The Artistry of Boat Building
Amy Stringfellow is a craftswoman and boat builder working in Cornwall. Read Amy's contribution to 'Stories within Our Isles', where she talks about her love for the craft, the difficulties she has had to go through in the industry, and how living in Cornwall is truly inspiring.
I can’t say I set out to be anything in particular, let alone a boat builder. But as fate would have it, Cornwall became my home, and living on a wooden boat set the precedence for life as I know it.
I don’t come from a wealthy family. Boats were either for working, or a rich mans game as far as I knew. Growing up in small village near Grimsby in Lincolnshire, which I didn’t appreciate at the time, today inspires me and has rooted my being. The river Humber is brown, dirty, and powerful, a test for the sailors who dare to embrace it. Grimsby sits at the mouth of the Humber. A place where buildings are falling to ruin, the docks are quiet and eerie, a poor area with not much prospect for change. But it used to be one of England’s most affluent and busy ports, now with a huge fishing heritage. My grandfather was a part of this as the only diver in the docks. Everybody knew Frank. He was a proud, broad northern man, charismatic and canny in his ways. He ran his business from a small red brick building, a boat and an ex-ambulance he managed to pick up for a shilling. He wore a large copper and brass helmet, and an old fashioned dive suit with an airline running to the surface. I see photos of him now and feel the nostalgia run through me, like somehow it all came together that I would end up doing what I do.
I live in a cabin on the outskirts of Falmouth. There’s something about living in small spaces, be it a boat, caravan or a cabin, that grounds you and connects you to nature. Being surrounded by wood feels calming to me. I love that as the seasons change the wood of the cabin creeks, it moves as it expands and contracts with temperature changes and humidity.
I run a small business from a rural farm workshop just down the road from my home. I restore and repair boats in either wood or GRP, using both modern and traditional techniques of construction. I don’t really mind what aspect of boat repair I do, I enjoy the challenges and solving the problems that can present themselves. It’s hard to put into words exactly what it is I think and feel about my job. Working on boats has brought me such joy in a craft I never thought I would be able to do or be a part of. Its counterpart however has tested my patience. But I’ve found no matter what, it’s the thing that has kept me curious and held my attention. I think the lines of a boat from its drawings to its physical curvature is a beauty in its own right. Boatbuilding bridges the gap between Art and Science, and wooden boat building in particular shows us the integrity of craftsmanship that goes into making a vessel.
As a woman in a predominantly male industry, as well as being a woman with epilepsy, it’s fair to say I’ve come up against some barriers. In the 9 years I’ve been a boat builder I still feel there is a lot of room for discussion around women and disability in trade. The equality act set a course for change around the stigmas to do with mental health, race, gender and disability, but as a culture we still have a way to go to recalibrate our thoughts into acceptance. I was diagnosed with epilepsy and a brain tumour when I was 23. I’d only been working on boats for a couple of years on and off, and I felt I’d finally found something that I loved and that challenged me. But I was told all that would have to change because of my disability. I think I was immensely lucky that my boss at the time supported, and pushed me to do better, in spite of this. It was a small boatyard on the Tamar where I worked, as we were such a small team the business was run with a healthy balance of family values and hard work. I can’t thank them enough for the open conversations, and the will to make sure I was safe at work... as well as making me laugh so much that my face hurt in a time where I really needed it.
Cornwall is the place that connects the dots for everything that has happened in my life since I was 18. It’s the place I’ve always returned to. It’s the place where I learnt how to make a living from something I love. It’s the community that cared for me when I was ill. It’s raw natural beauty still inspires me and reminds me of how much I have yet to learn. The sea is a sort of tonic that can revitalise the soul in minutes. I feel connected whether I’m floating in it, sailing on it or just standing on its shore.
I wouldn’t be a boat builder if it wasn’t for that old wooden boat, the romance of it grabbed me and didn’t let go.
The Artistry of Boat Building
Words by Amy Stringfellow | @amy_boatbuilding
Photography by Abbi Hughes | @abbihughes_photo