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'I love it when the rain drives, the wind's foul and we have several days and nights to go'

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 13, 2012

  • Hesper passes Fastnet rock with an Atlantic swell running; the raw material for another boat; and Queen ashore on St Martin's in 1889

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"Fibreglass boats are like caravans... or cars... made in factories and soulless. A wooden boat, though, is a magical thing."

One man's philosophy summed up in a handful of words. The man in question is master boatbuilder Luke Powell, whose passion for traditional sailing craft has earned him a worldwide reputation.

Having spent his whole life on the water, this week brings him ashore for the launch of a lavishly illustrated autobiography detailing his progression from boy sailor to 16-year-old skipper, through serving his time in repairs and maintenance to leading the Cornish pilot cutter revival.

Genial, amusing and a good storyteller, Luke perches on an upturned paint tin amongst the clutter of wood and fittings in a boat shed on Gweek quay. Taking a break from refitting Agnes – a boat he built and sold and this year bought back again – he sets about relating his story.

Born in Suffolk in 1959, Luke was given little chance to get to know his surroundings before his parents and two siblings set off on an ambitious family adventure. Tony and Simonetta Powell – to whom he dedicates his book "for showing me a better life" – bought an old fishing boat and sailed it to Greece. Luke was just eight years old and much of his childhood and adolescence was spent on and around the island of Spetses.

It proved to be a great education. By the age of 16, he was skippering boats through the Aegean Sea and eastern Mediterranean.

"It was the late-1960s and my parents wanted to get away from the rat race," he said. "My brother, sister and me grew up around boats and became immersed in the whole maritime environment. It was a true adventure for us."

These early experiences were to play a big part in shaping Luke's later career.

"My dad was a fisherman and a picture frame restorer. He was very good at carving, very good with wood," he said. "I grew up being influenced by his craftsmanship and his love of fishing boats. Sailing around the Greek isles I saw a lot of old wooden vessels still running cargo. I absorbed all this heritage during my formative years, so when I came of age it was almost inevitable that I was going to be involved in traditional boats."

At 18, he hitchhiked back to the UK and trained as a shipwright at Faversham, later working on Thames sailing barges. Four years later he went back to Greece, where he bought Charmian, his first boat.

"I cut my teeth as a boatbuilder on Thames barges," he said. "I worked with a very experienced old boy and we worked together for three or four years. He taught me an enormous amount and it's really down to him that I developed the necessary attitude for this type of work.

"He also taught me that you need a pinch of realism to be a boatbuilder because it is a hard trade. It's a very tough life, it's not well paid and you really need it to be your vocation to achieve a career in it.

"The working conditions are terrible – filth, cold, rain, mud and tar – so it can be pretty grim at times, though some might call it ' character building'."

But no amount of sloshing about in cold water to re-plank barges between tides could tilt Luke from his chosen course. After a spell on the Thames and repairing fishing boats in France, he decided it was time to branch out on his own. He returned to Britain and although the idea for a business was sketchy, he knew he wanted to work for himself. It was around this time that he first visited the Isles of Scilly. It was to change his life.

"Having been a journeyman shipwright for quite a few years, I thought it was time to settle somewhere, to call a place home," he said. "I'd also had enough of fixing boats and was keen to build one from scratch.

"I had children by that time so I had to either run my own business or spend the rest of my life odd-jobbing. I also realised that a rebuilt old boat can only ever have the value of secondhand boat regardless of how much work I put into it. There's no money in restoring an old boat unless it has some magical pedigree – because it will always be an old boat.

"I went to the Isles of Scilly and I remember standing on Gugh and thinking about all the boats that would have once been working those waters. I got very interested in the history of Scilly and learned about the pilot cutters that were once common there. Someone showed me a picture of a boat called Queen laid up on the shore at St Martin's. This is the photo that started me dreaming that one day I would build a Scillonian pilot cutter.

"Then and there I wanted to recreate them. It was a big jump going from repairing boats to building a pilot cutter from scratch, but I reckoned that I'd served my time and I knew how a boat went together."

The year was 1992, hardly anyone was interested in wooden boats of any kind, and establishing a traditional boatbuilding firm called Working Sail was nobody's idea of a smart business plan. Except Luke's.

"It was pointless asking for a bank loan, so I sold the boat I'd brought back from Greece and, after paying off my debts, used the rest of the cash to buy a pile of wood. I hoped that through my labours I could put value into that wood."

The result was Eve of St Mawes, a sleek pilot cutter built on traditional lines. She took 18 months to build and further two years to sell. Hardly the great economic success Luke had hoped for.

"Virtually no one wanted any kind of wooden boat back then," he said. "And the thought of buying a new wooden boat was alien to everyone. But eventually Eve sold, much to the relief of my family and friends who all warned me against repeating the experiment. So what did I do? Bought a pile of wood, of course. It's what I always do when I have a little money left over."

The second boat, Lizzie May, proved even more difficult to sell, but Luke persevered with his dream, lurching from one financial hole to the next but never losing sight of his passion to revive the popularity of classic wooden boats. The turning point in Working Sail's fortunes was the creation of a website. Agnes, Hesper, Ezra, Tallulah and Amelie Rose followed in relatively quick succession and the company's reputation was assured. By the turn of the century, wooden boats were back in vogue, desirable playthings for the wealthy. Luke's gamble had paid off.

Once people saw the boats afloat, the firm gained a new sense of confidence, building a worldwide reputation with each new vessel.

"All of a sudden owning a new wooden boat became credible and desirable again. Agnes sold quickly. We went from success to success and have been fully booked ever since."

Formal recognition of Luke's almost single-handed revival of traditional pilot cutters is long overdue. Hence Working Sail, a 240-page, full colour volume following Luke's journey in words and pictures from those boyhood days in Greece to the quayside at Gweek, where he and his team are currently preparing Agnes for a new life of charter sailing around the Cornish coast and Scilly.

Luke's enduring passion for the elegance and efficiency of vessels like Agnes takes us back to his founding philosophy.

"Wooden boats are the genuine article," he says. "They're the real thing. The whole history of mankind is encapsulated in a wooden boat. You don't get that with a fibreglass boat because it's just like a caravan or a car, it's produced in a factory, it has no soul. But 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."

Anyone who likes boats – and specifically wooden boats – will know that winter can be a fallow time of the year. A solution might be to settle down with a copy of Working Sail, Luke Powell's superbly told and richly illustrated volume. Published at £30 by Dovecote Press, signed copies are available from The Falmouth Bookseller (01326-312873) or direct from www.dovecotepress.com

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