The brilliant DIY determination of 13-year-old Katie McCabe earned her a wooden boat with a whole new life ahead of it
My name is Katie, but I prefer to be called Sade (pronounced Sayd).
I am 13 years old and over the winter and spring (2019-2020), through the pandemic, I restored a 1950s Morgan Giles-built West Channel One Design sloop.
I have spent my whole life on boats.
In 2000, my parents bought an old fishing trawler, Ros Ailither, which they spent five years converting into a motor-sailer.
They lifted the whole deck, fitted it out below, installed an engine and two masts and set off across the Atlantic.
This is the boat I grew up on.
I sailed back across the Atlantic with them at the age of 14 months, learning to walk on the way.
We lived aboard on the River Exe in Devon and only moved back ashore in the last 12 months.
Meet the McCabes
David McCabe, 53, is a self-taught boatbuilder with several wooden boat restorations to his name, including a Herreshoff, a Riva and a Chris Craft and is currently involved in restoring Thames Sailing barge Vigilant alongside Topsham Quay.
He bought his first wreck at the age of 15, fixed it up in his parents’ garden and was living aboard from the age of 17.
He used this boat Sea Dream for fishing trips, then converted it to run as the Topsham to Turf Ferry, which he ran with Hazel until they sold up and sailed away in 2005.
Hazel McCabe, 47, loves travelling and woodwork in all its forms.
She has her own business Topsham Wood Carver making hand-carved wooden signs for boats and houses.
She also works as a painter/decorator and designs murals and business signs.
As a family, we have taken two individual years off on sailing trips.
The first we spent cruising down to Morocco and around the Canary Islands, and the second sailing around Spain and Portugal (my brother Reuben and I joined a Spanish school for four months).
Although I sometimes felt seasick, I loved the sailing and helped out a lot with hoisting sails and keeping watch.
About Ros Ailither
Ros Ailither is a 50ft fishing trawler, built in 1954 in Killybegs.
‘We bought her as a bare hull in 2000, in Polruan, towed her back to Topsham and spent the next five years converting her to a motor-sailer,’ says David.
‘We took off the old deck and built a new one 18in higher, at the top of the bulwarks.
This gave us headroom throughout the whole boat.
The engine was originally mounted near the bows, with a 30ft-long prop shaft!
So we found an old 6-cylinder Gardner engine and mounted it transversely in the stern, then installed a V-drive to take a short prop shaft directly below the engine.
This gave maximum living space in the whole rest of the boat.
We have a double cabin at the bows, a bathroom (with bath!) and a twin cabin behind, then a large open living and dining area in the centre of the boat.
We’ve since added one more cabin on the starboard side after Reuben came along.
We made a sizeable but traditionally-shaped wheelhouse that gave us shelter from the weather, and made it wide enough to sleep along the bunk seat.
We put the main mast (52ft spruce) through the deck and mounted the mizzen behind the wheelhouse, and had a set of sails made by Patrick Selman in Falmouth.’
A boat of my own
About five years ago, after our first trip away, I decided that I wanted my own wooden sailing boat so I started saving up money by doing odd jobs for people locally in Topsham and selling painted shells and hair wraps on a stall at the Quay.
My dad and I would walk round boatyards, him explaining about the different keels and bottoms of the boats there, and I would come home and draw out a new design idea, only for my mind to change at the next boat I saw.
It was on one of these walks that I decided on a folkboat or something similar.
I wanted a small yacht (24-28ft) that I could sail around the world.
I didn’t know when, or with whom, but I knew that I definitely wanted to try.
So, with this in mind, I spent the entire second trip away studying all the small boats we came across.
Even sitting at the wheel at sea, feeling seasick, I would dream about the day when I could be sick over the side of my own boat!
As a family we go to lots of classic boat festivals in France – Paimpol, Douarnenez and Brest – but in August 2019, we went to the Charlestown Classic Boat Festival in Cornwall.
While there we met up with the owner of the boatyard in Polruan where my parents bought Ros Ailither and he told us he had a little boat for sale.
So at the end of the festival, we locked out of Charlestown at 0700 and headed for Polruan to have a look.
On first sight, Falanda was a rickety pile of moss rotting in the boatyard.
She had a plug hammered in one side, which we removed to let water pour out onto the ground, then drip… drip… drip…
Somehow though, after a big inspection inside and out,
I decided I could see beyond the mucky bilge water that filled the interior, and told my dad I liked her.
He completely supported me, as he knew I would put in the time and money to restore this old yacht, and I knew that she was the right boat for me.
We had a quick discussion and after he confirmed that this boat could be worthy of ocean crossings, my mind was made up.
