Meandering with Arwen.

Title photograph : Navigator ‘Arwen‘ Steve Parke photograph.

Welcome to the first post in an entirely new blog thread , in this thread I intend to cover other boats, other sailors and notably those whom have built their own boats- their adventures as well and where it’s also their thing the ways in which they share what they do with the world. This also forms part of my new ‘thin water’ series where I talk about adventures close to home – in a way the engaging micro-adventures that my friend Steve seems to have in his home built boat ‘Arwen’

For some time now Iv’e been aware that Iv’e gone into full head down mode with my own project, hardly interacted with other sailors and even the sea …..aside from a quick splash up and down the waters edge in Wells by the sea last year ; i notice that my blog has become very ‘me’ orientated which is why I wrote the ‘Covid Coda” and I think that long term that’s not a good place to be and it’s something I intend to talk about in the second post of this series.

I thought I would start this new thread of posts close to home, with a local sailor and producer of enjoyable sailing video’s and also someone who built his own boat ‘Arwen’ – a John Welsford designed ‘Navigator’ design remarkably similar to the boat which i’m building in my backyard ; my Pathfinder just looks like a bigger version of the excellent Navigator and for a while I even thought about building the smaller boat. Arwen’s builder and owner is local guy Steve Parke who very kindly came up to the boatyard when I was working on my previous boat and graciously gave me an interview for my book project – I have to add that when Steve turned up I was underneath the boat and black from the old paint that I was grinding off the underside of the Liberty ; Steve took my filthy and disheveled state all in his stride so….

Right at the start and specifically for those who have never seen one of Steve’s video’s of cruising locally with Arwen I thought it best to embed one of his video’s – I thought this one, below, would be a great introduction because it features my own home river, the Tamar, and I think was shot on the day that I tried to chase Steve upriver in the old gaffer ‘Inanda’ which we’d just finished bring around from the east coast that same day. This video is one of a series that covers the Tamar up to Calstock where I once kept my own boats and which, for a while, I thought was the nicest setting that iv’e ever kept a boat ; how things change – the river is still the same and I miss it but the boatyard is in different hands .

Chasing Arwen…..

Now, let me say that our man Steve claims to be a not very good sailor who just enjoys cruising around our local area aboard his 14 foot cruising dinghy Arwen ; I disagree because despite being in a bigger boat with a lot more sail area up that I couldn’t catch him up that morning and the last I saw of him was disappearing around a bend in the Tamar when I thought I would just go catch him up, have a gam and catch some good photographs. Fat chance – in the river it was gentle and fluke-y going and the Navigator seemed to pick up every slight gust and just scooted away from us.

My story is that we , that’s my partner, me and ‘Inanda’ had just sailed into Plymouth sound that morning on the last leg of our delivery voyage around from Ipswich on the east coast – we were literally just entering the narrow tidal channel over the reef and submarine barrier that joins Drakes island to the foreshore under Mt Edgecombe when we lost our throttle cable and we had to engineer a quick solution with a pair of molegrips and some baling wire. The gaffer that i’d bought with the intention of refitting her as a more capable cruising boat was an old Deben 4 tonner -while she didn’t sail at all well in an upwind channel chop she was great downwind because of that big gaff mainsail and in fact the day before we’d had an impromptu race with another gaffer coming out of the river Dart and the pair of us overtook 3 larger modern cruiser-racers so I was feeling pretty confident about catching up with this little cruising dinghy with it’s tiny looking yawl rig.

I did work out that it must have been Steve and Arwen – we talked online but never got to meet until two years later when I’d just got back from my long Brittany cruise and Steve came up the yard and fished me out from underneath the Liberty where I was filthy black from scraping off years of old antifoul…..lovely job !

Steve and Arwen in the Tamar….Steve Parke photograph

Lets talk about Arwen.

Arwen is a John Welsford ‘Navigator’ design and with over 300 sets of plans sold one of his most popular designs . The original concept was that of a race trainer for three young people that would reward good sailing technique but the surprise was what an excellent and seaworthy cruising boat the design could be ,with a comfortable motion and enough power and stability to drive through an awkward sea when needed. The bare details are as follows : length 14 ft 9 inches, beam 5 ft 10, weight 309 lbs and sail area 176 sq ft.

My impression of the design is that it suits Steve well as a mostly solo sailor – enough boat to do interesting things with but not too much boat to handle ; Steve regularly camps aboard the boat during his trips and remember that his trips aren’t all in sheltered and inshore waters but include coastal passages up and down our rocky and exposed coast. Reading between the lines of the answers that Steve responded to my questions with it also seems that the boat had to be built in his garage and with a scant two feet spare front and back this was just about the maximum boat that he could build inside his garage.

Something that I was curious about was why Steve chose that designer and that specific design – his answer being a bit like my own thought process but with different parameters and of course a different answer ; although it seems like there are lots of potentially viable boat designs out there in fact there aren’t many that would make a solid and seaworthy cruising design that could cope with coastal conditions and open water. It was similar for me except that I was working in a slightly longer hull length and if anything then with even less choice – an internet friend who is also a professional sailor made a more formal assessment of boats, even using an Excel programme to compare numbers. One big problem is that there aren’t many designers working in the genre of small cruising dinghy’s and dayboats also intended for home construction ; Steve mentioned two of the sources I also looked at – the Selway Fisher page and John Welsford’s own site – for a while it seems we were looking at similar designs in both.

