Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Alex's Blog

I’ve often wondered… what does a Bosun do…?

Wherever you sail you may find the term Bosun or Boatswain batted around and wondered what it actually means.  Having looked at various and somewhat dubious online dictionary definitions, I think we all agree that roughly, a Bosun looks after the running of deck operations, sail setting, supervising crew members, dealing with anchors and warps and driving the ships tender.
So how is it, do I find myself in the middle of the river Blackwater, holding a live, edible (and rather unimpressed) crab, bigger than my own head surrounded by a franticly cheering group of young people?  Oh, yes, I remember, I’m the Bosun on the Pioneer! 
I joined the Pioneer Sailing Trust at the beginning of 2014, having sailed as relief staff with numerous Sail Training organisations; this was to be my first full season on my own boat (metaphorically speaking, of course, I don’t actually own Pioneer)
I have to say, between then and now we’ve had the most amazing adventures.  We’ve covered around 1000 nautical miles, with groups of people from all walks of life, young and old.  We’ve dredged, rowed, been swimming, flown kites, danced, played cards, celebrated birthdays… oh, and sailed (a lot).

 We’ve had the best weather this season you could possibly ask for which means we’ve been able to make to most of every day.  I can only think of one occasion this year when we’ve motor sailed and that was only for a couple of hours.  We’ve played with topsails, jib topsails, reefs in, reefs out, big jibs, storm jibs, you name it, we’ve had all manner of curtains up!
I guess the point I’m trying to make here (and there is one there somewhere…) is that life on the Pioneer is neither all about sailing, nor about larking about on boats.  It’s a package.  We get to take groups of people on a once in a lifetime opportunity, where they will experience their own personal journeys with highs and lows, overcome challenges, make new friends and discover the wobbly and watery world that is life at sea.
So, back to my original point- What does a Bosun do?
Who’d have thought that I would have to bring my (very rusty) sign language skills back into play for our groups of hearing impaired young people, or learn the difference between native and Pacific oysters to ensure my watch (portside pirates) won the dredging competitions?  I’ve acted as a bow thruster in our 4hp dinghy to make sure Pioneer got into the lock at St Kathrine’s, London, safely and stood waste deep in water at the Hard in Brightlingsea scrubbing barnacles off our fine vessel’s bottom!  I’ve learnt new card games, found an adult seal sitting in our dinghy while we were anchored.  I’ve also had the challenge of learning how to sail a boat of which there is only one in the world, and though some might say all gaff rigs are the same, it’s not until you sail the old girl that you realise how unique she is.
What does a Bosun do?
Frankly, I still have no idea but it’s good fun trying to find out…

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Meeting Tyler - 15.10.2014 - Julia Jones

The first task for an apprentice at Harker's Yard is to make his or her own tool box. Tyler's was painted a cool, practical grey – a different colour from everyone else's so he could identify it easily – and he'd also added a drawer. This had been his own idea as he wanted somewhere to keep small things, like pencils and safety goggles, so they'd be easily retrievable. I asked him if he'd always been good at making things and he said no, not really, he'd never done any woodwork before he came to the Pioneer Sailing Trust I wondered what had prompted him to apply for an apprentice's place. He'd been away for a week with his school, sailing Pioneer herself, when he'd heard about the scheme. He'd then spent two weeks doing work experience at Harker's Yard and that had helped him decide that this was what he wanted.

Abbey's work
It had probably helped the other folk decide that they wanted him as well. Harker's Yard does not have the fiercely competitive attention-seeking ethos of Sir Alan Sugar's "The Apprentice". It's necessary for people to get along together and co-operate as they work on different jobs on the same three or four boats. I've also noticed from my own experience how many boat related problems need to be talked about by the shipwrights or engineers before the way forward is agreed – talked about, not argued about. It's not to do with power and egos, it's to do with finding the best way of tackling a problem. Old wooden boats are individual, there are few standard solutions.

Tyler's school career had been a bit disrupted. “You don't realise how much missing learning matters until you've missed it,” he said but he'd clearly worked really hard in the Sixth Form and done well – one A, a B and two Cs as his A-level equivalents at the end of year 13. He'd taken the BTEC route of constant coursework, continuous assessment, weekly deadlines rather than the stop-go panic of revision and exams. He spoke about this really well and I just wished that the some of the gung-ho educationalists who argue for a return to 100% assessment by exams could shut up and listen to someone like Tyler.

