Traditional shipbuilding skills are making a comeback in Portsmouth. CHRIS BROOM found out how.
When the rowing skiff Phoenix took to the water in Portsmouth Harbour for the first time this week, a little bit of history was made.
As reported by The News, she was the first wooden-built boat to be launched in Portsmouth for more than 50 years.
Since defence giant BAE Systems decided to pull its shipbuilding division from Portsmouth in November 2013, the future of shipbuilding in the city has been uncertain.
But the people behind the Phoenix hope it is the spark that ignites a revolution for shipbuilding in Portsmouth.
Dozens of volunteers have been busily beavering away in Boathouse 5 at The Historic Dockyard for the past few months on Phoenix. She will now form the centrepiece of a new exhibition space currently being put together directly opposite in Boathouse 4.
The vast space of Boathouse 4 is currently being restored and is due to open as a Boatbuilding and Heritage Skills Centre.
The centre will offer practical, intensive courses in traditional boatbuilding and related skills, and a mezzanine level brasserie with stunning views across Portsmouth Harbour.
Visitors will be able to watch traditional boatbuilding in action and learn about the fascinating story of small boats in the British Navy. The project has cost £5.5m with major funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Regional Growth Fund.
A significant part of the new centre will be the International Boatbuilding Training College – a sister to the school which has been running in Lowestoft since 1975.
The IBTC took its first intake of students in April and is currently operating out of Boathouse 5 until it can move into its new home opposite.
Yard manager Jim Brooke-Jones is supremely passionate about the work being done at the dockyards.
He says: ‘It’s all about training and improving people’s lives.
‘Small boat building died a death in the ’60s – the boat we launched on Tuesday was the first one in 50 years.
‘The commission was specifically for a boat to go in the exhibition space in Boathouse 4. The exhibition designers thought ‘‘why don’t we make a mock-up which is fully accessible?’’
‘We didn’t really want to do a mock-up, we decided to make the real thing. And we’ve launched it, so we’ve proved it’s a boat.
‘Now we’re going to cut part of the side out so it will be wheelchair accessible from the mezzanine level, and kids can come in there as well and so can everyone else.
‘The beauty of it is that in five to 10 years’ time, when it’s done as part of the exhibition it will have a long life as a rowing skiff.
‘It’s the first boat the IBTC has built here – it’s the start in a resurgence of traditional boatbuilding.’
He adds: ‘Phrases like “These skills will be lost for good” get bandied around, but in this case they are true.
‘If these skills are lost there really will be no-one left who knows how to do them, and that would be a tragedy.’
‘We want to train traditional boatbuilding skills so we can restore our maritime heritage and build new boats.
‘Most importantly, these skills are transferable – they can be used in housebuilding, bespoke furniture, high-end kitchen fitting, 3D computer-aided design. You can take those skills anywhere.
‘It is quite traditional but it is also quite cutting edge as well.
‘We have a huge skills shortage in Britain. You talk to anyone in industry and they will tell you that the students coming out of further education don’t have the skills they need.’
In the IBTC’s workshop students have been learning skills from scratch under the watchful eye of head of joinery Mark Rowland.
Mark says: ‘This is their ninth week. We started right at the beginning and they are going through a series of tasks, making things that they can make use of as the course goes on.’
The first item the students made was a mallet. Now they’re constructing their own tool boxes.
Katie Outlaw, 52, from Bishops Waltham signed up for the course as she wanted to learn how to look after her own 40ft sloop.
‘I used to work in IT, but I took time out when I had children, so I was looking for something to do,’ she explains.
‘I’d been thinking about doing this for a while, but I wasn’t able to go to Lowestoft, so it was ideal when I saw that the IBTC was coming to Portsmouth.
‘I like fixing things but I didn’t have any woodwork skills, so this has been great, I’m getting more to grips with it, and I hope I’ll have the confidence to do it on my own boat.’
Jim adds: ‘We want to be the spark that reignites Portsmouth’s maritime heritage relating to wooden shipbuilding.
