I was once sitting nervously in a dentist’s waiting room, flicking through a pile of frightful lifestyle magazines when I came across a copy of Model Boats from 1979. What was it doing there? Inside, among all the intimidatingly complex models, was a simple, elegant design for a tea clipper made from basic materials. The introduction (this was 1979) described clippers as “the most beautiful of all man’s creations”. High praise. Better still, there was a small black and white photo of it actually sailing. I was enchanted.
I’m afraid to say that I swiped the journal – fair exchange for the filling I had to endure. Years later, I found the magazine after a house move. By then I had an eight-year-old son. The new house was near the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal and had a workshop at the end of the garden. Boy, workshop, water: the build was on.
The plans were vague and used unmeasurable fractions of inches but the essentials involved shaping the bows and stern of the hull from 2-by-1 softwood. Then I needed balsa, a material I hadn’t touched for at least 30 years. I cannot praise Abergavenny Model Shop more highly for the warm welcome and advice they gave me. Balsa bought, I shaped it to form a deck, using wedges at each end to create a sloping effect that gave the ship a lovely rakish appearance.
With a bit of filler in the gaps and a lot of sanding, I began to see a ship shape emerge. I slathered it in black paint to hide a multitude of evils, and then varnished it. At this point the instructions recommended making a keel and embarking on the first sea trial. A four-ounce fishing weight did the trick. The boy and I tried the boat in the bath and it floated with perfect balance.
Masts were made with dowel rods and I created rigging out of black, extra strong cotton. It was about this time that I rediscovered the banana fingers of my childhood – the ones that used to reduce every Airfix kit to a gluey mess. Nevertheless, I was beginning to feel proud of my efforts. Of course, by now my son had long lost interest and I had to finally admit that I was flying solo.
I made the sails from white greaseproof paper with a cunning hidden thread pulled taught behind them to make it look as if they were billowing with the wind. And suddenly the thing was finished. It wasn’t perfect but I couldn’t stop looking at it – it was by far the loveliest thing I’d ever made save for an apple crumble back in 2005.
But there’s no point making a seagoing tea clipper without it actually going to sea. It was a horribly nerve-shredding moment: letting the result of two weeks’ labour free. In fact I bailed out of the first launch, on a boating lake in South Wales – there were far too many witnesses and fishermen, and we couldn’t launch her until we’d named her anyway. After much debate, she became the Wrach Môr, Welsh for “Sea Witch”.
Her first voyage was on the canal, when the wind was blowing along up the water so that she would sail parallel to us. For extra security, I tied a few yards of cotton to her that she could be recovered if she sailed beyond reach.
Wrach Môr went better than I could have ever hoped, straight as an arrow and leaving a satisfying v-shaped wake behind her. The boy and I found ourselves jumping up and down and whooping in pursuit. Her sails were fixed and set square to the hull so she could only ever sail downwind but that was good enough for me. A couple of joggers even stopped to watch.
We later set our boat free – untethered – on a little natural lake in the Brecon Beacons where she sailed for a couple of hundred yards and I only got a little wet recovering her. It was a thrilling experience and I felt a simple childish joy at watching the little vessel I’d made use the wind’s power to sweep across her tiny ocean. And there was always a frisson of excitement in the knowledge that she might not make it back.
I am enormously grateful to a man named Frank Wilson who designed the boat. You can now find his plans in a book published in the 1998: Ten Simple Sailing (Special Interest Model Books). Here the updated diagrams are all in metric and lots of the vague instructions from the original magazine have been corrected. Why not give it a go? You can’t buy a boat like this and it offers an absorbing new way to connect with your local waterway. I’m already building boat number two.