I’m hoping this post will give ya all an idea of just how hard I’ve worked to end up here and just how many benefits there are to a making use of ya own elbow grease. A lot of people seem to think that everything you have in life is down to luck or rich parents. Well my folks don’t have a lot to spare and I’m so unlucky the only thing I ever won in a raffle was a packet of sausages. Hard work is all that matters really, as long as ya put in the hours and never give up you’ll always get where ya want to be.
Nearing the end of my apprenticeship in Essex my boss decided after 2 years to kindly tell me that I was too small to ever work on big boats and I’d probably only ever repair little dinghies. Telling me this was like putting a cock in a hen fight. There was a time when I was drilling off keel bolts that were longer than my arm and needed some hefty kit. I climbed up the ladder, balanced one foot either side of the drill which was so huge it came up to my nipples and started drilling. All was going smoothly until I hit a knot and the bit jammed 4 inches into solid oak, jarred my wrists, carried on spinning and flew me off the boat and nearly 10ft across the workshop. At this point I thought that maybe he was right.
A month before I was due to leave I found out about an awesome little wooden boat show called Beale Park Wooden Boat Festival. I got myself a ticket, bought a tent, rocked up on Friday feeling very small and lonely and got stuck in. I wasn’t really sure what I was doing there but I thought if nothing else I can stare at nice boats, get drunk n have a dance.
All good conversations start with a pint of cider so after wandering around sheepishly all day I found a beer tent n got talking. Nothing much came of it but I had a great night dancing and made some good friends. The next day I abandoned my mouldering chicken soup and my damp one man tent and went in search of the people from the night before. We spent all Saturday sat in the woods eating smoked kippers and putting the world to rights and then someone mentioned a guy who’d been wandering round saying he was in need of boat builders. The only description I got was that he was ginger and was clearly into body building. The fun ended here and I went off to track him down. I had no luck at all but eventually I found someone who knew who I was talking about and they passed on his phone number. I was pleased I had to call him, after spending all day wandering around getting more and more nervous about this image I’d concocted of a body building giant that would just laugh when he saw me…a phone call seemed much easier. I called him up and reeled off the ridiculous name of my “qualification” to which he replied “so you want a job then?”, after that the conversation was pretty quick, I hung up and it took a few minutes for it all to sink in. I’d been offered a trial for a fortnight in a real life boatyard!
Now all I had to do was figure out the logistics of getting to Surrey, I got a caravan for 2 weeks, found a campsite and off I went. That was no easy task after earning a grand total of £2.50 and hour for the past 2 years. As you all know it went well even though I lived in a complete state of terror for 14 days I got the job and was asked to start ASAP. He warned me the money was shit but he had no idea…I was used to living on brown money n finally I was gunna be earning some silver. I fell in love with the yard and couldn’t wait to get back. I rushed back to Essex, bought the cheapest leakiest sailing boat I could find knowing full well I could never afford a house or even a room in a basement in that part of the world, I up rooted my entire life and landed in Surrey ready to see what the world was gunna throw my way.
Not only has my whole life changed since that weekend, my whole body has too. I started in the yard fresh faced, 9 stone and completely un aware of how unfit I was and how little I knew.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say I was given on the job training but looking back I can certainly see a pattern in my progression. I started off ripping things apart, hard, fast work that I could never do hard enough or fast enough but it built up the muscles I needed and improved my fitness tenfold, my hands turned to leather and my face was so dirty I often got complimented on my tan. There were points when I was close to tears just because I was so fucking exhausted, wielding sledge hammers above your head is no easy task. I went to sleep thinking about boats and I woke up thinking about boats.
Next on the list was “the plywood jobs”, mostly things that no one could see and that don’t cost a lot to re do if I fuck it all up. Although these were boring and a bit sole destroying it was a quick fast paced way to improve my knowledge of how all the angles and curves of the boats relate to one another, the rubix cube nature of it always kept my brain working over time. These jobs were always in a bilge, kneeling on a lump of lead and wobbling into a puddle. Nowadays if I’ve spent too much time crouched down like a hippy having a poo at a festival I have to get up real slow to avoid my knee caps cracking like chicken bones, as for my knee skin…well just imagine an elephants knee.
Once I could do those jobs without screwing up and without taking too long I was entrusted with some actual real life wood, it was however real life wood that know one would be able to see when I’d finished. This was a pretty huge learning curve, the jobs themselves were often easy but learning the quirks of the yard was a lesson in itself. Using the thicknesser which had no dust extraction and no numbers, all your machining had to be done on guess work, solely relying on your eye whilst trying not to vomit while you coughed up the Iroko dust. The hardest bit was picking your timber though, its only very recently that I’ve been allowed to choose my own wood. I was replacing the aft most deck beam on a boat and went in search of a piece of mahogany thick enough and long enough. I found it pretty quick and was quite chuffed with myself. Little did I know I had managed to pick THE most expensive piece of mahogany in the entire yard, it was being saved for a very prestigious job with precisely the same colour and figure as the bit I’d just stuck under a deck and would later hide behind a transom. Needless to say the boss man was not impressed.
Progress continued though and the jobs got more and more interesting and so did the shape of my arms! When you land a job in a yard that works on 70 wooden boats a year with only 5 shipwrights there really isn’t any time to learn slowly. A year and a half later I have my own stack of timber and a whole dam boat to restore. I tried in the early days to keep track of how many boats I’d worked on but I struggle to count past 10 without the aid of my fingers…I do know it’s a dam sight more than 10 though. I was certainly thrown in at the deep end but its only been a year and a half since I was told I would never work on anything but a dighy so I don’t think I’m doing too badly.
My body has certainly struggled to keep up with me though. It’s been a bit like boot camp and still is to this day. I’ve lost 1/3 of my body weight, developed muscles I didn’t even know existed, have a visibly different and very pronounced “Planking arm” and after restoring half of Pegotty I am now the only person in the world with a one sided 6 pack. Frustratingly though I still can’t beat my sister at an arm wrestle, I’ve come up with a reasonable theory to make me feel better about defeat. Her being 6ft something and having arms longer than a set of oars I have come to the conclusion that I can simply never win because she has considerably more leverage than I do…I can still make her sweat though. I’m a bit of a boy when it comes to muscles and although mine are pretty fucking big, there only big on one side and I’m beginning to look a little unbalanced so with the new year brings the inevitable new years resolution and mine is to waste away these long winter evenings at the gym trying to make my port side match my starboard…I mean honestly, who the fuck gets half a 6 pack. This new years resolution also has a lot to do with the fact that not only do I have a key to the gym its also very warm there and it has a coffee n snack machine.
Steal warmth where you can, shed your elbow grease, get grubby and make sure everything you want is yours!