My good friend Fabi­an Bush built me a (-noth­er!) boat a few years ago and we launched her togeth­er in 2014 at West Mer­sea in Essex. Teal is named for the ‘small dab­bling duck’ in recog­ni­tion of the dir­ec­tion my sail­ing was expec­ted to take in my dot­age, and she has proved to both sail and row beau­ti­fully. She is built in epox­ied clinker ply­wood to the design ‘Aber’ by the French­man Fran­cois Vivi­er, who has done so much to com­bine design tra­di­tion with mod­ern devel­op­ments in con­struc­tion, and ease of use and main­ten­ance. ‘Aber’ is the slightly slim­mer sis­ter of ‘Ilur’, a design sailed by many hun­dreds, includ­ing dinghy cruis­er Roger Barnes whose exploits leave my occa­sion­al dab­blings com­pletely in the shade.

Aber’ and ‘Ilur’ are examples of the small lug­sail dinghy advoc­ated by Conor O’Brien in his pithy, opin­ion­ated, prac­tic­al gem of a book Sea-Boats, Oars and Sails, which first appeared in 1940; to fur­ther inspire the read­er we illus­trated our 2013 edi­tion with some glor­i­ous pho­tos by boat­build­er and sail­or Tim Cooke of his own Ilur, An Suire (The Sea-Nymph), oper­at­ing in his home waters of south-west Ire­land.

Teal, just com­pleted

Here is how Conor O’Brien intro­duces his book:

Boats are of innu­mer­able types, vary­ing with their use and the waters they are used in, but with­in its own sphere each type of work­ing boat is fixed. Not so with pleas­ure boats; their design changes at the caprice of fash­ions which fol­low racing prac­tice, vaguely and often unin­tel­li­gently, and each change increases their cost and their pre­ci­os­ity. These are times for real­ism, and noth­ing needs debunk­ing more than the yacht­ing and boat­ing busi­ness. There are now many people, and there will be more, who would like to own sail­ing boats but are deterred by the sup­posed expense of the game and the sus­pi­cion that own­ers are not, after all, get­ting sea-value for that expense. But if they ask for a plain boat with no frills on they are shown some ven­er­able relic with mis­fit sails and pre­his­tor­ic gear, and they are warned off craft which may be entirely effi­cient and up-to-date, but do not con­form with the latest fash­ion, by the hor­rible threat of being branded as unortho­dox. Most of what is writ­ten about boats is nat­ur­ally based on the ortho­dox view, and the man who wants a boat neither for class racing nor as a har­bour orna­ment, but to go to sea in, gets little guid­ance from it. This book of mine is frankly unortho­dox, in that I hold noth­ing sac­red and take noth­ing for gran­ted. I do not puff my wares with graphs and for­mu­lae like a quack medi­cine; if the read­er does not accept my con­clu­sions by the light of his own com­mon sense let him reject them; I am no pontiff, merely a seeker after truth.

By a sea-boat I under­stand one that is a means of trans­port as well as some­thing to go sail­ing in; one that will bring her owner to whatever place he wishes on any day when boats of the same size are out fish­ing. It may be as good to jour­ney hope­fully as to arrive, but a jour­ney with not even the idea of arriv­ing any­where is apt to be bor­ing; I at least have always enjoyed most those cruises which had a def­in­ite object. The boat must be fit for the jour­ney in every way. The rules of the sea put safety first, and safety is best assured by sim­pli­city of gear; the com­ple­tion of the pas­sage depends on speed, and speed is mainly a mat­ter of size; the arrival in port must not be made anxious by qualms about a bad land­ing, as it will be if the boat is very costly and fra­gile. I must stress the mat­ter of size, because the increas­ing cost of yachts and boats has reduced their size till they are only fit for the finest con­di­tions and so slow that long pas­sages are a pen­ance or an impossib­il­ity.

