Cornwall Life meets Luke Powell, a traditional Cornish boat builder
PUBLISHED: 12:11 13 February 2013 | UPDATED: 22:12 26 February 2013
In a boatyard tucked away in a small corner of Cornwall, some boat-bulding traditions of old are being kept alive, as Ian Wilkinson finds out
Building a bridge to the past
In the year 2000 a young boat builder by the name of Luke Powell arrived in the tiny hamlet of Gweek and set up his business Working Sail in one of the sheds belonging to the Gweek Quay Boatyard.
Nothing particularly unusual in that, except for one important point. Luke was no ordinary boat builder and knew little of the technology of resins, glass fibre and plastics that are used in the construction of the vast majority of yachts and pleasurecraft now to be found in the West Countrys harbours and marinas.
For Luke builds boats in wood, using traditional skills handed down over the last two millennia from generations of ancient craftsmen. I visited him at his home in Penryn where he told me of a remarkable life, shaped by the sea and the wooden sailing vessels that he knows and loves.
I was born on the East Coast and my early childhood was spent roaming the derelict quays, creeks and inlets of the Suffolk marshes which were the graveyard of so many fine wooden vessels, he explains.
Then, in 1969, when I was nine, my mother and father bought an old Scottish fishing vessel and the whole family, including pets, set sail for Greece.
The island of Spetses where the family were based had a fine maritime history and in the early 70s there were still four yards building traditional wooden fishing vessels. Luke spent much of his spare time wandering round the old harbour, helping fishermen pull their nets ashore, taking the lines of incoming traders and generally involving himself in the maritime activitiesthat surrounded him. I wanted to absorb as much knowledge as possible, he recalls. I sensed that it was the end of an era.
In 1979 Luke returned to England and secured employment in Faversham, which then, as now, was a stronghold of traditional sail. It was here, on Iron Wharf that he learned the skills of a time served shipwright from Donald Grover (a dour old so and so!) who had been born in the 1920s and had crewed the old Thames sailing barges for most of his life.
Luke worked long hours for little money and his sole recreation was the odd pint down at the Anchor where Donald would regale him with tales of the old days of sail. But the skills learned in restoring an old Baltic Trader and other vessels were to stand him in good stead.
At the age of 21 and back in Greece, Luke purchased his first boat an English cutter that had been built in Poole in Dorset in 1914. She had been left to rot at anchor for some five years but miraculously was still afloat just!
Using the skills he had acquired in Faversham the yacht Charmian was made seaworthy and for the next eight yearsLuke sailed her among the Greek Islands and then westward through the Med to the Atlantic.
In the spring of 1990, Luke sailed her to England. Their destination was Gweek on the Helford River. He was to spend a year-and-a-half here, helping a friend to transform an old Danish trawler into a fine West Country ketch.
A couple of years spent on the Sussex coast followed and with the reluctant sale of Charmian, Luke had sufficient funds to embark on a project that had been dear to his heart for some time. He would build a new wooden boat, based on a pilot cutter and from scratch. But where to build her?
I finally decided on Exeter. In the old run down docks I came across a boatyard with just enough space to take the sort of boat I had in mind an English pilot cutter of around 38ft. I bought as much wood as my meagre funds would allow oak for the frames and larch for the planking and set to work. Working on my own, in all weathers it took over two years to finish her. Finally she was ready, and Eve of St Mawes was launched in 1997 to begin life as a working charter boat.
Work on a second boat, to be namedLizzie May, started almost immediately. Still based on the English pilot cutter she was to be 4ft longer than Eve and of a modified design. But with the hull all but finished, events in Exeter were about to impact on Lukes business.
The council decided that they wanted to redevelop the docks and although they said I could stay, a working boatyard did not really fit in with their ideas. At around that time the owners of Gweek Quay Boatyard, who wanted to turn the yard into a centre for traditional boat building, asked me if I would like to go there and I jumped at the chance. So back to Gweek!
A year after the move a customer was found for the partly completed Lizzie May and she was moved by road from Exeter to Gweek for completion. She was launched in the spring of 2001 and in the autumn of that year work started on a third boat. Agnes was to be a replica of a Scillonian pilot cutter of the same name, originally built in 1841 and hailing from the island of St Agnes.
At 46ft in length, 13ft beam and displacing 26 tons she was the largest cutter yet to be built by the yard. She was launched in 2003 and crossed the Atlantic to begin work as a sail training vessel but is now back in Gweek and is kept by Working Sail as a demonstration and charter boat.
Five further boats have been built since Agnes first set sail, the last being Freya, launched in April 2012. All are based on the pilot cutters of the Isles of Scilly, renowned for their seaworthiness and performance and all individually designed by Luke Powell.
In an age where boats are seen as almost a commodity, built on production lines using the latest hi-tech materials, it would be easy to write off traditional wooden boat building as an anachronism from a bygone age. Luke Powell thinks differently.
When you sail in a wooden boat you are connected to over three thousand years of history to the Vikings, the great navigators, the clipper ships and the countless generations of shipwrights who built them. Modern boats perform well and do everything that it says on the tin but for me, that important connection with the past and our wonderful maritime heritage is missing!
For further details, including information on chartering Agnes, visit workingsail.co.uk