This rowboat is old, worn down so thoroughly by memories and by the sea that it seems, resting atop two sawhorses in my shop, almost insubstantial. The overturned hull is faded and chalky, crackled with scars. The central seat (the thwart) has been worn away where it joins the fiberglass and now rests crookedly against the hull. The transom seat is splintered and worn. Gaps left by missing planks expose the buoyancy foam beneath, pocked with age and sodden from forty years of damp. The bow seat is fractured and rickety; the screws anchoring it are corroded enough to look like fat nails. When I tug on the seat, feeling for how securely it might be fastened, it breaks loose from the hull with a cascade of rotted wood and crumbling foam. Useless. Yet I remember when my younger brother was four or five and he would curl himself up in this small nook at the bow, his body folded beneath the gunwale, his head poking up and forward into the breeze. The boat was almost new at that time, fresh, unshadowed by the derelict before me.
The gunwales are cracked almost along their entire length. Scores of holes drilled in them for repair or adding hardware or who-knows-what forgotten scheme have widened with decay into rows of ragged, black-stained tears in the hull. And the hull itself is in poor shape indeed: deep scratches cut through the paint virtually everywhere below the waterline, white traces of undercoat press through the faded orange surface. Alongside the battered keel the paint has been almost completely scraped away. I run my hand over the damaged surface, wondering if the fiberglass beneath is cracked. As a child I stood in this boat on countless rocky shores, watching the hull flex under pressure from the stones beneath. It would not surprise me at all to find internal damage within this aged skin.
Wandering from one catastrophe to the next, poking around this old hulk that is no longer seaworthy, I am daunted by the task of restoring it. Yet that’s the plan – to make this craft anew, reclaim for it a place on the water. It feels good that I will also be reawakening my memory of this fragile boat as I work, revisiting those summers so long ago. Each disintegrating part speaks its own history. Here, along the outside curve of the bow, is where we ran into the fishboat on that sunny afternoon in Georgia Strait, the heat of the day and swell of the sea rocking us into such thorough relaxation that no one noticed the craft in our path until it was too late. The long crack in the fiberglass is still there, hidden beneath the gunwale. Along the stern I find the twin impressions left by the clamping screws of our three-horsepower Evinrude motor. They remind me of the scar on my leg from the time I swam too close to the spinning propeller. And I remember fastening the folding motor on, pulling the starter cord, jamming the white throttle lever all the way to its stop and holding on to the seat as the bow shot into the air. I’d clamber forward, bring the bow down with my weight and sit in the bow seat, steering the boat by leaning from side to side, using the curve of the hull like a paddle slicing through the water.
Here, look, the screw holes from the old traveler – where has all that old sailing gear gone, anyway? Probably squirreled away at my dad’s place alongside ancient, rotting sails and windsurfing hardware collected over the years from half a dozen boards. The remains of the old sailing hardware still on the boat, a crumbling wreckage of brass and steel and corroded screws – it all has to come off. Right down to the shell. It’s pretty clear this won’t be an act of restoration as much as a complete rebuilding from the stripped hull. Even that may need extensive work, and I suppose it might be more efficient simply to build a new boat. But then I’d lose more than I hope to gain here.
The gunwales come off first. The threads of the countersunk bronze bolts that fasten them to the hull are corroded beyond use, so I slice through the metal with a cutoff blade in my jigsaw. The segments fall to the floor with the brittle, snapping sound of wood bleached of its natural oils and further degraded by years of exposure to salt air. The smell of rot, sharp and damp, spreads out across the shop.
I remove the remnants of the bow seat and thwart, twisting out the old fasteners with a pair of locking pliers. The heads of the screws are a mess of corrosion. The transom seat is fastened more securely, its buoyancy foam still intact enough to provide a solid base. I bang the slats free with a hammer and rip out the old foam with a sturdy scraper, separating it from the hull with long sweeps of the tool. The foam cracks off in great chunks and falls away with a frail, shivery sound.
A small brass plaque fastened with nails at each corner lies just above the transom seat. The inscription, now white with oxidation, reads:
Davidson Mfg. Co. Ltd.
1872 West Georgia St. Vancouver, B.C.
Hamish Davidson was one of the original fiberglass boatbuilders in Canada, setting up shop in the early thirties down by Stanley Park (the site is now home to one of the most upscale apartment buildings in the country). He started out as a maker of wooden skis; my dad remembers buying a pair when he was sixteen. Davidson then began building laminated wooden boats and in 1949 started using fiberglass over the wood. Pretty soon all the boats were made of fiberglass; a natural shift, as fiberglass is far superior to wood for marine structural applications. Not as traditional or crafty as wood, but fiberglass is lighter, stronger, can be made flexible or rigid, is easier to work, and is less expensive. Sure, wood looks better – a finely fitted teak deck is a tapestry of beautiful grain – but fiberglass won’t rot, and that makes it hard to beat. Besides, the traditional boatbuilding woods such as teak, mahogany, and greenheart have been overharvested almost to the point of extinction. It’s hard to believe that teak, perhaps the greatest and most versatile of woods, is on its way to vanishing from the world. Or perhaps it’s not so hard to believe.
