I was lucky enough to have a boating father, and I learned early to love rowing on the Thames, picnicing under weeping willows and watching the world go by, as my dad did all the rowing work while the rest of the family lay around the boat watching the water ripple around our fingers. Great days, and beautiful, elegant boats. Those family outings were forty-odd years ago and many of the skiffs have now been replaced by plastic boats. However, there are still skiffs on the Thames, many are treasured by doting owners, and a few can even be hired (see below).
So as we face up to winter arriving here in the UK, I’d very much like to take this opportunity to take www.intheboatshed.net readers back to the river for a few minutes to the often sunny world of rowing skiffs.
Clubs devoted to racing skiffs:
Hire a skiff:
The traditional Swan Upping event, during which skiffs and other boats are used to mark swans to show who owns them:
Traditional boat rallies on the Thames:
“The number of boating men who find pleasure merely in sailing a boat is small compared with those who delight not only in handling, but as well in planning, building, improving or ‘tinkering’ generally on their pet craft, and undoubtedly the latter derive the greater amount of pleasure from the sport. They not only feel a pride in the result of their work, but their pleasure goes on, independent of the seasons. No sooner do cold and ice interfere with sport afloat than the craft is hauled up, dismantled, and for the next half year becomes a source of unlimited pleasure to her owner – and a nuisance to his family and friends. We know one eminent canoeist who keeps a fine canoe in his cellar and feeds her on varnish and brass screws for fifty weeks of every year.”
So wrote WP Stephens in the preface to his classic 1889 manual Canoe and Boatbuilding for Amateurs. It was written at a time when the word ‘amateur’ meant something slightly different to what it says to us today, but we probably all recognise the typical boat owner’s compulsion to change and adapt. Go down to anywhere boats are moored on a Saturday morning, and whatever the tide you’ll probably find half of the craft have a happy tinkerer mooching around on board, armed with nuts and bolts, some odd fittings and a tin of varnish. What could be better, apart from actually sailing?
WP Stephens’ book is a fascinating way into the world of sailing canoes in particular, and will make your next trip to a maritime museum showing old canoes much more worthwhile. Perhaps its value lies in the way canoe designers of the time shared their designs in a way that is much less frequent now – the designs laid out in WP Stephens’ book are complete with their offsets and can be built straight off the page.
So I’d encourage you to find any excuse you can to spend an idle hour with an online book that will take you, for free, back to an earlier time: