Giving Birth to "Ethel"
by David Brodie

I suspect that boats figure large in the memory of most readers. During my childhood I sailed model boats on a lake at Southport but my family never had a proper boat of its own. Instead, we hired riverboats or took advantage of those offering trips whenever there was the opportunity. At that time the only people I new who did have a boat were our neighbours, Percy and Ella who bought an aging wooden speedboat when I was about eight years old. I can recall standing inside their garage, soon after the boat had arrived, listening to Percy’s enthusiastic nautical ambitions whilst observing the preparations ahead of its maiden voyage. My wish was to be part of that adventure but my parents were not too taken on this idea. In retrospect this was perhaps a good thing for on their first outing Percy and Ella were towed back to the shore after the boat’s outboard failed. On the second Percy was on his own. He decided to play safe and launched the boat on a canal. Launching proved to be a sensitive issue as on that occasion the throttle stuck wide open and Percy and the boat were launched onto the Towpath. I never saw the boat again or heard

the River Dee at Chester
(click images to enlarge)

Percy make any reference to it. There are of course many more inspiring memories particularly those of Sunday afternoons beside the River Dee at Chester.

Over thirty years on and I find myself living in Chester. The Dee is metaphorically on my doorstep and the desire to be pleasured by the river has become a relentless tease. During visits to the river I frequently encounter many of the boats that inhabited the water when I was a child including the clinker built Prince Charles. Ironically a rather flashy Show Boat called the Lady Diana has joined him. The Lady Diana has an entertainments license and can be chartered for early evening cruises with her return journey being made long after Prince Charles has been moored for the night. There are other equally splendid vessels currently using the river including a heavy 1930’s Dutch rowing boat manned by four aging rowers and a Cox. There are also a couple of 1930’s classic motor launches and a replica boat powered by steam. The Duke of Westminster’s exquisite launch can often be seen sharing the quieter stretches of the river with a flotilla of boats owned by the Chester Rowing club.

My humble aspiration was to build a traditional looking boat from wood that was capable of marrying nostalgic memories with reality. It would have to hold its own alongside the best craft using the river today but would need to be built from plans that did not demand too much specialist boat building knowledge or experience. With this checklist I cruised the Internet and paddled through press references eventually identifying John Welsford’s boats as potential candidates. His designs fired both my enthusiasm and confidence, convincing me that such a project was within my capabilities. After further consideration “Joansa”, constructed from plywood planks, fixed onto solid wood stringers, with the opportunity to use some mahogany and brass, emerged as the answer to my prayers.

John Welsford's "Joansa"

Predictably, like many born again boat builders, I had to face a fair amount of cynical questioning from friends and family. Initially this was directed at my scandalously poor sea legs but soon spiralled into mockery when the self-righteous cynics christened me “Noah”. Despite this abuse, they too had to be accommodated in my plans for I new they would eventually be brought onboard and want to use the boat. And so, in the dead of night, satisfied that “Joansa” was the one, an e-mail order for plans was despatched and my voyage was underway.

two cynics and a builder

The post is delivered early around here, which gave me time to spread the newly arrived plans on the breakfast table before anybody else was up. I also had time to look in the local free press and mark the advertisement that started “huge shed for sale”. The plans I would allow the family to see but mention of the shed had to be carefully engineered, that would have to wait until another day. As it happened, by the following week the “huge Shed” which had previously been the home of a micro light aircraft, was also sitting at the breakfast table, metaphorically speaking, leaving nobody in doubt of my aspiration. Before too long an army of crusaders, enough to silence any residual cynic, had come out of the cloisters and “New Noah” was born.

It was to be some months before I would be able to start building. The huge shed had to be erected and the air temperature needed to rise sufficiently in order to ensure that the wood’s moisture content would not compromise the use of epoxy resin.

