My First Boat

As a young lad I took a keen interest in working with wood. To encourage this useful hobby my mother arranged for me to have carpentry lessons with a local handyman. Our sessions went like this: he would ask what I wanted to make, I would tell him and then he’d make it for me. The results were impressive and simply whetted my appetite for real wood working. My chance came when I was nine or ten and had acquired a few basic tools---a set of chisels, a spokeshave, a couple of saws and a mallet.

We were living in London at the time and London was being bombed, heavily bombed, mostly at night. On the way to school in the morning there was often a fresh crater or the smoldering wreckage of a building. With a couple of friends and a handsaw we would go back after school and pick through the debris. We preferred stock less than an inch thick (easier to saw) but since it was free we took whatever we could carry back to our basement workshop at my mother's house in Hampstead.
The first job was pulling the nails with a wooden-handled claw hammer--a quite inadequate tool for the job. A few days later while walking on Hampstead Heath I caught sight of a burlap bundle shoved under a bush. I dragged it out, unrolled it and found a complete set of burglar's tools--including a couple of pry bars, a wrecking bar and other useful items. I took this treasure trove back to the workshop to use on our first project--a 12 foot kayak. We had no real plans just a couple of illustrations torn out of my sisters encyclopedia--the section on Eskimos.
It seemed simple enough to our inexperienced eyes so we picked the best pieces of our salvaged stock and began pulling the nails. Once that was done we ripped the planks into 3 and 4 inch strips. The saw was dull so it took several weeks--we all got blisters-- but finally got it done. Everything was in short supply during the war years---even common nails--so we had to straighten hundreds of used nails of the various sizes needed for the frame.
With the frame roughly nailed together we began looking for something with which to cover it. New canvas, of course was unobtainable but local freight trains often had a few covered wagons. So we hung around the freight yard, dodging the railway police, until we found a couple of discarded tarps. They were canvas but had been painted so many times that the material was as hard and stiff as leather. We cut it in strips, overlapping where necessary, and  nailed the strips to the frame with upholstery tacks. We painted the kayak orange (the only paint we could scrounge) since we were proud of our work and wanted to show it off. Our families came to the launching on Highgate Pond and were suitably impressed--it barely leaked at all. My sister, already cultivating an artist’s eye, wanted to know why we had painted it ‘that awful colour’. She never noticed her encyclopedia and the missing Eskimos and I wasn’t about to tell her.
Being made of wood and painted canvas the boat was heavy--it took two of us to carry it. It survived until one of the older brothers of the team took it out on a local river and went over a weir--a low waterfall about three feet high. The kayak had not been built for white water, the carpet tacks pulled out and our boat simply disintegrated--we didn’t even bother to retrieve the remains. A great project at the time but we were not sorry to see it go--anyway by then we needed the workshop for another, more ambitious project.

Simon Wats, November, 2017