Gemma Handy

Still building after all these years

Making my way down the old Wheeland Road I'm assisted in my search for one James Dean by an ever increasing assortment of obliging Islanders. Everyone, it seems, knows 'Uncle James'.

I eventually find him curled up on a bench in a shady corner before a cheery-looking yellow house just off the roadside. Sensing my presence, he starts a little before swinging his legs onto the ground and presenting me with an amiable grin.

"I'm not asleep, I'm just resting my body," he announces with a wink. Making his way towards the beach with an energy that belies his nigh 71 years, he leads me to the source of my curiosity. Wild Fire, a hulk of a boat, is nestled among the foliage inches from the water's edge.

This impressive masterpiece is the most recent of James's hand-crafted sloops – and may be his last. Over the last six decades, the multi-skilled boat builder has constructed an incredible 52 such vessels and remains one of the most respected in the business.

His passion for these traditional workboats stems back as far as he can remember. "When I was a child going to school, the teacher used to tell us the story of Christopher Columbus and how he discovered the West Indies. I would listen attentively and look at the pictures of the ships. I used to think to myself that I'd never see a boat like that. That's when I decided to do my little building too."

James's father, Algenon Nathaniel Dean, was skilled in an encyclopedic selection of trades including mechanic, goldsmith, blacksmith and shoemaker. Boat building was another.

"My daddy was a mighty old man by the time I was born but he built several boats that I can remember. And watching him is how I learned. I was real young and going to school so I was not much help to him but I remember seeing him laying the keel, building the stern and bow, creating the frame.

"I'd rush home from school, do my little homework and get over there real quick to watch my daddy." Back in the day when the majority of livings were eked out fishing and farming, wooden sloops were a valuable commodity. Men would spend days or weeks out at sea catching stock and voyaging around the region to sell their wares.