As a new builder I was happy to use this period of time to read about the exploits of those who had gone before as well as studying John Welsford’s plans and instructions. It was during this period that the “feel right factor” began to surface. The feel right factor is something that all good makers acquire by osmosis. It reveals itself as an attitude to making, which dictates that one should always work towards making ‘it’ feel right. In this context the implication was that a boat should fit its owner, not the other way around. Although further confirmation of the feel right factor’s importance was not required, John Welsford’s instruction for “Joansa”, which advised that “measurements given are from a scale drawing and may be a couple of millimetres out”, persuaded me to it as a licence to make minor changes to the plans if I felt it necessary. And so, armed with the feel right factor, a pencil and a vision of the boat that I wanted to realise, I embarked on the surgical analysis of “Joanna’s” design.

As a maker I subscribe to the belief that objects should retain evidence of the process by which they were created, with the proviso that such an approach should not be allowed to destroy aesthetic sensibilities. The riverboats of my childhood were clinker built and varnished both inside and out. However “Joansa’s” resin fillets, necessary to seal the plank overlaps, had to be painted if the boat was to have any clinker built creditability. Paint would be needed to uniform the surface and mask any perpendicular joints if the eye was to sweep uninterrupted from bow to stern. Inside, the boats length would be punctuated by the bulkhead assemblies as they visually cut through the stringers, a detail further enhanced by the changes in wood grain direction. To take advantage of this my stringers and gunwales would be made from mahogany, glue / fillet mix would include West System’s 405 Filleting blend and the whole inside would be clear varnished. To link the inside with the outside I would also fix mahogany rubbing strips right around the boat.

My next concern was for the use of doublers on the bulkhead uprights (arms) and the suggested use of butt straps on the planking. The plans advised that small semi-circular plates be fixed to the uprights at the points where they housed the stringers. There was no doubt that added strength was needed at these points but the solution proposed visually compromised the upright’s elegance. At the risk of adding weight I planned to double the bulkhead uprights completely, rounding off their edges to lessen the visual weight.

Bulkhead doublers and brass inserts for rowlocks

At 4.6 metres in length, John Welsford had advised that planking be done in short lengths, eight to each side, and butt strapped discreetly. He also suggested that the boat’s bottom be made the same way. Aesthetically this appeared to be rather clumsy. The scarfing of both bottom panel and planks would be a much better option providing the builder was competent enough to make such joints in 4mm ply. As a process scarfing was to prove the most technically demanding aspect of the whole build and it is understandable that John Welsford should offer an alternative. However, the extra effort involved with scarfing is more than compensated for in terms of the aesthetic value it adds to the boat. As it transpired I was to scarf not only the bottom panel and planks but the mahogany stringers as well due to the fact that I could only get stock material in three metre lengths.

Epoxy resin is fantastic stuff. It glues, fills and seals but it’s also capable of reducing the virgin boat builder to tiers. It takes no prisoners. Having used it in the past I was conscious of the need for it to be used with care in order to avoid cured excess deposits having to be removed from inaccessible areas. In this instance I was concerned for the finish I was going to be able to achieve on the inside at the bow given that generous amounts of glue would be needed to ensure a good fixing. The nightmare vision of the bow opening up like a flower bud should “Joansa” meet the side of a jetty at anything other that a snails pace was not something I wanted to consider every time I launched the boat. To eliminate this possibility and increase the tolerance for the fitting of stringers and planks at the bow, my solution would be to attach hardwood fillets between the stringers on the stem doublers. These would then be shaped providing additional landing for the planks and a neat finish on the inside.

Breasthook and
brass prow

By now I was beginning to marry the general knowledge I had acquired through background reading with a growing appreciation of “Joansa’s” design. I was determined to produce the very best result. I had read in Thomas Hill’s excellent book, Ultralight Boatbuilding, that “Few things show a boat builder’s skill more readily than a neat fitting breasthook”. I would like to add quarter knees to this statement given that both command structural and aesthetic importance. Transforming these dynamic angular junctures into elegant sweeping curves was to be my objective. The solution would be to first clamp four, one inch wide strips of 4mm plywood directly into each of the angles where the inwales converged at the prow and where they met the transom. The plywood strips would first be dampened before each set of four was positioned and then pulled into the angles by sash clamps and left in position overnight. Before they were removed, wood fillets shaped to fill the gaps between plywood laminate and prow and plywood laminate and transom would have to be fashioned. When all were a good fit every element was to be removed, covered in glue and then repositioned and pulled back into the angles. After the area had been cleaned up I would hopefully be left with structurally sound joints that were aesthetically pleasing.

