Hardwood to Windward
PUBLISHED: 11:00 15 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:09 20 February 2013
Traditional Salcombe boatbuilder Mike Atfield explains why crafting beautiful wooden boats has become his lifelong passion. Words and photos by Charlie Clift.
Mike Atfield is an expert with wood. He bends, carves and shapes it to form beautiful wooden boats. In his workshop in Salcombe he has been crafting out waterborne gems since the 1970s, and is particularly well known for building many of the towns racing fleet of Salcombe Yawls. His passion for the craft seems to affect everything in his life, and after many years he still gets the same excited thrill when he sees his boats on the water.
The sun creeps in through the roof of Mikes workshop casting streaks of light down over the tools that are arranged around almost every bit of spare space. A pretty clinker boat is sitting in its cradle nearly finished and just getting the final paint it needs to withstand the elements. Mike is a relaxed man, happy to take his time over things and make the most out of each job. His profession is not just about the money, and he confesses to often doing more than he is paid for on each boat.
If you look closely at any of his boats youll find something unique an anchor carved out of the sides of the bulk heads. Normally people just put a row of holes there for ventilation, Mike explains whilst talking about the first carving he did, but I thought Id put an anchor there instead. Since then these carvings have become his signature and a feature of every boat he builds. Taking a few more hours to do that little bit extra is not the most commercial of approaches, but it does mean that Mikes boats are well-known and well-loved.
I moved to Salcombe when I was 13, says Mike, prior to that I wanted to be an electrician. But when I came down here boats were sort of new to me, and I just fell for them and thought itd be a nice job to do. So, at the age of 15, he walked down the road and asked for an apprenticeship in a local boatyard. You had to have an interview with the boss of the yard, his mother and his brother, he describes. He spent five years learning his skills on the job, and has been crafting wooden boats ever since.
Nowadays a large number of the towns very own boat design, the Salcombe Yawl, are made by Mike and he regularly watches them racing on the estuary. Made to tight specifications, a boat cannot be called a Salcombe Yawl until a final inspection by those in charge of the fleet deems it worthy of the name. Once approved each is given a number that will stay with it for the rest of the boats life. Only Mike and a few others make Yawls, as bending and shaping wood to fit such specific dimensions is a difficult job, and thus his services as a boat builder are in high demand.
A true family man, Mike says his proudest moments are small events such as when his son, Nick, was learning to swim in the local swimming pool. It was one of those moments when you really realise what its all about just the simple things. Although he works alone a lot, some of the time his wife, Jean, makes her way down Salcombe hill to help out. When shes needed shell come down and be here all day, says Mike as he leans against a workbench covered in wood shavings. When a boat needs varnishing, the two of them will wait till the quiet evening to head to his workshop so that Mikes many friendly daytime visitors dont kick up the wood dust and spoil the finish. A single bang on the door from an unexpected visitor can easily throw up enough dust to ruin a coat of varnish, and with no separate workroom for varnishing you gotta make the most of what youve got.
He often throws a little launching ceremony when each boat is finished and loves seeing the new owners smiling as they take their boat away.
For Mike all the hard work he puts into a boat feels worthwhile when he hands it over to a client. I like meeting people and then striving at the end of the day to give them something they really want. He often throws a little launching ceremony when each boat is finished and loves seeing the new owners smiling as they take their boat away.
People like Mike never really stop, and you get the feeling that he will be building boats for many more years to come. He has thought about retirement but after his son died in a terrible accident a few years ago, he reconsidered life. Retirement doesnt seem an option to him any more. What are you going to do, just sit around? Although he confesses that the hardest part of the job is moving the heavy wood around, he always seems to manage, and his friendly manner means he can usually find some help when in need of it.
Few manage to stay at the top of their game for so long, but after many years Mike is still building brilliant race-winning Yawls and pretty dinghies. Its easy to see why though. Mike loves getting lost in his work and is still just as passionate as ever about his craft. As an important part of Salcombes sailing community, he will carry on for a long time shaping wood into stunning boats.