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The White Beech Gunwales
The life of an impoverished young cruising yachty is occasionally spotted with unexpected bounty. This was to be my experience one late summer’s day as my boat was laid up on a disused slipway in Thursday Island.
I’d been sailing across the Gulf of Carpenteria from doing a stint of labouring in the mining town of Gove and T.I. was a great place to hole up and do some repairs. Back then the island was an end of the line town — a rich mixture of native Torres and Pacific Islanders; Chinese migrants; Australian bureaucrats; fisherman and of course us rag tag bunch of cruising yachties. Tales of wild nights and pub fights used to be infamous.
I remember the moment well. The mast was off and my first mate and I were busy hand sanding between countless coats of varnish on the fine grained Oregon — bringing it back to its rich golden hue. The old wooden slipway had been once been a very proud affair with three slipways; heavy winches; and a good workshop. But with the demise of the pearling luggers and the silting up of the shallow slips, it now lay idle — cared for by an islander who used it as somewhere to sleep when not at the pub.
Fortuitously the slips were deep enough for our wee gaff yawl. Maroomba had started life as a Moreten Bay (Brisbane) day racer back in the 1920s, but someone had extended her solid keel and built a small coach house making her a tidy if not cramped wee cruising home. A perennial frustration with her though was the large aft cockpit that was simply bulwarks and railings enclosing an otherwise 8x8 flat deck area (I’d long since replaced rear hatch with a flush mounted arrangement) with no where practical to sit.
Anyway, into the slipway had sauntered the diminutive and softly spoken Charlie — an elderly Chinese boat builder who'd honed his craft building and maintaining the original luggers. Charlie was looking for some timber to extend aft the keel on a Chinese Junk belonging to some friends of ours. They’d been sailing without a motor and having scored a cheap Yanmar had to install it — including drilling the hole for a new stern shaft.
I remember watching Charlie at work — drilling a 30″ long pilot hole that surfaced within an inch of his desired destination. Stroking his chin he mumbled “Not bad”. He then progressed with larger and larger bits to make a perfect job of it. Us onlookers nodded silently to each other with raised eyebrows signalling unspoken awe.
Little did I know when seeing Charlie at side entrance to the slipway that the fruit of his search were to be so providential! I joined him and among a seemingly uninspiring pile of discarded timbers as he picked out a solid 8″ x 12″ hunk of dark wood. Deftly, he took out his chisel, scraped it, then muttered — “white beech; no good; too soft” — leaving me somewhat dazed, while he went off to find some harder pieces.
There are few timbers so awed as to us wooden boat lovers as white beech. A grain so fine you need a magnifying glass to see it; who’s oily composition will weather the harshest tropical sun without so much as the smell of a linseed oil soaked rag. This was a present from the gods.
Charlie later found his timber — some Jarrah if I recall. It was too thick and he didn’t have a decent sized bench saw. With a simple shrug he got out his skill saw, made a series of cross cuts — and within 10 minutes of chiseling and planing had a perfectly thicknessed board. ( another moment for silent nodding).
I had the beech cut into generous planks; then scribed the curve of the bulwarks on them. A friend with a bandsaw cut out the two parts for each side and some copper bolts were formed from some left over 3/8″ rod to fasten them side on side. I then shaped some gussets out of the left over beech and bolted the whole thing together, including a single beech plank for the cockpit rear. A high speed sander finished the job off nicely.
As surprises go, that score in the aging shipyard will remain one of my favourite — and the resulting white beech gunwales, a wee source of pride for this similarly aging landbound dreamer.