‘It’s not just about the past, we need to make sure we have a fantastic future.
‘We want to involve the navy. The upskilling we are giving to the people of Portsmouth can only be of benefit to the city.
‘We want to involve big industry down here, we want to bring boatbuilding back to Portsmouth. If we train people then the work will follow.’
Marian Smith, volunteer co-ordinator for the project says: ‘We have all ages and all backgrounds come here.
‘And for those who want to do the IBTC courses, there are bursary opportunities, opportunities for apprenticeships, work experience places.
‘There are young students and people who want to change direction in their career.
‘Some of them will become shipbuilders, but these skills are transferable.’
At a glance
Both Boathouse 5 and Boathouse 4, when it opens, are free to enter. For opening hours, go to historicdockyard.co.uk
For more information about the International Boat Training College, go to ibtcportsmouth.co.uk or call (023) 9289 3323.
If anyone is interested in volunteering in Boathouse 4, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (023) 9282 3322.
Wanted a challenge
Susan Dolman, 61, a retired midwife from Southsea, became intrigued after reading about the scheme in the e-mail newsletter she received from the dockyard.
She moved to the coast several years ago from London.
‘I didn’t know anything about it, and because I had spent so much time in London I always had lots of friends who wanted to come and see the Mary Rose Museum, so I had an annual pass. The Christmas newsletter asked: “Have you ever thought about joining us at the boathouse?”
‘I spoke with volunteer co-ordinator Marian Smith, but I said I can’t do that, I’ve never worked with my hands. She said:”Why don’t you come for the day and observe?”
‘She put me with Fred, the lead volunteer, and he got me making a seat.’
With Susan left impressed by what she achieved, she has been a regular ever since.
‘The only thing I’d done before was change a plug.
‘There was very much a sense of you don’t know what you can do until you try it.
‘When I started I did a day a week here, but this is my fourth day in a row.’
Going back to his roots
For John West, 69, a retired solicitor from Bedhampton, volunteering at the boathouse was a return to his roots.
‘I’ve been volunteering for about seven or eight years now.
‘Originally we were involved in preparing boats and doing isolated jobs here and there. But in November they started this job and I was involved from the beginning.
‘Initially I had been a volunteer for the National Trust, but I spotted this on a website for volunteers called Do-it.org.’
John spent his childhood helping his father on weekends and holidays at the Camper and Nicholsons yard.
‘My father worked there as a shipbuilder from 1923 until it closed in about 1980. He worked until he was 78.
‘All my predecessors were shipbuilders at least as far back as 1816 –I’m the first person who didn’t go into the trade in 200 years. I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps but he wasn’t keen and so I followed law instead. Perhaps he could see things were changing.’
It’s only now in his retirement that Dave has been able to return to the craft he loves.
‘There’s a good feeling about the place, a lot of new volunteers have joined recently and there’s an energetic dynamic to the place. Marian’s a very inspirational leader – she’s breathed considerable life into the enterprise.’
Moving won’t stop him
Dave Casey, 67, a retired prison officer from Purbrook, was first snared when he attended the Victorian Christmas Fair at the dockyard at the end of last year.
‘We were just wandering around and saw the boathouse. My wife said: “You could do that.”
‘I served an apprenticeship as an engineer so I’m quite good with my hands. I spoke with Marian and came for a taster in January and I’ve been coming ever since.
‘The wood is so tactile, it’s lovely to work with. To work on a project like this is quite uplifting – you get a sense of achievement from it.
‘When I arrived in January it was just the floor of the boat on a strongback and I’ve been involved in every stage since.
‘To see it actually on the water was an amazing feeling – it was a wonderful experience.
‘I’m so pleased that my son talked me into coming to the Dickensian Christmas.
‘I wish I had done it years ago. It’s been such a worthwhile experience and I’ve met so many lovely people.’
Even moving to south Wales in the near future won’t stop Dave from volunteering.
‘I will still come a day or two each week in the summer and certainly every other week after that.
‘Having found this, I don’t to lose it.’