Pieces of Eight

George Sims (left) and others engaged in building a wooden eight in Hammersmith’s Rutland Boathouse in 1947.

25 January 2022

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch looks inside George Sims’ head.

On the eve of the 1947 Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race, the Daily Mail wrote:

THE MAN WHO’LL WIN THE BOAT RACE.

Light or Dark Blues first, come Saturday, George Sims of Hammersmith is the winner. He built both boats….

Boats are built entirely without blueprints or drawings, to plans carried in George’s head. They are made of Empire woods, Honduras cedar for the skin, English sycamore for the ribs, Canadian silver spruce for the keel. Orders come from all over the world – Canada, the US, Holland, Norway and Sweden.

The recent news that the “one-off” building of the first wooden eight to be made in Britain in perhaps over forty years is underway is a good reason to revisit a picture magazine article of 1939. It showed that year’s Oxford boat under construction by boatbuilder George Sims, then based in the Rutland Boathouse sited behind the Rutland pub in Hammersmith, West London.

Presumably, the methods of constructing a wooden eight have not changed very much over the years, though there are probably more power tools used and fewer neckties worn. Prices may also be different as in 1939 Oxford paid Sims £120 for its new boat.

Laying down the gunwales.
Building in the mahogany braces.
Marking out the ribs. The templates were based on previous boats.
Dropping in the keel.
Fitting the ribs.
Dampened planking (lengths of cedar wood 3/16 inch thick) is bent to shape over a gas ring.
More shaping of the planking over a row of gas jets.
Adjusting the planking before finally nailing it down. About 3,500 copper nails were used in every eight.
Boatbuilding at the Rutland Boathouse was a family affair. In 1939, George (the son and grandson of boatbuilders) worked alongside his brother, his son and two nephews.
Fitting the gunwales.
Nearly finished. Together, the boat, oars and rowers weighed nearly 2,000 pounds – but the boat accounted for only 280 pounds of that.
Eights were built on an upper floor of the Hammersmith boathouse and had to be passed down to ground level on completion.
Fortunately, the Thames was only yards away…
And the Rutland pub was even closer. Thirsty boatbuilders Christen their new baby.
At Chiswick, Oxford are pictured taking their new boat out for the first time.

As the examples below show, for many years newspapers and magazines were endlessly fascinated with who was going to build the Oxford and Cambridge boats and the press went into great detail regarding the technical aspects of the construction.

In 1924, a magazine produced this view of the evolution of the racing eight.
Illustrations from a 1925 article showing some features of that year’s Oxford and Cambridge boats’ hulls.
In 1925, Oxford seemed to have the more sophisticated craft – but still they did not win.
1906: Fast work in Sims’ Putney boathouse.
1950: Cambridge chose between two eights that they had built for that year’s race.
1953: Cambridge stick with Sims in Hammersmith, giving three weeks’ work to four men.
1961: Nothing much had changed in Sims’ Rutland Boathouse.
Today, the decaying Rutland Boathouse seems destined to join the “tortured ply” racing boat builders as a part of history.

5 comments

  1. In the photo captioned as the 1939 Oxford boat at Putney, surely the bridge in the background is Kew Railway Bridge?

  2. Fascinating article, thank you.
    When I first enquired, in the early sixties, about buying a sculling boat from Georg Sims, then of, Eel Pie Island , the price was approximately £110. One off the old boys at my club, Quintin B.C.,remarked that , thirty years earlier , his had cost 25 Guineas !
    Incidentally, the photo of ‘Oxford boating from Putney in their new boat’, the bridge in the back of shot looks more like Kew railway bridge. Maybe they were boating from U.L. That day ?

  3. Thank you, Malcolm and Bailey, I should have spotted that. The text has been changed to read At Chiswick, not At Putney.

    • Glad that both Malcolm and Bailey both noticed it was Kew Railway Bridge. Even I saw that and I am in Canada.

  4. What a treasure trove of information, illustrations and photos. A lot not explained (including the Sims boatbuilders), and dating of published material is a bit vague.

    1939 as quoted is significant for me – it was the year I was born. Until now I had never heard of wide and thin (3/16”) timber planking the full side of a boat sheer to keel as a precursor to plywood.

    Years later (1957 – 1960) I became involved in sailing and supporting 12 ft Fireflies, while a Naval Architecture student at (then) Kings College, Newcastle. I believe these boat ply hulls were hot moulded by Fairey Marine, as an offshoot from their wartime plywood aircraft construction. 3/16” ply thickness seems about right.

    The small timber parts about 75 – 100 wide being bent over a gas burner intrigued me. I believe they were butt straps for the main side planking – shown on near side of boat in first photo, with nothing else to contradict or confirm this.

    The posting describes the small incremental changes in dimensions and shapes implemented by George Sims and other skilled and innovative boatbuilders of the era. It reminded me that I had never seen anything on the formal naval architecture of high performance rowing and paddle boats.

    I can see how shall changes to boat parameters would generate small but significant (and potentially race-winning) changes to boat resistance and thus speed, in this very specialised form of hulls – slender, with low displacement to length, and mostly fairly smooth water.

    A virtue of these relatively small incremental changes is that if they were in the “wrong way” for the conditions prevailing on the relevant race days, they would not have large effects, and could easily be swamped by other factors.

    Research into improved maritime performance, and its implementation depends upon persons with skill and commitment, and funding. Look what the America’s Cup competition has done for sailing yacht performance.
    Some Google searching produced a paper of around 1971 on some UK-based research based on a single scull being instrumented for field trials, and full scale tank testing, measuring changing boat velocities (with the oar strokes) and transition between turbulent and laminar flow in the bow area. The tank test boat had its longitudinal position (and thus the instantaneous velocity) oscillated backwards and forwards from the basic towing carriage. Complicated? Yes; way beyond description here.

    In references I found the name of Dr Laurie Doctors, a Sydney-based academic naval architect whom I had known many years ago. The references included names remembered (even if the persons weren’t) from my student days.

    Enough for now. Keep the recollections and comments coming.

    Peter Edmonds
    Naval Architect
    Perth, Western Australia
    http://www.hempfibreboats.com.au

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