Fellow-apprentice Tariq
stapling the gig
I asked whether he'd considered university. No, he was clear that that wouldn't have been for him. He was fed up with sitting around in a classroom listening and writing stuff; he wanted to get on and make things and be able to see his progress. To be accepted as an apprentice at Harker's Yard he'd had to take a written assessment (mainly maths and 3D awareness as well as a personal statement) and he'd also had to follow the instructions to make a simple half-lap joint. On his two week's work experience he'd made a paddle. I just have to say here how impressed I am that someone who'd never previously done any woodwork could so calmly get on and tackle these jobs. But that's probably because I know I'd have failed the test myself.

So he's in and he's one of the team and that's where he'll be for the next two years, as well as attending Colchester Institute on Fridays to keep up with the more theoretical skills. After making the toolbox he spent the first couple of weeks doing bits and pieces, scraping out excess glue, learning how to mastic in between the planks of the former Trinity House work boat that is one of the yard's current restoration projects. He applied primer and gave other people a hand where needed. 

Now Tyler is properly at work on the latest gig. These tough elegant rowing boats were designed to be a real project for the apprentices offering them a range of skills to learn. In a previous post Abbey described the careful task of covering the plug (the mould) with a thick layer of tape to protect it from the gluing that will come later. Tyler and others are stapling on the first diagonal layer of thin mahogany veneer. The technique itself is simple but what's really important is to be working with care and precision. Tyler describes himself as a perfectionist so I would guess he'll find this a satisfying task. I'm looking forward to following his progress – and I hope that new toolbox will soon be filling up nicely.

A half-lap joint

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Boxes of tools

Boxes of tools

By John Lane, Tutor, Pioneer Sailing Trust

When Julia Jones emailed to tell me her friend, Seona Ford, was “ruthlessly” clearing out her garage and needed a home for some old tools, it prompted me to “put pen to paper”. 

We are offered tools from time to time, and get quite excited, expecting a chest-full of rare and desirable woodworking tools, each lovingly preserved with the patina of care by some old, wise master-craftsman – sadly, most often deceased.  Rosewood mortice gauges with brass fittings, a selection of bollow and rebate planes, long paring chisels, Diston handsaws – perhaps even a nice No.73 shoulder plane?  

Charlie's No 73 plane, found on ebay

It usually starts with a phone call – “Well, yes, the apprentices, especially the newer ones, always need tools.  What do you have?” I ask. 

And it usually goes something like this:  “They’re in an old wooden box; some planes, saws and chisels and things – surely too good to throw away?  They belonged to my father”, they say.  “He was a boat-builder before the war, down in the yard… you know, where they’ve built all those ugly flats.  Are you sure you want them?  I can bring them round to you this afternoon, if you like?  I just don’t want to see them thrown away……………….”

“Mum’s” the word as we await the arrival of the mysterious box with eager anticipation.  There must be no hint of its impending arrival or the apprentices will gather like vultures squabbling over a freshly-killed zebra on the Serengeti.  
The box arrives.  Although the apprentices pretend not to notice when someone comes round to the yard, they never miss a trick.  One of the lads sees us lifting something from the boot of the car and comes over to help.  His eyes light up when he sees the box.  Then others begin to join him, smelling blood. 

A box of assorted tools donated to PST

The box is indeed quite old and heavily built, with some initials carved in the top.  Sensing a kill, more bodies begin to gather round as the box is set it down on the concrete.  Resisting the temptation to rub my hands together, I slowly open the lid.  Inside there is a rusty Record No.4 plane with a broken handle, a wooden jack plane – split, with no blade and spattered in yellow paint – a selection of cheap plastic-handled screwdrivers (ca 1980), a tenon saw of dubious quality (blunt, with no set) and in a wooden tray, a range of old drill bits and other paraphernalia, all quite useless.  There are several chisels with short, worn blades and split wooden handles, some with no ferrules.  Rummaging about in the bottom, there are old files, blunt by varying degrees and mostly with no handle, and a coping saw with a flaking chrome frame and no blade.  A seized hand drill might be salvageable, but of the two spokeshaves, one has no blade and the other has a broken casting.   Then, at the very bottom, we suddenly see a box marked “Stanley Combination Plane”, but our brief moment of hope is dashed by more disappointment: the box contains nothing but an assortment of rusty steel screws.

