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HOW TO BUILD A BOAT by Jonathan Gornall


A Father, His Daughter, and the Unsailed Sea

by Jonathan Gornall

Pub Date: May 7th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-5011-9939-4
Publisher: Scribner

Freelance journalist Gornall (Microwave Man, 2006) goes to hull and back in his quest to create a boat of simple, timeless beauty.

Armed with chutzpah, memories of nautical failures past, and a grasp of few hand tools beyond a computer keyboard, the author embarked on building one of the most exacting small wooden boats imaginable. It was a daunting task yoked to a seemingly preposterous one-year deadline. Gornall, from England's Shotley Peninsula, scoured the coast for the lumber, plans, and expert guidance he needed to make it happen. A father for the second time in his late 50s, he was determined to build the boat for his 3-year-old daughter. Dismissing “approval from the dull bureaucracy of sound judgment,” he persevered; suffering no small amount of angst, abrasions, and contusions, the author presented her with a splendid clinker-built (overlapping plank) craft in the traditional Nordic style. Gornall christened the boat Swift, hoping his daughter would treasure it one day as much as he. The author’s rivet-by-rivet account is both engrossing and occasionally confusing. Featuring a lexicon of terms that may be arcane to the uninitiated, the highly detailed narrative can become a slog. Still, it's an admirable effort at narrating a complex project usually reserved for artisanal boat builders of long experience. Gornall lends depth to the story with engaging bits of boat history, recollections of his two aborted attempts to row across the Atlantic Ocean, and a surprisingly compassionate account of growing up with an emotionally distant, alcoholic single mother. But the most touching emotions are the author’s fervent, overriding love for his daughter (with the boat as its embodiment) and his regret that he had not been more of a father to his now-grown son. “This was a thing of simple, ancient beauty,” he writes, “derived from the bounty of aged trees and the sweat of good, honest toil—my toil.”

At its best, Gornall's prose is buoyant and watertight and his book shipshape.