What iNSPIRED this article?
Nothing makes me cringe more than marine companies who use photos of half naked women for boat advertisements. I mean come on, I lived on a marina for two years and did I see any half-naked women necking back bottles of champagne? Did I heck. I once saw a group of german tourists jumping into the harbour and I was horrified, to say the least. Why? Well, I know what goes into that water and its far from exotic! So maybe I’m in the wrong country but either way, my irritation with the use of women in marine advertising got me thinking, what was the demographic for this site.
Are there many female boat builders?
With that question in mind, I thought to myself, what better place to start than my own website? I wanted to know if women visited my site, and if not, why not?! I opened up Google Analytics; for those of you who don’t know what that is; basically, it shows who’s been visiting your website. I noticed a feature I had not used before called ‘demographic’. Clicking the links I was shocked to find that my percentage demographic was nearly 100% male!
It had got me thinking; there must be female boat builders who I can get involved with the website. From what I know there are plenty of pioneering female sailors; Naomi James, Ellen MacArthur, Jeanne Socrates and Tracy Edwards, to name a few, but what about boat builders?
Like most modern journeys I started with a search engine, specifically searching the term ‘female boat builders’. I thought at first that I had found a site for a female boat builder and thinking, “that was easy”, I rushed to her page excited to read about her adventures. My excitement was squashed however when I realised that she only made miniature boat sculptures! They were beautiful handmade works of art but I couldn’t quite help feeling that it wasn’t what I was looking for! So the search continued.
I gravitated towards an article titled ‘The All Girl Boat Shed’ posted in 2014 by Reuel Parker. Reading through the article, I hoped that I had finally found the core to my story. Reuel (who has been building boats from the age of 12), began to talk about how he had searched South Florida in early 1985 to find a place to create his newly designed Exuma 44. He talked about the help he received from three talented female boatbuilders. One of which was Jill Coconaugher, who he claims has an amazing talent for space-consciousness, structure, form and proportion in her work. Reuel and the three women went on to create the boat naming it after his Cuban friend and sailing partner Teresa, pictured in the image. Jill and Reuel later went on to build several boats together.
The article gave me an insight into what boat building in Florida was like in 1958, but I still wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to find female boat builders that called the shots; something or more current and gritty!
Eureka!I had found what I was looking for; a truly gritty blog from a UK based boat builder named Abbie. Her introduction said it all: “I now work so damn hard my thumbs ache by lunch time, my back no longer bends by afternoon tea and my brain cuts out by 7pm – I love every second of it.”
As I continued to read it was plain to see throughout her blog that she is a full core grafter, and most definitely not scared of getting her hands dirty! Her passion for the hardcore work of ripping holes in hulls and re-planking inspired the self-titled nickname of “dirty little planker”. It is safe to say that fine joinery and intricate design work is not Abbie’s favourite.
Abbie started off living on a small yacht with no facilities and many leaks. She later went on to purchase a dutch cruiser project boat, which came with perks, but still needed a lot of work to make it livable. I personally always use the word liveable lightly as technically you could live in a bin! Abbey talks about her love of Netflix so it sounds like she’s comfortable!
Abbie is now living on a project boat and working in a boat yard full time. This made me think about the challenges of being a liveaboard as in my experience your work can become your life. I found I began to bring my work home which not only affected my state of mind, but I struggled to come from a day of hard work and want to begin work again!
Abbie goes on to talk about the often punishing work that takes place in the yard. In all honesty, this was enough to put me off daydreaming about working in a traditional boat building yard. As I read through the stories about her boss chucking away her tape measures and making her do the work by eye, I couldn’t quite help but to picture a cheesy karate kid montage. You know what I mean; a woman balancing planks of wood on her head and running up the great wall of china- that kind of thing.
I know you’re thinking; I’m taking the piss, but no seriously, if you read through her blog you get to see some pretty graphic images of the injuries and self-inflicted beatings she’s incurred as she put it, “drilling off keel bolts that were longer than my arm”. Any boat builder, renovator and restorer will know that this work can be seriously shitty: the amount of hernia-inducing positions you find yourself in, covered in water and general goop is phenomenal! Believe me, the rusty stubborn bolt is always in the most awkward place and that can generally be a metaphor for life as well!
I had read though most of Abbie’s blog but I wanted to hear more about her liveaboard experiences and boat building craft. So what better way than to ask her?!
Louis – So where did this all begin? What led to your love of boats?
Abbie – “I’d always grown up wanting a “trade” but never found one that suited and ended up working in retail. Until I discovered a boat yard in Essex. They offered me an apprenticeship based on the few weeks I’d spent larking about up there. So I moved from Devon which is where I had grown up and headed off to Essex which is where I got the boat bug. I trained there for 2 years and ended up with a piece of paper that said I had a level 3 ticket in marine engineering with a speciality in wooden hull construction.”
Louis – What was it like living in the place you were working?
Abbie – “Working where you live is always a challenge as you’re constantly packing up your life to rip apart the next bit. It’s worth it though. My plan is to renovate this boat as a high-end river cruiser. I will then sell it and with the proceeds, I will hopefully be able to buy my forever boat! There is a lot of rich folk in Surrey so I’m in a prime spot to sell at top end prices.”
Louis – What are your future plans for a boat?
Abbie – “My forever boat isn’t gunna be ya typical “pretty cruiser”. I’m in love with old wooden work boats. Big, chunky, usually ugly as fuck but full of character, history and they were built to last. So that’s my ultimate goal, which I hope to reach in the next 4 to 5 years. Once I’ve got my forever boat I’m not sure what I’ll do but it’s nice to leave some loose ends in a plan. Leaves room for spontaneity.”
Abbie – “I’m currently restoring a 40ft clinker-built Dunkirk Little Ship for a client. Also restoring my 37ft Dutch cruiser to sell.”
Louis – “Do you feel you can make a comfortable living from boat building?”
Abbie – “Building boats will never make you a millionaire but you’ll never be bored, always be happy and it pays the bills fairly comfortably.”
Louis – Whats the gnarliest injury you’ve incurred?
Abbie – “Definitely grinding copper roves out, hot copper shard embedded itself in my eye. Worked through the rest of the day with masking tape on it and then had to have it surgically removed at the hospital the next morning. Not nice!”
Louis – Bleddy hell that sounds grim.
So I had my female boat builders and they were as impressive as I imagined! She has reminded me that there is something quite pleasurable about starting life on a boat with next to nothing. You have to find ways to keep warm, wash, poo, eat (not at the same time) and thrive. It got me thinking; is this the ideological way of life and is DIY escapism our method of dreaming? Is this what we all lust for as both male and female boat builders and restorers? And is this why hundreds of thousands of people are now looking to alternative ways of living which they can build themselves?
Are you a female boat builder, I would love to hear about your experiences?