Sunday, August 5, 2012

Whatever Floats Your Boat

Well, she floats.

And in this case, whatever floats my boat is about a year and a half of hard work and head-scratching (on spare weekends), three sheets of fsc certified plywood, a couple of old school science desks, some kitchen worktop offcuts, mis-blown foam from a lifeguard paddleboard, various workshop scraps, an old windsurf mast, the spare sail and a few bits from a knackered old mirror dinghy, 26 old seatbelts, a load of used plastic drinks bottles, a roll of fibreglass, some epoxy resin and finally patience and advice from a whole heap of people.
And what a relief it was when I pushed her into the sea!  After a year and a half in the making, An Reun Govynnus had sort of become the elephant in the corner; the project that I'd taken on that was arguably waaaaay to big.  So to push my little wooden boat off the beach at Port Isaac where my Great Great Uncle was the last wooden boat-builder and for it not to keep on going along the seabed until water came over the gunnels, or instantly capsize, was a pretty nice feeling.  To be honest, just getting it finished took a weight off my mind, let alone whether or not it was seaworthy.

An Reun Govynnus (Cornish for 'The Curious Seal') has featured on here a few times in the past (here and here), but I didn't want An Tor Orth An Mor to become a build diary for a project that I wasn't completely confident of finishing.  Building a boat is quite a big job as it turns out, particularly when you're working from a book (not full scale plans), adapting all of the measurements to suit the reclaimed and recycled materials that you're intent on using, don't really understand any boat jargon and only have 5 clamps to your name.  All that, and I'd just started a new and pretty full-on job which was overly-demanding on my time.  

It must be getting on for ten years ago that the desire for an outrigger canoe first crept into my mind; it seemed like the ultimate vessel for accessing some of the little nooks and crannies under the high cliffs around where I live to go spear fishing.  The outrigger would give it the stability to climb back aboard easily after diving that a normal small boat wouldn't provide.  So I called around a load of outdoor centres trying to get my mitts on a knackered old Canadian canoe with the aim of lashing a bit of drain pipe onto the side of it.  Well that dream morphed a bit over the next decade.  Surfboards get in the way in small boats, so for small surf trips up and down the coast an outrigger canoe provides space to lash a stack of boards....and why paddle everywhere when there's free energy in the wind?  One guy that I e-mailed for advice told me to build one in a day with friends and a crate of beers then smash it up paddling around in the surf to see whether I liked outrigger canoes enough to build one properly.  But by the time I'd shelled out for three sheets of plywood I figured that I'd made an investment and might as well do it properly.  Cue admiralty charts laser etched onto the fore and aft decks (so that I don't get lost), a trampoline of recycled car seatbelts and a whole heap of other little touches that might only be known to me.  If a job's worth doing...

I splashed her back in April during a horrible storm, my girlfriend Kate patiently watching from the beach in the driving rain whilst I bobbed around making a mental list of all of the things that I needed to do and improve before I could hoist a sail.  She also had to endure a conversation that I had with Tom Kay of Finisterre at the opening event of an exhibition where we gibbered excitedly and almost exclusively for a good ten minutes about various sail set-ups, making models with paper napkins and cocktail sticks to the bewilderment of everybody around us.  I owe her a public thank you for being so wonderfully patient and understanding.  Thank you!

And so to the maiden voyage:  Launching from Port Isaac seemed like the right thing to do; kind of completing the circle of wooden boat building and heritage.  Captain Christian Beamish calls it "blood memory" and I'd be inclined to agree.  It was a dropping spring tide so, having put all of the various bits of boat down on the pebbles at the waters edge the tide had dropped a fair bit by the time I'd lashed all of it together.  A few Port Isaac locals helped me to carry it down to the waters edge and, just as I shoved off my housemate Matt pulled his boat Sea Explorer into the harbour with a full compliment of clients on a sea safari.  Nice to have an escort for moral support and mainly in case my boat building skills weren't actually all that.  It's an interesting way to test yourself isn't it?  Putting your faith in your own craftsmanship to the extent that if it fails you'll probably have to swim a long way home or get scooped up by the lifeboat.

