The boat being built from memories

Olympic silver medallist sailor Mark Covell is involved in a boat building project in Emsworth using items donated by the public. Picture: Ian Hargreaves (110697-3)
Olympic silver medallist sailor Mark Covell is involved in a boat building project in Emsworth using items donated by the public. Picture: Ian Hargreaves (110697-3)
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There’s a collection of stories being collated right now in an ordinary-looking boat shed in Emsworth. But although they will be turned into a printed anthology one day, that’s not why they are being gathered.

It’s hoped that these stories will go on to become something much more exciting than a book destined to sit on a shelf somewhere.

If everything goes to plan these stories will be used to create adventures of their own.

The various wooden items currently lining one wall of the shed at Thornham Marina all have a story attached to them. From the mundane to the extraordinary, everything here has meant something to somebody.

There’s the tiny wooden mouse that used to be carried around by a schoolgirl with a famous sailing father, and the drumsticks that belonged to a teenager who loved to play before going to university got in the way.

What they will eventually become might sound like a tall story in itself – but over the next 12 months, all these wooden items will be used to build a boat.

Crewed by members of the public, it will set off on its maiden voyage around the south coast in June 2012. While the rest of the UK gears up for the London 2012 Olympics, there’s been an effort to make sure that the event isn’t just about sport. A 12-week arts festival will run alongside the games and the Boat Project was chosen as the south east’s public art contribution.

While the idea for the Boat Project came from art duo Gregg Whelan and Gary Winters and the look of the 30ft day sailor is down to acclaimed boat designer Simon Rogers, it’s Mark Covell’s job as technical manager to bring their ideas to life.

It’s a job he says comes with a great responsibility. One of his key aims will be to respect all the items given to him by the public and the chapter in their lives that each one represents.

As a silver medal-winning sailor at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, it seems fitting that this Portsmouth-based boat builder should be involved. When the call came in about the project, Mark says he was probably the only one who didn’t laugh.

Making panels from a vast collection of wooden items that are all different shapes and sizes and then crafting those panels into a boat is a pretty unconventional way to go about things.

But in spite of the obvious challenges, the idea appealed to him immediately.

‘I don’t think no is ever a very good answer to anything,’ says Mark. ‘So I was thinking about the plan and what I’d need to do to get involved in it.’

The shed is now kitted out with tools, a framework of the boat and Simon’s design sheets line the walls. There are replica panels already made up and coated with a high-gloss finish to show people how lots of different items can be incorporated into the design.

At the moment there’s everything from wooden planks to an ornate spoon set to one side and Mark will make a mosaic out of these things rather than use them whole.

‘People come in here with their pieces of wood and the artists record them talking about it,’ explains Mark. ‘All the details get written down and everything gets a number. The aim is that when we use these pieces in the boat we keep a record of where they are and the people who donated them will know.

‘The mouse is number 13 and that was given to us by Sarah-Jane Blake, the daughter of Sir Peter Blake. When she was a little girl she found it and kept it in her pocket.

‘Number 19 is a bag of pencils and they come from an artist. She only uses these pencils, these are the ones she likes. They’re only normal pencils but when they’ve got down to a certain length and she can’t use them any more she keeps them and that’s what she’s given.

‘There’s some wood from the Lively Lady (Sir Alec Rose’s round-the-world boat) and from The Terror (a restored Emsworth oyster boat).

‘Number 29 is simply a piece of wood that a guy used to prop up his bed with when he was a student. It’s simple stories like that.

‘The frustrating thing is that some people think it will be a boat made from junk and that offends me, to be honest, because they’ve completely missed the point. It’s so different from that. This wood is going to have a new life as a boat.’

He adds: ‘An analogy I like to use is that I could build a table and it could have three legs and a top and be a table. But I can also make a beautiful table with an inlay and carving. This is going to be an intricately-made boat.’

The public will be able to hand over their bits of wood at the boat shed until the end of this month and then one-off events will take place around the south.

At the moment the array of things brought in is varied. There’s a hockey stick and a right of way sign as well as a beautifully ornate section from a Chinese love seat bought in 1967.

Mark doesn’t know all the stories behind each object, but speaks fondly of a plank that features the name CN Burnett on it and explains how it was owned by a family who stashed silks and other items of value in a trunk when they fled Communist China in the 1940s.

‘We don’t want to be disrespectful, we respect all the pieces and the stories,’ says Mark.

‘It’s such an amazing idea, I’ve been incredibly moved by what I’ve heard.’

Over the next few months he needs people to come forward with their wood because they’ve only got a fraction of what they’ll need to build their boat at the moment.

A book featuring the individual stories will be compiled at the end of the project and it’s hoped that sawdust picked up from the boat shed’s floor will be used to make the pages.

The next year will be a busy one for Mark and the end result will be a boat. But he says it’s not the finished product that matters.

‘It really isn’t about the boat,’ he says.

‘It’s not about how we are going to make the boat, it really isn’t.

The whole project is about the artists’ original idea, it’s about the stories. The boat is just the vehicle for the stories.’