By Jackie Monies - Eufaula, Oklahoma - USA

One True Thing - Conversations With JohnW - Part One
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To Part Two

For those who sail and build boats, there is one true North, one true thing, one true boat.

This is the story of how the boat found us. More than that, it is a story about finding a friend in a most unexpected way, a friend who changed our lives.

When searching for a boat to build the decision of which plans one settles on is usually determined by long study, comparison of one boat to another, one designer’s version to another. Seldom is it determined by fate.

Clinker build

One afternoon a charming and polite, interesting and informative e-mail arrived for me. I was stunned …it was from the world renowned designer, John Welsford, of New Zealand. How had I had the effrontery to bother someone so important, so famous with my questions? Why had he answered me? In error I seemed to have clicked my mouse on his e-mail address, hurriedly sending out questions. I was apologetic for bothering him.

JohnW, in his usual down to earth way, I came to learn, replied, “You seem to be in awe of my reputation, but I’m just me. I swear when I drop something on my foot, smell bad if I don’t shower and worry about the bills like everyone else. Just a guy doing a job, mind you it’s one that I love.”

John not so down to earth

How could I help being in awe? I loved his boats, loved his writing. The photo on the book jacket was everything salty and nautical you could wish for in a boat designer. The stories that accompanied the designs of his boats carried you along on the journey, taking you to waters you dreamed of sailing. JohnW was what I pictured a designer of sailing craft to be, knowledgeable and spare in replies to posts on forums, yet more learned and brilliant than I could even imagine. Genius, talent, intellect.

“It’s interesting “ John said, “about outsiders’ perception of us. I am something of a bibliophile, as well as deeply in love with boats and boating. In my early days I viewed both authors and boat designers as people who sat, one on each side, very close to God. They were not human in the same sense that I was. I could not imagine either having feet that smelled or catching the flu. Now I find myself , with a couple of books published and quite a few boats in the water , being looked up to in the same way. It is an odd feeling.”

John at work


What could I talk to him about? What could we have in common, eight thousand miles away and a life time of difference? What did I know about boats, about building or designing?

What could we talk about? A lot I found out. Conversations with John Welsford have been both an education and a joy of learning. Most importantly, I learned that finding a boat is not the issue. . Find the designer and you will find the boat. But I am ahead of the story. First I found a friend, then a designer and then the boat. It was that simple.


Simple is one thing John Welsford is not.

“The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things: Of shoes….and ships….and sealing wax, Of cabbages …and kings…and why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings.”

It took only a short time to lose my fear of the great designer. We talked of everything… gardening, cooking and food, music, dogs, cats, family, friends, travel, politics, America, New Zealand. And yes, we had so much in common, miles and continents apart. But boats, boats, boats and designing, we talked of that. And the more we talked, the more I wanted a Welsford boat.

History plays into the design of all John’s boats. “I’ve done a lot of research into historical precedents, the small coastal fishing boats from around Cornwall and Devon in the mouth of the English Channel. I obtained from museum files, local designers and other sources sets of hull lines, analyzed them and worked them into a set of statistics which in my view defined the characteristics I was trying to achieve. I then designed Houdini to replicate these characteristics using the numbers taken from research, adjusted for scale effect, then sailed the boat to see how close I’d been with my theories. Close! Very close, for a small open boat Houdini is astonishingly seaworthy and comfortable in heavy weather and amazingly quick in winds that you can’t even feel.”

“Swaggie and Sundowner are developments using the same information and both of those are much more capable than you’d expect from such small craft. By working out what numbers that a boat that sails in a certain way and will perform in a certain way, even before I begin to draw, then checking at every stage that the drawings are consistent with those numbers, the design result is within predicted parameters. I use English and French boats as a model in most cases, they are the boats from which many of the American boats’ ancestry is drawn.”


Classic, beautiful, designs based on historical reference and place, designs influenced by the sailing and rowing craft of the past, yet rooted in the present. Boats designed to the most seaworthy of specifications, boats that would sail and perform in conditions that exceed any we might encounter in our local waters,. Boats that could take you to your dreams and back, even around the world. I wanted one, I yearned to be building a Welsford. But we were committed to building our Laguna, a boat we had made serious commitments to take through adventures of her own. We do not back out of our commitments. And JohnW understood and respected that. He is that kind of man. Honoring commitments matters to him.


So, we talked about boats, the new AWOL he has designed for Dave Perillo in New Zealand, the Saturday Night Special prototype for the raids and coastal cruising, the new Pipkin dingy for the revised edition of his book. We talked about the Houdini, the Walkabout that I love, the Navigator and Pathfinder, we talked about Sundowner and Charlie. How do you tell someone whose boats you love so much that you cannot build one of their boats? That no matter how much you love them, the boats are just not the boat you need to build? Mike and I talked about it constantly, Mike saying “We just don’t need another small boat.”

But John and I still talked of the new boats. “My friend Blair, who has one of my Navigators is here for a few days. We are building the prototype Saturday Night Special. The process is slower than building from the full-sized patterns that we’ll have later, so we began by scaling up all the panels and cutting them out. By tonight we should have a hull, tomorrow the center case, seat, bulkheads and keel all fitted. By Thursday, the insides of the buoyancy tanks should be done and the decks on, and we will be rigging her. If we had the sail, I’d say we could sail her by Sunday.” Saturday Night Special is to be a fast built boat, capable of being built on a beach for raids or coastal cruising, built with locally obtained materials by those coming from far away. Blair dreams of sailing in the TX 200, coming from far away New Zealand, building the Saturday Night Special at Port Mansfield, TX.

Rigging Resolution

Blair is Captain Blair Cliffe, RN, RNZN M Eng, Extra master foreign going, including bulk tankers, and has never built a boat before. He wants to learn how. John is teaching him how to use the tools and to build a glued plywood boat. “It’s looking good, but this might not be the final iteration of the design, as some of the shape would be a challenge to those who have not done this before. Race teams would do the frames, rudder, dagger board and as much other stuff as possible in advance, plus have full-sized paper patterns to work with.” We compared and talked about our own Laguna build, planning for a beach built Laguna and the concepts of disposable boats to be used briefly for one event. We had our Laguna already begun. She was becoming a much more permanent boat than envisioned as we began. There was no changing boats .

So John and I continued to talk about gardening, music, meals and food. “Corn as high as an elephant’s eeeeeeeeye”, or in the case of his neighbor, higher than the elephant itself, the lack of flavor in commercially grown vegetables, digging dirt, weeding, planting and the fact he had his fingers crossed that his tomatoes didn’t get nipped by the last of New Zealand’s cold weather. But always, we went back to the boats. Why did he design? Why did he continue when he admitted that it was hard to make a living doing so? Reality made John and other designers like himself work at something else to make ends meet. Designing wasn’t easy.

Shop and office

“Why do I design? The passion is there. It can’t be ignored and it’s a great vocation. There is nothing better than seeing the joy and pleasure that people get from our creations. I love being out on the water and seem to have a particular ability to visualize a complex entity and translate that via drawings into reality.

This enables me to share in a very direct way the joy and pleasure that I get from boating. Hand in hand with that is the buzz I get when I see people enjoying the results of my creativity.”

“ I had many heroes when I began, people who were the iconic designers of that time. Today I get a sort of dazed bliss from being included by them as an equal. It is a little like being unexpectedly promoted to godhood. I enjoy doing something that I admire in others, enjoy the pleasure that my creations give others and enjoy doing something that I have unexpectedly found that I am good at.”

Writing and words, beautiful words that paint evocative pictures in your mind of wind, water, waves, rocks.

That’s another thing JohnW is good at. Are all boat designers equally good with words or just well read?

Well, turns out John reads the unabridged dictionary for bedtime reading, loves the meaning and use of words, taught creative writing at college, along with maritime and automotive design at university. A teacher and writer, a lover of words.

With Charlie

“Some years ago I got handed a community college class in creative writing. The previous tutor had been pretty dry, but I am not into that. We did a novelette which was hilarious but illustrated the methodology behind any successful writing. Each group wrote a bio for a character, another worked up a town, another a brief history of area, so on. Then we’d put all the elements together, each night we’d work out where we were in plot, each person would go away and write up their perception of it, offering it the next class night.”

“They were all so serious when I arrived, that didn’t last long. The whole bunch would be bouncing up and down in their seats, yelling suggestions and breaking up laughing. Among the few rules for the story were that it had to begin with “It was a dark and stormy night” and at the end the butler had to be the guilty party.”

“Like teaching marine design, the fastest way to learn how to write, is teaching it.”

Writing. We talked about writing. “The Backyard Boat Builder”, John’s book, continued with revisions and editing, more additions as we corresponded. “Writing. I’m about halfway through what I hope will be the last draft” Then later, “Am working on a new design for the book, Pipkin, the smallest measure of an English cask. Garth Battista wants me to build a boat and photograph all the stages and detail for the book. I am already started on Pilgrim, but it‘s not the right construction method, so I have to design and build another one.”

The book continued. Always editing, always adding, always writing new materials. ”Writing is addictive and having books in print a real buzz, but it’s a painful process. I’d hate to be a publisher or editor, they have to deal with writers, like me.” We talked of the delays in finishing “The Backyard Boat Builder.” “I had a battle getting the publishing rights back from the previous publishers, their company had been sold and every time I went to get the problem sorted out, the person I had been dealing with was gone. It took over a year to get that done. Garth Battista of Breakaway Books will be publishing the new edition, which should be finished soon.”

John Welsford on a visit to the states - Canyon Lake


John sends me drawings for the new boat, a very pretty 10 foot sailing dinghy. “Pipkin, a very small wooden barrel, the smallest medieval English barrel measure, is coming along nicely. She’s 10 feet by four feet six inches, five planks to a side. Fairly simple, single sail. I have to build one, so figured that I’d build one I could have fun in.” A full set of plans are to be included in the new edition. Pipkin is lovely and graceful, so typically a Welsford boat.