I paddled out of the harbour walls and looked back to enjoy the view of the picturesque little fishing village that I'm so used to seeing from within (some of you would recognise Port Isaac from Doc Marten, the TV show that's filmed there).  A mile east under the cliffs to Port Gaverne and then after beaching to adjust my rigging and eat some lunch I pointed north up a rugged, beautiful and largely inaccessible stretch of coast.  I had my eyes and heart set on a semi-secret beach a good few miles away but was paddling against a light head wind and didn't want to be overly ambitious on my first outing.  The last time I was in charge of a boat was a good few years ago after all, and I kind of wanted to soak it all up; this stretch of coast is utterly stunning with verdant green clifftops speckled with purple heather and yellow gorse flowers, incredible cliffs, waterfalls, coves and sea caves.  An Reun Govynnus only draws about 15-20 cm of water with me onboard so can come in remarkably shallow and skim over some of the reefs protecting the rocky shoreline.  

I hoisted the main sail and jib (the smaller sail at the front) for the run south back towards Port Isaac, just as the sea mist descended over Tintagel Head and the breeze picked up.  After such a beautiful hot and sunny day with barely a breath of wind the sea mist came down the coast amazingly fast.  Almost as fast as An Reun Govynnus which, at 16 foot long and less than 2 feet wide doesn't need a lot of sail up to get a move on.  This was the bit that I was a bit more apprehensive about because I'm a surfer and by no stretch of the imagination a sailor, and essentially an outrigger sailing canoe is an offset catamaran with the mast over to one side unbalancing it enormously.  When the sail is out over the outrigger it is pushing down on that buoyancy, however when it swings out to the other side it is more likely to capsize the boat than power it forwards and you need to be able to scramble out to the outrigger float to counterbalance it.  Everything that I read stated that these things are fast, easy to capsize and difficult to right, particularly singlehanded.  Luckily the breeze was manageable and I made it back to Port Isaac just as the sea mist caught up with me and almost exactly on dead low tide which revealed a few choice rocks and boils just outside the harbour walls that aren't often uncovered.
My original plans had been to follow the coast south and west the 7 miles or so back to Polzeath so that I could run my boat back up on my home beach and wheel it up the sand back to the garage where I'd built her.  But that voyage is probably an overnighter that can wait for another day and the next patch of high pressure that moves over us.  One paddle stroke at a time hey, now that I know that it floats.

I built myself a bloody boat, but it absolutely wouldn't have been possible without the following people:
My parents for the boat building heritage and "blood memory"; Richard Scott of thirdshade surfcraft for telling me that building a pram dinghy "just wouldn't be cool" and for advice and materials; John Burford of Upper Deck Marine for providing me with chandlery despite my enormous lack of knowledge about what boat bits I was actually after; Kate for taking photos, her unending patience and for making allowances for my near-obsessiveness, lateness and gluey/sawdusty clothing; Gary Dierking for designing such a rad boat and writing the book that I worked from; Matt from Cornish Sea Tours for the workspace and escorting me from Port Isaac to Port Gaverne; Dave Cook of Marine Academy Plymouth for advice; Byron the Port Isaac Harbour Master for allowing me to launch from "home", and finally to everyone who got so enthusiastic about my stupid project and encouraged me to do a proper job.  Thanks very much, sorry I didn't build on a gin-deck for us all to sit back and enjoy it on.

Images 1, 4, 5 and 8 taken by Kate Fewster, images 2, 3 and 6 taken by me and image 7 taken by Cornish Sea Tours.


  1. To coin a phrase, that's a proper job.

  2. To coin a phrase. That's a proper job.

  3. Nicely done! Having built an 8' pram dinghy and a 16' Wa'apa, the latter is certainly the cooler of the two. You chose wisely.

  4. Thanks Trevor! I love it, I only wish that I could get it out on the water a lot more often (the benefit of a pram dinghy without so many bits to lash together perhaps??!). It's been a funny old summer here and those days of small swell and light winds haven't presented themselves too many times, but I can't wait to take her out on a little coastal camping expedition when I get half a chance. All the best, Mat.

  5. Great build, its good to see there are some Dierking designs on UK waters, hopefully there will be another by mid summer. This summer HAS to be better than 2012...