Steve’s real background in the great outdoors isn’t originally as a sailor, rather he was a mountaineer first -and strangely just as I was ; he says that one way of looking at dinghy cruising is that it’s a bit like backpacking except that he carries way too much kit and stores on board but the boat is intended to carry 150 Kg of crew and their gear so I suspect that it’s well within it’s capability.

Designer John Welsford said of one navigator “This yawl rigged version of Navigator has been really popular, there are Navigators as far north as Finland, Norway and Denmark, and as far south as Invercargill ( 47° deg south, really roaring forties territory). We have had a letter from an owner who sailed from Torquay in England along the coast, across the English Channel and north past France and Holland, ending the odyssey in Sweden! A very long way in an open boat, but as the letter said, the only long voyage was the 32 miles of open water as they crossed to France and from there on it was ten or twenty miles at a time.

Building Arwen.

When we first spoke a couple of years back Steve told me that part of his impetus to build the boat came from his wife who felt that , at the time, he needed to get out of the house and do something creative with his time ; it sounds as though his job at the time was causing him a fair amount of stress which sounds all too familiar. As I said earlier Steve built the boat in his garage over two and a half years of a couple of hours a night and some weekend work – and with a bit of help from his retired engineer father ; one story that Steve told me is that during the fitting of one part his father noted and complained that there was a 1 mm gap – therefore the part didn’t fit…..i dream of 1 mm gaps !.

As with my own build, which is structurally similar, Steve met many of the same problems as I did during my own build – I had a bilge chine stringer literally explode on me under bending load and Steve had the difficult bow plank do the same thing. On his website designer John Welsford says that both designs aren’t basic boats to build but rather they are intermediate boats ; the build I think pushed both of us as neither of us came at it with a high level of skill although iv’e done lots of boat maintenance but never built a boat from a stack of plywood but Steve had previously finished one boat and built a couple of ply-epoxy canoes.

I asked Steve about the boat’s name ‘Arwen’ as I have more than a passing interest in the names people give their boats, soon, for example, I’m going to have to explain the meaning of my own boat’s name ; having grown up with J.R. Tolkien’s books, The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, instantly connected Arwen with the character of that name in book and film but in Steve’s case it isn’t quite like that. I didn’t realize that Arwen is an actual name with Celtic roots, I don’t,for example, know anyone actually called Arwen today and if their was it would likely be the unfortunate daughter of a 1960’s Welsh hippy……purely in my opinion of course !. It’s a nice name for a boat though even if I mentally see Liv Tyler in full Elvish rig and pointy Vulcan ears every time I see it mentioned.

Arwen. Steve Parke photograph

Parallel lives.

One of the things that most surprised me when we first met was that we seem to have lived parallel lives professionally and in the outdoors – different jobs for sure as Steve was a teacher whereas I was a nurse with a similar kind of path through the various jobs I did and the responsibilities I held : obviously we were once both students of our own field, then ‘staff’ teacher and staff nurse and where I became a charge nurse and then specialist nurse Steve became a senior teacher, a trainer of teachers and then an inspector of schools and teachers. Neither of us have been drawn to being managers although both of us inevitably had ‘management’ responsibility at times, mine became risk management for our team as I was the only one with some idea of how to do it and Steve’s became an increasing weight of report writing. Stranger still we both ended up simply doing the basic work of teacher and nurse at the end of our professional lives.

As with our working and professional lives we are similar in that we’ve both had ‘other’ lives in the outdoors although neither of us originally intended to become sailors – rather, both of us started out in the mountains first and only discovered sailing later on. At various times both of us have been canoeists and sea kayakers and then both had bigger adventures ; most of mine were at sea where Steve’s was in the mountains – often leading expeditions as part of his school life.

Going back nearly ten years I was at the stage in my life as a nurse when i’d totally had enough….had enough that is of continuously kicked this way and that by nurse managers, so I took early retirement, had a short cruise in my Frances 26 and then my partner and I bought a run down miners cottage just over the border in Cornwall and I set to with the work that was needed : it was live-able in but the roof and floor needed renewing and the huge, to me, gardens needed a total rebuild. By accident rather than design I became an interior fitter and decorator and full time heavy work gardener ; we sold the Frances and I pretty much turned my back on sailing , after all I was a triple cape Horner and wasn’t getting much that was new from my own sailing life.

After long hard and muddy days in the garden I relaxed a bit in the evening with video’s on Youtube – we don’t have a television and in fact haven’t had one now for 20 years ; I can’t say that I miss it either. Something that came up early on in my recommendations list were short video clips of some bloke called Dylan Winter sailing a ‘crap boat’….his words, not mine, in and out of all of the rivers and harbors of the English coastline from the eastern Solent right around to the east coast and beyond ; I think when I found Dylan’s site he was already in year 5 of his trip and only as far as the Humber in north east England. While I’d given up on the world of big boat sailing I was active in bushcraft and still had this odd hankering to do something like a slow coastal voyage and exploring all of the rivers and creeks ‘Dylan’ style except that I felt that the idea needed an even smaller boat.

