Boats for Difficult Times, written at behest of Antonio Dias for his blog of that name

23 Dec

Boats for difficult times.

Difficult times. I don’t have numbers, just impressions. World wide most people struggle to eat, shelter or pay their bills. The few with money and property live to prove their worth. So, we’re trying to find something to eat, working to pay the bills, plotting to get richer, we think we are the salt of the earth, doing what we are supposed to do, following the program, right, whichever one. Generalizations are never true, but you know the pressures you feel, the incentives you respond to, and the flavor of your dreams. Maybe, but are they creative and constructive?

Boats. I like rowing boats and sailing boats. I like boats made from tree parts, plant materials and little metal fasteners. I like these boats because they are renewable, of the earth, and, both in construction and use, remind me of knowledge and skills as old as humanity. Use is the important part. Not everybody likes boating, but not everybody likes gardening either, and both boats and gardens are important.

My father loved fishing, but seldom caught anything. He was an expert bad fisherman. He once fished with a friend all day when his friend caught 50 fish and he none. They exchanged places and tackle, but it made no difference. On the other hand he enjoyed just being there in the boat, on the water, sky overhead, fishing with his friend and the amazing funny outcome. Sitting in a boat on a lake was one thing, otherwise motor boats always gave him sea sickness, small boats or big ships. He enjoyed sailing, said he never was sea sick in a sailboat. He never became a skilled sailor, he just liked being in the boat with whoever else was there, feeling the motion, the shared experience.

Boats for difficult times might be any boats but used in ways that make sense in a difficult time, or maybe the boat itself makes a difference. High power motor boats, and sailboats with bedroom, kitchen and bath, are all over the boat shows, but hard to fit with a consciousness of present day indulgences. Mining the earth’s resources today means fracking and mountaintop removal, with the price of fossil fuels and metals in the hands of large corporations, as is most food. Considering costs morally and economically, I like boats affordable for the boater and the earth.

I understand the impetus to build with plywood and epoxy. The cost of labor makes building the boat yourself important for anyone with limited money or credit, and needed tools and skills for plank on frame construction are unimaginable for many, so they get building and boating with kits, plans with full size patterns, and slab building with plywood sheets, epoxy joinery, often glass and resin covered. On the other hand, the price of resins has gone up with the price of petroleum and plywood, so gains are the cost of labor, experience, and, the point after all, getting on the water.

Times change but much remains the same. A hundred years ago and more, pleasure boating seemed the domain of the rich, but there was always a Corinthian and work-a-day presence. Labor was cheap and boatbuilding techniques guarded secrets, but modest yachts were being built and promoted, and almost everyone in coastal and lake communities had a skiff, dory, sharpie or canoe. In those years, world trade fed by colonial and industrial development brought contacts and knowledge as well as materials, some for the better, some for the worse. In the way of boats, design and construction flourished, as populations grew and interest spread in boating of all kinds. Some of this activity was frivolous and extravagant but much of it was beautiful and thoughtful, whether from widely known or little known builder. At the same time small boats cruised for pleasure along shore and off, sailboat racing grew in popularity, and open boats of all kinds were built and used far and wide. The functional beauty of boats from this era provide us with plenty of designs for dreaming, building and use in this difficult world.

Pick a design, lapstrake or carvel, sawn frame or bent, chined or round, Herreshoff or Watson, Alden or Strange, Swampscott dory or skiff; to build the boat you wallow in human history and wood shavings. Skills of hand and eye, tools sharp as chipped obsidian, line and surface fair to eye and hand, measurements to numbers or not, the whole process fun and important as launching, floating, pushing off for the known and the unknown.

I spoke of plywood, but there are people with sawmills in most parts of the world where you can buy the rough green or air dry lumber you want for boat building. You might get to know interesting people, and you need to learn about different trees and their wood, this is to step off the concrete and out of the supermarket for a look at the world that sustains us, the living breathing world. When you find the timber needed, you will find yourself supporting other basic manufactories, screw cutters, nail stampers, cotton wicking suppliers and (believe it or not, if you have the good sense to apply liberally) linseed oil. You might buy wire and learn to splice, using cast and machined thimbles, and loose eyes over hounds. Or, you will look for a sweetly straight grained spruce plank and fashion oars, cutting blanks, rounding the looms but tapering them to oval running into the blade’s centerline rib that diminishes to a slightly flexible tip, the other end oval in both directions to fit the hand as the force of rowing shifts from the end through the middle to the inside, rolling across the hand, blade feathered on the return.

Whether I’m sitting at anchor, rowing through quartering swell, hand on tiller off voyaging for an hour or a month, lying in my berth, I want to see floors, timbers, rivets, knees where needed, standing knees, hanging knees, lodging knees, a proper ship of rolling bevels and complex curves, integrating structures with incredible strength given their individual weakness, but able to give and take in the seaway. A well built wooden boat looks good from any angle at any stage of construction, one of the pleasures that comes with the process. In use the same applies.

Can you find affordable mooring in our crowded world? Tricky and in some places impossible, but anchoring works with an eye to the weather and the bottom. Floating brings a new perspective on the world. The water reflects the sky and you move in between. From shore the water heaves and splashes on the land, gulls ride the wind and water watching for what is thrown up in the exchange. At sea, bird, wave and mariner pursue their course. One remains conscious of set of sails, stroke of oar, or thrum of engine while watching the weather change, storm petrels flit along the waves, gannets circle and dive, a pair of fin back whales pass on important business, even a clear sky and oily sea for the details and changes that fill the world around the compass. The rules of the road are different on the water, don’t collide with anything including a rocky shore.

These difficult times are all too real for the earth and it’s denizens. World and personal financial crises, as well as political complications, have all too real effects, including one’s ability to appreciate the life and universe of which we are part. Some use boating for further aggressive encounters, mirroring much human life ashore, but we need not concern ourselves except to watch out and avoid collision as the rules prescribe. For all warmed by Kenneth Grahame’s, “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats”, it is not getting away from the world but feeling well and truly part of it that makes time in the boat so worthwhile. So much of our world engenders feeling a cog in a wheel or, worse, a broken discarded cog, we need time to see things apart.

Boats are important in difficult times.


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