A selection of good quality donated tools
The apprentices begin to drift off, almost unnoticeably.  Nobody says anything. As for me, I find it difficult to appear both delighted and grateful as I thank and assure the donor we will find a good home for the tools.  Unsure if they believe my attempt at sincerity, I begin to lie.  “Our newest apprentice can certainly use some of these”, I hear myself saying.  “Mostly, they just need a good clean”.  

Our new apprentice Tariq
As the car drives away, the box is taken into the workshop and shoved under a bench.  It will sit there for a “decent interval” - probably a couple of years - and then someone will decide the box itself is useful - and the tools probably thrown in the skip. 

But in reality, more often than not, there is always something of use in a box-full of donated tools – as evidenced in the photographs.  And sometimes, just sometimes, there is the odd gem to be found.  So, if you do have any tools needing a good home, please do not be put off by this rather tongue-in-cheek post.  We are ALWAYS grateful for donations of tools, whatever their condition!

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Abbey's Post

Well it’s safe to say despite the keen interest from the apprentice lads in this blog, whilst there are engines to tinker with and boats to build they just can’t tear themselves away to put pen to paper. Being the practical types, words aren’t exactly their strong point, apart from when it comes to the healthy workshop banter that echoes around the yard from 8 till 4. So writing a piece for the new blog has been designated to the only girl in the workshop. A bit like taping up the rowing gig plug…we do it every time we begin the hull of a new gig but for some unknown reason the lads just can’t do it, I have concluded that it’s a bit like wrapping Christmas presents, it’s just not a man thing, they just can’t get the knack, so rather than painfully watch them get tangled up in parcel tape I just get on and do it, which is what I have spent today doing and even if I do say so myself…it’s probably the best one yet.
Coming to work is not a chore but more of a pleasure, there is always a new project to start or a favourite one to finish but like all jobs the boring bits need doing too (taping up the plug for example) and because we are the young, strong and nimble apprentices they are generally designated to us, much to our joy. However the progression in the workshop never stops, we never stop learning and I don’t think we ever will. I have been building the backbone for the rowing gig which is made up of 14 components and fitting them all together is a bit like trying to do a Rubiks Cube. Having a day off to tape up the plug was a bit of a relief really, it was nice to do something I didn’t have to think about, just keep taping and contemplate the meaning of life the world and the universe. I was pretty nervous when I first started the project, after having seen so many people before me produce them to such perfection, it is a lot to live up to. It is almost complete though, after weeks of hard work I am now doing the final shaping to the transom and dare I say it I’m pretty chuffed with it. It’s not perfect and it has taken longer than it should have done but that’s because I’m learning on the job. That’s the great thing about the Pioneer Sailing Trust, we aren’t just practicing with scraps or building miniatures, it’s the real deal, and we are actually churning out real boats. Seeing something you’ve built when it’s out on the water is the most satisfying thing. Sat on the quay at Wivenhoe having a pint with a some friends and shouting “ look look, it’s my boat! I built that!”
Anyway our gig leader Dunstan will come through the door in a minute and ask why the transoms unfinished so I better get back to my chisels and get this keel done so Rowhedge can get out on the water.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Harker's Yard – first impressions – 8.9.2014 by Julia Jones

"That windlass needs seeing to," remarked Abbey as we stood on the foredeck of Pioneer, CK18, the last of the Skillingers. The Skillingers were big, deep sea, sailing smacks, built on the River Colne in Essex in the c19th and sufficiently robust to cross the North Sea in winter to dredge for oysters in the stormy waters off Terschelling.  Pioneer was built by Peter Harris in Rowhedge in 1864 and is therefore 150 years old this year – though very little remains of her original construction. She was pulled from the West Mersea mud in 1999 and almost completely restored in a breathtaking demonstration of ingenuity, determination and the shipwrights' skill. Pioneer is now sailing the East Coast and the North Sea once again but her cargoes are people and not crustaceans. She’s a sail training ship, in beautiful condition – and her connections are clearly determined that she's going to stay that way.

