“We are outsiders”: the boat builders from Instagram | UK news

BElinda Joslin has owned, raced, maintained and repaired boats her entire life. Looking for work after her children started school, she turned to her local boatyard in Ipswich. They offered her a job as a painter and her life quickly became about sanding, painting and varnishing. “I showed up at the school gate all filthy,” says Joslin, 48.

To find other women who share her passion, she set up an Instagram account called in May 2021 women in boat building. “I thought I couldn’t be the only woman in the world obsessed with fixing boats,” she says. “I wanted to connect with other women and hear their stories. I’ve discovered some incredible, inspiring women.”

Belinda Joslin

Hands reaching into a small basket full of tools
Plaque affixed to a boat reading 'Kerridge & Daughter'

Originally, the goal was to celebrate each other’s accomplishments, but as the women spoke openly about their experiences, they began to share some of their difficulties and the struggles they faced. Boat building is still largely a male domain. Many of the women have experienced sexism and found that they had to work harder than the men to prove their abilities.

“As an industry, we’re a long way from gender equality,” says Joslin. “Much more could be done” Joslin wants the account to be a lobbying force for equality and diversity in boat building, as well as a place to showcase and support women in the industry.

Sacha Walker sits on a racing yacht

Sacha Walker

“You are producing your part of a beautiful sculpture”

The noise and clatter of the shipyard reminds Sacha Walker of the rhythms of preparing for a festival or gig. Walker, 53, a former tour manager and music agent, now works as a finisher, sanding and varnishing the boats built at Spirit Yachts in Ipswich.

“We work as a team with a common goal. All this noise, all this energy flows right through me. That’s what I eat,” she says.

After leaving London five years ago, Walker moved to near Ipswich and began studying photography. In 2017 she visited Spirit to photograph people at work and immediately felt at home: “I loved the atmosphere and the boats.”

When Spirit CEO Karen Underwood offered Walker the opportunity to train as a finisher, she jumped at it. “I love it. I don’t have a desk or email,” says Walker. “I’m always on the move, always in touch with the wood. I end up hugging the boat almost like a whale’s back. It’s very physical.

“It’s really pure, artistic and creative,” she says. “You are producing your part of a beautiful sculpture.”

Almost a third of the workforce at Spirit is female, but not all shipyards are as inclusive or supportive, Walker says. Elsewhere, “women are not treated well and are made to prove themselves.”

Even where there is gender parity, it can still be more difficult for women – tools and work clothes are often designed for men: “We need adjustments, but that doesn’t make us useless or weak.”

A woman stands on the deck of a yacht surrounded by scaffolding

Belinda Cree

“People talk to you like you’re a trailblazer”

Friends and family describe Belinda Cree’s profession as “a painter and a desecrator”. She either meticulously prepares surfaces and surfaces of a boat or chops parts out of a hull with a grinder.

“Boat maintenance is my specialty,” she says. “At the moment I’m derusting and working on the rough spots in steel bulwarks.”

Cree, 28, is a self-employed boat builder working on the conversion and maintenance of boats both on land and at sea. She is currently working as a contractor for the boat owner in Southampton on the refit of a 1962 30 meter luxury motor yacht.

She didn’t always see herself setting sail. Growing up in Northern Ireland, a teenage back injury thwarted her planned career in the military. It took years for her to learn to live with her chronic pain and feel capable of pursuing a physically demanding career.

Belinda Cree walking among the anchor chains on La Fenice
A to-do list on a clipboard

She started a traditional seafaring apprenticeship with National Historic Ships three years ago, which included a boat building course. “To have a good life, I have to put a lot of work into my health,” she says, “but it’s so much more rewarding when those efforts pay off in a job I love.”

As a woman in the maritime industry, she still feels a lot of pressure to prove herself. “I’d love to see how perceptions change about who can work in this industry,” she says. “People talk to you like you’re a trailblazer. There’s not a lot of room not to be the best on the farm: ‘Will you allow me to be new or learn, or do you think I’m no good because I’m a woman?’”

She believes social media groups can help. “Seeing other women do their own thing, especially women who are further ahead of me and have more experience, is encouraging. It gives you something to aim at.”

Obioma Oji at the Lyme Regis Boat Building Academy workshop

Obioma Oji

“Physical strength is not a factor, it’s about problem solving”

There is something fundamental about approaching the water, says Obioma Oji, who is a newly minted boat builder.

Oji, 43, and three of her Lyme Regis Boatbuilding Academy graduates have started a startup that produces high quality and affordable traditionally built wooden boats that are coveted for their quality, craftsmanship and sustainability, she says.

Oji ties up Ibis, a boat she helped build, at Lyme Regis.
A hand drawing chalk lines on a piece of wood
  • Oji ties up Ibis, a boat she helped build, in Lyme Regis; and repairing wood defects in the academy workshop

Oji was working as an interior designer at Ikea when the pandemic prompted her to take a career break and start a boat building course. She saw it as an opportunity to learn more practical skills and boost her creative drive – earlier in her career she had worked in ceramic design and interior design.

She started the course thinking that she would be interested in rigging or sailmaking, “but what I enjoyed most was the woodwork,” she says. “Each piece of wood is different and you can’t force it, you have to persuade it, read it. Physical strength isn’t a factor – it’s about problem solving.”

Women were in the minority on the course, as they were in boat building. “We’re outsiders,” says Oji.

Gail McGarva rivets a sole of a Cornish pilot boat

Gail McGarva

“The shape of a boat reveals its past, its mission, its shoreline”

Gail McGarva often has no plans to follow as she crafts her traditional workboats in her workshop at Lyme Regis. When she finds a ship that is in danger of extinction, she lovingly crafts a replica she calls “daughter boat” by following the lines of the mother boat and building by eye.

“I’ve always been drawn to work boats,” she says. “You have a strong sense of function. They are tough and beautiful, and each boat has a story. You look at the shape of the boat and it tells you its history, its mission, its shoreline.”

McGarva, 57, lived on boats for years and decided to focus on it after careers in theater and as a sign language interpreter. She trained as a boat builder 18 years ago and has a passion for heritage preservation.

Her work includes the construction of 32ft (9.75m) Cornish pilot gigs revived by artisanal boat builder Ralph Bird in the 1980s. Racing them is a popular sport today.

Women carrying a boat carrying the sand away from the water

“As a traditional boat builder, we often focus on restoration, but I was fortunate to see an explosion of interest in gigs and clubs commissioning new boats,” she says. “It’s been a great honor to have Ralph Bird as my mentor – it’s important to have someone who says you can do it.”

McGarva has received numerous awards including the British Empire Medal for services to clinker boat building and traditional crafts. McGarva also holds workshops around the country telling stories about the role these boats play in our heritage.

“It’s still a male domain,” she says, “but I’ve always believed that anything is possible. We need more role models for women.”

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