Clive Robertson swaps a London media career for four years in a boatyard working on his wooden boat restoration project and recording it all expertly on Youtube.
It was October 2015, I was 30 years old, and dreaming of sailing the world some day, perhaps even owning a gaffer of my own.
By weekday, I was a media producer, by weekend, a sailor. For years I balanced this compromise, the prospect of ‘climbing the ladder’ versus being on the river in East Anglia, something I wasn’t willing to let go of.
At the time, I owned a 22ft fin keel cabin cruiser, kept in Holbrook Creek on the River Stour but with very little funds available after the £750 monthly commute and no maintenance facilities in Holbrook Creek, Spindrift was getting worse for wear.
I realised that although I absolutely loved what I did for a job, this had to be time for a change. The 2-hour daily commute by car, bike and train was not sustainable and, 10 years into working life, I was making no progress towards a buying a gaffer of my own.
Which career is best for owning a boat?
While I weighed up the limited options available, it occurred to me that schools have the whole summer off to go sailing as well as a laying-up holiday in October, maintenance holidays in December and February and a fitting out holiday in Easter before the shakedown cruise holiday in May.
Having graduated with my MBA a week earlier following evening classes two days a week for three years, I searched for teaching vacancies. The first result on Google was for a full time business teacher at a local college, with training provided. I filled in some forms and clicked apply, not thinking much of it. Two weeks later I had attended an interview, taught a small group for 20 minutes and been offered the job. As it happened, I was the only applicant.
There I was, about to give up everything I knew and all the years of progression that had led to a well respected job in the radio industry, because I wanted to save for a gaff-rigged boat and find some time to use it.
I knew nothing about teaching.
I said yes and began my three-month notice period. I had three months to learn quickly how to teach 16-19 year olds in a college that “requires improvement”. Talk about a baptism of fire.
Going back to school
On 4 January 2016 I walked out of the office in Leicester Square for the last time. At the end of January I would receive my London wage for the last time but without having to pay for my commute! I thought this could be the start of the gaffer fund but, as it later turned out, this WAS the gaffer fund.
Two weeks into my new job, I had reservations about my decision and realised I’d massively underestimated the role.
This coincided with a sailing friend getting in touch to say there was a clinker boat in an Essex yard that hadn’t moved for a few years. Apparently this boat wasn’t for sale but there was a chance the owner might be open to a conversation about it.
I looked up some photos of the boat and it looked perfect.
I contacted the owner. We agreed on a figure that I knew I didn’t have and we agreed I could pay some now and some in a year’s time.
I handed over £1,000 and was now the owner of a 27ft, 5.5 ton gaff rigged cruiser… and so in the space of four months everything had changed. The project of restoring Andromeda began.
Learning the tools of the trade
I’d spent a lot of time in my childhood sailing wooden boats with my parents and family friends and had spent my time on the train reading about boatbuilding or writing a blog about my sailing trips.
Never, though, had I picked up some woodwork tools and taken them to a hull. I had to learn very quickly.
Andromeda was in remarkably good condition at first sight. However, her entire hull of a few thousand copper nails would need re-fastening. While this isn’t a complicated job in itself, accessing the copper fastenings in many places certainly is.
To give you a sense of the problem, I put a hose in Andromeda’s bilge and scattered some salt around.
On full mains pressure the hull would hold around an inch of water in the bilge. It became apparent I had bought a mahogany colander, of the biggest sort.
At this stage I took advice from all directions and this was often conflicting but I pushed on and spent January to April fitting out Andromeda and carrying out repairs here and there to get her afloat. But I didn’t touch any of the fastenings.
The hour drive every evening after work and every weekend to work on Andromeda was becoming costly and a bit monotonous at times. Most days I would work on her until 10pm before heading home with my well trained London commuter adrenaline keeping me going.
I really had to get Andromeda afloat just to try and get her closer to home!
I mentioned to the yard that I was interested in seeing if Andromeda could take up and allow her planks to swell up a bit . The Wednesday before the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, I arrived at the yard to find Andromeda gone. Shocked and confused I jogged towards to the steep slipway to find her in a trailer with the tide coming in.
