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The enduring allure of these grand old ladies of the sea

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: May 08, 2013

The old gaffer, Marie Louise, catches a breeze in Start Bay

The old gaffer, Marie Louise, catches a breeze in Start Bay

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Who could disagree with Gweek boatbuilder Luke Powell when he describes wooden boats as "the genuine article".

Some men – and it's invariably men – get a thrill from looking at Porsches, others at steam locomotives or gleaming Harley Davidsons. But for Luke, and for me, nothing compares to the simple, satisfying lines of a lugger, cutter or gig. Admiring these vessels lined up along a quayside is a pleasurable way to pass an hour.

Today and tomorrow offers a rare feast for lugger-lovers and the like. To mark the 50th anniversary of the Old Gaffers Association, a leading organisation for the preservation of traditional boating, some 60 vessels are gathering at Plymouth's Mayflower Marina. With the twin aim of promoting the association's work and raising funds for the RNLI, the boats will be open to the public. But while enthusiasts are expected to travel hundreds of miles to be at the event, most Plymothians won't even think to cross the street for look. It's a case of "one man's meat".

Having spent my youth in a Cornish fishing port, my eyes became accustomed to, and appreciative of, the elegant lines created by traditional craftsmen from Mousehole to St Mawes, Polperro to Padstow. It was from a purely romantic standpoint, however, rather than because of any practical ability, that I hankered after a small wooden vessel. Nothing grand, just a pretty clinker-built dinghy to row leisurely on fresh water or calm sea, with a simple jib rig or perhaps an outboard to quietly chug about the Fowey or Tamar estuaries. Years of idle leaning on railings went by, with no real prospect of doing it for real – and for decades this interest remained mere window shopping.

The reality of owning a wooden boat, maintaining it, operating it and actually going out on the water remained a distant pipe-dream... until the unexpected opportunity arose to procure a little vessel for next to nothing. With uncharacteristic impulse I agreed to purchase it on the spot – without even a viewing.

The next few days passed in an atmosphere of doubt and indecision. Should I ring and cancel? It wasn't much money, after all. How am I going to pick it up? What the heck will I do with it? Will I actually use it? Having remained undecided and paralysed about whether to call back, the day inevitably arrived that I'd agreed to pick it up. It was too late to turn back. With a hastily-borrowed boat trailer hitched on the back of the car, I set off for the pick-up point. Where was this "impulse buy" lying? With fairly low expectations, I scoured the shore. The vendor was a retired naval man with a lifetime of seagoing experience. He pointed to a sad-looking collection of timbers on the shore.

"This is Skewy," he announced. "Don't know where and when she got her name but she's been Skewy for a long time."

Skewy. It rolled it off the tongue. Ten feet long, clinker-built, painted bottle green outside and a mucky yellow inside. A pair of Norfolk paddles and the remains of what was once a carved bow end. Inexplicably, it was love at first sight.

After some extensive lashing and packing, Skewy was on the trailer and heading west. I still wasn't confident of what I'd taken on – but I reasoned that she could always be sold on. She? At what point did this nameless assortment of planks take on a gender? Cat-like, Skewy had already inveigled herself into the affections.

On the way home, I understood for the first time the satisfied smiles of those men of a certain age you occasionally see towing shells of ancient motor vehicles up and down the country. I was towing a tatty old boat. It was an awkward load to negotiate through the narrow lanes of East Cornwall, yet I was grinning like a monkey all the way. And Skewy proved to be only the beginning...

So while some spend hours polishing the chrome of a vintage car or classic bike, others are merrily lying under the hull of an old wooden boat, scraping off barnacles... and whistling. No doubt they'll all be lined up along the railings at Mayflower Marina today to see the great gathering of gaffers.

Perhaps Luke Powell summed it up best when he said: "The whole history of mankind is encapsulated in a wooden boat. When you go out in a wooden boat you are not just a person today going out in a wooden boat but all your forefathers, all the heritage, is going with you."

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