Davidson made thousands of small boats over the years. Our little craft, a D9 put together in 1959, was almost six thousand boats along that manufacturing line. The D9 model was popular as a dinghy and day sailer; small fleets of them used to race around Coal Harbor. But during the seventies, after Hamish had retired and his son took over, things got tougher and eventually the company foundered. Nowadays there’s nothing left of Davidson Manufacturing except the old dinghies that still make their battered way through these waters.
I remove the keel strip that runs along the inside centerline of the hull in preparation for removing the keel. The strip is so worn that bits of it have virtually dissolved, revealing the thin fiberglass beneath. This is where leaks would have penetrated the hull, where the keel fasteners pass through the fiberglass. I can see the rubbery evidence of many failed repair attempts with silicone. On a hull such as this, formed as one continuous shape in a fiberglass mold, fastener holes present the only vulnerability to leakage. Boatbuilders take great pains to seal the holes with silicone or polyester resin, but eventually, inevitably, the fasteners work loose over time as the hull is twisted and rolled through the water. Even on a large sailboat the keel fasteners must be tightened periodically. If a keel is sealed properly, the fasteners can loosen just a bit inside the keel housing without allowing water to enter, but since the keel on this boat is made of wood, and wood degrades, water has found its way in.
As I extract the keel strip fasteners near the bow, I discover a particularly large glop of silicone plugging a hole where the old bow eye came loose. A new hole has been drilled through the hull just above the old one; the stainless steel of the bow eye is bright where the bowline passes through the smooth ring. It’s the only piece of serviceable gear left on the boat. This makes sense. After all, a bow eye is pretty much the only gear you need on a dinghy other than oarlocks. All that towing around, the dinghy riding quietly at the stern, unobtrusive, sliding over thousands of miles of water, held to its course by a single bow eye with a shank of quarter-inch steel.
When we were kids, my brothers and I used to climb into this dinghy and pay out a long rope behind our parents’ sailboat. We’d sit in there for hours, tethered by the bow eye, my younger brother up front, my older brother in the stern, and me on the thwart. We’d lean our weight to one side and then the other, swinging the dinghy back and forth on its tether, seeing how far we could get it to shoot out to one side before being jerked back by the painter. We’d drag our hands in the water, splash each other, see who was strong enough to grab the rope and pull us forward along our line of travel. And when we came to a new cove or harbor or landing, we’d cast off in the dinghy to explore, rowing it through tidal pools and across shallow reaches called tombolos that became mud flats at low tide; if you were quick enough, you could sometimes pull up a geoduck.
We rowed this small craft around countless tiny islands of the Inside Passage, eased it into sheltered bays where seals popped up to take a look. Sometimes the sleek, black fin of an orca crested the distant surface of the water. And when we’d had enough of exploring, we’d take the dinghy out and capsize it, rolling it over and over again as we swam underneath to find the air pocket, clambered on top to escape the cold water, sputtered and whooped with the simple, sustaining joy of being wholly alive. Now, with fragments of the gunwales and seats and keel strip scattered on the floor beside the derelict hull, that aliveness seems remote from the craft before me.
I inspect the seam carefully where the keel and hull meet. I’m not sure what measures were taken, in addition to fasteners, to hold the keel in place. Silicone sealant and marine glue were likely used, so removing the fasteners is only half the job. I place my hand on the keel at the stern, at its widest point, and rock it back and forth, feeling for play. There’s a shudder of movement, but it’s nowhere near being loose. Usually, joints secured with glue or old silicone sealant have a fairly low tolerance for movement and shear loose in response to persistent wiggling. But here there’s nothing. I don’t want to tear it off; I like to think of myself as a gentle craftsman sensitive enough to coax things gently apart. I’m also aware that this self-perception is a romantic illusion, an appeal to old-world sensibilities. Fact is, I have a really big framing hammer for such contingencies. I fetch it from the toolbox, take careful aim so as not to hit the fiberglass, and strike the keel with a resounding whack. The entire rear segment flies off, three feet of rotting teak cartwheeling across the shop. So much for delicate sensibilities. It’s no use tapping lightly away in these kinds of situations: that’s likely to stretch and tear things even more. You’re better off with a quick, strong stroke that goes for maximum shearing action. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it makes things worse.
In his discussion of the roots of art, Lewis Hyde emphasizes the role of the trickster, the mythological emissary of joyful, irreverent spontaneity. Hyde draws a parallel between the trickster’s creative process and the act of joining, or disjointing, of articulating or redrawing the meaningful connections between things (why is a raven like a writing desk?). The trickster’s role, he asserts, is to articulate and rework the joints, the hinges where different realities meet. Thus the terms art and articulate (as in the articulated joints of the body as well as the magic of speech) derive from the same root, artus. In speaking of the evolution of creative intention in the trickster, Hyde confirms that “attacking the joints to actually destroy something, or attacking the joints so as to change the shape of things: these are the first two senses in which tricksters are artus-workers and their creations works of artus.”1
I bang loose the remaining keel segments, jarring each one free with a percussive wallop. The fiberglass beneath the keel is undamaged, its surface sealed by the wood all this time. Bits of polyester resin on the flat, inside surface of the keel show where the joint was glued down.
I retrieve the scattered segments of the keel and return the hammer. It’s good to work on a reasonably simple project, not too finicky, the kind of thing where I’m not haunted by a constant dread of making one final, fatal slip that wrecks it all. With this old craft and my many memories, with the relative simplicity of these tasks and the feeling of restoring what would otherwise have been lost, a nascent mood begins to flower: lighter, more relaxed. Not so much at stake. Joyfulness is a creative energy associated by the Taoists with lakes, rivers, and other shallow bodies of water. Whereas deep water pulls downward, draws me into elemental and transformative dreams – black, dark dreams, some of them – the shallows are a realm of playfulness and fluidity, drawing me along silver, sparkling paths of moving water. “Tao in the world is like a river flowing home to the sea,” as the Taoists say. Joyfulness in creative work can be a path leading home.
Yet it’s not that straightforward. I seldom slip into a blissful zone where I forget my troubles, where the essential creative flow fills me up, replete and whole. Sometimes I get a few moments of that, mostly when I’m planing wood. The struggles I hold on to most tightly do fall away in those moments and I am freed, briefly, to wander through an experience of the simple, of the real. But I spend quite a bit more time in this craft swearing and injuring my fingers and worrying about how it’s all going to turn out. I complain about the materials and the process and my lack of skill. I grow impatient, make careless mistakes out of frustration, forget to follow simple steps, and set myself back in many ways.
Yet somehow, through these twists and turns in which I try to fit myself into the work in a way that also fits me, I do find a rich joyfulness. It arises from the feeling of being shaped by unseen hands, flows out of the sense that I am being crafted by creative forces that answer to many names. That’s why I get injured, why I am cajoled and prodded by the work: I’m being abraded and worn down and made true. There’s a joyful discovery in that circular or spiral relationship between the maker and the made.
I might as well get the toughest part out of the way first: refinishing the hull. All the old finish has to come off, right down to the fiberglass, down past the deepest scratches to where I can start to build it up again. It takes two dedicated days while the kids and Elizabeth are away, enough toxic chemicals to poison every cat in the neighborhood, and my belt sander working so hard that the motor housing burns my hand when I touch it in a careless moment. Dust. Fumes. Sweat.
I work my way around the hull from bow to stern, scraping and sanding through the faded orange topcoat, discovering the brown fairing compound beneath, pushing through to the white primer coats and finally coming upon the original gelcoat finish applied in the fiberglass mold: a deep, sunset orange. When that, too, is removed and the raw, scratched fiberglass hull begins to emerge in the driveway, I come round to the stern to finish it off and find, buried by two generations of accumulated paint and time and memory, the black letters that had been painted over so long ago and that are now barely legible. Hand-painted in chunky, square letters in the days before anyone knew what a font was, the original name of this dinghy appears: Cookie Monster.
I leave the last layers of paint on the stern for a few days while I work on other parts of the hull, straying back every so often to run my fingers across the old letters, still remembering the night when our family gathered together at the kitchen table and settled on that name.
I work for two weeks toward a smooth hull: sanding, fairing, inspecting, fairing again, sanding again. Power sanding and wet sanding, filling smaller and smaller imperfections with polyester compound. It gives off such a powerful solvent smell that a single whiff sends me wandering aimlessly around the shop, fiddling with piles of sawdust, spacey enough to lose focus entirely.
The work progresses. The fiberglass grows more smooth and clear and I begin to see into the layers that make up the hull. The view is not good. Throughout the central section of the hull, where the forest of scratches was deepest, the fiberglass has been twisted beyond its capacity. Deep torsion cracks trace their way through the woven structure. Most are internal shears, but in one spot the crack goes all the way through. I hadn’t counted on this – it doubles the work I’ll have to do. Frustrating. But I’m feeling patient about the work, trusting in its rhythm. The moment passes and I settle once again into this resonant, remembering work.
When I was a boy I spent summers on the Sunshine Coast, north of Vancouver, at my grandmother’s summer place. I slept downstairs, at ground level, in a room that faced east with a window overlooking the beach. Sometimes I’d be awakened in the early morning by the rising sun extending a long fiery finger across the water. I’d climb out of bed, open the patio door and amble down to the beach, where logs that had drifted in perhaps a century ago offered a warm and quiet place to sit. I’d think about my father coming here when he was a boy, watching gulls glide on the morning breeze, waiting for the first ferry to swing around the point into view. Sometimes there’d be a boat out early, a group of water-skiers or a trawler heading for the gap into the Strait. Its bow would part the silken waters as though the first story of the world were unfolding. The sun would sparkle on the wake, the craft would glide through the first moments, before words and night and time, when the circling seagull and the pebbles onshore knew each other’s names in an unspoken and elemental language. Often, as I waited on the shore, I listened for the words of that secret language played out by the rhythm of the waves, the warmth of the sun, the breeze rattling the hedge beside the house. And in those unfolding moments my sense of my father’s boyhood would merge with my own and I would almost lose track of my distinctiveness, sliding into place like a pearl on its string, threaded into a long strand of moments, each one the first.
There are two ways to repair torsion cracks within a fiberglass hull: from the inside or from the outside. In this way hulls are somewhat like human beings. I can either apply a new layer of fiberglass cloth over the hull’s damaged exterior, redoing all that work of fairing and filling – or I can glass the inside, where the finished surface need not be absolutely smooth. I’ve done quite a bit of work already, smoothing the hull, readying it for a new finish, and I have no intention of working backwards now that my efforts have revealed the deeper cracks. I’ll finish the exterior hull first and then turn the boat over to work on the inside.
On a warm day in the first week of June, I apply a coat of thick fiberglass primer to the exterior hull. It’s about the consistency of whipping cream and dries almost as soon as I put it on. I work frantically, splattering the stuff on my shorts, spilling it on the driveway, trying to make sure I’ve covered the surface adequately before it sets up. I wear a respirator to protect me from the strong smell of xylene used in the primer as a thinning agent. It’s a particularly nasty solvent to which, over the years, I’ve developed a sensitivity. One whiff of the stuff and my brain starts to cramp. The respirator works quite well, with its twin filtering canisters sticking out on either side of my face, but every time I wince at another little spill or coax myself on, mumbling imprecations into the mask, the movements of my face lift the rubber seal around my nose and mouth and a tiny puff of xylene sneaks in. It has a peculiar scent, as though apples and iron had been mixed together in a tincture of battery acid.
When the primer is dry, I wash the hull down and go to work with wet/dry sandpaper, smoothing out the white surface, which is now uniform enough that I can see all the tiny imperfections I missed on the mottled, bare fiberglass. Then another coat of primer goes on, another flurry of rushing and slopping and fretting. One more round of sanding and I’m ready for the paint.
Elizabeth chooses a deep, Cookie Monster blue. The label on the can grandly calls it sapphire blue, as though the boat will be a jewel. The paint is designed to be applied with spray equipment, and I’ve always had poor luck with sprayers. I tend to slather it on, creating runs and pools along edges and in corners. Usually I try to even out the flow by applying even more paint, which eventually results in a glutinous, inchoate mess. In any craft there are things one learns to avoid, techniques and methods for which no amount of practice leads any closer to proficiency. It’s best to have a fallback strategy.
There is a trick to applying marine paint with a roller and brush. I roll it on in wide strips from the gunwale to the keel and then use a fine, dry bristle brush to tip off the bubbles left by the roller. I draw the brush gently across the paint, not applying any pressure, working from bow to stern. In this way it is possible to create a hand-applied finish that has the characteristic sheen of a sprayed surface. That’s what I’m going for. Over the next several days I apply four coats to the hull in my driveway, wincing and swearing every time a bit of pollen drifts down from the trees onto the wet paint.
I’m out in my paint-stained shorts and shirt, waving at the neighbors, keeping an eye out so the kids don’t run into the street, cursing the pollen while I apply a finish that I want to be a sheet of conformity, completely void of individual uniqueness. Not exactly a model of creative genius. I’m just a workaday guy trying to give his kids a chance to feel wind on water on a sunny afternoon. Yet creative energy is everywhere here: in my mood, in my craft, in the way the damned pollen finds the smoothest and most perfected spots to land, even in the funny, indulgent looks I get from the neighbors. That’s the thing about creative process; it always lies beyond the reach of definition, can’t be stacked up into categories and laid out for view. Creative work tears down those categories and washes all fixed forms downstream like so much silt, leaving only the inescapable river. The flow.
Trying to define creative process is like planing without the blade in, or trying to hammer water into a shape – it doesn’t get you far. Yet sometimes the water does take a shape, something that’s a fantastic hybrid between your own craft and the unpredictable magic of manifestation. A crazy philosopher’s stone, a jewel of promise and wisdom and becoming. Jewel, from the same root as joy.
The old European alchemists, who were a great deal like the ancient Taoists, believed the philosopher’s stone would integrate opposites, join all the truths into a long, clear thread leading to unity. The joyfulness of creative process, of craft, lies in finding the strands of that unity and hauling on them like kids in a rowboat trying to catch up with the wind. Creative joy is about the articulation of the joints that connect all the worlds: the inner and the outer, the upper and the lower, the false and the true. The I Ching says:
As water provides moisture for myriad beings, joy develops myriad beings; joyful within and without, reaching the outer from within, communicating with the inner from without, inside and outside are conjoined, without separation between them – therefore it is called joy.
The outer part of the hull is done. It’s time to work on the inner shell, joining the fiberglass throughout and swallowing those torsion cracks up within a larger strength and unity.
Working with wood is an exercise in patience and precision. Many perils arise from the fact that the material is rigid and unforgiving. There’s no slack, hardly any room for error. Thus a woodworking adage, a Murphy’s Law about the challenge of accuracy, predicts that any piece cut to length will be too short. Wood is a stubborn ally. But working with fiberglass, that’s a different universe altogether.
In 1932, the same year that Hamish Davidson began making laminated wooden skis, an American researcher at the Owens-Illinois glass company made a creative mistake, an accidental joining of two worlds. He unintentionally sprayed a jet of compressed air onto a stream of molten glass; the glass stretched itself out under the air’s pressure, twisting and whirling into countless shimmering, luminous filaments. This inadvertent discovery, brought to light by what was essentially a dearth of skill in spraying (at least I can point the sprayer in the right direction), led to the development of fiberglass and a subsequent technological revolution.
Fiberglass is composed of two separate materials: woven glass fibers and liquid polyester resin. Mixed together, articulated, the glass and resin make an impressive conjuncture: resilient and substantial and forgiving all at once. If you make a mistake, you just add more, or grind off the offending bit and shape the rest as you like. There’s no patient finicking as there is with wood. Just slap on the resin, put the cloth down, and paint over with resin again. No careful working to a precise edge, no fiddling with sharp tools and intractable grain. Mix, apply, and wait. Take a break, play in the sprinkler.
There’s a downside, too. After all, the woven glass is completely covered by successive coats of resin and the final surface is just smooth, simple plastic. No grain, no diversity, nothing but function. It is good to have a break from the demands of wood, and fiberglass is great for boat hulls, but I wouldn’t want a piece of furniture made from the stuff.
I apply the fiberglass cloth carefully to the inside of the hull, taking care to work out the wrinkles as I roll on a heavy coat of resin. I build up two layers at the most vulnerable points on either side of the keel where the torsion cracks lie. I wait for this initial coating to dry, and then, over the course of a week, during busy mornings with the kids or before heading off to teach in the growing warmth of late spring evenings, I apply six coats of resin. I tint the last four with white pigment to give the inside hull a clean, painted look. Now the entire hull is conjoined, integrated, sapphire blue on the outside and bright white on the inside. As I stand back to look at the evolving shape in my driveway, my hands spotted with blue and white hieroglyphs in some forgotten language, this craft no longer derelict but on its way to some new territory of fruition, I begin to see that perhaps it will be a jewel after all.
Sometimes, late in the summer, when sun and breeze had heated the water enough that it was no longer bracing but simply refreshing, when the long dog days of August rolled through the coast in grand waves of sunshine, sometimes on those days we’d go spinnaker flying. We’d moor the sailboat to a piling or dock, wind to the stern, and loft the spinnaker dead downwind. But instead of anchoring the sail lines to their customary blocks near the cockpit, we’d loosely connect the two bottom corners of the sail with a continuous section of rope that hung down in a wide arc to create a sling. A second rope fed back to the foredeck as a way of controlling the sail and retrieving the sling. One of us, usually my older brother, Bob, the bravest among us, would dive in the water and swim for the sling. In later years the lines Bob drew between bravery and bravado blurred as the deep water of our lives exerted an increasing pull, but in those days my younger brother, Bruce, and I were entranced by Bob’s raw courage. He’d hoist himself up into the sling and kick his feet in the water to get the rope positioned just right. On the foredeck one of us would let the guide rope out, slowly releasing the sail into the wind and allowing it to fill with that summer air so warm we could feel the texture of the heat. The sail would rise up, pulling Bob with it, the rope of the sling going taut with his weight and lifting him from the water. It was like a parachute, in reverse. The bright colors of the spinnaker would unfurl all their wrinkles and carry Bob higher – level with the deck, then twenty feet above it. It looked as though the grand apparatus might carry him off to the horizon, to whatever place he dreamed of in his quietest sleep, the way I’d see him dreaming sometimes in the early mornings lying in his berth in the fo’c’sle we shared.
Bob would ride the wind for fifteen or twenty minutes, pulling the sling one way or the other to set up a rocking motion in the air, looking down on the deck and shouting that he was level with the spreaders, allowing himself to become a creature of the air for those few minutes. And then we’d pull on the guide rope, the side of the sail would buckle inward, and he’d descend to the water again. He’d swim back to the boat with a manic grin, clamber up the ladder at the stern, grab a towel off the cockpit rail, and watch the next person have a go. He was only a year and a half older than I, but his movements and easy grace and confidence were heroic in my estimation – he was not sensitive, that was the essence of it, he was a true and reckless boy. And in my eyes, in the eyes of a ten-year-old unsure of his place and his ability and already wounded by what life dishes out as though it were fair rations, Bob was an exemplar of strength. It’s tempting, now that the years have grown into a long wake and the choices we made in those early times seem to have defined us so much, to look at what came later and see the ways in which my brother’s strength and confidence were not always a gift. But these are adult considerations. They have no bearing on those simple moments of joyfulness we all felt as the sail lofted us higher and higher, up into the shimmering sky as though it would never stop, almost as though we would be swallowed by that arching blueness and forever be what those moments made of us.
With the fiberglass work completed, I’m ready for the more complex and rewarding task of building new seats, gunwales, and keel. Teak was used originally for the keel but I’ve ruled it out because of scarcity. The gunwales were oak, but the tannins in oak react with metal fasteners and moisture to turn wood black, which I want to avoid. And the seats were made of cedar, which though light and plentiful is too splintery and structurally weak for this application. I’m going for a more steadfast and handcrafted boat than before. My choice of woods reflects that orientation.
On a small dinghy the keel and thwart provide underlying rigidity, whereas the gunwales, which move with the hull as it is twisted through the water, must be tough and flexible. Maple is durable and yet resilient, so it will work well for gunwales. The keel is a more complex matter. It should be made of stiff wood, but since weight is always a consideration on a dinghy, it must also be light. Blackwood, jarrah, and other dense seafaring hardwoods are too heavy for a small vessel such as this. The best choice is something in the conifer family, something with a composite cellular structure that imparts great rigidity to the wood without adding excessive weight. This kind of biological architecture allows redwoods and Douglas firs to grow hundreds of feet tall and to resonate with the distinctive musicality of my marimba.2 The mechanics of that architecture can be expressed in terms of what wood technologists call the modulus of elasticity, a set of ratios that determines the relationship between density and stiffness. For the keel and seats on a small boat, just about the best elasticity ratios are found in Douglas fir.
With their drying time of roughly two inches of thickness per year, the smaller fir planks from last year’s flurry of stacking will be getting close to dry. I amble out to the stack alongside the house, push the metal pins of the moisture meter into the wood, spin the dial up through the numbers, and wait for the light to come on. I pass the lower values, the water content percentages of five to seven ideal for cabinetmaking, and at ten the light comes on. I’m surprised the wood is so dry after such a short time. I check two more spots to verify the readings and then take several boards into the shop. I worried so much about what to do with all this fir; now I have a path, a means to bring some of it once more to life.
Rough-sawn wood is thoroughly unlike wood from the lumberyard. Processed wood is cooked in a kiln to dry it quickly, removing most of the wood’s unique color. And in every lumber mill there is an anonymous man called the grader, a craftsman’s censor who culls the boards with unruly grain, with too many knots, with twists of excessive ingenuity. He’s just a guy enforcing quality control. But the most dazzling and evocative wood – the kind of wood that fails to meet the precise standards of mediocrity – is lost through the grader’s devotion. Bypassing the kiln and the grader, shaping straight from the tree, is a subversive smuggling past the watchful eyes of the censor. It’s like the trickster Hermes stealing the sacred cattle of Apollo, thieving beauty from beneath the gaze of the gods of order and authority.
Rough-sawn boards have no predetermined dimension, have not been cooked into dullness. They are raw, the color of the deep tree still hidden within them. I select one of the long planks and run it through the planer, slicing off the marks from the bandsaw mill and trueing up the top surface. The smoothed wood is a revelation: hues of ocher and umber and a yellow like pale apricots all mixed together in bands of heartwood and sapwood that flow like a river through the board. Most people think of Douglas fir as junk wood, good enough only for roof trusses and plywood. But most people know only the lumberyard fir. What lies here, its sawdust drifting like motes of luminous honey in the air, is the pristine rain-forest fir: bright, diverse, beautiful.
Without measuring, aware of not being constrained by predimensioned stock, I form a new keel. I use my bandsaw and my little block plane, the maple one I made. I shape the keel by eye, not knowing how long or how thick it is, only that it’s a little larger than the old one; and I know that it fits the hull precisely.
As I work I am reminded that in Norway traditional sailing vessels called faerings were once built entirely by eye, with only the craftsman’s hand to measure the proportions, to articulate the joints. To be in such close relationship to the wood, the tools, to one’s own body as an instrument of precision, inspires in me a kind of awe. It causes me to work more slowly.
I lay the keel aside for assembly later and begin work on the seats: transom, thwart, and bow. I take advantage of my cabinetmaking skills to joint the various assemblies. The transom seat, which had been half a dozen tongue-and-groove cedar planks nailed to a frame, becomes a single continuous shape of jointed boards matched for grain orientation and appearance. I fashion the thwart from a single foot-wide board with a band of rippled heartwood in the grain. It’s rare to find the full width of heartwood, the deep wood at the center of the tree, and sapwood, the outer rings of growth, together in a single plank of processed lumber. The boards are usually not wide enough to contain both elements. But here, with wood from the entire thickness of the tree available for me to use, I have more flexibility. More play.
In all three seats I incorporate peculiarities of the wood – knots, ribbons of darker texture, eddies in the grain – as a means of increasing that play. Woodworkers generally look for straight, even-grained wood because of its stability. Knots introduce weakness to a board because they have a tendency to pop out or buckle the surrounding wood under strain. Knotty pine and bird’s-eye maple (the countless tiny eyes are partially formed knots) are prized for their visual appeal, but usually in woodworking, as in many things, vulnerabilities and quirks are often pushed aside in favor of collective uniformity. Less play.
The swirls and patterns and rough patches where the wood reveals, unequivocally, its true source and nature make the seats shimmer with color and variety. I’m not worried about structural problems with the knots, as the wood will be sealed and finished with epoxy, the same material used to make the wing skins of fighter planes. This hybrid between natural and technological forms will be immensely strong and almost impervious to moisture.
As I fashion the seats, matching them to the hull curve for curve, I practice my woodworking skills in unusual ways. Cabinetmaking is almost always a matter of straight lines; I’ve grown accustomed to assessing right angles, sighting down planks to find true surfaces. In this sense cabinetmaking is two-dimensional, at least compared with boatbuilding. When all the surfaces are flat, all the angles identical, the work is simpler, more predetermined in the same way dimensioned lumber is predetermined. On a boat there are virtually no right angles, no flat surfaces.
Everything I cut to length seems to be half an inch too short. This was a familiar experience when I started woodworking, before I knew how to see and feel the length of a straight stretch of lumber. It takes me a few tries, cutting and recutting, before I figure out that curves have their own dimensionality, liminality; the right coaxing nudges them across the threshold of awkwardness toward a seamless joining. Curves require more slack, an approach both more forgiving and more exacting.
The shaped seats receive four coats of clear epoxy, sealing the wood and providing a smooth, glossy finish. I then pour expanding buoyancy foam into the bulkheads below the bow and transom seats and fasten the seats. As I sit back on my haunches at the level of the gunwale, waiting for the foam to dry, I realize I am no longer working on a derelict shape worn down by the current of time but on an actual boat, a craft of promise. This dinghy is indeed coming to life again.
In the summer of 1792, off the shore of what is now Point Grey on Vancouver’s west side, the explorer George Vancouver met, by chance, two Spanish ships captained by Valdes and Galiano. They chose to collaborate for an excursion northward into territory that no European had ever seen: the winding, uncharted track of territory now known as the Inside Passage.3 Most of the islands and landmarks they encountered still bear the names of ship’s officers: Cape Mudge, Mount Baker, the islands Galiano and Valdes. Wandering roughly a hundred miles north of their meeting place, the ships hove to at the mouth of an inlet flanked by steep mountains on either side. Archibald Menzies,4 the surgeon and botanist on Vancouver’s ship Discovery, described the anchorage:
… about a mile & a half to the North East of the Ship there was a beautiful Waterfall which issued from a Lake close behind it & precipitated a wide foaming stream into the Sea over a shelving rocky precipice of about thirty yards high. Its wild romantic appearance aided by its rugged situation & the gloomy forests which surrounded it, rendered it a place of resort for small parties to visit during our stay.
This diverse landscape later came to be called Teakerne Arm; it was my favorite of the places we visited on the coast each summer. It lies just north of the area Captain Vancouver described, in a fit of depression at finding so few native inhabitants along the coast, as “desolate.” The environment in and around Desolation Sound is odd, paradoxical. Whales and eagles and sea lions populate these waters, plying deep fjords and inlets where the silhouettes of glaciers are reflected back from the warm ocean. Ravens, which unlike crows never caw, call out from the deep forest with the croaks and rough whispers of their trickster tongue. Cormorants hold their cruciform wings out to dry on pilings. Herons and black oystercatchers haunt the shore, treading the still waters at low tide.
More than a hundred lives have been lost in shipwrecks here. Boats have been pulled down by whirlpools. (A contemporary nautical guide to the area offers advice on how to deal with this contingency: don’t fight it, maintain your speed and steerage, use your momentum to ease out toward the edge.) The government tidal chart for the Yuculta rapids, an area renowned for strong and complex tidal currents, offers a separate current map for every hour in the day. A few miles west of those rapids, shamans thousands of years ago carved somber faces into twenty-six granite boulders on the shore, more than at any other site on the Pacific coast. The carvers are long gone, vanished but for these stone traces of mystery.
We would come in to Teakerne Arm with the Cookie Monster securely in tow, round the point, and catch sight of the lively waterfall with its cascade that was like the glistening, silvered flank of some great fish bursting from the ocean. There were often log booms arranged along either side of the inlet that offered secure and convenient moorage. My brothers and I would rush off to the waterfall, just like the English and Spanish explorers must have done almost two hundred years before us. We’d climb the narrow trail that led up the side of the escarpment and behind to Cassel Lake, a wide expanse of blue ringed by the dark forest. Somewhere in the boxes of photographs stowed away since my mother’s death there is a snapshot of Bob and me standing on a little wharf at the edge of Cassel Lake with our fishing rods bent hard over the water as though a magnificent trout were thrashing at the end of each line. There were no fish on those rods: we had deliberately hooked the lines beneath the dock. No fish, but great, wide smiles on our faces.
Meandering through these waters as a child, rowing to shore in this old dinghy, finding all the secret refuges of pleasure and mystery along the coast – those journeys were a joyful homecoming for me. In that territory, which so many have passed through and occupied but none have wholly owned, I made my own discoveries: simple moments of vibrancy and immediacy upon which I came to float as upon the wide and inviting sea.
With the buoyancy foam poured and the seats installed, the hull has undergone whatever small shifts in contour it will make. It’s ready now for the keel and gunwales, the final defining structures of the boat. When this dinghy was first built there was no reliable means of attaching the keel except with fiberglass and fasteners. Now that I’ve filled all the old fastener holes and created a seamless, watertight hull, I don’t intend to drill a bunch of new holes in it. Instead, I use epoxy as a structural mold. I abrade the hull along the length where the keel fits, abrade the matching surface of the keel, and glue the keel down. I then mix up a batch of epoxy thickened with tiny silica flakes; the curing heat of the amalgam begins to spread almost immediately. Using a mixing stick with the end rounded over, my gloved hands, a scrap of cardboard – whatever works – I create a fillet on either side of the keel where it joins the fiberglass. A fillet is a buttress, a coved profile of epoxy that solidly encases the joint. The resulting bond between keel and hull will be far stronger than fasteners, more watertight and almost infinitely durable.
I use a combination of steam bending and brute force to shape and place the maple gunwales along the curved hull. I glue them down with epoxy and then, realizing I have to give in to fasteners somewhere, I use small brass bolts to secure them to the hull, countersinking the bolts as I go so that the surfaces of the gunwales are smooth and continuous to the touch. I don’t want any nasty surprises of metal on skin when I’m looking at the water ahead and feeling along the gunwale for a secure grip.
Last is the hardware. I retrieve the spars and sail from my dad’s place among a substantial collection of sailing detritus: old spinnaker poles, rotting sails, a hurricane lamp. I’ll replace all the lines and rigging – shackles, blocks, leads, halyards, stays, all of it – preserving only the oak mast step that my father made when the original one broke. It’s reasonably well made. Sure, the mortise for the stub of the mast is slightly too large and the bearing surface where the step meets the hull is too rounded – but it’s a serviceable, and meaningful, piece of hardware.
On my way home with the sail and rigging for Cookie Monster I pass the boatyard across from my dad’s place. I’m reminded that most sailing vessels, small as dinghies or large as clipper ships, usually end their life on the rocks or in anonymous decay at a derelict wharfside. Captain Vancouver’s Discovery served as a prison ship after its remarkable endeavor of exploration and was unceremoniously broken up at Deptford, on the Thames, in 1833. Today I see dozens of abandoned vessels at the boatyard, structures falling further into disrepair, stories falling toward the territory of the unremembered, freight of human experience slipping away with the tide. I suppose the reasonable thing is to think of memory and experience as residing not in boats (or cabinets or marimbas) but in the people who interact with them. But that’s not how I see it. Somehow the memories reside in and are kept alive by the objects themselves. There is great resonance in things touched and shaped by hands. In whatever way you want to understand it, hokey or plain mysterious, objects made by caring hands are alive.
The last thing to go on the boat is its name. A local sign printer makes us a set of waterproof letters in clean, bright white:
The finished boat makes its way on a truck up to the lake. Elizabeth and I carefully unload it and carry it, like a child fresh from the womb, down to the water. Avery and Rowan scramble excitedly into their life jackets. The fresh and storied craft holds all four of us, the prescribed circumference of my world, neatly within its frame.
At the bow, water drips from Rowan’s fingers as she withdraws them from the parted surface of the lake. A string of droplets splashes on the bright gunwale and traces a golden strand in the still air of morning. For a moment we are all quiet; there is only the swish of ripples across the hull. The oarlocks thrum in their new sockets, bronze fresh and burnished, as the oars twist them into the rhythm of service. A small wake eases out from the stern. The faces of my children, of my wife at the transom, look out onto the lake as though each of them has mysteries to reveal.
Beyond the far trees, where an eagle perches atop a twisted cottonwood, the lightening sky spreads its radiance, touches the quiet waters and bursts into sinuous, dazzling shapes. The boat is steady with motion, pressing across the water, heading out from the gravel shore and the shadow of our little cabin. Farther out, the sun makes the lake glow as if with fire.
As I draw on the oars, easing the craft out into the bay, something in me unfurls toward what the day will bring: a gentle breeze, the sounds of children swimming, the rough-edged smoothness of a hull being pulled onto the beach. The warm air will wash the innocent day. The water, buoying us with its rhythms, will bear the weight of our memories and longings, our unremembered cargo of dreams.
Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art (New York: North Point Press, 1998), 258. ↩︎
The world’s tallest tree (though not the largest; the General Sherman tree, at 2,200 tons, is the most massive) is currently the Mendocino tree, a coast redwood, near Ukiah, California, at 367 feet. One of its neighbors was slightly higher until a winter storm broke ten feet off its top. Taller and larger trees than these have been documented: one of them, a Douglas fir in Mission, British Columbia – about forty miles from my home – measured 415 feet. Legends, of course, speak of trees that were higher still. In the ancient epic of Gilgamesh, the trees of the sacred cedar forest reach all the way to heaven. ↩︎
Samuel Bawlf has made the argument that Vancouver, Valdes and Galiano were not the first Europeans to explore the Inside Passage. Bawlf asserts that Francis Drake, on a clandestine mission for Elizabeth I, navigated through the Inside Passage and made it as far north as Alaska nearly two centuries earlier. ↩︎
Menzies was the first European to study the Douglas fir, the Latin name of which, Pseudotsuga menziesii, bears his name. ↩︎