Planks for the memories

In his latest column, published in the April 2015 issue of PBO, Dave issues a bewildered salute to those splinter group members for whom leaky wooden boats seem to exercise an irresistible appeal…

There’s no doubt traditional boatbuilding skills are dying out in Maldon, as hardly any of the yards are now making vessels from the tried and trusted materials of leather and goose fat.

These days, our marshland town is awash with boats built from a new-fangled material called wood.

It’s a technology that’s in its infancy, which is perhaps why quite a few of these tree-fibre craft are awash: at least, that is, the ones that haven’t sunk.

Most of the others are either ashore with the wind whistling through their planking, or lashed to pontoons on life-support machines in local boatyards, where the air resonates with the rhythmic, syncopated gurgling and wheezing symphony of the bilge- pump orchestra.

How wood floats anyone’s boat is beyond me. I mean, on an average carvel 23-footer you’ll have 600ft of seams sealed with nothing more than cotton and putty, all held together by about 4,900 copper rivets, each one roved by hand with an individual oath to around 40 frames.

How does anyone expect that to float?

I just don’t see it catching on, but nevertheless there’s a band of hardcore new-age fundamentalists who persist.

The proudest achievement of legendary local yacht broker Mike Lewis, who made his first fortune selling clothes pegs to gypsies, is that he once sold a wooden boat while it was sunk.

He reasoned to the prospective buyer: ‘The last thing you want is for a wooden boat to dry out,’ and that clinched the deal.

The thing is, wooden-boat buyers don’t think like the rest of us.

When a mate tried to sell his immaculately-maintained teak-planked 25-footer at a giveaway price, he didn’t get
a nibble for months.

What wooden-boat buyers really want is dereliction, but not at any price. I know from personal experience that if you try to give a wooden boat away for nothing, no one’s interested.

In the yard where I keep my Sailfish 18, which is built of traditional materials – glassfibre and osmosis – there languished for many years a sweet but sadly neglected 1936 Johnson and Jago 21⁄2-tonner called Dzoh Bah.

At first, yard owner John offered it for nothing, then issued the ultimatum that it would be broken up unless someone took it on.

That, and threatening to burn boats, normally works with wood worriers, but still no one came forward.

In what I took to be an act of compassion he craned it over the wall to lay alongside in the mud on the public hard, where as the tide twice-daily washed through her gaping planking, passers-by – myself included – began to pause as they walked by and started taking a casual interest in this forlorn relic that added a touch more ambience to our historic waterside town.

A bid for freedom

Then one day, as I walked by with Bart, he barked to grab my attention. What the little mutt had noticed was that Dzoh Bah had lifted a little and was coming back to life as the daily wash of Bisto-gravy-thick brown muddy water had swelled her planking and caulked her once-gaping seams.

More than that, as no one had thought to tie her up, she was drifting away from the sea wall and making a bid for freedom, to return once more to her natural element.

I grabbed a scrap of frayed rope and managed to secure her just before she floated beyond my reach. That strand of polyester had made an umbilical link between Dzoh Bah and me. I had to do something, but what?

These wooden boats are a knotty problem. No one wanted her when she was free, or under threat of being broken up.

What she needed was a price, said yard boss John – who is so enamoured with boats that he owns a motorhome. And that did the trick.

Someone came forward, gave him the £100 asking price, and now Dzoh Bah’s back in the yard, once more paying fees and being fitted out with all manner of gear bought from the chandlery, which John also happens to own.

Wood you believe it? I reckon if anyone understands the mind of the wooden-boat owner it must be John, which is probably why he also owns an Aston Martin: it’s got beautiful wood veneers.