Building the Eun Mara "Skerry"


Eun Mara main

Some years ago, we (myself and wife Janet) lived for a few years in Indonesia where a colleague whiled away his spare time building wooden boats. At the time this seemed an intriguing but strange thing to do. However, some time after we returned to Australia a "Build-a-Boat" magazine caught my eye when I was browsing in our local newsagent. I bought it, and was taken by the drawing of a cute looking 8' clinker-ply dinghy.

Anyway, $70 changed hands for the plans, about $300 progressively for materials, and a year or so later (some time in 1989, I think) my young son Tim and I took it out on its first "sea-trials" on Lake Ginninderra here in Canberra. Looking back now this boat was rough - construction-grade ply for the strakes, screws left in where the strakes were fastened to the stringers (gave it a bit of a rugged "military" look actually), and finished with exterior polyurethane varnish - but what a fantastic feeling to be gliding over the lake in a boat I had made myself! I had not had much to do with boats before and then always as a mere passenger, but this was a different experience altogether.

3 in The Boat

It was then that I also discovered that a home built boat of attractive design did not have to be technically excellent to attract admiring glances and flattering remarks - all dangerously inflating to the ego.

It never acquired a formal name; it was always just "The Boat", and I think it was quite happy with that. We had many good times with The Boat. The plans included an optional mast, and rigging suggestions, but I never quite got round to it and we only ever used it as a rowboat.

In 1994 we moved house (still in Canberra) and decided that the new house, while bigger, didn't really have a place to keep a boat. So, The Boat was sold.

Over the next couple of years my professional work became more and more computer based. I did IT contracting work around Canberra, as well as running my own software development business at home. I was spending far too long sitting at a keyboard in a "virtual" world, and decided that I needed something more physical. "How about building another boat" I thought! All of a sudden the double garage that was too small to hold The Boat looked quite big enough to be a boat workshop. It just meant that car #2 would have to live outside.

But what to build? The Boat had been built "cold", but now I had some idea what it was all about. I spent months poring over magazines, flicking through design catalogues, and basically learning a lot about available construction methods and small boat designs. Gradually, in common with many aspiring boat builders before me, I decided that the new boat would have to be an Iain Oughtred design. They just look great, and having built one clinker-ply boat I was confident that I could take on a more ambitious project using the same method.

I settled on the 13' 6" Grebe design, an extended version of the Ptarmigan with two rowing positions. I thought it would be a useful general-purpose vessel, being able to carry four adults comfortably (plus an Esky and some picnic chairs), and this eventually proved to be the case. Early on in the construction I tried to think up a name, but it was too hard. "New boat" was in danger of becoming "The Boat II" when Iain changed his design names. The Grebe design became Tammie Norrie. So, I felt justified in hijacking the name "Grebe" for my boat (which I had always felt suited it well), and Grebe it has become.

It took me a couple of years to complete Grebe, but what a great asset to have in the garage while under construction. The garage has internal access from the house, so when friends come to visit they can easily be shown the latest development ("now just look at that quarter knee - it's laminated from an old walnut packing crate you know") and often (sometimes) are genuinely interested. When friends are not visiting, you can take time off from the computer to secretly admire your last piece of carpentry, or plan (in exquisite and over-optimistic detail) the next addition. I'm sure I echo the sentiments of amateur wooden boat builders everywhere when I say that "there's nothing, absolutely nothing, half as much worth doing as simply messing about building a boat".

There were quite a few "deliberate" mistakes during construction, but so goes the learning process. (The cunning and much admired bow locker was put there so I didn't have to look at the dog's breakfast I made of the forefoot!)

I chose occume ply for the planking as I was advised that it was light, and would take an attractive honey colour when oiled, which it did. The backbone and transom were made from jarrah, which is hard and strong, and takes on a dark brown colour that contrasts nicely with the planking. The seats and floorboards are radiata pine. Most of the rest (thwarts, gunwales, cleats, etc.) was made from walnut, which was recovered from old packing cases that came from Papua New Guinea many years ago in a less conservation-sensitive era.

I agonised a long time over the finish but settled on Deks Olje, a synthetic oil. I knew that Grebe was not going to spend very long in the water at a time, so perhaps the finish would not be too critical. Also, at home she was to live in the garage in the same space that she was constructed (sorry, car #2) and so would not be exposed to the elements. I've been very happy with the decision. Coating with Deks Olje is very easy (though it can take a couple of days to dry properly in cold weather). In particular, touching up scratches is almost ridiculously simple - a light sand and a dab of the oil with a cloth or cheap brush and you can't detect where it's been done.

Grebe on the Hawkesbury

Anyway, Grebe was finished, formally launched (Lake Ginninderra again) and has provided me and the family with a lot of pleasure. And if I thought the The Boat attracted admiring glances, well this was something else again. It's often difficult to get her into the water because of people wanting to look at her and talk about her. I even had one person do a U-turn on the highway and follow me to the launching ramp to have a closer look.

I made Iain's standing lug rig option for Grebe and do sail occasionally. However, I'm not much of a sailor (though I intend to remedy that) and still use her mainly for rowing.

Grebe has had two highlights to her career so far. In May 2003 we (me, Janet and another couple) took her on holiday to the Hawkesbury River (just north of Sydney) where she did sterling service as a tender for the houseboat we hired. I don't think I had fully appreciated how well she rowed until I tried out the plastic tender that came with the houseboat - ouch! Grebe had never been in the water for more than a few hours at a time, and particularly not in salt water (which much of the Hawkesbury is). I put a touch-up coat of Deks Olje on her before we left, washed her down with fresh water when we returned, and she was unaffected by the five day experience.

Later the same year she became a wedding boat. Our daughter Margaret married Rob in November 2003. (Margaret is the one in the stern in the picture of The Boat at the start of this page. She grew.) They chose an open-air ceremony and reception (in Weston Park on the banks of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra) and, rather than more conventional vintage cars, horse-drawn carriages, or whatever, departed the reception in Grebe. I think that has been her star performance to date, and she did look very fine with a fresh coat of Deks Olje and white lace over her transom.

Bride and groom leave the reception in Grebe

Of course, after a year or two of having a boat to use, I started to miss having one under construction. So, more searching through design catalogues etc (though this time focussing on Iain's) and, like others before me, I came to a toss-up between Wee Seal and Eun Mara.

Anyway, Eun Mara it was. I must admit that the main reason was emotional - she is a very attractive design. And she just fits in half of my garage. (I believe you are advised to have 10' working space around the building area. My working area is such that if I put on a couple of inches around my waistline I won't be able to fit in to complete the port side!) Grebe has to live outside, but I made a cosy parking bay for her (I didn't have to clear too much garden) and a simple storage cover. So having moved to a house where we didn't have room for The Boat (all 8' of it), we now have the 13' 6" Grebe and a 19' 6" Eun Mara under construction.

That's the background to my Eun Mara (to be named "Skerry"). It's going to take me several years to complete, but there's no hurry as the building process is half the pleasure. I'll try to keep progress documented on the other pages of this site.