Iain Oughtred: a life in wooden boats – a searching biography by Nic Compton

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Iain Oughtred: a life in wooden boats examines an unusual individual. Revered designer and small boat sailor Oughtred is an uncomfortable loner who has often felt at odds with many elements of his upbringing and his home country Australia, a wonderful designer’s eye and a clear sense of purpose. He’s also a man with almost incredible amount of determination and focus.

If you don’t already know Oughtred’s work, you probably should: he draws beautiful boats and his highly detailed plans have earned huge respect from those who have built them. One of a small group of designers and boatbuilders who pioneered the clinker or lapstrake approach to plywood boatbuilding during the 1970s and 80s, his designs borrow heavily from traditional craft, which he studies closely.

Yet there are some paradoxes here. Unlike other designers whose work draws from the tradition, almost all of his boats have a certain something that makes them instantly identifiable as being from his board. Another contradiction is that although Oughtred has over time drawn and re-drawn his boats with the aim of making them easier to build, few dinghy sailors building a boat for the first time feel confident enough to tackle one.

In fact, the home boatbuilders who seem most attracted to Oughtred’s work are at the most craftsman-like end of the spectrum of amateur builders. It’s certainly not always so, but these folks are quite often mainly interested in building a boat that seems to them a work of art – for some, actually sailing a lively small boat designed by a dinghy racing master is quite often a frightening prospect.

In writing Iain Oughtred: a life in wooden boats, author Nic Compton has explained much of this. He’s written a strikingly personal biography that shows clearly how Oughtred’s difficult childhood and dislike of a foreign and brash commercial culture led the boat designer to escape as far as possible from his Australian roots, becoming first very English and later very Scottish.

However, I’m less sure that he has managed to link the life to the boats themselves.

We expect biographies of composers or artists to link life events to their output – but the trick is difficult if not impossible when we’re talking about boats, and it’s perhaps harder to justify some of the public exposure Compton has included. Yet exposure is what we often ask from celebrities nowadays, and journalist Nic Compton’s instincts will all have been pulling strongly in the direction of more, not less disclosure.

Has he got the balance right? On balance I think he probably has, if only just. Reading this book, I find I’m glad to know more about this gentle man. I’m not remotely autistic, but I can identify strongly with his school life blighted by asthma and his sense of being different from other people, both of which I’ve also experienced to an extent. I’ve always respected his ability painstakingly to go on drawing more and more achingly beautiful boats, but now I know how he has struggled to keep going I have to admire him all the more. I just hope that publicising the sometimes difficult story of his life has not made the man himself uncomfortable.

Buy it or not? I say go ahead and expect to learn a lot about the wooden boat movement in general as well as an important boat designer. Iain Oughtred: a life in wooden boats

For more posts relating to Iain Oughtred’s work, click here.

Also, see 70.8% on the new Oughtred biography, together with a bundle of photos.

 

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3 thoughts on “Iain Oughtred: a life in wooden boats – a searching biography by Nic Compton”

  1. Gavin, this is a thoroughly enjoyable review. Insightful, considered and revealing, without revealing too much. I will learn from this. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Thomas! I was beginning to think no-one had noticed it!

      Hopefully I've brought some useful points to the debate. I think the question of how far it's appropriate to go over the private lives of boat designers is an important one an that requires some serious thought – and I hope the author of any planned biography of Phil Bolger will consider the matter carefully.

      Of course personal lives affect people's outlook and to some extent their work, but how does one address this dimension of a person in a fair and objective way? Can it even be done when so many of the involved individuals are still alive and may wish for privacy? Conversely, can it be done when those individuals have passed away and are unable to make their contribution? I think this is an extremely difficult area!

  2. Morning Gavin, I have not read it yet, but your comment re the boat as a work of art struck home with me. Ian's boats have a beauty and balance about them that is rare and combined with robust practicality and seeming simplicity. A sense of proportion throughout, and even in some a sense of humor but that may be my reading of course. Working as he does at that end of the boat design spectrum, he get's less acclaim in the general boating press than his talent deserves.

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