The Search For Female Boat Builders

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.

Female Boat Builders - Sholeh and Jill
Sholeh and Jill : Credit – http://www.parker-marine.com/

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!

True Grit

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.”

Louis – What are you currently working on?

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?

Ask Abbie some questions on the forum here 

Or 

View Abbie’s Blog – abbeyboatbuilder.co.uk/

Or

Read more about Reuel Parker’s article here  


Are you a female boat builder, I would love to hear about your experiences?

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23 thoughts on “The Search For Female Boat Builders”

  1. Thank you for an honest piece of reporting it is so refreshing to read something that is not full of embellishments
    Keep up the great work and I hope you find more female boat builders or for that matter more interesting folk with a passion for wooden craft.
    Thank you
    Hillary

    1. Thanks for the article! I am working myself on boats and can tell its sometimes a struggle in this male dominated environment…
      I started working on my own boat first which is a project boat…and then went pretty much trough all my neighbours boats that needed help.

      1. Hello Julia, thanks for getting in touch I’ll be sending you an email about your work soon. I’m going to be following this article up and I’d love to feature all the responses.

  2. I cannot believe you posted this days ago!! I’ve been working on a book and researching female boat builders!! – I am hoping this fiction will go very mainstream and promote the idea for young women!
    If you could private message me- I would love to stay in touch!! I know so little about this field and would hate to write something about it the wrong way.

    1. Hope you’ve managed to sort something with Abbie. Since publishing this I have had a lot of people contact me, plenty of female boat builders in the US apparently. I’ll be writing a follow-up article soon.

  3. Hey there! I’m female and have been repairing, restoring and building boats since’85! Started at a small boat shop in Toronto and eventually went off on my own. Some of the work I’ve done is on my business facebook page, Hole in the Water Boat Repairs &Restorations.
    Don’t have any credentials as there is no formal schooling for that here and thus no apprenticeships. I just have the scars, pains and strains to show for it! Lol!
    Just wanted to let you know ,YES, we’re out here!

  4. I am not sure I quality as a boat builder, more a boat restorer. Though I did build my dighy from scratch. I have owned for 23 years a 35 ft sailing cutter built in 1936. Maintenance has included much boat building restoration. Splicing in new frames, replacement planking, replacement keel bolts. I get help from professionals when the job is beyond me, but I do most of the work my self.

    1. Hi Beth thanks for getting in touch- I’ll be doing a follow up article on this soon due to all the great responses I’ve had. I’d like to include you so i’ll get in contact soon.

  5. Hi I’ve been working on Boats (building/repairing and interior) since 2003. I’m a trained cabinet Maker with a formal apprenticeship in a German Shipyard. In the US I took some classes at the Arques school for traditional wooden boatbuilding in Sausalito for Lapstrake building and traditional boat design. The rest i learned from the boys in the boat yards. Since, I have taught small boat building to youth groups and worked on a replica for the Maritime Museum. I currently work as journeyman in a Sausalito boatyard and design and build rowboats with orphans in Croatia during the summer. I the boatyard i do anything from structual timber replacement and framing/planking to interior remodel. I try to stay away from fiberglass. In my work environment i feel fully accepted, in the general environment the recognition definitely goes easier to the young strapping guys… The non-profit sector is more welcoming since the students are often girls or youth from underserved communities.

  6. I love that you’re doing this! I’m new to the boatbuilding world and would call myself more of a boatwright apprentice. I’ve been working at Berkeley Marine Center in California for the past 8 months. My current project is helping with a full restoration of a Cal-40 for the upcoming TransPac. I’m learning so much and definitely getting my hands dirty!

  7. I have a 1975 Islander 32′ – no classic but a solid little boat, lots of teak, all mahogany interior and she is so lovely I am madly in love with all the agony of restoring her. Although I only dig into the cosmetics, and had help chasing an engine problem for a year and a half, but diligence and a tight budget forced me to learn a lot and it is fixed like new!!! Still doing some interior restoration (headliner is last big job to do) but she is SO sweet and I adore every inch of her. Pure joy. Now time to go sailing! So much work to do – but would never think of complaining. It bothers me when people say the two best days of owning a boat is day you buy and day you sell I call BS and can’t stand hearing that – I feel sorry for those in that position that never felt the passion! Happy Sailing everyone!