The yard workers had translated this into, ‘can you put her afloat please’.
I spent that evening antifouling the boat and then next day the yard put her in the water. Water poured in everywhere and I remember feeling uneasy while telling myself, she’s taking up, isn’t this the whole idea?
What is Taking Up?
When a wooden boat has been out of the water for a long time, the wood dries and moisture lost from within the cells of the wood causes shrinkage. This water loss and shrinkage will continue until the moisture content of the wood is in balance with the humidity of the environment.
When put back in the water, a boat that’s been dry for a long time will leak. ‘Taking up’ is the process of getting the hull wet to allow moisture back into the wood to stop these leaks.
If the boat’s on a trailer you could chuck some salt in the bilge and just give her a hose down (though be careful not to add too much weight and overload the trailer or the boat). Another option is to sink the boat for a while or just launch her and stand by with a pump. You might also decide to pack any gaps in the hull with tallow or ask your boat yard to allow her to remain in slings for a while on launch day.
Softwood planking will take up faster, whereas hardwood planking will take longer due to the nature of the wood.
My brother arrived with a big petrol powered pump that can move 20 litres of water per second on full throttle and we tied this down in the cockpit as the tide rose.
Afloat, Andromeda was projecting a 2in diameter column of water 20ft out of her starboard side. The pump was on full throttle and just about keeping up.
The yard moved her to a quayside to free up their slipway and then went on leave for the bank holiday weekend.
So there I sat with my dad for four days straight, on top of every tide, morning and night.
The pump got low on fuel, we raced to a petrol station; the exhaust fell off it, we fixed it while it was running; the pull-cord snapped, we took the whole assembly off and wrapped a sail tie around the flywheel to start it. If any of these ideas had failed, Andromeda would have sunk up to her cross trees!
This was a very stressful weekend and the workday was looming so I sadly had to ask the yard to lay her up once more.
Downbeat, high and dry, this felt like a huge setback.
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Does tallow stop wooden boats leaking?
How could we get her to float without dismantling the entire boat? A friend suggested tallow and at that point any suggestion was an option, so I went to my nearest chandlery and cleared out their stock of tallow.
Together with my mum and dad, I pulled lumps of tallow off blocks and shoved it in the lands on Andromeda, all the way along the seams, down the sternpost, down the stem and along the keel.
By this point in the year the sun was warming up and threatening to melt my tallow caulking. What a balancing act this all appeared to be!
The yard, for a second time, put Andromeda in the water and with the petrol pump primed and now labelled ‘Andromeda’s Bilge Pump’ not a single drop of water crept into her cabin. I was astounded. Here I found myself standing in my own gaffer, feeling her afloat and hearing water lapping at her planks. We manoeuvred her to the town quayside in Walton on the Naze, 100ft away and I actually steered her through the water with a tiller, it felt amazing.
Over the next week I painted the coachroof, varnished the woodwork and chased up the yard yet again, to get her mast out of their shed which I hadn’t even seen at this point.
Eventually it appeared in the yard and I did some pretty serious maintenance on the rigging and crosstrees before asking for it to be stepped.
I turned up one weekend seeing Andromeda’s white masthead poking up over a shed, excited that I now had something resembling a sailing boat, and trotted around the corner to start playing with ropes.
As I jumped on board, I slid back the main hatch and saw the cabin sole planks awash with 6in of water. I looked further aft to see the engine sitting in this deep bilge water with the starter motor millimetres above it.
My heart sank. What had gone wrong?
I looked to the switch panel to see the bilge pump was turned off and as I flicked it on, it hummed into life and started pumping this volume of water overboard. A closer look at the rigging revealed the yard had stepped the mast, screwed up the standing rigging very tight and seemingly turned off the bilge pump, intentionally or not! The chainplates, having pulled the planks, had let the water in before she had taken up at all.
This idea of owning a boat was certainly demonstrating some highs and lows but I still felt, on aggregate, that life was better than the previous year.
