The Tao of Boatbuilding
Credit: Wooden Boat School
The fundamentals class – which meets from 8 until 5 with an hour-long lunch break, during which Rössel sleeps on a nearby grass patch with his captain's hat over his face – allows the students to work simultaneously on the four vessels: two 11-foot Chaisson dory tenders and two 12-foot Whitehall pulling boats. The first few mornings are spent with Rössel lecturing on some facet or technique, after which the men subdivide into smaller groups around the hulls and get to work.

This subdivision happens organically. Some men are friends; a Massachusetts shop teacher and a Michigan engineer met a few years ago at a WoodenBoat class and now plan their yearly WoodenBoat excursions to coincide. Others coagulate via some histocom-patibility means of intuiting those with comparable skill levels; there's an intriguing group of engineers and businessmen supportively hovering around Chaisson number two, trying to figure out how to plank the thing.

The plankers, however, don't do any planking for a long, long time. They run through a few scenarios regarding how to cut the plank, which curves laterally and horizontally as it travels from stem to stern (or, as is the case with these boats, transom). One guy submits a plan for cutting the plank, into which the others respectfully poke holes; they consult with Rössel, who points out the advantages and disadvantages of their approach. Hours later, they're still discussing how they're going to cut the plank.

"I need a drink," says one guy. "I've had root canals that were more fun," quips another. Notably, the only equipment they're using are a straight edge and a batten. If there aren't any numbers in boatbuilding, neither are there tools. Or rather, it's astonishing what counts as a boatbuilding tool. Plastic rods. Piano wire. Metal weights. Rigging knives. At Whitehall number one, I catch a guy sanding a seam using a piece of sandpaper wrapped around his driver's license.

Over lunch, I talk with Geoff Kerr, currently teaching a class in the garage adjacent to ours. To provide some insight into why people who, as he says, "take the vibe home and never touch a tool until next summer" persist in coming to WoodenBoat (which boasts a 40 percent return rate), Kerr points out the inception-to-completion satisfaction that comes from building a boat: "Few people work on a project from soup to nuts. Just because you wrote a check doesn't mean that the house belongs to you, or that you belong to the house." Ward the Lawyer notes that, in most professions, "people just do what they're told. There's a gear they fit into. There's no beginning-middle-end to their work."

As the week progresses, we spend the morning sessions postmorteming the previous afternoon's work. Reports are issued from each boat: This is what we were trying to do, this is how we decided to do it, here is the good or not-so-good outcome. Someone reports from Whitehall number one a method for using his rabbit plane on the keel: "I used my stomach and just pushed it along. The more beer you drink, the more control you've got." A guy who owns his own boatbuilding yard read a keel measurement off the lofting table incorrectly and, using a saw, "took a lot of the meat away." Rössel compliments him – "It was very nicely cut wrong" – then optimistically says, "This is what it's all about – recovering stuff. Cheating death yet again."

Kerr also stresses the value of screwing up: "The mistakes are entirely your own. You do the Fuck Me Dance – scream really loud and stomp the floor – then you fix it."

To say boatbuilding involves thinking outside the box would imply there is a box. But there is just you, and your brain, and the internal problem of how your brain is going to solve an external problem in the way that makes the most sense to it. As Kerr points out, you can read books by boatbuilders, but they're helpful only insofar as they indicate "this is what worked for me." I'm a novelist, so I can relate to this act of plumbing one's own mind, problem-solving first, then applying that template to the task at hand. I can also understand the Fuck Me Dance of frustration followed by, hopefully, the incredible payoff that comes from worming yourself out of bad situations of your own shortsighted devising.

In fact, contrary to what Rybczynski says about the responsibility-escaping lure of boats, building them offers the rare opportunity to take complete responsibility. This kind of full-system-design, full-fuckup burden exists infrequently to never in modern-day life, where there's a tool or search engine or supervisor to solve every problem for us, or onto which blame can be shifted.

And from this I can better comprehend the origins of the boatbuilder's code of humility – a code, it strikes me, that might have benefited our recently disgraced kings of industry. As Ward the Lawyer says of the reason he decided to learn to build wooden boats: "If one idiot can do it, so can another." You can't help but wish all our idiots were so smart.