It was Dylan Winter that inspired me to get a part time job and finance a small boat to do the same kind of thing – I made a mistake, I think, by buying a boat that was a bit too large for the job but which we had a whole load of fun with and even took across the channel to Brittany : by then though I was well into a small group of video channels that if anything showed me maybe how I should have been doing it… of those was Steve Parke and his voyages with Arwen and in his own blog mentions the other channels that inspired him like for example ‘Eyeinhand’.

Steve himself, as a teacher, might say that un-learning an established idea and learning a new one , especially in middle age, is a harder exercise than learning something fresh when young ; I came at the world of small craft as an established big boat (Maxi yacht) crew, mate and skipper and I would say had a lot to ‘un’ learn and move on from. Now, one of the obvious things with Maxi yachts is that if you turn up with one in Plymouth say then there’s only so far you can get because first you’re going to run out of water with that 14 foot draft and then you’re going to run into tall things like the Tamar bridges which ‘only’ have limited clearance for a big fractional rig ; in these respects the modern Maxi yacht is like a ship and like smaller but deep fin keel yachts has always shaped my thinking about where I can get to and where I can anchor or go alongside.

The first time I took my little centerboard Liberty up a river until the board was catching in the mud…..and then deliberately drying out and stepping over the side for a walk was a total revelation.

Hunter Liberty WABI”’

I started with my own first attempts at being a blogger – “Graffiti with punctuation” (Stephen Fry), when I bought the little Liberty and got it home to Cornwall, I had a few tries with video work and really didn’t like what I turned out – I hated my voice, for example, and i felt most strongly that I was just copying other people’s work and style so I stopped trying to film video and concentrated instead on trying to write and take stills pictures better than I did when I started out. On reflection today I think I was also going through the process of unlearning how to be a hairy-arsed hero Maxi sailor doing big adventures in the southern ocean and hadn’t yet found my feet (and story) as a small craft sailor ; incidentally I still think that way although I learnt a huge amount from the little Liberty.

Somewhere along the line with my Liberty I came across Steve, his channel and Arwen – my first reaction being that it was nice to see my own home cruising ground through different eyes and then as I watched more of his work I began to see what he was getting at ; the ‘message’ and intent if you will. For a while with the Liberty I just saw my passage down the Tamar as something to be got past before I could get into the ‘real’ adventure of a coastal or offshore voyage and I didn’t see my home rivers as somewhere to cruise and enjoy ; Steve on the other hand is completely putting across the idea of the adventure close to home – he uses the term ‘micro-adventures’ . Incidentally I have the book of the same title by author Alastair Humphreys which is a good read but which went past me slightly and which I didn’t get the best from – I feel today that it deserves a second read, especially in the light of so much ‘proper’ adventure being inexplicably and illogically closed to us these last two years.

For most of my life in the outdoors I thought of ‘adventure’ as something big and far away that I needed to prepare and train for and that adventure happened somewhere else – like in the southern ocean or the High Sierra mountains ; today i’m less sure about that and it’s through seeing my own home river through other eyes that is changing my mind….that and other video work like Australian home adventurer Beau Miles who does bonkers things on his own doorstep.

However and once again this isn’t about me trying to be a producer of content , either ‘Graffiti with Punctuation’ or poor copies of much better work like Dylan’s and Steve’s but rather I’m taking a look at what other bloggers, vloggers, home boatbuilders and waterborne adventurers are doing and talking about what they do. Slowly, I seem to getting the hang of these word thingies and maybe one day I will surprise myself with a post that reads well several weeks after posting it ; I failed at video work though and I recognize that all I did was make a copy of a copy – a poor one at that.

Steve is clear about what he is doing , micro-adventures with his home built boat and he puts that across well in his video work which I greatly enjoy ; perhaps it’s best for me to wind this up with a section taken directly from his own blog.

Vlogging, is the art of taking an audience on a story journey through video and thanks to YouTube there has been an explosion of sailing videos and vlogs over the last few years. Some, such as SV Delos and Vagabond, are huge sensations, earning their crews’ serious money and sponsorship via their Patreon funding websites. We all need occasional inspiration from watching others sailing exotic climes, whilst doing adventurous activities and meeting interesting local characters but not all vlog content needs to be exclusive, expensive, highly produced or celebrity driven.

 The YouTube videos of Creeksailor, Dylan Winter, Eyeinhand and Roger Barnes, for example, with their mix of home spun wisdom, reflection on life, small boat cruising tips and simply stunning sailing footage are equally pleasurable and as successful in their own way.  Slow flowing waters in muddy creeks with their slumbering seals and wading birds; reed lined river channels with traditional boat traffic; open coastal scenery with swirling tidal currents and diving birds; in all honesty, this is more naturally where my interests lie.  I am a dinghy cruiser, who has for several years been recording short video diaries and more recently vlogs of my cruises on board my self-built 14’ John Welsford designed standing lug yawl ‘Arwen’.

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