Brand name of boat master
Nikolay Yurkevich keeps traditions of wooden boat building for three decades
By Sergey Muravsky
On asking the first person I met on the outskirts of Braslav, near the lake, it wasn’t difficult to find out where the boats are made. They directed straight towards the farmstead, which is surrounded by timber boards and mountains of shavings. A special trestle holds a construction rather like the skeleton of a fish and over this, I found Nikolay Yurkevich, bent in concentration. Before my eyes, he worked magic with axe and plane, turning the ‘skeleton’ into a boat.
Mr. Yurkevich has earned his reputation as a master following 35 years of boat building: some as ‘work horses’ for fishermen and others as elegant pleasure boats for wealthy customers. How many has he made over the decades? He long ago lost count but more than a third of those in the dry dock at Lake Drivyaty were made by his hand. They number hundreds.
From ‘ship’s boy’ to ‘captain’
As I ask questions, Nikolay Pavlovich continues working, answering with some deliberation. Occasionally, he strokes his grey beard. pushes a lock of hair from his forehead, or sets his cap straight.
“When did my hobby begin? While I was at sea, I think. I studied, worked and then entered the army, before going to sea. After five years on the waves, visiting Africa, Canada, America and Cuba, I knew about ships! I was very interested in them, studying in my free time. I remember wondering how this piece of iron managed to keep afloat and began to notice the edges, bracing, covering and ballast. Each had its place, supporting the others.”
After his ‘long-swim’, the Master returned to Braslav, where he had grown up, having moved there with his parents as a child, in 1950. He did not forget the water though, being able to see Lake Drivyaty from his window (one of the biggest of the local lakes). Of course, where there is water, there are boats, so he soon made enquiries with the boat-building carpenters, sharing his own knowledge with them.
“At that time, those ‘seniors’ called me a greenhorn,” he smiles, continuing with his plane along the bottom of the boat, producing long, golden shavings. Nikolay bends down to survey his work and runs his hand over the surface. “They laughed at me a little, saying, ‘Oh, greenhorn, what can you understand?’ They only looked at me differently when I began to speak with some understanding and make useful remarks.”
His current work is a commission from the Braslav Lakes National Park, to be used for commercial fishing. He tells me that it’ll be strong enough to dance upon without fear of capsizing, regardless of the number of nets or the strength of the wind or waves. He is long past making errors of judgement.
Dugout which cannot be forged
Today, the Master has his own style and, like all experts, he jealously keeps his secrets, willing to pass them on only to his pupils, in order that they might continue his legacy. Sadly, he is yet to acquire such pupils, which worries him. Few boast his skills and knowledge; it’s a dying art. Some might question whether we need such expertise, since modern technologies use aluminium and fibre-glass. However, traditional wooden boats remain revered by true sailors, despite being heavy and bulky and in need of regular maintenance. They are reliable and silent, which is appreciated by hunters and fishermen, who are growing in number annually.
Nikolay continues working, knowing the value of his vocation. There’s little he doesn’t understand about boats. His own are instantly recognisable, having a nail driven into the bottom in a certain place, between the boards. It is impossible to remove, so its head is his calling card.