So we turned round to bargain with my mother, who had different views.
I listened to her half-hour lecture about taking on too much responsibility too young.
But even after that, she still hadn’t convinced me not to leave this opportunity behind, and I headed back to the yard with a bucket in hand and a smile on my face.
My brother came to have a look and mum even helped bail out a bit because there was so little time to prepare for the trip back.
One and a half hours later, we headed out of Fowey harbour towing a 26ft Morgan Giles, and I was a proud boat owner at last!
- Falanda is a West Channel One Design built in 1950 by the Morgan Giles yard in Teignmouth
- Construction: mahogany planking on oak frames
- Original sail number: W11
- LOA: 8.01m / 26ft 3in
- Waterline length: 6.48m / 2ft 3in
- Beam: 2.13m / 7ft
- Draught: 1.28m / 4ft 6in
- Displacement: 3,260kg / 7,172lb
- Thames tonnage: 5 tons
- Sail area (main + no.1 jib): 28.34sq m / 305sq ft
Drama starts immediately
The wind began to pick up just off Plymouth and we watched as the waterline started to disappear slowly beneath the waves.
My dad and I went back in the dinghy to bail out and as he stepped inside, dirty water began sloshing around his knees!
Three hours later, in much choppier conditions just off Salcombe, we had to bail out again, but this time there wasn’t so much water.
We stopped in Brixham for the night, where another midnight bailing session took place, and we carried on the next morning and safely arrived in Topsham, where we craned the boat out and stored her in my dad’s shed just up the road.
Katie McCabe’s restoration project begins
Throughout the winter, I worked on Falanda several days a week after school, often in the cold and dark.
I burned, scraped, sanded, filled and faired; we replaced rotten wood, and spent about £275 on the engine.
Quite a lot of the techniques were new to me, and so after a long day of school, dad would teach me how to replace a rotten board, or find the right pad for sanding.
I like learning about boat work more than I like normal school work!
I started off by giving things a big clean, just wiping off and scrubbing with a sponge and soapy water.
By the end of the first month I had burned off, scraped and sanded the entire hull, which to me at the time seemed like a major job.
Once while burning, a bit of gloss bubbled up and spat out at my eye which actually burned my eyeball and so the next day at school I was squinting at the board before resuming my scraping that evening.
Next, my dad and I started looking at the engine: a Volvo Penta 2010.
First we refitted the gearbox (which, thanks to the previous owners, had just been completely rebuilt).
We took the old exhaust manifold off as it was rotten and frost-damaged and dad made a new stainless steel one.
We tried starting the engine but it wouldn’t go.
Dad explained there was no diesel coming out of the top of the injection pump.
We had to take the pump off and have it rebuilt because the rack had seized.
We reinstalled the injection pump and it burst into life.
An alternator for Christmas
My parents got me a new alternator for Christmas, so that was exciting to fit as well.
The bilges are always one of the worst places on a boat, the place no one wants to have to deal with, so they just slap on a thick coat of paint.
Well, after many years of this treatment I had to scrape all the old paint off, which was a rubbish job.
You have to wedge yourself around the engine and tiny bilge compartments just to fit the scraper in there, and actually doing any work once you get there is a different matter, especially when your boat is only 26ft and very narrow.
After two weeks of laying wedged in the bilges, they were finally ready.
I bought some new bilge paint and brushed on a new coat, before starting with the bilge section underneath the berths, which isn’t a fun job either.
Replacing the rotten hull planks was something I really wanted to learn how to do, so I was happy when my dad showed me just before Christmas.
Dad showed me how to chisel and cut out the rotten parts and we measured for a new piece of wood to put in.
Once it fitted perfectly, we glued the new board back in and screwed it into place.
The toughest part
The toughest part of the whole project was the rubbing strake.
We removed the metal strip and honestly I took weeks scraping and rubbing down the rail.
I think mentally that was the worst time.
I’d find small, unnecessary jobs to do – anything to avoid scraping down that fiddly rail.
Then, in February, Dot came to help, and the work began to get more fun.
Dot is a family friend who arrived just as I’d finished sanding the rail, and from then on I had a very willing worker to help out with the varnishing and painting.
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The coamings around the cockpit were all rotten, so dad showed us how to cut them out, using a saw, chisel and grinder.
I particularly enjoyed using the grinder on the loose nails – very destructive!
We replaced the old mahogany with iroko and stained that down to match in better.
I learnt how to measure everything out, and epoxy the new wood in again neatly, which was a lot of fun, and once finished the coamings looked great.
I doubt they’d have looked that good if I were doing the repair alone!