Handling like a dream
I eased off the rigging screws, sponged out the last of the bilge water, rigged up her bowsprit and some halyards and decided it was time to set sail. I picked a weekend with a decent evening tide and motored out of this creek into the Walton Channel in the Walton Backwaters to pick up a mooring for the night.
By this time Andromeda had a working cooker, some nice comfy bunks, a working heads and a decent engine. That evening I dined in relative luxury for a gaffer and it was so nice to spend the night on board.
In the morning I woke to the sound of birdsong all around. As I lay in my bunk with the hatches wide open, the morning sunlight poured into the cabin and wavelets lapped at Andromeda’s planking, increasing in volume as the tide turned to wind over tide.
On the mooring I set a mainsail, then a topsail – which very usefully travels up a jackstay to the masthead on piston hanks, the easiest topsail I’ve ever set! I cast us adrift and with a light rattle, the Wykeham Martin furler with a long line from the cockpit launched the jib into action. With the river to myself at this early hour I walked up to the mast to set the staysail and sailed her out of the Walton Backwaters and home to Pin Mill on the River Orwell in a light breeze from the South.
Having arranged to borrow a mooring from a gaffer friend, as I approached Pin Mill I spotted the buoy and hove to. Andromeda drifted up the river sideways on the tide as I canned the topsail and staysail and fetched a warp and a boathook. The mooring buoy was approaching closer and I decided to bear away into the shallows before rounding up, furling the jib and carrying momentum towards the buoy. I had plenty of sea room, so I cracked off the mainsail sheet and hurried forwards to grab the buoy. Andromeda handled like a dream.
Four years of restoration
That summer I sailed Andromeda gingerly up and down the rivers, usually singlehanded, and spent a few nights on board. However, a close eye on her bilge pump activity revealed she was leaking, and this was increasing. She was pumping for 30 seconds every hour by November and so I decided to lift her out at Pin Mill for a closer look.
That closer look turned into four years of restoration…
During this time I moved from teaching Business to Media, became a qualified teacher, met my girlfriend Hannah and revived my ability as a producer by creating a website, blog, podcast and YouTube channel to track the progress that I made with Andromeda.
I’ve taken Andromeda’s engine out, serviced and painted it, dismantled her interior to access every single plank fastening, replaced floor timbers and learnt how to laminate frames along the way. I’ve recently made a brand new rudder from scratch by laminating and through-bolting iroko hardwood planks and re-caulked her garboard seams.
In 2020 I flicked the switch on my ratchet from “undo” to “do up” and that for me signifies passing the halfway point.
I feel like I’ve just tacked around the windward mark after a long beat to weather, we’re now flirting with the prospect of a jibe but heading to the finish line flat out. Instead of taking Andromeda apart, I’m now putting her back together. In this time Andromeda has dried out but all of her fastenings have been tightened or replaced and I hope that she takes up tight to be a solid strong boat.
I’ve achieved these steps by understanding that while I don’t know how to do something today, if I look in the right places, I could learn how to do it by tomorrow. YouTube has been a huge pool of knowledge with channels such as Sampson Boat Co and Tips from a Shipwright giving me the confidence to face challenges such as making new frames.
On top of this, Gus Curtis at Harry Kings boatyard in Suffolk has been the most valuable sounding board and advised me every step of the way.
Will Andromeda float when she goes back in the water? I’m not really sure. Will she run into any more problems? I suspect she probably will. If I maintain this idea that I can break down every obstacle though, deal with it one step at a time and find myself more knowledgeable by the end of it, then every obstacle is actually something positive.
In October 2015 the idea of owning a seaworthy decent sized gaffer seemed impossible, a pipe dream, yet here I am making progress towards my goal.
My advice, if you’re dreaming about owning a boat, is to wander down to your local boatyard, find a project and make it happen. If you’re not investing large amounts of money, what’s the worst that can happen?
Though if she’s planked over frames, I would certainly stock up on tallow first…
About the author
Clive Robertson grew up sailing gaff rigged boats on the East Coast from a very young age and is determined to prove that boat ownership can be an affordable hobby for any family. Clive and Hannah document their adventures with Andromeda on YouTube.