Stars fade, others ascend
As John Macfarlane explains in this issue’s Reflections column, New Zealand’s traditional boatbuilding industry finds itself in a bit of a dilemma.
Our maritime heritage is richly endowed with fine, functioning examples of boats built in the early part of the 20th century – some in the closing years of the 19th century – but restoring and maintaining these vessels is becoming increasingly difficult.
Mainly because the required knowledge and skill is itself disappearing and is in danger of being lost forever. New recruits are, well, non-existent. The world of scarfing, lap joints, steamed planks and caulking has limited appeal for a 21st century school-leaver.
Should we be worried? Or do we simply accept that this is an inevitable part of progress? We’ll leave the responsibility to a few senior enthusiasts and specialists until they’re no longer able to wield a chisel? I don’t like that option, but equally, I’ve no clear alternatives to offer.
Still, a little more optimism can be found at the other end of the boatbuilding spectrum. Also in this issue is Ben Gladwell’s story about the high-tech operation at Warkworth’s Core Builders Composites. It’s an extraordinary facility – filled largely by young experts forging ahead through a world of CAD, carbon-fibre, 3D printing with titanium and CNC machining.
Pretty inspirational stuff, even though I don’t entirely understand all of it…
So if it’s possible to take any comfort from the traditional boatbuilding industry’s quandary, perhaps it’s this: sunset industries are part of a natural cycle. Just as horse-drawn carts surrendered to steam and steam to oil, so timber boats have evolved through fibreglass into composites and other materials I can’t spell or pronounce. Sadly, the skills fade during the progression.
There will probably come a time – not too far in the future – when boatbuilders will lament the lack of staff able to properly apply layers of carbon-fibre. The skills will have faded away.
And they’ll tell their grandchildren of a time – long, long ago – when boats truly were things of beauty, all gleaming brightwork and shining brass – and made of wood.