Building boats

The current issue of Wooden Boat Magazine has an article by a father who built a small sailing dingy for his daughter. The article is beautifully written and stirred my emotions as I read it. It is excerpted from a book that includes letters to the daughter as well as a description of the process of building the small boat. The daughter was far too young to need or use a boat of her own. She was an infant when the boat was begun and three years old when it was finished. The author and I both know that such a project has more to do with the needs and desires of the boat builder than with the needs and desires of the child.

I know this well because I built a row boat for our grandson when he was an infant. I have a sea kayak in my garage that is nearly finished with the name of my five-year-old granddaughter on it. I’m likely to build boats for our other grandchildren as well. None of my grandchildren have ever asked me to build a boat for them, except the model boat that I built for my grandson. None have yet expressed an interest in paddling or rowing or becoming boat owners. The boats that I have been building are best suited for adults.

There is something powerful and mysterious about being around children that gets one to thinking about legacy. What will I leave behind when I am gone. A child is powerful proof that we are mortal. We know that the child is likely to outlive us. Life will go on after we are gone. The child inspires a desire to be a part of that future. We are attracted to what which lies beyond the span of our own lives.

Making something with our hands that is capable to lasting longer than we will is one way of participating in the future. Perhaps the boat will even be a part of the future of the child. We humans are interesting creatures in that way. I know of no other animal that has a conscious desire to make an offering to the generations that come after its life. Of course all creatures do participate in that future. They offer their genetic material to future generations. In most cases evolution is not a process of a single generation, but an on-going process that continues through many generations.

Building a boat is a way of participating in a multiple generation process. There are many boatbuilding techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation. The simple lap strake boat that the author of the article built involves cutting planks for the boat that lap and are joined with copper nails that are clinched to form a permanent and strong connection. The wood swells when it gets wet, but the copper nails hold it next to the adjoining board so that the boat becomes watertight. That way of building boats has been around essentially unchanged for 2000 years. The boats I build are hybrid. I use traditional materials and skills, fitting pieces of wood together in patterns that form the shape of the boat. I also use contemporary materials such as epoxy and fiberglass to strengthen and seal the boat.

All boatbuilders take from the past. Humans have learned about boat designs and know which shapes move through the water offering the greatest stability and ease of travel. They have learned about paddle and sail design in ways that enable us to travel efficiently without having to completely reinvent the boat in every generation. Building a boat is a way of bridging generations. We take the skills, techniques and materials of the past and offer them to the future in the shape of a boat that, if properly maintained, will last for many generations. The boats that I build have an effective service life of about 50 years, but they can be made to last much longer with proper care and storage. Their lives depend in part on how often they hit the rocks and how hard the impact is. A rock strike that is hard enough to make a hole in the boat can be repaired with proper techniques. Among the boats in our collection is a 60 year old cedar and canvas canoe that could easily last another 100 years. It will be donated to a Nature Conservancy Preserve where it is likely to be used infrequently, properly stores, and might last for many decades.

Perhaps the presence of a child is a reminder of how small and vulnerable all of us are. An accident or illness can change everything in a moment. We can go from people with skills and abilities to ones who are in need of the care of others. Our capacity to build things is ours for only a little while. Holding an infant in our arms is a reminder that we all share this life for a short amount of time. Things change. We age. We are granted only a short time to make our contributions to the world. That realization inspires creativity. We want to produce something that is lasting - that will be around when we are no longer here.

Enough of us are crazy enough to turn that energy into building boats that there are magazines with articles about our creations. The problem for me is that I’m not a fast boat builder. While I finished the row boat with our grandson’s name on it while he was still an infant, he soon had a sister. She is five years old now and I’m just finishing the boat with her name. In the meantime, we’ve had another granddaughter, whose boat has not yet been begun and there will be another grandson in a month or so. I guess I need to really take care of myself and remain healthy. It appears that I have a few more boats that need to be built and each one seems to take longer than the last. At this rate, I’ve got more than a decade of building boats ahead of me.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!