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Mike Field's Aileen Louisa

Mike Field bought his first boat when he was in his fifties. Having thrived on a diet of Arthur Ransome books as a boy, Mike wanted not just any boat, but a wooden boat – in point of fact an open clinker boat like Swallow or Amazon. And after some searching he found one.

Aileen Louisa, as his boat is now called, is 15' long, has a 5' beam, and draws about 6" with the centreboard up. With her wineglass transom, fine quarters, straight stem, and long keel she is an excellent pulling boat (moving along nicely with about one stroke for every boat length). But she is also sloop-rigged for sailing, with a sprit mainsail of 100 square feet and a flying jib of 20 sq ft, set on a removable bowsprit. Apart from the antifouling underneath, she's varnished inside and out. She is a very burdensome boat, having been known to ferry six adults, two teenagers, and a two-year-old on a three-mile river cruise using her outboard motor, while maintaining a freeboard of twelve inches. She is normally sailed though, and for this purpose carries inside ballast in the form of six small sandbags under the burden boards.

She is Mike's pride and joy.

The previous owner had added a few bits and pieces that Mike as the new owner thought were out of place on such a traditional vessel. So he replaced the chromed fairleads at the stem with bronze ones (adding another pair at the stern as well), and did away with the stainless steel blocks that the mainsheet had been led through. (He also did away with the main boom with which she had been fitted, and which was really redundant in view of the sprit. This also now allows him to brail up the mainsail on occasion, which is a very convenient possibility with the sprit rig.)

Rerigging thus started, things seemed to get a bit out of hand, and a variety of new but traditional fittings presented themselves as being altogether indispensable. But the first were two new wooden blocks to augment the last remaining one from the original rig, with which to allow the use of a double-ended mainsheet. Obtaining suitable blocks proved to be a difficult experience though. Mike had some trouble in locating any wooden blocks at all at first. Then when he eventually found some they weren't stropped, they were fitted with (he could hardly believe it) white plastic sheaves, and they were very expensive. To get them sufficiently authentic-looking (not to mention operable,) he turned two new wooden sheaves to replace the tacky plastic ones, further purchased two also-high-priced bronze thimbles from the same chandler, and then stropped and seized both blocks himself.

All in all, each block finally cost about $70 plus labour – which gave Mike pause for thought – and from then on he made his own fittings from scratch.

Those other new fittings included wooden saddles on the quarter-knees to shackle the new mainsheet blocks to; wooden beeblocks on the standing knees supporting the centre thwart to lead the jibsheets back to the stern for single-handed sailing; wooden thumb cleats forward of the beeblocks to snub the sheets under (and so alter the lead) when sailing close-hauled; a wooden horn cleat on the sprit to which to belay the snotter (the line that supports the sprit and thus makes the whole thing work); two thumb cleats on the mast to locate the snotter for sailing whether the sail is full or reefed; wooden kevels (two pairs, amidships and forward) to allow quick belaying of mooring lines; a pennant staff to allow the new burgee to swivel freely above the masthead to show the direction of apparent wind; and finally, a new 'positive attitude' boathook with bronze head, complete with decorative rope handgrip and a lanyard at the head ('positive attitude' because it floats vertically to allow easy retrieval if inadvertently lost overboard).

There was other work done, too, including provision of ringbolts through the sternpost and hog to shackle anchor cables to; cutting and lining of a sculling notch in the transom; insertion of a bronze sheave at the masthead for the main halyard—which, until then, had simply run through a 'dumb sheave' or open slot; making and fitting a grating to sit on the rising up in the eyes (Roger’s favourite spot) for stowing mooring lines; and trimming the bottom of the rudder back to keel level to allow for bottoming out each tide on the Western Port mud.

While he knows that there isn't a great demand for wooden boat fittings, Mike also knows from his own experience just how hard it can be to get some if you want them. And that's how his company, Wooden Boat Fittings, came to be. This small company, established on the shores of Western Port in the 1990s but now based in the country's capital, Canberra, makes traditional wooden boat fittings by hand, the way it used to happen. The company uses a variety of different timbers for their fittings, depending on client preferences and intended use. Items are typically manufactured from redgum, jarrah, spotted gum, merbau, teak, oregon, or mahogany, although other timbers including cedar and ballart have also been used.

Rather than manufacture blocks himself, Mike chooses to source them from a reputable (and reasonably-priced) block manufacturer he has since located. And he is also agent for marine bronze fittings and for fully sewn and appliquéd flags. But all other fittings are made by the company itself. The list is a long one. It includes belaying pins, saddles, fairleads, toggles, pennant staffs, masthoops (hinged and plain,) beeblocks, deadeyes, thimbles, and bullseyes, together with six types of cleat—in fact, pretty well any fitting from a mooring cleat for the foredeck to a jackstaff on the counter. Mike also offers a listing service on the internet for the sale of wooden boats in Australia.

Finally, and in line with his abiding interest in ‘All Things Ransome’, Mike has also produced maps of The Lake, Wild Cat Island, and Secret Water, which are available for free download by other Ransome fans at (where, for completeness, they will eventually be joined by maps of the northern and southern water of the Norfolk Broads).


Copyright © 2015 Mike Field. Reuse, retransmission, or reproduction is forbidden without prior written permission.