Kate is not just our boat it is she is our home, and over the years we’ve made her a space we enjoy living in. We want our boat to reflect our lives; colourful, vibrant, exciting. We’ve achieved this the traditional way, using paint and fabrics; a sunshine yellow transom & matching headsail UV cover and in the head pacific sky blue walls and cheery lime green cupboards. But we’ve recently started doing some rather non-traditional upgrades.
Which is I recently agreed to let an almost perfect stranger in the Solomon Islands take a knife and chisel to the teak trim in the galley.
The western province in the Solomon Islands is famous for their bowls and decorations hand-carved from local hardwoods and inlayed with intricate mother-of-pearl. We heard all about it from friends we met in Vanuatu who had spent just sailed from the Solomons. We knew we have no space for such frivolous souvenirs but Steve suggested that we find a tradesman whose work we liked and him to pretty up the cabin a little. The teak trim in the galley seemed like a good place to start.
We looked at a LOT of carvings and talked to a LOT of carvers before we ran into Erol on the island of Rendova. We had been invited to the village to look at the work of all the local carvers. This suited us fine as it meant we’d be able to see everyone’s work in one hit instead of having a steady stream of canoes visit the boat- a tiresome parade we’d already had our fill of at other anchorages.
Among the usual knickknacks on display (carved fish, seahorses, shell-shaped bowls, canoes, masks, more bowls), we found a very unusual piece; a wooden fishing lure. Attention had been paid to the fine details and the finish work, two aspects often over looked by a lot of carvers. We asked the carver to look at the rest of his work and were further impressed with his detailed inlay. We bought the fishing lure and asked him to come out the boat to discuss our project.
Erol paddled out to the boat at the agreed time (big points in the land of “island time”) and was a quiet and thoughtful man. We explained our idea in a mix of English and Solomon Island Pidgin and he seemed interested. He said he could do the job in a week, which seemed too good to be true but he assured us it was possible. He would require some additional nautilus shell, a new file and some glue. As it happened I had some nautilus that I found in Vanuatu and he knew a woman who was in the nearby town and could buy the file and glue he needed that afternoon. We agreed on a price, shook hands and I began to dismantle the galley.
The next day I wandered up to Erol’s house to check on things. I found him busy at work and I sat for a while to watch. His tools were a simple three corner file, a small chisel and a sharp knife. He had already cut the channel in the teak where the inlay would be places and had strips of nautilus shell ready to shape. He filed the sides of each length of nautilus to fit where it would be placed then holding the shell in his fingers he used the sole of his foot as a sort of brace to work against. With a few quick strokes of a small file custom shaped the nautilus shell, scored it with a knife and snapped off the tiny shape. He repeated the process again until he had a line of little, shiny shell bits on his bench. These were then glued into the appointed place in the very order that they had been shaped and snapped off. When everything is dried it is lightly sanded and a putty of local beeswax is applied in all the negative space between the shell. The result is an intricate design that is flush with the surface of the wood.
We talk briefly about the design of the inlay but I didn’t press my ideas too hard. The calibre of his talent was reflected in his work, and I have found in these situations the results are much more interesting if you give the artisan creative freedom. Erol was focused and precise and I started feeling like I was disrupting his concentration so I left him to his work. He assured me he would make my counters look beautiful.
A few days later he dropped off the final piece of trim for the galley island and picked up the trim surrounding the sink. When I noted that he had changed the design he simply replied “Yes, I wanted to do something different.” Who can argue with someone’s muse?
A week later he paddled out to Kate to deliver the last piece trim. We were stunned that he had stuck to his timeline and that the quality of work remained consistent. We had coffee and I invited him down below to inspect the work that had already been installed. The village was well known for it’s carvers, in fact we found mentioned in a cruising guide that was over 20 years old. But it was the first time a yacht had ever asked him, or anyone else, to do custom work.
I asked him if he was happy with the job and, being a man of few words, he gave a shy smile and quietly replied “Yes”, his eyes full of pride. Then he asked me if I was happy and how could I say no? Sure we got a beautiful addition to our boat but seeing Erol’s face when he looked at his handiwork was worth so much more. In fact we were so happy that we arranged to return and have him inlay the trim around the nav table.
Every now and again I find myself watching the sunlight dance across the galley, the nautilus shell sparkling and shining all the colours of the rainbow. The galley is one of my most used, and favourite, spaces on board. It allows me to feed not only our bellies but my creative spirit too. And now perhaps Erol’s as well.