Boat building in a town with no harbour

A boat so light it can be towed behind a bicycle. A boat that can be lifted with one hand. A boat designed and built in Hastings. Already creating an admiring buzz on social media you may have seen Geoff Wass’s ultra-light creations in the sea off St Leonards beach, or spotted his workshop among the eclectic collection of small businesses at ‘The Yard’ (adjacent to Morrisons).

CREDIT:  Jenny Prichard

His brainchild is based on the traditional Inuit kayak, differing in not having an enclosed deck and – thankfully – avoiding the use of sealskin to cover the hull. Designed to “reduce weight wherever possible,” Geoff’s innovative construction method employs neither glue nor metal; instead the frame, a mix of bamboo and pine, has joints held together with wooden pegs and nylon cord. 

The most expensive component, an especially imported ballistic nylon, provides the “skin on frame”, outer waterproofing, a modern take on a centuries-old method of covering boats such as coracles.

CREDIT: Dave Young

Sounds flimsy? Definitely not, tough and “designed for use on the open sea,” Geoff reckons, “they can be patched like a pair of favourite jeans”. Usually propelled by the single-person occupant using a ‘Greenland’ style double paddle, Geoff is also developing a small battery-driven motor to fit on the stern and provide auxiliary power, rather like an electric bicycle. 

When used by indigenous peoples, such boats are typically larger, capable of carrying a family and their possessions.  Hastings’ home grown versions measure around 4.2metres long, 0.75metres wide and weigh approximately 13 kilos. 

CREDIT: Dave Young

Born in the USA

Geoff, 57, and originally from Maine, sailed with his family as a child and was already constructing (very fine) model boats before his teens. In addition to acquiring woodworking skills he learned to sew to make the sails. “Always into yacht design,” Geoff built his first workshop in the basement of the family home.

After studying sciences at high school he began a mechanical engineering degree, then took time out to crew sailing vessels around the Caribbean. Geoff’s initial woodworking apprenticeship was at an off-grid, strictly hand tools only company (think block planes and brace and bit – ask your grandparents) based at New Brunswick in Canada. 

Following further travels he settled in England, building and restoring harps (his son is a professional player) and teaching craft skills, including at a Steiner school. “I’m a maker: building, learning, designing,” says
Geoff, pointing to the musical instruments (string and percussion) and featherweight model aircraft stowed around his loft workshop. Plus, of course, the yurts he’s constructed in London and Dorset… 

Turning his hand to metalwork, Geoff also welded together the new balcony on his workplace which – given it’s on the first floor – makes it easier to hoist boats in and out. “The boats were my lockdown project,” says Geoff who has so far built three and is now working on a standard design. 

CREDIT: Dave Young

Want to buy one?

Prospective purchasers – expect to pay in the region of £2,500 – will be invited to go for a ‘test drive’ so each boat can be tailored to their height and weight; to ensure stability the centre of gravity must be kept as low as possible. 

“You can surf the waves in them,” explains Geoff confidently, “but they are light enough to carry single-handled across shingle (1/3 the weight of a plastic boat). If you pull it behind a bike there’s no need to worry about parking.” 

The little craft has other, less obvious, virtues: Take one on a river trip and it functions as an overnight sleeping shelter. Easily lifted to the ceiling for home storage, Geoff jokes that the translucent hulls “make a good lampshade.” He’s also thinking of making a set of nesting boats in the manner of Russian dolls.

A website is in preparation and since each boat currently takes around a month to construct Geoff is considering taking on an intern. It’s possible he’ll share some of his many skills by running a boat-building course next winter if there’s sufficient interest. Meanwhile you may encounter him playing guitar in a local Americana band at the Prince Albert pub, evidently a man of many talents.

Visit the Ultra Light boat works at ‘The Yard’. (Access via a labyrinthine upstairs corridor, enter through the pink door adjacent to Half Man, Half Burger.) [email protected]

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