March 20, 2013
Gathering Vital Support by Brian May, MD Berthon Boat Company. On a frosty morning at the end of February Ian Stables, Senior Project Manager at Berthon, and I drove to the quiet sleepy town of Maldon in Essex to visit the legendary Adrian Riva’s boatshed adjacent the River Chelmer and to view progress on W-3, the third West Solent to be built by Berthon, in 1923. SQUIRREL has now emerged from its snug position after five years of loving care and attention by “Aidy” and young Sam, the latter learning appropriate shipwright skills alongside his Dad. Although we arrived prepared with plans under arm it was clear from the outset that Aidy no longer had need of the original drawings having notched up some ten West Solent refits over the years; his knowledge poured forth pointing out various improvements to the original design, the most significant being the addition of a massive mast step that had been added to original drawings recently found at Berthon. Hampshire Archives had collated a series of plans that showed pencil marks adding this timber following early builds which no doubt had sprung a plank or even the garboard.
We spoke of floors, knees, splines, cockpit lengths, rudder designs and rudder stock plates, an old split original of which surfaced immaculately from a wall box stuffed full of other interesting artefacts filed assiduously away in the depths of Adrian’s mind. I was most taken by the teak deck, which had been on my list of wants and is now definitely confirmed. Grown oak frames are nowadays replaced with stronger but laminated lighter iroko which somewhat compensates for the heavier deck although, of course, the centre of weight ratios are probably not the same.
With chilly hands and frozen feet we repaired to the woodshop across the road to inspect moulds for bronze fittings and as an order was agreed I suggested we would send a purchase order on Monday. “Paperwork, purchase order, what’s that” exclaimed the horrified craftsman, “I will lump the order together with another for another [unrelated] project in six weeks or so, and when done I will invoice you.”
This episode reminded me of a recent find in an old deed box. A scion of the family-owned Scottish Grants Whisky Company had dinner with my recently deceased father when he had just taken charge of Berthon in 1960. As they rose from the table, the man who had already built a number of substantial sailing yachts pulled a pen from his inside pocket and scribed the back of his calling card thus: Order One boat subject to specification, and signed it. What a gentleman and what a way to exemplify history, where deals were done on a handshake. What a perfect end to our sojourn in Maldon. Is Brian May Gay?
Ian and I had plenty to discuss on the way home, and by the way, contra to what one might think, we took the northern route around the M25 to join the M3 south. If only everybody did things differently, but then again, a craftsman’s skill is an invaluable asset, rare and not to be scorned. I had a very happy glow from within, knowing that we were doing the right thing in restoring my great grandfather’s design, using Berthon apprentices and I had to steal a self congratulatory pat on the back knowing the three-and-a-half year 83’ BOUNTY restoration at Berthon had also been on the back of a handshake.