Nikolay Yurkevich keeps traditions of wooden boat building for three decades
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 at 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 asserts that the key to his success is correct measurement, tried and tested over the decades. He smiles that an ordinary roulette, ruler and sliding calliper are all that are needed to master his secret. “Just take measurements and make a copy. Whether your boat will float or capsize is another matter!” he laughs, then indicates his planks, saying, “They look like good boards, being straight and without knots, but they are useless for my work. You may not know why but I do...”
Special wood for special vessels
It takes four to five days for Nikolay to produce a large fishing boat, although it takes longer to locate good timber. “I’ve been gathering tools for years, choosing those which suit me. Your hands remember everything and your eyes do too, but it can happen that wood lets you down, splitting when bent, either across or along its length.”
The old man has long known which kind of timber is perfect. Most choose durable fir, being dense and resinous, but Nikolay prefers pine, saying, “Fir is resilient and flexible but fragile, being prone to cracking when you insert a nail. It’s happened to me. You can make a boat from fir but pine is less capricious — although harder to match. I respect pine ‘abzu’ [outer boards received during sawing of timber assortment] greatly; you can’t ask for better.”
The navigation season has ended, so the Master will now be able to rest a little but, even in winter, he’s never bored. He has some orders for next year, and meets regularly with those wishing to have a boat built in time for spring. “Every order is individual, since everyone wants their vessel to be unique, unusual and easily recognisable,” admits Nikolay. He sits to rest a moment, but his eyes continue to examine the skeleton of the vessel on his trestle. He seems to be thinking about his next move, assessing the quality of the planks. “About five years ago, people from Miory District asked me to make a boat able to pull cargo, so I made them something akin to a barge: very wide and 7.5m long. It was a real challenge! A military commissariat once asked me to make a huge sailing vessel, following designs he’d drawn. I managed to do so — and perhaps it’s still afloat. You’ll find my boats near Minsk and even near Moscow.”
When the real winter frosts arrive, Nikolay spends time preparing timber. The best wood is felled in winter, when the sap is still and the tree frost-bound. In his free time, he goes ice-fishing: his favourite hobby. He tells us, “I fish on the ice with my boys! First, we set the live-bait, then we place ‘flags’ and sit on the bank, trying to catch a pike.” It’s obvious that fishing is his passion, so it’s surprising that he has no boat of his own at the moment. An 11-year-old vessel sits near his home but its boards are long-cracked with age, so it no longer floats. It needs replacing but Nikolay has no time.
“This season, my companions and I tried three times to build our own boat,” he recollects. “However, so many people came to place orders that we even had to resort to using some inferior grade timber, which will last only a couple of years; this didn’t stop people from requesting such boats though!”
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.
By Sergey Muravsky
Brandname of boat master
[b]Nikolay Yurkevich keeps traditions of wooden boat building for three decades[/b]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.