Working Lives

How to ‘Turn’ a Wherry Mast: A Trainee’s Tale (1971-2020)

Location: Lowestoft, Poringland

After a teaching career, John took the plunge and completed a course at the International Boatbuilding Training College (IBTC) at Oulton Broad. A highlight was working on the new mast for the Wherry Maud and the paintwork for Spray of White. He works on boats at home and says he would have got into boats and yachting much earlier if he’d grown up nearer the Broads.

Teaching with ‘Hair Raising Experiences’

I was born in Solihull, Warwickshire, in October 1948, so I am one of the first NHS babies. My family was in farm work and we moved several times, but we ended up in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. My primary education was in Catshill County Primary School and my secondary education was at Bromsgrove County High School. I passed the eleven-plus. I had absolutely no clue whatsoever as to where I was heading. I got into university almost by mistake. There I studied metallurgy – not having any interests other than science, basically it was metallurgy, by default.

I went into teaching because in 1971, when I graduated, there was a recession in the steel industry and there was no employment. Somebody said they thought I’d be rather good in front of a classroom of kids, so I ended up again, almost by mistake, in a huge comprehensive in London. I was teaching science to the full range of ability and I later went back to college to get properly trained as a teacher. After that I ended up in a series of jobs which ended up with me moving to Norwich to teach in Framingham Earl High School in 1982. I was interested in boating and was encouraged by several of my colleagues in my previous school in Littleport, and we’d done some sailing. While I was being trained to be a teacher, I’d done a sailing course at the Cowes International sailing centre.

It was great fun, teaching physics: it was fascinating, teaching science. I taught the whole range of science actually. Basically, you could blow the lab up once a week, whether it needed it or not! Well, it was a popular subject; whether I was a good teacher is a question that I’d rather not answer, but I’m still in touch with my former pupils and they seemed to enjoy themselves. My nickname as a teacher at Littleport Village College was ‘The Honey Monster’! The thing was you see, I was a beekeeper as well. I didn’t take much notice of it.

At Framingham Earl High School. I can remember going out to feeder primary schools. I got 70 kids all lined up and gave them all an electric shock from a Van de Graaff machine. I said to the kids ‘right, who wants a second go?’ and every single hand went up in the air! I didn’t get complaints from the parents, and I never left a mark. One of my girls had very pale blonde hair and I’ve got a picture of her somewhere, the title of which is ‘Stephanie gets a hair-raising experience’, and it looked like the head of a dandelion clock!

Enrolling at the International Boatbuilding College

I was teaching for about 23 years altogether. Then I was taken ill, and decided that I wanted to find out about boatbuilding. I asked my doctor’s advice and he said ‘For goodness’ sake, go ahead and do it’, and I enrolled on the course at the International Boatbuilding Training College (IBTC) at Oulton Broad in 1994, I think.

The IBBC was set up by a guy well connected in local boatbuilding called John Elliot, and it had a phenomenally good reputation both here and all over the world for training boatbuilders over a twelve month course to reach the College Diploma, the City and Guilds qualification, and NVQ qualifications. It was a training course that got you qualified up to City and Guilds. It’s the City and Guilds really that had the international kudos. It’s still running under a different management and there’s other boatbuilding colleges started, one of which is at Lyme Regis. I’m not in a position to judge the demand but whenever I’ve been down to Oulton Broad, there seems to be plenty of students.

The funding for the course was done privately, but at the time I seem to remember there was something called the Manpower Services Commission which basically gave you a subsidy to help you with the fees. The fee subsequently went up by an enormous amount. I can’t remember, but I think I paid about £6,000. You had to cover your own living expenses and travelling expenses. By then, I had been granted a pension from teaching, and my wife was working still and supported me through it.

I started the course with the intention of looking at the possibility of a boatbuilding career afterwards. There was a fair amount of demand for boatbuilding, but the pay at that time was fairly poor. My fellow students were a mixed bag. There were a couple of them that were 17- or 18-year-olds. There were a considerable number of young men in their 20s. There was one absolutely brilliant young woman and some older people such as myself.

Terry Upton was basically the yard foreman. He was trained at Brooke Marine and was very, very particular. He always used to wear a white coat and he was the chief instructor. There was Bernard Press, another instructor, who I immediately got on with, and I’m still in touch with him now, twenty-five or thirty years later; and Ivor Broughton, who I notice has also contributed to this archive.

