Coast magazine - Ben Harris: Master boatbuilder

Amongst the creeks and coves of the Cornish coast, small businesses devoted to craft and tradition thrive. On the sheltered south coast, near Falmouth, a community of Cornish sailors flourish in the calm waterways of the Carrick Roads. Ben Harris is a fully signed up member of that community, and his reputation for building authentic wooden boats from scratch has earnt him praise from across the country.

It’s a still winters day and Ben is tucked up, away from the elements and the cold. His workshop is a farm building converted for its current use just outside Mylor Bridge, and in a perfect location for launching almost straight into the water. A smell of turps and sawdust emanates from inside, and an array of drills, vices, tins of varnish, hammers and chisels proudly adorn the walls. ‘Hang on, I’ll come down,’ Ben shouts from the top of the boat he’s currently building. A newly laid 23ft gaff cutter stands pride of place in the workshop, filling the room. A thin layer of sawdust covers everything. It’s exciting to see a traditional boat like this still in its early days of being built.

An early love

Ben has been woodworking since a very young age, growing up in woodland and becoming accustomed to living with a reverence for the trees around him. Since the early days, he explains, he built wooden dens and split logs for the fire at home in Yorkshire, before graduating on to weekend work with a cabinet maker. He’s in no doubt that this experience helped shape his life, both from a technical point of view when it comes to woodworking, and how taking care and time and having a pride in what you do is a big part of the boatbuilding ethos.

After leaving home, Ben originally studied painting. A love of working with wood saw him set up a sawmill and oak framing business in Scotland, sourcing wood from the local land, before he spotted an opportunity to take a three-month boatbuilding course in Cornwall. More than ten years later, he’s still here, and his passion for the work he does is honest and unfiltered.

An instrument of the water

The boats that Ben builds appear to be living and breathing. ‘Even on the water,’ he explains, his voice increasing in excitement and enthusiasm, ‘they creak and move and appear to be alive.’ ‘It’s definitely the closest thing man can build to an animal,’ he adds, ‘there is a definite beauty in sailing wooden boats and once they’re out on the water, with the wind in their sails, they become like a second skin.’

‘These kinds of boats were once the height of technology,’ Ben continues, climbing the steps to the side of the boat to reach the area soon to be solid decking. ‘They brought wealth to nations, plied the waters of the world and were the pinnacle of craft.’ He describes being connected to the history of not just the boats themselves, but the knowledge of where the wood has come from. Having seen the tree grow, be cut, processed and shaped into the lines of his boats is vital to Ben’s work. ‘For me, the greatest satisfaction of building a wooden boat is seeing it all come together, plank by plank.’ He begins chiselling a small section of wood away from the hull of the boat, making space for a perfectly crafted corner strut to strengthen it. It appears repetitive and calming, meditative work.

Ben’s considered approach ensures that the wood he uses to build his boats is sourced from sustainable means and is often reclaimed. The materials for his own boat, the beautiful Alva, were sourced from the burnt timbers of a fire on Falmouth Docks more than ten years ago, for example. His workshop is full of wood of all shapes and sizes. Discarded off cuts and misshapen planks are crafted into beautiful objects for a practical use and it’s reassuring to see much of the material treated with equal veneration.

The Gaff Cutter

His current commission is a mixture of Scottish larch and oak, and is a 23ft gaff cutter built as a commission for a client in Western Australia. Started in the spring, it’s slowly taking shape and is now capable of floating, if not sailing on the open water. ‘It’s nice to know I’m building something truly bespoke here,’ Ben says, ‘it’ll be one of only two in the world when it’s done.’

Ben also speaks proudly of the ‘full-circle’ ethos of his boat building. ‘When it reaches the end of its lifespan, whenever that might be, a wooden boat will rot back down into the earth.’ ‘It’s gone full-circle, from being in the forest, to being in the water and having a new life, before being returned to the earth.’ It’s easy to see the value in this approach and Ben says that maintenance and keeping this boat in good shape shouldn’t be hard. ‘Unlike fibreglass boats, these wooden vessels will stand the test of the time.’ ‘They are sustainable in every sense.’

The boat’s yet to be named, Ben says, but the future owner is mulling over his options and is in frequent contact to check on the progress of the build. Ben sends him weekly updates with photographs via email, and there’s a trip being planned next year in which the new owner will take it for a test sail before it’s sent to Australia via shipping container. ‘We’re not even sure it’ll fit in a regular container yet, but we’ll find a way, I’m sure.’ ‘Even if we have to sail her there.’ Ben smiles wryly, and it’s clear to see the sheer enjoyment of his work and profession is something he relishes.

Discussing what the future holds, Ben suggests he likes the idea of running workshops and courses for others to learn the trade, passing on the skills that he himself learnt through a boat building workshop more than 10 years ago. Much like the lifespan of the wood that he uses in his day to day life, it feels like much of this life is cyclical, with the renewing and recycling of skills and traditions passed through generations.

There a distinct sense because of this that the profession needs people like Ben, his enthusiasm and respect for otherwise forgotten or dying traditions.

 ‘Celebrating and enjoying traditional wooden boats is really what this is all about.’ ‘I feel very lucky to have been able to follow my passion using these skills. I’d love to do my bit and pass them on to others.’