Why Would You Vote for Peter Duck? You Don’t Have To -- Julia Jones


Peter Duck in early morning sun, Aldeburgh, October 2023
(Jane Russell)

 Every year Classic Boat magazine puts forward its selection of yacht restorations and newly built boats in traditional style for public vote. The prize last year was a tasteful trophy and a bottle of gin for the owner. The shortlisted boatyards get an opportunity to display a Classic Boat logo, if they wish. It’s good for their business and local community awareness. I'm hoping that the public votes make the boatyard workers feel good too. 

In 2023, traditional wooden boatbuilding was officially put on the endangered list of British crafts. Perhaps this is a little like removing the word ‘acorn’ from the Oxford Junior Dictionary: arguably it's recognising a truth – young people today don’t need to name ‘acorns’ -- or adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow  (words listed by Robert MacFarlane as being excised in 2015). They do need ‘attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.’  https://www.theguardian.com/science/the-lay-scientist/2015/mar/03/why-the-oed-are-right-to-purge-nature-from-the-dictionary But this new listing says something that leaves many of us shocked and sad. Is it that we don't ‘need’ wooden boats any more -- or the craftsmen who build and maintain them What? Us, in Britain?

This week I’ve been plodding gently through some 1960s issues of Yachting Monthly magazine. It’s a little like revisiting a forgotten world. Wood was the normal  material for boats then (when I was six). Fibre glass coatings or GRP construction were new and potentially exciting. The market for leisure boating was expanding, humming with energy and enthusiasm. The London Boat Show in January, in Earls Court, was a thrilling event. I remember visiting as a child, awestruck at the number of boats crammed in, real boats – you could go on board. There was real water too!

My father was a yacht agent who used the Boat Show to launch his new ‘brand’ of Peter Ducks -- repro-ducktions, I’ve heard them called, unfairly. I'd rather call them tribute ducks. Dad launched the class because he knew what a lovely boat 'our' PD was and thought others would like one as well. They were built in wood, of course. If you look at them today, you will see that each has her own characteristics as well as expressing their owners’ individuality and taste and the histories which have developed over their various lifetimes. Boats like this have the capacity to inspire careful effort and craftsmanship. One day we might see a ‘Peter Duck’ nominated for a Classic Boat award. 

a Peter Duck living in Woodbridge

But this is Peter Duck’s year. I didn’t know that she’d been nominated and when I heard that she’d been shortlisted, my first reaction was dismay. Perhaps this is because in my heart I like to think of PD as forever young, as she was when I first met her in 1957. 

Before that, when Arthur Ransome had her designed and built in 1946, she wasn’t just new, she was modern! Peter Duck is distinctively post-war, quite a different style of yacht to any other he owned before or afterwards. Ransome knew that he needed ‘a sort of marine bath-chair’, but this jolly little ketch with her ‘motor-boaty’ bow and small, easy-to-handle, Bermudan sails – set quite high so no one gets hit on the head – was not to his taste. ‘She looks ree-dick-ulous,’ said his wife Evgenia, probably adding a few well-chosen words about lollipops on sticks, when her husband had sailed their new yacht past her, wondering whether it mightn’t be worth a photo. 

Earliest known photo of Peter Duck
from the Laurent Giles archive

Peter Duck was much more readily appreciated when she was looking after people closer to her own age. Lollipops were a Good Thing when my brothers and I were young and her generally safe layout meant she was usually fun to be on board.

Fifty years later, in 1998, when she came home from living in Russia, my youngest brother Ned and I hurried to meet her -- and were shocked by her appearance. Her planking is larch, a light, somewhat volatile wood, reasonably adapted to the English East Coast, not sufficiently robust for winter in St Petersburg. Her seams had been roughly though effectively caulked with a thick tar mixture. It looked like a botched botox. One of the reasons I am glad that Classic Boat has shortlisted her now is as a thank-you for all the work the Woodbridge boatyard (Eversons) did then. She wouldn't have survived without them.

Peter Duck sailing off St Petersburg
(Ingram Murray)

I found it odd, though, when people told me she was a ‘classic’; I just thought of her as our boat. It feels a bit awkward too. Being the custodian of a ‘classic’ is rather like finding your house unexpectedly featured in Homes and Gardens – it sets a standard of expectation which those of us who cannot always be trusted to keep our brass polished and brightwork immaculate may find daunting.

Another quarter century has passed since that first restoration and I’m forced to realise that both PD and I are now significantly older than Arthur Ransome was in 1946. (Harsh living conditions in Russia hadn’t been kind to him either.) When her regular survey in spring 2021 revealed areas of rot under the mainmast, I knew I had to take action. It wasn’t just that I enjoy looking up at her gleaming spar against the blue sky of a summers day and didn’t especially want to see it come crashing down on me. It wasn't only because I love her and see her as 'part of my soul'. Objectively it was because the better I’ve got to know Peter Duck – sailing as well as maintaining and enjoying her as an adult – the more I have admired the excellence of her design and the skill of her builders, (Harry King & sons of Pin Mill on the River Orwell). I realise that she and I are both immensely lucky that that level of craftsmanship still exists in the Woodbridge Boatyard where she lives. Long may it last.

Matt Lis, Woodbridge Boatyard manager

Wooden boats, looked after carefully, will long outlast their humans – as trees or houses do. Peter Duck has seen out her designer, her builders, three significant sets of owners and shouldn’t now have too much trouble outlasting Francis and I . Her story is one of generational hand-on. The ‘real’ (fictional) character ‘Peter Duck’ was both the Ancient Mariner who first sailed with Arthur and Evgenia in the Baltic in 1922 and the old Lowestoft seaman in 1932 who made Able-Seaman Titty and her friends feel safe. The challenge now is ensuring that the young people now coming to work in this should know that their skills are appreciated and worthwhile.  I think that's what the Classic Boat awards are about -- though I'll probably just settle for the gin. 

Please vote. Here are your choices: PD is in the Restored Vessel under 40'.  Frankly they're all lovely.  https://awards.classicboat.co.uk/award-categories/

PD back in the river after the 2021-22 stage of her restoration
In 2022-23 her keel bolts were replaced and some underwater softness excised.


Umberto Tosi said…
She got my vote, as does your lyrical post about her.
Julia jones said…
Thank you very much indeed
Bronnymiamigo said…
I was delighted to vote for her. I can remember my dear dad pointing out 'Peter Duck' to me once when we were pottering about on the Deben, either with his great friend Graham Poole on his boat Try Again, or possibly on Yet, the Smack owned by Frank Knights (Uncle Frank to me). My dad worked for Frank and his brother worked for Whisstocks - or Wetsocks as we called it. Happy days.
I hope you get the gin x

Bronwyn Reeves
Julia jones said…
That's a lovely message Bronwyn. Thank you very much indeed. Anytime you feel like writing some Deben reminiscence do send it to me julia@golden-duck.co.uk for the River Deben Association

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