Songs of Praise for Proper Boats

Amelie Rose passing Portland BillWe’ve all heard the argument that goes “traditional boats are old fashioned and hard to sail and the modern yacht does it all so much better because it’s light and computer designed and sails to windward and is easier to handle” and so on. But, dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to look at this thought a little more closely...

“In the beginning the earth was without form and was void”. You’ll vaguely remember this from Sunday school. He goes on creating the sky and the land and then apart from “let the waters team with living creatures” He pretty much leaves the seas to themselves. (He wasn’t sitting on his arse, He was busy knocking all the rest of it together and He did only have a week before the next job.) The point being that He left the seas as a fairly chaotic and not altogether safe place and, like many builders of my acquaintance, doesn’t seem to have got round to sorting that out even now.

So it fell to us to try and make sense of this by ourselves.

Which, given lots of time, a fair amount of attrition and a lot of ingenuity we got pretty good at. We began to understand the materials at our disposal, how to craft and hew and stitch and weave the organic stuff around us into the most complex and sophisticated structures that we knew at the time.

True, there was a price to pay for this knowledge and ability. Folks spent a lot of time working out how to not get killed by the sea but eventually we got so good at it that we got bored and started working out how to kill each other out there instead.

During a hiatus between two recent big bouts of killing (in which we worked out how to kill each other in the air as well) something anachronistic was born. Something whose widespread and almost unchecked progress almost led us to forget everything we had spent all that time learning. All those lives spent, all that effort expended, so nearly gone to waste.

We nearly forgot how to build boats.

At this point, I’m going to make one thing clear (those in the back pews - sit up and pay attention) THIS IS NOT A SERMON CLAIMING ANY PHYSICAL, MORAL OR ECUMENICAL SUPERIORITY ABOUT WOODEN BOATS.

No. We had long before realised that boats could be well built, and in some cases better built, using iron, steel, concrete, leather - anything really as long as the job was done right. No. This is not about wooden boats, but it is closely linked as the limitations of the materials we had available happened to inform some very sound thinking about the bigger picture.

Annabel J running back from the Isles of Scilly

You see, every vessel has a purpose. Until the advent of recreational yachting that purpose was usually economic. Vessels needed volume to take their cargo, their fish, their wares, passengers or skilled folk to wherever they needed to be next. They also needed a crew (usually as small as possible) and that crew needed to be able to live and safely operate their vessel for long periods, sometimes indeterminately long periods. To do this that crew needed to be able to rest, be reasonably comfortable and be able to perform their tasks in any weather.

The vessels we crafted were sympathetic to the godless seas, able to survive the chaos and provide a modicum of order. They were heavy, so had momentum and didn’t fall over. They were long keeled with a good grip on the water to make them easy to steer for long periods. They were sea kindly with an easy motion so that the crew could carry on with their lives and work in the lawless environment they existed in. They were substantial enough for the task and they were dependable. The crew were able to trade their care for the vessel with her care for them. She could be loved and maintained at sea by her own people using resources that were easy to find and simple to work with.

Then a funny thing happened. People started to go to sea for no other purpose than because it’s occasionally quite nice to out there.

They began to sail for fun. And what fun! They discovered that they could visit unimaginably exotic places and broaden their horizons and some discovered that there was another kind of fun to be had. These others spent their time seeing if they could make their boat go faster than everyone else’s and then tested this out by having races. Just like a teenage party that’s gone on too long; this was where things started to go wrong.

Agnes and Amelie Rose playing in heavy weather off Falmouth

You see, up until then, we had been reasonably content with not being able to sail very well against the wind as long as we could do it predictably, in most weathers. The boats we could build and the rigs we had developed to propel them relied on organic materials and had a low centre of gravity. To provide enough sail area to drive the heavy but sea kindly and sympathetic hull through the water the rigs were projected laterally using gaffs or yards and huge amounts of power could be generated with the wind anywhere but very close ahead of us. We were patient though and had empathy with the elements.

The new thrill seekers were anything other than patient. They realised that they could win their races and get the whole thing over and done with if they could exploit the Achilles heel of all sailing vessels - if they could sail to windward better and better then they could take home more shiny trinkets and have bigger hats than their friends.

These reckless nihilists had made one very important decision. They decided that these races should only take place where the waters would be flat, in those places that God had sort of sorted out by putting lots of land around them. This gave them an artificial sense of reality. In these flat waters fun could be had and then sleeping could be done ashore in a fluffy bed. Thus all sorts of experimental crazy ideas could be tried out.

