A Very Traditional Adventure…

“Who is your interview this month?”, asked my husband. “Nigel Jones”, I replied. “I know that name, he was on Channel Report the other day,” said he. “That’s him,” replied I. Nigel Jones does get around a little, in the nicest possible way of course.  

You may have also come across the work of Nigel Jones at some time or other.  Administrator of social media page ‘Jersey In Transition’, regular contributor to the J.E.P., a loud voice in Jersey’s throng of climate activists, and perpetrator of gentle living; cycling more and handcrafting, intermittently interviewed on Channel Television and Jersey Radio…he certainly makes his voice heard.  But there is oh so much more to this gently spoken, mild-mannered and yet impassioned, man…interview by Juanita Shield-Laignel  

I follow Nigel on JiT with interest, sometimes contribute and/or comment and have also invited him to write for us here at the Jerseylife on more than one occasion.  Being a fellow advocate of gentler living, including making things by hand – when I saw a post about his boat-building project – I was really interested to learn more.

Nigel invited me to his building space at a smallholding in St Peter. I arrived to a waiting Nigel standing amongst a heavily laden crab-apple orchard and was led up onto a beautiful idyllic field and under a shelter where his project resides.  Chickens were clucking and cockerels strutting, birds of prey flying overhead, butterflies weaving in and out of the enclosure and bees were drinking heavily of the clumps of nettles and clover nearby.  Two chairs were waiting – set-up in fire-side mode – although there was no fire. I sat down and we began.

Editor: I love this idea of you building your own boat by hand.  How did this come about?

Nigel: Well let me give you a little of the history of these types of boats first (Nigel pointed to a derelict boat a few feet away).  This old boat was built in about, 1960, by an old boat builder who was about 60 himself and retired.  It was commissioned by a local wealthy man who wanted it for his two sons and in the style of the old Jersey fishing boats.  These boats were going out of style because fibreglass and outboard engines were taking over.  Although retired, the wealthy man stuffed enough money into his palms to make him come out of retirement and build just one more…

He did a fantastic job and there is an old postcard around (sadly I don’t have a copy) of it, in its heyday, at La Rocque or Green Island – somewhere that end of the island, with the mast up.

After using it as young boys, the two brothers grew up and got bored with it and got busy with important jobs, but the father commissioned a man called Bernard who operated at La Folie, to look after it.  He would take it out of the water once a year for routine maintenance, but the boys still didn’t use it. Bernard repeated this process for more than twenty years until in 1988, they realised they would never use it again and I was in the right place at the right time to buy it.  It had a mast and sail and a temperamental petrol engine.  I taught myself to sail in her all over St Brelades Bay and even motored across to Sark – and made it back! I learnt the importance of a deck on that trip – with water slopping over the top.  We sat on the lifejackets because the vibration was so uncomfortable!  We had loads of fun in it – parties and picnics – you can get 6 or 8 people in it.  We used to arrange the mainsail over our sleeping bags to sleep on each side of the engine.

After several years of fun, I sold it in 1992 and bought a succession of other boats. My third was a fibreglass boat in which we crossed the Atlantic through 1999 and 2000, sailing to Barbados.

Then suddenly a friend of mine said “I’ve seen your old boat for sale”, by then I’d started doing hand tool woodwork projects and thinking ‘what can I make?’ – sadly when I bought it back it was completely unseaworthy, I wondered ‘can I renovate it?’ but no, cloning it became more viable and I started measuring it up…

It’s got lots of lovely features. When I was a kid in the 60s the older fishermen all had similar 15/16 ft versions and worked them very hard, like fishermen do. Scraping against sand and rocks and pulling up lobster pots every day they got pretty clapped out and needed replacing every 5 years or so. The local boat builders were churning them out to meet demand and they became almost throw away. My father bought two, one called Edith and one called Cote D’Azur, so as soon as I saw this one, I recognised its style and its lines.  It was called Palodillo.

There have been boats on the water since pre-historic times. To begin with they would have been a dugout tree trunk but because water got in over the side, they would put an extra plank on each side and gradually over time, built up. I love that these little fishing boats are born of an unbroken vernacular, a tradition of boat builders building by eye from the beginning of time right the way up to the 60s.  Now if you want a boat, they are not made in Jersey anymore and are all fibreglass.  I am very keen this won’t die out – this one only survived because it was never worked and was well maintained. So I would really like to build a clone more as template for anyone else in the future. It fits in with my ethos of localism, local crafts, local trades, renewable materials – eco-friendly in a lot of ways.

Editor: What materials are you using?

Nigel: Oak mainly. But sadly not locally sourced.  I need straight grained oak of about 5 meters, this only happens when trees are growing close in a forest.  I did ask the National Trust locally if when trees come down is there any chance of me getting one and then sawing it into planks, but most trees in Jersey are all knots and branches as they get pollarded, so are not long enough.  The first branches in a true forest would be 30 or more feet up.  So I have to bring the wood in from the UK. 

Some of the wood in the old boat is tropical hardwood – mahogany – but it’s a mistake in lots of ways. Felling tropical rainforests in 1960 seemed like a good idea but not anymore and aside from that – the keel is oak but the stem is mahogany and the mahogany has disintegrated in our climate.

Editor: Tell me about the process…

Nigel: First of all I had to build a sturdy shelter, not just to keep everything dry and make working conditions bearable, but because to build a traditional boat you need stocks on the ground and a roof with rafters as all the moulds need to be held up to the rafters.  I see it that you need to fix everything to a wooden frame above and below and the boat gets built in between.

Stocks are built into the ground to hold the moulds, basically templates or frames which are not part of the final boat. Planks are then softened and bent around the moulds and fixed into place and the moulds removed at a later stage. I’ve learnt that it’s heat rather than moisture that softens the wood so am using a steam chest basically long square tube made of four planks with steam coming in at one end.  Once you’ve bent the wood, once it cools down – that curve becomes permanent. 

When I started, I used a 4ft long metal water trough and a couple of inches of water with a gas cooker underneath and put planks over the top to stop the steam escaping.

Editor: Human ingenuity never fails to amaze me.  Your facilities here seem quite rudimentary?

Nigel: Ha ha – yes, it’s just me and the birds and the chickens, no electricity.  There is a wood burning stove in that shed which is jolly useful to help me dry off when I’ve cycled from home on rainy days.  No matter how good my waterproofs, I’m always grateful for the opportunity to get warm and dry before I start work again.

Having no electricity is a good thing as I’ve had to get involved in using hand tools, which I love – no noise, very little dust and as I have no time constraints, am doing it for the love of it, if it takes all day to do one thing, it takes all day.

When I started this project, I used to have to repeat ‘time is not money’ as my last job was working in software development where time really was money, everything had to be done efficiently.  This is so different, working in nature and with nature and at only two days a week, gives me enough progress to feel I’m accomplishing something, but I’m not in any rush after all. This is my retirement project so sometimes I just sit here and contemplate. I enjoy cycling here and then just letting the time unfold, I regard each trip as an adventure.

Editor: It all sounds very meditative.

Nigel: Yes – it is – very.  There are old books written about hand carpentry, and only going as fast as the tools will allow and then there is all the preparation and maintenance.  So just as Bernard used to take Palodillo out every year and sand her down, re-paint, stain and varnish or whatever she needed, meaning she lasted much longer than her counterparts, the carpenter also has to maintain and take care of his tools in the first place.  The secret to good hand carpentry is to have VERY sharp tools – in fact, that is what I’ve been doing all morning.

There are 3 stages to sharpening each and every tool…a coarse sand stone, then a medium and then a very fine one to produce a mirror finish. Finally, as you use water in the honing process, you have to oil them or they will rust. It’s taken me all morning just to sharpen 2 planes, 3 chisels and a spoke shave.  The oil is camelia oil made from the seeds and has just the right properties. This one is from Japan.  Incidentally it’s the Japanese that have largely kept this hand tool carpentry alive.

It’s all very methodical.  It’s traditionally said that if you want to be a carpenter get a pencil, if you want to be a good carpenter get a sharp pencil, but if you want to be a great carpenter, get a knife! I use a knife to do all my marking out… whether that makes me great or not remains to be seen but, start as I mean to carry on! 

Using hand tools is so much nicer.  The repetitive swoosh of the metal against the wood sounds beautiful and they are so much lighter in your hands.  There is real skill in adjusting and using the blades. Like an artist that forms a relationship with his brushes, I love my 2” chisel and have developed favourites for each job – every tool having its own personality.  It’s the tools that make this whole thing so attractive – to build a boat by hand literally, not even an electric saw, it will be unique, hand crafted. I’m not fitting an engine to this one, she is going to be sail and oars, and maybe an electric outboard in time – no fossil fuels! 

I’m hoping this will become a new prototype for future generations to copy and will help with my vision for a gentler way of living.  More sustainability, more community living, more local crafts, local building, community gardens, growing and sharing.  It all fits in with what I believe and how I would like the world to be.

Nigel then went on to share with me how he has come to this stage in his life – his education path, working life and why he so enjoys the meditative side of working with wood…but that will have to wait until our next issue…