Building a Wherry Mast

Vincent Pargeter came along one day to the college and Terry introduced him to me and Dave Deacon, and he said ‘would you like to build a wherry mast? Being ready for anything I said ‘well, I’ll give it a go’ and I was nominated with Dave Deacon to build this wherry mast. We started the course in the September, and I think this was sometime in the spring.

We had a drawing and I seem to remember that Ivor Broughton kept an eye on us and made sure that we stuck to what was required. I’d not read any other accounts of the wherry masts being made and it’s a long time since there was a wherry mast being made. The previous one was for the wherry Albion and that lasted until a few years ago, when it again snapped and it was remade by laminating the timber.

The timber came from Wroxham. Peter Bower of the Wherry Yacht Charter had a bulk of timber lying there and it was transported from Wroxham to Oulton Broad. It came from North America originally, as deck cargo on a ship, I think. There’s a difference of opinion as to whether it is pitch pine or British Columbian pine, but it is one of those North American pines. It could be Douglas fir. The timber arrived on an articulated lorry and we had a crane to lift it off and it sat on blocks of wood outside of the back door of the college. In order to move it around or turn it over, we needed approximately two dozen of the students. The students varied, but the only two that were on the mast for the majority of the time were myself and Dave Deacon. Later there was another group that had filled in a hole in the mast that was caused by what’s called a resin pocket.

This bulk of timber was about 42-foot-long and 14 inches wide and 14 inches high. The finished size started off at the heel of the mast about 12–13 inches square tapering down. There was a parallel section at the heel and it started to taper all the way down to 6 inches round. There was a bolt at the top of the mast to run through what’s called the herring hole. In the herring hole goes a big sheave or wheel and round it goes the rope or sheet that’s used to pull the sail up.

The tapered shape was very interesting to passers-by. We were doing the work along a public footpath and a man came along one day and he said ‘You needed a very big lathe to do that, didn’t you?’ We had to point out to him that no, when you’re making a mast you do the first thing that every woodworker does: you get a face side and a face edge and you work from that. The face side and the face edge are at right angles to one another and you get the whole piece of timber dead flat all the way along.

A telegraph pole goes through a mincing machine, and tends to be – how shall I say – just one shape all the way along, so it’s fairly easy to make. A wherry mast tapers to a point near the top where it bulges out again. So, you have to make the whole thing by hand. Now, in order to get a round mast from a square bit of timber you have to first of all get a four-sided square. The next stage is to get it to an eight-sided shape (octagon) by cutting each of the four corners off, and then the next stage from an octagon is to go to a 16-sided shape and then from a 16-sided shape you go to a 32-sided shape and from a 32-sided shape you go to a 64-sided shape, and at that point you are just cutting off very small amounts of timber.

To get the timber square and straight the first thing we used was what Bernie Press called a ‘tar planer’, which is a hand-held planing machine and that makes a hell of a noise and a lot of mess. From then on we got out two-foot-long hand planes. (Those are all steel these days. I don’t know anybody using wooden jack planes.)

One of the main pieces of equipment you had was a long straight edge, and it was always a matter of pride in the college as to who had the best straight edge. You guarded them with your life. They were a very valuable piece of equipment because a straight edge gives you the edge from which you work. The other thing we used was a chalk line in order to get the tapering shape. In the end we were using what’s called draw knives and spoke shaves.

What we did when we had the square section – the four-sided section – we marked the timber out to get so that we could cut the corners off, and we used a circular saw to cut across the corners, and then we used a very, very sharp adze in order to cut the timbers off the corners. When we got it all the way round, we actually used spoke shaves, and it was getting a bit boring by then but the draw knives and the spoke shaves got it pretty well round.

It was pretty essential to get it as round as we could. Getting the taper right was very, very important because if you over-made the taper too fine – so the top of the timber was very, very small – it took a chance of breaking when the sail on its gaff went across the boat. If you left it too thick it looked like a ‘thick ankle’ and that’s where there was an aesthetic. This was where Vincent came in and had a look at it and decided whether we’d done enough or not.

We kept it outside, so the first thing we did in the morning was to take the tarpaulin off and stack that to one side. At the end of the day we had to load pieces of timber and weights on the top to prevent the tarpaulin blowing off during gales.

It was very resinous timber. It was so resinous that near the top of the mast they found what is called a resin pocket, and we had to cut this resin pocket out and make a shape, like a curved shape. Another group of boys came along and fitted their piece of timber into this resin shape and glued it down. It was about three or four inches deep, but the thing is that the difficult bit is linking the two pieces of timber to the same shape. You do that with either chalk or pencil and you rub them up against one another and where the chalk or pencil mark comes up on the opposite side you know that’s a high point.