The right side of the bulkhead (near the companionway) was slightly rotten as well, and had to be taken out and replaced with sapele, but other than that there was no other major rot.
Next I worked on the sides of the coachroof.
Luckily there was no rot here so it just needed a long sand down after burning off the old varnish, and then on went the first coat of new varnish.
When it was dry I’d give it a light sand down, before once again varnishing.
I did six coats outside and three or four inside.
Then it was time to paint the outside of the hull.
First the primer on the bottom – up to the waterline – and then marine primer, and then the antifoul (painted on two days before the launch).
Above the waterline, we painted on primer, undercoat and gloss, with lots of time spent between coats filling, sanding, filling, sanding.
My mum came up to the shed to help me mix my dark green gloss with some blue and white, and create the turquoise colour that I wanted.
This was the first time in seven months that she came to see the boat in the shed.
After her lecture in Polruan she told me she would be having nothing to do with my work on Falanda, and that everything done in the shed would stay there.
So until Dot joined us in February, it was just me, dad and the boom box sharing the comforts of the mouldy old shed.
However, she did soften up a bit and, seeing me so excited about my new project, even carved me new signs for the boat and agreed to teach me the basics of chart work late at night after we returned from the shed.
Falanda’s launch was supposed to be on 27 March, but on 17 March we heard that Trout’s boatyard in Topsham was likely to be shut down by the government before the launch date due to COVID-19.
We brought forward the launch and arranged to be craned in two days later, so that evening we were at the shed until 10.30pm antifouling the bottom and screwing on the rail for the rubbing strake.
The next day at school was my last – the school was closing for the pandemic, which meant I was going to be able to spend the following morning – the day of the launch – working on the boat.
But we still had a lot to do.
That evening, Dot washed down the green aluminium mast while I finished painting the engine compartment.
A messy mistake
I was feeling the pressure to get everything finished on time, though, so I made a complete mess!
After cutting in neatly around the gearbox, I stupidly put the full tin of bilge paint on one of the cockpit seats, and managed to not only knock the tin of paint over the gearbox, electrical pipes and the actual engine, but also brush a really important pin into the pool of white paint, in a crevice between the gearbox fitting and engine.
Everything I had just done had been ruined, and it was the night before the launch and all I could think to do was shout to my dad that I had wrecked the boat completely and try and fish out the pin with a screwdriver.
Luckily, all was not lost, and we managed to scoop almost half the tin of paint back into the pot, and wipe off parts of the engine which were coated in paint.
After that I continued sanding the bilge under the middle bunks.
On the morning of the launch, Dot and I scraped and sanded under the bunks, and in the front bilges while my dad fixed on most of the handles and cleats that might be needed.
As the boatyard tractor arrived, I was still painting the front bilges.
I had ran out of paint as a result of the spillage the night before, and I had to finish with a dark grey which dad had found just in time.
But all went well with the launch and Falanda looked beautiful sitting in the water.
Jumping inside, we expected the boat to weep after so much time out the water and we were right!
I had one bilge pump, which broke just as the water rose above the floorboards and dad ran up to Trout’s boat shop and bought me a new float switch.
By evening, the leaks had slowed down, with the pump running every couple of minutes, and by the next morning the planks had swollen up and Falanda was no longer a sinking ship.
Work continues during the pandemic
Afloat at the boatyard, I worked all day scraping, sanding and undercoating the interior middle cabin, and painting on another coat of varnish in the cockpit.
Then dad and I sailed her round to Topsham Quay, alongside our own boat where I could work all day.
The river was soon closed for leisure activities so I could no longer go out with dad on his 1937 classic yawl.
But I was able to use the time to work hard, fitting in sanding and varnishing with schoolwork.
Before long, the inside was glossed, the hatches varnished, the handrails rubbed down and varnished, the top of the coachroof painted the tiller varnished, and the bronze porthole rings polished.
After that I glossed the whole front cabin, varnished the middle bulkhead (so on went the clock and barometer), sterilised the water tank, fixed a broken wire on the mast, replaced the leaking sink waste, and my mum made me a sail cover out of an old sun cover from Ros Ailither.
Back on the water
Finally, the river was opened and my dad and I began to go out for races.
It turns out that my boat is faster than his yawl in lighter winds, doesn’t heel as much, and points higher to the wind!
After a few trips up and down the river we spent an amazing few days staying on board off Exmouth, trying out the bunks, and playing on the sandbanks in the wonderful weather.
Eventually we ventured out to sea, doing a couple of local sailing trips with the boats and it felt wonderful to finally be out on the water, sailing on my own boat after so many cold months working in the shed.
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This feature appeared in the October 2020 edition of Practical Boat Owner. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a magazine subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.
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