Quarter Knee assembly

Quarter Knee construction

I started the build towards the end of June making additional minor changes to the plans as “Joansa” began to take shape. Each demanded a carefully balanced decision in respect of aesthetic and structural qualities. The most involved of these was in relation to the transom. John Welsford’s plans advised that the 4.5mm plywood transom profile be mounted on a solid 12mm timber frame for reinforcement. It was proposed that the frame be made up of eight small lap jointed pieces in order to avoid any large short grain sections. My concern was that one bad joint would compromise the structural integrity of the whole transom. My alternative transom was to be an entirely ply / resin composite. An MDF profile was first cut and then used, with the help of a router, to machine two 6mm ply frames. The two frames were then fixed to the original plywood transom creating a unit that was almost 17mm in thickness. The top edge of the transom cut-out was likely to take a bit of knocking, particularly if an outboard was to be attached, and so to reduce the risk of splitting, the ply was rounded off.

Transome detail

At this point I must confess to a lapse of concentration for although I planned to use an outboard occasionally, I failed to ensure that the cut-out in “Joansa’s” transom would accommodate my geriatric Seagull. As a result I have had to make a packer (not illustrated), which lifts the outboard by 50mm, allowing it to operate without restriction.

Footrest prototype

Despite my earlier criticism of doublers I do appreciate their usefulness. In the case of “Joansa” I specifically liked John Welsford’s use of them on the seat and buoyancy tank overhangs. Here they add necessary visual weight as well as additional strength to the bulkhead assemblies. The plans proposed that the rear buoyancy tank overhang be extended at the sides and be supported by a shaped cross member that doubled as a fixed foot stretcher. This set-up had two disadvantages for me. Firstly, the fixed foot stretcher would not accommodate the variety of leg lengths expected to use the boat and secondly, when not being rowed, the stretcher would become an annoying obstacle. Having discussed my concerns with a couple of serious rowers I settled on fabricating an adjustable / removable footrest. The now unsupported side extensions to the rear buoyancy tank were reduced significantly and the result is a more accessible foot well.

Modified rear bouyancy tank overhangs

My final amendment was to the seat, which on my boat is not permanently fixed. Instead it is locked in place by wooden toggles. This enables objects to be placed under it more easily and also makes the inevitable job or re-varnishing less difficult with the seat removed.

Removable seat

“Joansa” was nearing completion just as autumn arrived and with it an increase in atmospheric moisture content that threatened to make painting and varnishing a real challenge. Fortunately a window of opportunity presented itself and the boat was moved into the house for a few days while my wife was away. This gave me just enough time to paint and varnish, which was made so much faster by the ambient temperature inside the house, before she returned. I finished the job off as promised by inserting brass blocks in the gunwales to accommodate the rowlocks. Their top faces were machined at 8 degrees and they have two treaded screw holes in their sides enabling them to be fixed in position from the outside with countersunk screws. The rubbing strip covers the screw heads. A brass keel strip covers the stem and a brass plate covers the prow allowing an eye to be securely fixed through the breast hook. Sea trials have been undertaken and all that remains is the official naming ceremony. My boat will be named “Ethel” in honour of my grandmother who despite many challenges remains unsinkable at the age of 104.

The original "Ethel"

For me the making of “Ethel” proved to be a humbling and intimate experience. It generated genuine interest and invaluable practical support from friends, family and in particular my work colleagues, which was a pleasant surprise. Wrongly I had assumed that their aspirations would be totally unsympathetic to mine, but in reality I had underestimated the relevance of their life experiences. Like me boats figure large in their memory. It goes without saying that The Worldwide Virtual Boat Building Company proved inspirational and has now signed up another humble recruit who, through the birth of Ethel, has hopefully contributed a bit more to talk about.

David Brodie. February 2004