Grand old lady of sail helps master boat builder to bow out in style
Whether it was 400 years of family tradition, a sea captain for a father or the childhood discovery of a maritime manual, Richard Crane was always going to be a boat builder.
Finishing off the final project of a 50-year career, he runs his hand along the varnished timber hull of Iolanthe with an expression of satisfaction. The 97-year-old former racing yacht is having the last touches put to her interior before being returned to her owner in Wales.
"It's been a 10-year project off and on," said Richard, brewing a cup of hot coffee to combat the effects of a draughty Millbrook boat shed. "When the owner brought her to me there was virtually nothing worth saving, just the keel and part of the stem, so it's been a complete rebuild."
Richard explained that it had been a "sentimental journey" for the boat's retired seaman owner, who told him he had enjoyed some happy sailing aboard Iolanthe with a friend 30 years ago. When he came upon what was left of her, rotting and full of water on a beach in Chichester, he vowed to resurrect the old tub – and some memories.
"This chap said that despite the state she was in, he immediately recognised Iolanthe – and since then sentimentality has driven the project," said Richard. "Obviously it's been a bit of a stop-start job as time and money allowed, but now she's there and I'm looking forward to handing Iolanthe back."
Built in Norway in 1915, the 36ft racing vessel arrived in the UK in the 1930s and was used in Northumberland, Wales and along the south coast. A masterpiece of maritime design, Iolanthe is believed be the only remaining example of a "Rule 6" yacht in existence. Built from oak and Honduran mahogany, no expense has been spared in sourcing fittings of the highest specifications.
For a man of great practical skill, who has spent his working life mending and building wooden boats, Richard said the grand old lady from the classic era of leisure sailing was a pleasant project to go out on.
It's a far cry from Richard's introduction to a life of boats. When he was a lad growing up in Norfolk, holidays from school invariably meant joining his father on the bridge of one of the merchant ships he captained around the coast of Britain. Calling in at various ports along the way, Richard would always make a beeline for the jumble of dockside yards specialising in repairing wooden boats.
"Wherever we went I always wanted to go and look around the boatyards where all the small boats were – that was my thing," he said. "My father would do what he had to do in the agent's office and we would then wander off for a look around at the boats. It was an interest he encouraged.
"I think my interest in boats started with a small book called How To Draw Small Boats, which I found in our house. I pounced on it and that was what really got me started."
Richard, who can trace his boat building and carpentry ancestors back to the 1600s, added: "My father was a very good model maker and I was always making model aeroplanes and boats when I was a boy, so it's no real surprise I've ended up doing this for a living."
Moving, aged 12, to Plymouth, where his father had taken a job as wharf master at Cattedown Wharf, Richard went straight into the trade after leaving school, working for the well-known firm of Mashfords at Cremyll, as well as spells at Monachorum Manufacturers and also trying his hand at commercial fishing, before striking out on his own 30 years ago.
"The first boat I built on my own was a 12ft dinghy for the Torpoint Ferry," he said. "I've built quite a few boats from scratch over the years, but the main work has been in repairs. In recent times I've been helped by the revival of interest in wooden boats."
As a guitarist and double bass player for a variety of local bands, he is also sometimes called on to repair and refurbish instruments.
Looking back at 50 unbroken years in the trade, he adds, with some pride: "Cranes have been boat builders since the 1600s – that's a good feeling."
So does Richard's retirement mean the end of the line for the boat building family?
"I have a grandson called Patrick," he said, with equal pride. "He's six years old and he's already good with his hands. He can sees how things work, how they go together. He likes helping me out in the shed and he's also very patient, which is important for the work. Will he follow the family tradition? We'll just have to see."