What sailing *should* be about

Sooner or later, someone had a really bonkers idea.  Instead of providing power sensibly, close to the rest of the boat, they decided on a vertical approach. They built lofty tall masts that would never stand up without sophisticated structures and fancy materials. They cut down the number of sails in the name of efficiency (but ended up with much bigger sails needing much bigger crews) because they found they could go faster like that to windward. They realised that as they weren’t sleeping and living onboard, and weren’t carrying fish or cargo or passengers, they could have much less volume and much less weight. They realised that their boats might fall over without that weight so they concentrated it in the bottom of the boat. Later they realised that they could hang it all below the bottom of the boat so long as they used fancy materials and complicated structures to do it. They knew that these boats didn’t stand a chance in the real world “out there”, but they didn’t care because they weren’t going “out there”.

It was wanton, some might say irresponsible, because they didn’t realise the example they were setting.

Before the bad stuff really set in, there was one last problem to overcome. Having had a rare old laugh flying in the face of all that’s natural, and got all that way to windward, they realised they’d have to turn round or they’d end up in the world beyond Hurst Narrows. So they did, and were immediately bored with the lacklustre performance of their ship, and annoyed to observe “old fashioned” vessels flying past them. They decided that they must pep up the dull performance of their lofty ship, Anathema (for that was her name), when the wind was behind her. To do this they fitted her with a big balloon sail. This only worked if they had a large crew of big, fit people, often from New Zealand, mainly called Guy. These men called Guy were obsessed with the sheets although they couldn’t figure out quite what to do with them and therefore played with them continually.

On the Round the Island Race - even with spinnakers up they can't catch us

Anathema was complete and in her environment she was great. Soon everyone who thought being out at sea was for fun wanted one just like her and they were built in their thousands. Each one was light, each one had the weight hanging off the bottom and each had a lofty tall rig. Trouble is, not everyone was as lucky as the people that had built the Anathema. They couldn’t really afford the costs and were easily duped when they were told they could have all this stuff cheaply. But they had a dream to pursue and they didn’t want to hear that they ought to be a bit careful and take it easy.

Around about the same time, another bunch of people realised that sailing could indeed be fun if only you stuck to the original principals. We dug out old boats and restored them and some of us were daring enough to build new boats in the old way. We rediscovered old skills and traditions and we found seagoing more pleasurable. True, we were initially laughed at when we didn’t go so well to windward, but when we turned away from the wind we didn’t need that stupid big sail and all those chaps called Guy.

When we ventured “out there” we found that we could eat, sleep, dance, sing, make love and do all things that people should despite being in a lawless, godless place because our boat loved us and looked after us in return for the love that we showed her. Our boat rode the sea comfortably because her shape was sympathetic and so we rode more comfortably inside her. We could steer easily over the horizon and further “out there” because the boat wanted to go where she was pointed and her long keel kept her in that mind. When we broke things, we found that we could repair them using our own skills or the local skills we could find, and the materials to make repairs were available everywhere. We could invest ourselves in our boat because we knew the investment would be repaid in kind and we could take pride because our boat was a thing of righteous beauty that fit the landscape.

A blowy old day - but Amelie is comfortable

The spawn of the Anathema tried to follow us, but when they got “out there” they discovered that they couldn’t actually get to windward anymore because the shape of their boat didn’t fit the shape of the sea. They discovered that their boat was too light and was therefore stopped by each wave that met them. They found they could only sleep for a short time before being woken up by the protests of their boat who didn’t really want to go that way.

They could eat, but didn’t really feel like it all that much. Because they couldn’t bear to spend too much time inside in all the chaos the only hot food they could make was of the “just add boiling water” variety. They broke things, and then found that because no one local could help them they had to wait for the agent from Magicospars or Steelbits to get hold of a replacement. They didn’t sing any songs because steering was quite hard and they had to concentrate. They couldn’t dance because the deck was too busy trying to be a roof and it was all they could do to manage to stand up. In short, it was no fun and they felt so sick that they didn’t feel like making love at all.

Amelie Rose

So they got grumpy, hungry and tired and they decided to motor for a bit as their supposed advantage to windward had proven to be a false truth. Finally, sighing, they turned round and, discovering that they were too tired for their idiot downwind sail, decided to do without and just drive home.

When they got ashore they began to feel a bit cheated so they made up tall tales of daring do and the huge seas and the battlefield they had come from in the hopes that someone might be impressed enough to make love to them. Then they decided it was all overrated, tied the boat up and bought some books about golf. They don’t use their boat now, not unless it’s sunny and not likely to be too lawless “out there”.

It lays there still, a white elephant in a white elephant burial yard. Only it won’t die, it’ll just go on being a liability. When at last it’s organic cousins become too tired to continue, they’ll return to their natural state with quiet dignity. The spawn of the Anathema will go on impudently laying there, a testament to wanton folly.


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