The Decked Canoe Archives
Assembled by Tim Gittins
Craft I Have Owned And Sailed
from Uffa Fox Thoughts on Yachts and Yachting
The first vessel I set out to build was never completed, and it happened this way. When I was fifteen my father gave me a fine oak tree growing 75 yards from the house on condition that I grubbed it up by the roots,so I drew out the plans of a 20 ft. water-line centreboard cruiser to suit this tree.
The butt was to make the main keel through which the centreboard was to work, while her stem was shaped to suit the great curved branch. The various crooks were to be hanging knees, and the main deck beams would be swept out of the more gently curved branches. All this planning took me through the autumn, then when winter came and the sap had gone down out of the tree I started work digging out the roots and lopping off the branches above them, for it is said that if a branch is broken or cut off a tree, the root going out underneath it should be cut and dug out too to balance the tree, for the roots of an oak go out underground as far as the branches do above.
It was very hard work using a cross axe, pickaxe and graft digging out these roots, but finally only the tap root was left, and I clapped a tackle high up on the oak. A gang of friends came on to it, and we hauled the tree down, but that root did not give until the top was only 20 ft. or so above the ground, then with a crash my oak was down. The net job was to line the wood out, rear it up in the air and borrow pit saws to saw out the keel, stem, horn timbers, etc., and after many weeks of hard work the main framing was ready to set up. But by this time the I914 War was well under way, and it was almost impossible to buy copper, and even if I could have done so, it was beyond my small means. So this cruiser was abandoned, her main keel having a sad end, for, sawn in halves, it made two gate posts, which are still standing, and still swing a gate twenty-four years after.
I felt very sad over this, my first attempt at building a vessel to take me to sea, for even more than the abandoning a job after months and months of thought and work was the sad thought that I, a young boy, had destroyed a beautiful oak tree that had taken some hundreds of years to grow, and through all those years had stood every gale that blew and had afforded security for nesting birds.
I then bought from S. E. Saunders the first hydroplane he ever built, on condition that I broke her up. Her bottom, which was double diagonal, I used as a scrieve board, but her topsides in wide mahogany planks I cut down, and with this for planking built a 16ft.by 2ft. 9 in. sailing canoe for cruising, as, being smaller, she was an easier and quicker job, but even so took many months of spare time to build.
In her I sailed a great many miles, and perhaps just one small week-end cruise will give an idea of the pleasure she gave me.
On this particular Friday there was a dance, which I had to attend, and so in the alternoon I sailed her from Cowes round to Gurnard Bay where I could rejoin her and sail straight away after the dance. It was high water at midnight, and a smart northerly breeze was blowing, so I had rather a job launching her from the lee shore, though the Solent at this spot is only three to four miles in width; but once I had paddled her clear of Gurnard Ledge buoy I lowered the forward and main dropkeel to its full extent, and set both main and mizen, and was soon reaching down the Solent on a starboard tack at quite a good speed, and with the ebb tide to help me made short miles of it out through the Needles across Poole Bay into Swanage Bay, where I anchored and cooked and had my breakfast, after which I paddled her ashore and went for a ramble among the Tillywhim Caves.
The northerly wind still continuing decided me on sailing round the south side of the island back to Cowes. So I went aboard and set sail on a course for St. Catherine's, and though there was quite a sea for such a small craft she held her course dead true, for once her after centreboard was down it was difficult to get her off the course she was on. The two centreboards being so apart made the boat extremely steady on any given course.
Those who know the beauty of the Isle of Wight, as seen from the sea, can imagine the joy I felt once past the Needles, as I reached along in the smooth water under the lee of the island for St. Catherine's in the little canoe I had made for myself, for generally in this world we are fighting against the elements, but here the elements were working for me. The wind was just abaft the beam, the sea smooth and my little cralt, which I had designed and built myself, was carrying me without any effort past scenery which I knew and loved.
Coming through Rocken End Race off St. Catherine's I stopped my dreaming, for I had to look after the canoe with every nerve alive and alert as the seas were steep and dangerous for such a little boat. Her very smallness had one advantage, however, that I could take each wave exactly as I wished, and so she came through safely and we were soon on the beach at Puckaster Cove, where I decided to spend the remainder of the day and night. As will be seen from her plans the dropkeels were arranged to give sleeping accommodation between them, while for a length of 5 ft. most of the deck could be lifted up, and this with canvas sides formed a cosy cabin.
After hauling the canoe up, rigging the cockpit tent and cooking and eating my big meal of the day, I walked the five miles into Ventnor, saw some friends and then walked back to Puckaster Cove to sleep aboard the canoe. It was wet scrambling down over the steep hill and cliff that night to join the canoe, whil St. Catherine's light was swinging its wide blinding beam round and then leaving me in pitch darkness.
After a night's sleep I got under way again, but now the wind had gone into the south-east, and there wsa too much of it for the mizen, which was stowed and the mast lashed down on the deck. Sailing her across Sandown Bay to Culver Cliff was very exacting and exciting work, for she was going so fast on this close reach that she cut her way through the seas and seemed more under than on top of the water. Once she lifted buoyantly to each and, though sailing even faster, was quite dry. After Bembridge Ledge it was a free run home with the island to break the worst of the seas. I could sit in her and steer with the rudder bar, and was able to set the mizen off Ryde, and so finish my week-end cruise with full sail, arriving in Cowes on Sunday night, having had my lungs filled with good clean sea air, and feeling quite content and fit for the week's work, which would start on the morrow.
Other times this little canoe would travel in the davits of a friend's yacht to be launched when we arrived at a port where she could be used by myself. So this my first boat brought me so much contentment and happiness that I knew I could never forsake the sea.
As well as this, though still quite young, it brought home to me the fact that many of us on our journey through life are content to drift along and let our fate shape itself, whereas by a little strenght and determination we can do a great deal towards moulding our future. If a boy by thought and work can alter and shape his own leisure hours, so a grown man can alter and shape his future life if he only puts forth the energy to do so, and I remember the clergyman who, having praised a countryman's garden and then listened to him explaining just how he had brought about this state of perfection, said to him, "but surely you should give some credit to the Lord"; to which the man replied, "Why bless you no, you should have seen the state this ground was in when the Lord had it all to himself."