The glue that we used was called Resourcinol: traditional but very, very strong glue. It’s pretty resilient and in fact the mast has lasted for 25 years with this patch in it. It’s one of the first of the synthetic glues that was developed just after the second war and it’s similar to the glues that they used to glue up Mosquitos, so it’s pretty strong.

It took us about six weeks altogether to do the job.

There was no metal put on the mast until it went into Maud. They put a pin through the square section at the bottom and hung on something like half a ton of lead on the bottom. We got the stamps out and stamped our names on the heel of the mast but I guess that’s all hidden now underneath the lead, so it will probably be, when the lead is taken off the mast, they may well find our names at the bottom.

The wherry has two crew, the wherryman and the ‘boy’ (which could often be his wife), and the lead’s a counter weight so that when a wherry is sailing along and it comes up to a bridge the ‘boy’ would let the mainsail down and open a gate at the bottom of the mast and push the mast down so that it lies along the top of the deck. It was balanced in such a way as that you could actually push the mast down or up using a finger. The weight was more than the rest of the mast. It’s a physics thing: the moment of the mast. The mast itself is reasonably light but it’s long and the lead weight is short but very, very heavy. It could be about half a ton and maybe more, anything up to a ton, but a small person could both lower and raise the mast on their own.

We oiled it when we finished. I think we used linseed oil but it’s 25 years ago now. It does get re-oiled fairly regularly but I think what’s happened over the years, it’s got what they call ‘shakes’ which are splits. The splits go up and down the mast, but it doesn’t have a phenomenal effect on the strength because all of the grain goes along the mast. They certainly wouldn’t varnish it.

In the last few years, Maynard Watson did a mast for the Albion and that one was made as I understand it by laminating various layers of timber and gluing them together, so they didn’t use a continuous integral piece of timber but it still requires a lot of skill and if the gluing is not done properly then it’s going to be a disaster. It’s a bit like plywood.

When the owner was happy with the mast, we had a crane at the college and the mast was again lifted onto an articulated lorry and as far as I remember it was taken off to Upton where the Maud was being restored in the yard of Tim Whelpton. As far as I know the mast and the boat was owned by Vincent Pargeter. Vincent had dug it out of the river and taken it to Upton where it had stood for quite a long time.

[Click here to read John’s article on the story of the mast: Maud mast article by John Henson]

After the Mast

After that, I completed my training at the college and then I was asked by the college to stay on for a little while. I was asked to do all the paintwork on a boat called ‘Spray of White’. It was a copy of a ‘Spray’ that had gone round the world with a man called Joshua Slocum.  I did all the paint work from the top of the mast down to the keel.

What I did after that was to apply for boatbuilding jobs and had an offer. As a side result from my health problems I was called in by the surgeons and had a procedure done and my boatbuilding job went by the by. The Government in its generosity trained me to drive a computer. I saw a job offered that I knew I could do and I went and worked for a commercial stationer, as a Quality Auditor, and ended up working for him for twenty odd years. I finished in June last year so I would have been there from about ’97, ’98, until last year. I finished at Oulton Broad in ‘96 and, as I say, had a hiatus while I was recovering from the procedure.

Last October, we went on a ‘bucket list holiday’ to New Zealand for three weeks and I’ve been working on a boat pretty much ever since. The lockdown has meant that we weren’t able to go out on my other boats, but because I do a lot of work in my shed at home I can keep myself properly occupied. I’m one of those lucky ones that’s got plenty to do. Coronavirus has impacted on my activities in Poringland where I live. I can’t get involved in as many activities in the village as I used to, but other than that my life is continuing as normal.

I used to say up until I was in my fifties that I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I grew up far, far away from yachting and boating. I think that if I had grown up nearer to the Broads I would have been drawn to yachting and boating a lot earlier.

There is a future for boatbuilding. It’s hard work. It’s a young man’s sport. I would say, get as much training as you can, talk to as many people about it as you can. The vast majority of the people who trained at the IBTC I’m sure didn’t go into boatbuilding, but they went into all sorts of other things. The training was a door-opening opportunity and I think it facilitated all sorts of things. People went off and did furniture making; several did kitchen fitting and I fitted my own soon afterwards – so it gave you all sorts of transferable skills.


John Henson (b. 1948) talking to WISEArchive by telephone from Poringland on 25th September 2020.