Boats that built Britain – the Pilot’s Punt

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Boats that built Britain – the Pilot’s Punt

Dan Matthews talks to Marc Chivers about his lovingly-built pilot’s punt now on show in the ‘Boats that built Britain‘ exhibition.

Dan Matthews: So, my name’s Dan, I’m Exhibitions Manager at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and I’m standing in the Boats that built Britain exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, which opens on 8 May and runs through to November this year.

We’ve just installed the main feature of the exhibition, which is a full-size replica of a pilot’s punt. Here with me is the boat-builder Marc Chivers, who built this fine vessel. Marc, good to have you here. Perhaps you can explain what a pilot is, and what he used the punt for.

Marc Chivers: Yes, certainly Dan, thank you. Pilots have expert knowledge of the waters that lead into their local port. But the role of the pilot is to navigate the inbound ship safely into port. So the pilot’s punt was used to transfer the pilot from his vessel to the ship that’s inbound.

Dan: I see. So why did you decide to build one?

Marc: For several years I have been interested in sailing working vessels, and in particular pilot cutters. My partner and I were intending to build one ourselves to live and sail on, and so, whilst on the course in Lyme Regis it seemed natural for me to build a pilot punt.

The lines of this boat come from a book written by the shipwright and model maker Malcolm Darch. When I saw Malcolm’s line drawing I knew this was the boat I wanted to build. The lines of this vessel are so beautiful; I particularly like the shape of the front of the boat, the stem and the back of the boat; its wine glass transom.

Dan: So how did you get into boat building, Marc?

Marc: Well, often we used to go for a wander down to Lyme Regis with the family, when we lived in Somerset. We’d park near to the Boat Building Academy and I used to peer through the windows at the boats being built and think, ‘I would really like to be able to do that’. And then three years ago I separated from my then wife, and I resigned from my job, and enrolled on the City and Guilds boat building course in Lyme Regis, which I completed in December 2008.

Dan: Wow, that’s great! That must have been quite a change!

Marc: Huge!

Dan: W
hat’s it about traditional boatbuilding methods that appeal to you?

Marc: Oh, where to start! I just love wooden boats, and using traditional building methods is very, very rewarding. For instance, spiling the shape of the plank; selecting the wood stock; cutting and fitting the planks; often having to steam the ends to fit; and then my favourite job: fastening the planks in place with lovely copper nails and roves; it just simply is a very rewarding process.

Dan: I bet it is. Perhaps you could describe this process in more detail for those people- those who might not know much about it?

Marc: Yeah, I’ll try and put this very simply, really. The first stage is known as lofting, which is simply drawing the lines of the boat full-size, which enables the boat-builder to obtain all the information needed to build the boat. The building moulds are then constructed. The structures at the front, which is known as the stem, and the back, the stern post, on which the transom is fastened of the boat, and then constructed and fastened to the boat’s backbone, which is known as the keel.

On top of the keel runs a board which is fastened to the keel. This structure is called the hog. The function of the hog is to make it easier to cut the rebate, or as we call it the ‘rabbit’, that holds the first plank, which is known as the garbed. The backbone structure of the boat is then secured to its strongback. This is a frame to support the boat while it is under construction. Then the moulds are set-up and fastened to the top of the hog. The planking runs are then determind using battens to simulate the top edges of the planks. This is known as lining off the hull. This is very important and it is essential to plan carefully how the planks will run to ensure that the final lines of the boat are aesthetically pleasing.

Once satisfied with how the planks will run, the top edges of the plank lines are marked onto the moulds, and it’s now time to fit the first and perhaps the trickiest plank, known as the garboard. Perhaps I should explain. The garboard is difficult to fit as it has to sit snugly into the cut rebate or ‘rabbit’ which has been cut into the keel and the hog. The angle of the ‘rabbit’ can change along the length of the boat, and to complicate matters there is also a lot of twist in the front and back-end of this first plank. The garboard therefore requires often to be steamed to soften the wood fibres and to allow the plank to take on the required shape. Also by being the first plank, it is at the bottom of the boat; this means lots of kneeling and lying on your back, which in itself is very tiring; and I should explain that in this country, traditionally, boats were built upright, whereas in America they’re built upside-down.

Dan: Well, it sounds like quite a complicated process, probably best left to the experts, I imagine! So perhaps Marc, you could tell us what you are making at the moment?

Yeah, thank you Dan. I’ve just made a couple of pairs of spoon-bladed oars. These were made out of Sitka spruce.

Dan: Can you tell us a bit about Sitka spruce. Why did you use that?

Marc: Sitka spruce is a soft wood. It’s actually grown in British Columbia, and they grow very, very tall, the trees, Sika spruce; and it is very light compared to its strength; so for oars and things like masts it’s pretty ideal, really.

Dan: I see. Back to your boat, how often do you actually get out to row in her? I imagine she rows really well?

Marc: Yeah, she does, she rows beautifully, and I don’t get to row often as I would like, unfortunately, due to work pressures and the like.

Dan: And what’s the furthest you’ve been?

Well, last year we were down in the West Country, in Dartmouth. We went for a row from Dittisham to the harbour mouth at Dartmouth. And that was about four miles, I reckon.

Dan: And how long did that take?

Marc: Well, we allowed a good half day; we went out on the ebb and came back in on the flood. So it was a nice, relaxing day.

Dan: Yeah, sounds lovely! Where do you keep the boat at the moment?

Marc: She’s been stored on a mooring for the l
ast year at a place called Conyer, which is on the north Kent coast, which is part of the Swale, which is not far from Faversham.

Dan: I see. If you got the chance, would you like to build another one?

Marc: Yeah, I would love to build another pilot’s punt, or any other wooden boat, come to that matter!

Well, if anyone listening wants a wooden boat, you know where to come! Thanks very much Marc, she really is a fantastic vessel, and I would encourage anyone listening to come and see her for yourself. The exhibition opens on 8 May and is running through to November, so please come down to Greenwich and see the pilot’s punt for yourself.

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