One can imagine the tough Eighteenth century Glasgow tobacco lords parading the old Tontine hotel and striking bargains.

The hangover of this today is a serious problem for anyone owning a classic sailing yacht, in contrast to a production fibreglass vessel.

If one's floating plastic retreat were to be lost, probably in a marina, as such things rarely venture out to sea, the insurers would simply pay out sufficient to replace her with another, based on the abundance of sales evidence.  One's ancient classic, built by one of our legendary yards a hundred years ago, might have been dug out of a mud berth and bought for £1, restored to perfection without counting the cost and now worth simply what someone is willing to pay in a very limited and specialised market place. In the absence of evidence of value will the sum insured come anywhere near the likely cost of repair? Presumably the insurer will apply the average clause and only pay out a fraction.

Yacht Kentra, in need of some minor repairs!
With some classes of yacht, the Garelochs for example, you are not allowed to build a new ship. There is an old story of an owner arriving at Clynder in the old days with a broken hatch cover and asking Mr McGruer to "repair my boat". One has to assume that he didn't expect his insurers to pay for this.




Perhaps the answer is to insure out boats third party only and put aside a sum each year towards potential repairs, taking a hint from Ferdinand Laeisz.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Building the Mast - Chapter Three

That's the mast basically finished. It's now stored in the Great Hut with the plastic bag to stop people poking their eyes out on it, not ideal but better than this. 

The Great Hut started out in life as a boatbuilding workshop, then later we lived in it for two years while the house was built, by which time there was also a garage, which of course became the workshop and then the GH was suddenly taken over as a sort of women's retreat, complete with fridge, ashtrays, television, heater, seating and even a sewing machine. The spars will have to live here on suffrage, but I fear it won't be popular.

I'm quite pleased with the stage it's now at. It's a bit heavier than it could have been, but pretty strong and the glue joint is perfect.

I've now also made the boom, which is a rectangular hollow section, solid at the ends, and much easier to put together than the mast was. Here is the sequence:

First, strips about 5/8th inch put together, with a straight batten to keep them in order. Note cling film keeps the glue off the hands and clamps

Gluing done, ready to clean off and plane.

Flat top face, 1/2 inch thick, added. Another ten clamps borrowed for this.

Turned over the bottom face added.

Cleaned off, ends trimmed, corners rounded, preliminary sanding.

To finish off, the mast and boom will both need external blocks for strops and fittings, then outboard ends will get painted white and the finished spars varnished.

Like the mast, the boom is overweight, probably stronger than it needs to be by a huge margin, but I don't think that's too bad a thing. What now requires a lot of thought is how light I dare make the gunter yard/gaff/call it what you will, because weight aloft is a very bad thing. But of course so is a broken spar...

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Survival of an old Lady - Chapter 4 - she swims again

Stroma's old mast and sails were in very poor condition and I had decided at the start of the project to replace both, because I intended to sail without an engine and needed the sail power to be totally reliable.

Scottish Islands ODs were originally fitted with engines, either a single cylinder Watermota or a Coventry flat twin and the Class had a rule that if you didn't fit an engine you had to have a dummy propellor and carry equivalent weight. In fact these early engines weighed very little, roughly the same as a decent bower anchor and chain. Certainly even the smallest of modern diesels would risk unbalancing the boat and I had no intention of going back to a single cylinder petrol motor in view of the fire risk and the fact that kept in the damp space beneath the cockpit sole it would never start.

I ordered a mast from a major, well-known company and was extremely disappointed when it arrived. Rather than the pear-shaped profile of a traditional mast this was simply a round, tapered stick and as a result seemed very thin at the top. Fortunately a friend was looking for a mast and when he didn't agree with my assessment this first attempt went to a good home and I recovered some of the cost. Sadly it broke a few years later during a race in blustery conditions.

After taking advice I found the wonderful Alastair Garland, who needed absolutely no instruction from me to produce a spar that was a work of art, as well as extremely strong. 

The new sails came from the legendary Gayle Heard of Tollesbury, whom I already knew, as he had already made a suit for Sonas and a spritsail for my wherry.

Stroma was rigged, as Sonas had been, by Iain Gillies, the former head rigger at McGruers and a man of great skill and humour who became a good friend.

It would be tiresome to recount all the remaining steps up to September 2003, when Stroma finally hit the water again. I'll just say that as the launching date draws ever nearer the list of undone tasks becomes longer and longer.

It was a great relief to find that the weight of the materials I had added to give strength and customise the interior had exactly balanced the saving that resulted from having a hull that didn't absorb water, with the result that Stroma floated level and precisely to her original marks.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Survival of an old Lady - Chapter Three

With Stroma near home in Argyll I could speed up progress by working at weekends rather than weekdays when the normal job allowed.

The first task was building the cabin sides, from marine plywood that was later given a good outer surface of mahogany from a beautiful big plank that I had come across.

Decisions had to be taken about how closely to follow the design. Alfred Mylne had drawn curved corners at the front end of the cabin, but McGruers had built them sharp, starting a debate on which was authentic, with Mylne winning.

The cabin roof proved challenging with the curvature flattening forward.

Quality control inspection

Sonas in the background, being worked on for the new owner
Cabin structure nearly complete

The original main beam with the Official Number was kept

Reunited with her keel

Ready for fine joinery work
As work proceeded individual components became more intricate and demanding to make, but also more fun.

I spent a lot of time wondering how to replace the original rudder stock trunk, which seemed to have started out in life as a piece of iron drainpipe. It had rusted almost through and could have sunk the ship in seconds had it collapsed underway. I couldn't find a satisfactory replacement and was worried about the tendency of plastics to behave in strange ways afar prolonged exposure to water. Eventually I decided to make a tube from thin staves of Western Red Cedar, barrel-fashion, coated with woven roving and then protected from any glancing blows by a stout ash timber glued on the forward side.

partial bulkheads replace original iron posts

chart storage

the correct way to build a watertight hatch, like a Roman fort with two walls

to be continued... Click here

The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water