Boat Builder Paccy Stronach with Dunalley Primary students Fergus, Logan and Maddy.
In a borrowed shed at Dunalley, on the east coast of Tasmania, one man is trying to pass on an important message to a new generation. It’s not without its challenges. Paccy Stronach is a boat builder who runs a shipyard in a corner of Blackman Bay, looking after the needs of the small fleet of commercial and recreational boats that moor there. He’s a practical man, good with his hands, and has a very Irish twinkle in his eye, as you would expect of a fellow who has spent a good deal of his life in the west of Ireland. When he’s not scraping paint or grinding ironwork or mending a propellor, his real enthusiasm is for wooden boats and the little school he runs in cooperation with the Dunalley Primary School. Once a week, a group of 11 and 12 year-old kids pop along to learn how to make boats.
Using the simplest of tools, the children learn to cut wood and shape it, fasten one piece to another, drill holes and cut mortices and watch something beautiful emerge from a pile of scavenged and recycled materials. Paccy has built several charming dinghies with the kids, but there’s something a bit larger on the bench at the moment. It’s a naomhóg, (pronounced nave-oh-g) a traditional skin boat related to the currach, used by generations of Irish fishermen and farmers. ‘It’s a good choice for this kind of project,’ Paccy says, ‘the materials are reasonably cheap, the construction is straightforward and it’s a big boat. You can get a lot of kids in there for an outing.’
Traditional Irish work-boats in Galway, Kerry and West Cork had to be built of what was available (trees being scarce on these windswept landscapes). Wicker, laths and scantlings were pressed into service, made into basket-like forms, then covered with stretched skins and tar to make them waterproof. Smaller currachs were used for transport and inshore fishing, the larger naomhóg was an ocean-going boat with a high prow to meet the often wild sea conditions of the North Atlantic. Modern versions use a variety of fabrics and waterproof coatings, but the basic design has been unchanged for centuries. Light, tough and inexpensive to build, they are perfect project boats for the novice boat builder.
What’s the message, then? ‘Life is not all about computer-aided design and textbooks,’ Paccy says, ‘there’s something very important about being able to make things with your hands. We are in danger of losing these traditional skills and the satisfaction you get out of running your hand over something you’ve made. That’s what I want to teach these kids.’ The message is getting through, if the number of students signing up in this is tiny township is anything to go by. It’s a community that has been through tough times. The devastating bush fires that swept through in early 2013 very nearly destroyed the whole town.
‘We’d been working on two small dinghies to enter in the Australian Wooden Boat Festival.’ Paccy reports. ‘The January fires carried all that away, but the kids didn’t give up.’ With a few donations and a lot of grit, the children and their teacher managed to finish another two boats in just a few weeks and get them to the festival. After the event, government funding to rebuild the Dunalley Primary School and community grants made it possible to keep the boat-building school alive, but it’s now struggling to keep going. ‘The money has run out,’ Paccy says, ‘and I’m better at building boats than I am at writing letters’.
The Dunalley Boat School needs sponsors to support it. That might mean a company committing funds as an investment in children’s futures, or an individual sponsoring a single boat. ‘We’re not talking about millions of dollars here’, Paccy says, ‘this is a pretty simple thing to do, but we can’t do it on nothing at all.’ If you have a solution, or want to help, contact the Dunalley Boat School on 0427 535 493 or write to us here at the Australian Wooden Boat Festival: firstname.lastname@example.org