Concord, our 2010 Restoration of the year, will forever capture Britain as a nation in the shadow of war.
In August 2009, in a tiny, stone-built boatyard on the banks of the atmospheric River Fowey, a small concert took place attended by around 50 people. In the open air, a virtuoso musician played pieces of classical guitar music interspersed with readings of poetry and excerpts from a ship’s log, all to the backdrop of the everyday sounds of a working river. The concert was inspired by one man and one boat, but it was really a homage to life and the role that boats can play in enriching it.
James, reading from one of Arhie White’s logbooks at one of his gigs
The boat that brought it all about, and in whose honour the concert was performed, was Concord, built originally for artist and writer Archie White, and newly restored by her current owner, classical guitarist James Boyd. The readings were performed by Archie’s daughter, Jennie Pyle.
It was the beautifully illustrated and lyrical logs that Archie produced of his voyages on Concord, both before and after World War II, that conjured up the idea for the concert in James’s mind. He was led to the logs, which resided for many years in the home of Archie’s daughter, by the boat herself and the discovery will lead to a major piece of British classical art being produced.
It all began when James’s father, also James, saw an advert for a boat called Penelee in the boats for sale section of Classic Boat. He has no idea what so attracted him to the photo, but, knowing that his son was on the lookout for something like it, he was adamant that the two of them make the trip from the English East Coast to Scotland’s West Coast to take a look at what was being offered.
On arriving in Scotland it turned out that owner David MacDonald Smith was, for family reasons, having to part with the boat that he had owned and travelled in for more than 20 years. In that time he had racked up a huge number of sea miles, cruising the boat to Norway, the Med, Portugal, Cyprus, Istanbul and further afield. James, like his father, was immediately interested. The pair viewed the boat, garnered what information they could about her history and returned south to consider further whether this was the right boat to buy.
My God! What a find
To ascertain how much work would be required to get Penelee up to scratch, James paid further visits to Scotland, and asked Peter Williams of the Bodinnick boatyard, Fowey, whom he knew from sailing around the Cornish coast since his childhood, to take a look at her. Arriving on a dismal, grey day at the hangar at Loch Creran near Oban, where the boat was stored, Peter immediately saw through the accumulation of modern fittings and alterations to the rare and elegant yacht beneath. His first impressions were: “‘My God! What a find. There’s a good-looking, well-built boat beneath all of the clutter.’ I lifted a few sole boards and could see that structurally she was in good shape. All the work on her had been done well, it’s just that there was so much alteration – in fact there was so much of everything you could barely move around inside.”
Bells started to ring as James knew that if he was going to restore the yacht to her original state, the chance to look over such material would be hugely helpful.
James tracked down Jennie, who was overwhelmed to find that the boat she knew as Concord was going to be cared for. On visiting her home, James found it to be crammed with Archie memorabilia – his artwork and mementos of the family’s beloved Concord. As well as the paintings and prints that he had expected, Jennie provided James with the early history of the boat and the man she was built for.
Though he was a dedicated and professional commercial artist, Archie was also ebullient, sociable and possessed a huge sense of humour. He had lived through the war, surviving many sailing comrades, only to pass away at the age of 57 due to a long-standing heart problem. Photographs of him show a larger-than- life character, pipe constantly in hand, who seems always to be ready to ham it up when the camera was pointed in his direction.
Judging by the amount of his work that remains, Archie was also a tireless artist. He would while away his time between sailing trips and professional work by painting, doodling, illustrating logbooks, making woodcut prints or ships in bottles. His untimely death left a large void in the family, which the sale of his beloved Concord shortly after his death only intensified.
Though David MacDonald Smith had kept in touch, for many years at a time the logs, models and paintings served as the main reminder of the happy times the family had spent aboard Concord.
As a part of the rich haul of material, Jennie showed James the seven bound logs that Archie had written of his travels with the boat. One look into these hefty tomes was enough to tell James that these were a very special memento: the words were poetic and poignant, while page after page was illustrated with beautiful watercolours, woodcuts and sketches, and James proceeded to read as much as he could. By the end of his stay with Jennie, James had shed a few tears as Archie had taken him on pre-war voyages with friends, through the build-up to hostilities and then recorded the losses of good sailing friends. But the texts were always full of hope and life, and it was this that gave James the idea for his commemoration concert when the boat was finally rebuilt.
With a soft spot for the boat since the moment he had seen her, and now having unearthed such a rich history, James was left with little choice but to bring all the elements of the story back together. Initially, on her arrival in Cornwall, Concord was stored at the Toms yard at Polruan due to a lack of space in Peter’s yard, and James set to work filling skips with the unwanted interior and and other unnecessary items. In February 2008 she was ready for the move to a shed at the Williams yard, which she filled with just centimetres to spare. From then on the serious work started.
Removing the deck
The original deck had at some stage been stripped of canvas and given a 5/8in teak overlay, which meant that finding precisely where it was leaking would be extremely difficult. In the end, sense prevailed and it was decided to remove the whole lot, replacing it with new, at the same time removing the coachroof covering.
