Tradition, honed over several days, is the richly ironic watchword when City-bred shipwrights meet the East Coast’s dyed-in-the-wool splatcherites
Us Essex Coast sailors are not just immersed in the shallow brown soupy waters of the North Sea, we’re also marinated in heritage and positively pickled in tradition… all except me.
As for the authentic, genuine articles, these sons and daughters of the mystic marshes are all descended from generations of good, honest smuggler folk: some can even trace their lineage right back to their parents.
In smock central, otherwise known as Maldon, virtually everyone has beards – even the men – accessorised with fish scales and wood shavings to strain the lumps out of our real ale, which we drink from leather flagons. And we all pad around in splatchers.
For all you Sarf Coast boutique yachties who prance around in yer Du Lally boatee-bootees, I should explain that splatchers are regulation East Coast footwear.
These boards of ancient, bog-seasoned, epoxy-impregnated marine ply prevent us sinking into the mud as we go about our daily business of evading revenue men and poaching – leaving no identifiable footprints.
Sure, splatchers do make driving stolen cars problematic – automatics are best – and standing at a bar within arm’s reach of your pint is an acquired art, but tradition matters to us.
On the plus side, when we start to sway from the intake of strong mead the splatchers enhance balance and general uprightness, especially if you’ve remembered to nail them to the floor of the Queen’s Head.
Other than that, everyone round here owns a 200-year-old fishing smack, or at least a share of one that is currently in dispute. And when we go sailing we plumb for depth using a lead line with tallow: echo sounders can’t be used as a cosh.
So, all in all, our Essex archipelago is pretty much like the ’Amble, from what I’ve seen on Howards’ Way.
But every now and then a ‘blow-in’ happens by who is even more authentic and traditional than us.
This is the born-again, downsizing shipwright, who’s not only got a certificate to prove it but wears dungarees professionally distressed by Gieves & Hawkes, has a chest of glittering hand tools from Purdey, and dispenses ivory business cards from a genuine Golden Virginia tobacco tin, the hallmark of the true artisan.
They all come from somewhere called ‘The City’ where they did something to do with hedges, basically trimming back our pensions to augment theirs so they can afford a mid-life crisis at the age of 35 and go back to school.
They all own microbreweries and micro pigs, make cheeses, have artisan bakeries, run pop-up restaurants and holiday with David Cameron in Tuscany.
Finally, for transport they tool around in carefully patinated Series One Land Rovers sign-written ‘Crispin Farquhar, Ye Olde Traditional Boatbuilder to the Knobility’.
Then underneath in smaller type the word ‘Established’, followed by, in even tinier lettering, ‘2014’.
I’m stereotyping here ’cos some are called Tarquin, and others have been at it as far back as 2013.
Nevertheless, they’ve all built a boat, or at least a half-model, and if you happen by the Queen’s Head they might whip out their ‘portfolio’ held on something called an iPad.
The first time we saw one of these in the Queen’s Head we took it for a splatcher – an easy mistake to make ’cos most of the boatbuilder blow-ins have crafted wooden cases for theirs for their graduating project. The joinery is exquisite.
All in all, then, Maldon is getting more and more authentic by the day, a haven of traditional wooden boatbuilding skills in a crazy digital age.
As the owner of an 18ft Sailfish I find this immensely encouraging, in part because it’s made of glassfibre, and partly because I’ve now had 27 offers to ‘refurbish, restore, make good, rejuvenate, patinate and refinish’ the only bit of wood on my boat, the two-foot-long grab handles on the top of my coachroof.
All these tenders are on fine, headed, embossed, watermarked, cream notepaper in a matching envelope. This is something of a departure from traditional local practice, whereby most estimates are finished with the words: ‘PS: I want the envelope back… and don’t lick it… or write on it’.
Indeed, most Maldon shipwrights have envelopes that have been passed down through several generations.
Nevertheless, I welcome this influx of new blood. Not only have I now got 27 quality, cream envelopes, I’m also seriously considering the tenders and will probably give the grab rail job to the first one who invites me out to Tuscany to discuss it further. I’m open to offers.
As published in the Summer 2014 issue of Practical Boat Owner magazine.
Illustration credit: Claudia Myatt