Also in the USA

John sent me chapters. Beautiful accounts of rowing and sailing New Zealand., the waters of Auckland and Tauranga,. So lovely to sail with a friend, even if only in your mind, to see what he saw, feel what he felt. Evocative writing, taking the reader to a place, far, far away, a place seen through the writer’s eyes. I could hear John, playing music on his flute with which he always sails, music for the winds and waves and himself, improvisational Celtic jazz, matching the sounds of nature and the waters he sailed.


Did I mention that JohnW writes science fiction as a hobby? Not boating, science fiction, galaxies and worlds, centuries far, far away. People and creatures far removed from the seas and sailing. Ask him where the best bookstores are on several continents to buy science fiction or boating books and he can tell you. “The best science fiction second hand bookshop in the world is in Santa Monica Beach, CA. The second best is on Lower Granville Street, Vancouver, B.C., about 50 yards up on the right from the bridge. The third best is on the third floor west of the Funan IT Mall in Singapore.”

Gardening. I love and miss serious gardening. Oklahoma is unkind to gardeners, too much heat, cold, rain, drought, hail, wind. I am pulling out burned up plants from summer, cucumbers are running rampart in the cypress trees. John’s gardens are tidy and weeded, neatly planted and thinned. John gardens devoutly. “The vegetable garden established last summer will do well this season. We’re already eating from it, The cats love the catnip and roll around completely shameless in it.” I start thinking I not only want a Welsford boat, I want to move to New Zealand where I can grow English style gardens with fresh peas and mint.

John in new zealand

Cooking and food. We both love to cook, for ourselves and those we love. John and I exchange endless notes on what we are cooking, eating, thinking of eating or cooking. Proper breakfasts for John when he sails and camps involve fresh eggs, rashers of bacon, bread he baked himself. He has written a cookbook I discover, no longer in print, for cooking outdoors, in boats and hiking. No manufactured breakfast bars or Power Bars, but real food while boating. I grow to like this man even more. We exchange more cooking and gardening notes. He gives me his recipe for correctly baking English scones, well New Zealand scones, actually. I locate candied orange peels in Oklahoma to try them out. They are delicious.

“We do English scones on a regular basis, I think they are a lot like your biscuits. One cup of flour, one teaspoon of baking powder, one pinch of salt, one large dessert spoon of butter. Sift the dry ingredients in, rub the butter in. It should give you a slightly crumbly mix that will hold together compressed, if not use more butter. When done you can put half a cup of sultanas (raisins) or grated cheddar cheese. My favorite, which is Christmas fruit cake peel mix, complete with glace’ cherries. Or just plain. Mix to a stiff dough with milk and roll out to about 30 mm. (about one inch ) thick on a floured board, then cut into three inch squares and bake for about 15 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius (350 degrees Fahrenheit).”

John rowing his Huff Boat.

“The plain ones can be eaten with butter, raspberry jam and whipped cream, drunk with English Breakfast or Ceylon tea, which is your traditional Devonshire tea. The others, just lots of butter. Eat while slightly warm and get them down before the butter melts, so there is that contrasting texture and temperature.”

Barefoot rowing

Food and proper food matters in New Zealand, it seems. JohnW thinks if I cooked for the immigration officials they might perhaps waive their stringent requirements for foreigners wanting to come there. It seems I am not the only person wanting to sample New Zealand’s food, mountains, sailing and boats.

Geography and weather, sailing conditions. I am reminded of how different John’s world is. “I’m puttering around on a really cold day trying to keep warm. It is a south easterly, which in this part of the world is a reminder that Antarctica is to the south of us. Today it feels as though it’s just over the horizon. Blowing, raining and miserable, no heating in my office yet.” I am sweltering in Oklahoma’s heat. I start reading about New Zealand, the closest landmass to Antarctica. Ice flows break away routinely and threaten their shipping lanes, whales beach themselves and die by the hundreds during their migrations between South Island and Antarctica. No native mammals before modern man brought them except for a tiny mouse, a nation of birds and trees unlike any I know, volcanoes and thermal pools, rocks and bays, winds that whip suddenly and violently onto the water at forty to seventy miles per hour. More clearly than ever I saw the seaworthiness of the boats JohnW designed. They were designed for the waters he lived and sailed in, conditions more difficult than any we might encounter. Had I ever questioned their seaworthiness ? How could anyone?

John’s stories fueled my imagination, perhaps I could not sail New Zealand , but certainly to venture far from the inland waters I lived on. Suddenly a lake, no matter how large, seemed small. Mike had long yearned to journey, to sail bigger waters. He had built and owned a true blue water boat, a boat that never sailed blue water. Now I too began to see what he had dreamed of, but our visions had changed with age. Ten years ago Mike had built the Boat Palace single-handed, a builder’s dream shop. His vision? A building home for a river cruiser to leave Oklahoma, travel the Mississippi River and navigable waters of America, into the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean. Ultimately to go up the eastern United States coast and into the Great Lakes. This voyage would take no ordinary homebuilt boat. We had no plans, only a dream. John Welsford was the answer to our dreams. He alone held the plans for the boat.

We did not know it. John Welsford did not know it. Only the boat knew.

Part Two continues more “Conversations With John Welsford” and the boat finds us.

The Rendezvous, a thirty-three foot cruiser, to be built for exploration of America.

Her name, “One True Thing”


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