The man who emerged from that loveless childhood is, unsurprisingly, a bit of a loner — though to call Gornall a bit of a loner is akin to calling Beyoncé a bit of a singer. Freelance writing is a solitary occupation, and as if that weren’t isolating enough, Gornall sought to row across the Atlantic. Twice. He didn’t make it, and the regret and self-recriminations are an anchor on his soul.
And along comes Phoebe. Gornall’s baby girl gives him a new lease on life. It matters not to Phoebe that he failed at marriage, whiffed at fatherhood or quit on rowing the Atlantic. Gornall is besotted. But he’s also pushing 60, and his daughter puts him in touch with his own mortality. So he makes an unorthodox decision to build a boat, which requires him to spend months locked in a shed, alone (of course), sawing and swearing, drilling and planing. Gornall, a romantic, chooses the classic, ancient clinker design, about which the reader learns far more than we do about his wife and children. But then again, the book is not titled “How to Build a Family.”
Gornall loves to sail the seas of history. He traces each aspect of the design back to its origins: Here we learn of the Vikings’ innovations two millenniums ago; there we see how the Anglo-Saxons improved upon it. For a landlubber, the nomenclature is dizzying: We learn about strakes and sheers, the keel and the hog, the centerline and the stem knee, the sternpost and the deadwood, the gunwale (not to be confused with the inwale) and the rib.
Then there are the tools: nippers, a steam box, the spokeshave, and all manner of planes, punches and rivets. They are the characters who populate the story. They challenge Gornall; they taunt him, leave him bleeding and weary until, ultimately, they yield to him.
Gornall has an eye for detail — essential for a boatbuilder, but for the readers, the details can become a distraction. Do we really need to know what Ole Crumlin-Pedersen, “the leading Danish nautical archaeologist of his day,” had to say about the use of temporary molds in clinker-ship building? Or that said molds were illustrated in “Skeps Byggerij eller Adelig Ofnings,” a 17th-century Swedish text on boatbuilding? That kind of minutiae, perhaps essential for an aficionado, can be a bit eye-glazing for an amateur. So discursive and in-depth is the tale that it isn’t until Page 117 that Gornall actually starts building the doggone boat. True, the reader never lays eyes on Moby Dick until Chapter 133, but there are times while reading “How to Build a Boat” that one thinks Melville had a gift for brevity by comparison.