It’s not widely known that, during World War II, two fleets of ships were built in Pontypool: aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers and submarines. It is also not widely known that one fleet was built by my friend, Eric Smith, and the other was built by me. We were about twelve years of age at the time.
We were both keen fretworkers and avid readers of “Hobbies Weekly” a magazine which encouraged that and other crafts and which we bought most weeks. Unfortunately, because of the shortage of paper during the war, the magazine shrank in size until it was an extremely thin publication indeed. But, from time to time, they issued their blueprints for various aspects of fretwork and Eric and I were both thrilled when one copy advertised plans for a fleet of model ships. We had both bought fretsaws and small fretwork tables which were designed to be clamped to the edge of a suitable table.
We’d seen some earlier pre-war copies of “Hobbies Weekly” and at that time small strips of neatly planed wood in various lengths and thicknesses could be bought, but, during the war, such luxuries disappeared and we were reduced to haunting the fruit shops of Pontypool looking for suitable apple or orange boxes which we could generally buy for sixpence each. That was rather expensive, but a whole box would supply enough wood for several ships; the only trouble with it was that it was not planed wood but was quite rough so a lot of hard work with sandpaper was required before we could use it. Still, it was all part of the fun.
We both spent many hours on dark evenings cutting out the many small pieces and gluing them together with Croid glue which was a very strong and effective glue for wood. Then we would paint the ships grey, eventually ending up with a splendid fleet each which we used to stage imaginary battles. They also served as targets for bombing raids by our Dinkey Toy aircraft.
When we were about fifteen we became more ambitious and decided to build a real boat that we planned to sail on the fishponds just off the Crumlin Road. We decided to construct a six foot, twin-hulled catamaran. As we had a reasonably large shed at the rear of Garfield, we decided that the shipyard would be there as it was possible to keep the partly built vessel inside the shed until its completion.
Of course, whereas one apple or orange box would supply enough wood for several model ships, we realized that, for the catamaran, we’d need a number of boxes together with a large number of nails and a good supply of putty. We finally decided on our design: both hulls would be made from fruit boxes and the deck would be an opened out tea-chest.
For weeks, whenever the weather gave us the opportunity to work outside, we worked on our project and eventually we’d completed one of the hulls. We discovered that, because of the small knot holes etc. the amount of putty needed was considerable. At the end of the project we’d used about five pounds of it. Having made one hull, we’d honed our skills and the second one was completed much quicker. Then came the grand moment when we opened out our tea-chest and fixed it to the hulls to form the deck of the catamaran. Our craft was assembled and we stood back admiring our handiwork with considerable pride.
Admittedly our humble craft lacked the finesse and skill of true shipbuilders; Cammell Laird and Swan Hunter might not have given us the time of day, and it has to be admitted that our boat had numerous cracks filled with putty and a general outline that could hardly be described as sleek but we were reasonably satisfied with our efforts. We thought that a final sandpapering would make it ready for painting. We also decided that the best way to paint it would be to stand it on one end so that we could get at all parts except the ends of the two hulls. We gave it an initial coat of undercoat and, when that was dry, we turned the craft upside down to paint the unpainted ends. The quality of the paint during the war was not exceptional but it seemed to do the trick. When it was dry we hauled the boat into the shed to allow the paint to harden before applying the final coat of gloss. Being by that time all in one piece, the catamaran was quite a heavy object but we finally managed to get it inside the shed.
Then came the grand day when we took it out again for its final coat of paint prior to its launch on the fishponds. The day was fine and sunny so, once again we stood our boat on end on the concrete path outside the shed. Eric and I each had a pot of paint and a brush and we decided to paint the underside of the boat first. When this was completed we both came around to the top of the deck and continued to paint starting at the top of both hulls. That was a great mistake! As we both pressed our brushes onto the hulls to put on the paint we pressed a little too hard and the whole thing toppled away from us and right over onto the concrete. There was a terrible crash as the full weight of the boat hit the concrete; both hulls cracked into pieces from stem to stern and bits of dry putty shot out all over the place. Our beloved catamaran was a complete wreck! Having pots of paint and brushes in our hands were were completely helpless to stop the accident happening.
My mother, who had been working in the kitchen only a few yards away, heard the crash and came running to the door to see what had happened. We must have looked a disconsolate pair surveying the wreck of our catamaran like New Yorkers gazing at the collapsed Twin Towers. As a craft to sail on it was now absolutely useless.
My mother sympathized with us but seemed to recover rather quickly offering, almost instantly, to buy the boat from us for firewood. We realized that any attempt at repair was quite out of the question so we accepted her kind offer. I remember her telling me some time later, after we’d got over the sad affair, that she was never more relieved than when she saw the catamaran in pieces. She was terrified that, if we’d tried to sail on it we’d have been drowned. In retrospect I think she was probably right. Launching from the bank of the fishpond would have been a great thrill but when we got to the middle of the pond we might well have found that both hulls were taking on water, and returning to the bank might have been difficult. We later learned that Eric’s mother had similar thoughts to my mother’s.
We’d never considered a name for our catamaran, but, as things turned out, I suppose Hesperus wouldn’t have been a bad one.