On the fore deck of Pioneer
This was my first visit to Pioneer and my first direct encounter with the PioneerSailing Trust, the charity which oversaw her restoration and which is now based in Harker's Yard, Brightlingsea. So much experience, expertise, enthusiasm had been accumulated during the six years of salvage and rebuilding. It couldn't have been allowed to go to waste. Today Harker's Yard is home to a varying number of shipwrights, volunteers, apprentices and work-experience students. They undertake a variety of restoration projects and build the Harker's Yard gigs – of which more another time. Pioneer herself remains the heart of the enterprise. It was a beautiful day in early September and I was on board in the company of John Lane, tutor at the Pioneer Sailing Trust, Abbey, one of the eight current apprentices and George,  a 14 year old currently released from school one day a week for work experience. "I had to keep my foot on it when I was getting the anchor up," Abbey went on, pointing to the beginnings of wear on ridges of the wooden windlass. George nodded in agreement, as one who knew. "That'll be a yard job for this winter, then," said John.

I had nothing to contribute to the conversation. What was I doing here? Firstly I came because I'd been invited by John Lane. He is proud of the PST (Pioneer Sailing Trust) apprentices and believes that the Harker's Yard scheme offers something that is at least unusual and possibly unique in UK wooden boat building. There are currently 8 apprentices, aged between 18 – 24, very different in their educational backgrounds and skill levels, who are all working towards a City and Guilds qualification. Of course the qualification is important but it seemed to me (on this first impression) that it's the working on real projects, the working both individually and alongside experienced shipwrights, that gives real value to this scheme.

John and George in joinery work shop
My youngest son left school this summer, not quite 18. It can be such a difficult time for youngsters  – and worrying for parents too. Some will get their grades and go to university – in which case the difficult moment of finding work may only be postponed, not necessarily avoided. That was my daughter's experience when she left college in her early 20s with a degree that didn't seem to fit her for anything that she actually wanted to do. Others will struggle for a while to see how all those years of school and exams are relevant to the adult world. I had thought my youngest son would be one of them until he had an amazing stroke of luck and was offered an office assistant job in the place he'd done his y10 work experience. As this was Lord's Cricket ground – his idea of heaven on earth – I'm rather hoping he'll be there for years to come. Others of his friends are starting various apprenticeships and it's an area I know very little about – except cringing at the desperate contestants trying to please Lord Sugar on TV.
Pioneer on her mooring
There were two other reasons for accepting John Lane's invitation. One was Pioneer herself. I saw her twice this summer when I was sailing my own boat – once lying at her mooring at the entrance to the Pyefleet (opposite Brightlingsea) in the early morning light and again a couple of weeks later reaching briskly up the Wallet in the sunshine. Her size makes her tremendously impressive close too but what I also love is her shapeliness as a sailing vessel.

My third reason connects with this. I was a child of the mid-c20th. My father was a yacht broker, my uncle a naval architect. My brothers and I spent hours hanging around outside boatyards while Dad disappeared to have long unintelligible conversations from which we were excluded. They were all wooden boats of course – Dad hated fibreglass and sold his business when it became clear that that was what most people wanted. He got involved in other projects including the management and restoration of some Thames sailing barges. I was never much use with my hands but he gave me a part time job one long summer before I went to university chipping rust off SB Lady Daphne at Cook's Yard, Maldon. People were perfectly kind to me and I drunk gallons of boatyard tea but I was very shy and learned absolutely nothing, except to hate the constant feeling of grittiness in my eyes (for some reason I didn't have protective goggles).

On this first visit to Harker's Yard Charlie talked to me about the iroko he was using to build a skylight for a motor launch. Dunstan explained about the cold-moulding process used to build the gigs and showed me the minute holes made by the staples which he was brushing out with filler. Liam had made prototype oars for gigs and Jake showed me the hollow construction which maintains their lightness without compromising strength. When I complimented him (totally sincerely) on his workmanship he didn't exactly answer but looked at John Lane the tutor as if both of them knew what might have been even better. I was impressed by Abbey's proprietorial attitude to Pioneer's windlass and the highlight of my visit was listening to George talk about oyster-dredging under sail on the cockle bawley Dorana MN2. I find it hard to believe that there are many other 14 year olds in this country with piratical experience like that and the ability to explain it to an outsider like me.

It's the beginning of another academic year and the PST have been advertising for 2 or 3 new apprentices. I don't think 60 year old grannies are eligible to apply but I'm hoping that if I hang around for a while and keep a-hold of my notebook, I'm going to learn a great deal from these young people and the others working with them.

Abbey, one of the Harker's Yard apprentices

This is the first in a series of posts from Harker's Yard.  We are planning regular updates over the next twelve months.  If you like what you see, please add us to your list of favourites.  Your comments are welcome and if you would like to get in touch with the Pioneer Sailing Trust, please visit our website: