Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Wood and Water

 Wood & Water
I've noticed that the majority of visitors to this blog come to read the entry "A Building Lifestyle," about building my kayak, "Hei Matau."  There have been readers from Sweden, New England, India, Eastern Europe, Indonesia, and Nanaimo, British Columbia, just to name a few far-flung places. Of all of the things I've built or studied in the area of woodworking, boats have been for me the most fascinating and compelling. By comparison, a fine piece of furniture, or an artfully appointed room using various trim and moulding is satisfying work, and I've spent time doing that. 

A boat, though, has so many mesmerizing elements. One is just the visual beauty of curvilinear vessels. Smooth and sweeping lines, dynamic even when sitting still, the eye is drawn to study them. The nature of these shapes keeps you guessing, tricking your sense of perspective. If you've ever photographed boats you know that the two dimensional image leaves a lot to be desired. A false image is common, leaving a long and lithe craft looking stubby or even cock-eyed. Length is elusive to guage, and finding a good viewing angle is difficult. With lines vanishing from view, tapering and curving inward, lifting and terminating, it's easy to be fooled about the real proportions. 

Viking reproduction being built in Roskilde, Denmark

The idea that static wood, milled from the forest, then coaxed into shape by your hands, can soon carry you away over water, is a hugely appealing element. Seeing that the wood still lives, and reacts to the watery environment, is part of the process. They say that an astute cabinetmaker makes a poor boatwright; making joints too close and tight, illiterate about the kind of behavior to expect in the life of a boat. From baby Moses in a reed boat, to Joshua Slocum sailing around the world, the adventure and freedom to traverse water is a siren song, even to those who haven't tried it. Lore and literature is full when it comes to boats. To go from just swimming, to navigating a floating craft, is a great leap in potential. You can carry things. You might stay mostly dry. Water denizens don't trouble you as much. You can go far; travel alone or with a crew. The privilege of inhabiting a space not meant for our ambulating mode of movement feels almost like a transit to another planet. 

For me, a long ocean journey is less a draw than near-shore or lakeside adventures. Experiencing the motion of the water, a gliding sensation of speed, wind, the altered view, all rank high. Exploring inlets or cliff-bound shorelines makes for an outing you couldn't accomplish any other way. (Being able to quickly come ashore in bad weather another plus.)




There is the actual construction of the thing to make an admirer out of you. The shape and form of a boat makes for special challenges. Beauty arises from working to make a hydrodynamic hull, not from flourishes just meant to impress.  The language of boatbuilding is succintly described with the word "fair."  There may be some rectilinear constructions in furniture or homebuilding that can successfully rely on repeated components for length and width, coming out well again and again.  But a boatbuilder reserves a part of the process for using the eye, more than just taking off dimensions from a blueprint. Rote cutting and laying up of predetermined planks is not something you can expect to do successfully. Instead there is lining off as you go, letting your eye judge the curvature that the frame and the bending planks are expressing moment to moment. Being influenced and guided by the results as they appear. Although there are parameters designed into a hull as to number of planks and their general width being defined by carefully placed ribbands on a building form, so much depends on whether the trial fit in front of you is "fair" to the eye; and so you make adjustments until it is.  Especially where curves terminate at stem or stern. 

Growing up, our family lived on the west coast of North America near San Francisco, and then for a time on Pacific Islands. In the East Bay, I remember the creaking sound of seagulls along the shoreline, and seeing marinas full of sailboats. I didn't learn to swim until I was ten.  My motivation was to be able to take sailing lessons. After passing my swim test, I then spent a few weeks on Lake Merritt, learning to duck under the boom of a little Sunfish, coming about, waiting to capsize, which never happened. That was the extent of my lessons, as we moved and I didn't keep up with it. In the islands, I remember the first time I was aboard a good-sized sailboat, the captain belonged to our cycling club and had crossed an ocean or two. We sailed out far enough to lose sight of land. That was a moment of commitment, trusting the captain to find land again. When Diamond Head reappeared, some of us stopped holding our breath. So, I am a near-shore boater, I find. 

Anyway, I don't have a maritime resume, and I'm not a sailor.  But woodworking has been a big part of my life, and as part of that I've devoted many hours to exploring the craft of boatbuilding. Even though I've lately spent years landlocked in the Rocky Mountain West, always on the lookout for a quiet lake without a surfeit of motorized craft. 

Recently, I took a trip to Maine, and I was struck by how completely familiar it all seemed to me. I've spent years poring over Woodenboat magazine, reading about Pete Culler, or Nathanial Herreshoff, 



and taking in boatbuilder Tom Hill's words about 'gunkholing,' as I built an example of one of his lightweight canoes. Numerous other windows into the 'Downeast' lifestyle came to me as I stood on a hill looking over Camden, or looking out to sea from Owl's Head. Weaving along the coast in a car or on a bicycle, the ever-present shoreline and the sound and smell of the sea seemed so familiar, so dej√† vu, though I had never been to these places. Almost everywhere, even at the end of the season, boats and fishing and a lifestyle of living near the sea were prominent. 


Even my time spent living on a Hawaiian island, surrounded by 3,000 miles of ocean, did not feel so bound to the sea as did these small coastal towns, with their fishing boats, lighthouses, boatyards, and lobster traps. Perhaps my own distraction with school and work kept me from feeling such a connection. Sadly the lack of a strong traditional sense of the sea may have been because seafaring has been eclipsed by the frantic tourist trade. Most visitors arrive by plane now. The beautiful Pacific islands are certainly historic for seafaring tradition. That Polynesian navigators and sailors found the islands in the first place looms large, these sailors arriving without modern navigational tools but in possession of truly canny knowledge of stars, currents, and myriad other signs of the sea.  An odd memory I have is of the carved and painted wooden sailors found in Lahaina, Maui; from traditional carving styles brought by colonial sailors in the 1800's. Anglo, white-bearded, smoking a pipe. They look just like a sea-captain statue you would see in an east-coast seafood restaurant. Tourists bought them. I feel a vague sense of loss that this symbol, rather than some other, would define Hawaii to some brief traveler.  The antipathy many locals had for 'discoverer' captain Cook rubbed off on me, I guess. 

Certainly every hour, every year that I spent near the ocean left a mark on me. I can call up the sound of crashing waves without any effort. Doppling from quiet to loud;  hissing in retreat. Jumping into the waves, buoyed by their saline strength, it never felt clich√© to be exhilarated by the ride back to shore. Counting the sets, seeing the crest grow taller by the seventh or ninth wave, and deciding at the last minute whether to dive under or to turn & join the fluid force that either propelled you, or might instead pummel you. 

My sentimental attachment to the sea, and my admiration for boats made of wood, made my visit to Maine feel like an unexpected homecoming. 



I stood at various wharves and ports and beaches, made aware of my vast ignorance, while I was at the same time feeling a stirring connection to the whole scene. 

Rockport, Maine

I've stood at water's edge in Skuldelev, Denmark, admiring small double-ended boats whose design goes back to Viking times. I've pedaled along canals in France, outpacing sturdy and sometimes artfully built bateaux. I've seen iconic gondolas in Venezia, coexisting with modern vaporetti. But having a boat of one's own, of any design, is hard to beat. So I like to imagine that those many readers who are studying my little Hei Matau kayak have strong connections of their own to wood and water. I find it a hopeful thing, that folks in places near and far are looking at something they can build with their own hands. I say, do it!



Skuldelev, Denmark

All photos by author."A Building Lifestyle"

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