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A performance boat as performance art

There are as many ways to build boats as there are ways to skin a cat. From floating fortresses to sleek sloops, they all have to be built somehow. “Produced” actually is more like it these days — so they might be affordable to consumers and lucrative to their purveyors.

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This, in turn, dictates the material and method of production, which means we end up with many uniform copies extracted from the same mold. That might be efficient, cheap even, but, yawn, does this stuff look boring and devoid of character, wit and fun.

What if building a boat were taken out of its industrial context and turned into an act of art that involves hundreds of people instead of robots and machines — people who contribute mementos and memories, stories and history, turning the vessel into a floating record that invites you to pause and contemplate before stepping aboard? Consider a mundane object that used to live in someone’s kitchen drawer or find a piece of wood that’s centuries old, linked to the nation’s seafaring past. There might be a chance to find a particle that connects to a fallen rock star or an object that once orbited Earth. Really, what if?

The man to answer this question is Gary Winters. He is one of the founders of Lone Twin, a British duo of performance artists who initiated The Boat Project (, which was sponsored by Arts Council England. As one of 12 public art commissions, The Boat Project will represent southeastern England and be part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. “The idea came to us 10 years ago, but the time was not there yet,” Winters says.

Winters and Gregg Whelan, the other half of Lone Twin, met at Dartington College of Arts and have worked together ever since. “Our performances often took us to the water’s edge, where we met people who had boats and stories about boats,” Winters says, recollecting the early years.

The second reason the members of Lone Twin thought about boatbuilding as an artistic performance was their itinerant lifestyle. “Boats were the first means of long-distance travel. They took people to foreign places to explore countries and cultures and to conduct trade,” Winters says.

He and Whelan initially thought about building coracles — primitive bowl-shaped fishing boats for a single occupant that are light enough to carry on the shoulder. But they also sought to add the third, perhaps most important element in their plan: people. After all, what’s an artist without an audience, and what is performance art without others participating?

The Boat Project is a work of performance art that features wooden objects sanded to 8mm and applied as a veneer.

Winters says he was impressed by the 121-foot Team Philips catamaran; at the time of her March 2000 launch she was the largest and most innovative ocean racing multihull, built by Pete Goss in the tiny town of Totnes. “People were emotionally connected and hundreds came to watch the launch,” he recalls. “Building large structures used to be a community effort, like raising a barn. It brings people together.”

Team Philips, incidentally, turned community pride into broken hearts when the cat suffered structural problems and broke apart in a storm later that year after the crew was forced to abandon ship.

If travel, storytelling and community are at the core of The Boat Project, it was a crisp project summary and a positive feasibility study that got Lone Twin the commission and the 500,000 British pounds (about $790,000) sponsorship. Between February and August 2011 people from all over southeastern England were asked to donate objects made of wood. Anything, any size. Pencil or piano, pine or ply. In the end, the warehouse had nearly 2,000 pieces from more than 1,200 donations, including furniture, household knickknacks and sports equipment, musical instruments and decorative items such as busts and masks.

Among the more unusual was a piece from the Spacelab and what Winters says is an authentic sliver of one of Jimi Hendrix’s guitars. Some stuff was broken or rotten, but each bit remains linked to its donor, and those stories are now carried by this boat. Some of it is part of England’s history, such as timber from the historic vessels HMS Victory and HMS Warrior (donations 584 and 585) and two wooden boxes that were used to transport the country’s gold reserves to Canada during World War II to get them out of the Nazis’ reach.

On the lighter side, two lacrosse sticks also made it into this mosaic of mementos. One belonged to a guy who stopped playing because he broke another guy’s nose. It was installed on the starboard side. The other one belonged to the guy whose nose was broken. That racket was banished to the port side.

A box of chocolates
How do you turn an idea and a lot of odd pieces into a boat? That job fell to Mark Covell, who was hired as technical director of the project. With an Olympic silver medal in the Star Class and stints in the Volvo Ocean Race (as a media crewmember) and the America’s Cup, Covell is not your average boatwright. He also is a commentator at professional sailing events and proclaims to be in the business of pushing barriers. He got involved “because too many people said it couldn’t be done.”

A high tolerance for surprise was helpful in pulling it together because the exercise was reminiscent of Forrest Gump’s famous “box of chocolates” line: “You never know what you’re gonna get.” Some donations were odd-shaped and some came in several pieces. So what do you take? How do you cut or slice it? Where do you put it? “The layout was a matter of gut feeling,” Covell says.

The more decorative objects were planed or sanded to a thickness of 8mm, then traced onto the solid wood panel of less complicated donations.

The shapes were cut out and vacuum-bagged onto the exterior of the hull and backfilled with an epoxy flow coat. Objects made from soft wood had to be saturated in epoxy to achieve similar density. Afterward, the longboards came out and didn’t rest until the entire hull surface was smooth and fair.

But there was another small matter: the boat’s design, which was handled by naval architect Simon Rogers, whom Covell brought to the party. “He’s one of the people who are comfortable outside the box; besides, he’s a seat-of-the-pants kind of guy,” Covell says.

Rogers is at home in the world of performance boats, an odd fit at first glance because, as Covell mused, “it would have been easier to build an old gaff rigger.” But sailing, he insists, should be part of the performance, which is why he favored a performance design. “A stud that goes 20, not a dog that does 8,” as he puts it.

And Winters agreed. “While the objects donated mostly represented the 20th century, the boat definitely is 21st century,” he says.

Designing for the big surprise
Rogers relished the challenge, but skated on thin ice. “I did not know what the boat would be built from, but there was consensus it should be vintage 2012, something with contemporary performance, similar to a Mumm 30,” he says.

(From left) Gary Winters, Gregg Whelan and Mark Covell

Practical requirements dictated much of the decision-making. For one, the boat had to be legally trailerable, which limits maximum beam to 2.55 meters (8 feet, 4 inches). Working backward from the length-to-beam ratio produced a hull of 30 feet. The boat, which was planked with cedar strips and glassed (beneath the decorative skin), also had to be launchable from a ramp, so it’s fitted with a lifting keel and a cassette rudder. And the high-tech carbon mast has some low-tech deco: wooden lollipop sticks that have jokes printed on them.

It was a satisfying yet labor-intensive effort, so when Rogers is asked about man-hours, he exhales.

“Whew, I’d say 10,000-plus,” he says. That’s nearly 20 times what it would take to glue up this boat in a mold. That would be affordable, yes, but it also would lack artistic appeal and the artifacts that tell the stories of their donors. The tales will be published in a companion book that also shows how the donated pieces were laid out and affixed.

Rogers says The Boat Project is a “bookmark” in his career, and he most enjoyed the surprises of the artistic approach, where serendipity replaced rigid planning and rigorous process. He waited to see the results until the boat was displayed at the London Boat Show.

“Gobsmacked, I was genuinely gobsmacked by the artistry and the craftsmanship,” he says. “I never was so amazed by anything since I was a child.”

Sailed by a captain and seven crewmembers selected from hundreds of applicants, the yet-to-be-named boat will embark on its maiden voyage from Emsworth, where it will be christened and launched on May 7. Stops are Brighton, Portsmouth, Hastings and Margate. The last leg will be a road trip to landlocked Milton Keynes. “We’ll put it in a shopping mall,” Winters says with a laugh.

An oceangoing raceboat turning up in such a place will surprise people. They might know of a few ways to skin a cat, but they’ll never expect to see a vessel like this. “What if” is about to become reality.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue.