Jonathan Gornall: ‘Phoebe’s boat was as much of a gift for me as for her’

How To Build A Boat: A Father, His Daughter, and The Unsailed Sea, by Jonathan Gornall, is published by Simon & Schuster UK.
How To Build A Boat: A Father, His Daughter, and The Unsailed Sea, by Jonathan Gornall, is published by Simon & Schuster UK.
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When I became a father for the second time at the age of 58, I was forced into a radical reappraisal of a life “plan” that until then had relied on serendipity and self-indulgence as its twin guiding principles.

To bring down the curtain on a lifetime of frequently ill-advised but often ridiculously enjoyable adventures on land and sea, interrupted only by the tedious necessity of earning money as a freelance journalist to finance the vacuous frivolity, I had drafted a last act that involved buying a boat and sailing off into my rapidly approaching sunset. A carefully considered, financially viable retirement plan it wasn’t, but that ship had long sailed.

And then, four years ago, along came Phoebe.

The birth of my daughter, an unexpected turn of events that in a single moment imbued my previously self-centred existence with true meaning for the first time, holed the whole ancient-mariner thing below the waterline. There would be no more pitting myself against the sea, Conrad’s “accomplice of human restlessness”. Phoebe was my grand adventure now and my last big challenge was to ensure that she was as well equipped as possible to make her way in the world with confidence, compassion, grace and joy.

At the same time, having undergone bypass surgery two years earlier – a development that, given a lifetime of physical fitness, was both wholly unexpected and more than a touch annoying – I was painfully aware that Daddy would probably not always be there to help her steer a true course through the shoals of her young life.

My solution? During one of many long sleepless nights spent pacing up and down with the newborn Phoebe in my arms, I hit on what at the time (3am) struck me as a brilliant idea, but which with hindsight I concede could probably be better characterised as crazed.

Despite a complete lack of time, necessary skills, tools or experience, I decided to pass on to her my love of sailing and the sea by making her a traditional wooden clinker-built boat. It was a Quixotic mission that would necessitate mastering ancient skills developed by the Norsemen who first ran the keels of their longships onto our shores more than a thousand years ago.

In size, shape and structure, this little lug-rigged sailing dinghy, designed 30 years ago by a shipwright close to my East Anglian home, was a descendant of the Swallow built near by before the war for Arthur Ransome, author of children’s adventures including Swallows and Amazons and We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea.

If I pulled it off, the boat would serve as a plaything for an adventurous child lucky enough to live near the North Sea and, I hoped, as a life lesson. If Phoebe’s hopelessly impractical daddy could pull off such an impossible, magical thing, then what obstacle could possibly daunt his daughter?

At the risk of over-loading such a slight vessel with the burden of expectations, I also hoped that in the years to come Phoebe – and, perhaps, her children after her – would find evidence of her father’s love in every hard-won strake, rib and rivet.

But then, as I set out on my year-long challenge, learning a great deal about myself and a little about boat-building, I also found I had embarked on an unexpected journey of discovery.

I chose to build in the clinker style not just because such a boat is guaranteed to turn heads when drawn up on any beach, or spotted skipping over waves, but because it is an absurdly difficult thing to do. That, of course, made it the perfect task to test a soft-handed modern man for whom manual labour has never meant anything more demanding than tapping away at a keyboard.

And so I learnt to shape and steam timber planks, combining a wallpaper stripper and a plywood box to soften their fibres before twisting and bending them against their natural will to conform to moulds fitted temporarily to the keel.

I shall spare you here a detailed account of each step of the entire frustrating and occasionally heartbreaking process, recounted in some detail in my book, How To Build A Boat. Suffice to say that I bled, wept and celebrated in equal amounts and that in time I overcame an instinct for measuring carelessly, or planing or chiselling a piece of timber against its grain, and somehow reimagined a pile of 100-year-old timber as a pretty blue boat.

But as I stumbled towards my goal, slicing my hands with chisels and saws and tearing vestigial muscles and tendons indignant at being so rudely disturbed after generations of inactivity, I realised that Phoebe’s boat was as much of a gift for me as it would be for her.

And how many of us can make anything in this digital age, in which our every material desire is met not by rolling up our sleeves but by clicking a mouse or tapping on a tablet?

The answer, I believe, is that all of us can, and that probably more of us should.

I built a boat, though I am by no means a boat-builder. That distinction belongs to the men and women who hold out against the flat, corporate landscaping of the modern world and continue to practise this ancient craft in the teeth of financial realities – men like Fabian Bush, the traditional Essex boatbuilder who designed Phoebe’s boat and whose small yard on the River Colne, once one of many, is now an Alamo surrounded by desirable riverside housing.

Or Gail McGarva, who builds replica “daughter boats”, as she so beguilingly terms them, for the thriving Cornish gig-racing scene. McGarva, who retrained as a shipwright mid-career, took as inspiration for her first creation her Scottish ancestry and an 1882 Gardie boat preserved on Unst. In 2004, with a pocketful of Shetland copper nails, she returned home to begin training at the Lyme Regis Boatbuilding Academy and recreated the double-ended clinker boat that fair shouts its Viking lineage.

McGarva and Bush were just two of a special breed I encountered as I worked on my boat and my memoir. Such folk share many characteristics, of course, but one stands out above all. They are not merely happy in their work – they love it, boundlessly. How many of us can say the same?

Over the year I got tired and dirty, bloody and bruised, and saw my soft skin coarsen to the point where I could shake hands with a proper boatbuilder less self-consciously than when I started out. There were deep lows – points when I thought I would never complete the task – and incomparable highs when I realised I might. When all was done, when the boat was launched and Cap’n Phoebe stepped aboard, clutching a press-ganged toy rabbit as crew, I all but burst with pride. No job of work as a journalist has ever brought such tears of joy to my eyes.

I like to think that Phoebe’s great-great-great-grandfather Edwin, a carpenter, would have been proud of me.

Our digital life is desk-bound, screen-framed and set about by the psychological pressures and ills of modern living. My advice, for what it’s worth, is this: put down the tablet – and, perhaps, the tablets – and smell the freshly sawn oak. Pick up a saw, and build a boat. It will connect you to your past, to a better future and to your soul.

And, who knows; in the process you might create the perfect gift for someone you love more than life itself.

See you on the water.

How To Build A Boat: A Father, His Daughter, and 
The Unsailed Sea, by Jonathan Gornall, is out now, published by Simon & Schuster UK at £16.99.