The Tao of Boatbuilding

Mj 618_348_the tao of boatbuilding
Wooden Boat School

I am standing in a barn-size brick outbuilding with 12 men, all of us swatting deerflies and listening raptly as a bearded guy explains the Amazing Dance of the Nails. The bearded guy hops onto a plywood slab supported by sawhorses and on which someone has penciled a mystical confusion of curved lines. With rune-stone solemnity, he places 10 equidistantly spaced nails on their sides and lays a board over them. Then he puts one L.L. Bean–booted foot atop the board and begins to rhythmically stomp.

Though we’re in a woodsy middle-of-nowhere place, though we’re all – save me – male, the Amazing Dance of the Nails isn’t the carpenter’s equivalent of a Robert Bly drumming circle. Everyone’s keeping their Carhartt shorts on; nobody, at least not yet, is primal screaming. These men, many of them hailing from the sea-poor Midwest, are here in Brooklin, Maine, to follow an arguably more mythopoetically manly pursuit: learning to build wooden boats.

This urge, apparently, is a semi-universal one among Y-chromosomal individuals of a certain age. Essayist Witold Rybczynski claims that “at a certain moment in my life (I was thirty-two), I was struck with what seemed an irresistible urge to become a sailor – or more accurately, to acquire a boat…. My dream had another component, also shared by many of the thalassic fraternity (for this is predominantly a male fantasy) – not simply owning but building a boat.”

I had to look up thalassic. Turns out it means “of or relating to seas or oceans, especially smaller or inland seas.” By that definition, I’m thalassic. I grew up in Maine: spent my summers sailing on my family’s Sparkman & Stephens–designed Knutson 33. Despite that upbringing, I’ve yet to experience the driving need to build a boat. Which is why, for many summers now, I’ve quizzically observed the influx of strangers – men nearly to the man – who come to my little Maine town for one- and two-week intervals beginning in June to spend their precious vacation days at Brooklin’s WoodenBoat School. A lawyer named Ward, who traveled all the way from Southern California to build a wooden boat, drolly sums up the scene as follows: “It’s a group of men coming thousands of miles and spending thousands of dollars and dedicating weeks of their time to learn a skill that’s been obsolete for 70 years.”

Rybczynski can explain this hankering, too. “Every boat dream has some suggestion of escape – in my case, escape from responsibilities, from the security of a university career, from the perils of everyday life.”

But what this explanation fails to take into account is that aspect of the thalassic fantasy inspired not by the boat, but by the builder. If you happen to live in Brooklin – a remote coastal village deemed, at least by the sign that greets those crossing the frost-heaved threshold, the boatbuilding capital of the world – you’ll find yourself frequently surrounded by interestingly bearded men (ages 21 to 60) wearing wool sweaters and thermal shirts, everything louchely tattered, stained, and sawdusted, even the interesting beards. You can see these professional boatbuilders grabbing coffee at the general store during their 9 a.m. break, exuding a boyish élan no matter their age. Most impressive is their apparent failure to be impressed by themselves. These guys have accepted the boatbuilder’s code of humility – they’re honor-bound, when queried about their skills, to speak in coolly understated terms. “I build toys for rich people” is how I’ve heard many a boatbuilder describe his work. If I were a man, I’d want to be, even if it were only for two weeks, one of these men.
Lore has a lot to do with the building of boats. So here’s some lore: The WoodenBoat School, where I periodically sat in on a two-week Fundamentals of Boatbuilding class, began in 1974 as a magazine produced by a guy named Jon Wilson from his rustic cabin. (The website includes this detail about Wilson’s telephone: It was “nailed to a tree half a mile down the road.”) The WoodenBoat brand has since expanded to become a publisher of primarily boat-themed magazines and books, as well as an internationally renowned school. In 1979, Wilson upgraded the headquarters to a two-dozen-room summer “cottage” located on 64 waterfront acres. The experience offered to students is a uniquely Maine one, boldly splicing opulence and deprivation. Classes meet in the former barn, i.e. a huge, unheated, bug-plagued building, and students sleep in a shared dorm room or in tents pitched near the rocky beach.

The first day of class, 13 of us (us = me and 12 men ranging in age from 32 to 60; some are data processors and engineers and lawyers, but a few are boatbuilders brushing up on their skills) sit on stools among rowboats at various stages of completion. These will be our cadavers, so to speak – the partially deconstructed bodies on which we’ll bunglingly practice our skills.

Our teacher, Greg Rössel, is the stereotypical old salt as interpreted by Jim Henson. In his opening lecture, Rössel repeatedly admonishes us to “try to avoid using numbers whenever possible” and that we “have to get over this accuracy business,” a statement later modified to “you need to be accurate, but not to a high degree of analness.”

I quickly ascertain that boatbuilding is not suited for people who can’t embrace “gray mushy area” as a technical term. Not that boatbuilding language lacks technical precision: “As you’ll notice, where the buttock slices cross the topsides it gets pretty bogus” and “There are always some funkadelic points in the outliers” are but two of the technical utterances made by Rössel that first class.

Rössel directs our attention to a pad of paper slung over a dry-erase board’s easel. Unlike a house or cabinet builder, a boatbuilder must, to some degree, “design” every boat before he builds it, even if he purchases a plan. This process, Rössel informs us, is called lofting. In the extremely understated words of Paul Waring, a designer at Brooklin’s Stephens, Waring & White Yacht Design, “Lofting’s a little hard to explain.” He describes it most simply as “the 2-D representation of a 3-D object.” Traditionally, boats were lofted on the floor of the builder’s shop. We’re working with a 1:1 scale, 2-D representation that’s been drawn on a piece of plywood and elevated on sawhorses.

In lofted form, our boat resembles a highly detailed and inscrutable meteorological map. Curved lines swoop and cross everywhere. Waring relates a joke told to him by an old boatbuilder: “Lofting a boat is a lot like a relationship with a woman. After laying down all these lines, I find that I’ve crossed them all.”

Because a boat is a three-dimensional curved object – a sculpture, really – it forces builders to invent ingenious ways called offsets to sidestep mathematical inaccuracies. As Ward the Lawyer says: “There are no right angles. These things are carved, not built.” Rössel teaches us how to use the lines on our lofting table to measure and create building guides made of wood; these guides, called molds, help us accurately transform the 2-D lines on the table into the 3-D object they represent. The tricky part is transposing the curved lines from the lofting table onto the wood used for the mold. Thus, the Amazing Dance of the Nails.

Rössel places the nails on their sides so that the head of each nudges the curve he’s trying to transfer from table to wood. Then he engages in some “high-level-of-accuracy stomping.” When he’s done, Rössel turns the board over to show the nails embedded sideways in the wood, the heads indicating the shape of the curve. Rössel uses a batten (a bendy piece of plastic), held down with metal weights, to connect these “data points.” Using a pencil, he traces the arc of the batten, et voilà – transposition complete.

Rössel’s lofting adage – “If you can loft it, you can build it” – arises from the fact that there is no one official way to take a boat from a 2-D representation to a 3-D shape. Builders problem-solve and generate solutions to the pretty bogus gray mushy areas where curved lines cross curved lines without relying on measurements (since, as Rössel reminds us, “anytime you use numbers, things can go wrong”), using a method that makes the most sense to each builder’s particular brain. By the time you’ve lofted the boat, you’ve done all your major problem-solving. Now comes the easy part. You just have to build the thing.
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.

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