History Repeats Itself : Deben 4 Tonner : Leading Wind

Two thoughts for the day :

1. Boats are dangerous mistresses : 2. Beware of social media

Over the years I have owned a ragtag  collection of boats and my latest is no exception, “Leading Wind, a Deben 4 Tonner, built in 1938, has had a large number of previous owners, not least my late mother, Pat Wood, who restored the boat in Ipswich in 1992.  Sadly, ill  health led her sell the boat, only to buy another smaller boat almost immediately but that’s another story !

For more years than I care to admit,  on the outskirts of Portsmouth, I have been involved in a labour of love – the restoration of  a little 1920’s gaff rigged cutter – therefore I certainly had no intention of buying another boat ! However, thanks to the perils of social media, a friend from a FACEBOOK Classic Boat group suggested that I took a look at a link to an online auction site, where as luck [fate ?] would have it my mothers old boat was for sale and what’s more it was lying ashore on the South Coast – not the East, where I last saw her.

I drove down to the boatyard in West Sussex and was greeted by a very pretty little boat that had been sadly neglected for many years and although quite tempted, when I got home I decided not to make a bid on her. Instead I emailed the owner, wished him luck with the sale and told him of my connection to the boat and East Anglia and mentioned that I had a lot of paperwork and photos of the boat, which perhaps the new owner might like. I received a very nice reply and I continued watching the auction site and spent a lot of time deliberating about whether to place a bid. Next I spoke to various friends in the marine business and they reminded me of the pitfalls of buying old wooden boats. The end of the auction came and went and I had mixed feelings –  pleased with myself for not getting tempted but a little deflated. The next weekend I returned to my mothers old house and discovered reams of bills of sales,  assorted paperwork and even more photos of the “Deben 4 Tonner'” and began to wonder whether I had made the right decision. Then on the following Monday I received an email from the owner saying that the person who “won” the auction admitted that he “didn’t have any money” and couldn’t honour his obligation to buy Leading Wind. The owner then went on to say that he wanted to walk away from the transaction and that he wanted to offer the boat to me at no cost- a dilemma ! Possibly – very foolishly I said yes please !

A couple of weeks passed by and we exchanged a number of emails and although the boat was technically mine I became worried that the whole thing was not going to happen – but it did and the owner and I met in a car park, exchanged a bootle of wine for a bill of sale, a 22 foot classic boat plus a car full of assorted bits and pieces of the boat that the owner had in dry storage at his home.

Leading Wind was described as a “Project” which sounded alarm bells straight away – as a former director of a yacht chandlery and someone who has spent years working on wooden boats, I know a little bit about the potential issues.  However,  as an artist I am all too often ruled by my heart. I knew that the boat had a considerable amount of work done on her and from my cursory inspection, the hull was basically sound but as the boat had been left ashore with only a cockpit cover over her there were signs that rainwater had got inside and caused a multitude of problems. The previous owner suffered ill health and was unable to get down to the boat to regularly pump out the bilges and ensure clear ventilation and again this also has taken it’s toll. Added to this, over the years various local scoundrels have helped themselves to bronze deck fittings and left screw holes unprotected – so the integrity of the glass sheathed plywood deck may well be compromised – I will only know the full extent of this once I have stripped off the toe rails, rubbing strakes and sheathing off – exposing the surface of the ply. The previous owner had sanded the peeling deck paint off in readiness for a new layer of protection but sadly the new paint never got applied !

One thing that I learned about wooden boats is the importance of engaging a marine surveyor to do a report early on and that’s exactly what I’ve done. The recent inclement weather delayed the process a little but things are now well underway and following two days of inspection I  have been given an interim/summary report,  and at the end of the week I’ll get a more exhaustive list of issues to be dealt with.

Another uncanny coincidence was that my surveyor was not only very enthusiastic about the Deben 4 Tonners but he was a former manager of the Whistocks boatyard in Woodbridge  that built them.

It’s my intention to get a professional shipwright involved early on and get the majority of the difficult stuff done over the next six months. I will do the cosmetic work and the interior, which will all have to be disassembled to allow access to the frames, some of which will need replacing or sister frames adding alongside. We discovered rot in the gripe, which is a large flat piece of elm that sits on top of the wooden keel and supports the mast step – so that along with some new floors (bilateral beams) is the first major job. The metal keel will also need dropping and the keel bolts inspecting or replacing but that’s another story.

The engine will need to come out to allow further access to the structure of the boat. As the engine was winterised possibly 10 years ago, this will need some TLC and although it looks relatively clean there may be internal water damage – so marine engineers will be rubbing their hands with glee. The 31 foot mast has been condemned and a quote has been obtained for its replacement. The standing rigging and fittings all look in relatively good condition so these can be transferred from the old to the new mast although that is not a priority. I aim to get rid of the deck stepped tabernacle and put the mast back through the deck. This will mean that I can restore the cleaner lines down below and give easier access forward by dismantling the bulkheads which were put in to support and distribute the weight of the deck stepped mast. My mother was responsible for that modification as it was her intention to take the boat up to the Norfolk Broads and it was thought to be easier to have the mast on deck to facilitate getting it up and down to go under the numerous bridges.

So to summarise, History Repeats Itself , “Leading Wind” will live again and now that she is back  under Wood family ownership she will be fully restored [again] to her prime in 1938 when her lady owner sailed her single handed around Britain.

At present I have no plans of sailing around Britain but as an artist it’s my intention to use my “Deben” as a floating studio – every marine artist should have one !


Chris N Wood



About chriswoodartist

painter, print-maker and illustrator

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