Editor’s Note: While most Drascombes™ are of fiberglass hulls, the original was wood; and to this day, these boats remain available in wood by a limited and select group of builders licensed to build the Drascombe designs (see links at page bottom). The following article appeared in WoodenBoat magazine back in the 1970′s…
‘The Drascombe Boats’
January/February 1979 No 26.
he story of the Drascombe boats begins in a small boatyard on the banks of the River Yealm, at the head of the creek that separates the twin villages of Newton Ferrers and Noss Mayo, about 10 miles from the dockyards at Plymouth. It was here that John Watkinson designed and built a range of little clinker boats, using such traditional materials as rock elm, English oak, larch and mahogany. The boats celebrated a heritage which was appreciated, unfortunately, by a dwindling number of sailors. Dazzling ads for GRP boats were having their effect everywhere, and competition for buyers was getting heavy for the small yard.
So John Watkinson decided to try something new. He designed a 15′ motor launch with character, and built it from marine plywood and mahogany. With the rugged lines and sea-keeping qualities of West Country craft, and the strength and simplicity of glued clinker construction, he had brought forth an economical and functional craft, and done it in wood, his favorite material. But Watkinson wanted to concentrate on designing. When he’d built up the enterprise sufficiently, he sold it to take up design full time. That was in 1964.
Four years later, the first production plywood Drascombe™ Lugger, built by John and Douglas Elliott, was placed on exhibit at London’s International Boat Show at Earls Court. It was sold within 29 minutes of the doors being opened to the public! Since then, the Elliotts have built more than 200 of these small sailboats in plywood. Because the demand for them was so great, Honnor Marine of Totnes, Devon, began building a GRP version under license. According to Monroe B. Hall in Camden, Maine, who imports and distributes the GRP Drascombe™ boats in this country, over 1,000 Luggers have been built in glass. Obviously, John Watkinson has done something right. And just as obviously, so have John and Douglas Elliott who are now booked a year in advance.
So, what happened at John Watkinson’s Drascombe farm between 1964 and 1968? Drascombe itself lies on the fringe of Dartmoor, far from the waters that inspire the design work of John Watkinson. But it’s quiet there, and especially so in the 12th-century barn adjacent to his home. Here he was entirely free from concern about what would sell. Instead, he was compelled by a desire to produce a boat that his whole family could enjoy-a family who did not share his passion for sailing small boats. So the first requirement was that it inspire confidence. The second was that it be trailable. Along with its first rate sea-keeping ability, the designer wanted it to be lively enough, and handy enough for him to enjoy a “good hard sail once I had put the family on the beach.” The result was an 18’6″ x 6’7″ dipping lugsail yawl. His description of her follows:
“The half-decked boat with a high bulwark did wonders for confidence. Using an outboard in a well for power kept the noise and smell as far from the crew as possible and made it possible for. a not-so-agile person (me) to clear a fouled propeller or change a spark plug without leaning over the stern. The loose-footed yawl rig with all sails stowing aloft and out of the way gave the space needed for a family. By making the boat balanced under jib and mizzen as well as under full sail, the motor could be cut and fishing lines streamed without fear of the boom striking a loved one’s head. The hard turn to the bilge gave a powerful hull, well able to carry sail. Her generous sheer kept her dry.”
The Watkinson family started to enjoy their boating together. Moreover, the little boat was greatly admired by all who saw her, and the designer began to consider what an appropriate production boat the Lugger might be. In 1967 he made some design modifications for somewhat easier production in plywood, changed the rig to the simpler gunter yawl, and arranged with the brothers EIliott to build the Boat Show boat. The rest is history.
The shape of all the Drascombe™ boats is to some extent dictated by the lay of the planks. In 1962, with the advent of resorcinol glue, Watkinson had reckoned that it should be possible to clinker build in plywood using a small number of wide strakes, and dispensing with chine pieces as well as most transverse framing.
The first three boats he built to this method were disappointing, for he had not mastered the method of avoiding edge setting the wide plywood planks as they were bent around the hull. But he persevered, and finally arrived at a system whereby a glued plywood clinker boat could match its rival both in cost and in having a smooth interior, which is a vital factor in easy maintenance.
Yet, as he says:
“The one snag was skill. Building a good clinker boat using conventional fastenings is probably the most difficult task that a boat builder is invited to perform. Take away from this the copper nails, the timbers, and the ability to edge set the planks, and you present your boatbuilder with a much harder problem. Intelligent and dedicated people capable of being trained to do this work at the fairly low rates of pay offered in the boatbuilding industry are few and far between. So it was that in 1969 GRP was adopted for the quantity-produced Drascombe™ boats, leaving John Elliott and his brother in business in a small way to satisfy those who insist on wooden construction.”
Caption, above: The Drascombe™ Lugger, perhaps the best known of the Watkinson-designed boats, at her best in the water at Newton Ferrers. (Ed.’s Note: This beautiful image, taken by Douglas Elliott, would be right-at-home in a gallery of 18th c. Flemish paintings!)
The wooden Drascombe™ boats are all built by the same method. The three bulkheads, the centerboard case, rudder trunk, transom and outboard well are constructed first, and then set up on the jig together with the floor timbers, stem, and hog (keel batten), which are then glued and screwed together.
The assembly is then faired up ready to take the wide 9mm plywood garboard, and after this has been glued in place a 1 ” land is planed along its edge and the angles checked for accuracy. The next plank is then shaped up and glued in place, and likewise for the third plank.
The bottom of the boat and the stem have a 3″ flat planed along the whole length so that the keel and the outer stem laminates can be glued and fastened.
The stem is then roughly shaped with an electric plane, after which it is trued up by hand using a spokeshave and rebate (rabbet) plane.
The completed hull is then removed from the jig and set right way up on a cradle.
The deck beams, carlins, and hardware back-up blocks are fitted prior to laying the decks which are of marine ply, and when the decks have been glued on, the athwartship knees are fixed in place.
The sheerstrake (which is also a bulwark) is then glued and fastened before fitting the curved transom return, the quarter knees and the breasthook, and the top is faired up ready to receive the gunwale which is made up of two laminates of iroko.
All the smaller wooden fittings such as the centerboard case top, rudder guide pad, rowlock chocks and the mainmast tabernacle, etc., are then made and fixed to the boat which is then either painted or varnished to the customer’s taste.
The mast and spars are made from solid Colombian pine or Douglas fir. No bent ribs are needed to keep the Drascombe™ boats rigid, so any repainting is easily and quickly accomplished, as is regular cleaning.
All the sails for the wooden Drascombe™ are made from Terylene cloth by Sam Rogers, who learned his trade in the Royal Navy many years ago. He has a flair for the older types of rig, producing sails for 7’6″ dinghies right up to a set for a square rigger that competed in the Tall Ships race from the U.K. to America.
Over the last decade the wooden Drascombes™ have shown that good quality marine ply used in conjunction with a durable hardwood like iroko, and glued with Aerodux 185 or 500 glue, can last about as well as most other materials now used in small boat construction.
Being a small yard, they trade directly with each customer and do not sell through agents. The Elliotts build about 20 boats a year, and normally the time between ordering and delivery is about 12 months.
No working drawings for the Drascombe™ boats are available, because each design was drawn directly onto the loft floor from the designer’s sketches.
Caption, above: A newly-completed Drascombe™ Scaith. Behind her stands John Watkinson, the designer.