Boatbuilding in Suffolk: why the ancient craft is growing in popularity
PUBLISHED: 18:30 18 April 2016 | UPDATED: 18:30 18 April 2016
Boatbuilding on Lake Lothing on the north Suffolk coast is experiencing a resurgence, thanks to the passion and commitment of Lyn and Mike Tupper at the International Boatbuilding Training College
While we’ll probably never again see the heady days of hundreds fishing boats in the harbours of north Suffolk, the area is still home to a buoyant boatbuilding industry. I’ve come to Lake Lothing, a watery stretch between Lowestoft’s Inner Harbour and Oulton Broad. Along Sea Lake Road there are dozens of small businesses, and copious boats of all shapes and sizes moored on the shore. And here, perfectly positioned on the northern side, is the International Boatbuilding Training College (IBTC), where I’ve come to find out about this ancient craft.
The tidal reach of the River Waveney is depicted in Ted Frost’s book, From Tree To Sea, which chronicles the building of a wooden steam boat. The rather romantic perception I have of the boatbuilding industry is further enhanced as I step inside the large workshops. It’s a hive of activity, the aroma of wood filling the air as men and women of all ages are busy working on a stunning array of wooden boats. The finish on the small sailing boat to my left looks so smooth, I can’t help running my hands across it, feeling the contours of the wood. The small sailing dinghy is the work of one of the students, a boat for his daughter – what a present that will be.
Lyn Tupper is one of the directors of IBTC. She and husband Mike bought the business in 2015. Their story sits wonderfully well within the romantic vision of the boatbuilding industry in Suffolk. With a passion for boats, they came across the college during a weekend away from their home in Tunbridge Wells. Enjoying a relaxing weekend away in Saxmundham the couple took a trip to Oulton Broad to visit the college. There was lots of wood, plenty of boats and dogs running around – Mike’s idea of heaven, laughs Lyn. “As we drove away I said to Mike, you should do the course. Within a few short months Mike enrolled. Working on the renovation of the Maxwell Cutter, Mike learned there was insufficient funding to complete the project, so he and Lyn decided to take it on once the course was finished. As one thing led to another, they discovered the college itself was on a knife edge, so they took a big leap of faith and took on the business. “We felt so strongly that this college shouldn’t die. It’s part of the heritage of the boatbuilding industry,” says Lyn.
ITBC is now in its forty-first year. The college offers an impressive range of courses, the pinnacle of which is a 47-week practical boatbuilding course teaching all the skills needed to build and maintain boats and leading to an internationally recognised qualification. There are shorter courses that appeal to a wide range of people and some that run for up to 24 weeks, including build your own boat, small boatbuilding and joinery skills, and specifics such as ropework, knots and splicing through to basic boat plumbing.
In the joinery room I meet Ian Cook, master joiner and senior lecturer, every bit the craftsman you would expect to find here, who proudly tells me he has been at the college more than 20 years. “This is where it all starts,” he says. “The students begin working with wood and within a few weeks they will achieve something like that.” He points to a beautiful and elegant handmade wooden box, made from scratch in just a few weeks, although to call it a box really doesn’t do justice to the delicate, graceful piece of woodwork. The students are immersed in their creations, studying, calculating, hammering and planing. “It’s one of those jobs you can’t help but enjoy,” says Ian. He shows me a photo album of past students’ work. One that really stands out is an 18th century style chair, made by steaming the wood.
I head towards Lake Lothing and Marine Services, the commercial part of the business, which is bursting with boats of all shapes and sizes. “Morning!” comes a shout from the deck of the boat towering above me, followed by a haze of dust from the painstaking job of sanding the large cruiser. Inside a large marquee is another alluring boat, The Skerryvore, which is in for a complete rebuild. Young boatbuilder Laurence Walker squats beneath the stem of this impressive structure, busy working on the stem of the boat, replacing old timber new wood in gorgeous shades, planing, then laminating it. He completed the course at IBTC in 2009 and joined the commercial side of the business three years ago after finding employment first in Southwold. The Skerryvore is a long term project well underway. It’s only when I climb on the deck and venture among the new timbers that its size can be truly appreciated.
Watching the students and lecturers at work on their respective projects, the craft of boatbuilding comes alive. I can’t help but think what a disaster it would have been had the college not been taken on by Lyn and Mike. In the main workshop students are busy fitting out, hammering, crafting and intently working on boats. Head instructor Peter Graham is another long serving member of the college with the air of a man who clearly knows his stuff. He guides me towards a couple of fine examples of projects underway, with delicate and graceful curves, the wood carefully bending and smoothing throughout the structures of the boats. “Look at this planking” he says enthusiastically. “This is called clinker and is my favourite.” Clinker is a method of boat building in which the edges of hull planks overlap, called a ‘land’. At the work bench, Peter gets a student to show me the piece he is working on. To my untrained eye, it looks an impossible task. I stare at the piece of dark wood and try to work out the angles and cuts required to join them so smoothly. I give up.
IBTC is open daily and welcomes visitors (please call beforehand). Details of courses can be found at www.ibtc.co.uk