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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

My voyage of self-discovery begins with building an old-fashioned boat

In the rush to the future, have we been too quick to discard the skills of the past? Jonathan Gornall writes about his own effort to revive an almost-lost craft
Building a boat is part of a journey to self discovery.
Building a boat is part of a journey to self discovery.

A lifetime or so ago, I stood at the edge of a dirt airstrip in the far south of Venezuela, watching as the de Havilland Twin Otter that had just dropped me off in the middle of nowhere clambered back up into the clear blue sky.

On my back was a large rucksack packed with sufficient supplies (or so I hoped) to see me through the next couple of weeks. In one hand I held a compass, in the other, a book, open at a crude map. Just how crude became clear only as I took in the surrounding tableau of massive, tabletop mountains, rising almost sheer from the river-laced savannah, which had failed to trouble my slapdash carto­grapher.

I had come in search of a tribe of native south Americans who, disdainful or ignorant of the borders imposed by 16th-century European colonists, continued to roam over the wild and beautiful nexus of territory where Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana meet like three pieces of a giant’s jigsaw puzzle.

The book, which I’d picked up in a second-hand shop in Cambridge, England, had been written only 20 years earlier by an American anthropologist who had spent several months living among members of this small and utterly self-sufficient tribe. He described an isolated society in which every single member had complete mastery of the seven or so basic skills they required to survive. From memory, these ranged from making wooden pots and growing the carbohydrate-rich vegetable manioc to building rainproof grass huts and fashioning canoes from the trunks of trees.

Travelling in South America, I wanted to see this tribe for myself, and so here I was, trekking across the spectacular Gran Sabana in what I hoped was roughly the right direction. Adventure, as someone must surely have once said, only truly begins when one is lost.

I needn’t have worried. Three days later, I found them – or some of them, at any rate – thanks not to my navigation skills but to an orange windsock, visible for miles around. There were no huts, only rather desirable and solid cabanas in which grass roofing played only a token part. No one was fishing or whittling away at tree trunks. In place of the anthropologist’s isolated society, what I found was a modern settlement, complete with a general store, restaurant, guesthouse and tourist office.

The man who ran it offered to rent me a canoe, fashioned from glass fibre, and an outboard motor. Would I like a room with, or without a bathroom? Would I be eating at the restaurant this evening?

Here, the grandeur that had once inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World was diminished by the whirr of generators.

Later, as I sat in the shade sipping an ice-cold Coke, I watched as five or six of the locals exchanged their shorts, flip-flops and T-shirts – one was wearing the complete Manchester United away-strip of the day, as I recall – for traditional “Indian” wear, just in time to greet an aircraft full of tourists who had flown in for an authentic ethnic-experience-and-barbecue evening.

Each member of this tribe no longer had need of the seven or so basic skills upon which their immediate predecessors had depended upon for survival. One of their number, spotting the tourism potential, had made himself the employer of the others, each of whom now had a job, ranging from hotelier to outboard-motor engineer.

Even at the time I could see that my disappointment was an unjustified manifestation of cultural imperialism. Who was I to expect these people to freeze-frame their development solely to afford me a photo opportunity? Why on earth shouldn’t they seek to improve their lot by engaging with the modern world on its terms?

I bought a souvenir bow and arrow and a sun-dried ornamental piranha, waited for the Twin Otter to return and made my way back to England.

Now, something strange has happened. Thirty years down the road, I find myself looking back over my shoulder wistfully to a time when life was altogether more “real” – not for a “lost” tribe which lost touch with all the skills that once defined them, but for those of us whose existence is almost entirely digital.

When was the last time you made something? I don’t mean money, or excuses, or time, but something solid and functional, something that required the transmutation of a natural raw material, such as wood, into a thing of practical use.

If you’re anything like me, or indeed the vast majority of people in the digital era, the answer is “never”. Look around you. Which, if any, of the everyday things that surround us could you make? The table? Crudely, perhaps. That glass bowl? Unlikely. Light bulb? iPad? Forget it. We point, we click and, with a flourish of plastic, stuff we don’t understand is magically ours.

Barely two generations ago the east coast of England, where I live, was a thriving centre of wooden boatbuilding, a place where fathers passed on to sons time-honoured skills handed down since the Vikings first crossed the North Sea in their newfangled clinker-built boats, 12 centuries ago.

Now, the bustling yards that once fashioned sailing barges, fishing smacks and the mighty ships of Nelson’s navy – and the great oaks that shadowed the water’s edge – are gone. In their place stand trendy cafes, stylish shops and overpriced housing for the weekenders from London, who pose for photographs alongside fishing boats beached and abandoned on pebbly, sea-scoured beaches.

And so I have decided to build a small clinker-built boat. Why? Well, partly as a gift and a life-lesson for my soon-to-be three-year-old daughter, in the hope that, when she is older, it will offer her a sanctuary from the chaotic tumble of pressures that is modern existence – a thing of beauty that, in having no real purpose, has many purposes.

But I also did it for me. I wanted to see if a thoroughly unskilled modern man could do such a thing. Could I, with my soft hands and my digital, screen-framed existence, create a traditional, clinker-built boat, wrought from trees that sprang from the earth long before my grandfather was born?

The answer, I have to say, is still uncertain. As I have already discovered, it’s a ridiculously quixotic challenge for a journalist who, with a family and mortgage to support, knows little about woodworking and even less about boatbuilding, and I recognise that I am well and truly in over my head.

But adventure, after all, only truly begins when one is lost. I have embarked on a voyage of rediscovery, determined to navigate my way back to a time when a man could fashion his future and leave his mark on history using only time-honoured skills and the ancient tools and materials at hand. In the process, I hope to reconnect to a part of a common past with which, in our haste to embrace tomorrow, we are in danger of losing touch forever.

As I do, I will think from time to time of the commonality we all share with the entrepreneurs of the Gran Sabana, and wonder if someone, somewhere in the tamed acres of the once Lost World, is taking time out from their headlong rush to see if they can still hack out a rough canoe from a fallen tree.

Jonathan Gornall is a frequent contributor to The National