With access now available to the entire hull, it was confirmed that Concord was in fine shape for a yacht of her age. Having oak rather than metal floors throughout was undoubtedly one reason for her good condition. Some work was needed around the engine installation, where bolts had rotted out some of the timber, leading to a new bearer being put in place and a 2ft (0.6m) section of planking being renewed. Her engine, an aged but unoriginal Lister, was replaced at the same time with a new 38hp Beta diesel.
It was also deemed prudent to check the keel bolts, which though only mildly wasted were replaced with new wrought-iron bolts made by the Real Wrought Iron Company. The majority of her deck beams were in very good shape and remained untouched, as were and did her pitch-pine planking and her rock-elm frames.
Testament to her builders
Some work was needed in the counter area, and to the rudder partners, with some tidying up of the main mast partners and the sampson post beam, but considering her age and the number of sea miles she had covered, Concord was a testament to her builders – Kings of Pin Mill – and the materials they used. Budgets being tight and well-priced teak at the lengths involved being hard to come by, James took the advice of John Moody of Traditional Sail in Salcombe to use yellow cedar as a replacement deck covering, but sticking with varnished teak for the king plank and covering boards, rather than the cheaper options such as afrormosia.
Change of plans
Working flat-out towards his goal of getting the bare boat up and running, it was at about this time that some major changes occurred in James’s plans – he met his future wife, proposed and got married. The idea of a single male sailing a boat without an interior is one thing, but the other half of the newly-married couple, Ellie, the niece of Devon-based broker, Peter Gregson of Wooden Ships fame, had other ideas and could not see the sense in putting off the inevitable day when the boat would have to be finished.
Ellie set about buying all the pots, pans, crockery and cutlery that would fill the boat, so that the galley and cupboards could be tailored exactly to fit and plans and budgets were re-jigged for Peter Williams to build a new interior as well. In order to work on the boat as well as to save money, the newly-weds were sleeping on the floor of Peter’s sail loft, but still the budget grew. The National Register of Historic Ships acknowledged the significance of Concord and the work that was being done on her by awarding a £2,000 grant, but this was rapidly eaten up in the rush to complete the restoration.
James is one of those obsessive characters who forgo all else when they zone in on a project and at times he went for entire days without finding the time to eat, as job after job would crop up in his bid to ensure that the preparation was always done to enable Peter to perform the skilled work – Ellie would continually have to bring new T-shirts and underpants for James as he was in the habit of using his own for rags and cleaning cloths.
“I had no idea how the costs would add up,” James comments. “I worked out the other day that we spent more than £1,000 on sandpaper alone.” He was also unprepared for how manual work might jeopardise his professional career: “All the chemicals and cleaners softened my nails and damaged the skin, which made playing more difficult for a while. And then there was the day that Peter was swinging the sledgehammer while I was holding a drift. I suddenly thought about what the consequences might be if he missed or slipped, so I suggested that we might swap roles. His reply confirmed he was never going to trust me with his hands.”
With the boat’s structural work and interior completed, she was relaunched with a small ceremony at Bodinnick in May 2009, and James noticed that as soon as she emerged on to the water people began referring to her as Concord again, rather than Penelee.
Words and music
James set himself the goal of having her up and sailing in time for this year’s Fowey Classics rally, and it was there that this elegant and historic yacht was honoured, in an amalgamation of words, atmosphere and haunting guitar music, once again becoming the focus of an artist’s muse.
Though James is renowned as one of the most talented modern guitarists of his generation – he graduated from the Royal Academy of Music with honours in 2000 and has been presented with the highly regarded Julian Bream Guitar Prize – he shuns the accepted routes of producing music through established record companies and the Bodinnick concert was just the start of a much bigger project with this in mind. In the past James has independently released music – most notably a CD entitled Shapes of Sleep, inspired by the East Coast landscape and lifestyle, which won the highly regarded Gramophone magazine Editor’s Choice award. Now Concord has taken this thinking entirely to another level. The boatyard recital was a try-out for a series of concerts and workshops inspired by Archie’s logs and Concord’s travels that James intends to take ‘on the road’, or, more accurately, on the water.
James hopes that through the concept he can persuade contemporary British composers to produce exciting new music for modern classical guitar, which is something that has been overlooked in recent decades. Explaining, James says, “I just hate the idea of producing hooked-on-classics-type populist music, but very little new, modern, British music has been written for the guitar in decades. I think that on the back of something like this, we can get the really great modern British composers out there to take an interest.
“There’s a lot of work to do to pull it together, but for now Ellie and I just intend to sail Concord as much as possible, doing some of the trips that Archie and her previous owners would have done and trying to live up to her past.” It seems that Archie White’s Concord is going to continue with her talent for providing inspiration for artists through a whole new era.
From the February 2010 Classic Boat issue, CB260.
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