  8. Hey Louis, as you have seen from the response of your article, there is many of us out there. Us meaning women who restore / repair / build their own boats. I would like to recommend you two further incredible women: Maria LaPointe and Sarah Schelbert. Maria (Canadian, mid 30s) is one of my best friends and she is the most capable boat repair woman (and sailor) that I know. And she works a lot on traditional boats, too. She is a mechanic, welder, wood worker, rigger, the list is long…She circumnavigated the world twice on the Picton Castle. Many things I got to know about welding, splicing, mechanics, I learnt from her. You can find her website here http://www.sailjoana.com/. She runs her boat together with her friend Cathy. The other woman is Sarah (from Germany, early 30s I’d guess), she bought an old wooden boat in Guatemala…without really knowing anything about boats…and now finds herself knee deep in work…with hardly any money. After some initial overwhelmed feelings she has now decided to keep on going with her project and is rebuilding her Alani. Partly by herself, partly with the help of friends. She does not have a website, but I can make a contact if ur interested. I myself bought a trouble boat four years ago in Panama (without any previous boat repair experience) and fixed my boat Karl up, mostly by myself, but also with friends and professionals helping and teaching me new skills. I am doing a video documentary about my joruney http://www.youtube.com/whitespotpirates where I have showed all the ups and downs, sailing, exploring and refitting my boat. Well, Sarah and me are not professional boat builders, Maria probably being the closest to being a professional, although she does not work as a regular boat builder / restorer but does get hired by others. I saw u do have a great feedback but still I thought I send you this info and then you can take it or leave it from there :). I really do apreciate that you want to bring some attention to this field…because I have met many incredible women out there doing incredible things with their boats…Nothing wrong with good looking girls on boats, but I think it is important to show the other side, too :). And thanks to you for that! Ahoy, Nike aka WhiteSpotPirates

  9. Hi Louis, seems this article has been a hit! I came by to say I’ve been restoring a 40 year old boat for 2.5 years now. No previous sailing experience, hardly knew how to use a drill. No boyfriend/husband help, just me asking a bunch of questions to the internets or my dock neighbors. I’d be happy to contribute! Great article, and thanks for thinking of us women in ways other than boat decor 😉

  10. Hi,

    Got a few names for you:

    Anke Wagner (my partner at TRILOBOATS)… a restoration and five cruiser sized constructions + numerous rowboats to her credit.

    Suzanne Altenberger, now proprietor of Phil Bolger & Friends. Last I heard building a prototype for the US Navy.

    Annie Hill, of BADGER fame is now building an innovative, new cruiser.

    Julia (and George) Maynard of ZULU fame.

    Good work in a great cause!

    Dave Z

  11. Hey there – happy to see all the comments so far! My names Amy, 26, , I’m a shipwright living in Cornwall. I’m currently restoring a 28ft Falmouth quay punt in penryn, Cornwall, as a commission for a lively chap called Chris. I’ve worked in many boatyards, and loved (almost) every moment. I worked as a joiner and shipwright for rustler yachts for a couple of years until I started on curlew a couple of months ago. Happy to chat boat with anyone so do get in touch. A x

  12. Nice to see there are some other female boat restorers out there, we are a rare breed! I’m currently restoring some inland craft including a 1935 narrowboat (about to start putting new wooden bottoms and cabin on as well as steel footings) and am converting/restoring a 1951 ex Kellogg’s barge.
    I started by doing an apprenticeship in narrowboat restoration at the museum in Ellesmere Port and am now running a boatyard in Staffordshire. I may have a law degree but couldn’t imagine going back to working in an office!
    There’s no reason why us women can’t do things just as well as men, just need more taking it up.

  13. Hi, My mane is Genta and I live in Albania, Europe. I’m an engineer and I’m a boat builder. In my country a female boat builder is consider something strange and people think that women are not able to do a good job. I found this article searching for other females and is interesting and great to see what women can do.

  14. Hey, 🙂 I too Googled female boat builders, to see if I could find myself, hahaha, I am an aluminium boat builder in New Zealand, I am apparently the first female boat builder in nz and am on my 3rd year of my apprenticeship, my job kicks arse !!!!

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