In writ­ing this book I have been guided entirely by con­sid­er­a­tions of prac­tic­al util­ity, though I have not for­got­ten the old say­ing that no ugly ship was ever a good one, and I have tried out in prac­tice most of the sug­ges­tions here made, before com­mit­ting them to print. Chapters II-V show vari­ous boats as they are likely to be seen by a pro­spect­ive pur­chaser, their con­struc­tion, qual­it­ies, and the fea­tures I approve or dis­ap­prove of. Chapter II may be a deterrent to the ama­teur build­er, but as there is more sat­is­fac­tion in a thing made with one’s own hands than in one merely bought, and as some spe­cial types of boats, like the one described in Chapter VI, can­not be bought, and a home-made job, how­ever crude, is bet­ter for very spe­cial work than a mis­fit, I give what I think is the easi­est meth­od of build­ing, with work­shop details. Other con­di­tions, for instance, car­riage on the roof of a car to exposed fish­ing water, dif­fi­cult beach work, or fre­quent port­ages, require a com­bin­a­tion of light­ness and sea­wor­thi­ness which is best exem­pli­fied in the cur­ragh of the West of Ire­land; that also can­not be bought, and as it is easy to build I give dir­ec­tions for doing so. Chapters VIII-XI over­haul all the equip­ment which may or may not be in a boat when bought or which may be bad and need alter­a­tion or replace­ment, and sug­gest some gad­gets and fancy rigs for those with exper­i­ment­al minds. The last four chapters are on the hand­ling of boats and gen­er­al seaman­ship. Really bad con­di­tions at sea are often passed over as things that do not hap­pen to the ama­teur boat­man; but he may be called upon at any time to save life. That call over­rides all con­sid­er­a­tions of safety first, but if it finds him unpre­pared he may be an added danger to the man in dis­tress. Our small boats can­not do much in the way of res­cue work, but I have put togeth­er from instruc­tions for lar­ger boats what I think we might do, hop­ing that my read­ers may be able to amp­li­fy from other sources what I have writ­ten.

A book of 220 pages [as laid out in the 1944 edi­tion] can­not cover the whole sub­ject of boats. I have omit­ted many details of seaman­ship whose descrip­tions are eas­ily access­ible else­where or which are bet­ter learned from a study of the actu­al work. I have omit­ted the pram, whose con­struc­tion is obvi­ous, and whose vir­tues of light­ness and cheapness are off­set by her vicious beha­viour under oars; also the dory, and all other craft with flat bot­toms or angu­lar bilges, for though cheap they can­not be light, as their form is inher­ently weak­er than a round bot­tom, and it is also less sea-kindly, how­ever well it may suit a speed-boat. I make no men­tion of full-powered craft, and I do not think an engine as aux­il­i­ary to sail is jus­ti­fied in a boat of the size I have in mind—not more than 25 feet in length and a ton in weight. I have not con­sidered the ques­tion of racing at all. Class races are won on the wind­ward leg, and go to boats of fab­ulous cost and lim­ited util­ity for other work, but han­di­cap races can be won by any boat which, though she may not be a star per­former to wind­ward, can keep up a high speed on a reach. This she will best achieve not with cast-off racing sails and gear, but with the rig suit­able for her type, with sails well-cut and well cared for, prop­erly stretched and set and accur­ately sheeted, and her hull trimmed truly to its marks. As races are often lost through slov­enly sail-trim­ming, so they may be won by close atten­tion to the smal­lest change in the force or dir­ec­tion of the wind, so that every inch of can­vas is pulling its hard­est all the time. With the rigs and with the gear which I advoc­ate in the fol­low­ing pages, with a good helms­man and a smart crew, I claim that the sea-boat could, in her own weath­er, put up a very cred­it­able fight against the more costly but less sea­worthy craft which a mixed race gath­ers to oppose her.


But what of Teal? There have been dis­trac­tions (read else­where here of Leona and Emer­ald). She now lives with my son on a sheltered inlet of the Balt­ic a few miles south of Stock­holm, where she has drawn admir­ing looks from the local boat­ing com­munity. Get­ting her there was straight­for­ward thanks to the roll-on, roll-off ferry ser­vice from Imming­ham, near Grimsby, to Gothen­burg, which can take a boat and trail­er unac­com­pan­ied, for col­lec­tion on arrival. But a word of warn­ing for oth­ers con­sid­er­ing this meth­od: You are not per­mit­ted into the cargo ter­min­al at Imming­ham without high-vis­ib­il­ity jack­et and steel-capped boots; they don’t have these to lend you, so I was obliged to buy them on the day. There is a branch of the DIY chain Wickes a few miles away which will sell you them.


As I write this (Decem­ber 2018) Sea-Boats, Oars and Sails is down to our last dozen cop­ies. It has been one of our best and stead­i­est sellers; we may reprint it.