‘When you design a boat you normally know what materials you are going to be building out of – we obviously didn’t,’ says boat designer Simon Rogers, surprisingly exuberantly as he starts to describe The Boat Project. Part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad – a festival of arts linked to and culminating at the same time as the London Olympics – The Boat Project is a fully seaworthy work of art made from pieces of wood donated by the general public.
The only proviso for donations was that each piece of wood should have a story attached to it, according to the project instigators Greg Whelan and Gary Winters of performance art company Lone Twin. They won the South East Region commission from the Arts Council in its response to the Cultural Olympiad, called Artists Taking the Lead. Other schemes, which have received £5.4m funding in total, include a giant Lady Godiva puppet which will descend on London from Coventry, the Quay Brothers taking over Leeds for a month, and a massive column of cloud and light which will disappear into the sky above Liverpool.
In the end, the response to Lone Twin’s call for wood with a tale behind it was massive and The Boat Project has ended up with more than 1,200 donated pieces and, of course, just as many stories. Like life itself, the range of donations is amorphous, stretching from parts of old ships, including Henry VIII’s Mary Rose, to a piece of wood from the cemetery where The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was filmed. There’s history that resonates with many – part of a boat that was walked on by 7000 troops evacuated from Dunkirk – and there are more personal moments such as a hamster tunnel donated by a child after the pet died. There’s even a sliver of one of Jimi Hendrix’s guitars.
It’s these stories, small and large, that resonate about this project, making it stand out from the crowd of so much ‘community’ art. This is not just someone turning up for a couple of hours and getting their hands dirty, this project has a massive amount of emotional investment from all concerned. It’s about the encapsulation, figuratively and literally, of individual lives and memories and the creation of something new and unique in the process.
As well as the differing tales, each piece was also very different in size and the type of wood and so, physically incorporating them all into this new story, The Boat Project presented a major challenge to boat designer Simon Rogers, and boat-builder Mark Covell. You can also add to this mix that Rogers is a leading designer of racing yachts and Covell an Olympic-medal-winning sailor (silver in Sydney) – these guys wanted to build a vessel that really sails, not some wallowing hulk.
‘We wanted to develop something that was exciting and sporty and a boat of our time – state-of-the-art design,’ says Rogers. ‘I think anybody with any sailing heritage will look at it and say, “That’s actually quite an exciting boat!”’
The entire design is bespoke, not using any previous elements. They started from the basis that they would use cedar strips encapsulated in resin to provide structural integrity. They also knew that they would get a wide variety of donations so they built that into the parameters of the design, particularly in terms of weight: ‘If we were designing it to be a full-on sports boat it would be about 500–600kg lighter. But, by virtue of the fact that our centre-line structure alone is made out of HMS Warrior, HMS Victory and the SS Great Britain [its decking rather than the cast iron] it ended up weighing 100kg more than we had been expecting.’
While some of the wood has been incorporated into the structure, much of it has also been reduced to a veneer and used to create a visual story around the upper part of the hull: ‘We have had so many donations and at the end of the day we had to keep in mind that it is an artistic project. We’ve put the lighter donations at the ends so the boat doesn’t pitch too much and the heavier donations nearer the middle. The design has naturally evolved, both aesthetically and structurally. This is the opportunity of a lifetime and she [the boat] has certainly stretched my grey matter in all directions,’ adds Rogers.
And it was still evolving when Blueprint caught up with the project, with the maiden voyage still three months away. The boat has, however, already been on its travels. At the start of the year it attracted
a lot of attention at the Boat Show in London – even among vessels whose sheer bulk would block out a row of terrace houses from view.
At the show, Lone Twin’s Gwen van Spijk explained that it had been a long time in gestation. The germ of the idea was actually born more than a decade ago: ‘When Lone Twin started up it tended to
be more live-art and performance-art based, and a lot of it was within a community, gathering stories from that community through different kinds of processes.
‘Many of the communities were by water, either by rivers or by the sea. The initial idea was to build one-man coracles and then it just gathered momentum from there – the interest being about gathering stories from a community and how you do that, and how you build something like a boat at the same time.’ The reaction from the boat-building community in general to this last part was, ‘you can’t’. But Covell disagreed and set about putting together a team that could do it.
After getting the funding, the call went out last year for donations. ‘We said it could be exotic wood or bog-standard pine. It could be any object, of any size – a lolly stick – as long as it had a story,’ says
van Spijk. ‘Some of those stories are nationally significant and others are very, very poignant and personal stories – the
Each has been documented, the story written down and the person and their object photographed, and that will all find its way into a book to accompany the boat. A quick wander around the 10m length of the hull – obviously a lot easier when it’s up on a trailer at a boat show than when it’s in the water – reveals many stories, shapes of toy trains, elephants, guitars, hockey sticks, tennis rackets, as well as the far more strange and curious. If only this boat’s walls could talk…
The construction, and coming launch on 7 May, from Thornham Marina, near Chichester, where it’s been built, is just the start of the story. It will then travel around the south-east coast stopping off to create the focus of a series of arts festivals celebrating local, national and international artists. The boat’s designer Simon Rogers sums it up: ‘We are absolutely thrilled. The sailing performance is secondary,it is about the journey, and the artistic vision.’ Then with an added glint in his eye adds: ‘The reality is, though, that she will sail well, very well.’
Contributing to the project…
Oliver Evans: A piece of track from the 2012 Olympics’ velodrome (which wasn’t needed!)
Lt Co Whild: A plank from HMS Victory which was removed during restoration
Annabel Murphy: a wooden tunnel for Annabel’s hamster, Jessica, which died