Item posted: Wednesday 8th December , 2010
In the austere post-war years before the mass-produced fibreglass revolution burst onto the scene and swept many traditional boat yards out of existence, the cost of a sailing yacht was often far beyond the means of many folk and, if you were desperate for a boat but short of cash, the only answer was to build one yourself. It triggered off a frenzy of amateur boat building the like of which we’ll probably never see again, and all over the UK in leaky sheds, garages and hastily made temporary shelters, thousands of enthusiasts spent their spare time beavering away on their dreamboat.
Clinker-built ex ships’ lifeboats were converted into cruising yachts that sometimes made astonishing ocean voyages, and magazines like Yachting Monthly sold hundreds of plans for a small yacht called an Eventide, superbly designed by the magazine’s editor Maurice Griffiths, that had a chine hull and could be easily constructed from simple frames and sheets of marine plywood. For traditionalists the magazine offered the ‘three tonner’, a conventional round bilge hull designed by Alan Buchanan and constructed with amateur-friendly strip planking.
It was about this time I attended a lecture at a sailing club by a retired Royal Navy type who had made a name for himself sailing, or rather motoring, around in a converted RNLI lifeboat. Jokingly dubbed ‘The Admiral’ by the club members, he was a self-appointed expert on all matters of lifeboat conversions, though amazingly weak on diplomacy. In a brisk, polished accent as though his sailing club audience was paraded on the deck of a battleship, he thundered that no small boat conversion was worth considering unless the work had been carried out by a professional boat builder and that all amateur-built boats were not only a waste of money but had no resale value. Since most of the club members were actively engaged in building their own boats it was only the swift action of the club Secretary in getting him to safety out of the back door of the club house that saved him from being hurled into the creek.
I was reminded of the ‘Admiral’ when I had my ten metre gaff-rigged wooden yawl advertised for sale recently and a very odd character climbed aboard one morning while I was tidying up. Decked out in a ragged Breton smock that reeked of Stockholm tar, leather sea boots, sailcloth trousers and sporting a large gold earring under a salt-stained seaman’s cap he looked as though he had fallen out of the rigging of the Cutty Sark. He soon let me know he was an authority on classic boats and bombarded me with questions, nodding approvingly when I pointed out the laminated mahogany and oak tiller, the varnished masts and the wooden belaying pins. But when he asked what yard she had been built in and I said in the back yard of the house of a doctor friend of mine who was a gifted amateur boat builder, he jumped back onto the marina pontoon as if the boat was about to sink and ranted on about the poor workmanship of amateurs and that no boats were worth considering unless built by a professional yard. It was like listening to the ‘Admiral’ all over again and I had a strong urge to tell him he was talking through his transom; but one thing I have learnt in the process of trying to sell a boat is that you are obliged to humour eccentrics, and I got out the survey reports and made a pot of coffee. It was a waste of time, and I was relieved when he decided he didn’t want a gaff rigger after all and left abruptly.
It is undeniable that the standard of workmanship in the majority of the British yards that built wooden boats, whether for the pleasure or commercial market, was utterly breathtaking; but superb craftsmen though they may be, professional boat builders do not have the monopoly on excellence. I have owned a wide range of boats and only one of them was built by an established yard. Amateurs who in their own way were perfectionists had built the others, and their standard of workmanship and attention to detail earned them the unconditional praise of naval architects and surveyors. Hundreds of amateur-built boats are afloat, mainly constructed from wood, steel or ferro concrete, while fibreglass hulls like those sold by Colvic were very popular completion projects. Alas, there is another side of the amateur-built coin, and anyone who has traipsed for days round yards and marinas looking at boats for sale will have seen hideous ‘self builds’ and hull completions, seemingly thrown together with dog kennel quality timber fastened with a combination of cheap steel screws and glue from a ‘do it yourself’ store.
So if you are in the market for a second-hand boat is it worth risking your cash on one that’s been amateur-built or completed? My answer would be ‘yes’ provided, as in the case of any boat, that it has a good survey report. Don’t be fooled because it’s bristling with radar and other electronic gadgets! It’s only if it has a good structural condition report that you will be able to insure it; but also make certain you have a proper Bill of Sale and invoices proving that VAT has been paid on the building materials, no matter if the owner insists that the boat is exempt from VAT. Even an amateur-built boat needs to have proof of VAT paid and without one you could have difficulty selling it. If you sail the boat abroad to a European Union country without proof of VAT paid it could be impounded. The complicated VAT rules for amateur-built boats go back to the 1980s, so don’t get caught out!
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